The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XVII

The Recall

(1871)

I call to mind the parting day

That rent our lives in twain.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah (Burton’s “Arabian Nights”).

On returning to Damascus, Richard made the necessary explanations concerning the riot at Nazareth to the authorities, and he concluded that the “village row” was ended. I also wrote a full and accurate account of the affair to Sir Henry Elliot, our Ambassador at Constantinople (who had kindly expressed his willingness to hear from me when I had anything special to communicate), to supplement Richard’s report. Sir Henry had telegraphed to know what it all meant.

As Richard had still a fortnight’s leave on hand, he thought he would use it by going to return the visit of the Druzes, who had paid us many friendly visits during our two years’ sojourn at Damascus, and had asked Richard to come and see them in the Haurán. He called upon the Wali before his departure, and told him of his projected visit. The Wali expressed his gladness, and said, “Go soon, or there will be no water.” He also wrote to the Consul-General at Beyrout to acquaint him of his intention, and started with Mr. Tyrwhitt-Drake.

I was left behind. A few days after Richard had gone, the Wali, with whom I had always been on friendly terms, wrote me an extraordinary letter. He accused Richard of having made a political meeting with the Druze chiefs in the Haurán, and of having done great harm to the Turkish Government. I knew that he had done nothing of the kind, and so I wrote to the Wali and told him that he had been deceived, and asked him to wait until Richard came home. I pointed out to him how fond people were of inventing and circulating falsehoods to make mischief between him and the Consuls. He pretended to be satisfied. But a Turkish plot had been laid on foot of which I knew nothing. A disturbance had been purposely created between the Bedawin and the Druzes, which enabled the Turkish Government to attack the Druzes in the Haurán. The Wali let Richard go in order to accuse him of meddling. The fact was, the Wali had intended a little campaign against the Druzes, and was endeavouring, by means known only to the unspeakable Turk, to stir up sedition among them, in order to have an excuse for slaughtering them; but Richard had, unknowingly, spoiled the whole plan by counselling the Druzes to submit. It was that which made the Wali so angry, for it spoilt his plot; and he reported that Richard meddled with Turkish affairs and agitated for his recall. I wrote again to Sir Henry Elliot, stating the true facts of the case. For, as I told our Ambassador, I heard that the “Home Government is actually contemplating pleasing a handful of bad people, headed by this Wali, by probably removing my husband from the very place for which his natural gifts and knowledge fit him,” and I asked him, who knew the East, to acquaint Lord Granville how matters stood.

One day while Richard was still away, a European, who was a favourite of the Wali, asked me what day Richard would return to Damascus, and by what road. I asked why he wanted to know. “Because,” he said, “my child is to be baptized, and I want him to be present.” I found out the next day that the christening was fixed for the day before Richard’s return, and I was asked; so that the man had not given me the true reason for wanting to know when Richard was coming back. I scented danger, and by a trusty messenger I instantly dispatched a warning to Richard to “look out for tricks.” By God’s blessing it was in time. Richard changed his road, and from a concealed shelter he watched the progress of a Ghazu, or armed band, beating the country, looking for some one. By whom they were sent, whom they were looking for, and for what fell purpose may be imagined.

My heart was torn with anxiety. Nevertheless I went to the christening, and kept a calm exterior. I felt a qualm when a certain Greek said to me, with a meaning, unpleasant smile, “There is a telegram or something important arrived for you.” “Oh, is there?" I said coolly; “well, I dare say I shall get it when I go home.” Presently a kawwass came in, and saluted and said, “The Consul is returned, Sitti, and wants you.” Making my excuses, I retired from the festivities; and jumping on my horse, I galloped home, where I found Richard safe and sound. The telegram, which was quite unimportant, did not arrive until several hours later. Had the Ghazu fallen in with Richard, the verdict would have been, “Fallen a prey to his wild and wandering habits in the desert.” But it was not God’s will that he should be removed in this way.

About this time the trouble with the Shazlis also came to a head. The Shazlis were Sufis, or mystics, esoterics of El Islam, who tried to spiritualize its material portions. Richard was most interested in them, and he used to study them and their history. The mystic side of their faith especially appealed to him. He thought he saw in it a connexion between Sufiism in its highest form and Catholicism; and indeed it was so. He followed it up unofficially, disguised as a Shazli, and unknown to any mortal except myself. He used to mix with them, and passed much of his time in the Maydán at Damascus with them. Many of the Shazlis were secretly converted to Christianity in the spring of 1870. It was only natural that it should be so, for there was a link between the highest form of Sufiism and the true Catholic Church. Before long the news of these conversions leaked out, and the Wali determined to crush conversion, because it would add to European influence, of which he was already jealous, and he persecuted and imprisoned the converts. Richard endeavoured to protect them, and thus brought himself into conflict with the Wali.

Richard thought very seriously of this revival of Christianity in Syria, and wrote to the Protestant missionaries about it. He also wrote to Sir Henry Elliot and to Lord Granville on the subject, so impressed was he with its vigour and vitality. And indeed there was a remarkable revival going on below the surface. The persecutions to which the Shazlis had been subjected had caused the movement to grow with redoubled force, and the number of converts increased from day to day. Many were secretly baptized, and many more were yearning for baptism. Richard knew all this, and sympathized with the converted Shazlis heart and soul. Indeed I think he was never nearer a public profession of Catholicity than at that time. What he might have done for them, if he had had the chance, I know not; but the chance was denied him.

The next week or two went by without anything important happening. On June 25 we went by the Wali’s invitation to a grand review at El Haneh, the first ever seen in Syria. Nothing could exceed the kindness and courtesy of the Wali. Indeed every one was very kind to me, the only woman present. We had fireworks and dinner, and then wild native dances, and after a pleasant drive home to Damascus in Abd el Kadir’s carriage.

About this time the heat was very great; not a breath of air was stirring, night or day. We felt like the curled-up leaves of a book. Food or sleep was impossible to us. Every one who could fled from Damascus. I refused to go to summer quarters because Richard could not go too, and I would not shirk anything he had to bear. At last, however, I fell ill of fever, and Richard sent me away to Bludán.

One night, when I was sitting alone, I heard a great noise against the door. I seized the only thing handy, a big stick, and ran out. A large serpent had been attracted by a bowl of milk put on the terrace for my large white Persian cat, who was valiantly defending her milk against the snake. It raised up its long neck and hissed at me; but I hit it with my stick a foot away from its tail, which is the proper place to paralyze a snake. It tried to make away, but was unable, and then I killed it. It was two yards and a half long, and as thick as a child’s arm. It had a flat head, and was of a bluish silver colour. Another night, when I went up to the housetop, a large wolf sprang over my head. I ran in for my gun, but though I was not gone an instant the wolf was out of my reach. After a few weeks Richard came up and joined me at Bludán with Charles Tyrwhitt-Drake.

During this summer we made many excursions to pleasant spots around Bludán, and we used to invite the Shaykhs and principal people to meet us. We would choose a spot near water, or near Bedawin tents, or a melon plantation; and arriving at the appointed place, we would eat and drink, make a fire, roast and prepare our coffee, and have a siesta. These impromptu picnics were very pleasant, and we always found the Bedawin charming. Those days were very pleasant ones; our lives were peaceful, useful, and happy. But suddenly there came a bolt from the blue. On August 16, 1871, the blow fell.

That morning at Bludán the horses were saddled at the door, and we were going for a ride, when a ragged messenger on foot stopped to drink at the spring, and then came up to me with a note. I saw it was for Richard, and took it into the house to him, never thinking what it contained. It was a curt letter from the Vice-Consul of Beyrout, informing Richard that, by the orders of his Consul-General, he had arrived at Damascus the previous day, and had taken charge of the Consulate.

Richard and Charles Tyrwhitt-Drake were in the saddle in five minutes, and galloped into Damascus without drawing rein. Richard would not let me go with him. A few hours later a mounted messenger came back to Bludán with these few written words: “Do not be frightened. I am recalled. Pay, pack, and follow at convenience.” I was not frightened; but I shall never forget what my feelings were when I received that note. Perhaps it is best not to try to remember them.

The rest of the day I went about trying to realize what it all meant. When I went to bed that night, my mind was full of Richard, and I had one of my dreams, a terribly vivid dream. I dreamed that Something pulled me by the arm. I sat up in bed, and I could still see and feel it, and it said in a loud whisper “Why do you lie there? Your husband wants you. Get up and go to him."

I lay down again, and tried to sleep; but again it happened, and yet again — three successive times; and big drops of sweat were on my forehead. My English maid, who slept in the room, said, “Are you walking about and talking, madam?” “No,” I said; “but somebody is. Are you?” “No,” she answered, “I have not stirred; but you’ve been talking in your sleep.”

I could bear it no longer, for I believed that the Presence was real. I sprang out of bed, dressed, went to the stable, saddled my horse, and though everybody said I was mad, and wanted to thrust me back to bed again, I galloped out into the night.

I rode for five hours across country, as though it were a matter of life and death, over rock and through swamps, making for Shtora, the diligence station. I shall never forget that night’s ride. Those who know the ground well will understand what it meant to tear over slippery boulders and black swamps in the darkness of the night. My little horse did it all, for I scarcely knew where I was going half the time. But no one will ever persuade me that in that ride I was alone. Another Presence was with me and beside me, and guarded my ways, lest I dashed my foot against a stone.

Three or four of my servants were frightened, and followed me afar off, but I did not know it then. At last I came in sight of Shtora, the diligence station. The half-hour’s rest had expired, the travellers had taken their places, and the diligence was just about to start. But God was good to me. Just as the coachman was about to raise his whip, he turned his head in the direction whence I was galloping. I was hot, torn, and covered with mud and dust from head to foot; but he knew me. I was too exhausted to shout, but I dropped the reins on my horse’s neck, and held up both my arms as they do to stop a train. The coachman saw the signal, he pulled in his horses and took me into the diligence, and told the ostler to lead my dead-beat horse to the stable.

The diligence rumbled over the Lebanon, and reached Beyrout twenty-four hours before the steamer sailed — the steamer by which Richard was going back to England. For when once he had received his recall, he never looked behind him, nor packed up anything, but went straight away from Damascus, though it was the place where he had spent two of the happiest years of his life. As the diligence turned into Beyrout I caught sight of him, walking alone about the streets, and looking sad and serious. Not even a kawwass was sent to attend him, though this is always the usual courtesy paid a Consul in the East, nor was there any show of honour or respect. The jackals are always ready to slight the dead lion. But I was there, thank God; and he was so surprised and rejoiced when he greeted me that his whole face was illuminated. But he only said, “Thank you. Bon sang ne peut mentir.” We had twenty-four hours to take comfort and counsel together. It was well that I was with him. Everybody called, and everybody regretted, except our Consul-General, who cut us. The French Consul-General made us take up our abode with him for those twenty-four hours. I do not know whether Richard felt the neglect or not. I only know that I felt it terribly. Any Consul with one atom of good feeling would at least have paid his fallen colleague proper respect until he had quitted Eastern ground; but the disgrace was to himself, not to Richard.

At four o’clock the following day I went on board the steamer with Richard, and wished him good-bye, and saw the steamer off to England. On returning to the quay, I found his faithful servant Habíb, who had also followed Richard all the way, but had arrived just ten minutes too late, only in time to see the steamer go out. He flung himself down on the quay in a passion of tears.

I took the night diligence back to Damascus. In spite of the August weather it was a cold, hard, seven hours’ drive over the Lebanon. I had brought nothing with me; my clothes were dry and stiff, and I was dead tired. On the road I passed our honorary dragoman. From sheer habit I called out to him, but he quickly reminded me that I had no official position now, for he turned his head the other way, and passed me by. I sent a peasant after him, but he shook his head and rode on. It was one of my reminders that “Le roi est mort.” I suppose the rule extends everywhere, but perhaps the king’s widow feels it most. It was not all like this though, for I shall never forget the kindness which was showered upon me by many during my last days in Syria.

In due time I arrived at the khan, or diligence station, where I had left my horse two days previously. I slept there for two hours. Early next morning I rode to see a friend, who kindly insisted on my staying a day with her. Here Charles Tyrwhitt-Drake, a kawwass, and servant and horse met me, and escorted me back to Bludán. I arrived home ill, tired, and harassed. I was thankful to find there a woman friend who had come over to keep me company. She was as much grieved as I was myself, and we wept together.

After the insults and neglect which had been meted out to us at Beyrout, I expected in Damascus, where official position is everything, and where women are of no account, that I should be, figuratively speaking, trampled underfoot. I was mistaken. I can never describe the gratitude, affection, and respect which were showered upon me during my last days in Syria. The news of our recall spread like wildfire. All the surrounding villagers poured in. The house and gardens at Bludán were always full of people — my poor of course, but others too. Moslems flung themselves on the ground, shedding bitter tears, and tearing their beards with grief for the loss of the man whose life the Wali had the audacity to report they wished to take. They kept asking, “What have we done that your Government should take him away from us?” “Let some of us go over to your land, and kneel at the feet of your Queen, and pray that he may be sent back to us again.” This thing went on for days and days, and I received from nearly all the country round little deputations of Shaykhs, who bore letters of affection or condolence or praise. I loved Syria so dearly it broke my heart to leave it, and always with me was the gnawing thought: How shall I tear the East out of my heart, and adapt myself again to the bustling, struggling, everyday life of Europe?

I lost no time in settling our affairs at Bludán. I paid all the bills, packed Richard’s boxes and sent them to England, broke up our establishment at Bludán, and had all that was to accompany me transferred to Damascus.

Two nights before I left Bludán I had another dream. Again Something came to me in the night, and pulled me and whispered, “Go and look after that Bedawi boy, whose grandmother took him away when you were treating him for rheumatic fever.” I was tired and miserable, and tried to sleep. I was pulled again. I remonstrated. A third time I was pulled by the wrist. “Go, go, go!” said the voice. “I will go,” I answered. At dawn I rode out in the direction where I knew his tribe was encamped. After three hours I saw some black tents in the distance, but before I got to them I met an old crone with a burden covered with sacking on her back. “Is that the boy?” I asked. “Yes,” she said; “he is very bad, and wanted to be taken to you, so I was bringing him.” I got down from my horse, and assisted her to lay the boy on the sand. I saw that death was near; he looked so wistfully at me with his big black eyes. “Is it too late?” he whispered. “Yes, my boy, it is,” I said, taking hold of his cold hand. “Would you like to see Allah?” “Yes,” he said, “I should. Can I?” “Are you very sorry for the times you have been naughty and said bad words?” “Yes,” he said; “if I get well, I will be better and kinder to grandmother.” I parted his thick, matted hair, and, kneeling, I baptized him from the flask of water I always carried about at my side. “What is that?” asked the old woman, after a minute’s silence. “It is a blessing,” I answered, “and may do him good.” I remained with him until he seemed to become insensible. I could not wait longer, as night was coming on; so I rode back, for I could do no good. I felt sure he would not see the sun rise.

When all my sad preparations were finished at Bludán, I bade adieu to the Anti-Lebanon with a heavy heart, and for the last time, choking with emotion, I rode down the mountain and through the Plain of Zebedani, with a very large train of followers. I had a sorrowful ride into Damascus. Just outside the city gates I met the Wali, driving in state with all his suite. He looked radiant, and saluted me with much empressement. I did not return his salute. However, the next time we met I had the laugh of him, for he looked very much less radiant a few days later, when the news of his own recall reached him. He fought hard to stay; and I do not wonder, for he had a splendid position. But none of Richard’s enemies have ever flourished.

At Damascus I had to go through the same sad scenes, on a much larger scale, that I had gone through at Bludán. Many kind friends, native and European, came to stay about me till the last; in fact, my farewells threatened to assume the character of a demonstration. This I was most anxious to avoid. My one anxiety now was to get away as quietly as possible. I made my preparations for departure from Damascus in the same way as I had done at Bludán. I arranged to sell everything, pay all debts, and pack and dispatch to England our personal effects. I made innumerable adieux, and tried to make provision and find a happy home for every single being, man or beast, that had been dependent upon us.

Two Moslems came to me, and offered to shoot down certain official enemies of mine from behind a rock as they passed in their carriage. A Jew also came to me, and offered to put poison in their coffee. I declined both offers, which they did not seem to understand; and they said that I was threatened and in danger, but I slept in perfect security, with all the windows and doors open. My last act was to go into our little chapel, and dress it with all the pious things in my possession. When the day of the sale of our goods arrived, I could not bear to sit in the house; so I went up to the mountain behind, and gazed down on my Salahíyyeh in its sea of green, and my pearl-like Damascus and the desert sand, and watched the sunset on the mountains for the last time.

My preparations for departure necessarily took some time. But Richard having gone, I had no place, no business, at Damascus, and I felt that it would be much better taste to leave. I began to perceive that the demonstrations in our favour were growing, and threatened to become embarrassing. The Moslems were assembling in cliques at night, and were having prayers in the mosques for Richard’s return. They continually thronged up to the house with tears and letters begging him to return, and I saw that my presence and my distress excited them the more.

Unfortunately I did not complete everything until September 12, which obliged me to brave the unlucky 13th. As half the town wanted to accompany me part of the road, and I was afraid that a demonstration might result, I determined to slip away quietly by night. Abd el Kadir and Lady Ellenborough were in the secret, and they accompanied me as far as the city gates, where I bade them an affectionate farewell. The parting with Lady Ellenborough affected me greatly. I was the poor thing’s only woman friend. As she wrung my hand these were her last words: “Do not forget your promise if I die and we never meet again.”28 I replied, “Inshallah, I shall soon return.” She rode a black thorough-bred Arab mare; and as far as I could see anything in the moonlight, her large sorrowful blue eyes, glistening with tears, haunted me.

It was thus, accompanied on my journey by Mr. Drake and two faithful dragomans, who had never deserted me, and who put themselves and all they possessed at my disposal, that I stole away from Damascus an hour before dawn.

I shall never forget that ride across the desert. I felt my heart sink as I jogged along for weary miles, wishing mental good-byes to every dearly loved object. I had felt fever coming on for some days, but I had determined not to be ill at Damascus. Now that I had left it, however, a reaction set in. When I reached that part of the Lebanon looking down upon the sea far above Beyrout, my fever had increased to such an extent that I became delirious, and I had to be set down on the roadside. Half an hour farther on the road was the village of my little Syrian girl, who was accompanying me back to England. I was carried to her father’s house and lay there for ten days very ill, and was nursed by her and my English maid. It was a trying time; but the whole family showed me every kindness and attention, and I had every comfort that the place could afford. Many friends, both English and native, came to visit me from Beyrout and from the villages round about. From here I wrote a long letter to Lord Derby, who had appointed us to Damascus, stating the true facts of the case, and exposing the falsehoods, so far as I knew them, which had led Lord Granville to weakly consent to our recall. I never rested till that cloud was lifted.

I went down to Beyrout as soon as I was well enough to move, and embarked in the Russian ship Ceres; the same ship, strange to say, that had brought me from Alexandria to Beyrout, when I first turned my face towards Damascus. As we were about to steam out an English vice-consul in the Levant gaily waved his hand to me, and cried out, “Good-bye, Mrs. Burton; I have been sixteen years in the service, and I have known twenty scoundrels go unpunished, but I never saw a consul recalled except for something disgraceful — certainly never for an Eastern pasha. You will find it is all right when you get home; they would hardly do such a thing to a man like Burton.”

We arrived at Alexandria, and I went to a hotel. I dislike Alexandria very much, and was glad to get away on board of a P. & O., the Candia, to Southampton. It was all right as far as Malta, but after that we had some very rough weather. At last our ship sighted the lights of Portland Bill, and I knew that I was at home again. These lights at night look like two great eyes, and there is always excitement when they are first seen. All the English on board rushed on deck and cheered Hurrah! It is odd how we exiles love our country, our home, and our friends; it is curious how little they think about us.

On October 14, 1871, I landed again in Old England.

28 Lady Ellenborough referred to her biography, which she had dictated to Lady Burton — the true story of her life, which Lady Burton had promised to publish for her, to clear away misrepresentations. In consequence of difficulties which subsequently arose Lady Burton did not publish it.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33