Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 54.djvu/20

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

with her open-handed charity in relieving the poor and distressed, caused her to be regarded with superstitious veneration as a kind of prophetess, and, if she did not share the idea, she seems to have done all in her power to encourage it.

As time went on she insensibly adopted Eastern manners and customs. Though always complaining of neglect, she had upwards of thirty personal attendants, and after Miss Williams's death, in 1828, none of these were Europeans. Her standard of demeanour was rigorous, servants not being expected 'to smile, or scratch themselves, or appear to notice anything.' Syrians were preferred because, though thievish and dirty, they were completely obsequious and required no definite or stated hours for repose. In spite, however, of much vigorous language and frequent blows from a mace, which she was in the habit of wielding, the household slaves became more and more incorrigible. Her physician, Meryon, in the course of his visits, importuned her to send 'the worst of them away, for they were only a torment to her.' 'Yes, but my rank!' was the characteristic answer. Similarly she maintained on the premises enormous numbers of cats and other animals. She had a strange regard for horses, devising a kind of superannuation scheme for those in her employ, and she was a devout believer in the transmigration of souls and in judicial astrology, which she practised upon the least provocation.

Many distinguished Europeans sought interviews with her. Lamartine visited her on 30 Sept. 1832, and described her religious belief as a clever though confused mixture of the different religions in the midst of which she had condemned herself to live. Kinglake gives a more commonplace account of her when describing his pilgrimage to Djouni in 1835. He was struck by her extraordinary appearance, her penetration and power of downright expression. Her talk was full of sparkling anecdotes of Pitt and his circle. Dr. Madden and Prince Maximilian of Bavaria were among other personages to whom she accorded interviews. Poujoulat and Michaud traversed Syria for the purpose, and were then refused admittance at Djouni upon some trivial pretext. Dr. Bowring was another traveller disappointed of an audience.

In haranguing her visitors there is no doubt that Lady Hester found the greatest happiness of her life. She frequently talked for an hour or more without stopping, and prolonged her remarks until two or three in the morning. She liked her hearer to stand, while the slaves filled the pipes or knelt around in postures of oriental humility. 'Thus she fancied herself an eastern princess.' 'I have known her,' says Meryon, 'lie for two hours at a time with a pipe in her mouth (from which the sparks fell and burned the counterpane into innumerable holes) when she was in a lecturing humour, and go on in one unbroken discourse, like a parson in his pulpit.' She harangued one unfortunate Englishman for so many hours, without respite, that he fainted away from fatigue. On summoning the servants to his assistance, she remarked quietly that he had been overpowered in listening to the state of disgrace to which his country was reduced by its ministers (this was in 1819). She could not bear to be alone, and scarce an evening passed without her summoning the worthy physician, who seems to have served her at first from self-interest, afterwards spellbound by her commanding personality, latterly from a chivalrous feeling towards an old woman in precarious health, poor, saddled with innumerable debts, and preyed on by thieves. He became, indeed, almost indispensable. She frequently abused him, and persistently refused to receive Mrs. Meryon. But he stayed with her during the spring of 1831 and the summers of 1837 and 1838, and, with an almost Boswellian power of self-effacement, he listened to and recorded her views on such themes as the superiority of the vices of high-born people to the virtues of low-born ones, of the concubine to the. wife, the fraudulent attempts of the middle classes to disguise their real character by education, and the proper place of doctors as the upper servants of noblemen. He himself became, indeed, little more than her apothecary. To the last she insisted on physicking and cutting out garments for all those with whom she came into close contact (a droll reference to this last peculiarity is given by Southey in the 'Doctor').

Ever since she had settled on Mount Lebanon, Lady Hester's profuse prodigality had involved her in an accumulating weight of debt. Up to 1836 it is a remarkable proof of her talents that she prevailed upon various Levantine usurers to advance her large sums upon her note of hand. But finally this resource failed her, the creditors became clamorous, and in February 1838 Lord Palmerston felt himself justified in appropriating the bulk of her pension to the settlement of their claims. Matters were not improved by abusive letters to the foreign secretary, or by a presumptuous epistle which Lady Hester thought fit to address to the queen. Some of the newspapers in