Letters from Egypt
by Lucie Duff Gordon
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Transcribed from the 1902 R. Brimley Johnson edition by David Price, email

Lady Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt



[Picture: Decorative symbol]


[Picture: Photograph of Lady Duff Gordon from sketch by G. F. Watts, R.A., about 1848]


The letters of Lady Duff Gordon are an introduction to her in person. She wrote as she talked, and that is not always the note of private correspondence, the pen being such an official instrument. Readers growing familiar with her voice will soon have assurance that, addressing the public, she would not have blotted a passage or affected a tone for the applause of all Europe. Yet she could own to a liking for flattery, and say of the consequent vanity, that an insensibility to it is inhuman. Her humour was a mouthpiece of nature. She inherited from her father the judicial mind, and her fine conscience brought it to bear on herself as well as on the world, so that she would ask, 'Are we so much better?' when someone supremely erratic was dangled before the popular eye. She had not studied her Goethe to no purpose. Nor did the very ridiculous creature who is commonly the outcast of all compassion miss having the tolerant word from her, however much she might be of necessity in the laugh, for Moliere also was of her repertory. Hers was the charity which is perceptive and embracing: we may feel certain that she was never a dupe of the poor souls, Christian and Muslim, whose tales of simple misery or injustice moved her to friendly service. Egyptians, consule Junio, would have met the human interpreter in her, for a picture to set beside that of the vexed Satirist. She saw clearly into the later Nile products, though her view of them was affectionate; but had they been exponents of original sin, her charitableness would have found the philosophical word on their behalf, for the reason that they were not in the place of vantage. The service she did to them was a greater service done to her country, by giving these quivering creatures of the baked land proof that a Christian Englishwoman could be companionable, tender, beneficently motherly with them, despite the reputed insurmountable barriers of alien race and religion. Sympathy was quick in her breast for all the diverse victims of mischance; a shade of it, that was not indulgence, but knowledge of the roots of evil, for malefactors and for the fool. Against the cruelty of despotic rulers and the harshness of society she was openly at war, at a time when championship of the lowly or the fallen was not common. Still, in this, as in everything controversial, it was the [Greek text] with her. That singular union of the balanced intellect with the lively heart arrested even in advocacy the floods pressing for pathos. Her aim was at practical measures of help; she doubted the uses of sentimentality in moving tyrants or multitudes to do the thing needed. Moreover, she distrusted eloquence, Parliamentary, forensic, literary; thinking that the plain facts are the persuasive speakers in a good cause, and that rhetoric is to be suspected as the flourish over a weak one. Does it soften the obdurate, kindle the tardily inflammable? Only for a day, and only in cases of extreme urgency, is an appeal to emotion of value for the gain of a day. Thus it was that she never forced her voice, though her feelings might be at heat and she possessed the literary art.

She writes from her home on the Upper Nile: 'In this country one gets to see how much more beautiful a perfectly natural expression is than any degree of the mystical expression of the best painters.' It is by her banishing of literary colouring matter that she brings the Arab and Copt home to us as none other has done, by her unlaboured pleading that she touches to the heart. She was not one to 'spread gold-leaf over her acquaintances and make them shine,' as Horace Walpole says of Madame de Sevigne; they would have been set shining from within, perhaps with a mild lustre; sensibly to the observant, more credibly of the golden sort. Her dislike of superlatives, when the marked effect had to be produced, and it was not the literary performance she could relish as well as any of us, renders hard the task of portraying a woman whose character calls them forth. To him knowing her, they would not fit; her individuality passes between epithets. The reading of a sentence of panegyric (commonly a thing of extension) deadened her countenance, if it failed to quicken the corners of her lips; the distended truth in it exhibited the comic shadow on the wall behind. That haunting demon of human eulogy is quashed by the manner she adopted, from instinct and training. Of her it was known to all intimate with her that she could not speak falsely in praise, nor unkindly in depreciation, however much the constant play of her humour might tempt her to exalt or diminish beyond the bounds. But when, for the dispersion of nonsense about men or things, and daintiness held up the veil against rational eyesight, the gros mot was demanded, she could utter it, as from the Bench, with a like authority and composure.

In her youth she was radiantly beautiful, with dark brows on a brilliant complexion, the head of a Roman man, and features of Grecian line, save for the classic Greek wall of the nose off the forehead. Women, not enthusiasts, inclined rather to criticize, and to criticize so independent a member of their sex particularly, have said that her entry into a ballroom took the breath. Poetical comparisons run under heavy weights in prose; but it would seem in truth, from the reports of her, that wherever she appeared she could be likened to a Selene breaking through cloud; and, further, the splendid vessel was richly freighted. Trained by a scholar, much in the society of scholarly men, having an innate bent to exactitude, and with a ready tongue docile to the curb, she stepped into the world armed to be a match for it. She cut her way through the accustomed troops of adorers, like what you will that is buoyant and swims gallantly. Her quality of the philosophical humour carried her easily over the shoals or the deeps in the way of a woman claiming her right to an independent judgement upon the minor rules of conduct, as well as upon matters of the mind. An illustrious foreigner, en tete-a-tete with her over some abstract theme, drops abruptly on a knee to protest, overpowered; and in that posture he is patted on the head, while the subject of conversation is continued by the benevolent lady, until the form of ointment she administers for his beseeching expression and his pain compels him to rise and resume his allotted part with a mouth of acknowledging laughter. Humour, as a beautiful woman's defensive weapon, is probably the best that can be called in aid for the bringing of suppliant men to their senses. And so manageable are they when the idea of comedy and the chord of chivalry are made to vibrate, that they (supposing them of the impressionable race which is overpowered by Aphrodite's favourites) will be withdrawn from their great aims, and transformed into happy crust-munching devotees—in other words, fast friends. Lady Duff Gordon had many, and the truest, and of all lands. She had, on the other hand, her number of detractors, whom she excused. What woman is without them, if she offends the conventions, is a step in advance of her day, and, in this instance, never hesitates upon the needed occasion to dub things with their right names? She could appreciate their disapproval of her in giving herself the airs of a man, pronouncing verdicts on affairs in the style of a man, preferring association with men. So it was; and, besides, she smoked. Her physician had hinted at the soothing for an irritated throat that might come of some whiffs of tobacco. She tried a cigar, and liked it, and smoked from that day, in her library chair and on horseback. Where she saw no harm in an act, opinion had no greater effect on her than summer flies to one with a fan. The country people, sorely tried by the spectacle at first, remembered the gentle deeds and homely chat of an eccentric lady, and pardoned her, who was often to be seen discoursing familiarly with the tramp on the road, incapable of denying her house-door to the lost dog attached by some instinct to her heels. In the circles named 'upper' there was mention of women unsexing themselves. She preferred the society of men, on the plain ground that they discuss matters of weight, and are—the pick of them—of open speech, more liberal, more genial, better comrades. Was it wonderful to hear them, knowing her as they did, unite in calling her coeur d'or? And women could say it of her, for the reasons known to women. Her intimate friendships were with women as with men. The closest friend of this most manfully-minded of women was one of her sex, little resembling her, except in downright truthfulness, lovingness, and heroic fortitude.

The hospitable house at Esher gave its welcome not merely to men and women of distinction; the humble undistinguished were made joyous guests there, whether commonplace or counting among the hopeful. Their hostess knew how to shelter the sensitively silent at table, if they were unable to take encouragement and join the flow. Their faces at least responded to her bright look on one or the other of them when something worthy of memory sparkled flying. She had the laugh that rocks the frame, but it was usually with a triumphant smile that she greeted things good to the ear; and her own manner of telling was concise, on the lines of the running subject, to carry it along, not to produce an effect—which is like the horrid gap in air after a blast of powder. Quotation came when it sprang to the lips and was native. She was shrewd and cogent, invariably calm in argument, sitting over it, not making it a duel, as the argumentative are prone to do; and a strong point scored against her received the honours due to a noble enemy. No pose as mistress of a salon shuffling the guests marked her treatment of them; she was their comrade, one of the pack. This can be the case only when a governing lady is at all points their equal, more than a player of trump cards. In England, in her day, while health was with her, there was one house where men and women conversed. When that house perforce was closed, a light had gone out in our country.

The fatal brilliancy of skin indicated the fell disease which ultimately drove her into exile, to die in exile. Lucie Duff Gordon was of the order of women of whom a man of many years may say that their like is to be met but once or twice in a lifetime.

[Picture: George Meredith's signature]


Lucie Duff Gordon, born on June 24, 1821, was the only child of John and Sarah Austin and inherited the beauty and the intellect of her parents. The wisdom, learning, and vehement eloquence of John Austin, author of the 'Province of Jurisprudence Determined,' were celebrated, and Lord Brougham used to say: 'If John Austin had had health, neither Lyndhurst nor I should have been Chancellor.' He entered the army, and was in Sicily under Lord William Bentinck; but soon quitted an uncongenial service, and was called to the Bar. In 1819 he married Sarah, the youngest daughter of John Taylor of Norwich, {1} when they took a house in Queen Square, Westminster, close to James Mill, the historian of British India, and next door to Jeremy Bentham, whose pupil Mr. Austin was. Here, it may be said, the Utilitarian philosophy of the nineteenth century was born. Jeremy Bentham's garden became the playground of the young Mills and of Lucie Austin; his coach-house was converted into a gymnasium, and his flower-beds were intersected by tapes and threads to represent the passages of a panopticon prison. The girl grew in vigour and in sense, with a strong tinge of originality and independence and an extreme love of animals. About 1826 the Austins went to Germany, Mr. Austin having been nominated Professor of Civil Law in the new London University, and wishing to study Roman Law under Niebuhr and Schlegel at Bonn. 'Our dear child,' writes Mrs. Austin to Mrs. Grote, 'is a great joy to us. She grows wonderfully, and is the happiest thing in the world. Her German is very pretty; she interprets for her father with great joy and naivete. God forbid that I should bring up a daughter here! But at her present age I am most glad to have her here, and to send her to a school where she learns—well, writing, arithmetic, geography, and, as a matter of course, German.' Lucie returned to England transformed into a little German maiden, with long braids of hair down her back, speaking German like her own language, and well grounded in Latin. Her mother, writing to Mrs. Reeve, her sister, says: 'John Mill is ever my dearest child and friend, and he really dotes on Lucie, and can do anything with her. She is too wild, undisciplined, and independent, and though she knows a great deal, it is in a strange, wild way. She reads everything, composes German verses, has imagined and put together a fairy world, dress, language, music, everything, and talks to them in the garden; but she is sadly negligent of her own appearance, and is, as Sterling calls her, Miss Orson. . . . Lucie now goes to a Dr. Biber, who has five other pupils (boys) and his own little child. She seems to take to Greek, with which her father is very anxious to have her thoroughly imbued. As this scheme, even if we stay in England, cannot last many years, I am quite willing to forego all the feminine parts of her education for the present. The main thing is to secure her independence, both with relation to her own mind and outward circumstances. She is handsome, striking, and full of vigour and animation.'

From the very first Lucie Austin possessed a correct and vigorous style, and a nice sense of language, which were hereditary rather than implanted, and to these qualities was added a delightful strain of humour, shedding a current of original thought all through her writings. That her unusual gifts should have been so early developed is hardly surprising with one of her sympathetic temperament when we remember the throng of remarkable men and women who frequented the Austins' house. The Mills, the Grotes, the Bullers, the Carlyles, the Sterlings, Sydney Smith, Luttrell, Rogers, Jeremy Bentham, and Lord Jeffrey, were among the most intimate friends of her parents, and 'Toodie,' as they called her, was a universal favourite with them. Once, staying at a friend's house, and hearing their little girl rebuked for asking questions, she said: 'My mamma never says "I don't know" or "Don't ask questions."'

In 1834 Mr. Austin's health, always delicate, broke down, and with his wife and daughter he went to Boulogne. Mrs. Austin made many friends among the fishermen and their wives, but 'la belle Anglaise,' as they called her, became quite a heroine on the occasion of the wreck of the Amphitrite, a ship carrying female convicts to Botany Bay. She stood the whole night on the beach in the howling storm, saved the lives of three sailors who were washed up by the breakers, and dashed into the sea and pulled one woman to shore. Lucie was with her mother, and showed the same cool courage that distinguished her in after life. It was during their stay at Boulogne that she first met Heinrich Heine; he sat next her at the table d'hote, and, soon finding out that she spoke German perfectly, told her when she returned to England she could tell her friends she had met Heinrich Heine. He was much amused when she said: 'And who is Heinrich Heine?' The poet and the child used to lounge on the pier together; she sang him old English ballads, and he told her stories in which fish, mermaids, water-sprites, and a very funny old French fiddler with a poodle, who was diligently taking three sea-baths a day, were mixed up in a fanciful manner, sometimes humorous, often very pathetic, especially when the water-sprites brought him greetings from the North Sea. He afterwards told her that one of his most charming poems,

'Wenn ich am deinem Hause Des Morgens voruber geh', So freut's mich, du liebe Kleine, Wenn ich dich am Fenster seh',' etc.,

was meant for her whose magnificent eyes he never forgot.

Two years later Mr. Austin was appointed Royal Commissioner to inquire into the grievances of the Maltese. His wife accompanied him, but so hot a climate was not considered good for a young girl, and Lucie was sent to a school at Bromley. She must have been as great a novelty to the school as the school-life was to her, for with a great deal of desultory knowledge she was singularly deficient in many rudiments of ordinary knowledge. She wrote well already at fifteen, and corresponded often with Mrs. Grote and other friends of her parents. {4} At sixteen she determined to be baptized and confirmed as a member of the Church of England (her parents and relations were Unitarians). Lord Monteagle was her sponsor and it was chiefly owing, I believe, to the influence of himself and his family, with whom she was very intimate in spite of her Radical ideas, that she took this step.

[Picture: Lucie Austin, aged fifteen, from a sketch by a school friend]

When the Austins returned from Malta in 1838, Lucie began to appear in the world; all the old friends flocked round them, and many new friends were made, among them Sir Alexander Duff Gordon whom she first met at Lansdowne House. Left much alone, as her mother was always hard at work translating, writing for various periodicals and nursing her husband, the two young people were thrown much together, and often walked out alone. One day Sir Alexander said to her: 'Miss Austin, do you know people say we are going to be married?' Annoyed at being talked of, and hurt at his brusque way of mentioning it, she was just going to give a sharp answer, when he added: 'Shall we make it true?' With characteristic straightforwardness she replied by the monosyllable, 'Yes,' and so they were engaged. Before her marriage she translated Niebuhr's 'Greek Legends,' which were published under her mother's name.

On the 16th May, 1840, Lucie Austin and Sir Alexander Duff Gordon were married in Kensington Old Church, and the few eye-witnesses left still speak with enthusiasm of the beauty of bridegroom and bride. They took a house in Queen Square, Westminster, (No 8, with a statue of Queen Anne at one corner), and the talent, beauty, and originality, joined with a complete absence of affectation of Lady Duff Gordon, soon attracted a remarkable circle of friends. Lord Lansdowne, Lord Monteagle, Mrs. Norton, Thackeray, Dickens, Elliot Warburton, Tennyson, Tom Taylor, Kinglake, Henry Taylor, and many more, were habitues, and every foreigner of distinction sought an introduction to the Duff Gordons. I remember as a little child seeing Leopold Ranke walking up and down the drawing-room, and talking vehemently in an olla-podrida of English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, with now and then a Latin quotation in between; I thought he was a madman. When M. Guizot escaped from France on the outbreak of the Revolution, his first welcome and dinner was in Queen Square.

The first child was born in 1842, and soon afterwards Lady Duff Gordon began her translation of 'The Amber Witch'; the 'French in Algiers' by Lamping, and Feuerbach's 'Remarkable Criminal Trials,' followed in quick succession; and together my father and mother translated Ranke's 'Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg' and 'Sketches of German Life.' A remarkable novel by Leon de Wailly, 'Stella and Vanessa,' had remained absolutely unnoticed in France until my mother's English version appeared, when it suddenly had a great success which he always declared he owed entirely to Lady Duff Gordon.

In a letter written to Mrs. Austin from Lord Lansdowne's beautiful villa at Richmond, which he lent to the Duff Gordons after a severe illness of my father's, my mother mentions Hassan el Bakkeet (a black boy): 'He is an inch taller for our grandeur; peu s'en faut, he thinks me a great lady and himself a great butler.' Hassan was a personage in the establishment. One night, on returning from a theatrical party at Dickens', my mother found the little boy crouching on the doorstep. His master had turned him out of doors because he was threatened with blindness, and having come now and then with messages to Queen Square, he found his way, as he explained, 'to die on the threshold of the beautiful pale lady.' His eyes were cured, and he became my mother's devoted slave and my playmate, to the horror of Mr. Hilliard, the American author. I perfectly recollect how angry I was when he asked how Lady Duff Gordon could let a negro touch her child, whereupon she called us to her, and kissed me first and Hassan afterwards. Some years ago I asked our dear friend Kinglake about my mother and Hassan, and received the following letter: 'Can I, my dear Janet, how can I trust myself to speak of your dear mother's beauty in the phase it had reached when first I saw her? The classic form of her features, the noble poise of her head and neck, her stately height, her uncoloured yet pure complexion, caused some of the beholders at first to call her beauty statuesque, and others to call it majestic, some pronouncing it to be even imperious; but she was so intellectual, so keen, so autocratic, sometimes even so impassioned in speech, that nobody feeling her powers could go on feebly comparing her to a statue or a mere Queen or Empress. All this touches only the beauteous surface; the stories (which were told me by your dear mother herself) are incidentally illustrative of her kindness to fellow-creatures in trouble or suffering. Hassan, it is supposed, was a Nubian, and originally, as his name implies, a Mahometan, he came into the possession of English missionaries (who had probably delivered him from slavery), and it resulted that he not only spoke English well and without foreign accent, but was always ready with phrases in use amongst pious Christians, and liked, when he could, to apply them as means of giving honour and glory to his beloved master and mistress; so that if, for example, it happened that, when they were not at home, a visitor called on a Sunday, he was sure to be told by Hassan that Sir Alexander and Lady Duff Gordon were at church, or even—for his diction was equal to this—that they were "attending Divine service." Your mother had valour enough to practise true Christian kindness under conditions from which the bulk of "good people" might too often shrink; when on hearing that a "Mary" once known to the household had brought herself into trouble by omitting the precaution of marriage, my lady determined to secure the girl a good refuge by taking her as a servant. Before taking this step, however, she assembled the household, declared her resolve to the servants, and ordered that, on pain of instant dismissal, no one of them should ever dare say a single unkind word to Mary. Poor Hassan, small, black as jet, but possessed with an idea of the dignity of his sex, conceived it his duty to become the spokesman of the household, and accordingly, advancing a little in front of the neat-aproned, tall, wholesome maid-servants, he promised in his and their name a full and careful obedience to the mistress's order, but then, wringing his hands and raising them over his head, he added these words: "What a lesson to us all, my lady."' On the birth of a little son Hassan triumphantly announced to all callers: 'We have got a boy.' Another of his delightful speeches was made one evening when Prince Louis Napoleon (the late Emperor of the French) dropt in unexpectedly to dinner. 'Please, my lady,' said he, on announcing that dinner was ready, 'I ran out and bought two pen'orth of sprats for the honour of the house.'

Though I was only six I distinctly remember the Chartist riots in 1848. William Bridges Adams, the engineer, an old friend of my great-uncle, Philip Taylor, had a workshop at Bow, and my mother helped to start a library for the men, and sometimes attended meetings and discussed politics with them. They adored her, and when people talked of possible danger she would smile and say: 'My men will look after me.' On the evening of April 9 a large party of stalwart men in fustian jackets arrived at our house and had supper; Tom Taylor made speeches and proposed toasts which were cheered to the echo, and at last my mother made a speech too, and wound up by calling the men her 'Gordon volunteers.' The 'Hip, hip, hurrah!' with which it was greeted startled the neighbours, who for a moment thought the Chartists had invaded the quiet precincts of the square.

To Mrs. Austin, who was then in Paris, her daughter wrote, on April 10:


'I had only time to write once yesterday, as all hands were full of bustle in entertaining our guests. I never wish to see forty better gentlemen than we had here last night. As all was quiet, we had supper—cold beef, bread and beer—with songs, sentiments and toasts, such as "Success to the roof we are under," "Liberty, brotherhood and order." Then they bivouacked in the different houses till five this morning, when they started home. Among the party was a stray policeman, who looked rather wonder-struck. Tom Taylor was capital, made short speeches, told stories, and kept all in high good-humour; and Alick came home from patrolling as a special constable, and was received with great glee and affection. All agreed that the fright, to us at least, was well made up by the kindly and pleasant evening. As no one would take a penny, we shall send books to the library, or a contribution to the school, all our neighbours being quite anxious to pay, though not willing to fraternise. I shall send cravats as a badge to the "Gordon volunteers."

'I enclose a letter from Eothen [Kinglake] about Paris, which will interest you. My friends of yesterday unanimously decided that Louis Blanc would "just suit the 'lazy set.'"

'We had one row, which, however, ceased on the appearance of our stalwart troop; indeed, I think one Birmingham smith, a handsome fellow six feet high, whose vehement disinterestedness would neither allow to eat, drink, or sleep in the house, would have scattered them.'

Mr. and Mrs. Austin established themselves at Weybridge in a low, rambling cottage, and we spent some summers with them. The house was cold and damp, and our dear Hassan died in 1850 from congestion of the lungs. I always attributed my mother's bad health to the incessant colds she caught there. I can see before me now her beautiful pale face bending over poor Hassan as she applied leeches to his chest, which a new maid refused to do, saying, with a toss of her head, 'Lor! my lady, I couldn't touch either of 'em!' The flash of scorn with which she regarded the girl softened into deep affection and pity when she looked down on her faithful Nubian servant.

In 1851 my father took a house at Esher, which was known as 'The Gordon Arms,' and much frequented by our friends. In a letter, written about that time to C. J. Bayley, then secretary to the Governor of the Mauritius, Lady Duff Gordon gives the first note of alarm as to her health: 'I fear you would think me very much altered since my illness; I look thin, ill, and old, and my hair is growing gray. This I consider hard upon a woman just over her thirtieth birthday. I continue to like Esher very much; I don't think we could have placed ourselves better. Kinglake has given Alick a great handsome chestnut mare, so he is well mounted, and we ride merrily. I expressed such exultation at the idea of your return that my friends, all but Alick, refused to sympathize. Philips, Millais, and Dicky Doyle talked of jealousy, and Tom Taylor muttered something about a "hated rival." Meanwhile, all send friendly greetings to you.'

One summer Macaulay was often at Esher, his brother-in-law having taken a house near ours. He shared my mother's admiration for Miss Austen's novels, and they used to talk of her personages as though they were living friends. If, perchance, my grandfather Austin was there, the talk grew indeed fast and furious, as all three were vehement, eloquent, and enthusiastic talkers.

When my mother went to Paris in the summer of 1857 she saw Heine again. As she entered the room he exclaimed 'Oh! Lucie has still the great brown eyes!' He remembered every little incident and all the people who had been in the inn at Boulogne. 'I, for my part, could hardly speak to him,' my mother wrote to Lord Houghton, who asked her to give him some recollections of the poet for his 'Monographs,' 'so shocked was I by his appearance. He lay on a pile of mattresses, his body wasted so that it seemed no bigger than a child's under the sheet that covered him, the eyes closed and the face altogether like the most painful and wasted Ecce Homo ever painted by some old German painter. His voice was very weak, and I was astonished at the animation with which he talked; evidently his mind had wholly survived his body.' He wished to give my mother the copyright of all his works, made out lists how to arrange them, and gave her carte-blanche to cut out what she pleased, and was especially eager that she should do a prose translation of his songs against her opinion of its practicability. To please him she translated 'Almanzor' and several short poems into verse—the best translations I know.

After trying Ventnor for two winters, my mother went out to the Cape of Good Hope in a sailing vessel, but on her return was unfortunately persuaded to go to Eaux Bonnes in the autumn of 1862, which did her great harm. Thence she went to Egypt, where the dry hot climate seemed to arrest the malady for a short time. The following memoir written by Mrs. Norton in the Times gives a better picture of her than could any words of mine, the two talented and beautiful women were intimate friends, and few mourned more deeply for Lucie Duff Gordon than Caroline Norton:

'"In Memoriam." The brief phrase whose solemnity prefaced millions of common place epitaphs before Tennyson taught grief to speak, lamenting his dead friend in every phase and variety of regret. With such gradation and difference of sorrow will the recent death of a very remarkable woman, Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, be mourned for by all who knew her, and with such a sense of blank loss will they long continue to lament one whose public success as an author was only commensurate with the charm of her private companionship. Inheriting from both parents the intellectual faculties which she so nobly exercised, her work has been ended in the very noontide of life by premature failure of health; and the long exile she endured for the sake of a better climate has failed to arrest, though it delayed, the doom foretold by her physicians. To that exile we owe the most popular, perhaps, of her contributions to the literature of her country, "Letters from the Cape," and "Letters from Egypt," the latter more especially interesting from the vivid, life-like descriptions of the people among whom she dwelt, her aspirations for their better destiny, and the complete amalgamation of her own pursuits and interests with theirs. She was a settler, not a traveller among them. Unlike Lady Hester Stanhope, whose fantastic and half-insane notions of rulership and superiority have been so often recorded for our amazement, Lady Duff Gordon kept the simple frankness of heart and desire to be of service to her fellow-creatures without a thought of self or a taint of vanity in her intercourse with them. Not for lack of flattery or of real enthusiastic gratitude on their part. It is known that when at Thebes, on more than one of her journeys, the women raised the "cry of joy" as she passed along, and the people flung branches and raiment on her path, as in the old Biblical descriptions of Eastern life. The source of her popularity was in the liberal kindliness of spirit with which she acted on all occasions, more especially towards those she considered the victims of bad government and oppressive laws. She says of herself: "one's pity becomes a perfect passion when one sits among the people as I do, and sees all they endure. Least of all can I forgive those among Europeans and Christians who can help to break these bruised reeds." And again: "Would that I could excite the interest of my country in their suffering! Some conception of the value of public opinion in England has penetrated even here." Sympathizing, helping, doctoring their sick, teaching their children, learning the language, Lady Duff Gordon lived in Egypt, and in Egypt she has died, leaving a memory of her greatness and goodness such as no other European woman ever acquired in that country. It is touching to trace her lingering hopes of life and amended health in her letters to her husband and her mother, and to see how, as they faded out, there rose over those hopes the grander light of fortitude and submission to the will of God.

'Gradually—how gradually the limits of this notice forbid us to follow—hope departs, and she begins bravely to face the inevitable destiny. And then comes the end of all, the strong yet tender announcement of her own conviction that there would be no more meetings, but a grave opened to receive her in a foreign land.


'"Do not think of coming here, as you dread the climate. Indeed, it would be almost too painful to me to part from you again; and as it is, I can wait patiently for the end, among people who are kind and loving enough to be comfortable without too much feeling of the pain of parting. The leaving Luxor was rather a distressing scene, as they did not think to see me again. The kindness of all the people was really touching, from the Cadi, who made ready my tomb among his own family, to the poorest fellaheen."

'Such are the tranquil and kindly words with which she prefaces her death. Those who remember her in her youth and beauty, before disease rather than time had altered the pale heroic face, and bowed the slight, stately figure, may well perceive some strange analogy between soul and body in the Spartan firmness which enabled her to pen that last farewell so quietly.

'But to the last her thought was for others, and for the services she could render. In this very letter, written, as it were, on the verge of the tomb, she speaks with gratitude and gladness of the advancement of her favourite attendant, Omar. This Omar had been recommended to her by the janissary of the American Consul-General, and so far back as 1862, when in Alexandria, she mentions having engaged him, and his hopeful prophecy of the good her Nile life is to do her. "My cough is bad; but Omar says I shall lose it and 'eat plenty' as soon as I see a crocodile."

'Omar "could not leave her," and he had his reward. One of the last events in the life of this gifted and liberal-minded Englishwoman was the visit to her dahabeeyeh, or Nile boat, of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Then poor Omar's simple and faithful service to his dying mistress was rewarded in a way he could scarcely have dreamt; and Lady Duff Gordon thus relates the incident: "Omar sends you his heartfelt thanks, and begs the boat may remain registered at the Consulate in your name, as a protection, for his use and benefit. The Prince has appointed him his dragoman, but he is sad enough, poor fellow! all his prosperity does not console him for the loss of "the mother he found in the world." Mahomed at Luxor wept bitterly, and said: "Poor I—poor my children—poor all the people!" and kissed my hand passionately; and the people at Esneh asked leave to touch me "for a blessing," and everyone sent delicate bread and their best butter and vegetables and lambs. They are kinder than ever now that I can no longer be of any use to them. If I live till September I will go up to Esneh, where the air is softest and I cough less; I would rather die among my own people on the Saeed than here. Can you thank the Prince for Omar, or shall I write? He was most pleasant and kind, and the Princess too; she is the most perfectly simple-mannered girl I ever saw; she does not even try to be civil like other great people, but asks blunt questions and looks at one so heartily with her clear, honest eyes, that she must win all hearts. They were more considerate than any people I have seen, and the Prince, instead of being gracious, was, if I may say so, quite respectful in manner: he is very well bred and pleasant, and has, too, the honest eyes that make one sure he has a kind heart. My sailors were so proud at having the honour of rowing him in our own boat and of singing to him. I had a very good singer in the boat."

'Long will her presence be remembered and wept for among the half-civilized friends of her exile, the poor, the sick, the needy and the oppressed. She makes the gentle, half-playful boast in one of her letters from the Nile that she is "very popular," and has made many cures as a Hakeem, or doctor, and that a Circassian had sat up with a dying Englishman because she had nursed his wife.

'The picture of the Circassian sitting up with the dying Englishman because an English lady had nursed his wife is infinitely touching, and had its parallel in the speech of an old Scottish landlady known to the writer of this notice, whose son had died in the West Indies among strangers. "And they were so good to him," said she, "that I vowed if ever I had a lodger sick I would do my best for that stranger in remembrance." In remembrance! Who shall say what seeds of kindly intercommunion that dying Englishwoman of whom and of whose works we have been speaking may have planted in the arid Eastern soil? Or what "bread she may have cast" on those Nile waters, "which shall be found again after many days"? "Out of evil cometh good," and certainly out of her sickness and suffering good came to all within her influence.

'Lady Duff Gordon's printed works were many. She was an excellent German scholar, and had the advantage in her translations from that difficult language of her labours being shared by her husband. Ranke, Niebuhr, Feuerbach, Moltke, and others, owe their introduction to our English-reading public to the industry and talent of her pen. She was also a classic scholar of no mean pretensions. Perhaps no woman of our own time, except Mrs. Somerville and Mrs. Browning in their very different styles, combined so much erudition with so much natural ability. She was the daughter of Mr. Austin, the well-known professor of jurisprudence, and his gifted wife, Sarah Austin, whose name is familiar to thousands of readers, and whose social brilliancy is yet remembered with extreme admiration and regret by the generation immediately preceding our own.

'That Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, inherited the best of the intellect and qualities of both these parents will, we think, hardly be disputed, and she had besides, of her own, a certain generosity of spirit, a widespread sympathy for humanity in general, without narrowness or sectarianism, which might well prove her faith modelled on the sentence which appeals too often in vain from the last page of the printed Bible to resenting and dissenting religionists, "Multae terricolis linguae, coelestibus una."'

* * * * *

The last two years of my mother's life were one long struggle against deadly disease. The last winter was cheered by the presence of my brother, but at her express desire he came home in early summer to continue his studies, and my father and I were going out to see her, when the news came of her death at Cairo on July 14, 1869. Her desire had been to be among her 'own people' at Thebes, but when she felt she would never see Luxor again, she gave orders to be buried as quietly as possible in the cemetery at Cairo. The memory of her talent, simplicity, stately beauty, and extraordinary eloquence, and her almost passionate pity for any oppressed creature, will not easily fade. She bore great pain, and what was almost a greater trial, absence from her husband, her little daughter Urania, and her many friends, uncomplainingly, gleaning what consolation she could by helping her poor Arab neighbours, who adored her, and have not, I am told, forgotten the 'Great Lady' who was so good to them.

* * * * *

The first volume of Lady Duff Gordon's 'Letters from Egypt' was published by Messrs. Macmillan and Co. in May, 1865, with a preface by her mother, Mrs. Austin, who edited them, and was obliged to omit much that might have given offence and made my mother's life uncomfortable—to say the least—in Egypt. Before the end of the year the book went through three editions.

In 1875 a volume containing the 'Last Letters from Egypt,' to which were added 'Letters from the Cape,' reprinted from 'Vacation Tourists' (1864), with a Memoir of my mother by myself, was published by Messrs. Macmillan and Co. A second edition appeared in 1876.

I have now copied my mother's letters as they were written, omitting only the purely family matter which is of no interest to the public. Edward Lear's drawing of Luxor was printed in 'Three Generations of Englishwomen,' edited by Mrs. Ross, but the other illustrations are now reproduced for the first time.

The names of villages alluded to in the 'Letters' have been spelt as in the Atlas published by the Egyptian Exploration Fund.



November 11, 1862: Mrs. Austin

To Mrs. Austin.

GRAND CAIRO, Tuesday, November 11, 1862.


I write to you out of the real Arabian Nights. Well may the Prophet (whose name be exalted) smile when he looks on Cairo. It is a golden existence, all sunshine and poetry, and, I must add, kindness and civility. I came up last Thursday by railway with the American Consul-General, a charming person, and had to stay at this horrid Shepheard's Hotel. But I do little but sleep here. Hekekian Bey, a learned old Armenian, takes care of me every day, and the Amerian Vice-Consul is my sacrifice. I went on Sunday to his child's christening, and heard Sakna, the 'Restorer of Hearts.' She is wonderfully like Rachel, and her singing is hinreisend from expression and passion. Mr. Wilkinson (the Consul) is a Levantine, and his wife Armenian, so they had a grand fantasia; people feasted all over the house and in the street. Arab music schmetterte, women yelled the zaghareet, black servants served sweetmeats, pipes, and coffee, and behaved as if they belonged to the company, and I was strongly under the impression that I was at Nurreddin's wedding with the Vizier's daughter. Yesterday I went to Heliopolis with Hekekian Bey and his wife, and visited an Armenian country lady close by.

My servant Omar turns out a jewel. He has deterre an excellent boat for the Nile voyage, and I am to be mistress of a captain, a mate, eight men and a cabin boy for 25 pounds a month. I went to Boulak, the port of Cairo, and saw various boats, and admired the way in which the English travellers pay for their insolence and caprices. Similar boats cost people with dragomans 50 to 65 pounds. But, then, 'I shall lick the fellows,' etc., is what I hear all round. The dragoman, I conclude, pockets the difference. The owner of the boat, Sid Achmet el-Berberi, asked 30 pounds, whereupon I touched my breast, mouth and eyes, and stated through Omar that I was not, like other Ingeleez, made of money, but would give 20 pounds. He then showed another boat at 20 pounds, very much worse, and I departed (with fresh civilities) and looked at others, and saw two more for 20 pounds; but neither was clean, and neither had a little boat for landing. Meanwhile Sid Achmet came after me and explained that, if I was not like other Ingeleez in money, I likewise differed in politeness, and had refrained from abuse, etc., etc., and I should have the boat for 25 pounds. It was so very excellent in all fittings, and so much larger, that I thought it would make a great difference in health, so I said if he would go before the American Vice-Consul (who is looked on as a sharp hand) and would promise all he said to me before him, it should be well.

Mr. Thayer, the American Consul-General, gives me letters to every consular agent depending on him; and two Coptic merchants whom I met at the fantasia have already begged me to 'honour their houses.' I rather think the poor agents, who are all Armenians and Copts, will think I am the republic in person. The weather has been all this time like a splendid English August, and I hope I shall get rid of my cough in time, but it has been very bad. There is no cold at night here as at the Cape, but it is nothing like so clear and bright.

Omar took Sally sightseeing all day while I was away, into several mosques; in one he begged her to wait a minute while he said a prayer. They compare notes about their respective countries and are great friends; but he is put out at my not having provided her with a husband long ago, as is one's duty towards a 'female servant,' which almost always here means a slave.

Of all the falsehoods I have heard about the East, that about women being old hags at thirty is the biggest. Among the poor fellah women it may be true enough, but not nearly as much as in Germany; and I have now seen a considerable number of Levantine ladies looking very handsome, or at least comely, till fifty. Sakna, the Arab Grisi, is fifty-five—an ugly face, I am told (she was veiled and one only saw the eyes and glimpses of her mouth when she drank water), but the figure of a leopard, all grace and beauty, and a splendid voice of its kind, harsh but thrilling like Malibran's. I guessed her about thirty, or perhaps thirty-five. When she improvised, the finesse and grace of her whole Wesen were ravishing. I was on the point of shouting out 'Wallah!' as heartily as the natives. The eight younger Halmeh (i.e., learned women, which the English call Almeh and think is an improper word) were ugly and screeched. Sakna was treated with great consideration and quite as a friend by the Armenian ladies with whom she talked between her songs. She is a Muslimeh and very rich and charitable; she gets 50 pounds for a night's singing at least.

It would be very easy to learn colloquial Arabic, as they all speak with such perfect distinctness that one can follow the sentences and catch the words one knows as they are repeated. I think I know forty or fifty words already, besides my 'salaam aleikum' and 'backsheesh.'

The reverse of the brilliant side of the medal is sad enough: deserted palaces, and crowded hovels scarce good enough for pigstyes. 'One day man see his dinner, and one other day none at all,' as Omar observes; and the children are shocking from bad food, dirt and overwork, but the little pot-bellied, blear-eyed wretches grow up into noble young men and women under all their difficulties. The faces are all sad and rather what the Scotch call 'dour,' not mechant at all, but harsh, like their voices. All the melody is in walk and gesture; they are as graceful as cats, and the women have exactly the 'breasts like pomegranates' of their poetry. A tall Bedaween woman came up to us in the field yesterday to shake hands and look at us. She wore a white sackcloth shift and veil, und weiter nichts, and asked Mrs. Hekekian a good many questions about me, looked at my face and hands, but took no notice of my rather smart gown which the village women admired so much, shook hands again with the air of a princess, wished me health and happiness, and strode off across the graveyard like a stately ghost. She was on a journey all alone, and somehow it looked very solemn and affecting to see her walking away towards the desert in the setting sun like Hagar. All is so Scriptural in the country here. Sally called out in the railroad, 'There is Boaz, sitting in the cornfield'; and so it was, and there he has sat for how many thousand years,—and Sakna sang just like Miriam in one war-song.

Wednesday.—My contract was drawn up and signed by the American Vice-Consul to-day, and my Reis kissed my hand in due form, after which I went to the bazaar to buy the needful pots and pans. The transaction lasted an hour. The copper is so much per oka, the workmanship so much; every article is weighed by a sworn weigher and a ticket sent with it. More Arabian Nights. The shopkeeper compares notes with me about numerals, and is as much amused as I. He treats me to coffee and a pipe from a neighbouring shop while Omar eloquently depreciates the goods and offers half the value. A water-seller offers a brass cup of water; I drink, and give the huge sum of twopence, and he distributes the contents of his skin to the crowd (there always is a crowd) in my honour. It seems I have done a pious action. Finally a boy is called to carry the batterie de cuisine, while Omar brandishes a gigantic kettle which he has picked up a little bruised for four shillings. The boy has a donkey which I mount astride a l'Arabe, while the boy carries all the copper things on his head. We are rather a grand procession, and quite enjoy the fury of the dragomans and other leeches who hang on the English at such independent proceedings, and Omar gets reviled for spoiling the trade by being cook, dragoman, and all in one.

I went this morning with Hekekian Bey to the two earliest mosques. The Touloun is exquisite—noble, simple, and what ornament there is is the most delicate lacework and embossing in stone and wood. This Arab architecture is even more lovely than our Gothic. The Touloun is now a vast poorhouse, a nest of paupers. I went into three of their lodgings. Several Turkish families were in a large square room neatly divided into little partitions with old mats hung on ropes. In each were as many bits of carpet, mat and patchwork as the poor owner could collect, and a small chest and a little brick cooking-place in one corner of the room with three earthern pipkins for I don't know how many people;—that was all—they possess no sort of furniture, but all was scrupulously clean and no bad smell whatever. A little boy seized my hand and showed where he slept, ate and cooked with the most expressive pantomime. As there were women, Hekekian could not come in, but when I came out an old man told us they received three loaves (cakes as big as a sailor's biscuit), four piastres a month—i.e., eightpence per adult—a suit of clothes a year, and on festive occasions lentil soup. Such is the almshouse here. A little crowd belonging to the house had collected, and I gave sixpence to an old man, who transferred it to the first old man to be divided among them all, ten or twelve people at least, mostly blind or lame. The poverty wrings my heart. We took leave with salaams and politeness like the best society, and then turned into an Arab hut stuck against the lovely arches. I stooped low under the door, and several women crowded in. This was still poorer, for there were no mats or rags of carpet, a still worse cooking-place, a sort of dog-kennel piled up of loose stones to sleep in, which contained a small chest and the print of human forms on the stone floor. It was, however, quite free from dust, and perfectly sweet. I gave the young woman who had led me in sixpence, and here the difference between Turk and Arab appeared. The division of this created a perfect storm of noise, and we left the five or six Arab women out-shrieking a whole rookery. I ought to say that no one begged at all.

Friday.—I went to-day on a donkey to a mosque in the bazaar, of what we call Arabesque style, like the Alhambra, very handsome. The Kibleh was very beautiful, and as I was admiring it Omar pulled a lemon out of his breast and smeared it on the porphyry pillar on one side of the arch, and then entreated me to lick it. It cures all diseases. The old man who showed the mosque pulled eagerly at my arm to make me perform this absurd ceremony, and I thought I should have been forced to do it. The base of the pillar was clogged with lemon-juice. I then went to the tombs of the Khalifah; one of the great ones had such arches and such wondrous cupolas but all in ruins. There are scores of these noble buildings, any one of which is a treasure, falling to decay. The next, strange to say, was in perfect repair. I got off the donkey, and Omar fidgeted and hesitated a little and consulted with a woman who had the key. As there were no overshoes I pulled my boots off, and was rewarded by seeing the footprints of Mohammed on two black stones, and a lovely little mosque, a sort of Sainte Chapelle. Omar prayed with ardent fervour and went out backwards, saluting the Prophet aloud. To my surprise the woman was highly pleased with sixpence, and did not ask for more. When I remarked this, Omar said that no Frank had ever been inside to his knowledge. A mosque-keeper of the sterner sex would not have let me in. I returned home through endless streets and squares of Moslem tombs, those of the Memlooks among them. It was very striking; and it was getting so dark that I thought of Nurreddin Bey, and wondered if a Jinn would take me anywhere if I took up my night's lodging in one of the comfortable little cupola-covered buildings.

My Coptic friend has just called in to say that his brother expects me at Kenneh. I find nothing but civility and a desire to please. My boat is the Zint el Bachreyn, and I carry the English flag and a small American distinguishing pennant as a signal to my consular agents. We sail next Wednesday. Good-bye for the present, dearest Mutter.

November 21, 1862: Sir Alexander Duff Gordon

To Sir Alexander Duff Gordon.

BOAT OFF EMBABEH, November 21, 1862.


We embarked yesterday, and after the fashion of Eastern caravans are abiding to-day at a village opposite Cairo; it is Friday, and therefore would be improper and unlucky to set out on our journey. The scenes on the river are wonderfully diverting and curious, so much life and movement. But the boatmen are sophisticated; my crew have all sported new white drawers in honour of the Sitti Ingleezee's supposed modesty—of course compensation will be expected. Poor fellows! they are very well mannered and quiet in their rags and misery, and their queer little humming song is rather pretty, 'Eyah Mohammad, eyah Mohammad,' ad infinitum, except when an energetic man cries 'Yallah!'—i.e., 'O God!'—which means 'go it' in everyday life. Omar is gone to fetch one or two more 'unconsidered trifles,' and I have been explaining the defects to be remedied in the cabin door, broken window, etc., to my Reis with the help of six words of Arabic and dumb show, which they understand and answer with wonderful quickness.

The air on the river is certainly quite celestial—totally unlike the damp, chilly feeling of the hotel and Frank quarter of Cairo. The Isbekeeyeh, or public garden, where all the Franks live, was a lake, I believe, and is still very damp.

I shall go up to the second Cataract as fast as possible, and return back at leisure. Hekekian Bey came to take leave yesterday, and lent me several books; pray tell Senior what a kindness his introduction was. It would have been rather dismal in Cairo—if one could be dismal there—without a soul to speak to. I was sorry to know no Turks or Arabs, and have no opportunity of seeing any but the tradesman of whom I bought my stores but that was very amusing. The young man of whom I bought my finjaans was so handsome, elegant and melancholy that I know he was the lover of the Sultan's favourite slave. How I wish you were here to enjoy all this, so new, so beautiful, and yet so familiar, life—and you would like the people, poor things! they are complete children, but amiable children.

I went into the village here, where I was a curiosity, and some women took me into their houses and showed me their sleeping-place, cookery, poultry, etc.; and a man followed me to keep off the children, but no backsheesh was asked for, which showed that Europeans were rare there. The utter destitution is terrible to see, though in this climate of course it matters less, but the much-talked-of dirt is simply utter poverty. The poor souls are as clean as Nile mud and water will make their bodies, and they have not a second shirt, or any bed but dried mud.

Give my love to my darlings, and don't be uneasy if you don't get letters. My cough has been better now for five days without a bad return of it, so I hope it is really better; it is the first reprieve for so long. The sun is so hot, a regular broil, November 21, and all doors and windows open in the cabin—a delicious breeze.

November 30, 1862: Mrs. Austin

To Mrs. Austin.

FESHN, Monday, November 30, 1862.


I have now been enjoying this most delightful way of life for ten days, and am certainly much better. I begin to eat and sleep again, and cough less. My crew are a great amusement to me. They are mostly men from near the first Cataract above Assouan, sleek-skinned, gentle, patient, merry black fellows. The little black Reis is the very picture of good-nature and full of fun, 'chaffing' the girls as we pass the villages, and always smiling. The steersman is of lighter complexion, also very cheery, but decidedly pious. He prays five times a day and utters ejaculations to the apostle Rusool continually. He hurt his ankle on one leg and his instep on the other with a rusty nail, and they festered. I dressed them with poultices, and then with lint and strapping, with perfect success, to the great admiration of all hands, and he announced how much better he felt, 'Alhamdulillah, kieth-el-hairack khateer ya Sitti' (Praise be to God and thanks without end O Lady), and everyone echoed, 'kieth-el-hairack khateer.' The most important person is the 'weled'—boy—Achmet. The most merry, clever, omnipresent little rascal, with an ugly little pug face, a shape like an antique Cupid, liberally displayed, and a skin of dark brown velvet. His voice, shrill and clear, is always heard foremost; he cooks for the crew, he jumps overboard with the rope and gives advice on all occasions, grinds the coffee with the end of a stick in a mortar, which he holds between his feet, and uses the same large stick to walk proudly before me, brandishing it if I go ashore for a minute, and ordering everybody out of the way. 'Ya Achmet!' resounds all day whenever anybody wants anything, and the 'weled' is always ready and able. My favourite is Osman, a tall, long-limbed black who seems to have stepped out of a hieroglyphical drawing, shirt, skull-cap and all. He has only those two garments, and how anyone contrives to look so inconceivably 'neat and respectable' (as Sally truly remarked) in that costume is a mystery. He is always at work, always cheerful, but rather silent—in short, the able seaman and steady, respectable 'hand' par excellence. Then we have El Zankalonee from near Cairo, an old fellow of white complexion and a valuable person, an inexhaustible teller of stories at night and always en train, full of jokes and remarkable for a dry humour much relished by the crew. I wish I understood the stories, which sound delightful, all about Sultans and Efreets, with effective 'points,' at which all hands exclaim 'Mashallah!' or 'Ah!' (as long as you can drawl it). The jokes, perhaps, I may as well be ignorant of. There is a certain Shereef who does nothing but laugh and work and be obliging; helps Omar with one hand and Sally with the other, and looks like a great innocent black child. The rest of the dozen are of various colours, sizes and ages, some quite old, but all very quiet and well-behaved.

We have had either dead calm or contrary wind all the time and the men have worked very hard at the tow-rope. On Friday I proclaimed a halt in the afternoon at a village at prayer-time for the pious Muslims to go to the mosque; this gave great satisfaction, though only five went, Reis, steersman, Zankalonee and two old men. The up-river men never pray at all, and Osman occupied himself by buying salt out of another boat and stowing it away to take up to his family, as it is terribly dear high up the river. At Benisouef we halted to buy meat and bread, it is comme qui dirait an assize town, there is one butcher who kills one sheep a day. I walked about the streets escorted by Omar in front and two sailors with huge staves behind, and created a sensation accordingly. It is a dull little country town with a wretched palace of Said Pasha. On Sunday we halted at Bibbeh, where I caught sight of a large Coptic church and sallied forth to see whether they would let me in. The road lay past the house of the headman of the village, and there 'in the gate' sat a patriarch, surrounded by his servants and his cattle. Over the gateway were crosses and queer constellations of dots, more like Mithraic symbols than anything Christian, but Girgis was a Copt, though the chosen head of the Muslim village. He rose as I came up, stepped out and salaamed, then took my hand and said I must go into his house before I saw the church and enter the hareem. His old mother, who looked a hundred, and his pretty wife, were very friendly; but, as I had to leave Omar at the door, our talk soon came to an end, and Girgis took me out into the divan, without the sacred precincts of the hareem. Of course we had pipes and coffee, and he pressed me to stay some days, to eat with him every day and to accept all his house contained. I took the milk he offered, and asked him to visit me in the boat, saying I must return before sunset when it gets cold, as I was ill. The house was a curious specimen of a wealthy man's house—I could not describe it if I tried, but I felt I was acting a passage of the Old Testament. We went to the church, which outside looked like nine beehives in a box. Inside, the nine domes resting on square pillars were very handsome. Girgis was putting it into thorough repair at his own expense, and it will cost a good deal, I think, to repair and renew the fine old wood panelling of such minute and intricate workmanship. The church is divided by three screens; one in front of the eastern three domes is impervious and conceals the holy of holies. He opened the horseshoe door for me to look in, but explained that no Hareem might cross the threshold. All was in confusion owing to the repairs which were actively going on without the slightest regard to Sunday; but he took up a large bundle, kissed it, and showed it me. What it contained I cannot guess, and I scrupled to inquire through a Muslim interpreter. To the right of this sanctum is the tomb of a Muslim saint! enclosed under the adjoining dome. Here we went in and Girgis kissed the tomb on one side while Omar salaamed it on the other—a pleasant sight. They were much more particular about our shoes than in the mosques. Omar wanted to tie handkerchiefs over my boots like at Cairo, but the priest objected and made me take them off and march about in the brick and mortar rubbish in my stockings. I wished to hear the service, but it was not till sunset, and, as far as I could make out, not different on Sunday to other days. The Hareems are behind the screen furthest removed from the holy screen, behind a third screen where also was the font, locked up and shaped like a Muslim tomb in little. (Hareem is used here just like the German Frauenzimmer, to mean a respectable woman. Girgis spoke of me to Omar as 'Hareem.') The Copts have but one wife, but they shut her up much closer than the Arabs. The children were sweetly pretty, so unlike the Arab brats, and the men very good-looking. They did not seem to acknowledge me at all as a co-religionnaire, and asked whether we of the English religion did not marry our brothers and sisters.

The priest then asked me to drink coffee at his house close by, and there I 'sat in the gate'—i.e., in a large sort of den raised 2 feet from the ground and matted, to the left of the gate. A crowd of Copts collected and squatted about, and we were joined by the mason who was repairing the church, a fine, burly, rough-bearded old Mussulman, who told how the Sheykh buried in the church of Bibbeh had appeared to him three nights running at Cairo and ordered him to leave his work and go to Bibbeh and mend his church, and how he came and offered to do so without pay if the Copts would find the materials. He spoke with evident pride, as one who had received a Divine command, and the Copts all confirmed the story and everyone was highly gratified by the miracle. I asked Omar if he thought it was all true, and he had no doubt of it. The mason he knew to be a respectable man in full work, and Girgis added that he had tried to get a man to come for years for the purpose without success. It is not often that a dead saint contrives to be equally agreeable to Christians and Mussulmans, and here was the staunch old 'true believer' working away in the sanctuary which they would not allow an English fellow-Christian to enter.

Whilst we sat hearing all these wonders, the sheep and cattle pushed in between us, coming home at eve. The venerable old priest looked so like Father Abraham, and the whole scene was so pastoral and Biblical that I felt quite as if my wish was fulfilled to live a little a few thousands of years ago. They wanted me to stay many days, and then Girgis said I must stop at Feshn where he had a fine house and garden, and he would go on horseback and meet me there, and would give me a whole troop of Fellaheen to pull the boat up quick. Omar's eyes twinkled with fun as he translated this, and said he knew the Sitt would cry out, as she always did about the Fellaheen, as if she were hurt herself. He told Girgis that the English customs did not allow people to work without pay, which evidently seemed very absurd to the whole party.


I stopped last night at Feshn, but finding this morning that my Coptic friends were not expected till the afternoon, I would not spend the whole day, and came on still against wind and stream. If I could speak Arabic I should have enjoyed a few days with Girgis and his family immensely, to learn their Ansichten a little; but Omar's English is too imperfect to get beyond elementary subjects. The thing that strikes me most is the tolerant spirit that I see everywhere. They say 'Ah! it is your custom,' and express no sort of condemnation, and Muslims and Christians appear perfectly good friends, as my story of Bibbeh goes to prove. I have yet to see the much-talked-of fanaticism, at present I have not met with a symptom of it. There were thirteen Copt families at Bibbeh and a considerable Muslim population, who had elected Girgis their headman and kissed his hand very heartily as our procession moved through the streets. Omar said he was a very good man and much liked.

The villages look like slight elevations in the mud banks cut into square shapes. The best houses have neither paint, whitewash, plaster, bricks nor windows, nor any visible roofs. They don't give one the notion of human dwellings at all at first, but soon the eye gets used to the absence of all that constitutes a house in Europe, the impression of wretchedness wears off, and one sees how picturesque they are, with palm-trees and tall pigeon-houses, and here and there the dome over a saint's tomb. The men at work on the river-banks are exactly the same colour as the Nile mud, with just the warmer hue of the blood circulating beneath the skin. Prometheus has just formed them out of the universal material at hand, and the sun breathed life into them. Poor fellows—even the boatmen, ragged crew as they are—say 'Ah, Fellaheen!' with a contemptuous pity when they see me watch the villagers at work.

The other day four huge barges passed us towed by a steamer and crammed with hundreds of the poor souls torn from their homes to work at the Isthmus of Suez, or some palace of the Pasha's, for a nominal piastre a day, and find their own bread and water and cloak. One of my crew, Andrasool, a black savage whose function is always to jump overboard whenever the rope gets entangled or anything is wanted, recognised some relations of his from a village close to Assouan. There was much shouting and poor Andrasool looked very mournful all day. It may be his turn next. Some of the crew disloyally remarked that they were sure the men there wished they were working for a Sitti Ingleez, as Andrasool told them he was. Think too what splendid pay it must be that the boat-owner can give out of 25 pounds a month to twelve men, after taking his own profits, the interest of money being enormous.

When I call my crew black, don't think of negroes. They are elegantly-shaped Arabs and all gentlemen in manners, and the black is transparent, with amber reflets under it in the sunshine; a negro looks blue beside them. I have learned a great deal that is curious from Omar's confidences, who tells me his family affairs and talks about the women of his family, which he would not to a man. He refused to speak to his brother, a very grand dragoman, who was with the Prince of Wales, and who came up to us in the hotel at Cairo and addressed Omar, who turned his back on him. I asked the reason, and Omar told me how his brother had a wife, 'An old wife, been with him long time, very good wife.' She had had three children—all dead. All at once the dragoman, who is much older than Omar, declared he would divorce her and marry a young woman. Omar said, 'No, don't do that; keep her in your house as head of your home, and take one of your two black slave girls as your Hareem.' But the other insisted, and married a young Turkish wife; whereupon Omar took his poor old sister-in-law to live with him and his own young wife, and cut his grand brother dead. See how characteristic!—the urging his brother to take the young slave girl 'as his Hareem,' like a respectable man—that would have been all right; but what he did was 'not good.' I'll trouble you (as Mrs. Grote used to say) to settle these questions to everyone's satisfaction. I own Omar seemed to me to take a view against which I had nothing to say. His account of his other brother, a confectioner's household with two wives, was very curious. He and they, with his wife and sister-in-law, all live together, and one of the brother's wives has six children—three sleep with their own mother and three with their other mother—and all is quite harmonious.

SIOUT, December 10.

I could not send a letter from Minieh, where we stopped, and I visited a sugar manufactory and a gentlemanly Turk, who superintended the district, the Moudir. I heard a boy singing a Zikr (the ninety-nine attributes of God) to a set of dervishes in a mosque, and I think I never heard anything more beautiful and affecting. Ordinary Arab singing is harsh and nasal, but it can be wonderfully moving. Since we left Minieh we have suffered dreadfully from the cold; the chickens died of it, and the Arabs look blue and pinched. Of course it is my weather and there never was such cold and such incessant contrary winds known. To-day was better, and Wassef, a Copt here, lent me his superb donkey to go up to the tomb in the mountain. The tomb is a mere cavern, so defaced, but the view of beautiful Siout standing in the midst of a loop of the Nile was ravishing. A green deeper and brighter than England, graceful minarets in crowds, a picturesque bridge, gardens, palm-trees, then the river beyond it, the barren yellow cliffs as a frame all around that. At our feet a woman was being carried to the grave, and the boys' voices rang out the Koran full and clear as the long procession—first white turbans and then black veils and robes—wound along. It is all a dream to me. You can't think what an odd effect it is to take up an English book and read it and then look up and hear the men cry, 'Yah Mohammad.' 'Bless thee, Bottom, how art thou translated;' it is the reverse of all one's former life when one sat in England and read of the East. 'Und nun sitz ich mitten drein' in the real, true Arabian Nights, and don't know whether 'I be I as I suppose I be' or not.

Tell Alick the news, for I have not written to any but you. I do so long for my Rainie. The little Copt girls are like her, only pale; but they don't let you admire them for fear of the evil-eye.

December 20, 1862: Sir Alexander Duff Gordon

To Sir Alexander Duff Gordon.

THEBES, December 20, 1862.


I have had a long, dawdling voyage up here, but enjoyed it much, and have seen and heard many curious things. I only stop here for letters and shall go on at once to Wady Halfeh, as the weather is very cold still, and I shall be better able to enjoy the ruins when I return about a month hence, and shall certainly prefer the tropics now. I can't describe the kindness of the Copts. The men I met at a party in Cairo wrote to all their friends and relations to be civil to me. Wassef's attentions consisted first in lending me his superb donkey and accompanying me about all day. Next morning arrived a procession headed by his clerk, a gentlemanly young Copt, and consisting of five black memlooks carrying a live sheep, a huge basket of the most delicious bread, a pile of cricket-balls of creamy butter, a large copper caldron of milk and a cage of poultry. I was confounded, and tried to give a good baksheesh to the clerk, but he utterly declined. At Girgeh one Mishrehgi was waiting for me, and was in despair because he had only time to get a few hundred eggs, two turkeys, a heap of butter and a can of milk. At Keneh one Issa (Jesus) also lent a donkey, and sent me three boxes of delicious Mecca dates, which Omar thought stingy. Such attentions are agreeable here where good food is not to be had except as a gift. They all made me promise to see them again on my return and dine at their houses, and Wassef wanted to make a fantasia and have dancing girls. How you would love the Arab women in the country villages. I wandered off the other day alone, while the men were mending the rudder, and fell in with a troop of them carrying water-jars—such sweet, graceful beings, all smiles and grace. One beautiful woman pointed to the village and made signs of eating and took my hand to lead me. I went with her, admiring them as they walked. Omar came running after and wondered I was not afraid. I laughed, and said they were much too pretty and kindly-looking to frighten anyone, which amused them immensely when he told them so. They all wanted me to go and eat in their houses, and I had a great mind to it, but the wind was fair and the boat waiting, so I bid my beautiful friends farewell. They asked if we wanted anything—milk or eggs—for they would give it with pleasure, it was not their custom to sell things, they said, I offered a bit of money to a little naked child, but his mother would not let him take it. I shall never forget the sweet, engaging creatures at that little village, or the dignified politeness of an old weaver whose loom I walked in to look at, and who also wished to 'set a piece of bread before me.' It is the true poetical pastoral life of the Bible in the villages where the English have not been, and happily they don't land at the little places. Thebes has become an English watering-place. There are now nine boats lying here, and the great object is to do the Nile as fast as possible. It is a race up to Wady Halfeh or Assouan. I have gained so much during this month that I hope the remaining three will do real good, as the weather will improve with the new year they tell me. All the English stay here and 'make Christmas,' as Omar calls it, but I shall go on and do my devotions with the Copts at Esneh or Edfou. I found that their seeming disinclination to let one attend their service arose from an idea that we English would not recognise them as Christians. I wrote a curious story of a miracle to my mother, I find that I was wrong about the saint being a Mussulman (and so is Murray); he is no less than Mar Girghis, our own St. George himself. Why he selected a Mussulman mason I suppose he best knows.

In a week I shall be in Nubia. Some year we must all make this voyage; you would revel in it. Kiss my darlings for me.

February 11, 1863: Sir Alexander Duff Gordon

To Sir Alexander Duff Gordon.

THEBES, February 11, 1863.


On arriving here last night I found one letter from you, dated December 10, and have received nothing else. Pray write again forthwith to Cairo where I hope to stay some weeks. A clever old dragoman I met at Philae offers to lend me furniture for a lodging or a tent for the desert, and when I hesitated he said he was very well off and it was not his business to sell things, but only to be paid for his services by rich people, and that if I did not accept it as he meant it he should be quite hurt. This is what I have met with from everything Arab—nothing but kindness and politeness. I shall say farewell to Egypt with real feeling; among other things, it will be quite a pang to part with Omar who has been my shadow all this time and for whom I have quite an affection, he is so thoroughly good and amiable.

I am really much better I hope and believe, though only within the last week or two. We have had the coldest winter ever known in Nubia, such bitter north-east winds, but when the wind by great favour did not blow, the weather was heavenly. If the millennium really does come I shall take a good bit of mine on the Nile. At Assouan I had been strolling about in that most poetically melancholy spot, the granite quarry of old Egypt and burial-place of Muslim martyrs, and as I came homewards along the bank a party of slave merchants, who had just loaded their goods for Senaar from the boat on the camels, asked me to dinner, and, oh! how delicious it felt to sit on a mat among the camels and strange bales of goods and eat the hot tough bread, sour milk and dates, offered with such stately courtesy. We got quite intimate over our leather cup of sherbet (brown sugar and water), and the handsome jet-black men, with features as beautiful as those of the young Bacchus, described the distant lands in a way which would have charmed Herodotus. They proposed to me to join them, 'they had food enough,' and Omar and I were equally inclined to go. It is of no use to talk of the ruins; everybody has said, I suppose, all that can be said, but Philae surpassed my expectations. No wonder the Arab legends of Ans el Wogood are so romantic, and Abou Simbel and many more. The scribbling of names is quite infamous, beautiful paintings are defaced by Tomkins and Hobson, but worst of all Prince Puckler Muskau has engraved his and his Ordenskreuz in huge letters on the naked breast of that august and pathetic giant who sits at Abou Simbel. I wish someone would kick him for his profanity.

I have eaten many odd things with odd people in queer places, dined in a respectable Nubian family (the castor-oil was trying), been to a Nubian wedding—such a dance I saw. Made friends with a man much looked up to in his place (Kalabshee—notorious for cutting throats), inasmuch as he had killed several intrusive tax-gatherers and recruiting officers. He was very gentlemanly and kind and carried me up a place so steep I could not have reached it. Just below the cataract—by-the-by going up is nothing but noise and shouting, but coming down is fine fun—Fantasia khateer as my excellent little Nubian pilot said. My sailors all prayed away manfully and were horribly frightened. I confess my pulse quickened, but I don't think it was fear. Well, below the cataract I stopped for a religious fete, and went to a holy tomb with the darweesh, so extraordinarily handsome and graceful—the true feingemacht noble Bedaween type. He took care of me through the crowd, who never had seen a Frank woman before and crowded fearfully, and pushed the true believers unmercifully to make way for me. He was particularly pleased at my not being afraid of Arabs; I laughed, and asked if he was afraid of us. 'Oh no! he would like to come to England; when there he would work to eat and drink, and then sit and sleep in the church.' I was positively ashamed to tell my religious friend that with us the 'house of God' is not the house of the poor stranger. I asked him to eat with me but he was holding a preliminary Ramadan (it begins next week), and could not; but he brought his handsome sister, who was richly dressed, and begged me to visit him and eat of his bread, cheese and milk. Such is the treatment one finds if one leaves the highroad and the backsheesh-hunting parasites. There are plenty of 'gentlemen' barefooted and clad in a shirt and cloak ready to pay attentions which you may return with a civil look and greeting, and if you offer a cup of coffee and a seat on the floor you give great pleasure, still more if you eat the dourah and dates, or bread and sour milk with an appetite.

At Koom Ombo we met a Rifaee darweesh with his basket of tame snakes. After a little talk he proposed to initiate me, and so we sat down and held hands like people marrying. Omar sat behind me and repeated the words as my 'Wakeel,' then the Rifaee twisted a cobra round our joined hands and requested me to spit on it, he did the same and I was pronounced safe and enveloped in snakes. My sailors groaned and Omar shuddered as the snakes put out their tongues—the darweesh and I smiled at each other like Roman augurs. I need not say the creatures were toothless.

It is worth going to Nubia to see the girls. Up to twelve or thirteen they are neatly dressed in a bead necklace and a leather fringe 4 inches wide round the loins, and anything so absolutely perfect as their shapes or so sweetly innocent as their look can't be conceived. My pilot's little girl came in the dress mentioned before carrying a present of cooked fish on her head and some fresh eggs; she was four years old and so klug. I gave her a captain's biscuit and some figs, and the little pet sat with her little legs tucked under her, and ate it so manierlich and was so long over it, and wrapped up some more white biscuit to take home in a little rag of a veil so carefully. I longed to steal her, she was such a darling. Two beautiful young Nubian women visited me in my boat, with hair in little plaits finished off with lumps of yellow clay burnished like golden tags, soft, deep bronze skins, and lips and eyes fit for Isis and Hathor. Their very dress and ornaments were the same as those represented in the tombs, and I felt inclined to ask them how many thousand years old they were. In their house I sat on an ancient Egyptian couch with the semicircular head-rest, and drank out of crockery which looked antique, and they brought a present of dates in a basket such as you may see in the British Museum. They are dressed in drapery like Greek statues, and are as perfect, but have hard, bold faces, and, though far handsomer, lack the charm of the Arab women; and the men, except at Kalabshee and those from far up the country, are not such gentlemen as the Arabs.

Everyone is cursing the French here. Forty thousand men always at work at the Suez Canal at starvation-point, does not endear them to the Arabs. There is great excitement as to what the new Pasha will do. If he ceases to give forced labour, the Canal, I suppose, must be given up. Well, I must leave off and send my letter to Mustapha Aga to forward. I shall stay here ten days or so, and then return slowly to Cairo on March 10, the last day of Ramadan. I will stay a short time at Cairo, and then take a small boat and drop down to Alexandria and see Janet. How I did wish for my darling Rainie to play with Achmet in the boat and see the pretty Nubian boys and girls. I have seen and heard so much, that like M. de Conti je voudrais etre leve pour l'aller dire. I long to bore you with traveller's tales. Pray write soon.

Omar wanted to hear all that 'the gentleman' said about 'weled and bint' (boy and girl), and was quite delighted to hear of Maurice's good report at school, he thinks that the 'Abou el welad' (father of the children—you, to wit) will send a sheep to the 'fikee' who teaches him. I have learned a new code of propriety altogether—cela a du bon et du mauvais, like ours. When I said 'my husband' Omar blushed and gently corrected me; when my donkey fell in the streets he cried with vexation, and on my mentioning the fall to Hekekian Bey he was quite indignant. 'Why you say it, ma'am? that shame'—a faux pas in fact. On the other hand they mention all that belongs to the production of children with perfect satisfaction and pleasure. A very pleasing, modest and handsome Nubian young woman, wishing to give me the best present she could think of, brought me a mat of her own making, and which had been her marriage-bed. It was a gift both friendly and honourable, and I treasure it accordingly. Omar gave me a description of his own marriage, appealing to my sympathy about the distress of absence from his wife. I intimated that English people were not accustomed to some words and might be shocked, on which he said, 'Of course I not speak of my Hareem to English gentleman, but to good Lady can speak it.'

Good-bye, dear Alick, no, that is improper: I must say 'O my Lord' or 'Abou Maurice.'

March 7, 1863: Mrs. Austin

To Mrs. Austin.



I was so glad to find from your letter (which Janet sent me to Thebes by a steamer) that mine from Siout had reached you safely. First and foremost I am wonderfully better. In Cairo the winter has been terribly cold and damp, as the Coptic priest told me yesterday at Girgeh. So I don't repent the expense of the boat for j'en ai pour mon argent—I am all the money better and really think of getting well. Now that I know the ways of this country a little, which Herodotus truly says is like no other, I see that I might have gone and lived at Thebes or at Keneh or Assouan on next to nothing, but then how could I know it? The English have raised a mirage of false wants and extravagance which the servants of the country of course, some from interest and others from mere ignorance, do their best to keep up. As soon as I had succeeded in really persuading Omar that I was not as rich as a Pasha and had no wish to be thought so, he immediately turned over a new leaf as to what must be had and said 'Oh, if I could have thought an English lady would have eaten and lived and done the least like Arab people, I might have hired a house at Keneh for you, and we might have gone up in a clean passenger boat, but I thought no English could bear it.' At Cairo, where we shall be, Inshallaha, on the 19th, Omar will get a lodging and borrow a few mattresses and a table and chair and, as he says, 'keep the money in our pockets instead of giving it to the hotel.' I hope Alick got my letter from Thebes, and that he told you that I had dined with 'the blameless Ethiopians.' I have seen all the temples in Nubia and down as far as I have come, and nine of the tombs at Thebes. Some are wonderfully beautiful—Abou Simbel, Kalabshee, Room Ombo—a little temple at El Kab, lovely—three tombs at Thebes and most of all Abydos; Edfou and Dendera are the most perfect, Edfou quite perfect, but far less beautiful. But the most lovely object my eyes ever saw is the island of Philae. It gives one quite the supernatural feeling of Claude's best landscapes, only not the least like them—ganz anders. The Arabs say that Ans el Wogood, the most beautiful of men, built it for his most beautiful beloved, and there they lived in perfect beauty and happiness all alone. If the weather had not been so cold while I was there I should have lived in the temple, in a chamber sculptured with the mystery of Osiris' burial and resurrection. Omar cleaned it out and meant to move my things there for a few days, but it was too cold to sleep in a room without a door. The winds have been extraordinarily cold this year, and are so still. We have had very little of the fine warm weather, and really been pinched with cold most of the time. On the shore away from the river would be much better for invalids.

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