Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 26.

The Lady of Bethany

THE sun had been declining for some hours, the glare of the earth had subsided, the fervour of the air was allayed. A caravan came winding round the hills, with many camels and persons in rich, bright Syrian dresses; a congregation that had assembled at the Church of the Ascension on Mount Olivet had broken up, and the side of the hill was studded with brilliant and picturesque groups; the standard of the Crescent floated on the Tower of David; there was the clang of Turkish music, and the governor of the city, with a numerous cavalcade, might be discerned on Mount Moriah, caracoling without the walls; a procession of women bearing classic vases on their heads, who had been fetching the waters of Siloah from the well of Job, came up the valley of Jehosha-phat, to wind their way to the gate of Stephen and enter Jerusalem by the street of Calvary.

Tancred came forth from the garden of Gethsemane, his face was flushed with the rapt stillness of pious ecstasy; hours had vanished during his passionate reverie, and he stared upon the declining sun.

‘The path to the right leads to Bethany.’ The force of association brought back the last words that he had heard from a human voice. And can he sleep without seeing Bethany? He mounts the path. What a landscape surrounds him as he moves! What need for nature to be fair in a scene like this, where not a spot is visible that is not heroic or sacred, consecrated or memorable; not a rock that is not the cave of prophets; not a valley that is not the valley of heaven-anointed kings; not a mountain that is not the mountain of God!

Before him is a living, a yet breathing and existing city, which Assyrian monarchs came down to besiege, which the chariots of Pharaohs encompassed, which Roman Emperors have personally assailed, for which Saladin and Coeur de Lion, the desert and Christendom, Asia and Europe, struggled in rival chivalry; a city which Mahomet sighed to rule, and over which the Creator alike of Assyrian kings and Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Caesars, the Framer alike of the desert and of Christendom, poured forth the full effusion of His divinely human sorrow.

What need of cascade and of cataract, the deep green turf, the foliage of the fairest trees, the impenetrable forest, the abounding river, mountains of glaciered crest, the voice of birds, the bounding forms of beauteous animals; all sights and sounds of material loveliness that might become the delicate ruins of some archaic theatre, or the lingering fanes of some forgotten faith? They would not be observed as the eye seized on Sion and Calvary; the gates of Bethlehem and Damascus; the hill of Titus; the Mosque of Mahomet and the tomb of Christ. The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven.

The path winding round the southern side of the Mount of Olives at length brought Tancred in sight of a secluded village, situate among the hills on a sunny slope, and shut out from all objects excepting the wide landscape which immediately faced it; the first glimpse of Arabia through the ravines of the Judæan hills; the rapid Jordan quitting its green and happy valley for the bitter waters of Asphaltites, and, in the extreme distance, the blue mountains of Moab.

Ere he turned his reluctant steps towards the city, he was attracted by a garden, which issued, as it were, from a gorge in the hills, so that its limit was not perceptible, and then spread over a considerable space, comparatively with the inclosures in its vicinity, until it reached the village. It was surrounded by high stone walls, which every now and then the dark spiral forms of a cypress or a cedar would overtop, and in the more distant and elevated part rose a tall palm tree, bending its graceful and languid head, on which the sunbeam glittered. It was the first palm that Tancred had ever seen, and his heart throbbed as he beheld that fair and sacred tree.

As he approached the garden, Tancred observed that its portal was open: he stopped before it, and gazed upon its walks of lemon trees with delight and curiosity. Tancred had inherited from his mother a passion for gardens; and an eastern garden, a garden in the Holy Land, such as Gethsemane might have been in those days of political justice when Jerusalem belonged to the Jews; the occasion was irresistible; he could not withstand the temptation of beholding more nearly a palm tree; and he entered.

Like a prince in a fairy tale, who has broken the mystic boundary of some enchanted pleasaunce, Tancred traversed the alleys which were formed by the lemon and pomegranate tree, and sometimes by the myrtle and the rose. His ear caught the sound of falling water, bubbling with a gentle noise; more distinct and more forcible every step that he advanced. The walk in which he now found himself ended in an open space covered with roses; beyond them a gentle acclivity, clothed so thickly with a small bright blue flower that it seemed a bank of turquoise, and on its top was a kiosk of white marble, gilt and painted; by its side, rising from a group of rich shrubs, was the palm, whose distant crest had charmed Tancred without the gate.

In the centre of the kiosk was the fountain, whose alluring voice had tempted Tancred to proceed further than he had at first dared to project. He must not retire without visiting the waters which had been speaking to him so long. Following the path round the area of roses, he was conducted to the height of the acclivity, and entered the kiosk; some small beautiful mats were spread upon its floor, and, reposing upon one of them, Tancred watched the bright clear water as it danced and sparkled in its marble basin.

The reader has perhaps experienced the effect of falling water. Its lulling influence is proverbial. In the present instance, we must remember that Tancred had been exposed to the meridian fervour of a Syrian sun, that he had been the whole day under the influence of that excitement which necessarily ends in exhaustion; and that, in addition to this, he had recently walked some distance; it will not, therefore, be looked upon as an incident improbable or astonishing, that Lord Montacute, after pursuing for some time that train of meditation which was his custom, should have fallen asleep.

His hat had dropped from his head; his rich curls fell on his outstretched arm that served as a pillow for a countenance which in the sweet dignity of its blended beauty and stillness might have become an archangel; and, lying on one of the mats, in an attitude of unconscious gracefulness, which a painter might have transferred to his portfolio, Tancred sank into a deep and dreamless repose.

[Illustration: frontis2-p26]

He woke refreshed and renovated, but quite insensible of all that had recently occurred. He stretched his limbs; something seemed to embarrass him; he found himself covered with a rich robe. He was about to rise, resting on his arm, when turning his head he beheld the form of a woman.

She was young, even for the East; her stature rather above the ordinary height, and clothed in the rich dress usual among the Syrian ladies. She wore an amber vest of gold-embroidered silk, fitting closely to her shape, and fastening with buttons of precious stones from the bosom to the waist, there opening like a tunic, so that her limbs were free to range in her huge Mamlouk trousers, made of that white Cashmere a shawl of which can be drawn through a ring. These, fastened round her ankles with clasps of rubies, fell again over her small slippered feet. Over her amber vest she had an embroidered pelisse of violet silk, with long hanging sleeves, which showed occasionally an arm rarer than the costly jewels which embraced it; a many-coloured Turkish scarf inclosed her waist; and then, worn loosely over all, was an outer pelisse of amber Cashmere, lined with the fur of the white fox. At the back of her head was a cap, quite unlike the Greek and Turkish caps which we are accustomed to see in England, but somewhat resembling the head-dress of a Mandarin; round, not flexible, almost flat; and so thickly incrusted with pearls, that it was impossible to detect the colour of the velvet which covered it. Beneath it descended two broad braids of dark brown hair, which would have swept the ground had they not been turned half-way up, and there fastened with bunches of precious stones; these, too, restrained the hair which fell, in rich braids, on each side of her face.

That face presented the perfection of oriental beauty; such as it existed in Eden, such as it may yet occasionally be found among the favoured races in the favoured climes, and such as it might have been found abundantly and for ever, had not the folly and malignity of man been equal to the wisdom and beneficence of Jehovah. The countenance was oval, yet the head was small. The complexion was neither fair nor dark, yet it possessed the brilliancy of the north without its dryness, and the softness peculiar to the children of the sun without its moisture. A rich, subdued and equable tint overspread this visage, though the skin was so transparent that you occasionally caught the streaky splendour of some vein like the dappled shades in the fine peel of beautiful fruit.

But it was in the eye and its overspreading arch that all the Orient spake, and you read at once of the starry vaults of Araby and the splendour of Chaldean skies. Dark, brilliant, with pupil of great size and prominent from its socket, its expression and effect, notwithstanding the long eyelash of the desert, would have been those of a terrible fascination had not the depth of the curve in which it reposed softened the spell and modified irresistible power by ineffable tenderness. This supreme organisation is always accompanied, as in the present instance, by a noble forehead, and by an eyebrow of perfect form, spanning its space with undeviating beauty; very narrow, though its roots are invisible.

The nose was small, slightly elevated, with long oval nostrils fully developed. The small mouth, the short upper lip, the teeth like the neighbouring pearls of Ormuz, the round chin, polished as a statue, were in perfect harmony with the delicate ears, and the hands with nails shaped like almonds.

Such was the form that caught the eye of Tan-cred. She was on the opposite side of the fountain, and stood gazing on him with calmness, and with a kind of benignant curiosity: The garden, the kiosk, the falling waters, recalled the past, which flashed over his mind almost at the moment when he beheld the beautiful apparition. Half risen, yet not willing to remain until he was on his legs to apologise for his presence, Tancred, still leaning on his arm and looking up at his unknown companion, said, ‘Lady, I am an intruder.’

The lady, seating herself on the brink of the fountain, and motioning at the same time with her hand to Tancred not to rise, replied, ‘We are so near the desert that you must not doubt our hospitality.’

‘I was tempted by the first sight of a palm tree to a step too bold; and then sitting by this fountain, I know not how it was ——’

‘You yielded to our Syrian sun,’ said the lady.

‘It has been the doom of many; but you, I trust, will not find it fatal. Walking in the garden with my maidens, we observed you, and one of us covered your head. If you remain in this land you should wear the turban.’

‘This garden seems a paradise,’ said Tancred. ‘I had not thought that anything so fair could be found among these awful mountains. It is a spot that quite becomes Bethany.’

‘You Franks love Bethany?’

‘Naturally; a place to us most dear and interesting.’

‘Pray, are you of those Franks who worship a Jewess; or of those other who revile her, break her images, and blaspheme her pictures?’

‘I venerate, though I do not adore, the mother of God,’ said Tancred, with emotion.

‘Ah! the mother of Jesus!’ said his companion. ‘He is your God. He lived much in this village. He was a great man, but he was a Jew; and you worship him.’

‘And you do not worship him?’ said Tancred, looking up to her with an inquiring glance, and with a reddening cheek.

‘It sometimes seems to me that I ought,’ said the lady, ‘for I am of his race, and you should sympathise with your race.’

‘You are, then, a Hebrew?’

‘I am of the same blood as Mary whom you venerate, but do not adore.’

‘You just now observed,’ said Tancred, after a momentary pause, ‘that it sometimes almost seems to you that you ought to acknowledge my Lord and Master. He made many converts at Bethany, and found here some of his gentlest disciples. I wish that you had read the history of his life.’

‘I have read it. The English bishop here has given me the book. It is a good one, written, I observe, entirely by Jews. I find in it many things with which I agree; and if there be some from which I dissent, it may be that I do not comprehend them.’

‘You are already half a Christian!’ said Tancred, with animation.

‘But the Christianity which I draw from your book does not agree with the Christianity which you practise,’ said the lady, ‘and I fear, therefore, it may be heretical.’

‘The Christian Church would be your guide.’

‘Which?’ inquired the lady; ‘there are so many in Jerusalem. There is the good bishop who presented me with this volume, and who is himself a Hebrew: he is a Church; there is the Latin Church, which was founded by a Hebrew; there is the Armenian Church, which belongs to an Eastern nation who, like the Hebrews, have lost their country and are scattered in every clime; there is the Abyssinian Church, who hold us in great honour, and practise many of our rites and ceremonies; and there are the Greek, the Maronite, and the Coptic Churches, who do not favour us, but who do not treat us as grossly as they treat each other. In this perplexity it may be wise to remain within the pale of a church older than all of them, the church in which Jesus was born and which he never quitted, for he was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew; as became a Prince of the House of David, which you do and must acknowledge him to have been. Your sacred genealogies prove the fact; and if you could not establish it, the whole fabric of your faith falls to the ground.’

‘If I had no confidence in any Church,’ said Tancred, with agitation, ‘I would fall down before God and beseech him to enlighten me; and, in this land,’ he added, in a tone of excitement, ‘I cannot believe that the appeal to the Mercy-seat would be made in vain.’

‘But human wit ought to be exhausted before we presume to invoke divine interposition,’ said the lady. ‘I observe that Jesus was as fond of asking questions as of performing miracles; an inquiring spirit will solve mysteries. Let me ask you: you think that the present state of my race is penal and miraculous?’

Tancred gently bowed assent.

‘Why do you?’ asked the lady.

‘It is the punishment ordained for their rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah.’

‘Where is it ordained?’

‘Upon our heads and upon our children be his blood.’

‘The criminals said that, not the judge. Is it a principle of your jurisprudence to permit the guilty to assign their own punishment? They might deserve a severer one. Why should they transfer any of the infliction to their posterity? What evidence have you that Omnipotence accepted the offer? It is not so announced in your histories. Your evidence is the reverse. He, whom you acknowledge as omnipotent, prayed to Jehovah to forgive them on account of their ignorance. But, admit that the offer was accepted, which in my opinion is blasphemy, is the cry of a rabble at a public execution to bind a nation? There was a great party in the country not disinclined to Jesus at the time, especially in the provinces where he had laboured for three years, and on the whole with success; are they and their children to suffer? But you will say they became Christians. Admit it. We were originally a nation of twelve tribes; ten, long before the advent of Jesus, had been carried into captivity and scattered over the East and the Mediterranean world; they are probably the source of the greater portion of the existing Hebrews; for we know that, even in the time of Jesus, Hebrews came up to Jerusalem at the Passover from every province of the Roman Empire. What had they to do with the crucifixion or the rejection?’

‘The fate of the Ten Tribes is a deeply interesting question,’ said Tancred; ‘but involved in, I fear, inexplicable-obscurity. In England there are many who hold them to be represented by the Afghans, who state that their ancestors followed the laws of Moses. But perhaps they ceased to exist and were blended with their conquerors.’

‘The Hebrews have never blended with their conquerors,’ said the lady, proudly. ‘They were conquered frequently, like all small states situate amid rival empires. Syria was the battlefield of the great monarchies. Jerusalem has not been conquered oftener than Athens, or treated worse; but its people, unhappily, fought too bravely and rebelled too often, so at last they were expatriated. I hold that, to believe that the Hebrew communities are in a principal measure the descendants of the Ten Tribes, and of the other captivities preceding Christ, is a just, and fair, and sensible inference, which explains circumstances that otherwise could not be explicable. But let that pass. We will suppose all the Jews in all the cities of the world to be the lineal descendants of the mob who shouted at the crucifixion. Yet another question! My grandfather is a Bedouin sheikh, chief of one of the most powerful tribes of the desert. My mother was his daughter. He is a Jew; his whole tribe are Jews; they read and obey the five books, live in tents, have thousands of camels, ride horses of the Nedjed breed, and care for nothing except Jehovah, Moses, and their mares. Were they at Jerusalem at the crucifixion, and does the shout of the rabble touch them? Yet my mother marries a Hebrew of the cities, and a man, too, fit to sit on the throne of King Solomon; and a little Christian Yahoor with a round hat, who sells figs at Smyrna, will cross the street if he see her, lest he should be contaminated by the blood of one who crucified his Saviour; his Saviour being, by his own statement, one of the princes of our royal house. No; I will never become a Christian, if I am to eat such sand! It is not to be found in your books. They were written by Jews, men far too well acquainted with their subject to indite such tales of the Philistines as these!’

Tancred looked at her with deep interest as her eye flashed fire, and her beautiful cheek was for a moment suffused with the crimson cloud of indignant passion; and then he said, ‘You speak of things that deeply interest me, or I should not be in this land. But tell me: it cannot be denied that, whatever the cause, the miracle exists; and that the Hebrews, alone of the ancient races, remain, and are found in every country, a memorial of the mysterious and mighty past.’

‘Their state may be miraculous without being penal. But why miraculous? Is it a miracle that Jehovah should guard his people? And can He guard them better than by endowing them with faculties superior to those of the nations among whom they dwell?’

‘I cannot believe that merely human agencies could have sustained a career of such duration and such vicissitudes.’

‘As for human agencies, we have a proverb: “The will of man is the servant of God.” But if you wish to make a race endure, rely upon it you should expatriate them. Conquer them, and they may blend with their conquerors; exile them, and they will live apart and for ever. To expatriate is purely oriental, quite unknown to the modern world. We were speaking of the Armenians, they are Christians, and good ones, I believe.’

‘I have understood very orthodox.’ ‘Go to Armenia, and you will not find an Armenian. They, too, are an expatriated nation, like the Hebrews. The Persians conquered their land, and drove out the people. The Armenian has a proverb: “In every city of the East I find a home.” They are everywhere; the rivals of my people, for they are one of the great races, and little degenerated: with all our industry, and much of our energy; I would say, with all our human virtues, though it cannot be expected that they should possess our divine qualities; they have not produced Gods and prophets, and are proud that they can trace up their faith to one of the obscurest of the Hebrew apostles, and who never knew his great master.’

‘But the Armenians are found only in the East,’ said Tancred.

‘Ah!’ said the lady, with a sarcastic smile; ‘it is exile to Europe, then, that is the curse: well, I think you have some reason. I do not know much of your quarter of the globe: Europe is to Asia what America is to Europe. But I have felt the winds of the Exuine blowing up the Bosphorus; and, when the Sultan was once going to cut off our heads for helping the Egyptians, I passed some months at Vienna. Oh! how I sighed for my beautiful Damascus!’

‘And for your garden at Bethany?’ said Tancred.

‘It did not exist then. This is a recent creation,’ said the lady. ‘I have built a nest in the chink of the hills, that I might look upon Arabia; and the palm tree that invited you to honour my domain was the contribution of my Arab grandfather to the only garden near Jerusalem. But I want to ask you another question. What, on the whole, is the thing most valued in Europe?’

Tancred pondered; and, after a slight pause, said, ‘I think I know what ought to be most valued in Europe; it is something very different from what I fear I must confess is most valued there. My cheek burns while I say it; but I think, in Europe, what is most valued is money.’

‘On the whole,’ said the lady, ‘he that has most money there is most honoured?’

‘Practically, I apprehend so.’

‘Which is the greatest city in Europe?’

‘Without doubt, the capital of my country, London.’

‘Greater I know it is than Vienna; but is it greater than Paris?’

‘Perhaps double the size of Paris.’

‘And four times that of Stamboul! What a city! Why ’tis Babylon! How rich the most honoured man must be there! Tell me, is he a Christian?’

‘I believe he is one of your race and faith.’ ‘And in Paris; who is the richest man in Paris?’ ‘The brother, I believe, of the richest man in London.’

‘I know all about Vienna,’ said the lady, smiling. ‘Cæsar makes my countrymen barons of the empire, and rightly, for it would fall to pieces in a week without their support. Well, you must admit that the European part of the curse has not worked very fatally.’

‘I do not see,’ said Tancred thoughtfully, after a short pause, ‘that the penal dispersion of the Hebrew nation is at all essential to the great object of the Christian scheme. If a Jew did not exist, that would equally have been obtained.’

‘And what do you hold to be the essential object of the Christian scheme?’ ‘The Expiation.’

‘Ah!’ said the lady, in a tone of much solemnity, ‘that is a great idea; in harmony with our instincts, with our traditions, our customs. It is deeply impressed upon the convictions of this land. Shaped as you Christians offer the doctrine, it loses none of its sublimity; or its associations, full at the same time of mystery, power, and solace. A sacrificial Mediator with Jehovah, that expiatory intercessor born from the chosen house of the chosen people, yet blending in his inexplicable nature the divine essence with the human elements, appointed before all time, and purifying, by his atoning blood, the myriads that preceded and the myriads that will follow us, without distinction of creed or clime, this is what you believe. I acknowledge the vast conception, dimly as my brain can partially embrace it. I understand thus much: the human race is saved; and, without the apparent agency of a Hebrew prince, it could not have been saved. Now tell me: suppose the Jews had not prevailed upon the Romans to crucify Jesus, what would have become of the Atonement?’

‘I cannot permit myself to contemplate such contingencies,’ said Tancred. ‘The subject is too high for me to touch with speculation. I must not even consider an event that had been preordained by the Creator of the world for countless ages.’

‘Ah!’ said the lady; ‘preordained by the Creator of the world for countless ages! Where, then, was the inexpiable crime of those who fulfilled the beneficent intention? The holy race supplied the victim and the immolators. What other race could have been entrusted with such a consummation? Was not Abraham prepared to sacrifice even his son? And with such a doctrine, that embraces all space and time; nay more, chaos and eternity; with divine persons for the agents, and the redemption of the whole family of man for the subject; you can mix up the miserable persecution of a single race! And this is practical, not doctrinal Christianity. It is not found in your Christian books, which were all written by Jews; it must have been made by some of those Churches to which you have referred me. Persecute us! Why, if you believe what you profess, you should kneel to us! You raise statues to the hero who saves a country. We have saved the human race, and you persecute us for doing it.’

‘I am no persecutor,’ said Tancred, with emotion; ‘and, had I been so, my visit to Bethany would have cleansed my heart of such dark thoughts.’

‘We have some conclusions in common,’ said his companion, rising. ‘We agree that half Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half a Jew. Now let me ask one more question. Which is the superior race, the worshipped or the worshippers?’

Tancred looked up to reply, but the lady had disappeared.

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