Thomas Wright

The Life of Sir Richard Burton

Chapter XIX
18th June 1876-31st March 1877
Colonel Gordon

85. Ariosto.

Shortly after his return from India, Burton commenced a translation of the Orlando Furioso296 of Ariosto, a poet, to whom, as we have seen, he had been drawn ever since those far-off days when with his father and the rest of the family he had meandered about Italy in the great yellow chariot. Reggio, the poet’s birthplace, and Ferrara, where the Orlando Furioso was written and Ariosto died, were sacred spots to him; while the terrific madness of the hero, the loves of Ruggiero and Bradamante and the enchanted gardens with their Arabian Nights atmosphere, lapped him in bliss much as they had done in the old days. Only a small portion of this translation was ever finished, but he had it in mind all the rest of his life, and talked about it during his last visit to England.

86. Death of Rashid Pasha, 24th June 1876.

In June came the news of the murder of Rashid Pasha; and a thousand memories, sweet and bitter, thrilled the Burtons. Mrs. Burton recalled that “cool and aromatic housetop,” the jewel-blue Chrysorrhoa, the saffron desert, and then it was “Oh, Rashid Pasha! Oh, Rashid Pasha!” Still she found it in her woman’s heart to forgive the detested old enemy, now that he was gone, but Burton could not restrain a howl of triumph such as might have become some particularly vindictive Bible hero.

Writing on 24th June to his cousin, Dr. Edward John Burton, he says, “We returned here on the 18th inst., and the first thing I heard was the murder of my arch-enemy, Rashid Pasha. Serve the scoundrel right. He prevented my going to Constantinople and to Sana’a, in Arabia. I knew the murderous rascal too well to trust him. Maria wrote to me about poor Stisted’s death.297 A great loss for Maria and the chicks. I suppose you never see Bagshaw.298 What news are there of him? Is Sarah (What’s her name? Harrison?)299 still to the fore. It is, I fear, useless to write anything about poor Edward300 except to thank you most heartily for your disinterested kindness to him. I will not bother you about our journey, which was very pleasant and successful. You will see it all, including my proposals for renewed diamond digging, written in a book or books.”

“United best love to my cousin and the cousinkins.”

Burton made frequent enquiries after Edward, “Many thanks,” he writes on a post card, “for the news of my dear brother,” and all his letters contain tender and warm-hearted references to him.

87. Colonel Gordon 1877.

In July 1875, Burton heard from Colonel (afterwards General) Gordon, who wanted some information about the country south of the Victoria Nyanza; and the friendship which then commenced between these brilliant men was terminated only by death. In every letter Gordon quoted Burton’s motto, “Honour, not honours,” and in one he congratulated his friend on its happy choice. For several years Gordon had been occupied under the auspices of the Khedive, in continuing the work of administering the Soudan, which had been begun by Sir Samuel Baker. He had established posts along the Nile, placed steamers on the Albert Nyanza, and he nursed the hope of being able to put an end to the horrid slave trade. In January 1877, he was appointed by the Khedive Governor of the entire Soudan. There were to be three governors under him, and he wrote to Burton offering him the governor-generalship of Darfur, with 1,600 a year. Said Gordon, “You will soon have the telegraph in your capital, El Fasher. ... You will do a mint of good, and benefit those poor people. ... Now is the time for you to make your indelible mark in the world and in these countries.”301

Had such an offer arrived eight years earlier, Burton might have accepted it, but he was fifty-seven, and his post at Trieste, though not an agreeable one, was a “lasting thing,” which the governor-generalship of Darfur seemed unlikely to be. So the offer was declined. Gordon’s next letter (27th June 1877) contains a passage that brings the man before us in very vivid colours. “I dare say,” he observed, “you wonder how I can get on without an interpreter and not knowing Arabic. I do not believe in man’s free will; and therefore believe all things are from God and pre-ordained. Such being the case, the judgments or decisions I give are fixed to be thus or thus, whether I have exactly hit off all the circumstances or not. This is my raft, and on it I manage to float along, thanks to God, more or less successfully.”302

On another occasion Gordon wrote, “It is a delightful thing to be a fatalist”—meaning, commented Burton, “that the Divine direction and pre-ordination of all things saved him so much trouble of forethought and afterthought. In this tenet he was not only a Calvinist but also a Moslem.”303

88. Jane Digby the Second.

The patent Pick-me-up having failed, and the Burtons being still in need of money, other schemes were revolved, all more or less chimerical. Lastly, Burton wondered whether it would be possible to launch an expedition to Midian with a view to searching for gold. In ancient times gold and other metals had been found there in abundance, and remains of the old furnaces still dotted the country. Forty cities had lived by the mines, and would, Burton averred, still be living by them but for the devastating wars that had for centuries spread ruin and destruction. He, reasoned, indeed, much as Balzac had done about the mines of Sardinia as worked by the Romans, and from no better premises; but several of his schemes had a distinctly Balzacian aroma,304 as his friend Arbuthnot, who was writing a life of Balzac, might have told him. Burton himself, however, had no misgivings. His friend, Haji Wali, had indicated, it seems, in the old days, the precise spot where the wealth lay, and apparently nothing remained to be done except to go and fetch it.

Haji Wali had some excellent points. He was hospitable and good-natured, but he was also, as Burton very well knew, cunning and untrustworthy. The more, however, Burton revolved the scheme in his mind, the more feasible it seemed. That he could persuade the Khedive to support him he felt sure; that he would swell to bursting the Egyptian coffers and become a millionaire himself was also taken for granted, and he said half in earnest, half in jest, that the only title he ever coveted was Duke of Midian. There were very eager ears listening to all this castle building. At Trieste, Mrs. Burton had taken to her bosom another Jane Digby—a creature with soft eyes, “bought blushes and set smiles.” One would have thought that former experiences would have made her cautious. But it was not so. Mrs. Burton though deplorably tactless, was innocence itself, and she accepted others at their own valuation. Jane Digby the Second, who went in and out of the Burton’s house as if she belonged to it, was in reality one of the most abandoned women in Trieste. She was married, but had also, as it transpired, an acknowledged lover.

Like women of that class she was extravagant beyond belief, and consequently always in difficulties. Hearing the everlasting talk about Midian and its supposed gold, the depraved woman305 made up her mind to try to detach Burton’s affections from his wife and to draw them to herself. To accomplish this she relied not only on the attractions of her person, but also on glozing speeches and other feminine artifices. Having easy access to the house she purloined private letters, papers and other writings, and after all hope of recovery was over, she would put them back. She slipped love letters, purporting to be from other women, into Burton’s pockets; and whenever Mrs. Burton brushed his coat or dried his clothes she was sure to come upon them. Mrs. Burton also received pseudonymous letters.

But whatever Mrs. Burton’s faults, she, as we have seen, passionately loved, trusted and even worshipped her husband; and whatever Burton’s faults, he thoroughly appreciated her devotion. They were quite sufficient for each other, and the idea of anyone trying to come between them seemed ludicrous. Consequently Mrs. Burton carried her letters to her husband and he brought his to her. Amazing to say, neither of them suspected the culprit, though Burton thought it must be some woman’s intrigue, and that need of money was the cause of it.

The real truth of it did not come out till after Burton’s death, and then the unhappy woman, who was near her end, made Lady Burton a full confession, adding, “I took a wicked pleasure in your perfect trust in me.”

89. The Old Baronetcy. 18th January 1877.

Repeated enquiry now took place respecting the old baronetcy in the Burton family, and Mrs. Burton in particular made unceasing efforts, both in the columns of Notes and Queries and elsewhere, in order to obtain the missing links. Several of Burton’s letters at this period relate to the subject. To Mrs. E. J. Burton, 18th January 1877, he writes: “My dear cousin, I write to you in despair: That ‘party,’ your husband, puts me off with a post-card to this effect, ‘Have seen W——-ll, no chance for outsiders,’ and does not tell me a word more. I wish you would write all you know about it. Another matter. Had the old man left me his money or any chance of it, I should have applied for permission to take up the old baronetcy. But now I shall not. Your husband is the baronet and he can if he likes assume the “Sir” at once. Why the devil doesn’t he? Of course I advise him to go through the usual process, which will cost, in the case of a baronetcy, very few pounds. Neither he nor you may care for it, but think of the advantage it will be to your children. Don’t blink the fact that the British public are such snobs that a baronet, even in the matrimonial market, is always worth 50,000, and it is one of the oldest baronetcies in the kingdom. Do take my advice and get it for your eldest son [St. George Burton]. As I said before, your husband might assume it even without leave, but he had better get ‘the Duke’ to sanction it. And don’t fail to push the man, who won’t even claim what is his right. Que diable! Am I the only article named Burton that has an ounce of energy in his whole composition.”

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