Sir Richard Burton's Wife
THREE more years of waiting stretched before Isabel Arundell — ‘only with this great change: before I was unloved and had no hope; now the shame of loving unasked was taken from me.’
Isabel admitted but one misgiving: ‘Whatever the world may condemn in him of lawless action or strong opinions, he is perfect to me: and I would not have him otherwise than as he is — except in spiritual matters. This last point troubles me. . . . Yet I do feel a close suspicion,’ she added acutely, ‘that he has much more belief than he likes to have the credit of.’
Her diary indicates that the Arundells had not altogether relinquished their earlier hopes for her, but Isabel could now treat this with an airiness they found quite maddening. ‘I shall not clip my wings of liberty except for him, whatever my lot may be. No gilded misery for me! ‘
‘He thinks he is sacrificing me,’ she mused indulgently, ‘but I want pain, privations, danger with him. I have the constitution and nerves for it. There are few places I could not follow my husband, and be to him companion, friend, wife, and all. And where I could not so follow him, I would not be a clog to him, for,’ she concluded with understatement, ‘I am tolerably independent.’
As a spiritual exercise she ‘practised discussing him with the greatest sang froid.’ Already she was well embarked on her life work of salvaging, bolstering, defending, and polishing his shaky reputation: —
He was great in the literary world, men’s society, clubs, and the Royal Geographic Society. But I wished him also to be great in the world of fashion, where my despised sex is paramount. I also knew that if a man gets talked about in the right kind of way in handfuls of the best society, here and there, his fame quickly spreads. I had plenty of opportunities to help him in this way without his knowing it.
Christmas Day, 1856. — I was delighted to hear father and mother praising Richard today; they both seemed so interested about him. They little know how much they gratified me. I was reading a book; but when the time came to put it away, I found it had been upside-down all the time.
January 2, 1857. I see by the papers that Richard left Bombay for Zanzibar with Lieutenant Speke on December 2 last. I am struck by the remembrance that it was on that very night that I was so ill and delirious. I dreamt I saw him sailing away and he spoke to me, but I thought my brain throbbed so loud that I could not hear him. I was quite taken off my guard today on hearing the news read out from the Times, so that even my mother asked me what was the matter. I have not had a letter; I might get one in a fortnight; but I must meet this uncertainty with confidence, and not let my love be dependent on any action of his, because he is a strange man and not as other men.
January 18. — Unless tomorrow’s mail brings me a letter, my hope is gone. What is the cause of his silence I cannot imagine . . . yet I feel confident that Richard will be true. . . . My only desire is that he may return safe to me with changed religious feelings, and that I may be his wife with my parents’ consent. Suspense is a trial which I must bear for two years without a murmur. I must trust and pray to God . . . and live a quiet life, employ myself only in endeavouring to make myself worthy; and surely this conduct will bring its reward.
The last year of waiting was the worst. Nothing mattered unless it could somehow be pressed into service for Richard, and in this she was indefatigable; ‘He told me that all the time he was away the greatest consolation he had was my fortnightly journals, in letter form, to him, accompanied by all the newspaper scraps and public and private information, and accounts of books, such as I knew would interest him, so that when he did get a mail, which was only in a huge batch now and then, he was as well posted up as if he were living in London.’
Wilfrid Blunt met her several times this year at Mortlake in the home of her aunt, Monica Lady Gerard. ‘At that time,’ he wrote, ‘she was a quiet girl enough, of the convent type — at least so I remember her — fair haired and rather pretty — very different from my recollection of her in later years.’ In Lent she made a retreat in her old convent, meditating among other things on the insufficient use she had so far made of God’s gifts (itemized with no false modesty as ‘pure blood and good birth, health, youth, strength, beauty, talent, and natural goodness’).
Back in London, the first news she heard was that Speke was again in England — Speke, but not Richard. This was a bad sign and instinctively she knew it; Speke was already busily at work sowing the seeds of their long, unhappy, futile controversy before Richard could present his own side. And where was Richard? She was ‘very sore in mind ‘ when she received from Zanzibar, with no accompanying letter, six lines ‘To Isabel’: —
As on the palmers’ holy shrine;
Those eyes — my life was in their light;
Those lips my sacramental wine;
That voice whose flow was wont to seem
The music of an exile’s dream.
‘I knew then it was all right,’ said Isabel, comforted; but it was far from all right. Two days later, when she read that he was on his way home alone and the press was buzzing with speculation, she felt ‘strange, and frightened, sick, stupefied, dying to see him, and yet inclined to run away, lest, after all I have suffered and longed for, I should have to bear more.’
Richard and Isabel never seemed simply to arrange to meet and then meet; there had always to be an element of dramatic surprise about it.
On May 22nd, 1859, I chanced to call upon a friend. I was told she was gone out, but would be in to tea. . . . In about five minutes another ring came to the door, and another visitor was asked to wait. . . . Judge of my feelings when I beheld Richard. For an instant we both stood dazed, and I cannot attempt to describe the joy that followed. He had landed the day before, and now he had come to call on this friend to know where I was living, where to find me. No one will wonder if I say that we forgot all about her and tea, and that we went downstairs and got into a cab, and took a long drive. . . . I felt like one stunned; I felt like a person coming to after a faint or in a dream. It was acute pain, but it was absolute content, which I fancy people must feel the first few moments after the soul is quit of the body. . . . The first thing that happened was, that we mutually drew each other’s pictures from our respective pockets at the same moment, which, as we had not expected to meet, showed how carefully they had been kept.
When she looked more closely at Richard she received a shock: ‘I shall never forget him as he was then; he had had twenty-one attacks of fever, had been partially paralysed and partially blind; he was a mere skeleton, with brown yellow skin hanging in bags, his eyes protruding, and his lips drawn away from his teeth.’
Moreover, his prospects were as black as ever. He and Speke had quarreled; right or wrong, Speke had got to the authorities first with his version. Together they had discovered Lake Tanganyika, but when Richard contracted fever he let Speke press on to Lake Victoria Nyanza alone. Speke returned insisting that he had discovered the sole source of the Nile. He was already a mass of festering suspicions and grudges — Richard never asked his advice or showed him proper respect; Richard could talk to the natives and he could not, so what might not be plotted and schemed behind his back? When Richard disputed his Victoria Nyanza theory it was too much, and Speke announced that he was going back to England. He gave Richard his solemn word on parting that he would give out no statements until they could appear together, but by the time Richard landed, still very shaky and weak, he found that Speke had not only delivered a sold-out public lecture but also got himself appointed leader of a new and greater expedition.
Smarting equally under his partner’s defection and the public’s prejudice, he turned for solace to Isabel: she could be counted on always to agree with him, she knew that he was invariably right and that all the others with their ‘shameful intrigues’ were wrong, she realized how cruelly he was misjudged and unappreciated (‘Richard was a grievously injured man under the greatest provocation ever put forth!’).
He badly needed such solace then, and he never outgrew his need for it. Frank Harris testified that when Richard was an old man he was still brooding heavily on the grandiose schemes of those days: ‘how he came home and offered all East Africa to Lord Salisbury. . . . He had concluded treaties with all the chiefs; no other Power was interested or would have objected. But Lord Salisbury refused the gift. “Is Zanzibar an island?” he exclaimed in wonder, and “Is East Africa worth anything?” ‘
Isabel wrote at this time: —
The Government and the Royal Geographical Society looked coldly on him; the Indian army brought him under the reduction; he was almost penniless, and he had only a few friends to greet him. Speke was the hero of the hour, the Stanley of 1859-1864. This was one of the martyrdoms of that uncrowned King’s life, and I think that but for me he would have died.
But had he been ever so unsuccessful, and had every man’s hand against him, my earthly god and King, I could have knelt at his feet and worshipped him. I used to sit and look at him, and think, ‘You are mine, and there is no man on earth the least like you.’
Richard had in truth passed his physical zenith. For years he had had to call daily on every reserve of strength and endurance; often ho was lame and blind and shivering with ague, but he could never stop to rest, knowing that if the natives under him once believed that ho might die, it was very certain that he would die. Also he was a lonely man with practically no family ties: his father had died in 1857 and his brother, Edward, whom he loved, would be better dead. Richard passed most of his time at the Athenæum working on his Zanzibar notebooks.
The books that eventually resulted from these long sessions were The Lake Regions of Central Africa and Zanzibar. Isabel clung to a last hope that his writings would ingratiate Richard with the British public where all else had failed, and no one could have promoted them with a more touching zeal, but they offercd impossible material with which to work. Few even in the earnest sixties, when readers were made of strong stuff, could get through them. As it happened, much original and valuable material lay buried deep beneath the mountains of statistics, but it lies there forgotten to this day.
As a rule, moreover, he showed no consideration for the sensibilities of the ‘general reader,’ and no words can describe the shocks he administered right and left in his implacable progress. His misfortune was that in the days before The Golden Bough there was no standard for appraising random disquisitions on fetish and tabu, tossed in as it were absent-mindedly between tables of imports and exports.
Richard, who saw no immediate prospect of either Mrs. Arundell’s or Isabel’s yielding an inch (both being gifted, as he said, with the noble firmness of the mule), was all for getting married now and arguing it out later. But Isabel had set. her heart on marrying on her own terms: that is, after having brought the family around to her own point of view. It is likely that she would have relinquished this ambition precipitately enough if she had had the slightest suspicion of the alternative Richard was revolving in his mind. As it was: —
One day in April, 1860, I was walking out with two friends, and a tightening of the heart came over me that I had known before. I went home, and said to my sister, ‘ I am not going to see Richard for some time.’ She said, ‘Why, you will see him tomorrow!’ ‘No, I shall not,’ I said; ‘I don’t know what is the matter.’ A tap came at the door, and a note with the well-known writing was put into my hand. I knew my fate, and with a deep-drawn breath I opened it.
The note was to announce that he had left for the United States to be gone the greater part of a year; his destination — horror upon horror — was Salt Lake City, the stronghold of polygamy; and while he was absent Isabel was to make up her mind once for all. ‘If once you really let me go, mind, I shall never come back,’ he told her peremptorily, ‘because I shall know that you have not got the strength of character which my wife must have.’
This was too much. Deaf to family outcry Isabel went to the country and took lodgings in a farmhouse where she set herself grimly to learn to run a kitchen, groom horses, milk cows, do outdoor chores, and generally ‘ fit myself for Expeditions. As I was going to marry a poor man, I learnt every imaginable thing that I might possibly wont, so that if we had no servants, or if servants were sick or mutinous, we should be perfectly independent.’ Back in London, she marched in on Richard’s friend Dr. George Bird, a West End physician who was also an enthusiastic amateur boxer and noted for urging athletics on his patients, and demanded that he teach her to fence. (‘Why, to defend Richard, of course, when he and I are attacked in the wilderness together!’) In preparation for more placid intervals, if there were to be such, she took up a course of improving reading ‘so as to be able to discuss things with Richard’; and to round out the program and ensure that there would after all be a Richard, she spent her remaining time in fasting and prayer. (‘I have undertaken a very peculiar man.’)
The struggle between mother and daughter went on meanwhile without quarter on either side.
At Christmas, 1860, Isabel was visiting her cousins the Clifford Constables when the papers announced that Richard had landed. (They had far more reporters on hand to hear how he had made out among the Mormons than ever greeted him on his returns from Darkest Africa.) She sat up all that night packing and planning. In the morning there were two letters from him; and though she was marooned in a snowbound country house in Yorkshire with some twenty-five relatives and friends to dodge, she managed to work the trusty old device of a telegram summoning her back to London.
This time Isabel was taking no chances and it only remained to fix the date, which was found to entail a rather nice balancing of auspices: —
I wanted to be married on Wednesday the 23rd, because it was the Espousals of Our Lady and St. Joseph; but Richard would not, because Wednesday the 23 rd and Friday the 13th were our unlucky days; so we were married on the Vigil, Tuesday, January 22nd.
Though they were anything but a youthfully impetuous pair, Richard being past forty and Isabel nearly thirty, they were absurdly compelled to go through the motions of an elopement. When Isabel had gone to her parents for one last time, the unhappy Mr. Arundell, considerably torn, temporized with ‘I consent with all my heart, if your mother consents.’ Her mother automatically repeated: ‘Never!’ It was Cardinal Wiseman who finally listened to Isabel, asked if her mind was absolutely made up, and then said: ‘Leave the matter to me.’
Isabel slipped out of her home alone that Tuesday morning and took a cab to the house of Dr. Bird and his sister Alice in Welbeck Street, to change there into her sober fawn-colored dress, black lace cloak, and white bonnet. She and the Birds then drove to the Bavarian Catholic Church in Warwick Street, where Richard was waiting in a rough shooting coat, a cigar in his mouth — ‘bravado to hide his deadly nervousness on taking such a step,’ explained Miss Stisted sadly. But, as he went in, Isabel noticed that he ‘took holy water, and made a very large sign of the cross.’
The Birds gave them a cheerful wedding breakfast, and later in the day they walked off quietly to Richard’s old rooms. ‘We had very few pounds to bless ourselves with, but were as happy as it is given to any mortals out of heaven to be.’
In London at large, however, and in their respective families there were sensations and reverberations. Mrs. Arundell was still under the impression that Isabel was visiting in the country, but the inevitable day dawned when it came to the ears of her aunts Lady Gerard and Mrs. Strickland-Standish that Isabel had been seen going into a bachelor lodging. Mrs. Arundell in an agony wared her husband, who was out of town, and Mr. Arundell, taking courage from distance, wired back snappishly: ‘She is married to Dick Burton, and thank God for it.’ When she recovered, Mrs. Arundell put the best, face on it she could; she gave a family dinner to introduce Richard, and in time did become partly reconciled, though never to the extent Isabel fondly believed.
Richard’s family also bristled. To begin with, they were Anglicans and darkly of the God-only-knows-whatgoes-on-behind-those-closed-doors school of thought regarding Papists. And they had been notified only a day or so before the wedding, affording them no time to marshal convincing arguments against it, with their advice in any case not so much as asked.
‘We had a glorious season, and took up our position in Society,’ Isabel declared, but their need was pressing, and as they went from party to party it was always with an eye to business. Whenever possible she let the initiative appear to be Richard’s: ‘Lord Houghton (Monckton Milnes) was very much attached to Richard, and he settled the question of our position by asking his friend Lord Palmerston to give a party, and to let me be the bride of the evening; and when I arrived, Lord Palmerston gave me his arm, and introduced Richard and me to all the people, and my relatives clustered around as well.’ (That was a moment.) To crown the season she was presented at one of the ‘drawingrooms’ by Lady Russell, though the Queen’s rule was that she would receive no bride who had contracted a runaway marriage. Ipso facto, Isabel had not contracted a runaway marriage.
With all her work, the best she could wangle for Richard that first year was the Consulate at Fernando Po on the west coast of Africa, a locale cheerily known in the Foreign Office as ‘the Grave.’ It paid only seven hundred pounds a year and Isabel would have to be left behind, but Richard fortunately was quite set up in spirits over it because now he could hunt the gorillas described in Du Chaillu’s latest book on Africa. (The volatile Paul Du Chaillu — ‘I, Paul,’ he began most of his sentences — was an old friend of Richard’s, and of the two it would be hard to say whose travel tales occasioned more lifting of eyebrows.)
She could complain of no lack of excitement in the home. Richard was an eccentric man of violent moods, and this of course she had known when she married him, but there were some things she could not have foreseen. For instance: —
Richard was a great mesmeriser. He always preferred women, and especially of the blue-eyed, yellow-haired type. I need not say that he began with me as soon as we married; but I did not like it, and used to resist it, but after a while I consented. At first it was a little difficult, but when once he had complete control, no passes or contact were necessary; he used simply to say, ‘Sleep,’ and I did. He could also do this at a distance, but with more difficulty if water were between us, and if he tried to mesmerise anybody else and I was anywhere in the neighbourhood, I absorbed it, and they took nothing. I used to grow at last afraid to be in the same room with a mesmeriser, as I used to experience the greatest discomfort, and I knew if there was one in the room, the same as some people know if there is a cat in the room; but I could resist them, though I could not resist Richard.
He used to mesmerise me freely, but he never allowed any one else, nor did I, to mesmerise me. Once mesmerised, he had only to say, ‘Talk,’ and I used to tell everything I knew, only I used to implore him to forbid me to tell him other people’s secrets, and as a matter of honour he did, but all my own used to come out freely; only he never took a mean advantage of what he learnt in that way, and he used laughingly to tell everybody, ‘It is the only way to get a woman to tell you the truth,’ I have often told him things that I would much rather keep to myself.
Clashes on religion, the rock on which most of their acquaintances confidently expected the marriage to founder, tended to be anticlimactic by comparison.
At first he wanted to try me, so he pretended he did not like my going to Confession, and I used to say, ‘Well, my religion teaches me that my first duty is to obey you,’ and I did not bother to go; so he at once took off this restraint, and used to send me to Mass, and remind me of fish-days. It astonished me, the wonderful way he knew our doctrine, and frequently explained things to me that I did not know myself. He was always delighted with the society of priests — not so much foreign ones, as English ones — especially if he got hold of a highly educated, broad theologian of a Jesuit; but in all cases he was most courteous to any of them, and protected them and their Missions whenever he was in a position to do so. Once he went with me to a midnight Mass, and he cried all the time. I could not understand it, and he said he could not explain it himself. . . .
He always bowed his head at ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ and he did that to the day of his death.
When he was not at work on The City of the Saints, his new book on the Mormons, Richard could generally be found at a little Fleet Street hotel frequented by journalists and rising authors. Here he could forgather with William Black, Justin Huntly M’Carthy, Tom Hood, James Hain Friswell, and notably George Augustus Sala, also a traveler but now more occupied with his weekly gossip column in the Illustrated London News. According to report, Richard and Sala were a wonderful pair to see as they swaggered along a London street - Sala with his great red face and rakish gray top hat and vast white waistcoat, his diamonds and his cigar; and Richard, as M’Carthy remembered him, ‘dark, swarthy, loud-voiced, self-asserting, bearing down all argument and all contradiction. . . . The Richard Burton of those days might have been taken as the very type of pirate. . . . The sense of power, of indomitable power, of a spirit that never knew hesitation or fear, was borne out in every glance and every word. . . . He was surrounded by the glamour of an almost mythical fame as well as by the strong light of that fame which he had fairly kindled for himself.’ He belonged also to the Garrick, the Beefsteak, and the Arundel Clubs. He was coming along indeed.
But by far the most spectacular and lasting friendship Richard formed in 1861 was with Swinburne, and for this, too, Houghton was responsible. Carlyle described Houghton as Perpetual President of the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society: sooner or later every celebrity turned up at his country place at Fryston.
‘I can shut my eyes,’ said Isabel after thirty years, ‘and mentally look around Lord Houghton’s large round table even now, which usually held twenty-five guests. I can see Buckle, and Carlyle, and all the Kingsleys, and Swinburne, and Froude, and all the great men that were, and remember the conversation. I can remember the Due d’Aumale cheek by jowl with Louis Blanc. I can remember Vambery telling us Hungarian tales, and I can remember Richard cross-legged on a cushion, reciting alternately in Persian and English and chanting the call to prayer.’
In August, Richard had to tear himself away, and sailed for Africa. Isabel went down to Liverpool on a day of blustering cold and rain to see him off, and then came back to London to make sure that he ran no risk of being forgotten in his absence. She closed the St. James’s Street rooms and moved back to her parents’ home in Montagu Place, an arrangement which left her energies free for the full-time promotion job she had set herself; and so assiduously did she pursue it that not only the Foreign Office but large and assorted sections of London society soon quaked at her approach. The stream of her eloquence, Said one of her listeners feebly, was never stilled.
By mutual consent she had always been the business head of the partnership, and now she found exceedingly odd duties beginning to devolve upon her. ‘Richard left me plenty of occupation during this awfully long absence of sixteen months. Firstly, all kinds of official fights about India, and their for a gunboat and other privileges for Fernando Po. . . . And every letter brought its own work and commissions, people to see and to write to, and things to be done for him, so that I was never idle for a minute.’ In the intervals she had to scan the daily papers vigilantly in her dual capacity as censor and clipping-bureau clerk, and, finally, the manuscripts Richard left behind had to be edited and seen through the press.
The City of the Saints was her first experience in this line and it brought her sharply up against a problem of conscience. She solved it rather neatly. That is, she would edit his work with the most scrupulous accuracy even when it outraged her deepest religious convictions — but with equal scrupulousness she would add signed footnotes to warn the reader just where and why her husband was in error. She saw no reason ever to amend this system and on the whole it worked quite well.
In the autumn of 1864 Isabel was able to announce her most signal triumph to date: Richard was being transferred to Brazil to the Consulate at Santos, São Paulo. True, he made it so alarmingly clear that this was nothing to what he had hoped that it took all her volubility to cover up for him and make the proper responses, but somehow it was smoothed over and they spent a busy winter. Isabel made it her business to be seen everywhere. At Foreign Office receptions she was resplendent, but literary and artistic circles were not neglected. The little Bloomsbury flat of the George Du Mauriers, remarked Laura Hain Friswell, resounded often to Mrs. Burton’s silvery laughter: ‘How handsome and charming she was!3 At dinner with the Ionides, Whistler’s in-laws, someone discovered with happy cries that they had present a pagan in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Mohammedan in Captain Burton, a Catholic in Mrs. Burton. And what was Mr. Whistler, Isabel wished to know. ‘I, madam?’ parried Whistler blandly. ‘I am an amateur.’
From time to time Richard looked up old friends, and put fresh zip into meetings of the Anthropological Society. For several years he had been its vice president and within its walls he could relax and feel at home as nowhere else in London, while on their part the members could always be sure of a good show as long as he was around.
For even choicer souls he now organized an offshoot of the society to be known as the Cannibal Club: ‘Many still believe cannibalism and human sacrifices, slavery, and polygamy, abominations per se. . . . I look upon them as so many steps, or rather necessary conditions, by which civilised society rose to its present advanced state. Without cannibalism how could the Zealander have preserved his fine physical development? Certainly not by eating his bat and his rat.’
Not only was the transfer to Santos a step up the diplomatic ladder for Richard; it represented a personal triumph for Isabel: here the Consul’s wife too might go. Isabel had prepared for her new station with thoroughness and dispatch. ‘I now began to learn Portuguese,’ she noted when the appointment was barely confirmed; and at Lisbon she took a further step by triumphantly conquering her fear of cockroaches. ‘I suppose you think you look very pretty and interesting standing on that chair and howling at those innocent creatures,’ Richard told her severely, and that was enough: ‘Without descending from the chair, I stopped screaming, and made a meditation like St. Simeon Stylites on his pillar; and it was that if I was going to live in a country always in contact with these and worse things, it would never do to go on like that. . . . It cured me.’
In August, Isabel sailed from Southampton, and Richard met her at Rio, where they made their headquarters at the Estrangeiros Hotel and had a very cheerful time. Isabel wasted no time in getting to work on the naval and diplomatic circles, who might just as well realize first as last that it was no ordinary nonentity who had been sent to Santos as Consul and that he had no ordinary wife, either. Having, as she hoped, sufficiently impressed the fact of their arrival upon Rio, she and Richard left for Santos, where they were of course long overdue; but not before she caught her first touch of tropical fever on a moonlight stroll. ‘My being delirious alarmed Richard very much, and he mesmerised me.’ However, she was able to occupy herself on board ship by joining the men in revolver practice.
Santos was only a hundred miles or so to the south, but in its isolation and primitiveness it might have been in another world. Such as it was, it represented their first home together. Isabel left an awed account of its mangrove swamps and great tree ferns, the brown water full of tannin, the eerie blending of light and dark greens in the clearings, with the sand running up to the jungle, and the heavy seas throwing whalebones into her garden. But before she could really take in her surroundings she had a recurrence of the fever and was sent to São Paulo in the high country. The railway between the two points was just being laid, and the engineer let her sit beside him and drive the engine.
The superintendent of the railway, Mr. J. J. Aubertin, and Dr. and Mrs. Hood, who lived at the foot of the Serra, were their only close friends among the English. But it was like farmhouse life, said Isabel, ‘with cordiality and sociability, and some of the good Brazi ian society was very charming. . . . I used to send down a neighbourly note. “Dear Mr. Aubertin, bring up the drink — I have got the food; dinner seven o’clock.”’ Occasionally they achieved a ball, which lasted until sunrise; for the rest, she went to native celebrations or dances, sometimes with Richard and as often alone. ‘The gentlemen and ladies dance as furiously as the Hungarians do the czardas, and the Negro girls come to their balls décollctée in blue and pink cotton.’ In the rainy season she used sensibly to put her dress and shoes in a bag, mount barefoot in her waterproof, and ride through the streams to her host’s, where she would array herself in her formal gown and her pearls.
She picnicked on the Tropic of Capricorn; rode on by mule when the railroad line came to an end; gathered wild orchids to send home to astonish the family; contentedly ate the native dishes, the staple being beans and garlic sprinkled with horseradish; and slept wherever she happened to find herself at nightfall. (‘I will not sleep in the beds in strange houses, there is so much leprosy in the country, so I always carry my hammock with me and sling it.’) The fishing was good, there were game and deer in the forests, and though the insects were atrocious — ‘spiders as big as crabs’ — she waded barefoot to add to her collection of butterflies, ferns, and reptiles. ‘I caught a cobra snake yesterday, and bottled it in spirits.’ (Louis Agassiz had recently been in Brazil and she conscientiously checked her discoveries against, his.) On evenings at home she studied Brazilian history and tried her hand at translation.
But it was difficult to keep Isabel immured at São Paulo — anyway, without Richard. She was always turning up unannounced at Santos and staying until another bout of fever drove her reluctantly back to the safer climate. ‘To go up and down by myself between Santos and São Paulo is quite a masculine feat. I am the only woman who ever crossed the Serra outside the diligence, and the only lady or woman who ever walked across the viaduct, with one hundred and eighty feet to fall if you slip or get giddy. I saw everyone staring at me and holding up their hands; and I was not aware I had done anything odd, till I landed safely the other side, and saw the whole company not daring to breathe, and my husband looking ghastly.’
She had early bought herself a native horse called Hawa, part mustang, and now ‘rode over the pampas on a hard gallop, which seemed the best gait for the country; you go like the wind over prairie and valley, up and down hill.’ She added a little picture of herself swimming in the shark-infested waters while Kier (her maid) sat on her clothes on the beach to keep them from being carried off in a high wind; concluding sedately: ‘We are leading a very regular life.’
Happily towards the end of the year she found a new interest: at São Paulo there was an old convent which she decided to turn into living quarters, and she threw herself into an orgy of cleaning, painting, whitewashing, and furnishing, pressing into service an assortment of slaves — ‘paying their masters so much, and so much to them, as if they were free men.’ This last meant considerable friction with Richard, who frowned on such subversive egalitarianism wherever it might be found, but most emphatically when it invaded his own home. Time had not moderated his violent prejudice against the blacks, and he was full of gloom at the reports that reached him of the American Civil War: as a matter of fact, slavery was nearing its end in Brazil too, though he refused to see it.
He was temporarily placated with a study where he could keep his telescope — his latest enthusiasm — while Isabel went ahead to set up a chapel for the workers, who were, of course, all Catholics of a sort. ‘I painted my chapel myself,’ she wrote to her mother, ‘white with a blue border and a blue domed ceiling and a gilt border. I first nailed thin bits of wood over the rat-holes in the floor. . . . I have always a lamp burning, and the altar is a mass of flowers. I shall be so pleased to receive the candlesticks and vases for my altar as a birthday present, and the Mater Dolorosa.’ She had the Bishop’s leave to have Mass said and keep the Sacrament here, and when the priest came she and the slaves all received Communion together.
As it progressed, her project took on more and more of the characteristics of a community centre. Isabel had been horrified by the abjectness of the poverty on all sides, and more so by the prevailing indifference to it (including that of the local priest); and her final defiant step was to set aside a basement where the needy could come after dark, be fed and housed for the night, and sent on their way in the early morning.
Her servants were Kier and one black boy — ‘a very curious dwarf as black as the grate, named Chico. He is honest and sharp as a needle, and can do everything. All the English here wanted him, but he ran away and came to me for less than half the money he asked them; and he watches me like a dog, and flies for everything I want. I shall bring him home with me when I come. The slaves here have to work night and day, and people treat them like mules, with an utter disregard for their personal comforts. There is something superior and refined in my dwarf, and I treat him with the same consideration as I would a white servant; I see that he has plenty of good food, a good bed, and proper exercise and sleep.’ She also shielded him as far as she was able from Richard. ‘I have had a great row in my house last night; but when you write back, you must not mention it, because Richard was fortunately out . . . Richard would half kill him if he knew it.’
Richard, as may be gleaned from all this, was going through one of his blackest. periods. Physically and mentally he was a wreck and his nerves were shot to pieces. He had recurrent fits of fever marked by hallucinations of hags and monsters and by a terrifying sense — which above all made him dread these attacks — of divided identity, of being two persons who thwarted and hated each other. And he chose this time to begin work on his Vikram and the Vampire, or Tales of Hindu Devilry, a translation from the Sanskrit of the occult feats of legendary Vikram, the King Arthur of the East, who in pursuance of his promise to a magician had to bring to him the evil Baital (Vampire) hanging on a certain tree, that it might no longer animate the bodies of the dead.
In this heavy, brooding state of mind and driven by some obscure impulse, Richard might leave Santos abruptly and lodge with the Capuchin monks at the seminary, talking astronomy with Fray João, metaphysics with Père Germain. Or, casting off this mood, he would close the office and set out for the interior, revolving schemes that would make him a fortune overnight and lift him from this galling obscurity; he and William Crookes had a joint interest, in a gold-mining process that was to make them both millionaires, and he was also involved with Aubertin in a number of speculations in cotton and coffee — all quite unethical in his position, it goes without saying.
He returned to São Paulo to spend their fifth wedding anniversary with Isabel on January 22, but restlessly was off again almost at once, leaving her to cope with the emergencies that might arise in his absence as best she could. (What might be called a standing emergency was fending off Foreign Office inquiries as to his whereabouts.) ‘I am at present engaged with the F. O. Reports: I have to copy (1) thirty-two pages on Cotton Report ; (2) one hundred and twenty-five pages Geographical Report; (3) eighty pages General Trade Report. This for Lord Stanley, so I do it cheerfully.’ And then there were always letters to write to influential personages: Richard might be out of England, but he would never, as long as she could hold a pen, be out of mind.
She never knew in what shape Richard would turn up: —
Richard has just returned knocked up by six weeks in the wilds and he broke out with fever. I rushed off with him to the sea-border about fifty miles from São Paulo. . . . We have got a magnificent sand-beach, and rose-coloured shells, and a spacious bay. One might walk on the beach in one’s nightgown; and we walked from our ranco, or shed, to the sea, and can bathe and walk as we like. But it is as hot as the lower regions; and if one could take off one’s flesh and sit in one’s bones, one would be too glad.
Periodically the water caused an outbreak of malaria or cholera in the household : —
When I got the cholera, it was three in the morning. I thought I was dying, so I got up, went to my desk, and settled all my worldly affairs, carried my last instructions to Kier in her bed, put on my clothes, and went out to confession and communion.
Her family frenziedly besought her to drop everything and come home at once, but Isabel would not hear of it. In spite of every drawback, the life profoundly satisfied her and she was having fun. Even in their worst times she and Richard never lost a rugged underlying sense of comradeship as of equals, the thing that set them apart, as they both wished, from the run of Victorian husbands and wives. During the Paraguayan War provisions were sometimes scarce, and she and Chico used to ‘sally forth with paniers and ropes to our saddles, and forage about, and I found that by riding about ten miles out I came to large flocks of geese. . . . Nobody ate them; they were kept chiefly for ornament, and so were cheap. So the first day I came back with both our horses laden with geese, and as I passed through town the squawking was immense, and most of the Grundy, respectable English tried to avoid me, which made me take an especial pleasure in riding up to them and enquiring after their wives and families. . . . When I got to our house Richard, hearing the noise, came out on the balcony; and seeing what was the matter he threw back his head and laughed, and shook his fist, and he said, “Oh, you delightful blackguard! How like you!”’
At intervals — as when Richard was bringing out another book — the Burtons went down to Rio and Petropolis, the villa resort above the city for the diplomatic corps. Early in 1866 they had been presented to Dom Pedro and the Empress by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse Barbacena (‘I was in grand toilet, and Richard in uniform’), and court visits were frequent. Dom Pedro was delighted with Richard’s fluency in Portuguese and would also have given a good deal to know what he and Crookes had up their sleeves by way of plans for exploiting the country’s natural resources. Good Dom Pedro would have been glad of any hints that could be picked up gratis.
But it was a shattered Richard who finally showed up at Rio towards the end of 1867. Isabel knew what she had to deal with and took him hurriedly to Santos and from there to São Paulo, where he lay with a high fever. The doctor who was summoned from Rio prescribed cuppings (‘36 glasses and 12 leeches’) and a number of remedies to be administered every half-hour. In addilion he was lanced and blistered until it seemed that human endurance could stand no more, but nothing gave him relief, and for three days the doctor doubted if he would pull through.
When Richard thought he was dying, he sent me for Fray João, with whom he had been learning astronomy, but he was gone up country and he would not have anybody else for the Sacraments; but he accepted the Scapular, which all Catholics will understand, and to others it is not needful to explain, and he wore it to the day of his death. . . . I took the scapulars and some holy water, and I said, ‘The doctor has tried all his remedies; now let me try one of mine.’ I put some holy water on his head, and knelt down and said some prayers, and put on the blessed scapulars. He had not been able to raise his head for days to have the pillow turned, but he raised it of his own accord sufficiently to let the string pass under his head, and had no pain. It was a silent consent. He was quite still for about an hour, and then he said in a whisper, ‘Zoo, I think I’m a little better.’ From then to now he slowly and painfully got better, and has never had a bad paroxysm since. Day and night I have watched by his bed for seventeen days and nights . . . he won’t let any one do anything for him but me. . . . I have not been out of the house for ages. . . . I tried to go out in the garden yesterday, but I nearly fainted and had to come back. Don’t mention my fatigue or health in writing back.
He is awfully thin and grey, and looks about sixty. He is quite gaunt. . . . The worst of it is that I’m afraid his lungs will never be quite right again. . . . He has given up his expedition (I am afraid he will never make another), but will take a quiet trip down to the River Plata and Paraguay (a civilised trip). My servants have all been very kind and attentive, and the doctor excellent, and the neighbours have all shown the greatest kindness and sympathy.
It looked as if, in spite of all her high hopes, they were back where they had started; when Richard recovered, his first act was to throw up the Santos post. ‘He told me he could not stand it any longer; it had given him that illness, it was far away from the world, it was no advancement, it led to nothing.’ Isabel accepted his decision quietly. ‘He was quite right. I felt very sorry, because up to the present it was the only home I had ever really had with him, but I soon sold up everything, and we embarked on the 24th of July, 1868. He applied for leave, as the doctors advised him not to go to England at once, but he went south to Buenos Aires for a trip, and he asked me to go to England and see if I could not induce them to give him another post.’ Richard was to return at his leisure, going through Paraguay and Argentina to have a firsthand look at the war that was going on, crossing the Pampas and the Andes to Chile and Peru, and thence home.
An arduous program confronted Isabel. Before she took ship she wrote the family; —
I got your little note from Cossy. I dare say the woods are very nice; but I think if you saw the virgin forests of South America in which I am now sitting alone, far from any human creature, with gaudy butterflies and birds fluttering around me, big vegetation, and a shark playing in the boiling green sea, which washes up to my feet, and the bold mountain background on a very blue sky, the thick foliage covered with wild flowers and creepers such as no hot house in England could grow, arum leaves, one alone bigger than me, which shade me from the burning sun, the distant clatter of monkeys, the aromatic smells and mysterious whisperings of the forest, you would own that even the Cossy woods were tame. . . .
Chico is cooking a mysterious mess in a gypsy kettle for me; my pony is browsing near; and I, your affectionate child, am sitting in a short petticoat and jacket, barelegged to the knees, writing to you to catch the next mail.
(To be concluded)