Tancred/Chapter XVII

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The Wizard of Fortune

TANCRED entered Sequin Court; a chariot with a foreign coronet was at the foot of the great steps which he ascended. He was received by a fat hall porter, who would not have disgraced his father's establishment, and who, rising with lazy insolence from his hooded chair, when he observed that Tancred did not advance, asked the new comer what he wanted. 'I want Monsieur de Sidonia.' 'Can't see him now; he is engaged.' 'I have a note for him.'

'Very well, give it me; it will be sent in. You can sit here.' And the porter opened the door of a waiting-room, which Tancred declined to enter. 'I will wait here, thank you,' said Tancred, and he looked round at the old oak hall, on the walls of which were hung several portraits, and from which ascended one of those noble staircases never found in a modern London mansion. At the end of the hall, on a slab of porphyry, was a marble bust, with this inscription on it, 'Fundator.' It was the first Sidonia, by Chantrey.

'I will wait here, thank you,' said Tancred, looking round; and then, with some hesitation, he added, 'I have an appointment here at two o'clock.'

As he spoke, that hour sounded from the belfry of an old city church that was at hand, and then was taken up by the chimes of a large German clock in the hall.

'It may be,' said the porter, 'but I can't disturb master now; the Spanish ambassador is with him, and others are waiting. When he is gone, a clerk will take in your letter with some others that are here.'

At this moment, and while Tancred remained in the hall, various persons entered, and, without noticing the porter, pursued their way across the apartment.

'And where are those persons going?' inquired Tancred.

The porter looked at the enquirer with a blended gaze of curiosity and contempt, and then negligently answered him without looking in Tancred's face, and while he was brushing up the hearth, 'Some are going to the counting-house, and some are going to the Bank, I should think.'

'I wonder if our hall porter is such an infernal bully as Monsieur de Sidonia's!' thought Tancred.

There was a stir. 'The ambassador is coming out,' said the hall porter; 'you must not stand in the way.'

The well-trained ear of this guardian of the gate was conversant with every combination of sound which the apartments of Sequin Court could produce. Close as the doors might be shut, you could not rise from your chair without his being aware of it; and in the present instance he was correct. A door at the end of the hall opened, and the Spanish minister came forth.

'Stand aside,' said the hall porter to Tancred; and, summoning the servants without, he ushered his excellency with some reverence to his carriage.

'Now your letter will go in with the others,' he said to Tancred, whom for a few moments he left alone, and then returned, taking no notice of our young friend, but, depositing his bulky form in his hooded chair, he resumed the city article of the Times.

The letter ran thus:

'Dear Sidonia: This will be given you by my cousin Montacute, of whom I spoke to you yesterday. He wants to go to Jerusalem, which very much perplexes his family, for he is an only child. I don't suppose the danger is what they imagine. But still there is nothing like experience, and there is no one who knows so much of these things as yourself. I have promised his father and mother, very innocent people, whom of all my relatives, I most affect, to do what I can for him. If, therefore, you can aid Montacute, you will really serve me. He seems to have character, though I can't well make him out. I fear I indulged in the hock yesterday, for I feel a twinge. Yours faithfully,

'Wednesday morning.'

The hall clock had commenced the quarter chimes, when a young man, fair and intelligent, and wearing spectacles, came into the hall, and, opening the door of the waiting-room, looked as if he expected to find some one there; then, turning to the porter, he said, 'Where is Lord Montacute?'

The porter rose from his hooded chair, and put down the newspaper, but Tancred had advanced when he heard his name, and bowed, and followed the young man in spectacles, who invited Tancred to accompany him.

Tancred was ushered into a spacious and rather long apartment, panelled with old oak up to the white coved ceiling, which was richly ornamented. Four windows looked upon the fountain and the plane tree. A portrait by Lawrence, evidently of the same individual who had furnished the model to Chantrey, was over the high, old-fashioned, but very handsome marble mantel-piece. A Turkey carpet, curtains of crimson damask, some large tables covered with papers, several easy chairs, against the walls some iron cabinets, these were the furniture of the room, at one corner of which was a glass door, which led to a vista of apartments fitted up as counting-houses, filled with clerks, and which, if expedient, might be covered by a baize screen, which was now unclosed.

A gentleman writing at a table rose as he came in, and extending his hand said, as he pointed to a seat, 'I am afraid I have made you come out at an unusual hour.'

The young man in spectacles in the meanwhile retired; Tancred had bowed and murmured his compliments: and his host, drawing his chair a little from the table, continued: 'Lord Eskdale tells me that you have some thoughts of going to Jerusalem.'

'I have for some time had that intention.'

'It is a pity that you did not set out earlier in the year, and then you might have been there during the Easter pilgrimage. It is a fine sight.'

'It is a pity,' said Tancred; 'but to reach Jerusalem is with me an object of so much moment, that I shall be content to find myself there at any time, and under any circumstances.'

'It is no longer difficult to reach Jerusalem; the real difficulty is the one experienced by the crusaders, to know what to do when you have arrived there.'

'It is the land of inspiration,' said Tancred, slightly blushing; 'and when I am there, I would humbly pray that my course may be indicated to me.'

'And you think that no prayers, however humble, would obtain for you that indication before your departure?'

'This is not the land of inspiration,' replied Tancred, timidly.

'But you have your Church,' said Sidonia.

'Which I hold of divine institution, and which should be under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit,' said Tancred, dropping his eyes, and colouring still more as he found himself already trespassing on that delicate province of theology which always fascinated him, but which it had been intimated to him by Lord Eskdale that he should avoid.

'Is it wanting to you, then, in this conjuncture?' inquired his companion.

'I find its opinions conflicting, its decrees contradictory, its conduct inconsistent,' replied Tancred. 'I have conferred with one who is esteemed its most eminent prelate, and I have left him with a conviction of what I had for some time suspected, that inspiration is not only a divine but a local quality.'

'You and I have some reason to believe so,' said Sidonia. 'I believe that God spoke to Moses on Mount Horeb, and you believe that he was crucified, in the person of Jesus, on Mount Calvary. Both were, at least carnally, children of Israel: they spoke Hebrew to the Hebrews. The prophets were only Hebrews; the apostles were only Hebrews. The churches of Asia, which have vanished, were founded by a native Hebrew; and the church of Rome, which says it shall last for ever, and which converted this island to the faith of Moses and of Christ, vanquishing the Druids, Jupiter Olympius, and Woden, who had successively invaded it, was also founded by a native Hebrew. Therefore, I say, your suspicion or your conviction is, at least, not a fantastic one.'

Tancred listened to Sidonia as he spoke with great interest, and with an earnest and now quite unembarrassed manner. The height of the argument had immediately surmounted all his social reserve. His intelligence responded to the great theme that had so long occupied his musing hours; and the unexpected character of a conversation which, as he had supposed, would have mainly treated of letters of credit, the more excited him.

'Then,' said Tancred, with animation, 'seeing how things are, that I am born in an age and in a country divided between infidelity on one side and an anarchy of creeds on the other; with none competent to guide me, yet feeling that I must believe, for I hold that duty cannot exist without faith; is it so wild as some would think it, I would say is it unreasonable, that I should wish to do that which, six centuries ago, was done by my ancestor whose name I bear, and that I should cross the seas, and——?' He hesitated.

'And visit the Holy Sepulchre,' said Sidonia.

'And visit the Holy Sepulchre,' said Tancred, solemnly; 'for that, I confess, is my sovereign thought.'

'Well, the crusades were of vast advantage to Europe,' said Sidonia, 'and renovated the spiritual hold which Asia has always had upon the North. It seems to wane at present, but it is only the decrease that precedes the new development.'

'It must be so,' said Tancred; 'for who can believe that a country once sanctified by the Divine Presence can ever be as other lands? Some celestial quality, distinguishing it from all other climes, must for ever linger about it. I would ask those mountains, that were reached by angels, why they no longer receive heavenly visitants. I would appeal to that Comforter promised to man, on the sacred spot on which the assurance of solace was made. I require a Comforter. I have appealed to the holy influence in vain in England. It has not visited me; I know none here on whom it has descended. I am induced, therefore, to believe that it is part of the divine scheme that its influence should be local; that it should be approached with reverence, not thoughtlessly and hurriedly, but with such difficulties and such an interval of time as a pilgrimage to a spot sanctified can alone secure.'

Sidonia listened to Tancred with deep attention. Lord Montacute was seated opposite the windows, so that there was a full light upon the play of the countenance, the expression of which Sidonia watched, while his keen and far-reaching vision traced at the same time the formation and development of the head of his visitor. He recognised in this youth not a vain and vague visionary, but a being in whom the faculties of reason and imagination were both of the highest class, and both equally developed. He observed that he was of a nature passionately affectionate, and that he was of a singular audacity. He perceived that though, at this moment, Tancred was as ignorant of the world as a young monk, he possessed all the latent qualities which in future would qualify him to control society. When Tancred had finished speaking, there was a pause of a few seconds, during which Sidonia seemed lost in thought; then, looking up, he said, 'It appears to me, Lord Montacute, that what you want is to penetrate the great Asian mystery.'

'You have touched my inmost thought,' said Tancred, eagerly.

At this moment there entered the room, from the glass door, the same young man who had ushered Tancred into the apartment. He brought a letter to Sidonia. Lord Montacute felt confused; his shyness returned to him; he deplored the unfortunate interruption, but he felt he was in the way. He rose, and began to say good-morning, when Sidonia, without taking his eyes off the letter, saw him, and waving his hand, stopped him, saying, 'I settled with Lord Eskdale that you were not to go away if anything occurred which required my momentary attention. So pray sit down, unless you have engagements.' And Tancred again seated himself.

'Write,' continued Sidonia to the clerk, 'that my letters are twelve hours later than the despatches, and that the City continued quite tranquil. Let the extract from the Berlin letter be left at the same time at the Treasury. The last bulletin?'

'Consols drooping at half-past two; all the foreign funds lower; shares very active.'

They were once more alone. 'When do you propose going?' 'I hope in a week.' 'Alone?'

'I fear I shall have many attendants.' 'That is a pity. Well, when you arrive at Jerusalem, you will naturally go to the convent of Terra Santa. You will make there the acquaintance of the Spanish prior, Alonzo Lara. He calls me cousin; he is a Nuevo of the fourteenth century. Very orthodox; but the love of the old land and the old language have come out in him, as they will, though his blood is no longer clear, but has been modified by many Gothic intermarriages, which was never our case. We are pure Sephardim. Lara thoroughly comprehends Palestine and all that pertains to it. He has been there a quarter of a century, and might have been Archbishop of Seville. You see, he is master of the old as well as the new learning; this is very important; they often explain each other. Your bishops here know nothing about these things. How can they? A few centuries back they were tattooed savages. This is the advantage which Rome has over you, and which you never can understand. That Church was founded by a Hebrew, and the magnetic influence lingers. But you will go to the fountain head. Theology requires an apprenticeship of some thousand years at least; to say nothing of clime and race. You cannot get on with theology as you do with chemistry and mechanics. Trust me, there is something deeper in it. I shall give you a note to Lara; cultivate him, he is the man you want. You will want others; they will come; but Lara has the first key.'

'I am sorry to trouble you about such things,' said Tancred, in a hesitating voice, 'but perhaps I may not have the great pleasure to see you again, and Lord Eskdale said that I was to speak to you about some letters of credit.'

'Oh! we shall meet before you go. But what you say reminds me of something. As for money, there is only one banker in Syria; he is everywhere, at Aleppo, Damascus, Beiroot, Jerusalem. It is Besso. Before the expulsion of the Egyptians, he really ruled Syria, but he is still powerful, though they have endeavoured to crush him at Constantinople. I applied to Metternich about him, and, besides that, he is mine.

I shall give you a letter to him, but not merely for your money affairs. I wish you to know him. He lives in splendour at Damascus, moderately at Jerusalem, where there is little to do, but which he loves as a residence, being a Hebrew. I wish you to know him. You will, I am sure, agree with me, that he is, without exception, the most splendid specimen of the animal man you ever became acquainted with. His name is Adam, and verily he looks as if he were in the garden of Eden before the fall. But his soul is as grand and as fine as his body. You will lean upon this man as you would on a faithful charger. His divan is charming; you will always find there the most intelligent people. You must learn to smoke. There is nothing that Besso cannot do; make him do everything you want; have no scruples; he will be gratified. Besides, he is one of those who kiss my signet. These two letters will open Syria to you, and any other land, if you care to proceed. Give yourself no trouble about any other preparations.'

'And how am I to thank you?' said Tancred, rising; 'and how am I to express to you all my gratitude?'

'What are you going to do with yourself to-morrow?' said Sidonia. 'I never go anywhere; but I have a few friends who are so kind as to come sometimes to me. There are two or three persons dining with me to-morrow, whom you might like to meet. Will you do so?'

'I shall be most proud and pleased.'

'That's well. It is not here; it is in Carlton Gardens; at sunset.' And Sidonia continued the letter which he was writing when Tancred entered.