Letters to Miss Betham and her little Sister.—To Wordsworth.—Manning's Return.—Coleridge goes to Highgate.—Letter to Miss Hutchinson on Mary's state.—Removal to Russell Street.—Mary's Letter to Dorothy Wordsworth.—Lodgings at Dalston.—Death of John Lamb and Captain Burney.
In a letter to Southey, dated May 16th, 1815, Lamb says: "Have you seen Matilda Betham's Lay of Marie? I think it very delicately pretty as to sentiment, &c."
Matilda, the daughter of a country clergyman of ancient lineage (author of learned and laborious Genealogical Tables, &c. &c.), was a lady of many talents and ambitions; especially of the laudable one, not so common in those days, to lighten the burthen of a large family of brothers and sisters by earning her own living. She went up to London, taught herself miniature painting, exhibited at Somerset House, gave Shakespeare readings, wrote a Biographical Dictionary of Celebrated Women, contributed verses to the magazines; and, last not least, by her genuine love of knowledge, and her warm and kindly heart, won the cordial liking of many men of genius, notably of Coleridge, Southey, and the Lambs. When this same Lay of Marie was on the stocks, Mary took an earnest interest in its success, as the following letter prettily testifies:—
"My brother and myself return you a thousand thanks for your kind communication. We have read your poem many times over with increased interest, and very much wish to see you to tell you how highly we have been pleased with it. May we beg one favour? I keep the manuscript, in the hope that you will grant it. It is that either now, or when the whole poem is completed, you will read it over with us. When I say with us, of course I mean Charles. I know that you have many judicious friends, but I have so often known my brother spy out errors in a manuscript which has passed through many judicious hands, that I shall not be easy if you do not permit him to look yours carefully through with you; and also you must allow him to correct the press for you. If I knew where to find you I would call upon you. Should you feel nervous at the idea of meeting Charles in the capacity of a severe censor, give me a line, and I will come to you anywhere and convince you in five minutes that he is even timid, stammers, and can scarcely speak for modesty and fear of giving pain when he finds himself placed in that kind of office. Shall I appoint a time to see you here when he is from home? I will send him out any time you will name; indeed I am always naturally alone till four o'clock. If you are nervous about coming, remember I am equally so about the liberty I have taken, and shall be till we meet and laugh off our mutual fears."
"I return you by a careful hand the MSS.," wrote Charles. "Did I not ever love your verses? The domestic half will be a sweet heirloom to have in the family. 'Tis fragrant with cordiality. What friends you must have had, or dreamed of having! and what a widow's cruse of heartiness you have doled among them!"
But as to the correction of the press, that proved a rash suggestion on Mary's part; for the task came at an untoward time, and Charles had to write a whimsical-repentant letter, which must have gone far to atone for his shortcoming:—
"All this while I have been tormenting myself with the thought of having been ungracious to you, and you have been all the while accusing yourself. Let us absolve one another and be quiet. My head is in such a state from incapacity for business, that I certainly know it to be my duty not to undertake the veriest trifle in addition. I hardly know how I can go on. I have tried to get some redress by explaining my health, but with no great success. No one can tell how ill I am, because it does not come out to the exterior of my face, but lies in my skull, deep and invisible. I wish I was leprous, and black-jaundiced skin-over, or that all was as well within as my cursed looks. You must not think me worse than I am. I am determined not to be overset, but to give up business rather, and get 'em to allow me a trifle for services past. Oh, that I had been a shoemaker, or a baker, or a man of large independent fortune. Oh, darling laziness! Heaven of Epicurus! Saint's Everlasting Rest! that I could drink vast potations of thee through unmeasured Eternity. Otium cum vel sine dignitate. Scandalous, dishonourable, any kind of repose. I stand not upon the dignified sort. Accursed, damned desks, trade, commerce, business. Inventions of that old original busy-body, brain-working Satan—Sabbathless, restless Satan. A curse relieves; do you ever try it? A strange letter to write to a lady, but more honeyed sentences will not distil. I dare not ask who revises in my stead. I have drawn you into a scrape, and am ashamed, but I know no remedy. My unwellness must be my apology. God bless you (tho' he curse the India House and fire it to the ground), and may no unkind error creep into Marie. May all its readers like it as well as I do, and everybody about you like its kind author no worse! Why the devil am I never to have a chance of scribbling my own free thoughts in verse or prose again? Why must I write of tea and drugs, and price goods and bales of indigo? Farewell...."'
Miss Betham possessed the further merit of having a charming little sister, for such she must surely have been to be the cause and the recipient of such a letter as the following from Mary. Barbara Betham was then fourteen years old:—
"November 2, 1814.
"It is very long since I have met with such an agreeable surprise as the sight of your letter, my kind kind young friend, afforded me. Such a nice letter as it is too; and what a pretty hand you write! I congratulate you on this attainment with great pleasure, because I have so often felt the disadvantage of my own wretched handwriting. You wish for London news. I rely upon your sister Ann for gratifying you in this respect, yet I have been endeavouring to recollect whom you might have seen here, and what may have happened to them since, and this effort has only brought the image of little Barbara Betham, unconnected with any other person, so strongly before my eyes, that I seem as if I had no other subject to write upon. Now I think I see you with your feet propped upon the fender, your two hands spread out upon your knees—an attitude you always chose when we were in familiar confidential conversation together—telling me long stories of your own home, where now you say you are 'moping on with the same thing every day,' and which then presented nothing but pleasant recollections to your mind. How well I remember your quiet, steady face bent over your book. One day, conscience-stricken at having wasted so much of your precious time in reading, and feeling yourself, as you prettily said, 'quite useless to me,' you went to my drawers and hunted out some unhemmed pocket-handkerchiefs, and by no means could I prevail upon you to resume your story-books till you had hemmed them all. I remember, too, your teaching my little maid to read, your sitting with her a whole evening to console her for the death of her sister, and that she, in her turn, endeavoured to become a comforter to you, the next evening, when you wept at the sight of Mrs. Holcroft, from whose school you had recently eloped because you were not partial to sitting in the stocks. Those tears, and a few you dropped when my brother teased you about your supposed fondness for an apple-dumpling, were the only interruptions to the calm contentedness of your unclouded brow.
"We still remain the same as you left us, neither taller, nor wiser, or perceptibly older; but three years must have made a great alteration in you. How very much, dear Barbara, I should like to see you!
"We still live in Temple Lane, but I am now sitting in a room you never saw. Soon after you left us we were distressed by the cries of a cat, which seemed to proceed from the garrets adjoining to ours, and only separated from ours by a locked door on the farther side of my brother's bed-room, which you know was the little room at the top of the kitchen stairs. We had the lock forced, and let poor puss out from behind a panel of the wainscot, and she lived with us from that time, for we were in gratitude bound to keep her, as she had introduced us to four untenanted, unowned rooms, and by degrees we have taken possession of these unclaimed apartments, first putting up lines to dry our clothes, then moving my brother's bed into one of these more commodious than his own rooms; and last winter, my brother being unable to pursue a work he had begun, owing to the kind interruptions of friends who were more at leisure than himself, I persuaded him that he might write at ease in one of these rooms, as he could not then hear the door- knock, or hear himself denied to be at home, which was sure to make him call out and convict the poor maid in a fib. Here, I said, he might be, almost really not at home. So I put in an old grate, and made him a fire in the largest of these garrets, and carried in his own table and one chair, and bid him write away and consider himself as much alone as if he were in a lodging in the midst of Salisbury Plain, or any other wide, unfrequented place where he could expect few visitors to break in upon his solitude. I left him quite delighted with his new acquisition, but in a few hours he came down again, with a sadly dismal face. He could do nothing, he said, with those bare white-washed walls before his eyes. He could not write in that dull unfurnished prison!
"The next day, before he came home from his office, I had gathered up various bits of old carpeting to cover the floor; and to a little break the blank look of the bare walls I hung up a few old prints that used to ornament the kitchen; and after dinner, with great boast of what improvement I had made, I took Charles once more into his new study. A week of busy labours followed, in which I think you would not have disliked to be our assistant. My brother and I almost covered the walls with prints, for which purpose he cut out every print from every book in his old library, coming in every now and then to ask my leave to strip a fresh poor author, which he might not do, you know, without my permission, as I am elder sister. There was such pasting, such consultation upon these portraits, and where the series of pictures from Ovid, Milton, and Shakspeare would show to most advantage, and in what obscure corners authors of humble rank should be allowed to tell their stories. All the books gave up their stores but one, a translation from Ariosto, a delicious set of four and twenty prints, and for which I had marked out a conspicuous place; when lo, we found at the moment the scissors were going to work, that a part of the poem was printed at the back of every picture! What a cruel disappointment! To conclude this long story about nothing, the poor despised garret is now called the print room, and is become our most familiar sitting-room. . . . The lions still live in Exeter Change. Returning home through the Strand, I often hear them roar about twelve o'clock at night. I never hear them without thinking of you, because you seemed so pleased with the sight of them, and said your young companions would stare when you told them you had seen a lion.
"And now, my dear Barbara, farewell. I have not written such a long letter a long time, but I am very sorry I had nothing amusing to write about. Wishing you may pass happily through the rest of your schooldays and every future day of your life,
"Your affectionate friend,
"My brother sends his love to you. You say you are not so tall as Louisa—you must be; you cannot so degenerate from the rest of your family" ["the measureless Bethams," Lamb called them]. "Now you have begun I shall hope to have the pleasure of hearing from you again. I shall always receive a letter from you with very great delight."
The next is a joint letter to Wordsworth, in acknowledgment of an early copy of The Excursion, in which Charles holds the pen and is the chief spokesman; but Mary puts in a judicious touch of her own:—
"August 14th, 1814.
"I cannot tell you how pleased I was at the receipt of the great armful of poetry which you have sent me; and to get it before the rest of the world, too! I have gone quite through with it, and was thinking to have accomplished that pleasure a second time before I wrote to thank you, but Mr. Burney came in the night (while we were out) and made holy theft of it; but we expect restitution in a day or two. It is the noblest conversational poem I ever read—a day in Heaven. The part (or rather main body) which has left the sweetest odour on my memory (a bad term for the remains of an impression so recent) is the Tales of the Churchyard; the only girl among seven brethren born out of due time, and not duly taken away again; the deaf man and the blind man; the Jacobite and the Hanoverian, whom antipathies reconcile; the Scarron-entry of the rusticating parson upon his solitude; these were all new to me too. My having known the story of Margaret (at the beginning), a very old acquaintance, even as long back as when I first saw you at Stowey, did not make her reappearance less fresh. I don't know what to pick out of this best of books upon the best subjects for partial naming. That gorgeous sunset is famous; I think it must have been the identical one we saw on Salisbury plain five years ago, that drew Phillips from the card-table, where he had sat from the rise of that luminary to its unequalled set; but neither he nor I had gifted eyes to see those symbols of common things glorified, such as the prophet saw them in that sunset—the wheel, the potter's clay, the wash-pot, the wine-press, the almond-tree rod, the basket of figs, the four-fold visaged head, the throne and Him that sat thereon." [It was a mist glorified by sunshine, not a sunset, which the poet had described, as Lamb afterwards discovered.] "One feeling I was particularly struck with, as what I recognised so very lately at Harrow Church on entering it after a hot and secular day's pleasure, the instantaneous coolness and calming, almost transforming, properties of a country church just entered; a certain fragrance which it has, either from its holiness or being kept shut all the week, or the air that is let in being pure country, exactly what you have reduced into words; but I am feeling that which I cannot express. Reading your lines about it fixed me for a time, a monument in Harrow Church. Do you know it? With its fine long spire, white as washed marble, to be seen, by vantage of its high site, as far as Salisbury spire itself almost.
"I shall select a day or two, very shortly, when I am coolest in brain, to have a steady second reading, which I feel will lead to many more, for it will be a stock-book with me while eyes or spectacles shall be lent me. There is a great deal of noble matter about mountain-scenery, yet not "so much as to overpower and discountenance a poor Londoner or south- countryman entirely, though Mary seems to have felt it occasionally a little too powerfully; for it was her remark during reading it that by your system it was doubtful whether a liver in towns had a soul to be saved. She almost trembled for that invisible part of us in her.
"C. Lamb and Sister."
Manning, who had latterly been "tarrying on the skirts of creation "in far Thibet and Tartary, beyond the reach even of letters, now at last, in 1815, appeared once more on the horizon at the "half-way house" of Canton, to which place Lamb hazarded a letter,—a most incomparable "lying letter," and another to confess the cheat to St. Helena:—"Have you recovered the breathless, stone-staring astonishment into which you must have been thrown upon learning at landing that an Emperor of France was living in St. Helena? What an event in the solitude of the seas! like finding a fish's bone at the top of Plinlimmon. . . . Mary reserves a portion of your silk, not to be buried in (as the false Nuncio asserts), but to make up spick and span into a bran new gown to wear when you come. I am the same as when you knew me, almost to a surfeiting identity. This very night I am going to leave off tobacco! Surely there must be some other world in which this unconquerable purpose shall be realised. The soul hath not her generous aspirings implanted in her in vain."
Manning brought with him on his return much material for compiling a Chinese Dictionary; which purpose, however, remained unfulfilled. He left no other memorial of himself than his friendship with Lamb. "You see but his husk or shrine. He discloses not, save to select worshippers, and will leave the world without anyone hardly but me knowing how stupendous a creature he is," said Lamb of him. Henceforth their intercourse was chiefly personal.
Coleridge also, who of late had been almost as much lost to his friends as if he too were in Tartary or Thibet, though now and then "like a re-appearing star" standing up before them when least expected, was at the beginning of April 1816 once more in London, endeavouring to get his tragedy of Remorse accepted at Covent Garden. "Nature, who conducts every creature by instinct to its best end, has skilfully directed C. to take up his abode at a chemist's laboratory in Norfolk Street," writes Lamb to Wordsworth. "She might as well as have sent a Helluo Liborum for cure to the Vatican. He has done pretty well as yet. Tell Miss Hutchinson my sister is every day wishing to be quietly sitting down to answer her very kind letter, but while C. stays she can hardly find a quiet time; God bless him!"
But Coleridge was more in earnest than Lamb supposed in his determination to break through his thraldom to opium. Either way, he himself believed that death was imminent: to go on was deadly, and a physician of eminence had told him that to abstain altogether would, probably, be equally fatal. He therefore found a medical man willing to undertake the care of him: to exercise absolute surveillance for a time and watch the results. It is an affecting letter in which he commits himself into Mr. Gillman's hands:—"You will never hear anything but truth from me, prior habits render it out of my power to tell an untruth, but unless carefully observed I dare not promise that I should not, with regard to this detested poison, be capable of acting one. . . . For the first week I must not be permitted to leave your house, unless with you. Delicately or indelicately, this must be done, and both the servants and the assistant must receive absolute commands from you. The stimulus of conversation suspends the terror that haunts my mind; but when I am alone the horrors I have suffered from laudanum, the degradation, the blighted utility, almost overwhelm me. If (as I feel for the first time a soothing confidence it will prove) I should leave you restored to my moral and bodily health, it is not myself only that will love and honour you; every friend I have (and thank God! in spite of this wretched vice I have many and warm ones, who were friends of my youth and have never deserted me) will thank you with reverence." That confidence was justified, those thanks well earned. In the middle of April 1816 Coleridge took up his abode with the Gillmans at No. 3 The Grove, at Highgate, and found there a serene haven in which he anchored for the rest of life; freeing himself by slow degrees from the opium bondage, though too shattered in frame ever to recover sound health; too far spent, morally and mentally, by the long struggles and abasements he had gone through to renew the splendours of his youth. That "shaping spirit of imagination" with which nature had endowed him drooped languidly, save in fitful moments of fervid talk; that "fertile, subtle, expansive understanding" could not fasten with the long-sustained intensity needful to grapple victoriously with the great problems that filled his mind. The look of "timid earnestness" which Carlyle noted in his eyes expressed a mental attitude—a mixture of boldness and fear, a desire to seek truth at all hazards, yet also to drag Authority with him, as a safe and comfortable prop to rest on. But his eloquence had lost none of its richness and charm, his voice none of its sweetness. "His face, when he repeats his verses, hath its ancient glory, an archangel a little damaged," says Lamb to Wordsworth. "He is absent but four miles, and the neighbourhood of such a man is as exciting as the presence of fifty ordinary persons. 'Tis enough to be within the whiff and wind of his genius for us not to possess our souls in quiet."
Besides the renewed proximity of these two oldest and dearest of friends, two new ones, both very young, both future biographers of Lamb, were in these years added to the number of his intimates,—Talfourd in 1815, Proctor in 1817. Leigh Hunt had become one probably as early as 1812; Crabb Robinson in 1806; Thomas Hood, who stood in the front rank of his younger friends, and Bernard Barton, the Quaker Poet, Lamb's chief correspondent during the last ten years of his life, not until 1822-3.
The years did not pass without each bringing a recurrence of one, sometimes of two severe attacks of Mary's disorder. In the autumn of 1815 Charles repeats again the sad story to Miss Hutchinson:—
"I am forced to be the replier to your letter, for Mary has been ill and gone from home these five weeks yesterday. She has left me very lonely and very miserable. I stroll about, but there is no rest but at one's own fireside, and there is no rest for me there now. I look forward to the worse half being past, and keep up as well as I can. She has begun to show some favourable symptoms. The return of her disorder has been frightfully soon this time, with scarce a six months' interval. I am almost afraid my worry of spirits about the E. I. House was partly the cause of her illness; but one always imputes it to the cause next at hand; more probably it comes from some cause we have no control over or conjecture of. It cuts sad great slices out of the time, the little time we shall have to live together. I don't know but the recurrence of these illnesses might help me to sustain her death better than if we had no partial separations. But I won't talk of death. I will imagine us immortal or forget that we are otherwise. By God's blessing, in a few weeks we may be taking our meal together, or sitting in the front row of the pit at Drury Lane, or taking our evening walk past the theatres, to look at the outside of them at least, if not to be tempted in. Then we forget we are assailable; we are strong for the time as rocks,—'the wind is tempered to the shorn Lambs.' Poor C. Lloyd" [he was suffering from the same dread malady], "poor Priscilla! I feel I hardly feel enough for him; my own calamities press about me and involve me in a thick integument not to be reached at by other folks' misfortunes. But I feel all I can—all the kindness I can towards you all."
More and more sought by an enlarging circle of friends, chambers in the Temple offered facilities for the dropping in of acquaintance upon the Lambs at all hours of the day and night, which, social as they were, was harassing, wearing and, to Mary, very injurious. This it was, doubtless, which induced them to take the step announced by her in the following letter to Dorothy Wordsworth:—
"November 21, 1817.
"Your kind letter has given us very great pleasure; the sight of your handwriting was a most welcome surprise to us. We have heard good tidings of you by all our friends who were so fortunate as to visit you this summer, and rejoice to see it confirmed by yourself. You have quite the advantage in volunteering a letter; there is no merit in replying to so welcome a stranger.
"We have left the Temple. I think you will be sorry to hear this. I know I have never been so well satisfied with thinking of you at Rydal Mount, as when I could connect the idea of you with your own Grasmere Cottage. Our rooms were dirty and out of repair, and the inconveniences of living in chambers became every year more irksome, and so, at last, we mustered up resolution enough to leave the good old place that so long had sheltered us, and here we are, living at a brazier's shop, No. 20, in Russell Street, Covent Garden, a place all alive with noise and bustle; Drury Lane Theatre in sight from our front, and Covent Garden from our back windows. The hubbub of the carriages returning from the play does not annoy me in the least; strange that it does not, for it is quite tremendous. I quite enjoy looking out of the window, and listening to the calling up of the carriages, and the squabbles of the coachmen and linkboys. It is the oddest scene to look down upon; I am sure you would be amused with it. It is well I am in a cheerful place, or I should have many misgivings about leaving the Temple. I look forward with great pleasure to the prospect of seeing my good friend, Miss Hutchinson. I wish Rydal Mount, with all its inhabitants enclosed, were to be transplanted with her, and to remain stationary in the midst of Covent Garden. I passed through the street lately where Mr. and Mrs. Wordsworth lodged; several fine new houses, which were then just rising out of the ground, are quite finished, and a noble entrance made that way into Portland Place. I am very sorry for Mr. De Quincey. What a blunder the poor man made when he took up his dwelling among the mountains! I long to see my friend Pypos. Coleridge is still at Little Hampton with Mrs. Gillman; he has been so ill as to be confined to his room almost the whole time he has been there.
"Charles has had all his Hogarths bound in a book; they were sent home yesterday, and now that I have them altogether, and perceive the advantage of peeping close at them through my spectacles, I am reconciled to the loss of their hanging round the room, which has been a great mortification to me. In vain I tried to console myself with looking at our new chairs and carpets, for we have got new chairs and carpets covering all over our two sitting rooms; I missed my old friends, and could not be comforted. Then I would resolve to learn to look out of the window, a habit I never could attain in my life, and I have given it up as a thing quite impracticable—yet, when I was at Brighton last summer, the first week I never took my eyes off from the sea, not even to look in a book: I had not seen the sea for sixteen years. Mrs. Morgan, who was with us, kept her liking, and continued her seat in the window till the very last, while Charles and I played truants and wandered among the hills, which we magnified into little mountains, and almost as good as Westmoreland scenery. Certainly we made discoveries of many pleasant walks, which few of the Brighton visitors have ever dreamed of—for, like as is the case in the neighbourhood of London, after the first two or three miles we are sure to find ourselves in a perfect solitude. I hope we shall meet before the walking faculties of either of us fail; you say you can walk fifteen miles with ease; that is exactly my stint, and more fatigues me; four or five miles every third or fourth day, keeping very quiet between, was all Mrs. Morgan could accomplish. God bless you and yours. Love to all and each one."
In the spring of 1820 the Lambs took lodgings at Stoke Newington without, however, giving up the Russell Street home,—for the sake of rest and quiet; the change from the Temple to Covent Garden not having proved much of a success in that respect, and the need grown serious. Even Lamb's mornings at the office and his walk thence were besieged by officious acquaintance: then, as he tells Wordsworth, "up I go, mutton on table, hungry as a hunter, hope to forget my cares, and bury them in the agreeable abstraction of mastication. Knock at the door; in comes Mr. Hazlitt, or Mr. Burney, or Morgan Demi Gorgon, or my brother, or somebody, to prevent my eating alone—a process absolutely necessary to my poor wretched digestion. O the pleasure of eating alone! eating my dinner alone! let me think of it. But in they come, and make it absolutely necessary that I should open a bottle of orange; for ray meat turns into a stone when any one dines with me if I have not wine. Wine can mollify stones; then that wine turns into acidity, acerbity, misanthropy, a hatred of my interrupters—(God bless 'em! I love some of 'em dearly)—and with the hatred a still greater aversion to their going away. Bad is the dead sea they bring upon me, choking and deadening; but worse is the deader dry sand they leave me on if they go before bed-time. Come never, I would say to these spoilers of my dinner; but if you come, never go!... Evening company I should always like had I any mornings, but I am saturated with human faces (divine forsooth!) and voices all the golden morning; and five evenings in a week would be as much as I should covet to be in company; but I assure you that is a wonderful week in which I can get two or one to myself. I am never C. L., but always C. L. & Co. He who thought it not good for man to be alone preserve me from the more prodigious monstrosity of being never by myself! I forget bed-time, but even there these sociable frogs clamber up to annoy me."...
It was during the Russell Street days that the Lambs made the acquaintance of Vincent Novello. He had a little daughter, Mary Victoria, afterwards Mrs. Cowden-Clarke, whose heart Mary won, leaving many sweet and happy impressions of herself graven there, which eventually took shape in her Recollections of Writers. Mrs. Novello had lost a baby in the spring of 1820, and from the quiet of Stoke Newington Mary wrote her a sweet letter of condolence:—
"Since we heard of your sad sorrow, you have been perpetually in our thoughts; therefore you may well imagine how welcome your kind remembrance of us must be. I know not how to thank you for it. You bid me write a long letter; but my mind is so possessed with the idea that you must be occupied with one only thought, that all trivial matters seem impertinent. I have just been reading again Mr. Hunt's delicious essay [Deaths of Little Children], which, I am sure, must have come so home to your hearts. I shall always love him for it. I feel that it is all that one can think, but which no one but he could have done so prettily. May he lose the memory of his own babies in seeing them all grow old around him. Together with the recollection of your dear baby the image of a little sister I once had comes as fresh into my mind as if I had seen her lately.... I long to see you, and I hope to do so on Tuesday or Wednesday in next week. Percy Street! I love to write the word. What comfortable ideas it brings with it! We have been pleasing ourselves, ever since we heard this unexpected piece of good news, with the anticipation of frequent drop-in visits and all the social comfort of what seems almost next-door neighbourhood.
"Our solitary confinement has answered its purpose even better than I expected. It is so many years since I have been out of town in the spring that I scarcely knew of the existence of such a season. I see, every day, some new flower peeping out of the ground, and watch its growth; so that I have a sort of intimate friendship with each. I know the effect of every change of weather upon them—have learned all their names, the duration of their lives, and the whole progress of their domestic economy. My landlady, a nice, active old soul that wants but one year of eighty, and her daughter, a rather aged young gentlewoman, are the only labourers in a pretty large garden; for it is a double house, and two long strips of ground are laid into one, well stored with fruit trees, which will be in full blossom the week after I am gone, and flowers, as many as can be crammed in, of all sorts and kinds. But flowers are flowers still; and I must confess I would rather live in Russell Street all my life, and never set my foot but on the London pavement, than be doomed always to enjoy the silent pleasures I now do. We go to bed at ten o'clock. Late hours are life-shortening things, but I would rather run all risks, and sit every night—at some places I could name—wishing in vain at eleven o'clock for the entrance of the supper tray, than be always up and alive at eight o'clock breakfast as I am here. We have a scheme to reconcile these things. We have an offer of a very low-rented lodging a mile nearer town than this. Our notion is to divide our time in alternate weeks between quiet rest and dear London weariness. We give an answer to-morrow; but what that will be at this present writing I am unable to say. In the present state of our undecided opinion, a very heavy rain that is now falling may turn the scale. . . . Dear rain, do go away, and let us have a fine chearful sunset to argue the matter fairly in. My brother walked seventeen miles yesterday before dinner. And, notwithstanding his long walk to and from the office, we walk every evening; but I by no means perform in this way so well as I used to do. A twelve mile walk, one hot Sunday morning, made my feet blister, and they are hardly well now. . . ."
"A fine cheerful sunset" did smile, it seems, upon the project of permanent country lodgings; for during the next three years the Lambs continued to alternate between "dear London weariness" in Russell Street, and rest and quiet work at Dalston. Years they were which produced nearly all the most delightful of the Essays of Elia.
The year 1821 closed gloomily;—"I stepped into the Lambs' cottage at Dalston," writes Crabb Robinson in his diary, Nov. 18; "Mary pale and thin, just recovered from one of her attacks. They have lost their brother John, and feel the loss." And the very same week died fine old Captain Burney. He had been made Admiral but a fortnight before his death. These gaps among the old familiar faces struck chill to their hearts. In a letter to Wordsworth of the following spring Lamb says: "We are pretty well, save colds and rheumatics, and a certain deadness to everything, which I think I may date from poor John's loss, and another accident or two at the same time that have made me almost bury myself at Dalston, where yet I see more faces than I could wish. Deaths overset one, and put one out long after the recent grief. Two or three have died within the last two twelvemonths, and so many parts of me have been numbed. One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other; the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won't do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies. There's Captain Burney gone! What fun has whist now? What matters it what you lead if you can no longer fancy him looking over you? One never hears anything, but the image of the particular person occurs with whom alone, almost, you would care to share the intelligence. Thus one distributes oneself about, and now for so many parts of me I have lost the market." It was while John's death was yet recent that Lamb wrote some tender recollections of him (fact and fiction blended according to Elia's wont) in Dream Children, a Reverie, telling how handsome and spirited he had been in his youth, "and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death, as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again to be quarrelling with him (for we quarrelled sometimes) rather than not have him again."