Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 25.

Gethsemane

THE Christian convents form one of the most remarkable features of modern Jerusalem. There are three principal ones; the Latin Convent of Terra Santa, founded, it is believed, during the last crusade, and richly endowed by the kings of Christendom; the Armenian and the Greek convents, whose revenues are also considerable, but derived from the numerous pilgrims of their different churches, who annually visit the Holy Sepulchre, and generally during their sojourn reside within the walls of their respective religious houses. To be competent to supply such accommodation, it will easily be apprehended that they are of considerable size. They are in truth monastic establishments of the first class, as large as citadels, and almost as strong. Lofty stone walls enclose an area of acres, in the centre of which rises an irregular mass of buildings and enclosures; courts of all shapes, galleries of cells, roofs, terraces, gardens, corridors, churches, houses, and even streets. Sometimes as many as five thousand pilgrims have been lodged, fed, and tended during Easter in one of these convents.

Not in that of Terra Santa, of which a Protestant traveller, passing for a pilgrim, is often the only annual guest; as Tancred at present. In a whitewashed cell, clean, and sufficiently airy and spacious, Tancred was lying on an iron bedstead, the only permanent furniture of the chamber, with the exception of a crucifix, but well suited to the fervent and procreative clime. He was smoking a Turkish pipe, which stretched nearly across the apartment, and his Italian attendant, Baroni, on one knee, was arranging the bowl. ‘I begin rather to like it,’ said Tancred. ‘I am sure you would, my lord. In this country it is like mother’s milk, nor is it possible to make way without it. ’Tis the finest tobacco of Latakia, the choicest in the world, and I have smoked all. I begged it myself from Signor Besso, whose divan is renowned, the day I called on him with your lordship’s letter.’

Saying this, Baroni quickly rose (a man from thirty-two to thirty-five); rather under the middle height, slender, lithe, and pliant; a long black beard, cleared off his chin when in Europe, and concealed under his cravat, but always ready for the Orient; whiskers closely shaved but strongly marked, sallow, an aquiline nose, white teeth, a sparkling black eye. His costume entirely white, fashion Mamlouk, that is to say, trousers of a prodigious width, and a light jacket; a white shawl wound round his waist, enclosing his dagger; another forming his spreading turban. Temperament, remarkable vivacity modified by extraordinary experience.

Availing himself of the previous permission of his master, Baroni, having arranged the pipe, seated himself cross-legged on the floor.

‘And what are they doing about the house?’ inquired Tancred.

‘They will be all stowed today,’ replied Baroni. ‘I shall not quit this place, ‘said Tancred; ‘I wish to be quite undisturbed.’

‘Be not alarmed, my lord; they are amused. The colonel never quits the consulate; dines there every day, and tells stories about the Peninsular war and the Bellamont cavalry, just as he did on board. Mr. Bernard is always with the English bishop, who is delighted to have an addition to his congregation, which is not too much, consisting of his own family, the English and Prussian consuls, and five Jews, whom they have converted at twenty piastres a-week; but I know they are going to strike for wages. As for the doctor, he has not a minute to himself. The governor’s wife has already sent for him; he has been admitted to the harem; has felt all their pulses without seeing any of their faces, and his medicine chest is in danger of being exhausted before your lordship requires its aid.’

‘Take care that they are comfortable,’ said Tancred. ‘And what does your lordship wish to do today?’

‘I must go to Gethsemane.’

”Tis the shot of an arrow; go out by the gate of Sion, pass through the Turkish cemetery, cross the Kedron, which is so dry this weather that you may do so in your slippers, and you will find the remnant of an olive grove at the base of the mount.’

‘You talk as if you were giving a direction in London.’

‘I wish I knew London as well as I know Jerusalem! This is not a very great place, and I think I have been here twenty times. Why, I made eight visits here in ‘40 and ‘41; twice from England, and six times from Egypt.’

‘Active work!’

‘Ah! those were times! If the Pasha had taken M. de Sidonia’s advice, in ‘41, something would have happened in this city ——’ And here Baroni pulled up: ‘Your lordship’s pipe draws easy?’

‘Very well. And when was your first visit here, Baroni?’

‘When M. de Sidonia travelled. I came in his suite from Naples, eighteen years ago, the next Annunciation of our blessed Lady,’ and he crossed himself.

‘You must have been very young then?’

‘Young enough; but it was thought, I suppose, that I could light a pipe. We were seven when we left Naples, all picked men; but I was the only one who was in Paraguay with M. de Sidonia, and that was nearly the end of our travels, which lasted five years.’

‘And what became of the rest?’

‘Got ill or got stupid; no mercy in either case with M. de Sidonia, packed off instantly, wherever you may be; whatever money you like, but go you must. If you were in the middle of the desert, and the least grumbling, you would be spliced on a camel, and a Bedouin tribe would be hired to take you to the nearest city, Damascus or Jerusalem, or anywhere, with an order on Signor Besso, or some other signor, to pay them.’

‘And you were never invalided?’

‘Never; I was young and used to tumble about as long as I can remember day; but it was sharp practice sometimes; five years of such work as few men have been through. It educated me and opened my mind amazingly.’

‘It seems to have done so,’ said Tancred, quietly.

Shortly after this, Tancred, attended by Baroni, passed the gate of Sion. Not a human being was visible, except the Turkish sentries. It was midsummer, but no words and no experience of other places can convey an idea of the canicular heat of Jerusalem. Bengal, Egypt, even Nubia, are nothing to it; in these countries there are rivers, trees, shade, and breezes; but Jerusalem at midday in midsummer is a city of stone in a land of iron with a sky of brass. The wild glare and savage lustre of the landscape are themselves awful. We have all read of the man who had lost his shadow; this is a shadowless world. Everything is so flaming and so clear, that it would remind one of a Chinese painting, but that the scene is one too bold and wild for the imagination of the Mongol race.

‘There,’ said Baroni, pointing to a group of most ancient olive trees at the base of the opposite hill, and speaking as if he were showing the way to Kensington, ‘there is Gethsemane; the path to the right leads to Bethany.’

‘Leave me now,’ said Tancred.

There are moments when we must be alone, and Tancred had fixed upon this hour for visiting Gethsemane, because he felt assured that no one would be stirring. Descending Mount Sion, and crossing Kedron, he entered the sacred grove.

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