“The Blackness of Darkness”
Arrived in England Burton went straight to his sister’s at Norwood. His dejection was abysmal. Says Miss Stisted, “Strong, brave man though he was, the shock of his sudden recall told upon him cruelly. Not even during his last years, when his health had all but given way, was he so depressed. Sleep being impossible, he used to sit up, sometimes alone, sometimes with Sir H. Stisted, until the small hours of the morning, smoking incessantly. Tragedy was dashed with comedy; one night a terrible uproar arose. The dining-room windows had been left open, the candles alight, and the pug asleep under the table forgotten. A policeman, seeing the windows unclosed, knocked incessantly at the street door, the pug awoke and barked himself hoarse, and everyone clattered out of his or her bedroom to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. My uncle had quite forgotten that in quiet English households servants retire to rest before 3 a.m.”246 Subsequently Lady Stisted and her daughters resided at Folkestone, and thenceforth they were “the Folky Folk.” Burton also took an early opportunity to visit his brother, and tried to lead him into conversation; but nothing could break that Telamonian silence.
246 Temple Bar, vol. xcii., p. 339.
Mrs. Burton, who had returned to Damascus “to pay and pack,” now arrived in England, bringing with her very imprudently her Syrian maid Khamoor. The £16,000 left by Burton’s father, the £300 Mrs. Burton took out with her, and the Damascus £1,200 a year, all had been spent. Indeed, Mrs. Burton possessed no more than the few pounds she carried about her person. In these circumstances prudence would have suggested leaving such a cipher as Khamoor in Syria, but that seems not to have occurred to her. It is probable, however, that the spendthrift was not she but her husband, for when she came to be a widow she not only proved herself an astute business woman, but accumulated wealth. On reaching London she found Burton “in one room in a very small hotel.” His pride had not allowed him to make any defence of himself; and it was at this juncture that Mrs. Burton showed her grit. She went to work with all her soul, and for three months she bombarded with letters both the Foreign Office and outside men of influence. She was not discreet, but her pertinacity is beyond praise. Upon trying to learn the real reason of his recall, she was told only a portion of the truth. Commenting on one of the charges, namely that Burton “was influenced by his Catholic wife against the Jews,” she said, “I am proud to say that I have never in my life tried to influence my husband to do anything wrong, and I am prouder still to say that if I had tried I should not have succeeded.”
For ten months the Burtons had to endure “great poverty and official neglect,” during which they were reduced to their last £15. Having been invited by Mrs. Burton’s uncle, Lord Gerard, to Garswood,247 they went thither by train. Says Mrs. Burton, “We were alone in a railway compartment, when one of the fifteen sovereigns rolled out of my pursed, and slid between the boards of the carriage and the door, reducing us to £14. I sat on the floor and cried, and he sat by me with is arm round my waist trying to comfort me.”248 The poet, as Keats tells us, “pours out a balm upon the world,” and in this, his darkest hour, Burton found relief, as he had so often found it, in the pages of his beloved Camoens. Gradually his spirits revived, and he began to revolve new schemes. Indeed, he was never the man to sit long in gloom or to wait listlessly for the movement of fortune’s wheel. He preferred to seize it and turn it to his purpose.
If the Burtons lacked money, on the other hand they had wealthy relations with whom they were able to stay just as long as they pleased; and, despite their thorny cares, they threw themselves heartily into the vortex of society. Among their friends was Lady Marion Alford, a woman of taste, talent and culture. The first authority of the day on art needlework, she used to expound her ideas on the looms of the world from those of Circe to those of Mrs. Wheeler of New York. At one of Lady Alford’s parties in her house at Princes Gate, October 1871, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh being present, Burton appeared dressed as a Syrian shaykh, and Mrs. Burton as a Moslem lady of Damascus. Burton was supposed not to understand English, and Mrs. Burton gave out that she had brought him over to introduce him to English society. She thus described the occurrence in an unpublished letter to Miss Stisted.249
“Our orgie was great fun. The Bird and I wore Arab dresses. I went in the dress of an Arab lady of Damascus, but as myself, accompanied by Khamoor in her village dress and introducing Hadji Abdullah, a Moslem shaykh of Damascus. We then spoke only Arabic to each other, and the Bird broken French to the company present. We were twenty-eight at supper. The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh were there. We let them into the joke, and they much enjoyed it, but all the rest were quite taken in half the evening. Even Lord Lyons and many of our old friends. The house was perfect and the fountain part250 quite like Damascus. After supper we made Turkish coffee and narghilihis, and Khamoor handed them to the Princes on her knees, the tray on her head in Eastern fashion. They were delighted and spoke to her very kindly. They talked for long to Richard, and afterwards to me, and asked when we were going back to Syria before Lord Granville’s brother.” This letter, like most of Mrs. Burton’s letters to Miss Stisted, is signed “Z,” short for “Zoo.”
In February (1872) Mrs. Burton’s mother, who had for years been paralysed, grew rapidly worse. Says Mrs. Burton, writing to Miss Stisted (29th February), “My time is divided between her and Richard’s concerns. She did rally a little and I took advantage of it to go one to one dinner and to the Thanksgiving Day251 which we saw to perfection, and enjoyed enormously; and last night to a very large gathering at Lady Margaret Beaumont’s . . . Everybody was there and it gave me an opportunity of saying ‘How d’ye do?’ to the world after my return from Syria . . . I am working tooth and nail at the Bird’s252 case, and have got our ambassador (Elliott) to see me at twelve next Saturday.” At this time everyone was talking about Livingstone, the story of the meeting of him and Stanley being still fresh in men’s minds. It was thought that another expedition ought to be sent out with Burton to lead, and a grand luncheon was got up for the express purpose of bring Burton and a certain great personage together. When the soup was being served, the great personage, turning to Burton, said: “You are the man to go out to Livingstone. Come, consent, and I will contribute £500 to the expedition.”
Mrs. Burton, who sat next to her husband, looked up with beaming eyes, and her heart beat with joy. The object of the luncheon had been achieved, and Fortune was again bestowing her smiles; but as ill luck would have it, Burton happened just then to be in one of his contrary moods. He went on spooning up his soup, and, without troubling to turn his head, said, “I’ll save your Royal Highness that expense.”
Poor Mrs. Burton almost fainted. The Livingstone expedition was subsequently undertaken by Cameron.
Another event of this period was the Tichborne trial, but though Burton was subpoenaed by the claimant, his evidence really assisted the other side.
“I understand,” began his interlocutor, “that you are the Central African traveller.”
“I have been to Africa,” modestly replied Burton.
“Weren’t you badly wounded?”253
“Yes, in the back, running away.”
His identity being established, Burton gave his evidence without further word fence. “When I went out to Brazil,” he said, “I took a present from Lady Tichborne for her son, but being unable to find him,254 I sent the present back. When returning from America, I met the claimant, and I recognise him simply as the man I met. That is all.” Burton, like others, always took it for granted that the claimant obtained most of his information respecting the Tichbornes from Bogle, the black man, who had been in the service of the family.
In some unpublished letters of Mrs. Burton, written about this time, we get additional references to Khamoor, and several of them are amusing. Says Mrs. Burton in one of them,255 “Khamoor was charming at the theatre. I cried at something touching, and she, not knowing why, flung herself upon my neck and howled. She nearly died with joy on seeing the clown, and said, ‘Oh, isn’t this delightful. What a lovely life!’ She was awfully shocked at the women dancing with ‘naked legs,’ and at all the rustic swains and girls embracing each other.”
In January 1872, the Burtons were at Knowsley,256 the Earl of Derby’s, whence Mrs. Burton wrote an affectionate letter to Miss Stisted. She says,257 “I hope you are taking care of yourself. Good people are scarce, and I don’t want to lose my little pet.” Later, Burton visited Lady Stisted at Edinburgh, and about that time met a Mr. Lock, who was in need of a trusty emissary to report on some sulphur mines in Iceland, for which he had a concession. The two came to terms, and it was decided that Burton should start in May. He spent the intervening time at Lord Gerard’s,258 and thence Mrs. Burton wrote to Miss Stisted259 saying why she did not accompany Burton in his visit to his relatives. She says, “I hope you all understand that no animosity keeps me from Edinburgh. I should have been quite pleased to go if Richard had been willing, but I think he still fancies that Maria (Lady Stisted) would rather not see me, and I am quite for each one doing as he or she likes . . . The Bird sends his fond love and a chirrup.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48