The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XXXVII

Death of Sir Richard Burton

173. Death. 20th October 1890.

As we have seen, Burton had for some months shown signs of bodily decay; and he now daily grew weaker. His eyes, though still fierce and penetrating, were sunk into hollow cavities. His body was emaciated, his hands were thin to transparency, his voice was sometimes inarticulate, and he could hardly walk without support. Still, there seemed no immediate cause for anxiety, and, as will be seen from the following letter628 (15th October 1890) to Mr. David MacRitchie, he was busy evolving new plans, including a visit to Greece, to be made in the company of Dr. Schliemann,629 the archaeologist. “In the spring of next year (Inshallah!) there will be a total disruption of my Lares and Penates. I shall be ‘retired for age,’ and leave Trieste for ever with my mental eye upon a flat in London which can be locked up at a moment’s notice when the renter wants to go abroad. Meanwhile we are off to Athens about mid-November. All luck to the [Gypsy] Society.” On the same day he wrote to Mr. W. F. Kirby: “Excuse post-card. We have no secrets. Please don’t forget to keep me au courant of your movements in re Jan., &c. We shall not be in London before early September 1891, I imagine, but then it will be for good.” Elsewhere he says, almost in the words of Ovid, “My earnest wish is somehow to depart from these regions.” He was to depart, very soon, but in a manner little expected.

Sir Richard as we have noticed, would never say “Good-bye.” It was always “Au revoir.” One day in this October Miss Letchford went to see him with her little sister. It was tea-time, but Lady Burton was in another room with a visitor. Never had he appeared so bright or affectionate. He laughed and joked and teased the child and would not let them go for two hours. At last he shook hands and said, “Come and see me again very soon. I like you and your sister. — -Good-bye, Daisy.” “I was so startled,” comments Miss Letchford, “by that ‘Good-bye’ that a shiver passed over me. I felt at that moment that I should never see him again.” Two days later Mr. Albert Letchford called on Sir Richard, who seemed fairly well, but he remarked “The good Switzerland did me ended this evening.”

Dr. Baker, though himself just then a great sufferer from neuralgic headache, watched with anxious solicitude over his patient. On the last day of his life Sir Richard seemed better than usual, and all the household remarked his excellent spirits. It was Sunday October 29th. After returning from mass and communion at eight in the morning Lady Burton found him engaged upon the last page of the twentieth chapter of The Scented Garden.630 The work was therefore almost half done. She kissed him, and he said, “To-morrow I shall have finished this, and then I will begin our biography.” She commented “What happiness that will be!” Her mind, however, was not quite at ease that morning, for a bird had pecked for the third time at a window that was never opened, and Sir Richard remarked “This is a sign of death.”

The day was fine, and after breakfast Burton took his usual two hours’ walk with Dr. Baker. On the way out through the garden he noticed a robin drowning in the basin of a fountain.631 At his request Dr. Baker rescued it, and Burton, opening his coat and vest — for he never wore a waistcoat — warmed the bird at his breast, and then carried it to the house to be cared for by the porter. The incident carries us back to those old days at Tours, when, as a boy, he often laid himself out to revive unfortunate birds and small beasts. In the afternoon he wrote some letters and discussed gaily the proposed visit to Greece. They dined at half-past seven, and talked and laughed as usual, though Burton seemed tired. As usual, too, he shocked his wife by jesting about scapularies and other sacred things, but the conversation ran chiefly on General Booth’s scheme for relieving the Submerged Tenth; and Burton, who entered into the subject with zest, observed: “When you and I get to England and are quite free we will give our spare time to that.”632

In the course of the day Mrs. Victoria Maylor came in with the manuscript of The Scented Garden and the copy of it which she had made for the printers,633 and from this we may deduce that Sir Richard intended to go to press at once with the first twenty chapters of the work. He may have intended to publish the twenty-first chapter later as a second volume. At half-past nine he retired to his bedroom. Lady Burton then repeated “the night prayers to him,” and while she was speaking “a dog,” to use her own words, “began that dreadful howl which the superstitious regard as the harbinger of death.”

After prayers, Burton asked for “chou-chou;” she game him a paper-covered copy in two volumes of the Martyrdom of Madeline634 by Robert Buchanan, and he lay in bed reading it. At midnight he complained of pain in his foot, but said he believed it was only a return of the gout — the “healthy gout,” which troubled him about every three months.

“Let me call Dr. Baker,” said Lady Burton.

“No,” replied Sir Richard, “don’t disturb him poor fellow, he has been in frightful pain with his head; and has at last got a little sleep.”

At four, however, Lady Burton paid no heed to her husband’s remonstrances, but called up Dr. Baker, who, however, saw no cause for alarm, and after administering some medicine he returned to bed. Half an hour later Burton complained that there was no air, and Lady Burton, again thoroughly alarmed, rose to call in Dr. Baker once more.

Although Burton was then dying, he said, “Poor chap, don’t disturb him.”

But Lady Burton instantly summoned Dr. Baker, who on entering pronounced the situation grave. Lady Burton at once roused the servants and sent in all directions for a priest; while, assisted by Dr. Baker and Lisa, she “tried every remedy and restorative,” but in vain.

“Oh, Puss,” cried Burton, “chloroform — ether — quick!”

“My darling,” replied Lady Burton in anguish. “Dr. Baker says it would kill you. He is doing everything possible.”

His breathing then became laboured, and after a brief struggle for air he cried, “I am dying, I am dead.” Lady Burton held him in her arms, but he got heavier, and presently became insensible. Dr Baker applied an electric battery to the heart, and Lady Burton kneeling at the bedside, and holding her husband’s hand, prayed her “heart out to God to keep his soul there (though he might be dead in appearance) till the priest arrived.” But it was in vain. The priest, a Slavonian, named Pietro Martelani, came in about half-past six. We may regret what followed, but no one would judge harshly the actions of an agonised woman. Pity for human suffering must drown all other feelings. The priest looked at the dead but warm body and asked whether there was still any life. That the heart and pulsed had ceased to beat, Lady Burton herself afterwards admitted to her relations, but deceiving herself with the belief that life still continued in the brain, she cried: “He is alive, but I beseech you, lose not a moment, for the soul is passing away.”

“If,” said the Priest, “he is a Protestant, he cannot receive the Holy Sacrament in this way.”

Lady Burton having declared that her husband “had abjured the heresy and belonged to the Catholic Church,” the priest at once administered “the last comforts.”

It was certainly a kind of consolation to the poor lady to feel that her husband had not departed unhouselled; but it is equally evident that her mind had given way, for the scenes that presently followed can be explained only on this assumption.635

Dr. Baker at once sent a brief note to Mr. Letchford. Singularly enough the night before — that is the terrible Sunday night — Miss Daisy Letchford experienced “a strange instance of telepathy.” “My brother,” she says, “had gone out, and I waited alone for him. Suddenly I fancied I heard footsteps in the passage and stopping at the door of the room where I was reading. I felt drops of cold sweat on my forehead. I was afraid, yet I knew that no one was about at that time of the night. The door opened slowly, and I felt the impression of some one looking at me. I dared not raise my eyes. The footsteps seemed to approach. In a fit of fear I looked up and saw Sir Richard standing before me. He started, waved his hand and disappeared. Early in the morning came a ring at the bell. I jumped out of bed and burst into tears as I said, ‘This is to tell us that Sir Richard is dead.’ At that moment the maid brought in the letter for my brother from Dr. Baker. I ran with it into his room. ‘Albert, Albert,’ I cried, ‘Sir Richard is dead.’ He opened the letter. It was only too true.”

The same morning, Mr. P. P. Cautley, the Vice Consul, was called up to the house.

The undertaker, who was already there, asked in Mr. Cautley’s presence to what religion Sir Richard belonged.

Turning to Mr. Cautley, Lady Burton asked: “What religion shall I say?”

“Tell him Sir Richard’s true religion,” replied Mr. Cautley.636

She then said, “Catholic.”

“But!” interjected Mr. Cautley.

“YES,” followed Lady Burton, “he was a Catholic.”

Lady Burton still nursed the hope that Sir Richard was not quite dead. There was life in the brain, she persisted in saying. Would he revive? “For forty-eight hours,” she tells us, “she knelt watching him.” She could not shed a tear. Then she “had the ulnar nerve opened and strong electricity applied to make sure of his death.”

Some months after, when her mind had regained its equilibrium, she observed to Major St. George Burton.637 “To a Protestant, Dick’s reception into the Holy Church must seem meaningless and void. He was dead before extreme unction was administered; and my sole idea was to satisfy myself that he and I would be buried according to the Catholic rites and lie together above ground in the Catholic cemetery. He was not strictly received, for he was dead, and the formula Si es capax, &c., saved the priest’s face and satisfied the church.” When mortification began to set in, the body, which was found to be covered with scars, the witnesses of a hundred fights, was embalmed, laid out in uniform, and surrounded with candles and wreaths. “He looked so sweet,” says Lady Burton, “such an adorable dignity, like a sleep.”638 Behind the bed still hung the great map of Africa. On his breast Lady Burton had placed a crucifix, and he still wore the steel chain and the “Blessed Virgin Medal,” which she had given him just before the Tanganyika journey.

Priests, pious persons, and children from the orphanage of St. Joseph, in which Lady Burton had taken so much interest, watched and prayed, recited the office for the dead, and sang hymns.

There were three distinct funerals at Trieste, and there was to be another nine months onward in England. All that can be said is that Lady Burton seemed to draw comfort from pageantry and ceremonial that to most mourners would have been only a long-drawn agony.

The procession was a royal one. The coffin was covered with the Union Jack, and behind it were borne on a cushion Burton’s order and medals. Then followed a carriage with a pyramid of wreaths, and lastly, the children of St. Joseph’s orphanage, a regiment of infantry and the governor and officials of Trieste.

Every flag in the town was half-mast high, multitudes thronged the streets, and every window and balcony was crowded. Every head was uncovered. The procession wound its way from the Palazzo Gosleth down the declivity into the city under a bright sun pouring down its full beams, and so onward through the serried masses of spectators to the cemetery. Writing to Lady Stisted,639 Lady Burton says, “I did not have him buried, but had a private room in the cemetery [a “chapelle ardente”] consecrated (with windows and doors on the ground floor) above ground where I can go and sit with him every day. He had three church services performed over him, and 1,100 masses said for the repose of his soul.” “For the man,” commented the profane, “who, in his own words, ‘protested against the whole business,’ perhaps 1,100 masses would not have been enough.” In an oration delivered in the Diet of Trieste, Dr. Cambon called him an intrepid explorer, a gallant soldier, an honour to the town of Trieste.” The whole press of the world rang with his praises. The noble tribute paid to his memory by Algernon C. Swinburne has often been quoted:

“While England sees not her old praise dim,

While still her stars through the world’s night swim,

A fame outshining her Raleigh’s fame,

A light that lightens her loud sea’s rim:

Shall shine and sound as her sons proclaim

The pride that kindles at Burton’s name,

And joy shall exalt their pride to be

The same in birth if in soul the same.”640

“Our affairs,” Lady Burton tells Lady Stisted, in a heartrending letter,641 “are so numerous and we belonged to so many things that I have not strength enough to get them carried out before eight weeks, and I could not bear to arrive in Xmas holidays, but immediately after they are over, early January, I shall arrive, if I live, and pass through Folkestone on my way to Mortlake with the dear remains to make a tomb there for us two; and you must let me know whether you wish to see me or not.

“I wish to go into a convent for a spiritual retreat for fifteen days, and after that I should like to live very quietly in a retired way in London till God show me what I am to do or, as I hope, will take me also; and this my belief that I shall go in a few months is my only consolation. As to me, I do not know how anyone can suffer so much and live. While all around me had to go to bed ill, I have had a supernatural strength of soul and body, and have never lost my head for one moment, but I cannot cry a tear. My throat is closed, and I sometime cannot swallow. My heart swelled to bursting. It must go snap soon, I think. I have not forgotten you, and what it means to you who loved each other so much. I shall save many little treasures for you. His and your father’s watch, &c. There are hundreds of telegrams and letters and cards by every post from all parts of the world, and the newspapers are full. The whole civilized world ringing with his praise, and appreciative of his merits — every one deeming it an honour to have known him. Now it will be felt what we have lost. I shall pass the remainder of my short time in writing his life and you must help me. Best love to dearest Georgy. I will write to her. Your affectionate and desolate Isabel.”

To Mr. Arbuthnot, Lady Burton also wrote a very long and pitiful letter.642 As it records in other words much that has already been mentioned we will quote only a few sentences.

“Dear Mr. Arbuthnot, “Your sympathy and that of Mrs. Arbuthnot is very precious to me and I answer you both in one. I cannot answer general letters, but you were his best friend. I should like to tell you all if I saw you but I have no heart to write it. . . . I am arranging all his affairs and when finished I bring him to England. . . . I shall be a little slow coming because I have so much to do with his books and MSS., and secondly because the rent is paid to the 24th February and I am too poor to pay two places. Here I cannot separate from his body, and there it will be in the earth. I am so thoroughly stunned that I feel nothing outside, but my heart is crucified. I have lost all in him. You will want to know my plans. When my work is done, say 1st of March, I will go into a long retreat in a convent and will offer myself to a Sister of Charity. I do not think I shall be accepted for my age and infirmities, but will try. . . . The world is for me a dead letter, and can no more touch me. No more joy — no further sorrow can affect me. Dr. Baker is so good to me, and is undertaking my affairs himself as I really cannot care about them now. Love to both. God bless you both for unvarying friendship and kindness. Your affectionate and desolate friend, Isabel Burton.

“I have saved his gold watch-chain as a memorial for you.”

So passed from human ken the great, noble and learned Richard Francis Burton, “wader of the seas of knowledge,” “cistern of learning of our globe,” “exalted above his age,” “opener by his books of night and day,” “traveller by ship and foot and horse.”643 No man could have had a fuller life. Of all travellers he was surely the most enthusiastic. What had he not seen? The plains of the Indus, the slopes of the Blue Mountains, the classic cities of Italy, the mephitic swamps of Eastern Africa, the Nilotic cataracts, Brazil, Abeokuta, Iceland, El Dorado — all knew well — him, his star-sapphire, and his congested church service: lands fertile, barren, savage, civilized, utilitarian, dithyrambic. He had worshipped at Mecca and at Salt Lake City. He had looked into the face of Memnon, and upon the rocks of Midian, ‘graven with an iron pen,’ upon the head waters of the Congo, and the foliate columns of Palmyra; he had traversed the whole length of the Sao Francisco, crossed the Mississippi and the Ganges. Then, too, had not the Power of the Hills been upon him! With what eminence indeed was he not familiar, whether Alp, Cameroon or Himalaya! Nor did he despise the features of his native land. If he had climbed the easy Andes, he had also conquered, and looked down from the giddy heights of Hampstead. Because he had grubbed in the Italian Pompeii he did not, on that account, despise the British Uriconium.644 He ranks with the world’s most intrepid explorers — with Columbus, Cabot, Marco Polo, Da Gama and Stanley. Like another famous traveller, he had been “in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in weariness and painfullness.” In the words of his beloved Camoens, he had done

“Deeds that deserve, like gods, a deathless name.”645

He had lived almost his three score and ten, but, says one of his friends, “in the vigour, the vehemence indeed with which he vented his indignation over any meanness or wrong, or littleness, he was to the last as youthful as when he visited Mecca and Harar. If, however, the work he did, the hardships he endured, and the amazing amount of learning which he acquired and gave forth to the world are to be taken as any measure of his life, he lived double the term of most ordinary men.” Like Ovid, for the parallelism preserved itself to the end, he died in the land of his exile.

“It has been said of him that he was the greatest Oriental scholar England ever had and neglected.” He was a mighty writer of books — some fifty works, to say nothing of multitudinous articles in the journals of the learned societies, having proceeded from his pen. If it be conceded that he was wanting in the literary faculty and that no one of his books is entirely satisfactory, it should be borne in mind that he added enormously to the sum of human knowledge. We go to him, not for style, but for facts. Again, if his books are not works of art, they contain, nevertheless, many passages that cling to the memory. Take him as linguist, traveller and anthropologist, he was certainly one of the greatest men that modern England has produced.

628 Unpublished.

629 Dr. Schliemann died 27th December, 1890.

630 Not the last page of the Scented Garden, as she supposed (see Life, vol. ii., p. 410), for she tells us in the Life (vol. ii., p. 444) that the MS. consisted of only 20 chapters.

631 Told me by Dr. Baker.

632 Life, ii., 409.

633 Communicated by Mr. P. P. Cautley, the Vice-Consul of Trieste.

634 Asher’s Collection of English Authors. It is now in the Public Library at Camberwell.

635 She herself says almost as much in the letters written during this period. See Chapter xxxix., 177. Letters to Mrs. E. J. Burton.

636 See Chapter xxxi.

637 Letters of Major St. George Burton to me, March 1905.

638 Unpublished letter to Miss Stisted.

639 Unpublished letter.

640 Verses on the Death of Richard Burton. The New Review, Feb. 1891.

641 Unpublished. Lent me by Mr. Mostyn Pryce.

642 Unpublished.

643 See Chapter xiv, 63.

644 See The Land of Midian Revisited, ii., 223, footnote.

645 The Lusiads, Canto ii., Stanza 113.

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