The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XXVI

The Sword Hangs

(1885-1890)

Life is no holiday: therein

Are want and woe and sin,

Death with nameless fears; and over all

Our pitying tears must fall.

The hour draws near, howe’er delayed or late,

When, at the Eternal Gate,

We leave the words and works we call our own,

And lift void hands alone

For love to fill. Our nakedness of soul

Brings to that gate no toll:

Giftless we come to Him who all things gives;

And live because He lives.

Whittier.

In May, 1885, Isabel started with her husband for England. They travelled together as far as Venice, and here, as often, they parted, and went their separate ways. Burton was ordered to go by sea for his health, and his wife arranged to proceed by land. She went round by way of Bologna, and thence travelled viâ Milan and Paris, and arrived in London on June 2. Her husband joined her twelve days later.

They had two objects in coming to London at this time — one was to consult physicians concerning Burton’s health, the other to make arrangements concerning The Arabian Nights. The production of this book may be described as a joint affair; for though the lion’s share of the work of translating, writing, and correcting proofs devolved upon Burton alone, the financial part of the work fell upon his wife, and that it was a big thing no one who has had any experience of writing or publishing would deny. There were several editions in the field; but they were all abridged or “Bowdlerized” ones, adapted more or less for “family and domestic reading.” Burton’s object in bringing out this great work was not only to produce a literal translation but to reproduce it faithfully in the Arabian manner. He preserved throughout the orientation of the verses and figures of speech instead of Anglicising them. It is this, combined with his profound oriental scholarship, his fine old-world style, and the richness, variety, and quaintness of his vocabulary, which has given to his original edition its unique value.

In Burton the immortal tales had at last found a translator who would do them justice, and who was not afraid of prejudices of Anglo-Saxon Puritanism. Burton’s view of this matter is sufficiently expressed in the following speech: “I do not care a button about being prosecuted; and if the matter comes to a fight, I will walk into court with my Bible and my Shakspeare and my Rabelais under my arm, and prove to them that before they condemn me they must cut half of them and not allow them to be circulated to the public.”59 He expressed his views in this matter to his wife; and though at his wish she did not read the original edition of The Arabian Nights, she set to work to help him in every way that she could. In fact it may be truly said that it was she who did all the difficult work of evading the “vigilance” of certain persons, and of arranging for the publication of this important book. In order that her husband’s original text might be copyrighted, she herself brought out an expurgated edition, which was called the “Household Edition.” By this means she was enabled to copyright three thousand pages of her husband’s original text, and only excluded two hundred and fifteen. She says, “Richard forbade me to read these pages until he blotted out with ink the worst words, and desired me to substitute not English but Arab society words, which I did to his complete satisfaction.” Of course to bring out a work of this kind, and to bear the whole burden of the labour and initial expense of it, was no ordinary task, and it is to Isabel’s efforts and to her marvellous business capacity that the credit of publishing the book is due. From a financial point of view the Burtons had no reason to regret their venture. At the beginning a publisher had offered Burton £500 for the book; but Isabel said, “No, let me do it.” It was seventeen months’ hard work, and during that time they had to find the means for printing and binding and circulating the volumes as they came out. The Burtons were their own printers and their own publishers, and they made between September, 1885, and November, 1888, sixteen thousand guineas, six thousand of which went towards the expenses of publishing and ten thousand guineas into their own pockets. Isabel writes, “It came just in time to give my husband the comforts and luxuries and freedom which gilded the last five years of his life. When he died there were four florins left, which I put into the poor-box.”

They had a very pleasant season in London. They were mainly occupied in preparing The Arabian Nights; but their labours over for the day, they went out in society a great deal. Perhaps the most noteworthy event at this time was that Isabel made a long speech at St. James’s Hall at a meeting for the purpose of appealing to the Pope for a Circular Letter on the subject of the protection of animals. The meeting was in vain.

The first volume of The Arabian Nights came out on December 12, 1885, and the sixteenth volume, the last of the Supplementals, on November 13, 1888. Thus in a period of three years they produced twenty-two volumes — namely, ten Originals, six Supplementals, and Lady Burton’s six volumes of the Household Edition.

In October, 1885, they went down to Hatfield on a visit to Lord and Lady Salisbury. A week before this Burton, having heard that Sir John Drummond Hay, Consul at Morocco, was about to retire, applied for the post. It was the one thing that he had stayed on in the Consular Service in hope of obtaining. He wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary, which was backed up by about fifty of the best names in England, whom his wife had canvassed; and indeed it seemed that the post was as good as assured to him. In the third week in November Burton started for Morocco in order to spy out the promised land, or rather the land which he hoped would have been his. Isabel was left behind to bring out some volumes of The Arabian Nights. She brought them out up to the seventh volume, and then made ready to join her husband at Gibraltar on his way to Tangiers in January. She says à propos of her labours in this respect: “I was dreadfully spied upon by those who wished to get Richard into trouble about it, and once an unaccountable person came and took rooms in some lodgings which I took after Richard left, and I settled with the landlord that I should leave or that person should not have the rooms, and of course he did not have any hesitation between the two, and I took the whole of the rooms during my stay.”

In January, 1886, just as she was leaving London, she received a telegram from her husband saying that there was cholera at Gibraltar, and she could get no quarantine there, and would not be allowed to land. But she was not a woman to be stopped; so she at once telegraphed to Sir John Ayde, who was then commanding Gibraltar, and asked if he would allow a Government boat to take her off the P. & O. and put her straight on the Morocco boat. He telegraphed back, “Yes,” whereat she rejoiced greatly, as she wanted especially to reach her husband in time for them to celebrate their Silver Wedding together. When she arrived at Gibraltar, Burton, who was staying there, came off in a boat to meet her, and they called together on Sir John Ayde to thank him for his kindness. A few days later the news came to them that the Government had at last recognized Burton’s public services. It came in the form of a telegram addressed to “Sir Richard Burton.” Isabel says: “He tossed it over to me, and said, ‘Some fellow is playing me a practical joke, or else it is not for me. I shall not open it, so you may as well ring the bell and give it back again.’” His wife said, “Oh no; I shall open it if you don’t.” So it was opened. It was from Lord Salisbury, conveying in the kindest terms that the Queen, at his recommendation, had made him K.C.M.G. in reward for his services. He looked very serious and quite uncomfortable, and said, “Oh, I shall not accept it.” She said, “You had better accept it, Jemmy, because it is a certain sign that they are going to give you the place — Tangiers, Morocco.”

There is only one thing to be said about this honour — it came too late. Too late for him, because he had never at any time cared much for these things. “Honour, not honours” was his motto; and now the recognition of his services, which might have been a great encouragement ten or fifteen years earlier, and have spurred him on to fresh efforts, found him broken by sickness, and with life’s zest to a great extent gone. Too late for her, because her only pleasure in these things was that they reflected credit upon her husband; and if he did not appreciate them, she did not care. Yet of course she was glad that at last there had come some return for her unceasing efforts, and some admission, though tardy, of the services which her husband had rendered. It was a sign too that the prejudice against him in certain quarters was at last lived down. She wrote to a friend60:

“You will have seen from the papers, and I know what pleasure it will give you, that the Conservatives on going out made Dick Sir Richard Burton, K.C.M.G. . . . . The Queen’s recognition of Dick’s forty-four years of service was sweetly done at last, sent for our Silver Wedding, and she told a friend of mine that she was pleased to confer something that would include both husband and wife.”

The Burtons crossed over to Morocco from Gibraltar in a flat-bottomed cattle-tug, only fit for a river; and as the sea was exceedingly heavy, and the machinery had stopped, the sailors said for want of oil, the seas washed right over the boat, and the passage was prolonged from two hours to five. They made many excursions round about Tangiers; but on the whole they were disappointed with Morocco. They disliked Tangiers itself, and the Consulate seemed to them a miserable little house after their palazzo at Trieste. Lady Burton had expected to find Tangiers a second Damascus; but in this she was sorely disappointed. She wrote to a friend from there, “Trieste will seem like Paris after it. It has none of the romance or barbaric splendour of Damascus. Nevertheless,” she says, “I would willingly have lived there, and put out all my best capabilities, if my husband could have got the place he wanted, and for which I had employed every bit of interest on his side and mine to obtain.” They received a great deal of hospitality in Tangiers, and inspected the place and the natives thoroughly. Most of the people looked forward to welcoming them.

On their departure they went to Genoa, which they reached after a rough voyage, and thence they proceeded by easy stages to Trieste. Lady Burton arrived home alone at ten o’clock in the evening; and as she was accustomed to be met by a crowd of friends on her return, she was surprised to find no one to meet her. When she got to the house, their absence was explained. Three telegrams were handed to her. The first was, “Father very ill; can you come?” the second was, “Father died to-day”; the third, “Father buried to-day at Mortlake.” As her friends were unaware of her address the telegrams had not been forwarded, and they had kept away, so as not to intrude on her grief. The blow was not altogether unexpected, for Mr. Arundell had been ill for some time; but it was none the less severe, for she had always been devotedly attached to her father, and his house had been made a rallying-point for them when they were wont to return home.

They remained at Trieste three months, during which time the English colony presented them with a silver cup and congratulations on their hardly earned honours. Then, as Burton had to consult a particular manuscript which would supply two volumes of his “Supplemental” Arabian Nights, they left again for England. On their return to London they took up their work where they had left it a few months before. In July they had the mortification of finding that Lord Rosebery had given away the coveted post of Morocco, which had been as good as promised to them by Lord Salisbury, to some one else. It was during their few months’ absence from England that the change of Government had taken place, and Lord Salisbury’s brief-lived Administration of 1886 had yielded place to a Liberal Government. Such are the vicissitudes of official life. Had Lord Salisbury been in office, Sir Richard would probably have got Morocco. It was perhaps all for the best that he did not get the post, although it was a sore disappointment to them at the time. Even Lady Burton came to take this view. She writes: “I sometimes now think that it was better so, and that he would not have lived so long had he had it, for he was decidedly breaking up. The climate did not appear to be the one that suited him, and the anxiety and responsibilities of the post might have hurried on the catastrophe. . . . It was for the honour of the thing, and we saw for ourselves how uneasy a crown it would be.”

Perhaps there was another reason too, for when Lady Burton remonstrated a Minister wrote to her in friendly chaff: “We don’t want to annex Morocco, and we know that you two would be Emperor and Empress in about six months.” This was an evident allusion to the part which they had played during their brief reign at Damascus. At Trieste there was no room for the eagles to soar; their wings were clipped.

Seeing that the last hope was over, and the one post which Sir Richard Burton had coveted as the crown of his career was denied to him, his wife set to work to induce the Government to allow him to retire on his pension four years before his time. She had good grounds for making this request, for his health was breaking, and this last disappointment about Morocco seemed to have broken him even more. When he told her that it was given to another man, he said, “There is no room for me now, and I do not want anything; but I have worked forty-four years for nothing. I am breaking up, and I want to go free.” So she at once set to work to draw up what she called “The Last Appeal,” enumerating the services which her husband had rendered to his country, and canvassing her friends to obtain the pension. The petition was backed as usual by forty-seven or fifty big names, who actively exerted themselves in the matter. It was refused, notwithstanding that public feeling and the press seemed unanimously in favour of its being granted. The ground on which it was refused, apparently, was that it was contrary to precedent, and that it was not usual; but then the case was altogether an unusual one, and Sir Richard Burton was altogether an unusual man. Even supposing that there had been a difficulty about giving him the full Consular pension, it would have been easy for the Government, if they had been so minded, to have made up to him the sum — only a few hundred pounds a year — from the Civil List, on the ground of his literary and linguistic labours and services. It should be added that this petition was refused both by Liberal and Conservative Governments, for Lord Salisbury's second Administration came into office before the Burtons left England. But there was this difference: whereas Lord Rosebery reprimanded Burton for his frequent absence from his post, Lord Salisbury was very indulgent in the matter of leave. He recognized that Burton’s was an exceptional case, and gave him exceptional privileges.

image
Lady Burton in 1887.

They remained in London until the end of the year, and on January 4, 1887, they left England for Cannes, where they spent a few pleasant weeks, rejoicing in the sun and blue sea and sky. They enjoyed a good deal of society at Cannes, where they met the Prince of Wales and many friends. On Ash Wednesday occurred the earthquake which made such a commotion on the Riviera at the time, and of which Sir Richard Burton gave the following account:

“A little before 6 a.m., on the finest of mornings, with the smoothest of seas, the still sleeping world was aroused by a rumbling and shaking as of a thousand express trains hissing and rolling along, and in a few minutes followed a shock, making the hotel reel and wave. The duration was about one minute. My wife said to me, ‘Why, what sort of express train have they got on to-day?’ It broke on to us, upheaving and making the earth undulate, and as it came I said, ‘By Jove! that is a good earthquake.’ She called out, ‘All the people are rushing out into the garden undressed; shall we go too?’ I said, ‘No, my girl; you and I have been in too many earthquakes to show the white feather at our age.’ ‘All right,’ she answered; and I turned round and went to sleep again."

The result of the earthquake was a great and sudden exodus from Cannes, and indeed from all the Riviera. Visitors fled in panic, but Sir Richard and Lady Burton went about their usual business, and were amused at seeing the terrified people rush off to the railway-station, and the queer garments in which they were clad. Shortly after Lady Burton was terribly frightened from another cause. Her husband had an epileptic fit, and it was some time before she and the doctors could bring him round again. Henceforth it became necessary for them to have always with them a resident doctor. They both of them disliked the idea of having a stranger spying about them very much; but it was inevitable, for the epilepsy was a new development, and as Burton says, “My wife felt, though she had successfully nursed me through seven long illnesses since our marriage, that this was a case beyond her ken.” So Dr. Ralph Leslie was telegraphed for, and came out from England to Cannes, where he joined them. Then commenced what they called their Via Crucis to Trieste. Lady Burton thus describes her troubles at that time:

“On February 23 we were shaken to a jelly by the earthquakes — three strong shocks and three weeks of palpitating earth in the Riviera. On February 26 my poor darling Dick had an epileptic fit, or, more properly speaking, an epileptiform convulsion, which had lasted about half an hour, and endangered his life. I had six doctors and two nurses, and we watched and tended him for fifteen days; and I telegraphed for an English doctor to England by express, who came, and lives and travels with us, as Richard insisted on coming to Trieste, not to England, and will return with us. It took us, after his arrival, twenty-eight days to accomplish the twenty-eight hours of express between Cannes and Trieste in toil, anguish, and anxiety. We arrived April 5 at home in rest and comfort. He has been making daily progress to health. He is now out walking with his doctor. We had a consultation a few days ago. He will always require great care and watching all his life — diet and internal health; must not climb, as his heart is weak, nor take Turkish baths, nor overwork; and he may so live fifteen years, but he may die any moment of heart disease. And I need not say that I shall never have a really happy, peaceful moment again. In the midst of this my uncle,61 who was like my father to me, was found dead in his bed. Then I have had a bad lip and money losses, and altogether a bad time of it.”62

At Trieste Burton led the life of a confirmed invalid, and his wife attended him with unfailing devotion, which was in no way abated by the presence of the resident doctor — “a disagreeable luxury,” as she called him. They used to sit a good deal under their favourite linden tree in the garden and receive visitors. Burton’s love for his wife, always deep, though never demonstrative, seems to have shown itself more at this time; and in the few remaining years he came to lean on her more and more, making her his confidante in all things. In June they celebrated the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and owing to her husband’s illness, nearly all the arrangements fell upon Lady Burton. It was she who drew up the address which was sent to Her Majesty, and she also prepared the speech to deliver in case her husband was too unwell to attend the public dinner in celebration of the event. As Lady Burton has been accused of being such a bigoted Roman Catholic, it is only fair to mention that on this auspicious occasion she accompanied her husband to the official service in the Anglican Church. Her loyalty to her Queen was unswerving. She was not required to make the speech, as Burton was well enough to be carried down to the dinner, and he delivered the oration. It was the only occasion on which he ever wore his Order of St. Michael and St. George. The effort was so great that he had to be carried upstairs again the moment his speech was over.

The rest of 1887 was chiefly taken up by a dreary record of failing health. The Burtons went away for a summer holiday as usual, and during their absence from Trieste many English Royalties arrived there with the squadron; but they were unable to receive them. On their return Dr. Leslie had to leave them, and his place was supplied by another doctor. It became more than ever necessary that a medical man should be in attendance, for Lady Burton seemed to suffer in sympathy with her husband, and as he got worse she became worse too. She writes about this time: “I am unable to take anything which might be called a walk. Driving was sometimes very painful to him, and it would not have been safe to let him go alone." It was one of her sorest trials that she could not minister to her husband as formerly; but disease had laid its hand on her too. Their life at Trieste at this time was naturally uneventful. Instead of getting up, as they used to do, and beginning their labours in the small hours of the morning, the Burtons now rose at seven, and did as much literary work as they could until nine, when the doctor would come in. At twelve o’clock they had breakfast, and after that the time was devoted either to more literary work or recreation. At four they would receive any friends who came to see them. At half-past seven they dined, no longer at the hotel as formerly, but at home; and at nine o’clock they retired to rest. It was about this time that Sir Richard finished the last volume of his “Supplemental” Arabian Nights. The weather was so bad at Trieste, and his health so uncertain, that the Foreign Office again gave him leave.

He and his wife came by a roundabout route to England, and saw many old friends. On October 15 they went down to Folkestone, where they stayed a few days with his relatives. They crossed on October 26 to Boulogne. It was Sir Richard’s last visit to England; he never saw his country again.

At Boulogne they visited once more the old haunts where they had met for the first time years ago, and renewed acquaintance with the scenes of their vanished youth. It is worthy of notice how often husband and wife went to Boulogne together during their married life. It seemed as though the place was endeared to them by the recollection that it was here that they had first come together. From Boulogne they went to Switzerland, where they passed Christmas. When they were at Montreux they celebrated their wedding day (January 22), and the people in the hotel overwhelmed them with presents and flowers and pretty speeches. Lady Burton says, “I got quite choky, and Richard ran away and locked himself up.” A rather ludicrous incident occurred here. They were expecting a visit from the famous Elisée Réclus. Lady Burton prepared herself to receive him with honour, and she had beforehand been warned of his little peculiarities. Suddenly the door was thrown open, and some one was announced whose name she did not catch. She greeted the new-comer with effusion, saying, “Dear Monsieur Réclus, I am so delighted to make your acquaintance; such a pleasure to know such a distinguished man.” Her greeting was acknowledged with equal effusion by her visitor, who then proceeded to pull a key out of his pocket, and went up to the clock. Lady Burton was somewhat surprised, but she put it down to a great man’s peculiarity; so she went on talking to him, and explaining the pleasure which it would give Sir Richard to make his acquaintance, when the door was opened again, and the servant announced, “Monsieur Réclus.” The man she had been talking to was the clockwinder.

From Montreux they toured about Switzerland for some few weeks, and in March they returned again to Trieste, where they remained off and on until November.

During the summer Burton's health, fortified by continual change of air and scene, improved a good deal. The Foreign Office was most indulgent in the amount of liberty which it gave to him. Lord Salisbury was now at the head of affairs; and though the Government did not see their way to allowing Burton to retire on full pension, they granted him what was almost the same thing — frequent and extended leaves; and it must be remembered too the time of his Consular service was now fast drawing to a close. Lady Burton always said that, next to Lord Derby, Lord and Lady Salisbury were their best friends. About this time Lady Salisbury wrote to her:

“My Dear Lady Burton,

“I am very glad to hear so good an account of you and Sir Richard. We are here as busy as usual at this time of year. We have had great doings for the Shah, who is still in this country. He dined and slept here one night about a fortnight ago, and we had a garden-party for him next day. He behaved very well, and gives me the idea of being an able man; though whether he will think England a stronger friend than Russia remains to be seen. I sometimes fear he will carry away a greater idea of our riches and luxury than of our strength, but qui vivra, verra.

“We are now up to our lips in a royal marriage. It is to take place next Saturday, and will I dare say be a very pretty sight. The young lady 63 is very happy by all accounts, and looks quite radiant. Politics are pretty quiet, and there are as few mistakes made as you can expect in the fourth year of a Government. I think we are rather losing in London, but are gaining in other places. On the whole all things are very quiet. With kind regards to Sir Richard,

“Believe me,

“Yours very sincerely,

“G. Salisbury.”

In November the Burtons started, viâ Brindisi, for Malta, where they passed a pleasant month, met many friends, and enjoyed themselves very much. From Malta they went to Tunis, and renewed their acquaintance with the Bedawin and the Arab tents. It was their last glimpse of the desert life which they loved so well. Among other places they visited the ruins of Carthage, and made as many excursions into the interior as it was possible, considering the state of Sir Richard’s health. From Tunis they went by train to Algiers, starting on the journey at 5.15 on a cold January morning. When they reached Algiers, they were delighted with it at first; but they soon tired. Even an expedition to the baths of Hammám R’irha did not reconcile them to the place, and they left it early in March, going by boat to Marseilles, and then travelling homewards by way of the Riviera to Genoa, and thence to Venice. They crossed to Trieste the following day, having been absent more than four months.

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A Native Lady, Tunis.

They remained at Trieste until July 1, when they started for their last summer trip. The heat in Trieste during July and August is almost insupportable. They went to Innsbruck, Zurich, Davos Platz, Regatz, and other places. They were counting the months to the day when Burton would complete his term in the Consular Service, and would be permitted to retire on his pension. From Zurich Lady Burton wrote to a friend64:

“We go back (D.V.) September 1 or thereabouts, stay three months, and then winter in Greece and Constantinople. In March Dick’s service is ended, and between that and August we pack up, settle our affairs, and come home for good. In one sense I am glad, because he yearns for a little flat in London; we shall be in the land of good advice and nourishment; and, God willing, I shall have brought him home safe and sound after thirty years’ perils and dangers by health and land and sea. On the other hand, it is a wrench to give up my nice home. I have the whole of the second and top floor now, and I have made it so pretty, and I love Trieste and the life of my friends. I don’t know how I shall concentrate myself and my belongings into a vulgar little flat — on small means. If you see any flat likely to suit us, let me know.”

It was during this time in Switzerland that Burton made his wife his literary executrix. He called her into his room one day, and dictated to her a list of private papers which he wished to be burned in the event of his death, and gave her three signed documents, one of which ran as follows:

“In the event of my death, I bequeath especially to my wife, Isabel Burton, every book, paper, or manuscript, to be overhauled and examined by her only, and to be dealt with entirely at her own discretion, and in the manner she thinks best, having been my sole helper for thirty years.

(Signed) “Richard F. Burton.”

On September 7 they returned to Trieste together for the last time. They were both very much better for the good air in Switzerland, and settled down again to their quiet literary life, full of occupations for the present and plans for the future. Lady Burton was especially busy during these six weeks in helping her husband to sort and arrange his manuscripts and papers, and he worked as usual at three or four books at a time, especially his Scented Garden, which was now nearing completion.

I should like to interpolate here a beautiful and characteristic letter Lady Burton wrote, on October 10, to a friend, Madame de Gutmansthal-Benvenuti, who had just lost her husband:

“You need no letter from me to tell you how my heart is grieving for you, and with you, in this greatest trial woman can ever know — the trial before which my own head is ever bowed down, and my heart shrinking from in terror. And it has fallen on you, my best and dearest friend. But you have such consolations. He was a religious man, and died with the Sacraments, and you are sure of a happy meeting, just as if he had gone on a journey to wait for you; but more surely to meet than if he had gone on an earthly journey. You have your dear children to live for, and that must now be your only thought, and taking care of your health for that purpose. All of us, who love you, are thinking of you and praying for you.”

Ten days later the trial she so much dreaded had come upon her. And here for a space Lady Burton will speak in her own words.

59 He actually compiled a book of quotations from the Bible and Shakspeare for use in case of need, which he called The Black Book.

60 Letter to Miss Bishop from Tangiers, Morocco, February 16, 1886.

61 The late Lord Gerard.

62 Letter to Miss Bird from Trieste, April 10, 1887.

63 The Duchess of Fife.

64 Letter to Miss Bishop, July 21, 1890.

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