The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XX

Early Years at Trieste

(1872-1875)

Turn thee from grief nor care a jot,

Commit thy needs to fate and lot,

Enjoy the present passing well,

And let the past be clean forgot.

For what so haply seemeth worse

Shall work thy weal as Allah wot;

Allah shall do whate’er he will,

And in his will oppose him not.

Alf Laylah Wa Laylah (Burton’s “Arabian Nights“).

Isabel soon began to like Trieste; the place grew upon her, and later she always spoke of it as “my beloved Trieste.” She has left on record in her journal her early impressions:

“Trieste is a town of threes. It has three quarters: the oldest, Citta Vecchia, is filthy and antiquated in the extreme. It has three winds: the bora, the winter wind, cold, dry, highly electrical, very exciting, and so violent that sometimes the quays are roped, and some of the walls have iron rails let in, to prevent people being blown into the sea; the sirocco, the summer wind, straight from Africa, wet, warm, and debilitating; and the contraste, which means the two blowing at once and against each other, with all the disadvantages of both. It has three races: Italians, Austrians, and Slavs. They are all ready to cut each other’s throats, especially the Italians and the Austrians; and the result is that Trieste, wealthy though she is, wants all modern improvements, simply because the two rival parties act like the two bundles of hay in the fable, and between them the ass starves. North of Ponte Rosso is Germania, or the Austrian colony, composed of the authorities, the employés, and a few wealthy merchants, who have a crazy idea of Germanizing their little world, an impossible dream, for there are twelve thousand Italians in Trieste, who speak a sort of corrupted Venetian. One thousand of these are very rich, the others very poor. However, whether rich or poor, the Italianissimi hate their Austrian rulers like poison; and in this hatred they are joined by the mass of the wealthy Israelites, who divide the commerce with the Greeks. The wealthy Italianissimi subscribe handsomely to every Italian charity and movement, and periodically and anonymously memorialize the King of Italy. The poor take a delight in throwing large squibs, called by courtesy ‘torpedoes,’ amongst the unpatriotic petticoats who dare to throng the Austrian balls; for though Trieste is Austrian nominally, it is Italian at heart. The feud between the Italians and the Austrians goes to spoil society in Trieste; they will not intermingle. The Slavs also form a distinct party.

“I found these discordant elements a little difficult to harmonize at first. But Richard desired me to form a neutral house, as at Damascus, where politics and religion should never be mentioned, and where all might meet on a common ground. I did so, with the result that we had friends in all camps. There was an abundance of society of all kinds: Austrian, Italian, and what Ouida has called the haute Juiverie. We were in touch with them all, and they were all good-natured and amiable. Society in Trieste did not care whether you were rich or poor, whether you received or did not receive; it only asked you to be nice, and it opened its arms to you. I dare say my visiting list, private and consular, comprised three hundred families; but we had our own little clique intime, which was quite charming, and included some sixty or seventy persons.

“We women had what Richard used to call ‘hen parties’ (Kaffee gesellschaft), which is really five o’clock tea, where we would dance together, play, sing, recite, and have refreshments; but a man, except the master of the house, was never seen at these gatherings. En revanche, we had plenty of evening entertainments for both sexes.

“Some curious little local customs still lingered at Trieste. One of them was, when two friends or relations met in society, after embracing affectionately, they were wont to drop one another an elaborate curtsey. The visiting hours were from twelve till two, an impossible time; and men were expected to call in white cravats, kid gloves and evening dress. When I first came to Trieste, I was often invited en intime to afternoon tea, and was told to come ‘just as you are, my dear.’ I took the invitation literally of course; and when I arrived, I used to find the other ladies décolletées, and blazing with diamonds. I remember feeling very awkward at appearing in an ordinary costume, but my hostess said to me, ‘You know, my dear, we are so fond of our jewels; it gives us pleasure to dress even for one another; but do not do it if it bores you.’ However, later I always took care to do it, on the principle that when one is at Rome one should do as Rome does. Apart from these little social peculiarities Trieste was the most hospitable and open-hearted town, and people entertained there, if they entertained at all, on a lavish scale and right royally.

“The population of Trieste was very interesting, though a strange medley. To the east of the town the Wallachian cici, or charcoal-dealers, wore the dress of the old Danubian homes whence they came. Then there was the Friulano, with his velvet jacket and green corduroys (the most estimable race in Trieste). He was often a roaster of chestnuts at the corners of the street, and his wife was the best balie (wet nurse). She was often more bravely attired than her mistress. The Slav market-women were also very interesting. I loved to go down and talk with them in the market-place. They drove in from neighbouring villages with their produce for sale in a kind of drosky, the carretella as it was called, with its single pony harnessed to the near side of the pole. Some of the girls, especially those of Servola, were quite beautiful, with a Greek profile, and a general delicacy of form and colour which one would hardly expect to find amongst the peasantry. But their eyes were colourless; and their blonde hair was like tow — it lacked the golden ray. The dresses were picturesque: a white triangular head-kerchief, with embroidered ends hanging down the back; a bodice either of white flannel picked out with splashes of colour, or of a black glazed and plaited stuff; a skirt of lively hue, edged with a broad belt of even livelier green, blue, pink, or yellow; white stockings; and short, stout shoes. The ornaments on high days and holidays were gold necklaces and crosses, a profusion of rings and pendants. This of course was the contadina, or peasant girl. Opposed to her was the sartorella, or little tailoress, which may be said to be synonymous with the French grisette. I always called Trieste Il Paradiso delle Sartorelle, because the sartorella was a prominent figure in Trieste, and Fortune’s favourite. She was wont to fill the streets and promenades, especially on festa days, dressed à quatre épingles, powdered and rouged and coiffée as for a ball, and with or without a veil. She was often pretty, and generally had a good figure; but she did not always look ‘nice’; and her manners, to put it mildly, were very dégagées. There were four thousand of these girls in Trieste, and they filled the lower-class balls and theatres. There was a sartorella in every house, off and on. For example, a family in Trieste always had a dress to make or a petticoat, and the sartorella came for a florin a day and her food, and she worked for twelve hours, leaving off work at six, when she began her ‘evening out.’ I am fain to add the sartorella was often a sort of whited sepulchre. She was gorgeously clad without, but as a rule had not a rag, not even a chemise, underneath, unless she were ‘in luck.’ ‘In luck,’ I grieve to say, meant that every boy, youth, and man in Trieste, beginning at twelve and up to twenty-five and twenty-eight, had an affaire with a sartorella; and I may safely assert, without being malicious, that she was not wont to give her heart — if we may call it so — gratis. She was rather a nuisance in a house; though after I had been in Trieste a little while I discovered that she was an indispensable nuisance, because there was always some mending or sewing to be done. She generally turned the servants’ heads by telling them that she was going to be married to a real graf (count) as soon as he was independent of his parents — a sort of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid over again, I suppose.

image
Trieste.

“Trieste was a beautiful place, especially the view round our bay. The hills were covered with woodland and verdure; the deep blue Adriatic was in the foreground, dotted with lateen sails; and the town filled the valley and straggled up the slopes. The sky was softly blue on a balmy day; the bees and birds, the hum of insects, the flowers and fresh air, and the pretty, animated peasants, combined to form a picture which made one feel glad to live.

“The charm of Trieste is that one can live exactly as one pleases. Richard and I drew out a line for ourselves when we first went to Trieste, and we always kept to it as closely as we could. We rose at 3 or 4 a.m. in summer, and at 5 a.m. in winter. He read, wrote, and studied all day out of consular hours, and took occasional trips for his health; and I learned Italian, German, and singing, and attended to my other duties. We took our daily exercise in the shape of an hour’s swimming in the sea, or fencing at the school, according to the weather. What with reading, writing, looking after the poor, working for the Church or for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, my day was all too short.

“The prettiest thing in Trieste was the swimming school. It was moored out at the entrance to the harbour. We used to reach it in a boat, and get hold of Tonina, the old woman who provided us with the camerino, or little stall to undress in, and who would grin from ear to ear at our chaff and the thought of her bakshísh. The women’s costumes were short trousers, with bodice or belt of blue serge or white alpaca trimmed with red. We plunged into the great vasca or basin, an acre of sea, bottomless, but enclosed on all sides with a loaded net, to keep out the sharks. There were twelve soldiers to teach beginners. They used to begin with a pole and rope, like a fishing-rod and line, and at the end of the rope was a broad belt, which went round the waist of the beginner, and you heard the incessant, ‘Eins, zwei, drei’ of the drill. Next they would lead the beginners round the edge of the basin with a rope, like pet dogs. But we adepts in swimming plunged in head first from a sort of trapeze, or from the roofs of the dressing-rooms, making a somersault on the way. The swimmers did the prettiest tricks in the water. Young married women met in the middle to shake hands and hold long conversations. Scores of young girls used to romp about, ducking each other under and climbing on each other’s backs for support, and children of three or four used to swim about like white-bait, in and out, among us all. One stout old lady used to sit lazily in the water, like a blubber fish, knitting, occasionally moving her feet. We used to call her ‘the buoy,’ and held on to her when we were tired.”

It was the custom of Isabel and her husband, whenever they went to a new place, to look out for a sort of sanatorium, to which they might repair when they wanted a change or were seedy or out of sorts. Thus, when Burton was sent to Santos, they chose São Paulo; when they were at Damascus, they pitched on Bludán; and as soon as they arrived at Trieste, they lighted upon Opçina. Opçina was a Slav village high above Trieste, and about an hour’s drive from it. This height showed Trieste and the Adriatic spread out like a map below, with hill and valley and dale waning faintly blue in the distance, and far away the Carnian Alps topped with snow. There was an old inn called Daneu’s, close to an obelisk. They took partly furnished rooms, and brought up some of their own furniture to make up deficiencies and give the place a homelike air. It was their wont to come up to Opçina from Saturday to Monday, and get away from Trieste and worries. They always kept some literary work on hand there; and sometimes, if they were in the mood for it, they would stay at Opçina for six weeks on end. The climate was very bracing.

Isabel always looked back on these few first years at Trieste as pleasant ones. After the storm and stress of Damascus, and the anxiety and depression consequent upon their recall, she found Trieste a veritable “restful harbour.” They varied their life by many journeys and excursions. Their happy hunting-ground was Venice. Whenever they could they would cross over there, order a gondola, and float lazily about the canals. She says of this time: “We lived absolutely the jolly life of two bachelors, as it might be an elder or a younger brother. When we wanted to go away, we just turned the key and left.”

It was not until they had been at Trieste six months that they settled down in a house, or rather in a flat at the top of a large building close to the sea. They began their housekeeping with very modest ideas; in fact, they had only six rooms. But Burton and his wife were fond of enlarging their boundaries, and in course of time these six rooms grew until they ran round the whole of the large block of the building. Here they lived for ten years, and then they moved to the most beautiful house in Trieste, a palazzo a little way out of the town.

One of their first expeditions was to Loretto. Thence they went to Rome, where they made the acquaintance of the English Ambassador to the Austrian Court and his wife, Sir Augustus and Lady Paget, with whom they remained great friends all the time they were at Trieste. Isabel also met Cardinal Howard, who was a cousin of hers. He was one of her favourite partners in the palmy days of Almack’s, when he was an officer in the Guards and she was a girl. Now the whirligig of time had transformed him into a cardinal and her into the wife of the British Consul at Trieste. As a devout Catholic Isabel delighted in Rome and its churches, though the places which she most enjoyed visiting were the Catacombs and the Baths of Caracalla. At Rome she got blood-poisoning and fever, which she took on with her to Florence, where they stayed for some little time. At Florence they saw a good deal of Ouida, whom they had known for some years. From Florence they went to Venice, crossed over to Trieste just to change their baggage, and then proceeded to Vienna. There was a great Exhibition going on at Vienna, and Burton went as the reporter to some newspaper. They were at Vienna three weeks, and were delighted with everything Viennese except the prices at the hotel, which were stupendous. They enjoyed themselves greatly, and were well received in what is perhaps the most exclusive society in Europe. Among other things they went to Court. Isabel attended as an Austrian countess, and took place and precedence accordingly, for the name Arundell of Wardour is inscribed in the Austrian official lists of the Counts of the Empire. There was a difficulty raised about Burton, because consuls are not admissible at the Court of Vienna. Isabel was not a woman to go to places where her husband was not admitted, and she insisted upon having the matter brought before the notice of the Emperor, though the British Embassy clearly told her the thing was impossible — Burton could not be admitted. When the Emperor heard of the difficulty through the Court officials, he at once solved it by saying that Burton might attend as an officer of the English army. The incident is a trifling one, but it is one more illustration of the untiring devotion of Isabel to her husband, and her sleepless vigilance that nothing should be done which would seem to cast a slur upon his position.41

When the Burtons returned to Trieste, Charles Tyrwhitt-Drake, who had been with them much at Damascus, and had accompanied them on their tour in the Holy Land and many other journeys in the Syrian Desert, arrived. The visit of their friend and fellow-traveller seemed to revive their old love of exploration as far as the limits of Trieste would admit, and among other excursions they went to see a great fête at the Adelsberg Caverns. These caves were stalactite caverns and grottoes not far from Trieste, and on the day of the fête they were lighted by a million candles. One of the caverns was a large hall like a domed ballroom, and Austrian bands and musicians repaired thither, and the peasants flocked down from the surrounding villages in their costumes, and made high revelry. Burton maintained that these caves were the eighth wonder of the world, but the description of them here would occupy too much space. Suffice it to say, in the words of Isabel, “When God Almighty had finished making the earth, He threw all the superfluous rocks together there.” From these caves they went to Fiume, and explored the Colosseum there, which, though not so famous as that of Rome, almost rivals it in its ruins and its interest. Another excursion was to Lipizza, the Emperor of Austria’s stud farm. It was about two hours from Trieste, and the stables and park were full of herds of thorough-bred mares, chiefly Hungarians and Croats. Lipizza was alway a favourite drive of the Burtons.

“Charley’s” visit revived many memories of Damascus, and he was the bearer of news from many friends there. He seemed to bring with him “a breath from the desert,” and they were loath to let him go. They accompanied him to Venice, where he took his leave of them; and they never saw him again. He died the following year at Jerusalem, at the age of twenty-eight. He was buried in the English burial-ground on Mount Zion, the place where they had all three sat and talked together and picked flowers one afternoon three years before. It was largely at his suggestion that Isabel determined to write her Inner Life of Syria, and she unearthed her note-books and began to write the book soon after he left. He was a great friend, almost a son to them, and they both felt his loss bitterly.

About this time Maria Theresa, Contessa de Montelin, ex-Queen of Spain, when she was on her death-bed, sent for Isabel, and charged her to keep up, maintain, and promote certain pious societies which she had started in Trieste. One of these was “The Apostleship of Prayer,” whose members, women, were to be active in doing good works, corporally and spiritually, in Trieste. This guild was one of two good works to which Isabel chiefly devoted herself during her life at Trieste. The other was a branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the care of animals generally, a subject always very near her heart. “The Apostleship of Prayer,” the legacy of the ex-Queen of Spain, so grew under Isabel’s hand that the members increased to fifteen thousand. They elected her president, and she soon got the guild into thorough working order, dividing the members into bands in various quarters of the city of Trieste.

There is not much to relate concerning Isabel’s life at Trieste for the first few years. It was uneventful and fairly happy: it would have been quite happy, were it not for the regret of Damascus, where they were then hoping to return, and the desire for a wider sphere of action. Both she and her husband managed to keep in touch with world in a wonderful way, and did not let themselves drop out of sight or out of mind. One of the reliefs to the monotony of their existence was that, whenever an English ship came into port with a captain whom they knew, they would dine on board and have the delight of seeing English people, and they generally invited the captain and officers and the best passengers back again. The Burtons had a good many visitors from England, most of them well-known personages, who, when they stopped at Trieste, a favourite resting-place for birds of passage, always made a point of calling upon them. Among others was Lord Llandaff, then Mr. Henry Matthews, who had many things in common with Isabel. Owing to their lives being cast on different lines, they only saw one another at intervals, but they always entertained a feeling of mutual friendship. From the many letters he wrote to her I am permitted to publish this one:

“Dear Mrs. Burton,

“Of course I have not forgotten you. I never forget. Was it last week, or sixteen years ago, that you were standing in this room with the chequered sunlight shining through the Venetian blind upon you, as you discoursed about Heaven and Grace and an attorney in the City who was not one of the elect?

“I never knew you were in Venice this autumn, and, as it happened, it was fortunate I did not go to Trieste to see you, since you were away. I grieve very much to hear of your bad health. It seems to me you do too much. The long list of occupations which you call ‘repose’ is enough to wear out any constitution, even one which is so admirably knit as yours. Don’t be like the lady in Pope’s satire, and ‘die of nothing but a rage to live.’ There is one part of your labours, however, for which I, with all the rest of the world, shall be thankful; and that is your new book. I shall look for it with impatience, and feel sure of its success.

“I wish you were not going to Arabia; but I know how you understand and fulfil the part of wife to a knight-errantry of discovery. Be as prudent and sparing of yourself as you can.

“Yours ever,

“Henry Matthews.”

After they had been at Trieste two years, at the end of 1874 Burton proposed that his wife should go to England and transact some business for him, and bring out certain books which he had written. He would join her later on. Isabel was exceedingly unwilling to go; but “whenever he put his foot down I had to do it, whether I would or no.” So she went, and arrived in London in December, after an uneventful journey.

Isabel found her work cut out for her in London. Her husband had given her several pages of directions, and she tried to carry them out as literally as possible. She had to see a number of publishers for one thing, and to work up an interest in a sulphur mine for another. She says: “I got so wrapped up in my work at this time that sometimes I worked for thirteen hours a day, and would forget to eat. I can remember once, after working for thirteen hours, feeling my head whirling, and being quite alarmed. Then I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to eat all day.” She had also the proof-sheets to correct of her own book, which was going through the press. She was in London without her husband for four months, and during that time she had a great shock. A paragraph appeared in The Scotsman announcing Burton’s death, and speaking of her as his widow. She telegraphed to Trieste at once, and packed up. Just as she was starting she got a telegram from him saying, “I am eating a very good dinner at table d’hôte.”

Early in May Burton joined her on a lengthy leave of absence, and they did a great deal of visiting, and enjoyed themselves generally. Isabel’s Inner Life of Syria was published at this time, and she was very anxious about it. It had taken sixteen months to write. The evening of the day on which it made its appearance she went to a party, and the first person she saw whom she knew was a well-known editor, who greeted her with warm congratulations on her book. She says, “It made me as happy as if somebody had given me a fortune.”

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From the portrait by the late Lord Leighton.

The favourable reception which was accorded to The Inner Life of Syria, which was largely devoted to a defence of her husband's action when Consul at Damascus, encouraged Isabel to proceed further on his behalf. So she wrote to, or interviewed, every influential friend she knew, with a view of inducing the Government to make Burton K. C. B., and she prepared a paper setting forth his claims and labours in the public service, which was signed by thirty or forty of the most influential personages of the day. She also induced them to ask that Burton should either return to Damascus, or be promoted to Morocco, Cairo, Tunis, or Teheran. Unfortunately her efforts met with no success, though she renewed them again through another source three years later. In one sense, however, she succeeded; for though she could not convert the Government to her view, the press unanimously took up the cause for Burton, and complained that the Government did not give him his proper place in official life, and called him the “neglected Englishman.” As for Burton himself, he took no part in this agitation, except to thank his friends and the press generally for their exertions on his behalf.

They went down to Oxford at Commemoration to visit Professor Jowett and others. At Oxford they met with an ovation. In London they passed a very pleasant season, for private personages seemed anxious to make up for official neglect. This year Frederick Leighton’s famous picture of Burton was exhibited in the Royal Academy. Among other celebrated people whom they met was Mr. Gladstone, at Lord Houghton’s. Of Burton’s meeting with Mr. Gladstone Isabel relates the following: “Very late in the evening Mrs. Gladstone said to me, 'I don’t know what it is; I cannot get Mr. Gladstone away this evening’; and I said to her, ‘I think I know what it is; he has got hold of my husband, Richard Burton, and they are both so interested in one another, and have so many points of interest to talk over, that I hope you will not take him away.’”

The season over, Burton started on another trip to Iceland; and Isabel was left alone, during which time she paid some visits to the Duke and Duchess of Somerset at Bulstrode, always kind friends of hers, and to Madame von Bülow at Reigate. Madame von Bülow was the wife of the Danish Minister in London, and one of Isabel’s most intimate friends — a friendship which lasted all her life.

When Burton returned from Iceland, he went off to Vichy for a cure, and rejoined his wife in London in the autumn; and they went out a great deal, chiefly in scientific, literary, and artistic circles. This year was in some respects one of the pleasantest of Isabel’s life. Her book had come out, and was a great success; she had been fêted by all her friends and relations; and though her efforts to obtain promotion for her husband had not met with the success which they deserved, yet the kind encouragement which she received from influential friends, who, though not members of the Government, were yet near the rose, made her hope that better days were soon to come.

In December Burton, finding that he had still six months’ leave, asked his wife where she would like to go best. She answered, “India.” It had long been her desire to go there with her husband, and get him to show her all the familiar spots which he had described to her as having visited or lived at during his nineteen years’ service in India. Burton was delighted with the idea. So they got a map, cut India down the middle lengthways from Cashmere to Cape Comorin, and planned out how much they could manage to see on the western side, intending to leave the eastern side for another time, as the season was already too far advanced for them to be able to see the whole of India.

41 Lady Burton thus describes her visit to the Austrian Court: “I was very much dazzled by the Court. I thought everything was beautifully done, so arranged as to give every one pleasure, and somehow it was the graciousness that was in itself a welcome. I shall never forget the first night that I saw the Empress — a vision of beauty, clothed in silver, crowned with water-lilies, with large rows of diamonds and emeralds round her small head and her beautiful hair, and descending all down her dress in festoons. The throne-room is immense, with marble columns down each side — all the men arranged on one side and all the women on the other, and the new presentations with their ambassadors and ambassadresses nearest the throne. When the Emperor and Empress came in, they walked up the middle, the Empress curtseying most gracefully and smiling a general gracious greeting. They then ascended the throne, and presently the Empress turned to our side. The presentations first took place, and she spoke to each one in her own language, and on her own particular subject. I was quite entranced with her beauty, her cleverness, and her conversation. She passed down the ladies’ side, and then came up that of the men, the Emperor doing exactly the same as she had done. He also spoke to us. Then some few of us whose families the Empress knew about were asked to sit down, and refreshments were handed to us — the present Georgina Lady Dudley sitting by the Empress. It was a thing never to be forgotten to have seen those two beautiful women sitting side by side. The Empress Frederick of Germany — Crown Princess she was then — was also there, and sent for some of us on another day, which was in many ways another memorable event, and her husband also came in.” (Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol. ii., pp. 24, 25).

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