Away to the ends of the earth, and the furthest star, and the blank regions of nothing

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 330].

 To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 194-198]

[Edinburgh] Sunday [1 November 1874].

Here is my long story: yesterday night, after having supped, I grew so restless that I was obliged to go out in search of some excitement. There was a half-moon lying over on its back, and incredibly bright in the midst of a faint grey sky set with faint stars: a very inartistic moon, that would have damned a picture.


At the most populous place of the city I found a little boy, three years old perhaps, half frantic with terror, and crying to every one for his ‘Mammy.’ This was about eleven, mark you. People stopped and spoke to him, and then went on, leaving him more frightened than before. But I and a good-humoured mechanic came up together; and I instantly developed a latent faculty for setting the hearts of children at rest. Master Tommy Murphy (such was his name) soon stopped crying, and allowed me to take him up and carry him; and the mechanic and I trudged away along Princes Street to find his parents.


I was soon so tired that I had to ask the mechanic to carry the bairn; and you should have seen the puzzled contempt with which he looked at me, for knocking in so soon. He was a good fellow, however, although very impracticable and sentimental; and he soon bethought him that Master Murphy might catch cold after his excitement, so we wrapped him up in my greatcoat.

W.J. Chpaman, Rees Davies, mechanic, Hirwaun, 1835-1840 []

‘Tobauga (Tobago) Street’ was the address he gave us; and we deposited him in a little grocer’s shop and went through all the houses in the street without being able to find any one of the name of Murphy.

Tobago Street, now Morrison Street, Edinburgh []

Then I set off to the head police office, leaving my greatcoat in pawn about Master Murphy’s person. As I went down one of the lowest streets in the town, I saw a little bit of life that struck me. It was now half-past twelve, a little shop stood still half-open, and a boy of four or five years old was walking up and down before it imitating cockcrow. He was the only living creature within sight.

At the police offices no word of Master Murphy’s parents […]; so I went back empty-handed.

Edinburgh, Old Town, 1882 []

Police Constables, Edinburgh, 19th century []

Highland Clearance, 19th century []

The good groceress, who had kept her shop open all this time, could keep the child no longer; her father, bad with bronchitis, said he must forth. So I got a large scone with currants in it, wrapped my coat about Tommy, got him up on my arm, and away to the police office with him: not very easy in my mind, for the poor child, young as he was – he could scarce speak – was full of terror for the ‘office,’ as he called it. He was now very grave and quiet and communicative with me; told me how his father thrashed him, and divers household matters. Whenever he saw a woman on our way he looked after her over my shoulder and then gave his judgment: ‘That’s no her,’ adding sometimes, ‘She has a wean wi’ her.’ Meantime I was telling him how I was going to take him to a gentleman who would find out his mother for him quicker than ever I could, and how he must not be afraid of him, but be brave, as he had been with me. We had just arrived at our destination – we were just under the lamp – when he looked me in the face and said appealingly, ‘He’ll no put – me in the office?’ And I had to assure him that he would not, even as I pushed open the door and took him in.

The serjeant was very nice, and I got Tommy comfortably seated on a bench, and spirited him up with good words and the scone with the currants in it; and then, telling him I was just going out to look for Mammy, I got my greatcoat and slipped away.

Metropolitan police sergeant E. Wilkins, ‘E‘ or Holborn division in London, c. 1865 []

A scone of currants[]

Poor little boy! he was not called for, I learn, until ten this morning. This is very ill written, and I’ve missed half that was picturesque in it; but to say truth, I am very tired and sleepy: it was two before I got to bed. However, you see, I had my excitement.


Monday. – I have written nothing all morning […]; I cannot settle to it. Yes – I will though.

10.45. – And I did. I want to say something more to you about the three women.

Three goddesses (aka ‘The Fates’ in 19th century), from the East pediment of the Parthenon []

I wonder so much why they should have been women, and halt between two opinions in the matter. Sometimes I think it is because they were made by a man for men; sometimes, again, I think there is an abstract reason for it, and there is something more substantive about a woman than ever there can be about a man. I can conceive a great mythical woman, living alone among inaccessible mountain-tops or in some lost island in the pagan seas, and ask no more. Whereas if I hear of a Hercules, I ask after Iole or Dejanira. I cannot think him a man without women. But I can think of these three deep-breasted women, living out all their days on remote hilltops, seeing the white dawn and the purple even, and the world outspread before them for ever, and no more to them for ever than a sight of the eyes, a hearing of the ears, a far-away interest of the inflexible heart, not pausing, not pitying, but austere with a holy austerity, rigid with a calm and passionless rigidity; and I find them none the less women to the end.


The dawn, Isle of Arran []

Sunset, Marsco, isle of Skye []

And think, […] if one could love a woman like that once, see her once grow pale with passion, and once wring your lips out upon hers, would it not be a small thing to die? Not that there is not a passion of a quite other sort, much less epic, far more dramatic and intimate, that comes out of the very frailty of perishable women; out of the lines of suffering that we see written about their eyes, and that we may wipe out if it were but for a moment; out of the thin hands, wrought and tempered in agony to a fineness of perception, that the indifferent or the merely happy cannot know; out of the tragedy that lies about such a love, and the pathetic incompleteness. This is another thing, and perhaps it is a higher. I look over my shoulder at the three great headless Madonnas, and they look back at me and do not move; see me, and through and over me, the foul life of the city dying to its embers already as the night draws on; and over miles and miles of silent country, set here and there with lit towns, thundered through here and there with night expresses scattering fire and smoke; and away to the ends of the earth, and the furthest star, and the blank regions of nothing; and they are not moved. My quiet, great-kneed, deep-breasted, well-draped ladies of Necessity, I give my heart to you! […]

[…] – Ever your faithful friend

Robert Louis Stevenson



Satellite image of Scotland at night, highlighting lit urban areas, shipping vessels, and oil rigs. 2012 []



The faint edge of the Drywall Galaxy Heliosphere on the border of the Interstellar Medium []




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