[from Hall Caine My Story]
IT was in the autumn of 1880 that I saw Rossetti for the first time. Being somewhat reduced in health, I had contemplated a visit to one of the South Coast watering-places, and wrote saying that in passing through London I should like to avail myself of his oft-repeated invitation to visit him. By return of post came two letters, the one obviously written and posted within an hour or two of the other. In the first of these he said
" I will be truly glad to meet you when you come to town. You will recognise the hole-and-cornerest of all existences ; but I'll read you a ballad or two, and have Brown's report to back my certainty of liking you."
In the second letter he said
" I would propose that you should dine with me on Monday at 8.30, and spend the evening. "P.S.-Of course when I speak of your dining with me, I mean tete-a-tete, and without ceremony of any kind. I usually dine in my studio, and in my painting coat. D. G. R." Cheyne Walk was unknown to me at the time of my first visit to Rossetti, except as the locality in which men and women eminent in literature were residing. It was not even then as picturesque as it appears to be in certain familiar engravings, for the embankment and the gardens that separated it from the main thoroughfare had already taken something from its quaint beauty ; but it still possessed attractions which it has since lost, among them a look of age, which contrasted agreeably with the spick-andspan newness of neighbouring districts, and the slumbrous atmosphere as of a cathedral close, drowsing in the autumn sun to the murmur of the river which flowed in front, and the rustle of the trees that grew between.
Every foot of the old Walk was sacred ground to me then, for George Eliot, after her marriage with Mr. Cross, had lately come to, I think, No. 5 ; while at No. 5 in the second street to the westward Carlyle was still living, and a little beyond Cheyne Row stood the modest cottage wherein Turner died. Rossetti's house was No. 16, and I found it answering in external appearance to the frank description he had given of it. It seemed to be the oldest house in the Walk, and the exceptional . size of its gate piers and the height and weight of its gate and railings suggested to me, as an architect, that perhaps at some period it had stood alone, commanding as grounds a large part of the space occupied by the houses on either side.
The house itself was a plain Queen Anne erection, much mutilated by the introduction of unsightly bow windows, the brick-work falling into decay, the paint in need of renewal, the windows dull with the dust of months, the sills bearing more than the suspicion of cobwebs, the angles of the steps to the porch and the untrodden flags of the little court leading up to them overgrown with moss and weed, while round the walls and up the reveals of door and windows were creeping the tangled branches of the wildest ivy that ever grew untouched by shears.
Such was the exterior of the home of the poet-painter when I walked up to it on the autumn evening of my earliest visit. The interior of the house, when with a trembling heart I first stepped over the threshold, seemed to be at once like and unlike the outside. The hall had a puzzling look of equal nobility and shabbiness, for the floor was paved with white marble, which was partly covered by a strip of wornout cocoa-nut matting. Three doors led out of the hall, one at each side and one in front, and two corridors opened into it, but there was no sign of a staircase; neither was there any daylight, except the little that was borrowed from a fanlight which looked into the porch.
I took note of these things in the few minutes I stood waiting in the hall, and if I had to sum up my first impressions of the home of Rossetti, I should say it looked like a house that no woman had ever dwelt in-a house inhabited by a man who had once felt a vivid interest in life, but was now living from day to day.
Very soon Rossetti came to me through the doorway in front, which proved to be the entrance to his studio. Holding out both hands, and crying " Hulloa ! " he gave me that cheery, hearty greeting which I came to recognise as belonging to him alone, perhaps, of all the men I have ever known.
Leading the way into the studio, he introduced me to his brother William, who was there on one of the evening visits which at intervals of a week he made then with unfailing regularity.
I should have described Rossetti, at that time, as a man who looked quite ten years older than his actual age (fifty-two) ; of full middle height, and inclining to corpulence ; with a round face that ought, one thought, to be ruddy, but was pale; with large grey eyes, that had a steady, introspective look, and were surmounted by broad, protrusive brows, and divided by a clearly pencilled ridge over the nose, which was well cut, and had breathing nostrils resembling the nostrils of a high-bred horse.
His mouth and chin were hidden beneath a heavy moustache and an abundant beard, which had once been mixed black-brown and auburn, but were now thickly streaked with grey. His forehead was large, round, without protuberances, and very gently receding to where thin black curls began to roll round to the ears. I thought his head and face singularly noble, and from the eyes upward full of beauty.
His dress was not conspicuous, being rather negligent than eccentric, and only remarkable for a straight sack-coat (his " painting coat ") buttoned close to the throat, descending at least to the knees, and having large perpendicular pockets, in which he kept his hands almost constantly while he walked to and fro. His voice, even in the preliminary courtesies of conversation, was,
I thought, the richest I had ever heard. It was a deep, full barytone, with easy modulations and undertones of infinite softness and sweetness, yet capable, as I speedily found, of almost illimitable compass, having every gradation of tone at command for the recitation or reading of poetry.
Such was Rossetti as he seemed to me when I saw him first-a noticeable man, indeed; an Englishman in his stolid build, an Italian in the dark fire of his face, a man of genius in the strength and individuality which expressed themselves in his outer personality without singularity or affectation.
The studio was a large, irregular room, measuring perhaps thirty feet by twenty, and structurally puzzling to one who saw it for the first time. The fireplace was at one end of the room, and at either side of it hung a number of drawings in chalk, chiefly studies of female heads, all very beautiful, and all by Rossetti himself. Easels of various size, some very large, bearing partly painted pictures in different stages of progress, stood at irregular angles nearly all over the floor, leaving room only for a few pieces of furniture. There were a large sofa, under a holland cover, somewhat baggy and soiled, two low easy-chairs similarly apparelled, a large bookcase with a glass front surmounted by a yellow copy of the Stratford bust of Shakespeare. Two carved cabinets, and a little writing-desk and cane-bottomed chair were in the corner, near a small window, which was heavily darkened by the thick foliage of the trees that grew in the garden beyond.
As I had arrived late, and the light was failing, Rossetti immediately drew up an easel containing a picture he wished me to see, and I recall a large canvas full of the bright sunshine of spring, with a beautiful lady sitting reading in a tree that was heavily laden with pink and white blossom. Remembering the sense of the open air which the picture conveyed, I cannot forget the pallid face of the painter as he stood beside it, or the close atmosphere of his studio, with its smell of paint and the musty odour of accumulated treasures lying long undisturbed in a room that can have been rarely visited by the winds of heaven.
I helped Rossetti to push the big easel out of the way, and then he dropped down on the sofa at full length, letting his head lie low on the cushion, and throwing his feet up on the back. In this attitude, which I afterwards saw was a favourite one with him, he began the conversation by telling me, with various humorous touches, how like I was to what a well-known friend of his had been at my age ; and then he bantered me for several minutes on what he called my robustious " appearance, compared with that which he had been led to expect from gloomy reports of uncertain health.
It was all done in the easiest conceivable way, and was so playful and so natural, as coming from a great and famous man on his first meeting with a young fellow half his age, who regarded him with a reverence only modified by affection, that it might fairly have conveyed any impression on earth save the right one, that Rossetti was a bundle of nerves, a creature of emotions all compact, and that, at this period, a visit from a new friend, however harmless and insignificant, was an ordeal of almost tragic gravity to him.
Then, one by one, he glanced at certain of the more personal topics that had arisen in the course of our correspondence, and I soon saw that he was a ready, fluent, and graceful talker, with an unusual incisiveness of speech which gave the effect of wit, even when it was not wit. I was struck with a trick he had of snapping his long fingernails as he talked, and the constant presence of his hands, which were small and smooth and delicate as a young girl's, with tapering fingers, that he seemed to be always looking at and playing with.
Very soon the talk became general, his brother William, who had hitherto been silent, joining in it at intervals; and then Rossetti spoke without appearance of reserve of the few intimate friends who frequented his house at that period, telling me, among other things, that Mr. Watts (now Watts - Dunton) had a head like Napoleon's, whom he detests," he said with a chuckle; that Frederic Shields was as hysterical as Shelley, and Ford Madox Brown, whom I had met, as sententious as Dr. Johnson.
I thought Rossetti was amusing himself by bantering his friends in their absence, in the assured confidence that he was doing so in the presence of a well-wisher ; but it was interesting to observe that after any particularly lively sally or dash of personal ridicule, he would pause in the midst of his laughter, which was a deep, fullchested roar, to say something in a sober tone that was intended to convey the idea that he had really said nothing at all.
I remember that as we dined, Rossetti, who seemed to be in the best of spirits, rattled off one or two of the rhymes, now called " Limericks," at the making of which nobody who ever attempted that form of amusement has been known to match him. He could turn them out as fast as he could talk, with such point, such humour, such building-up to a climax, that even when they verged on the personal, or yet the profane (as I fear they sometimes did), it was impossible to receive the last word without a shout. I recall that on this occasion he recited for my amusement a rhyme he had made on a poet friend who had lost his hair ; and with the sting of it still in my mind, I should not wonder if the almost fatal facility he had in the writing of satirical doggerel sometimes cost the poet dear.
Dinner over, we went back to the studio, and then I asked Rossetti to fulfil his promise to read some of his new ballads to me. He responded readily, like a man who was glad to read his poetry to an admirer, only apologising to his brother, who had heard everything before but cheerfully consented to listen again.
Unlocking a section of the big bookcase, and again unlocking an old carved oak box that stood on one of the shelves, he took out a small manuscript volume, and after putting on a second pair of spectacles over the pair he usually wore, he read " The White Ship."
It seemed to me that I had never heard anything at all equal to Rossetti's elocution, if reading so entirely without conscious art can be called by that name. The poet's deep rich voice lent music to the music of the verse ; it rose and fell in the passages descriptive of the wreck with something of the surge and sibilation of the sea itself ; in the tenderer passages it was as soft and low as a girl's ; and in the pathetic stanzas at the close it was indescribably moving.
The evening had gone by the time the ballad was ended, and when William Rossetti rose to go I got up to go with him. Then it was arranged that on returning through London after my holiday on the South Coast I should dine with Rossetti again, and sleep the night at his house. He came into the hall to see us off, and down to the last his high spirits never failed him. I recall some further bantering as I was going out at the door, and the full-chested laugh that followed us over the little paved court between the house and the gate.
Our little night journey, William's and mine, in the hansom cab which was to drop me at the door of the " hole-and-cornerest " of all hotels, which, as a young countryman ignorant of London, I somehow ferreted out, is made ever memorable to me by a dazed sense I had of having seen and spoken to and spent an evening with what I thought the greatest man on earth. That is a sensation that only comes once perhaps to any of us ; and it was after my first meeting with Rossetti that it came to me.