The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XIX

The Passing of the Cloud

(1871-1872)

Tell whoso hath sorrow

Grief shall never last:

E’en as joy hath no morrow,

So woe shall go past.

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

The recall from Damascus was the hardest blow that ever befell the Burtons. They felt it acutely; and when time had softened the shock, a lasting sense of the injury that had been done to them remained. Isabel felt it perhaps even more keenly than her husband. The East had been the dream of her girlhood, the land of her longing from the day when she and her lover first plighted their troth in the Botanical Gardens, and the reality of her maturer years. But the reality had been all too short. To the end of her life she never ceased to regret Damascus; and even when in her widowed loneliness she returned to England twenty years after the recall, with her life’s work well-nigh done, and waiting as she used to say, for the "tinkling of his camel’s bell,” her eyes would glow and her voice take a deeper note if she spoke of those two years at Damascus. It was easy to see that they were the crowning years of her life — the years in which her nature had full play, when in the truest sense of the term she may be said to have lived. From the time they left Damascus, though there were many years of happiness and usefulness in store for her husband and herself, things were never quite the same again. The recall seems to mark a turning-point in her life. Many of the dreams and enthusiasms of her youth were gone, though her life’s unfinished work and stern reality remained. To use her own words, “Our career was broken.”

Isabel felt the slur on her husband which the recall involved more acutely than he. Burton, though stung to the quick at the treatment the Foreign Office meted out to him for doing what he conceived to be his duty (and certainly the manner of his recall was ungracious almost to the point of brutality), was not a man given to show his feelings to the world, and he possessed a philosophy which enabled him to present a calm and unmoved front to the reverses of fortune. With his wife it was different. She was not of a nature to suffer in silence, nor to sit down quietly under a wrong. As she put it, “Since Richard would not fight his own battles, I fought them for him,” and she never ceased fighting till she had cleared away as much as possible of the cloud that shadowed her husband’s official career.

On arriving in London, she set to work with characteristic energy. It was a very different home-coming to the one she had anticipated. Two years before she had set out in the best of health and spirits, with every prospect of a long and prosperous career at Damascus for her husband and herself. Now, almost without warning, they had come home with their prospects shattered and their career broken. Nevertheless these untoward circumstances served in no way to weaken her energies; on the contrary, they seemed to lend her strength.

She found her husband occupying one room in an obscure hotel off Manchester Square, engaged as usual with his writings, and apparently absorbed in them. He seemed to have forgotten that such a place as Damascus existed. She found that he had accepted his recall literally. He had made no defence to the Foreign Office, nor sought for any explanation. He had treated the affair de haut en bas, and had left things to take their course. He in fact expressed himself to her as “sick of the whole thing,” and he took the darkest view of the future. “Are you not afraid?” he asked her, referring to their gloomy prospects. “Afraid?” she echoed. “What, when I have you?” This was the day she came back. He did not refer to the subject again, but returned to his manuscripts, and apparently wanted nothing but to be left alone.

But his wife knew him better; she knew that deep down under his seeming indifference there was a rankling sense of injustice. Her first step was to arouse him to a sense of the position. To discuss verbally matters of this kind with him, she had learnt by experience, was not easy; so she wrote to him to the following effect, and put the note between the leaves of a book he was reading:

“You tell me you have no wish to re-enter official life. Putting my own interests quite out of the question, when there are so few able men, and still fewer gentlemen, left in England, and one cannot help foreseeing very bad times coming, it makes one anxious and nervous to think that the one man whom I and others regard as a born leader of men should retire into private life just when he is most wanted. Now you are not going to be angry with me; you must be scolded. You have fairly earned the right to five or six months of domestic happiness and retirement, but not the right to be selfish. When the struggle comes on, instead of remaining, as you think, you will come to the fore and nobly take your right place. Remember I have prophesied three times for you, and this is the fourth. You are smarting under a sense of injustice now, and you talk accordingly. If I know anything of men in general, and you in particular, you will grow dissatisfied with yourself, if your present state of inaction lasts long.”

What the immediate result of this remonstrance was it is not possible to say; but Isabel’s next move was to go down to the Foreign Office, where she was already well known as one with whom the usual official evasions were of no avail. She always called herself “a child of the Foreign Office,” and she had many friends there among the permanent officials. She brought every influence she could think of to bear. She went to the Foreign Office day after day, refusing to take “No” for an answer, until at last she simply forced Lord Granville to see her; and when he saw her, she forced him to hear what she had to say. The interview resulted in his saying “that he would be happy to consider anything she might lay before him on the subject of Captain Burton’s recall from Damascus.” He could hardly have said less, and he could not well have said more. However, she took him very promptly at his word. She occupied herself for three months in getting up her husband’s case, and in inducing him to consent to its being put clearly before Lord Granville. By way of going to the root of the matter she insisted on knowing from the Foreign Office the true reasons of his recall. They gave her a long list — the list set forth in the previous chapter. She answered them point by point. Burton of course helped, and the thing was done in his name. The whole matter was subsequently published in the form of a Blue Book — the book before referred to.

The controversy between Isabel and the Foreign Office, if it can so be called, ended in January, 1872, three months after her return to England; and it terminated in a dialectical triumph for her, and the offer of several small posts for her husband, which he indignantly refused. Among others, Burton was offered Para, but would not take it. “Too small a place for me after Damascus,” he said.

The Burtons went into inexpensive lodgings, and waited for the brighter days which were slow in dawning. With characteristic pride and independence they kept their difficulties to themselves, and none knew how hard their struggle was at this time. The Burtons received a good deal of kindness in the way of hospitality. There was a general impression that they had been unfairly treated by the Government, and their friends were anxious to make it up to them. They paid many pleasant visits; among others, to one of their kindest friends, Lady Marian Alford. At her house they met Lord Beaconsfield; and at one of her parties, when the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh were present, by request of the hostess Burton dressed as a Bedawin shaykh, and Isabel as a Moslem woman of Damascus. She was supposed to have brought the Shaykh over to introduce him to English society; and though many of those present knew Burton quite well, none of them recognized him in his Arab dress until he revealed himself. The Burtons also attended a banquet at the Mansion House, which interested them more than a little; and when they wanted to make remarks — and they were in the habit of expressing themselves very freely — they spoke Arabic, thinking no one would understand it. Suddenly a man next them interrupted their criticisms by saying also in Arabic, “You are quite right; I was just thinking the same thing”: the which shows how careful one should be at public dinners.

Early in June, 1872, Burton sailed for Iceland at the request of a certain capitalist, who wished to obtain reports of some sulphur mines there, and who promised him a liberal remuneration, which eventually he did not pay. He, however, paid for Burton’s passage and travelling expenses; but as he did not pay for two Isabel was unable to accompany her husband, and during his absence she took up her abode with her father and mother. Afterwards she was very glad that she had done this. For some time past the health of Mrs. Arundell had given cause for anxiety. She had been a confirmed invalid since her stroke of paralysis ten years before, but she had borne up marvellously until the last few months, when it was visible to every one that she was failing. The end came very suddenly. Her dearly loved daughter Isabel was with her at the last. The loss of her mother, to whom she was devotedly attached, was a severe blow to Isabel. Mrs. Arundell was a woman of strength of character, ability, and piety, and possessed rare qualities of head and heart. It is scarcely necessary to say that the little cloud which had arisen between mother and daughter on the occasion of Isabel’s marriage had long since passed away; indeed it was of the briefest duration, and Mrs. Arundell came to love Burton as a son, and was very proud of him.

At the end of June, about ten months after the date of the recall from Damascus, official favour smiled upon the Burtons again. Lord Granville wrote and asked Isabel if her husband would accept the Consulate of Trieste, just vacant by the death of Charles Lever, the novelist.

Isabel was praying by her mother’s coffin that their troubles might pass away when the letter arrived, and it came to her like an answer to prayer, for their prospects were just then at their gloomiest. She at once wrote to her husband in Iceland, and was able soon after to send his acceptance of the post to Lord Granville.

Trieste, a small commercial consulate with £600 a year salary and £100 office allowance, was a sad drop after Damascus, at £1,000 a year and work of a diplomatic order. But the Burtons could not afford to refuse the offer, for their needs were pressing, and they took it in the hope of better things, which never came. Burton had a great desire to become Consul at Morocco, and he thought Trieste might lead thither. Alas! it did not; and the man who had great talents, a knowledge of more than a score of languages, and an unrivalled experience in the ways of Eastern life and oriental methods, was allowed to drag out eighteen years in the obscurity of a second-rate seaport town, where his unique qualifications were simply thrown away. He had had his chance, and had lost it. He was not a “safe man”; and England, or rather the Government, generally reserves — and wisely — the pick of the places in the public service for “safe men.” Officialdom distrusts genius — perhaps rightly; and Burton was a wayward genius indeed. However, at Trieste he could hardly get into hot water. The post was a purely commercial one; there was no work which called for any collision with the local authorities. Austria, the land of red tape, was very different to Syria. There was no Wali to quarrel with; there were no missionaries to offend, no Druzes or Greeks to squabble with; and though there were plenty of Jews, their money-lending proclivities did not come within the purview of the British Consul, and the Austrian authorities would have resented in a moment the slightest meddling with their jurisdiction. But if Burton could do no harm, he could also do little good; and his energies were cribbed, cabined, and confined. On the other hand, he was following at Trieste a distinguished man in Charles Lever, and one who, like himself, had literary tastes. It is impossible to deny that Lord Granville showed discrimination in appointing him there at the time. Trieste was virtually a sinecure; the duties were light, and every liberty was given to Burton. He was absent half his time, and he paid a vice-consul to do most of his work, thus leaving himself ample leisure for travel and his literary labours. If his lot had been thrown in a more active sphere, his great masterpiece, Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Arabian Nights), might never have seen the light.

Isabel and her husband lost no time in making preparations for their departure. In the month of September Burton returned from Iceland, and the third week in October he left England for Trieste by sea. His wife was to adhere to her usual plan of “pay, pack, and follow” — to purchase in London the usual stock of necessary things, and follow as soon as might be by land.

In November Isabel crossed the Channel, and ran straight through to Cologne. At Cologne she saw the sights, and proceeded by easy stages down the Rhine to Mayence, and thence to Frankfort. From Frankfort she went to Wurzburg, where she called on the famous Dr. Döllinger. Thence to Innsbruck, and so on to Venice. It was fourteen years since she had visited Venice. The last occasion was during the tour which she had taken with her sister and brother-in-law before her marriage. She says: “It was like a dream to come back again. It was all there as I left it, even to the artificial flowers at the table d’hôte: it was just the same, only less gay and brilliant. It had lost the Austrians and Henry V. Court. It was older, and all the friends I knew were dispersed.” Her first act was to send a telegram to Trieste announcing her arrival, and the next to gondola all over Venice. Towards evening she thought it would be civil to call on the British Consul, Sir William Perry. The old gentleman, who was very deaf, and apparently short-sighted, greeted her kindly, and mumbled something about “Captain Burton.” Isabel said, “Oh, he is at Trieste; I am just going to join him.” “No,” said Sir William, “he has just left me.” Thinking he was rather senile, she concluded that he did not understand, and bawled into his ear for the third time, “I am Mrs. Burton, not Captain Burton, just arrived from London, and am on my way to join my husband at Trieste.” “I know all that,” he said impatiently. “You had better come with me in my gondola; I am just going to the Morocco now, a ship that will sail for Trieste.” Isabel said, “Certainly”; and much puzzled, got into the gondola, and went on board. As soon as she got down to the ship’s saloon, lo! there was her husband writing at a table. “Halloo!” he said; “what the devil are you doing here?” “Halloo!” she said; “what are you doing here?” And then they began to explain. It turned out that neither of them had received the other’s telegrams or letters.

A few days later they crossed over to Trieste. The Vice-Consul and the Consular Chaplain came on board to greet them, but otherwise they arrived at Trieste without ceremony; in fact, so unconventional was their method of arrival, that it was rumoured in the select circles of the town that “Captain Burton, the new Consul, and Mrs. Burton took up their quarters at the Hôtel de la Ville, he walking along with his gamecock under his arm, and she with her bull-terrier under hers.” It was felt that they must be a very odd couple, and they were looked at rather askance. This distrust was probably reciprocated, for at first both Isabel and her husband felt like fish out of water, and did not like Trieste at all.

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