The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 2/Chapter 27

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Life is a sheet of paper white,
Whereon each one of us may write
His word or two, and then comes night.


LET me recall the last happy day of my life. It was Sunday, October 19, 1890. I went out to Communion and Mass at eight o'clock, came back, and kissed my husband at his writing. He was engaged on the last page of The Scented Garden, which had occupied him seriously only six actual months, not thirty years, as the press said. He said to me, 'Tomorrow I shall have finished this, and I promise you that I will never write another book on this subject. I will take to our biography.' And I said, 'What a happiness that will be!' He took his usual walk of nearly two hours in the morning, breakfasting well.

"That afternoon we sat together writing an immense number of letters, which, when we had finished, I put on the hall table to be posted on Monday morning. Each letter breathed of life and hope and happiness; for we were making our preparations for a delightful voyage to Greece and Constantinople, which was to last from November 15 to March 15. We were to return to Trieste from March 15 till July 1. He would be a free man on March 19, and those three months and a half we were to pack up, make our preparations, wind up all our affairs, send our heavy baggage to England, and, bidding adieu to Trieste, we were to pass July and August in Switzerland, arrive in England in September, 1891, look for a little flat and a little cottage, unpack, and settle ourselves to live in England.

"The only difference remarkable on this particular Sunday, October 19, was, that whereas my husband was dreadfully punctual, and with military precision as the clock struck we had to be in our places at the table at half-past seven, he seemed to dawdle about the room putting things away. He said to me, 'You had better go in to table'; and I answered, 'No, darling, I will wait for you'; and we went in together. He dined well, but sparingly; he laughed, talked, and joked. We discussed our future plans and preparations, and he desired me on the morrow to write to Sir Edmund Monson, and several other letters, to forward the preparations. We talked of our future life in London, and so on. About half-past nine he got up and went to his bedroom, accompanied by the doctor and myself, and we assisted him at his toilet. I then said the night prayers to him, and whilst I was saying them a dog began that dreadful howl which the superstitious say denotes a death. It disturbed me so dreadfully that I got up from the prayers, went out of the room, and called the porter to go out and see what was the matter with the dog. I then returned, and finished the prayers, after which he asked me for a novel. I gave him Robert Buchanan's Martyrdom of Madeleine. I kissed him and got into bed, and he was reading in bed.

"At twelve o'clock, midnight, he began to grow uneasy. I asked him what ailed him, and he said, 'I have a gouty pain in my foot. When did I have my last attack?' I referred to our journals, and found it was three months previously that he had had a real gout, and I said, 'You know that the doctor considers it a safety-valve that you should have a healthy gout in your feet every three months for your head and your general health. Your last attack was three months ago at Zurich, and your next will be due next January.' He was then quite content; and though he moaned and was restless, he tried to sleep, and I sat by him magnetizing the foot locally, as I had the habit of doing, to soothe the pain, and it gave him so much relief that he dozed a little, and said, 'I dreamt I saw our little flat in London, and it had quite a nice large room in it.' Between whiles he laughed and talked and spoke of our future plans, and even joked.

"At four o'clock he got more uneasy, and I said I should go for the doctor. He said,'Oh no, don't disturb him; he cannot do anything.' And I answered, 'What is the use of keeping a doctor if he is not to be called when you are suffering? ' The doctor was there in a few moments, felt his heart and pulse, found him in perfect order—that the gout was healthy. He gave him some medicine, and went back to bed. About past four he complained that there was no air. I flew back for the doctor, who came and found him in danger. I went at once, called up all the servants, sent in five directions for a priest, according to the directions I had received, hoping to get one; and the doctor, and I and Lisa[1] under the doctor's orders, tried every remedy and restorative, but in vain.

"What harasses my memory, what I cannot bear to think of, what wakes me with horror every morning from four till seven, when I get up, is that for a minute or two he kept on crying, 'Oh, Puss, chloroform—ether—or I am a dead man!' My God! I would have given him the blood out of my veins, if it would have saved him; but I had to answer, 'My darling, the doctor says it will kill you; he is doing all he knows.' I was holding him in my arms, when he got heavier and heavier, and more insensible, and we laid him on the bed. The doctor said he was quite insensible, and assured me he did not suffer. I trust not; I believe it was a clot of blood to the heart.

"My one endeavour was to be useful to the doctor, and not impede his actions by my own feelings. The doctor applied the electric battery to the heart, and kept it there till seven o'clock; and I knelt down at his left side, holding his hand and pulse, and prayed my heart out to God to keep his soul there (though he might be dead in appearance) till the priest arrived. I should say that he was insensible in thirty minutes from the time he said there was no air.

"It was a country Slav priest, lately promoted to be our parish priest, who came. He called me aside, and told me that he could not give Extreme Unction to my husband, because he had not declared himself; but I besought him not to lose a moment in giving the Sacrament, for the soul was passing away, and that I had the means of satisfying him. He looked at us all three, and asked if he was dead, and we all said no. God was good, for had he had to go back for the holy materials it would have been too late, but he had them in his pocket, and he immediately administered Extreme Unction—'Si vivis' or 'Si es capax,' If thou art alive'—and said the prayers for the dying and the departing soul. The doctor still kept the battery to the heart all the time, and I still held the left hand with my finger on the pulse. By the clasp of the hand, and a little trickle of blood running under the finger, I judged there was a little life until seven, and then I knew that … I was alone and desolate for ever."[2]

I have given the foregoing in Lady Burton's own words, as unfortunately a fierce controversy has raged round her husband's death-bed, and therefore it is desirable to repeat her testimony on the subject. This testimony was given to the world in 1893, when all the witnesses of Sir Richard Burton's death were living, and it was never publicly contradicted or called into question until December of last year (1896), eight months after Lady Burton's death, when Miss Stisted's book made its appearance. In consequence of the attack made upon Lady Burton by her niece, which has been repeated and echoed elsewhere, it is necessary to defend Lady Burton on this point, since she is no longer able to defend herself. But I should like to reiterate that the question of Sir Richard Burton's religion did not enter into the original scheme of this book. I only approach it now with reluctance, and that not so much for the purpose of arguing as to what was Sir Richard Burton's religion (that was a matter for himself alone) as of upholding the good faith of his wife. In view also of the peculiar bitterness of the odium theologicum, perhaps it may be permitted me to say at the outset that I have no prejudice on this subject. I am not a Roman Catholic, and therefore cannot be accused of approaching the controversy with what Paley was wont to call an "antecedent bias."

In this I have the advantage of Miss Stisted, who appears to be animated by a bitter hostility not only against her aunt but against the Church of Rome. In her book she asserts that Sir Richard Burton died before the priest arrived on the scene, and that the Sacrament of Extreme Unction was administered to a corpse. She also goes on to say:

The terrible shock of so fatal a termination to what seemed an attack of little consequence, would have daunted most Romanists desirous of effecting a death-bed conversion. It did not daunt Isabel. No sooner did she perceive that her husband's life was in danger, than she sent messengers in every direction for a priest. Mercifully, even the first to arrive, a man of peasant extraction, who had just been appointed to the parish, came too late to molest one then far beyond the reach of human folly and superstition. But Isabel had been too well trained by the Society of Jesus not to see that a chance yet remained of glorifying her Church—a heaven-sent chance which was not to be lost. Her husband's body was not yet cold, and who could tell for certain whether some spark of life yet lingered in that inanimate form? The doctor declared that no doubt existed regarding the decease, but doctors are often mistaken. So, hardly had the priest crossed the threshold than she flung herself at his feet, and implored him to administer Extreme Unction. The father, who seems to have belonged to the ordinary type of country-bred ecclesiastic so common abroad, and who probably in the whole course of his life had never before availed himself of so startling a method of enrolling a new convert, demurred. There had been no profession of faith, he urged; there could be none now, for—and he hardly liked to pronounce the cruel words—Burton was dead. But Isabel would listen to no arguments, would take no refusal; she remained weeping and wailing on the floor, until at last, to terminate a disagreeable scene, which most likely would have ended in hysterics, he consented to perform the rite. Rome took formal possession of Richard Burton's corpse, and pretended, moreover, with insufferable insolence, to take under her protection his soul. From that moment an inquisitive mob never ceased to disturb the solemn chamber. Other priests went in and out at will, children from a neighbouring orphanage sang hymns and giggled alternately, pious old women recited their rosaries, gloated over the dead, and splashed the bed with holy water; the widow, who had regained her composure, directing the innumerable ceremonies.

… After the necessary interval had elapsed, Burton's funeral took place in the largest church in Trieste, and was made the excuse for an ecclesiastical triumph of a faith he had always loathed.[3]

These statements of Lady Burton and Miss Stisted have been placed one after another, in order that the dispassionate reader may be able to judge not only of their conflicting nature, but of the different spirit which animates them. Lady Burton writes from her heart, reverently, as a good woman would write of the most solemn moments of her life, and of things which were to her eternal verities. Would she be likely to perjure herself on such a subject? Miss Stisted writes with an unconcealed animus, and is not so much concerned in defending the purity of her uncle's Protestantism as in vilifying her aunt and the faith to which she belonged. It may be noted too that Miss Stisted has no word of womanly sympathy for the wife who loved her husband with a love passing the love of women, and who was bowed down by her awful sorrow. On the contrary, with revolting heartlessness and irreverence, she jeers at her aunt's grief and the last offices of the dead. We may agree with the doctrines of the Church of Rome, or we may not; the solemn rites may be unavailing, or they may be otherwise; but at least they can do no harm, and the death-chamber should surely be sacred from such vulgar ribaldry! Good taste, if no higher consideration, might have kept her from mocking the religious convictions of others.

Miss Stisted's indictment of Lady Burton on this point falls under three heads:

First, that Sir Richard was dead before the priest arrived.

Secondly, that he was never a Catholic at all, and so his wife acted in bad faith.

Thirdly, that he "loathed" the Catholic religion.

It is better to deal with these charges seriatim.

With regard to the first, we have the positive and public testimony of Lady Burton, which was never contradicted during her lifetime, to the effect that her husband was alive when the Sacrament of Extreme Unction was administered to him. As, however, this testimony has been publicly called in question, though not until eight months after her death, we obtained through the kindness of the Baroness Paul de Ralli, a friend of Lady Burton at Trieste, the following written attestation from the priest who attended Sir Richard Burton's death-bed, and who is still living:


"On October 20, 1890, at six o'clock in the morning, I was called in to assist at the last moments of Sir Richard Burton, British Consul.

"Knowing that he had been brought up, or born in, the Evangelical religion, before repairing to his house I went to see Dr. Giovanni Sūst, the Provost of this Cathedral, in order to find out from him what I was to do in the matter. He replied that I should go, and act accordingly as the circumstances might seem to require.

"So I went.

"Entering into the room of the sick man, I found him in bed with the doctor and Lady Burton beside him.

"At first sight it seemed that I was looking, not at a sick man, but rather at a corpse. My first question was, 'Is he alive or dead?' Lady Burton replied that he was still living, and the doctor nodded his head, to confirm what she had said. And in fact the doctor was seated on the bed holding in his hands the hand of Sir Richard Burton to feel the beat of his pulse, and from time to time he administered some corroborante,[5] or gave an injection. Which of these two things he did I cannot now recollect, but it was certainly one or the other of them. These are things which one would certainly not do to a corpse, but only to a person still living; or if these acts were performed with the knowledge that the person in question was already dead, they could not be done without laying oneself open to an accusation of deception, all the more reprehensible if put in operation at such a solemn moment.

"In such a case all the responsibility would fall upon the doctor in charge, who with a single word, or even a sign given secretly to the priest, would have been able to prevent the administration of the Holy Sacrament of Extreme Unction.

"The second observation which I made to Lady Burton was one concerning religion—namely, "That whoever was of the Evangelical persuasion could not receive the Holy Sacraments in this manner".

"To this observation of mine she answered that some years ago he had received Extreme Unction, being, if I mistake not, at Cannes, and that on this occasion he had abjured the heresy and professed himself as belonging to the Catholic Church. On such a declaration from Lady Burton, I did that which a minister of God ought to do, and decided to administer to the dying man the last comforts of our holy religion. As it seemed to me that there was not much time to lose, I wished to administer the Extreme Unction by means of one single anointing on the forehead, as is done in urgent cases; but Lady Burton said that death was not so imminent; therefore she begged me to carry out fully the prescribed ceremony of Extreme Unction.

"This completed, together with the other customary prayers for the dying, I took my departure. I returned to the house of the Provost, Dr. Sũst, and laid everything before him, and he said I had done quite right.

"In a certificate of death drawn up by the Visitatore dei Morti,[6] Inspector Corani, in the register, under the head of religion, is written 'Catholic.' The funeral also was conducted according to the rites of the Catholic Church. I am convinced that Sir Richard Burton really became a Catholic, but that outwardly he did not wish this to be known, having regard to his position as a Consul to a Government of the Evangelical persuasion; and I have built up the hope that the innumerable prayers for her husband's conversion and good works of his pious wife Lady Burton will have been heeded by that Lord who said unto us, 'Pray, and your prayers shall be answered,' and that his soul will now have been received by the good God, together with that of the saintly lady his wife.

"One question I permit myself to ask of those who have now published the Life of Sir Richard Burton, which is this, 'Why did they not publish it during the lifetime of Lady Burton? Who better than she would have been able to enlighten the world on this point of much importance? Why publish it now when she is no longer here to speak?' "Trieste, January 12, 1897, "Pietro Martelani,

"Formerly Parish Priest of the B.V. del Soccorso, now Prebendary and Priest of the Cathedral of Trieste."[7]

I am further able to state that the gross travesty of Lady Burton's grief—"her weeping and wailing on the floor," etc., etc.—is the outcome of a malevolent imagination, from which nothing is sacred, not even a widow's tears. Lady Burton bore herself through the most awful trial of her life with quietude, fortitude, and resignation.

And now to turn to the second charge—to wit, that Sir Richard was never a Catholic at all; from which, if true, it follows that he was in fact "kidnapped" by his wife and the priest on his death-bed.

If this charge did not involve a suggestion of bad faith on the part of Lady Burton, I should have ignored it; for I hold most strongly that a man's religion is a matter for himself alone, a matter between himself and his God, one in which no outsider has any concern. Burton himself took this view, for he once said: "My religious opinion is of no importance to anybody but myself. No one knows what my religious views are. I object to confession, and I will not confess. My standpoint is, and I hope ever will be, the Truth, as far as it is in me, known only to myself."[8] This attitude he maintained to the world to the day of his death; but to his wife he was different. Let me make my meaning quite clear. I do not say Burton was a Catholic or that he was not; I offer no opinion. But what I do assert with all emphasis is that he gave his wife reason to believe that he had become a Catholic; and in this matter she acted in all good faith, in accordance with the highest dictates of her conscience and her duty. Burton knew how strongly his wife felt on this subject, and how earnest were her convictions. He knew that his conversion to Catholicism was her daily and nightly prayer. These considerations probably weighed with him when he signed the following paper (reproduced in facsimile on the opposite page). He signed it on the understanding that she was to keep it secret till he was a dying man:


February 15, 1877.

"Should my husband, Richard Burton, be on his death-bed unable to speak—I perhaps already dead—and that he may wish to have the grace to retract and recant his former errors, and to join the Catholic Church, and also to receive the Sacraments of Penance, Extreme Unction, and Holy Eucharist, he might perhaps be able to sign this paper, or make the sign of the cross to show his need.

(Signed) "Richard F. Burton."

I do not analyse the motives which led Burton to sign this paper. He may have done it merely to satisfy his wife (for, from the Agnostic point of view, the Sacraments would not have mattered much either way), or he may have done it from honest conviction, or from a variety of causes, for human motives are strangely com-mingled; but that he did sign it there is no doubt. Lady Burton, at any rate, took it all in good faith, and acted accordingly in sending for the priest; the priest, on receiving her assurance, acted in good faith in administering to Sir Richard Burton the last rites of the Church; and the Bishop of Trieste also acted in good faith in conceding to him a Catholic funeral. It is difficult to see how any of them could have acted otherwise.

Lastly, it has been asserted that Sir Richard Burton "loathed" the Roman Catholic Church; and though he was indifferent to most religions, he entertained a "positive aversion" to this one, and therefore to "kidnap" him on his death-bed was peculiarly cruel. I have read most of Burton's writings, and it is true, especially in his earlier books, that he girds against what he conceives to be certain abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and her priesthood in out-of-the-way countries; but then he attacks other forms of Christianity and other religions too. He had a great hatred of cant and humbug under the cloak of religion, and denounced them accordingly. There is nothing remarkable in this. We all denounce cant and humbug in the abstract, often most loudly when we are humbugs ourselves. If Burton attacked Christianity more than other religions, and Catholicism more than other forms of Christianity, he probably did so because they came more in his way. His religious acts generally appear to have been guided by the principle of "When one is at Rome, do as Rome does." He was a Mohammedan among Mohammedans, a Mormon among Mormons, a Sufi among the Shazlis, and a Catholic among the Catholics. One thing he certainly was not in his later years—a member of the Church of England. He was baptized and brought up in the Anglican Communion. He entered at Trinity College, Oxford, and he joined the Indian army as a member of the Church of England; but when he was at Goa in 1847 he left off "sitting under" the garrison chaplain and betook himself to the Roman Catholic chapel, and availed himself of the ministrations of the Goanese priest. From that time, except officially, he never seems to have availed himself of the services of the Church of England. I do not unduly press the point of his attendance at the Roman Catholic chapel at Goa, for it may simply have meant that Burton merely went to the chapel and worshipped as a Catholic among Catholics, just as when he was at Mecca he worshipped as a Mohammedan among Mohammedans; but it tells against the theory that he "loathed" Catholicism, as the same necessity did not exist at Goa as at Mecca. It was a purely voluntary act on his part. Henceforward it would seem that, so far from being prejudiced against Catholicism, Burton was always coquetting with it; and if he took any religion seriously at all, he may be said to have taken this one seriously. The following facts also go to prove this theory. He married a Catholic wife, of whose strong religious views he was well aware. Before the marriage he signed a paper to the effect that his children, if any, should be brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. He obtained and used the following letter from Cardinal Wiseman, with whom he was on friendly terms:

"London, June 28, 1856.

"Dear Sir,
"Allow me to introduce to you Captain Burton, the bearer of this note, who is employed by Government to make an expedition to Africa, at the head of a little band of adventurers. Captain Burton has been highly spoken of in the papers here; and I have been asked to give him this introduction to you as a Catholic officer.

"I am, dear Sir,
"Yours sincerely in Christ,
"N. Card. Wiseman.

"Colonel Hammerton," etc., etc., etc.

He habitually wore a crucifix, which his wife had given him, next his skin; he championed the cause of the Catholic converts in Syria; and when staying with his wife's family, he would frequently attend a service in a Roman Catholic church, and behave in all things as a Catholic worshipper. I am not saying that these things prove that Burton was a Catholic, but they afford strong presumptive evidence that he had leanings in the direction of Catholicism; and undoubtedly they go to prove that he did not "loathe" the Catholic religion. One thing is certain, he was too much of a scholar to indulge in any vulgar prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church, and too much of a gentleman to insult her priests.

After all there is nothing inherently improbable in Burton's conversion to Catholicism. Most of his life had been spent in countries where Catholicism is practically the only form of Christianity; and such a mind as his, if on the rebound from Agnosticism, would be much more likely to find a refuge in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church than in the half-way house of Evangelical Protestantism. To a temperament like Burton's, steeped in Eastern mysticism and Sufiism, Catholicism would undoubtedly have offered strong attractions; for the links between the highest form of Sufiism and the Gospel of St. John, the Ecstasis of St. Bernard, and other writings of the Fathers of the Church who were of the Alexandrian school, are well known, and could hardly have been ignored by Burton, who made a comparative study of religions.

This, however, is by the way, and has only an indirect bearing on his wife's action. She, who knew him best, and from whom he had no secrets, believed that, in his later years at least, her husband was at heart a Catholic. He gave her ample grounds for this belief, and she acted upon it in all good faith. That he may have deceived her is possible, though not probable; but that she would have deceived a priest of her Church at the most solemn moment of her life, and on one of the most sacred things of her religion, is both impossible and improbable. The whole nature of the woman, her transparent truthfulness, her fervent piety, rise up in witness against this charge, and condemn it. And to what end would she have done this thing? No one knew better than Lady Burton that there is One whom she could not deceive; for with her the things invisible were living realities, and the actualities of this life were but passing things which come and fade away.

  1. Lady Burton's maid, now dead.
  2. Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol. ii., pp. 410-414. This work was published in May, 1893.
  3. Miss Stisted's Life of Burton, pp. 409-414.
  4. Translated from the Italian.
  5. A tonic, a strengthening restorative.
  6. An official (generally a physician) who visits the dead, and assures himself that the death is real, and not an apparent one.
  7. The Baroness Paul de Ralli, who procured the above attestation from the priest, sent it in the first instance to Cardinal Vaughan, together with the following letter:

    "Trieste, Austria, January 19, 1897.

    "My Lord Cardinal,
    "There has lately been published a so-called 'true' Life of the late Sir Richard Burton, written by his niece. Since my letter to The Catholic Times, which appeared in the issue of December 24, it has been pointed out to me that it would be well if I could procure a written attestation of the priest who gave Extreme Unction to the late Sir Richard Burton. I am authorized by Monseigneur Sterk to place in the hands of your Eminence the enclosed manuscript, written by Monseigneur Martelani, who is now Prebendary of the Cathedral here. As an intimate friend of the Burtons, I beg to say that everything said about the life of the Burtons at this place in the 'true' life has been written from dictation, and, furthermore, that I could name the authoress's informant, which makes the book worthless for those who know the source from which the authoress has gathered her information—the same source which has made Lady Burton's life hideous from the day of her husband's death to the time she left this place. As regards those who claim to have known all about Sir Richard Burton—'They knew the man well,' etc.—allow me to point out that the exoteric subtleties of his character were only exceeded by the esoteric; and to what an extent this is true is only known to those who were at the same time his friends and his wife's intimate friends, of whom there are several here beside myself. My position at the Villa Gosslett was perhaps a little exceptional. Having come here from England in 1875 after my marriage, I was looked upon by the Burtons as a sort of ex-subject of theirs.
    "Believe me to be, my Lord Cardinal,
    "Yours faithfully,
    "Catherine de Ralli."

  8. Speech at the Anthropological Society, London, 1865.