A gothic tale inspired by the real life story of Dante Rossetti’s exhumation of his wife and pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, in order to retrieve a poetry manuscript he buried with her…
The title of this work, as well as the section headings in italics, are all lines from Rossetti’s “Jenny,” one of the poems from the buried manuscript.
by: Eric Williams
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea
“Barn owl,” said Doctor Williams, noticing Lawyer Tebb’s startled jump as a ghostly shriek echoed through Highgate Cemetery’s somber pines.
“Ominous,” said the little man, adjusting his pince-nez and, unsuccessfully, trying to ignore the sound of shovels biting into damp earth behind him.
“On the contrary,” said Charles Augustus Howell, stroking the ribbon of the Ordem Militar de Cristo that he wore habitually on his lapel. “I consider it a most fortunate augury, portending the unmitigated success of tonight’s work. After all, ‘Owl’ is the sobriquet invented for me by the dear, delectable little Fanny, years ago.” He grinned at his two confederates through his carefully waxed mustache as memories of Ms. Cornforth danced in his hooded eyes.
The barn owl called again, full of inhuman mirth. Tebbs the Lawyer shivered and drew closer to the bonfire they had lit. It had seemed strange to him, at first; even with the legal order of exhumation in his coat pocket, he felt they should have taken advantage of the natural cover that a moonless October night afforded them. Now, however, he was desperately thankful for the roaring flames, an island of light in the dark sea that had overtaken the cemetery.
The scrape of the shovel against something harder than dirt made the three men turn towards the wide socket of the open grave. Two men, laborers from the East End, stopped their digging and crouched at the bottom of their excavation. Then one called up,
“Found her, yer honors.”
The name on the headstone danced in the warm light of the bonfire: Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti née Siddall, 25 July 1829 – 11 February 1862.
The clouds not danced out of my brain
“Oh, God,” Dante Rossetti said, rubbing his temples and slumping back, despondent, into his chair. “There’s not enough.” He closed his eyes and gestured towards the slim pile of papers on the desk. “Not nearly enough for a whole book. Oh God, my head.”
“Perhaps some sketches,” Howell suggested, rising from his own chair by the big picture window that looked out over the tangle of a neglected garden. “That would fill it out a bit, don’t you think?” Rossetti shook his head wearily.
“No! No illustrations! I want people to read my poems,” he said, his voice defeated and low. “I want them to see my vision with words, only words, and feel what I have always felt, in my heart.” Sighing, Howell stalked across the study to stand behind Rossetti’s chair. He gripped its wooden frame and looked down at the pages on the desk.
“How many do you have?”
“Pages, Dante,” Howell asked, his grip on the chair tightening slightly.
“A scant hundred,” he answered, his voice nearly catching.
“Ellis and White would wait a little while, I’m sure,” said Howell. “I’m certain we could get them to give you another six months —”
“Six months?” laughed Rossetti. His voice was shrill and cracking. “Six Months! These took me years to write, Owl! Years of my life! All I’ve ever written!”
“Well,” said Howell, leaning over the poet’s head, bringing his mouth closer to his ear. “It’s not all that you’ve ever written, is it?”
Rossetti glanced up at his friend and agent, Howell. He opened and closed his mouth, soundlessly, and his eyes began to roam around the room.
“No,” he said after a moment, his voice barely above a whisper. “No, you are right, of course. There is…” he swallowed; if he wouldn’t finish the sentence, he could certainly complete the thought.
Howell smiled, and rested his hands on Rossetti’s shoulders.
The lilies sickened unto death.
The smell had filled the room when he’d returned from teaching at the Working Men’s College. Spicy, fierce, fulgent, like nothing else and yet painfully familiar: laudanum, Paracelsus’s sovereign medicine. Lizzie had been going back to the small, dark bottle more and more lately. He would have to talk to her about it. He turned the knob and stepped into the room, into the thundercloud.
Lizzie’s eyes were shut, her breath stopped, her skin cold. She was dead.
He thought that in death she had perhaps rediscovered the beauty she’d had many years ago. The hair, thick and red and flowing, the soft blush of her skin, the supple line of her body; she looked every bit Ophelia floating in the brook beneath that treacherous willow. Even the reddish stain around her lips and on her fingers couldn’t hide her terrible, deathly loveliness.
On Ford Madox Brown’s advice he’d destroyed the note. No reason for that to be known by anyone else and, after all, who knew what strange words could be born in the brain of someone who’d taken that much laudanum, and for so long. No, there was nothing real in the note, nothing true, not like her beauty, not like her sorrow.
Graveside: all is somber and black. Rossetti, dolorous, weeping, inconsolable, reaches into his coat and withdraws the notebook. He raises it heavenward, and turns towards his friend, Hall Caine.
“I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go,” he says. Tenderly, he places it next to her cheek, and brushes her red locks over its cover.
Then the casket is closed, the hymns are sung, and Elizabeth Eleanor Rossetti (née Siddall), with the little book of poems, sinks into the earth.
But as they coil those eddies clot,
And night and day remembers not.
Howell was there when Doctor Williams brought the book to Rossetti’s house. Two weeks had passed since the exhumation, and he had used all the arts of science and medicine to cleanse it. The odor clinging to it was sharp, sour with disinfectant, but below it there was still, horribly, the smell of decay and mortality. Holes had been eaten through leather and page, and black stains had spread over and through the book. Seven years it had lain next to her in the grave.
“They were not kind years, Dante,” said Doctor Williams, carefully removing the manuscript from his leather bag.
“I am sure you did all you could, Llewellyn,” said Howell.
Rossetti’s face was bloodless, his eyes huge and staring. He took the book with trembling hands, a sob working its way through his throat. Howell ushered the doctor out the door, and Rossetti was left alone with his poems and the ghost of Elizabeth Siddall.
It takes hours of pacing and much brandy to summon the courage to open the book, to touch those decayed pages. He squints, he groans over words and lines and whole pages lost to the conqueror worm. It will take him weeks, months to salvage something from this wreck, caused by his own sentimentality.
He finds “Jenny” halfway through the book — one of his finest, in his own humble judgement. Holding his breath, he leans in, and begins copying the text as best he can.
When he is done, he will burn the book.
A cipher of man’s changeless sum
Ears pricked at his loud boasting. Howell thrived on attention, drew strength from crowds like no other. He leaned in his chair, the wine warming his brain. How cheerful the club, how lavish the surroundings, how fawning the friends!
“Grim work, fellows,” he said, swirling the dregs in his glass. “Moonless night! I swear we heard a howling, and if it were a dog, well, no dog like it has ever been seen in London before! The ropes groaned as we hauled the casket from the earth’s reluctant embrace — such tragedy! So young when she died, and Rossetti’s gesture…” he shook his head sadly.
“You mean the book,” said a softly swimming blur to his left. Howell nodded.
“His book,” he said, simply.
“A bit unseemly though,” said someone to his right. “Not really something you ask for back, a gift to the departed.”
“Ah my good man,” said Howell, striking the table with his fist, sending an empty bottle clattering to ground. “Let me finish! As we hauled our grim burden out into the night air, I felt a presence! A beatific calmness seemed to descend upon us. I smelt flowers — roses indeed friends, roses on warm air, and this in October! The doctor and the lawyer felt it too, you could see it on their faces. It was as if Lizzie herself, beautiful Lizzie, muse of so many, loved by all, had come to bless us that evening. ‘Take back my dear Dante’s gift, so that all may know his genius!’ she seemed to say. Incidentally, I understand they are printing another edition, subscription only. I should hurry and get one, if you haven’t already.”
“And how was she?” asked a voice that seemed to emanate from somewhere beneath the heavy oak table. “I mean, after so long in the grave?”
“By all the stars in God’s great sky, gentlemen, I swear this to you,” Howell said, solemn and sober in spirit if not in fact, “when we opened the casket, she was unchanged!”
“What?” “How?” “Say again?”
“On my honor, gentlemen, on my honor! Seven years had she lain in that coffin, and not a hint of corruption was there to be seen nor scented. She was as pure and beautiful as the day she died!”
“Unchanged, after all that time…” whispered someone behind him.
“Did I say unchanged? Allow me to amend my report. In one respect alone had she changed — the hair, the flaming red hair that she was so well known for, had grown, all those years it had continued to grow. She was wrapped in it. Thick red locks filled the coffin to bursting, rich and scarlet and soft as silk!”
The contemplative silence of the table was broken only by Howell loudly calling for another bottle of wine.
It makes a goblin of the sun.
In 1890 they found him out back of a Chelsea pub, throat slit and a bright golden sovereign peeking from between cold, blue lips.
“Who is it?” asked the policeman, scratching beneath his helmet.
“That’s Mr. Howell,” said the old woman. “He comes by for a pint or two in the evenings. Literary type, I think, or used to be maybe. Lots of literary friends.”
“And at least one enemy,” said the policeman, kneeling down. The golden coin peeped like the dawn from Howell’s mouth.
At Howell’s home, the inspector found many interesting letters, of particularly intimate sorts, to and from particularly interesting people.
“Perhaps,” said the man in the very fine suit, “we could avoid an inquest?”
“Well, sir,” said the inspector, his face red. “A man has been murdered, his throat slit open.”
“Perhaps,” said the man. “But let us take stock, inspector. Let us examine the facts. All these, ah, letters, which Mr. Howell was in possession of…” he gestured around the room at the stacks. “They represent an archive of considerable embarrassment for a number of very influential people. Mr. Howell’s tragedy is surely enough, we need not compound it with further misfortune for others. It would, perhaps, be better for everyone if we could find some way to avoid the publicity of an investigation.”
“Perhaps…” said the inspector, uncertain.
“That Mr. Howell had earned the opprobrium of many is a fact. That his throat was slit and a coin placed upon his lips is also a fact. But he was getting on in years, and had wasted much of his life in pubs and debauchery. Such things have deleterious effects on one’s health!”
“Perhaps,” said the inspector, “he died of natural causes…”
“And, discovered by his enemies, his body was mutilated postmortem.”
“So, no murder.”
“Precisely!” said the man in the very fine suit. “A simple case. And besides, molestation of a corpse is hardly the crime of the century, is it?”
Eric Williams is a writer living on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous seaway in Austin, TX.