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The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton/Book 2/Chapter 21

< The Romance of Isabel, Lady Burton‎ | Book 2




As we meet and touch each day
The many travellers on the way,
Let every such brief contact be
A glorious helpful ministry—
The contact of the soil and seed,
Each giving to the other's need,
Each helping on the other's best,
And blessing each, as well as blest.

ON December 4, 1875, we left London for Trieste, en route for India. It was not a cheerful day for saying good-bye to Old England and dear friends. There was a fog as black as midnight, thick snow was lying about the streets, and a dull red gloom only rendered the darkness visible and horrible. The great city was wrapped in the sullen splendours of a London fog. "It looks," said Richard, "as if the city were in mourning for some great national crime." "No," I said, "rather let us think that our fatherland wears mourning for our departure into exile once more." I felt as if I could never rise and face the day that morning. However, we had to go, so there was nothing to do but put our shoulders to the wheel. We lunched with my father and family by lamplight at one o'clock in the day. We prolonged the "festive" meal as much as we could, and then set out, a large family party, by the 4.45 train to Folkestone. We all had supper together at Folkestone, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. The next day my relations wished me good-bye—always a hard word to say. One parting in particular wrung my heart: I little thought then I should meet no more my brother Rudolph, the last of my four dear brothers, all of whom died young by untoward accidents. It was strange I was always bidding good-bye to them every three or four years. One ought to have been steeled to parting by now. Nevertheless every time the wrench was as keen as ever.

We stopped in Folkestone until Tuesday, and then Richard and I got into a sleigh, which took us over the snow from the hotel to the boat. We had a very cold crossing, but not a rough one; and as we neared Boulogne we even saw a square inch or so of pale blue sky, a sight which, after London, made us rejoice.

The old port at Boulogne stretched out its two long lean arms to our cockle-shell of a steamer, as though anxious to embrace it. I thought, as we came into the harbour, how much this quaint old town had been bound up with my life. I could never see it without recalling the two years which I had spent in Boulogne years ago, and going over again in my mind the time when I first saw Richard—the day of my life which will always be marked with a great white stone. He was a young lieutenant then on furlough from India, just beginning to spring into fame, and I a mere girl, who had seen nothing of life but one hurried London season.

We stayed at Boulogne two days, and we wandered about all over the place together, calling back to our memory the scenes of our bygone youth. We walked on the old Ramparts where we first made acquaintance, where Richard used to follow my sister Blanche and myself when we were sent out to learn our lessons al fresco. We even saw the wall where he chalked up, "May I speak to you?" and I chalked back, "No; mother will be angry." I hunted out my little brother's grave too, and planted it with fresh rose trees; and I visited my old friend Carolina, the Queen of the Poissardes. She was still a beautiful creature, magnificent in her costume. She reminded me of a promise I had made her in the old days, that if ever I went to Jerusalem I would bring her a rosary. I little dreamt then that I should marry Richard Burton, or that he would be Consul at Damascus, or that I should go to Jerusalem. Yet all these things had come to pass. And so I was able to fulfil my promise, to her great delight.

From Boulogne we went to Paris, which I found terribly changed since the Franco-German War. The marks of the terrible Siege were still burnt upon its face; and this applied not only to the city itself, but to the people. The radical changes of the last five years, and the war and the Commune, had made a new world of Paris. The light, joyous character of the French was no doubt still below the surface, but the upper crust was then (at least so it struck me) one of sulkiness, silence, and economy run mad, a rage for lucre, and a lust pour la revanche. Even the women seemed to have given up their pretty dresses, though of course there were some to be seen. Yet things were very different now to what they had been under the splendours of the Second Empire, that Empire which went "like a dream of the night." The women seemed to have become careless, an unusual thing in Parisiennes: they even painted badly; and it is a sin to paint—badly. I am afraid that I am one of the very few women who do not like Paris. I never liked it, even in its palmy days; and now at this time I liked it less than ever. I was so glad to leave at the end of the week, and to move out of the raw, white fog sunwards. We had a most uncomfortable journey from Paris to Modane, and the officials at the Customs seemed to delight in irritating and insulting one. When I was passing into the custom-pen, I was gruffly addressed, "On ne passe pas!" I said, "On ne passe pas? Comment on ne passe pas?" The only thing wanting, it seemed, was a visiting-card; but the opportunity of being safely insolent was too tempting to the Jack-in-office for him to pass it over. I could not help feeling glad these braves had never reached Berlin; they would have made Europe uninhabitable. France was charming as an empire or as a monarchy, but as a brand-new republic it was simply detestable.

We went on to Turin, where we stayed for a day or two; and while here I sent a copy of my Inner Life of Syria to the Princess Margherita of Savoy, now Queen of Italy, who was pleased to receive the same very graciously. From Turin we went to Milan, where we lapsed into the regular routine of Italian society, so remarkable for the exquisite amenity of its old civilization (as far as manners are concerned), and for the stiffness and mediæval semi-barbarism of its surroundings. As an instance of this we had occasion to call on a personage to whom we had letters of introduction. We sent in our letters with a visiting-card by the porter, asking when we should call. The reply was, "Va bene," which was pleasant, but vague. We took heart of grace, and asked at the door, "Is the Signor Conte visible? "The janitor replied, "His Excellency receives at 8 o'clock p.m." We replied, "At that time we shall be on the railway." The domestic, with leisurely movement, left us in the hall, and dawdled upstairs to report the remarkable case of the importunate English. By-and-by he returned, and showed us into the saloon, a huge, bare, fireless room, with a few grotesque photographs and French prints on the walls, and a stiff green sofa and chairs. The Signor Conte kept us waiting twenty minutes, whilst he shaved and exchanged his dressing-gown for the suit of sables which is the correct raiment of the Latin race. Nothing could be more polished than his manners. He received us with a cordiality which at once won our hearts. But we were introduced to him by a bosom friend; our pursuits and tastes were the same. Why then could not he ask us up to his cosy study to give us coffee and a cigarette? "Sarebbe proprio indecente" ("It would really be too rude"), was the reply, although both he and we would have liked it extremely. So for want of time to crack this hard nutshell we never got at the kernel.

From Milan we went to Venice, which we found enveloped in a white fog, with a network of lagoons meandering through streets of the foulest mud. Venice is pre-eminently a hot-weather city. In winter, with her cold canals and wet alleys, deep rains and dense mists, her huge, unwarmed palaces, and her bare, draughty hotels, she is a veritable wet place of punishment. We stayed in Venice for some days, and made several pleasant acquaintances. I had with me a German maid, who had never seen Venice. She went in a gondola for the first time, and was at the highest pitch of excitement at finding that all was water. She marvelled at the absence of cabs and dust, and exclaimed perpetually, "Nothing but water, water everywhere"; which we naturally capped with, "But not a drop to drink," until I believe she fancied that drink was the only thing we English ever thought of.

On December 23 we went across to Trieste by the midnight boat, and next morning I was at Trieste again, my much-loved home of four years and a half. I found it all to a hair as I had left it just a year ago, for I had been absent twelve months in England. Christmas Night, however, was a little sad. We had accepted an invitation for a Christmas dinner, and had given the servants leave to go out to see their friends; but Richard was unfortunately taken ill, and could not dine out, and he went to bed. Of course I stayed with him; but we had nobody to cook for us, nor anything to eat in the house except bread and olives. I went to the pantry and foraged, and with this simple fare ate my Christmas dinner by his bedside.

We stopped in Trieste eight days, just to pack up and complete arrangements for our tour; and on the last day of the old year we left for Jeddah. We were aware that we were starting for India two or three months too late, and would have to encounter the heat and fatal season to accomplish it; but as Richard said, "Consuls, like beggars, can't be choosers," and we were only too glad to be able to go at all. Everybody was most kind to us, and a lot of friends came to a parting midday dinner, and accompanied us to our ship to see us off. The Government boat, containing the Capitane du Port and the sailors, in uniform, took us to our ship, an honour seldom accorded to any but high Austrian officials; and the Duke of Würtemberg, Commander-in-chief at Trieste, and several others came to wish us "God-speed." I shall never forget their kindness, for I appreciated the honour which they did to Richard. It is strange how much more willing those in authority abroad were to do him justice than the Government at home.

The run from Trieste to Port Said occupied six days and six nights. Our ship was the Calypso (Austrian Lloyd's), a good old tub, originally built for a cattleboat. We were the only passengers, and, with the captain and his officers, we made a family party, and I was never more comfortable on board ship in my life. The voyage to Port Said has been so often described that I need not dwell upon it again. We had fair weather for the first five days, and then there was a decided storm, which, however, did not last long. One gets so knocked about in a steamer that baths are impossible; one can only make a hasty toilet at the most, being obliged to hold on to something, or be knocked the while from one end of the cabin to the other; one dines, so to speak, on the balance, with the food ever sliding into one's lap. Our boat danced about throughout the voyage in a most extraordinary manner, which made me think that she had but little cargo. I spent most of the time on deck, "between blue sea and azure air," and I did a good deal of reading. I read Moore's Veiled Prophet of Khorassán and other books, including Lalla Rookh and The Light of the Harím; also Smollett's Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, which I found coarse, but interesting. Some one told me that a course of Smollett was more or less necessary to form one for novel-writing, so I took that and The Adventures of Roderick Random on board to study, in case I should ever write a novel. I felt rather displeased when Smollett's Lady of Quality married her second husband, and quite bouleversée long before I arrived at her fifteenth lover.

Port Said shows itself upon the southern horizon in two dark lines, like long piles or logs of wood lying upon the sea, one large and one small. These are the white town and the black town, apparently broken by an inlet of sea, and based upon a strip of yellow sand. The sea is most unwholesome and stagnant. The houses of Port Said looked like painted wooden toys. The streets were broad, but the shops were full of nothing but rubbish, and were surrounded by dogs and half-naked, dark-brown gutter-boys. There is a circular garden in the centre of the European part, with faded flowers, and a kiosk for the band to play in. The most picturesque and the dirtiest part is the Arab town, with its tumble-down houses and bazar. The people wear gaudy prints and dirty mantles bespangled with gold. There were a great many low-class music-halls and gambling- and dancing-saloons. Port Said is in fact a sort of Egyptian Wapping, and I am told the less one knows about its morals the better.

While we were strolling about the Arab part, my German maid, who was in an Eastern place for the first time, came upon a man filling a goat-skin with water. She saw a pipe and the skin distending, and heard the sound. She had often heard me say how cruel the Easterns were to animals; and knowing my tenderness on that point, she ran after me in a great state of excitement, and pulled my arm, crying out, "O Euer Guaden! The black man is filling the poor sow with gas! Do come back and stop him!"

The next morning early we began to steam slowly up the long ditch called the Canal, and at last to the far east we caught a gladdening glimpse of the desert—the wild, waterless Wilderness of Sur, with its waves and pyramids of sand catching the morning rays, with its shadows of mauve, rose pink, and lightest blue, with its plains and rain-sinks, bearing brown dots, which were tamarisks (manna trees). The sky was heavenly blue, the water a deep band of the clearest green, the air balmy and fresh. The golden sands stretched far away; an occasional troop of Bedawin with their camels and goats passed, and reminded me of those dear, dead days at Damascus. It all came back to me with a rush. Once more I was in the East. I had not enjoyed myself so much with Nature for four years and a half. With the smell of the desert air in our nostrils, with Eastern pictures before our eyes, we were even grateful for the slowness of the pace at which we travelled. They were the pleasantest two days imaginable, like a river picnic. We reached Suez, with its air of faded glory, at length; and there we shipped a pious pilot, who said his prayers regularly, and carefully avoided touching my dog. Of course he was from Mecca; but, unhappily for his reputation, the first night spent at Jeddah gave him a broken nose, the result of a scrimmage in some low coffee-house.

At last we neared Jeddah, the port of Mecca. The approach was extraordinary. For twenty miles it is protected by Nature's breakwaters, lines of low, flat reefs, barely covered, and not visible until you are close upon them. There was no mark or lighthouse save two little white posts, which might easily be mistaken for a couple of gulls. In and out of these reefs the ship went like a serpent. There was barely passage for it between them; but of course no pilot would attempt it save in broad daylight. At length we reached the inner reef. We found the open roadstead full of ships, with hardly room to swing, and a strong north-west wind, so that we could not get a place. We ran right into the first at anchor, the Standard, a trading-ship of Shields, built of iron. Richard and I were standing on the bridge, and he touched my arm and said:

"By Jove! We're going right into that ship."

"Oh no," I answered; "with the captain and the pilot on the bridge, and all the crew in the forecastle, it can only be a beautiful bit of steering. We shall just shave her."

The words were scarcely out of my mouth when smash went our bulwarks like brown paper, and our yardarms crumpled up like umbrellas. I had jokingly threatened them with the "thirteenth" the day before, but they had laughed at me.

"II tredici!" shouted the second officer, as he flew by us.

The crews of both ships behaved splendidly, and the cry on-board our ship was, "Where is the English captain? I do not see him."

"No," we answered, "you do not see him, but we can hear him." And sure enough there he was all right, and swearing quite like himself. There is nothing like an Englishman for a good decisive order; and who can blame him if he adds at such times a little powder to drive the shot home?

We were about three hours disentangling ourselves.

I was delighted with my first view of Jeddah. It is the most bizarre and fascinating town. It looks as if it were an ancient model carved in old ivory, so white and fanciful are the houses, with here and there a minaret. It was doubly interesting to me, because Richard came here by land from his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. Mecca lies in a valley between two distant ranges of mountains. My impression of Jeddah will always be that of an ivory town embedded in golden sand.

We anchored at Jeddah for eight days, which time we spent at the British Consulate on a visit. The Consulate was the best house in all Jeddah, close to the sea, with a staircase so steep that it was like ascending the Pyramids. I called it the Eagle's Nest, because of the good air and view. It was a sort of bachelors' establishment; for in addition to the Consul and Vice-Consul and others, there were five bachelors who resided in the building, whom I used to call the "Wreckers," because they were always looking out for ships with a telescope. They kept a pack of bull-terriers, donkeys, ponies, gazelles, rabbits, pigeons; in fact a regular menagerie. They combined Eastern and European comfort, and had the usual establishment of dragomans, kawwasses, and servants of all sizes, shapes, and colour. I was the only lady in the house, but we were nevertheless a very jolly party.

Our first excursion was to Eve's Tomb, as it is called, a large curious building in a spacious enclosure. Two or three holy people are buried here, and the place commands a lovely view of the distant mountains, beyond which lies Mecca.

The inhabitants of Jeddah are very interesting in many ways. There are some two hundred nautch-girls there; but they are forbidden to dance before men, though I have heard that the law can be evaded on occasions. In the plains there are two different types of Arabs: the Bedawin, and the "settled men." The latter are a fine, strong, healthy race, though very wild and savage. We used frequently to ride out into the desert and make excursions. I would have given anything to have gone to Mecca. It was hard to be so near, and yet to have to turn round and come back. There was a rumour that two Englishmen had gone up to Mecca for a lark, and had been killed. This was not true. But all the same Mecca was not safe for a European woman, and it was not the time to show my blue eyes and broken Arabic on holy ground. I therefore used to console myself by returning from our expeditions ill the desert through the Mecca Gate of Jeddah, and then riding through the bazars, half dark and half lit, to see the pilgrims' camels. The bazars literally swarmed with a picturesque and variegated mob, hailing from all lands, and of every race and tongue. We were not interfered with in any way; though had it been 1853, the year when Richard went to Mecca, to have taken these rides in the desert, and to have walked through the Mecca Gate, would most certainly have cost us our lives. I also saw the khan where Richard lived as one of these pilgrims in 1853, and the minaret which he sketched in his book on Mecca. While we were at Jeddah the Governor and all those who knew the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca called on us, and were very civil.

Our days at Jeddah were very pleasant ones. In the evening we used to sit outside the Consulate, and have some sherry and a cigarette, and play with the dogs. One evening Richard came in and discovered me anxiously nursing what I thought was a dying negro. He was very angry, for he found him to be only drunk, and there was a great shout of merriment among all our colony in the Consulate—"my boys," as I used to call them—when the truth came out. These terrible boys teased the negro by putting snuff up his nose. They were awful boys, but such fun. They were always up to all sorts of tricks. When the food was bad, they used to call the cook in, and make him eat it. "What's this?" they would say. "No! no! Massa; me lose caste." "Hold your tongue, you damned scoundrel! Eat it directly." One day it was seven big smoked onions which the cook had to consume. I am bound to say that it had a good effect upon him, for the table was certainly excellent after this. I wish we could follow some such plan in England with our cooks. Even more did I wish we could do so at Trieste. I thought the dogs were worse than the boys. There were about ten bull-dogs in the house. They used to worry everything they saw, and sent every pariah flying out of the bazars. Since I left Jeddah I heard that the natives had poisoned all these dogs, which I really think served the boys right, but not the dogs. I remember too, on one or two occasions, when we were riding out Meccawards, my horse was so thin and the girths were so large that my saddle came round with me, and I had a spill on the sand, which greatly delighted the boys, but did not hurt me.

I was so sorry to part with them all; we were good friends together. But after eight exceedingly pleasant days at Jeddah we received notice to embark, and we had to say good-bye and go on board the Calypso. The sea was very rough, and I sat on a chair lashed to the deck. The Calypso was bound for Bombay, and had taken on board at Jeddah and stowed away some eight hundred pilgrims, who were returning to India from Mecca. They were packed like cattle, and as the weather was very rough the poor pilgrims suffered terribly. The waves were higher than the ship. I crawled about as well as I could, and tried to help the pilgrims a little. The second day one of them died, and was buried at sunset. I shall never forget that funeral at sea. They washed the body, and then put a strip of white stuff round the loins, and a bit of money to show that he is not destitute when he arrives in the next world. Then they tied him up in a sheet, and with his head and feet tied he looked just like a big white cracker. He was then laid upon a shutter with a five-pound bar of iron bound to his feet, and after a short Arabic prayer they took him to the side and hurled him over. There was no mourning or wailing among the pilgrims. On the contrary, they all seemed most cheerful over this function; and of course, according to their way of thinking, a man would be glad to die, as he went straight to heaven. But I am bound to say that it had a most depressing effect upon me, for we had twenty-three funerals in twelve days. They seemed to take it very much as a matter of course; but I kept saying to myself, "That poor Indian and I might both be lying dead to-day. There would be a little more ceremony over me, and (not of course including my husband) my death would cast a gloom over the dinner-table possibly a couple of days. Once we were shunted down the ship's side, the sharks would eat us both, and perhaps like me a little the better, as I am fat and well fed, and do not smell of cocoa-nut oil; and then we would both stand before the throne of God to be judged—he with his poverty, hardships, sufferings, pilgrimage, and harmless life, and I with all my faults, my happy life, my luxuries, and the little wee bit of good I have ever done or ever thought, to obtain mercy with; only equal that our Saviour died for us both."

I can hardly express what I suffered during that fortnight's voyage on board the pilgrim-ship. It was an experience which I would never repeat again. Imagine eight hundred Moslems, ranging in point of colour through every shade from lemon or café au lait to black as ebony; races from every part of the world, covering every square inch of deck, and every part of the hold fore and aft, packed like sardines, men, women, and babies, reeking of cocoa-nut oil. It was a voyage of horror. I shall never forget their unwashed bodies, their sea-sickness, their sores, the dead and the dying, their rags, and last, but not least, their cookery. Except to cook or fetch water or kneel in prayer, none of them moved out of the small space or position which they assumed at the beginning of the voyage. Those who died did not die of disease so much as of privation and fatigue, hunger, thirst, and opium. They died of vermin and misery. I shall never forget the expression of dumb, mute, patient pain which most of them wore. I cannot eat my dinner if I see a dog looking wistfully at it. I therefore spent the whole day staggering about our rolling ship with sherbet and food and medicines, treating dysentery and fever. During my short snatches of sleep I dreamt of these horrors too. But it was terribly disheartening work, owing to their fanaticism. Many of them listened to me with more faith about food and medicines because I knew something of the Korán, and could recite their Bismíllah and their call to prayer.

At last we arrived at Aden, where a troop of Somali lads came on board, with their bawling voices and their necklaces and their mop-heads of mutton wool, now and then plastered with lime. They sell water, firewood, fowls, eggs, and so forth. We landed at Aden for a few hours. It is a wild, desolate spot; the dark basalt mountains give it a sombre look. Richard and I spent some hours with the wile of the Governor, or Station Commandant, at her house. It was terribly hot. I think it was Aden where the sailors reappeared who had died and gone to certain fiery place; and on being asked why they came back, they replied that they had caught cold, and had got leave to come and fetch their blankets!

We returned at halt-past four in the afternoon to our ship and the pilgrims. The weather that night became very rough, and during the night a Bengali fell overboard. His companion, who witnessed the accident, said nothing; and on being asked later where he was, replied casually, "I saw him tall overboard about three hours ago." Such are the ways of these peculiar pilgrims. They have no more sympathy for one another than cattle. None would give a draught of water to the dying; and as for praying over the corpses before throwing them overboard, if they could help it they would scarcely take the trouble. It was too rough all the next day for reading or writing; and to add to our discomfort two Russian passengers got drunk, and fought at the table, and called each other "liar and coward," "snob and thief," "spy and menial," and other choice epithets. However, their bark was worse than their bite, for they cooled down after they had succeeded in upsetting us all.

I staggered about on deck for the next few days as much as possible, and again did what I could for the pilgrims; but it was weary work. I doctored several of them; but our Russian passengers aforesaid brought me word later that when those who must in any case have expired, died, the others said it was I who poisoned them; and that was all the thanks I got for my pains. If it were so, I wonder why did the whole ship run after me for help? One old man said, "Come, O bountiful one, and sit a little amongst us and examine my wife, who has the itch, and give her something to cure it." But I got wary, and I said, "If I were to give her any medicine, she will presently die of weakness, and I shall be blamed for her death." However, I did what I could. In some of the cases I asked my maid to come and help me; but she turned away in disgust, and said, "No thank you; I have the nose of a princess, and cannot do such work." And really it was horrible, for many came to me daily to wash, clean, anoint, and tie up their feet, which were covered with sores and worms.

On January 30 a north-east wind set in with violence. Every one was dreadfully sick. The ship danced like a cricket-ball, and the pilgrims howled with fright, and six died. The next day the weather cleared up, and it lasted fine until we reached Bombay. We had a delightful evening, with balmy air, crescent moon, and stars, and the Dalmatian sailors sang glees. That day another pilgrim died, and was robbed. His body was rifled of his bit of money as he lay dying, and they fought like cats before his eyes for the money he had been too avaricious to buy food with and keep himself alive.

At last, betimes, on February 2, the thirty-third day after leaving Trieste, a haze of hills arose from the eastward horizon, and we knew it to be India. Then the blue water waxed green, greenish, and brown, like to liquid mud. The gulls became tamer and more numerous, and jetsam and flotsam drifted past us. We sighted land very early. As we were running in the pilot came alongside, and called up to the captain, "Have you any sickness on board?" The answer was, "Yes." "Then," said the pilot, "run up the yellow flag. I will keep alongside in a boat, and you make for Butcher's Island" (a horrible quarantine station). I was standing on the bridge, and, seeing the yellow flag hoisted, and hearing the orders, felt convinced that there was a mistake. So I made a trumpet with my hands, and holloaed down to the pilot, "Why have you run up that flag? We have got no disease." "Oh yes you have; either cholera or small-pox or yellow jack." "We have nothing of the sort," I answered. "Then why did the captain answer 'Yes?'" he replied. "Because it is the only English word he knows," I cried. Then he asked me for particulars, and said he would go off for the doctor, and we were to stand at a reasonable distance from Bombay. This took place in a spacious bay, surrounded by mountains, a poor imitation of the Bay of Rio. Presently the doctor arrived. Richard explained, and we were allowed to land. I shall never forget the thankfulness of the pilgrims, or the rush they made for the shore. They swarmed like rats down the ropes, hardly waiting for the boats. They gave Richard and me a sort of cheer, as they attributed their escape from quarantine to our intervention. Indeed, if we had been herded together a few more days, some disease must have broken out.

And thus we set foot in India.

  1. This and the next chapter are compiled from the original notes from which Lady Burton wrote her A. E. I. and sundry letters and diaries. By so doing I am able to give the Indian tour in her own words.