[from Hall Caine My Story]
AFTER a few weeks upstairs Rossetti was able to get down to his studio; but his strength did not increase, so it was decided that the error of the autumn should, if possible, be repaired, by sending him, late as it was, to the seaside. At that moment a friend of earlier days, Seddon the architect, offered the use of a bungalow at Birchington, a few miles from Margate, and I was asked to go down and look at the place. I did so, and, coming back, I reported so favourably of the house and the situation that Rossetti determined to move immediately.
There were the same laborious preparations as before, only they were lightened now by Rossetti's calmer spirits; and towards the end of January the poet left his home for the last time. Whether he had any premonitions that this was the fact I cannot say, but whatever the hopes of his recovery cherished by his friends, it was clear enough to me that the poet himself had no illusions. And though he gave no outward sign of regret, I will not doubt that the day was a sad one on which he turned his back on the house in which he had known so much joy and sorrow, the place so full of himself, written all over with the story of his life, the studio, the muffled bedroom, the closed-up drawing-room, the little green dining-room, and the garden now ploughed up and lost.
We travelled in ordinary carriages now, taking with us the domestic servants from Cheyne Walk, a professional nurse, and my sister, then a little girl. Though so weak, Rossetti was in good spirits, and I remember that, on getting into the compartment, he tried to amuse the child by pretending that the carriage itself had been built expressly in her and his honour.
"Look here," he said, pointing to the initials on the carpet ("London, Chatham, and Dover Railway," as it was then), "they have even written our names on the floor; L. C. and D. R. - Lily Caine and Dante Rossetti."
It had been a fine and cheerful day when I went down to Thanet to report on the land, but it was a dark and sullen one when I arrived there with Rossetti. Birchington was not a holiday resort in those days, though it was being laid out for its career in that character. It was merely an old-fashioned Kentish settlement on the edge of a hungry coast.
The village, which stood back from the shore the better part of a mile, consisted of a quaint old Gothic church, grey and green, a winding street, a few shops, and a windmill; while the bungalow we were to live in stood alone on the bare fields to the seaward side, and looked like a scout that had ventured far towards the edge of unseen cliffs. The land around was flat and featureless, unbroken by a tree or a bush, and one felt as if the great sea in front, rising up to the horizon in a vast round hill, dominated and threatened to submerge it. The clouds were low, the sea was loud, the weather was chill, and if Rossetti had been able to act on his first impression of Birchington I think he would have gone back to London immediately.
But next day the sun shone, the air was bright, the skylarks were singing, and Rossetti was more content. Our little house was homely too in its simple way, a wooden building of one storey, with a corridor going down the middle, and bedrooms opening to front and back.
Rossetti chose a back bedroom that he might hear as little as possible of the noise of the sea.
There was a large dining-room at the end of the corridor, and there we set up Rossetti's easels, laid out my usual truckloads of books, and otherwise prepared for a lengthy sojourn. Somebody lent us a huge telescope and we put that up also, though there was little to look at along the bleak coast except the bare headland of Reculvers, and nothing on the empty sea except an occasional sailing-ship going up to the Baltic, for the great steamers hardly ever came so near.
During the first weeks of our stay in Birchington, Rossetti was able to take short walks with me every morning (he rose earlier now) along the tops of the chalk cliffs overlooking the rugged shore, and round the road that winds about the church and churchyard. It is not without a trembling of the heart that I now remember how often we walked round that churchyard as long as Rossetti was able to walk at all. But though he would lean heavily on a stick with one hand, and as heavily on my arm with the other, the exercise soon proved to be too much for him, for he was growing weaker day by day.
Nevertheless his spirits kept up wonderfully, and besides painting a little at intervals, he took to poetical compositions afresh, and wrote (of all things in the world for that moment!) a facetious ballad called "Jan Van Hunks," telling an eccentric story of a Dutchman's wager to smoke against the devil. Rossetti himself had never smoked in his life, I think, but his enjoyment of the Dutchman's agony as he recited or dictated to me, in the drawing-room, the stanzas he had composed in bed, made the place ring with laughter.
We had our serious and even thrilling moments, too, in that house on the edge of the coast, as when the wind roared around the little place at night, and the light of Reculvers was all that we could see through the blackness of rolling rain-clouds, and we knew that long stretches of the chalk cliffs in front were churning down into the champing sea.
I remember that once in the morning, after a storm, when the sea was calm and the sun was shining, we saw that a foreign ship which had come to an anchor a mile or so outside, had taken fire ; we heard a little later that the crew, on taking flight from her, had left behind them the body of a comrade who had died during the night. The incident took hold of Rossetti's imagination. All through the day we watched the burning ship, and at night, when hull and rigging were aflame, and nothing was to be seen but that blazing mass in a circle of glittering light, the sense as of a funeral pyre was so strong on both of us that we sat for hours in the darkness to look at it.
Weak as he was in body, his intellect was as powerful as in his best days, and he was just as eager to occupy himself with my own doings and tryings-to-do. Thus in the evenings he would have me read aloud the articles I was writing for the literary journals, and tell him my first vague schemes for the stories that were on the forehead of the time to come.
I think he liked my tendency to take the simple incidents out of the Bible as foundations for modern novels; not because he had any Puritan leanings whatsoever, but because he recognised the elemental strength of the primitive themes. It was then that I was shaping the tales that I have since written on the lines of the lives of Jacob and Esau, of Samuel and Eli, and of the Prodigal Son ; and it is impossible for me to say how much these stories may owe (of whatever may be good in them) to the sure criticism of his searching mind. One thing I know, and may be permitted to say, that when I wrote that section of one of my novels, which describes a man who is cut off from his kind and is alone with his own soul, I was drawing deeply of the well of Rossetti's mind as it revealed itself to me.
He may have been half-way to the other world, but he was still not incapable of a level-headed view of any attempt to get there before one's time, and he made more than a single protest against certain spiritualistic tendencies of mine which were born perhaps of the reading of Swedenborg. I particularly recall the vehemence of his objection to my going to a sťance to which one of his own earlier friends had invited me, and that the reason he gave was like a speech out of " Hamlet," or a passage from Sir Thomas Browne. "You must not go," he said decisively.
Why not, Rossetti ? Do you think it's all a fraud, and the spirits do not appear?"
" No, but they're evil spirits - devils - and they're allowed to torment and deceive people." But even during these first weeks at Birchington, Rossetti was not entirely dependent upon me for society and solace. He was visited at intervals by nearly all the friends of his later years, as well as by some of lifelong standing.
Rossetti's spirits would rally perceptibly on the sight of these friends, and then fall as sensibly when they were gone ; but when I remember the lighter moments of these rather heavy days, I cannot forget the visit of one other acquaintance, whom I need not name.
This was the person who bad carried out the work of the exhumation of his poems. He had been the companion of earlier days, more reckless and tumultuous days perhaps, as well as days of blank darkness. I had often heard him spoken of as a daring and adventurous creature, whose humorous audacity had overcome nearly all fear of his unscrupulousness.
Beginning life as the secretary, I think, of Ruskin, he had ultimately lived on his wits, doing anything and everything for a living, ingratiating himself into the graces and worming himself into the confidence of nearly all the painters of Rossetti's immediate circle, and making Rossetti, in particular, his conscious victim.
One day this soldier of fortune turned up unexpectedly at our bungalow, and was received with the utmost cordiality. He was a somewhat battered person, with the face of a whipped cabhorse, but so clever, so humorous, so audacious, that Rossetti's flagging spirits were wonderfully awakened by his visit. I think the poet remarked that the last time they had met was when his visitor had bought " a tidy bit of blue" (blue china) for him.
" And what are you doing now, Charlie ? " said Rossetti.
"Buying horses for the King of Portugal," said the soldier of fortune, and then Rossetti laughed until he nearly rolled out of his seat.
Our visitor stayed all day, telling stories, veracious and apocryphal, of nearly everybody known to us in the world, and mentioning to me, in a sort of parenthetical aside, that when he was a young man he had written nearly all Ruskin's early books, which was probably true enough, since he had almost certainly copied them from the author's manuscript in those better days when his fingers had done the work which was now being discharged by his nimbler wits.
Feeble as Rossetti was at the time, the visit of this unaccountable being did him good, and he laughed all evening after the man had gone, talking of his adventures of various kinds, as well as telling his familiar stories over again. One of the latter, which particularly amused Rossetti, was of a man near to death, to whom the clergyman came and said, " Dear friend, do you know who died to save you ? "
" Oh, meenister, meenister," said the dying man, "is this a time for conundrums?"
All this, however, was but the flickering of the lamp that was slowly dying out; it was only too obvious that Rossetti's strength was becoming less and less. His eyesight was feebler, and having already given up his attempts to paint, he had now given up his efforts to read. With difficulty he rose for a few hours every day, and only with the help of the nurse's arm or mine was he able to reach the drawing-room. Seeing how things stood with him, I suggested that he should let me send for his mother and sister, and he consented, saying (as he did more than once afterwards)
"Then you really think I am dying? At last you think so ! "