The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 1/Chapter 6

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Daughter of nobles, who thine aim shalt gain,
Hear gladdest news, nor fear aught hurt or bane.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah
(Burton's "Arabian Nights").

NOW this is what occurred. When Richard was well home from the Crimea, and had attended Beatson's trial, he began to turn his attention to the "Unveiling of Isis"; in other words, to discover the sources of the Nile, the lake regions of Central Africa, on which his heart had long been set; and he passed most of his time in London working it up.

We did not meet for some months after his return, though we were both in London, he planning his Central African expedition, and I involved in the gaieties of the season; for we had a gay season that year, every one being glad that the war was over. In June I went to Ascot. There, amid the crowd of the racecourse, I met Hagar Burton, the gypsy, for the first time after many years, and I 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, for at that moment she was rudely thrust from the carriage. I never saw her again, but I was engaged to Richard two months later. It came in this wise.

One fine day in August I was walking in the Botanical Gardens with my sister. Richard was there. We immediately stopped and shook hands, and asked each other a thousand questions of the four intervening years; and all the old Boulogne memories and feelings returned to me. He asked me if I came to the Gardens often. I said, "Oh yes, we always come and read and study here from eleven to one, because it is so much nicer than studying in the hot room at this season." "That is quite right," he said. "What are you studying?" I held up the book I had with me that day, an old friend, Disraeli's Tancred, the book of my heart and taste, which he explained to me. We were in the Gardens about an hour, and when I had to leave he gave me a peculiar look, as he did at Boulogne. I hardly looked at him, yet I felt it, and had to turn away. When I got home, my mind was full of wonder and presentiment; I felt frightened and agitated; and I looked at myself in the glass and thought myself a fright!

Next morning we went to the Botanical Gardens again. When we got there, he was there too, alone, composing some poetry to show to Monckton Milnes on some pet subject. He came forward, and said laughingly, "You won't chalk up 'Mother will be angry,' as you did when you were at Boulogne, when I used to want to speak to you." So we walked and talked over old times and people and things in general.

About the third day his manner gradually altered towards me; we had begun to know each other, and what might have been an ideal love before was now a reality. This went on for a fortnight. I trod on air.

At the end of a fortnight he stole his arm round my waist, and laid his cheek against mine and asked me, "Could you do anything so sickly as to give up civilization? And if I can get the Consulate of Damascus, will you marry me and go and live there?" He said, "Do not give me an answer now, because it will mean a very serious step for you—no less than giving up your people and all that you are used to, and living the sort of life that Lady Hester Stanhope led. I see the capabilities in you, but you must think it over." I was long silent from emotion; it was just as if the moon had tumbled down and said, "You have cried for me for so long that I have come." But he, who did not know of my long love, thought I was thinking worldly thoughts, and said, "Forgive me; I ought not to have asked so much." At last I found voice, and said, "I do not want to think it over—I have been thinking it over for six years, ever since I first saw you at Boulogne. I have prayed for you every morning and night, I have followed all your career minutely, I have read every word you ever wrote, and I would rather have a crust and a tent with you than be queen of all the world; and so I say now, 'Yes, yes, yes!'"

I will pass over the next few minutes. . . .

Then he said, "Your people will not give you to me." I answered, "I know that, but I belong to myself—I give myself away." "That is all right," he answered; "be firm, and so shall I."

I would have suffered six years more for such a day, such a moment as this. All past sorrow was forgotten in it. All that has been written or said on the subject of the first kiss is trash compared to the reality. Men might as well undertake to describe Eternity. I then told him all about my six years since I first met him, and all that I had suffered.

When I got home, I knelt down and prayed, and my whole soul was flooded with joy and thanksgiving. A few weeks ago I little thought what a change would take place in my circumstances. Now I mused thus: "Truly we never know from one half-hour to another what will happen. Life is like travelling in an open carriage with one's back to the horses—you see the path, you have an indistinct notion of the sides, but none whatever of where you are going. If ever any one had an excuse for superstition and fatalism, I have. Was it not foretold? And now I have gained half the desire of my life: he loves me. But the other half remains unfulfilled: he wants to marry me! Perhaps I must not regret the misery that has spoilt the six best years of my life. But must I wait again? What can I do to gain the end? Nothing! My whole heart and mind is fixed on this marriage. If I cared less, I could plan some course of action; but my heart and head are not cool enough. Providence and fate must decide my future. I feel all my own weakness and nothingness. I am as humble as a little child. Richard has the upper hand now, and I feel that I have at last met the master who can subdue me. They say it is better to marry one who loves and is subject to you than one whose slave you are through love. But I cannot agree to this. Where in such a case is the pleasure, the excitement, the interest? In one sense I have no more reason to fear for my future, now that the load of shame, wounded pride, and unrequited affection is lifted from my brow and soul. He loves me—that is enough to-day."

After this Richard visited a little at our house as an acquaintance, having been introduced at Boulogne; and he fascinated, amused, and pleasantly shocked my mother, but completely magnetized my father and all my brothers and sisters. My father used to say, "I do not know what it is about that man, but I cannot get him out of my head; I dream about him every night."

Richard and I had one brief fortnight of uninterrupted happiness, and were all in all to each other; but inasmuch as he was to go away directly on his African journey with Speke to the future lake regions of Central Africa, we judged it ill advised to announce the engagement to my mother, for it would have brought a hornets' nest about our heads, and not furthered our cause—and, besides, we were afraid of my being sent away, or of being otherwise watched and hindered from our meeting; so we agreed to keep it a secret until he came back. The worst of it all was, that I was unable, first, by reason of no posts from a certain point, and, secondly, by the certainty of having his letters opened and read, to receive many letters from him, and those only the most cautious; but I could write to him as freely as possible, and send them to the centres where his mail-bags would be sent out to him. All my happiness therefore was buried deep in my heart, but always was chained. I felt as if earth had passed and heaven had begun, or as if I had hitherto been somebody else, or had lived in some other world. But even this rose had its thorn, and that was the knowledge that our marriage seemed very far off. The idea of waiting for willing parents and a grateful country appeared so distant that I should scarcely be worth the having by the time all obstacles were removed. Richard too was exercised about how I should be able to support his hard life, and whether a woman could really do it. Another sorrow was that I had to be prepared to lose him at any moment, as he might have to quit at a moment's notice on receiving certain information.

I gave him Hagar Burton's horoscope, written in Romany—the horoscope of my future. One morning (October 3) I went to meet him as usual, and we agreed to meet the following morning. He had traced for me a little sketch of what he expected to find in the lake regions, and I placed round his neck a medal of the Blessed Virgin upon a steel chain, which we Catholics commonly call "the miraculous medal." He promised me he would wear it throughout his journey, and show it me on his return. I had offered it to him on a gold chain, but he said, "Take away the gold chain; they will cut my throat for it out there." He showed me the steel chain round his neck when he came back; he wore it all his life, and it is buried with him. He also gave me a little poem:

I wore thine image, Fame,
Within a heart well fit to be thy shrine;
Others a thousand boons may gain —
One wish was mine:

The hope to gain one smile,
To dwell one moment cradled on thy breast,
Then close my eyes, bid life farewell,
And take my rest!

And now I see a glorious hand
Beckon me out of dark despair,
Hear a glorious voice command,
"Up, bravely dare!

And if to leave a deeper trace
On earth to thee Time, Fate, deny,
Drown vain regrets, and have the grace
Silent to die."

She pointed to a grisly land,
Where all breathes death—earth, sea, and air;
Her glorious accents sound once more,
"Go meet me there."

Mine ear will hear no other sound,
No other thought my heart will know.
Is this a sin? "Oh, pardon, Lord!
Thou mad'st me so!"


The afternoon on which I last met him was the afternoon of the same day. He came to call on my mother. We only talked formally. I thought I was going to see him on the morrow. It chanced that we were going to the play that night. I begged of him to come, and he said he would if he could, but that if he did not, I was to know that he had some heavy business to transact. When I had left him in the morning, I little thought it was the last kiss, or I could never have said good-bye, and I suppose he knew that and wished to spare me pain. How many little things I could have said or done that I did not! We met of course before my mother only as friends. He appeared to me to be agitated, and I could not account for his agitation. He stayed about an hour; and when he left I said purposely, "I hope we shall see you on your return from Africa," and almost laughed outright, because I thought we should meet on the morrow. He gave me a long, long look at the door, and I ran out on the balcony and kissed my hand to him, and thus thoughtlessly took my last look, quite unprepared for what followed.

I went to the theatre that evening quite happy, and expected him. At 10.30 I thought I saw him at the other side of the house looking into our box. I smiled, and made a sign for him to come. I then ceased to see him; the minutes passed, and he did not come. Something cold struck my heart; I felt that I should not see him again, and I moved to the back of the box, and, unseen, the tears streamed down my face. The old proverb kept haunting me like an air one cannot get out of one's head, "There's many a true word spoken in jest." The piece was Pizarro, and happily for me Cora was bewailing her husband's loss on the stage, and as I am invariably soft at tragedy my distress caused no sensation.

I passed a feverish, restless night; I could not sleep; I felt that I could not wait till morning—I must see him. At last I dozed and started up, but I touched nothing, yet dreamt I could feel his arms round me. I understood him, and he said, "I am going now, my poor girl. My time is up, and I have gone; but I will come again—I shall be back in less than three years. I am your Destiny."

He pointed to the clock, and it was two. He held up a letter, looked at me long with those gypsy eyes of his, put the letter down on the table, and said in the same way, "That is for your sister—not for you." He went to the door, gave me another of those long peculiar looks, and I saw him no more.

I sprang out of bed to the door into the passage (there was nothing), and thence I went to the room of one of my brothers, in whom I confided. I threw myself on the ground and cried my heart out. He got up and asked 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; it was that lobster you had for supper; you told me he was coming to-morrow." "So I did," I sobbed; "but I have seen him in a dream, and he told me he had gone; and if you will wait till the post comes in, you will see that I have told you truly."

I sat all night in my brother's armchair, and at eight o'clock in the morning when the post came in there was a letter for my sister Blanche, enclosing one for me. Richard had found it too painful to part from me, and thought we should suffer less that way; he 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 May 22 that year. He had received some secret information, which caused him to leave England at once and quietly, lest he should be detained as witness at some trial. He had left his lodgings in London at 10.30 the preceding evening (when I saw him in the theatre), and sailed at two o'clock from Southampton (when I saw him in my room).

I believe there is a strong sympathy between some people (it was not so well known then, but it is quite recognized now)—so strong that, if they concentrate their minds on each other at a particular moment and at the same time, and each wills strongly to be together, the will can produce this effect, though we do not yet understand how or why. When I could collect my scattered senses, I sat down and wrote to Richard all about this, in the event of my being able to send it to him.

But to return. At 8.30 Blanche came into the room with the letter I have mentioned, to break the sad news to me. "Good heavens!" she said, "what has happened to you? You look dreadful!" "Richard is gone!" I gasped out. "How did you know?" she asked. "Because I saw him here in the night!" "That will do you the most good now," she said. The tears came into her eyes as she put a letter from Richard into my hand, enclosed in one to herself, the one I had seen in the night. The letter was a great comfort to me, and I wore it round my neck in a little bag. Curiously enough I had to post my letter to him to Trieste—the place where in after-life we spent many years—by his direction. It was the last exertion I was capable of; the next few days I spent in my bed.

My happiness had been short and bright, and now I had to look forward to three years of my former patient endurance, only with this great change: before I was unloved and had no hope; now the shame of loving unasked was taken from me, and I had the happiness of being loved, and some future to look forward to. When I got a little better, I wrote the following reflections to myself:

"A woman feels raised by the love of a man to whom she has given her whole heart, but not if she feels that she loves and does not respect, or that he fails in some point, and for such-and-such reasons she would not marry him. But when she loves without reserve, she holds her head more proudly, from the consciousness of being loved by him—no matter what the circumstances. So I felt with Richard, for he is above all men—so noble, so manly, with such a perfect absence of all meanness and hypocrisy. It is true I was captivated at first sight; but his immense talents and adventurous life compelled interest, and a mastermind like his exercises influence over all around it. But I love him, because I find in him depth of feeling, a generous heart, and because, though brave as a lion, he is yet a gentle, delicate, sensitive nature, and the soul of honour. Also he is calculated to appear as something unique and romantic in a woman's eyes, especially because he unites the wild, lawless creature and the gentleman. He is the latter in every sense of the word, a stamp of the man of the world of the best sort, for he has seen things without the artificial atmosphere of St. James's as well as within it. I worship ambition. Fancy achieving a good which affects millions, making your name a national name! It is infamous the way half the men in the world live and die, and are never missed, and, like a woman, leave nothing behind them but a tombstone. By ambition I mean men who have the will and power to change the face of things. I wish I were a man: if I were, I would be Richard Burton. But as I am a woman, I would be Richard Burton's wife. I love him purely, passionately, and devotedly: there is no void in my heart; it is at rest for ever with him. For six years this has been part of my nature, part of myself, the basis of all my actions, even part of my religion; my whole soul is absorbed in it. I have given my every feeling to him, and kept back nothing for myself or the world; and I would this moment sacrifice and leave all to follow his fortunes, were it his wish, or for his good. Whatever the world may condemn in him of lawless actions or strong opinions, whatever he is to the world, he is perfect to me; and I would not have him otherwise than he is—except in spiritual matters. This last point troubles me. I have been brought up strictly, and have been given clear ideas on all subjects of religion and principle, and have always tried to live up to them. When I am in his presence, I am not myself—he makes me for the time see things with his own eyes, like a fever or a momentary madness; and when I am alone again, I recall my own belief and ways of thinking, which remain unchanged, and am frightened at my weak wavering and his dangerous but irresistible society. He is gone; but had I the chance now, I would give years of my life to hear that dear voice again, with all its devilry. I have no right to love a man who calls himself a complete materialist, who has studied almost, I might say, beyond the depth of knowledge, who professes to acknowledge no God, no law, human or divine. Yet I do feel a close suspicion that he has much more feeling and belief than he likes to have the credit of."

After Richard was gone I got a letter from him dated from Bruges, October 9, telling me to write to Trieste, and that he would write from Trieste and Bombay. I sent three letters to Trieste and six to Bombay. He asked me if I was offended at his abrupt departure. Ah, no! I take the following from my diary of that time:

"I have now got into a state of listening for every post, every knock making the heart bound, and the sickening disappointment that ensues making it sink; but I say to myself, 'If I am true, nothing can harm me.' My delight is to sit down and write to him all and everything, just as it enters my head, as I would if I were with him. My letters are half miserable, half jocose, for I do not want to put him out of spirits, whatever I may be myself. I feel that my letters are a sort of mixture of love, trust, anger, faith, sarcasm, tenderness, bullying, melancholy, all mixed up. . . . He has arrived at Alexandria. . . . At any rate my heart and affections are my own to give, I rob no one, and so I will remain. I have a happy home, family, society, all I want, and I shall not clip my wings of liberty except for him, whatever my lot may be. I love and am loved, and so strike a balance in favour of existence. No gilded misery for me. I was born for love, and require it as air and light. Whatever harshness the future may bring, he has loved me, and my future is bound up in him with all consequences. My jealous heart spurns all compromise; it must have its purpose or break. He thinks he is sacrificing me; but I want pain, privations, danger with him. I have the constitution and nerves for it. There are few places I could not follow my husband, and be to him companion, friend, wife, and all. Where I could not so follow him, I would not be a clog to him, for I am tolerably independent."

Our friends used sometimes to talk about Richard at this time and his expedition. Whilst they discussed him as a public man, I was in downright pain lest they should say something that I should not like. Father told them that he was a friend of ours. I then practised discussing him with the greatest sang froid, and of course gave a vivid description of him, which inspired great interest. His books, travels, and adventures were talked of by many. I told Richard in one letter that it was the case of the mouse and the lion; but I teased him by saying that when the mouse had nibbled a hole big enough the lion forgot him because he was so small, and put his big paw on him and crushed him altogether. I knew that his hobby was reputation; he was great in the literary world, men's society, clubs, and the Royal Geographical Society. But I wished him also to be great in the world of fashion, where my despised sex is paramount. I also knew that if a man gets talked about in the right kind of way in handfuls of the best society, here and there, his fame quickly spreads. I had plenty of opportunities to help him in this way without his knowing it, and great was the pleasure. Again I fall back on my journal:

"I beg from God morning and night that Richard may return safe. Will the Almighty grant my prayer? I will not doubt, whether I hear from him or not. I believe that we often meet in spirit and often look at the same star. I have no doubt he often thinks of me; and when he returns and finds how faithful I have been, all will be right. There is another life if I lose this, and there is always La Trappe left for the broken-hearted.

"Christmas Day, 1856.—I was delighted to hear father and mother praising Richard to-day; mother said he was so clever and agreeable and she liked him so much, and they both seemed so interested about him. They little knew how much they gratified me. I was reading a book; but when the time came to put it away, I found it had been upside-down all the time, so I fancy I was more absorbed in their conversation than its contents. I have been trying to make out when it is midnight in Eastern Africa, and when the morning star shines there, and I have made out that at 10 p.m. it is midnight there, and the morning star shines on him two hours before it does on me.

"January 2, 1857.—I see by the papers that Richard left Bombay for Zanzibar with Lieutenant Speke on December 2 last. I am struck by the remembrance that it was on that very night that I was so ill and delirious. I dreamt I saw him sailing away and he spoke to me, but I thought my brain throbbed so loud that I could not hear him. I was quite taken off my guard to-day on hearing the news read out from the Times, so that even my mother asked me what was the matter. I have not had a letter; I might get one in a fortnight; but I must meet this uncertainty with confidence, and not let my love be dependent on any action of his, because he is a strange man and not as other men. "January 18.—Unless to-morrow's mail brings me a letter, my hope is gone. What is the cause of his silence I cannot imagine. If he had not said he would write, I could understand it. But nothing shall alter my course. It is three months since he left, and I have only had two letters; yet I feel confident that Richard will be true, and I will try to deserve what I desire, so that I shall always have self-consolation. My only desire is that he may return safe to me with changed religious feelings, and that I may be his wife with my parents' consent. Suspense is a trial which I must bear for two years without a murmur. I must trust and pray to God; I must keep my faith in Him, and live a quiet life, employ myself only in endeavouring to make myself worthy; and surely this conduct will bring its reward."