- Historic Sites
Miss Knight Abroad
For a provincial belle from Natchez, the Grand Tour was a priceless introduction to Europe’s art, its feudal pomp, and its tourist trade
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
From France the tourists went to Switzerland and climbed one of the snow-capped Alps to the famous Hospice of St. Bernard. They visited the grisly “Dead House,” where the bodies of travelers who had perished in the snow were ranged about the walls in the attitudes of their final agonies, uninterrable because of the hard, rocky ground and incorrupt in the cold, dry mountain air. Among the Knights’ fellow guests was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who the spring before had been caned in the Senate by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. “I certainly do not think [Sumner] a flattering specimen of an American Senator,” wrote Fanny, a loyal southerner. “I never justified Mr. Brooks in his conduct, and to say the least think he acted in a most ungentlemanly manner, but I do think Mr. Sumner deserved all he got.” When she saw his signature in the guest register as “The Hon. Charles Sumner, Senator of the United States,” it was more than Fanny could stand. “I think it in very bad taste,” she wrote, “for an American in particular to be his own trumpeter.”
Another winter in the Italian sunshine was followed by a trip to Russia, where Alexander II had ascended the throne in 1855. At St. Petersburg their luggage was searched and all their books taken away so a censor could examine them. In Moscow—which they reached via an American-built railroad—they visited the magnificent gold and white apartments of the empress in the Kremlin, watched droshky races, fireworks, singing gypsies, and a “Bear Woman,” and went to a prison to see criminals and political prisoners leaving for Siberia. “It was a most heartrending scene,” Fanny wrote. “The poor creatures looked pale and thin; they wore the prison garb and had their heads shaved with the exception of a small spike on the top. There were some women among them. Many kind persons were present who gave the exiles money, for without it they would certainly starve on the road to their inhospitable home. The prisoners were chained and hand-cuffed, and must go on foot all the way to Siberia where most of them will work in the mines for life. The parting of the prisoners from their families and friends was most distressing; their cries were heard until the order for the drums to beat was given, and the exiles proceeded on their journey. The prisoners shed not a tear; they seemed to have lost all emotions of any kind, just a numbness remained. Thank God I was born neither a serf nor a prince in this land!”
As another winter neared, Fanny’s lather was anxious to head south before his chronic asthma became troublesome. Egypt was then the Florida of the well to do, and boat trips up the Nile had become fashionable. At Cairo they found a dragoman who agreed to manage everything for the sum of £250. A boat, called the Luxor, was fitted out with furniture, beds and bedding (the sheets were to be changed once a week, the table linens twice), a coal stove, and provisions of the best quality. An American flag was run up at the stern, the captain and his crew of Nubians came aboard, and on February 17, 1859, the Luxor raised her sails to the breeze.
Along the way the boat stopped to allow the party to make side excursions—to the Temple of Karnak, the pyramid of Cheops, the falls at Aswan. Fanny and her parents rode in donkey chairs to various ruins, picking up archaeological souvenirs.
From Aswan they headed downstream again for Cairo. “The captain’s wife,” Fanny noted, “a rather good looking Nubian woman with pearly teeth, saw him off at Assuan, and wafted him a blessing by throwing dates into the water. The captain has a wife at Cairo, also, and another, his favorite, at Luxor. Abdul Wahee, the head cook, has had five wives, but has sent all but two away, as he is in the habit of doing after they reach the age of twenty-six.” The Luxor reached Cairo on April 7 after covering 250 miles in a little over seven weeks.
Next stop was Alexandria, where Fanny dropped in at the Union Dispensary to order a bottle of honey of rose. The apothecary’s assistant, a dark, handsome young man, waited on her, and looked with obvious appreciation upon his pretty young customer. That evening he brought the package around to the Knights’ hotel and stayed to pay a call. “When he bade me farewell,” Fanny wrote, “he handed me a small note and requested me to read and answer it. Its contents surprised me exceedingly …” The young Egyptian had written:
… Were I only charmed by your beauty, I would perhaps have won my passion, but love in its full extent has darted my heart. In declaring to you my intentions I do but follow its dictates. They are, to offer you my hand, for my heart has ever since been captivated by you. … I beg you to let me have an answer on the subject; howsoever it may be, let me be acquainted with it, for on your accepting or declining it depends my happiness for life, or total despair. …
But Fanny did not reply.