Letter To The Right Honourable Lord Sheffield
From Letters To Lord Sheffield Part Of Edward Gibbon's Autobiography Edited by Lord Sheffield

Lausanne, July 14, 1789.

Poor Deyverdun is no more: he expired Saturday the 4th instant; and in his unfortunate situation, death could only be viewed by himself, and by his friends, in the light of a consummation devoutly to be wished. Since September he has had a dozen apoplectic strokes, more or less violent: in the intervals between them his strength gradually decayed; every principle of life was exhausted; and had he continued to drag a miserable existence, he must probably have survived the loss of his faculties. Of all misfortunes this was what he himself most apprehended: but his reason was clear and calm to the last; he beheld his approaching dissolution with the firmness of a philosopher. I fancied that time and reflection had prepared me for the event: but the habits of three-and-thirty years' friendship are not so easily broken. The first days, and more especially the first nights, were indeed painful. Last Wednesday and Saturday it would not have been in my power to write. I must now recollect myself, since it is necessary for me not only to impart the news, but to ask your opinion in a very serious and doubtful question, which must be decided without loss of time. I shall state the facts, but as I am on the spot, and as new lights may occur, I do not promise implicit obedience.

Had my poor friend died without a will, a female first cousin settled somewhere in the north of Germany, and whom I believe he had never seen, would have been his heir-at-law. In the next degree he had several cousins; and one of these, an old companion, by name Mr. de Montagny, he has chosen for his heir. As this house and garden was the best and clearest part of poor Deyverdun's fortune; as there is a heavy duty or fine (what they call lods) on every change of property out of the legal descent; as Montagny has a small estate and a large family, it was necessary to make some provision in his favour. The will therefore leaves me the option of enjoying this place during my life, on paying the sum of £250 (I reckon in English money) at present, and an annual rent of £30; or else, of purchasing the house and garden for a sum which, including the duty, will amount to £2,500. If I value the rent of £30 at twelve years' purchase, I may acquire my enjoyment for life at about the rate of £600; and the remaining £1,900 will be the difference between that tenure and absolute perpetual property. As you have never accused me of too much zeal for the interest of posterity, you will easily guess which scale at first preponderated. I deeply felt the advantage of acquiring, for the smaller sum, every possible enjoyment, as long as I myself should be capable of enjoying: I rejected, with acorn, the idea of giving £1,900 for ideal posthumous property; and I deemed it of little moment whose name, after my death, should be inscribed on my house and garden at Lausanne. How often did I repeat to myself the philosophical lines of Pope, which seem to determine the question:

Pray Heaven, cries Swift, it last as you go on;
I wish to God this house had been your own.
Pity to build without or son or wife:
Why, you'll enjoy it only all your life.
Well, if the use be mine, does it concern one,
Whether the name belong to Pope or Vernon?

In this state of self-satisfaction I was not much disturbed by all my real or nominal friends, who exhort me to prefer the right of purchase: among such friends, some are careless and some are ignorant; and the judgement of those who are able and willing to form an opinion, is often biased by some selfish or social affection, by some visible or invisible interest. But my own reflections have gradually and forcibly driven me from my first propensity; and these reflections I will now proceed to enumerate:

(1) I can make this purchase with ease and prudence. As I have had the pleasure of not hearing from you very lately, I flatter myself that you advance on a carpet road, and that almost by the receipt of this letter (July 31) the acres of Buriton will be transmuted into sixteen thousand pounds: if the payment be not absolutely completed by that day, ****** will not scruple, I suppose, depositing the £2,600 at Gosling's, to meet my draught. Should he hesitate, I can desire Darrel to sell quantum sufficit of my short annuities. As soon as the new settlement of my affairs is made, I shall be able, after deducting this sum, to square my expense to my income, etc.

(2) On mature consideration, I am perhaps less selfish and less philosophical than I appear at first sight: indeed, were I not so, it would now be in my power to turn my fortune into life-annuities, and let the Devil take the hindmost. I feel (perhaps it is foolish), but I feel that this little paradise will please me still more when it is absolutely my own; and that I shall be encouraged in every improvement of use or beauty, by the prospect that, after my departure, it will be enjoyed by some person of my own choice. I sometimes reflect with pleasure that my writings will survive me; and that idea is at least as vain and chimerical.

(3) The heir, Mr. de Montagny, is an old acquaintance. My situation of a life-holder is rather new and singular in this country: the laws have not provided for many nice cases which may arise between the landlord and tenant: some I can foresee, others have been suggested, many more I might feel when it would be too late. His right of property might plague and confine me; he might forbid my lending to a friend, inspect my conduct, check my improvements, call for securities, repairs, etc. But if I purchase, I walk on my own terrace fierce and erect, the free master of one of the most delicious spots on the globe.

Should I ever migrate homewards (you stare, but such an event is less improbable than I could have thought it two years ago), this place would be disputed by strangers and natives.

Weigh these reasons, and send me without delay a rational explicit opinion, to which I shall pay such regard as the nature of circumstances will allow. But, alas! when all is determined, I shall possess this house, by whatsoever tenure, without friendship or domestic society. I did not imagine, six years ago, that a plan of life so congenial to my wishes, would so speedily vanish. I cannot write upon any other subject. Adieu. Yours ever.

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