Our little lives are moments in the wake of the eternal silence: but how crowded while they last

In memory of one of the oldest and most intimate of his friends of Edinburgh days, James Walter Ferrier, who died of alcoholism three weeks before, at the same age as RLS, 33.

The reference to a Mrs. Leslie is possibly a family joke about an Edinburgh friend given to making trite observations.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1146.]

To Elizabeth Ann Ferrier [Colvin 1912, pp. 163-165]

La Solitude, Hyères, 30th Sept. 1883.

My dear Miss Ferrier,

I am very much obliged to you for your letter and was interested by all you told me. Yes, I know it is better for him to be gone, and what you say helps me to realise that it is so — I did not know how much he had suffered; it is so that we are cured of life. I am a little afraid to write or think much of Walter just yet; as I have not quite recovered the news and I have my work and my wife to think of. Some day soon when the sharpness passes off (if it does) I must try to write some more of what he was: he was so little understood. I don’t suppose any one knew him better than I did. But just now it is difficult to think of him. For you I do mourn indeed, and admire your courage: the loss is terrible.I have no portrait of him. Is there one? If so please let me have it: if it has to be copied please let it be. Henley seems to have been as good to dear Walter as he is to all. That introduction was a good turn I did to both.

Henley seems to have been as good to dear Walter as he is to all. That introduction was a good turn I did to both.


William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) [www.engrailed.co.uk/]

It seems so strange for a friendship to begin all these years ago with so much mirth and now to end with this sorrow. Our little lives are moments in the wake of the eternal silence: but how crowded while they last. His has gone down in peace.

[…] I was not certainly the best companion for Walter, but I do believe I was the best he had. In these early days he was not fortunate in friends — looking back I see most clearly how much we both wanted a man of riper wisdom. We had no religion between the pair of us — that was the flaw. How very different was our last intimacy in Gladstone Terrace.


Gladstone Terrace, Edinburgh.

But youth must learn — looking back over these wasted opportunities, I must try rather to remember what I did right, than to bewail the much that I left undone and knew not how to do.

I see that even you have allowed yourself to have regrets. Dear Miss Ferrier, sure you were his angel. We all had something to be glad of, in so far as we had understood and loved and perhaps a little helped the gentle spirit; but you may certainly be proud. He always loved you; and I remember in his worst days spoke of you with great affection; a thing unusual with him; for he was walking very wild and blind and had no true idea whether of himself or life.

The lifting afterwards was beautiful and touching.

Dear Miss Ferrier, I have given your kind messages to my wife who feels for you and reciprocates the hope to meet. When it may come off I know not. I feel almost ashamed to say that I keep better, I feel as if like Mrs. Leslie “you must hate me for it” — still I can very easily throw back whether by fatigue or want of care, and I do not like to build plans for my return to my own land.

Is there no chance of your coming hereabouts? […] Though we cannot in our small and disorderly house offer a lady a room, one can be got close by and we can offer possible board and a most lovely little garden for a lounge.

'Chalet La Solitude', Hyères, France, home of Robert Louis Stevenson from 1882-84 (photo)

‘La Solitude’, RLS’s house at Hyères.


Please remember me kindly to your brother John and Sir A. and Lady Grant and believe me with hearty sympathy — Yours most sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson


Sir Alexander Grant (1826-1884), classical scholar, Principal of Edinburgh University 1868-1884. His wife was Elizabeth Ferrier’s sister, Susan [www.clangrant-us.org/]

I was rejoiced to hear he never doubted of my love, but I must cure my hate of correspondence. This has been a sharp lesson.


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