Sir Richard Burton's Wife
WITH the help of her Uncle Gerard, who by the greatest good fortune was Lord Stanley’s neighbor, Isabel had landed the Damascus Consulate for Richard. This had been their dream from the beginning and it might lead to almost anything — ‘it was hinted that if he succeeded there he might eventually get Morocco, Teheran, and finish up at Constantinople. ... We were on the zenith of our career.’
The appointment drew an instant barrage of criticism, but the Disraeli government then in power was willing to take a chance. Isabel had some little trouble in locating her husband to tell him the great news, and sent off identical letters in all directions. In the end Richard heard about his appointment quite by accident in a Lucca café. He telegraphed his acceptance and caught the first boat home, where he was none too soon; for in the interval Disraeli had fallen, Lord Clarendon was the new Foreign Minister, and an avalanche of protests was descending on him from church groups all over England pointing out the peril to Christian missionaries that would inevitably result from leaving them to the mercies of a Consul who was himself a pagan or worse. When Richard landed he was rushed to the Foreign Office and there spent an extremely agitating morning listening to the stupendous total of objections that had been filed against him, but although the staff did not disguise its apprehensions the upshot was that the appointment stood — on Richard’s solemn oath that he would act with ‘unusual’ prudence; and he went off importantly to the next levee as H. M. Consul to Damascus.
In the spring of 1869 the doctor recommended a course of the waters before going on to Syria. Richard went to Vichy, where Swinburne joined him in July, and they began to enjoy themselves to such a degree that Isabel, packing away for dear life in sultry London, decided the contrast was altogether too marked.
‘I did not see why I could not have the month with him there too, so I just started off with Mr. J. J. Aubertin [of Brazil memory] who was also going there.’ She and Aubertin went by way of Paris, where the Emperor Napoleon’s fête was in full swing and where Isabel had one of her best premonitions. ‘I was walking that night in the Champs Élysées with a friend, who will remember it, when I said suddenly, somewhat excitedly, “In a year hence all this will be shattered, and the hand that created it. will be humbled in the dust!" That day year France was fighting Prussia.’
Richard and Swinburne met her at the Vichy station, and they stayed through September. Swinburne was then just thirty-two, Richard forty-eight, and when Swinburne fell ill it was Richard who, ‘with more than a woman’s care and devotion, restored him to health,’ as he told Symons. Long after, in An Evening at Vichy, he wrote of Richard in the same strain: —
With fame that shone from eastern on western day,
More strong, more kind, than praise or than grief might say.
They all went by carriage to Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy-en-Velay; Swinburne recited, their new friend Mrs. Sartoris sang; it was altogether, Isabel said wistfully, the happiest holiday they had ever had. Then the party broke up with promises to meet again soon and Richard left for Damascus.
At Damascus life settled into an easy routine. ‘Richard went downtown to the Consulate in the afternoons. I interested myself in all his pursuits, and I was a most fortunate woman that he allowed me to be his companion, his secretary, and his aide-de-camp. I looked after our house, servants, stables, and animals. I did a little gardening, read and wrote, studied Arabic, received and returned visits, saw and learnt Damascus till I knew it like my own pocket. Frequently I used to dress as a Moslemah, with my face covered up, and sit in the shops in the bazaar. I looked after the poor and sick of my village. Sometimes I galloped over the plains, and sat in the Bedawi tents, sometimes went up all the mountains. There was plenty of shooting — red-legged partridges, wild duck, quail, snipe, and woodcock, and I seldom came home with an empty bag. Sometimes I went to pass two or three days with a harim.’
There were only thirty Europeans and three English in the whole of Damascus, not counting the missions and schools; and gayety was a thing unknown. But Isabel, though she took her duties as Consul’s wife anything but lightly, always enjoyed her own parties. She instituted Wednesday receptions when visitors used to stream in all day long, the dragomans interpreting for her and coaching her in the correct reception for guests of different rank. At her receptions Isabel belonged to her friends, but on Saturdays to her poor. This was no pose: Isabel sat up night after night with ailing indigents who had no possible claim on her; she was never too busy to see them, and she went alone about the city on her errands day or night without a thought of danger.
In Damascus the Burtons made two great friends — Lady Ellenborough, who went in those days by the name of Jane Digby El Mezráb; and the world-famed Abd-el-Kadir. Their dreamy, far-ranging talk used to last until the moon was on the wane, after which Abd-el-Kadir, rousing his escort of sleepy Algerines picketed in the little courtyard, would courteously return Jane to her Shaykh. Isabel and Richard were soon on goodneighborly terms with all the Shaykhs and villagers within a two or three days’ ride. ‘If we felt dull we could run out and pay them a visit.’
In the preface to her first independent publication, The Inner Life of Syria, in 1875, Isabel observed: ‘I have followed my husband everywhere, gleaning only women’s lore.’ From the beginning she went often to the great Mosque. She loved all the forms of religion — any religion — for their own sake. Her friends at home, however, evinced no more than a perfunctory interest in mosques, but they did want to hear all about the harems. Isabel held to a certain reticence in response.
If she visited the harems in her riding habit and stayed overnight, ‘during my toilette I could see fifty pairs of eyes at fifty chinks in the windows and doors. Dressing en Amazone seemed to afford them infinite glee and when I arrived at the cloth nether garments of my riding habit they produced shouts of laughter. . . . The women begged to pull down my hair to see how it was done, and to play with my hat.’ To avoid this she customarily went in native costume — ‘a pair of lemon coloured slippers, pointed at the toes; white linen trowsers, like two large sacks, gathered at waist and ankles; and a large garment, like a fine linen dressing gown, prettily embroidered . . . pale-blue waistband, blue neck ribbon, and a blue turban.’ Thus fitted out, with her fair hair hanging down her back, kohled eyelashes and brows, a small bouquet fastened in the front hair, and a few stars and crescents tastefully kohled on her face, she felt less conspicuous. Or she might dress as an Arab boy, a disguise which, she felt certain, quite deceived all concerned. ‘In fact I never could remember not to enter the harims. I used always to forget that I was a boy, until women began screaming and running to hide themselves.’
The decorum of the harems was what struck her as especially praiseworthy. Even the hired entertainers were ‘all dressed in various coloured gauzes, and spangles, and gold coin ornaments, and trowsers frilled and gathered round the ankle. You see in point of dress they are far more decent than our own ballet girls, and even the Lord Chamberlain could not object to them.’
Trouble began to close in on the Burtons around 1871. To the political and religious intrigues that crisscrossed Damascus Richard in every instance contributed complications all his own. Isabel began her most curious account of the doings of this year with a statement of Richard’s attitude: —
‘Richard tried religions all around. Every time he was disappointed with a religion he fell back on mysticism. It was the soul wandering through space, like the dove out of the ark, and seeking a place whereon to rest. . . . He was sincere with the Mohammedans, and found more in that religion than in most. He hoped much from spiritualism, and studied it well; but he could make nothing of it as a religion. It never seemed to bring him any nearer; but he believed in it as in the light of a future frontier of science. His Agnosticism was of a much higher cast; it was the mysticism of the East. . . . He became impressed with one thing here in Syria, as he had done at Baroda in his youth, and that is that Catholicism is the highest order of Spiritualism . . . that we cannot call it up at our pleasure . . . but that when something does happen, it is absolutely real, only we are not allowed to speak of it, except amongst ourselves, and then with bated breath.’
Richard’s imagination and sense of drama began to work on the situation and from that day he was lost. The Shazlis were a species of Sufi to begin with; a comparison between them and the Alexandrian Fathers of the Church was irresistible; and before long ‘he thought he saw his way in it to the highest kind of religion, and he followed it up unofficially. Disguised as a Shazli, and unknown to any mortal except me, he used to mix with them, and pass much of his time in the Maydan of Damascus with them; and he saw what he saw.
. . . This gave him an enormous interest in Damascus, but it was his ruin; and the curious Spiritualism, if you like to term it so, that was developing there was almost like a “new advent,” and though he did not then mean it, he ended by sacrificing his worldly career to it.’ Isabel always claimed that Richard came nearer to a public profession of Catholicism at this point than ever before or since.
He now made Lord Granville a very striking proposal: that he, Richard, should buy a tract of land and establish the converted Shazlis therein under his protection; the Patriarch of Jerusalem should then come to baptize them en masse, with Isabel to act as godmother, and Richard to stand on guard and fend off lurking enemies.
Lord Granville in a sort of daze communicated with the Patriarch, to whom the whole plan was emphatically news; the Patriarch in turn communicated with the Turkish Wali at Damascus, with whom Richard was at daggers drawn; and from then on all was inextricable confusion. The upshot was that Richard was recalled within the month. He too by now was going around more or less in a waking nightmare. The F. O. moved with such alarmed haste at the last that he learned of his recall when the new Consul arrived in Damascus to take over. ’It was not only the insult of the whole thing,’ cried Isabel in her anguish, ‘it was the ungentlemanly way in which it was carried out!’
Once more in London, they found cheap rooms and looked about them. There ensued, said Isabel, ‘ten months of great poverty and official neglect (though great kindness from Society) during which we were reduced to our last £15.’ But tears were luxuries while there was work to be done. The hours she spent in the Foreign Office (or on unlucky days in its anterooms); the letters she wrote to the press and to friends far and near explaining over and over how everything that had happened was in no way Richard’s fault but was all, all due to the machinations of his enemies and the ignorance and wicked prejudice of those in authority — the sum total of these does not bear contemplation.
The Foreign Office staff from Lord Granville and Sir Henry Elliot to the lowliest clerk heard her and shuddered. In desperation they finally issued a Blue Book, The Case of Captain Burton, Late H. B. M. Consul at Damascus, and announced defiantly that now the matter was officially closed. But even as the Blue Book came off the press the tireless woman wore them down to the point of offering Richard a choice of other posts — conspicuously lowly and undesirable posts, it is true, which were at once haughtily spurned, but serving notice to the public that he was still far from being counted out.
At last came the promise of a post for Richard that his self-esteem would permit him to accept. He was to be the new Consul at Trieste. The post was purely and undisguisedly a sinecure. A few commercial papers to sign, a few visiting celebrities to entertain, and that was all. But it is revelatory of the pathetic state into which Isabel had browbeaten the Foreign Office that when Trieste fell vacant Lord Granville wrote meekly to ask if she thought Richard would take it. As for Richard, his reaction was distinctly petulant. After long and prayerful consideration the Foreign Office had come to the conclusion that, with all his ingenuity, he could hardly embroil himself in any very spectacular goings-on in the placid, down-at-heel little seaport of Trieste.
Richard went ahead to inspect the site of his exile, and Isabel followed by way of Brussels, Frankfurt, and Munich. At Venice she caught up with Richard, who was doing a little prowling on his own account.
‘Halloo,’ he said casually, ‘what are you doing here?’
‘What are you?' said Isabel, and they shook hands.
(This was typical, as was borne out later by their Vice-Consul at Trieste, who wrote that they behaved — heaven knows what the poor man had steeled himself to expect — exactly like a pair of brothers: ‘he walking along with his gamecock under his arm, and she with her bullterrier under hers.’)
At Trieste, as elsewhere, Isabel and Richard rose at three or four o’clock in the morning in the summer and at five in winter; Isabel studied Italian, German, and singing, swam or fenced; and what with reading, writing, looking after the poor, working for the Church or for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, her day was all too short.
Richard felt at home as soon as he located a sanatorium at the near-by Slav village of Opcina; here he and Isabel took partly furnished rooms at an old inn called Daneu’s, brought up things of their own from time to time, and spent frequent week-ends quite alone. ‘We lived absolutely the jolly life of two bachelors, as it might be an elder and a younger brother. When we wanted to go, we just turned the key and left.’
Before Christmas Isabel had to see Richard’s publishers in London and also superintend the appearance of her own Inner Life of Syria. In May, Richard joined her and to their pleased surprise they found themselves joint celebrities. It seemed to Isabel a favorable moment to broach a project she had nursed in mind for some time. She had decided, that is, that Richard should be made a K. C.B.; accordingly she drew up a petition setting forth his claims to this honor and drawing attention to the ‘obstruction’ with which he had consistently met to date. She then stood over every influential friend she could corner until it was signed.
No one had ever pursued a knighthood with just the innocent directness employed by Isabel. The press was scandalized ; it wavered between horror and a few embarrassed editorials on the touching nature of the wifely devotion that inspired her. Embarrassing the whole thing certainly was to everyone but Isabel — and Richard. He was never at any time discouraged; his attitude was simply, like hers, that he was a grievously misunderstood and wronged man, and that whatever could be done to rectify this was clearly only reasonable and right.
She did all she could to get him made a K. C.B., but it fell through now as in 1869. The unforeseeable result of this campaign, which might so easily have consigned them both to utter oblivion or ridicule, was that Isabel’s long harping on Richard as the forgotten man made him in the end a far more widely known figure than he could ever have become as the most successful Consul in the history of Damascus or any other post. About this time General Gordon came prominently into their lives. ‘Uncrowned kings both!’ Isabel at once exclaimed of Gordon and her husband. She and Gordon shared a love for animals and the obscurer Bible texts and he used to sit on her hearthrug while they discussed oracles, the preëxistence of souls, predestination, the accountability of the heathen, the presumable whereabouts and occupations of the soul during sleep, and the exact locations of Biblical events — on which both might claim to speak as experts.
Gordon kept peppering Richard with letters begging him to give up Trieste.
MY DEAR CAPTAIN BURTON,
You now, I see, have £600 a year, a good climate, quiet life, good food, etc., and are engaged in literary inquiries, etc., etc. I have no doubt that you are very comfortable, but I cannot think entirely satisfied with your present small sphere. I have therefore written to the Khedive to ask him to give you Darfur as Governor-General, with 1,600 a year and a couple of secretaries.
Other lures hopefully put forward: ‘I found a lot of chain armour here, just like the armour of Saladin’s people, time of the Crusades. . . . The sheep are wonderful, some with a regular mane.
. . . The people would delight in the interest you would take in them, for most of the Darfur families are of Mohammed’s family. . . . On the border are the Niam-Niam, who circumcise. I only hope you will come.’
Once again the reason for Richard’s complete lack of response was that out of the blue there had emerged another glittering prospect of fortune. In the old Mecca days he had heard of a great gold deposit in the portion of Arabia belonging to Egypt, and now his original informant had suddenly reappeared offering to lead him to the spot. Richard leaped at the chance. Egypt, as everyone knew, was desperately in need of gold; he rushed to Cairo, secured an interview with Ismail I, and was authorized to proceed.
When it developed that there would be obstacles in the way of sending Isabel to Midian on an Egyptian man-of-war, which was what she suggested to the Khedive, she settled herself reluctantly at the Suez Hotel to wait. ‘The Khedive was exceedingly gracious to me.’ Also ‘I had loads of people to see me, and many invitations.’ But all these were poor stopgaps until Richard returned, worn and old-looking but still convinced that Midian would be a second California. The Khedive, who had the most urgent reasons for hoping he was right, sent a special train to meet him; and there was a profusion of champagne and toasting and gayety as the party made the triumphal last lap of the journey.
Still in the highest spirits, Richard and Isabel got away to Alexandria: ‘We were very merry.’ Cut the collapse of the Midian venture came quickly. The next expedition had to be abandoned when the native chiefs rose in opposition to what would assuredly have meant, in practice, the systematic looting of their domain.
As acknowledgment that Richard had at least not forgotten his Consulate, they touched at Trieste before proceeding to Dublin for the annual meeting of the British Association and thence to London for the winter.
The Burtons spent the ensuing season concurrently in two worlds, the world of Mayfair and the world of spirits. Richard had become much sought after as a lecturer. Soon he brought out his second book on Midian, and Isabel her A. E. I. (Arabia, Egypt, India). Her publisher gave her a dinner that lasted till five the next morning, and Punch began to write flattering little squibs about ‘The Literary B’s.’ The most moving tribute of the year came when Swinburne dedicated his second series of Poems and Ballads to Richard.
When they returned to Trieste in 1879, Isabel too was ailing, having sustained a bad fall in her Paris hotel; it was her turn to endure a long course of massages, bonesettings, and baths in Vienna and Marienbad. From now on, the pursuit of health was a consideration with both Isabel and Richard, and she could not resign herself to it. ‘Strength, health and nerve I had hitherto looked upon as a sort of right of nature, and supposed that everybody had them: I never felt grateful for them as a blessing, but I began to learn what suffering was from this date.’
The year 1880 was a troubled one. Richard ended his negotiations with the Khedive in a tangle of litigation and spent much time in Egypt in an attempt to unsnarl it. Isabel still had hopes of Lord Beaconsfield, though as a matter of experience he always did rather less for them than the maligned Liberals. On the other hand, Richard’s luck with Gladstone was not much better. At one dinner he had even been known to launch into argument with the great man, at which the guest sitting next him pressed into his hand (but too late) a menu on which was shakily scrawled: ‘Please do not contradict Mr. Gladstone. Nobody ever does.’
When the Conservative Government fell in the spring and Lord Granville again took over the Foreign Office, Isabel turned in despair to Gordon, but by this time he too had griefs and to spare and he replied sadly: —
MY DEAR MRS. BURTON,
You write to an orb that is setting, or rather is set. I have no power to aid your husband in any way. . . . I have written letters to the F.O. that would raise a corpse; it is no good. In fact, my dear Mrs. Burton, I have done for myself with this Government, and you may count me a feather. . . .
Meanwhile she underwent a heroic though profitless regimen of doctors. ‘I was nearly three months under clever Dr. Maclagan, the father of salicin. I went as advised to Hutton, the bonesetter.’ Richard wanted her, but she remained in London through part of May for the reception given by the Duchess of Norfolk for Newman, who at weary last had received his Cardinal’s hat.
In 1881 Richard undertook his last mining venture when a Liverpool merchant commissioned him, together with Captain Lovett Cameron, to report on concessions on the Ancobra River on the Cold Coast of Africa.
When he had gone, Isabel wrote: ‘I feel it terribly this time, as I go on getting older. . . . He has to change ship four times, and this is a great anxiety to me in this stormy weather. . . . God keep him safe! The mines are all round the coast, and then I dread fever for him. Ho wishes to make a little trip to the Kong Mountains, and then I fear natives and beasts. Perhaps Cameron will be with him but entre nous Cameron is not very solid. ... I am fearfully sad. I have been nowhere; I neither visit, nor receive, nor go out. ... I must light the battle with my own heart, learn to live alone and work, and when I have conquered I will see something of my friends. I dreaded my empty home without children or relatives; but I have braved the worst now.’
Isabel had cancer, and had faced it at last. But when she went to England to meet Richard on his return she refused an operation; an ailing wife would mar his homecoming and besides he might need nursing himself. As it happened he did, and soothing as well. The trip had been a failure, the mines were not worth working, he had been wretched the whole time he was away; he had nothing to show for his year’s work except a book — To the Gold Coast for Gold — the querulousness of which reflected his sickness and disappointment.
By now the Burton finances were in a genuinely precarious state. Richard was confined to his bed in Trieste for almost eight months with a combination of stomach and heart ailments and gout. Isabel was his only nurse.
It was only when he had recovered somewhat that Richard settled to the task of completing a work he had begun over thirty years before — the unabridged and literal translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night with explanatory notes. The work was to be published privately, with Isabel as usual handling the business end. Her first assignment was to send out some thirtyfour thousand circulars to prospective subscribers.
She was more concerned over Richard’s failing health than with the fate of a book she secretly feared he might never live to complete. In a fit of panic early in the new year she implored him to throw up his post altogether even if it meant sacrificing his pension; they would get by somehow, and perhaps they could find a climate where he could recover faster. Nonsense, said Richard, who had been inexplicably jaunty ever since he started on the Nights. He called after her that he would be Consul at Morocco yet.
The work progressed swimmingly, the first volumes were nearly ready for the printer, and together they began to compile the index. It seemed to Isabel that everything was going almost too smoothly and on February 12 she warned Richard: ‘Now mind, tomorrow is Friday the 13th. It is our unlucky day, and we have got to be very careful.’ What happened in the morning was that they heard the belated and ghastly news of the murder of Gordon at Khartoum.
After seventeen months of intensive effort during which Isabel had seen to every detail of printing, binding, and circulation (and pacifying printers; Richard used to ‘abuse them up and down the margins’) the first volume of The Thousand Nights and a Night was now issued. It went to one thousand hand-picked subscribers, and accompanying it was a circular in which Richard requested that it be kept under lock and key.
The original edition was to consist of ten volumes and six supplemental volumes. Since it was printed privately, Isabel, in order to copyright three thousand pages of the text, issued an expurgated or ‘household’ edition ‘adapted for the study and enjoyment of the younger generation.’ It was in only six volumes, and Isabel was sensitive on this point: ‘I do not know whether to be amused or provoked by people speaking of my edition as a milk-and-water thing; it was Richard’s translation, with a word or two cut out here and there, and my name was only put on it to copyright it.’ Richard, however, had forbidden her to read some pages until he blotted out ‘ the worst words’; and her edition, justly famous for its definition of a concubine as an assistant wife, was a very different affair.
The difference, of course, was that Richard’s anthropological notes, sole cause of the controversy, were omitted. As to these Mr. Lane-Poole, one of his editors, observed with pain that they evinced an intimate acquaintance with Oriental depravity and ‘an attitude of attraction towards all that is most repulsive in life and literature,’ thus conferring on his translation ‘a peculiar notoriety that has no relation to its scholarship.’
At any rate this peculiar notoriety had one immediate result: the Nights made money. By the time the last supplemental volume appeared he had cleared ten thousand guineas. Best of all, he need never worry again about dying obscure.
When Richard and Isabel went next to Hatfield to Lord and Lady Salisbury the post at Morocco had just fallen vacant, and so confident of it did Richard feel that he left to look the place over. He had some reason to feel sure of it since the press seemed of the same opinion, and he was sped on his way by quite a flurry of premature eulogy. Isabel joined him at Gibraltar and they celebrated their silver wedding in Tangier.
As it turned out, Richard did not get the Consulate at Morocco. But another of Isabel’s long campaigns was crowned with success when he was given the order of the K. C. M. G. — not the K. C. B. she had coveted for him, but better than nothing. ‘The Queen’s recognition of Dick’s forty-four years of service was sweetly done at last, sent for our Silver Wedding, and she told a friend of mine that she was pleased to confer something that would include both husband and wife,’ wrote Isabel, and in truth no one ever took more candid pleasure in a title than the new Lady Burton.
In 1886 they were in London again. In search of relief for Richard’s gout they visited Dr. Foakes, the ‘rhubarb and magnesia’ man, and Dr. Kellgren, whose specialty was ‘shampooing.’ The treatment here, Isabel said with justice, was simply horrible. The gouty limb was shampooed and twisted till the patient was in indescribable agony. ‘I wish that that treatment had never taken place. I cannot help connecting subsequent misfortunes with it.’
In 1887 they crossed to Paris to stay at the Meurice for a time. They drifted next to Cannes, where Richard had a bad setback. ‘He found one of Dr. Kellgren’s men, a Dr. Mohlin, and he would go on working at the savage treatment with him which I am convinced he had not the strength to bear.’ During one attack Dr. Frank told Isabel that he might not come through and this led to an incident that she was to remember: ‘I was seized with a panic lest he might not have been properly baptized. ... I got some water, and knelt down and saying some prayers, I baptized him. . . . When I told him what I had done he looked up with an amused smile, and he said, “Now that was very superfluous, if you only knew"; and after a pause he said, “The world will be very much surprised when I come to die."'
From now on, it would be necessary to have a resident doctor always with them. By slow and painful degrees Richard was taken back to Trieste. The verdict was that with every care he might live fifteen years; on the other hand his heart might give out at any moment. ‘I need not say,’ Isabel wrote Alice Bird, ‘that I shall never have a really happy, peaceful moment again.’
In June the Jubilee of Queen Victoria was held, and Isabel determined that in no spot in the world should it be celebrated more ardently than at Trieste. She accompanied Richard to the services in the Anglican Church, gave a dinner at the Consulate, wrote Richard’s speech for him, and was prepared to deliver it as well, if need be; but Richard was carried downstairs to preside, wearing his Order of St. Michael and St. George for the first and only time.
Their expeditions now were few, but they did leave Trieste to escape the howling bora they had never noticed or minded before. They drove up the Rhone to Saint-Maurice and saw ‘everything that could be seen — mushroomgrowing, cigarette-making, or Swiss milk condensed.’ At Aigle ‘we read Little Lord Fauntleroy and afterwards we had a contrast in Renan’s Apôtres.' They went on to Abbazia, where Richard had Father Josef Janc read German with him in the evenings, and here he completed his supplemental Nights and the ‘Terminal Essay.’ When he laid down his pen after the last page, ‘we were exceedingly relieved, because he always had such a fear of not living to keep his engagements, and we had received money for it.’
Richard’s memory too was failing. ‘R. had a habit of hiding things, and latterly especially he could not remember where he put them. Then he had to call me, and I was frequently several hours hunting for them. I have a particular prayer I always say when I cannot find anything; and it has occasionally happened that the lost thing was found, so he used to call me in an agitated way, saying, “ Come here, I want that prayer directly; I have lost such and such.”’
In London again the men who most esteemed Richard rallied round rather touchingly. Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta had just come out and Richard took violent exception to everything about it — scholarship, facts, and attitude towards Mohammedanism. Finally the editor of the Academy placed the two opening pages of the July 28 issue at Richard’s disposition as an outlet for his bursting indignation.
There remained now no last pretense of keeping up with official work. They moved around the country entirely at will, though occasionally the Foreign Office wrote what Isabel bridlingly termed ‘very curious letters’ inquiring as to this. At Maloja in the Engadine they met Henry M. Stanley, who was touring with his Dorothy on a sedate and middleaged honeymoon. Richard waited for his opening and found it when Stanley, the sold of correctness, asked politely if indiscreetly what he was writing at present. Richard stroked his moustache and eyed him. He was working, he replied gruffly, on a book to be called Anthropology of Men and Women. Stanley scurried off in alarm before the scandalous old man could enlighten him further but all the same he could not repress an unwilling admiration. ‘What a grand man!’ he wrote that night in his diary. ‘One of the real great ones of England he might have been, if he had not been cursed with Cynicism. — I have no idea to what his Anthropology refers,’ he added hastily.
Before they left Maloja, Richard talked to Isabel of what might happen to his manuscripts in the event of his death. ‘He absolutely declined to let anybody but myself search into his papers. He said, “No one has helped me but you during thirty — I may say thirty-five — years; who is likely to know so well now?”’
He did this fully realizing that she did not approve of the work he was currently engaged on, the translation with notes of The Scented Garden, by the Shaykh el-Nafzawih.
They had occasion to visit Lever’s grave in the English Protestant cemetery — ‘ a cold, melancholy corner which at that particular time seemed to be a rubbish corner of stray papers and old tin pots. He shuddered at it, and said, as he had often said before, “If I die here, don’t bury me there."' He would like, he said, to be buried at sea, but this Isabel told him she could not bring herself to promise. Was there no alternative? ‘“Yes,” he said, “I should like us both to lie in a tent side by side.”’
The last day of his life was impressed on Isabel’s mind with photographic accuracy up to the moment when, as she was saying the night prayers, ‘a dog began that dreadful howl which the superstitious say denotes a death.’ It shocked her so greatly that she interrupted the prayer. In the morning Dr. Baker told her it was the end, and Isabel sent messengers all over Trieste for a priest. ‘What I cannot bear to think of, what wakes me with horror every morning from four till seven, is that he kept on crying, “Oh, Puss, chloroform — ether! ” — but I had to answer, “My darling, the doctor says it will kill you; he is doing all he knows.”’ When he died in her arms she refused to concede it. ‘I knelt down at his left side, holding his hand and pulse, and prayed my heart out to God to keep his soul there (though he might be dead in appearance) till the priest arrived.’
It meant everything to Isabel and nothing to Richard that Father Martelani finally came and administered extreme unction 'si vivis.’ Isabel knelt beside him throughout and ‘by the clasp of the hand,’ she assured herself feverishly, ‘I judged there was a little life until seven.’
She sat all day by Richard, watching and expecting him to come to. ‘I thought the mouth moved, but the doctor told me it was imagination.’ His kitten too refused to leave him and fought when they tried to lift it from his chest. But ‘what was no imagination,’ Isabel always passionately maintained, ‘was that the brain lived after the heart and pulse were gone; that the eyes were as bright and intelligent as in life, with the brilliancy of a man who saw something unexpected and wonderful and happy; and that light remained in them till near sunset, and I believe the soul went forth with the setting sun, though it had set for me for ever.’
Richard was given a Catholic funeral. ‘I can never forget what Austria in general, and Trieste in particular, did in Richard’s honour. . . . They tell me that no funeral has been equal to it in the memory of any one living, not even Maria Theresa’s in 1873. . . . Every flag in town and harbour at half mast.
. . . Every one who could drive or walk, from the highest to the poorest, turned out. . . . The coffin was covered with the Union Jack and his sword; his insignia and medals were borne on a cushion, and a second hearse was hid in garlands and flowers.’
Isabel’s first act was to lock up all Richard’s manuscripts against prying eyes. A publisher had already offered to take The Scented Garden off her hands for six thousand pounds flat, and she badly needed that sum or any part of it. There had been an end to income even from the Nights. Richard had always told her that the Garden was to be her jointure; it would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to deliver the manuscript. But she felt in conscience bound to look into the work, after which ‘I remained for three days in a state of perfect torture as to what I ought to do about it. . . . Do not let any one suppose for a moment that Richard Burton ever wrote a thing from the impure point of view. He dissected a passion from every point of view, as a doctor may dissect a body, showing its source, its origin, its evil, and its good, and its proper uses, as designed by Providence and Nature. . . . In private life he was the most pure, the most refined and modest man that ever lived, and he was so guileless himself that he could never be brought to believe that other men said or used these things from any other standpoint. I, as a woman, think differently.'
It was a pity that she had to make her decision with death and the memory of the solemn Requiem Mass so very recent. At such a time her instinct was to get rid of everything that clashed with the highly selective picture she was building up of Richard as she wished to remember him. The Scented Garden could not be fitted into this, so she burned it.
Though Isabel had every moral and legal right to act precisely as she pleased in the matter, no one would have suspected this from the way some factions carried on. Obscene and anonymous letters filled her mail; she was sniped at unceasingly by her in-laws and cut dead by old friends. She was taken to task by the very reviewers who had foamed at the mouth only a few years back over Swinburne’s infinitely less controversial Poems and Ballads.
Isabel, never one to sit meekly under criticism, struck back with spirit: ‘It makes me sick to hear all this anxiety of the Press and the literary world, lest they should miss a word he ever wrote. When he came back in 1882, after being sent to look for Palmer, he had a good deal of information to give, and he could not get a magazine or paper to take his most valuable article till it was quite stale. We used to boil over with rage when his books or articles were rejected.
. . . And now, because a few chapters which were of no particular value to the world have been burnt, the whole country’s literary minds are full of bitter plaint because anything has perished which came from the translator of the Arabian Nights! ‘
Busily setting about arranging a suitable English funeral for Richard, she first sounded out the authorities on the chances of having him buried in Westminster Abbey — or, as she put it ‘I ascertained through friends who spoke to the Dean what the intentions were about Westminster Abbey.’ The Dean, it was revealed, had no intentions whatever, and no more had the head of St. Paul’s. In a stone replica of an Arab tent at Mortlake, Richard was laid to rest with full Catholic rites.
After a retreat in her girlhood convent in Essex, Isabel returned to London and took a small house in Baker Street. For the rest of her life she wore heavy mourning, with a widow’s cap and long white veil. The little house was soon glutted with salvage from the Trieste palazzo — Oriental relics, divans, rugs, cushions, narghilehs and chibouques, Turkish coffee sets, curios — and of course pictures and mementos of Richard wherever the visitor turned, not omitting the crystal three-sided mirror with which he had been wont to mesmerize her in the old days. Here she settled with her secretary, Miss Plowman, to her last task, the monumental biography of Richard, which was completed in 1893.
The proceeds of the book improved Isabel’s finances to a point where she could put several finishing touches on the mausoleum, including the novelty of camel bells in the roof which would sound at the Elevation of the Mass ‘just as it does in the desert.’ When a waxwork Richard dressed in Meccan garb was installed in Madame Tussaud’s she announced with satisfaction: ‘They have given him a large space with sand, water, palms, and three camels, and a domed skylight painted yellow throws a lurid light on the scene. It is quite lifelike. I gave them the real clothes and weapons, and dressed him myself.’
Although everyone knew there was no cure for Isabel’s disease and she never traveled without a nurse, she was not in the least morbid. When in London, she kept in general touch with what was going on: she entertained and dined out largely, went to see the new plays, and read the new books, on all of which she passed most definite judgments.
Tall, very stout now, but splendidly imposing in her widow’s weeds, effusive and excitable and emphatic as ever and with frosty blue eyes that missed nothing, she was a familiar figure of the nineties in quite a variety of London drawing-rooms. (And whatever the topic might be when she entered a room, from that moment conversation revolved about Richard.) She was inevitably a mark for professional mediums, but she preferred to exercise her own newfound facility in direct communication.
Often people hardly knew which way to look when she described this process as the communion of saints.
One afternoon at Lady Randolph Churchill’s the rest of the guests sat enthralled while Isabel, Stead, the Archdeacon of Lambeth (Basil Wilberforce), and Mrs. Craigie discussed the subject.
Stead demurred: ‘But you believe in communion with the dead, do you not, Lady Burton?’
‘I do,’ Isabel electrified her listeners by replying without an instant’s hesitation, ‘for I talk with my darling nearly every day.’