Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 31.

Parleyings

IN AN almost circular valley, surrounded by mountains, Amalek, great Sheikh of the Rechabite Bedouins, after having crossed the peninsula of Petrasa from the great Syrian desert, pitched his camp amid the magnificent ruins of an ancient Idumæan city. The pavilion of the chief, facing the sunset, was raised in the arena of an amphitheatre cut out of the solid rock and almost the whole of the seats of which were entire. The sides of the mountains were covered with excavated tombs and temples, and, perhaps, dwelling-places; at any rate, many of them were now occupied by human beings. Fragments of columns were lying about, and masses of unknown walls. From a defile in the mountains issued a stream, which wound about in the plain, its waters almost hid, but its course beautifully indicated by the undulating shrubbery of oleanders, fig-trees, and willows. On one side of these, between the water and the amphitheatre, was a crescent of black tents, groups of horses, and crouching camels. Over the whole scene the sunset threw a violet hue, while the moon, broad and white, floated over the opposite hills.

The carpet of the great Sheikh was placed before his pavilion, and, seated on it alone, and smoking a chibouque of date wood, the patriarch ruminated. He had no appearance of age, except from a snowy beard, which was very long: a wiry man, with an unwrinkled face; dark, regular, and noble features, beautiful teeth. Over his head, a crimson kefia, ribbed and fringed with gold; his robe was of the same colour, and his boots were of red leather; the chief of one of the great tribes, and said, when they were united, to be able to bring ten thousand horsemen into the field.

One at full gallop, with a long spear, at this moment darted from the ravine, and, without stopping to answer several who addressed him, hurried across the plain, and did not halt until he reached the Sheikh.

‘Salaam, Sheikh of Sheikhs, it is done; the brother of the Queen of the English is your slave.’

‘Good!’ said Sheikh Amalek, very gravely, and taking his pipe from his mouth. ‘May your mother eat the hump of a young camel! When will they be here?’

‘They will be the first shadows of the moon.’ ‘Good! is the brother of the Queen with Sheikh Salem?’

‘There is only one God: Sheikh Salem will never drink leban again, unless he drink it in Paradise.’

‘Certainly, there is only one God. What! has he fallen asleep into the well of Nummula?’

‘No; but we have seen many evil eyes. Four hares crossed our path this morning. Our salaam to the English prince was not a salaam of peace. The brother of the Queen of the English is no less than an Antar. He will fight, yea or nay; and he has shot Sheikh Salem through the head.’

‘There is but one God, and His will be done. I have lost the apple of mine eye. The Prince of the English is alive?’

‘He is alive.’

‘Good! camels shall be given to the widow of Sheikh Salem, and she shall be married to a new husband. Are there other deeds of Gin?’

‘One grape will not make a bunch, even though it be a great one.’

‘Let truth always be spoken. Let your words flow as the rock of Moses.’

‘There is only one God: if you call to Ibrahim-ben-Hassan, to Molgrabi Teuba, and Teuba-ben-Amin, they will not be roused from their sleep: there are also wounds.’

‘Tell all the people there is only one God: it is the Sheikh of the Jeilaheens that has done these deeds of Gin?’

‘Let truth always be spoken; my words shall flow as the rock of Moses. The Sheikh of the Jeilaheens counselled the young man not to fight, but the young man is a very Zatanai. Certainly there are many devils, but there is no devil like a Frank in a round hat.’

The evening advanced; the white moon, that had only gleamed, now glittered; the necks of the camels looked tall and silvery in its beam. The night-fires began to blaze, the lamps to twinkle in the crescent of dark tents. There was a shout, a general stir, the heads of spears were seen glistening in the ravine. They came; a winding line of warriors. Some, as they emerged into the plain, galloped forward and threw their spears into the air; but the main body preserved an appearance of discipline, and proceeded at a slow pace to the pavilion of the Sheikh. A body of horsemen came first; then warriors on dromedaries; Sheikh Hassan next, grave and erect as if nothing had happened, though he was wounded, and followed by his men, disarmed, though their chief retained his spear. Baroni followed. He was unhurt, and rode between two Bedouins, with whom he continually conversed. After them, the bodies of Sheikh Salem and his comrades, covered with cloaks and stowed on camels. And then came the great prize, Tancred, mounted on a dromedary, his right arm bound up in a sling which Baroni had hastily made, and surrounded and followed by a large troop of horsemen, who treated him with the highest consideration, not only because he was a great prince, whose ransom could bring many camels to their tribe, but because he had shown those feats of valour which the wild desert honours.

Notwithstanding his wound, which, though slight, began to be painful, and the extreme vexation of the whole affair, Tancred could not be insensible to the strange beauty of the scene which welcomed him. He had read of these deserted cities, carved out of the rocks of the wilderness, and once the capitals of flourishing and abounding kingdoms.

They stopped before the pavilion of the great Sheikh; the arena of the amphitheatre became filled with camels, horses, groups of warriors; many mounted on the seats, that they might overlook the scene, their arms and shawled heads glistening in the silver blaze of the moon or the ruddy flames of the watch-fires. They assisted Tancred to descend, they ushered him with courtesy to their chief, who made room for Tancred on his own carpet, and motioned that he should be seated by his side. A small carpet was placed for Sheikh Hassan, and another for Baroni.

‘Salaam, brother of many queens, all that you see is yours; Salaam Sheikh Hassan, we are brothers. Salaam,’ added Amalek, looking at Baroni, ‘they tell me that you can speak our language, which is beautiful as the moon and many palm trees; tell the prince, brother of many queens, that he mistook the message that I sent him this morning, which was an invitation to a feast, not to a war. Tell him we are brothers.’

‘Tell the Sheikh,’ said Tancred, ‘that I have no appetite for feasting, and desire to be informed why he has made me a prisoner.’

‘Tell the prince, brother of many queens, that he is not a prisoner, but a guest.’

‘Ask the Sheikh, then, whether we can depart at once.’

‘Tell the prince, brother of many queens, that it would be rude in me to let him depart to-night.’

‘Ask the Sheikh whether I may depart in the morning.’

‘Tell the prince that, when the morning comes, he will find I am his brother.’ So saying, the great Sheikh took his pipe from his mouth and gave it to Tancred: the greatest of distinctions. In a few moments, pipes were also brought to Sheikh Hassan and Baroni.

‘No harm can come to you, my lord, after smoking that pipe,’ said Baroni. ‘We must make the best of affairs. I have been in worse straits with M. de Sidonia. What think you of Malay pirates? These are all gentlemen.’

While Baroni was speaking, a young man slowly and with dignity passed through the bystanders, advanced, and, looking very earnestly at Tancred, seated himself on the same carpet as the grand Sheikh. This action alone would have betokened the quality of the newcomer, had not his kefia, similar to that of Sheikh Amalek, and his whole bearing, clearly denoted his princely character. He was very young; and Tancred, while he was struck by his earnest gaze, was attracted by his physiognomy, which, indeed, from its refined beauty and cast of impassioned intelligence, was highly interesting.

Preparations all this time had been making for the feast. Half a dozen sheep had been given to the returning band; everywhere resounded the grinding of coffee; men passed, carrying pitchers of leban and panniers of bread cakes hot from their simple oven. The great Sheikh, who had asked many questions after the oriental fashion: which was the most powerful nation, England or France; what was the name of a third European nation of which he had heard, white men with flat noses in green coats; whether the nation of white men with flat noses in green coats could have taken Acre as the English had, the taking of Acre being the test of military prowess; how many horses the Queen of the English had, and how many slaves; whether English pistols are good; whether the English drink wine; whether the English are Christian giaours or Pagan giaours? and so on, now invited Tancred, Sheikh Hassan, and two or three others, to enter his pavilion and partake of the banquet.

‘The Sheikh must excuse me,’ said Tancred to Baroni; ‘I am wearied and wounded. Ask if I can retire and have a tent.’

‘Are you wounded?’ said the young Sheikh, who was sitting on the carpet of Amalek, and speaking, not only in a tone of touching sympathy, but in the language of Franguestan.

‘Not severely,’ said Tancred, less abruptly than he had yet spoken, for the manner and the appearance of the youth touched him, ‘but this is my first fight, and perhaps I make too much of it. However, my arm is painful and stiff, and indeed, you may conceive after all this, I could wish for a little repose.’

‘The great Sheikh has allotted you a compartment of his pavilion,’ said the youth; ‘but it will prove a noisy resting-place, I fear, for a wounded man. I have a tent here, an humbler one, but which is at least tranquil. Let me be your host!’

‘You are most gracious, and I should be much inclined to be your guest, but I am a prisoner,’ he said, haughtily, ‘and cannot presume to follow my own will.’

‘I will arrange all,’ said the youth, and he conversed with Sheikh Amalek for some moments. Then they all rose, the young man advancing to Tancred, and saying in a sweet coaxing voice, ‘You are under my care. I will not be a cruel gaoler; I could not be to you.’ So saying, making their reverence to the great Sheikh, the two young men retired together from the arena. Baroni would have followed them, when the youth stopped him, saying, with decision, ‘The great Sheikh expects your presence; you must on no account be absent. I will tend your chief: you will permit me?’ he inquired in a tone of sympathy, and then, offering to support the arm of Tancred, he murmured, ‘It kills me to think that you are wounded.’

Tancred was attracted to the young stranger: his prepossessing appearance, his soft manners, the contrast which they afforded to all around, and to the scenes and circumstances which Tancred had recently experienced, were winning. Tancred, therefore, gladly accompanied him to his pavilion, which was pitched outside the amphitheatre, and stood apart. Notwithstanding the modest description of his tent by the young Sheikh, it was by no means inconsiderable in size, for it possessed several compartments, and was of a different colour and fashion from those of the rest of the tribe. Several steeds were picketed in Arab fashion near its entrance, and a group of attendants, smoking and conversing with great animation, were sitting in a circle close at hand. They pressed their hands to their hearts as Tancred and his host passed them, but did not rise. Within the pavilion, Tancred found a luxurious medley of cushions and soft carpets, forming a delightful divan; pipes and arms, and, to his great surprise, several numbers of a French newspaper published at Smyrna.

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Tancred, throwing himself on the divan, ‘after all I have gone through today, this is indeed a great and an unexpected relief.’

”Tis your own divan,’ said the young Arab, clapping his hands; ‘and when I have given some orders for your comfort, I shall only be your guest, though not a distant one.’ He spoke some words in Arabic to an attendant who entered, and who returned very shortly with a silver lamp fed with palm oil, which he placed on the ground.

‘I have two poor Englishmen here,’ said Tancred, ‘my servants; they must be in sad straits; unable to speak a word ——’

‘I will give orders that they shall attend you. In the meantime you must refresh yourself, however lightly, before you repose.’ At this moment there entered the tent several attendants with a variety of dishes, which Tancred would have declined, but the young Sheikh, selecting one of them, said, ‘This, at least, I must urge you to taste, for it is a favourite refreshment with us after great fatigue, and has some properties of great virtue.’ So saying, he handed to Tancred a dish of bread, dates, and prepared cream, which Tancred, notwithstanding his previous want of relish, cheerfully admitted to be excellent. After this, as Tancred would partake of no other dish, pipes were brought to the two young men, who, reclining on the divan, smoked and conversed.

‘Of all the strange things that have happened to me today,’ said Tancred, ‘not the least surprising, and certainly the most agreeable, has been making your acquaintance. Your courtesy has much compensated me for the rude treatment of your tribe; but, I confess, such refinement is what, under any circumstances, I should not have expected to find among the tents of the desert, any more than this French journal.’

‘I am not an Arab,’ said the young man, speaking slowly and with an air of some embarrassment.

‘Ah!’ exclaimed Tancred.

‘I am a Christian prince.’

‘Yes!’

‘A prince of the Lebanon, devoted to the English, and one who has suffered much in their cause.’

‘You are not a prisoner here, like myself?’

‘No, I am here, seeking some assistance for those sufferers who should be my subjects, were I not deprived of my sceptre, and they of a prince whose family has reigned over and protected them for more than seven centuries. The powerful tribe of which Sheikh Amalek is the head often pitch their tents in the great Syrian desert, in the neighbourhood of Damascus, and there are affairs in which they can aid my unhappy people.’

‘It is a great position, yours,’ said Tancred, in an animated tone, ‘at the same time a Syrian and a Christian prince!’

‘Yes,’ said the young Emir, eagerly, ‘if the English would only understand their own interests, with my cooperation Syria might be theirs.’

‘The English!’ said Tancred, ‘why should the English take Syria?’

‘France will take it if they do not.’

‘I hope not,’ said Tancred.

‘But something must be done,’ said the Emir. ‘The Porte never could govern it. Do you think anybody in Lebanon really cares for the Pasha of Damascus? If the Egyptians had not disarmed the mountain, the Turks would be driven out of Syria in a week.’

‘A Syrian and a Christian prince!’ said Tancred, musingly. ‘There are elements in that position stronger than the Porte, stronger than England, stronger than united Europe. Syria was a great country when France and England were forests. The tricolour has crossed the Alps and the Rhine, and the flag of England has beaten even the tricolour; but if I were a Syrian prince, I would raise the cross of Christ and ask for the aid of no foreign banner.’

‘If I could only raise a loan,’ said the Emir, ‘I could do without France and England.’

‘A loan!’ exclaimed Tancred; ‘I see the poison of modern liberalism has penetrated even the desert. Believe me, national redemption is not an affair of usury.’

At this moment there was some little disturbance without the tent, which it seems was occasioned by the arrival of Tancred’s servants, Freeman and True-man. These excellent young men persisted in addressing the Arabs in their native English, and, though we cannot for a moment believe that they fancied themselves understood, still, from a mixture of pride and perverseness peculiarly British, they continued their valuable discourse as if every word told, or, if not apprehended, was a striking proof of the sheer stupidity of their new companions. The noise became louder and louder, and at length Freeman and Trueman entered.

‘Well,’ said Tancred, ‘and how have you been getting on?’

‘Well, my lord, I don’t know,’ said Freeman, with a sort of jolly sneer; ‘we have been dining with the savages.’

‘They are not savages, Freeman.’

‘Well, my lord, they have not much more clothes, anyhow; and as for knives and forks, there is not such a thing known.’

‘As for that, there was not such a thing known as a fork in England little more than two hundred years ago, and we were not savages then; for the best part of Montacute Castle was built long before that time.’

‘I wish we were there, my lord!’

‘I dare say you do: however, we must make the best of present circumstances. I wanted to know, in the first place, whether you had food; as for lodging, Mr. Baroni, I dare say, will manage something for you; and if not, you had better quarter yourselves by the side of this tent. With your own cloaks and mine, you will manage very well.’

‘Thank you, my lord. We have brought your lordship’s things with us. I don’t know what I shall do tomorrow about your lordship’s boots. The savages have got hold of the bottle of blacking and have been drinking it like anything.’

‘Never mind my boots,’ said Tancred, ‘we have got other things to think of now.’

‘I told them what it was,’ said Freeman, ‘but they went on just the same.’

‘Obstinate dogs!’ said Tancred.

‘I think they took it for wine, my lord,’ said Trueman. ‘I never see such ignorant creatures.’

‘You find now the advantage of a good education, Trueman.’

‘Yes, my lord, we do, and feel very grateful to your lordship’s honoured mother for the same. When we came down out of the mountains and see those blazing fires, if I didn’t think they were going to burn us alive, unless we changed our religion! I said the catechism as hard as I could the whole way, and felt as much like a blessed martyr as could be.’

‘Well, well,’ said Tancred, ‘I dare say they will spare our lives. I cannot much assist you here; but if there be anything you particularly want, I will try and see what can be done.’

Freeman and Trueman looked at each other, and their speaking faces held common consultation. At length, the former, with some slight hesitation, said, ‘We don’t like to be troublesome, my lord, but if your lordship would ask for some sugar for us; we cannot drink their coffee without sugar.’

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