[from Hall Caine My Story]

CHAPTER IX.
THE LAST OF HOME

As soon as Rossetti was himself again he began to see his friends and relatives-Shields, Madox Brown, and of course Watts, who was with him every day. Some report of his seizure must have appeared in the newspapers, for I recall inquiries from well-known people which I received and answered in Rossetti's name, among them being a letter from Sir Henry Taylor, author of " Philip von Artevelde," and one from Turgenieff, who was, I think, in London, and proposed to call.

I thought it strange, when I realised how strongly Rossetti's real nature possessed the power of attaching people to his person, that few letters came from the famous men still living who had been his friends in earlier years ; but the link with the past was not entirely broken, for Burne-Jones came one evening, with his delicate and spiritual face full of affectionate solicitude, and when I took him into the bedroom he was received with a faint echo of the cheery " Hulloa " which he must have remembered so well.

Rossetti must have looked sadly unlike his former self, although our hearts were now so cheerful about him, for when after a long halfhour the great painter came down from the bedroom where I had left the two old friends together, he was visibly moved and at first could scarcely speak. I remember that he and I dined in the studio in the midst of the easels, and that turning to an unfinished picture on one of them he said

" They say Gabriel cannot draw, but look at that hand. There isn't anybody else in the world who can draw a hand like that."

Christmas Day was now nigh, and Rossetti, still confined to his room, begged me to spend that day with him. " Otherwise," he said, " how sad a day it must be to me, for I cannot fairly ask any other."

I had been asked to dine at a more cheerful house, but reflecting that this was my first Christmas in London and it might be Rossetti's last, I readily decided to do as he wished. We dined alone, he in his bed, I at the little table at the foot of it on which I had first seen the wired lamp and the bottles of medicine; but later in the evening William Rossetti, with his brotherly affection, left his children and guests at his own house, and ran down to spend an hour with the invalid. As the night went on we could hear from time to time the ringing of the bells of the neighbouring churches, and I noticed that Rossetti was not disturbed by them as he had been formerly.

He talked that night brightly, with more force and incisiveness, I thought, than he had displayed for months. There was the ring of sincerity in his tone as he said he had always had loyal and unselfish friends ; and then he spoke of his brother, of Madox Brown, and perhaps particularly of Watts. He said a word or two of myself, and then spoke with emotion of his mother and sister, and of his sister who was dead, and how they were supported through their sore trials by religious hope and resignation. He asked if I, like Shields, was a believer; and seemed altogether in a softer and more spiritual mood than I could remember to have noticed before.

With such talk we passed the last of Rossetti's Christmas nights; and on many a night afterwards I spent some hours with him in his room. The drug being gone, he was in nearly every sense a changed man, and I remember particularly that there was no more fear of poverty and no painful brooding over death. That any hope such as could be called faith had taken the place of dread I cannot positively say ; perhaps if I had in a word to give a definition of Rossetti's attitude towards spiritual Things, I should say it was then that of an agnostic-not of an unbeliever, but of one who simply did not know. Before the mystery of the hereafter, of the unknown and the unknowable, he seemed to stand silent, perhaps content, certainly without any anxious questioning, any agonising doubts.

Those hours with Rossetti, when he just emerged from the thraldom of so many years, are among the most treasured of my memories, and I recall the impression I had at the time that much of his conversation was like the stern lamp of a ship which casts its light on the path that is past. Thus one day he said, " To marry one woman and then find out, when it is too late, that you love another, is the deepest tragedy that can enter into a man's life."

No more now than before did he interest himself in the affairs of the world outside his own walls; and what he called "the momentary momentousness" of many political questions seemed never to stir his pulse for a moment. But there was one great social problem which always moved him to the depths he had dealt with it in both his arts-as a poet in ,jenny," as a painter in

" Found," and perhaps in " Mary Magdalene." It was the age-long problem of the poor scapegoats of society who carry the sins of men into a wilderness from which there is no escape. These pariahs, these outcasts, had a fascination for him always, but it was of a kind that could only be felt by a man who was essentially pure-minded.

" That is a world," he used to say, "that few understand, though there is hardly anybody who does not think that he knows something about it."

On Rossetti it seemed to sit like a nightmare. For the poor women themselves who, after one false step, find themselves in a blind alley in which the way back is forbidden to them, he had nothing but the greatness of his compassion. The pitiless cruelty of their position often affected him to tears. That they had transgressed against all the recognised rules of morality and social order, and were often wallowing in an abyss of degradation, did not rob them of his pity. No human creature was common or unclean. " With our God is forgiveness," and feeling this, Rossetti also seemed to feel that behind the sin of these sinners there was always the immensity, even the majesty, of their suffering.

All this he had put into "Jenny," with its tenderness to the little closed soul of the girl and its passionate denunciation of the lust of man ; he had put it into " Found," with the agony of shame in the face of the woman on her knees and the pathos of the net which confined the calf that was going to slaughter in the country cart ; he had put it into " Mary Magdalene," too, in the light, as of an awakening soul, in the courtesan when she hears the Master's call; but more touching, perhaps more immediately affecting, than any of these great works (in my view the greatest the world has yet seen on this subject) was the talk of the man himself when, at this most spiritual hour of the period in which I knew him, he would speak of what he believed to be one of the poignant tragedies of human life.

I will not shrink from telling of one act of Rossetti's moral courage at that time, which I have never been able to recall without a thrill of the heart. Somewhere I had met with one of the women of the underworld who seemed to me to have kept her soul pure amid the mire and slime that surrounded her poor body. She was a girl of great beauty, some education, refinement, knowledge of languages, and not a little reading and good taste. Her position had been -due to conditions more tragic than the ordinary ones, but she was held to it by the same relentless laws which bound the commonest of her class.

It was a very pitiful example of the tragedy which most deeply interested Rossetti, and when I told him about it he was much affected. But he did not attempt or suggest the idea of rescue. He knew the problem too well to imagine that anything less than complete reversal of the social order could help a girl like that to escape from the blind alley in which she walked alone. The only thing that could be done for her was to keep her soul alive amid all the dead souls about her, and this he tried to do.

Asking me to bring him a copy of his first volume of poems (the volume containing "Jenny"), he wrote the girl's name and his own, with a touching line or two, on the title-page, and told me to give her the book. I did so, and I recall the astonishment and emotion of the poor outcast thing, who appreciated perfectly what it meant to the illustrious poet to send that present to a lost one like her. As far as I can remember I never saw her again nor heard what became of her, but well I know that wherever she is that book is with her still, and the tender grace of Rossetti's act has not been lost.

I have one more memory of those cheerful evenings in the poet's bedroom with its thick curtains, its black-oak chimney-piece and crucifix and its muffled air (all looking and feeling so much brighter than before), and that is of Buchanan's retraction of all that he had said in his bitter onslaught of so many years before. One day there came a copy of the romance called "God and the Man," with its dedication " To an Old Enemy." I do not remember how the book reached Rossetti's house, whether directly from the author or from the publisher, or, as I think probable, through Watts, who was now every day at Cheyne Walk, in his untiring devotion to his friend, but I have a clear memory of reading to the poet the beautiful lines in which his critic so generously and so bravely took back everything he had said

" I would have snatched a bay-leaf from thy brow,
Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and charity I bring thee now
A lily-flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be ;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
And take the gift from me."

Rossetti was for the moment much affected by the pathos of the words, but in the absence of his name it was difficult at first to make him believe they were intended for him.

But they are, I'm sure they are, and Watts says they are," I went on repeating, until he was compelled to believe.

It was a moving incident, and doubly affecting at that moment, when, the poet had just emerged from the long night of so much suffering. And it was fit and meet that Buchanan's retraction should come before it was too late for Rossetti to hear of it; but if I had wanted anything to prove to me that the cloud that had hung over the poet's life was not that of another poet's criticism but a far graver thing, I should have found it in the fact that after the first hour of hearing of the retraction, he never spoke of the matter again.

I have still another memory of those evenings in the bedroom, and it is to me a very touching one. After some little time in which Rossetti seemed to regain strength, he got out of bed for a few hours every day; and then we realised that he was not recovering. The partly-stricken limbs had gained power in some measure, but his weakness was obvious, and it was only too clear to everybody that the road for Rossetti was indeed all downhill now.

On the last day of the year, I remember, I found this certainty especially oppressive, from the acute sense one always has of coming trouble as one passes the solemn landmarks of time. I could not stay indoors that night, so I walked about the streets, but I had not counted on the fact that by staying out of the house to avoid painful emotions I was only gathering them up to fall in a single blow the moment I came back.

It was about half-an-hour after midnight when I returned home, and then, as well as I can remember, Rossetti was alone. The church bells were still ringing their cheerful appeal as I stepped into his room, and after a feeble effort at the customary " Hulloa," we wished each other "A Happy New Year."


 

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