This is a strange romance, uncanny, inexplicable. No novelist would dare tax the imagination of his readers with such a tale. In short, the story of Sir Richard Burton's marriage is like the story of his life. It would be incredible if it were not true.
He was a remarkable man, perhaps the most remarkable of modern times, certainly one of the greatest. His knowledge of the East was such as no other European has ever had. As an explorer, even Livingstone cannot take precedence.
And Lady Burton is no less noteworthy than her husband. Any woman might have won Sir Richard's love. No other woman could have kept it. But Isabel Burton did more than this. She became a part, an essential part, of her husband's very being. Hers was a wonderful personality, mediaeval and mysterious. It is hard to believe that she lived in the exact and prosaic nineteenth century. Perhaps, therefore, heredity counts for something, after all, for by birth she belonged to one of the proudest and most ancient houses in all England. She was an Arundell of Wardour. And
'ere William fought and Harold fell, There were Earls of Arundell.
And they were a fine race of men, too, these Arundells. Their valiant deeds, loyalty, and fearless courage claim many pages in the records of history and chivalry. But Isabel, perhaps, was the rarest flower of them all.
She was born in London in March, 1831, at a house in Great Cumberland Place, near to the Marble Arch. But as a child she was much like other children. Not until she was sixteen years of age was her mind able to develop along its own peculiar lines. She then left school, and went to live at her parents' country seat in Essex. Here she was free, free to gratify the love of adventure which was innate in her; free, moreover, to commune with Nature and to enjoy that sense of space for which she craved. And her mind developed rapidly. Isabel was no mere "tom-boy." She was a dreamer, a thinker. The spirit of the East was strong within her. She loved solitude. The occult and mystic had a curious fascination for her. Gipsies attracted her irresistibly.
"Wild asses," she declared, " would not have kept me out of the camps of the Oriental, yet English-named, tribes of Burton, Cooper, Stanley, Osbaldiston, and another tribe whose name I forget." And gipsies loved her. They regarded her as their child queen. Her particular friend was a certain Hagar Burton, a tall, handsome woman, to whom she rendered many services. The gipsy once cast her horoscope. It was written in Romany, but, translated, it reads as follows :
" You will cross the sea, and be in the same town with your Destiny, and know it not. Every obstacle will rise up against you, and such a combination of circumstances, that it will require all your courage, energy, and intelligence to meet them. Your life will be like one swimming against big waves; but God will be with you, so you will always win. You will fix your eyes on your Polar star, and will go for that without looking right or left. You will bear the name of our tribe, and be right proud of it. You will be as we are, but far greater than we. Your life is all wandering, change, and adventure. One soul in two bodies, never long apart. Show this to the man you take for your husband. - Hagar Burton."
Chief Fault: £0. 0s. 0d.
But the gipsy had seen far into the future. For a while Isabel was destined to lead the life for which birth had qualified her. She had a place to fill in the world of society, and, in spite of her wild, imaginative nature, was not insensible to her duties. In 1849, therefore, she made her debut in London. And the Duchess of Norfolk, who played the part of fairy godmother, had every reason to be proud of her protegee. She was a dazzling debutante, very different from the bored, artificial, husband-seeking girls around her. Isabel frankly enjoyed her pleasures; she had no thoughts of matrimony. And her beauty, wit, and originality assured her of success.
Her diary is full of interesting observations. For the men of London she had neither respect nor admiration. The little gods of society, for whom these other women pined, to her were merely playthings. "Manni-kins," she called them; "animated tailors' dummies ! " ' Tis man's place to do great deeds ! " But, she wrote, "I met some very odd characters, which made one form some useful rules to go by. One man 1 met had every girl's name down on paper, if she belonged to the haute volee, her age, her fortune, and her personal merits; for, he said, ' One woman, unless one happens to be in love with her, is much the same as another.' He showed me my name down, thus : ' Isabel Arundell, eighteen, beauty, talent, and goodness, original. Chief fault, £0 0s. 0d. . .' Then he rattled on to others. I told him 1 did not think much of the young men of the day. ' There, now,' he answered, ' drink of the spring nearest you, and be thankful. By being fastidious you will get nothing.'"
But Isabel refused to drink of the nearest spring. Her ideal was not to be found in this world of society. She would not join it, therefore. She was determined to marry the man of her imaginings, or nobody. Amid the whirl and gaiety of the season she described him in her diary.
He "is about six feet in height," she wrote, "he has not an ounce of fat on him; he has broad and muscular shoulders, a deep, powerful chest; he is a Hercules of manly strength. He has black hair, a brown complexion, a clever forehead, sagacious eyebrows, large, black, wondrous eyes - those strange eyes you dare not take yours off from - with long lashes. He is a soldier and a man; he is accustomed to command, and to be obeyed. He frowns on the ordinary affairs of life, but his face always lights up warmly for me. In his dress he never adopts the fopperies of the day. But his clothes suit him; they are made for him, not he for them. ... Of course, he is an Englishman. His religion is like my own - free, liberal, and generous-minded. He is by no means indifferent on the subject, as most men are, and even if he does not conform to any Church, he will serve God from his innate duty and sense of honour. He is a man who owns something more than a body. He has a head and heart, a mind and soul. . . . Such a man only will I wed ! ... If I find such a man, and afterwards discover that he is not for me, I will never marry. ... I will become a sister of charity of St. Vincent de Paul."