By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
Chapter VIII: Last Days and Death
The end was now fast approaching. Months before, Sterne had written doubtfully of his being able to stand another winter in England, and his doubts were to be fatally justified. One can easily see, however, how the unhappy experiment came to be tried. It is possible that he might have delayed the publication of his book for a while, and taken refuge abroad from the rigours of the two remaining winter months, had it not been in the nature of his malady to conceal its deadly approaches. Consumption sported with its victim in the cruel fashion that is its wont. “I continue to mend,” Sterne writes from Bond Street on the first day of the new year, “and doubt not but this with all other evils and uncertainties of life will end for the best.” And for the best perhaps it did end, in the sense in which the resigned Christian uses these pious words; but this, one fears, was not the sense intended by the dying man. All through January and February he was occupied not only with business, but as it would seem with a fair amount, though less, no doubt, than his usual share, of pleasure also. Vastly active was he, it seems, in the great undertaking of obtaining tickets for one of Mrs. Cornely’s entertainments–the “thing” to go to at that particular time–for his friends the Jameses. He writes them on Monday that he has not been a moment at rest since writing the previous day about the Soho ticket. “I have been at a Secretary of State to get one, have been upon one knee to my friend Sir George Macartney, Mr. Lascelles, and Mr. Fitzmaurice, without mentioning five more. I believe I could as soon get you a place at Court, for everybody is going; but I will go out and try a new circle, and if you do not hear from me by a quarter to three, you may conclude I have been unfortunate in my supplications.” Whether he was or was not unfortunate history does not record. A week or two later the old round of dissipation had apparently set in. “I am now tied down neck and heels by engagements every night this week, or most joyfully would have trod the old pleasing road from Bond to Gerrard Street. I am quite well, but exhausted with a roomful of company every morning till dinner.” A little later, and this momentary flash of health had died out; and we find him writing what was his last letter to his daughter, full, evidently, of uneasy forebodings as to his approaching end. He speaks of “this vile influenza–be not alarmed. I think I shall get the better of it, and shall be with you both the 1st of May;" though, he adds, “if I escape, ’twill not be for a long period, my child–unless a quiet retreat and peace of mind can restore me.” But the occasion of this letter was a curious one, and a little more must be extracted from it. Lydia Sterne’s letter to her father had, he said, astonished him. “She (Mrs. Sterne) could know but little of my feelings to tell thee that under the supposition I should survive thy mother I should bequeath thee as a legacy to Mrs. Draper. No, my Lydia, ’tis a lady whose virtues I wish thee to imitate"–Mrs. James, in fact, whom he proceeds to praise with much and probably well-deserved warmth. “But,” he adds, sadly, “I think, my Lydia, thy mother will survive me; do not deject her spirit with thy apprehensions on my account. I have sent you a necklace and buckles, and the same to your mother. My girl cannot form a wish that is in the power of her father that he will not gratify her in; and I cannot in justice be less kind to thy mother. I am never alone. The kindness of my friends is ever the same. I wish though I had thee to nurse me, but I am denied that. Write to me twice a week at least. God bless thee, my child, and believe me ever, ever, thy affectionate father.”
The despondent tone of this letter was to be only too soon justified. The “vile influenza” proved to be or became a pleurisy. On Thursday, March 10, he was bled three times, and blistered on the day after. And on the Tuesday following, in evident consciousness that his end was near, he penned that cry “for pity and pardon,” as Thackeray calls it–the first as well as the last, and which sounds almost as strange as it does piteous from those mocking lips:
“The physician says I am better.... God knows, for I feel myself sadly wrong, and shall, if I recover, be a long while of gaining strength. Before I have gone through half the letter I must stop to rest my weak hand a dozen times. Mr. James was so good as to call upon me yesterday. I felt emotions not to be described at the sight of him, and he overjoyed me by talking a great deal of you. Do, dear Mrs. James, entreat him to come to-morrow or next day, for perhaps I have not many days or hours to live. I want to ask a favour of him, if I find myself worse, that I shall beg of you if in this wrestling I come off conqueror. My spirits are fled. It is a bad omen; do not weep, my dear lady. Your tears are too precious to be shed for me. Bottle them up, and may the cork never be drawn. Dearest, kindest, gentlest, and best of women! may health, peace, and happiness prove your handmaids. If I die, cherish the remembrance of me, and forget the follies which you so often condemned, which my heart, not my head, betrayed me into. Should my child, my Lydia, want a mother, may I hope you will (if she is left parentless) take her to your bosom? You are the only woman on earth I can depend upon for such a benevolent action. I wrote to her a fortnight ago, and told her what, I trust, she will find in you. Mr. James will be a father to her.... Commend me to him, as I now commend you to that Being who takes under his care the good and kind part of the world. Adieu, all grateful thanks to you and Mr. James.
“From your affectionate friend, L. STERNE.”
This pathetic death-bed letter is superscribed “Tuesday.” It seems to have been written on Tuesday, the 15th of March, and three days later the writer breathed his last. But two persons, strangers both, were present at his deathbed, and it is by a singularly fortunate chance, therefore, that one of these–and he not belonging to the class of people who usually leave behind them published records of the events of their lives–should have preserved for us an account of the closing scene. This, however, is to be found in the Memoirs of John Macdonald, “a cadet of the house of Keppoch,” at that time footman to Mr. Crawford, a fashionable friend of Sterne’s. His master had taken a house in Clifford Street in the spring of 1768; and “about this time," he writes, “Mr. Sterne, the celebrated author, was taken ill at the silk-bag shop in Old Bond Street. He was sometimes called Tristram Shandy and sometimes Yorick, a very great favourite of the gentlemen. One day"–namely, on the aforesaid 18th of March–"my master had company to dinner who were speaking about him–the Duke of Roxburghe, the Earl of March, the Earl of Ossory, the Duke of Grafton, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Hume, and a Mr. James.” Many, if not most, of the party, therefore, were personal friends of the man who lay dying in the street hard by, and naturally enough the conversation turned on his condition. “’John,’ said my master,” the narrative continues, “’go and inquire how Mr. Sterne is to-day.’” Macdonald did so; and, in language which seems to bear the stamp of truth upon it, he thus records the grim story which he had to report to the assembled guests on his return: “I went to Mr. Sterne’s lodgings; the mistress opened the door. I enquired how he did; she told me to go up to the nurse. I went into the room, and he was just a-dying. I waited ten minutes; but in five he said, ’Now it is come.’ He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute. The gentlemen were all very sorry, and lamented him very much.”
Thus, supported by a hired nurse, and under the curious eyes of a stranger, Sterne breathed his last. His wife and daughter were far away; the convivial associates “who were all very sorry and lamented him very much,” were for the moment represented only by “John;” and the shocking tradition goes that the alien hands by which the “dying eyes were closed,” and the “decent limbs composed,” remunerated themselves for the pious office by abstracting the gold sleeve-links from the dead man’s wrists. One may hope, indeed, that this last circumstance is to be rejected as sensational legend, but even without it the story of Sterne’s death seems sad enough, no doubt. Yet it is, after all, only by contrast with the excited gaiety of his daily life in London that his end appears so forlorn. From many a “set of residential chambers,” from many of the old and silent inns of the lawyers, departures as lonely, or lonelier, are being made around us in London every year: the departures of men not necessarily kinless or friendless, but living solitary lives, and dying before their friends or kindred can be summoned to their bedsides. Such deaths, no doubt, are often contrasted in conventional pathos with that of the husband and father surrounded by a weeping wife and children; but the more sensible among us construct no tragedy out of a mode of exit which must have many times entered as at least a possibility into the previous contemplation of the dying man. And except, as has been said, that Sterne associates himself in our minds with the perpetual excitements of lively companionship, there would be nothing particularly melancholy in his end. This is subject, of course, to the assumption that the story of his landlady having stolen the gold sleeve-links from his dead body may be treated as mythical; and, rejecting this story, there seems no good reason for making much ado about the manner of his death. Of friends, as distinguished from mere dinner-table acquaintances, he seems to have had but few in London: with the exception of the Jameses, one knows not with certainty of any; and the Jameses do not appear to have neglected him in the illness which neither they nor he suspected to be his last. Mr. James had paid him a visit but a day or two before the end came; and it may very likely have been upon his report of his friend’s condition that the message of inquiry was sent from the dinner table at which he was a guest. No doubt Sterne’s flourish in Tristram Shandy about his preferring to die at an inn, untroubled by the spectacle of “the concern of my friends, and the last services of wiping my brows and smoothing my pillow,” was a mere piece of bravado; and the more probably so because the reflection is appropriated almost bodily from Bishop Burnet, who quotes it as a frequent observation of Archbishop Leighton. But, considering that Sterne was in the habit of passing nearly half of each year alone in London lodgings, the realization of his wish does not strike me, I confess, as so dramatically impressive a coincidence as it is sometimes represented.
According, however, to one strange story the dramatic element gives place after Sterne’s very burial to melodrama of the darkest kind. The funeral, which pointed, after all, a far sadder moral than the death, took place on Tuesday, March 22, attended by only two mourners, one of whom is said to have been his publisher Becket, and the other probably Mr. James; and, thus duly neglected by the whole crowd of boon companions, the remains of Yorick were consigned to the “new burying-ground near Tyburn” of the parish of St. George’s, Hanover Square. In that now squalid and long-decayed grave-yard, within sight of the Marble Arch and over against the broad expanse of Hyde Park, is still to be found a tombstone inscribed with some inferior lines to the memory of the departed humourist, and with a statement, inaccurate by eight months, of the date of his death, and a year out as to his age. Dying, as has been seen, on the 18th of March, 1768, at the age of fifty-four, he is declared on this slab to have died on the 13th of November, aged fifty-three years. There is more excuse, however, for this want of veracity than sepulchral inscriptions can usually plead. The stone was erected by the pious hands of “two brother Masons,” many years, it is said, after the event which it purports to record; and from the wording of the epitaph which commences, “Near this place lyes the body,” &c., it obviously does not profess to indicate–what, doubtless, there was no longer any means of tracing–the exact spot in which Sterne’s remains were laid. But, wherever the grave really was, the body interred in it, according to the strange story to which I have referred, is no longer there. That story goes: that two days after the burial, on the night of the 24th of March, the corpse was stolen by body-snatchers, and by them disposed of to M. Collignon, Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge; that the Professor invited a few scientific friends to witness a demonstration, and that among these was one who had been acquainted with Sterne, and who fainted with horror on recognizing in the already partially dissected “subject” the features of his friend. So, at least, this very gruesome and Poe-like legend runs; but it must be confessed that all the evidence which Mr. Fitzgerald has been able to collect in its favour is of the very loosest and vaguest description. On the other hand, it is, of course, only fair to recollect that, in days when respectable surgeons and grave scientific professors had to depend upon the assistance of law-breakers for the prosecution of their studies and teachings, every effort would naturally be made to hush up any such unfortunate affair. There is, moreover, independent evidence to the fact that similar desecrations of this grave-yard had of late been very common; and that at least one previous attempt to check the operations of the “resurrection-men” had been attended with peculiarly infelicitous results. In the St. James’s Chronicle for November 26, 1767, we find it recorded that “the Burying Ground in Oxford Road, belonging to the Parish of St. George’s, Hanover Square, having been lately robbed of several dead bodies, a Watcher was placed there, attended by a large mastiff Dog; notwithstanding which, on Sunday night last, some Villains found means to steal out another dead Body, and carried off the very Dog.” Body-snatchers so adroit and determined as to contrive to make additional profit out of the actual means taken to prevent their depredations, would certainly not have been deterred by any considerations of prudence from attempting the theft of Sterne’s corpse. There was no such ceremony about his funeral as would lead them to suppose that the deceased was a person of any importance, or one whose body could not be stolen without a risk of creating undesirable excitement. On the whole, therefore, it is impossible to reject the body-snatching story as certainly fabulous, though its truth is far from being proved; and though I can scarcely myself subscribe to Mr. Fitzgerald’s view, that there is a “grim and lurid Shandyism” about the scene of dissection, yet if others discover an appeal to their sense of humour in the idea of Sterne’s body being dissected after death, I see nothing to prevent them from holding that hypothesis as a “pious opinion.”