Tancred/Chapter XLVI

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The Laurellas

IT WAS destined that Napoleon should never enter Rome, and Mahomet never enter Damascus. What was the reason of this? They were not uninterested in those cities that interest all. The Emperor selected from the capital of the Cæsars the title of his son; the Prophet, when he beheld the crown of Syria, exclaimed that it was too delightful, and that he must reserve his paradise for another world. Buonaparte was an Italian, and must have often yearned after the days of Rome triumphant. The son of Abdallah was descended from the patriarchs, whose progenitor had been moulded out of the red clay of the most ancient city in the world. Absorbed by the passionate pursuit of the hour, the two heroes postponed a gratification which they knew how to appreciate, but which, with all their success, all their power, and all their fame, they were never permitted to indulge. What moral is to be drawn from this circumstance? That we should never lose an occasion. Opportunity is more powerful even than conquerors and prophets.

The most ancient city of the world has no antiquity. This flourishing abode is older than many ruins, yet it does not possess one single memorial of the past. In vain has it conquered or been conquered. Not a trophy, a column, or an arch, records its warlike fortunes. Temples have been raised here to unknown gods and to revealed Divinity; all have been swept away. Not the trace of a palace or a prison, a public bath, a hall of justice, can be discovered in this wonderful city, where everything has been destroyed, and where nothing has decayed.

Men moralise among ruins, or, in the throng and tumult of successful cities, recall past visions of urban desolation for prophetic warning. London is a modern Babylon; Paris has aped imperial Rome, and may share its catastrophe. But what do the sages say to Damascus? It had municipal rights in the days when God conversed with Abraham. Since then, the kings of the great monarchies have swept over it; and the Greek and the Roman, the Tartar, the Arab, and the Turk have passed through its walls; yet it still exists and still flourishes; is full of life, wealth, and enjoyment. Here is a city that has quaffed the magical elixir and secured the philosopher's stone, that is always young and always rich. As yet, the disciples of progress have not been able exactly to match this instance of Damascus, but it is said that they have great faith in the future of Birkenhead.

We moralise among ruins: it is always when the game is played that we discover the cause of the result. It is a fashion intensely European, the habit of an organisation that, having little imagination, takes refuge in reason, and carefully locks the door when the steed is stolen. A community has crumbled to pieces, and it is always accounted for by its political forms, or its religious modes. There has been a deficiency in what is called checks in the machinery of government; the definition of the suffrage has not been correct; what is styled responsibility has, by some means or other, not answered; or, on the other hand, people have believed too much or too little in a future state, have been too much engrossed by the present, or too much absorbed in that which was to come. But there is not a form of government which Damascus has not experienced, excepting the representative, and not a creed which it has not acknowledged, excepting the Protestant. Yet, deprived of the only rule and the only religion that are right, it is still justly described by the Arabian poets as a pearl surrounded by emeralds.

Yes, the rivers of Damascus still run and revel within and without the walls, of which the steward of Sheikh Abraham was a citizen. They have encompassed them with gardens, and filled them with fountains. They gleam amid their groves of fruit, wind through their vivid meads, sparkle-among perpetual flowers, gush from the walls, bubble in the courtyards, dance and carol in the streets: everywhere their joyous voices, everywhere their glancing forms, filling the whole world around with freshness, and brilliancy, and fragrance, and life. One might fancy, as we track them in their dazzling course, or suddenly making their appearance in every spot and in every scene, that they were the guardian spirits of the city. You have explained them, says the utilitarian, the age and flourishing fortunes of Damascus: they arise from its advantageous situation; it is well supplied with water.

Is it better supplied than the ruins of contiguous regions? Did the Nile save Thebes? Did the Tigris preserve Nineveh? Did the Euphrates secure Babylon?

Our scene lies in a chamber vast and gorgeous. The reader must imagine a hall, its form that of a rather long square, but perfectly proportioned. Its coved roof, glowing with golden and scarlet tints, is highly carved in the manner of the Saracens, such as we may observe in the palaces of Moorish Spain and in the Necropolis of the Mamlouk Sultans at Cairo, deep recesses of honeycomb work, with every now and then pendants of daring grace hanging like stalactites from some sparry cavern. This roof is supported by columns of white marble, fashioned in the shape of palm trees, the work of Italian artists, and which forms arcades around the chamber. Beneath these arcades runs a noble divan of green and silver silk, and the silken panels of the arabesque walls have been covered with subjects of human interest by the finest artists of Munich. The marble floor, with its rich mosaics, was also the contribution of Italian genius, though it was difficult at the present moment to trace its varied, graceful, and brilliant designs, so many were the sumptuous carpets, the couches, sofas, and cushions that were spread about it. There were indeed throughout the chamber many indications of furniture, which are far from usual even among the wealthiest and most refined Orientals: Indian tables, vases of china, and baskets of agate and porcelain filled with flowers. From one side, the large Saracenic windows of this saloon, which were not glazed, but covered only when required by curtains of green and silver silk, now drawn aside, looked on a garden; vistas of quivering trees, broad parterres of flowers, and everywhere the gleam of glittering fountains, which owned, however, fealty to the superior stream that bubbled in the centre of the saloon, where four negroes, carved in black marble, poured forth its refreshing waters from huge shells of pearl, into the vast circle of a jasper basin.

At this moment the chamber was enlivened by the presence of many individuals. Most of these were guests; one was the master of the columns and the fountains; a man much above the middle height, though as well proportioned as his sumptuous hall; admirably handsome, for beauty and benevolence blended in the majestic countenance of Adam Besso. To-day his Syrian robes were not unworthy of his palace; the cream-white shawl that encircled his brow with its ample folds was so fine that the merchant who brought it to him carried it over the ocean and the desert in the hollow shell of a pomegranate. In his girdle rested a handjar, the sheath of which was of a rare and vivid enamel, and the hilt entirely of brilliants.

A slender man of middle size, who, as he stood by Besso, had a diminutive appearance, was in earnest conversation with his host. This personage was adorned with more than one order, and dressed in the Frank uniform of one of the Great Powers, though his head was shaven, for he wore a tarboush or red cap, although no turban. This gentleman was Signor Elias de Laurella, a wealthy Hebrew merchant at Damascus, and Austrian consul-general ad honorem; a great man, almost as celebrated for his diplomatic as for his mercantile abilities; a gentleman who understood the Eastern question; looked up to for that, but still more, in that he was the father of the two prettiest girls in the Levant.

The Mesdemoiselles de Laurella, Thérèse and Sophonisbe, had just completed their education, partly at Smyrna, the last year at Marseilles. This had quite turned their heads; they had come back with a contempt for Syria, the bitterness of which was only veiled by the high style of European nonchalance, of which they had a supreme command, and which is, perhaps, our only match for Eastern repose. The Mesdemoiselles de Laurella were highly accomplished, could sing quite ravishingly, paint fruits and flowers, and drop to each other, before surrounding savages, mysterious allusions to feats in ballrooms, which, alas! no longer could be achieved. They signified, and in some degree solaced, their intense disgust at their present position by a haughty and amusingly impassable demeanour, which meant to convey their superiority to all surrounding circumstances. One of their favourite modes of asserting this pre-eminence was wearing the Frank dress, which their father only did officially, and which no female member of their family had ever assumed, though Damascus swarmed with Laurellas. Nothing in the dreams of Madame Carson, or Madame Camille, or Madame Devey, nothing in the blazoned pages of the Almanachs des Dames and Belle Assemblée, ever approached the Mdlles. Laurella, on a day of festival. It was the acme. Nothing could be conceived beyond it; nobody could equal it. It was taste exaggerated, if that be possible; fashion baffling pursuit, if that be permitted. It was a union of the highest moral and material qualities; the most sublime contempt and the stiffest cambric. Figure to yourself, in such habiliments, two girls, of the same features, the same form, the same size, but of different colour: a nose turned up, but choicely moulded, large eyes, and richly fringed; fine hair, beautiful lips and teeth, but the upper lip and the cheek bones rather too long and high, and the general expression of the countenance, when not affected, more sprightly than intelligent. Thérèse was a brunette, but her eye wanted softness as much as the blue orb of the brilliant Sophonisbe. Nature and Art had combined to produce their figures, and it was only the united effort of two such first-rate powers that could have created anything so admirable.

This was the first visit of the Mesdemoiselles Laurella to the family of Besso, for they had only returned from Marseilles at the beginning of the year, and their host had not resided at Damascus until the summer was much advanced. Of course they were well acquainted by reputation with the great Hebrew house of which the lord of the mansion was the chief. They had been brought up to esteem it the main strength and ornament of their race and religion. But the Mesdemoiselles Laurella were ashamed of their race, and not fanatically devoted to their religion, which might be true, but certainly was not fashionable. Thérèse, who was of a less sanguineous temperament than her sister, affected despair and unutterable humiliation, which permitted her to say before her own people a thousand disagreeable things with an air of artless frankness. The animated Sophonisbe, on the contrary, was always combating prejudice, felt persuaded that the Jews would not be so much disliked if they were better known; that all they had to do was to imitate as closely as possible the habits and customs of the nation among whom they chanced to live; and she really did believe that eventually, such was the progressive spirit of the age, a difference in religion would cease to be regarded, and that a respectable Hebrew, particularly if well dressed and well mannered, might be able to pass through society without being discovered, or at least noticed. Consummation of the destiny of the favourite people of the Creator of the universe!

Notwithstanding their practised nonchalance, the Mesdemoiselles Laurella were a little subdued when they entered the palace of Besso, still more so when they were presented to its master, whose manner, void of all art, yet invested with a natural dignity, asserted in an instant its superiority. Eva, whom they saw for the first time, received them like a queen, and in a dress which offered as complete a contrast to their modish attire as the beauty of her sublime countenance presented to their pretty and sparkling visages.

Madame Laurella, the mother of these young ladies, would in Europe have been still styled young. She was a Smyrniote, and had been a celebrated beauty. The rose had since then too richly expanded, but even now, with her dark eyelash charged with yamusk, her cheek touched with rouge, and her fingers tipped with henna, her still fine hair exaggerated by art or screened by her jewelled turban, she would have been a striking personage, even if it had not been for the blaze of jewels with which she was suffused and environed. The existence of this lady was concentred in her precious gems. An extreme susceptibility on this head is very prevalent among the ladies of the Levant, and the quantity of jewels that they accumulate far exceeds the general belief. Madame Laurella was without a rival in this respect, and resolved to maintain her throne; diamonds alone did not satisfy her; immense emeralds, rubies as big as pigeons' eggs, prodigious ropes of pearls, were studded and wound about every part of her rich robes. Every finger glittered, and bracelets flashed beneath her hanging sleeves. She sat in silent splendour on a divan, now and then proudly moving a fan of feathers, lost in criticism of the jewels of her friends, and in contemplation of her own.

A young man, tall and well-looking, dressed as an Oriental, but with an affected, jerking air, more French than Syrian, moved jauntily about the room, speaking to several persons for a short time, shrugging his shoulders and uttering commonplaces as if they were poignant originalities. This was Hillel Besso, the eldest son of the Besso of Aleppo, and the intended husband of Eva. Hillel, too, had seen the world, passed a season at Pera, where he had worn the Frank dress, and, introduced into the circles by the lady of the Austrian Internuncio, had found success and enjoyed himself. He had not, however, returned to Syria with any of the disgust shared by the Mesdemoiselles Laurella. Hillel was neither ashamed of his race nor his religion: on the contrary, he was perfectly satisfied with this life, with the family of Besso in general, and with himself particularly. Hillel was a little philosophical, had read Voltaire, and, free from prejudices, conceived himself capable of forming correct opinions. He listened smiling and in silence to Eva asserting the splendour and superiority of their race, and sighing for the restoration of their national glory, and then would say, in a whisper to a friend, and with a glance of epigrammatic airiness, 'For my part, I am not so sure that we were ever better off than we are.'

He stopped and conversed with Thérèse Laurella, who at first was unbending, but when she found that he was a Besso, and had listened to one or two anecdotes which indicated personal acquaintance not only with ambassadors but with ambassadors' ladies, she began to relax. In general, however, the rest of the ladies did not speak, or made only observations to each other in a hushed voice. Conversation is not the accomplishment of these climes and circles. They seemed content to show their jewels to their neighbours. There was a very fat lady, of prodigious size, the wife of Signor Yacoub Picholoroni, who was also a consul, but not a consul-general in honorem. She looked like a huge Chinese idol; a perpetual smile played upon her immense good-natured cheeks, and her little black eyes twinkled with continuous satisfaction. There were the Mourad Farhis and the Nas-sim Farhis. There were Moses Laurella and his wife, who shone with the reflected splendour of the great Laurellas, but who were really very nice people; sensible and most obliging, as all travellers must have found them. Moses Laurella was vice-consul to his brother. The Farhis had no diplomatic lustre, but they were great merchants, and worked with the House of Besso in all their enterprises. They had married two sisters, who were also their cousins. Madame Mourad Farhi was in the zenith of her renowned beauty; in the gorgeous Smyrniote style, brilliant yet languid, like a panther basking in the sunshine. Her sister also had a rich countenance, and a figure like a palm tree, while her fine brow beamed alike with intelligence and beauty. Madame, Nassim was highly cultured, enthusiastic for her race, and proud of the friendship of Eva, of which she was worthy.

There were also playing about the room three or four children of such dazzling beauty and such ineffable grace that no pen can picture their seraphic glances or gestures of airy frolic. Sometimes serious, from exhaustion not from thought; sometimes wild with the witchery of infant riot; a laughing girl with hair almost touching the ground, and large grey eyes bedewed with lustrous mischief, tumbles over an urchin who rises doubtful whether to scream or shout; sometimes they pull the robe of Besso while he talks, who goes on, as if unconscious of the interruption; sometimes they rush up to their mother or Eva for an embrace; sometimes they run up to the fat lady, look with wondering gravity in her face, and then, bursting into laughter, scud away. These are the children of a sister of Hillel Besso, brought to Damascus for change of air. Their mother is also here, sitting at the side of Eva: a soft and pensive countenance, watching the children with her intelligent blue eyes, or beckoning to them with a beautiful hand.

The men in general remained on their legs apart, conversing as if they were on the Bourse.

Now entered, from halls beyond of less dimensions, but all decorated with similar splendour, a train of servants, two of whom carried between them a large broad basket of silver filigree, filled with branches of the palm tree entwined with myrtle, while another bore a golden basket of a different shape, and which was filled with citrons just gathered. These they handed to the guests, and each guest took a branch with the right hand and a citron with the left. The conversation of Besso with Elias Laurella had been broken by their entrance, and a few minutes afterwards, the master of the house, looking about, held up his branch, shook it with a rustling sound, and immediately Eva was at his side.

The daughter of Besso wore a vest of white silk, fitting close to her shape and descending to her knees; it was buttoned with large diamonds and restrained by a girdle of pearls; anklets of brilliants peeped also, every now and then, from beneath her large Mamlouk trousers of rose-coloured silk that fell over her slippers, powdered with diamonds. Over her vest she wore the Syrian jacket, made of cherry-coloured velvet, its open arms and back richly embroidered, though these were now much concealed by her outer pelisse, a brocade of India, massy with gold, and yet relieved from heaviness by the brilliancy of its light blue tint and the dazzling fantasy of its pattern. This was loosely bound round her waist by a Moorish scarf of the colour of a blood-red orange, and bordered with a broad fringe of precious stones. Her head-dress was of the same fashion as when we first met her in the kiosk of Bethany, except that, on this occasion, her Syrian cap on the back of her head was covered only with diamonds, and only with diamonds was braided her long dark hair.

'They will never come,' said Besso to his daughter. 'It was one of his freaks. We will not wait.'

'I am sure, my father, they will come,' said Eva, earnestly. And indeed, at this very moment, as she stood at his side, holding in one hand her palm branch, which was reposing on her bosom, and in the other her fresh citron, the servants appeared again, ushering in two guests who had just arrived. One was quite a stranger, a young man dressed in the European fashion; the other was recognised at once by all present as the Emir of Canobia.