The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XVII

24th October 1872-12th May 1875



39. Medinah and Meccah. 3 vols. in one, 1873.

40. Minas Geraes. 7th January 1873. J. A. I.

41. The Lands of the Cazembe. 1873.

42. The Captivity of Hans Stadt, 1874.

43. Articles on Rome. Macmillan’s Mag. 1874-5.

44. The Castellieri of Istria.

45. Gerber’s Province of Minas Geraes.

46. New System of Sword Exercise.

47. Ultima Thule, or a Summer in Iceland. 2 vols. 1875.

48. Two Trips to Gorilla Land. 2 vols. 1875.

49. The Inner Life of Syria. 2 vols., 1875, by Mrs. Burton.

50. The Long Wall of Salona.

75. Burton at Trieste, 24th October 1872.

Burton left England for Trieste 24th October 1872,271 but the popular belief that he entered the town with a fighting cock under his arm and a bull-terrier at his heels lacks foundation. He was fifty-one, the age of the banished Ovid, to whom he often compared himself, and though the independent and haughty Burton bears no resemblance to the sycophantic and lachrymose yet seductive Sulmoan, nevertheless his letters from Trieste are a sort of Tristia — or as the flippant would put it — Triestia. Indeed, he read and re-read with an almost morbid interest both the Tristia and the Ex Ponto.272 Ovid’s images seemed applicable to himself. “I, too,” he said, “am a neglected book gnawed by the moth,” “a stream dammed up with mud,” “a Phalaris, clapped, for nothing in particular, into the belly of a brazen bull.” Like Ovid, too, he could and did pronounce his invective against the Ibis, the cause of all his troubles, that is to say, Rashid Pasha, whose very name was as gall and wormwood. His fate, indeed, was a hard one. The first linguist of his day, for he spoke twenty-eight languages and dialects, he found himself relegated to a third-rate port, where his attainments were absolutely valueless to anybody. The greatest of travellers, the most indefatigable of anthropologists, the man who understood the East as no other Englishman had understood it — was set to do work that could in those days have been accomplished with ease by any raw and untravelled government official possessed of a smattering of German and Italian. But the truth is, Burton’s brilliant requirements were really a hindrance to him. The morbid distrust of genius which has ever been incidental to ordinary Government officialism, was at that time particularly prevalent. The only fault to be found with Burton’s conduct at Damascus, was that, instead of serving his own interest, he had attempted to serve the interests of his country and humanity. By trimming, temporizing, shutting his eyes to enormities, and touching bribes, he might have retained his post, or have been passed on to Constantinople.

When time after time he saw incompetent men advanced to positions of importance, his anger was unrestrainable, “Why,” he asked bitterly, “are the Egyptian donkey-boys so favourable to the English?” Answer, “Because we hire more asses than any other nation.”

Trieste is a white splash between high wooded mountains and a dark precipice rising from a sea intense as the blue of the gentian. The population was about 140,000, mostly Italian speaking. Nominally they were Catholics, and of genuine Catholics there might have been 20,000, chiefly women. “Trieste,” said Burton, “is a town of threes — three quarters, three races (Italian, Slav and Austrian), and three winds (Sirocco, Bora, and Contraste).” One brilliant man of letters had been connected with the town, namely Marie-Henry Beyle, better known by his pen name, Stendhal,273 who, while he was French Counul here, pumice polished and prepared for the press his masterpiece, La Chartreuse de Parme, which he had written at Padua in 1830. To the minor luminary, Charles Lever, we have already alluded. Such was the town in which the British Hercules was set to card wool. The Burtons occupied ten rooms at the top of a block of buildings situated near the railway station. The corridor was adorned with a picture of our Saviour, and statuettes of St. Joseph and the Madonna with votive lights burning before them. This, in Burton’s facetious phrase, was “Mrs. Burton’s joss house;” and occasionally, when they had differences, he threatened “to throw her joss house out of the window.” Burton in a rage, indeed, was the signal for the dispersal of everybody. Furniture fell, knick-knacks flew from the table, and like Jupiter he tumbled gods on gods. If, however, he and his wife did not always symphonize, still, on the whole, they continued to work together amicably, for Mrs. Burton took considerable pains to accommodate herself to the peculiarities of her husband’s temperament, and both were blessed with that invaluable oil for troubled waters — the gift of humour. “Laughter,” Burton used to say, and he had “a curious feline laugh,” “animates the brain and stimulates the lungs.” To his wife’s assumption of the possession of knowledge, of being a linguist, of being the intellectual equal of every living person, saving himself, he had no objection; and the pertinacity with which she sustained this role imposed sometimes even on him. He got to think that she was really a genius in a way, and saw merit even in the verbiage and rhodomontade of her books. But whatever Isabel Burton’s faults, they are all drowned and forgotten in her devotion to her husband. It was more than love — it was unreasoning worship. “You and Mrs. Burton seem to jog along pretty well together,” said a friend. “Yes,” followed Burton, “I am a spoilt twin, and she is the missing fragment.”

Burton, of course, never really took to Trieste, his Tomi, as he called it. He was too apt to contrast it with Damascus: the wind-swept Istrian hills with the zephyr-ruffled Lebanon, the dull red plains of the Austrian sea-board with the saffron of the desert, the pre-historic castellieri or hill-forts, in which, nevertheless, he took some pleasure, with the columned glories of Baalbak and Palmyra. “Did you like Damascus?” somebody once carelessly asked Mrs. Burton.

“Like it!” she exclaimed, quivering with emotion, “My eyes fill, and my heart throbs even at the thought of it.”

Indeed, they always looked back with wistful, melancholy regret upon the two intercalary years of happiness by the crystalline Chrysorrhoa, and Mrs. Burton could never forget that last sad ride through the beloved Plain of Zebedani. Among those who visited the Burtons at Trieste, was Alfred Bates Richards. After describing Mrs. Burton’s sanctuary, he says: “Thus far, the belongings are all of the cross, but no sooner are we landed in the little drawing-rooms than signs of the crescent appear. These rooms, opening one into another, are bright with Oriental hangings, with trays and dishes of gold and burnished silver, fantastic goblets, chibouques with great amber mouth-pieces, and Eastern treasure made of odorous woods.” Burton liked to know that everything about him was hand-made. “It is so much better,” he used to say, than the “poor, dull work of machinery.” In one of the book-cases was Mrs. Burton’s set of her husband’s works, some fifty volumes.274

Mr. Richards thus describes Burton himself, “Standing about five feet eleven, his broad, deep chest and square shoulders reduce his apparent height very considerably, and the illusion is intensified by hands and feet of Oriental smallness. The Eastern and distinctly Arab look of the man is made more pronounced by prominent cheek-bones (across one of which is the scar of a javelin cut), by closely-cropped black hair, just tinged with grey, and a pair of piercing, black, gipsy-looking eyes.” Out of doors, in summer, Burton wore a spotlessly white suit, a tie-pin shaped like a sword, a pair of fashionable, sharply-pointed shoes, and the shabbiest old white beaver hat that he could lay his hands upon. On his finger glittered a gold ring, engraved with the word “Tanganyika.”275 In appearance, indeed, he was a compound of the dandy, the swash-buckler and the literary man. He led Mr. Richards through the house. Every odd corner displayed weapons — guns, pistols, boar-spears, swords of every shape and make. On one cupboard was written “The Pharmacy.” It contained the innocuous medicines for Mrs. Burton’s poor — for she still continued to manufacture those pills and drenches that had given her a reputation in the Holy Land. “Why,” asked Richards, “do you live in a flat and so high up?” “To begin with,” was the reply, “we are in good condition, and run up and down the stairs like squirrels. If I had a great establishment, I should feel tied and weighed down. With a flat and two or three servants one has only to lock the door and go out.” The most noticeable objects in the rooms were eleven rough deal tables, each covered with writing materials.276 At one sat Mrs. Burton in morning neglige, a grey choga — the long, loose Indian dressing-gown of soft camel’s hair — topped by a smoking cap of the same material. She observed, “I see you are looking at our tables. Dick likes a separate table for each book, and when he is tired of one he goes to another.” He never, it seems, wrote more than eleven books at a time, unless stout pamphlets come under that category. Their life was a peaceful one, except on Fridays, when Mrs. Burton received seventy bosom and particular friends, and talked to them at the top of her voice in faulty German, Italian, which she spoke fluently, or slangy English.277 In the insipid conversation of this “magpie sanhedrin,” “these hen parties,” as he called them, Burton did not join, but went on with his work as if no one was present. Indeed, far from complaining, he remarked philosophically that if the rooms had been lower down probably 140 visitors instead of 70 would have looked in. The Burtons usually rose at 4 or 5, and after tea, bread and fruit, gave their morning to study. At noon they drank a cup of soup, fenced, and went for a swim in the sea. Burton then took up a heavy iron stick with a silver knob278 and walked to the Consulate, which was situated in the heart of the town, while Mrs. Burton, with her pockets bulging with medicines, and a flask of water ready for baptism emergencies hanging to her girdle, busied herself with charitable work, including the promotion of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They generally dined at the table d’hote of the Hotel de la Ville, and dined well, for, as Burton says used to “Only fools and young ladies care nothing for the carte.”279 Having finished their coffee, cigarettes, and kirsch, outside the hotel, they went home to bed, where, conscious of a good day’s work done, they took their rest merrily. Sometimes they interrupted the routine with excursions into the surrounding country, of which they both knew every stock and stone, pre-historic or modern. Of business ability, Burton had never possessed one iota, and his private affairs were constantly mis-managed. As at Fernando Po, Santos and Damascus, he promptly looked out for a sanitarium, his choice finally resting upon a loftily-situated village called Opcina.

Reviewing Burton’s career, Mr. Alfred Bates Richards says: “He has done more than any other six men, and is one of the best, noblest and truest that breathes. While not on active service or on sick leave he has been serving his country, humanity, science, and civilisation in other ways, by opening up lands hitherto unknown, and trying to do good wherever he went. He was the pioneer for all other living African travellers.”

If Trieste was not an ideal post for him, still it had the patent advantage of being practically a sinecure. He and his wife seem to have been able to get away almost at any time. They sometimes travelled together, but often went in different directions, and as Burton was as restless as a hyena, he never stayed in any one place many hours. Occasionally they met unexpectedly. Upon one of these meetings in a Swiss hotel, Burton burst out affectionately with, “And what the devil brought you here?” To which she replied, promptly but sweetly, “Ditto, brother.” For study, Burton had almost unlimited time, and nothing came amiss to him. He lost himself in old sacramentaries, Oriental manuscripts, works on the prehistoric remains of Istria, Camoens, Catullus, The Arabian Nights, Boccaccio. His knowledge was encyclopaedic.

271 Mrs. Burton and Khamoor followed on Nov. 18th.

272 Burton’s works contain many citations from Ovid. Thus there are two in Etruscan Bologna, pp. 55 and 69, one being from the Ars Amandi and the other from The Fasti.

273 Stendhal, born 1783. Consul at Trieste and Civita Vecchia from 1830 to 1839. Died in Paris, 23rd March 1842. Burton refers to him in a footnote to his Terminal Essay in the Nights on “Al Islam.”

274 These are all preserved now at the Central Library, Camberwell.

275 Now in the possession of Mrs. St. George Burton.

276 In later times Dr. Baker never saw more than three tables.

277 Mrs. Burton, was, of course, no worse than many other society women of her day. Her books bristle with slang.

278 It is now in the possession of Mrs. E. J. Burton, 31, Whilbury Road, Brighton.

279 Later Burton was himself a sad sinner in this respect. His studies made him forget his meals.

76. At the Vienna Exhibition, 1873.

Early in 1873 the Burtons visited Vienna chiefly in order to see the great Exhibition. The beauty of the buildings excited their constant admiration, but the dearness of everything at the hotels made Burton use forcible language. On one occasion he demanded — he never asked for anything — a beefsteak, and a waiter hurried up with an absurdly small piece of meat on a plate. Picking it up with the fork he examined it critically, and then said, quite amiably for him, “Yaas, yaas,280 that’s it, bring me some.” Next he required coffee. The coffee arrived in what might have been either a cup or a thimble. “What’s this?” demanded Burton. The waiter said it was coffee for one. “Then,” roared Burton, with several expletives, “bring me coffee for twenty.” Their bill at this hotel came to £163 for the three weeks.

280 His usual pronunciation of the word.

77. A Visit from Drake, June 1873.

On their return from Vienna, they had the pleasure of meeting again Lady Marion Alford, Aubertin, and that “true-hearted Englishman, staunch to the backbone,” Charles Tyrwhitt Drake, who “brought with him a breath from the desert and stayed several weeks.” The three friends went to a fete held in the stalactite caverns of Adelsberg, from which Burton, who called them the eighth wonder of the world, always assumed that Dante got his ideas of the Inferno. Lighted by a million candles, and crowded with peasants in their picturesque costumes, which made wondrous arabesques of moving shadows, the caves presented a weird and unearthly appearance, which the music and dancing subsequently intensified. Shortly afterwards Drake left for Palestine. In May (1874), Burton was struck down by a sudden pain, which proved to arise from a tumour. An operation was necessary, and all was going on well when a letter brought the sad news of Drake’s death. He had succumbed, at Jerusalem, to typhoid fever, at the early age of twenty-eight.281 Burton took the news so heavily, that, at Mrs. Burton says,282 it “caused the wound to open afresh; he loved Drake like a brother, and few know what a tender heart Richard has.” To use Dr. Baker’s283 phrase, he had “the heart of a beautiful woman.”

281 12th August 1874.

282 Letter to Lord Houghton.

283 Dr. Grenfell Baker, afterwards Burton’s medical attendant.

78. Khamoor returns to Syria, 4th December 1874.

In the meantime Mrs. Burton was reaping the fruits of her injudicious treatment of Khamoor. Thoroughly spoilt, the girl now gave herself ridiculous airs, put herself on a level with her mistress, and would do nothing she was told. As there was no other remedy, Mrs. Burton resolved philanthropically to send her back to Syria, “in order that she might get married and settled in life.” So Khamoor was put on board a ship going to Beyrout, with nine boxes of clothes and a purse of gold. “It was to me,” says Mrs. Burton, “a great wrench.” Khamoor’s father met her, the nine boxes, and the purse of gold at Beyrout, and by and by came to the news that she was married and settled down in the Buka’a. Such was the end of Chico the Second.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52