Tancred/Chapter XLIV

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Fakredeen's Debts

IT HAS been a great day,' said Tancred 'not to be forgotten.'

'Yes; but what do you think of them? Are they the fellows I described; the men that might conquer the world?'

'To conquer the world depends on men not only being good soldiers, but being animated by some sovereign principle that nothing can resist,' replied Tancred.

'But that we have got,' rejoined Fakredeen.

'But have they got it?'

'We can give it to them.'

'I am not so sure of that. It seems to me that we are going to establish a theocratic equality by the aid of the feudal system.'

'That is to say, their present system,' replied Fakredeen. 'Islamism was propagated by men who were previously idolaters, and our principle may be established by those whose practice at the present time is directly opposed to it.'

'I still cling to my first idea of making the movement from the desert,' said Tancred: 'the Arabians are entirely unsophisticated; they are now as they were in the time of Mahomet, of Moses, of Abraham: a sublime devotion is natural to them, and equality, properly developed, is in fact the patriarchal principle.'

'But these are Arabians,' said Fakredeen; 'I am an Arabian; there is not a mookatadgi, whatever his present creed, who does not come from Yemen, or the Hedjaz, or the Nejid.'

'That is a great qualification,' said Tancred, musingly.

'And, see what men these are!' continued Fakredeen, with great animation. 'Lebanon can send forth more than fifty thousand well-armed, and yet let enough stay at home to guard the mulberry trees and the women. Then you can keep them for nothing; a Bedouin is not more temperate than a Druse, if he pleases: he will get through a campaign on olives and cheese; they do not require even tents; they bivouac in a sheepskin.'

'And yet,' said Tancred, 'though they have maintained themselves, they have done nothing; now, the Arabs have always succeeded.'

'I will tell you how that is,' said Fakredeen. 'It is very true that we have not done much, and that, when we descended into the plain, as we did in '63, under the Emir Yousef, we were beat, beaten back even by the Mutualis; it is that we have no cavalry. They have always contrived to enlist the great tribes of the Syrian desert against us, as for instance, under Daher, of whom you must have heard: it was that which has prevented our development; but we have always maintained ourselves. Lebanon is the key of Syria, and the country was never unlocked unless we pleased. But this difficulty is now removed. Through Amalek we shall have the desert on our side; he is omnipotent in the Syrian wilderness; and if he sends messengers through Petræa to Derayeh, the Nejid, and through the Hedjaz, to Yemen and Oman, we could easily get a cavalry as efficient and not less numerous than our foot.'

'The instruments will be found,' said Tancred, 'for it is decreed that the deed should be done. But the favour of Providence does not exempt man from the exercise of human prudence. On the contrary, it is an agent on whose co-operation they are bound to count. I should like to see something of the great Syrian cities. I should like also to see Bagdad. It appears to me, at the first glance, that the whole country to the Euphrates might be conquered in a campaign; but then I want to know how far artillery is necessary, whether it be indispensable. Then again, the Lesser Asia; we should never lose sight of the Lesser Asia as the principal scene of our movements; the richest regions in the world, almost depopulated, and a position from which we might magnetise Europe. But suppose the Turks, through Lesser Asia, conquer Lebanon, while we are overrunning the Babylonian and Assyrian monarchies? That will never do. I see your strength here with your own people and the Druses, and I do not underrate their qualities: but who is to garrison the north of Syria? Who is to keep the passes of the North? What population have you to depend on between Tripoli and Antioch, or between Aleppo and Adanah? Of all this I know nothing.'

Fakredeen had entirely imbibed the views of Tancred; he was sincere in his professions, fervent in his faith. A great feudal proprietor, he was prepared to forsake his beautiful castle, his farms and villages, his vineyards, and mulberry orchards, and forests of oaks, to assist in establishing, by his voice and his sabre, a new social system, which was to substitute the principle of association for that of dependence as the foundation of the Commonwealth, under the sanction and superintendence of the God of Sinai and of Calvary. True it was that the young Syrian Emir intended, that among the consequences of the impending movement should be his enthronement on one of the royal seats of Asia. But we should do him injustice, were we to convey the impression that his ardent co-operation with Tancred at this moment was impelled merely, or even principally, by these coarsely selfish considerations. Men certainly must be governed, whatever the principle of the social system, and Fakredeen felt born with a predisposition to rule.

But greater even than his desire for empire was his thirst for action. He was wearied with the glittering cage in which he had been born. He panted for a wider field and a nobler theatre, interests more vast and incidents more dazzling and comprehensive; he wished to astonish Europe instead of Lebanon, and to use his genius in baffling and controlling the thrones and dominations of the world, instead of managing the simple Sheikhs and Emirs of his mountains. His castle and fine estates were no sources of satisfaction to him. On the contrary, he viewed Canobia with disgust. It entailed duties, and brought no excitement. He was seldom at home and only for a few passing days: continued residence was intolerable to his restless spirit. He passed his life in perpetual movement, scudding about on the fleetest dromedaries, and galloping over the deserts on steeds of the highest race.

Though proud of his ancient house, and not unequal, when necessary, to the due representation of his position, unlike the Orientals in general, he disliked pomp, and shrank from the ceremony which awaited him. His restless, intriguing, and imaginative spirit revelled in the incognito. He was perpetually in masquerade; a merchant, a Mamlouk, a soldier of fortune, a Tartar messenger, sometimes a pilgrim, sometimes a dervish, always in pursuit of some improbable but ingenious object, or lost in the mazes of some fantastic plot. He enjoyed moving alone without a single attendant; and seldom in his mountains, he was perpetually in Egypt, Bagdad, Cyprus, Smyrna, and the Syrian cities. He sauntered away a good deal of his time indeed in the ports and towns of the coast, looking after his creditors; but this was not the annoyance to him which it would be to most men.

Fakredeen was fond of his debts; they were the source indeed of his only real excitement, and he was grateful to them for their stirring powers. The usurers of Syria are as adroit and callous as those of all other countries, and possess no doubt all those repulsive qualities which are the consequence of an habitual control over every generous emotion. But, instead of viewing them with feelings of vengeance or abhorrence, Fakredeen studied them unceasingly with a fine and profound investigation, and found in their society a deep psychological interest. His own rapacious soul delighted to struggle with their rapine, and it charmed him to baffle with his artifice their fraudulent dexterity. He loved to enter their houses with his glittering eye and face radiant with innocence, and, when things were at the very worst and they remorseless, to succeed in circumventing them. In a certain sense, and to a certain degree, they were all his victims. True, they had gorged upon his rents and menaced his domains; but they had also advanced large sums, and he had so involved one with another in their eager appetite to prey upon his youth, and had so complicated the financial relations of the Syrian coast in his own respect, that sometimes they tremblingly calculated that the crash of Fakredeen must inevitably be the signal of a general catastrophe.

Even usurers have their weak side; some are vain, some envious; Fakredeen knew how to titillate their self-love, or when to give them the opportunity of immolating a rival. Then it was, when he had baffled and deluded them, or, with that fatal frankness of which he sometimes blushingly boasted, had betrayed some sacred confidence that shook the credit of the whole coast from Scanderoon to Gaza, and embroiled individuals whose existence depended on their mutual goodwill, that, laughing like one of the blue-eyed hyenas of his forests, he galloped away to Canobia, and, calling for his nargileh, mused in chuckling calculation over the prodigious sums he owed to them, formed whimsical and airy projects for his quittance, or delighted himself by brooding over the memory of some happy expedient or some daring feat of finance.

'What should I be without my debts?' he would sometimes exclaim; 'dear companions of my life that never desert me! All my knowledge of human nature is owing to them: it is in managing my affairs that I have sounded the depths of the human heart, recognised all the combinations of human character, developed my own powers, and mastered the resources of others. What expedient in negotiation is unknown to me? What degree of endurance have I not calculated? What play of the countenance have I not observed? Yes, among my creditors, I have disciplined that diplomatic ability that shall some day confound and control cabinets. O, my debts, I feel your presence like that of guardian angels! If I be lazy, you prick me to action; if elate, you subdue me to reflection; and thus it is that you alone can secure that continuous yet controlled energy which conquers mankind.'

Notwithstanding all this, Fakredeen had grown sometimes a little wearied even of the choice excitement of pecuniary embarrassment. It was too often the same story, the adventures monotonous, the characters identical. He had been plundered by every usurer in the Levant, and in turn had taken them in. He sometimes delighted his imagination by the idea of making them disgorge; that is to say, when he had established that supremacy which he had resolved sooner or later to attain. Although he never kept an account, his memory was so faithful that he knew exactly the amount of which he had been defrauded by every individual with whom he had had transactions. He longed to mulct them, to the service of the State, in the exact amount if their unhallowed appropriations. He was too good a statesman ever to confiscate; he confined himself to taxation. Confiscation is a blunder that destroys public credit: taxation, on the contrary, improves it, and both come to the same thing.

That the proud soul of Tancred of Montacute, with its sublime aspirations, its inexorable purpose, its empyrean ambition, should find a votary in one apparently so whimsical, so worldly, and so worthless, may at the first glance seem improbable; yet a nearer and finer examination may induce us to recognise its likelihood. Fakredeen had a brilliant imagination and a passionate sensibility; his heart was controlled by his taste, and, when that was pleased and satisfied, he was capable of profound feeling and of earnest conduct. Moral worth had no abstract charms for him, and he could sympathise with a dazzling reprobate; but virtue in an heroic form, lofty principle, and sovereign duty invested with all the attributes calculated to captivate his rapid and refined perception, exercised over him a resistless and transcendent spell. The deep and disciplined intelligence of Tancred, trained in all the philosophy and cultured with all the knowledge of the West, acted with magnetic power upon a consciousness the bright vivacity of which was only equalled by its virgin ignorance of all that books can teach, and of those great conclusions which the studious hour can alone elaborate. Fakredeen hung upon his accents like a bee, while Tancred poured forth, without an effort, the treasures of his stored memory and long musing mind. He went on, quite unconscious that his companion was devoid of that previous knowledge, which, with all other persons, would have been a preliminary qualification for a profitable comprehension of what he said. Fakredeen gave him no hint of this: the young Emir trusted to his quick perception to sustain him, although his literary training was confined to an Arabic grammar, some sentences of wise men, some volumes of poetry, and mainly and most profitably to the clever Courier de Smyrne, and occasionally a packet of French journals which he obtained from a Levantine consul.

It was therefore with a feeling not less than enthusiastic that Fakredeen responded to the suggestive influence of Tancred. The want that he had long suffered from was supplied, and the character he had long mused over had appeared. Here was a vast theory to be reduced to practice, and a commanding mind to give the leading impulse. However imperfect may have been his general conception of the ideas of Tancred, he clearly comprehended that their fulfilment involved his two great objects, change and action. Compared with these attainments on a great scale, his present acquisition and position sank into nothingness. A futurity consisting of a Syrian Emirate and a mountain castle figured as intolerable, and Fakredeen, hoping all things and prepared for anything, flung to the winds all consideration for his existing ties, whether in the shape of domains or of debts.

The imperturbable repose, the grave and thoughtful daring, with which Tancred developed his revolutionary projects, completed the power with which he could now dispose of the fate of the young Emir. Sometimes, in fluttering moments of disordered reverie, Fakredeen had indulged in dreams of what, with his present companion, it appeared was to be the ordinary business of their lives, and which he discussed with a calm precision which alone half convinced Fakredeen of their feasibility. It was not for an impassioned votary to intimate a difficulty; but if Fakredeen, to elicit an opinion, sometimes hinted an adverse suggestion, the objection was swept away in an instant by an individual whose inflexible will was sustained by the conviction of divine favour.