The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 1/Chapter 5

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I was fancy free and unknew I love,
But I fell in love and in madness fell;
I write you with tears of eyes so belike,
They explain my love, come my heart to quell.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah

(Burton's "Arabian Nights").

ON leaving Boulogne, Isabel saw Richard Burton no more for four years, and only heard of him now and again from others or through the newspapers. She went back to London with her people, and outwardly took up life and society again much where she had left it two years before. But inwardly things were very different. She had gone to Boulogne an unformed girl; she had left it a loving woman. Her ideal had taken form and shape; she had met the only man in all the world whom she could love, the man to whom she had been "destined from the beginning," and her love for him henceforth became, next to her religion, the motive power of her actions and the guiding principle of her life. All her youth, until she met him, she had yearned for something, she hardly knew what. That something had come to her, sweeter than all her young imaginings, glorifying her life and flooding her soul with radiance. And after the light there had come the darkness; after the joy there had come keenest pain; for it seemed that her love was given to one who did not return it—nay, more, who was all unconscious of it. But this did not hinder her devotion, though her maidenly reserve checked its outward expression. She had met her other self in Richard Burton. He was her affinity. A creature of impulse and emotion, there was a certain vein of thought in her temperament which responded to the recklessness in his own. She could no more stifle her love for him than she could stifle her nature, for the love she bore him was part of her nature, part of herself.

Meanwhile she and her sister Blanche, the sister next to her in age, had to take the place in society suited to young ladies of their position. Their father, Mr. Henry Raymond Arundell, though in comfortable circumstances, was not a wealthy man; but in those days money was not the passport to society, and the Miss Arundells belonged by birth to the most exclusive aristocracy of Europe, the Catholic nobility of England, an aristocracy which has no parallel, unless it be found in the old Legitimist families of France, the society of the Faubourg St. Germain. But this society, though undoubtedly exclusive, was also undoubtedly tiresome to the impetuous spirit of Isabel, who chafed at the restraints by which she was surrounded. She loved liberty; her soaring spirit beat its wings against the prison-bars of custom and convention; she was always yearning for a wider field. Deep down in her heart was hidden the secret of her untold love, and this robbed the zest from the pleasure she might otherwise have taken in society. Much of her time was spent in confiding to her diary her thoughts about Richard, and in gleaning together and treasuring in her memory every scrap of news she could gather concerning him. At the same time she was not idle, nor did she pine outwardly after the approved manner of love-sick maidens. As the eldest daughter of a large family she had plenty to do in the way of home duties, and it was not in her nature to shirk any work which came in her way, but to do it with all her might.

The Miss Arundells had no lack of admirers, and more than once Isabel refused or discouraged advantageous offers of marriage, much to the perplexity of her mother, who naturally wished her daughters to make good marriages; that is to say, to marry men of the same religion as themselves, and in the same world—men who would make them good husbands in every sense of the word. But Isabel, who was then twenty-one years of age, had a strong will of her own, and very decided views on the subject of marriage, and she turned a deaf ear to all pleadings. Besides, was she not guarded by the talisman of a hidden and sacred love? In her diary at this time she writes:

"They say it is time I married (perhaps it is); but it is never time to marry any man one does not love, because such a deed can never be undone. Richard may be a delusion of my brain. But how dull is reality! What a curse is a heart! With all to make me happy I pine and hanker for him, my other half, to fill this void, for I feel as if I were not complete. Is it wrong to want some one to love more than one's father and mother—one on whom to lavish one's best feelings? What will my life be alone? I cannot marry any of the insignificant beings round me. Where are all those men who inspired the grandes passions of bygone days? Is the race extinct? Is Richard the last of them? Even so, is he for me? They point out the matches I might make if I took the trouble, but the trouble I will not take. I have no vocation to be a nun. I do not consider myself good enough to offer to God. God created me with a warm heart, a vivid imagination, and strong passions; God has given me food for hunger, drink for thirst, but no companion for my loneliness of heart. If I could only be sure of dying at forty, and until then preserve youth, health, spirits, and good looks, I should be more cheerful to remain as I am. I cannot separate myself from all thought of Richard. Neither do I expect God to work a miracle to make me happy. To me there are three kinds of marriage: first, worldly ambition; that is, marriage for fortune, title, estates, society; secondly, love; that is, the usual pig and cottage; thirdly, life, which is my ideal of being a companion and wife, a life of travel, adventure, and danger, seeing and learning, with love to glorify it—that is what I seek. L'amour n'y manquerait pas!

"A sailor leaves his wife for years, and is supposed to be unfaithful to her by necessity. The typical sportsman breakfasts and goes out, comes home to dinner, falls asleep over his port, tumbles into bed, and snores till morning. An idle and independent man who lives in society is often a roué, a gambler, or drunkard, whose wife is deserted for a danseuse.

"One always pictures the 'proper man' to be a rich, fat, mild lordling, living on his estate, whence, as his lady, one might rise to be a leader of Almack's. But I am much mistaken if I do not deserve a better fate. I could not live like a vegetable in the country. I cannot picture myself in a white apron, with a bunch of keys, scolding my maids, counting eggs and butter, with a good and portly husband (I detest fat men!) with a broad-brimmed hat and a large stomach. And I should not like to marry a country squire, nor a doctor, nor a lawyer (I hear the parchments crackle now), nor a parson, nor a clerk in a London office. God help me! A dry crust, privations, pain, danger for him I love would be better. Let me go with the husband of my choice to battle, nurse him in his tent, follow him under the fire of ten thousand muskets. I would be his companion through hardship and trouble, nurse him if wounded, work for him in his tent, prepare his meals when faint, his bed when weary, and be his guardian angel of comfort—a felicity too exquisite for words! There is something in some women that seems born for the knapsack. How many great thoughts are buried under ordinary circumstances, and splendid positions exist that are barren of them — thoughts that are stifled from a feeling that they are too bold to be indulged in! I thank God for the blessed gift of imagination, though it may be a source of pain. It counteracts the monotony of life. One cannot easily quit a cherished illusion, though it disgusts one with ordinary life. Who has ever been so happy in reality as in imagination? And how unblessed are those who have no imagination, unless they obtain their wishes in reality! I do not obtain, so I seek them in illusion. Sometimes I think I am not half grateful enough to my parents, I do not half enough for them, considering what they are to me. Although we are not wealthy, what do I lack, and what kindness do I not receive? Yet I seem in a hurry to leave them. There is nothing I would not do to add to their comfort, and it would grieve me to the heart to forsake them; and yet if I knew for certain that I should never have my wish, I should repine sadly. I love a good daughter, and a good daughter makes a good wife. How can I reconcile all these things in my mind? I am miserable, afraid to hope, and yet I dare not despair when I look at the state of my heart. But one side is so heavy as nearly to sink the other, and thus my beaux jours will pass away, and my Ideal Lover will not then think me worth his while. Shall I never be at rest with him to love and understand me, to tell every thought and feeling, in far different scenes from these—under canvas before Rangoon—anywhere in Nature?

"I would have every woman marry; not merely liking a man well enough to accept him for a husband, as some of our mothers teach us, and so cause many unhappy marriages, but loving him so holily that, wedded or not wedded, she feels she is his wife at heart. But perfect love, like perfect beauty, is rare. I would have her so loyal, that, though she sees all his little faults herself, she takes care no one else sees them; yet she would as soon think of loving him less for them as ceasing to look up to heaven because there were a few clouds in the sky. I would have her so true, so fond, that she needs neither to burthen him with her love nor vex him with her constancy, since both are self-existent, and entirely independent of anything he gives or takes away. Thus she will not marry him for liking, esteem, gratitude for his love, but from the fulness of her own love. If Richard and I never marry, God will cause us to meet in the next world; we cannot be parted; we belong to one another. Despite all I have seen of false, foolish, weak attachments, unholy marriages, the after-life of which is rendered unholier still by struggling against the inevitable, still I believe in the one true love that binds a woman's heart faithful to one man in this life, and, God grant it, in the next. All this I am and could be for one man. But how worthless should I be to any other man but Richard Burton! I should love Richard's wild, roving, vagabond life; and as I am young, strong, and hardy, with good nerves, and no fine notions, I should be just the girl for him; I could never love any one who was not daring and spirited. I always feel inclined to treat the generality of men just like my own sex. I am sure I am not born for a jog-trot life; I am too restless and romantic. I believe my sister and I have now as much excitement and change as most girls, and yet I find everything slow. I long to rush round the world in an express; I feel as if I shall go mad if I remain at home. Now with a soldier of fortune, and a soldier at heart, one would go everywhere, and lead a life worth living. What others dare I can dare. And why should I not? I feel that we women simply are born, marry, and die. Who misses us? Why should we not have some useful, active life? Why, with spirits, brains, and energies, are women to exist upon worsted work and household accounts? It makes me sick, and I will not do it."

In the meantime Richard Burton, all unconscious of the love he had inspired, had gone on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. As we have seen, he was home from India on a long furlough; but his active mind revolted against the tame life he was leading, and craved for adventure and excitement. He was not of the stuff to play the part of petit maître in the second-rate society of Boulogne. So he determined to carry out his long-cherished project of studying the "inner life of Moslem," a task for which he possessed unique qualifications. Therefore, soon after the Arundells had left Boulogne, he made up his mind to go to Mecca. He obtained a year's further leave to carry out his daring project. In 1853 he left England disguised as a Persian Mirza, a disguise which he assumed with so much success that, when he landed at Alexandria, he was recognized and blessed as a true Moslem by the native population. From Alexandria he went to Cairo disguised as a dervish, and lived there some months as a native. Thence he travelled to Suez, and crossed in an open boat with a party of Arab pilgrims to Yambú. The rest of his dare-devil adventures and hair-breadth escapes—how he attached himself to the Damascus caravan and journeyed with the pilgrims to Mecca in spite of the fiery heat and the scorching sands, how he braved many dangers and the constant dread of "detection"—is written by him in his Pilgrimage to Mecca and El Medinah, and is touched upon again in Lady Burton's Life of her husband. The story needs no re-telling here. Suffice it to say that Burton was the first man not a Mussulman who penetrated to the innermost sanctuary of Moslem, and saw the shrine where the coffin of Mohammed swings between heaven and earth. He did the circumambulation at the Harem; he was admitted to the house of our Lord; he went to the well Zemzem, the holy water of Mecca; he visited Ka'abah, the holy grail of the Moslems, and kissed the famous black stone; he spent the night in the Mosque; and he journeyed to Arafat and saw the reputed tomb of Adam. He was not a man to do things by halves, and he inspected Mecca thoroughly, absolutely living the life of the Mussulman, adopting the manners, eating the food, wearing the clothes, conforming to the ritual, joining in the prayers and sacrifices, and speaking the language. He did all this, literally carrying his life in his hand, for at any moment he
The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton-99.png


might have been detected—one false step, one hasty word, one prayer unsaid, one trifling custom of the shibboleth omitted, and the dog of an infidel who had dared to profane the sanctuary of Mecca and Medinah would have been found out, and his bones would have whitened the desert sand. Quite apart from the physical fatigue, the mental strain must have been acute. But Burton survived it all, and departed from Mecca as he came, slowly wending his way with a caravan across the desert to Jeddah, whence he returned up the Red Sea to Egypt. There he sojourned for a space; but his leave being up, he returned to Bombay.

The news of his marvellous pilgrimage was soon noised abroad, and travelled home; all sorts of rumours flew about, though it was not until the following year that his book, giving a full and detailed account of his visit to Mecca, came out. Burton's name was on the lips of many. But he was in India, and did not come home to reap the reward of his daring, nor did he know that one faithful heart was full of joy and thanksgiving at his safety and pride at his renown. He did not know that the "little girl" he had met now and again casually at Boulogne was thinking of him every hour of the day, dreaming of him every night, praying every morning and evening and at the altar of her Lord, with all the fervour of her pure soul, that God would keep him now and always, and bring him back safe and sound, and in His own good time teach him to love her. He did not know. How could he? He had not yet sounded the height, depth, and breadth of a woman's love. And yet, who shall say that her supplications were unheeded before the throne of God? Who shall say that it was not Isabel's prayers, quite as much as Richard Burton's skill and daring, which shielded him from danger and detection and carried him safe through all?

In Isabel's diary at this time there occurs the following note:

"Richard has just come back with flying colours from Mecca; but instead of coming home, he has gone to Bombay to rejoin his regiment. I glory in his glory. God be thanked!"

Then a sense of desolation and hopelessness sweeps over her soul, for she writes:

"But I am alone and unloved. Love can illumine the dark roof of poverty, and can lighten the fetters of a slave; the most miserable position of humanity is tolerable with its support, and the most splendid irksome without its inspiration. Whatever harsher feelings life may develop, there is no one whose brow will not grow pensive at some tender reminiscence, whose heart will not be touched. Oh if I could but go through life trusting one faithful heart and pressing one dear hand! Is there no hope for me? I am so full of faith. Is there no pity for so much love? It makes my heart ache, this future of desolation and distress; it ever flits like the thought of death before my eyes. There is no more joy for me; the lustre of life is gone. How swiftly my sorrow followed my joy! I can laugh, dance, and sing as others do, but there is a dull gnawing always at my heart that wearies me. There is an end of love for me, and of all the bright hopes that make the lives of other girls happy and warm and pleasant."

Burton did not stay long at Bombay after he rejoined his regiment. He was not popular in it, and he disliked the routine. Something of the old prejudice against him in certain quarters was revived. The East India Company, in whose service he was, had longed wished to explore Harar in Somaliland, Abyssinia; but it was inhabited by a very wild and savage people, and no white man had ever dared to enter it. So it was just the place for Richard Burton, and he persuaded the Governor of Bombay to sanction an expedition to Harar; and with three companions, Lieutenant Herne, Lieutenant Stroyan, and Lieutenant Speke, he started for Harar.

From her watch-tower afar off, Isabel, whose ceaseless love followed him night and day, notes:

"And now Richard has gone to Harar, a deadly expedition or a most dangerous one, and I am full of sad forebodings. Will he never come home? How strange it all is, and how I still trust in Fate! The Crimean War is declared, and troops begin to go out."

When Burton's little expedition arrived at Aden en route for Harar, the four men who composed it parted and resolved to enter Harar by different ways. Speke failed; Herne and Stroyan succeeded. Burton reserved for himself the post of danger. Harar was as difficult to enter as Mecca; there was a tradition there that when the first white man entered the city Harar would fall. Nevertheless, after a journey of four months through savage tribes and the desert, Burton entered it disguised as an Arab merchant, and stayed there ten days.[1] He returned to Aden. Five weeks later he got up a new expedition to Harar on a much larger scale, with which he wanted to proceed Nilewards. The expedition sailed for Berberah. Arriving there, the four leaders, Burton, Speke, Stroyan, and Herne, went ashore and pitched their tent, leaving the others on board. At night they were surprised by more than three hundred Somali, and after desperate fighting cut their way back to the boat. Stroyan was killed, Herne untouched, and Speke and Burton wounded.

A little later the following note occurs in Isabel's diary:

"We got the news of Richard's magnificent ride to Harar, of his staying ten days in Harar, of his wonderful ride back, his most daring expedition, and then we heard of the dreadful attack by the natives in his tent, and how Stroyan was killed, Herne untouched, Speke with eleven wounds, and Richard with a lance through his jaw. They escaped in a native dhow to Aden, and it was doubtful whether Richard would recover. Doubtless this is the danger alluded to by the clairvoyant, and the cause of my horrible dreams concerning him about the time it happened. I hope to Heaven he will not go back! How can I be grateful enough for his escape!"

Burton did not go back. He was so badly wounded that he had to return to England on sick leave, and sorely discomfited. Here his wounds soon healed, and he regained his health. He read an account of his journey to Harar before the Royal Geographical Society; but the paper attracted little or no attention, one reason being that the public interest was at that time absorbed in the Crimean War. Strange to say, the paper, until it was over, did not reach the ears of Isabel, nor did she once see the man on whom all her thoughts were fixed during his stay in England. It was of course impossible for her to take the initiative. Moreover, Burton was invalided most of the time, and in London but little. His visit to England was a short one. After a month's rest he obtained leave—after considerable difficulty, for he was no favourite with the War Office—to start for the Crimea, and reached there in October, 1854. He had some difficulty in obtaining a post, but at last he became attached to General Beatson's staff, and was the organizer of the Irregular Cavalry (Beatson's Horse: the Bashi-bazouks), a fact duly noted in Isabel's diary.

The winter of 1854-55 was a terrible one for our troops in the Crimea, and public feeling in England was sorely exercised by the account of their sufferings and privations. The daughters of England were not backward in their efforts to aid the troops. Florence Nightingale and her staff of nurses were doing their noble work in the army hospitals at Scutari; and it was characteristic of Isabel that she should move heaven and earth to join them. In her journal at this time we find the following:

"It has been an awful winter in the Crimea. I have given up reading the Times; it makes me so miserable, and one is so impotent. I have made three struggles to be allowed to join Florence Nightingale. How I envy the women who are allowed to go out as nurses! I have written again and again to Florence Nightingale; but the superintendent has answered me that I am too young and inexperienced, and will not do."

But she could not be idle. She could not sit with folded hands and think of her dear one and her brave countrymen out yonder suffering untold privations, and do nothing. It was not enough for her to weep and hope and pray. So the next thing she thought of was a scheme for aiding the almost destitute wives and families of the soldiers, a work which, if she had done nothing else, should be sufficient to keep her memory green, prompted as it was by that generous, loving heart of hers, which ever found its chiefest happiness in doing good to others. She thus describes her scheme:

"I set to work to form a girls' club composed of girls. My plan was to be some little use at home. First it was called the 'Whistle Club,' because we all had tiny silver whistles; and then we changed it to the 'Stella Club,' in honour of the morning star—my star. Our principal object was to do good at home amongst the destitute families of soldiers away in the Crimea; to do the same things as those we would have done if we had the chance out yonder amongst the soldiers themselves. We started a subscription soup-cauldron and a clothing collection, and we got from the different barracks a list of the women and their children married, with or without leave. We ascertained their real character and situations, and no destitute woman was to be left out, nor any difference made on account of religion. The women were to have employment; the children put to schools according to their respective religions, and sent to their own churches. Lodging, food, and clothes were given according to our means, and words of comfort to all, teaching the poor creatures to trust in God for themselves and their husbands at the war—the only One from whom we could all expect mercy. We undertook the wives and families of all regiments of the Lifeguards and Blues and the three Guards' regiments. We went the rounds twice a week, and met at the club once a week. There were three girls to each locality; all of us dressed plainly and behaved very quietly, and acknowledged no acquaintances while going our rounds. We carried this out to the letter, and I cannot attempt to describe the scenes of misery we saw, nor the homes that we saved, nor the gratitude of the soldiers later when they returned from the war and found what we had done. It has been a most wonderful success, and I am very happy at having been of some use. The girls responded to the rules, which were rigorously carried out; and when I look at my own share of the business, and multiply that by a hundred and fifty girls, I think the good done must have been great. In ten days, by shillings and sixpences, I alone collected a hundred guineas, not counting what the others did. My beat contained one hundred women of all creeds and situations, and about two hundred children. I spared no time nor exertions over and above the established rules. I read and wrote their letters, visited the sick and dying, and did a number of other things.

"I know now the misery of London, and in making my rounds I could give details that would come up to some of the descriptions in The Mysteries of Paris or a shilling shocker. In many cellars, garrets, and courts policemen warned me not to enter, and told me that four or five of them could not go in without being attacked; but I always said to them, 'You go to catch some rogue, but I go to take the women something; they will not hurt me; but I should be glad if you waited outside in case I do not come out again.' But the ruffians hanging about soon learnt my errand, and would draw back, touch their caps, move anything out of my way, and give me a kind good-day as I passed, or show me to any door that I was not sure of. Some people have been a little hard on me for being the same to the fallen women as to the good ones. But I do hate the way we women come down upon each other. Those who are the loudest in severity are generally the first to fall when temptation comes: and who of us might not do so but for God's grace? I like simplicity and large-minded conduct in all things, whether it be in a matter of religion or heart or the world, and I think the more one knows the simpler one acts. I have the consolation of knowing that all the poor women are now doing well and earning an honest livelihood, the children fed, clothed and lodged, educated and brought up in the fear and love of God, and in many a soldier's home my name is coupled with a blessing and a prayer. They send me a report of themselves now once a month, and I love the salute of many an honest and brave fellow as he passes me in the street with his medal and clasps, and many have said, 'But for you I should have found no home on my return.'"

After the fall of Sebastopol the war was virtually at an end, and the allied armies wintered amid its ruins. The treaty of peace was signed at Paris on March 30, 1856. Five months before the signing of the treaty Richard Burton returned home with General Beatson, his commander-in-chief, who was then involved in an unfortunate controversy. An evil genius seemed to follow Burton's military career, and it pursued him from India to the Crimea. He managed to enrage Lord Stratford so much that he called him "the most impudent man in the Bombay army." He was certainly one of the most unlucky, even in his choice of chiefs. Sir Charles Napier, under whom he served in India, was far from popular with his superiors; and General Beatson was always in hot water. The Beatson trial was the result of one of the many muddles which arose during the Crimean War; it took place in London in the spring (1856), and Burton gave evidence in favour of his chief. But this is by the way. What we are chiefly concerned with is the following line in Isabel's diary, written soon after his return to England:

"I hear that Richard has come home, and is in town. God be praised!"

That which followed will be told in her own words.