EDITED BY LEONARD HUXLEY
‘Anybody may publish any letter I ever wrote, provided only they give the WHOLE of it.’
‘There are some faults slight in the light of Love, some errors slight in the light of Wisdom . . . but Truth forgives no insult, and endures no stain.’ — J. R.
‘From grave to gay, from lively to severe.’
MY earliest association with the name of Ruskin dates from the school days when I learned from a textbook, among short notices of ‘Living Authors,’ that John Ruskin, author of Modern Painters, Stones of Venice, Seven Lamps of Architecture, and so forth, was ‘a great master of English prose.’
It is a humiliating confession to make, but for years afterward, except for reading with much enjoyment The Elements of Drawing, brought to my notice by an artist cousin, the name of Ruskin almost entirely passed from my memory. It was not till I myself was teaching that I chanced one day in a newspaper on a rather savage notice of a just issued number of some serial publication which bore the odd name of Fors Clavigera and was by John Ruskin. I well remember with what a shock of surprise I learned that the ‘great master of English prose’ of my old textbook was not only still living but still writing. It seemed almost as if I had stumbled on a criticism of a new play by Shakespeare or a new poem by Milton.
Curiosity impelled me to procure a copy of this so much abused publication. But unexpected difficulties presented themselves before I could do so. One bookseller after another in our county town rather haughtily disclaimed all knowledge of Fors Clavigera. However, I persevered, and at last one more kindly than his brethren not only explained to me that there was ‘a war on’ between Ruskin and the bookselling trade, but told me that I could procure what I wanted by writing to George Allen at Orpington.
In after days one of those who knew and loved the Master best asked me which of the Professor’s books I liked best.
‘Why, Fors, of course,’ I answered without hesitation.
‘Ah, then you are a Ruskinite indeed,’ was his reply.
Of course it was not Fors only which fed the flame of my admiration. Libraries were diligently ransacked and every Ruskin on which I could lay my hands Avas devoured in eagerest haste — principally the works on political economy, for, beautiful as the art volumes were, they did not appeal to me to the same extent. Unto this Last, Time and Tide, The Crown of WildOlive, and Sesame and Lilies stand out most prominently in my memory.
Perhaps a year or more had gone by in this way, when in the latest number of FOTS I came on some words of weary discouragement which smote heavily on my heart. Suddenly the thought flashed across my mind, ‘If this man had only passed you the salt at table, you would have had the manners to say “Thank you,” yet you are taking from him lessons beyond all price with never one word of gratitude. And he is thinking and sorrowfully saying that nobody ever heeds what he writes.
It was late at night and I was alone in my quiet room. On the impulse of the moment I hurriedly set down on paper something of what filled my heart to overflowing.
An answer was far from my thoughts indeed, and yet when a few days later a little old-fashioned envelope reached me, addressed in a strange handwriting, — that small, quick, but clear writing one day to be so familiar and so dear, — some instinct told me at once whence it came. I gazed at it in breathless astonishment. My own name in Ruskin’s own writing! No convent-bred novice receiving a missive from the Holy Father himself could have felt more exaltée, or more unworthy of so great an honor.
That little oblong envelope lies before me now, and as I look at it the enthusiastic, excitable, hero-worshiping girl of forty years ago lives again in the memory of the gray-haired woman of to-day. It was with trembling fingers that the seal at last was broken. And here is what I found within: —
BRANTWOOD, CONISTON, LANCASHIRE.
28th July, ’80.
DEAR MISS L. —
It was entirely right and kind of you to write, and I am much more than grateful for your letter.
I need all the encouragement that my true friends can now give me, to support me in the healthy hope which is the main spring of usefulness, and which the approach of evening shadow is but too likely to obscure — for oneself—whatever message of morning it may be one’s duty to bring to others.
It is also a great and rare gladness to me to hear of a governess whom I have kept from being spoiled. But what nice people you must have to govern for — what nice subjects to govern — I should like to hear more of them — if I may?
Ever very gratefully yours
Promptly and joyfully this gracious and graceful letter was answered. But, while sending fully the information desired, I was careful to ask no question, and wrote no word which could imply hope of any further communication. And when none arrived I was neither surprised nor disappointed.
Three months later, however, I was bold enough to write again, this time on a totally different subject.
The textbooks on English history at that time in general use were widely different from those which the young student of to-day enjoys. Dates innumerable, long and intricate genealogies, wars, battles, and insurrections, told without any attempt to trace their causes or meaning, — no effort to tell the story of the nation’s life and social progress, — it was indeed the dry bones of history. And sometimes the bones were worse than dry — they had a nasty smell.
One morning, in the chapter which I and my two girl pupils read together, we came on a most ghastly account of the execution of Monmouth. Perhaps with the benevolent intention of enlivening his dull pages, the writer launched into a most gruesome description of the scene when the executioner pursued the unhappy young Duke around the scaffold, aiming, as he ran, blows of his axe at the partially severed head of the victim.
Small wonder that my elder pupil, a thoughtful girl of about fourteen, asked me what possible good it could do them to learn about such horrors. I could only echo their disgust and promise to do my best to provide some better nourishment for their mental digestion. In justice to myself I must add that this particular textbook was new to me, or the page would have been left unread.
So I summoned up courage to write to Mr. Ruskin, telling him the tale, and begging him, if possible, to give us some portions of our country’s story on which I could base lessons for my pupils more edifying for English maidens than such grisly accounts of murders and executions. This letter brought a prompt reply. Dates given in brackets are supplied by the postmark.
ARTHUR SEVERN’S, HERNE HILL,
LONDON S.E. (2nd Oct., ’80.)
DEAR MISS JESSIE, —
I am greatly pleased by your letter, for the thing you want is exactly what I’ve been longing to do, this twenty years; but whenever I tried, I lost myself in a wide sea of various questions — every wave of it foam-white with interest — jets this way and that — creamy like a nice novel — but I could n’t get anything set down for sure — the modern wretches of historians as they are called — are full of frank lies — and the old ones are not easy to read!
Anyhow I’m going to do something soon, now, for Sheffield Museum — and I should LIKE to address it to girls. Only there are a great many naughty things one has to tell — and one does n’t like quite to look girls in the eyes as one’s telling them — and one can’t skip them in a real history as one could in a school lecture — so I suppose I must write it for the workmen — and I shall leave you girlies to find out where I’ve been only pretending to write to them — and really to YOU.
Ever affectly yours
This letter was quickly followed by another, dated from Amiens.
14th. Oct., ’80.
MY DEAR MISS JESSIE, —
I have two letters to thank you for, both of extreme value to me — that of first August — describing domestic life of rarest kind and comforting me with the assurance that there was still law and fatherhood and childhood in England; and this last, telling me of your own interest in ‘Fors’ — with many other things delightful to hear. — But I am tired this evening —and the words will not come, only I thought you would like to know the work that has tired me, — planning a little guide in Amiens, with history of things quite as much English as French.
Please write to me about anything you would like to ask — or ask for, and if I can I’ll answer — and do it! and am always faithfully yours
And thus was born The Bible of Amiens, which, speaking of it to me, he always called ‘your book.’
Mv Christmas holidays were spent in London, and I frequented the National Gallery a good deal. I was greatly struck by the ‘Entombment’ of Francia. In my next letter I asked Mr. Ruskin whether my admiration were justified by its merits.
The Lord Kinnaird story to which his reply alludes was as follows: —
An uncle of mine, who knew the Lord Kinnaird of that day well, told me that the latter was in the habit, when in the country, of making a tour of inspection of the premises before breakfast, and if in the course of his ramble he passed by where the bootboy was at work and saw, when the house was full of guests, an unusual number of boots, he would say, ‘Why, Fred, what a row of boots you ve got this morning! Here, give me a pair of brushes, and I’ll polish while you black.’ Then he would go into the breakfast room where his guests were assembled, rubbing his hands with glee.
‘There! I’ve earned my breakfast, at any rate! I’ve just polished sevenand-twenty pairs of boots and shoes! That’s something learned at Eton, anyhow! ’
I told this tale to Mr. M——, the father of my pupils, and he answered:
‘Lord Kinnaird ought to be ashamed of himself. He has no business at all to be doing the dirty work himself. He ought to employ and pay a second boot-boy, instead of doing so.’
A true trades-union verdict!
I laid the case before my Master, and asked his verdict on it. His reply is specially interesting, and settled the question once for all in my mind.
23rd Jan., ’81.
MY DEAR JESSIE,—
The cold is quite well; but I’m generally feeble and stupid, this winter.
The Francia is a lovely picture, but moves you more from its pathetic subject and quiet grace than from any very high quality — I’m too stupid to tell you more about it just now.
Lord Kinnaird is entirely right. The logger-head public can’t, or — more truly won’t — understand that by doing the dirty work himself, he saves the price of it to enable somebody else to REST, and be for the time — as happy as a Lord! They think the poor wretches — that it’s impossible to give money to buy rest with — or to do cleaner work for. The Universal law for all noble people is, Work YOURSELF — that others may REST who need it.
All the Tyranny of the Earth may indeed be summed up in this one popular order — Black my shoes — that I may dance in them, and do nothing.
Ever your affect.
Carlyle etc., shall come directly.
A long spell of hard frost set in just at this time, and I apologized in my next letter for not having written sooner on the plea that my pupils and I were busy skating most of the day, and that I was too tired at night for any mental exertion whatever.
(3rd Feb., ’81.)
MY DEAR LITTLE JESSIE, —
So you’re fond of skating! (as well as of my books)! —
And you do dress nicely? — Do you know — I think if the lake freezes again — (lovely ice five miles long by 1/2 a mile wide, a week since, only!) — you MIGHT venture to let me see you — here?
I’ve kept enclosed [Revised Rules for the Daisy Guild] too long, and am busier than when I got it — and I forget what I was to send you beside the Carlyle (which I hope will be very deeply interesting to you). PLEASE tell me ONCE more!
I’ve kept your letters, but they’re in a heap. Have you seen Vanity Fair with Boehm at work on my ideal Bust?
Ever your affect.
With the idea that before any actual meeting took place I should like to prepare the Master’s artistic eye for the worst of me, I now ventured to send him two new photographs, one of them ‘muffled up’ in coat and hat, the other a vignette only. I waited very anxiously for his verdict on them, but none arrived for some ten days or so. Then it came.
St. Valentine’s, 1881.
MY DEAR LITTLE JESSIE,—
I’m afraid (and more than afraid) that I’ve been keeping you in much pain, but I COULD not write till to-day, and in the ordinary sense — ought to be writing to other people than you now; but in St. Valentine’s sense, I do right in thanking you for the photographs. Please, I want another, full length, and not muffled up, but showing whatever waspishness there is in you. And you SHALL come — God permitting — and let me see you skate, next winter. If the lake freeze, I can promise you such ice as I know not the like of, — of course there’s finer on Highland lochs, but I’ve never seen them in winter. And if the lake freeze not — I can yet almost promise tarn skating of the sublimest — and a fairy Ice palace under every waterfall.
And if neither freeze, you’ll have your head less turned — and be able to talk over future Daisy Chains more rationally.
Ever affectionately yours
What dreams of happiness this letter evoked! How I reveled in thoughts of what the next winter might bring! Hardly daring to think of such a joy as possible, I yet constantly found my thoughts dwelling on the promised visit with a delight that it was a joy shared with no one, not even my own dear sisters.
And then from out of this apparently clear blue sky there fell a bolt so sudden and so heavy that even now I can hardly bear to recall the sorrow and anxiety of the months which followed. Sudden and terrible illness had struck down the Master so dear to so many.
Through the dreary months which followed, all that could be done to help me to bear the suspense was done by the great kindness of Mr. Laurence Hilliard, devoted pupil and faithful secretary, who sent me constant bulletins of the Master’s slow recovery from his nervous breakdown and his consequent wavering in the expressed determination to live alone for the future. In April Mr. Hilliard wrote:
April 1, ’81.
My last letter to you was, I think, written before the Master ordered me to FORBID ALL friends to write to him, and desire them to consider him in California.
This prohibition therefore does not extend to you. The return of the books you have would be an admirable pretext for a letter, IF you like to run the risk. You MAY receive a reply which will pain you, but I hope not now.
‘Upon this hint I spake,’ though in the greatest doubt and trepidation, for if old, tried, and valued friends were in future to be kept at a distance, what hope was there for one so new and insignificant as myself?
When in a day or two the dear Master’s handwriting once more met my eyes, it was with trembling fingers that I drew the little note from its envelope.
But no stern rebuke or final farewell met my eager eyes. Once more all was well.
3rd April, ’81.
MY POOR LITTLE JESSIE, —
I had nearly written you a line when I first felt myself steadily gaining; but have been afraid to say much, hitherto: — I believe however I am safe past the chance of any relapse now — and I know what to guard against in future — but for a while yet must be very quiet. Don’t send those books back till I ask for them, as I am encumbered with arrears of parcels, letters, etc., and confusion is fatal to me more than anything.
Forgive this mere line — I dare not begin any talk.
Ever your affectate
I can go on quietly with Amiens, however, even now.
My Easter holidays were spent that year with friends at Dartmouth, and from there I sent the Master a little collection of Devonshire stories, bearing on the subjects which most interested us both.
21st April, ’81.
DEAR LITTLE JESSIE, —
I’m really quite well again! and your delicious Dartmouth letter has made me better than well. It is such a joy to me that you like Fors to the end, and that you see how it is all every where else, in the true book of the Two Worlds. And the Dartmouth stories, and the peach one, are all one better than another as they go on.
Amiens is going on too nicely! though I say it that should n’t — but it won’t be quite so saintly! — The strange thing is that work on the saints always makes me ill! I’m on Early Franks this time, who are more amusing, — but I hope to finish up with St. Genevieve for a little pious flirtation.
Ever affectionately yours
I think you’ll have to come here in your Midsummer holidays, to see the heather, instead of waiting till Xmas.
Quite seriously, I believe the illness, though fearful in itself, has left no more trace than a terrible dream would. But the way it mixed dream with fact was amazing to me, and the warning not to dwell on some classes of subjects, driven home with a witness!
[On the envelope] Please write me some more stories.
Was not this letter indeed clear shining after rain? Joyfully I replied that my summer vacation would begin in August, and asked whether any date in that month would be convenient for my promised visit to Brantwood.
A month passed before I received any answer, but it was charming when it did arrive.
BRANTWOOD, 22nd May, ’81.
MY DEAR LITTLE JESSIE,—
It is partly St. Geneviève’s fault — but I am not busy — only enforcedly idle — forbidden to write — but disobedient to all orders — for necessary work, and ‘jealous’ of every minute when I have pen in hand — and millions of things I want to write, but never shall.
Then, if you only knew the worry it is to me when people are running about and changing addresses! — their letters are always at the bottom of the letter drawer — and won’t open when one gets to them, and open anywhere but at the address — and then one wonders what shire it’s in, and whether the postman at Ambleside won’t send one’s letter to the United States first.
But your letters were both lovely — and you can’t possibly write too often. And August or any time will do for here — if we have n’t primrose, we’ve wild rose — if not wild rose — heather — if not heather — golden fern — if not golden fern — silver snow — and skating.
Ever your affec.
I regret that most of the stories which gained such warm commendation have, after so many years, slipped from my memory. But I well remember that the expressions quoted in the next letter — to my mind one of the most charming and interesting in the whole series — refer to my having told him that I had just met a girl who some time previously had had the pleasure of a personal interview with him, and that when I eagerly inquired of her, ‘What was he like?’ all I could get from her was the emphatic pronouncement, ‘He’s GOOD — he’s a GENTLEMAN — he’s like a PRINCE!’
In my anxiety for his health I had begged him to ‘stop writing’ for the present — and got called a goose for my pains!
1st June, ’81.
DEAR LITTLE JESSIE, —
It’s all right — I’m going on very well — but I’m not ‘good’ — nor ‘like a prince’ — and as for being a ‘gentleman ’ I could as soon make myself into South Down mutton.
My dear — I’ve written it twenty times in different places — a gentleman MEANS a man of pure race, and farther
— one bred from childhood in certain ways. I am no more a gentleman than my uncle the Croydon baker. My race is FAIRLY good — but my breeding! — good lack — I never so much as learned to dance! and I had a great gift in that kind — but was too shy!
You’re a little goose (but I’ve told you that before — and you DO write delightful letters! and very useful ones) — to think I could stop writing. You might as well tell a swallow to stop chattering. But I’ve stopped writing pious things — they’re the dangerous ones for me! I’m doing just whatever I like — and so — nothing good, you may be sure.
Ever affectly yours
27th July, ’81.
MY DEAR LITTLE JESSIE,—
Indeed I’ve been vexing myself at not having been able to write; but I ’ve had extreme difficulty in arranging matters this year — a number of old friends have wanted to come and all in August mostly — and if later, it was no use, for we’ve got some alterations to make in the house which have to be finished before the winter. — I’m really afraid I shall not have a room at Brantwood till the 15th — but I wonder if you would mind coming a day or two before that to a little lodging with an old servant of mine, now married, who is a very loving landlady and has her little cottage in the sweetest place under the hillside.
I ’m going home to-day, having been here at the western beach for some salt breeze — and will write again tomorrow.
Ever your affect.
From the 15th I can keep you at Brantwood for a week — if you can stay.
Sunday, 31st July.
MY POOR LITTLE JESSIE, —
I have been a cruel monster to you — but not willingly, any more than the people who are changed into bears and frogs in fairy-tales. But I really hope you will enjoy yourself, in spite of the Sylph — from whom also I expect nothing but torture! When we send her back to ‘her own place’ — we’ll console each other, wisely. Yes it is really Kate that I meant — and she can take you whenever you like to come, and I should really like you to come there and enjoy quiet and the free hillsides, — without (after you’ve got over the first nervousness of seeing me) being less able to enjoy yourself because Brantwood is on the other side of the lake, and your little room ready there for you on the l5th.
Write me now just a little word saying when you would like to come. I am sure Kate will make you comfortable, as far as you or I could be comfortable in a modern — not cottage, but parlour and bedroom of the smallest — ‘genteel’ type. — Kate lives in the kitchen, rightly and simply and does her work and minds her couple of — not exactly babies, but they’re not big enough to be called children — as she ought. — But you’ll have to bear with parlour style on the minutest scale, and no view neither, only quiet and trees, and the open hillside within thirty yards of the door. And the weather is evidently minded to rain till you come. — Perhaps it may drown the sylph like a butterfly! But it must clear some day — and I believe if you come it will clear for you — and save the sylph — and you ’ll be ever so happy in the loveliest way — and I really am
Always affectionately yours
Come by rail to Carnforth, beyond Lancaster— then change for Coniston; but you must change again at Foxfield, and then our ‘guards’ shall look after you. And don’t bring any money with you — it’s such a bother, and you won’t want any here. I think they book through to Coniston at Euston — come by first class and be comfortable.’ . . . [illegible]
MY DEAR LITTLE JESSIE, —
I have been over to Kate’s to choose your room (back or front) — I’ve chosen BACK! but will leave you to find out why.
Euston 10 or 10 1/2 trains used to be quite safe for Carnforth — but every month one has to look them up. You’ll easily manage to get there in time, from Staines. You arrive here — (Coniston station) at five minutes to six, usually, and shall find a fly waiting, — you’ll be at Kate’s garden gate by 6.10 and if the evening’s fine — will like your rooms well enough.
I shall come to see you on Tuesday — if it’s fine — and hear if you’re pleased.
Ever your affect.
Monday, August 9, 1881, saw the beginning of what was to me the Great Adventure.
We reached Coniston at a quarter past six, and there a manservant met me and put me into a waiting carriage, which in a few minutes brought me to Kate’s little house. She hurried out to meet me, her face beaming with smiles of welcome.
‘The house is not a mansion, ma’am,’ were her first woods. ’ But the Professor has been over himself to choose your room!’ An honor which in Kate’s eyes evidently sufficed to atone for any and every deficiency. ‘I didn’t a bit like putting you into the back room, but he would have it so! ’
And when she ushered me into my bedroom I fully understood his choice. Scarcely ten feet below the small square window low down in the sloping ceiling — or rather in the little bit of wall below the ceiling — ran a foaming mountain stream, with the loveliest banks covered with the greenest of dripping ferns, and shaded by trees whose boughs almost touched the little torrent tumbling beneath them.
High in the background rose great hills, strewn with huge boulders of a beautiful warm-gray color, and carpeted with purple heather and golden bracken.
Kate called my attention to some charming pictures on the walls: ‘The Professor chose those pictures himself for you, ma’am, and sent them over from Brantwood to make the room pretty for you.’
Three of them were lovely watercolor sketches from his own hand, as the signatures told me. The fourth was a beautiful reproduction of an Italian Holy Family, one of the Medici series.
Nor had more prosaic details escaped his kind thought for my comfort; for when, seeing that the little house boasted no bathroom, I asked if I might have a tub of some kind for the morning — a literal washing tub if necessary — Kate drew herself up with dignity.
‘No need for that, ma’am. The Professor has sent a bath over from Brantwood for your use.’
Later on, in a gossip over her kitchen fire, she told me that Mr. Ruskin’s mother and his old nurse Anne always used to tell him he was ‘enough to spoil a whole parish of girls!’ and I thought they had good reason to say so.
It had been a terribly wet season in the Lakes, but I had good fortune for my first day there. The sun shone nearly all day, with only two short showers. Directly after my breakfast I started for a walk, as Kate assured me I was ‘quite safe from the Professor’ till after twelve o’clock, probably till after lunch time.
I followed the course of the little stream whose music had soothed my dreams during the night — the ‘Miner’s Beck’ — till I reached high ground whence I had a view over the whole lake, and could see Brantwood nestling among its woods on the opposite shore. Coniston is a very long, narrow piece of water, five miles long by half a mile wide, with low, gently swelling hills on the eastern side and steep mountains on the western shore.
Brantwood lies at the foot of a wooded hill, close to the lake, on the eastern side, and my cottage abode lay at the foot of the ‘Old Man’ of Coniston on the western. I followed the course of the beck till I reached the mines which gave it its name. Just by an old bridge of rough gray stone I found a lovely little waterfall, not very high, but perfect in its modest beauty. Beautiful ferns hung over it in clusters, and beyond, the purple heather glowed richly in the sunshine.
I returned to Kate’s little house in good time for my early dinner. After that was disposed of, there remained nothing for me to do but to await with what calmness I could command the ordeal of that longed-for, dreaded first interview with the Master. But, with my best efforts at courage, I grew so nervous that at last I fairly ran away upstairs to my bedroom, and there strove to bury myself in a novel.
But that did not prevent my hearing Kate’s first footfall on the staircase and waiting with a fast-beating heart for her knock.
‘If you please, ma’am, Mr. Ruskin is downstairs in your parlor.’
I went down; Kate announced me in due form; and I was at last face to face with the Master who had for so long been to me a voice and that only.
It was a terribly anxious moment to one so conscious of all lack of personal charm — and my visitor so loved beauty! But in five minutes I was nearly at my ease — in ten minutes completely so.
And yet I was exceedingly puzzled and surprised. I entered that little parlor expecting to meet a tall, dark, very ugly, and rather gloomy-looking man with melancholy dark eyes and clear, rapid speech. I found myself in the presence of a small, slight, fair man, much younger-looking than I had pictured to myself, with the brightest of blue eyes, a most winning smile, and a remarkably gentle low voice — a good deal of hesitation in his speech, unable fully to sound the letter r, and a curious half-foreign, half-Scotch accent.
None of the various photographs I had seen had done anything but mislead me. Since his last illness he had grown a beard, which was still quite short. He wore his invariable blue tie, dark Oxford blue, and was wrapped in thick coats of gray homespun.
He came forward to meet me and took my hand in both his own, with kind little speeches of welcome.
‘So nice to have you here. So glad you were able to come! And it really is not too small for you? And you don’t mind being here? And does Kate take good care of you? And does she give you plenty of nice things to eat? Did you have a comfortable journey? Did the beck keep you awake at night? And did you understand why I chose the back room for you?’
He sat in a low chair with his back to the window, and I had to sit facing the light, so that I could not see his face so clearly as he could see mine. But after the first few minutes I forgot all about this, and could answer his questions quite easily and naturally, for I found it hard to realize that this gentle, fair little man, with the soft voice and merry laugh, was indeed the great John Ruskin whose scathing words could cut like a sword when he so chose to use them.
He told me a little about ‘Sylphide’ — that she was younger than he had imagined, only fourteen, and her sister only ten. He had been teaching the latter a bit of Spenser that morning, and found that she did not learn more quickly than most children, but he had been much pleased with her thorough comprehension of all he told her. He found her interesting, but had not ‘got to the bottom of her yet.’
‘ I shall have some nice boys at Brantwood for you next week,’ he added.
‘I am glad of that, for my last pupils were boys, and I like boys.’
‘Most girls do,’ he said, smiling mischievously. And presently I found that one of the ‘boys’ was a practising barrister, and the other was house surgeon at a large children’s hospital.
‘Now what books would you like me to send you? Nothing of my own, mind! You have been reading me a great deal too much, and it is high time you had a change of reading!’
No pleading could soften this stern decree. The only concession I could obtain was that he would let me have his just-published Notes on the Brantwood Turners.
‘That will perhaps help you to enjoy the pictures more when you come. I’m getting on nicely with all my work just now. Only I’ve had my publisher down lately, and he has bothered me dreadfully. I sent for him to scold him, and then, instead of letting me do so, he worried me for revision of this and continuation of that till in the end he got me to promise any amount of work. And I am so lazy! I’d do anything to get rid of the Saint George’s work!’
‘How is that getting on?'
‘It is n’t getting on at all, but waiting till I can make up my mind about various things. And it is such a bother to have to plan anything — to me at any rate. Arranging a room, even, is to me such a labor.’
‘Is that because you have an exalted ideal in your mind, which you cannot get carried out?’
‘No. It is simply that I have no faculty for planning and arranging. I can explain and criticize, praise or blame, what is already done, but I cannot conceive what does not already exist. They are waiting now at Sheffield for me to say what I want built, and I cannot make up my mind what I do want.’ Changing the subject, he said: ‘ Your being here will lead me into a nice train of thought, and I shall probably get on with the Bible of Amiens.’ Then, smiling, he added, ‘I think you ought to be a little proud of having set me to that piece of work!’
‘I am so horribly proud of it that I have never let myself say a word about it to anybody!’
Speaking of some of his ‘jealous’ lady friends, he asked me if I did not think he was very good not to have let so much flattery from girls spoil him. I told him that it seemed to me the spoiling was on the other side, and that Kate had said he had always had the character of being ‘enough to spoil a parish of girls.’
‘As to that, I can say nothing, for I have never had a parish of girls to spoil. The clergyman always does that!’
Speaking about my journey of the day before, he said that, taken as a whole, the London and North-Western line was the dullest of any railway in England. There was not a single thing of interest the whole way, except one pretty view of Lancaster from a bridge, ‘and that they prevent you from seeing by a regular cage of iron girders on each side.’
I told him how horrified I had been by the dreadful darkness of the Black Country in general, and Wigan in particular. I had never imagined such sunless gloom, or such absence of all greenness in a whole countryside.
‘Ah, then, you will now better understand much that I have written of late years.’
Then he rose to go. But first he presented me with a long, light stick, a regular alpenstock, to use in climbing the hills.
‘I think you will find it light in the hand and smooth. I chose it carefully for you at our little village shop. Mrs. Severn shall come to see you to-morrow about this time. Now I must go and have a few words with Kate, or she will be hurt.’
And so the fateful first interview was over. In a few minutes I saw Mr. Ruskin walk quickly down the little garden path, in a heavy rain, umbrella-less, crushing his soft gray felt hat low down on his face, and stooping very much as he walked.
Then quickly in came Kate, to ask how I had liked her beloved Master. Had I liked him more or less than I expected to do? And did I really think him ugly, now that I had seen his beautiful blue eyes?
And she was genuinely delighted when I told her how greatly I had enjoyed his visit, and how perfectly charming I had found him.
Next morning I started out for a walk in a slight rain, got beguiled into climbing that part of the Old Man just beside the house, got thoroughly interested in getting to the top, scrambled on and up through ever heavier rain, got so wet I could not be wetter, so persevered till I stood at last alone and triumphant on the highest point I could see. There was, of course, no view, except that of the heavy clouds rolling about the hillside below me, and the peaks all round me. I tried a different way down, but it was not a success, as I presently found myself standing on the edge of a precipitous crag, with no means of getting down it. So I had to retrace my watery steps and climb to the top again, to find the sort of gully through which I had ascended. Coming down was much harder and less pleasant than getting up, and I was glad to find myself safely home again.
Kind Kate was not in the least disconcerted by my drowned-rat aspect and, when I apologized for soiling her spotless kitchen floor, remarked cheerfully: ’Oh, no matter, ma’am. That’s how the tourisses always come in!’
The day was so wet and the lake so stormy that it did not at all surprise me that the promised visit from Mrs. Severn did not take place.
At my request, Kate brought her last baby and sat with me in the evening, and we had a good gossip. I asked her how she came to enter Mr. Ruskin’s service, and she told me a long and amusing story, and told it with admirable verve.
She was country-bred, but went up to London to seek a situation as parlormaid. She advertised, and received sixty-five replies! Among them was one from Denmark Hill, but this she put aside, as being too far out of town, for she was keen to see as much of the sights of London as was possible. But she was so dismayed by the underground dark kitchens she saw in several houses she visited that at last she decided to see what the Denmark Hill place could offer.
The first person who interviewed her when she presented herself at the house was a young lady scarcely as old as herself, Miss Agnew, now Mrs. Severn, who seemed to have little idea what questions to ask. Then she was told that Mr. Ruskin wished to see her himself. This frightened her not a little, for she had heard something of his fame. But he only asked her a very few questions, and then astonished her by saying that he saw she would do very nicely, and could she come there and then?
‘But oh, sir, you have not had my character yet.’
‘Oh, never mind about that. I see you will do quite nicely, and it is not worth while troubling about the character.’
But Kate was so horrified at such an unconventional mode of procedure that at last to pacify her Mr. Ruskin consented to write for the important document. But he startled her again by wanting her to come at once without waiting for the reply.
‘Can you come to-morrow, then?’
‘No, sir, not to-morrow, please.’
‘Well, the day after — Friday?’
‘Oh, please, sir, not on Friday! That’s an unlucky day!’
About which objection he has teased her ever since. Before she left the house, however, she had a very different interview, one with old Mrs. Ruskin, who questioned her in quite another fashion, though she kept breaking off her queries to say, ‘But there! It’s no business of mine! You will be John’s servant, not mine!’
The old lady was extremely averse to having a new face about her. All her servants had been there for years, and were at least middle-aged. As long as she lived Mrs. Ruskin was her own housekeeper. At her death Kate succeeded to the office, and retained her former position also, that of Mr. Ruskin’s personal attendant. It was one of her most trying and important duties to protect him from interruptions during his working hours.
‘I managed to keep most people out, ma’am, but Mr. Froude was sometimes too much for me! He was the worst of them all. He would just put me on one side and walk in, as if I had not been there.’
‘How ever did you make up your mind to leave the Professor after being with him so many years?’ I asked.
‘I’m sure I don’t know, ma’am! I suppose I was just took silly!’
Which sage remark ended our gossip for that evening.
Early next morning Baxter, Mr. Ruskin’s personal attendant, brought me a large parcel of books and a brief, kind note. Later on I had a note from Mrs. Severn saying she hoped to call next morning.
11th August, ’81.
DEAR LITTLE JESSIE, —
I enjoyed my visit greatly; but could not send your books — nor even a word of letter yesterday. — I’m just pulled to atoms by big company now. It is n’t Sylphide’s fault — though she has a good deal of odds and ends of time; but the big company knock one to bits — Governors of islands and that sort of thing (not Sancho, alas).
Ever affectionately yours
Books sent at a chance shot.
It was rather late next morning before Mrs. Severn arrived, for she had had to cross the lake in a small sailing boat, against a contrary wind. But when she did come she quite charmed me. She was then about thirty-three, very fair, very stout, and with the most remarkable golden hair standing out like a halo round her head. Her ease of manner was delightful, and she possessed in perfection the art of saying the prettiest things conceivable in the prettiest way possible. She had many charming things to say to me about the great favor with which ‘the Coz’ regarded me — and the pleasure my letters always gave him. ‘He is always in good spirits for the day whenever he has had a letter from you.’ She also told me how much pleasure it had given him to arrange all the details of this visit for me. ‘ He said the rug in the room you are to have was not pretty enough for you, and he sent to London for another. Unfortunately the lady whom he commissioned to buy it chose one with a good deal of black in it, and he wrote at once for her to send something gayer. I was not sorry,’ she added, laughing, ‘for he gave me the discarded one, which I much admired, for it is a beautiful Persian one; so, as I don’t dislike black, I came off very well.’
I told her that some instinct had warned me of this dislike of black, and that for this reason I had temporarily discarded the mourning I was wearing.
‘I am truly thankful you did so, for nothing depresses and worries the Coz so much as to have people about him in black.’
Another note reached me next day.
August 14th, ’81.
MY DEAR JESSIE, —
Mrs. Severn brought me back radiant accounts of her visit — and I am looking forward joyfully to your coming to-morrow. — I don’t think Sylphide will tease you a bit — I believe you’ll fall a little in love with her yourself — and we shall be fighting for her in the end!
Please tell Kate I think I shall want all her rooms now, — but I’ll send word to-morrow.
Ever affectionately yours
I wonder what you two were crying about!
(To be continued)