[from Hall Caine My Story]


ROSSETTI'S mother and sister came without more than a day or two's delay. The mother, a little sweet woman, with a soft face and a kind of pure morning air always about her, very proud to be the mother of a son whose name was ringing through the world, very sad to see him so surely going before her. The sister, Christina, a woman of great intellectuality, but without a trace of the pride of intellect, a famous poet herself, yet holding her reputation as nothing compared with that of her brother, whose genius, she plainly thought, was to carry on the family name.

To relieve the long hours of the evenings, I borrowed a great batch of novels from a lending library at Margate, and Christina read them aloud in the drawing-room. She was a fine reader, not emotional perhaps, and certainly not humorous, but always vigorous of voice and full of intellectual life. Rossetti was interested in nearly everything that was read to him, and though some of it was poor stuff, some of it, like '" Henry Dunbar," was good, and a little of it, like "The Tale of Two Cities," was great. I remember that he was deeply touched by Sidney Carton's sacrifice, and said he would have liked to paint the last scene of it.

Thus February slid into March, and spring began to come with its soft sunshine and the skylarks singing in the morning, but Rossetti's health did not improve. The hours in the drawing-room became shorter every day, and we all knew that the end was drawing on. At the request, I think, of the London physician, we called in a local doctor, a country practitioner of more than average intelligence, who knew nothing, however, of his patient, and asked him some awkward and rather gawkish questions. I remember that one morning I met the good man coming out of the house with a look of confusion on his face, and that he drew me aside and whispered, by way of warning, his secret opinion of the state of Rossetti's mind.

"Your friend does not want to live," he said. "If I were to leave a glass of something on the table by his bed, and say, ' Drink that and you'll be gone in five minutes,' it would be done before I could get out of the room."

I thought then the doctor was wrong, and I still think so. True, that by this time the longing for life was gone, and gone, too, was "the muddy imperfection" of fear of death ; but quite apart from the restraining sense of the pain he would inflict on his mother and sister, I cannot believe that by any act of his own he would have hastened his end. He was in no pain, he had reconciled himself to the thought that his active life was over, and he was clearly biding his time.

The local clergyman came, too, at Christina's suggestion, I think, and Rossetti saw him quite submissively. He was a fairly capable man, I remember, and when he talked in the customary way of such good souls, Rossetti listened without resistance, having no theological subtleties to baffle him with ; but, after a while, the deep, slow, weary eyes of the poet, looking steadfastly at him, seemed to silence the clergyman, and he got up and went away.

Rossetti's attitude towards the other life seemed to be the same then as his attitude towards this life-the attitude of one who is waiting.

"Still we say as we go,
`Strange to think by the way,
Whatever there is to know,
That shall we know one day."'

One day, more than usually cheerful with signs of the coming spring, the local doctor made the painful and somewhat belated discovery that Rossetti was in an advanced stage of Bright's disease, and we telegraphed to his brother, to Watts, and to Shields to come down immediately. That night his dear old mother and I remained with him until early morning, and then his sister took our place by his side.

Since the coming of his mother and sister I had seen less of Rossetti than before, feeling a certain delicacy in intruding upon the sacred intimacies of the home circle in these last reunions ; but the next morning, after he had received what we believed to be his death warrant, I spent a long hour alone with him.

" Hulloa ! Sit down ! I thought at one time you were going to leave me," he said as I went into his room.

" You'll have to leave me first, Rossetti," I replied.


And then I knew what I had said.

I found his utterance thick and his speech from that cause hardly intelligible, but in spite of that he talked long and earnestly.

He spoke of his love of early English ballad literature, and how he had said to himself when he first met with it, " There lies your line ; " and then in a simple, natural way, but with a certain quiet exultation, reminding me of Keats's calm confidence, he spoke of holding his place among the English poets after his death. After that he half sang, half recited snatches from one of lago's songs in " Othello."

" Strange thing to come into one's head at such a moment," he said. I had never seen him more bright.

I told him that Watts-Dunton was on his way, and would be there as fast as the train could bring him.

"Then you really think I am going?" he said. It was my last interview with Rossetti alone, of the many I had had of many kinds, and I will not shrink from telling the story of the end of it, so deeply does it touch me as often as it comes back to my mind. There had been a friend of his earlier years whom we, of his later life, could not but consider an evil influence, and this friend we finally expelled. It was all done with Rossetti's consent, but clearly as he saw that he had suffered from that friendship, he never ceased to regret it, and now, at the last moment, after months of silence, he said in a whisper

"Have you heard anything of ?" " Nothing at all."

" Would you tell me if you had ? " " If you asked me-yes."

" My poor ," he murmured, and unable to say any more I went out of the room, feeling how poor and small had been our proud loyalty compared with the silent pathos of his steadfast friendship.

Next day (it was Good Friday) the friends we had sent for arrived-his brother, Watts, and Shields. Weak as he was he was much cheered by their company, but well we knew that he was always aware that the gathering of his friends about him meant that the wings of death seemed to us to be gathering too.

He made his will the day- following, leaving everything to his own, with the provision that three or four of us who had been closest to him during his last years should each choose something out of his house to remember him by. Watts-Dunton drew up the document, I made a fair copy of it; and, after Rossetti had signed it with his trembling hand, it was witnessed by me and by another. Only at that moment did the placid temper of these last days seem disturbed. Money had never been an object in Rossetti's life, and these material provisions seemed to vex him a little now as though they came too late and were dragging his spirit back.

In view of the local doctor's alarming report, the London physician was telegraphed for, and he arrived on Saturday evening. His visit gave great heart to everybody. While recognising the serious condition, he was not without hope. After examining his patient, he took us all into another room and explained the position. It was true that Rossetti was now suffering from Bright's disease, induced perhaps by the prolonged use of the pernicious drug; but it did not follow that he must die immediately. With care of diet and general watchfulness over the conditions of health, he might still live long. People with that ailment often lived five years, sometimes ten years, even fifteen.

He administered a kind of hot pack, and when we saw him off on Saturday night we were all in great spirits. Next morning Rossetti was perceptibly better, and I think everybody in the house looked in upon him in his room, and found him able to listen and sometimes to talk. It was a beautiful Easter morning, and when the bells rang a joyful Easter peal I think both mother and sister went to church. All was well during the day, and in the evening the nurse gave such a cheery report of the poet's condition that we were very happy. She was about to administer another pack, so we went off to other rooms, the mother and Christina to their bedroom facing Rossetti's, William to the drawing-room, Watts-Dunton, Shields, and I to the dining-room down the corridor.

About nine o'clock Watts-Dunton left us for a short time, and when he returned he said he had been in Rossetti's room and found him at ease and very bright. Then we three gave way to good spirits, and began to laugh at little things, as is the way with people when a long strain seems to be relaxed. But immediately afterwards we heard a terrible cry, followed by the sound of somebody scurrying down the corridor, and rapping loudly at every door.

It was all over before we seemed to draw breath. I remember the look of stupefaction in our faces, the sense of being stunned, as we three -Watts-Dunton, Shields, and I-leaving the two good women murmuring their prayers in the death chamber, returned to the dining-room, and said to each other, " Gabriel has gone!"


back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018