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The Life of Lord Byron By John Galt Characters: 10860

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Dispute with the Ambassador-Reflections on Byron's Pride of Rank-Abandons his Oriental Travels-Re-embarks in the "Salsette"-The Dagger Scene-Zea-Returns to Athens-Tour in the Morea-Dangerous Illness-Return to Athens-The Adventure on which "The Giaour" is founded

Although Lord Byron remained two months in Constantinople, and visited every object of interest and curiosity within and around it, he yet brought away with him fewer poetical impressions than from any other part of the Ottoman dominions; at least he has made less use in his works of what he saw and learned there, than of the materials he collected in other places.

From whatever cause it arose, the self-abstraction which I had noticed at Smyrna, was remarked about him while he was in the capital, and the same jealousy of his rank was so nervously awake, that it led him to attempt an obtrusion on the ambassadorial etiquettes-which he probably regretted.

It has grown into a custom, at Constantinople, when the foreign ministers are admitted to audiences of ceremony with the Sultan, to allow the subjects and travellers of their respective nations to accompany them, both to swell the pomp of the spectacle, and to gratify their curiosity. Mr Adair, our ambassador, for whom the Salsette had been sent, had his audience of leave appointed soon after Lord Byron's arrival, and his Lordship was particularly anxious to occupy a station of distinction in the procession. The pretension was ridiculous in itself, and showed less acquaintance with courtly ceremonies than might have been expected in a person of his rank and intelligence. Mr Adair assured him that he could obtain no particular place; that in the arrangements for the ceremonial, only the persons connected with the embassy could be considered, and that the Turks neither acknowledged the precedence, nor could be requested to consider the distinctions of our nobility. Byron, however, still persisted, and the minister was obliged to refer him on the subject to the Austrian Internuncio, a high authority in questions of etiquette, whose opinion was decidedly against the pretension.

The pride of rank was indeed one of the greatest weaknesses of Lord Byron, and everything, even of the most accidental kind, which seemed to come between the wind and his nobility, was repelled on the spot. I recollect having some debate with him once respecting a pique of etiquette, which happened between him and Sir William Drummond, somewhere in Portugal or Spain. Sir William was at the time an ambassador (not, however, I believe, in the country where the incident occurred), and was on the point of taking precedence in passing from one room to another, when Byron stepped in before him. The action was undoubtedly rude on the part of his Lordship, even though Sir William had presumed too far on his riband: to me it seemed also wrong; for, by the custom of all nations from time immemorial, ambassadors have been allowed their official rank in passing through foreign countries, while peers in the same circumstances claim no rank at all; even in our own colonies it has been doubted if they may take precedence of the legislative counsellors. But the rights of rank are best determined by the heralds, and I have only to remark, that it is almost inconceivable that such things should have so morbidly affected the sensibility of Lord Byron; yet they certainly did so, and even to a ridiculous degree. On one occasion, when he lodged in St James's Street, I recollect him rating the footman for using a double knock in accidental thoughtlessness.

These little infirmities are, however, at most only calculated to excite a smile; there is no turpitude in them, and they merit notice but as indications of the humour of character. It was his Lordship's foible to overrate his rank, to grudge his deformity beyond reason, and to exaggerate the condition of his family and circumstances. But the alloy of such small vanities, his caprice and feline temper, were as vapour compared with the mass of rich and rare ore which constituted the orb and nucleus of his brilliancy.

He had not been long in Constantinople, when a change came over his intentions; the journey to Persia was abandoned, and the dreams of India were dissolved. The particular causes which produced this change are not very apparent-but Mr Hobhouse was at the same time directed to return home, and perhaps that circumstance had some influence on his decision, which he communicated to his mother, informing her, that he should probably return to Greece. As in that letter he alludes to his embarrassment on account of remittances, it is probable that the neglect of his agent, with respect to them, was the main cause which induced him to determine on going no farther.

Accordingly, on the 14th of July, he embarked with Mr Hobhouse and the ambassador on board the Salsette. It was in the course of the passage to the island of Zea, where he was put on shore, that one of the most emphatic incidents of his life occurred; an incident which throws a remarkable gleam into the springs and intricacies of his character-more, perhaps, than anything which has yet been mentioned.

One day, as he was walking the quarter-deck, he lifted an ataghan (it might be one of the midshipmen's weapons), and unsheathing it, said, contemplating the blade, "I should like to know how a person feels after committing murder." By tho

se who have inquiringly noticed the extraordinary cast of his metaphysical associations, this dagger-scene must be regarded as both impressive and solemn; although the wish to know how a man felt after committing murder does not imply any desire to perpetrate the crime. The feeling might be appreciated by experiencing any actual degree of guilt; for it is not the deed-the sentiment which follows it makes the horror. But it is doing injustice to suppose the expression of such a wish dictated by desire. Lord Byron has been heard to express, in the eccentricity of conversation, wishes for a more intense knowledge of remorse than murder itself could give. There is, however, a wide and wild difference between the curiosity that prompts the wish to know the exactitude of any feeling or idea, and the direful passions that instigate to guilty gratifications.

Being landed, according to his request, with his valet, two Albanians, and a Tartar, on the shore of Zea, it may be easily conceived that he saw the ship depart with a feeling before unfelt. It was the first time he was left companionless, and the scene around was calculated to nourish stern fancies, even though there was not much of suffering to be withstood.

The landing-place in the port of Zea, I recollect distinctly. The port itself is a small land-locked gulf, or, as the Scottish Highlander would call it, a loch. The banks are rocky and forbidding; the hills, which rise to the altitude of mountains, have, in a long course of ages, been always inhabited by a civilized people. Their precipitous sides are formed into innumerable artificial terraces, the aspect of which, austere, ruinous, and ancient, produces on the mind of the stranger a sense of the presence of a greater antiquity than the sight of monuments of mere labour and art. The town stands high upon the mountain, I counted on the lower side of the road which leads to it forty-nine of those terraces at one place under me, and on the opposite hills, in several places, upwards of sixty. Whether Lord Byron ascended to the town is doubtful. I have never heard him mention that he had; and I am inclined to think that he proceeded at once to Athens by one of the boats which frequent the harbour.

At Athens he met an old fellow-collegian, the Marquis of Sligo, with whom he soon after travelled as far as Corinth; the Marquis turning off there for Tripolizza, while Byron went forward to Patras, where he had some needful business to transact with the consul. He then made the tour of the Morea, in the course of which he visited the Vizier Velhi Pasha, by whom he was treated, as every other English traveller of the time was, with great distinction and hospitality.

Having occasion to go back to Patras, he was seized by the local fever there, and reduced to death's door. On his recovery he returned to Athens, where he found the Marquis, with Lady Hester Stanhope, and Mr Bruce, afterward so celebrated for his adventures in assisting the escape of the French General Lavalette. He took possession of the apartments which I had occupied in the monastery, and made them his home during the remainder of his residence in Greece; but when I returned to Athens, in October, he was not there himself. I found, however, his valet, Fletcher, in possession.

There is no very clear account of the manner in which Lord Byron employed himself after his return to Athens; but various intimations in his correspondence show that during the winter his pen was not idle. It would, however, be to neglect an important occurrence, not to notice that during the time when he was at Athens alone, the incident which he afterwards embodied in the impassioned fragments of The Giaour came to pass; and to apprise the reader that the story is founded on an adventure which happened to himself-he was, in fact, the cause of the girl being condemned, and ordered to be sewn up in a sack and thrown into the sea.

One day, as he was returning from bathing in the Pir?us, he met the procession going down to the shore to execute the sentence which the Waywode had pronounced on the girl; and learning the object of the ceremony, and who was the victim, he immediately interfered with great resolution; for, on observing some hesitation on the part of the leader of the escort to return with him to the Governor's house, he drew a pistol and threatened to shoot him on the spot. The man then turned about, and accompanied him back, when, partly by bribery and entreaty, he succeeded in obtaining a pardon for her, on condition that she was sent immediately out of the city. Byron conveyed her to the monastery, and on the same night sent her off to Thebes, where she found a safe asylum.

With this affair, I may close his adventures in Greece; for, although he remained several months subsequent at Athens, he was in a great measure stationary. His health, which was never robust, was impaired by the effects of the fever, which lingered about him; perhaps, too, by the humiliating anxiety he suffered on account of the uncertainty in his remittances. But however this may have been, it was fortunate for his fame that he returned to England at the period he did, for the climate of the Mediterranean was detrimental to his constitution. The heat oppressed him so much as to be positive suffering, and scarcely had he reached Malta on his way home, when he was visited again with a tertian ague.

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