“One who knew Mill only through his writings knew but half of him, and that not the best half,” said Fitzjames Stephen, his most decided critic. As the shadow of his life began to lengthen, the mists of fame began to swirl up and obscure the man. Gone is the slender figure reclining in an armchair by the fire, with the cat Placidia purring at his feet, who rose and cordially received the reporter from the Chicago Tribune. The broad high forehead and the hatchet face; the grey and steadfast eyes; the thin, straight nose; the clean complexion and emphatic chin; the growth of curly light-brown hair running round the thinning cranium; the soft, incisive voice – all this is gone. In its place remains the legend left by Victorian misunderstanding, sedulously tinted by Carlyle, impressed by decades of schoolteachers and divines. A name, a black and shiny case left over from the days of horse-drawn cabs and gaiters. A name, indeed, to conjure with; a name at which, as one of Mill’s modern adversaries has pointed out, we still instictively take off out hats. But a name erudite and respectable; sober, censorious, and sad; prodigious, and at the same time somehow awful, a kind of moral Great Agrippa. Above all, as dry as dust.
Still, where he lived, his friends could see him as he was, and for us too the foggy wreaths occasionally divide. News of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War reached him sitting in his garden at Blackheath. He struck his chair with vehemence, and cursed Napoleon, crying out, “What a pity the bombs of Orsini missed their mark, and left the crime-stained usurper alive.” Like everybody else, he was entirely taken in by Bismarck’s stratagem.
“The English public should know, and show that it knows, that this War has been brought on wholly by Napoleon, that the Prussians are fighting for their own Liberty and for that of Europe; that England is bound to protect Belgium …. The volunteers ought to be armed with the newest and best rifles by public subscription. It is not a time for talking about peace and the horros of war when our national existence may be soon at stake. At the same time it is wrong to attribute this war to France …. The Germans are right in saying that it is Napoleon and not France they are fighting …”
A few months later Mill and Helen were staying with the Amberleys at their new home, Ravenscroft, and were taking picnic lunches out to Tintern Abbey and the Forest of Dean, then goldening for autumn. He was in his highest spirits, walking everywhere, and always noticing the flowers and hedgerows. One evening after dinner he read them Shelley’s Ode to Liberty. “He got quite excited and moved over it rocking backwards and forwards and nearly chocking with emotion; he said to himself: ‘it is almost too much for one!’” Then suddenly came catastrophic news that pulic order had collapsed in France, and Helen remembered she had left her precious Buckle manuscript in Avignon. After a sleepless night she decided they must go and fetch it. They dare not go through France for feat that Mill might be taken for a Prussian spy. So they went to Switzerland, and Mill waited there while she and her maid went on to Avignon. They came back more impressed than ever at the industry and discipline of the German troops.
In 1871 the lease ran out on the tumble-down Blackheath house, and he took a flat in Victoria Street, 10 Albert Mansions, where he was nearer to the centre of his quiet, illustrious circle. In June George Grote died, and to Mill’s disgust an Abbey funeral was arranged. He walked reluctantly as pall-bearer, and as they left the marble-cluttered aisles, remarked to Bain, “In no very long time, I shall be laid in the ground with a very different ceremonial from that.”
He had made peace with his family. His sister Mary Colman, who had caused the worst offense, was a good woman although inclined to dominance. [Information kindly supplied in a letter from Mrs. Edna Gemmell, of South Africa, her grand-daughter.] She had fallen on hard times. Her husband had separated from her; her favourite son, a sailor, was swept overboard during a gale in the Channel. Her circumstances were most depressed, and Mill to some extent retrieved his old and bitter wrong by coming to her rescue. He made her an annuity. He arranged for her daughter Minnie to go to Bedford College. And when her second son disgraced himself by robbing an office till, it was Mill who found the money for giving him another chance.
In March 1873 Sir Charles Dilke persuaded Mill to sit for his portrait to the famous artist, G.F. Watts. [George Frederick Watts, R.A., O.M., 1817-1904: the first husband of Ellen Terry. Helen did not particularly like the painting, the only known one of Mill. It was offered to her by Lady Dilke, but at her suggestion the Dilkes kept it, and commissioned Watts to make a copy of it for the National Portrait Gallery, where it may now be seen. An etching made from the portrait by the French engraver, P.A. Rajon, was bequeathed by Dilke to Westminster City Hall.] A better likeness of him, on a glittering April day, is preserved in the luminous writing of John Morley:
“He came down by the morning train to Guildford station, where I was waiting for him. He was in his most even and mellow humour. We walked in a leisurely way and through roundabout tracks for some four hours along the ancient green road which you know, over the high grassy downs, into old chalkpits picturesque with junipter and yew, across heaths and commons, and so up to our windy promontory, where the majestic prospect stirred him with lively delight. You know he is a fervid botanist, and every ten minutes he stopped to look at this or that on the path. Unluckily I am ignorant of the very rudiments of the matter, so his parenthetic enthusiasms were lost upon me. Of course he talked, and talked well …
Rose was in some trepidation, but his simplicity and soft amiable way put her soon at ease, and all through lunch they chatted most sociably and gaily about the wildflowers, and birds, and weasels, in which he takes as keen an interest as she does. He was impatient for the song of the nightingale. Then I drove him to our little roadside station, and one of the most delightful days of my life came to its end, like all other days delightful and sorrowful.”
For Mill, as for Helen, Avignon was a perfect paradise in May. He was impatient to be gone. From there, on 26 April, he wrote eagerly to Fabre announcing his return and asking him to fix a day when they could make an expedition from Orange. Fabre replied enthusiastically:
“I am at your service any day you like. You decide, and let me know a day or two beforehand, so as to be sure to find me in on your arrival. It would be as well, I think, to wait until the present spell of bad weather has passed; the plants are still very backward. I will expect you in the first forthnight of May.
Our house is some distance from the town, about as far as yours is from Avignon. In order to avoid loss of time to both of us in coming and going, allow me to offer you our humble hospitality. There is a room at your disposal. Pray accept it; stay with me; you will be received with joy by all the family and you will do the greatest honour to honest folk who all revere you. While wishing as I do to have you stay with me during the short time you spend in Orange, I do not want to interfere with your usual arrangements. But do not refuse out of excessive courtesy; we shall all be more than happy to receive you.”
Mill would not wait. He replied next day:
Thank you for your kind letter. If it were a question of coming only once to Orange it would certainly be better to put it off till later. But there are, thanks to your discoveries, so many different varieties for me to gather in that region, which do not bloom at the same time, that I hope to make more than one expedition there this spring, of which the pleasure, like the fruits, will be all the greater for me if I am able to make them in your company.
I therefore propose to come to Orange next Saturday by the train which arrives at 11.46 (railway time) and to return here by the train leaving Orange at 5.40. As I shall not be staying the night, I should like, if I may, to take advantage of your generous hospitality by taking lunch with you.”
This letter was to be his last. On Saturday the third of May he duly made his expedition. After walking fifteen miles the hot day through, he went home tired and happy. But the evening air was chill. On the Monday he produced a fever. Towards evening, Helen called in Dr. Chauffard. He pursed his lips, and shook his head, and immediately wired for Dr. Gurney to come from Nice. Gurney arrived next day, and this is what he later said:
“The disease of erysipelas is endemic in the lowly-lying clay ground about Avignon. Mr. Mill knew the situation was not healthy, but purchased the house and grounds only because they were close to the cemetery where his wife was buried fifteen years ago, and in order that he might spend as much of his time as possible near her tomb. The house, moreover, was densely surrounded by trees, which he would not allow to be touched lest eh nightingales abounding in that neighbourhood should quit the spot. The avenue under the shade of which he composed and studied was filled with these birds, and so tame were they, that when I paced up and down between my visits to his bedside, they followed me from tree to tree.
“Mr. Mill suffered but little, except in swallowing and from the heat and weight of the enormous swelling which by the time I arrived from Nice had already spread over his face and neck; and yet he learnt from me on my arrival the fatal nature of the attack with calmness and resignation. His expressed desire that he might not outlive his mental faculties, or suffer from long, wasting disease, was gratified, for his great intellect remained clear to the last moment.”
Mill died at seven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 7 May 1873. Shortly before the end, he murmured, half delirious, to the wide-eyed Helen, “You know that I have done my work.”
His death was very sudden. So sudden that Fabre, coming over to lunch with him one sunny morning, was shocked to find him already in the tomb. He was dead before his sisters Harriet and Mary read of his illness in the papers, and asked to be allowed to come and nurse him. He was buried before Charles Eliot Norton leapt from his hansom on seeing the momentous newsbills in the London streets; before Bain on holiday in Venice received a telegram, and hastened to Avignon on the trail of his biography. Pastor Rey and his wife, who hurried round at once, arrived too late. Helen took them upstairs; and, as they stood by the plain iron bedstead, the Pastor offered up a prayer.
Mill was carried down the next day along the short road to the familiar grave. A light, warm rain was falling. No notice had been given, and only five – Gurney and Chauffard the two doctors, the Pastor and his wife, and Helen – followed him. But when they reached the cemetery gates, a large spontaneous crowd stood dumb and damp. And, although there was a rushed and tasteless effort to get his remains for Westminster Abbey; although a bronze statue later rose up on the Thames embankment, these were his real memorial. All his life he had fought for them, and for the millions they represented; fiercely, though never with unfair weapons. All his life they had looked to him, half-comprehending, full of trust.
The Pastor made a short address, and read another prayer. Then Mill was laid beside Harriet in their marble sanctuary.