[from Hall Caine My Story]
ABOUT a fortnight later I returned to Cheyne Walk and was welcomed with the same cheery " Hulloa " from Rossetti, who was lying, as I entered the studio in the early evening, in his favourite attitude on the couch. He was alone on this occasion, and, notwithstanding the warmth of my reception, I noticed that he was in some respects a changed man, his spirits being lower, his face more weary, even his voice more tired.
I remember that in answer to inquiries as to where I had been and what I had been doing, I talked with the animation of a young man interested in life in many aspects; of the delightful Halliwell-Phillipps (with whom I had been staying at Brighton) and his group of good old Shakespearean dry-as-dusts, and then of Henry Irving, who was rising into celebrity as a Shakespearean actor. Rossetti lay on the sofa and listened, dropping out occasional observations, such as that Miss Herbert, an actress and a former friend, had spoken long ago of a young fellow in her company named Irving, predicting great success for him.
But it was soon made clear to me that the poet was more amused by the impetuous rush as of fresh air from the outer world, which came to him with my company, than interested in the affairs of the outer world itself. Indeed, I speedily saw that Rossetti knew very little of what was going on outside the close atmosphere of his own house and the circle of his literary and artistic activities, and that he did not care to know.
Expecting my return, he had pulled out a huge canvas into a position in which it could be seen, and it was then I saw for the first time the painter's most important picture, " Dante's Dream." The effect produced upon me by that wonderful work, so simple in its scheme, so conventional in its composition, yet so noble in its feeling and so profound in its emotion, has probably been repeated a thousand times since in minds more capable of appreciating the technical qualities of the painter's art; but few or none can know what added power of appeal the great picture had as I saw it then, under the waning light of an autumn afternoon, in the painter's studio, so full of the atmosphere of the picture itself, and with the painter beside it, so clearly a man out of another age.
Rossetti told me something of the history of Dante's Dream," how it had been commissioned by a friend and returned in exchange for a replica because of its great size, which made it practically impossible to a private collection ; whereupon I decided that if any efforts of mine could avail, Liverpool should buy the picture for its public gallery. Standing before the " Dante " we talked of the art of painting, and I recall with some amusement the light way in which the author of this product of genius spoke of the gifts that had gone to produce it.
"Does your work take much out of you in physical energy?" I asked.
" Not my painting certainly," said Rossetti, " though in earlier years it tormented me more than enough. Now I paint by a set of unwritten but clearly defined rules, which I could teach to any man as systematically as you could teach arithmetic."
"Still," I said, "there's a good deal in a picture like this beside what you can do by rule-eh ? "I laughed, he laughed, and then he said, as nearly as I can remember
"Conception, no doubt ; but beyond that, not much. Painting, after all, is the craft of a superior carpenter. The part of a picture that is not mechanical is often trivial enough."
And then, with the suspicion of a twinkle in his eye, he said
I shouldn't wonder now if you imagine that one comes down here in a fine frenzy every morning to daub canvas."
More laughter on both sides, and then I said I certainly imagined that a superior carpenter would find it hard to paint another " Dante's Dream," which I considered the best example I had yet seen of the English school.
' Friendly nonsense," replied my frank host; "there is now no English school whatever."
" Well," I said, "if you deny the name to others who lay more claim to it, will you not at least allow it to the three or four painters who started with you in life-the Pre-Raphaelites, you know ? "
" Not at all, unless it is to Brown, and he's more French than English. Hunt and Jones have no more claim to it than I have. Pre-Raphaelites ! A group of young fellows who couldn't draw!"
With this came one of his full-chested laughs, and then quickly behind it
"As for all the prattle about Pre-Raphaelitism, I confess to you I am weary of it, and long have been. Why should we go on talking about the visionary vanities of half-a-dozen boys ? We've all grown out of them, I hope, by now."
We dined in the studio that night, and I recall. the suggestion of my host's Italian origin in the thick pipes of macaroni cooked dry and then smothered in thick layers of cheese, and the red Chianti diluted with water ; but there was no sweet or coffee, and Rossetti did not smoke.
Returning after dinner to my inquiry as to whether his work took much out of him, he replied that his poetry usually did.
"In that respect," he said, " I am the reverse of Swinburne. For his method of production inspiration is indeed the word. With me the case is different. I lie on the couch the racked and tortured medium, never permitted an instant's relief until the thing in hand is finished."
Then, at my request, taking the same little manuscript volume from the small oak box in the locked section of the bookcase, he read his unpublished ballad, " Rose Mary," telling me it had been written in the country shortly after the publication of his first volume of poems, that it had occupied only three weeks in the writing, and that the physical prostration ensuing had been more than he would care to go through again.
He then read to me a great body of the new sonnets which, in his forthcoming volume, he intended to incorporate in a section to be called "The House of Life." Sitting in that studio listening to the rise and fall of his wonderful voice, and looking up at the chalk drawings that hung on the walls, I realised how truly he had said in correspondence, that the feeling pervading his pictures was such as his poetry ought to suggest. The affinity between the two seemed to me at that moment to be the closest and most complete-the same half-sad, half-resigned view of life, the same glimmerings of uncertain hope, the same foreshadowings of despair.
Once or twice, after the emotion of the written words had broken up his voice, he would pause and laugh a little (a constrained laugh in his throat), and say
" I dare say you think it odd to hear an old fellow read such love poetry as much of this is, but I may tell you that the larger part of it was written when I was as young as you are."
I remember that he read with especial emotion, and a voice that could barely support itself, the pathetic sonnet entitled " Without Her "
"What of her glass without her? ... Her pillowed place Without her? . . .
What of the heart without her? . . :'
These lines came with tears of voice, subsiding at length into something like a suppressed sob, and they were followed by an interval of silence. But after a moment, as if trying to explain away his emotion and to deprive it of any personal reference in my mind, he said
"All poetry affects me deeply, and often to tears. It doesn't need to be pathetic or yet tender to produce this result."
Then he went on to say that he had known in his life two men, and two only, who were similarly sensitive -Tennyson and his friend Bell Scott.
"I once heard Tennyson read ' Maud,"' he said and while the fiery passages were given with a voice and vehemence which he alone could compass, the softer passages and the songs made the tears run down his cheeks like rain.
Morris is a fine reader too, and so of his kind, although a little prone to sing-song, is Swinburne. Browning both reads and talks well, at least he did so when I knew him intimately as a young man."
I asked if he had ever heard Ruskin read, and he replied
" I must have done so, but I remember nothing clearly. On one occasion, however, I heard him deliver a speech, and that was something never to forget. When we were young we helped Frederick Denison Maurice by taking classes at his Working Men's College, and there Charles Kingsley and others made speeches and delivered lectures. Ruskin was asked to do something of the kind, and at length consented. He made no sort of preparation for the occasion ; I knew he did not-we were together at his father's house the whole of the day. At night we drove down to the College, and then he made the most finished speech I ever heard. I doubted at the time if any written words of his were equal to it-such flaming diction, such emphasis, such appeal ! Yet he had written his first and second volume of o Modern Painters' by that time."
There was a certain incisiveness in Rossetti's conversation of which I try in vain to convey more than a suggestion. He had both wit and humour, but these qualities during the time I knew him were only occasionally present, while his incisiveness (sometimes giving the surprise of wit) was always conspicuous.
On this night of my second visit we sat up until four in the morning-no unaccustomed hour for him, as I afterwards learned, for he had never at any period been an early riser, and was then more than ever prone to reverse the natural order of sleeping and waking hours.
" I lie as long, or say as late, as Doctor Johnson used to," he said. " You shall never know until you discover it for yourself at what hour I rise."
And now, I do not feel that I can omit to mention that just as we were getting up to go to bed, Rossetti revealed a new side of his character, or, more properly, a new phase of his mind, which gave me infinite anxiety and distress. Branching off at that late hour from an entirely foreign topic, he begged me to tell him the facts of an unlucky debate in which I had long before been engaged on a public platform with someone who had attacked him. He had read a short report of what had passed at a time when both my name and the name of his assailant were unknown to him, and now he wished to hear everything. I tried to avoid a circumstantial statement, being forewarned by his brother, on that night ride after my first visit, of the poet's peculiar sensitiveness to criticism; but Rossetti was "of imagination all compact," and my obvious desire to shelve the subject was plainly suggesting to his mind a thousand inferences that were infinitely more damaging than the fact. To avoid this result, I told him all, and there was not much to tell.
The lecture of mine on his poetry which led to the beginning of our friendship had been presided over on the platform at Liverpool by a public man of more than local celebrity. At the close of my passionate panegyric, in which I had perhaps dwelt too insistently on the spiritual influences animating the poet's work, my chairman rose, and, as nearly as I can remember, said
"We have all listened with interest and admiration to the eloquent" (&c.), "but it would be wrong of me not to warn the audience against the teaching of the lecturer. So far from Rossetti being animated mainly, or even largely, by spiritual passion, he is the most sensuous, not to say sensual, of English poets, and in his other character as artist I can best describe hits as the greatest animal painter alive."
This and a few similar strictures, partly provoked, it may be, by the misdirection of my own eulogy, followed by a heated reply from myself, rapturously applauded by an audience which was probably indifferent to the question in dispute and interested only in the unusual spectacle of a stand-up fight between the young lecturer and the city father, with a word or two of brusque characterisation aimed at " Jenny," whom I had perhaps dwelt upon as a soiled Madonna, was all there was to repeat in the way of attack.
Rossetti listened but too eagerly to my narrative, with drooped head and changing colour, and then in a voice slower, softer, and more charged perhaps with emotion than I had heard before, said it was the old story, which began ten years earlier, and would go on until he had been hunted and hounded into his grave.
Startled, and indeed appalled, by so grave a view of what seemed to me after all an unimportant incident, and no more than an error of critical judgment, coupled with some intemperance of condemnation, for which my own heat had been partly to blame, I prayed of him to think no more of the matter, reproached myself with having yielded to his importunity, and begged him to remember that if one man held the opinions I had repeated, many men held contrary ones.
" It was right of you to tell me when I asked you," he said, "though my friends usually keep such facts from my knowledge. As to 'Jenny,' it is a sermon, nothing less. As I say, it is a sermon, and on a great world, to most men unknown, though few consider themselves ignorant of it. But of this conspiracy to persecute me-what remains to say, except that it is widespread and remorseless. One cannot but feel it."
I assured him that there existed no conspiracy to persecute him ; that he had ardent upholders everywhere, though it was true that few men had found crueller critics. He shook his head, and said I knew that what he had alleged was true, namely, that an organised conspiracy existed, having for its object to annoy and, injure him, and to hold him up to the public execration as an evil influence on his time. So tyrannical, he said, had the conspiracy become, that it had altered the habits of his life, and practically confined him for years to the limits of his own home.
Growing impatient of this delusion, so tenaciously held to against all show of reason, I forgot the disparity of our ages, and told him that what he was saying was no more than the fever of a morbid brain, brought about by his reclusive habits of life, by shunning intercourse with all the world save some half-dozen or more intimate friends.
"You tell me," I said, "that you have rarely been outside these walls for years ; meanwhile your brain has been breeding a host of hallucinations that are like cobwebs in a dark corner. You have only to go out again, and the fresh air will blow all these things away."
He smiled, perhaps at the boldness of youth, a sad smile, and then went on again for some moments longer in the same strain. He came to closer quarters, and distressed me by naming as enemies two public men, one of them the outstanding statesman of the time (who had lately given a pension to the critic who had most savagely abused him), and three or four authors of high repute, who had been his close friends in earlier life, but had fallen away from him in later years, owing to circumstances that had no relation to alienated regard.
" You're all wrong," I said. " I'm sure you're all wrong."
"Ah, well, let's go to bed," said Rossetti ; and I could see that his conviction was unshaken, and his delusions remained.
We took candles from a table in the hall and went up a narrow and tortuous staircase, which was otherwise dark, to a landing from which many rooms seemed to open, so large was the house in which Rossetti lived alone, except for a cook and two maid-servants.
" You are to sleep in Watts's room to-night," he said.
Then Rossetti suggested that before going to my own bedroom I should take a look at his. I cheerfully assented, but walking through the long corridor that led to the poet's room, we had to pass another apartment, and after a moment's pause, Rossetti opened the door and we went in. It was the drawing-room, a very large chamber, barely illuminated by the candles in our hands, and full of the musty odour of a place long shut up.
Suspended from the middle of the ceiling there hung a huge Venetian candelabra, from whose facets the candlelight glittered. On the walls were a number of small water-colour drawings in plain oak frames. Rossetti drew me up to the pictures, and I remember that they seemed to me rather crude in colour and in drawing, but very touching in sentiment (one in particular, representing a young girl parting from her lover on the threshold of a convent, being deeply charged with feeling), and that I said
"I should have thought that the man who painted these pictures was rather a poet than a painter-who was it ? "
Rossetti, who was standing before the drawing, as I see him still, in the dark room with the candle in his hand, said in a low voice, " It was my wife. She had great genius."
His own bedroom was entered from another and smaller room, which he told me he used as a breakfast room. The outer- room was made fairly bright by another glittering chandelier (the property at one time, he said, of David Garrick). By the rustle of the trees against the windowpane, one realised that it overlooked the garden. But the inner room was dark with heavy hangings around the walls as well as about the bed (a black four-poster) and thick velvet curtains before the windows, so that the candles we carried seemed unable to light it, and our voices to sound muffed and thick.
An enormous black oak chimney-piece of curious design, having an ivory crucifix on the largest of its ledges, covered a part of one side of the room, and reached to the ceiling. Cabinets, a bath, and the usual furniture of a bedroom occupied places about the floor, and in the middle of it, before a little couch, there was a small table on which stood a wired lantern containing a candle which Rossetti lit from the open one in his hand, another candle lying by its side. I remarked that he probably burnt a light all night, and he said that was so.
" My curse is insomnia," he added. "Two or three hours hence I shall get up and lie on the couch and, to pass away a weary hour, read this book "-a volume of Boswell's " Johnson " which he had taken out of the bookcase as we left the studio.
Then I saw that on the table were two small bottles sealed and labelled, and beside them was a little measuring-glass. Without looking further, but with a painful suspicion over me, I asked if that was his medicine.
"They say there's a skeleton in every cupboard," he said in a low voice. "That's mine it's chloral."
When I reached the room I was to occupy for the rest of the night, I found it, like Rossetti's bedroom, heavy with hangings, and black with antique picture panels ; having a ceiling so high as to be out of all reach and sight, and being so dark from various causes that the candle seemed only to glitter in it.
Presently Rossetti, who had left me in my room, came back, for no purpose that I can remember, except to say that he had much enjoyed my visit, and I replied that I should never forget it.
"If you decide to settle in London," he said, " I trust you'll come and live with me, and then many such evenings must remove the memory of this one."
I laughed, for what he so generously hinted at seemed to me the remotest contingency.
" I have just taken sixty grains of chloral," he said, as he was going out. "In four hours I shall take sixty more, and in four hours after that yet another sixty."
" Doesn't the dose increase with you ? " I asked. " It has not done so perceptibly in recent years. I judge I've taken more chloral than any man whatever. Marshall" (his medical man) "says if I were put into a Turkish bath I should sweat it at every pore."
As he said this, standing half outside the threshold, there was something in his tone and laugh suggesting that he was even proud of the accomplishment. To me it was a frightful revelation, accounting largely, if not entirely, for what had puzzled and distressed me in the delusions I have referred to.
And so, after four in the morning, amid the odour of bygone ages, with thoughts of that big and almost empty house, of the three women , servants somewhere out of all reach and sound, of Rossetti in his muffled room, of that wired lantern, and the two bottles of chloral, I fell asleep.
When I awoke in the morning the white daylight was coming into my dark bedroom through the chinks of the closed shutters, which, being opened, disclosed a garden so large and so completely encompassed by trees as to hide almost entirely the surrounding houses. Remembering what I had heard of the menagerie of wild birds and tame beasts which Rossetti used to keep in this garden, I went down before breakfast to look at it.
The garden was of a piece with what I had seen of the house. A beautiful avenue of limetrees opened into a grass plot of nearly an acre in extent. The trees were just as nature made them, and so was the grass, which was lying, in its broad blades, long, and dry, and withered, in ugly tufts, with weeds creeping up in the damp places, and moss growing on the gravel of the path. The wild birds and tame beasts were gone, but the sparrows were chirping from the trees in the sunshine of the clear autumn morning, and one little linnet was singing from a bough of the chestnut that looked in at the window of Rossetti's bedroom, still blind with its closed shutters, though the hour was now late.
A pathway ran near to the wall round the four sides of the garden, and here, as I had heard the night before, Rossetti took his only fresh air and exercise, walking six times about the enclosure every day. So quiet, indeed, so dead, was the overgrown place that it was difficult to believe it was in the heart of London ; and looking up at that shuttered window, it was easy to wish it was not.
But if the back of the house was silent, the front of it was full enough of life. I breakfasted in the little green dining-room, the room of the round mirrors, and it was flooded with sunshine, and even deafened with noise-the rattle of tradesmen's carts and the whoop of the butcher as he was scudding down the Walk.
Before leaving the house I went into the studio again to take another look at the great " Dante," and the silent place, with its faint odour of paint, its canvases full of glorious colour, its chalk drawings in black and red of women with beautiful but melancholy faces, seemed to sweep one back again in a moment to some Italian city of three centuries ago.
When I was about to leave the house at a late hour that morning Rossetti was not yet stirring, but his housekeeper (who was also his cook), an elderly body, nervous and anxious, and obviously perplexed by the conditions of her life in that strange house with a master of exceptional habits, came to me with a letter which, I think, she said she had found lying on the table in the outer room where Rossetti took his breakfast. It was a parting message from the poet, probably written in that interval of wakefulness in the middle of the night, when, as he had told me, he got up and read on the couch.
"MY DEAR CAINE,-I forgot to say, Don't, please, spread details as to the story of ' Rose Mary.' I don't want it to be stale, or to get forestalled in the travelling of report from mouth to mouth. I hope it won't be too long before you visit town again-I will not for an instant question that you will then visit me also. D. G. R."
I do not think anybody who has realised (as, indeed, should be most easy) the space that divided me-a young fellow, untried and unknown-from this great and illustrious man will wonder that he was absolutely irresistible to me ; but if I have to formulate the emotions which possessed me as I left his house on the occasion of this second visit, I will say that it was not so much his genius as his unhappiness that held me as by a spell.
Before this, I had been attracted by admiration of his great gifts, but now I was drawn to him by something very nearly akin to pity for his isolation and suffering. Not that at this time he made demand of much compassion. Health was apparently whole with him, his spirits were good, and his energies were at their best. He had not yet known the full bitterness of the shadowed valley ; not yet learned what it was to hunger for any cheerful society that would relieve him of the burden of the flesh. All that came later; and meantime Rossetti was to me the most fascinating, the most inspiring, the most affectionate, and the most magnetic of men.
Next morning I was at work with my drawing-board and T-square in the little office overlooking the builder's yard, busy with its workmen and carts and the commonplace traffic of modern life.