The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 2/Chapter 15
One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward;
Never doubted clouds would break;
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph
Held, we fall to rise again; are baffled, to fight better;
Sleep, to wake!
IN October Richard and I left Bludán to return to our winter quarters at Salahiyyeh, Damascus. But as we were in a mood for excursions, we went by a longer and roundabout route. We had a delightful ride across the Anti-Lebanon, and then we went by way of Shtora across a mountain called Jebel Báruk, and then a long scramble of six hours led us to the village of Báruk, a Druze stronghold in a wild glen on the borders of the Druze territory. We did not find our tents; but it did not signify, as we were among friends and allies, who welcomed us. We went at once to the Shaykh's house. Richard was always friendly with the Druzes; and as they played an important part in our life at Damascus, I think that I had better give some description of them. They are a fine, brave people, very athletic. The men are tall, broad, and stalwart, with splendid black eyes, and limbs of iron. They have proud and dignified manners, and their language is full of poetry. The women are faithful wives and good mothers. They wear a long blue garment and a white veil. The whole face is hidden except one eye. I remember once asking them if it took a long time to decide which was the prettier eye, at which small joke they were much amused.
We remained for the night with the Shaykh, and had breakfast with him in the morning, and then went on to Mukhtara, which is the centre of the Lebanon Druzes. It was a most interesting ride; and whilst we were still in the barren plain a band of horsemen came out to meet us in rich Druze dress, and escorted us through a deep defile, and then up a rocky ascent to a Syrian palace, the house of the Sitt Jumblatt, which is situated in olive groves on the heights. Arrived at the house, we were cordially received by the Sitt Jumblatt—a woman who was the head of the princely family of the Lebanon Druzes—with all the gracious hospitality of the East, and with all the well-bred ease of a European grande dame. She took us into the reception-room, when water and scented soap were brought in carved brass ewers and basins, incense was waved before us, and we were sprinkled with rosewater, whilst an embroidered gold canopy was held over our heads to concentrate the perfume. Coffee, sweets, and sherbet were served, and then I was shown to a very luxurious room.
The following morning we spent in visiting the village schools and stables, and in listening to the Sitt's grievances, on which she waxed eloquent. At night we had a great dinner, and after dinner there were dancing and war-songs between the Druzes of the Lebanon and the Druzes of the Haurán. They also performed pantomimes and sang and recited tales of love and war until far into the night.
The next day we starred early. I was sorry to leave, for the Sitt Jumblatt and I had formed a great friendship. We rode to B'teddin, the palace of the Governor of the Lebanon, where we were received with open arms. Five hundred soldiers were drawn up in a line to salute us, and the Governor, Franco Pasha, welcomed us with all his family and suite. Alter our reception we were invited to the divan, where we drank coffee. Whilst so engaged invisible bands struck up "God Save the Queen"; it was like an electric shock to hear our national hymn in that remote place—we who had been so long in the silence of the Anti-Lebanon. We sprang to our feet, and I was so overcome that I burst into tears.
In the morning we rode back to Mukhtára, where we went to the house of the principal Druze Shaykh, and were most graciously received. I love the Druzes and their charming, courteous ways. Whilst staying here we made several excursions, and among others we ascended Mount Hermon. The Druze chiefs came from all parts to visit us.
After some days we left. Richard was to go home by a way of his own, and I was to return escorted by a Druze Shaykh. Poor Jiryus, my sais, walked by my side for a mile when I started, and after kissing my hand with many blessings, he threw his arms round Salim's neck and kissed his muzzle. Then he sat down on a rock and burst into tears. Richard had dismissed him for disobeying orders. My heart ached for him, and I cried too.
Shaykh Ahmad and I descended the steep mountainside, and then galloped over the plain till we came to water and some Bedawin feeding their flocks. The Shaykh gave one fine fellow a push, and roughly ordered him to hold my horse and milk his goats for me. The man refused. "What," I said very gently, "do you, a Bedawin, refuse a little hospitality to a tired and thirsty woman?" "O Lady," he replied quickly, "I will do anything for you—you speak so softly; but I won't be ordered about by this Druze fellow." I was pleased with his manliness, and he attended to my wants and waited on me hand and foot.
We camped out that night, and the night after. I was always fond of sleeping in the tent, and would never go into the house unless compelled to do so. This time, however, our tents were pitched on low ground close to the river, with burning heat by day and cold dews by night. So I got the fever, and I lay in a kind of stupor all day. The next morning I heard a great row going on outside my tent. It turned out to be the Druze Shaykh and our dragoman quarrelling. Shortly after Shaykh Ahmad came into my tent, and in a very dignified way informed me that he wished to be relieved of his duty and return home. I laughed, and refused to allow him to depart. "What, O Shaykh," said I, "will you leave a poor, lone woman to return with no escort but a dragoman"; and he immediately recanted.
Richard joined me here for a night, and then in the morning went off by another route to explore some district round about. I also did some exploring in another direction.
So we went on from day to day, camping about, or rather gypsying, in the desert among the Bedawin. I got to love it very much. I often think with regret of the strange scenes which became a second nature to me: of those dark, fierce men, in their gaudy, flowing costumes, King about in various attitudes; of our encampments at night, the fire or the moonlight lighting them up, the divans and the pipes, the narghílehs and coffee; of their wild, mournful songs; of their war-dances; of their story-telling of love and war, which are the only themes. I got to know the Bedawin very well during that time, both men and women; and the more I knew them the better I liked them.
I remember one night, when Richard and I were in our tent, we lay down on our respective rugs, and I put out the light. Suddenly Richard called to me, "Come quick! I am stung by a scorpion." I struck a match and ran over to his rug, and looked at the place he pointed to; but there was a mere speck of blue, and I was convinced it was only a big black ant. He did not mind that, so I lay down again. Hardly had I done so when he called out, "Quick, quick, again! I know it is a scorpion." I again struck a light, ran over, plunged my hand inside his shirt near the throat, and drew it out again quickly with a scorpion hanging by its crablike claws to my finger. I shook it off and killed it; but it did not sting me, being, I suppose, unable to manage a third time. I rubbed some strong smelling salts into Richard's wounds, and I found some raki, which I made him drink, to keep the poison away from his heart. He then slept, and in the morning was well. While we were gypsying about in this way we received an invitation to a Druze wedding at Arneh, near Mount Hermon. Richard went to it one way and I another. Whenever we separated, the object was to get information of both routes to our meeting-place, and thus save time and learn more. On meeting, we used to join our notes together.
The wedding was a very pretty one. The bridegroom was a boy of fifteen; and the bride, a Shaykh's daughter, was about the same age. There was a great deal of singing and dancing, and they were all dressed in their best costumes and jewellery. I was invited to the harím of the bride's house, where we had a merry time of it. Whilst we were enjoying our fun the girls blew out all our lights, and we were left in the darkness. The bride ran and threw her arms round me, for protection perhaps, and then commenced such a romping and screaming and pinching and pulling that I hardly knew where I was. It was evidently considered a great frolic. After a few minutes they lit the candles again. At last the bride, robed in an izár and veiled, mounted a horse astraddle, and went round to pay her last visit to her neighbours as a maiden. Coming back, the bride and the bridegroom met in the street, and then we all adjourned to her father's house, where there were more ceremonies and festivities. At midnight we formed a procession to take the bride to her bridegroom's house, with singing, dancing, snapping of fingers, and loud cries of "Yallah! Yallah!" which lasted till 2 a.m. Then the harím proceeded to undress the bride. We were up all night, watching and joining in different branches of festivities.
The wedding over, we returned home to Salahíyyeh by slow stages. It was a terribly hot road through the desert. I suffered with burning eyeballs and mouth parched with a feverish thirst. I know nothing to equal the delight with which one returns from the burning desert into cool shades with bubbling water. Our house seemed like a palace; and our welcome was warm. So we settled down again at Damascus.
We had a troublesome and unpleasant time during the next few months, owing to a continuation of official rows. There were people at Damascus always trying to damage us with the Government at home, and sending lying reports to the Foreign Office. They were most unscrupulous. One man, for instance, complained to the Foreign Office that I had been heard to say that I had "finished my dispatches," meaning that I had finished the work of copying Richard's. Imagine a man noting down this against a woman, and twisting it the wrong way.
I think that the first shadow on our happy life came in July of this year, 1870, when I was at Bludán. An amateur missionary came to Damascus and attempted to proselytize. Damascus was in a very bad temper just then, and it was necessary to put a stop to these proceedings, because they endangered the safety of the Christian population. Richard was obliged to give him a caution, with the result that he made the missionary an enemy, and gave him a grievance, which was reported home in due course.
Another way in which we made enemies was because Richard found it necessary to inform the Jews that he would not aid and abet them in their endeavours to extort unfair usury from the Syrians. Some of the village Shaykhs and peasantry, ignorant people as they were, were in the habit of making ruinous terms with the Jews, and the extortion was something dreadful. Moreover, certain Jewish usurers were suspected of exciting massacres between the Christians and the Moslems, because, their lives being perfectly safe, they would profit by the horrors to buy property at a nominal price. It was brought to the notice of Richard about this time that two Jewish boys, servants to Jewish masters who were British-protected subjects, had given the well-understood signal by drawing crosses on the walls. It was the signal of the massacre in 1860. He promptly investigated the matter, and took away the British protection of the masters temporarily. Certain Israelite moneylenders, who hated him because he would not wink at their sweating and extortions, saw in this an opportunity to overthrow him; so they reported to some leading Jews in England that he had tortured the boys, whom he had not, in point of fact, punished in any way beyond reproving them. The rich Jews at home, therefore, were anxious to procure our recall, and spread it about that we were influenced by hatred of the Jews. One of them had even the unfairness to write to the Foreign Office as follows:
"I hear that the lady to whom Captain Burton is married is believed to be a bigoted Roman Catholic, and to be likely to influence him against the Jews." In spite of woman's rights I was not allowed to answer him publicly. When I heard of it, I could not forbear sending a true statement of the facts of the case to Lord Granville, together with the following letter:
"H.B.M. Consulate, Damascus,
"November 29, 1870.
"I have always understood that it is a rule amongst gentlemen never to drag a lady's name into public affairs, but I accept with pleasure the compliment which Sir —— —— pays me in treating me like a man, and the more so as it enables me to assume the privilege of writing to you an official letter, a copy of which perhaps you will cause to be transmitted to him.
"Sir has accepted the tissue of untruths forwarded by three persons, the chief money-lenders of Damascus, because they are his co-religionists. He asserts that I am a bigoted Roman Catholic, and must have influenced my husband against them. I am not so bigoted as Sir; for if three Catholics were to do one-half of what these three Jews have done, I would never rest until I had brought them to justice. I have not a prejudice in the world except against hypocrisy. Perhaps, as Damascus is divided into thirty-two religions, my husband and I are well suited to the place. We never ask anybody's religion, nor make religion our business. My husband would be quite unfitted for public life if he were to allow me to influence him in the manner described, and I should be unworthy to be any good man's wife if I were to attempt it. My religion is God's poor. There is no religious war between us and the Jews, but there is a refusal to use the name of England to aid three rich and influential Jews in acts of inustice to, and persecution of, the poor; to imprison and let them die in gaol in order to extort what they have not power to give; and to prevent foreign and fraudulent money transactions being carried on in the name of Her Majesty's Government. Also it has been necessary once or twice to prevent the Jews exciting the Moslems to slaughter, by which they have never suffered, but by which they gratify their hatred of the Christians, who are the victims. I think nobody has more respect for the Jewish religion than my husband and myself, or of the Jews, as the most ancient and once chosen people of God; but in all races some must be faulty, and these must be punished. There are three mouths from which issue all these complaints and untruths; and what one Jew will say or sign the whole body will follow without asking a question why or wherefore, nor in Damascus would their consent be asked. It is a common saying here that 'everybody says yes to them because they have money.' These three men count on the influence of men like Sir —— ——, and one or two others, and impose upon their credulity and religious zeal to get their misdeeds backed up and hidden. But will such men as these protect a fraudulent usurer because he is a Jew?
"I enclose a true statement of the case, and also some private letters, one from our chief and best missionary, which will show you something of the feeling here in our favour.
- "I have the honour to be, my Lord,
- "Your most obedient and humble servant,
- "Isabel Burton.
"To the Earl Granville, etc., etc.,
- "Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."
To this I can only add: if the Shylocks of Damascus hated me, so much the more to my credit.
There were many temptations to turn us from the path of right, if we had a mind to go. Politics at Damascus were most corrupt, and bribes were freely offered to us both from all sides. They did not seem to understand our refusal of anything of the kind. It had evidently been the custom. Richard had as much as £20,000 offered him at once, and personally I had no end of temptations to accept money when I first came to Damascus. If we had taken gold and ignored wrongs, we might have feathered our nests for ever, and doubtless have retired with much honour and glory. But we would not. In this way I refused several Arab horses which I would have given worlds to accept, for I was passionately fond of Arab horses, and could not afford to buy them; but as we should have been expected to do unjust things in return, or rather to allow unjust things to be done, I refused them. I had more jewels offered me than I should have known what to do with, but refused them all; and I take some credit to myself in this matter, because I might have accepted them as gifts without any conditions, and I like diamonds as much as most women, or rather I like their value.
In November we had quite an event in Damascus—the wedding of the Wali's daughter. It was the most splendid wedding I ever beheld. It lasted five days and nights. The men celebrated it in one house, and the women in another. We mustered several hundred in all. I was among the intimes, and was treated en famille. By my side throughout was Lady Ellenborough, looking like an oriental queen, and the charming young wife of our Italian Consul, whose dress was fresh from Italy. The dresses were wonderful in richness, diamonds blazing everywhere. But one custom took my fancy: the best women wore simply a plain cashmere robe, and no ornaments, but loaded all their jewels on one or two of their slaves, who followed them, as much as to say, "If you want to see all my fine things, look behind me; it is too great a bore to carry them my self."
On the eve of the wedding there was a long procession of female relatives, and we all sat round in the large hall. Every woman in the procession bore branches of lights; and the bride was in the middle, a beautiful girl of fifteen or sixteen. Her magnificent chestnut hair swept in great tresses below her waist, and was knotted and seeded with pearls. She was dressed in red velvet, and blazed all over with precious stones. Diamond stars were also glued to her cheeks, her chin, and her forehead; and they were rather in the way of our kissing her, for they scratched our faces. She was a determined-looking girl, but she had been crying bitterly, because she did not want to be married. She sat on the divan, and received our congratulations sullenly, looking as though she would rather scream and scratch.
On the marriage morn we were up betimes. The harím had begged of me to wear an English ball-dress, that they might see what it was like. I said, "I will do what you ask, but I know that you will be shocked." "Oh no," they replied; "we are quite sure we shall be delighted." So I wore a white glace silk skirt, a turquoise blue tunic and corsage, the whole affair looped up and trimmed with blush roses, and the same flowers in my hair. Thus arrayed I appeared before the harím. They turned me round and round, and often asked me if I were not very cold about the shoulders; if it were really true that strange men danced with us and put their arms round our waists, and if we didn't feel dreadfully ashamed, and if we really sat and ate and drank with them. I could not answer all these questions over and over again, so I said I would describe a European ball by interpreter. They hailed the idea with delight. I stood up and delivered as graphic an account as I could of my first ball at Almack's, and they greeted me at intervals with much applause.
The marriage was a simple but most touching ceremony. We were all assembled in the great hall. The Wali entered, accompanied by the women of the family; the bride advanced, weeping bitterly, and knelt and kissed her father's feet. The poor man, with emotion, raised her and clasped a girdle of diamonds round her waist, which was before ungirdled; it was part of her dower. No one could unclasp it but her husband, and this concluded the ceremony. Shortly afterwards the bride was borne in procession to the bridegroom's house, where she received the kisses and congratulations of all the women present. After about half an hour she was conducted to a private room by a female relative, and the bridegroom to the same room by a male relative. The door was shut, and the band played a joyous strain. I asked what was going to happen, and they told me that the bridegroom was allowed to raise her veil, to unclasp her belt, and to speak a few words to her in the presence of their relatives. This was the first time they had really seen one another. What an anxious moment for a Moslem woman!
Shortly after this we went on an expedition to visit the Wuld Ali, a chief who was much dreaded by those of other tribes. Richard and I rode into the encampment alone. When first the tribe saw our two dusky figures galloping across the sand in the evening, they rode out to meet us with their lances couched; but as soon as they were close enough to recognize Richard they lowered their weapons, jumped off their horses and kissed our hands, galloped in with us, and held our stirrups to alight. I need not say that we received all the hospitality of Bedawin life. Richard wanted to patch up a peace between the Wuld Ali and the Mezrab tribe, but in this he did not succeed.
We had a delightful ride when leaving one encampment for another, and several of the Bedawin accompanied us. As we mounted Richard whispered to me, "Let's show those fellows that the English can ride. They think that nobody can ride but themselves, and that nothing can beat their mares." I looked round, and saw their thorough-bred mares with their lean flanks. I did not know how it would be with our half-breds; hut they were in first-rate condition, full of corn and mad with spirits. So I gave Richard my usual answer to everything he said: "All right; where you lead I will follow." As soon as the "Yallah!" was uttered for starting, we simply laid our reins on our horses' necks, and neither used spur nor whip nor spoke to them. They went as though we had long odds on our ride. We reached the camp for which we were bound an hour and a half before the Bedawin who were to have come with us. Neither we nor our horses had turned a hair. Their mares were broken down, and the men were not only blown and perspiring, but they complained bitterly that their legs were skinned. "Ya Sitti," said one, "El Shaitan himself could not follow you." "I am sorry," I replied, "but our kaddishes would go; we wanted to ride with you."
When we returned from this expedition we went to Beyrout, where we spent our Christmas. We ate our Christmas dinner with the Consul-General, and his dragoman told me an astounding story about myself which was news to me, as such stories generally are. He said that, a certain Jewish usurer at Damascus had told him that, when I met his wife at the wedding of the Wali's daughter, I tore her diamonds off her head, flung them on the ground, and stamped on them, saying that they were made out of the blood of the poor. I was amused at this monstrous fabrication, but I was also annoyed. In England there may be much smoke but little fire, but in the East the smoke always tells that the fire is fierce, and one must check a lie before it has time to travel far. Knowing what certain Jews in England had reported about me before, I lost no time in putting matters to rights with the authorities, and dispatched the following letter to the Foreign Office:
A gentleman, Mr. Kennedy, from the Foreign Office at home, was staying at the Consul-General's at Beyrout, so we thought it right to invite him to Damascus, and he accepted our invitation a few weeks later.
"January 27, 1871.
"I trust you will exempt me from any wish to thrust myself into public affairs, but it is difficult for Captain Burton to notice anything in an official letter concerning his wife, neither can we expect the Damascus Jews to know the habits of gentlemen. They respect their own haríms, yet this is the second time I am mentioned discreditably in their public correspondence. In one sense it may be beneficial, as I can give you a better idea of the people Captain Burton has to deal with than official language allows of, and from which my sex absolves me.
"My offences against the Jews are as follows:
"I once said 'Not at home' to —— —— because I heard that he had written unjust complaints to the Government about my husband. Later on the Wali gave a fete to celebrate the marriage of his daughter. I was invited to the harím during the whole feast, which lasted five days and nights. The Wali's harím and the others invited made, I dare say, a party of three hundred and fifty ladies. I need not say that men were not admitted; their festivities were carried on in another house. The —— harím was amongst the invited. As I supposed that they knew nothing of what was going on, I was not desirous of mortifying them by any coldness in public, and accordingly I was as cordial to them as I had always been. On the last day the wife of —— separated herself from her party, and intruded herself into the Consulesses' divan. We were all together; but there was often a gathering of the Consulesses for the sake of talking more freely in European languages, Turkish being the language spoken generally, and Arabic being almost excluded. I received her very warmly, begging her to be seated, and conversed with her; but she would talk of nothing but her husband's business. I said to her, 'Pray do not let us discuss this now; it is not the time and place in public, where all can hear us.' She replied, 'I want to talk of this and nothing else. I came for that only.' I said, 'You are a good woman, and I like you, and do not want to quarrel with you. Why speak of it? We are two women. What do we know of business? Leave it for our husbands.' She replied, 'I know business very well, and so do you. I will speak of it.' I then said, 'If you do, I fear I shall say something unpleasant.' She replied, 'I do not mind that, and I will come and see you.' I said, 'Pray do; I shall be delighted.' And so we shook hands and parted.
"Six weeks after I came to Beyrout, and found that it was popularly reported by the Jews that I had torn Madame ——'s diamonds from her hair on this occasion, thrown them on the ground, and stamped upon them. —— —— arrived soon after me; and hearing from some mutual friends that this report had reached me, he came to see me, and told me that it had been invented by his enemies. I replied that I thought it very likely, and that he need not mind. He then told me that his family, and his wife in particular, were very fond of me, and that she had recounted our interview at the wedding to him just as above, and as a proof of their friendly feelings they were coming to see me to invite me to a soirée.
"With many regrets for trespassing so long on your valuable time,
- "I am, my Lord,
- "Your faithful and obedient servant,
- "Isabel Burton.
"The Earl Granville,
- "Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."
As this was an official visit we made every preparation. I met him at Shtora, the half-way house between Beyrout and Damascus, and travelled with him in the diligence. At the last station we found the Wali's carriage and a troop of soldiers as a guard of honour, and we then journeyed in it to our house. The next morning Mr. Kennedy visited the Consulate, and apparently found everything straightforward and satisfactory, and he paid official calls with Richard. During the next few days I showed him most of the sights of Damascus, and one evening I gave a large soirée in his honour. Mr. Kennedy was fain to own that in its way it was unique. He had never seen a party like the one I was able to assemble. We had thirty-six different races and creeds and tongues: grey-bearded Moslems, fierce-looking Druzes, a rough Kurdish chief, a Bedawin shaykh, a few sleek Jewish usurers, every one of the fourteen castes of Christians, the Protestant missionaries, and all the Consuls and their staffs; in fact, everything appertaining to public life and local authority, culminating in the various Church dignitaries, bishops, and patriarchs. The triple-roomed hall, with fountains in the middle, lighted with coloured lamps; the bubbling of the water in the garden; the sad, weird music in the distance; the striking costumes; the hum of the narghílehs; the guttural sound of the conversation; the kawwasses in green, red, blue, and gold, gliding about with trays of sherbet, sweets, and coffee,—all combined to make the quaintest scene.
I should like to mention an anecdote here. In the garden next to ours there was a large wooden door, which swung always on its hinges. It made such a noise that it kept Mr. Kennedy awake at night. The garden belonged to an old woman, and I asked her to have her gate fastened. She sent back an answer that she could not, as it had been broken for years, and she had not the money to spare to mend it. So I took the law into my own hands. The next night Mr. Kennedy slept well. At breakfast he remarked the circumstance, and asked how I had managed about the door. "If you look out of the window," I answered, "you will see it in the courtyard. I sent two kawwasses yesterday to pull it down at sunset." He put on that long official face, with which all who are in the service of Her Majesty's Government are familiar, and said, "Oh, but you must really not treat people like that. Supposing they knew of these things at home?" "Suppose they did!" I said, laughing. I had ordered that, after Mr. Kennedy's departure that day, the gate was to be replaced and mended at my expense. The next time the old woman saw me she ran out exclaiming, "O thou light of my eyes, thou sunbeam, come and sit a little by the brook in my garden, and honour me by drinking coffee; and Allah grant that thou mayest break something else of mine, and live for ever; and may Allah send back the great English Pasha to thy house to bring me more good luck!" However, the "great English Pasha" did not return, for that evening a mounted escort with torches and the Wali's carriage came to convey him and myself to the gare of the diligence, and we reached Beyrout that evening.
Nothing of importance happened at Damascus during the next few months. It was a terribly cold winter. We were pleasantly surprised by the arrival of Lord Stafford and Mr. Mitford, to whom we showed the sights. We had a few other visitors; but on the whole it was a sad winter, for there was famine in the land. The Jewish usurers had bought up wheat and corn cheap, and they sold grain very dear; it was practically locked up in the face of the starving, dying multitude. It was terrible to see the crowds hanging round the bakers' shops and yearning for bread. I used to save all the money I could—alas that I could not save more!—and telling a kawwass and man to accompany me with trays, I used to order a couple of sovereigns' worth of bread, and distribute it in the most destitute part of our suburb. I never saw anything like the ravenous, hungry people. They would tear the trays down, and drag the bread from one another's mouths. I have sat by crying because I felt it mockery to bring so little; yet had I sold everything we possessed, I could not have appeased the hunger of our village for a single day. I wondered how those men who literally murdered the poor, who kept the granaries full, and saw unmoved the vitals of the multitude quivering for want, could have borne the sight! Surely it will be more tolerable for the cities of the Plain in the day of judgment than for them.