[from Hall Caine My Story]
OUR dream was not to be realised. After a while Rossetti's physical vigour became sensibly less, and his spirits declined rapidly. He painted very little, and made no attempt to write the ballad which he had spoken of as likely to grow in the midst of our romantic surroundings. I think now that perhaps these surroundings themselves had some effect in lowering the condition of his health. Exhilarating and inspiring as the scenery of the Lake country certainly is in the cheerful days of summer, it is depressing enough when the leaves fall and the bracken withers and the deepening autumn drives long dun-coloured clouds across the valleys, cutting off the mountain tops and deadening the air as with the daily march of noiseless thunderstorms. And Rossetti seemed to feel the effect of the dying year in a country which gives one the sense of being shut in by mountain and cloud.
Once a week I had to leave him for a day and a half to fulfil my lecturing engagement in Liverpool, and the increasing earnestness with which the reticent Cumbrian dalesman, who always met me on my return with a dogcart at the station, used to say, " You'll be welcome back, sir," told me but too plainly that Rossetti's health and spirits were sinking fast.
Week after week I brought back great stories of how the world was ringing with his praises, but save for a momentary emotion, betraying itself in a certain tremor of the voice as he said, "That's good, very good," I saw no sign of real interest in his growing fame, certainly no heartening and uplifting effect produced by it.
I tried in vain to interest him in the literary associations of the district. It was, perhaps, natural that Grasmere could not draw him, even though he could think of Dove Cottage not only in connection with Wordsworth (whom he did not worship but also with De Quincey and that Oriental opium-eater who, perhaps, wandered out of a distempered imagination into that secluded dale. I could not get him to go with me to Keswick, only five miles away, to look at Greta Hall, sacred to the memory of Southey's stainless life; or at the cottage on Castlerigg where Shelley ("as mad there as anywhere else, madder he could not be ") struggled with the burglars and chased the ghosts ; not even Borrowdale, scene of the second part of " Christabel," could draw him to the cliffs that had been rent asunder in the passage he liked the best of the poet he admired the most.
Even his daily walks became shorter day by day, sometimes as far as to the "Nag's Head" on the south or the mouth of the valley road on the north, but generally no more than a few hundred yards along the highroad to right or left, ending too frequently in a long rest on the grass, however damp from dew or rain.
If Rossetti's eyes were now cheerless and heavy, what shall I say of the nights ? At that time of the year the night closed in as early as seven o'clock, and then in that little house among the solitary hills his disconsolate spirit would sometimes sink beyond solace into irreclaimable depths of depression. Night after night we sat up until eleven, twelve, one, and two o'clock, watching the long hours go by with heavy steps, waiting, waiting, waiting for the time at which he could take his first draught of chloral, drop back on to his pillow, and snatch three or four hours of dreamless sleep.
In order to break the monotony of such nights Rossetti would sometimes recite. His memory was marvellous, and he could remember every line of his own two volumes, as well as long passages from other poets. Thus, with failing voice, he would again and again attempt, at my request, his great "Cloud Confines," or stanzas from "The King's Tragedy," and, repeatedly also, Poe's " Ulalume " and "Raven." Even yet I can hear the deep boom of his barytone rolling out like an organ that seemed to shake the walls of the little room
"'Twas then the moon sailed clear of the rack, On high in her hollow dome."
And I can hear, too, the panting breath that too often followed on his exertions as he stopped in his perambulations to and fro, and sank into a chair.
It was perhaps natural enough that in this condition of health and spirits, amid surroundings which I now see were entirely wrong for him, though I had been chiefly responsible for them, the craving for the chloral should increase. Not soon shall I forget some of my experiences in that relation, and if I tell the story of one of them, and for the last time lay bare the infirmity (already well known and much misunderstood) of the great man who was my intimate friend, it shall only be to show how the noblest nature may be corrupted, the largest soul made small, by indulgence in a damnable drug.
I have said that on the night I first slept at Cheyne Walk, Rossetti, coming into my room at the last moment before going to bed, told me that he had just taken sixty grains of chloral, that in four hours he would take sixty more, and four later yet another sixty. Whether there was a conscious exaggeration, or whether (being incapable of affectation or untruthfulness) he was deceived by his doctors for the good purpose of operating to advantage on his all-potent imagination, I do not know ; but I do know that when the chloral came under my own control I was strictly warned that one bottle at one dose was all that it was necessary or safe for Rossetti to take. This single bottle (by Dr. Marshall's advice) I gave him on going to bed, and we made the hour of retiring as late as possible, so that when he awoke it might be day.
But the power of the dose was now decreasing rapidly, and hence it came to pass that towards four o'clock in the leaden light of early dawn Rossetti would come to my room and beg for more. Let those who never knew Rossetti censure me, if they think well, for yielding at last to his pathetic importunities. The low, pleading voice, the note of pain, the awful sense of a body craving rest and a brain praying for unconsciousness, they are with me even yet in my memories of the man sitting on the side of my bed and asking for my pity and my forgiveness.
These were among the moments when Rossetti was utterly irresistible, but to compromise with my conscience I would give him half a bottle more, and he would go off with an appearance of content. The result was disastrous enough, but in a way that might have been least expected.
I was already painfully aware of the corroding influence of the drug on Rossetti's better nature, and one morning, as I took out of its hiding-place the key that was to open the glass doors of the little cabinet which contained the chloral, I caught a look in his eyes which seemed to say that in future he would find it for himself. To meet the contingency, and at the same time to test a theory which I had begun to cherish, that the drug was only necessary to Rossetti because he believed it to be so, I decided to try an experiment, and so defeat by a trick the trick I expected.
The solution of chloral was hardly distinguishable at any time from pure water, and certainly not at all in the dead white light of dawn, so with the connivance of the nurse I opened a bottle, emptied it of the drug, filled it afresh with water, corked and covered it again, with its parchment cap tied about with its collar of red string, placed it in the cabinet, and then awaited results.
Next morning I awoke of myself exactly at the hour at which Rossetti had been accustomed to awaken me, and I heard him coming as noiselessly as he could down the corridor towards my room. He opened the door, leaned over me to satisfy himself that I was asleep, fumbled for and found the key to the cabinet, opened it, took away the bottle I had left ready for him, and then crept back to bed. After some ten minutes or more I rose and went to his room to see what had occurred ; and there, sure enough, lay Rossetti, sleeping soundly, and my bottle standing empty on the table by his side.
In my ignorance I imagined I had solved the problem of Rossetti's insomnia (of nearly all insomnia), and found the remedy for half the troubles of his troubled life. He was indeed " of imagination all compact," and if we could only continue to make him think he was consuming chloral while he was really drinking water, we should in good time conquer his baneful habit altogether.
What the result might have been of any consistent attempt to put my theory into practice it is not possible for me to say, for fate was stronger than good intentions, and my experiment was not to be repeated. While I was out walking the next morning the nurse told the whole story to Rossetti in a well-meant, but foolish, attempt to triumph over his melancholy, and then more mischief was done than the mischief we had tried to undo.
Besides the crushing humiliation that came to him with the consciousness of the lowering of his moral nature from the use of the drug, and of our being so obviously aware of it, there was the fact that from that day forward he believed we were always deceiving him, and that what we gave him for chloral was mainly water. As if to establish my theory that Rossetti's body answered entirely to the mood of his mind, sleep from that day forward refused to come to him at all after the single bottle which the doctor had prescribed. Then the dose had of necessity to be increased, and when, in alarm at the consequences, I refused to go farther, Rossetti resorted to other aids to induce sleep that chloral of itself would not bring.
It was impossible that such a condition of things should last, and it was with unspeakable relief that I heard Rossetti express a desire to go back to London. Before that the nurse had already gone, and I had for some little time been alone with the poet. Correspondence he had always kept up with the friends of his immediate circle, with his brother William, with Watts, and I think with Shields, and this had brought a constant flow of interests into his life; but now he was becoming more and more dependent upon personal company that should not fail him, and never for an hour could he bear to be alone. Strange enough it seemed that the man who for so many years had shunned the world and chosen solitude when he might have. had society, seemed at last to grow weary of his loneliness. But so it was ; and whatever the value of my own company in the days when I came up to him out of the fresh air of a widely different world, I was growing painfully aware that it was very little I could do for him now.
I had tried to check the craving for chloral, but unwittingly I had done worse than not check it ; and where the lifelong efforts of older friends had failed to eradicate a morbid, ruinous, and fatal thirst, it seemed presumptuous, if not ridiculous, to think that the task of conquering it could be compassed by a young fellow with heart and nerves of wax. Moreover, the whole scene was beginning to have an effect upon myself that was more personal and more serious than I have yet given hint of. The constant fret and fume of this life of baffled effort, of struggle with a deadly drug that had grown to have a separate existence in my mind as the existence of a fiend, was beginning to make me ill; and utterly disastrous as our visit to Cumberland had been on the whole, and largely responsible as I felt for it, I jumped eagerly at the opportunity of going home.
Many were the preparations that had to be gone through again before we could make a move; easels and canvases to pack, and a special saloon to bring round from the junction to our wayside platform, so that we might go up without a change and at night-above all, at night-to avoid the distraction of day and the eyes of the people on the stations at which the train might stop. But at length, one evening in the gathering darkness, a little more than a month after our arrival, we were back at Threlkeld in a carriage which halfan-hour later was coupled at Penrith to the Scotch express to London.
Never shall I forget that journey.
Whether Rossetti took his usual dose of the drug I cannot remember, but certainly he did not sleep, and neither did he compose himself to rest, though the lamps of the carriage were darkened by their shades. During the greater part of the night he sat up in an attitude of waiting, wearing overcoat and hat and gloves, as if our journey were to end at the next stopping-place ; but at intervals he made effort to walk to and fro in the jolting saloon, as it was his habit to do in his own studio.
Hour after hour passed in this way, while the lights of the stations flashed by the curtained windows, and I looked out from time to time to see how far we had gone, how near we were to the end. The night was very long, and Rossetti's spirits were more disconsolate than I had ever known them to be before.
Undoubtedly there was enough in the circumstances of our return to London to justify the deepest depression. Rossetti had gone to Cumberland solely in the interests of his failing health, and he was returning in far worse condition. The flicker of hope which had come with his first apparent improvement had made the sadness of his relapse more dark. In the light of subsequent events it would be impossible to say that he exaggerated the gravity of his symptoms, but it was only too clear that he thought he was going home to die.
As the hours went on he was full of lamentations, and I was making feeble efforts over the rattling and clanging of the car to sustain the pitiful insincerity of the comforter who has no real faith in his own comforting, for I, too, had begun to believe that the road for Rossetti was all downhill now.
It is not for me, who, by virtue of the closest intimacy, was permitted to see a great and unhappy man in his mood of most vehement sorrow and self-reproach, to uncover his naked soul for any purpose less sacred than that of justifying his character against misinterpretation, or bringing his otherwise wayward conduct and mysterious life within the range of sympathy ; and if I go farther with the story of this terrible night, it is with the hope of that result and no other.
Rossetti's words during the hours that followed I cannot, except in broken passages, recall, and, if I could recall them, I should not set them down, so deep was the distress with which they were spoken and the emotion with which they were heard ; but I can at least indicate the impressions they left on me then, as a young man who had known no more down to that moment than most of his other friends, of some of the saddest and darkest chapters of his life.
The first of those impressions was that, while the long indulgence in the drug might have broken up his health and created delusions that had alienated friends, it was not that, nor yet the bitterness of malignant criticism, that had separated him from the world and destroyed the happiness of his life. The next of my impressions was that Rossetti had never forgiven himself for the weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends and the impulse of literary ambition which had led him to violate the sanctity of his wife's grave in recovering the manuscripts he had buried in it. And above all, it was my impression that Rossetti had never ceased to reproach himself with his wife's death, as an event that had been due in some degree to failure of duty on his part, or perhaps to something still graver.
Let me not seem to have forgotten that a generous soul in the hours of deepest contrition will load itself with responsibilities that are far beyond its own, and certainly it was not for me to take too literally all the burning words of selfreproach which Rossetti heaped upon himself ; but if I had now to reconstruct his life afresh from the impressions of that night, I think it would be a far more human, more touching, more affectionate, more unselfish, more intelligible figure that would emerge than the one hitherto known to the world.
It would be the figure of a man who, after engaging himself to one woman in all honour and good faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain, instead of stopping, as he must have done if his will had been stronger and his heart sterner, at the door of the church itself. It would be the figure of a man who realised that the good woman he had married was reading his secret in spite of his efforts to conceal it, and thereby losing all joy and interest in life. It would be the figure of a man who, coming home late at night to find his wife dying, probably by her own hand, was overwhelmed with remorse, not perhaps for any unkindness, any want of attention, still less any act of infidelity on his part, but for the far deeper wrong of failure of affection for the one being to whom affection was most due.
Thus the burial of his manuscript in his wife's coffin was plainly saying, "This was how I loved you once, for these poems were written to and inspired by you; and if I have wronged you since by losing my love for you, the solitary text of them shall go with you to the grave." Thus the sadness and gloom of later days, after the poet had repented of his sacrifice and the poems had been recovered and published, were clearly showing that Rossetti felt he had won his place among the English poets only by forfeiting the tragic grace and wasting the poignant pathos of his first consuming renunciation. And thus, too, the solitude of his last years-with its sleepless nights and its delusions born of indulgence in the drugwas not the result of morbid brooding over the insults of adverse critics, but of a deep-seated if wholly unnecessary sense as of a curse resting on him and on his work, whereof the malignancy of criticism was only one of many manifestations.
In this reading of Rossetti's life there is no room at all for any of the gross accusations of ill-treatment or neglect which have been supposed, by some of his less friendly judges, to have burdened his conscience with regard to his wife. There was not one word in his self-reproach which conveyed to my mind a sense of anything so mean as that, and nothing I knew of Rossetti's tenderness of character would have allowed me to believe for a moment that he could be guilty of conscious cruelty. But there was indeed something here that was deeper and more terrible, if more spiritual-one of those tragic entanglements from which there is no escape, because fate itself has made them.
All I knew of Rossetti, all he had told me of himself, all he had revealed to me of the troubles of his soul, all that had seemed so mysterious in the conduct of his life and the moods of his mind, became clear and intelligible, and even noble and deeply touching, in the light of his secret as I thought I read it for the first time on that journey from Cumberland to London. It lifted him entirely out of the character of the wayward, weak, uncertain, neurotic person who could put up a blank wall about his existence because his wife had died by the accident of miscalculating a dose of laudanum ; who could do a grave act and afterwards repent of it and undo it ; who could finally shut himself up as a hermit and encourage a hundred delusions about the world because a rival poet had resented his success. Out of all this it raised him into the place of one of the great tragic figures of literature, one of the great lovers, whose lives as well as their works speak to the depth of their love or the immensity of their remorse.
It has only been with a thrill of the heart and a trembling hand that I have written this, but I have written it ; and now I shall let it go, because I feel that, however it may at first distress the little group who are all that are left of Rossetti's friends, it is a true reading of the poet's soul, and one that ennobles his memory. I wrote it all, or the substance of it all, with the story of another incident narrated in this chapter, twentyfive years ago, but I did not attempt to publish it then from sheer fear of lowering the temperature of reverence in which I thought Rossetti's name ought to live. But after a quarter of a century of conflicting portraiture-much of it very true, some of it very false, all of it incomplete-I feel that the truth of the poet's life as it revealed itself to me (or as I thought it revealed itself to me) can only have the effect of deepening the admiration and affection with which the world regards him. And speaking for myself, I can truly say that out of the memory of that terrible journey only one emotion remained, and that was a greater love than ever for the strong and passionate soul in the depths of its abased penitence.
It was just daylight as we approached London, and when we arrived at Euston it was a rather cold and gloomy morning. Rossetti was much exhausted when we got into the omnibus that was waiting for us, and when we reached Cheyne Walk, where the blinds were still down in all the windows, his spirits were very low. I did my best to keep a good heart for his sake as well as my own; but well do I remember the pathos of his words as I helped him, now feebler than ever, into his house
" Thank God ! Home at last, and never shall I leave it again ! "