14. First Footsteps in East Africa, 1856.
Owing to his wounds Burton had to return to England, and, on his first opportunity, he gave an account of his explorations before the Royal Geographical Society. Little, however, was now talked of except the Crimean War, which had commenced, it will be remembered in March 1854. The Allies landed in the Crimea in September, Inkermann was fought on the 5th of November, and then followed the tedious siege of Sebastopol. Burton had not long been home before he applied for and obtained leave to join the besieging army; and his brother Edward also went out as surgeon, about the same time. Emulous of the deeds of Napier and Outram, Burton now thought he saw a career of military glory awaiting him. Soon after his arrival at the seat of war he was appointed chief of the staff to General Beatson, and in his “gorgeous uniform blazing with gold” he set vigorously to work to re-organize and drill his contingent of Bashi-Bazouks. He had great difficulties with Beatson, a brave, but passionate and undiplomatic old warrior; but he succeeded marvellously with his men, and his hope of winning fame rose higher than ever. The war, however, was crawling to an end, and the troops he had drilled so patiently had little to do beside look on. At this conjuncture he thought he saw a road to success in the relief of Kars, which had been persistently besieged by the Russians. Elated at the prospect of taking part in a great military feat, he hurried to Constantinople, obtained an interview with the British Ambassador, Lord Stratford, and submitted a plan for approval. To his amazement, Lord Stratford broke into a towering passion, and called him “the most impudent man in the Bombay Army.” Later Burton understood in what way he had transgressed. As the war was closing, it had been arranged by the Allies that Kars should be allowed to fall as a peace offering to Russia.
Burton now began to suffer from the untrue tales that were told about him, still he never troubled to disprove them. Some were circulated by a fellow officer of his — an unmitigated scoundrel whose life had been sullied by every species of vice; who not only invented calumniating stories but inserted particulars that gave them a verisimilitude. Two of this man’s misdeeds may be mentioned. First he robbed the Post Office at Alexandria, and later he unblushingly unfolded to Lord Stanley of Alderley his plan of marrying an heiress and of divorcing her some months later with a view to keeping, under a Greek law, a large portion of her income. He seemed so certain of being able to do it that Lord Stanley consulted a lady friend, and the two together succeeded in frustrating the infamous design. This sordid and callous rascal tried hard to lead people to suppose that he and Burton were hand and glove in various kinds of devilry, and a favourite phrase in his mouth was “I and Burton are great scamps.” Percy Smythe161 then an official under Lord Stratford, commented on hearing the saying: “No, that won’t do, —— is a real scamp, but Burton is only wild.” One story put abroad apparently by the same scoundrel is still in circulation. We are told that Burton was once caught in a Turkish harem, and allowed to escape only after suffering the usual indescribable penalty. As this was the solitary story that really annoyed Burton, we think it our duty to say that conclusive documentary evidence exists proving that, whether or not he ever broke into a harem, he most certainly underwent no deprivation. Other slanders of an even more offensive nature got abroad. Pious English mothers loathed Burton’s name, and even men of the world mentioned it apologetically. In time, it is true, he lived all this down, still he was never — he is not now — generally regarded as a saint worthy of canonization.
With the suspension of General Beatson — for the machinations of enemies ultimately accomplished the old hero’s fall — Burton’s connection with the Crimean army abruptly ceased. Having sent in his resignation, he returned to England and arrived here just in time to miss, to his disappointment, his brother Edward, who had again left for Ceylon. Edward’s after career was sad enough to draw tears from adamant. During an elephant hunt a number of natives set upon him and beat him brutally about the head. Brain trouble ensued, and he returned home, but henceforth, though he attained a green old age, he lived a life of utter silence. Except on one solitary occasion he never after — and that is to say for forty years — uttered a single word. Always resembling a Greek statue, there was now added to him the characteristic of all statues, rigid and solemn silence. From a man he had become aching marble. To Burton, with his great, warm, affectionate heart, Edward’s affliction was an unceasing grief. In all his letters he enquires tenderly after his “dear brother,” and could truly say, with the enemy of his boyhood, Oliver Goldsmith:
“Where’er I roam, whatever realms to see,
My heart untravelled fondly turns to thee:
Still to my Brother turns.”162
Arrived in England, General Beatson promptly instituted civil proceedings against his enemies; and Burton was in constant expectation of being subpoenaed. He thoroughly sympathized with Beatson, but he had no wish to be forced to remain in London, just as he had no wish at any time in his life to be mewed up anywhere. Consequently he disguised himself by wearing green spectacles and tying a pillow over his stomach to simulate corpulence. To one friend who met him, he made himself known. “Are you really Burton?” inquired his friend. “I shall be,” replied Burton, “but just now I’m a Greek doctor.” Burton’s conscience, however, finally had the mastery. He did attend the trial and he corroborated the statements of his late chief. The verdict of the jury went against Beatson, but it was generally felt that the old war dog had fully vindicated his character.
In August, after a lapse of four years, Burton renewed acquaintance with Isabel Arundell, who one day met him, quite by accident, in the Botanical Gardens, and she kept meeting him there quite by accident every day for a fortnight. He had carried his life in his hand to Mecca and to Harar, he had kept at bay 200 Somalis, but like the man in Camoens, he finally fell by “a pair of eyes.”163 According to Lady Burton,164 it was Burton who made the actual proposal; and it is just possible.
“You won’t chalk up ‘Mother will be angry’ now I hope,” said Burton.
“Perhaps not,” replied Miss Arundell, “but she will be all the same.”
Mrs. Arundell, indeed, like so many other English mothers, was violently prejudiced against Burton. When her daughter broached the subject she replied fiercely: “He is not an old English Catholic, or even a Catholic, he has neither money nor prospects.” She might also have added that he was apt to respect mere men of intellect more than men of wealth and rank, an un-English trait which would be sure to militate against his advancement.
Miss Arundell bravely defended her lover, but without effect. A few days later she again met her old gipsy crone Hagar Burton, who repeated her sibylline declaration. As Miss Arundell never, by any chance, talked about anything or anybody except Burton, and as she paid liberally for consulting the Fates, this declaration necessarily points to peculiar acumen on the part of the gipsy.
At one of their meetings Miss Arundell put round Burton’s neck a steel chain with a medal of the Virgin Mary and begged him to wear it all his life. Possessing a very accommodating temperament in matters that seemed to himself of no vital importance, he consented; so it joined the star-sapphire and other amulets, holy and unholy, which, for different purposes, he carried about the world.
That this medal had often acted as a preservative to Burton she was in after life thoroughly convinced.
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