All this, and much unwritten trepidation, because he had to travel three-fourths of the railroad to Brighton ! Of all places Sussex, he had said, was the place where he preferred to live ; but the getting him there was as difficult as a journey to Siberia. And from Crawley he wrote:-
" I am a helpless waterlogged and dismasted vessel, drifting without power to guide my own course, and equally far from port whichever way I turn my eyes. I can only fling this bottle into the sea and leave you to discern my impotent and wrecked condition."
The flung bottle was stamped and caught the post!
In the following year (1907) it became evident that F. T. was again in urgent need of change. He was thinner, even less punctual, more languorous when he fell into fits of abstraction; less precise when he would have assumed the pathetically alert step and speech by which he had been used to respond to introductions and the calls of the very unexacting establishment he still visited sometimes twice, sometimes thrice, and always once a week. He had grown listless and slow, and it was proposed he should go to the country. " Certainly, Wilfrid," he responded, coming the next evening to explain it was impossible; his boots, which looked stronger than himself, would not travel, he said; the coat covering his insufficient shoulders was insufficient. Boots and shirts were bought. It was arranged that we should call for him the next day at eleven. Accordingly my father and I and a friend presented ourselves in a motor at his dwelling, prepared to wait his dressing-time. But he was already out; nor could his landlady, who had not seen him abroad at such an hour in all her experience, say why or where. When at last he came, he carried a paper bag with food purchased at a shop far distant. No gourmet could have been at greater pains to secure the particular pork-pie, and no other, that he wanted.
At first he and I had sleeping quarters in an independent pavilion among fern and young oaks, as guests of Mr. Wilfrid Blunt at Newbuildings. Breakfast and a log-fire used to be prepared for us by David, a genius among odd-men, who came through the dew before we were awake, and disturbed us with the fragrance of his toast and coffee. Francis would get up quite early, but at night he was late. I used to see him in his room, propped against pillows, with candles burning and his prayer-book in his hand far into the night; and his light would still be bright when the stars had begun to grow faint in the plantation.
Later, he was moved to David's cottage, whence he was fetched every day to Newbuildings, half a mile away, for luncheon and tea. David and Mrs. David had gained the unwilling confidence of the invalid, and Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, adept in everything, himself saw that medical help was necessary. In September a doctor was consulted, but if no effective treatment followed it was probably because Francis's evasions successfully prevented a satisfactory diagnosis.
To the care he received in Sussex there was no end. On September 6, 1907, a companion of Mr. Blunt wrote :-
" Mr. Blunt paid Mr. Thompson a long visit last evening, and I hear to-day that he is better. He told Mr. Blunt that he will stay here for the present. The doctor is going to see him again. Mr. Thompson liked him, which is something gained, and he is also pleased with David and his wife. Mr. Thompson has not come to-day, but we have sent twice, and the boy will enquire again this evening."
His little tragedy at Newbuildings was a wasp-sting. Enmity had started some days before, when a wasp fell into his wine-glass. It got out and was staggering on the table when I came upon the scene. Francis stood still, watching with fire in his eye. " You drunken brute," he said with loud severity. But no wasp, drunken or respectable, would he kill, though he could be bitter. The next day he was stung, and Mr. Wilfrid Blunt holds it of faith that for all that summer, after the poet's malediction, no wasps buzzed in Sussex. " Sir, to leave things out of a book merely because people tell you they will not be believed, is meanness," says Mr. Blunt in the words of Dr. Johnson. For all that (since a biographer's unbelief must count for something) I do not here record the lesser miracles remembered by Mr. Blunt. But the following (an earlier experience) is of Francis's own telling, in Health and Holiness:-
" In solitude a poet underwent profound sadness and suffered brief exultations of power: the wild miseries of a Berlioz gave place to accesses of half-pained delight. On a day when the skirts of a prolonged darkness were drawing off for him, he walked the garden, inhaling the keenly languorous relief of mental and bodily convalescence, the nerves sensitised by suffering. Passing in a reverie before an arum, he suddenly was aware of a minute white-stoled child sitting on the lily. For a second he viewed her with surprised delight, but no wonder ; then returning to consciousness, he recognised the hallucination almost in the instant of her vanishing."
Father Gerrard, who met him in Sussex, afterwards wrote:-
" Only a few weeks ago, I was chatting with Francis Thompson in his cosy retreat at Southwater, whither he had gone as the guest of Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, to see if haply he might pull together his shattered frame. But the phthisis fiend had caught him in a tight grip. He was a dying man, and an old man, although only forty-eight years of age. Still, even in his extremity the characteristics of his life were manifest, a shrinking from fellowship, a keen perception and love of the Church, a ready and masterful power of language. I could not say that conversation with him was ever an easy thing, if by conversation one means unceasing talk. Besides talk there were thoughtful silences. Then, after the thought, came the outpouring of its rich expression. The doings of the outside world had little interest for him, but the messages which I had for him from his little circle of friends set him all aglow."
He returned weaker than he went. In his extremity of feebleness any hurt seemed grievous to him. Upon an umbrella falling against him in the railway carriage, he turned to me with a tremulous : " I am the target of all disasters! " And when a busy-body of a fellow asked him, on account of his notable thinness : " Do you suffer with your chest, sir ? " Thompson, who had but one lung, and that diseased, answered sharply, " No ! " Even then he did not know the extent of his trouble.
In error he attributed all his ills to one cause. My father, seeing him on his return, said to him, "Francis, you are ill." " Yes, Wilfrid," he answered, " I am more ill than you think" ; and then spoke a word from which both had refrained for ten years. " I am dying from laudanum poisoning."
My father asked him if he were willing to go to the Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth. The fact that my sister-the Sylvia of Sister Songs-chanced at that moment to be lying ill there, led him to consider the institution without hostility, and the next day, my father having previously recommended him to the nuns, he went unreluctant to his death-bed. Consumption was the mortal disease, and he had grown grievously thin, and too weak to be allowed much less than his habitual doses of laudanum. Some little while before the hours at which these became due, the tax upon his remaining strength was very heavy; but only when in acutest need of the one medicine that could keep him alive (as, indeed, it had done over a long course of years) were the last days distressing for him. During most of them (he was in St. John and St. Elizabeth's ten days) he was content with his surrounding, and knew Sister Michael, his most kind nurse.
His reading was divided between his prayer-book and Mr. W. W. Jacobs' Many Cargoes, neither of which attested his realisation of the end. But he was not ignorant of it. When I last saw him he took my father's hand and kept it within his own, chafing and patting it as if to make a last farewell. He died at dawn on November 13, 1907.
But, for all that friends were at hand, the nurse tender, and the priest punctual, his passing was solitary. His bedside was not one at which watchers share commingling cold, as when a widow's burning fingers, holding those of her dead, are turned to inner ice; his going not as a child's, which chills the house. The fires quenched were his own. It seemed to his friends as if it were a matter personal to himself; while their sorrow for their own loss was mixed almost with satisfaction at something ended in his favour, as if at last he had had his way in a transaction with a Second Party, who might have long and painfully delayed the issue.
Nothing improvident or improper, it seemed to those at hand, had happened in the hospital ward. Such were one's feelings beside the tall window, among nuns who smiled happily because he had received the Sacraments. His features, when I went to make a drawing of him in the small mortuary that stood among the wintry garden-trees, were entirely peaceful, so that I, who had sometimes known them otherwise, fell into the mood of the cheerful lay-sister with the keys, who said : " I hear he had a very good death." To the priest, who had seen him in communion with the Church and her saints at the moment which may be accounted the most solitary possible to the heart of man, no thought of especial loneliness was associated with his death.
He was too magnanimous to take one to his dead heart. Suffering alone, he escaped alone, and left none strictly bound on his account. He left his friends to be busy, not with his ashes, but his works. It was as if the winds that caught and checked his breath were those that blew his fame into conspicuous glows. He was laid to rest in St. Mary's Cemetery, Kensal Green. In his coffin, W. M. records, were roses from Meredith's garden, inscribed with Meredith's testimony-"A true poet, one of the small band," and violets went to the dead poet's breast from the hand of my mother whose praises he had divinely sung.
" Devoted friends lament him," wrote W. M., " no less for himself than for his singing. But let none be named the benefactor of him who gave to all more than any could give to him. He made all men his debtors, leaving to those who loved him the memory of his personality, and to English poetry an imperishable name."