Tancred/Chapter XXXVII

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Fakredeen is Curious

THE beautiful daughter of Besso, pensive and abstracted, played with her beads in the pavilion of her grandfather. Two of her maidens, who had attended her, in a corner of this inner compartment, accompanied the wild murmur of their voices on a stringed instrument, which might in the old days have been a psaltery. They sang the loves of Antar and of Ibla, of Leila and of Mejnoun; the romance of the desert, tales of passion and of plunder, of the rescue of women and the capture of camels, of heroes with a lion heart, and heroines brighter and softer than the moon.

The beautiful daughter of Besso, pensive and abstracted, played with her beads in the pavilion of her grandfather. Why is the beautiful daughter of Besso pensive and abstracted? What thoughts are flitting over her mind, silent and soft, like the shadows of birds over the sunshiny earth?

Something that was neither silent nor soft disturbed the lady from her reverie; the voice of the great Sheikh, in a tone of altitude and harshness, with him most usual. He was in an adjacent apartment, vowing that he would sooner eat the mother of some third person, who was attempting to influence him, than adopt the suggestion offered. Then there were softer and more persuasive tones from his companion, but evidently ineffectual. Then the voices of both rose together in emulous clamour—one roaring like a bull, the other shrieking like some wild bird; one full of menace, and the other taunting and impertinent. All this was followed by a dead silence, which continuing, Eva assumed that the Sheikh and his companion had quitted his tent. While her mind was recurring to those thoughts which occupied them previously to this outbreak, the voice of Fakredeen was heard outside her tent, saying, 'Rose of Sharon, let me come into the harem;' and, scarcely waiting for permission, the young Emir, flushed and excited, entered, and almost breathless threw himself on the divan.

'Who says I am a coward?' he exclaimed, with a glance of devilish mockery. 'I may run away sometimes, but what of that? I have got moral courage, the only thing worth having since the invention of gunpowder. The beast is not killed, but I have looked into the den; 'tis something. Courage, my fragrant Rose, have faith in me at last. I may make an imbroglio sometimes, but, for getting out of a scrape, I would back myself against any picaroon in the Levant; and that is saying a good deal.'

'Another imbroglio?'

'Oh, no! the same; part of the great blunder. You must have heard us raging like a thousand Afrites. I never knew the great Sheikh so wild.'

'And why?'

'He should take a lesson from Mehemet Ali,' continued the Emir. 'Giving up Syria, after the conquest, was a much greater sacrifice than giving up plunder which he has not yet touched. And the great Pasha did it as quietly as if he were marching into Stamboul instead, which he might have done if he had been an Arab instead of a Turk. Everything comes from Arabia, my dear Eva, at least everything that is worth anything. We two ought to thank our stars every day that we were born Arabs.'

'And the great Sheikh still harps upon this ransom?' inquired Eva.

'He does, and most unreasonably. For, after all, what do we ask him to give up? a bagatelle.'

'Hardly that,' said Eva; 'two millions of piastres can scarcely be called a bagatelle.'

'It is not two millions of piastres,' said Fakre-deen; 'there is your fallacy, 'tis the same as your grandfather's. In the first place, he would have taken one million; then half belonged to me, which reduces his share to five hundred thousand; then I meant to have borrowed his share of him.'

'Borrowed his share!' said Eva.

'Of course I should have allowed him interest, good interest. What could the great Sheikh want five hundred thousand piastres for? He has camels enough; he has so many horses that he wants to change some with me for arms at this moment. Is he to dig a hole in the sand by a well-side to put his treasure in, like the treasure of Solomon; or to sew up his bills of exchange in his turban? The thing is ridiculous, I never contemplated, for a moment, that the great Sheikh should take any hard piastres out of circulation, to lock them up in the wilderness. It might disturb the currency of all Syria, upset the exchanges, and very much injure your family, Eva, of whose interests I am never unmindful. I meant the great Sheikh to invest his capital; he might have made a good thing of it. I could have afforded to pay him thirty per cent, for his share, and made as much by the transaction myself; for you see, as I am paying sixty per cent, at Beiroot, Tripoli, Latakia, and every accursed town of the coast at this moment. The thing is clear; and I wish you would only get your father to view it in the same light, and we might do immense things! Think of this, my Rose of Sharon, dear, dear Eva, think of this; your father might make his fortune and mine too, if he would only lend me money at thirty per cent.'

'You frighten me always, Fakredeen, by these allusions to your affairs. Can it be possible that they are so very bad!'

'Good, Eva, you mean good. I should be incapable of anything, if it were not for my debts. I am naturally so indolent, that if I did not remember in the morning that I was ruined, I should never be able to distinguish myself.'

'You never will distinguish yourself,' said Eva; 'you never can, with these dreadful embarrassments.'

'Shall I not?' said Fakredeen, triumphantly. 'What are my debts to my resources? That is the point. You cannot judge of a man by only knowing what his debts are; you must be acquainted with his resources.'

'But your estates are mortgaged, your crops sold, at least you tell me so,' said Eva, mournfully.

'Estates! crops! A man may have an idea worth twenty estates, a principle of action that will bring him in a greater harvest than all Lebanon.'

'A principle of action is indeed precious,' said Eva; 'but although you certainly have ideas, and very ingenious ones, a principle of action is exactly the thing which I have always thought you wanted.'

'Well, I have got it at last,' said Fakredeen; 'everything comes if a man will only wait.'

'And what is your principle of action?'


'In yourself? Surely in that respect you have not hitherto been sceptical?'

'No; in Mount Sinai.'

'In Mount Sinai!'

'You may well be astonished; but so it is. The English prince has been to Mount Sinai, and he has seen an angel. What passed between them I do not yet know; but one thing is certain, he is quite changed by the interview. He is all for action: so far as I can form an opinion in the present crude state of affairs, it is not at all impossible that he may put himself at the head of the Asian movement. If you have faith, there is nothing you may not do. One thing is quite settled, that he will not at present return to Jerusalem, but, for change of air and other reasons, make a visit with me to Canobia.'

'He seems to have great purpose in him,' said Eva, with an air of some constraint.

'By-the-bye,' said Fakredeen, 'how came you, Eva, never to tell me that you were acquainted with him?'

'Acquainted with him?' said Eva.

'Yes; he recognised you immediately when he recovered himself, and he has admitted to me since that he has seen you before, though I could not get much out of him about it. He will talk for ever about Arabia, faith, war, and angels; but, if you touch on anything personal, I observe he is always very shy. He has not my fatal frankness. Did you know him at Jerusalem?'

'I met him by hazard for a moment at Bethany. I neither asked then, nor did he impart to me, his name. How then could I tell you we were acquainted? or be aware that the stranger of my casual interview was this young Englishman whom you have made a captive?'

'Hush!' said Fakredeen, with an air of real or affected alarm. 'He is going to be my guest at my principal castle. What do you mean by captive? You mean whom I have saved from captivity, or am about to save?

'Well, that would appear to be the real question to which you ought to address yourself at this moment,' said Eva. 'Were I you, I should postpone the great Asian movement until you had disembarrassed yourself from your present position, rather an equivocal one both for a patriot and a friend.'

'Oh! I'll manage the great Sheikh,' said Fakredeen, carelessly. 'There is too much plunder in the future for Amalek to quarrel with me. When he scents the possibility of the Bedouin cavalry being poured into Syria and Asia Minor, we shall find him more manageable. The only thing now is to heal the present disappointment by extenuating circumstances. If I could screw up a few thousand piastres for backsheesh,' and he looked Eva in the face, 'or could put anything in his way! What do you think, Eva?'

Eva shook her head.

'What an obstinate Jew dog he is!' said Fakre-deen. 'His rapacity is revolting!'

'An obstinate Jew dog!' exclaimed Eva, rising, her eyes flashing, her nostrils dilating with contemptuous rage. The manner of Fakredeen had not pleased her this morning. His temper, was very uncertain, and, when crossed, he was deficient in delicacy. Indeed, he was too selfish, with all his sensibility and refined breeding, to be ever sufficiently considerate of the feelings of others. He was piqued also that he had not been informed of the previous acquaintance of Eva and Tancred. Her reason for not apprising him of their interview at Bethany, though not easily impugnable, was not as satisfactory to his understanding as to his ear. Again, his mind and heart were so absorbed at this moment by the image of Tancred, and he was so entirely under the influence of his own idealised conceptions of his new and latest friend, that, according to his custom, no other being could interest him. Although he was himself the sole cause of all the difficult and annoying circumstances in which he found himself involved, the moment that his passions and his interests alike required that Tancred should be free and uninjured, he acted, and indeed felt, as if Amalek alone were responsible for the capture and the detention of Lord Montacute.

The young Emir indeed was, at this moment, in one of those moods which had often marred his popularity, but in which he had never indulged towards Eva before. She had, throughout his life, been the commanding influence of his being. He adored and feared her, and knew that she loved, and rather despised him. But Eva had ceased to be the commanding influence over Fakredeen. At this moment Fakredeen would have sacrificed the whole family of Besso to secure the devotion of Tancred; and the coarse and rude exclamation to which he had given vent, indicated the current of his feelings and the general tenor of his mind.

Eva knew him by heart. Her clear sagacious intellect, acting upon an individual whom sympathy and circumstances had combined to make her comprehend, analysed with marvellous facility his complicated motives, and in general successfully penetrated his sovereign design.

'An obstinate Jew dog!' she exclaimed; 'and who art thou, thou jackal of this lion! who should dare to speak thus? Is it not enough that you have involved us all in unspeakable difficulty and possible disgrace, that we are to receive words of contumely from lips like yours? One would think that you were the English Consul arrived here to make a representation in favour of his countryman, instead of being the individual who planned his plunder, occasioned his captivity, and endangered his life! It is a pity that this young noble is not acquainted with your claims to his confidence.'

The possibility that in a moment of irritation Eva might reveal his secret, some rising remorse at what he had said, and the superstitious reverence with which he still clung to her, all acting upon Fakredeen at the same time, he felt that he had gone too far, and thereupon he sprang from the divan, on which he had been insolently lolling, and threw himself at the feet of his foster-sister, whimpering and kissing her slippers, and calling her, between his sobs, a thousand fond names.

'I am a villain,' he said, 'but you know it; you have always known it. For God's sake, stand by me now; 'tis my only chance. You are the only being I love in the world, except your family. You know how I respect them. Is not Besso my father? And the great Sheikh, I honour the great Sheikh. He is one of my allies. Even this accursed business proves it. Besides, what do you mean, by words of contumely from my lips? Am I not a Jew myself, or as good? Why should I insult them? I only wish we were in the Land' of Promise, instead of this infernal wilderness.'

'Well, well, let us consult together,' said Eva, 'reproaches are barren.'

'Ah! Eva,' said Fakredeen, 'I am not reproaching you; but if, the evening I was at Bethany, you had only told me that you had just parted with this Englishman, all this would not have occurred.'

'How do you know that I had then just parted with this Englishman?' said Eva, colouring and confused.

'Because I marked him on the road. I little thought then that he had been in your retreat. I took him for some Frank, looking after the tomb of Lazarus.'

'I found him in my garden,' said Eva, not entirely at her ease, 'and sent my attendants to him.'

Fakredeen was walking up and down the tent, and seemed lost in thought. Suddenly he stopped and said, 'I see it all; I have a combination that will put all right.'

'Put all right?'

'See, the day after to-morrow I have appointed to meet a friend of mine at Gaza, who has a caravan that wants convoy through the desert to the mountain. The Sheikh of Sheikhs shall have it. It will be as good as ten thousand piastres. That will be honey in his mouth. He will forget the past, and our English friend can return with you and me to El Khuds.'

'I shall not return to El Khuds,' said Eva. 'The great Sheikh will convoy me to Damascus, where I shall remain till I go to Aleppo.'

'May you never reach Aleppo!' said Fakredeen, with a clouded countenance, for Eva in fact alluded to her approaching marriage with her cousin.

'But after all,' resumed Eva, wishing to change the current of his thoughts, 'all these arrangements, so far as I am interested, depend upon the success of my mission to the great Sheikh. If he will not release my father's charge, the spears of his people will never guard me again. And I see little prospect of my success; nor do I think ten thousand piastres, however honestly gained, will be more tempting than the inclination to oblige our house.'

'Ten thousand piastres is not much,' said Fakredeen. 'I give it every three months for interest to a little Copt at Beiroot, whose property I will confiscate the moment I have the government of the country in my hands. But then I only add my ten thousand piastres to the amount of my debt. Ten thousand piastres in coin are a very different affair. They will jingle in the great Sheikh's purse. His people will think he has got the treasure of Solomon. It will do; he will give them all a gold kaireen apiece, and they will braid them in their girls' hair.'

'It will scarcely buy camels for Sheikh Salem's widow,' said Eva.

'I will manage that,' said Fakredeen. 'The great Sheikh has camels enough, and I will give him arms in exchange.'

'Arms at Canobia will not reach the stony wilderness.'

'No; but I have got arms nearer at hand; that is, my friend, my friend whom I am going to meet at Gaza, has some; enough, and to spare. By the Holy Sepulchre, I see it!' said Fakredeen. 'I tell you how I will manage the whole business. The great Sheikh wants arms; well, I will give him five hundred muskets for the ransom, and he shall have the convoy besides. He'll take it. I know him. He thinks now all is lost, and, when he finds that he is to have a jingling purse and English muskets enough to conquer Tadmor, he will close.'

'But how are we to get these arms?' said Eva.

'Why, Scheriff Effendi, to be sure. You know I am to meet him at Gaza the day after to-morrow, and receive his five thousand muskets. Well, five hundred for the great Sheikh will make them four thousand five hundred; no great difference.'

'Scheriff Effendi!' said Eva, with some surprise. 'I thought I had obtained three months' indulgence for you with Scheriff Effendi.'

'Ah! yes—no,' said Fakredeen, blushing. 'The fact is, Eva, darling, beloved Eva, it is no use telling any more lies. I only asked you to speak to Scheriff Effendi to obtain time for me about payment to throw you off the scent, as you so strongly disapproved of my buccaneering project. But Scheriff Effendi is a camel. I was obliged to agree to meet him at Gaza on the new moon, pay him his two hundred thousand piastres, and receive the cargo. Well, I turn circumstances to account. The great Sheikh will convey the muskets to the mountains.'

'But who is to pay for them?' inquired Eva.

'Why, if men want to head the Asian movement, they must have muskets,' said Fakredeen; 'and, after all, as we are going to save the English prince two millions of piastres, I do not think he can object to paying Scheriff Effendi for his goods; particularly as he will have the muskets for his money.'