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however, he had shown an unsettled disposition ; and his propensity to ramble was such, from his childhood, that when he was only four years old, and under the care of an aunt in Nottingham, he wandered away to a place at some distance, where there was a coffee-house, into which he went, and read the newspapers to the company, by whom he was taken care of, and sent home. This propensity was so strong in him, that it became habitual, and he had run away six or seven times before the last.
“On Sunday, November 8th, 1789, he brought his father a short poem. A watch, which had been promised to him as a reward, was given to him ; his father conversed with him in the most affectionate manner, praised, encouraged him, and told him that, notwithstanding his former errors and wanderings, he was convinced he would become a good and excellent man. But he observed, when taking him by the hand to express his kindness, that the hand of the youth, instead of returning the pressure as usual, remained cold and insensible. This, however, at the moment was supposed to be accidental. He seemed unembarrassed, cheerful, and asked leave without any appearance of design or hesitation to dine with a friend in the city, which was immediately granted. He thanked his father, went down stairs, and several times anxiously inquired whether his father were gone to dress. As soon as he was told that he had left his
room, he went
up stairs again, broke open a drawer, and took out forty pounds. With this, the watch, a pocket-book, and a pair of pistols of his father's, he hastened away to join one of his acquaintances, who was going to the West Indies. He was immediately pursued to Gravesend, but ineffectually. It was not discovered till the following Wednesday that he had taken the money. After several days of the most distressing inquietude, there appeared strong presumptive proof that he, with his acquaintance, was board the Fame,' Captain Carr, then lying in the Downs. The father and a friend immediately set off, and travelled post all Sunday night to Deal. Their information proved true, for he was found to be on board the 'Fame,' where he assumed a false name, though his true situation was known to the Captain. He had spent all his money, except fifteen pounds, in paying for his passage, and purchasing what he thought he wanted. He had declared he would shoot any person who came to take him; but that if his father came he would shoot himself. His youth, for he was but sixteen, made the threat ap
The pistols, pocket-book, and remaining money were locked up in safety for him by his acquaintance. But he had another pair of pistols concealed. Mr. Holcroft and his friend went on board, made inquiries, and understood he was there. He had retired into a dark part of the steerage. When
he was called, and did not answer, a light was sent for; and as he heard the ship's steward, some of the sailors, and his father, approaching, conscious of what he had done, and unbale to bear the presence of his father, and the open shame of detection, he suddenly put an end to his existence.
“ The shock which Mr. Holcroft received was almost mortal. For three days he could not see his own family, and nothing but the love he bore that family could probably have prevented him from sinking under his affliction. He seldom went out of his house for a whole year afterwards; and the impression was never completely effaced from his mind."
After recovering from this calamity, Mr. Holcroft was surprised by one of a totally different nature, which came in the form of an indictment for high treason. Nothing but the panic into which the minds of men were thrown by the crimes and excesses of the first French Revolution can explain the virulence with which every one who stood suspected of cherishing liberty, or desiring reform, was assailed during that evil day. It was the cruel and unreasoning persecution that is born of fear ; and in Mr. Holcroft's case the wrong was more glaring than in that of most others, inasmuch as he was a purely speculative politician, and his speculations, although sufficiently visionary and Utopian, were anything rather than sanguinary or violent,
One of his friends said of him, that he was a sort of natural Quaker. And certainly it would be as wise to prosecute a member of the Peace Society, or a writer on the millenium, as one whose dreams were of the perfectibility of human nature, the extinction of warfare, and the triumph of wisdom and justice upon earth.
He belonged it is true to the Society for Constitutional Reformation, but had moved none of the resolutions, had seldom spoken, and except for his literary eminence was one of the least prominent members of the association. Nevertheless his name, together with those of Hardy, Thelwall, Horne Tooke and eight others, appeared in the Bill presented to the Grand Jury at Hicks’s Hall. Mr. Holcroft in some measure retaliated upon the Crown lawyers the surprise they had occasioned him by unexpectedly presenting himself before Chief Justice Eyre, and surrendering himself to the Court without waiting for the execution of the warrant. The manliness and firmness of his conduct, accompanied by perfect respectfulness and self-command, obtained for him more civility than was shown to the other parties included in the indictment.
The issue is well known. Thomas Hardy the first man put into the dock was acquitted, and the other prisoners were discharged without being brought to trial.
But the effect of this accusation did not terminate
in the Court of Justice. The demon of party hatred was evoked. Even such a man as Mr. Wyndham, high-minded, large-hearted, chivalrous as he was, did not disdain to talk of “ acquitted felons,” and as a dramatic writer Mr. Holcroft was especially amenable to public opinion. Every fresh play was a fresh battle; and a battle, whatever be the issue, is in itself fatal to a great success : so that at last, comedies which had no more to do with politics than “The Merry Wives of Windsor” were fain to be brought out under the name of a fictitious author.
It is not many years ago that I and another lover of the drama, an old and valued friend, were disputing as to the writer of “He's Much to Blame.” Both possessed the play, and both were certain as to the pame printed in the title-page. Neither were wrong. It was the story of the two knights and the shield. My friend's copy was the first edition with the feigned name; mine the seventh, when the ordeal was past, and the true author restored to his rightful place. May Heaven avert from us the renewal of such prejudice and such injustice!
Wearied out with these conflicts, Mr. Holcroft retired first to Hamburgh and then to France, where he resided many years, occasionally sending to England translations of popular foreign books. His last original work was one on France of great merit.