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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 82

Letter I

Letter I.

My dear Frank,—I welcome yon back to your native land, and take it for granted that you and Ellen are tired enough of travelling. Life in a strange country is always artificial—it seems to me like being at play—and constant change become monotonous after a time. I hear from Ellen that she intends to stop in London a week before joining you at home; and I shall reserve till then my latest budget of news about the tenants, and the harvest, and the pets, and the penny readings, &c. Just now I can think of little else but the tragedy at Dr. Scott's, some account of which no doubt you have seen in the papers. But I will tell you the whole story.

Arthur Elliott was the only son of a wealthy landed proprietor, one of my nearest neighbors, and a brother magistrate. Arthur had a most amiable nature, and was tenderly loved, not only by his parents, but by all who knew him intimately. His attainments were remarkable, as I can testify; for we read much together. He was an excellent classical scholar, but his favorite study was that of metaphysics, from which he was led to the study of natural science. But religion was the poetry and passion of his life; and though of a different belief, it afforded me pleasure to hear him discourse on the grandeur and benevolence of God. Sometimes when we were together in a deep green wood on a sultry summer afternoon; or sometimes walking at night beneath the glorious starlit sky; or sometimes, when reading the dialouges of Plato, some divine thought rose from the book like an immortal spirit from the grave, and passed into his soul, then the tears would stream from his eyes, and falling on his knees he would utter praises or prayers in words of surpassing eloquence, and with a voice of the sweetest melody. And often—how well I remember it now—often at such times his gestures grew wild and almost furious, his utterance was choked, and a strange bubbling sound came from his mouth. Dr. Scott, who was present on one of these occasions, watched him, I thought, with an air of aoxiety; and I heard that he advised the Elliotts to take away their son from his books and send him abroad with a travelling tutor. But Arthur disliked the idea of leaving home, and his parents did not urge him to go, believing that the danger was imaginary. So he remained, and things went on as before.

One day he came to me in trouble. He had been reading the great work of Malthus—the Essay on Population—and said that it made him doubt the goodness of God. I replied with the usual commonplace remarks; he listened to me attentively, then sighed, shooked his head, and went away. A little while afterwards he read The Origin of Species which had just come out, and which proves that the Law of Population is the chief agent by which Evolution has been produced. From that time he began to show symptoms of insanity—which disease it is thought he inherited from one of his progenitors. He dressed always in black, and said that he was in page 10 mourning for mankind. The works of Malthus and Darwin, bound in sombre covers, were placed on a table in his room; the first was lettered outside, The Book of Doubt, and the second, The Book of Despair. He took long solitary walks in the most secluded parts of the estate, and was sometimes seen gesticulating to the heavens, sometimes seated by the wayside plucking grass and casting it from him with a strange, tremulous movement of the hands. It was in vain that his good parents and the rector attempted to soothe his troubled mind with the hopes and consolations of a future life. He said that a wrong was always a wrong, and that no reward could atone for unmerited punishment, it was then I thought it right to express my own opinions on the subject of theology. But though Arthur could cease to love and revere, he could not cease to believe. I have often observed that men of powerful intellect, especially those of poetic constitution, find it almost impossible to shake off the faith which has been taught them in their childhood. In Arthur's case the boldest spirit of inquiry, and a remorseless power of induction, was allied to a rigid belief. If he could have closed his eyes in common with so many inquiries to the barbarous element in nature, or simply dismissed it from his mind after a brief period of discomfort, he might have continued to believe in the god of his imagination, and preserved his happiness. If, on the other hand, unable to escape from positive fact, he could have given up, or doubted ever so little the dogma of a personal creator, he would, I believe, have finally found repose. As it was, he fell into a deplorable condition. His god had never been an abstraction, but a father and a friend; and now, by ever brooding on the subject, by ever directing his thoughts towards this imaginary person, he actually felt its presence, as the hermit in the desert after months of contemplation, as the cenobite in the solitary cell; but with him it was not love and devotion, it was anger and hatred which kindled the dangerous fire in the brain, inspired the vision, and forced him to commune with the shadow of his mind.

He spent much of his time with me, and at last I wearied of his com-plaints. I told him that it was useless to repine against the inexorable; that after all there was more good than evil in the world if we went the right way to find it; and that if he sympathised so much with the miseries of men he should try to mitigate them instead of poring forth idle lamentations. He looked at me sadly, and embraced me, resting his head upon my shoulder; he never spoke of his troubles again, and I often repented of my harshness. But not long afterwards, we all thought that he was saved. He became betrothed to a lovely and charming girl, Miss Lilian Moore, who was visiting at the rectory. She seemed to possess some tranquilising power; her eyes were calm and deep, and goodness was written in every feature of her face. She saw that Arthur required occupation, and asked him to compose some stories to amuse her. He complied, and wrote a number of tales, in which the trees, and flowers, and rocks, and animals were his characters and heroes. These stories were fanciful, quaint, and humorous; and several being published in the magazines, attracted notice from the press. Arthur received more than one flattering offer from London publishing firms, and began to show himself ambitious of literary fame. He had now quite recovered his health and happiness; he saw Lilian every day; but ah, Frank, how shall I tell you, the dear girl caught an infectious fever from nursing a sick child in the village, and died. Arthur went to the funeral, but sat a little way off on the tombstone plucking the grass and casting it from him with the strange movement of the hands I mentioned before. As the service was ended, the clock struck twelve. He got up and said, "The wedding will be late !" and approached the grave which had just been filled up. Then he flung himself upon it with fearful shrieks and page 11 curses against the supposed author of the world. When people attempted to lead him away, he dashed them to the ground with superhuman strength. Yet even in this fearful attack of mania he seemed to recognise his father, and only shrank hack from the aged hands caressingly placed upon his arm, He was taken to Dr, Scott's private asylum, which was hut a little way from the church, and in a few days ceased to be violent, asked for his papers and books, and having obtained them, studied from morning to night. He appeared perfectly quiet and contented; but every night when the church clack struck twelve he opened the window of the room, which was on the ground floor, murmured the name of Lilian, folded his arms upon his breast as if he had embraced her, and kissed the air. Then, with the connivance of his servant, he sprang out of the window, and walked to the churchyard, followed by the man who at least never let him go out of his sight. All the while he conversed (as if with Lilian) in the most animated manner, and having reached the grave, made movements with his hands as if covering her up; after which he said, "Good-night" in a cheerful voice, and returned, These promenades were of course discovered in time. Arthur was carefully watched, the servant was dismissed, the windows were barred. Nothing else could have been done, yet there is too much reason to fear that this restraint proved injurious. When the hour of midnight drew near, he became uneasy and restless; and when prevented from going to the window fell into a state of dejection. He no longer slept well, and was often troubled with visions and dreams. One morning when he awoke, he sat up in bed, and laughed till the tears ran out of his eyes. He sent for the Doctor, and told him he had "found it all out," and when asked to explain what he meant, replied that it was an original idea—a most important discovery—and that he should send it to a magazine. "If I told you what it was," he continued, you would keep me here all my life, and pass off my idea on a deluded public as your own. "The Doctor, to humour him, replied that he was incapable of such malpractices. "Ah, well!" replied Arthur, "at ordinary times, and in ordinary cases, no doubt you axe an honest man; but here the temptation would be too strong. But I don't mind telling you my title. It's 'A New Thing under the Moon.' "He then burst out laughing again, and rubbed his hands together with glee. In the afternoon he became violent, said he should "throw up his part," and tried to spring out of window, dashing himself against the bars. He was placed in a padded room, The next day he was quiet as usual, and asked for paper and ink; but as the Doctor wished to get him to steep, of which he stood in much need, this request was refused. At first he seemed angry, then shrugged his shoulders and smiled. It was afterwards found that he had a notebook and pencil in his pocket. At ten o'clock p.m. he appeared drowsy, but said that he could not sleep with people in the room; and Dr. Scott told the attendants to go outside, but to look in from time to time. In an hour or so he seemed to fall into a sleep, which was probably assumed, and the vigilance of the watchers was relaxed. But in the grey hour of the dawn they heard a struggle in the room, and a choked kind of cry. They pushed the door, but it had been secured from within by a small piece of wood wedged in underneath. They forced it open at last, and the body of the unfortunate young man was found hanging from the window bar. Life was extinct. On the table was a note-book in which he had been writing. Dr. Scott has just sent it over, and advises me to read it; so in my next letter I may give you an account of its contents. Such, dear son-in-law, is the sad history of Arthur Elliott.