Tancred/Chapter LII

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A Royal Audience

OUR travellers were speculating, not very sanguinely, on the possible resources which Gindarics might supply for the amusement of a week, when, to their great relief, they were informed by Keferinis, that the Queen had fixed noon, on this the day after their arrival, to receive them. And accordingly at that time some attendants, not accompanying, however, the chief minister, waited on Tancred and Fakredeen, and announced that they were commanded to usher them to the royal presence. Quitting their apartments, they mounted a flight of steps, which led to the wooden gallery, along which they pursued their course. At its termination were two sentries with their lances. Then they descended a corresponding flight of stairs and entered a chamber where they were received by pages; the next room, of larger size, was crowded, and here they remained for a few minutes. Then they were ushered into the presence.

The young Queen of the Ansarey could not have received them with an air more impassive had she been holding a levée at St. James'. Seated on her divan, she was clothed in a purple robe; her long dark hair descended over her shoulders, and was drawn off her white forehead, which was bound with a broad circlet of pure gold, and of great antiquity. On her right hand stood Keferinis, the captain of her guard, and a priestly-looking person with a long white beard, and then at some distance from these three personages, a considerable number of individuals, between whose appearance and that of her ordinary subjects there was little difference. On her left hand were immediately three female attendants, young and pretty; at some distance from them, a troop of female slaves; and again, at a still further distance, another body of her subjects in their white turbans and their black dresses. The chamber was spacious, and rudely painted in the Ionic style.

'It is most undoubtedly requested, and in a vein of the most condescending friendship, by the perfectly irresistible Queen, that the princes should be seated,' said Keferinis, and accordingly Tancred occupied his allotted seat on the right of the Queen, though at some distance, and the young Emir filled his on the left. Fakredeen was dressed in Syrian splendour, a blaze of shawls and jewelled arms; but Tancred retained on this, as he had done on every other occasion, the European dress, though in the present instance it assumed a somewhat more brilliant shape than ordinary, in the dark green regimentals, the rich embroidery, and the flowing plume of the Bellamont yeomanry cavalry.

'You are a prince of the English,' said the Queen to Tancred.

'I am an Englishman,' he replied, 'and a subject of our Queen, for we also have the good fortune to be ruled over by the young and the fair.'

'My fathers and the House of Shehaab have been ever friends,' she continued, turning to Fakredeen.

'May they ever continue so!' he replied. 'For if the Shehaabs and the Ansarey are of one mind, Syria is no longer earth, but indeed paradise.'

'You live much in ships?' said the Queen, turning to Tancred.

'We are an insular people,' he answered, somewhat confusedly, but the perfectly-informed Keferinis came to the succour both of Tancred and of his sovereign.

'The English live in ships only during six months of the year, principally when they go to India, the rest entirely at their country houses.'

'Ships are required to take you to India?' said her Majesty.

Tancred bowed assent.

'Is your Queen about my age?'

'She was as young as your Majesty when she began to reign.'

'And how long has she reigned?'

'Some seven years or so.'

'Has she a castle?'

'Her Majesty generally resides in a very famous castle.'

'Very strong, I suppose?'

'Strong enough.'

'The Emir Bescheer remains at Stamboul?'

'He is now, I believe, at Brusa,' replied Fakredeen.

'Does he like Brusa?'

'Not as much at Stamboul.'

'Is Stamboul the largest city in the world?'

'I apprehend by no means,' said Fakredeen.

'What is larger?'

'London is larger, the great city of the English, from which the prince comes; Paris is also larger, but not so large as London.'

'How many persons are there in Stamboul?'

'More than half a million.'

'Have you seen Antakia (Antioch)?' the Queen inquired of Tancred.

'Not yet.'

'You have seen Beiroot?'

'I have.'

'Antakia is not nearly so great a place as Beiroot,' said the Queen; 'yet once Antakia was much larger than Stamboul; as large, perhaps, as your great city.'

'And far more beautiful than either,' said Tancred.

'Ah! you have heard of these things!' exclaimed the Queen, with much animation. 'Now tell me, why is Antakia no longer a great city, as great as Stamboul and the city of the English, and far more beautiful?'

'It is a question that might perplex the wise,' said Tancred.

'I am not wise,' said the Queen, looking earnestly at Tancred, 'yet I could solve it.'

'Would that your Majesty would deign to do so.'

'There are things to be said, and there are things not to be said,' was the reply, and the Queen looked at Keferinis.

'Her Majesty has expressed herself with infinite exactitude and with condescending propriety,' said the chief minister.

The Queen was silent for a moment, thoughtful, and then waved gracefully her hands; whereupon the chamber was immediately cleared. The princes, instructed by Keferinis, alone remained, with the exception of the minister, who, at the desire of his sovereign, now seated himself, but not on the divan. He sat opposite to the Queen on the floor.

'Princes,' said the Queen, 'you are welcome to Gindarics, where nobody ever comes. For we are people who wish neither to see nor to be seen. We are not like other people, nor do we envy other people. I wish not for the ships of the Queen of the English, and my subjects are content to live as their fathers lived before them. Our mountains are wild and barren; our vales require for their cultivation unceasing toil. We have no gold or silver, no jewels; neither have we silk. But we have some beautiful and consoling thoughts, and more than thoughts, which are shared by all of us and open to all of us, and which only we can value or comprehend. When Darkush, who dwells at Damascus, and was the servant of my father, sent to us the ever-faithful messenger, and said that there were princes who wished to confer with us, he knew well it was vain to send here men who would talk of the English and the Egyptians, of the Porte and of the nations of Fran-guestan. These things to us are like the rind of fruit. Neither do we care for cottons, nor for things which are sought for in the cities of the plains, and it may be, noble Emir, cherished also in the mountains of Lebanon. This is not Lebanon, but the mountains of the Ansarey, who are as they have ever been, before the name of Turk or English was known in Syria, and who will remain as they are, unless that happens which may never happen, but which is too beautiful not to believe may arrive. Therefore I speak to you with frankness, princes of strange countries: Dar-kush, the servant of my father, and also mine, told me, by the ever-faithful messenger, that it was not of these things, which are to us like water spilt on sand, that you wished to confer, but that there were things to be said which ought to be uttered. Therefore it is I sent back the faithful messenger, saying, "Send then these princes to Gindarics, since their talk is not of things which come and go, making a noise on the coast and in the cities of the plains, and then passing away." These we infinitely despise; but the words of truth uttered in the spirit of friendship will last, if they be grave, and on matters which authorise journeys made by princes to visit queens.'

Her Majesty ceased, and looked at Keferinis, who bowed profound approbation. Tancred and Fakre-deen, also exchanged glances, but the Emir waved his hand, signifying his wish that Tancred should reply, who, after a moment's hesitation, with an air of great deference, thus ventured to express himself:

'It seems to me and to my friend, the Prince of the Lebanon, that we have listened to the words of wisdom. They are in every respect just. We know not, ourselves, Darkush, but he was rightly informed when he apprised your Majesty that it was not upon ordinary topics, either political or commercial, that we desired to visit Gindarics. Nor was it out of such curiosity as animates travellers. For we are not travellers, but men who have a purpose which we wish to execute. The world, that, since its creation, has owned the spiritual supremacy of Asia, which is but natural, since Asia is the only portion of the world which the Creator of that world has deigned to visit, and in which he has ever conferred with man, is unhappily losing its faith in those ideas and convictions that hitherto have governed the human race. We think, therefore, the time has arrived when Asia should make one of its periodical and appointed efforts to reassert that supremacy. But though we are acting, as we believe, under a divine impulse, it is our duty to select the most fitting human agents to accomplish a celestial mission. We have thought, therefore, that it should devolve on Syria and Arabia, countries in which our God has even dwelt, and with which he has been from the earliest days in direct and regular communication, to undertake the solemn task. Two races of men, alike free, one inhabiting the desert, the other the mountains, untainted by any of the vices of the plains, and the virgin vigour of their intelligence not dwarfed by the conventional superstitions of towns and cities, one prepared at once to supply an unrivalled cavalry, the other an army ready equipped of intrepid foot-soldiers, appear to us to be indicated as the natural and united conquerors of the world. We wish to conquer that world, with angels at our head, in order that we may establish the happiness of man by a divine dominion, and crushing the political atheism that is now desolating existence, utterly extinguish the grovelling tyranny of self-government.'

The Queen of the Ansarey listened with deep and agitated attention to Tancred. When he had concluded, she said, after a moment's pause, 'I believe also in the necessity of the spiritual supremacy of our Asia. And since it has ceased, it seems not to me that man and man's life have been either as great or as beautiful as heretofore. What you have said assures me that it is well that you have come hither. But when you speak of Arabia, of what God is it you speak?'

'I speak of the only God, the Creator of all things, the God who spoke on the Arabian Mount Sinai, and expiated our sins upon the Syrian Mount Calvary.'

'There is also Mount Olympus,' said the Queen, 'which is in Anatolia. Once the gods dwelt there.'—'The gods of poets,' said Tancred. 'No; the gods of the people; who loved the people, and whom the people loved.'

There was a pause, broken by the Queen, who, looking at her minister, said, 'Noble Keferinis, the thoughts of these princes are divine, and in every respect becoming celestial things. Is it not well that the gates of the beautiful and the sacred should not be closed?'

'In every sense, irresistible Queen, it is well that the gates of the beautiful and the sacred should not be closed.'

'Then let them bring garlands. Princes,' the Queen continued, 'what the eye of no stranger has looked upon, you shall now behold. This also is Asian and divine.'

Immediately the chamber again filled. The Queen, looking at the two princes and bowing, rose from her seat. They instantly followed her example. One came forward, offering to the Queen, and then to each of them, a garland. Garlands were also taken by Keferinis and a few others. Cypros and her companions walked first, then Keferinis and one who had stood near the royal divan; the Queen, between her two guests, followed, and after her a small and ordered band.

They stopped before a lofty portal of bronze, evidently of ancient art.' This opened into a covered and excavated way, in some respects similar to that which had led them directly to the castle of Gin-darics; but, although obscure, not requiring artificial light, yet it was of no inconsiderable length. It emerged upon a platform cut out of the natural rock; on all sides were steep cliffs, above them the bright blue sky. The ravine appeared to be closed on every side.

The opposite cliff, at the distance of several hundred yards, reached by a winding path, presented, at first, the appearance of the front of an ancient temple; and Tancred, as he approached it, perceived that the hand of art had assisted the development of an imitation of nature: a pediment, a deep portico, supported by Ionic columns, and a flight of steps, were carved out of the cliff, and led into vast caverns, which art also had converted into lofty and magnificent chambers. When they had mounted the steps, the Queen and her companions lifted their garlands to the skies, and joined in a chorus, solemn and melodious, but which did not sound as the language of Syria. Passing through the portico, Tancred found himself apparently in a vast apartment, where he beheld a strange spectacle.

At the first glance it seemed that, ranged on blocks of the surrounding mountains, were a variety of sculptured figures of costly materials and exquisite beauty; forms of heroic majesty and ideal grace; and, themselves serene and unimpassioned, filling the minds of the beholders with awe and veneration. It was not until his eye was accustomed to the atmosphere, and his mind had in some degree recovered from the first strange surprise, that Tancred gradually recognised the fair and famous images over which his youth had so long and so early pondered. Stole over his spirit the countenance august, with the flowing beard and the lordly locks, sublime on his ivory throne, in one hand the ready thunderbolt, in the other the cypress sceptre; at his feet the watchful eagle with expanded wings: stole over the spirit of the gazing pilgrim, each shape of that refined and elegant hierarchy made for the worship of clear skies and sunny lands; goddess and god, genius and nymph, and faun, all that the wit and heart of man can devise and create, to represent his genius and his passion, all that the myriad developments of a beautiful nature can require for their personification. A beautiful and sometimes flickering light played over the sacred groups and figures, softening the ravages of time, and occasionally investing them with, as it were, a celestial movement.

'The gods of the Greeks!' exclaimed Tancred.

'The gods of the Ansarey,' said the Queen; 'the gods of my fathers!'

'I am filled with a sweet amazement,' murmured Tancred. 'Life is stranger than I deemed. My soul is, as it were, unsphered.'

'Yet you know them to be gods,' said the Queen; 'and the Emir of the Lebanon does not know them to be gods?'

'I feel that they are such,' said Fakredeen.

'How is this, then?' said the Queen. 'How is it that you, the child of a northern isle——'

'Should recognise the Olympian Jove,' said Tancred. 'It seems strange; but from my earliest youth I learnt these things.'

'Ah, then,' murmured the Queen to herself, and with an expression of the greatest satisfaction, 'Dar-kush was rightly informed; he is one of us.'

'I behold then, at last, the gods of the Ansarey,' said Fakredeen.

'All that remains of Antioch, noble Emir; of Anti-och the superb, with its hundred towers, and its sacred groves and fanes of flashing beauty.'

'Unhappy Asia!' exclaimed the Emir; 'thou hast indeed fallen!'

'When all was over,' said the Queen; 'when the people refused to sacrifice, and the gods, indignant, quitted earth, I hope not for ever, the faithful few fled to these mountains with the sacred images, and we have cherished them. I told you we had beautiful and consoling thoughts, and more than thoughts. All else is lost, our wealth, our arts, our luxury, our invention, all have vanished. The niggard earth scarcely yields us a subsistence; we dress like Kurds, feed hardly as well; but if we were to quit these mountains, and wander like them on the plains with our ample flocks, we should lose our sacred images, all the traditions that we yet cherish in our souls, that in spite of our hard lives preserve us from being barbarians; a sense of the beautiful and the lofty, and the divine hope that, when the rapidly consummating degradation of Asia has been fulfilled, mankind will return again to those gods who made the earth beautiful and happy; and that they, in their celestial mercy, may revisit that world which, without them, has become a howling wilderness.'

'Lady,' said Tancred, with much emotion, 'we must, with your permission, speak of these things. My heart is at present too full.'

'Come hither,' said the Queen, in a voice of great softness; and she led Tancred away.

They entered a chamber of much smaller dimensions, which might be looked upon as a chapel annexed to the cathedral or Pantheon which they had quitted. At each end of it was a statue. They paused before one. It was not larger than life, of ivory and gold; the colour purer than could possibly have been imagined, highly polished, and so little injured, that at a distance the general effect was not in the least impaired.

'Do you know that?' asked the Queen, as she looked at the statue, and then she looked at Tancred.

'I recognise the god of poetry and light,' said Tancred; 'Phoebus Apollo.'

'Our god: the god of Antioch, the god of the sacred grove! Who could look upon him, and doubt his deity!'

'Is this indeed the figure,' murmured Tancred, 'before which a hundred steers have bled? before which libations of honeyed wine were poured from golden goblets? that lived in a heaven of incense?'

'Ah! you know all.'

'Angels watch over us!' said Tancred, 'or my brain will turn. And who is this?'

'One before whom the pilgrims of the world once kneeled. This is the Syrian goddess; the Venus of our land, but called among us by a name which, by her favour, I also bear, Astarte.'