[from Hall Caine My Story]
ROSSETTI was now a changed man. He was distinctly less inclined to corpulence, his eyes were less bright, and when he walked to and fro in the studio, as it was his habit to do at intervals of about an hour, it was with a laboured, sidelong motion that I had not previously observed. Half sensible of an anxiety which I found it difficult to conceal, he paused for an instant in the midst of these melancholy perambulations, and asked how he struck me as to health. More frankly than wisely I answered, " Less well than formerly." It was an unlucky remark, for Rossetti's secret desire at that moment was to conceal his lowering state even from himself.
He had written his "King's Tragedy" since I had stayed with him before, and I think he wished me to believe that the emotional strain involved in the production of the poem had been chiefly to blame for his reduced condition. Casting himself on the couch with a look of exhaustion, he told me that the ballad had taken a great deal out of him. " It was as though my life ebbed out with it," he said. Undoubtedly the weight of his work was still upon him. Even his voice seemed to have lost something in quality, and to have diminished in compass also, for when he spoke he conveyed the idea of speaking as much to himself as to me.
In actual fact, however, making allowances for the strain of work as well as the worry of domestic disturbances, his physical retrogression was undoubtedly due in great part to recent excess in the use of the pernicious drug. With that excess had come a certain moral as well as bodily decline. I thought I perceived that he was more than ever enslaved by the painful delusions I have spoken of ; more than ever under the influence of intermittent waves of morbid suspicion of nearly everybody with whom he came in contact.
Right or wrong, this diagnosis of Rossetti's case was perhaps the one thing that enabled me, as a young fellow out of the fresh air of the commonplace world, to do the poet some good-to cheer and strengthen him, and to bring for a time a little happiness into his life. Down to the moment of my coming he had for years rarely been outside the doors of his great, gloomy house-certainly never afoot, and only in closed carriages with his friends ; but on the second night of my stay I marched boldly into the studio, announced my intention of taking a walk on the Chelsea Embankment, and, without a qualm, asked Rossetti to accompany me. To my amazement he consented, saying, " Well, upon my word, really I think I will." Every night for a week afterwards I induced him to repeat the unfamiliar experiment.
But now I recall with emotion and some remorse the scene and circumstance of those nightly walks; the Embankment almost dark, with its gas-lamps far apart, and generally silent at our late hour, except for an occasional footfall on the pavement under the tall houses opposite ; the black river flowing noiselessly behind the low wall and gurgling under the bridge ; and then Rossetti in his slouch hat, with its broad brim pulled down low on his forehead as if to conceal his face, lurching along with a heavy, uncertain step, breathing audibly, looking at nothing, and hardly speaking at all. From these nightly perambulations he would return home utterly exhausted, and throwing himself on the couch, remain prostrate for nearly an hour.
I seem to remember that on one of our walks along the Embankment late at night we passed in the half-darkness two figures which bore a certain resemblance to our own-an old man in a Scotch plaid, accompanied by a slight young woman in a sort of dolman. The old man was forging along sturdily with the help of a stick, and the young woman appeared to be making some effort to keep pace with him. It was Carlyle with his niece, and I caught but one glimpse of them as, out on the same errand as ourselves, they went off in the other direction.
Although it was understood between us that I had come up to London with the express purpose of taking Rossetti back with me to Cumberland, he seemed to be in no hurry for our departure. Day by day, and week by week, with all the ingenuity of his native irresolution, he devised reasons for delay ; and thus a month passed before we began to make a move. Meantime we commenced our career together under the same roof, and to me it was both interesting and helpful. Rossetti's habits of life were indeed, as he said, exceptional, and in some respects they seemed to turn the world topsy-turvy. I am convinced that at this time only the necessity of securing a certain short interval of daylight by which it was possible to paint, prevailed with him to get up before the middle of the afternoon. Rising about noon, and breakfasting in his little anteroom (an enormous breakfast of six eggs or half-a-dozen kidneys), he would come down to the studio and sit steadily at his easel for three or four hours, with two or three intervals of perhaps a quarter of an hour each for walking to and fro.
"I believe in doing a little work every day, and doing it as well as I can," he would say. When the light began to fail he would come to my sitting-room to see how I was "getting along," an errand which invariably resulted in our going back together to the studio and talking until dinner-time.
His talk at this period was hardly ever personal. I was now, by the invitation of Alderman Samuelson, preparing a course of lectures to be delivered in Liverpool during the winter, and our conversation was nearly always on the subject of my studies. This was the prose literature of the latter half of the eighteenth century in England chiefly Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, and Defoe), and Rossetti threw himself into my work with as much ardour as if it had been his own. I remember that he did not strike me as particularly well read in fiction, but he had a faculty I had never seen in anybody else-the faculty of knowing things without taking the trouble to learn them, of seeing things without looking at them, of understanding things without thinking of them -a faculty beyond and apart from talent, and having little or nothing to do with industry. Remembering the bright light of Rossetti's intellect, I am by no means sure that of all the men of genius I have ever known he did not stand alone.
We dined about half-past eight, generally in the studio and often without company, sat up till two or three, and then went to bed, with volumes of " Clarissa" or "Tom Jones."
Nights of such loneliness were frequently broken, however, by the society of Rossetti's friends, and during the weeks of our waiting I came to know one by one the few men and women who remained of the poet's intimate circle. There was his brother William, a staid and rather silent man, at that time in the Civil Service, growing elderly and apparently encompassed by family cares, but coming to Cheyne Walk every Monday night with unfailing regularity and a brotherly loyalty that never flagged. There was Theodore Watts (Watts-Dunton), most intimate of Rossetti's friends, a short man, then in the prime of life, with a great head and brilliant eyes. There was Frederic Shields, the painter, on the sunny side of middle age, enthusiastic, spontaneous, almost spasmodic. There was William Bell Scott, poet and painter, very emotional, very sensitive, a little inclined to bitterness, a tall old man who had lost his hair and wore a wig which somewhat belied his face. There was Ford Madox Brown, a handsome elderly man with a long whitening beard, a solid figure with a firm step, a dignified manner, and a sententious style of speech. Then there was William Sharp, a young fellow in his early twenties, very bright, very winsome, very lively, very lovable, very Scotch, always telling in what Rossetti called "the unknown tongue" exaggerated and incredible stories which made him laugh uproariously but were never intended to be believed. And then there was the blind poet, Philip Bourke Marston, a pathetic figure, slack and untidy, with large lips and pale cheeks, silent, gloomy, and perhaps morbid.
These constituted the inner circle of Rossetti's friends, and they came at varying intervals : Watts twice or thrice a week, Shields more rarely, Brown on the occasions of his holidays in London from his work on the frescoes in the Town Hall at Manchester, Sharp and Marston now and then. Besides these, there were calls from a few of the buyers of Rossetti's pictures, chief among them being Frederick Leyland, a remarkable man, tall and stylish, almost showy, very clever and keen. And once or twice during the weeks of our waiting there were visits from the ladies of Rossetti's family, his mother, a gentle, sweet-faced old lady in a long sealskin coat (the treasured gift of the poet), and his sister Christina, a woman in middle life, with a fine intellectual face, noticeably large and somewhat protrusive eyes, a pleasant smile and a quiet manner, but a power of clear-cut incisive speech which gave an astonishing effect of mental strength. Finally, there were rare and valued visits from Mrs. William Morris, the subject of many of Rossetti's pictures, no longer young but still wondrously beautiful, with the grand sad face which the painter has made immortal in those three-quarter- length pictures which for wealth of sublime and mysterious suggestion, unaided by dramatic design, are probably, as Watts-Dunton says, "unique in the art of the world."
Naturally it could not be altogether a desolate house in which such men and women revolved at intervals around one of the most extraordinary personalities of the age, and notwithstanding the gradual lowering of Rossetti's health, we had our cheerful hours together from time to time. I recall the dinners in the studio in the midst of the easels, the game of Limericks sometimes played about the table, everybody taking his turn (the unhappy subject being usually the friend who had not turned up), and the peals of laughter that rang through the room as Rossetti's rhyme, aflame with satire that was not always without the power to scorch, fell on us like a thunderbolt. I recall, too, the quieter evenings when Rossetti and Watts together, with a friendliness I can never forget, talked for long hours on the literary subjects that were at the moment most interesting to me.
Not many echoes of the outer world came to us in that closed circle of Rossetti's house, for there was a kind of silent acquiescence in the idea that the affairs of everyday life were proscribed. I cannot remember that we talked politics at all, or that a daily newspaper ever entered our doors. A criminal trial, with a mystery attached to it, would awaken Rossetti's keenest interest and set his amazing powers of deduction to work ; but social movements had small value in his eyes, and even religious agitations rarely moved him. I remember that a little of my native Puritanism took me one Sunday morning to hear Spurgeon, the great Nonconformist preacher, at the moment when he was in the fires of what was called his "down,-grade" crusade, but I tried in vain to interest Rossetti in the burning propaganda. Literary doings, and in a less degree artistic ones also, commanded Rossetti's attention always, for his house was a hotbed of intellectual activity, and I recall in particular his anxiety to know what was being published and discussed. A young poet, who was just then attracting attention by certain peculiarities of personal behaviour and a series of cartoons in which he was caricatured by Du Maurier in Punch, sent Rossetti his first book of poems, a volume bound in parchment and inscribed, I think, in gold. This was Oscar Wilde, and I remember Rossetti's quick recognition of the gifts that underlay a good deal of amusing affectation.
The air was at that time full of stories of Whistler's pecuniary distresses, and I remember, too, a string of ridiculous anecdotes which Rossetti used to tell of "Jimmy's" eccentricities. Then there was Swinburne, a figure that seemed to be always hovering about Rossetti's house (though during my time his body was never present there), so constantly was he discussed either by Watts, by Rossetti, or by myself. But of other and still more intimate friends of earlier life-Ruskin, Morris, Holman Hunt, and Burne-Jones-nothing was seen and hardly anything was said; and of this fact I can offer no explanation-none, at least, except by side-light derived from Rossetti's great love and frequent repetition of Coleridge's "Work without Hope."
Two events of much importance during our month in London might have been expected to awaken Rossetti to the keenest interest in life. After lengthy negotiations, measureless correspondence, countless interviews, and the exercise of some tact and diplomacy to meet and to defeat the obstacles which Rossetti's pride or personal antagonism bad been constantly putting in the way, I succeeded in selling the great " Dante's Dream " to Liverpool. The picture was exhibited immediately, and at first there was a certain amount of criticism in the local newspapers, a certain carping at the Corporation for the peculiarities of its purchase, but Rossetti heard nothing of that. All he heard were the rapturous praises of the few who subscribed to Noel Paton's opinion that his " Dante " was one of the half-dozen great pictures of the world. All he knew besides, was that one morning I took to his bedroom a cheque for the fifteen hundred guineas, the price paid by Liverpool.
His second volume of poems also, " Ballads and Sonnets," was published during our weeks of waiting. If, once again, there was at first a measure of adverse criticism, Rossetti, in his failing health, was allowed to know nothing about that either. All he saw in the name of criticism was a noble and brilliant appreciation by Watts-Dunton (Athenae m), which, as I remember, brought the tears to his eyes when he read it, a fine analysis by Professor Dowden (Academy), and an article, all affection and emotion, by myself. Beyond this, and the general impression we all conveyed to him that his book was having a magnificent reception, Rossetti had no other knowledge of the fate of his new book than came to him in the substantial form of his publishers' cheques.
Rossetti might have been expected to find joy in the fact that in one month, by the simultaneous production of two masterpieces, he had again become illustrious in two arts, but it would wrong the truth to say that he gave any particular sign of satisfaction. I cannot recall that he showed a real interest in the reception of his picture, or that the fate of his new book gave him a moment's apparent uneasiness.
If I had not heard of the feverish watchfulness with which he had followed the fortunes of his earlier volume, I should have concluded that the absence of anxiety about his second book was due to a calm reliance on its strength. But the intensity of Rossetti's sensitiveness to any breath of criticism was as great as ever, and it is more than probable that the same shrinking from public observation which had made him a hermit made him shut out of his consciousness any influence that might possibly bring him pain.
I remember one morning, not long after the publication of the book, coming unexpectedly into my sitting-room and seeing on the table a copy of a well-known weekly journal lying open at a page in which some purblind person, reviewing the " Ballads," began, " It is difficult to determine exactly what position the author of these poems fills in the category of secondary poets." Rossetti fired up at me for " shunting his enemies into his house," and then went off to his studio in a towering rage. The unlucky article was no doubt foolish enough as criticism in a leading place of a book which gave proof of one of the great poets of the century, but I thought it was necessary to look elsewhere than to the natural irritability of the poetic nature for the reason of Rossetti's want of manliness in meeting with one more evidence of the perpetual presence of the egregious ass. Unfortunately, it was not necessary to look far.
Day by day, or night by night. -prompted perhaps by the desire to suppress the nervousness created by his domestic worries, the sale of his pictures and the publication of his book, Rossetti was giving way more and more to indulgence in his accursed drug; and not all our efforts to keep painful facts from his knowledge, nor yet our innocent scheming to fill his gloomy house with sunshine, availed to bring any real happiness into his life.
I remember that one day his brother William's wife (a daughter of Madox Brown) sent her children to Cheyne Walk on a visit to their uncle, thinking, no doubt, to brighten him up by their cheerful presence. But beyond a momentary welcome from the poet as he sat in the studio, and a constrained greeting from the little ones, nothing came of the innocent artifice, and Rossetti heard no more of them than their happy laughter as they romped through the rest of the house.
August had slid into September while we waited in London without obvious purpose, and it was now plainly apparent to all Rossetti's friends that, out of regard both to the condition of his health and the time of the year, he must go back to Cumberland with me immediately, if he was to go at all. Once out of this atmosphere of gloom, of anxiety and of irritation, we thought his spirits would revive and his physical weakness disappear.
Infinite were the efforts that had to be made, and countless the precautions that had to be taken before Rossetti could be induced to set out ; but at length, after a farewell visit to Torrington Square to say good-bye to his mother and sister, we found ourselves, we two and the nurse, at 9 P.M., one evening in September, at Euston Station, sitting behind the drawn blinds of a special saloon carriage that was labelled for Keswick, and packed with as many baskets and bags, as many books and artist's trappings, as would have lasted for an absence of a year.