The Final Stunner
by Lesley Mace
Dante Gabriel Rossetti slumped in the corner of a deserted first-class railway carriage. In his youth, he had been as beautiful as the women he painted. The soft-pencilled self-portrait he had drawn in 1847 showed a young man with deep-lidded eyes, well-defined features and romantically long, curling hair. But now, at fifty, he was a half-bald, thickset man whose features had smudged into premature age.
At intervals he patted his waistcoat pocket with trembling fingers, checking for the bottle of chloral he carried with him. Its reassuring shape was always there.
Outside, on the platform, the porters were loading trunks and travelling cases. Rosetti’s eyes quartered the platform with swift darting movements looking for the person who was following him. Shadows crawled in corners. His fear pressed him back into the upholstery and he wished he were not alone. Caged behind Rossetti’s eyes a saner part of him, conscious that his uneasiness was unfounded, twitched spasmodically in the dark, but it was overrun by waves of panic. He began to pant and his heart outpaced his breath as he fought for control.
The train would carry him back to London, to an empty house in Cheyne Walk. The prospect of the utter solitude that awaited him at Tudor House appalled him. But he must see Janey before she left for Italy. He felt it might be his only opportunity.
He had dreaded this journey and dreaded most the thought that he might be too sick and too fearful to travel. It would be so easy, even now, to leave the train and go back to the familiarity and safety of the cottage at Hunter’s Forestall. But he must not allow himself to think of that. Lines from a sonnet he had written long ago floated into his head:
Stand still, fond fettered wretch! while Memory’s art
Parades the Past before thy face
As he mumbled the words aloud he began to distance himself from his fear. If he distracted his mind for long enough, then the train would depart and he would avoid the humiliation of failure.
Slowly he began to leave reality behind him, escaping into memory, using his past as a refuge from his present. Even now he almost smiled when he remembered the enthusiasm and the friendships he had known in his youth. The vociferous opposition to the poetry and the art they had created had only reinforced their moral certainty and they defied the critics with their energy and creative talent. Now he yearned for that certainty more than he missed the companionship of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Rossetti shuddered at the thought of critics. He no longer had the self-assurance that in the old days had allowed him to be heroically contemptuous of his detractors.
Criticism was robbing him of his energy, leaving him enervated and unwell. There was a conspiracy against his art, against his poetry and against his morals. His hand trembled. He thought about people muttering in corners, muttering against him — his life — his work. He needed to stop the whispers that were ruining his reputation, but he knew it was impossible. Whispers, like a hydra, had many heads and their utterings had long echoes.
His hand strayed once more to the comforting shape of the bottle in his pocket. He fumbled for his watch chain; he should wait another half an hour at least, before taking any more chloral. There were ten more minutes until the train was due to leave. Half an hour, he promised himself to wait until then. Ten more minutes, he promised he would not look at his watch again until the train left the station. He closed his eyes.
His mind drifted back to the Brotherhood. In imagination he reviewed paintings from the last thirty or more years. The artists had rummaged for inspiration through the fabulous dressing-up box of fable, saga, allegory and parable. The glorious images of women with creamy skin, perfect poise and bountiful, lustrous hair glowed from canvasses. They were portrayed as goddesses; as superwomen of medieval myth; as religious icons or as Shakespearean heroines.
Rossetti knew that he had tested some friendships to breaking point over his determination to steal the most beautiful of the ‘stunners’ to sit as his models. But the magical and mysterious loveliness of the sitters had matched both the precision of his art and the mythical subject matter of his paintings. In his mind’s eye Rossetti saw the angels of flesh and of spirit that crowded his work. And he began to think of Lizzie.
A jumble of tangled images from their early years played against Rossetti’s closed eyelids: Lizzie, sleeping, with the treasure of her hair tumbled over lace-covered pillows; Lizzie leaning forward with tense absorption as she wrote or drew or painted; Lizzie with her mouth curled up in laughter as she loved him in their warm bed; Lizzie in triumph, when the celebrated art critic, Ruskin, admired her work.
Rossetti shook his head, unwilling to see the next images, but they crowded and jostled, pounding into his head anyway, despite his refusal: Lizzie pale and unwell; her decline, addicted to laudanum; the pain of her labour as she gave birth to their stillborn child.
Awake or asleep, in the eighteen years since Lizzie’s self-inflicted death, he had been haunted by the ghost of their past. Awake or asleep, the apparitions overwhelmed him.
Now he saw her death again. Unable to forget any detail of what he had seen, he was preyed upon by the clarity of his artistic imagination. Awake and asleep he had repeatedly revisited this scene.
He saw the calm in Lizzie’s dead face. He felt the stone-hard coldness of her hands as, in the distraction of his grief, he placed the only copy of his unpublished poetry into her casket. He saw his creations cradled in her hands as she was prepared for her grave.
Tears leaked between Rossetti’s fingers where they covered his face. Dishevelled and unkempt, his waistcoat and his sanity strained apart at the seams.
He wiped his face and pulled a scrap of paper and a stump of pencil from the pocket of his once bohemian cape. He muttered, thick lips moving as he jotted down
Thy soul I know not from thy body, nor
Thee from myself, neither our love from God.
Taking a swallow from the chloral bottle he masked the action with his hand.
The train stood in limbo beside the darkening platform. The lamp-man attended to the pot lamps suspended from the ceiling, walking perilously along the rooftops of the carriages as he trimmed the wicks of each oil lamp, lit them and dropped them back into place.
A woman ascended the steps, tipped the porter who had placed them for her and stepped into the carriage. She took her seat opposite Rossetti. His vision was drug-blurred and he did not look up. He heard only the soft swishy rustle of her long skirt, and was aware of a subtle perfume that trailed the air discreetly. His head ached, ached abominably; his eyes drifted shut.
Placing a leather reticule beside her on the plush-covered seat the woman took out a gold pencil and a little drawing block such as an artist uses for sketching notes, ideas and small studies that will later become part of larger works.
Her face and figure were a natural artistic composition: balanced in form and colour. As she gazed down at her work, her grey-blue eyes were half-lidded and a shadow defined the depth from socket to brow, outlining the lovely oval shape that was framed by her lashes. Her face was calm in repose, her features fine, and her clear ivory skin was alive with faint pink tones.
She was tall, her skirt fell over long limbs, and the heels of her fashionably elegant boots just showed beneath it. Her travelling costume was a soft, silky grey, almost pink like the breasts of doves. Her intricately woven hair was caught up under a hat that matched her costume, but where it escaped its confinement it glowed with a red-gold gleam giving a final accent of perfect colour where it lay in tendrils on her cheekbones.
Rossetti dozed, breathing heavily, twitching uneasily.
The station-master blew his whistle and the train left the station.
The woman began to sketch an outline for a work on the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. She was absorbed; time passed. Rossetti was lost in a sleep that was uneasy but deep.
He dreamt with rapacious precision, a dream of reality.
He saw a churchyard lit by shaded oil lamps. He felt the night slice deep, cold to the bone. Tall, crab-twigged trees dripped spatters of condensation through their branches onto marble angels stalked by shadows. Two men dug near the trees, their bleak breath blew in frosted moisture from their mouths.
Shovels crunched as cut earth whispered into mounds. The two gravediggers muttered low and spitefully in their distaste: he could hear them, not only their words but their thoughts.
“What kind of a gentleman would disturb the peace of his wife’s everlasting rest?” they wondered.
“Un-Christian,” they muttered, “Devil’s work.”
He knew they were close to mutinous, despite a massive fee. They could not understand the desperation of a poet to recover his work. They saw only needless desecration.
Rossetti watched from the shadow of the church. He knew what was about to happen, but he was powerless, and, trapped within the coils of sleep, he was unable to prevent his dream shifting into the shape of nightmare.
A living angel stood tall at his side. Coldly beautiful the apparition absorbed the darkness. She moved silently to the head of the violated grave and mantled her black-feathered wings over its gaping maw. Her graceful head drooped in reluctant submission and her black draperies reflected dark in a reversal of all things natural. As she turned her head towards him, her ethereal eyes locked with his in an accusing hypnotic stare and his sanity began to slide away.
He was desperate to wake, his upper body twitched and shuddered against the fetters of sleep. He knew what came next.
Within the grave, the lid of the coffin unscrewed of its own volition and opened like the cover of a book. Lizzie’s bright hair spilled into the ooze of the mud. Her hair was a pool of lustrous warmth in the corrupted air, luxurious and unchanged.
The coffin, gently lifted in the arms of the angel, shifted onto its side and Lizzie’s head was jolted towards him. Her dead face was ravaged and her worm-pocked flesh was slick with slime in the places where it still covered her skull.
In the carriage Rossetti started to hyperventilate and he moaned.
Sweating with effort he thrust the nightmare from him and forced his eyes open. To see... Lizzie.
She was seated opposite him, alive, animate and beautiful. Bent over her work, she slowly turned her grey eyes towards him. Now he knew he was mad and he began to gibber and to wring his hands.
The train slowed and drew into a station. The woman, terrified by the behaviour of the man who shared her carriage, threw her belongings into her reticule. Hurriedly, she dismounted onto the platform and changed carriages.
Abandoned again, Rossetti journeyed on through the night; he was alone but for the company of his chloral and his hallucinations.
Copyright © 2012 by Lesley Mace