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Chapter LVII. Message of the Pasha
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Message of the Pasha
THE sudden apparition of Eva at Gindarics, and the scene of painful mystery by which it was followed, had plunged Tancred into the greatest anxiety and affliction. It was in vain that, the moment they had quitted the presence of Astarte, he appealed to Fakredeen for some explanation of what had occurred, and for some counsel as to the course they should immediately pursue to assist one in whose fate they were both so deeply interested. The Emir, for the first time since their acquaintance, seemed entirely to have lost himself. He looked perplexed, almost stunned; his language was incoherent, his gestures those of despair. Tancred, while he at once ascribed all this confused demeanour to the shock which he had himself shared at finding the daughter of Besso a captive, and a captive under circumstances of doubt and difficulty, could not reconcile such distraction, such an absence of all resources and presence of mind, with the exuberant means and the prompt expedients which in general were the characteristics of his companion, under circumstances the most difficult and unforeseen.
When they had reached their apartments, Fakredeen threw himself upon the divan and moaned, and, suddenly starting from the couch, paced the chamber with agitated step, wringing his hands. All that Tan-cred could extract from him was an exclamation of despair, an imprecation on his own head, and an expression of fear and horror at Eva having fallen into the hands of pagans and idolaters.
It was in vain also that Tancred endeavoured to communicate with Keferinis. The minister was invisible, not to be found, and the night closed in, when Tancred, after fruitless counsels with Baroni, and many united but vain efforts to open some communication with Eva, delivered himself not to repose, but to a distracted reverie over the present harassing and critical affairs.
When the dawn broke, he rose and sought Fakredeen, but, to his surprise, he found that his companion had already quitted his apartment. An unusual stillness seemed to pervade Gindarics this day; not a person was visible. Usually at sunrise all were astir, and shortly afterwards Keferinis generally paid a visit to the guests of his sovereign; but this day Keferinis omitted the ceremony, and Tancred, never more anxious for companions and counsellors, found himself entirely alone; for Baroni was about making observations, and endeavouring to find some clue to the position of Eva.
Tancred had resolved, the moment that it was practicable, to solicit an audience of Astarte on the subject of Eva, and to enter into all the representations respecting her which, in his opinion, were alone necessary to secure for her immediately the most considerate treatment, and ultimately a courteous release.
The very circumstance that she was united to the Emir of Canobia by ties so dear and intimate, and was also an individual to whom he himself was indebted for such generous aid and such invaluable services, would, he of course assumed, independently of her own interesting personal qualities, enlist the kind feelings of Astarte in her favour. The difficulty was to obtain this audience of Astarte, for neither Fakredeen nor Keferinis was to be found, and no other means of achieving the result were obvious.
About two hours before noon, Baroni brought word that he had contrived to see Cypros, from whom he gathered that Astarte had repaired to the great temple of the gods. Instantly, Tancred resolved to enter the palace, and if possible to find his way to the mysterious sanctuary. That was a course by no means easy; but the enterprising are often fortunate, and his project proved not to be impossible. He passed through the chambers of the palace, which were entirely deserted, and with which he was familiar, and he reached without difficulty the portal of bronze, which led to the covered way that conducted to the temple, but it was closed. Baffled and almost in despair, a distant chorus reached his ear, then the tramp of feet, and then slowly the portal opened. He imagined that the Queen was returning; but, on the contrary, pages and women and priests swept by without observing him, for he was hidden by one of the opened valves, but Astarte was not there; and, though the venture was rash, Tancred did not hesitate, as the last individual in the procession moved on, to pass the gate. The portal shut instantly with a clang, and Tancred found himself alone and in comparative darkness. His previous experience, however, sustained him. His eye, fresh from the sunlight, at first wandered in obscurity, but by degrees, habituated to the atmosphere, though dim, the way was sufficiently indicated, and he advanced, till the light became each step more powerful, and soon he emerged upon the platform, which faced the mountain temple at the end of the ravine: a still and wondrous scene, more striking now, if possible, when viewed alone, with his heart the prey of many emotions. How full of adventure is life! It is monotonous only to the monotonous. There may be no longer fiery dragons, magic rings, or fairy wands, to interfere in its course and to influence our career; but the relations of men are far more complicated and numerous than of yore; and in the play of the passions, and in the devices of creative spirits, that have thus a proportionately greater sphere for their action, there are spells of social sorcery more potent than all the necromancy of Merlin or Friar Bacon.
Tancred entered the temple, the last refuge of the Olympian mind. It was race that produced these inimitable forms, the idealised reflex of their own peculiar organisation. Their principles of art, practised by a different race, do not produce the same results. Yet we shut our eyes to the great truth into which all truths merge, and we call upon the Pict, or the Sarmatian, to produce the forms of Phidias and Praxiteles.
Not devoid of that awe which is caused by the presence of the solemn and the beautiful, Tancred slowly traced his steps through the cavern sanctuary. No human being was visible. Upon his right was the fane to which Astarte led him on his visit of initiation. He was about to enter it, when, kneeling before the form of the Apollo of Antioch, he beheld the fair Queen of the Ansarey, motionless and speechless, her arms crossed upon her breast, and her eyes fixed upon her divinity, in a dream of ecstatic devotion.
The splendour of the ascending sun fell full upon the statue, suffusing the ethereal form with radiancy, and spreading around it for some space a broad and golden halo. As Tancred, recognising the Queen, withdrew a few paces, his shadow, clearly defined, rested on the glowing wall of the rock temple. Astarte uttered an exclamation, rose quickly from her kneeling position, and, looking round, her eyes met those of Lord Montacute. Instantly she withdrew her gaze, blushing deeply.
'I was about to retire,' murmured Tancred.
'And why should you retire?' said Astarte, in a soft voice, looking up.
'There are moments when solitude is sacred.'
'I am too much alone: often, and of late especially, I feel a painful isolation.'
She moved forward, and they re-entered together the chief temple, and then emerged into the sunlight. They stood beneath the broad Ionic portico, beholding the strange scene around. Then it was that Tancred, observing that Astarte cared not to advance, and deeming the occasion very favourable to his wishes, proceeded to explain to her the cause of his venturing to intrude on her this morning. He spoke with that earnestness, and, if the phrase may be used, that passionate repose, which distinguished him. He enlarged on the character of Besso, his great virtues, his amiable qualities, his benevolence and unbounded generosity; he sought in every way to engage the kind feelings of Astarte in favour of his family, and to interest her in the character of Eva, on which he dilated with all the eloquence of his heart. Truly, he almost did justice to her admirable qualities, her vivid mind, and lofty spirit, and heroic courage; the occasion was too delicate to treat of the personal charms of another woman, but he did not conceal his own deep sense of obligation to Eva for her romantic expedition to the desert in his behalf.
'You can understand then,' concluded Tancred, 'what must have been my astonishment and grief when I found her yesterday a captive. It was some consolation to me to remember in whose power she had fallen, and I hasten to throw myself at your feet to supplicate for her safety and her freedom.'
'Yes, I can understand all this,' said Astarte, in a low tone.
Tancred looked at her. Her voice had struck him with pain; her countenance still more distressed him. Nothing could afford a more complete contrast to the soft and glowing visage that a few moments before he had beheld in the fane of Apollo. She was quite pale, almost livid; her features, of exquisite shape, had become hard and even distorted; all the bad passions of our nature seemed suddenly to have concentred in that face which usually combined perfect beauty of form with an expression the most gentle, and in truth most lovely.
'Yes, I can understand all this,' said Astarte, 'but I shall not exercise any power which I may possess to assist you in violating the laws of your country, and outraging the wishes of your sovereign.'
'Violating the laws of my country!' exclaimed Tancred, with a perplexed look.
'Yes, I know all. Your schemes truly are very heroic and very flattering to our self-love. We are to lend our lances to place on the throne of Syria one who would not be permitted to reside in your own country, much less to rule in it?'
'Of whom, of what, do you speak?'
'I speak of the Jewess whom you would marry,' said Astarte, in a hushed yet distinct voice, and with a fell glance, 'against all laws, divine and human.'
'Of your prisoner?'
'Well you may call her my prisoner; she is secure.'
'Is it possible you can believe that I even am a suitor of the daughter of Besso?' said Tancred, earnestly. 'I wear the Cross, which is graven on my heart, and have a heavenly mission to fulfil, from which no earthly thought shall ever distract me. But even were I more than sensible to her charms and virtues, she is affianced, or the same as affianced; nor have I the least reason to suppose that he who will possess her hand does not command her heart.'
'Not only affianced, but, until this sad adventure, on the very point of being wedded. She was on her way from Damascus to Aleppo, to be united to her cousin, when she was brought hither, where she will, I trust, not long remain your prisoner.'
The countenance of Astarte changed; but, though it lost its painful and vindictive expression, it did not assume one of less distress. After a moment's pause, she murmured, 'Can this be true?'
'Who could have told you otherwise?'
'An enemy of hers, of her family,' continued Astarte, in a low voice, and speaking as if absorbed in thought; 'one who admitted to me his long-hoarded vengeance against her house.'
Then turning abruptly, she looked Tancred full in the face, with a glance of almost fierce scrutiny. His clear brow and unfaltering eye, with an expression of sympathy and even kindness on his countenance, met her searching look.
'No,' she said; 'it is impossible that you can be false.'
'Why should I be false? or what is it that mixes up my name and life with these thoughts and circumstances?'
'Why should you be false? Ah! there it is,' said Astarte, in a sweet and mournful voice. 'What are any of us to you!' And she wept.
'It grieves me to see you in sorrow,' said Tancred, approaching her, and speaking in a tone of kindness.
'I am more than sorrowful: this unhappy lady——' and the voice of Astarte was overpowered by her emotion.
'You will send her back in safety and with honour to her family,' said Tancred, soothingly. 'I would fain believe her father has not fallen. My intendant assures me that there are Turkish soldiers here who saw him borne from the field. A little time, and their griefs will vanish. You will have the satisfaction of having acted with generosity, with that good heart which characterises you; and as for the daughter of Besso, all will be forgotten as she gives one hand to her father and the other to her husband.'
'It is too late,' said Astarte in an almost sepulchral voice.
'What is that?'
'It is too late! The daughter of Besso is no more.'
'Jesu preserve us!' exclaimed Tancred, starting. 'Speak it again: what is it that you say?'
Astarte shook her head.
'Woman!' said Tancred, and he seized her hand, but his thoughts were too wild for utterance, and he remained pallid and panting.
'The daughter of Besso is no more; and I do not lament it, for you loved her.'
'Oh, grief ineffable!' said Tancred, with a groan, looking up to heaven, and covering his face with his hands: 'I loved her, as I loved the stars and sunshine.' Then, after a pause, he turned to Astarte, and said, in a rapid voice, 'This dreadful deed; when, how, did it happen?'
'Is it so dreadful?'
'Almost as dreadful as such words from woman's lips. A curse be on the hour that I entered these walls!'
'No, no, no!' said Astarte, and she seized his arm distractedly. 'No, no! No curse!'
'It is not true!' said Tancred. 'It cannot be true! She is not dead.'
'Would she were not, if her death is to bring me curses.'
'Tell me when was this?'
'An hour ago, at least.'
'I do not believe it. There is not an arm that would have dared to touch her. Let us hasten to her. It is not too late.'
'Alas! it is too late,' said Astarte. 'It was an enemy's arm that undertook the deed.'
'An enemy! What enemy among your people could the daughter of Besso have found?'
'A deadly one, who seized the occasion offered to a long cherished vengeance; one who for years has been alike the foe and the victim of her race and house. There is no hope!'
'I am indeed amazed. Who could this be?'
'Your friend; at least, your supposed friend, the Emir of the Lebanon.'
'You have said it.'
'The assassin and the foe of Eva!' exclaimed Tancred, with a countenance relieved yet infinitely perplexed. 'There must be some great misconception in all this. Let us hasten to the castle.'
'He solicited the office,' said Astarte; 'he wreaked his vengeance, while he vindicated my outraged feelings.'
'By murdering his dearest friend, the only being to whom he is really devoted, his more than friend, his foster-sister, nursed by the same heart; the ally and inspiration of his life, to whom he himself was a suitor, and might have been a successful one, had it not been for the custom of her religion and her race, which shrink from any connection with strangers and with Nazarenes.'
'His foster-sister!' exclaimed Astarte.
At this moment Cypros appeared in the distance, hastening to Astarte with an agitated air. Her looks were disturbed; she was almost breathless when she reached them; she wrung her hands before she spoke.
'Royal lady!' at length she said, 'I hastened, as you instructed me, at the appointed hour, to the Emir Fakredeen, but I learnt that he had quitted the castle.
Then I repaired to the prisoner; but, woe is me! she is not to be found.'
'Not to be found!'
'The raiment that she wore is lying on the floor of her prison. Methinks she has fled.'
'She has fled with him who was false to us all,' said Astarte, 'for it was the Emir of the Lebanon who long ago told me that you were affianced to the daughter of Besso, and who warned me against joining in any enterprise which was only to place upon the throne of Syria one whom the laws of your own country would never recognise as your wife.'
'Intriguer!' said Tancred. 'Vile and inveterate intriguer!'
'It is well,' said Astarte. 'My spirit is more serene.'
'Would that Eva were with any one else!' said Tancred, thoughtfully, and speaking, as it were, to himself.
'Your thoughts are with the daughter of Besso,' said Astarte. 'You wish to follow her, to guard her, to restore her to her family.'
Tancred looked round and caught the glance of the Queen of the Ansarey, mortified, yet full of affection.
'It seems to me,' he said, 'that it is time for me to terminate a visit that has already occasioned you, royal lady, too much vexation.'
Astarte burst into tears.
'Let me go,' she said, 'you want a throne; this is a rude one, yet accept it. You require warriors, the Ansarey are invincible. My castle is not like those palaces of Antioch of which we have often talked, and which were worthy of you, but Gindarics is impregnable, and will serve you for your headquarters until you conquer that world which you are born to command.'
'I have been the unconscious agent in petty machinations,' said Tancred. 'I must return to the desert to recover the purity of my mind. It is Arabia alone that can regenerate the world.'
At this moment Cypros, who was standing apart, waved her scarf, and exclaimed, 'Royal lady, I perceive in the distance the ever-faithful messenger;' whereupon Astarte looked up, and, as yet invisible to the inexperienced glance of Tancred, recognised what was an infinitely small dusky speck, each moment becoming more apparent, until at length a bird was observed by all of them winging its way towards the Queen.
'Is it the ever-faithful Karaguus,' said Astarte; 'or is it Ruby-lips that ever brings good news?'
'It is Karaguus,' said Cypros, as the bird drew nearer and nearer; 'but it is not Karaguus of Damascus. By the ring on its neck, it is Karaguus of Aleppo.'
The pigeon now was only a few yards above the head of the Queen. Fatigued, but with an eye full of resolution, it fluttered for a moment, and then fell upon her bosom. Cypros advanced and lifted its weary wing, and untied the cartel which it bore, brief words, but full of meaning, and a terrible interest.
' The Pasha, at the head of five thousand regular troops, leaves Haleb to-morrow to invade our land. '
'Go,' said Astarte to Tancred; 'to remain here is now dangerous. Thanks to the faithful messenger, you have time to escape with ease from that land which you scorned to rule, and which loved you too well.'
'I cannot leave it in the hour of peril,' said Tancred. 'This invasion of the Ottomans may lead to results of which none dream. I will meet them at the head of your warriors!'