JWC TO JOHN STERLING ; 27 January 1842; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18420127-JWC-JOST-01; CL 14: 25-32
JWC TO JOHN STERLING
Thursday [27 January 1842]
My dear friend
The enclosed notes—one to yourself and another to myself—will settle I hope that question of the article,1 in a satisfactory manner—without MY playing at Editors any further—or even dawning further on your astonished sense as the Armida2 of the foreign quarterly—(Cavaignac used to call Mrs Taylor3 “the Armida of the London and Westminster”)—I was clearly born for the ornamental rather than the useful—and I have no faith in any good being done by going in the teeth of ones nature—
You ask me how I like your last sendings—in answer I must begin a good way off— When you took it into your dear head to make a quarrel with me about the Election, actually to compain of me to my husband!4 (complaining of me to myself would not have been half so provoking) when you thus exposed me to you knew not what matrimonial thunders—which however did not on that occasion so much as begin to rumble—my husband knowing me to be innocent in the transaction as a sucking dove! I was angry—naturally. Et tu Brute!5 had I loved you little I should not have minded—but loving you much I regarded myself as a femme incomprise [misunderstood woman], and what was still worse, maltreated—and so—there and then “I registered” (like O Connel6) a vow in Heaven never to meddle or make with manuscript of yours any more unless at your own particular bidding—accordingly these manuscripts sent to Carlyle: I have not once had in my hands—the best passages that he found in them he read aloud to me—that was his pleasure—and so I felt myself at liberty to hear and admire— But from hearing only the best passages one can form no true judgement as to the whole—so I am not prepared to offer any—now that you have asked me my opinion,7 I should have fallen with all my heart to reading Strafford which was still here but Carlyle I knew did not like it as a whole whereas I liked extremely those passages he had read to me, and I like better to part with it in the admiring mood than the disparaging one—and who could say if I re[ad] it all but I should tur[n] to his way of thinking about it! So there you have my confession!—only this I need to tell you—I would not give your last letter to C for the best dramas of Shakespear! and I care little what comes of John Sterling the Poet so long as John Sterling the Man—is all that my heart wishes him to be8
God bless you and remember me always as your true friend
Shortly after this Lr, whh seems to be the last that has been preserved of her to Sterling,9 there came ill news from Templand; ill news, or whh to her vigilant affectn had an ill sound in them, and whh indeed was soon followed by a doleful and irreparable calamity there. Something in a letter of her mother's, touching lightly enough on some disorder of health, she was under, and treating the case as common, and of no significance, at once excited my poor Jeannie's suspicn; and I had to write to Dr Russell,10 asking confidentially and as if for myself only What the real state of matters was. The Dr ansd cautiously, yet on the whole hopefully, tho' not witht ambiguity; whh was far enough from quieting our suspicns here. And accordingly, almost by next letter (23 or 24 feby I find it must have been), came tidings of “a stroke,” apoplectic, paralytic; immediate danger now over, but future danger fatally evidt! My poor little Woman instantly got ready; that same night, (wild blustering, rainy night, darkness witht us and within), I escorted her to Euston Square for the evg train to Liverpool. She was deaf, or all but deaf to any words of hope I cd urge. Never shall I forget her look, as she sat in the railway carriage, seat next the window, still, close by me, but totally silent; her beautiful eyes full of sorrowful affectn, gloomy11 pain, and expectation, gazing steadily forward, as if questioning the huge darkness, while the train rolled away. Alas, at Liverpool, her cousins (Maggie still remembers it here, after twenty-seven years) had to answer, ‘All is over at Templand, cousin, gone, gone!’ and with difficulty, and with all the ingenuity of love and pity, got her conveyed to bed. February 26,12 1842, her mother had departed; that ‘first stroke’ mercifully the final one. ‘Uncle John,’ &c., from Liverpool, had found now no sister to welcome him; blithe Templand all fallen dark and silent now; Sister Jeannie, Father Walter, Sister Grizzie also no more there.
I followed to Liverpool two days after (funeral already not to be reached by me), found my poor Jeannie still in bed, sick of body, still more of mind and heart, miserable as I had never seen her. The same night I went by mail-coach (no railway farther for me) to Carlisle, thence through Annan, &c., and was at Templand next morning for a late breakfast. Journey in all parts of it still strangely memorable to me. Weather hard, hoar-frosty, windy; wrapt in an old dressing-gown with mackintosh buttoned round it, I effectually kept out the cold, and had a strange night of it, on the solitary coach-roof, under the waste-blowing skies, through the mountains, to Carlisle. It must have been Saturday, I now find, Carlisle market-day. Other side of that city we met groups of market-people; at length groups of Scotch farmers or dealers solidly jogging thither, in some of which I recognized old school-fellows! A certain ‘Jock Beattie,’ perhaps twelve years my senior, a big good-humoured fellow finishing his arithmetics, &c., who used to be rather good to me, him I distinctly noticed after five-and-twenty years, grown to a grizzled, blue-visaged sturdy giant, sunk in comforters and woollen wrappages, plod-plodding there, at a stout pace, and still good-humouredly, to Carlisle market (as a big bacon-dealer, &c., it afterwards appeared), and had various thoughts about him, far as he was from thought of me! Jock's father, a prosperous enough country-carpenter, near by the kirk and school of Hoddam, was thrice-great as a ruling-elder (indeed, a very long-headed, strictly orthodox man), well known to my father, though I think silently not so well approved of in all points. ‘Wull Beattie,’ was my father's name for him. Jock's eldest brother, ‘Sandy Beattie,’13 a Probationer (Licentiate of the Burgher Church), stepping into our school one day, my age then between seven and eight, had reported to my father that I must go into Latin, that I was wasting my time otherwise, which brought me a Ruddiman's ‘Rudiments,’14 something of an event in the distance of the past. At Annan, in the rimy-hazy morning, I sat gazing on the old well-known houses, on the simmering populations now all new to me—very strange, these old unaltered stone-and-mortar edifices, with their inmates changed and gone!—meanwhile there stalked past, in some kind of rusty garniture against the cold, a dull, gloomy, hulk of a figure, whom I cleary recognized for ‘Dr. Waugh,’15 luckless big goose (with something better in him too, which all went to failure and futility), who is to me so tragically memorable! Him I saw in this unseen manner: him and no other known to me there—him also for the last time. Six miles farther, I passed my sister Mary Austin's farmstead in Cummertrees. Poor kind Mary! little did she dream of me so near! At Dumfries, my sister Jean, who had got some inkling, was in waiting where the coach stopped; she half by force hurried me over to her house, which was near, gave me a hot cup of tea, &c., and had me back again in plenty of time. Soon after 10 A.M. I was silently set down by the wayside, beckoned a hedger working not far off to carry my portmanteau the bit of furlong necessary, and, with thoughts enough articulate and inarticulate, entered the old Templand now become so new and ghastly.
For two months and more I had to continue there, sad but not unhappy. Good John Welsh with his eldest daughter Helen and a lady cousin of his,16 good active people, were there to welcome me, and had the house all in order. In about a week these all went, but left an excellent old servant; and for the rest of the time I was as if in perfect solitude—my converse with the mute universe mainly. Much there was to settle, and I had to speak and negotiate with various people, Duke's17 farm-agents; but that was only at intervals and for brief times; and, indeed, all that could have been finished soon, had the agent people (factor, subfactors, &c., &c.) been definite and alert with me, which they by no means were. Nay, ere long, I myself grew secretly to like the entire seclusion, the dumb company of earth and sky, and did not push as I might have done. Once or twice I drove across the hills to Annandale; had one of my brothers, Jamie or Alick, on this or the other ‘errand,’ over to me for a day; had my dear old mother for perhaps a week at one time; I had also friendly calls to make (resolutely refusing all dinners); but on the whole felt that silence was the wholesome, strengthening, and welcome element. I walked a great deal, my thoughts sad and solemn, seldom or never merely painful—sometimes in the great joyless stoicism (great as life itself), sometimes of victorious or high. The figure of the actual terrestrial ‘spring’ (the first I had seen for years, the last I ever saw) was beautiful, symbolic to me, full of wild grandeur and meanings. By day, now bright sunshine and a tinge of hopeful green, then suddenly the storm-cloud seen gathering itself far up in the centre of the hills, and anon rushing down in mad fury, by its several valleys (Nith, &c., &c., which I could count); a canopy of circular storm, split into spokes, and whitening everything with snow! I did not read much—nothing that I now recollect: ‘Cromwell’ books, which were then my serious reading, were, of course, all in Chelsea. By some accident, now forgotten, I had slid into something of correspondence with Lockhart more than I ever had before or after; three or four altogether friendly, serious, and pleasant notes from him I remember there, which I doubt are not now in existence.18 A hard, proud, but thoroughly honest, singularly intelligent, and also affectionate man, whom in the distance I esteemed more than perhaps he ever knew. Seldom did I speak to him; but hardly ever without learning and gaining something. From ‘Satan Montgomery,’19 too, I was surprised by a letter or two, invoking me (absurdly enough) to ‘review’ some new book of his (rhymed rigmarole on ‘Luther,’ I believe), ‘Oh, review it, you who can; you who,’ &c., &c.! Windy soul, flung aloft by popular delusion, he soon after died with all his vanities and glories!
My plan of business had at first been, ‘Let us keep this house and garden as they are, and sublet the land; no prettier place of refuge for us could be in the world!’ But my poor darling shrank utterly from that, could not hear of it in her broken heart; which, alas, was natural too; so I had to get the lease valued, cancelled; sell off everything, annihilate all vestige of our past time there, a think I now again almost regret; and certainly, for the moment, it was in itself a very sad operation. The day of the household sale, which was horrible to me, I fled away to Crawford Churchyard (20 miles off, through the pass of Dalveen, &c.), leaving my brothers in charge of everything; spent the day there by my mother-in-law's grave and in driving thither and back; the day was of bright weather, the road silent and solitary. I was not very miserable; it was rather like a day of religious worship, till in the evening, within short way of Templand again, I met people carrying furniture (Oh heaven); found Templand a ruin, as if sown with salt; and had, from various causes, an altogether sorry night in Thornhill. Tedious pedantic ‘factor’20 still lingering and loitering, I had still to wait at Scotsbrig, with occasional rides across to him, and messages and urgencies, before he would conclude; ‘paltry little strutting creature,’ thought I sometimes (wrongfully, I have been told; at any rate, the poor little soul is now dead, requiescat, requiescat! [May he rest! May he rest!]). It was not till the beginning of May that I got actually back to Chelsea, where my poor sorrow-stricken darling with Jeannie, her Liverpool cousin, had been all this while; and of course, though making little noise about it, was longing to have me back.
Her letters during those two months of absence seem to be all lost. I remember their tone of mournful tenderness; the business part, no doubt, related to the bits of memorials and household relies I was to bring with me, which, accordingly, were all carefully packed and conveyed, and remain here in pious preservation to this day: a poor praying child, some helpless enough rustic carving in funeral jet, commemorative of ‘John Welsh’; these and other such things, which had pleased her mother, though in secret not her, she now accepted with repentant fondness, and kept as precious. She had great care about matters of that kind; had a real, though unbelieving, notion about omens, luck, ‘first foot’ on New Year's morning, &c.; in fact, with the clearest and steadiest discerning head, a tremulously loving heart! I found her looking pale, thin, weak; she did not complain of health, but was evidently suffering that way too: what she did feel was of the mind, of the heart sunk in heaviness; and of this also she said little, even to me not much. Words could not avail: a mother and mother's love were gone, irrevocable; the sunny fields of the past had all become sunless, fateful, sorrowful, and would smile no more! A mother dead: it is an epoch for us all; and to each one of us it comes with a pungency as if peculiar, a look as of originality and singularity! Once or oftener she spoke to me in emphatic self-reproach, in vehement repentance about her mother: though seldom had any daughter intrinsically less ground for such a feeling. But, alas, we all have ground for it! could we but think of it sooner; inexpressible the sadness to think of it too late. That little fact of the ‘two candles’ mentioned above,21 reserved in sad penitence to be her own death-lights after seven-and-twenty years—what a voice is in that, piercing to one's very soul! All her mother's ‘poor people,’ poor old half-crazy ‘Mary Mills,’ and several others (for Mrs. Welsh was ever beneficent and soft of heart), she took the strictest inheritance of, and punctually transmitted from her own small pin-money their respective doles at the due day, till the last of them died and needed no gift more. I well remember, now with emotion enough, the small bank cheques I used to write for her on those occasions, always accurately paid me on the spot, from her own small, small fund of pin-money (I do believe, the smallest any actual London lady, and she was even emphatically such, then had). How beautiful is noble poverty! richer, perhaps, than the noblest wealth! For the rest, I too have my self-reproaches; my sympathy for her, though sincere and honest, was not always perfect; no, not as hers for me in the like case had been. Once, and once only, she even said to me (I forget altogether for what) some thrice-sad words, “It is the first time you show impatience with my grief, dear’—words which pain my heart at this moment. Ah me! ‘too late’; I also too late!
The summer could not but pass heavily in this manner; but it did grow quieter and quieter. Little cousin Jeannie was very affectionate and good; my own return had brought something of light into the household; various kind friends we had, who came about us diligently. Time itself, the grand soother and physician, was silently assuaging—never fails to do so, unless one is oneself too near the finis! Towards autumn Mrs. Buller, who had at the first meeting, years ago, recognized my Jeannie, and always, I think, liked her better and better, persuaded her to a visit of some three weeks out to Troston in Suffolk, where Mrs. Buller herself and husband were rusticating with the Rev. Reginald, their youngest son, who was parson there. This visit took effect, and even prospered beyond hope; agreeable in every essential way; entertaining to the parties; and lasted beyond bargain. It was the first reawakening to the sight of life for my poor heavy-laden one; a salutary turning aside, what we call diversion, of those sad currents and sad stagnancies of thought into a fruitfuller course; and, I think, did her a great deal of good. Lucid account is given of it in the six following letters which we have now arrived at, which I still recollect right well.22