The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 1/Chapter 9

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Allah guard a true lover, who strives with love
And hath borne the torments I still abide,
And seeing me bound in the cage with mind
Of ruth release me my love to find.
Alf Laylah wa Laylah
(Burton's "Arabian Nights").

WHILE Isabel was touring through Italy and Switzerland, Burton was fighting his way through the Central African jungle to find the fabled lakes beyond the Usagara Mountains, which at that time the eye of the white man had never seen.

It is necessary to give a brief sketch of this expedition, and of the difference between Burton and Speke which arose from it, because these things influenced to a considerable degree Isabel's after-life. She was always defending her husband's position and fighting the case of Burton versus Speke.

As already stated, Burton left London in October, 1856. He went to Bombay, applied for Captain Speke to accompany him as second in command of his expedition into the unknown regions of Central Africa, and landed at Zanzibar in December. The Royal Geographical Society had obtained for him a grant of £1,000, and the Court of Directors of the East India Company had given him two years' leave.

On June 26, 1857, after an experimental trip, they set out in earnest on their journey into the far interior. Burton was handicapped by a very inadequate force, and he had to make his way through hostile savage tribes; yet he determined to risk it, and in eighteen days achieved the first stage of the journey. Despite sickness and every imaginable difficulty, the little band arrived at K'hutu.

Thence they marched to Zungomero, a pestilential Slough of Despond. Here they rested a fortnight, and then began the ascent of the Usagara Mountains. They managed to climb to the frontier of the second region, or Ghauts. They then pushed on, up and down the ranges of these mountains, sometimes through the dismal jungle, sometimes through marshy swamps, sometimes along roads strewn with corpses and victims of loathsome diseases, tormented always by insects and reptiles, and trembling with ague, with swimming heads, ears deafened by weakness, and legs that would scarcely support them, threatened by savages without and deserters within, until at last they reached the top of the third and westernmost range of the Usagara Mountains. The second stage of the journey was accomplished.

After a rest they went through the fiery heat of the Mdaburu jungle, where they were much troubled by their mutinous porters. At last they entered Kazeh. The Arabs helped them here (Burton always got on well with Arabs), and they rested for a space. On January 10, 1858, they reached M'hali, and here Burton was smitten by partial paralysis, brought on by malaria; his eyes were also afflicted, and death seemed imminent. But in a little time he was better, and again they pushed on through the wilderness. At last, on February 13, 1858, just when they were in despair, their longing eyes were gladdened by the first glimpse of the Lake Tanganyika, the sea of Ujiji, laying like an enchanted lake "in the lap of the mountains, basking in the gorgeous tropical sunshine."

For the first known time in the world's history European eyes rested on this loveliness. It is only fair therefore to remember that in the discovery of Lake Tanganyika Burton was the pioneer. His was the brain which planned and commanded the expedition, and it was he who first achieved with inadequate means and insufficient escort what Livingstone, Cameron, Speke, Grant, Baker, and Stanley achieved later. If he had possessed their advantages of men and money, what might he not have done!

At Ujiji they rested for some time; they had travelled nine hundred and fifty miles, and had taken more than seven and a half months over the journey on account of the delay arising from danger and illness. They spent a month cruising about the lake, which, however, they were not able to explore thoroughly.

On May 28, 1858, Burton and Speke started on the homeward route. In due time they reached Kazeh again. Here, Burton being ill, and Speke not being able to get on with the Arabs, who abounded at Kazeh, it was decided that Burton should remain at Kazeh to prepare and send reports, and that Speke should go in search of the unknown lake (now called Nyanza) which the merchants had told them was some sixteen marches to the north. So Speke set out. After some six or seven weeks he returned to Kazeh. His flying trip had led him to the northern water, which he found to be an immense lake (Nyanza), and he announced that he had discovered the sources of the White Nile. On this point Burton was sceptical, and from this arose a controversy upon which it is unnecessary to enter. There were probably faults on both sides. The difference between Burton and Speke was much to be regretted; I only allude to it here because it influenced the whole of Burton's subsequent career, and by so doing affected also that of his wife.

At Kazeh Burton decided that they must return to the seacoast by the way they came. So they beat their way back across the fiery field to the usual accompaniments of quarrels, mutinies, and desertions among the porters. At one place Speke was dangerously ill, but Burton nursed him through. They recrossed the Usagara Mountains, and struggled through mud and jungle, and at last caught sight of the sea. They made a triumphal entrance to Konduchi, the seaport village. They embarked and landed in Zanzibar on March 4, 1859. Here Burton wanted to get fresh leave of absence and additional funds; but the evident desire of the British Consul to get rid of him (because he was too friendly with the Sultan), and the impatience of Speke to return to England, caused him to abandon the idea. Just then H.M.S. Furious arrived at Aden, and passage homeward was offered to both of them. Burton was too ill to go; but Speke went, and his last words, according to Burton, were: "Good-bye, old fellow. You may be quite sure I shall not go up to the Royal Geographical Society until you come to the fore and we appear together. Make your mind quite easy about that."

Nevertheless, when Burton arrived in England on May 21, 1859 (having been absent two years and eight months), he found the ground cut from under his feet. Speke had arrived in London twelve days before, and the day after his arrival had called at the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, told his own tale, and obtained the leadership of a new expedition. Burton, who had originated and carried out the expedition, found himself shelved, neglected, and thrust aside by his lieutenant, who claimed and received the whole credit for himself. Moreover, Speke had spread all sorts of ugly—and I believe untrue—reports about Burton. These coming on top of certain other rumours—also, I believe, untrue—which had originated in India,[1] were only too readily believed. When Burton got home, he found that the Government and the Royal Geographical Society regarded him with disapproval, and society looked askance at him. Instead of being honoured, he was suspected and under a cloud. One may imagine how his spirit chafed under this treatment. He was indeed a most unlucky man. Yet in spite of the crowd of false friends and open enemies, in spite of all the calumny and suspicion and injustice, there was one heart which beat true to him. And then it was that Burton proved the strength of a woman's love.

Isabel had been back in England from her Continental tour just a year when Burton came home. It had been a terribly anxious year for her; she had written to him regularly, and kept him well posted in all that was going on; but naturally her letters only reached him at intervals. News of him had been meagre and infrequent, and there were long periods of silence which made her sick at heart with anxiety and dread. The novelty and excitement of her trip abroad had to some extent diverted her mind, but when she came home all her doubts and fears returned with threefold force. The monotony and inaction of her life chafed her active spirit; the lack of sympathy and the want of some one in whom she could confide her love and her sorrow weighed her down. It was a sore probation, and in her trouble she turned, as it was her nature to turn, to the consolations of her religion. In the Lent of 1859 she went into a Retreat in the Convent at Norwich, and strove to banish worldly thoughts. She did not strive in vain, as the following extracts from one of her devotional books,[2] written when in retreat, will show.

"I bewail my ordinary existence—the life that most girls lead—going out into society and belonging to the world.

"I must follow the ordinary little details of existence with patient endurance of suffering and resistance of evil. With courage I must fly at what I most dislike—grasp my nettle. There is good to be cultivated, there is religion to be uppermost; occupation and family cares must be my resources.

"And why must I do this? Other girls are not desirous of doing it. Because at a critical moment God snatched me from the world, when my heart bounded high for great things, and I was hard pressed by temptation. I said to myself, 'Why has He called such a being as myself into existence?'—seemingly to no purpose. And He has brought me to this quiet corner, and has showed me in a spiritual retreat (like in a holy lantern) things as they really are; He has recalled to me the holiest and purest of my childhood and my convent days, humbled me, and then, shutting out that view, once more He will send me forth to act from His fresh teaching. He seemed to say to me: 'You have but little time; a long life is but eighty years or so—part of this is lost in childhood, part in old age, part in sleep. How few are the strong, mature years wherein to lay in store for death—the only store you can carry with you beyond the dreams of life, beyond the grave! You, from defects in your upbringing, have allowed your heart to go before your head; hence sharp twinges and bitter experience. These faults are forgiven you. Now enter on your mature years with a good spirit, and remember that the same excuses will not serve any more.'

"With these reflections I saw myself as an atom in this vast creation, chosen from thousands who would have served Him better, and brought safely through my nine months' imprisonment to my baptism. On what did I open my eyes? Not on the circle of a certain few, who are so covered with riches, honour, luxuries, and pleasures as to have their Paradise here. Not amongst the dregs of the unfortunate people who are the very spawn of vice, who never hear a good word or see a good action, who do not know that there is a God except in a curse. No! God gave me everything; but He chose a middle way for me, and each blessing that surrounded me was immense in itself, and many were combined. Pure blood and good birth, health, youth, strength, beauty, talent, natural goodness—God and Nature gave me all, and the Devil and I spoiled the gift. Add to all this a happy home and good family, education, society, religion, and the true Church of Christ. He took from me the riches and the worldly success that might have damned me; and having purified me, He sent me back only a sufficiency for needs and comforts. He gave me a noble incentive to good in the immense power of affection I have within me, which I may misuse, but not deprave or lose; this power is as fresh as in my childhood, but saddened by experience. He preserves me from the multitude of hourly evils which I cannot see; nay, more, He seems to watch every trifle to meet my needs and wants. He scarcely lets the wind visit me too roughly; He almost takes up the instruments He gave me, and works Himself. He seems to say, 'Toil for one short day, and in the evening come to Me for your reward.' He appointed to me, as to every one, an angel to protect me; He has shown me the flowery paths that lead down—down to the Devil and Hell—and the rugged path that leads upward to Himself and Heaven. Shall I refuse to climb over my petty trials for this short time, when He is so merciful, when He has died for me?"

Isabel came out of her Retreat on Easter Day, and after visiting some friends for a few weeks returned to her parents' home in London. Here she was greeted with the news that Speke had come home alone. The air was full of Speke, and the rumour reached her ears that Burton was staying on in Zanzibar in the hope of being allowed to return to Africa. A sense of despair seized her; and just as she was thinking whether she would not return to the Convent and become a Sister of Charity, she received six lines in a well-known hand by post from Zanzibar—no letter. This communication was long past date, and evidently had been slow in coming:

To Isabel.

That brow which rose before my sight,
As on the palmer's holy shrine;
Those eyes—my life was in their light;
Those lips—my sacramental wine;
That voice whose flow was wont to seem
The music of an exile's dream.

She knew then it was all right.

Two days later she read in the paper that Burton would soon arrive. She writes in her diary:

"May 21.—I feel strange, frightened, sick, stupefied, dying to see him, and yet inclined to run away, lest, after all I have suffered and longed for, I should have to bear more."

But she did not run away. And here we leave her to tell her own tale.

On May 22 I chanced to call upon a friend. I was told she had gone out, but would be in to tea, and was asked if I would wait. I said, "Yes." In a few minutes another ring came to the door, and another visitor was also asked to wait. A voice that thrilled me through and through came up the stairs, saying, "I want Miss Arundell's address." The door opened, I turned round, and judge of my feelings when I beheld Richard! For an instant we both stood dazed. I felt so intensely, that I fancied he must hear my heart beat, and see how every nerve was overtaxed. We rushed into each other's arms. I cannot attempt to describe the joy of that moment. He had landed the day before, and come to London, and had called here to know where I was living, where to find me. No one will wonder when I say that we forgot all about my hostess and her tea. We went downstairs, and Richard called a cab, and he put me in and told the man to drive about—anywhere. He put his arm round my waist, and I put my head on his shoulder. I felt quite stunned; I could not speak or move, but felt like a person coming to after a fainting fit or a dream; it was acute pain, and for the first half-hour I found no relief. I would have given worlds for tears, but none came. But it was absolute content, such as I fancy people must feel in the first few moments after the soul has quitted the body. When we were a little recovered, we mutually drew each other's pictures from our respective pockets at the same moment, to show how carefully we had always kept them.

After that we met constantly, and he called upon my parents. I now put our marriage seriously before them, but without success as regards my mother.

I shall never forget Richard as he was then. He had had twenty-one attacks of fever—had been partially paralyzed and partially blind. He was a mere skeleton, with brown-yellow skin hanging in bags, his eyes protruding, and his lips drawn away from his teeth. I used to give him my arm about the Botanical Gardens for fresh air, and sometimes convey him almost fainting in a cab to our house or friends' houses, who allowed and encouraged our meeting.

He told me that all the time he had been away the greatest consolation he had received were my fortnightly journals, in letter-form, to him, accompanied by all newspaper scraps, and public and private information, and accounts of books, such as I knew would interest him; so that when he did get a mail, which was only in a huge batch now and then, he was as well posted up as if he were living in London.

Richard was looking so lank and thin. He was sadly altered; his youth, health, spirits, and beauty were all gone for the time. He fully justified his fevers, his paralysis and blindness, and any amount of anxiety, peril, hardship, and privation in unhealthy latitudes. Never did I feel the strength of my love as then. He returned poorer, and dispirited by official rows and every species of annoyance; but he was still—had he been ever so unsuccessful, and had every man's hand against him—my earthly god and king, and I could have knelt at his feet and worshipped him. I used to feel so proud of him; I used to like to sit and look at him, and think, "You are mine, and there is no man on earth the least like you."[3]

Isabel tells us that she regretted bitterly not having been able to stay with and nurse the man she loved at this time. They were both most anxious that their marriage should take place, so that they might be together. But the great obstacle to their union was Mrs. Arundell's opposition. Isabel made a long and impassioned appeal to her mother; but she would not relent, and turned a deaf ear to the lovers' pleadings. In justice to Mrs. Arundell, it must be admitted that she had apparently good reasons for refusing her consent to their marriage. Burton's niece says that she "vehemently objected to any daughter of hers espousing a Protestant."[4] But this is one of those half-truths which conceal a whole fallacy. Of course Mrs. Arundell, who came of an old Roman Catholic family, and who was a woman of strong religious convictions, would have preferred her daughter to marry a man of the same faith as herself. But it was not a question between Catholicity and Protestantism, but between Christianity and no religion at all. From all that was publicly known of Burton at this time, from his writings and his conversation, he was an Agnostic; and so far as the religious objection to the marriage entered, many a Protestant Evangelical mother would have demurred quite as much as Mrs. Arundell did. Religious prejudices may be just or unjust, but they are forces which have to be reckoned with. And the religious objection was not by any means the only one. At this time there were unpleasant rumours flying about concerning Burton, and some echo of them had reached Mrs. Arundell's ears. The way in which the Royal Geographical Society had passed him over in favour of Speke had naturally lent colour to these reports; and although Burton had a few friends, he had many enemies. He was under a cloud. The Government ignored him; the War Office disliked him; his military career had so far been a failure—there was no prospect of promotion; the Indian army had brought him under the reduction; he had not the means to keep a wife in decent comfort, nor were his relations in a position to help him, either with money or influence; and lastly, he was of a wild, roving disposition. All these considerations combined to make Mrs. Arundell hesitate in entrusting her daughter's happiness to his hands. It must be remembered that Isabel was the eldest child. She was a very handsome and fascinating girl; she had many wealthy suitors, and might well have been expected to make "a good match." From a worldly point of view she was simply throwing herself away. From a higher point of view she was following her destiny, and marrying the man she loved with every fibre of her being. But Mrs. Arundell could hardly have been expected to see things in this light, and in opposing Isabel's marriage with Richard Burton she only acted as ninety-nine mothers out of every hundred would have done. No sooner were they married than she admitted that she had made a mistake, and did all in her power to atone for it; but at this time she was inexorable.[5]

Burton, who was very much in love, was not in the habit of brooking opposition, least of all from a woman; and he suggested to Isabel that they should take the law in their own hands, and make a runaway match of it. After all, they had arrived at years of discretion, and might fairly be expected to know their own minds. He was past forty, and Isabel was nearly thirty. More than three years had gone by since he declared his love to her in the Botanical Gardens; nearly ten years had passed since she had fallen in love with him on the Ramparts of Boulogne. Surely they had waited long enough. Isabel was swayed by his pleading; more than once she was on the point of yielding, but she resisted the temptation. Duty and obedience were always watchwords with her, and she could not bear the thought of going against her mother. Her sense of duty warred with her desire. So things see-sawed for nearly a year. And then:

"One day in April, 1860, I was walking out with two friends, and a tightening of the heart came over me that I had known before. I went home, and said to my sister, 'I am not going to see Richard for some time.' She said, 'Why, you will see him to-morrow!' 'No, I shall not,' I said; 'I don't know what is the matter.' A tap came at the door, and a note with the well-known writing was put into my hand. I knew my fate, and with a deep-drawn breath I opened it. He had left—could not bear the pain of saying good-bye; would be absent for nine months, on a journey to see Salt Lake City. He would then come back, and see whether I had made up my mind to choose between him or my mother, to marry me if I would; and if I had not the courage to risk it, he would go back to India, and thence to other explorations, and return no more. I was to take nine months to think about it."[6]

This was the last straw to Isabel, and for a time she broke down utterly. For some weeks she was ill in bed and delirious, heart-sick and hopeless, worn out with the mental conflict she was going through. Then she girded up her strength for one last struggle, and when she arose from her bed her purpose was clear and strong. The first thing she did showed that her mind was made up. On the plea of change of air she went into the country and stayed at a farmhouse. As she had determined to marry a poor man and also to accompany him in all his travels, she set herself to rough it and to learn everything which might fit her for the roving life she was afterwards to lead, so that in the desert or the backwoods, with servants or without them, she might be qualified for any emergency. In addition to mastering all domestic duties at the farmhouse, heavy and light, she tried her hand at outdoor work as well, and learned how to look after the poultry-yard and cattle, to groom the horses, and to milk the cows. Nor did her efforts end here. When she came back to London, she asked a friend (Dr. Bird) to teach her to fence. He asked her why she wanted to learn fencing. She answered, "Why? To defend Richard, when he and I are attacked in the wilderness together." Later on Burton himself taught her to fence, and she became an expert fencer. At this time also she was eager for books of all kinds. She wanted a wider range of reading, so that she might, as she phrased it, "be able to discuss things with Richard." This period of waiting was, in effect, a period of preparation for her marriage with the man she loved, and she pursued her preparations steadily and quietly without a shadow of wavering. Nevertheless she fretted a great deal during this separation. A friend who knew her at this time has told me she often looked wretched. She spent much time in fasting and prayer, and there were days when she would eat nothing but vegetable and drink water. She used to call these her "marrow and water days."

One day she saw in the paper "Murder of Captain Burton." Her anguish was intense. Her mother went with her to the mail-office to make inquiries and ascertain the truth. A Captain Burton had been murdered by his crew, but it was not Isabel's Captain Burton. She says, "My life seemed to hang on a thread till he [the clerk] answered, and then my face beamed so the man was quite startled." Great joy, like great grief, is selfish. She gave little thought of the poor man who was killed, the sense of relief was so great. Burton—her Burton—was at that moment enjoying himself with the Mormons in Salt Lake City, where he stayed for some months. When his tour was completed, he turned his face towards home again—and Isabel.

  1. Burton alludes to this prejudice against him in the original (1886) edition of his Arabian Nights, "Alf Laylah wa Laylah," Terminal Essay, Section D, pp. 205, 206.
  2. Laméd, one of Lady Burton's books of private devotion.
  3. At this point Lady Burton's autobiography ends—cut short by her death. Henceforward, when she speaks in the first person, it will be from her papers and letters, of which she left a great number. She was sorting them when she died. But I have felt justified in repeating the story of her marriage in her own words, as no other pen could do justice to it.
  4. Miss Stisted's Life of Burton.
  5. Lady Burton also, during the last years of her life, admitted that she had made a mistake in judging her mother's opposition too harshly. She often said to her sister, "I am so sorry I published those hard things I wrote of dear mother in my Life of Dick. It was her love for me which made her do it. I will cut it out in the next edition."
  6. Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol. i., p. 337.