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John Elwes

A monomaniac  is generally made by dwelling for a long period upon one object with intense interest, to the exclusion of others. By this process, this one object at last occupies the whole soul, fills the entire vision, and makes the mind blind to the relative importance of other things. A man in this condition is insane, and resembles the bedlamite, who, being asked why he was confined, replied, "I thought the world mad, and the world thought me mad, and they outvoted me!" While the world, guided by common sense, assigns to each subject its relative importance, the monomaniac we have imagined, sees but one thing, his own hobby, and pronounces mankind mad because they do not agree with him.

There are a thousand forms and shades of this insanity; one of the most common is displayed by the miser, who has dwelt so long and so intently upon the acquisition of money, that money becomes his idol: he thinks it the supreme good: he has a mad delight in amassing it: his eagerness to increase his store, quenches the lights of the soul—pity, benevolence, charity, and mercy; he is beset by a horrid fear of its being taken from him; and, as age creeps on and weakens his powers of body and mind, the demon of avarice takes possession of the bosom, and, putting out the light of reason, holds its revel in darkness and fear, till death closes the scene.

Of misers, history has furnished us a long list. We are told of M. Osterwald, a wealthy banker of Paris, who died in 1790, of want, yet leaving an estate of 600,000 dollars! When he began life, and bought a bottle of beer for his dinner, he took away the cork in his pocket. He practised this for a long period, and had at last collected such a quantity that they sold for nearly one hundred dollars! A few months before his death, he refused to buy meat for soup. "I should like the soup," said he, "well enough, but I do not want the meat. What, then, is to become of that?" The fear of losing the meat, led him to starve himself; yet, at the very moment, he had 800 assignats, of 200 dollars each, in a silken bag, around his neck!

Another Frenchman, by the name of Fortescue, affords a curious piece of history. He was a farmer-general of the taxes, and amassed an immense fortune by grinding the poor. The government at length called upon him for a considerable sum, but he pleaded poverty. Fearing that some of his neighbors should testify to his wealth, he determined to conceal it. He therefore dug a vault beneath his wine-cellar, where he deposited his gold. He went down to it by a ladder, and fastened the door by a spring lock. One day, while he was in the vault, the door closed, and the lock fastened him in! In vain were his cries for help! There he remained, till, worn out by horror of mind and starvation of body, he perished in the very midst of his heaps of gold! His miserable fate was not known till some years after, when, his house being sold, his bones were discovered in the vault with his treasures.

The celebrated John Elwes, whose portrait we have placed at the head of this article, has furnished a memorable instance of the inconsistency of man. He has showed that the most sordid parsimony may be combined with the greatest negligence and profusion, and that principles of the purest honor may be associated with a degree of meanness, that is utterly degrading to the human character. He was born in London, about the year 1714, his father's name being Meggot. He was educated at Westminster school, and afterwards went to Geneva, where he seems to have led rather a gay life.

On his return to England, his father being dead, he went to live with his uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, a wealthy miser, who resided at Stoke, in Suffolk. In order to make a favorable impression upon his uncle, the nephew doffed his gay attire, at the little inn at Chelmsford, and appeared at Stoke with an old worn-out coat, a tattered waistcoat, darned worsted stockings, and small iron buckles in his shoes. He was received by Sir Harvey with satisfaction, who now adopted him as his heir. Here the two lived together, shivering with a single stick on the fire, occasionally dividing a glass of wine between them, and railing against the extravagance of the times. When night approached, they went to bed, to save the expense of candles!

But at last, Sir Harvey paid the debt of nature, and left his fortune, of more than a million of dollars, to his nephew. John Meggot, who was now about forty years old, adopted his uncle's surname agreeably to the will, and, while he inherited Sir Harvey's parsimony, he still addicted himself to gambling. He became a member of various clubs in London, and often played for very high sums. He once played two days and a night without intermission, the Duke of Northumberland being one of the party; and, as it was the custom among these gamblers in high life to throw aside the cards after being once used—at the close of the sitting, the party were nearly up to their knees in cards.

While Elwes was thus engaged, he had the most grasping desire of money, and, having sat up all night at play with persons of the highest rank, he would walk out at four o'clock in the morning, to Smithfield, to meet his cattle coming to market from his estates in Essex. There, forgetting the scenes he had just left, he would stand in the cold or rain, higgling with the butcher for a shilling. Sometimes, if the beasts had not arrived, he would walk on in the mire to meet them; and more than once he has gone on foot the whole way to his farm, which was seventeen miles from London, without stopping, after sitting up all night.

Mr. Elwes usually resided at Meacham, in Berkshire. In travelling between this place and London, he used to put two or three eggs, boiled hard, with a few crusts of bread, into his great-coat pocket; then, mounting one of his hunters, he would set off, taking the route with the fewest turnpike gates. Avoiding the taverns, he would stop under a hedge, and, while he ate his frugal meal, the horse would refresh himself by nibbling the grass.

Notwithstanding this excessive meanness, Mr. Elwes displayed many instances of generosity. On one occasion, he lent Lord Abington £7000, at a very critical moment, and entirely unsolicited, and when he had little reason to suppose the money would ever be repaid. Beside, he made it a principle never to ask for money which he won at play, and thus he lost many thousands of pounds, which he might have received by demanding it. At the same time, he had an equanimity of temper which nothing could disturb, and a gentleness and urbanity of manner, which never forsook him.

When he was somewhat advanced in life, he dismissed his fox-hounds, retrenched his expenses, and lived in the most parsimonious manner. Riches now rolled in upon him like a torrent; at the same time, his mean, miserly propensities increased. When in London, he would walk home in the rain, rather than pay a shilling for a coach; and sit in his wet clothes, rather than have a fire to dry them. On one occasion, he wore a black wig above a fortnight, which he picked out of a rut in a lane, and which had probably been discarded by a beggar. While the black, stray wig was thus atop of his own gray hair, he one day tore his coat, and, in order to supply himself, resorted to an old chest of Sir Jervaise, his uncle's father. From this, he took the first he came to, which was a full-dress, green, velvet coat, with slashed sleeves. In this attire, he sat down to dinner: not even the solemn severity of his poor old servant could resist the ludicrous effect of his appearance.

In order to invest his immense property, Mr. Elwes erected a great number of buildings in London, particularly about the Hay-Market. He was the founder of a large part of Mary-le-bone, Portman Place, Portman Square, and several of the adjacent streets. It was his custom in town, to occupy any one of his numerous houses that was vacant. Two beds, two chairs, a table and an old woman, comprised all his furniture. Thus he travelled from street to street, and it was often difficult to find him.

One day, his nephew, Colonel Timms, came to town, and, wishing very much to see him, made a long, but ineffectual search for him. At last, he was directed to a particular house, which he found, and knocked loudly at the door, but no answer was returned. He then entered, but all was silent below. On ascending to one of the chambers, he found Mr. Elwes on a shabby pallet bed, in a state of insensibility. The poor old woman, the partner of his journeys, was found lifeless on a rug in one of the garrets, where she had apparently been dead for at least two days, and where she had probably expired for want of the comforts of life. Mr. Elwes, being restored by cordials, stated that he had been sick for a long time, and wondered that the old woman did not come to his assistance.

Notwithstanding the unfavorable traits in Mr. Elwes' character, yet such was the confidence reposed in his integrity, that, without his own solicitation, he was elected a member of the House of Commons, for Berkshire, which he represented for three successive parliaments. Nothing could exceed the rigid fidelity with which he fulfilled his duties here. His vote was always given according to his conscience, and, in all weathers, and during the latest sittings, he was in his seat.

One night, as he was returning from the House of Commons, it being extremely dark, he ran against the pole of a sedan chair, and cut both his legs very badly. As usual, he refused to have medical assistance, but Colonel Timms insisted upon some one being called in. At length he submitted, and a surgeon was sent for, who immediately began to expatiate on the ill consequences of breaking the skin, the good fortune of his being sent for, and the peculiarly bad appearance of the wounds. "Very probable," replied Mr. Elwes, "but, Mr. ——, I have one thing to say to you. In my opinion my legs are not much hurt; now you think they are; so I will make this agreement. I will take one leg, and you shall take the other; you shall do what you please with yours; I will do nothing to mine; and I will wager your bill that my leg gets well before yours." He exultingly beat the surgeon by a fortnight.

About the year 1785, Mr. Elwes paid a visit to his seat at Stoke, which he had not seen for some years. On his arrival, he complained of the expensive furniture of the rooms. To save fire, he would sit with a servant in the kitchen, or walk about the remains of a ruinous greenhouse. During harvest, he amused himself with gleaning the corn upon the grounds of his own tenants. In the autumn, he would pick up stray chips and carry them to the fire in his pocket. On one occasion, he was seen robbing a crow's nest for fuel. He denied himself the common necessaries of life: one day, he dined on a moor-fowl, which a rat had drawn out of a river, and, on another, he ate the undigested part of a pike, which was taken from the stomach of a larger fish, caught in a net.

At last, the powers of life began to decay, and, in the autumn of 1786, his memory entirely failed him. On the 18th of November he sank into a state of extreme debility; yet he lingered till the 26th, when he expired without a sigh, leaving property to the amount of four millions of dollars. More than half of this was bequeathed to his two natural sons; the rest, being entailed, was inherited by Colonel Timms. Such was John Elwes, a singular compound of parsimony and profusion, of generosity and meanness, of honesty and avarice, of virtue and vice.