[from Hall Caine My Story]
VERY deep and natural was the concern of Rossetti's older friends on seeing how wretched and stricken he looked on his return to London. That going to the mountains instead of to the sea had been a grievous mistake was now apparent to all of them, but the whole extent of the injury sustained was perhaps not at first realised by any.
Attributing Rossetti's physical prostration chiefly to hypochondriasis, they did their best during the next few weeks to induce him to take a hopeful view of life. The cheerfulness of their company, after what I well know must have been the lugubrious character of my own, had for a little while a good effect on Rossetti's spirits; and I will not forbear to say that I too welcomed it as a breath of morning air after a long month's lingering in an atmosphere of gloom. The sense of responsibility which in the solitude of the mountains had weighed me down was now divided with the friends who were Rossetti's friends before they were mine.
Foremost among these friends was William Rossetti, and looking back to his devotion to his brother's personal needs during the last months of the poet's life, and thinking of his constant absorption in efforts to sustain and promote the poet's fame since his death, I doubt if the whole history of literary friendships has any such story of brotherly love and admiration.
Then there was Frederic Shields, so different from Rossetti in personal character and temperament, and as far apart from him as the poles in spiritual outlook upon life and death, yet always so faithful to the man, so loyal to the artist, so ready to put aside his own interests at the call of the poet's needs.
And then above all, perhaps, there was Watts (Watts-Dunton), whose affection for Rossetti and beneficial influence upon him was perhaps the most touching and beautiful thing I had ever witnessed. No light matter it must have been to lay aside one's own cherished life-work and ambitions to be Rossetti's friend and brother at a time like this, but through these dark days Watts was with him to comfort, to divert, to interest, and to inspire him-asking meantime no better reward than the knowledge that a noble mind and nature was thereby relieved from gloom or lifted out of sorrow.
If the poet's spirits had been low while we were in Cumberland, they were all but insupportable during the first weeks after our return to Chelsea. No longer able to work at the easel, and full of apprehension about his failing sight, he began to torment himself with the fear of poverty. There might indeed have been some ground for uneasiness on this head if Rossetti had lived, for though he had long earned a large income as a painter he had saved little or nothing, and, knowing this, he sometimes made rather grotesque predictions of absolute want. Out of such moods of despondency he had to be rallied by his friends, each in his different way, and I recall with some amusement and a good deal of emotion certain wild efforts by Shields to banish his melancholia, as well as some quiet and touching assurances by his brother that if the worst came to the worst he could always come to live with him.
But Rossetti's fear of poverty during the first sad weeks after our return to Chelsea was not so hard to contend with as his dread of death. I should say as I think of this period, that if there was no longer any passionate longing to live there was certainly, with a settled conviction that death was coming, a wild fear of dying. What it was exactly that was going on in his mind, what struggle for mastery between the will-to-live and the will-to-die, with the dread of both, I cannot say, but I would venture the opinion that he was shrinking not only from the thought of pain but also from that sinking into everlasting night and nothingness which was all that, so far as I could see, death seemed to mean to him then.
Never was I conscious that religious faith relieved his fears, still less brightened with any kind of hope the prospect of that passing and parting which is rest and eternal life. On the other hand, I was often aware that everything was distressing that reminded him of death. Belief in God was always with him-that I can firmly say; but religion in the conventional sense appeared to irritate him, and even the ringing of the church bells on Sunday seemed at this time to give him pain.
Perhaps it was a sign of his fear of death that his mind seemed to be constantly brooding upon it. I remember that one day, opening a drawer of the bookcase, under the books, he took out a long, thick tress of rich auburn hair, and showed it to me for a moment. What he told me about it I cannot say, but indeed there was no need to tell me anything, for I thought I knew what it was and where it came from. That was one of those hushed moments of life in which silence is sacred, and I will not break it further even now. Rossetti's downward road was marked by many signposts that pointed to the past.
In spite of all the tender offices of friends, his health declined day by day, and he began to be afflicted by a violent cough. I noticed that it troubled him most at night after the taking of the chloral, and that it shook his whole system so terribly as to leave him for a while entirely exhausted.
The crisis was pending, and almost sooner than any of us expected it came. One evening a friend of former years, Westland Marston the dramatist, came with his son, Philip Bourke Marston the blind poet, to spend a few hours with Rossetti. For a while he seemed much cheered by their company, but later on he gave certain signs of uneasiness which I had learned to know too well. Removing restlessly from seat to seat, he threw himself at last upon the sofa in that rather awkward attitude which I have previously described. Presently he called out to me, in great nervous agitation, that he could not move his arm, and, upon attempting to rise, that he had lost power in his leg as well.
We were all startled, but knowing the force of Rossetti's imagination on his bodily capacity, I tried to rally him out of his fears.
" Nonsense, Rossetti, you're only fancying it," I remember to have said. But, raising him to his feet, we realised only too surely that, from whatever cause, he had lost the use of his limbs.
The servants were called, and with the utmost alarm we carried Rossetti to his bedroom, up the tortuous staircase at the back of the studio, and I remember the intense vividness of his intellect at the moment, and his obvious sense of humiliation at his helplessness in our hands.
The blind poet remained in the studio while we were taking Rossetti to his room, and after this was done he and I hurried away in a cab to Savile Row to fetch the doctor. I recall that drive through the streets at night with the blind man, who had seen nothing of what had occurred, but was trembling and breathing fast. An hour after the attack the doctor was in the house.
It was found that Rossetti had undergone a species of mild paralysis, called, I think, loss of co-ordinative power. The juncture was a critical one, and it was decided that the time had come at last when the chloral, which was the root of all the mischief, should be decisively, entirely, and instantly cut off.
It is not for me to give an account of what was done at this crisis. I only know that a young medical man was brought into the house as a resident doctor to watch the case during the absence of the physician-in-chief, and that morphia was at first injected as a substitute for the narcotic which the system had grown to demand.
I recall the many hours in which Rossetti was delirious whilst his body was passing through the terrible ordeal of conquering the craving for the former drug, and the three or four days succeeding in which the two forces seemed to fight like demons for possession of him. During this period his mind had a strange kind of moonlight clearness, with a plain sense of all that was going on, a vivid memory of the friends and incidents of the past, with a desire to write letters to people whom he had not seen for years, yet a total loss of executive faculty of every kind. But the pathetic phase passed, and within a week after the experiment had been begun he awoke one morning calin in body, clear in mind, and grateful in heart.
His delusions were all dead, his intermittent suspicions of friends were as much gone as if they had never been, and nothing was left but the real Rossetti, a simple, natural, affectionate, lovable soul.
And now let me say that while it must have been the most pitiful weakness, not to say the most mistaken tenderness on my part (after all that has been published on the subject), to attempt to conceal an infirmity of Rossetti's mind which has led to much misconception of his character, I feel myself justified in alluding to it, and even dwelling on some of its painful manifestations, for the sake of the opportunity of showing that, coming with the drug that blighted half his life, it disappeared when the evil had been removed.
Perhaps none may say with any certainty to what the use of the drug was due, or what was due to it, though I have already given my opinion that it came from a far deeper source than the mental disturbance set up by adverse criticism; but sure I am that the sadder side of his life was ever under its shadow, and that he was a new man on the day when it was over.