The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XVI

4th June 1872-24th October 1872

In Iceland


36. Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast. 2 vols., 1872.

37. Unexplored Syria. 2 vols., 1872.

38. On Human Remains, etc., from Iceland, 1872.

69. In Edinburgh Again, 4th June 1872.

In May, Burton was back again in Edinburgh, preparing for the Iceland journey. He took many walks down Princes Street and up Arthur’s Seat with Lady Stisted and his nieces, and “he was flattered,” says Miss Stisted, “by the kindness and hospitality with which he was received. The 93rd Highlanders, stationed at the Castle, entertained in genuine Highland fashion; and at our house he met most of the leading Scotch families who happened to be lingering in the northern capital.” Lord Airlie, the High Commissioner, held brilliant receptions at Holyrood. There were gay scenes — women in their smartest gowns, men wearing their medals and ribands. General Sir H. Stisted was there in his red collar and cross and star of the Bath. Burton “looked almost conspicuous in unadorned simplicity.” On 4th June260 Burton left for Iceland. The parting from his friends was, as usual, very hard. Says Miss Stisted, “His hands turned cold, his eyes filled with tears.” Sir W. H. Stisted accompanied him to Granton, whence, with new hopes and aspirations, he set sail. Spectacularly, Iceland — Ultima Thule — as he calls it — was a disappointment to him. “The giddy, rapid rivers,” were narrow brooks, Hecla seemed but “half the height of Hermon,” the Great Geyser was invisible until you were almost on the top of it. Its voice of thunder was a mere hiccough. Burton, the precise antithesis of old Sir John de Mandeville, was perhaps the only traveller who never told “travellers’ tales.” Indeed, he looked upon Sir John as a disgrace to the cloth; though he sometimes comforted himself with the reflection that most likely that very imaginative knight never existed. But he thoroughly enjoyed these Icelandic experiences, for, to use one of his own phrases, the power of the hills was upon him. With Mr. Lock he visited the concession, and on his way passed through a village where there was a fair, and where he had a very narrow escape. A little more, we are told, and a hideous, snuffy, old Icelandic woman would have kissed him. In respect to the survey, the mass of workable material was enormous. There was no lack of sulphur, and the speculation promised to be a remunerative one. Eventually, however, it was found that the obstacles were insuperable, and the scheme had to be abandoned. However, the trip had completed the cure commenced by Camoens, and at the end of it everybody said “he looked at least fifteen years younger.”

Burton had scarcely left Granton for Iceland before Mrs. Arundell died, and the letters which Mrs. Burton wrote at this time throw an interesting light on the relations between her and Burton’s family. To Miss Stisted she says (June 14th), “My darling child. My dear mother died in my arms at midnight on Wednesday 5th. It was like a child going to sleep, most happy, but quite unexpected by us, who thought, though sinking, she would last till August or October. I need not tell you, who know the love that existed between her and me, that my loss is bitter and irreparable, and will last for life. May you never know it! I have written pages full of family detail to darling Nana, and I intended to enclose it to you to read en route, but I thought perhaps our religious views and observances might seem absurd to the others, and I felt ashamed to do so. You know when so holy a woman as dear mother dies, we do not admit of any melancholy or sorrow except for ourselves Your dear little letter was truly welcome with its kind and comforting messages. I am glad that our darling [Burton] was spared all the sorrow we have gone through, and yet sorry he did not see the beauty and happiness of her holy death . . . She called for Richard twice before her death. Do write again and often, dear child. Tell me something about the Iceland visits. . . . Your loving Zooey.”

What with the unsatisfactory condition of their affairs, and the death of her mother, Mrs. Burton was sadly troubled; but the long lane was now to have a turning. One day, while she was kneeling with wet cheeks before her mother’s coffin, and praying that the sombrous overhanging cloud might pass away, a letter arrived from Lord Granville offering her husband the Consulate of Trieste261 with a salary of £700 a year. This was a great fall after Damascus, but in her own words, “better than nothing,” and she at once communicated with her husband, who was still in Iceland.

260 The True Life, p. 336.

261 It had just been vacated by the death of Charles Lever, the novelist. Lever had been Consul at Trieste from 1867 to 1872. He died at Trieste, 1st June 1872.

70. Wardour Castle, 5th July 1872.

She then made a round of country house visits, including one to Wardour Castle.262 In an unpublished letter to Miss Stisted, she says: “My pet, I came here on Tuesday . . . I have never cried nor slept since mother died (a month to-morrow) I go up again on Monday for final pack-up — to my convent ten days — . . . . then back to town in hopes of Nana in August, about the 7th. Then we shall go to Spain, and to Trieste, our new appointment, if he [Burton] will take it, as all our friends and relations wish, if only as a stop-gap for the present. Arundell has done an awfully kind thing. There is a large Austrian honour in the family with some privileges, and he has desired me to assume all the family honours on arriving, and given me copies of the Patent, with all the old signatures and attested by himself. This is to present to the Herald’s College at Vienna. He had desired my cards to be printed Mrs. Richard Burton, nee Countess Isabel Arundell of Wardour of the most sacred Roman Empire. This would give us an almost royal position at Vienna or any part of Austria, and with Nana’s own importance and fame we shall (barring salary) cut out the Ambassador. She wants a quiet year to learn German and finish old writings. . . . I should like the tour round the world enormously, but I don’t see where the money is to come from . . . This is such a glorious old place . . . The woods and parks are splendid, and the old ruin of the castle defended by Lady Blanche is the most interesting thing possible. Half the other great places I go to are mushroom greatness, but this is the real old thing of Druid remains and the old baronial castle of knights in armour and fair Saxon-looking women, and with heavy portcullises to enter by, and dungeons and subterranean passages, etc. There is a statue of our Saviour over the door, and in Cromwell’s siege a cannon ball made a hole in the wall just behind it and never took off its head. . . . Your loving Zoo.”

A few days later Mrs. Burton received a letter from her husband, who expressed his willingness to accept Trieste. He arrived at Edinburgh again on September 5th, and his presence was the signal for a grand dinner, at which all the notables of the neighbourhood, including many people of title, were present. But, unfortunately, Burton was in one of his disagreeable moods, and by the time dinner was half over, he found that he had contradicted with acerbity every person within earshot. While, however, he was thus playing the motiveless ogre, his brother-in-law, Sir Henry Stisted, at the other end of the table, was doing his utmost to render himself agreeable, and by the extraordinary means of rolling out anecdote after anecdote that told against the Scotch character. The Mackenzies, the Murrays, the MacDonalds, the McQueens, looked black as thunder, and Stisted’s amiability gave even more offence than Burton’s ill-temper. Noticing that something was amiss opposite him, Burton stopped his own talk to listen. Then Stisted’s innocence and the ludicrousness of the whole scene dawned upon him, and leaning back in his chair he roared with uncontrollable laughter. When he met his wife again one of her first questions was about this dinner, at which she had hoped her husband would dazzle and delight the whole company, and which she supposed might lead to his promotion. He then told her the whole story, not omitting his ill-humour. She listened with dismay, and then burst into tears. “Come,” he commented, “I wasn’t so bad as Stisted, anyhow.”

262 Near Salisbury.

71. St. George and Frederick Burton.

Upon his return to London, Burton renewed his acquaintance with his cousins Dr. and Mrs. Edward John Burton. He and Dr. Burton, whom he thought fit to call after a character in The Arabian Nights, “Abu Mohammed Lazybones,”263 had long known each other, but Dr. Burton had also for some time resided in distant lands. The notes that brought about the meeting — and they could not be briefer — now lie before me. They run:

“Athanaeum Club,

“Sept. 20 ‘72

“My dear Cousin,

“When and where can I see you? Yours truly,

“R. F. Burton.”

“Junior United Service Club.

“My dear Richard,

“Any day at 4 p.m.

“Yours ever,

“E. J. Burton.”

A few days later, Burton dined with Edward John, and made the acquaintance of his young cousins, St. George and Frederick. Of St. George, a dark-haired lad, who was particularly clever and had a humorous vein, Burton from the first thought highly. One day, happening to turn over some of the leaves of the boy’s exercise book, he stumbled upon the following lines:

“The map of Africa was dark as night,

God said, ‘Let Burton live,’ and there was light.”

He laughed heartily and thanked his little cousin for the compliment, while the couplet became a stock quotation in the family. Later, when St. George went to a French school, he was very proud to find that the boys were conversant not only with the exploits of his famous uncle, but also with the history of the Dr. Francis Burton who had made Napoleon’s death mask. Frederick Burton was a plump, shy, fair-haired little fellow, and Burton, who loved to tease, did not spare his rotundity. In one of Frederick’s copy-books could be read, in large hand,

“Life is short.”

“I,” commented Burton, “find life very long.”

Subsequently he advised his cousin to go to the River Plate. “Well,” he would ask, when he entered the house, “has Frederick started for the River Plate yet? I see a good opening there.”

As Dr. Burton was born in the house of his father’s brother, the Bishop of Killala, Burton used to affect jealousy. “Hang it all, Edward,” he would say, “You were born in a bishop’s palace.”

Apparently it was about this time that the terrible silence of Burton’s brother was for a moment broken. Every human device had been tried to lead him to conversation, and hitherto in vain. It seems that some years previous, and before Edward’s illness, Dr. E. J. Burton had lent his cousin a small sum of money, which was duly repaid. One day Dr. Burton chose to assume the contrary, and coming upon Edward suddenly he cried:

“Edward, you might just as well have paid me that money I lent you at Margate. I call it shabby, now.”

Edward raised his head and fixing his eyes on Dr. Burton said, with great effort, and solemnly, “Cousin, I did pay you, you must remember that I gave you a cheque.”

Thrilled with joy, Dr. Burton attempted to extend the conversation, but all in vain, and to his dying day Edward Burton never uttered another word.

263 Burton’s A.N. iv. Lib. Ed., iii., 282. Payne’s A.N. iii., 10.

72. At the Athenaeum.

Of all the spots in London, none was so dear to Burton as his club, The Athenaeum. When in England, he practically lived there, and its massive portico, its classic frieze, and the helmeted statue of Minerva were always imaged on his heart. He wrote a number of his books there, and he loved to write his letters on its notepaper stamped with the little oval enclosing Minerva’s head. He used to make his way to the Athenaeum early in the day264 and go straight to the library. Having seated himself at the round table he would work with coralline industry, and without a single break until six or seven in the evening. It was a standing joke against him in Dr. Burton’s family that when at the club he was never at home to anybody except a certain Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers. This lady was of Austrian birth, and, according to rumour, there was a flavour of romance about her marriage. It was said that while the laws of certain countries regarded her as married, those of other countries insisted that she was still single. However, married or not, she concentrated all her spleen on cab-drivers, and was continually hauling some luckless driver or other before the London magistrates. Having a profound respect for Burton’s judgment, she often went to him about these cab disputes, and, oddly enough, though nobody else could get at him, he was always at the service of Mrs. Prodgers, and good-naturedly gave her the benefit of his wisdom.265 To the London magistrates the good lady was a perpetual terror, and Frederick Burton, a diligent newspaper reader, took a pleasure in following her experiences. “St. George,” he would call across the breakfast table, “Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers again: She’s had another cab-man up.”

One evening, says a London contributor to the New York Tribune266 referring to this period, “there was a smoking party given by a well-known Londoner. I went in late, and on my way upstairs, stumbled against a man sitting on the stairs, with a book and pencil in his hands, absorbed in his reading, and the notes he was making. It was Burton. When I spoke to him he woke up as if from a dream with the dazed air of one not quite sure where he is. I asked him what he was reading. It proved to be Camoens, and he told me he was translating the Portuguese poet. It seemed an odd place for such work, and I said as much. “Oh,” answered Burton, “I can read anywhere or write anywhere. And I always carry Camoens about with me. You see, he is a little book, and I have done most of my translating in these odd moments, or, as you say, in this odd fashion.” And he added, with a kind of cynical grin on his face, ‘You will find plenty of dull people in the rooms above.’ He had been bored and this was his refuge.”

264 Told me by Mr. Henry Richard Tedder, librarian at the Athenaeum from 1874.

265 Burton, who was himself always having disputes with cab-drivers and everybody else, probably sympathised with Mrs. Prodgers’ crusade.

266 Of 2nd November 1891.

73. Jane Digby Again.

Report now arrived that Jane Digby was dead; and paragraphs derogatory to her character appeared in the press. Mrs. Burton not only answered them, but endeavoured to throw a halo over her friend’s memory. She said also that as she, Mrs. Burton, had Jane Digby’s biography, nobody else had any right to make remarks. Comically enough, news then came that Jane was still alive. She had been detained in the desert by the fighting of the tribes. Says Mrs. Burton, “her relatives attacked her for having given me the biography, and she, under pressure, denied it in print, and then wrote and asked me to give it back to her; but I replied that she should have had it with the greatest pleasure, only she having ‘given me the lie’ in print, I was obliged for my own sake to keep it, and she eventually died.” This very considerate act of Jane’s saved all further trouble.

74. His Book on Zanzibar.

On his expedition with Speke to Tanganyika, Burton had already written four volumes,267 and it was now to be the subject of another work, Zanzibar, which is chiefly a description of the town and island from which the expedition started. The origin of the book was as follows. With him on his way home from Africa he had brought among other MSS. a bundle of notes relating both to his “preliminary canter” and to Zanzibar, and the adventures of these notes were almost as remarkable as those of the Little Hunchback. On the West Coast of Africa the bundle was “annexed” by a skipper. The skipper having died, the manuscripts fell into the hands of his widow, who sold them to a bookseller, who exposed them for sale. An English artillery officer bought them, and, in his turn, lost them. Finally they were picked up in the hall of a Cabinet Minister, who forwarded them to Burton. The work contains an enormous mass of geographical, anthropological and other information, and describes the town so truthfully that nobody, except under compulsion, would ever dream of going there. The climate, it seems, is bad for men, worse for women. “Why,” he asks, “should Englishmen poison or stab their wives when a few months at Zanzibar would do the business more quietly and effectually?” The expense of getting them over there may be one objection. But whoever goes to Zanzibar, teetotallers, we are told, should keep away. There it is drink or die. Burton introduces many obsolete words, makes attacks on various persons, and says fearlessly just what he thinks; but the work has both the Burtonian faults. It is far too long, and it teems with uninteresting statistics.

There also left the press this year (1871) a work in two volumes entitled Unexplored Syria, by Burton and Tyrwhitt Drake.268 It describes the archaeological discoveries made by the authors during their sojourn in Syria, and includes an article on Syrian Proverbs (Proverba Communia Syriaca) which had appeared the year before in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Some of the sayings have English analogues, thus:

“He who wants nah

Mustn’t say ah;”

“nah” being wealth or honour; “ah,” the expression of fear or doubt.269

At one of the meetings of the Royal Geographical Society, at which Burton had been billed to speak, there were present among the audience his wife, Mr. Arundell, and several other members of the family. Considerable hostility was shown towards Burton; and Colonel Rigby270 and others flatly contradicted some of his statements respecting Zanzibar. Then Burton flew into a temper such as only he could fly into. His eyes flashed, his lips protruded with rage, and he brandished the long map pointer so wildly that the front bench became alarmed for their safety. Old Mr. Arundell, indignant at hearing his son-in-law abused, then tried to struggle on to the platform, while his sons and daughters, horrified at the prospect, hung like bull-dogs to his coat tails. Says Burton, “the old man, who had never been used to public speaking, was going to address a long oration to the public about his son-in-law, Richard Burton. As he was slow and very prolix, he would never have sat down again, and God only knows what he would have said.” The combined efforts of the Arundell family however, prevented so terrible a denouement, Burton easily proved his enemies’ statements to be erroneous, and the order was eventually restored.

267 Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa (2 vols. 1860). Vol. 33 of the Royal Geographical Society, 1860, and The Nile Basin, 1864.

268 A portion was written by Mrs. Burton.

269 These are words used by children. Unexplored Syria, i., 288. Nah really means sweetstuff.

270 Afterwards Major-General. He died in April 1887. See Chapter ix., 38.

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