Richard is eight years old when his mother tries to teach her children prudence. He is walking through Paris, head held high, laughing and chattering with Edward and Maria. They are the best of comrades, the best of friends, three wild children who think no more of taking on the world than they think of catching a frog. Their mother despairs of them, of course. Often.
Martha Burton looks at them sideways as they approach a sweet shop. Her footsteps slow, and the children slow in sympathy, their chatter and nonsense unconsciously quieting. They draw to a halt in front of the great glass display window of the store.
"Look at the delicious buns," says Martha. "Don't your mouths water? Go on, look. Take your time, my darlings."
Richard and Edward and Maria each gaze longingly at the window, their mouths watering obediently. They're not hungry children, of course, not with the privileges of an upper-class English family on the continent. But the child doesn't exist who doesn't yearn for a treat whenever possible, be it sweets or a game or simply a day to themselves. The three of them lean forward, almost a unit, until their noses are lightly touching the glass. Martha looks at them, smiling, and taps her umbrella against the cobbles.
"Now, come along. We must hurry home."
Edward looks at his mother, disbelievingly. Her smile remains.
"It is good for children to know that they don't always receive exactly what they like," she says, with the air of someone imparting a great mystery and wisdom. "Come along."
Edward looks back at Richard, his eyes filled with despair. Richard himself scowls, and glances at Maria.
"Children?" says their mother.
Maria raises a fist.
In moments, the glass is shattered, the cakes are stolen, and the three of them are running out into the streets of Paris. Martha calls after them, utterly astonished.
Richard laughs and laughs, and never bothers with prudence.
Richard is all of ten when his peers try to teach him to fight honorably.
He can't remember why the fight began. He was new to his school, new to England, and he didn't like either place much. He didn't think much of the people, either. In fact, he may have started the fight, insulting the food, insulting the teachers, insulting his new opponent to his face.
The other boy squares up, his fists balled, manfully, and jabs a few times at Richard's face. Richard tries to kick at the boy's shins. They go on like this for some time until finally one of the boy's poorly-aimed blows connects with Richard's nose. Richard howls, and tackles him to the ground. The boy thrashes, shocked and flustered, and Richard grabs him by the ears and smashes his face against the floor.
Edward cheers from the sidelines and Richard is grinning, but there are hands pulling at his shoulders, tearing him away from his foe.
"What the blazes are you doing?" he wails.
"Let the man up," says one of his fellows. "Fight fair, why can't you?"
"Let him up?" says Richard, outraged. "Let him up? After all the trouble I had getting him down?"
And that is how he gains five new opponents, to be taken on as soon as he's finished his 'fair fight' with the first boy. The boys wait in line, and the line keeps growing. Sometimes Richard has the whole school waiting to settle some score with him, up to and including Brother Edward. Richard is very good at getting into trouble, and very good at fighting.
A boy, insulted by Richard's obvious distaste for everything around him, balls his fists and takes a step toward him. Richard squares his shoulders and nods, challengingly. When the boy rushes him, Richard sticks out a leg to trip him, surreptitiously, and then kicks him when he's down. A few boys snicker, over a chorus of boos.
Being good at fighting, Richard decides, has nothing to do with fighting honorably.
Richard is eleven when his tutors try to teach him forbearance.
He is out of school and back in Europe, with a cadre of tutors trying to turn the Burton children into nice little socialites-to-be. Richard dedicates himself to learning Italian and learning to fence, and those are all of his interests. Unfortunately, there are other tutors that must be appeased.
Edward likes the violin. He takes to it easily enough, and works diligently besides, and soon he is a lovely player. Martha shows him off at parties.
She could not bear to show Richard off at parties.
"What are you doing?" demands the violin master. "How could you hurt your instrument so badly?"
"Tell me how to do it better, then!" says Richard. His face is red and his fingers are shaking, making little screeching noises against where the bow is still held tight against the strings.
"I have tried!" The master waves a fist. "A million times I have tried! You do not practice, you do not think-"
"Perhaps I would think if you gave me anything worthwhile of think about," says Richard. His lips curl into a sneer. "Instead of this twiddling you call music."
The master's eyes narrow. "All pupils are beasts," he says, with the gravity of a man delivering the final verdict, "but you are an arch-beast."
Richard stands up, calmly enough, though his hands are white-knuckled against the violin. The master crosses his arms and sticks his nose in the air. He looks away from the door, leaving the way clear for Richard to simply walk out.
Richard breaks the violin over the master's head.
"My God," sputters the master, picking wood out of his hair. "That was a Chanot, you utterly vile- ah! A splinter in my lip!"
"Vaffanculo," says Richard as he stomps past the master. The man looks at him uncomprehendingly, and Richard takes pity on him enough to translate. "Fuck you, you bastard."
Ten minutes later, Richard has already fenced through one bout and is taking a lesson before the next. Forbearance is a nice word for doing things you don't like and aren't any good at, he thinks. He can't see why you'd bother doing them at all.
Richard is a young man of eighteen when they finally try to teach him discipline.
It is far too late.
He and Edward have been learning to smoke, to drink, to fight, and to woo. Edward has been in jail, shared his flask with men in prison. Richard would have been there as well, if he hadn't been quite as good at outrunning the police. Next time he vows to run a little slower.
The whole family moves, just to avoid the shame. It doesn't bother Richard or Edward - their father has moved the family for some reason or another at least twice a year, every year. They end up in Lucca, where they will make a fresh start.
"Richard," says his father, "you are aware that I wish for you to go to university."
"I can't see why," mutters Richard.
"So you must apply yourself to your studies," says his father, sternly. "Now. Go and attend to your tutors."
Richard does not attend to his tutors. He meets a man from Switzerland and learns how to yodel, he tries opium and then gives it up, he tracks down every hint of a fencing master who might improve his technique. Finally his tutor physically drags him into their rooms.
"Edward has been studying," says the tutor. "Not much, but more than you ever have. Can you at least read this book?" He hands Richard an English novel.
Richard glares at it.
"You have to open the book in order to read it," says his tutor, and his eye twitches. Richard switches his glare to the man himself, rather than his infernal object.
"Will this help me learn Schweitzer Deutsch?" asks Richard.
"It's in English," says the tutor.
"Will it instruct me in the mysteries of the mind?" inquires Richard.
"It's about the aristocracy," says the tutor.
"Will it allow me to best my opponents in duels of honor?" demands Richard.
"Only if you throw it at them," says the tutor, with a sigh.
"Then what is the point of it?" shouts Richard.
"It's part of a well-rounded education," says the tutor, "of which you have had none. You need some discipline, Richard."
Richard takes the book and throws it out the window. He's sorely tempted to throw the tutor out after, defenestrate him and all he represents, but the fuss would be more than it would be worth. Instead, Richard goes to his room and finds the Italian penny dreadful that he's been skimming his way through. After a while, the tutor leaves.
Discipline? Richard fumes. What does he need discipline for when he's got determination?
These are the ways Richard applies his lessons:
Richard is 19 when he goes to Oxford. It is a boring place.
Men insult him and refuse to duel, though Richard is ready to fight with any weapon they'd like. Richard is expected to know something of religion, although he cannot recite any prayer. The tutors insist on pronouncing Aramaic wrong, and cannot be troubled to listen to a young man who knows something of Hebrew.
Richard gives up on university.
Instead he devotes his days to talking with his friends and with visiting scholars. He teaches himself Arabic and never bothers to go to chapel. He perfects his fencing and learns to box. Edward, over in Cambridge, does much the same, and gets kicked out for it. Richard continues in his studies, wincing with envy over Edward's new career as an army surgeon.
In the end, Richard skips a lecture to see a steeplechase with his friends. They are not supposed to go to races, and the lecture was little more than a pretension, created in order to prevent them from wandering off to watch the sport. The horses are marvelous, the race sublime. Richard could not stand to miss it, however dire the consequences. When they return to Oxford, the dons line them up and demand to know who the ringleader was.
The prudent thing to do is to stand in solidarity. It is no less loyal than owning up, after all. And the dons cannot possibly send them all down.
Richard thinks of what he has learned of prudence, and then steps forward, shoulders back, head held high.
"Burton," says one of the dons, a sigh in his voice. "How surprising."
"It was to make a point," says Richard. His voice is strong and clear, and he allows a smile to touch his lips. "You cannot treat us like children who must be forced to obey your every whim. Trust begets trust, gentlemen. They who trust us, elevate us." His friends cheer, the dons frown. Richard is, inevitably, sent down.
So much for prudence. Richard drives his tandem away that very day, and joins the East India Company. In a few years he is Captain Richard Burton, and all the better for it.
At thirty-two, Captain Burton decides to make his name. He will go on the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, to Al-Medinah and Meccah, and document all he sees. The number of Europeans who have seen those cities can be counted on one hand, and he would still have fingers left over. He will learn so much, and the public will fawn over his book.
Burton trims his moustaches, changes his clothes, tries as best he can to walk and think like a man from the East. He disguises himself as an Afghan doctor and joins the Muslim community in Cairo. He learns to pray and fasts for Ramadan. He learns to doctor and hardly kills any of his patients. He gains contacts and respect and prepares to move on with the Hajj.
It is at this point that Burton meets Ali Agha.
Ali Agha is an Albanian captain with moustaches to rival Burton's own. Ali Agha's eyes burn with a half-banked fire, and his face is lean and long. When they first meet he tries to take Burton's pistols away from him, and they fight over the weapons, swearing and snarling at each other until they have to separate or try to kill the other.
Ali Agha comes to Burton's office a few days later, asking for a drink and some poison. He gets both, eventually.
Burton knows he shouldn't be drinking, not as a devout Muslim preparing for the Hajj, but Ali Agha knows some fascinating drinking songs, and part of Burton's mission is ethnography, isn't it?
Two hours later, they are both hopelessly drunk.
"Dancing girls!" says Ali Agha. "Where are the dancing girls?"
"Not allowed," says Burton, swirling the liquor in his cup. He hasn't had alcohol in months, and it's eaten away his tolerance. His eyes are swimming, and he hadn't thought that his eyes could do such things.
"This is a devout neighborhood, if you hadn't noticed," says Burton, stiffly. "Do you think I can just bring hired girls here?"
The look on Ali Agha's face is equal parts hilarious and frightening to a man in Burton's state. Burton chuckles and downs the rest of his cup.
Ali Agha rails against the strictures of Burton's adopted life until he's drunk enough to actually run out into the street, still screaming. Burton should not follow him. But prudence is not his strong suit, so he does.
"Fuck the Egyptians!" says Ali Agha. "I'll drink their blood!"
"Great Allah," says Burton, laughs descending into embarrassing giggles.
His neighbors find it less entertaining. Ali Agha is carried away, and Burton is shunned back to his room. Soon he is shunned out of Cairo as well.
He could fight for his reputation, but he cannot fight fair and you cannot win a reputation by unsavory means. Not a reputation as a good doctor and a devout man, anyway.
Burton starts on the Hajj, and writes his book, and makes his name. His name as an explorer and an ethnographer, surely. But also his name as a heathen, because of what he did to get to Mecca. And his name as a murderer, because of what he is alleged to have done to protect his disguise. Society already thinks him a sodomite, given some unwise reports about common brothel practices he made while serving in India. Burton has a go at fighting these allegations, but claiming atheism is little better than Islam, as it happens.
Captain Burton becomes Ruffian Dick. Dick looks himself in the mirror and decides it fits just as well.
When Dick is thirty-six, he travels into Africa, searching for the source of the Nile. John Speke comes with him - or Dick goes with him. They fight about that for most of the trip. They fight about everything for most of the trip.
It is a long and difficult journey, and they have little enough luck in it. Dick and Speke lose all their supplies, gain more, lose those as well. The bearers and the soldiers drop away or become ill. Everyone becomes ill.
Dick learns two more languages and documents everything he sees.
Speke resents Dick more and more, possibly because Dick, as he is well aware, is a bastard who dislikes everyone to a great degree.
But they do find Lake Tanganyika, which will later be called the second-greatest freshwater lake in the world. Dick believes it to be the source of the Nile, and they start on their way home.
On a break in Tabora, the party separates. Burton stays in the town and studies the people and learns more of their language. Speke goes off, looking for more discoveries.
It's foolishness. Dick is paralyzed with illness, unable to walk. Speke is blind in one eye, pus weeping out of the other, and he can hardly hear a word, his senses dropping away one by one from unidentified illnesses and insects. They should just wend their way homeward, as they're in no condition to find anything.
Except Speke does.
"It's definitively the source of the Nile!" says Speke, when he returns.
"Your measurements are nonsense," says Dick, glaring at the muddled papers which Speke has handed him. "And your handwriting is atrocious."
"I can't see very well, can I?"
"And you expect me to believe that you could see well enough to discover the source?" Dick shakes his head. "We did that months ago, Speke. Give it up."
"You weren't there," says Speke. "On the shores of Lake Victoria-"
"Stop calling it that," snaps Dick. "It has a real name. Ukerewe, or something. We'd know better if you would bother to learn the language and speak to some of the people who live there."
"Local rot," says Speke. "I discovered it."
"You mapped it," says Dick. "And not very well, either." He leans back on his elbows, the only movement he can make in his cot. "I won't go along with this. We can present together, but you know I'll fight for Tanganyika as the source. The evidence lies there."
"We'll make it a fair fight," agrees Speke. "Let's go home."
But Speke has learned his lessons about fighting fair as well, and he presents before Dick ever makes it back to England. Everyone is arguing about the source, casting side-long glances at Dick, wondering if he's lying about the source or if Speke is.
Dick totters around, with his sallow face and half-paralyzed legs, and feels fit to burst. He never became proficient in forbearance, and there is too much talk and insults being thrown around, and he did not begin this. He cannot finish it, as much as he would like to.
Dick relocates Isabel Arundell, a woman who adores him enough to let him forget about his detractors. He publishes his work on the African expedition, never writing the name Speke. And then he takes some sick leave from the military post he hasn't bothered serving in years, and sets sail for America.
England has become a home to strife and hatred, and Richard Burton, the man who mapped the wrong lake, has no interest in trying to grin and bear it.
Richard is very nearly sixty-five when his knighthood comes in the mail. He is the consul at Trieste, though he spends little enough time there. His interests are more given to travel, and his wife, Isabel, encourages him in his adventures. They go to India and to France, to excavations and to high society.
They fence with each other, when they have the energy, and go swimming when they have not. Richard very nearly feels comfortable, as bizarre as that may be. His never was a life of comfort.
The telegram comes, addressed to Sir Richard Burton.
"Someone having a joke with me," says Richard, throwing it at Isabel. "Some fellow is playing a practical joke, or else it is not for me."
"I shall open it if you don't," says Isabel, frowning at him. Richard grins, and Isabel slits open the telegram.
"Sir Richard Burton, KCMG," she breathes. "Oh, Jemmy, at last." Isabel has fought for this, as she has fought for publishing Richard's books, fought for marrying Richard without her parents' blessing, fought for him to convert to the Catholic religion to which she devotes herself.
"I shan't accept it," grumbles Richard. "What have I done that deserves celebrating?"
That, of course, sets Isabel off onto a list of his accomplishments. Richard listens with due forbearance. Mecca and Africa, obviously, and everything he's done since then - journeyed to Salt Lake City, his work in Damascus and Dahomey, the pile of books he has written, his unparalleled translation of the Arabian Nights.
"I have done rather well, haven't I?" says Richard at the last, laughing. "You know, I never had the discipline to stick to one thing or the other. I daresay I could have been a household name if I had simply concentrated myself."
"Whyever would you want to do that?" asks Isabel, her eyes wide and guileless. Richard's not certain what he's done to deserve that, either, but he'll take it every time. "Now, are we fencing today or not?"
They swim instead, paddling in the blue of the old Italian port. Sir Richard floats on his back and is happy. Not content, never that. But, however briefly, happy. Whatever he didn't learn as a child, he has made more than enough out of his life.