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Although affected, she ended by turning the matter into jest, trying to hide the emotion born of her hope; whilst her brother, who had raised his head, looked at her with mingled adoration and gratitude.

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'Oh! you,' he declared, 'you are made for catastrophes; you personify the love of life, whatever it may be.'

These daily morning conversations gradually became instinct with a kind of fever. If Madame Caroline returned to that natural inherent gaiety of hers, it was due to the courage which Saccard, with his active zeal for great enterprises, imparted. It was, indeed, now almost decided: they were going to turn the famous portfolio to account; and when the financier's shrill voice rang out everything seemed to acquire life, to assume colossal proportions. They would, in the first place, lay hands on the Mediterranean, conquer it by means of their steamship company. And, enumerating all the ports where they would establish stations, he mingled dim classical memories with his stock-exchange enthusiasm, chanting the praises of that sea, the only one which the old world had known, that blue sea around which civilisation had blossomed, and whose waves had bathed the ancient cities—Athens, Rome, Tyre, Alexandria, Carthage, Marseilles—all those seats of commerce and empire that have made Europe. Then, when they had ensured themselves possession of that vast waterway to the East, they would make a start in Syria with that little matter of the Carmel Silver Mining Company, just a few millions to gain en passant, but a capital thing to introduce, for the idea of a silver mine, of money found in the bowels of the earth and thrown up by the shovelful, was still attractive to the public, especially when ticketed with a prodigious,[Pg 73] resounding name like that of Carmel. There were also coal mines there, coal just beneath the rock, which would be worth gold when the country should be covered with factories; to say nothing of other little ventures, which would serve as interludes—the establishment of banks and industrial syndicates, and the opening up and felling of the vast Lebanon forests, whose huge trees were rotting where they stood for want of roads. Finally, he came to the giant morsel, the Oriental Railway Company, and then he began to rave, for that system of railroads cast over Asia Minor from one end to the other, like a net, to him meant speculation, financial life, at one stroke seizing hold of a new prey—that old world still intact, with incalculable wealth concealed under the ignorance and grime of ages. He scented the treasure, and neighed like a war-horse at the smell of powder.

Madame Caroline, albeit possessed of sterling good sense, and not easily influenced by feverish imaginations, yielded at last to this enthusiasm, no longer detecting its extravagance. In truth, it fanned her affection for the East, her longing to again behold that wonderful country, where she had thought herself so happy; and, by a logical counter-effect, without calculation on her part, it was she who, by her glowing descriptions and wealth of information, stimulated the fever of Saccard. When she began talking of Beyrout, where she had lived for three years, she could never stop; Beyrout lying at the foot of the Lebanon range, on a tongue of land, between a stretch of red sand and piles of fallen rock; Beyrout with its houses reared in amphitheatral fashion amid vast gardens; a delightful paradise of orange, lemon, and palm trees. Then there were all the cities of the coast: on the north, Antioch, fallen from its whilom splendour; on the south, Saida, the Sidon of long ago, Saint Jean d'Acre, Jaffa, and Tyre, now Sur, which sums them all up: Tyre, whose merchants were kings, whose mariners made the circuit of Africa, and which to-day, with its sand-choked harbour, is nothing but a field of ruins, the dust of palaces, where stand only a few fishermen's wretched and scattered huts.

And Madame Caroline had accompanied her brother everywhere; she knew Aleppo, Angora, Broussa, Smyrna, and even Trebizond. She had lived a month at Jerusalem, sleeping amid the traffic of the holy places; then two months more at Damascus, the queen of the East, standing in the midst of a vast plain—a commercial, industrial city, which the Mecca and Bagdad caravans fill with swarming life. She was also acquainted with the valleys and mountains, with the villages of the Maronites and the Druses, perched upon table-lands or hidden away in gorges, and with the cultivated and the sterile fields. And from the smallest nooks, from the silent deserts as from the great cities, she had brought back the same admiration for inexhaustible, luxuriant nature, the same wrath against evil-minded humanity. How much natural wealth was disdained or wasted! She spoke of the burdens that crushed both commerce and industry, the imbecile law that prevents the investment of more than a certain amount of capital in agriculture, the routine that leaves the peasant with nothing but the old plough which was in use before the days of Christ, and the ignorance in which millions of men are steeped even to-day, like idiotic children stopped in their growth. Once upon a time the coast had proved too small; the cities had touched each other; but now life had gone away towards the West, and only an immense, abandoned cemetery seemed to remain. No schools, no roads, the worst of Governments, justice sold, execrable officials, crushing taxes, absurd laws, idleness, and fanaticism, to say nothing of the continual shocks of civil war, massacres which destroyed entire villages.

And at thought of this she became angry, and asked if it was allowable that men should thus spoil the work of nature, a land so blest, of such exquisite beauty, where all climates were to be found—the glowing plains, the temperate mountain-sides, the perpetual snows of the lofty peaks. And her love of life, her ever-buoyant hopefulness, filled her with enthusiasm at the idea of the all-powerful magic wand with which science and speculation could strike this old sleeping soil, and suddenly reawaken it.

'Look here!' cried Saccard, 'that Carmel gorge which you have sketched, where there are now only stones and mastic-trees, well! as soon as we begin to work the silver mine, there will start up first a village, then a city! And we will clear all those sand-choked harbours, and protect them with strong breakwaters. Large ships will anchor where now mere skiffs do not venture to moor. And you will behold a complete resurrection over all those depopulated plains, those deserted passes, which our railway lines will traverse—yes! fields will be cleared, roads and canals built, new cities will spring from the soil, life will return as it returns to a sick body, when we stimulate the system by injecting new blood into the exhausted veins. Yes! money will work these miracles!'

And such was the evoking power of his piercing voice that Madame Caroline really saw the predicted civilisation rise up before her. Those bare diagrams, those sketches in outline, became animated and peopled; it was the dream that she had sometimes had of an East cleansed of its filth, drawn from its ignorance, enjoying its fertile soil and charming sky, amid all the refinements of science. She had already witnessed such a miracle at Port Said, which in so few years had lately sprung up on a barren shore; at first some huts to shelter the few labourers who began the operations, then a city of two thousand souls, followed by one of ten thousand, with houses, huge shops, a gigantic pier, life and comfort stubbornly created by toiling human ants. And it was just this that she saw rising again—the forward, irresistible march, the social impulse towards the greatest possible sum of happiness, the need of action, of going ahead, without knowing exactly whither, but at all events with more elbow-room and under improved circumstances; and amid it all there was the globe turned upside down by the ant-swarm rebuilding its abode, its work never ending, fresh sources of enjoyment ever being discovered, man's power increasing tenfold, the earth belonging to him more and more every day. Money, aiding science, yielded progress.

Hamelin, who was listening with a smile, then gave vent[Pg 76] to a prudent remark: 'All this is the poetry of results, and we are not yet at the prose of starting.'

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But Saccard's enthusiasm was only increased by the extravagance of Madame Caroline's conceptions, and matters even became worse when, on beginning to read some books about the East, he opened a history of Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition. The memory of the Crusades already haunted him, the memory of that return of the West to its cradle the East, that great movement which had carried extreme Europe back to the original country, still in full flower, and where there was so much to learn. But he was struck still more by the towering figure of Napoleon, going thither to wage war, with a grand and mysterious object. Though he had talked of conquering Egypt, of installing a French establishment there, and of thus placing the commerce of the Levant in the hands of France, he had certainly not told all; and in all that was vain and enigmatical about the expedition, Saccard fancied he could detect some mysterious, hugely ambitious project, an immense empire refounded, Napoleon crowned at Constantinople as Emperor of the East and the Indies, thus realising the dream of Alexander, and rising to a greater height than even C?sar and Charlemagne. Had he not said at Saint Helena, in speaking of Sidney Smith, the general who had stopped him before Saint Jean d'Acre: 'That man ruined my fortune'? And it was this gigantic thought of conquering the East, the scheme which the Crusaders had attempted, and which Napoleon had been unable to accomplish, that inflamed Saccard; though, in his case, it was to be a rational conquest, effected by the double agency of science and money. Since civilisation had flown from the East to the West, why should it not come back towards the East, returning to the first garden of humanity, to that Eden of the Hindustan peninsula which had fallen asleep beneath the fatigue of centuries? He would endow it with fresh youth; he would galvanise the earthly paradise, make it habitable again by means of steam and electricity, replace Asia Minor in the centre of the world, as a point of intersection of the great natural highways that bind the continents together.[Pg 77] And it was no longer a question of gaining millions, but milliards and milliards.

After that, Hamelin and he engaged in long conversations every morning. Vast as was their hope, the difficulties that presented themselves were numerous and colossal. The engineer, who had been at Beyrout in 1862, at the very time of the horrible butchery of the Maronite Christians by the Druses—a butchery which had necessitated the intervention of France—did not conceal the obstacles which would be encountered among those populations, who were ever battling together, delivered over to the tender mercies of the local authorities. However, he had powerful relations at Constantinople, where he had assured himself the support of the Grand Vizier, Fuad Pasha, a man of great merit, an avowed partisan of reforms, from whom, he flattered himself, he would obtain all necessary grants. On the other hand, whilst prophesying the inevitable bankruptcy of the Ottoman Empire, he saw a rather favourable circumstance in its unlimited need of money, in the loans which followed one upon another from year to year: for although a needy Government may offer no personal guarantee, it is usually quite ready to come to an understanding with private enterprises, if it can detect the slightest profit in them. And would it not be a practical way of solving the eternal and embarrassing Eastern question to interest the empire in great works of civilisation, and gradually lead it towards progress, that it might no longer constitute a monstrous barrier between Europe and Asia? What a fine patriotic r?le the French Companies would play in all this!

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Then, one morning, Hamelin quietly broached the secret programme to which he sometimes alluded, and which he smilingly called the crowning of his edifice.

'When we have become the masters,' said he, 'we will restore the kingdom of Palestine, and put the Pope there. At first we might content ourselves with Jerusalem, with Jaffa as a seaport. Then Syria will be declared independent, and can be annexed. You know that the time is near when it will be impossible for the Papacy to remain at Rome under the[Pg 78] revolting humiliations in store for it. It is for that day that we must have all in readiness.'

Saccard listened open-mouthed whilst Hamelin said these things in a thoroughly unaffected way, actuated solely by his deep Catholic faith. The financier himself did not shrink from extravagant dreams, but never would he have gone to such a point as this. This man of science, apparently so cold, quite astounded him. 'It's madness!' he cried. 'The Porte won't give up Jerusalem.'

'Oh! why not?' quietly rejoined Hamelin. 'It is always in such desperate need of money! Jerusalem is a burden to it; it would be a good riddance. The Porte, you know, often can't tell what course to take between the various sects which dispute for possession of the sanctuaries. Moreover, the Pope would have true supporters among the Syrian Maronites, for you are not unaware that he has established a college for their priests at Rome. In fact, I have thought the matter over carefully, have calculated everything, and this will be the new era, the triumphant era of Catholicism. It may be said that we should be sending the Pope too far away, that he would find himself isolated, thrust out of European affairs. But with what brilliancy and authority would he not radiate when once he was enthroned in the holy places, and spoke in the name of Christ from the very land where Christ Himself spoke! That is his patrimony, there should be his kingdom. And, rest easy, we will build this kingdom up, firm and powerful; we will put it beyond the reach of political disturbances, by basing its budget—guaranteed by the resources of the country—on a vast bank for the shares of which the Catholics of the entire world will scramble.'