Hester’s last ride

English adventurer Lady Hester Stanhope traveled throughout the Middle East, her unconventional love affairs, masculine dress and political consciousness putting her beyond the pale with both her hosts and her homeland. Her last residence was an abandoned monastery at a remote Lebanese hilltop village called Joun. It was the scene of this macabre Eastern Gothic scenario which unfolded shortly after her death on this day in 1839, as described by Lorna Gibb in Lady Hester: Queen of the East, when the compatriots and co-religionists she had left behind finally caught up with her:

The two riders who approached Joun after an eleven-hour ride in intense heat were understandably weary. They wound up the mountain in the pitch-blackness, travelling beyond the village to Hester’s domain. the effect of the building was forbidding – with its thick surrounding walls more like a fortress than a home and, once beyond them, like a maze in the darkness, ramshackle buildings clustered together on a mountain eyrie. Around midnight the English Consul and the American missionary dismounted, barely illuminated by the light of torches held by the servants who gathered around them. Cats yowled, cried and brushed past their legs. They found Hester’s room near the entrance. It was dilapidated and disordered, cluttered with candle ends, paper and paraphernalia, crowded with cats and kittens and rank with their smell; in the far left-hand corner was the eastern-style bed where Hester’s body lay. Fearful of the heat and not waiting for the light, the servants led the way to the garden and the vault where their mistress had asked to be buried, and opened it. The bones of her last lover were removed and then replaced at one end. Meanwhile, a group of retainers carried the body, in a plain deal box, guided by a mixture of lanterns and firelight, from her room through the alleys and alcoves of the garden. The young missionary took a wrong turn in the dim light, crying out in shock when he literally fell upon the arbour of the crypt. The first thing he saw was a pile of bones with a skull on top, a lighted taper flickering through each eye socket, grinning at him amidst the shadows of plants and trees – a grotesque arrangement made by the servants.

There was little ceremony, yet the two simple observances denied both of Hester’s express wishes, namely that she should be disassociated both from her country and from the Christian religion. The coffin was draped with a British flag and the missionary performed the funeral rite of the Church of England. Hester was buried and the small party returned in silence, through the winding alleyways of roses run wild, to the decaying palace with its thirty-five rooms, all filled with scavenging cats.

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2 comments

  1. We’ll all be crazy cat ladies in the end.

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