The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter II

The Return to England

(1890-1891)

Not yet, poor soul! A few more darksome hours

And sore temptations met and overcome,

A few more crosses bravely, meekly carried,

Ere I can proudly call the tried one home.

Nerve then thy heart; the toil will soon be done,

The crown of self-denial nobly earned and won.

From Lady Burton's Devotional Book “Tan.”

Lady Burton remained at Trieste three months after her husband’s death. We have seen how she spent the first weeks of her bereavement, locked up with his manuscripts and papers. During that time she would see no one, speak to no one. When her work was done, all her husband’s wishes as to the disposal of his private papers carried out, and the manuscripts duly sorted and arranged, she came out from her seclusion, and put herself a little in touch with the world again. She was deeply touched at the sympathy which was shown to her. The Burtons had been so many years at Trieste, and were so widely known there and respected, that Sir Richard’s death was felt as a public loss. A eulogy of Sir Richard was delivered in the Diet of Trieste, and the House adjourned as a mark of respect to his memory. The city had three funeral requiems for him, and hundreds of people in Trieste, from the highest to the lowest, showed their sympathy with his widow. Her friends rallied round her, for they knew that her loss was no ordinary one, and she had consigned to the grave all that made life worth living for her. Nor was this sympathetic regard confined to Trieste alone; the English press was full of the “dead lion,” and the dominant note was that he had not been done justice to while he was alive. Lady Burton was greatly gratified by all this, and she says a little bitterly: “It shows how truly he was appreciated except by the handful who could have made his life happy by success.”

Her first public act after her husband’s death was a defence of his memory. She had fought so hard for him when living that it seemed only natural to her to go on fighting for him now that he was beyond the reach of praise or blame. Colonel Grant had written a letter to The Times anent an obituary notice of Sir Richard Burton, in which he defended Speke, and spoke of the “grave charges” which Speke communicated against Burton to his relatives and to the Geographical Society. Lady Burton saw this letter some time after it appeared. She knew well enough what it hinted at, and she lost no time in sending a reply wherein she defended her husband’s character, and prefaced her remarks with the characteristic lines:

He had not dared to do it,

Except he surely knew my lord was dead.

Lady Burton had soon to face, in these first days of her widowhood, the problem of her altered circumstances. With her husband’s death his salary as a Consul came to an end, and there was no pension for his widow. For the last three or four years, since they had netted £10,000 by The Arabian Nights, the Burtons had been living at the rate of £3,000-£4,000 a year, and had kept up their palazzo at Trieste and a large staff of servants, in addition to continually travelling en prince, with all the luxuries of the best hotels, servants, and a resident doctor who always accompanied them. Lady Burton had sanctioned this expenditure because she wished, as she said, to give her husband every comfort during his declining days. Moreover, Burton had looked forward to The Scented Garden to replenish his exchequer. Now Lady Burton found herself face to face with these facts: the whole of the money of The Arabian Nights was gone, her husband’s salary was gone, The Scented Garden was gone, and there was nothing left for her but a tiny patrimony. It was therefore necessary that she should rouse herself to a sense of the position. She did so without delay. She determined as far as possible to carry out the plans which she and her husband had made when they were looking forward to his retirement from the consular service; that is to say, she determined to leave Trieste, to return to London, take a little flat, and occupy herself with literary work. It was a sore pang to her to give up the beautiful home on which she had expended so much care and taste, and to part with her kind friends at Trieste, many of whom she had known for eighteen years. At Trieste she was a personage. Every one knew her and loved her. She knew well enough that when she came back to London after such a long absence, except by a few faithful friends, she might be forgotten and overlooked in the rush and hurry of modern life. Nevertheless her course was plain; she had but one desire; that was to get away from Trieste as quickly as might be, take her husband’s remains with her, and lay them to rest in English soil, a rest which she hoped to share with him before long.

After her husband’s funeral at Trieste, Lady Burton’s first step should have been the dismissal of her household, except one or two servants. She did not feel equal to this, however, and difficulties arose which are touched on in the following letter:

“From the time I lost my all, my earthly god of thirty-five years, in two hours, I have been like one with a blow on the head. I cannot write about him; I must tell of myself. Having been eighteen years in Trieste, it was difficult to leave so many dependent on me, so many friends to bid farewell, so many philanthropic works to wind up the affairs of, and I had to settle twenty rooms full of things I could not throw away. It took me fourteen weeks to do it. During that time I swam in a sea of small horrors — wickedness, treachery, threats; but my Triestine friends stuck to me. The authorities behaved nobly, and I pulled through and got off.”75

The next few months were busy ones for Lady Burton. It is hard under any circumstances to break up a home of eighteen years, and harder still when it has to be done as economically and expeditiously as possible. She placed out all her old and trusted servants; she endeavoured to find friends to take on the care of many of the aged and poor people who were more or less dependent on her; she wound up the institutions of which she was President; she paid her debts, and said good-bye to all her friends. She refused to sell any of the furniture or effects of the home she had loved so well. She said it would be like selling her friends. So she packed the few things she thought she would want to furnish her flat in London, and all her husband’s and her own personal effects, his library and manuscripts, and she gave away the rest of the furniture where she thought it would be useful or valued. These duties occupied her fourteen weeks in all, and she worked every day early and late, the only break in her labours being her frequent visits to the chapelle ardente where the remains of her husband were reposing, preparatory to being carried to England. The only comfort to her in this time of sorrow was a visit from her cousin, Canon Waterton of Carlisle, a scholarly and cultured ecclesiastic, who, in addition to providing her with spiritual consolation, also gave her much valuable advice as to the disposition of the books and manuscripts. In order to guard against any misconception, however, I should like to add that Canon Waterton did not come to Trieste until some time after The Scented Garden had been burned. That act, in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, was entirely Lady Burton’s own act, influenced by no priest, layman, or any person whatever. She spoke of it afterwards as a secret between herself and the dead husband.

So this year (1890) the saddest in Lady Burton’s life, came to an end. On January 20, 1891, she caused her husband’s remains to be removed from the chapel and conveyed on board the Cunard steamer Palmyra. She herself was going to England by the quicker route overland.

Her work now being done, a few days later Lady Burton left Trieste for the last time. The evening before her departure twenty of her friends came up to spend the last hours with her. She walked round every room, recalling her life in her happy home. She visited every nook and cranny of the garden; she sat under the linden tree where she and her husband had spent so many quiet hours, and she gazed at the beautiful views for the last time. This went on till the time came for her to leave. Many friends came to accompany her to the station. When she arrived she found that she had to face quite a demonstration. All the leading people in Trieste and the authorities of the city, all the children of the orphanage in which she had taken so keen an interest, all the poor whom she had helped, and all her private friends, who were many, were there to bid her good-bye and offer her flowers. She says: “It was an awful trial not to make an exhibition of myself, and I was glad when the train steamed out; but for a whole hour, ascending the beautiful road close to the sea and Miramar and Trieste, I never took my misty eyes off Trieste and our home where I had been so happy for eighteen years.”

On arriving in England, Lady Burton’s first care was to go and see Sir Richard’s sister and niece, Lady and Miss Stisted, and acquaint them with the circumstances of her husband’s death, and her intentions. We will draw a veil over that meeting. She then went on to London and stayed at the Langham Hotel, intending to remain there a few days until she could find a lodging. At the Langham her three sisters were waiting for her.

Two days after her arrival in London, Lady Burton went to see about a monument to her husband. This monument has been already described, and it is unnecessary to repeat the description at any length here. Suffice it to say that it is a tomb, shaped like an Arab tent, of dark Forest of Dean stone, lined inside with white Carrara marble. The tent is surmounted by a large gilt star, and over the flap door is a white marble crucifix. The fringe is composed of gilt crescents and stars. The door supports an open book of white marble: on one page is an inscription to Sir Richard Burton; the opposite page was then left blank. Lady Burton had the tomb fitted up with an altar and other accessories, so as to make it as much like a chapelle ardente as possible, while preserving its Eastern character. There was room in the tent for two coffins, those of her husband and herself. Finding that her purse was too slender to carry out this somewhat elaborate design, Lady Burton was encouraged by her friends to ask for a public subscription, with the result that she received the greater part of the money, but the appeal was not reponded to as it might have been.

She found that, owing to the state of the weather, the monument could not be completed for some months, but she selected the site in Mortlake Cemetery, the spot which she and her husband had chosen many years before, and had the ground pegged out. The next day, though very ill, she, with her sister Mrs. Fitzgerald, went down to Liverpool to meet her husband’s remains, which were arriving by sea. Lord and Lady Derby, who had always been her kind friends, had arranged everything for her, and the next morning Lady Burton went on board ship. She says, “I forgot the people when I saw my beloved case, and I ran forward to kiss it.” It was taken to the train, and Lady Burton and her sister travelled by the same train to Mortlake, where they arrived that evening. The coffin was conveyed by torchlight to a temporary resting-place in the crypt under the altar of the church, where it remained until the tent was erected. The same evening Lady Burton returned to London, and, her work being done, the reaction set in. She broke down and took to her bed that night, where she remained for many weeks. She says “I cannot describe the horror of the seventy-six days enhanced by the fog, which, after sunlight and air, was like being buried alive. The sense of desolation and loneliness and longing for him was cruel, and it became

The custom of the day

And the haunting of the night.

My altered circumstances, and the looking into and facing my future, had also to be borne.”

In the meantime her friends, notably the Dowager Lady Stanley of Alderley, the Royal Geographical and other Societies, had not been idle, and her claims had been brought before the Queen, who was graciously pleased to grant Lady Burton a pension of £150 a year from the Civil List. This pension, which she enjoyed to the day of her death, came to her as a surprise, and was not due to any effort of her own. She would never have asked anything for herself: the only thing she did ask for was that the nation should help her in raising a monument to her husband’s honour; but, as we have seen, the nation was somewhat lukewarm on that point.

At the end of April Lady Burton recovered sufficiently to leave the hotel, and joined her sister, Mrs. Fitzgerald. She was chiefly occupied during the next few months in looking out for a house, and in completing the arrangements for her husband’s final resting-place. About the middle of June the tent was finished. Sir Richard Burton’s remains were transferred from the crypt under the church to the mausoleum where they now rest. At the funeral service Lady Burton occupied a prie-dieu by the side, and to the right was Captain St. George Burton, of the Black Watch, a cousin of Sir Richard. There was a large gathering of representatives of both families and many friends. The widow carried a little bunch of forget-me-nots, which she laid on the coffin. This simple offering of love would doubtless have been far more acceptable to the great explorer than the “wreath from Royalty” the absence of which his latest biographer so loudly deplores.

When the ceremony was over, Lady Burton went away at once to the country for a ten days’ rest to the Convent of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, New Hall, Chelmsford, where she had been educated, and which had received within its walls many of the Arundells of Wardour. She left New Hall much refreshed and invigorated in mind and body, and for the next month was busy arranging a house which she had taken in Baker Street. She moved into it in September, 1891, and so entered upon the last chapter of her life.

75 Letter to Madame de Gutmansthal-Benvenuti, from London, March 1, 1891.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/isabel/romance/chapter39.html

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