[from Hall Caine My Story]
To paint a portrait of Rossetti as he was when I lived with him in the last year of his life is to present a very complex personality, having many conflicting impulses, many contradictory manifestations ; and if by any revelation of truth, I can account for the want of harmony in the poet's character, and in the impressions it made upon observers, I shall perhaps do something to recover the real Rossetti from the misrepresentations of detractors who hated him, and of the admirers who did not understand him.
I have not concealed my conviction that the less noble side of Rossetti came of prolonged indulgence in a pernicious drug, and once again I cannot omit an illustration of the corrupting influence of his unfortunate habit. Our journey to Cumberland was a long and tiresome one. The man who could not sleep in a muffled bedroom fronting an open garden was hardly likely to sleep in a rumbling and jolting railway train, but towards midnight I gave Rossetti his usual dose, and went to sleep.
I awoke when the train stopped at Penrith, and the dawn was breaking, but Rossetti was still lying where I had left him. Something suggested that I should look in my handbag, and to my distress I discovered that one of the two bottles of chloral left in it had gone.
It was six o'clock when we reached the little wayside station (Threlkeld) that was the end of our journey, and there we got into a carriage which was to drive us through the Vale of St. John to the Legberthwaite end of it. The morning was calm ; the mountains looked grand and noble with the mists floating over their crowns; nothing could be heard but the call of awakening cattle, the rumble of the cataracts that were far away, and the surge of the rivers that were near. Rossetti was all but indifferent to our surroundings, or displayed only such fitful interest in them as must have been affected out of a kindly desire to please me. He said the chloral I had given him on the journey was in his eyes so that he could not rightly see, and as soon as we reached the house that was to be our home, he declared his intention of going to bed.
I saw him to his room and then left him immediately, perceiving he was anxious to dismiss me, but returning a moment afterwards with some urgent message, I opened his door without knocking, and came suddenly upon him in the act of drinking the contents of the bottle of chloral I had missed from the bag.
It would be impossible for me even now at this distance of time to convey any sense of the crushing humiliation of this incident, of the abject degradation which the habit of chloral had brought about in an ingenuous, frank, and noble nature. It was not then, however, that Rossetti himself had any consciousness of this. Indeed, I thought there was even something almost cruel in the laugh with which he received my nervous protest; but afterwardswhen the effects of the drug were gone and he realised the pain he had caused, the fear he had created, the hours I had walked on tiptoe in the corridor outside his door listening for the sound of his breathing, in terror lest it should stop-the true man showed himself, the real Rossetti, and he said, as he did again and again on other occasions
" I wish you were really my son, for though I should have no right to treat you so, I should at least have some reason to expect your forgiveness."
At such moments as those and in such moods of more than needful solicitude for one's acutest sensibilities, Rossetti was indeed absolutely irresistible.
Although he had consumed since we left London a quantity of chloral that would have been sufficient to destroy, perhaps, all the other members of our little household put together, Rossetti awoke fresh and in good spirits towards the middle of the afternoon, breakfasted heartily, and then took a turn about the house which was intended to be our home for at least a couple of months to come. It was a modest place named Fisher Ghyll, having a guest-house in front, consisting of three sitting-rooms and as many bedrooms, and a group of farm buildings at the back. Standing in what may be called the estuary of the valley, where the Vale of St. John empties into the dale of Thirlmere, it had the purple heights of Blencathra to the north, the scraggy rocks of the Dunmail Raise to the south, the Styx Pass and the brant sides of Helvellyn behind it, and before it the wooded slopes of Golden Howe, the climbing road to Keswick and the pathway of the setting sun.
Not a sound about the house except the occasional voice of a child or bark of a dog, the plash of falling water, the bleating of sheep, the echo of the axe of the woodman who was thinning the neighbouring plantation, and the horn of the mail-coach that passed morning and evening from the little market-town five miles away.
Rossetti was delighted. Here at least he might bury the memory of a hundred " bogies " that had vexed him ; here, in this exhilarating air, he might recover the health he had lost in the close atmosphere of his studio in London ; and here, too, amidst the vivid scenery, so wonderfully awakening to the imagination, so full of poetic appeal and ghostly legend, he might turn again to the romantic ballad which he had expected to write among such surroundings.
Next day he was exceptionally well, and astounded me by the proposal that we should ascend Golden Howe together-the little mountain, of perhaps a thousand feet, that stands at the head of Thirlmere. With never a hope, on my part, of reaching the top, we set out for that purpose ; but, weak as he had been a few days before, Rossetti actually accomplished the task he proposed for himself, going up slowly, little by little, through the ferns and the fir trees, with their rabbits and red-tailed squirrels, and then sitting for a long hour on the summit. It was a marvellous picture that lay about us, with the lake below and the undulating mountain tops above. Rossetti was much impressed.
" I'm not one of those who care about scenery, but this is wonderful, and the colour is wonderful," he said.
His spirits were high, and when on beginning our descent he lost his footing and slithered some distance through the bracken before I could stop him, he only laughed and said
"Don't be afraid, I always go up on my feet and come down on a broader basis."
He painted a little during those first quiet days in Cumberland, not having touched a brush for some time before we left London, and I found it a pleasure to watch a picture growing under his masterly hand-from the first warm ground that was made to cover the canvas before his subject was begun, to the last indefinable change in one of his idealised women's faces, cold in their loveliness, unsubstantial in their passion, tainted with the melancholy that clings perhaps to the purest beauty. Naturally, he had no models, and speaking of that drawback, he said
" It's wonderful what a bit of nature will do for you when you can get it in ; " but he also said something about style being injured by a slavish submission to fact.
I remember that I asked him what was the reason he had never painted the great dramatic compositions he had designed in earlier yearsthe "Hamlet," the "Cassandra," and, above all, the " Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee." He answered with a laugh
"Bread and butter, my boy, that was the reason. I had to paint what I could sell. But I'll tell you something," he added quickly, " I like best to paint a picture that shall boil the pot, yet be no pot-boiler."
The days were already short, the nights were long. Rossetti could not read with ease by lamplight, or sleep until the small hours of the morning; and so it came about that during our first cheerful weeks in Cumberland he threw himself with great ardour into my own occupations. I was still preparing my lectures on prose literature, and to fortify myself for my work I was reading the masterpieces over again. Seeing this, Rossetti suggested that I should read them aloud, and I did so.
Many an evening we passed in this way. It lives in my memory both as a sweet and a sad experience. Behind our little farmhouse was the lowest pool of a ghyll, and the roar of the falling waters could be heard from within. On the farther side of the vale there were black crags where ravens lived, and in the unseen bed of the dale between lay the dark waters of Thirl-mere. The surroundings were impressive enough to eye and ear in the daylight, but when night came, and the lamps were lit and the curtains were drawn, and darkness covered everything outside, they were awesome and grim.
I remember those evenings with gratitude and some pain-the little oblong sitting-room, the dull thud of the waterfall like distant thunder overhead, the crackle of the wood fire, myself reading aloud, and Rossetti in his long sack-coat, his hands thrust deep in its upright pockets, walking with his heavy and uncertain step to and fro, to and fro, laughing sometimes his big deep laugh, and sometimes sitting down to wipe his moist spectacles and clear his dim eyes. Not rarely the dead white gleams of the early dawn before the coming of the sun met the yellow light of our candles as we passed on the staircase, going to bed, a little window that looked up to the mountains and over them to the east.
Perhaps it was not all pleasure even, so far as I was concerned, but certainly it was all profit. The novels we read were "Tom Jones," in four volumes, and " Clarissa " in its original eight, one or two of Smollett's, and some of Scott's. Rossetti had not, I think, been a great reader of English fiction (French he knew better), but his critical judgment on novels was in some respects the surest and soundest I have ever known. Nothing escaped him. His alert mind seized upon everything. He had never before, I think, given any thought to fiction as an art, but his intellect played over it like a bright light. It amazes me now, after twenty years' close study of the methods of story-telling, to recall the general principles which he seemed to formulate out of the back of his head for the defence of his swift verdicts.
"Now why?" I would say, when the art of the novelist seemed to me to fail in imaginative grip.
" Because so-and-so must happen," Rossetti would answer.
He was always right. He grasped with masterly strength the operation of the two fundamental factors in the novelist's art-the sympathy and the " tragic mischief." If these were not working well he knew by the end of the first chapters that, however fine in observation, or racy in humour, or true in pathos, the work as an organism must fail.
It was an education in itself to sharpen one's wits on such a grindstone, to clarify one's thoughts in such a stream, to strengthen one's imagination by contact with a mind that was of "imagination all compact" ; but how did Rossetti, who had spent his energies on two other arts, know the things that are hidden for all time from nine-tenths of the professional guides to fiction? What explanation is possible except the one I have given before, that Rossetti was the one man I ever met who gave me a sense of the presence of a gift that is above and apart from talent-in a word, genius.
Down to that time, when I was beginning to live in the outer courts of literature as a lecturer and an occasional reviewer on the two literary journals, the Atdhenaeum and Academy, it had never occurred to me that I might write a novel. But I began to think of it then as a remote possibility, and the immediate surroundings of our daily life brought back recollections of certain Cumbrian legends. I told one of the stories to Rossetti. He was impressed by it, yet he strongly advised me not to tackle it, because he saw no way of getting sympathy into it on any side.
" But why not try your hand at a Manx story?" he said, remembering my Manx origin. "The Bard of Manxland-it's worth while to be that."
I thought so too, and hence Rossetti was in some sort the foster-father of the novels with which, perhaps, more than any other efforts of mine, my name has since been associated.
Rossetti was not one of the people who live over and over again the lives they lived in their youth, but during those first cheerful weeks in Cumberland, prompted thereto by my inquiries, he talked a good deal in an easy and familiar way about the men and women he had known in earlier years. They pass before me now, as they appeared in Rossetti's graphic sketches, these people of the world he used to live in, some of them grim and lugubrious forms, slightly distorted by caricature, others rather rakish young figures out of the borderland of a somewhat boisterous Bohemia.
Not to charge Rossetti too strictly with responsibility for what comes back to me across the space of so many years, I will give a summary of his reminiscences. Thus he talked of George Eliot, then lately dead, with her long, weird, horsey face, a good woman, modest, retiring and amiable to a fault when the outer crust of reticence had been broken through. Then of her companion Lewes, with his shaggy eyebrows, and of how, at George Eliot's request, he had sent a photograph of his " Hamlet " when Lewes, who was a kind of amateur actor, was about to play the part. Then he talked of Mrs. Carlyle (how much he knew of her I cannot remember), as a clever but rather bitter little woman, with the one redeeming quality of unostentatious charity. "The poor of Chelsea always spoke well of her," he said. Then of Carlyle himself, with a tinge of personal dislike, telling how Bell Scott sent the Seer his first volume, "Poems of a Painter," a title which being in florid lettering of the poet's engraving, was mistaken for "Poems of a Printer," and called forth a letter beginning, " If a Printer has anything to say, why in the name of heaven doesn't he say it, and not sing it?" Then of Scott walking with Carlyle on the Chelsea Em. bankment and pouring out his soul in a rhapsody on Shelley until the grim philosopher stopped him and said, " Yon man Shelley was just a scoundrel, and ought to have been hanged ; "-a crushing blow which was atoned for a few hours afterwards, when there came as a present to Scott's house, from Carlyle's, the bust of Shelley which had been made by Mrs. Shelley, and given to Leigh Hunt. Finally, of Carlyle walking with William Allingham in the neighbourhood of the Kensington Museum, and announcing his intention of writing a life of Michael Angelo, and then adding, by way of remonstrance against his companion's quickening interest, " But, mind ye, I'll no' say much about his art."
He talked of Browning, too, claiming to be one of the poet's first admirers, and describing him as he used to be, spruce, almost dapper, wearing gloves that seemed to have grown on his shapely hands, more than hinting that perhaps he gave himself up too much to society, and saying, "Dull dogs for the most part, those fashionable folk, yet they treat a man of genius as if he were a superior flunkey." He talked of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, too, with respect amounting almost to reverence. Of Tennyson, also, he talked with warmth, imitating the sonorous tones of his glorious voice, but betraying a certain soreness at the recollection that to avoid giving an opinion on the " Poems," the Laureate had merely acknowledged the arrival of the book. Then he told a story of Longfellow, "the good old bard" ; how the poet had called on him during his visit to England, and been courteous and kind in the last degree, but having fallen into the error of thinking that Rossetti the painter and Rossetti the poet were different men, he had said, on leaving the house
" I have been very glad to meet you, Mr. Rossetti, and should like to have met your brother also. Pray tell him how much I admire his beautiful poem, 'The Blessed Damozel.' " Rossetti's talk about Ruskin was, I thought, curiously contradictory in tone and feeling, being sometimes tender, generous, highly appreciative, and warmly affectionate, and sometimes grudging and even hostile, as when, in reply to something I had said about a difference with Madox Brown on the subject of Ruskin's economic propaganda, he said
" Brown is one of the most naturally and genially gifted talkers I know, but that mention of yours of the biggest of all big R's [Ruskin] was just the unluckiest thing you could have said. And I myself think that the talk from and about that particular Capital Letter is already enough for several universes, only don't say I said so, as he is an old acquaintance."
If after so many years, both Rossetti and Ruskin being dead, I disregard the warning of these last words, it is only to say that always in the talk of the one about the other there was this note of desire to avoid the appearance of disloyalty to a friend of former years who was a friend no longer. I should have said that there had been a short period in which Ruskin and Rossetti had been on terms of the closest intimacy, and that an estrangement had followed that was due merely to that gradual asundering which is more fatal to friendship than the most violent quarrel. The period of intimacy had apparently covered the most tragic moment of Ruskin's life, for I recall a story which Rossetti told of the dark days of his friend's marriage and separation.
Ruskin and his wife had gone up, I think, to Scotland, and there Millais had joined them, with the object of painting a picture. The picture represented the author standing at the foot of a waterfall ; and when it was finished it became Ruskin's property, and he took it back with him to London. Then the storm-cloud burst, which separated Ruskin from his wife, and gave her to his friend, whereupon Ruskin's father, thinking he saw in the portrait of his son the first indications of a malign intent, wished to put his penknife through the picture. But Ruskin himself, whose love of a work of art was greater than his hatred of the artist, smuggled the incriminating canvas into a cab, and carried it off to Rossetti's studio, begging that it should be hidden away until his father's anger had cooled.
Brighter and better, however, because more easy and familiar than Rossetti's talk of the people who had stood a little apart from him, were his sketches of his own particular circle in the days of their beginnings in art and literature, when all the world was young: of Swinburne, with his small body and great head, full of modern revolutionary fire and the courage of an ancient morality, whereof his personal conduct was as innocent as a child's ; of Burne-Jones, with his delicate face and eyes that were alight with dreams-a strong soul in a frail body, a sword too keen for the scabbard; of Morris (" Topsy," he called him, with his rather rugged Scandinavian personality, writing some of the " Earthly Paradise," I think, at Cheyne Walk, and declaiming it aloud from a balcony at the back, to the consternation of the neighbours who saw a shock-headed man shouting at nothing in the garden below ; of Millais, something of a " swell " ; of Holman Hunt, more humbly born, with himself in a social condition somewhere between ; of Madox Brown, with his sense of personal dignity and his respect for the proprieties sometimes outraged by Rossetti's utter disregard of appearances, as when, out together in Holborn, Rossetti stopped at a potato-stall on the pavement, bought two-pennyworth of roasted potatoes, and ate them as he walked along, while Brown, in high dudgeon, walked parallel with him on the other side of the street.
Then there were Rossetti's sketches of the bright days at Oxford, when the group of young artists were painting the frescoes in the Union debating-room, being always in want of female models, and daily discovering " stunners." And finally, there were faint glimpses of almost fatal flirtations on that borderland of a rather boisterous Bohemia when Rossetti, in his tumultuous youth, walking in Vauxhall Gardens, came upon a bouncing girl, fresh from the country, with a great mass of the red hair he loved to paint, cracking nuts with her white teeth, and throwing the shells at him.
There was no meanness in Rossetti's stories-nothing that even for a moment made you squirm. His memory, naturally a generous one, had hoarded up no ugly story to the disadvantage of friend or foe. Blunt, bluff, perhaps occasionally brutal his summary of a former acquaintance might be, but it was never for an instant cruel or small. And if he was sometimes frank about others, he never spent any pains in painting up a flattering picture of himself. His own portrait, as he left it on my mind in his rapid sketches of early days, was that of a masterful young man, a little selfish perhaps, certainly domineering, moving in a group of friends who yielded to him or got out of his way, but never struggled with him or fought for supremacy-the portrait, in short, of the spoiled child of his circle.
He was not fond of telling stories against himself, being intensely sensitive to ridicule, but he could on occasion laugh at his own expense. One story he told was of his childish conduct with a dangerous medicine. It was a preparation of, I think, strychnine, and he had to take four doses a day, the first on rising, the second at noon, the third in the evening, and the last on going to bed. Having an engagement to lunch out of London one day, he was on the point of leaving the house when he remembered that he had not taken his medicine, and returning to the studio he took the dose that ought to have been taken in the morning. He was again on the point of leaving when he remembered that a second dose was due, so he went back and took that also. Once more he was on the point of going when he reflected that before he could return home a third dose might be overdue, so, to meet contingencies, he took that as well. Fully satisfied that he had now discharged his duty, he sailed out of the house, but before he had gone far he found his hands twitching and his legs growing stiff, whereupon he remembered what his medicine had been, and becoming frightened, he looked out for a cab to take him to the doctor. No cab being anywhere in sight, he began to run in the direction of the nearest cab-rank, and from exercise and terror together he was soon in a flood of perspiration, which relieved his symptoms and carried off the mischief.
Another story Rossetti told against himself was of a purchase he had been compelled to make by reason of a little boyish bravado. Going one day with some of his artist friends to a tavern, I think in Soho, he came upon an oil-painting of the crudest colour and most hideous design, so huge as to cover the whole side of a room, and so grotesque in subject that they all burst into roars of laughter at the sight of it. Such unseemly merriment nettled the tavern-keeper, who began to remonstrate, to tell them what a work of art the picture was, and what store he set by it.
" Well, well," said Rossetti, with a wink all round, "how much will you take for it?"
" More money than you've got in the world, young man," replied the tavern-keeper ; and then Rossetti, now nettled in his turn, said
" Really ! We'll see. Say the word-how much ? "
" Five hundred pounds," said the tavernkeeper.
Then the young painters burst into screams of laughter, Rossetti's laughter being loudest of all. The tavern-keeper stood quiet and silent until they were finished, and then said to Rossetti
" Well, young man, how much will you give for it ? "
" Five shillings," said Rossetti.
Done," said the tavern-keeper, "take it away at once."
Again, another of Rossetti's stories, dating from the days of his tumultuous young manhood, was of a ridiculous prank in the manner of the one told of Shelley, who got rid of the old woman with an onion basket in the stage-coach by seating himself on the floor, fixing a woeful look upon his companion, and saying, in thrilling tones
"For heaven's sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings." Rossetti's frolic had been akin to this, though the results had been amusingly different. In early years, when William Morris and BurneJones shared a studio, they had a young servantmaid whose spirits were unquenchably vivacious, and whose pertness nothing could banish or check. Thinking to frighten this girl out of her complacency, Rossetti, calling one day on his friends, affected the direst madness, strutted ominously up to her with the wildest glare of his eyes, and began in his most sepulchral tones to recite the lines
"Shall the hide of a fierce lion
Be stretched on a couch of wood,
For a daughter's foot to lie on,
Stained with a father's blood?"
The poet's response is a soft " Ah, no!" but the girl calmly fixed her eyes on the frenzied eyes before her, and answered, with a swift, light accent and a merry laugh
" It shall, if you like, sir ! "
Pale phantoms of the figures that floated through Rossetti's stories of these earlier years, how they rise around me ! And if I present them now, it is as witnesses to the cheerful mood of the poet during those first weeks in Cumberland, rather than as wraiths to be challenged too literally after moving ir. my memory through so many years.
The change of air and scene had apparently made the most astounding improvement in Rossetti's health, and we began to encourage hopes of a complete recovery. It was a splendid dream, full of great possibilities for the future. After all, he was only fifty-three years of age, and he had a world of work in his heart and brain which he had hardly attempted to realise. Thus we nourished our glorious hopes, and I think there were moments when even Rossetti himself appeared to share them.