Beyrout on its land side is hemmed in by the Druses, who occupy all the neighbouring highlands.
Often enough I saw the ghostly images of the women with their exalted horns stalking through the streets, and I saw too in travelling the affrighted groups of the mountaineers as they fled before me, under the fear that my party might be a company of income-tax commissioners, or a pressgang enforcing the conscription for Mehemet Ali; but nearly all my knowledge of the people, except in regard of their mere costume and outward appearance, is drawn from books and despatches, to which I have the honour to refer you.
I received hospitable welcome at Beyrout from the Europeans as well as from the Syrian Christians, and I soon discovered that their standing topic of interest was the Lady Hester Stanhope, who lived in an old convent on the Lebanon range, at the distance of about a day’s journey from the town. The lady’s habit of refusing to see Europeans added the charm of mystery to a character which, even without that aid, was sufficiently distinguished to command attention.
Many years of Lady Hester’s early womanhood had been passed with Lady Chatham at Burton Pynsent, and during that inglorious period of the heroine’s life her commanding character, and (as they would have called it in the language of those days) her “condescending kindness” towards my mother’s family, had increased in them those strong feelings of respect and attachment, which her rank and station alone would have easily won from people of the middle class. You may suppose how deeply the quiet women in Somersetshire must have been interested, when they slowly learned by vague and uncertain tidings that the intrepid girl who had been used to break their vicious horses for them was reigning in sovereignty over the wandering tribes of Western Asia! I know that her name was made almost as familiar to me in my childhood as the name of Robinson Crusoe — both were associated with the spirit of adventure; but whilst the imagined life of the cast-away mariner never failed to seem glaringly real, the true story of the Englishwoman ruling over Arabs always sounded to me like fable. I never had heard, nor indeed, I believe, had the rest of the world ever heard, anything like a certain account of the heroine’s adventures; all I knew was, that in one of the drawers which were the delight of my childhood, along with attar of roses and fragrant wonders from Hindustan, there were letters carefully treasured, and trifling presents which I was taught to think valuable because they had come from the queen of the desert, who dwelt in tents, and reigned over wandering Arabs.
This subject, however, died away, and from the ending of my childhood up to the period of my arrival in the Levant, I had seldom even heard a mentioning of the Lady Hester Stanhope, but now, wherever I went, I was met by the name so familiar in sound, and yet so full of mystery from the vague, fairy-tale sort of idea which it brought to my mind; I heard it, too, connected with fresh wonders, for it was said that the woman was now acknowledged as an inspired being by the people of the mountains, and it was even hinted with horror that she claimed to be MORE THAN A PROPHET.
I felt at once that my mother would be sadly sorry to hear that I had been within a day’s ride of her early friend without offering to see her, and I therefore despatched a letter to the recluse, mentioning the maiden name of my mother (whose marriage was subsequent to Lady Hester’s departure), and saying that if there existed on the part of her ladyship any wish to hear of her old Somersetshire acquaintance, I should make a point of visiting her. My letter was sent by a foot-messenger, who was to take an unlimited time for his journey, so that it was not, I think, until either the third or the fourth day that the answer arrived. A couple of horsemen covered with mud suddenly dashed into the little court of the “locanda” in which I was staying, bearing themselves as ostentatiously as though they were carrying a cartel from the Devil to the Angel Michael: one of these (the other being his attendant) was an Italian by birth (though now completely orientalised), who lived in my lady’s establishment as doctor nominally, but practically as an upper servant; he presented me a very kind and appropriate letter of invitation.
It happened that I was rather unwell at this time, so that I named a more distant day for my visit than I should otherwise have done, and after all, I did not start at the time fixed. Whilst still remaining at Beyrout I received this letter, which certainly betrays no symptom of the pretensions to divine power which were popularly attributed to the writer:-
“SIR, — I hope I shall be disappointed in seeing you on Wednesday, for the late rains have rendered the river Damoor if not dangerous, at least very unpleasant to pass for a person who has been lately indisposed, for if the animal swims, you would be immerged in the waters. The weather will probably change after the 21st of the moon, and after a couple of days the roads and the river will be passable, therefore I shall expect you either Saturday or Monday.
“It will be a great satisfaction to me to have an opportunity of inquiring after your mother, who was a sweet, lovely girl when I knew her. “Believe me, sir, “Yours sincerely, “HESTER LUCY STANHOPE.”
Early one morning I started from Beyrout. There are no regularly established relays of horses in Syria, at least not in the line which I took, and you therefore hire your cattle for the whole journey, or at all events, for your journey to some large town. Under these circumstances you have no occasion for a Tatar (whose principal utility consists in his power to compel the supply of horses). In other respects, the mode of travelling through Syria differs very little from that which I have described as prevailing in Turkey. I hired my horses and mules (for I had some of both) for the whole of the journey from Beyrout to Jerusalem. The owner of the beasts (who had a couple of fellows under him) was the most dignified member of my party; he was, indeed, a magnificent old man, and was called Shereef, or “holy” — a title of honour which, with the privilege of wearing the green turban, he well deserved, not only from the blood of the Prophet that flowed in his veins, but from the well-known sanctity of his life and the length of his blessed beard.
Mysseri, of course, still travelled with me, but the Arabic was not one of the seven languages which he spoke so perfectly, and I was therefore obliged to hire another interpreter. I had no difficulty in finding a proper man for the purpose — one Demetrius, or, as he was always called, Dthemetri, a native of Zante, who had been tossed about by fortune in all directions. He spoke the Arabic very well, and communicated with me in Italian. The man was a very zealous member of the Greek Church. He had been a tailor. He was as ugly as the devil, having a thoroughly Tatar countenance, which expressed the agony of his body or mind, as the case might be, in the most ludicrous manner imaginable. He embellished the natural caricature of his person by suspending about his neck and shoulders and waist quantities of little bundles and parcels, which he thought too valuable to be entrusted to the jerking of pack-saddles. The mule that fell to his lot on this journey every now and then, forgetting that his rider was a saint, and remembering that he was a tailor, took a quiet roll upon the ground, and stretched his limbs calmly and lazily, like a good man awaiting a sermon. Dthemetri never got seriously hurt, but the subversion and dislocation of his bundles made him for the moment a sad spectacle of ruin, and when he regained his legs, his wrath with the mule became very amusing. He always addressed the beast in language which implied that he, as a Christian and saint, had been personally insulted and oppressed by a Mahometan mule. Dthemetri, however, on the whole, proved to be a most able and capital servant. I suspected him of now and then leading me out of my way in order that he might have the opportunity of visiting the shrine of a saint, and on one occasion, as you will see by-and-by, he was induced by religious motives to commit a gross breach of duty; but putting these pious faults out of the question (and they were faults of the right side), he was always faithful and true to me.
I left Saide (the Sidon of ancient times) on my right, and about an hour, I think, before sunset began to ascend one of the many low hills of Lebanon. On the summit before me was a broad, grey mass of irregular building, which from its position, as well as from the gloomy blankness of its walls, gave the idea of a neglected fortress. It had, in fact, been a convent of great size, and like most of the religious houses in this part of the world, had been made strong enough for opposing an inert resistance to any mere casual band of assailants who might be unprovided with regular means of attack: this was the dwelling-place of the Chatham’s fiery granddaughter.
The aspect of the first court which I entered was such as to keep one in the idea of having to do with a fortress rather than a mere peaceable dwelling-place. A number of fierce-looking and ill-clad Albanian soldiers were hanging about the place, and striving to bear the curse of tranquillity as well as they could: two or three of them, I think, were smoking their tchibouques, but the rest of them were lying torpidly upon the flat stones, like the bodies of departed brigands. I rode on to an inner part of the building, and at last, quitting my horses, was conducted through a doorway that led me at once from an open court into an apartment on the ground floor. As I entered, an Oriental figure in male costume approached me from the farther end of the room with many and profound bows, but the growing shades of evening prevented me from distinguishing the features of the personage who was receiving me with this solemn welcome. I had always, however, understood that Lady Hester Stanhope wore the male attire, and I began to utter in English the common civilities that seemed to be proper on the commencement of a visit by an uninspired mortal to a renowned prophetess; but the figure which I addressed only bowed so much the more, prostrating itself almost to the ground, but speaking to me never a word. I feebly strived not to be outdone in gestures of respect; but presently my bowing opponent saw the error under which I was acting, and suddenly convinced me that, at all events, I was not YET in the presence of a superhuman being, by declaring that he was not “miladi,” but was, in fact, nothing more or less god-like than the poor doctor, who had brought his mistress’s letter to Beyrout.
Her ladyship, in the right spirit of hospitality, now sent and commanded me to repose for a while after the fatigues of my journey, and to dine.
The cuisine was of the Oriental kind, which is highly artificial, and I thought it very good. I rejoiced too in the wine of the Lebanon.
Soon after the ending of the dinner the doctor arrived with miladi’s compliments, and an intimation that she would he happy to receive me if I were so disposed. It had now grown dark, and the rain was falling heavily, so that I got rather wet in following my guide through the open courts that I had to pass in order to reach the presence chamber. At last I was ushered into a small apartment, which was protected from the draughts of air passing through the doorway by a folding screen; passing this, I came alongside of a common European sofa, where sat the lady prophetess. She rose from her seat very formally, spoke to me a few words of welcome, pointed to a chair which was placed exactly opposite to her sofa at a couple of yards’ distance, and remained standing up to the full of her majestic height, perfectly still and motionless, until I had taken my appointed place; she then resumed her seat, not packing herself up according to the mode of the Orientals, but allowing her feet to rest on the floor or the footstool; at the moment of seating herself she covered her lap with a mass of loose white drapery which she held in her hand. It occurred to me at the time that she did this in order to avoid the awkwardness of sitting in manifest trousers under the eye of an European, but I can hardly fancy now that with her wilful nature she would have brooked such a compromise as this.
The woman before me had exactly the person of a prophetess — not, indeed, of the divine sibyl imagined by Domenichino, so sweetly distracted betwixt love and mystery, but of a good business-like, practical prophetess, long used to the exercise of her sacred calling. I have been told by those who knew Lady Hester Stanhope in her youth, that any notion of a resemblance betwixt her and the great Chatham must have been fanciful; but at the time of my seeing her, the large commanding features of the gaunt woman, then sixty years old or more, certainly reminded me of the statesman that lay dying 15 in the House of Lords, according to Copley’s picture. Her face was of the most astonishing whiteness; 16 she wore a very large turban, which seemed to be of pale cashmere shawls, so disposed as to conceal the hair; her dress, from the chin down to the point at which it was concealed by the drapery which she held over her lap, was a mass of white linen loosely folding — an ecclesiastical sort of affair, more like a surplice than any of those blessed creations which our souls love under the names of “dress” and “frock” and “boddice” and “collar” and “habit-shirt” and sweet “chemisette.”
Such was the outward seeming of the personage that sat before me, and indeed she was almost bound by the fame of her actual achievements, as well as by her sublime pretensions, to look a little differently from the rest of womankind. There had been something of grandeur in her career. After the death of Lady Chatham, which happened in 1803, she lived under the roof of her uncle, the second Pitt, and when he resumed the Government in 1804, she became the dispenser of much patronage, and sole secretary of state for the department of Treasury banquets. Not having seen the lady until late in her life, when she was fired with spiritual ambition, I can hardly fancy that she could have performed her political duties in the saloons of the Minister with much of feminine sweetness and patience. I am told, however, that she managed matters very well indeed: perhaps it was better for the lofty-minded leader of the House to have his reception-rooms guarded by this stately creature, than by a merely clever and managing woman; it was fitting that the wholesome awe with which he filled the minds of the country gentlemen should be aggravated by the presence of his majestic niece. But the end was approaching. The sun of Austerlitz showed the Czar madly sliding his splendid army like a weaver’s shuttle from his right hand to his left, under the very eyes — the deep, grey, watchful eyes of Napoleon; before night came, the coalition was a vain thing — meet for history, and the heart of its great author was crushed with grief when the terrible tidings came to his ears. In the bitterness of his despair he cried out to his niece, and bid her, “ROLL UP THE MAP OF EUROPE”; there was a little more of suffering, and at last, with his swollen tongue (so they say) still muttering something for England, he died by the noblest of all sorrows.
Lady Hester, meeting the calamity in her own fierce way, seems to have scorned the poor island that had not enough of God’s grace to keep the “heaven-sent” Minister alive. I can hardly tell why it should be, but there is a longing for the East very commonly felt by proud-hearted people when goaded by sorrow. Lady Hester Stanhope obeyed this impulse. For some time, I believe, she was at Constantinople, where her magnificence and near alliance to the late Minister gained her great influence. Afterwards she passed into Syria. The people of that country, excited by the achievements of Sir Sidney Smith, had begun to imagine the possibility of their land being occupied by the English, and many of them looked upon Lady Hester as a princess who came to prepare the way for the expected conquest. I don’t know it from her own lips, or indeed from any certain authority, but I have been told that she began her connection with the Bedouins by making a large present of money (500 pounds it was said — immense in piastres) to the Sheik whose authority was recognised in that part of the desert which lies between Damascus and Palmyra. The prestige created by the rumours of her high and undefined rank, as well as of her wealth and corresponding magnificence, was well sustained by her imperious character and her dauntless bravery. Her influence increased. I never heard anything satisfactory as to the real extent or duration of her sway, but it seemed that for a time at least she certainly exercised something like sovereignty amongst the wandering tribes. 17 And now that her earthly kingdom had passed away she strove for spiritual power, and impiously dared, as it was said, to boast some mystic union with the very God of very God!
A couple of black slave girls came at a signal, and supplied their mistress as well as myself with lighted tchibouques and coffee.
The custom of the East sanctions, and almost commands, some moments of silence whilst you are inhaling the first few breaths of the fragrant pipe. The pause was broken, I think, by my lady, who addressed to me some inquiries respecting my mother, and particularly as to her marriage; but before I had communicated any great amount of family facts, the spirit of the prophetess kindled within her, and presently (though with all the skill of a woman of the world) she shuffled away the subject of poor, dear Somersetshire, and bounded onward into loftier spheres of thought.
My old acquaintance with some of “the twelve” enabled me to bear my part (of course a very humble one) in a conversation relative to occult science. Milnes once spread a report, that every gang of gipsies was found upon inquiry to have come last from a place to the westward, and to be about to make the next move in an eastern direction; either therefore they where to be all gathered together towards the rising of the sun by the mysterious finger of Providence, or else they were to revolve round the globe for ever and ever: both of these suppositions were highly gratifying, because they were both marvellous; and though the story on which they were founded plainly sprang from the inventive brain of a poet, no one had ever been so odiously statistical as to attempt a contradiction of it. I now mentioned the story as a report to Lady Hester Stanhope, and asked her if it were true. I could not have touched upon any imaginable subject more deeply interesting to my hearer, more closely akin to her habitual train of thinking. She immediately threw off all the restraint belonging to an interview with a stranger; and when she had received a few more similar proofs of my aptness for the marvellous, she went so far as to say that she would adopt me as her eleve in occult science.
For hours and hours this wondrous white woman poured forth her speech, for the most part concerning sacred and profane mysteries; but every now and then she would stay her lofty flight and swoop down upon the world again. Whenever this happened I was interested in her conversation.
She adverted more than once to the period of her lost sway amongst the Arabs, and mentioned some of the circumstances that aided her in obtaining influence with the wandering tribes. The Bedouin, so often engaged in irregular warfare, strains his eyes to the horizon in search of a coming enemy just as habitually as the sailor keeps his “bright lookout” for a strange sail. In the absence of telescopes a far-reaching sight is highly valued, and Lady Hester possessed this quality to an extraordinary degree. She told me that on one occasion, when there was good reason to expect a hostile attack, great excitement was felt in the camp by the report of a far-seeing Arab, who declared that he could just distinguish some moving objects upon the very farthest point within the reach of his eyes. Lady Hester was consulted, and she instantly assured her comrades in arms that there were indeed a number of horses within sight, but that they were without riders. The assertion proved to be correct, and from that time forth her superiority over all others in respect of far sight remained undisputed.
Lady Hester related to me this other anecdote of her Arab life. It was when the heroic qualities of the Englishwoman were just beginning to be felt amongst the people of the desert, that she was marching one day, along with the forces of the tribe to which she had allied herself. She perceived that preparations for an engagement were going on, and upon her making inquiry as to the cause, the Sheik at first affected mystery and concealment, but at last confessed that war had been declared against his tribe on account of its alliance with the English princess, and that they were now unfortunately about to be attacked by a very superior force. He made it appear that Lady Hester was the sole cause of hostility betwixt his tribe and the impending enemy, and that his sacred duty of protecting the Englishwoman whom he had admitted as his guest was the only obstacle which prevented an amicable arrangement of the dispute. The Sheik hinted that his tribe was likely to sustain an almost overwhelming blow, but at the same time declared, that no fear of the consequences, however terrible to him and his whole people, should induce him to dream of abandoning his illustrious guest. The heroine instantly took her part: it was not for her to be a source of danger to her friends, but rather to her enemies, so she resolved to turn away from the people, and trust for help to none save only her haughty self. The Sheiks affected to dissuade her from so rash a course, and fairly told her that although they (having been freed from her presence) would be able to make good terms for themselves, yet that there were no means of allaying the hostility felt towards her, and that the whole face of the desert would be swept by the horsemen of her enemies so carefully, as to make her escape into other districts almost impossible. The brave woman was not to be moved by terrors of this kind, and bidding farewell to the tribe which had honoured and protected her, she turned her horse’s head and rode straight away from them, without friend or follower. Hours had elapsed, and for some time she had been alone in the centre of the round horizon, when her quick eye perceived some horsemen in the distance. The party came nearer and nearer; soon it was plain that they were making towards her, and presently some hundreds of Bedouins, fully armed, galloped up to her, ferociously shouting, and apparently intending to take her life at the instant with their pointed spears. Her face at the time was covered with the yashmak, according to Eastern usage, but at the moment when the foremost of the horsemen had all but reached her with their spears, she stood up in her stirrups, withdrew the yashmak that veiled the terrors of her countenance, waved her arm slowly and disdainfully, and cried out with a loud voice “Avaunt!” 18 The horsemen recoiled from her glance, but not in terror. The threatening yells of the assailants were suddenly changed for loud shouts of joy and admiration at the bravery of the stately Englishwoman, and festive gunshots were fired on all sides around her honoured head. The truth was, that the party belonged to the tribe with which she had allied herself, and that the threatened attack as well as the pretended apprehension of an engagement had been contrived for the mere purpose of testing her courage. The day ended in a great feast prepared to do honour to the heroine, and from that time her power over the minds of the people grew rapidly. Lady Hester related this story with great spirit, and I recollect that she put up her yashmak for a moment in order to give me a better idea of the effect which she produced by suddenly revealing the awfulness of her countenance.
With respect to her then present mode of life, Lady Hester informed me, that for her sin she had subjected herself during many years to severe penance, and that her self-denial had not been without its reward. “Vain and false,” said she, “is all the pretended knowledge of the Europeans — their doctors will tell you that the drinking of milk gives yellowness to the complexion; milk is my only food, and you see if my face be not white.” Her abstinence from food intellectual was carried as far as her physical fasting. She never, she said, looked upon a book or a newspaper, but trusted alone to the stars for her sublime knowledge; she usually passed the nights in communing with these heavenly teachers, and lay at rest during the daytime. She spoke with great contempt of the frivolity and benighted ignorance of the modern Europeans, and mentioned in proof of this, that they were not only untaught in astrology, but were unacquainted with the common and every-day phenomena produced by magic art. She spoke as if she would make me understand that all sorcerous spells were completely at her command, but that the exercise of such powers would be derogatory to her high rank in the heavenly kingdom. She said that the spell by which the face of an absent person is thrown upon a mirror was within the reach of the humblest and most contemptible magicians, but that the practice of such-like arts was unholy as well as vulgar.
We spoke of the bending twig by which, it is said, precious metals may be discovered. In relation to this, the prophetess told me a story rather against herself, and inconsistent with the notion of her being perfect in her science; but I think that she mentioned the facts as having happened before the time at which she attained to the great spiritual authority which she now arrogated. She told me that vast treasures were known to exist in a situation which she mentioned, if I rightly remember, as being near Suez; that Napoleon, profanely brave, thrust his arm into the cave containing the coveted gold, and that instantly his flesh became palsied, but the youthful hero (for she said he was great in his generation) was not to be thus daunted; he fell back characteristically upon his brazen resources, and ordered up his artillery; but man could not strive with demons, and Napoleon was foiled. In after years came Ibrahim Pasha, with heavy guns, and wicked spells to boot, but the infernal guardians of the treasure were too strong for him. It was after this that Lady Hester passed by the spot, and she described with animated gesture the force and energy with which the divining twig had suddenly leaped in her hands. She ordered excavations, and no demons opposed her enterprise; the vast chest in which the treasure had been deposited was at length discovered, but lo and behold, it was full of pebbles! She said, however, that the times were approaching in which the hidden treasures of the earth would become available to those who had true knowledge.
Speaking of Ibrahim Pasha, Lady Hester said that he was a bold, bad man, and was possessed of some of those common and wicked magical arts upon which she looked down with so much contempt. She said, for instance, that Ibrahim’s life was charmed against balls and steel, and that after a battle he loosened the folds of his shawl and shook out the bullets like dust.
It seems that the St. Simonians once made overtures to Lady Hester. She told me that the Pere Enfantin (the chief of the sect) had sent her a service of plate, but that she had declined to receive it. She delivered a prediction as to the probability of the St. Simonians finding the “mystic mother,” and this she did in a way which would amuse you. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to mention this part of the woman’s prophecies; why, I cannot tell, but so it is, that she bound me to eternal secrecy.
Lady Hester told me that since her residence at Djoun she had been attacked by a terrible illness, which rendered her for a long time perfectly helpless; all her attendants fled, and left her to perish. Whilst she lay thus alone, and quite unable to rise, robbers came and carried away her property. 19 She told me that they actually unroofed a great part of the building, and employed engines with pulleys, for the purpose of hoisting out such of her valuables as were too bulky to pass through doors. It would seem that before this catastrophe Lady Hester had been rich in the possession of Eastern luxuries; for she told me, that when the chiefs of the Ottoman force took refuge with her after the fall of Acre, they brought their wives also in great numbers. To all of these Lady Hester, as she said, presented magnificent dresses; but her generosity occasioned strife only instead of gratitude, for every woman who fancied her present less splendid than that of another with equal or less pretension, became absolutely furious: all these audacious guests had now been got rid of, but the Albanian soldiers, who had taken refuge with Lady Hester at the same time, still remained under her protection.
In truth, this half-ruined convent, guarded by the proud heart of an English gentlewoman, was the only spot throughout all Syria and Palestine in which the will of Mehemet Ali and his fierce lieutenant was not the law. More than once had the Pasha of Egypt commanded that Ibrahim should have the Albanians delivered up to him, but this white woman of the mountain (grown classical not by books, but by very pride) answered only with a disdainful invitation to “come and take them.” Whether it was that Ibrahim was acted upon by any superstitious dread of interfering with the prophetess (a notion not at all incompatible with his character as an able Oriental commander), or that he feared the ridicule of putting himself in collision with a gentlewoman, he certainly never ventured to attack the sanctuary, and so long as the Chatham’s granddaughter breathed a breath of life there was always this one hillock, and that too in the midst of a most populous district, which stood out, and kept its freedom. Mehemet Ali used to say, I am told, that the Englishwoman had given him more trouble than all the insurgent people of Syria and Palestine.
The prophetess announced to me that we were upon the eve of a stupendous convulsion, which would destroy the then recognised value of all property upon earth; and declaring that those only who should be in the East at the time of the great change could hope for greatness in the new life that was now close at hand, she advised me, whilst there was yet time, to dispose of my property in poor frail England, and gain a station in Asia. She told me that, after leaving her, I should go into Egypt, but that in a little while I should return into Syria. I secretly smiled at this last prophecy as a “bad shot,” for I had fully determined after visiting the Pyramids to take ship from Alexandria for Greece. But men struggle vainly in the meshes of their destiny. The unbelieved Cassandra was right after all; the plague came, and the necessity of avoiding the quarantine, to which I should have been subjected if I had sailed from Alexandria, forced me to alter my route. I went down into Egypt, and stayed there for a time, and then crossed the desert once more, and came back to the mountains of the Lebanon, exactly as the prophetess had foretold.
Lady Hester talked to me long and earnestly on the subject of religion, announcing that the Messiah was yet to come. She strived to impress me with the vanity and the falseness of all European creeds, as well as with a sense of her own spiritual greatness: throughout her conversation upon these high topics she carefully insinuated, without actually asserting, her heavenly rank.
Amongst other much more marvellous powers, the lady claimed to have one which most women, I fancy, possess namely, that of reading men’s characters in their faces. She examined the line of my features very attentively, and told me the result, which, however, I mean to keep hidden.
One favoured subject of discourse was that of “race,” upon which she was very diffuse, and yet rather mysterious. She set great value upon the ancient French 20 (not Norman blood, for that she vilified), but did not at all appreciate that which we call in this country “an old family.” She had a vast idea of the Cornish miners on account of their race, and said, if she chose, she could give me the means of rousing them to the most tremendous enthusiasm.
Such are the topics on which the lady mainly conversed, but very often she would descend to more worldly chat, and then she was no longer the prophetess, but the sort of woman that you sometimes see, I am told, in London drawing-rooms — cool, decisive in manner, unsparing of enemies, full of audacious fun, and saying the downright things that the sheepish society around her is afraid to utter. I am told that Lady Hester was in her youth a capital mimic, and she showed me that not all the queenly dulness to which she had condemned herself, not all her fasting and solitude, had destroyed this terrible power. The first whom she crucified in my presence was poor Lord Byron. She had seen him, it appeared, I know not where, soon after his arrival in the East, and was vastly amused at his little affectations. He had picked up a few sentences of the Romantic, with which he affected to give orders to his Greek servant. I can’t tell whether Lady Hester’s mimicry of the bard was at all close, but it was amusing; she attributed to him a curiously coxcombical lisp.
Another person whose style of speaking the lady took off very amusingly was one who would scarcely object to suffer by the side of Lord Byron — I mean Lamartine, who had visited her in the course of his travels. The peculiarity which attracted her ridicule was an over-refinement of manner: according to my lady’s imitation of Lamartine (I have never seen him myself), he had none of the violent grimace of his countrymen, and not even their usual way of talking, but rather bore himself mincingly, like the humbler sort of English dandy. 21
Lady Hester seems to have heartily despised everything approaching to exquisiteness. She told me, by-the-bye (and her opinion upon that subject is worth having), that a downright manner, amounting even to brusqueness, is more effective than any other with the Oriental; and that amongst the English of all ranks and all classes there is no man so attractive to the Orientals, no man who can negotiate with them half so effectively, as a good, honest, open-hearted, and positive naval officer of the old school.
I have told you, I think, that Lady Hester could deal fiercely with those she hated. One man above all others (he is now uprooted from society, and cast away for ever) she blasted with her wrath. You would have thought that in the scornfulness of her nature she must have sprung upon her foe with more of fierceness than of skill; but this was not so, for with all the force and vehemence of her invective she displayed a sober, patient, and minute attention to the details of vituperation, which contributed to its success a thousand times more than mere violence.
During the hours that this sort of conversation, or rather discourse, was going on our tchibouques were from time to time replenished, and the lady as well as I continued to smoke with little or no intermission till the interview ended. I think that the fragrant fumes of the latakiah must have helped to keep me on my good behaviour as a patient disciple of the prophetess.
It was not till after midnight that my visit for the evening came to an end. When I quitted my seat the lady rose and stood up in the same formal attitude (almost that of a soldier in a state of “attention”) which she had assumed at my entrance; at the same time she let go the drapery which she had held over her lap whilst sitting and allowed it to fall to the ground.
The next morning after breakfast I was visited by my lady’s secretary — the only European, except the doctor, whom she retained in her household. This secretary, like the doctor, was Italian, but he preserved more signs of European dress and European pretensions than his medical fellow-slave. He spoke little or no English, though he wrote it pretty well, having been formerly employed in a mercantile house connected with England. The poor fellow was in an unhappy state of mind. In order to make you understand the extent of his spiritual anxieties, I ought to have told you that the doctor 22 (who had sunk into the complete Asiatic, and had condescended accordingly to the performance of even menial services) had adopted the common faith of all the neighbouring people, and had become a firm and happy believer in the divine power of his mistress. Not so the secretary. When I had strolled with him to a distance from the building, which rendered him safe from being overheard by human ears, he told me in a hollow voice, trembling with emotion, that there were times at which he doubted the divinity of “miledi.” I said nothing to encourage the poor fellow in that frightful state of scepticism which, if indulged, might end in positive infidelity. I found that her ladyship had rather arbitrarily abridged the amusements of her secretary, forbidding him from shooting small birds on the mountain-side. This oppression had arouses in him a spirit of inquiry that might end fatally, perhaps for himself, perhaps for the “religion of the place.”
The secretary told me that his mistress was greatly disliked by the surrounding people, whom she oppressed by her exactions, and the truth of this statement was borne out by the way in which my lady spoke to me of her neighbours. But in Eastern countries hate and veneration are very commonly felt for the same object, and the general belief in the superhuman power of this wonderful white lady, her resolute and imperious character, and above all, perhaps, her fierce Albanians (not backward to obey an order for the sacking of a village), inspired sincere respect amongst the surrounding inhabitants. Now the being “respected” amongst Orientals is not an empty or merely honorary distinction, but carries with it a clear right to take your neighbour’s corn, his cattle, his eggs, and his honey, and almost anything that is his, except his wives. This law was acted upon by the princess of Djoun, and her establishment was supplied by contributions apportioned amongst the nearest of the villages.
I understood that the Albanians (restrained, I suppose, by the dread of being delivered up to Ibrahim) had not given any very troublesome proofs of their unruly natures. The secretary told me that their rations, including a small allowance of coffee and tobacco, were served out to them with tolerable regularity.
I asked the secretary how Lady Hester was off for horses, and said that I would take a look at the stable. The man did not raise any opposition to my proposal, and affected no mystery about the matter, but said that the only two steeds which then belonged to her ladyship were of a very humble sort. This answer, and a storm of rain then beginning to descend, prevented me at the time from undertaking my journey to the stable, which was at some distance from the part of the building in which I was quartered, and I don’t know that I ever thought of the matter afterwards until my return to England, when I saw Lamartine’s eye-witnessing account of the horse saddled by the hands of his Maker!
When I returned to my apartment (which, as my hostess told me, was the only one in the whole building that kept out the rain) her ladyship sent to say that she would be glad to receive me again. I was rather surprised at this, for I had understood that she reposed during the day, and it was now little later than noon. “Really,” said she, when I had taken my seat and my pipe, “we were together for hours last night, and still I have heard nothing at all of my old friends; now DO tell me something of your dear mother and her sister; I never knew your father — it was after I left Burton Pynsent that your mother married.” I began to make slow answer, but my questioner soon went off again to topics more sublime, so that this second interview, which lasted two or three hours, was occupied by the same sort of varied discourse as that which I have been describing.
In the course of the afternoon the captain of an English man-of-war arrived at Djoun, and her ladyship determined to receive him for the same reason as that which had induced her to allow my visit, namely, an early intimacy with his family. I and the new visitor, who was a pleasant, amusing person, dined together, and we were afterwards invited to the presence of my lady, with whom we sat smoking and talking till midnight. The conversation turned chiefly, I think, upon magical science. I had determined to be off at an early hour the next morning, and so at the end of this interview I bade my lady farewell. With her parting words she once more advised me to abandon Europe and seek my reward in the East, and she urged me too to give the like counsels to my father, and tell him that “SHE HAD SAID IT.”
Lady Hester’s unholy claim to supremacy in the spiritual kingdom was, no doubt, the suggestion of fierce and inordinate pride most perilously akin to madness, but I am quite sure that the mind of the woman was too strong to be thoroughly overcome by even this potent feeling. I plainly saw that she was not an unhesitating follower of her own system, and I even fancied that I could distinguish the brief moments during which she contrived to believe in herself, from those long and less happy intervals in which her own reason was too strong for her.
As for the lady’s faith in astrology and magic science, you are not for a moment to suppose that this implied any aberration of intellect. She believed these things in common with those around her, for she seldom spoke to anybody except crazy old dervishes, who received her alms, and fostered her extravagancies, and even when (as on the occasion of my visit) she was brought into contact with a person entertaining different notions, she still remained uncontradicted. This entourage and the habit of fasting from books and newspapers were quite enough to make her a facile recipient of any marvellous story.
I think that in England we are scarcely sufficiently conscious of the great debt we owe to the wise and watchful press which presides over the formation of our opinions, and which brings about this splendid result, namely, that in matters of belief the humblest of us are lifted up to the level of the most sagacious, so that really a simple cornet in the Blues is no more likely to entertain a foolish belief about ghosts or witchcraft, or any other supernatural topic, than the Lord High Chancellor or the Leader of the House of Commons. How different is the intellectual regime of Eastern countries! In Syria and Palestine and Egypt you might as well dispute the efficacy of grass or grain as of magic. There is no controversy about the matter. The effect of this, the unanimous belief of an ignorant people upon the mind of a stranger, is extremely curious, and well worth noticing. A man coming freshly from Europe is at first proof against the nonsense with which he is assailed, but often it happens that after a little while the social atmosphere in which he lives will begin to infect him, and if he has been unaccustomed to the cunning of fence by which Reason prepares the means of guarding herself against fallacy, he will yield himself at last to the faith of those around him, and this he will do by sympathy, it would seem, rather than from conviction. I have been much interested in observing that the mere “practical man,” however skilful and shrewd in his own way, has not the kind of power that will enable him to resist the gradual impression made upon his mind by the common opinion of those whom he sees and hears from day to day. Even amongst the English (whose good sense and sound religious knowledge would be likely to guard them from error) I have known the calculating merchant, the inquisitive traveller, and the post-captain, with his bright, wakeful eye of command — I have known all these surrender themselves to the REALLY magic-like influence of other people’s minds. Their language at first is that they are “staggered,” leading you by that expression to suppose that they had been witnesses to some phenomenon, which it was very difficult to account for otherwise than by supernatural causes; but when I have questioned further, I have always found that these “staggering” wonders were not even specious enough to be looked upon as good “tricks.” A man in England who gained his whole livelihood as a conjurer would soon be starved to death if he could perform no better miracles than those which are wrought with so much effect in Syria and Egypt; SOMETIMES, no doubt, a magician will make a good hit (Sir John once said a “good thing”), but all such successes range, of course, under the head of mere “tentative miracles,” as distinguished by the strong-brained Paley.
14 The writer advises that none should attempt to read the following account of the late Lady Hester Stanhope except those who may already chance to feel an interest in the personage to whom it relates. The chapter (which has been written and printed for the reasons mentioned in the preface) is chiefly filled with the detailed conversation, or rather discourse, of a highly eccentric gentlewoman.
15 Historically “fainting”; the death did not occur until long afterwards.
16 I am told that in youth she was exceedingly sallow.
17 This was my impression at the time of writing the above passage, an impression created by the popular and uncontradicted accounts of the matter, as well as by the tenor of Lady Hester’s conversation. I have now some reason to think that I was deceived, and that her sway in the desert was much more limited than I had supposed. She seems to have had from the Bedouins a fair five hundred pounds’ worth of respect, and not much more.
18 She spoke it, I dare say, in English; the words would not be the less effective for being spoken in an unknown tongue. Lady Hester, I believe, never learnt to speak the Arabic with a perfect accent.
19 The proceedings thus described to me by Lady Hester as having taken place during her illness, were afterwards re-enacted at the time of her death. Since I wrote the words to which this note is appended, I received from Warburton an interesting account of the heroine’s death, or rather the circumstances attending the discovery of the event; and I caused it to be printed in the former editions of this work. I must now give up the borrowed ornament, and omit my extract from my friend’s letter, for the rightful owner has reprinted it in “The Crescent and the Cross.” I know what a sacrifice I am making, for in noticing the first edition of this book reviewers turned aside from the text to the note, and remarked upon the interesting information which Warburton’s letter contained. [This narrative is reproduced in an Appendix to the present edition.]
20 In a letter which I afterwards received from Lady Hester, she mentioned incidentally Lord Hardwicke, and said that he was “the kindest-hearted man existing — a most manly, firm character. He comes from a good breed — all the Yorkes excellent, with ANCIENT French blood in their veins.” The under scoring of the word “ancient” is by the writer of the letter, who had certainly no great love or veneration for the French of the present day: she did not consider them as descended from her favourite stock.
21 It is said that deaf people can hear what is said concerning themselves, and it would seem that those who live without books or newspapers know all that is written about them. Lady Hester Stanhope, though not admitting a book or newspaper into her fortress, seems to have known the way in which M. Lamartine mentioned her in his book, for in a letter which she wrote to me after my return to England she says, “Although neglected, as Monsieur le M.” (referring, as I believe, to M. Lamartine) “describes, and without books, yet my head is organised to supply the want of them as well as acquired knowledge.”
22 I have been recently told that this Italian’s pretensions to the healing art were thoroughly unfounded. My informant is a gentleman who enjoyed during many years the esteem and confidence of Lady Hester Stanhope: his adventures in the Levant were most curious and interesting.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52