The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XXIV

The Shadows Lengthen

(1881-1885)

O tired heart!

God Knows,

Not you nor I.

The next four or five years were comparatively uneventful. There was little hope of promotion from the new Government, so the Burtons resigned themselves to Trieste with what grace they might; and though they were constantly agitating for promotion and change, neither the promotion nor the change came. Burton hated Trieste; he chafed at the restricted field for his energies which it afforded him; and had it not been for frequent expeditions of a more or less hazardous nature, and his literary labours, life at the Austrian seaport would have been intolerable for him. With Isabel it was different. As the years went on she grew to love the place and the people, and to form many ties and interests which it would have been hard for her to break. Notwithstanding this she warmly seconded her husband’s efforts to obtain from the Foreign Office some other post, and she was never weary of bringing his claims before the notice of the Government, the public, and any influential friends who might be likely to help. Indeed the record of her diary during these years is one of continuos struggle on her husband’s behalf, which is varied only by anxiety for his health.

“I am like a swimmer battling against strong waves,” she writes to a friend about this time, “and I think my life will always be thus. Were I struggling only for myself, I should long before have tired; but since it is for my dear one’s sake I shall fight on so long as life lasts. Every now and then one seems to reach the crest of the wave, and that gives one courage; but how long a time it is when one is in the depths!”

To another friend she wrote:

“We have dropped into our old Triestine lives. We have made our Opçina den very comfortable. We have taken the big room and Dick’s old one, opened them, and shut the end one, which is too cold, and put in lamps, stoves, and stores and comforts of all kinds; in fact partly refurnished. I am much better, and can walk a little now; so I walk up half-way from Trieste on Saturday, Dick all the way; Sunday Mass in village, and walk; and Monday walk down. We keep all the week’s letters for here (Opçina) and all the week’s newspapers to read, and do our translations. I have begun Ariosto, but am rather disheartened. We have set up a tir au pistolet in the rooms, which are long enough (opened) to give twenty-two paces, and we have brought up some foils. The Triestines think us as mad as hatters to come up here, on account of the weather, which is ‘seasonable’ — bora, snow, and frozen fingers. I am interesting myself in the two hundred and twenty badly behaved Slav children in the village. Dick’s Lusiads are making a stir. My Indian sketches and our Oberammergau have gone to the bad. My publisher, as I told you, took to evil ways, failed, and eventually died December 10. However, I hope to rise like a phœnix out of the ashes. The rest of our week is passed in fencing three times a week, twice a week Italian, twice a week German. Friday I receive the Trieste world from twelve noon to 6 p.m., with accompaniments of Arab coffee, cigarettes, and liqueurs. Dick is always grinding at literature as usual; so what with helping Dick (we are studying something together), literature, looking after the little ménage, and philanthropic business, Church work, the animals, and the poor, I am very happy and busy, and I think stronger; albeit I have little rest or amusement, according to the doctor’s ideas. In fact I have a winter I love, a quiet Darby and Joan by our own fireside, which I so seldom get.” 44

The principal event at Trieste in 1881 appears to have been the arrival of the British squadron in July. Burton and his wife were always of a most hospitable nature; they would have spent their last penny in entertaining their friends. The first thing they did on the arrival of the squadron was to invite the captains and officers of every ship to an evening fête champêtre and ball at Opçina. In addition to this they sent out about eight hundred invitations to the captains and officers of the Austrian navy and other men-of-war anchored at Trieste, the officers of the Austrian regiments stationed there, the Governor and Staff, and the Austrian authorities, the Consular corps, and all their private friends, to the number of about one hundred and fifty of the principal people of Trieste. They turned the gardens of the little inn at Opçina into a sort of Vauxhall or Rosherville for the occasion. There were refreshment tents, and seats, and benches, and barrels of wine and beer, and elaborate decorations of flowers, and coloured lamps and flags, and no end of fireworks. When the eventful evening arrived, and everything was in full swing, the weather, which had been perfectly fine heretofore, broke up with the startling suddenness which is peculiar to the Adriatic. The heavens opened, and to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning the rain descended in torrents, flooding the tents, quenching the illuminations, and reducing the whole ground to a Slough of Despond. The guests naturally rushed for shelter to the little inn, which was much too small to accommodate them. The police made for the barrels of beer, and were soon incapable of keeping order, and a mob of villagers who had assembled to witness the festivities from without, broke through the barricades, made a raid on the refreshment tent, smashed the dishes, and carried off all the best things to eat and drink. Burton took it very philosophically; but Isabel, overcome with vexation and disappointment, burst into tears. The sight, however, of the raiders soon turned her grief to anger. She pulled herself together, got a party of young braves, sallied forth into the grounds, and made a rush for the tent. With her little band she rescued all that was left of the food and drink, and then cleared away the furniture in the lower part of the inn, told the band to play, and set her guests dancing, while she rigged up an impromptu supper-room in the garret. This spirited conduct soon restored the chaos to something like order. The guests — the majority of whom were English — unconscious of the havoc which had been wrought, enjoyed themselves right merrily, and the party did not break up until five o’clock in the morning.

The British squadron, both officers and men were well received at Trieste, and became most popular during their stay there. Isabel made great friends with the sailors, and she rescued one of them from what might have been a serious squabble. One day she saw a sailor picking the apples off a tree in the Austrian Admiral’s garden, which overhung the road. The sentry came out, and a crowd of people assembled. Jack Tar looked at them scornfully, and went on munching his apple until they laid hands on him, when he gave a sweeping backhander, which knocked one or two of them over. Everything was ripe for a row, when Isabel stepped in between the combatants, and said to the sailor, “I am your Consul’s wife, and they are trying to make you understand that these are the Austrian Admiral’s apples, and you must not eat them.” The sailor apologized, said he did not know he had done any wrong, and did not understand what they were all jabbering about; and he saluted and went. Then Isabel explained to the sentry, and generally poured oil on the troubled waters. The sailor told the story to his comrades, and thus she became very popular among them. The sailors liked Trieste so much that, when the squadron was to leave, eighteen of them did not join their ship; and when they were caught Isabel went and interceded for them, and begged the captain not to punish them severely. He said, “Oh no, the darlings; wait till I get them on board ship! I will have them tucked up comfortably in bed with nice hot grog.” Whether her intercession availed is not related.

In August, 1881, the Burtons started on a trip somewhat farther afield than was their wont for short expeditions. They went up to Veldes, a lovely spot, where there was a good inn and first-rate fishing. Burton was absent without leave from the Foreign Office; and though he had left the Consulate in charge of the Vice-Consul, his conduct was, officially speaking, irregular, and both he and his wife were afraid of meeting any one they knew. The first person they saw at the inn was the Chaplain of the British Embassy at Vienna, who might have reported the absentee Consul to his Ambassador. Burton bolted up to bed to avoid him; but Isabel thought that the better plan would be to take the bull by the horns. So she went to the Chaplain, and made a frank confession that they were truants. He burst out laughing, and said, “My dear lady, I am doing exactly the same thing myself." She then went upstairs, brought Burton down again, and the three had a convivial evening together.

After this they went on by stages to Ischl, where they parted company, Burton going to Vienna, and Isabel to Marienbad for a cure. Her stay at Marienbad she notes as mainly interesting because she made the acquaintance of Madame Olga Novikoff. Her cure over, with no good result, she joined her husband at Trieste. They stopped there one night to change baggage, and went across to Venice, where there was a great meeting of the Geographical Congress. Burton was not asked to meet his fellow-geographers, or to take any part in the Congress. The slight was very marked, and both he and his wife felt it keenly. It was only one more instance of the undying prejudice against him in certain quarters. They met many friends, including Captain Verney Lovett Cameron. In November Burton went with him to the west coast of Africa, to report on certain mines which Burton had discovered when Consul at Fernando Po. Isabel was anxious to accompany them; but it was the usual tale, “My expenses are not paid, and we personally hadn’t enough money for two, so I was left behind.”

The first part of 1882 Isabel spent without her husband, as he was absent on the Guinea coast. She fretted very much at his long absence, and made herself ill with disappointment because she was not able to join him. The following letter shows inter alia how much she felt the separation45:

“I was so pleased you liked the scourging I gave the reviewers.46 No one has answered me, and it has well spread. I don’t know how they could. All Dick’s friends were very glad. The Commentary is out, two vols. (that makes four out and four to come). The ‘Reviewers Reviewed’ is a postscript to the Commentary, and the Glossary is in that too. I wrote the ‘Reviewers’ at Duino in June last, and I enjoyed doing it immensely. I put all the reviews in a row on a big table, and lashed myself into a spiteful humour one by one, so that my usually suave pen was dipped with gall and caustic. You will have had my last, I think, from Marienbad. I then joined Dick at Vienna, where we spent a few days; and then went to Venice for the fêtes, which were marvellous, and the Queen was lovely. Then we came home, and had two charming, quiet, delicious months together; and to my joy he gave up dining out and dined at home tête-à-tête; but of course it was overshadowed by the knowledge of the coming parting, which I feel terribly this time, as I go on getting older. We left together in the Cunarder Demerara. Her route was Trieste, Venice, Fiume, Patras, Gibraltar, England. By dropping off at Fiume I got ten days on board with him. He leaves her at Gibraltar about the 7th; goes to Cadiz, Lisbon, Madeira, and Axim on the West Coast. He has to change ship four times, and this is a great anxiety to me in this stormy weather. God keep him safe! Once at Axim, the mines are all round the coast, and then I dread fever for him. He 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, and requires a leading hand. If all goes well (D.V., and may He be merciful), we are to meet in London in March, and I hope we shall get a glimpse of you.

“I am, as you may think, fearfully sad. I have been nowhere; I neither visit, nor receive, nor go out. Men drink when they are sad, women fly into company; but I must fight the battle with my own heart, learn to live alone and work, and when I have conquered I will allow myself to see something of my friends. I dreaded my empty home without children or relatives; but I have braved the worst now. I am cleaning and tidying his room, putting each thing down in its own place; but I won’t make it luxurious this time; I have learnt by experience.”

Isabel passed the next three months at Trieste busily studying, writing, and carrying out the numerous directions contained in her husband’s letters.

Early in April her doctor discovered that she had the germs of the internal complaint of which she ultimately died. She had noticed all the year that she had been getting weaker and weaker in the fencing-school, until one day she turned faint, and the fencing-master said to her, “Why, what’s the matter with you? Your arms are getting quite limp in using the broad-sword.” She did not know what was the matter with her at the time; but soon after she became so ill that she had to take to her bed, and then her doctor discovered the nature of the malady. She did not go to the fencing-school any more after that. In the Life of her husband, speaking of the matter, Lady Burton says that her internal complaint possibly resulted from her fall downstairs in Paris in 1879; but in talking the matter over with her sister, Mrs. Fitzgerald, a year or two before her death, she recalled another accident which seems the more likely origin of her distressing malady. Once when she was riding alone in the woods in Brazil she was pursued by a brigand. As she was unarmed, she fled as fast as her horse would carry her. The brigand gave chase, and in the course of an hour’s exciting ride Isabel’s horse stumbled and threw her violently against the pommel of her saddle. Fortunately the horse recovered its footing, and she was able to get safely away from her pursuer; but the bruise was a serious one (though she thought little of it at the time), and many years later she came to the conclusion that this was the probable origin of her illness.

The third week in April she left Trieste for England to meet her husband, who was due at Liverpool in May. While she was in London she consulted an eminent surgeon on the subject of her illness, which was then at its beginning. He advised an operation, which he said would be a trifling matter. There is every probability, if she had consented, that she would have recovered, and been alive to this day. But she had a horror of the knife and anæsthetics. Nevertheless she would have braved them if it had not been for another consideration, which weighed with her most of all. She knew that an operation of this kind would lay her up for some time, and she would not be able to look after her husband on his return from his long absence. She was afraid too that the knowledge of her illness might worry him, so for his sake she refused the operation, and she kept the knowledge of her malady a secret from him. It is perhaps a little far-fetched to say that by doing this she sacrificed her life for her husband’s sake, yet in a sense she may be said to have done so. Her first thought, and her only thought, was always of him, and it is literally true to say that she would at any moment cheerfully have laid down her life that he might gain.

Isabel went to Liverpool to meet Burton on his return from Africa. He came back with Captain Lovett Cameron. There was a great dinner given at Liverpool to welcome the wanderers. The next day the Burtons went to London, where they stayed for a couple of months through the season, met many interesting people, and were entertained largely. On the last day of July they returned to Trieste.

In September Isabel went again to Marienbad for the baths, which did her no good. While there she wrote a letter to Vanity Fair anent a certain article which spoke of Burton and his “much-prized post.” She took occasion to point out his public services, and to show that the “much-prized post” was “the poor, hard-earned, little six hundred a year, well earned by forty years’ hard toil in the public service.” On returning to Trieste, she entertained many friends who arrived there for the Exhibition, and after that settled down to the usual round again.

In October Burton was suddenly ordered by the Foreign Office to go to Ghazzeh in Syria in search of Professor Palmer, their old friend and travelling companion, who was lost in the desert. There was then a chance of his being still alive, though the bodies of his companions had been found. Burton’s knowledge of the Bedawin and Sinai country was of course specially valuable in such a quest. He started at once.

After he had left Isabel went into retreat at the Convent della Osolini at Gorzia. The following were among her reflections at this period47:

“In retreat at last. I have so long felt the want of one. My life seems to be like an express train, every day bringing fresh things which must be done. I am goaded on by time and circumstances, and God, my first beginning and last end, is always put off, thrust out of the way, to make place for the unimportant, and gets served last and badly. This cannot continue. What friend would have such long-enduring patience with me? None! Certainly less a king! far less a husband! How then? Shall God be kept waiting until nobody else wants me? How ashamed and miserable I feel! How my heart twinges at the thought of my ingratitude, and the poor return I make for such favours and graces as I have received! God has called me into retreat once more, perhaps for the last time. He has created an unexpected opportunity for me, since my husband has been sent to look for poor Palmer’s body. I thought I heard Him cry, ‘Beware! Do not wait until I drive you to misfortune, but go voluntarily into solitude, prepare for Me, and wait for Me, till I come to abide with you.’

“I am here, my God, according to Thy command; Thou and I, I and Thou, face to face in the silence. Oh, speak to my heart, and clear out from it everything that is not of Thee, and let me abide with Thee awhile! Not only speak, but make me understand, and turn my body and spirit and soul into feelings and actions, not words and thoughts alone.

“My health and nerves for the past three years have rendered me less practical and assiduous in religion than I was. Then I used to essay fine, large, good works, travel, write, and lead a noble and virile life. Now I am weaker, and feel a lassitude incidental to my time of life, which I trust may pass away. I am left at home to town life, and I seem to have declined to petty details, small works, dreaming, and making lists and plans of noble things not carried out. It looks like the beginning of the end.

“I ask for two worldly petitions, quite submitted to God’s will: (1) That I may be cured, and that Dick and I may have good, strong health to be able to work and do good — if we are destined to live. (2) That if it be God’s will, and not bad for us we may get a comfortable independence, without working any more for our bread, and independent of any master save God.”

Isabel returned to Trieste when her retreat was concluded; and soon after — much sooner than she expected — her husband returned to her.

When he reached Gazzeh, Burton found Sir Charles Warren already in the field, and he did not want to be interfered with, so that Burton came home again and spent Christmas with his wife at Trieste. Thus ended 1882. Isabel notes: “After this year misfortunes began to come upon us all, and we have never had another like it.”

Early next year the Burtons left their flat in Trieste, where they had been for over ten years. Something went wrong with the drainage for one thing, and Burton took an intense dislike to it for another; and when he took a dislike to a house nothing would ever induce him to remain in it. The only thing to do was to move. They looked all over Trieste in search of something suitable, and only saw one house that would do for them, and that was a palazzo, which then seemed quite beyond their means; yet six months later they got into it. It was a large house in a large garden on a wooded eminence looking out to the sea. It had been built in the palmy days of Trieste by an English merchant prince, and was one of the best houses in the place. It had a good entrance, so wide that it would have been possible to drive a carriage into the hall. A marble staircase led to the interior, which contained some twenty large rooms, magnificent in size. The house was full of air and light, and the views were charming. One looked over the Adriatic, one over the wooded promontory, another towards the open country, and the fourth into gardens and orchards.

image
The Burtons’ House at Trieste.

The early part of 1883 was sad to Isabel by reason of her husband’s failing health and her own illness. In May she went alone to Bologna, at her husband’s request, for she then told him of the nature of her illness, to consult Count Mattei, of whom they had heard much from their friend Lady Paget, Ambassadress at Vienna. When she arrived at Bologna, she found he had gone on to Riola, and she followed him thither. Mattei’s castle was perched on a rock, and to it Isabel repaired.

“First,” she says, “I had to consult a very doubtful-looking mastiff; then appeared a tall, robust well-made, soldierlike-looking form in English costume of blue serge, brigand felt hat, with a long pipe, who looked about fifty, and not at all like a doctor. He received me very kindly, and took me up flights of stairs, through courts, into a wainscoted oak room, with fruits and sweets on the table, with barred-iron gates and drawbridges and chains in different parts of the room, that looked as if he could pull one up and put one down into a hole. He talked French and Italian; but I soon perceived that he liked Italian better, and stuck to it; and I also noticed that, by his mouth and eyes, instead of fifty, he must be about seventy-five. A sumptuous dinner-table was laid out in an adjoining room, with fruit and flowers. I told him I could not be content, having come so far to see him, to have only a passing quarter of an hour. He listened to all my long complaints about my health most patiently, asked me every question; but he did not ask to examine me, nor look at my tongue, nor feel my pulse, as other doctors do. He said that I did not look like a person with the complaint mentioned, but as if circulation and nerves were out of order. He prescribed four internal and four external remedies and baths. I wrote down all his suggestions, and rehearsed them that he might correct any mistakes." 48

After the interview with Count Mattei Isabel did not remain at Riola, but with all her medicines returned to Trieste. The remedies were not, however, of any avail.

In June Isabel presided over a fête of her Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and made a long speech, in which she reviewed the work from the beginning, and the difficulties and successes. She wound up as follows:

“May none of you ever know the fatigue, anxiety, disgust, heartaches, nervousness, self-abnegation and disappointments of this mission, and the small good drawn out of years of it; for so it seems to me. Old residents, and people living up the country, do say that you would not know the town to be the same it was eleven years ago, when I first came. They tell me there is quite a new stamp or horse, a new mode of working and treatment and feeling. I, the workwoman, cannot see it or feel it. I think I am always rolling a stone uphill. I know that you all hear something of what I have to put up with to carry it out — the opposition, and contentions, treachery, abuse, threats and ridicule; and therefore I all the more cherish the friendly hand such a large assembly has gathered together to hold out to me to-day to give me fresh courage. You all know how fond I am of Trieste; but it is the very hardest place I ever worked in, and eleven years of it have pretty nearly broken me up. Nevertheless I shall always, please God, wherever I am, ‘open my mouth for the dumb,’ and adhere to my favourite motto: ‘Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra.’”

For the first time this summer Isabel and her husband found that swimming in the sea, which had been one of their favourite recreations at Trieste, no longer agreed with them, and they came reluctantly to the conclusion that their swimming must go the way of the fencing, and that the days of their more active physical exercises were over. For the first time also in all the twenty-two years of their married life they began to shirk the early rising, and now no longer got up at 3 or 4 a.m., but at the comparatively late hour of 6 or 6.30 a.m. In November Burton had a serious attack of gout, which gave him agonies of pain; and it was at last borne in upon him that he would have to make up his mind henceforth to be more or less of an invalid. Simultaneously Isabel was ill from peritonitis. There seemed to be a curious sympathy between the two, which extended to all things, even to their physical health. On December 6 Burton put the following in his diary in red ink: ”This day eleven years I came here. What a shame!

Early in 1884 Isabel came in for a small legacy of £500, which was useful to them at the time, as they were far from being well off, and had incurred many expenses consequent on their change of house. She expended the whole of it in additional comforts for her husband during his illness, which unfortunately seemed to get more serious as time went on. In February he quite lost the use of his legs for eight months, which of necessity kept him much in the house. It was during this period that he began his great work Alf Laylah wa Laylah, or The Arabian Nights. When I say he began it, that is not strictly speaking correct, for he had been gathering material for years. He merely took in hand the matter which he had already collected thirty years before. He worked at it con amore, and it was very soon necessary to call in an amanuensis to copy his manuscript.

This year was uneventful. They were absent from Trieste a good deal on “cures” and short excursions. Burton’s health gave him a great deal of trouble; but whenever he was well enough, or could find time from his official duties, he devoted himself to his translation of The Arabian Nights. Isabel also worked hard in connexion with it in another way. She had undertaken the financial part of the business, and sent out no less than thirty-four thousand circulars to people with a view to their buying copies of the book as it came out.

In January and February, 1885, Burton was so ill that his wife implored him to throw up the Consular Service, and live in a place which suited him, away from Trieste. Of course that meant that they would have to live in a very small way; for if they gave up their appointment at that time and forfeited the salary, they would have been very poor. Still, so impressed was Isabel that the winter in Trieste did not agree with her husband, that she said, “You must never winter here again”; but he said, “I quite agree with you there — we will never winter here again; but I won’t throw up the Service until I either get Morocco or they let me retire on full pension.” She then said, “When we go home again, that is what we will try for, that you may retire on full pension, which will be only six years before your time.” Henceforth she tried for only two things: one, that he might be promoted to Morocco, because it was his pet ambition to be Consul there before he died, the other, failing Morocco, he should be allowed to retire on full pension on account of his health. Notwithstanding that she moved heaven and earth to obtain this latter request, it was never granted.

In the meantime they were busy writing together the index to The Arabian Nights. On Thursday, February 12, she said to him, “Now mind, to-morrow is Friday the 13th. It is our unlucky day, and we have got to be very careful."

When the morning dawned, they heard of the death of one of their greatest friends, General Gordon, which had taken place on January 26 at Kartoum; but the news had been kept from them. At this sad event Isabel writes, “We both collapsed together, were ill all day, and profoundly melancholy.”

44 Letter to Miss Bishop from Opçina, January 17, 1881.

45 Letter to Miss Bishop from Trieste, December 5, 1881.

46 This refers to Camoens: the Commentary, Life, and Lusiads. Englished by R. F. Burton. Two vols. Containing a Glossary, and Reviewers Reviewed, by Isabel Burton. 1880.

47 From her devotional book Laméd, pp. 28, 29.

48 Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol.ii., p. 248.

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