[from Hall Caine My Story]
"Did you want to heap coals of fire on my head ? Good God, man! what did you think you were doing?"
I was deeply touched by this strange manifestation of his gratitude, giving proof enough that under that rather rugged exterior a real human heart was quivering. We became friends immediately, and if I had any momentary sense of disloyalty to my dead comrade in joining hands with one whose enmity had helped to darken the last years of his life, I persuaded my- . self, not without reason, that, after all, Rossetti and Buchanan had a good deal in common, and but for the devilish tangle of fate they might even have been friends.
At that first meeting we talked of Rossetti only, and I well remember Buchanan's long silence, the quivering of his eyelids and the moistening of his eyes, when I told him how the poet, whom he had wronged so deeply, had praised his " Lights o' Leith." A few days afterwards he wrote a long letter, which was intended to explain the motive which had led him to make his unjust attack
"In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti's claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle. At the time it was written the newspapers were full of panegyric ; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucree. That it could have had on any man the effect you describe I can scarcely believe, indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence ; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what I have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world ; but, happily, I have a thick epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience.
"I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed turrente calamo ; but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti's claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairsness, the pusillanimity has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my dedication in ' God and the Man' was a sacred thing-between his spirit and mine; not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand-which would have been, and indeed is sufficient. I cried, and cry no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But, when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God-that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet-that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place-even yet."
During the next two years I saw a great deal of Buchanan. We were constantly together, and I think we became sincerely attached to each other. It was impossible not to admire his compelling power, his immense vigour, his courage, and even his audacity. There was a sense in which he was the true literary man, the born "slinger of ink." His control over his vehicle was such as I have never seen equalled, and what he could do he could do without an effort. As a journalist he was worth a wilderness of the men who were always depreciating him in the newspapers. He would write an article while they were nibbling a pen and gazing vacantly at a sheet of paper, having a quick sense of what the public wants, the art of swift assimilation, and a never-failing power of vigorous expression.
He knew life, too ; and though he knew books, and knew them well, he had not spent all his days within the four walls of a library. In his youth he had gone through bitter privations, tramping the streets with David Gray and lodging in a top room in the " New Cut," where a tender-hearted Cockney servant-girl would smuggle up a dish of half-cold potatoes from the kitchen in pity of the hunger of the struggling boys from Scotland.
There was a heart in him, too, and when he permitted himself to speak out of it the world had no choice but to hear ; so that the time had been when in recognition of the power, the pathos, the humour, and the undoubted literary form of his earlier poems, he was recognised as the heir-apparent to Tennyson.
That time was long past when I came to know him, but he was still the lusty, brawny, stalwart fellow who had more than once fluttered the literary dovecots. His hostility to the profession of letters was beginning to run to seed. He had an honest contempt for the mutual admiration of the little cliques who were then so busy tinkering up fictitious reputations ; and his big robustious body would rock with derisive laughter at the little kinking humour of what he thought the Oxford manner-the manner of the don turned journalist.
Already he was rapidly becoming the Ishmael of literature, with his hand against every man and every man's hand against him. He would make no terms with his literary contemporaries to win their confidence or disturb their distrust. No clubs, no public dinners, no literary gatherings ever knew him ; and when he saw himself left out of lists of men of letters, which included battalions of weaklings who were not fit to wipe his boots, he growled out his disgust and spat at literature.
But the spirit of literature keeps a swift revenge for the literary men who lower her flag, just as she loves the best, if she works the hardest, those who hold her standard high. Buchanan as a force in literature began to disappear. The man who had written the " Ballad of Judas Iscariot" declined on inconspicuous melodrama, and wasted himself in casual journalism. Setting the intelligence of the public low, he deliberately gave them what he thought they wanted, judging of that by the quality of what he saw succeed. The high conscientiousness of earlier years, whereby he had seen that less than his best was less than was due from any artist to the public, had gone down in the general débâcle of his literary character.
Then came a more tragical development. In his last years life went hard with him. He had been an affectionate son, husband, and friend, and his dear ones were beginning to suffer. At that his rebellious spirit seemed to break all bounds, and even his faith began to fail. He seemed to me sometimes like a man at war with the Almighty. It was only the struggle of a big soul, badly beaten in the fight of life, to reconcile itself to the ways of God with men ; but the Ishmael in Buchanan, lying out in the desert and crying for a drink of water, became a trying thing to see.
In those last years he railed at the world and nearly everything in it ; but he kept a warm place in his heart for a few (his devoted sister-in-law above everybody), and I have never heard that he wrote a word against me. Very early in our friendship he asked me to collaborate with him, and I attempted to do so ; but there was nothing to correct my faults in Buchanan's undoubted qualities, and our literary partnership died almost before it was born.
After a few years we parted company, not from any quarrel, but by that gradual asundering that makes a wider breach than open rupture. I never ceased to think of him with affection, or to regret what I saw of the decay of his noble gifts, the lowering of his natural quality ; and when he celebrated his sixtieth year, I wrote to wish him many happy returns of the day, and to lament the space by which life and the world had divided us.
His reply was painful reading. He was ill, he had lost his mother, the world had forgotten his existence, and but for one "angel in the house," heaven alone knew what would have become of him. It was a pretty thing to wish a man many happy returns of a day that had dawned on misery that was more than he could bear. Only one good thing, he said, had emerged from his sufferings-he had put away for ever all my own pitiful superstitions about a beneficent Providence who ruled the world in righteousness!
I was hurt but not hopeless. Down to the last Ishmael was crying in the desert, but he was not unheard there, and when the end came everything was well.