CHAPTER VIII - LADY HESTER STANHOPE
BEYROUT on its land side is hemmed in by the Druses, who occupy all the neighbouring highlands.
* 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.
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."