Tancred : Or, The New Crusade, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 38.

Tancred’s Recovery

TANCRED rapidly recovered. On the second day after his recognition of Eva, he had held that conversation with Fakredeen which had determined the young Emir not to lose a moment in making the effort to induce Amalek to forego his ransom, the result of which he had communicated to Eva on their subsequent interview. On the third day, Tancred rose from his couch, and would even have quitted the tent, had not Baroni dissuaded him. He was the more induced to do so, for on this day he missed his amusing companion, the Emir. It appeared from the account of Baroni, that his highness had departed at dawn, on his dromedary, and without an attendant. According to Baroni, nothing was yet settled either as to the ransom or the release of Tancred. It seemed that the great Sheikh had been impatient to return to his chief encampment, and nothing but the illness of Tancred would probably have induced him to remain in the Stony Arabia as long as he had done. The Lady Eva had not, since her arrival at the ruined city, encouraged Baroni in any communication on the subject which heretofore during their journey had entirely occupied her consideration, from which he inferred that she had nothing very satisfactory to relate; yet he was not without hope, as he felt assured that Eva would not have remained a day were she convinced that there was no chance of effecting her original purpose. The comparative contentment of the great Sheikh at this moment, her silence, and the sudden departure of Fakredeen, induced Baroni to believe that there was yet something on the cards, and, being of a sanguine disposition, he sincerely encouraged his master, who, however, did not appear to be very desponding.

‘The Emir told me yesterday that he was certain to arrange everything,’ said Tancred, ‘without in any way compromising us. We cannot expect such an adventure to end like a day of hunting. Some camels must be given, and, perhaps, something else. I am sure the Emir will manage it all, especially with the aid and counsel of that beauteous Lady of Bethany, in whose wisdom and goodness I have implicit faith.’

‘I have more faith in her than in the Emir,’ said Baroni. ‘I never know what these Shehaabs are after. Now, he has not gone to El Khuds this morning; of that I am sure.’

‘I am under the greatest obligations to the Emir Fakredeen,’ said Tancred, ‘and independently of such circumstances, I very much like him.’

‘I know nothing against the noble Emir,’ said Baroni, ‘and I am sure he has been extremely polite and attentive to your lordship; but still those Shehaabs, they are such a set, always after something!’

‘He is ardent and ambitious,’ said Tancred, ‘and he is young. Are these faults? Besides, he has not had the advantage of our stricter training. He has been without guides; and is somewhat undisciplined, and self-formed. But he has a great and interesting position, and is brilliant and energetic. Providence may have appointed him to fulfil great ends.’

‘A Shehaab will look after the main chance,’ said Baroni.

‘But his main chance may be the salvation of his country,’ said Tancred.

‘Nothing can save his country,’ said Baroni. ‘The Syrians were ever slaves.’

‘I do not call them slaves now,’ said Tancred; ‘why, they are armed and are warlike! All that they want is a cause.’

‘And that they never will have,’ said Baroni.

‘Why?’

‘The East is used up.’

‘It is not more used up than when Mahomet arose,’ said Tancred. ‘Weak and withering as may be the government of the Turks, it is not more feeble and enervated than that of the Greek empire and the Chosroes.’

‘I don’t know anything about them,’ replied Baroni; ‘but I know there is nothing to be done with the people here. I have seen something of them,’ said Baroni. ‘M. de Sidonia tried to do something in ‘39, and, if there had been a spark of spirit or of sense in Syria, that was the time, but ——’ and here Baroni shrugged his shoulders.

‘But what was your principle of action in ‘39?’ inquired Tancred, evidently interested.

‘The only principle of action in this world,’ said Baroni; ‘we had plenty of money; we might have had three millions.’

‘And if you had had six, or sixteen, your efforts would have been equally fruitless. I do not believe in national regeneration in the shape of a foreign loan. Look at Greece! And yet a man might climb Mount Carmel, and utter three words which would bring the Arabs again to Grenada, and perhaps further.’

‘They have no artillery,’ said Baroni.

‘And the Turks have artillery and cannot use it,’ said Lord Montacute. ‘Why, the most favoured part of the globe at this moment is entirely defenceless; there is not a soldier worth firing at in Asia except the Sepoys. The Persian, Assyrian, and Babylonian monarchies might be gained in a morning with faith and the flourish of a sabre.’

‘You would have the Great Powers interfering,’ said Baroni.

‘What should I care for the Great Powers, if the Lord of Hosts were on my side!’

‘Why, to be sure they could not do much at Bagdad or Ispahan.’

‘Work out a great religious truth on the Persian and Mesopotamian plains, the most exuberant soils in the world with the scantiest population — it would revivify Asia. It must spread. The peninsula of Arabia, when in action, must always command the peninsula of the Lesser Asia. Asia revivified would act upon Europe. The European comfort, which they call civilisation, is, after all, confined to a very small space: the island of Great Britain, France, and the course of a single river, the Rhine. The greater part of Europe is as dead as Asia, without the consolation of climate and the influence of immortal traditions.’

‘I just found time, my lord, when I was at Jerusalem, to call in at the Consulate, and see the Colonel,’ said Baroni; ‘I thought it as well to explain the affair a little to him. I found that even the rumour of our mischance had not reached him; so I said enough to prevent any alarm when it arrived; he will believe that we furnished him with the priority of intelligence, and he expects your daily return.’

‘You did well to call; we know not what may happen. I doubt, however, whether I shall return to Jerusalem. If affairs are pleasantly arranged here, I think of visiting the Emir, at his castle of Canobia. A change of air must be the best thing for me, and Lebanon, by his account, is delicious at this season. Indeed, I want air, and I must go out now, Baroni; I cannot stay in this close tent any longer; the sun has set, and there is no longer any fear of those fatal heats of which you are in such dread for me.’

It was the first night of the new moon, and the white beams of the young crescent were just beginning to steal over the lately flushed and empurpled scene. The air was still glowing, and the evening breeze, which sometimes wandered through the ravines from the gulf of Akabah, had not yet arrived. Tancred, shrouded in his Bedouin cloak, and accompanied by Baroni, visited the circle of black tents, which they found almost empty, the whole band, with the exception of the scouts, who are always on duty in an Arab encampment, being assembled in the ruins of the amphitheatre, in whose arena, opposite to the pavilion of the great Sheikh, a celebrated poet was reciting the visit of Antar to the temple of the fire-worshippers, and the adventures of that greatest of Arabian heroes among the effeminate and astonished courtiers of the generous and magnificent Nushirvan.

The audience was not a scanty one, for this chosen detachment of the children of Rechab had been two hundred strong, and the great majority of them were now assembled; some seated as the ancient Idumæans, on the still entire seats of the amphitheatre; most squatted in groups upon the ground, though at a respectful distance from the poet; others standing amid the crumbling pile and leaning against the tall dark fragments just beginning to be silvered by the moonbeam; but in all their countenances, their quivering features, their flashing eyes, the mouth open with absorbing suspense, were expressed a wild and vivid excitement, the heat of sympathy, and a ravishing delight.

When Antar, in the tournament, overthrew the famous Greek knight, who had travelled from Constantinople to beard the court of Persia; when he caught in his hand the assassin spear of the Persian satrap, envious of his Arabian chivalry, and returned it to his adversary’s heart; when he shouted from his saddle that he was the lover of Ibla and the horseman of the age, the audience exclaimed with rapturous earnestness, ‘It is true, it is true!’ although they were guaranteeing the assertions of a hero who lived, and loved, and fought more than fourteen hundred years before. Antar is the Iliad of the desert; the hero is the passion of the Bedouins. They will listen for ever to his forays, when he raised the triumphant cry of his tribe, ‘Oh! by Abs; oh! by Adnan,’ to the narratives of the camels he captured, the men he slew, and the maidens to whose charms he was indifferent, for he was ‘ever the lover of Ibla.’ What makes this great Arabian invention still more interesting is, that it was composed at a period antecedent to the Prophet; it describes the desert before the Koran; and it teaches us how little the dwellers in it were changed by the introduction and adoption of Islamism.

As Tancred and his companion reached the amphitheatre, a ringing laugh resounded.

‘Antar is dining with the King of Persia after his victory,’ said Baroni; ‘this is a favourite scene with the Arabs. Antar asks the courtiers the name of every dish, and whether the king dines so every day. He bares his arms, and chucks the food into his mouth without ever moving his jaws. They have heard this all their lives, but always laugh at it with the same heartiness. Why, Shedad, son of Amroo,’ continued Baroni to an Arab near him, ‘you have listened to this ever since you first tasted liban, and it still pleases you!’

‘I am never wearied with listening to fine language,’ said the Bedouin; ‘perfumes are always sweet, though you may have smelt them a thousand times.’

Except when there was some expression of feeling elicited by the performance, a shout or a laugh, the silence was absolute. Not a whisper could be heard; and it was in a muffled tone that Baroni intimated to Tancred that the great Sheikh was present, and that, as this was his first appearance since his illness, he must pay his respects to Amalek. So saying, and preceding Tancred, in order that he might announce his arrival, Baroni approached the pavilion. The great Sheikh welcomed Tancred with a benignant smile, motioned to him to sit upon his carpet; rejoiced that he was recovered; hoped that he should live a thousand years; gave him his pipe, and then, turning again to the poet, was instantly lost in the interest of his narrative. Baroni, standing as near Tancred as the carpet would permit him, occasionally leant over and gave his lord an intimation of what was occurring.

After a little while, the poet ceased. Then there was a general hum and great praise, and many men said to each other, ‘All this is true, for my father told it to me before.’ The great Sheikh, who was highly pleased, ordered his slaves to give the poet a cup of coffee, and, taking from his own vest an immense purse, more than a foot in length, he extracted from it, after a vast deal of research, one of the smallest of conceivable coins, which the poet pressed to his lips, and, notwithstanding the exiguity of the donation, declared that God was great.

‘O Sheikh of Sheikhs,’ said the poet, ‘what I have recited, though it is by the gift of God, is in fact written, and has been ever since the days of the giants; but I have also dipped my pen into my own brain, and now I would recite a poem which I hope some day may be suspended in the temple of Mecca. It is in honour of one who, were she to rise to our sight, would be as the full moon when it rises over the desert. Yes, I sing of Eva, the daughter of Amalek (the Bedouins always omitted Besso in her genealogy), Eva, the daughter of a thousand chiefs. May she never quit the tents of her race! May she always ride upon Nejid steeds and dromedaries, with harness of silver! May she live among us for ever! May she show herself to the people like a free Arabian maiden!’

‘They are the thoughts of truth,’ said the delighted Bedouins to one another; ‘every word is a pearl.’

And the great Sheikh sent a slave to express his Wish that Eva and her maidens should appear. So she came to listen to the ode which the poet had composed in her honour. He had seen palm trees, but they were not as tall and graceful as Eva; he had beheld the eyes of doves and antelopes, but they were not as bright and soft as hers; he had tasted the fresh springs in the wilderness, but they were not more welcome than she; and the soft splendour of the desert moon was not equal to her brow. She was the daughter of Amalek, the daughter of a thousand chiefs. Might she live for ever in their tents; ever ride on Nejid steeds and on dromedaries with silver harness; ever show herself to the people like a free Arabian maiden!

The poet, after many variations on this theme, ceased amid great plaudits.

‘He is a true poet,’ said an Arab, who was, like most of his brethren, a critic; ‘he is in truth a second Antar.’

‘If he had recited these verses before the King of Persia, he would have given him a thousand camels,’ replied his neighbour, gravely.

‘They ought to be suspended in the temple of Mecca,’ said a third.

‘What I most admire is his image of the full moon; that cannot betoo often introduced,’ said a fourth.

‘Truly the moon should ever shine,’ said a fifth. ‘Also in all truly fine verses there should be palm trees and fresh springs.’

Tancred, to whom Baroni had conveyed the meaning of the verses, was also pleased; having observed that, on a previous occasion, the great Sheikh had rewarded the bard, Tancred ventured to take a chain, which he fortunately chanced to wear, from, his neck, and sent it to the poet of Eva. This made a great sensation, and highly delighted the Arabs.

‘Truly this is the brother of queens,’ they whispered to each other.

Now the audience was breaking up and dispersing, and Tancred, rising, begged permission of his host to approach Eva, who was seated at the entrance of the pavilion, somewhat withdrawn from them.

‘If I were a poet,’ said Tancred, bending before her, ‘I would attempt to express my gratitude to the Lady of Bethany. I hope,’ he added, after a moment’s pause, ‘that Baroni laid my message at your feet. When I begged your permission to thank you in person tomorrow, I had not imagined that I should have been so wilful as to quit the tent tonight.’

‘It will not harm you,’ said Eva; ‘our Arabian nights bear balm.’

‘I feel it,’ said Tancred; ‘this evening will complete the cure you so benignantly commenced.’

‘Mine were slender knowledge and simple means,’ said Eva; ‘but I rejoice that they were of use, more especially as I learn that we are all interested in your pilgrimage.

‘The Emir Fakredeen has spoken to you?’ said Tancred, inquiringly, and with a countenance a little agitated.

‘He has spoken to me of some things for which our previous conversation had not entirely unprepared me.’

‘Ah!’ said Tancred, musingly, ‘our previous conversation. It is not very long ago since I slumbered by the side of your fountain, and yet it seems to me an age, an age of thought and events.’

‘Yet even then your heart was turned towards our unhappy Asia,’ said the Lady of Bethany.

‘Unhappy Asia! Do you call it unhappy Asia! This land of divine deeds and divine thoughts! Its slumber is more vital than the waking life of the rest of the globe, as the dream of genius is more precious than the vigils of ordinary men. Unhappy Asia, do you call it? It is the unhappiness of Europe over which I mourn.’

‘Europe, that has conquered Hindustan, protects Persia and Asia Minor, affects to have saved Syria,’ said Eva, with some bitterness. ‘Oh! what can we do against Europe?’

‘Save it,’ said Tancred.

‘We cannot save ourselves; what means have we to save others?’

‘The same you have ever exercised, Divine Truth. Send forth a great thought, as you have done before, from Mount Sinai, from the villages of Galilee, from the deserts of Arabia, and you may again remodel all their institutions, change their principles of action, and breathe a new spirit into the whole scope of their existence.’

‘I have sometimes dreamed such dreams,’ murmured Eva, looking down. ‘No, no,’ she exclaimed, raising her head, after a moment’s pause, ‘it is impossible. Europe is too proud, with its new command over nature, to listen even to prophets. Levelling mountains, riding without horses, sailing without winds, how can these men believe that there is any power, human or divine, superior to themselves?’

‘As for their command over nature,‘said Tancred, ‘let us see how it will operate in a second deluge. Command over nature! Why, the humblest root that serves for the food of man has mysteriously withered throughout Europe, and they are already pale at the possible consequences. This slight eccentricity of that nature which they boast they can command has already shaken empires, and may decide the fate of nations. No, gentle lady, Europe is not happy. Amid its false excitement, its bustling invention, and its endless toil, a profound melancholy broods over its spirit and gnaws at its heart. In vain they baptise their tumult by the name of progress; the whisper of a demon is ever asking them, “Progress, from whence and to what?” Excepting those who still cling to your Arabian creeds, Europe, that quarter of the globe to which God has never spoken, Europe is without consolation.’

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