[from Hall Caine My Story]
I HAVE spoken of the friends whom my earlier efforts at authorship had won for me, and one of the first of these was Ruskin. My friendship with Ruskin was not intimate, but it was of long standing, and it revealed to me his mind and character at important periods of his life. The first point of touch I had with him was when he was founding his Guild of St. George, and writing in vehement denunciation of the spirit of the age. It was then the fashion for writers in newspapers to deride his views of political economy as something too puerile for serious treatment, and perhaps it was the sincerity and enthusiasm of my championship in the salad days of my journalism, though I was hardly more than a schoolboy, and my organ was a little weekly in the Isle of Man, which engaged his interest and sympathy. I remember his tenderness, his appreciativeness, his gratitude for the feeblest help, the ardour of his own intellectual passion, and his power of firing enthusiasm. The years which have intervened have seen the triumph of many of his theories, once so flippantly derided; and it pleased him well that I should say so when I visited at Coniston a little while before his death.
My next point of touch with Ruskin was through Rossetti. It was not usual for the members of Rossetti's circle to speak of Ruskin with enthusiasm. His social aims they did not sympathise with, or even care about, and they were often impatient of his artistic criticism. There were exceptions to the rule of this unfavourable attitude, and I cannot recall any hostility on the part of Rossetti himself. Indeed, Rossetti's personal liking for Ruskin seems strange to me now when I remember how little their characters had in common, and among the many stories of the one told to me by the other, I recall a tale which illustrates this liking and this difference clearly.
During the earlier years of their friendship, Ruskin had a secretary who was a never-ending source of amusement to Rossetti, and of embarrassment and vexation to himself. This was the soldier of fortune who visited Rossetti in the last days of his life t Birchington, and he was the most impudent rogue it was possible to imagine. He had the marks of the humorous rascal written all over his face, and I remember that he informed me that he had written most of Ruskin's earlier works. One day he told Ruskin that a certain friend of theirs, a painter, was in despair for the want of a large sum-I think a thousand pounds. Ruskin promptly sat down and wrote a cheque for the amount, and gave it to his secretary.
Time passed, Ruskin heard nothing more of the money, almost forgot all about it, and he and his secretary parted. But calling one day on his friend he found him tramping the studio in a state of delirium.
" What's amiss ? " said Ruskin.
Why, that scoundrel and thief has been getting money in my name, saying I sent him to borrow it."
Ruskin dropped his head but said nothing. The painter's suspicions were aroused.
"Has he ever borrowed from you?"
" Perhaps-I'm not sure-1 forget," said Ruskin, looking embarrassed and ashamed. This was Rossetti's story as nearly as I can remember it, but what is freshest in my memory is the roar of Rossetti's laughter at the audacity of the rascal's theft. That was the Italian in him, and like a true son of Italy he continued, as I have shown, to tolerate the man down to the last days of his life, knowing his character but enjoying his humour. Years afterwards I mentioned the humorous dog in Ruskin's presence, and though nothing particular was said, I could not mistake the meaning of the heightened colour which crossed the author's face. Ruskin's outlook on life was purely ethical.
During the last year but one before Ruskin's death, I had the pleasure to meet him at his house at Coniston. Although I had known more than a little of him for so long, and had enjoyed so many points of touch with him, it was the first time I had met him face to face. He had then been for years silent, and so far as active interest in the affairs of life goes, he had long been dead. I found him very old and bent and feeble, a smaller, frailer man than I looked for ; well in health both of body and mind, but with faculties that were dying down very slowly and gently, and almost imperceptibly-as the lamp dies down when the oil fails in it.
His head was not so large as I had expected to find it, or it hardly seemed to me in form or size either grand or massive ; his eyes were slow and peaceful, having lost their former fire ; and his face, from which the quiet life of later years had smoothed away the lines of strong thought and torturing experience, was too much hidden by a full grey beard. He spoke very little, and always in a soft and gentle voice that might have been the voice of a woman; but he listened to everybody and smiled frequently. All the fiery heat of earlier days was gone, all the nervous force of the fever patient, all the capacity for noble anger and righteous wrath. Nothing was left but gentleness, sweetness, and quiet courtesy-the unruffled peace of a breathless evening that is gliding into a silent night. In short, his whole personality left the impression of the approach of death, but of death so slow, so gradual, so tender and so beautiful, that it almost made one in love with it to see it robbed of every terror.
I think he was glad to see me for the sake of what I could tell him of certain friends of his early manhood, from whom the world had long divided him; and perhaps because, as he said, I resembled one of them as he had known him thirty years before. So he sat up until nearly eleven o'clock on the two nights of my visit, and in default of his own talking, which I should dearly have loved to have listened to if the days had not gone by for that eloquent tongue to speak clearly, I talked of some of the men and things he loved to hear about.
I found that his strongest remaining interest was not in art but in social problems, and it pleased him better to know that his social teaching was finding followers than that his art views were being discussed. It amused him, also, that I could tell something about some earlier occupants of his beautiful home, when it was a kind of headcentre for the production of the literature of political revolt, with which Mazzini and others ran the blockade of the censorship of Italy. Probably he knew more of this than I did, although my story came from the printer of the revolutionary pamphlets; but perhaps he was less familiar with the incidents of a sort of "Jane Eyre" story, whereof a well-known authoress was the leading actor and Brantwood the central scene.
It was winter time, and Coniston Old Man was heavily capped with snow; yet, once a day, Ruskin took a walk in the road, going slowly with a stick, and leaning on the arm of his man-servant. Behind his house there is a rocky hillside, with winding steps to the summit; in former days he climbed the path constantly, but that was an impossible exercise now. Apparently he passed most of his time in a little parlour overlooking the Lake, taking his meals there instead of with the family, and only coming into the drawingroom after dinner. The little sitting-room contained some priceless treasures, chief among them being bound copies of certain of Scott's manuscripts; and mention of these documents reminds me that some of Ruskin's stronger political antipathies remained with him almost to the last
It chanced that during my short visit to Brantwood I received two letters which I valued highly. One was from Lord Rosebery, containing a request that I should offer his respectful greetings to Ruskin, and this pleased Ruskin exceedingly. The other was from Mr. Gladstone, sent on from another address. With Mrs. Severn, Ruskin's cousin, I was turning over the leaves of the latest of Scott's manuscripts, when it struck me that the handwriting of the novelist towards the end of his life bore an extraordinary resemblance to Mr. Gladstone's handwriting as I had just received it.
To show the similarity, I took out Mr. Gladstone's letter and placed it on Scott's page, and certainly the likeness seemed to me, and I think to everybody else in the room except Ruskin, to be so close as to be almost startling. But Ruskin would not have it to be so. Almost without looking at the two specimens, he said repeatedly "No, no, no!" The heat of his tone and the flush in his face convinced me that his political and personal feelings were still powerfully at play. Apart from this incident I saw nothing in Ruskin that made me feel that life had left any strong or painful impression whatever on that spirit, now so gentle and at peace with the world.
Ruskin's bedroom was, I think, the room above his sitting-room, a small chamber of perhaps twelve feet by ten, covered from ceiling to floor with water-colour pictures by Turner, making the air warm with the glow and splendour of their colour. The windows of the little room looked out on a far different scene from the scenes pictured within-the white top and bare sides of the Old Man, the half-frozen lake, and the grey mists of the moorland floating between. And standing there in the midst of those priceless treasures, with the fiery soul beside me, now tempered with age and softened by the joys of home and the love of devoted kindred, it was difficult to recall without emotion his glorious passage which begins, "Morning dawns as I write," or to think without tears of the day that was then so near when he who loved it so would look on the scene no more.