The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 2/Chapter 4

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Containeth Time a twain of days — this of blessing, that of bane,
And holdeth Life a twain of halves — this of pleasure, that of pain.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah

(Burton's "Arabian Nights").

ON returning to England, a long and dreary interval of fifteen months ensued. Isabel spent it for the most part with her parents in London, working all the time for her husband in one way or another. The separation was broken this time by one or two voyages which she made from England to Teneriffe, where she and her husband met for a space when he could snatch a week or two from Fernando Po. She had one very anxious time; it was when Burton was sent on a special mission to the King of Dahomé, to impress upon that potentate the importance the British Government attached to the cessation of the slave-trade, and to endeavour by every possible means to induce him to discontinue the Dahoman customs, which were abominable cruelties. Burton succeeded in some things, and his dusky majesty took a great fancy to him, and he made him a brigadier-general of his Amazons. When the news of this unlooked-for honour reached Isabel, she became "madly jealous from afar," for she pictured to herself her husband surrounded by lovely houris in flowing robes mounted on matchless Arab steeds. Burton, however, allayed her pangs by sending her a little sketch of the chief officer of his brigade, as a type of the rest. Even Isabel, who owns that she was influenced occasionally by the green-eyed monster, could not be jealous of this enchantress.

The mission to the King of Dahomé was a difficult and dangerous one; but Burton acquitted himself well. Isabel at home lost no time in bringing her husband's services before Lord Russell, the Foreign Secretary, and she seized this opportunity to ask for his promotion to a less deadly climate, where she might join him. In reply she received the following letter:

"Minto, October 6, 1863.

"Dear Mrs. Burton,

"I know the climate in which your husband is working so zealously and so well is an unhealthy one, but it is not true to say that he is the smallest of consuls in the worst part of the world. Many have inferior salaries, and some are in more unhealthy places.

"However, if I find a vacancy of a post with an equal salary and a better position, I will not forget his services. I do not imagine he would wish for a less active post.

"He has performed his mission to Dahomé very creditably, to my entire satisfaction.

"I remain, yours truly,
With this answer she was fain to be content for a space.

In August, 1864, the time came round again for Burton's second leave home. His wife, rejoicing, travelled down to meet him at Liverpool, this time to part no more, as previously. A few weeks after his return they went to Mortlake Cemetery and chose the place for their grave, the very spot where the stone tent now is, beneath which they both are sleeping. Very quickly after that came the British Association meeting at Bath and the tragic incident of Speke's death.[1]

Apart from the sad circumstance of Speke's death, which cast a shadow over their joy, the Burtons passed a very pleasant winter. They stayed at several country houses, as was their wont, and found many hospitable friends glad to receive them, and met many interesting people, notably Professor Jowett. Early in 1864 they went on a two months' driving tour in Ireland, which they explored by degrees from end to end after their own fashion in an Irish car. They paid many visits en route; and it may be mentioned in passing that Isabel always used to see the little horse which took them over Ireland had his midday feed, washed down by a pint of whisky and water. She always declared that this was what kept him so frisky and fresh! This Irish tour also brings out the restless, roving spirit of both Burton and his wife. Even when on leave at home, and in the midst of civilization, they could never remain any length of time in one place, but preferred to be on the move and rough it in their own fashion. At Dublin they met with an unusual amount of hospitality; and while they were staying in that city Isabel met Lentaigne, the great convict philanthropist. He had such a passion for taking convicts in and trying to reform them that Lord Carlisle once said to him, "Why, Lentaigne, you will wake up some morning and find you are the only spoon in the house." He took Isabel to see all the prisons and reformatories in Dublin, and endeavoured to arouse in her something of his enthusiasm for their inhabitants. Knowing that she would soon be bound for foreign parts, he implored her to take one with her, a convict woman of about thirty-four, who was just being discharged after fifteen years in prison. "Why, Mr. Lentaigne, what did she do?" asked Isabel. "Poor girl!" he answered—"the sweetest creature!—she murdered her baby when she was sixteen." "Well," answered Isabel, "I would do anything to oblige you; but if I took her, I dare say I should often be left alone with her, and at thirty-four she might like larger game."

It was about this time that the Burtons again represented to Lord Russell how miserable their lives were, in consequence of being continually separated by the deadly climate of Fernando Po. Isabel's repeated petitions so moved the Foreign Secretary that he transferred Burton to the Consulate of Santos in the Brazils. It was not much of a post, it is true, and with a treacherous climate; but still his wife could accompany him there, and they hailed the change with gratitude. Before their departure a complimentary dinner was given by the Anthropological Society to Burton, with Lord Stanley (afterwards Lord Derby) in the chair. Lord Stanley made a very complimentary speech about the guest of the evening, and the President of the Society proposed Mrs. Burton's health, and spoke of the "respect and admiration" with which they all regarded her. The dinner was a capital send-off, and the Burtons may be said to have entered upon the second stage of their married life with the omens set fair.

Husband and wife arranged that they should go out to Portugal together for a little tour; that he should go on from there to Brazil; and she should return to London to wind up affairs, and as soon as that was done join him at Rio. In accordance with this programme they embarked at Southampton for Lisbon on May 10, 1865. The passage out was uneventful. Isabel in her journal thus describes their experiences on arriving at Lisbon:

"As soon as our vessel dropped her anchor a crowd of boats came alongside, and there ensued a wonderful scene. In their anxiety to secure employment the porters almost dragged the passengers in half, and tore the baggage from each other as dogs fight for a bone, screaming themselves hoarse the while, and scarcely intelligible from excitement. The noise was so great we could not hear ourselves speak, and our great difficulty was to prevent any one of them from fingering our baggage. We made up our minds to wait till the great rush was over. We sent some baggage on with the steamer, and kept some to go ashore. I am sure I do not exaggerate when I say that, as I sat and watched one bag, I told fifteen men, one after another, to let it alone. We saw some friends go off in the clutches of many fingers, and amid scenes of confusion and excitement; but not caring to do likewise, we chose a boat, and went round to the custom-house. The landing was most disagreeable, and in a bad gale not to be done at all—merely a few dirty steps on the river-side. In wind and pelting rain we walked to our hotel, followed closely at our heels by men and famished-looking dogs. We proceeded at once to the best-looking hotel in the place, the Braganza, which makes some show from the river—a large, square, red building, several storeys high, with tiers of balconies all round the house. On account of the diplomats occupying this hotel on a special mission from England to give the Garter to the King of Portugal, it was still crowded, and we were put up in the garrets at first. After two days we were given a very pleasant suite of rooms—bedroom, dining- and drawing-room—with wide windows overlooking the Tagus and a great part of Lisbon.

"These quarters were, however, not without drawbacks, for here occurred an incident which gave me a foretaste of the sort of thing I was to expect in Brazil. Our bedroom was a large whitewashed place; there were three holes in the wall, one at the bedside bristling with horns, and these were cockroaches some three inches long. The drawing-room was gorgeous with yellow satin, and the magnificent yellow curtains were sprinkled with these crawling things. The consequence was that I used to stand on a chair and scream. This annoyed Richard very much. 'A nice sort of traveller and companion you are going to make,' he said; 'I suppose you think you look very pretty and interesting standing on that chair and howling at those innocent creatures.' This hurt me so much that, without descending from the chair, I stopped screaming, and made a meditation like St. Simon Stylites on his pillar; and it was, 'That if I was going to live in a country always in contact with these and worse things, though I had a perfect horror of anything black and crawling, it would never do to go on like that.' So I got down, fetched a basin of water and a slipper, and in two hours, by the watch, I had knocked ninety-seven of them into it. It cured me. From that day I had no more fear of vermin and reptiles, which is just as well in a country where nature is over-luxuriant. A little while after we changed our rooms we were succeeded by Lord and Lady Lytton, and, to my infinite delight, I heard the same screams coming from the same room a little while after. 'There!' I said in triumph, 'you see I am not the only woman who does not like cockroaches.'"

The Burtons tarried two months in Portugal, and explored it from end to end, and Isabel made notes of everything she saw in her characteristic way. Space does not permit of giving the account of her Portuguese tour in full, but we are fain to find room for the following descriptions of a bull-fight and procession at Lisbon. Burton insisted on taking his wife (whose loathing of cruelty to animals was intense) to see it, probably to accustom her betimes to the savage sights and sounds which might await her in the semi-civilized country whither they were bound. "At first," she says, "I crouched down with my hands over my face, but I gradually peeped through one finger and then another until I saw the whole of it." And this is what she saw:

"On Sunday afternoon at half-past four we drove to the Campo di Sta. Anna, where stands the Praça dos Touros, or Bull Circus, a wooden edifice built in the time of Dom Miguel. It is fitted with five hundred boxes, and can contain ten thousand persons. It is a high, round, red building, ornamented. The circle has a barrier and then a space all round, and a second and higher barrier where the people begin. They were watering the ring when we entered, crackers were fizzing, and the band was playing. At five o'clock the circle was filled.

"A blast from the trumpets announced the entry of the cavalleiro, a knight on a prancing steed richly caparisoned, which performed all the steps and evolutions of the old Spanish horsemanship—i.e. saluting the public and curveting all about in steps. The cavalleiro then announced the deeds to be performed, and this ceremony was called 'the greeting of the knight.' Before him marched the bull-fighters, who ranged themselves for inspection in ranks. They were sixteen in number. Eight gallegos were dressed in white stockings to the knee, flesh-coloured tights, green caps lined with red, red sashes, and gay, chintz-patterned jackets, and were armed with long pronged forks like pitchforks, called homens de forçado. They were Portuguese, fit and hearty. Two boys in chocolate-coloured velvet and gold attended as pages, and six Spaniards, who really did all the work, completed the number. They were tall, straight, slim, proud, and graceful, and they strutted about with cool jauntiness. Their dress began with dandy shoes, then flesh-coloured stockings, velvet tights slashed with gold or silver, a scarlet sash, and a short jacket that was a mass of gold or silver, and a sombrero of fanciful make. Their hair was as short as possible, save for a pigtail rolled up like a woman's back hair and knotted with ribbon. There was one in green and gold, one in pale blue and silver, one in purple and silver, one in dark blue and silver, one in chocolate and silver, and one in maroon and silver. The green and gold was the favourite man, on account of his coolness, jaunty demeanour, and his graceful carelessness. The cavalleiro having inspected them, retired. Another man then came out, the piccador.

"At a fresh blast of the horn the door of the arena flew open, and in rushed a bull. For an instant he stopped, stared wildly round in surprise, and gave a wild roar of rage. Then he made at the horseman, whose duty it was to receive him at full gallop and to plant the barb in his neck before his horns reached the horse's hind-quarters, which he would otherwise have ripped up. When the bull had received several barbs from the piccador, he was tired of pursuing the horse. It was then the duty of the Spaniards to run so as to draw the bull after them, when on foot they planted two barbs in his neck. The instant he received them he roared and turned off for an instant, during which the man flew over the barrier as lightly as possible. This went on for some time, the bull bounding about with his tail in the air and roaring as he sought another victim. The prettiest part of it was the skill of the matador or espada, who shook a cloak at the bull. The beast immediately rushed at it as quick as a flash of lightning; the espada darted aside, twisted the cloak, and changed places with the bull, who could never get at him. It was as if he rushed at a shadow. It was most graceful. In the case of our green-and-gold espada the bulls seemed afraid of him. They retired before his gaze as he knelt down before them, begging of them to come on; after a few rounds they seemed to acknowledge a master, for he appeared to terrify them. The last act was that in which the gallegos tease the bull to run at them. One, when the bull was charging with bowed head, jumped between the horns and clung on, allowing himself to be flung about, and the others caught hold of the tail and jumped on his back, and he pranced about till tired. This is literally 'seizing the bull by the horns.' Then oxen with bells were turned in, and the bull was supposed to go off quietly with them. We had thirteen bulls, and the performance lasted two hours. The programmes were crammed with high-flown language.

"Women were there in full war-paint, green and pink silk and white mantillas. Little children of four and five years old were there too. No wonder they grow hardened! A few English tourists were present also, and a lot of dirty-looking people dressed in Sunday best. Our first bull would go back with the cows; the second bull jumped over the barrier, and gave a great deal of trouble, and very nearly succeeded in getting amongst the people. Every now and then a bull would fly over the head of the bandahille and jump the barrier to escape him. One bull flew at the barrier, and, failing to clear it, fell backwards; one bull would not fight, and was fearfully hissed; one had to be lassoed to get him out of the ring. Once or twice gallegos would have been gored but for the balls on the bulls' horns.

"After the first terror I found the fight very exciting. If it had been a bit more cruel no woman ought to have seen it. I heard some who were accustomed to Spanish bull-fights say it was very tame. The bulls' horns were muffled, so that they could not gore the horses or men. Hence there were no disembowelled horses and dogs lying dead, and a bull which has fought well is not unfairly killed. The men were bruised though, and perhaps the horses. The bull had some twenty barbs sticking in the fleshy part of his neck. When he is lassoed and made fast in the stable, the men take out the barbs, wash the wounds in vinegar and salt, and the bull returns to his herd.

"The day before we left Portugal—Richard for Brazil and I for England—I had also the good fortune to witness a royal procession.

"Early in the day Lisbon presented an appearance as if something unusual was about to take place. The streets were strewed thickly with soft red sand. The corridors were hung with festoons of gay-coloured drapery, and silk cloths and carpets hung from the balconies, of blue and scarlet and yellow. The cathedral had a grand box erected outside, of scarlet and green velvet.

"Being Corpus Christi, the great day of all the year, there was grand High Mass and Exposition. All the bishops, priests, and the Royal Family attended. In the afternoon the streets were crowded with people on foot, curious groups lined the sides, and carriages were drawn up at all available places. At four o'clock a flourish of trumpets announced that the procession had issued from the cathedral. Officers, covered with decorations, passed to and fro on horseback. Water-carriers plied their aqua fresca trade. Bands played in all the streets. While waiting, Portuguese men, with brazen effrontery, asked permission to get into my carriage to see the procession better; the rude shopboys clambered up the wheels, hiding the view with their hats. I dispersed the men, but took in the children. They did not attempt this with any of the Portuguese carriages, but only with mine.

"The procession occupied two hours and a half. First came a troop of black men, and a dragon (i.e. a man in scaly armour) mounted on an elephant in their midst. The next group was St. George on his horse, followed by Britannia—a small girl astride dressed like Britannia. The military presented arms to Britannia. These groups were both followed by led chargers caparisoned with scarlet velvet trappings, their manes and tails plaited with blue silk, and with blue plumes on their heads. They were led by grooms in the royal livery of red and gold. These were followed by all the different religious orders, carrying tall candles mounted in silver, and a large silver crucifix in the centre, and surrounded by acolytes in red cloth. Then came golden canopies, surmounted by gold and silver crosses. Then all the clergy surrounding some great ecclesiastical dignitary—the bishop probably—to whom the soldiers presented arms. Then came an official with a gold bell in a large gold frame, which was rung three times at every few hundred yards, followed by a huge red-and-yellow canopy, under which were the relics of St. Vincent. Then, carried on cushions, were seven mitres covered with jewels, representing the seven archbishops, more crosses and candles, clergy in copes, and all the great people of the Church. Then came the last and important group. It was headed by a procession of silver lanterns carried by the bishops and chief priests. Then followed a magnificent canopy, under which the Cardinal Patriarch carried the Blessed Sacrament. The corners of the canopy were held by members of the Royal Family, and immediately behind it came the King. The troops brought up the rear. The soldiers knelt as the Blessed Sacrament passed, and we all went on our knees and bowed our heads. The King was tall, dark, and majestic, with a long nose and piercing black eyes, and he walked with grace and dignity. He wore uniform of dark blue with gold epaulettes, and the Order of the Garter, which had just been given him."

The day after the royal procession Burton sailed from Lisbon for Brazil. His wife went on board with him, inspected his cabin, and saw that everything was comfortable, and then "with a heavy heart returned in a boat to the pier, and watched the vessel slowly steaming away out of the Tagus." She attempted to drive after her along the shore, but the steamer went too fast; so she went to the nearest church, and prayed for strength to bear the separation. Burton had told his wife to return to England by the next steamer. As she was in the habit of obeying his commands very literally, and as a few hours after he left Lisbon a little cockle-shell of a steamer came in, she embarked in this most unseaworthy boat the afternoon of the same day, though she had no proper accommodation for passengers. They had a terrible time of it crossing the Bay of Biscay, to all the accompaniments of a raging storm, violent sea-sickness, and a cabin "like the Black Hole of Calcutta." Her experiences were so unpleasant that she dubbed the vessel Ye Shippe of Hell. Nevertheless, as was her wont, she managed to see the ludicrous side. She writes:

"Our passengers were some fun. There was not a single man who could have been called a gentleman among the passengers, and only two ladies. They were Donna Maria Bita Tenario y Moscoso (a Portuguese marquise), travelling for her health with a maid-companion, and myself returning with my maid to England. There were two other ladies (so called) with children, each of them a little girl, and the girls were as troublesome as the monkey and the dog who were with them. They trod on our toes, rubbed their jammy fingers on our dresses, tore our leaves out of our books, screamed, wanted everything, and fought like the monkey and the dog. Their papas were quiet, worthy men. We had also on board a captain and mate whose ship had been burnt in Morocco with a full cargo on the eve of returning to England; a gentleman returning from Teneriffe (where he has spent twenty-five years) to England, his native land, whom everybody hoaxed and persuaded him almost that the moon was made of green cheese in England; a Jew who ate, drank, was sick, and then began to gorge again, laughed and talked and was sick with greatest good humour and unconcern; an intelligent and well-mannered young fellow, English born, but naturalized in Portugal, going out to the Consulate at Liverpool; and, lastly, a Russian gentleman, who looked like an old ball of worsted thrown under the grate. Nothing was talked of but sickness and so forth; but I must say they were all good-hearted, good-humoured, and good-natured, and their kindness to each other on the voyage nothing could exceed. The two terrible children aforesaid were a great amusement in Ye Shippe. One used to tease a monkey by boiling an egg hard and giving it him hot, to see him toss it from paw to paw, and then holding a looking-glass before him, for him to see his grimaces and antics and other tricks; and the other child was always teasing a poor Armenian priest born in Jerusalem. He had taken a second-class passage amongst the sailors and common men. The first class was bad enough. God help the second! They would not give the poor man anything to eat, and bullied and teased him. He bore up in such a manly way my heart ached for him and made me blush for the British snob. I used to load my pockets with things for him when I left the table, and got the first class to admit him to our society under an awning; but the captain would not have him in the cabin or on the upper deck. Our skipper was a rough man, having risen from a common sailor, but pleasant enough when in a polite humour. The third amusement was the fallals of our maids, who were much more ill and helpless than their mistresses. They were always 'dying,' 'wouldn't get up,' 'couldn't walk,' but had to be supported by the gentlemen. There was great joy on the sixth day because we thought we saw land. It might have been a fog-bank; it might have been Portland Bill; anyway, we began to pack and prepare and bet who would sleep ashore. We awoke on the seventh day in a fog off Beachy Head at 4.30 a.m., and lay to and whistled. Some time after we passed Eastbourne, and then ran plank along the coast. How pretty the white walls of England looked in the morning sun! At night we reached Gravesend; but there was too little water, and we went aground at Erith, where we were obliged to stay till next morning, owing to the bad fog and no water. However, we made our way up to St. Katherine's wharf at ten. There was an awful bustle; but I disturbed the whole ship to land; and taking my Portuguese marquise under my wing, I fought my way to shore. I arrived home at noon—a happy meeting in the bosom of my family."

Arrived in London, Isabel at once set to work to complete her preparations for her departure to Brazil. It was a habit with the Burtons all through their lives that, whenever they were leaving England for any length of time, Burton started first in light marching order to prospect the place, leaving his wife behind to pay, pack, and bring up the heavy baggage in the rear. This was the case in the present instance. When her work was done, Isabel found she had still ten days on her hands before the steamer sailed from Southampton for Rio. So temporal affairs being settled for the nonce, she turned her attention to her spiritual needs, and prepared herself for her new life by prayer and other religious exercise. She went into retreat for a week at the Convent of the Assumption, Kensington Square. The following meditation is taken from her devotional book of that period:

"I am to bear all joyfully, as an atonement to save Richard. How thoughtful for me has been God's dispensation! He rescued me from a fate which, though it was a happy one, I pined in, because I was intended for a higher destiny and yearned for it. Let me not think that my lot is to be exempt from trials, nor shrink from them, but let me take pain and pleasure alike. Let me summon health and spirits and nerves to my aid, for I have asked and obtained a most difficult mission, and I must acquire patient endurance of suffering, resistance of evil, and take difficulties and pain with courage and even with avidity. My mission and my religion must be uppermost. As I asked ardently for this mission—none other than to be Richard's wife—let me not forget to ask as ardently for grace to carry it out, and let me do all I can to lay up such store as will remain with me beyond the grave. I have bought bitter experiences, but much has, I hope, been forgiven me. I belong to God—the God who made all this beautiful world which perpetually makes my heart so glad. I cannot see Him, but I feel Him; He is with me, within me, around me, everywhere. If I lost Him, what would become of me? How I have bowed down before my husband's intellect! If I lost Richard, life would be worthless. Yet he and I and life are perishable, and will soon be over; but God and my soul and eternity are everlasting. I pray to be better moulded to the will of God, and for love of Him to become indifferent to what may befall me."

The next week Isabel sailed from Southampton to join her husband at Rio.

  1. "Laurence Oliphant conveyed to Richard that Speke had said that 'if Burton appeared on the platform at Bath' (which was, as it were, Speke's native town) 'he would kick him.' I remember Richard's answer—'Well, that settles it! By God! he shall kick me'; and so to Bath we went. There was to be no speaking on Africa the first day, but the next day was fixed for the 'great discussion between Burton and Speke.' The first day we went on the platform close to Speke. He looked at Richard and at me, and we at him. I shall never forget his face. It was full of sorrow, of yearning and perplexity. Then he seemed to turn to stone. After a while he began to fidget a great deal, and exclaimed half aloud, 'Oh, I cannot stand this any longer!' He got up to go out. The man nearest him said, 'Shall you want your chair again, sir? May I have it? Shall you come back?' and he answered, 'I hope not,' and left the hall. The next day a large crowd was assembled for this famous discussion. All the distinguished people were with the Council; Richard alone was excluded, and stood on the platform—we two alone, he with his notes in his hand. There was a delay of about twenty-five minutes, and then the Council and speakers filed in and announced the terrible accident out shooting that had befallen poor Speke shortly after his leaving the hall the day before. Richard sank into a chair, and I saw by the workings of his face the terrible emotion he was controlling and the shock he had received. When called upon to speak, in a voice that trembled, he spoke of other things and as briefly as he could. When we got home he wept long and bitterly, and I was for many a day trying to comfort him" (Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Isabel his wife, vol. i., p. 389).