Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 76

Time, which changes every thing, is changing even the traditionary appearance of forlorn Jerusalem. Not that its mien, after all, was ever very sad. Its airy site, its splendid mosque, its vast monasteries, the bright material of which the whole city is built, its cupolaed houses of freestone, and above all the towers and gates and battlements of its lofty and complete walls, always rendered it a handsome city. Jerusalem has not been sacked so often or so recently as the other two great ancient cities, Rome and Athens. Its vicinage was never more desolate than the Campagna, or the state of Attica and the Morea in 1830.

The battle-field of western Asia from the days of the Assyrian kings to those of Mehemet Ali, Palestine endured the same devastation as in modern times has been the doom of Flanders and the Milanese; but the years of havoc in the Low Countries and Lombardy must be counted in Palestine by centuries. Yet the wide plains of the Holy Land, Sharon, and Shechem, and Esdraelon, have recovered; they are as fertile and as fair as in old days; it is the hill-culture that has been destroyed, and that is the culture on which Jerusalem mainly depended. Its hills were terraced gardens, vineyards, and groves of olive-trees. And here it is that we find renovation. The terraces are again ascending the stony heights, and the eye is frequently gladdened with young plantations. Fruit-trees, the peach and the pomegranate, the almond and the fig, offer gracious groups; and the true children of the land, the vine and the olive, are again exulting in their native soil.

There is one spot, however, which has been neglected, and yet the one that should have been the first remembered, as it has been the most rudely wasted. Blessed be the hand which plants trees upon Olivet! Blessed be the hand that builds gardens about Sion!

The most remarkable creation, however, in modern Jerusalem is the Russian settlement which within a few years has risen on the elevated ground on the western side of the city. The Latin, the Greek, and the Armenian Churches had for centuries possessed enclosed establishments in the city, which, under the name of monasteries, provided shelter and protection for hundreds — it might be said even thousands — of pilgrims belonging to their respective rites. The great scale, therefore, on which Russia secured hospitality for her subjects was not in reality so remarkable as the fact that it seemed to indicate a settled determination to separate the Muscovite Church altogether from the Greek, and throw off what little dependence is still acknowledged on the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Whatever the motive, the design has been accomplished on a large scale. The Russian buildings, all well defended, are a caravanserai, a cathedral, a citadel. The consular flag crowns the height and indicates the office of administration; priests and monks are permanent inhabitants, and a whole caravan of Muscovite pilgrim and the trades on which they depend can be accommodated within the precinct.

Mr. Phoebus, his family and suite, were to be the guests of the Russian consul, and every preparation was made to insure the celebrated painter a becoming reception. Frequent telegrams had duly impressed the representative of all the Russias in the Holy Land with the importance of his impending visitor. Even the qualified and strictly provisional acceptance of the Russian proposition by Mr. Phoebus had agitated the wires of Europe scarcely less than a suggested conference.

“An artist should always remember what he owes to posterity and his profession,” said Mr. Phoebus to Lothair, as they were walking the deck, “even if you can distinguish between them, which I doubt, for it is only by a sense of the beautiful that the human family can be sustained in Its proper place in the scale of creation, and the sense of the beautiful is a result of the study of the fine arts. It would be something to sow the seeds of organic change in the Mongolian type, but I am nor sanguine of success. There is no original fund of aptitude to act upon. The most ancient of existing communities is Turanian, and yet, though they could invent gunpowder and the mariner’s compass, they never could understand perspective. — Man ahead there! tell Madame Phoebus to come on deck for the first sight of Mount Lebanon.”

When the Pan entered the port of Joppa they observed another English yacht in those waters; but, before they could speculate on its owner, they were involved in all the complications of landing. On the quay, the Russian vice-consul was in attendance with horses and mules, and donkeys handsomer than either. The ladies were delighted with the vast orange-gardens of Joppa, which Madame Phoebus said realized quite her idea of the Holy Land.

“I was prepared for milk and honey,” said Euphrosyne, “but this is too delightful,” as she travelled through lanes of date-bearing palm-trees, and sniffed with her almond-shaped nostrils the all-pervading fragrance.

They passed the night at Arimathea, a pretty village surrounded with gardens enclosed with hedges of prickly pear. Here they found hospitality, in an old convent, but all the comforts of Europe and many of the refinements of Asia had been forwarded for their accommodations.

“It is a great homage to art,” said Mr. Phoebus, as he scattered his gold like a great seigneur of Gascony.

The next day, two miles from Jerusalem, the consul met them with a cavalcade, and the ladies assured their host that they were not at all wearied with their journey, but were quite prepared, in due time, to join his dinner-party, which he was most anxious they should attend, as he had “two English lords” who had arrived, and whom he had invited to meet them. They were all curious to know their names, though that, unfortunately, the consul could not tell them, but he had sent to the English consulate to have them written down. All he could assure them was, that they were real English lords, not travelling English lords, but in sober earnestness great personages.

Mr. Phoebus was highly gratified. He was pleased with his reception. There was nothing he liked much more than a procession. He was also a sincere admirer of the aristocracy of his country. “On the whole,” he would say, “they most resemble the old Hellenic race; excelling in athletic sports, speaking no other language than their own, and never reading.”

“Your fault,” he would sometimes say to Lothair, “and the cause of many of your sorrows, is the habit of mental introspection. Man is born to observe, but if he falls into psychology he observes nothing, and then he is astonished that life has no charms for him, or that, never seizing the occasion, his career is a failure. No, sir, it is the eye that must be occupied and cultivated; no one knows the capacity of the eye who has not developed it, or the visions of beauty and delight and inexhaustible interest which it commands. To a man who observes, life is as different as the existence of a dreaming psychologist is to that of the animals of the field.”

“I fear,” said Lothair, “that I have at length found out the truth, and that I am a dreaming psychologist.”

“You are young and not irremediably lost,” said Mr. Phoebus. “Fortunately, you have received the admirable though partial education of your class. You are a good shot, you can ride, you can row, you can swim. That imperfect secretion of the brain which is called thought has not yet bowed your frame. You have not had time to read much. Give it up altogether. The conversation of a woman like Theodora is worth all the libraries in the world. If it were only for her sake, I should wish to save you, but I wish to do it for your own. Yes, profit by the vast though calamitous experience which you have gained in a short time. We may know a great deal about our bodies, we can know very little about our minds.”

The “real English lords” turned out to be Bertram and St. Aldegonde, returning from Nubia. They had left England about the same time as Lothair, and had paired together on the Irish Church till Easter, with a sort of secret hope on the part of St. Aldegonde that they might neither of them reappear in the House of Commons again until the Irish Church were either saved or subverted. Holy Week had long passed, and they were at Jerusalem, not quite so near the House of Commons as the Reform Club or the Carlton, but still St. Aldegonde had mentioned that he was beginning to be bored with Jerusalem, and Bertram counted on their immediate departure when they accepted the invitation to dine with the Russian consul.

Lothair was unaffectedly delighted to meet Bertram, and glad to see St. Aldegonde, but he was a little nervous and embarrassed as to the probable tone of his reception by them. But their manner relieved him in an instant, for he saw they knew nothing of his adventures.

“Well,” said St. Aldegonde, “what have you been doing with yourself since we last met? I wish you had come with us, and had a shot at a crocodile.”

Bertram told Lothair in the course of the evening that he found letters at Cairo from Corisande, on his return, in which there was a good deal about Lothair, and which had made him rather uneasy. “That there was a rumor you had been badly wounded, and some other things,” and Bertram looked him full in the face; “but I dare say not a word of truth.”

“I was never better in my life,” said Lothair, “and I have been in Sicily and in Greece. However, we will talk over all this another time.”

The dinner at the consulate was, one of the most successful banquets that was ever given, if to please your guests be the test of good fortune in such enterprises. St. Aldegonde was perfectly charmed with the Phoebus family; he did not know which to admire most — the great artist, who was in remarkable spirits today, considering he was in a Semitic country, or his radiant wife, or his brilliant sister-in-law. St. Aldegonde took an early opportunity of informing Bertram that if he liked to go over and vote for the Irish Church he would release him from his pair with the greatest pleasure, but for his part he had not the slightest intention of leaving Jerusalem at present. Strange to say, Bertram received this intimation without a murmur. He was not so loud in his admiration of the Phoebus family as St. Aldegonde, but there is a silent sentiment sometimes more expressive than the noisiest applause, and more dangerous. Bertram had sat next to Euphrosyne, and was entirely spell-bound.

The consul’s wife, a hostess not unworthy of such guests, had entertained her friends in the European style. The dinner-hour was not late, and the gentlemen who attended the ladies from the dinner-table were allowed to remain some time in the saloon. Lothair talked much to the consul’s wife, by whose side sat Madame Phoebus. St. Aldegonde was always on his legs, distracted by the rival attractions of that lady and her husband. More remote, Bertram whispered to Euphrosyne, who answered him with laughing eyes.

At a certain hour, the consul, attended by his male guests, crossing a court, proceeded to his divan, a lofty and capacious chamber painted in fresco, and with no furniture except the low but broad raised seat that surrounded the room. Here, when they were seated, an equal number of attendants — Arabs in Arab dress, blue gowns, and red slippers, and red caps — entered, each proffering a long pipe of cherry or jasmine wood. Then, in a short time, guests dropped in, and pipes and coffee were immediately brought to them. Any person who had been formally presented to the consul had this privilege, without any further invitation. The society often found in these consular divans in the more remote places of the East — Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem — is often extremely entertaining and instructive. Celebrated travellers, distinguished men of science, artists, adventurers who ultimately turn out to be heroes, eccentric characters of all kinds, are here encountered, and give the fruits of their original or experienced observation without reserve.

“It is the smoking-room over again,” whispered St. Aldegonde to Lothair, “only in England one is so glad to get away from the women, but here I must say I should have liked to remain behind.”

An individual in a Syrian dress, fawn-colored robes girdled with a rich shawl, and a white turban, entered. He made his salute with grace and dignity to the consul, touching his forehead, his lip, and his heart, and took his seat with the air of one not unaccustomed to be received, playing, until he received his chibouque, with a chaplet of beads.

“That is a good-looking fellow, Lothair,” said St. Aldegonde; “or is it the dress that turns them out such swells? I feel quite a lout by some of these fellows.”

“I think he would be good-looking in any dress,” said Lothair. “A remarkable countenance.”

It was an oval visage, with features in harmony with that form; large dark-brown eyes and lashes, and brows delicately but completely defined; no hair upon the face except a beard, full but not long. He seemed about the same age as Mr. Phoebus, and his complexion, though pale, was clear and fair.

The conversation, after some rambling, had got upon the Suez Canal. Mr. Phoebus did not care for the political or the commercial consequences of that great enterprise, but he was glad that a natural division should be established between the greater races and the Ethiopian. It might not lead to any considerable result, but it asserted a principle. He looked upon that trench as a protest.

“But would you place the Nilotic family in the Ethiopian race?” inquired the Syrian in a voice commanding from its deep sweetness.

“I would certainly. The were Cushim, and that means negroes.”

The Syrian did not agree with Mr. Phoebus; he stated his views firmly and, clearly, but without urging them. He thought that we must look to the Pelasgi as the colonizing race that had peopled and produced Egypt. The mention of the Pelasgi fired Mr. Phoebus to even unusual eloquence. He denounced the Pelasgi as a barbarous race: men of gloomy superstitions, who, had it not been for the Hellenes, might have fatally arrested the human development. The triumph of the Hellenes was the triumph of the beautiful, and all that is great and good in life was owing to their victory.

“It is difficult to ascertain what is great in life,” said the Syrian, “because nations differ on the subject and ages. Some, for example, consider war to be a great thing, others condemn it. I remember also when patriotism was a boast, and now it is a controversy. But it is not so difficult to ascertain what is good. For man has in his own being some guide to such knowledge, and divine aid to acquire it has not been wanting to him. For my part I could not maintain that the Hellenic system led to virtue.”

The conversation was assuming an ardent character when the consul, as a diplomatist, turned the channel. Mr. Phoebus had vindicated the Hellenic religion, the Syrian, with a terse protest against the religion of Nature, however idealized, as tending to the corruption of man, had let the question die away, and the Divan were discussing dromedaries, and dancing-girls, and sherbet made of pomegranate, which the consul recommended and ordered to be produced. Some of the guests retired, and among them the Syrian with the same salute and the same graceful dignity as had distinguished his entrance.

“Who is that man?” said Mr. Phoebus. “I met him at Rome ten years ago. Baron Mecklenburg brought him to me to paint for my great picture of St. John, which is in the gallery of Munich. He said in his way — you remember his way — that he would bring me a face of Paradise.”

“I cannot exactly tell you his name,” said the consul. “Prince Galitzin brought him here, and thought highly of him. I believe he is one of the old Syrian families in the mountain; but whether he be a Maronite or a Druse, or any thing else, I really cannot say. Now try the sherbet.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19