Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society/Volume II/An Episode from the Life of Sir Richard Burton

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Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society by Isabel Burton
An Episode from the Life of Sir Richard Burton

In our obituary notice of the late Sir Richard Burton, mention was made of a certain Gypsy named Hagar Burton, who, Sir Richard stated, had been instrumental, to some extent, in shaping his destiny. This reference has been fully explained by Lady Burton, who, in favouring us with some account of her illustrious husband, writes as follows :

In the January number of the Gypsy Lore Journal a passage is quoted from "a short sketch of the career" of my husband (a little black pamphlet) which half suspects a remote drop of Gypsy blood in him. There is no proof that this was ever the case, but there is no question that he showed many of their peculiarities in appearance, disposition, and speech speaking Romany like themselves. Nor did we ever enter a Gypsy camp without their claiming him : "What are you doing with a black coat on?" they would say, "why don't you join us and be our King?"

He had the peculiar eye, which looked you through, glazed over and saw something behind.[1] He had the restlessness which could stay nowhere long, nor own any spot on earth - the same horror of a corpse, death-bed scenes, and graveyards, or anything which was in the slightest degree ghoulish - though caring but little for his own life the same aptitude for reading the hand at a glance. With many, he would drop it at once and turn away, nor would anything induce him to speak a word about it.

You quote a letter of his to Mr. James Pincherle, a dear old friend of ours, where he relates the influence that a Gypsy, named Hagar Burton, had upon his life. I will now tell you the story, which will reappear in his biography, if I live to finish it.

When I was a girl in the schoolroom in the country, I was enthusiastic about Gypsies, Bedouin Arabs, everything Eastern and mysterious, and especially wild, lawless life. Disraeli's "Tancred" was my second Bible. I was strictly forbidden to associate with the Gypsies in our lanes, which was my delight. When they were only travelling tinkers or basket-menders I was very obedient, but wild horses would not have kept me out of the camps of the Oriental, yet English-named, tribes of Burton, Cooper, Stanley, Osbaldiston, and one other whose name I forget. My particular friend was Hagar Burton, a tall, slender, handsome, distinguished, refined woman, of much weight in the tribe. Many an hour have I passed with her (she called me Daisy), and many a litttle service I did them when any of them were sick, or had got into a scrape with the squires, anent poultry or eggs and other things. At last a time came when we were to go to school in France, and my departure was regretted by them. The last day but one I ever saw Hagar, she cast my horoscope, and wrote it in Romany. The rest of the tribe presented me with a straw flycatcher of many colours, which I still have. The horoscope was translated to me by her, and I give you the most important part concerning my husband

"You will cross the sea, and be in the same town with your Destiny, and know it not. Every obstacle will rise up against you,

and such a combination of circumstances, that it will require all your

courage and energy and intelligence to meet them. Your life will be like one always swimming against big waves, but God will always be with you, so you will always win. You will fix your eye on your polar star, and you will go for that without looking right or left. You will bear the name of our Tribe, and be right proud of it. You will be as we are, but far greater than we. Your life is all wandering, change, and adventure. One soul in two bodies, in life or death ; never long apart. Show this to the man you take for your husband.

HAGAR BURTON."

In June, 1856, I went to Ascot. I met Hagar and shook hands with her. "Are you Daisy Burton yet? " was her first question. I shook my head "Would to God I were ! " Her face lit up. "Patience, it is just coming." She waved her hand, being rudely thrust from the carriage. I never saw her since, but I was engaged to Richard two months later.

After we were engaged, I gave him the horoscope in Romany. It was before he set out in October, 1856, with Speke, for the dis- covery of Tanganyika. We had been engaged for some weeks. One day in October we had passed several hours together, and he appointed to come next day, at four o'clock in the afternoon. I went to bed quite happy, but I could not sleep at all. At two a.m. the door opened, and he came into my room. A current of warm air came towards my bed. He said, " Good-bye, my poor child. My time is up, and I have gone, but do not grieve. I shall be back in less than three years, and I am your destiny. Good-bye."

He held up a letter looked long at me with those Gypsy eyes,, and went slowly out, shutting the door. I sprang out of bed to the door, into the passage there was nothing and thence into the room of one of my brothers. I threw myself on the ground, and cried my heart out. He got up, asked me what ailed me, and tried to soothe and comfort me. " Richard is gone to Africa/' I said, "and I shall not see him for three years." " Nonsense," he replied ; " you have only got a nightmare. You told me he was coming at four in the afternoon." " So I did ; but I have seen him, and he told me this ; and if you wait till the post comes in, you will see I have told you truly." I sat all the night in my brother's armchair, and at eight o'clock, when the post came in, there was a letter to my sister, Blanche Pigott, enclosing one for me. "He had found it too painful to part, and had thought we should suffer less that way, begged her to break it gently to me, and to give me the letter" (which assured me we should be reunited in 1859 as we were, on the 22nd May of that year). He had left London at six o'clock the previous evening, eight hours before I saw him in the night.

This is the story of Hagar Burton. We have mixed a great deal since with Gypsies, in all parts of the world, and have sought her in, vain. The other Gypsies have chiefly warned us of having to fight through our lives, and to be perpetually on guard against treacheries and calumnies chiefly through jealous men and nasty women" Well,, we have mostly left them to God, and they nearly always come to grief. I may add that all that Hagar Burton foretold came true, and I pray God it may be so to the end, i.e. "never long apart" in Life or Death.

ISABEL BURTON.


  1. A reprinting of the letter in Isabel Burton's biography appended the phrase "and is the only man, not a Gypsy, with that peculiarity".