Besso, the Banker
IN ONE of those civil broils at Damascus which preceded the fall of the Janissaries, an Emir of the house of Shehaab, who lost his life in the fray, had, in the midst of the convulsion, placed his infant son in the charge of the merchant Besso, a child most dear to him, not only because the babe was his heir, but because his wife, whom he passionately loved, a beautiful lady of Antioch and of one of the old families of the country, had just sacrificed her life in giving birth to their son.
The wife of Besso placed the orphan infant at her own breast, and the young Fakredeen was brought up in every respect as a child of the house; so that, for some time, he looked upon the little Eva, who was three years younger than himself, as his sister. When Fakredeen had attained an age of sufficient intelligence for the occasion and the circumstances, his real position was explained to him; but he was still too young for the communication to effect any change in his feelings, and the idea that Eva was not his sister only occasioned him sorrow, until his grief was forgotten when he found that the change made no difference in their lives or their love.
Soon after the violent death of the father of Fakredeen, affairs had become more tranquil, and Besso had not neglected the interests of his charge. The infant was heir to a large estate in the Lebanon; a fine castle, an illimitable forest, and cultivated lands, whose produce, chiefly silk, afforded a revenue sufficient to maintain the not inconsiderable state of a mountain prince.
When Fakredeen was about ten years of age, his relative the Emir Bescheer, who then exercised a sovereign and acknowledged sway over all the tribes of the Lebanon, whatever their religion or race, signified his pleasure that his kinsman should be educated at his court, in the company of his sons. So Fakredeen, with many tears, quitted his happy home at Damascus, and proceeded to Beteddeen, the beautiful palace of his uncle, situate among the mountains in the neighbourhood of Beiroot. This was about the time that the Egyptians were effecting the conquest of Syria, and both the Emir Bescheer, the head of the house of Shehaab as well as Prince of the Mountain, and the great commercial confederation of the brothers Besso, had declared in favour of the invader, and were mainly instrumental to the success of Mehemet Ali. Political sympathy, and the feelings of mutual dependence which united the Emir Bescheer and the merchant of Damascus, rendered the communications between the families so frequent that it was not difficult for the family of Besso to cherish those sentiments of affection which were strong and lively in the heart of the young Fakredeen, but which, under any circumstances, depend so much on sustained personal intercourse. Eva saw a great deal of her former brother, and there subsisted between them a romantic friendship. He was their frequent guest at Damascus and was proud to show her how he excelled in his martial exercises, how skilful he was with his falcon, and what horses of pure race he proudly rode.
In the year '39, Fakredeen being then fifteen years of age, the country entirely tranquil, even if discontented, occupied by a disciplined army of 80,000 men, commanded by captains equal it was supposed to any conjuncture, the Egyptians openly encouraged by the greatest military nation of Europe, the Turks powerless, and only secretly sustained by the countenance of the ambassador of the weakest government that ever tottered in England, a government that had publicly acknowledged that it had forfeited the confidence of the Parliament which yet it did not dissolve; everything being thus in a state of flush and affluent prosperity, and both the house of Shehaab and the house of Besso feeling, each day more strongly, how discreet and how lucky they had been in the course which they had adopted, came the great Syrian crash!
Whatever difference of opinion may exist as to the policy pursued by the foreign minister of England, with respect to the settlement of the Turkish Empire in 1840-41, none can be permitted, by those, at least, competent to decide upon such questions, as to the ability with which that policy was accomplished. When we consider the position of the minister at home, not only deserted by Parliament, but abandoned by his party and even forsaken by his colleagues; the military occupation of Syria by the Egyptians; the rabid demonstration of France; that an accident of time or space, the delay of a month or the gathering of a storm, might alone have baffled all his combinations, it is difficult to fix upon a page in the history of this country which records a superior instance of moral intrepidity. The bold conception and the brilliant performance were worthy of Chatham; but the domestic difficulties with which Lord Palmerston had to struggle place the exploit beyond the happiest achievement of the elder Pitt. Throughout the memorable conjuncture, Lord Palmerston, however, had one great advantage, which was invisible to the millions; he was served by a most vigilant and able diplomacy. The superiority of his information concerning the state of Syria to that furnished to the French minister was the real means by which he baffled the menaced legions of our neighbours. A timid Secretary of State in the position of Lord Palmerston, even with such advantages, might have faltered; but the weapon was placed in the hands of one who did not shrink from its exercise, and the expulsion of the Egyptians from Turkey remains a great historic monument alike of diplomatic skill and administrative energy.
The rout of the Egyptians was fatal to the Emir Bescheer, and it seemed also, for a time, to the Damascus branch of the family of Besso. But in these days a great capitalist has deeper roots than a sovereign prince, unless he is very legitimate. The Prince of the Mountain and his sons were summoned from their luxurious and splendid Beteddeen to Constantinople, where they have ever since remained prisoners. Young Fakredeen, the moment he heard of the fall of Acre, rode out with his falcon, as if for the pastime of a morning, and the moment he was out of sight made for the desert, and never rested until he reached the tents of the children of Rechab, where he placed himself under the protection of the grandfather of Eva.
As for the merchant himself, having ships at his command, he contrived to escape with his wife and his young daughter to Trieste, and he remained in the Austrian dominions between three and four years. At length the influence of Prince Metternich, animated by Sidonia, propitiated the Porte. Adarfi Besso, after making his submission at Stamboul, and satisfactorily explaining his conduct to Riza Pasha, returned to his country, not substantially injured in fortune, though the northern clime had robbed him of his Arabian wife; for his brothers, who, as far as politics were concerned, had ever kept in the shade, had managed affairs in the absence of the more prominent member of their house, and, in truth, the family of Besso were too rich to be long under a cloud. The Pasha of Damascus found his revenue fall very short without their interference; and as for the Divan, the Bessoes could always find a friend there if they chose. The awkwardness of the Syrian catastrophe was, that it was so sudden and so unexpected that there was then no time for those satisfactory explanations which afterwards took place between Adam Besso and Riza.
Though the situation of Besso remained, therefore, unchanged after the subsidence of the Syrian agitation, the same circumstance could not be predicated of the position of his foster-child. Fakredeen possessed all the qualities of the genuine Syrian character in excess; vain, susceptible, endowed with a brilliant though frothy imagination, and a love of action so unrestrained that restlessness deprived it of energy, with so fine a taste that he was always capricious, and so ingenious that he seemed ever inconsistent. His ambition was as high as his apprehension was quick. He saw everything and understood everybody in a flash; and believed that everything that was said or done ought to be made to contribute to his fortunes. Educated in the sweet order, and amid the decorous virtues of the roof of Besso, Fakredeen, who, from his susceptibility, took the colour of his companions, even when he thought they were his tools, had figured for ten years as a soft-hearted and somewhat timid child, dependent on kind words, and returning kindness with a passionate affection.
His change to the palace of his uncle developed his native qualities, which, under any accidents, could not perhaps have been long restrained, but which the circumstances of the times brought to light, and matured with a celerity peculiar to the East. The character of Fakredeen was formed amid the excitement of the Syrian invasion and its stirring consequences. At ten years of age he was initiated in all the mysteries of political intrigue. His startling vivacity and the keen relish of his infant intelligence for all the passionate interests of men amused and sometimes delighted his uncle. Everything was spoken before him; he lived in the centre of intrigues which were to shake thrones, and perhaps to form them. He became habituated to the idea that everything could be achieved by dexterity, and that there was no test of conduct except success. To dissemble and to simulate; to conduct confidential negotiations with contending powers and parties at the same time; to be ready to adopt any opinion and to possess none; to fall into the public humour of the moment, and to evade the impending catastrophe; to look upon every man as a tool, and never do anything which had not a definite though circuitous purpose; these were his political accomplishments; and, while he recognised them as the best means of success, he found in their exercise excitement and delight. To be the centre of a maze of manoeuvres was his empyrean. He was never without a resource.
Stratagems came to him as naturally as fruit comes to a tree. He lived in a labyrinth of plans, and he rejoiced to involve some one in the perplexities which his magic touch could alone unravel. Fakredeen had no principle of any kind; he had not a prejudice; a little superstition, perhaps, like his postponing his journey because a hare crossed his path. But, as for life and conduct in general, forming his opinions from the great men of whom he had experience, princes, pashas, and some others, and from the great transactions with which he was connected, he was convinced that all was a matter of force or fraud. Fakredeen preferred the latter, because it was more ingenious, and because he was of a kind and passionate temperament, loving beauty and the beautiful, apt to idealise everything, and of too exquisite a taste not to shrink with horror from an unnecessary massacre.
Though it was his profession and his pride to simulate and to dissemble, he had a native ingenuousness which was extremely awkward and very surprising, for, the moment he was intimate with you, he told you everything. Though he intended to make a person his tool, and often succeeded, such was his susceptibility, and so strong were his sympathetic qualities, that he was perpetually, without being aware of it, showing his cards. The victim thought himself safe, but the teeming resources of Fakredeen were never wanting, and some fresh and brilliant combination, as he styled it, often secured the prey which so heedlessly he had nearly forfeited. Recklessness with him was a principle of action. He trusted always to his fertile expedients if he failed, and ran the risk in the meanwhile of paramount success, the fortune of those who are entitled to be rash. With all his audacity, which was nearly equal to his craft, he had no moral courage; and, if affairs went wrong, and, from some accident, exhaustion of the nervous system, the weather, or some of those slight causes which occasionally paralyse the creative mind, he felt without a combination, he would begin to cry like a child, and was capable of any action, however base and humiliating, to extricate himself from the impending disaster.
Fakredeen had been too young to have fatally committed himself during the Egyptian occupation. The moment he found that the Emir Bescheer and his sons were prisoners at Constantinople, he returned to Syria, lived quietly at his own castle, affected popularity among the neighbouring chieftains, who were pleased to see a Shehaab among them, and showed himself on every occasion a most loyal subject of the Porte. At seventeen years of age, Fakredeen was at the head of a powerful party, and had opened relations with the Divan. The Porte looked upon him with confidence, and although they intended, if possible, to govern Lebanon in future themselves, a young prince of a great house, and a young prince so perfectly free from all disagreeable antecedents, was not to be treated lightly. All the leaders of all the parties of the mountain frequented the castle of Fakredeen, and each secretly believed that the prince was his pupil and his tool. There was not one of these men, grey though some of them were in years and craft, whom the innocent and ingenuous Fakredeen did not bend as a nose of wax, and, when Adam Besso returned to Syria in '43, he found his foster-child by far the most considerable person in the country, and all parties amid their doubts and distractions looking up to him with hope and confidence. He was then nineteen years of age, and Eva was sixteen. Fakredeen came instantly to Damascus to welcome them, hugged Besso, wept like a child over his sister, sat up the whole night on the terrace of their house smoking his nargileh, and telling them all his secrets without the slightest reserve: the most shameful actions of his career as well as the most brilliant; and finally proposed to Besso to raise a loan for the Lebanon, ostensibly to promote the cultivation of mulberries, really to supply arms to the discontented population who were to make Fakredeen and Eva sovereigns of the mountain. It will have been observed, that to supply the partially disarmed tribes of the mountain with weapons was still, though at intervals, the great project of Fakredeen, and to obtain the result in his present destitution of resources involved him in endless stratagems. His success would at the same time bind the tribes, already well affected to him, with unalterable devotion to a chief capable of such an undeniable act of sovereignty, and of course render them proportionately more efficient instruments in accomplishing his purpose. It was the interest of Fakredeen that the Lebanon should be powerful and disturbed.
Besso, who had often befriended him, and who had frequently rescued him from the usurers of Beiroot and Sidon, lent a cold ear to these suggestions. The great merchant was not inclined again to embark in a political career, or pass another three or four years away from his Syrian palaces and gardens. He had seen the most powerful head that the East had produced for a century, backed by vast means, and after having apparently accomplished his purpose, ultimately recoil before the superstitious fears of Christendom, lest any change in Syria should precipitate the solution of the great Eastern problem. He could not believe that it was reserved for Fakredeen to succeed in that which had baffled Mehemet Ali.
Eva took the more sanguine view that becomes youth and woman. She had faith in Fakredeen. Though his position was not as powerful as that of the great viceroy, it was, in her opinion, more legitimate. He seemed indicated as the natural ruler of the mountain. She had faith, too, in his Arabian origin. With Eva, what is called society assumed the character of a continual struggle between Asia and the North. She dreaded the idea that, after having escaped the crusaders, Syria should fall first under the protection, and then the colonisation of some European power. A link was wanted in the chain of resistance which connected the ranges of Caucasus with the Atlas. She idealised her foster-brother into a hero, and saw his standard on Mount Lebanon, the beacon of the oriental races, like the spear of Shami, or the pavilion of Abd-el-Kader. Eva had often influenced her father for the advantage of Fakredeen, but at last even Eva felt that she should sue in vain.
A year before, involved in difficulties which it seemed no combination could control, and having nearly occasioned the occupation of Syria by a united French and English force, Fakredeen burst out a-cry-ing like a little boy, and came whimpering to Eva, as if somebody had broken his toy or given him a beating. Then it was that Eva had obtained for him a final assistance from her father, the condition being, that this application should be the last.
Eva had given him jewels, had interested other members of her family in his behalf, and effected for him a thousand services, which only a kind-hearted and quick-witted woman could devise. While Fakredeen plundered her without scruple and used her without remorse, he doted on her; he held her intellect in absolute reverence; a word from her guided him; a look of displeasure, and his heart ached. As long as he was under the influence of her presence, he really had no will, scarcely an idea of his own. He spoke only to elicit her feelings and opinions. He had a superstition that she was born under a fortunate star, and that it was fatal to go counter to her. But the moment he was away, he would disobey, deceive, and, if necessary, betray her, loving her the same all the time. But what was to be expected from one whose impressions were equally quick and vivid, who felt so much for himself, and so much for others, that his life seemed a perpetual re-action between intense selfishness and morbid sensibility?
Had Fakredeen married Eva, the union might have given him some steadiness of character, or at least its semblance. The young Emir had greatly desired this alliance, not for the moral purpose that we have intimated, not even from love of Eva, for he was totally insensible to domestic joys, but because he wished to connect himself with great capitalists, and hoped to gain the Lebanon loan for a dower. But this alliance was quite out of the question. The hand of Eva was destined, according to the custom of the family, for her cousin, the eldest son of Besso of Aleppo. The engagement had been entered into while she was at Vienna, and it was then agreed that the marriage should take place soon after she had completed her eighteenth year. The ceremony was therefore at hand; it was to occur within a few months.
Accustomed from an early period of life to the contemplation of this union, it assumed in the eyes of Eva a character as natural as that of birth or death. It never entered her head to ask herself whether she liked or disliked it. It was one of those inevitable things of which we are always conscious, yet of which we never think, like the years of our life or the colour of our hair. Had her destiny been in her own hands, it is probable that she would not have shared it with Fakredeen, for she had never for an instant entertained the wish that there should be any change in the relations which subsisted between them. According to the custom of the country, it was to Besso that Fakredeen had expressed his wishes and his hopes. The young Emir made liberal offers: his wife and children might follow any religion they pleased; nay, he was even ready to conform himself to any which they fixed upon. He attempted to dazzle Besso with the prospect of a Hebrew Prince of the Mountains. 'My daughter,' said the merchant, 'would certainly, under any circumstances, marry one of her own faith; but we need not say another word about it; she is betrothed, and has been engaged for some years, to her cousin.'
When Fakredeen, during his recent visit to Bethany, found that Eva, notwithstanding her Bedouin blood, received his proposition for kidnapping a young English nobleman with the utmost alarm and even horror, he immediately relinquished it, diverted her mind from the contemplation of a project on her disapproval of which, notwithstanding his efforts at distraction, she seemed strangely to dwell, and finally presented her with a new and more innocent scheme in which he required her assistance. According to Fakredeen, his new English acquaintance at Beiroot, whom he had before quoted, was ready to assist him in the fulfilment of his contract, provided he could obtain sufficient time from Scheriff Effendi; and what he wished Eva to do was personally to request the Egyptian merchant to grant time for this indulgence. This did not seem to Eva an unreasonable favour for her foster-brother to obtain, though she could easily comprehend why his previous irregularities might render him an unsuccessful suitor to his creditor. Glad that it was still in her power in some degree to assist him, and that his present project was at least a harmless one, Eva offered the next day to repair to the city and see Scheriff Effendi on his business. Pressing her hand to his heart, and saluting her with a thousand endearing names, the Emir quitted the Rose of Sharon with the tears in his grateful eyes.
Now the exact position of Fakredeen was this: he had induced the Egyptian merchant to execute the contract for him by an assurance that Besso would be his security for the venture, although the peculiar nature of the transaction rendered it impossible for Besso, in his present delicate position, personally to interfere in it. To keep up appearances, Fakredeen, with his usual audacious craft, had appointed Scheriff Effendi to meet him at Jerusalem, at the house of Besso, for the completion of the contract; and accordingly, on the afternoon of the day preceding his visit to Bethany, Fakredeen had arrived at Jerusalem without money, and without credit, in order to purchase arms for a province.
The greatness of the conjuncture, the delightful climate, his sanguine temperament, combined, however, to sustain him. As he traversed his delicious mountains, with their terraces of mulberries, and olives, and vines, lounged occasionally for a short time at the towns on the coast, and looked in at some of his creditors to chatter charming delusions, or feel his way for a new combination most necessary at this moment, his blood was quick and his brain creative; and although he had ridden nearly two hundred miles when he arrived at the 'Holy City,' he was fresh and full of faith that 'something would turn up.' His Egyptian friend, awfully punctual, was the first figure that welcomed him as he entered the divan of Besso, where the young Emir remained in the position which we have described, smoking interminable nargilehs while he revolved his affairs, until the conversation respecting the arrival of Tancred roused him from his brooding meditation.
It was not difficult to avoid Scheriff Effendi for a while. The following morning, Fakredeen passed half a dozen hours at the bath, and then made his visit to Eva with the plot which had occurred to him the night before at the divan, and which had been matured this day while they were shampooing him. The moment that, baffled, he again arrived at Jerusalem, he sought his Egyptian merchant, and thus addressed him: 'You see, Effendi, that you must not talk on this business to Besso, nor can Besso talk to you about it.'
'Good!' said the Effendi.
'But, if it be managed by another person to your satisfaction, it will be as well.'
'One grain is like another.'
'It will be managed by another person to your satisfaction.'
'The Rose of Sharon is the same in this business as her father?'
'He is a ruby and she is a pearl.'
'The Rose of Sharon will see you to-morrow about this business.'
'The Rose of Sharon may ask you for time to settle everything; she has to communicate with other places. You have heard of such a city as Aleppo?'
'If Damascus be an eye, Aleppo is an ear.'
'Don't trouble the Rose of Sharon, Effendi, with any details if she speaks to you; but be content with all she proposes. She will ask, perhaps, for three months; women are nervous; they think robbers may seize the money on its way, or the key of the chest may not be found when it is wanted; you understand? Agree to what she proposes; but, between ourselves, I will meet you at Gaza on the day of the new moon, and it is finished.'
Faithful to her promise, at an early hour of the morrow, Eva, wrapped in a huge and hooded Arab cloak, so that her form could not in the slightest degree be traced, her face covered with a black Arab mask, mounted her horse; her two female attendants, habited in the same manner, followed their mistress; before whom marched her janissary armed to the teeth, while four Arab grooms walked on each side of the cavalcade. In this way, they entered Jerusalem by the gate of Sion, and proceeded to the house of Besso. Fakredeen watched her arrival. He was in due time summoned to her presence, where he learned the success of her mission.
'Scheriff Effendi,' she said, 'has agreed to keep the arms for three months, you paying the usual rate of interest on the money. This is but just. May your new friend at Beiroot be more powerful than I am, and as faithful!'
'Beautiful Rose of Sharon! who can be like you! You inspire me; you always do. I feel persuaded that I shall get the money long before the time has elapsed.' And, so saying, he bade her farewell, to return, as he said, without loss of time to Beiroot.