Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 33.

A Pilgrim to Mount Sinai

IT WAS not so much a conviction as a suspicion that Tancred had conveyed to the young Emir, when the pilgrim had confessed that the depressing thought sometimes came over him, that he was deficient in that qualification of race which was necessary for the high communion to which he aspired. Four-and-twenty hours before he was not thus dejected. Almost within sight of Sinai, he was still full of faith. But his vexatious captivity, and the enfeebling consequences of this wound, dulled his spirit. Alone, among strangers and foes, in pain and in peril, and without that energy which finds excitement in difficulty, and can mock at danger, which requires no counsellor but our own quick brain, and no champion but our own right arm, the high spirit of Tancred for the first time flagged. As the twilight descended over the rocky city, its sculptured tombs and excavated temples, and its strewn remains of palaces and theatres, his heart recurred with tenderness to the halls and towers of Montacute and Bellamont, and the beautiful affections beneath those stately roofs, that, urged on, as he had once thought, by a divine influence, now, as he was half tempted to credit, by a fantastic impulse, he had dared to desert. Brooding in dejection, his eyes were suffused with tears.

It was one of those moments of amiable weakness which make us all akin, when sublime ambition, the mystical predispositions of genius, the solemn sense of duty, all the heaped-up lore of ages, and the dogmas of a high philosophy alike desert us, or sink into nothingness. The voice of his mother sounded in his ear, and he was haunted by his father’s anxious glance. Why was he there? Why was he, the child of a northern isle, in the heart of the Stony Arabia, far from the scene of his birth and of his duties? A disheartening, an awful question, which, if it could not be satisfactorily answered by Tancred of Montacute, it seemed to him that his future, wherever or however passed, must be one of intolerable bale.

Was he, then, a stranger there? uncalled, unexpected, intrusive, unwelcome? Was it a morbid curiosity, or the proverbial restlessness of a satiated aristocrat, that had drawn him to these wilds? What wilds? Had he no connection with them? Had he not from his infancy repeated, in the congregation of his people, the laws which, from the awful summit of these surrounding mountains, the Father of all had Himself delivered for the government of mankind? These Arabian laws regulated his life. And the wanderings of an Arabian tribe in this ‘great and terrible wilderness,’ under the immediate direction of the Creator, sanctified by His miracles, governed by His counsels, illumined by His presence, had been the first and guiding history that had been entrusted to his young intelligence, from which it had drawn its first pregnant examples of human conduct and divine interposition, and formed its first dim conceptions of the relations between man and God. Why, then, he had a right to be here! He had a connection with these regions; they had a hold upon him. He was not here like an Indian Brahmin, who visits Europe from a principle of curiosity, however rational or however refined. The land which the Hindoo visits is not his land, nor his father’s land; the laws which regulate it are not his laws, and the faith which fills its temples is not the revelation that floats upon his sacred Ganges. But for this English youth, words had been uttered and things done, more than thirty centuries ago, in this stony wilderness, which influenced his opinions and regulated his conduct every day of his life, in that distant and seagirt home, which, at the time of their occurrence, was not as advanced in civilisation as the Polynesian groups or the islands of New Zealand. The life and property of England are protected by the laws of Sinai. The hard-working people of England are secured in every seven days a day of rest by the laws of Sinai. And yet they persecute the Jews, and hold up to odium the race to whom they are indebted for the sublime legislation which alleviates the inevitable lot of the labouring multitude!

And when that labouring multitude cease for a while from a toil which equals almost Egyptian bondage, and demands that exponent of the mysteries of the heart, that soother of the troubled spirit, which poetry can alone afford, to whose harp do the people of England fly for sympathy and solace? Who is the most popular poet in this country? Is he to be found among the Mr. Wordsworths and the Lord Byrons, amid sauntering reveries or monologues of sublime satiety? Shall we seek him among the wits of Queen Anne? Even to the myriad-minded Shakespeare can we award the palm? No; the most popular poet in England is the sweet singer of Israel. Since the days of the heritage, when every man dwelt safely under his vine and under his fig tree, there never was a race who sang so often the odes of David as the people of Great Britain.

Vast as the obligations of the whole human family are to the Hebrew race, there is no portion of the modern population so much indebted to them as the British people. It was ‘the sword of the Lord and of Gideon’ that won the boasted liberties of England; chanting the same canticles that cheered the heart of Judah amid their glens, the Scotch, upon their hillsides, achieved their religious freedom.

Then why do these Saxon and Celtic societies persecute an Arabian race, from whom they have adopted laws of sublime benevolence, and in the pages of whose literature they have found perpetual delight, instruction, and consolation? That is a great question, which, in an enlightened age, may be fairly asked, but to which even the self-complacent nineteenth century would find some difficulty in contributing a reply. Does it stand thus? Independently of their admirable laws which have elevated our condition, and of their exquisite poetry which has charmed it; independently of their heroic history which has animated us to the pursuit of public liberty, we are indebted to the Hebrew people for our knowledge of the true God and for the redemption from our sins.

‘Then I have a right to be here,’ said Tancred of Montacute, as his eyes were fixed in abstraction on the stars of Arabia; ‘I am not a travelling dilettante, mourning over a ruin, or in ecstasies at a deciphered inscription. I come to the land whose laws I obey, whose religion I profess, and I seek, upon its sacred soil, those sanctions which for ages were abundantly accorded. The angels who visited the Patriarchs, and announced the advent of the Judges, who guided the pens of Prophets and bore tidings to the Apostles, spoke also to the Shepherds in the field. I look upon the host of heaven; do they no longer stand before the Lord? Where are the Cherubim, where the Seraphs? Where is Michael the Destroyer? Gabriel of a thousand missions?’

At this moment, the sound of horsemen recalled Tancred from his reverie, and, looking up, he observed a group of Arabs approaching him, three of whom were mounted. Soon he recognised the great Sheikh Amalek, and Hassan, the late commander of his escort. The young Syrian Emir was their companion. This was a visit of hospitable ceremony from the great Sheikh to his distinguished prisoner. Amalek, pressing his hand to his heart, gave Tancred the salute of peace, and then, followed by Hassan, who had lost nothing of his calm self-respect, but who conducted himself as if he were still free, the great Sheikh seated himself on the carpet that was spread before the tent, and took the pipe, which was immediately offered him by Freeman and Trueman, following the instructions of an attendant of the Emir Fakredeen.

After the usual compliments and some customary observations about horses and pistols, Fakredeen, who had seated himself close to Tancred, with a kind of shrinking cajolery, as if he were seeking the protection of some superior being, addressing Amalek in a tone of easy assurance, which remarkably contrasted with the sentimental deference he displayed towards his prisoner, said:

‘Sheikh of Sheikhs, there is but one God: now is it Allah, or Jehovah?’

‘The palm tree is sometimes called a date tree,’ replied Amalek, ‘but there is only one tree.’

‘Good,’ said Fakredeen, ‘but you do not pray to Allah?’

‘I pray as my fathers prayed,’ said Amalek.

‘And you pray to Jehovah?’

‘It is said.’

‘Sheikh Hassan,’ said the Emir, ‘there is but one God, and his name is Jehovah. Why do you not pray to Jehovah?’

‘Truly there is but one God,’ said Sheikh Hassan, ‘and Mahomet is his Prophet. He told my fathers to pray to Allah, and to Allah I pray.’

‘Is Mahomet the prophet of God, Sheikh of Sheikhs?’

‘It may be,’ replied Amalek, with a nod of assent.

‘Then why do you not pray as Sheikh Hassan?’

‘Because Moses, without doubt the prophet of God — for all believe in him, Sheikh Hassan, and Emir Fakredeen, and you too, Prince, brother of queens — married into our family and taught us to pray to Jehovah. There may be other prophets, but the children of Jethro would indeed ride on asses were they not content with Moses.’

‘And you have his five books?’ inquired Tancred.

‘We had them from the beginning, and we shall keep them to the end.’

‘And you learnt in them that Moses married the daughter of Jethro?’

‘Did I learn in them that I have wells and camels? We want no books to tell us who married our daughters.’

‘And yet it is not yesterday that Moses fled from Egypt into Midian?’

‘It is not yesterday for those who live in cities, where they say at one gate that it is morning, and at another it is night. Where men tell lies, the deed of the dawn is the secret of sunset. But in the desert nothing changes; neither the acts of a man’s life, nor the words of a man’s lips. We drink at the same well where Moses helped Zipporah, we tend the same flocks, we live under the same tents; our words have changed as little as our waters, our habits, or our dwellings. What my father learnt from those before him, he delivered to me, and I have told it to my son. What is time and what is truth, that I should forget that a prophet of Jehovah married into my house?’

‘Where little is done, little is said,’ observed Sheikh Hassan, ‘and silence is the mother of truth.

Since the Hegira, nothing has happened in Arabia, and before that was Moses, and before him the giants.’

‘Let truth always be spoken,’ said Amalek; ‘your words are a flowing stream, and the children of Rechab and the tribes of the Senites never joined him of Mecca, for they had the five books, and they said, “Is not that enough?” They withdrew to the Syrian wilderness, and they multiplied. But the sons of Koreidha, who also had the five books, but who were not children of Rechab, but who came into the desert near Medina after Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed El Khuds, they first joined him of Mecca, and then they made war on him, and he broke their bows and led them into captivity; and they are to be found in the cities of Yemen to this day; the children of Israel who live in the cities of Yemen are the tribe of Koreidha.’

‘Unhappy sons of Koreidha, who made war upon the Prophet, and who live in cities!’ said Sheikh Hassan, taking a fresh pipe.

‘And perhaps,’ said the young Emir, ‘if you had not been children of Jethro, you might have acknowledged him of Mecca, Sheikh of Sheikhs.’

‘There is but one God,’ said Amalek; ‘but there may be many prophets. It becomes not a son of jethro to seek other than Moses. But I will not say that the Koran comes not from God, since it was written by one who was of the tribe of Koreish, and the tribe of Koreish are the lineal descendants of Ibrahim.’

‘And you believe that the Word of God could come only to the seed of Abraham?’ asked Tancred, eagerly.

‘I and my fathers have watered our flocks in the wilderness since time was,’ replied Amalek; ‘we have seen the Pharaohs, and Nebuchadnezzar, and Iskander, and the Romans, and the Sultan of the French: they conquered everything except us; and where are they? They are sand. Let men doubt of unicorns: but of one thing there can be no doubt, that God never spoke except to an Arab.’

Tancred covered his face with his hands. Then, after a few moments’ pause, looking up, he said, ‘Sheikh of Sheikhs, I am your prisoner; and was, when you captured me, a pilgrim to Mount Sinai, a spot which, in your belief, is not less sacred than in mine. We are, as I have learned, only two days’ journey from that holy place. Grant me this boon, that I may at once proceed thither, guarded as you will. I pledge you the word of a Christian noble, that I will not attempt to escape. Long before you have received a reply from Jerusalem, I shall have returned; and whatever may be the result of the visit of Baroni, I shall, at least, have fulfilled my pilgrimage.’

‘Prince, brother of queens,’ replied Amalek, with that politeness which is the characteristic of the Arabian chieftains; ‘under my tents you have only to command; go where you like, return when you please. My children shall attend you as your guardians, not as your guards.’ And the great Sheikh rose and retired.

Tancred reentered his tent, and, reclining, fell into a reverie of distracting thoughts. The history of his life and mind seemed with a whirling power to pass before him; his birth, in clime unknown to the Patriarchs; his education, unconsciously to himself, in an Arabian literature; his imbibing, from his tender infancy, oriental ideas and oriental creeds; the contrast that the occidental society in which he had been reared presented to them; his dissatisfaction with that social system; his conviction of the growing melancholy of enlightened Europe, veiled, as it may be, with sometimes a conceited bustle, sometimes a desperate shipwreck gaiety, sometimes with all the exciting empiricism of science; his perplexity that, between the Asian revelation and the European practice there should be so little conformity, and why the relations between them should be so limited and imperfect; above all, his passionate desire to penetrate the mystery of the elder world, and share its celestial privileges and divine prerogative. Tancred sighed.

He looked round; some one had gently drawn his hand. It was the young Emir kneeling, his beautiful blue eyes bedewed with tears.

‘You are unhappy, said Fakredeen, in a tone of plaintiveness.

‘It is the doom of man,’ replied Tancred; ‘and in my position sadness should not seem strange.’

‘The curse of ten thousand mothers on those who made you a prisoner; the curse of twenty thousand mothers on him who inflicted on you a wound!’

”Tis the fortune of life,’ said Tancred, more cheerfully; ‘and in truth I was perhaps thinking of other things.’

‘Do you know why I trouble you when your heart is dark?’ said the young Emir. ‘See now, if you will it, you are free. The great Sheikh has consented that you should go to Sinai. I have two dromedaries here, fleeter than the Kamsin. At the well of Mokatteb, where we encamp for the night, I will serve raki to the Bedouins; I have some with me, strong enough to melt the snow of Lebanon; if it will not do, they shall smoke some timbak, that will make them sleep like pashas. I know this desert as a man knows his father’s house; we shall be at Hebron before they untie their eyelids. Tell me, is it good?’

‘Were I alone,’ said Tancred, ‘without a single guard, I must return.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I have pledged the word of a Christian noble.’

‘To a man who does not believe in Christ. Faugh! Is it not itself a sin to keep faith with heretics?’

‘But is he one?’ said Tancred. ‘He believes in Moses; he disbelieves in none of the seed of Abraham. He is of that seed himself! Would I were such a heretic as Sheikh Amalek!’

‘If you will only pay me a visit in the Lebanon, I would introduce you to our patriarch, and he would talk as much theology with you as you like. For my own part it is not a kind of knowledge that I have much cultivated; you know I am peculiarly situated, we have so many religions on the mountain; but time presses; tell me, my prince, shall Hebron be our point?’

‘If Amalek believed in Baal, I must return,’ said Tancred; ‘even if it were to certain death. Besides, I could not desert my men; and Baroni, what would become of him?’

‘We could easily make some plan that would extricate them. Dismiss them from your mind, and trust yourself to me. I know nothing that would delight me more than to baulk these robbers of their prey.’

‘I should not talk of such things,’ said Tancred; ‘I must remain here, or I must return.’

‘What can you want to do on Mount Sinai?’ murmured the prince rather pettishly. ‘Now if it were Mount Lebanon, and you had a wish to employ yourself, there is an immense field! We might improve the condition of the people; we might establish manufactures, stimulate agriculture extend commerce get an appalto of the silk, buy it all up at sixty piastres per oke, and sell it at Marseilles at two hundred and at the same time advance the interests of true religion as much as you please.’

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