Looking forward through the clouds to the sunburst

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1140.]

To William Ernest Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 157-161]

La Solitude, Hyères, September 19, 1883

Dear boy,

Our letters vigorously cross: you will ere this have received a note to Coggie [= Walter Ferrier’s sister]: God knows what was in it.

It is strange, a little before the first word you sent me – so late – kindly late, I know and feel – I was thinking in my bed, when I knew you I had six friends.


RLS in bed: bronze medallion by American sculptor Augustus St. Gauden, 1887 [www.metmuseum.org/]

Bob I had by nature;


Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (1847-1900), RLS’s cousin and friend [http://stevensonmuseum.org/]

then came the good James Walter [= Ferrier] – with all his failings – the gentleman of the lot, alas to sink so low, alas to do so little, but now, thank God, in his quiet rest; next I found Baxter – well do I remember telling Walter I had unearthed ‘a W.S. that I thought would do’ – it was in the Academy Lane, and he questioned me as to the Signet’s qualifications;


Probable portrait of RLS’s friend and Scottish lawyer Charles Baxter (1848-1919) [http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/]


Signet Library, Edinburgh. The Writers to the Signet were included as Members in the College of Justice, along with the Faculty of Advocates and the Clerks of the Court of Session [https://upload.wikimedia.org/]


fourth came Simpson;


Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson (1843-1898) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/]

somewhere about the same time, I began to get intimate with Jenkin;


Henry Charles Fleeming [pronounced ‘Flemming’] Jenkin (1833-1885) was Professor of Engineering at Edinburgh University. [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/]

last came Colvin.


Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/]

Then, one black winter afternoon, long Leslie Stephen, in his velvet jacket, met me in the Spec, by appointment, took me over to the infirmary, and in the crackling, blighting gaslight showed me that old head whose excellent representation I see before me in the photograph.



Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), author, critic, historian, biographer, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, father of vanessa Bell (b. 1879) and Virginia Woolf (b. 1882) [http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/]


The Spec[ulative Society] was a Scottish Enlightenment society dedicated to public speaking and literary composition, founded in 1764 in the University’s Old College, Edinburgh

Now when a man has six friends, to introduce a seventh is usually hopeless. Yet when you were presented, you took to them and they to you upon the nail. […] You must have been a fine fellow; but what a singular fortune I must have had in my six friends that you should take to all.


William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) [https://s.yimg.com/]

[…] I don’t know if it is good Latin, most probably not: but this is enscrolled before my eyes for Walter: Tandem e nubibus in apricum properat. Rest, I suppose, I know, was all that remained; but O to look back, to remember all the mirth, all the kindness, all the humorous limitations and loved defects of that character; to think that he was young with me, sharing that weather-beaten, Fergussonian youth, looking forward through the clouds to the sunburst; and now clean gone from my path, silent – well, well.


RLS felt a strong sense of kinship with the Edinburgh poet, Robert Fergusson [https://upload.wikimedia.org/]

This has been a strange awakening. Last night, when I was alone in the house, with the window open on the lovely still night, I could have sworn he was in the room with me; I could show you the spot; and, what was very curious, I heard his rich laughter, a thing I had not called to mind for I know not how long.

I see his coral waistcoat studs that he wore the first time he dined in my house;



I see his attitude, leaning back a little, already with something of a portly air, and laughing internally. How I admired him! And now in the West Kirk.


St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh [www.jetrequest.com/]

I am trying to write out this haunting bodily sense of absence; besides, what else should I write of?

Yes, looking back, I think of him as one who was good, though sometimes clouded. He was the only gentle one of all my friends, save perhaps the other Walter. And he was certainly the only modest man among the lot. He never gave himself away; he kept back his secret; there was always a gentle problem behind all. Dear, dear, what a wreck; and yet how pleasant is the retrospect! God doeth all things well, though by what strange, solemn, and murderous contrivances!

It is strange: he was the only man I ever loved who did not habitually interrupt. The fact draws my own portrait. And it is one of the many reasons why I count myself honoured by his friendship. A man like you had to like me; you could not help yourself; but Ferrier was above me, we were not equals; his true self humoured and smiled paternally upon my failings, even as I humoured and sorrowed over his.

Well, first his mother, then himself, they are gone: ‘in their resting graves.’


St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edinburgh [http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/]

When I come to think of it, I do not know what I said to his sister, and I fear to try again. Could you send her this? There is too much both about yourself and me in it; but that, if you do not mind, is but a mark of sincerity. It would let her know how entirely, in the mind of (I suppose) his oldest friend, the good, true Ferrier obliterates the memory of the other, who was only his ‘lunatic brother.’

Judge of this for me, and do as you please; anyway, I will try to write to her again; my last was some kind of scrawl that I could not see for crying. This came upon me, remember, with terrible suddenness; I was surprised by this death; and it is fifteen or sixteen years since first I saw the handsome face in the Spec. I made sure, besides, to have died first.

Love to you, your wife, and her sisters. – Ever yours, dear boy,



I never knew any man so superior to himself as poor James Walter. The best of him only came as a vision, like Corsica from the Corniche.


Corsica as seen from Nice [http://emmanuel.varoquaux.free.fr/]


Corsica as seen from the Continent [http://emmanuel.varoquaux.free.fr/]




Corse as seen from Cap d’Antibes [http://emmanuel.varoquaux.free.fr/]


He never gave his measure either morally or intellectually. The curse was on him. Even his friends did not know him but by fits. I have passed hours with him when he was so wise, good, and sweet, that I never knew the like of it in any other. And for a beautiful good humour he had no match. I remember breaking in upon him once with a whole red-hot story (in my worst manner), pouring words upon him by the hour about some truck not worth an egg that had befallen me; and suddenly, some half hour after, finding that the sweet fellow had some concern of his own of infinitely greater import, that he was patiently and smilingly waiting to consult me on. It sounds nothing; but the courtesy and the unselfishness were perfect. It makes me rage to think how few knew him, and how many had the chance to sneer at their better.

Well, he was not wasted, that we know; though if anything looked liker irony than this fitting of a man out with these rich qualities and faculties to be wrecked and aborted from the very stocks, I do not know the name of it. Yet we see that he has left an influence; the memory of his patient courtesy has often checked me in rudeness; has it not you?

You can form no idea of how handsome Walter was. At twenty he was splendid to see; then, too, he had the sense of power in him, and great hopes; he looked forward, ever jesting of course, but he looked to see himself where he had the right to expect. He believed in himself profoundly; but he never disbelieved in others. To the roughest Highland student he always had his fine, kind, open dignity of manner; and a good word behind his back.

[…] The last time that I saw him before leaving for America – it was a sad blow to both of us […]. When he heard I was leaving, and that might be the last time we might meet – it almost was so – he was terribly upset, and came round at once. We sat late, in Baxter’s empty house, where I was sleeping […].

My dear friend Walter Ferrier: O if I had only written to him more! if only one of us in these last days had been well! But I ever cherished the honour of his friendship, and now when he is gone, I know what I have lost still better. We live on, meaning to meet; but when the hope is gone, the pang comes.



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