April 1848-March 1849

The Collected Letters, Volume 23


JWC TO AN UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT; 31 January 1849; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18490100-JWC-UC-01; CL 23: 215-218


[late January 1849]

I daresay you never heard me mention a Mr. M.? He was introduced to Mr. C. by Emerson while in London. Mr. C. (Carlyle) had heard of him long ago from John Sterling, and liked him, and invited him here.1 We found him on acquaintance a man of considerable faculty, unappreciated where appreciation was really important for him—by publishers. He wrote clever things that nobody would print and give him money for, while the hundred and twenty pounds with which he and his wife and one child2 came to London two years ago (!) was slowly but surely melting away, although he did what he could to eke it out by writing sermons for preachers who could not compose them at first hand.3 When he first came here he was within ten pounds of starvation, still, however, keeping up the appearance of a gentleman. Mr. C. exerted himself for him in several directions—wrote to Lady A.4 about him, &c., &c., but all without result. One day Mrs. Macready applied to me for a private teacher for one of the boys too nervous to be sent to a public school. I recollected M. as likely to suit, though teaching was not his calling, and Mr. C. wrote a letter in his praise to Mrs. M., and after communicating with Mr. M. in America, M. was engaged by them three weeks ago to teach the little boy two hours a day, at a salary of £65 a year.5 They are so liberal always, these darling Macreadys! I was glad to have helped to put him in a way of keeping soul and body together. Well! on Thursday night of last week he came to tea, as he was in the practice of doing at long intervals, but asking at the door if we were alone was told by Helen “Yes, but not expecting visitors.” Whereupon he turned to go away, saying he would come back another time, and Helen, with her usual extraordinary want of tact, instead of letting him go, said, “Stop till I tell Mr. Carlyle,” and rushed in upon Mr. C. just risen from the sofa, where he had been sleeping, cross as people are with after-dinner sleeps, and bothered with the prospect of having to entertain a certain——from Manchester, whom we had invited to tea at the request of G———.6 You know his horror of having to speak to different sorts of people at one time; this, in the mood he was in, was enough to make him forget that M. was poor, very proud and sensitive, as poor men of unrecognized genius are apt to be, and anxious to avoid the complication, he answered her question “Was Mr. M. to come in?” with a sharp, “Say I am engaged, and hope he will return soon.” Which message I heard at the top of the stairs with a shudder, for I felt how the man would interpret it into unwillingness to produce him before one's fine people. My first impulse (always the best) was to run downstairs and let it go no further, and insist on Mr. M. coming in. But I hesitated in fear of the sour looks and after-scold, and in the moment of hesitation the man was dismissed to walk back four miles! That was Thursday. On Tuesday morning Mr. C. received a letter from an unknown individual at B.7 (the native place of M.'s wife) to the effect that “understanding Mr. C. had been some time acquainted with the the late Mr. M, the writer would be greatly obliged by some particulars of his sudden death, which he had just heard from M.'s mother-in-law.”8 You may figure the shock! There was more in it for me than a sudden death of an amiable, clever man. A horrible suspicion darted through my mind—had he committed suicide?—perhaps that night he had come in an emergency to ask some favour of the only man he thought his friend, and he was turned away because there were visitors—was not this enough to sting such a sensitive creature to the quick? Might it not have been the last drop in his cup of bitterness that made it run over and spill his life? I would not suggest this horror to Mr. C.; but I saw that something of the sort was in his own mind, and that doubled my apprehension. I must be off to see into the thing, to help the poor widow with money at least. C. encouraged me to go. Darwin had appointed to drive me to the Pantheon9 that day—after a basket. I could not wait his time. I would go up to him in the omnibus, and get him to drive me to the street near ———— square10 where the unfortunate man had lived. To lose no time, before starting I wrote a hurried note to Lady A., telling what had happened, sure that she would offer money for the widow. Darwin was shocked at my story. He begged as a kindness to be told how much money I should like given. At least I hoped to get her provided for. And with this one clear idea in my head we drove to the house, the belief of a suicide gaining on me all the way. At the door I felt so physically sick that I could hardly get out of the carriage. I knocked myself very softly, and was opened to by a stupid servant girl. I asked, “How is Mrs. M.?” “As well as could be expected.” “I wish to see her,” I said. “Will you take me to her at once? If you ask she may refuse, as I am an entire stranger to her, and I must see her.” The girl stared. “But Mrs. M. is gone!” “What! gone for good? to B———?” “Oh no; she is only gone a little way to buy mournings.” “Mercy of Heaven!” I thought, there are women whom the skies falling could not drive from their “three thousand punctualities.” But I was not going to be turned back by my romantic disgust, the woman might need money all the same, all the more indeed. Meanwhile, how should I put any question on what so much of my peace really depended. “Now, in what manner did your master die?” While I hesitated the girl said, coolly, “But Mr. M. is in the house; you may see him.” I positively staggered as if a pistol had been fired into me—she could never mean the body. Yet these London lower orders are so fond of showing bodies, or was it a father or brother come up to bury him. I durst not let myself go to the hope that the man was alive after all. “Take me to him,” I gasped out, and followed her upstairs into a poor bare, clean little room where a pretty child sat writing at a table, and behind it stood the dead man as alive as could be. I did not throw my arms round his neck and cover him with kisses—rather a wonder, you will say. I merely clasped my hands together and cried out, “Oh my God: I am so glad?” and then burst into tears.11 If you just try to conceive the sudden revulsion of feeling you will not find this very silly. The man's stupefaction I shall never forget; he evidently thought me gone mad, for he said soothingly, “Mrs. Carlyle! how are you? I hope you are quite well.” I sat down and took out my cry, unable to give any more detailed explanation than in broken words, “They wrote you were dead. I came to comfort your wife.” “Oh, not at all, I assure you. I am very well, thank you, very well.” “But your mother-in-law said you were dead!”