Robert Louis Stevenson
by Margaret Moyes Black
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse



The following Volumes are now ready:—





























In so small a volume it would be somewhat hopeless to attempt an exhaustive notice of R. L. Stevenson, nor would it be desirable. The only possible full biography of him will be the Life in preparation by his intimate friend Mr Sydney Colvin, and for it his friends and his public look eagerly. This little book is only a reminiscence and an appreciation by one who, in the old days between 1869 and 1880, knew him and his home circle well. My earlier and later knowledge has been derived from his mother and those other members of his mother's family with whom it was a pleasure to talk of him, and to exchange news of his sayings and doings.

In the actual writing of this volume, I have received most kind help for which I return grateful thanks to the givers. For the verification of dates and a few other particulars I am indebted to Mr Colvin's able article in the Dictionary of National Biography.

It is dedicated, in the first instance, to the memory of Mr and Mrs Thomas Stevenson and their son, and, in the second, to all the dearly prized friends of the Balfour connection who have either, like the household at 17 Heriot Row, passed into the 'Silent Land,' or who are still here to gladden life with their friendship.































'These are thy works, O father, these thy crown, Whether on high the air be pure they shine Along the yellowing sunset, and all night Among the unnumbered stars of God they shine. Or whether fogs arise, and far and wide The low sea-level drown—each finds a tongue, And all night long the tolling bell resounds. So shine so toll till night be overpast, Till the stars vanish, till the sun return, And in the haven rides the fleet at last.' —R. L. STEVENSON.

In no country in the world is heredity more respected than in Scotland, and her hard-working sons freely acknowledge the debt they owe, for the successes of to-day, to the brave struggle with sterner conditions of life their ancestors waged from generation to generation. We of the present are 'the heirs of all the ages'; but we are also in no small degree the clay from the potter's hands, moulded and kneaded by the natures, physical and mental, of those who have gone before us, and whose lives and circumstances have made us what we are.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson—for so the writer whom the world knows as Robert Louis Stevenson, was baptised—valued greatly this doctrine of heredity, and always bore enthusiastic testimony to the influence his ancestry and antecedents had exercised in moulding his temperament and character. He was proud of that ancestry, with no foolish pride, but rather with that appreciation of all that was noble and worthy in his forefathers, which made him desire to be, in his own widely differing life-work, as good a man as they.

... 'And I—can I be base?'—he says; 'I must arise, O father, and to port Some lost complaining seaman pilot home.'

He had reason to think highly of the honourable name which he received from his father's family. Britain and the whole world has much for which to thank the Stevensons; not only all along our rough north coasts, but in every part of the world where the mariner rejoices to see their beacon's blaze have the firm, who are consulting engineers to the Indian, the New Zealand, and the Japanese Lighthouse Boards, lit those lights of which Rudyard Kipling in his 'Songs of the English,' sings—

'Our brows are bound with spindrift, and the weed is on our knees; Our loins are battered 'neath us by the swinging, smoking seas; From reef and rock and skerry, over headland, ness, and voe, The coastguard lights of England watch the ships of England go.'

Wild and wind-swept are the isles and headlands of the northern half of the sister kingdoms, but from their dreariest points the lights that have been kindled by Robert Stevenson, the hero of Bell Rock fame, and his descendants flash and flame across the sea, and make the name of Stevenson a word of blessing to the storm-tossed sailor.

The author was third in descent from that Robert Stevenson, who, by skill and heroism, planted the lighthouse on the wave-swept Bell Rock—only uncovered for the possibility of work for a short time at low tides—and made safety on the North Sea, where before there had been death and danger, from the cruel cliffs that guard that iron coast.

What child has not thrilled and shivered over the ballad of 'Ralph the Rover,' who, hoping doubtless that the wrecked ships might fall into his own piratical hands, cut the bell which the good monks of Aberbrothock had placed on the fatal rock, and who, by merited justice, was for lack of the bell himself, on his return voyage, lost on that very spot! What boy has not loved the story of one of the greatest engineering feats that patience and skill has ever accomplished!

If other young folk so loved it what a depth of interest must not that noble story have had for the grandson of the hero, whose childish soul was full of chivalry and romance, and whose boyish eyes saw visions of the future and pictures of the past as no ordinary child could see them, for his was the gift of genius, and even the commonplace things of life were glorified to him.

Alan Stevenson, who was the father of Robert, died of fever when in the island of St Christopher on a visit to his brother, who managed the foreign business of the Glasgow West India house with which they were connected. The brother unfortunately dying of the same fever, business matters were somewhat complicated, and Alan's widow and little boy had to endure straitened circumstances. The mother strained every nerve to have her boy, whom she intended for the ministry, well educated, and the lad profited by her self-denial. Her second marriage, however, very fortunately changed her plans for Robert, for her second husband, Mr Smith, had a mechanical bent which led him to make many researches on the subject of lighting and lighthouses, and finding that his stepson shared his tastes, he encouraged him in his engineering and mechanical studies.

The satisfactory results of Mr Smith's researches caused the first Board of Northern Lights to make him their engineer, and he designed Kinnaird Head, the first light they exhibited, and illuminated it in 1787. He was ultimately succeeded as engineer to the Board by his stepson, of Bell Rock fame, and his descendant, Mr David Alan Stevenson, who now holds the post, is the sixth in the family who has done so. Young Stevenson not only became his stepfather's partner but married his eldest daughter, and with her founded a home that was evidently a happy one, for the great engineer was a most unselfish character, and made an excellent husband and father. He was a notable volunteer in the days when a French invasion was greatly feared, and all his life he took a keen interest in the volunteering movement.

Like his son Thomas, Mr Robert Stevenson was a man of much intellect and humour, though of a grave and serious character. He was also a keen Conservative and a loving member of the Established Church of Scotland. He was warmly beloved and his society was greatly sought after by his friends; a voyage of inspection with him on his tours round the coast was much appreciated. On one occasion Sir Walter Scott made one of the party which accompanied him. Mr Robert Stevenson died in July 1850, a few months before the birth of his grandson, Robert Louis.

That this grandson held in high esteem the deeds and sterling qualities of his grandfather is amply proved by his Samoan Letters to Mr Sydney Colvin, published in 1895. In many of them he speaks of the history of his family, which he intended to write, and into which he evidently felt that he could put his best work. Alas! like so much that the brave spirit and the busy brain planned, it was not to be, and the writer passed to his rest without leaving behind him a full record of the workers who had made his name famous.[1]

Mr Alan, Mr David, and Mr Thomas Stevenson worthily handed on the traditions of their father, and in its second generation the lustre of the great engineering family shone undimmed; while now the sons of Alan Stevenson maintain the reputation of their forefathers, and the Stevenson name is still one to conjure with wherever their saving lights shine out across the sea.

Mr Thomas Stevenson served under his brother Alan in building the famous lighthouse of 'Skerryvore,' and with his brother David he built 'The Chickens,' 'Dhu Heartach,' and many 'shore lights' and harbours. He was a notable engineer, widely known and greatly honoured at home and abroad, besides being a very typical Scotsman.

When one thinks of his grand rugged face, and remembers how the stern eyes used to light up with humour and soften with tenderness, as their glance fell on his wife and his son, one realises what a very perfect picture of such a character in its outward sternness and its inward gentleness, lies in those lines of Mr William Watson's, in which he speaks of

'The fierceness that from tenderness is never far.'

Mr Stevenson's broad shoulders, his massive head, his powerful face, reminded one of that enduring grey Scotch stone from which he and his ancestors raised round all our coasts, their lighthouses and harbours.

Strong, grey, silent, these solid blocks resist winds and waves, and so one felt would that powerful reticent nature stand steadfast in life's battle, a tower of strength to those who trusted him. Like his own 'Beacon Lights,' on cliff and headland brilliant gleams of humour bright gems of genius flashed out now and then from the silence. One felt too that safe as the ships in his splendid harbours, would rest family and friends in the strong yet loving heart that could hold secure all that it valued through the tests and changes of time and the conflicts of varying thoughts and opposing opinions. A man of strong prejudices, a man too of varying moods, Mr Stevenson knew what it was at times to endure hours of depression, to suffer from an almost morbidly religious conscience, but he always kept a courageous hold on life and found the best cure for a shadowed soul lay in constant and varied work.

The charming dedication of Familiar Studies of Men and Books is a delightful tribute from the gifted son to the strength and nobility of his father's character.

Highly favoured in his paternal heredity Mr R. L. Stevenson was no less fortunate in his mother and his mother's family.

If strength and force of intellect characterised Mr Thomas Stevenson, his wife, Margaret Balfour, had no less powerful an individuality; in beauty of person, in grace of manner, in the brilliance of a quick and flashing feminine intelligence—that was deep as well as bright—she was a fitting helpmate for her husband, and the very mother to sympathise with and encourage a son whose genius showed itself in quaint sayings, in dainty ways, and in chivalrous thoughts almost from his infancy.

Mrs Stevenson was the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr Lewis Balfour, from 1823 to 1860 minister of Colinton, and of Henrietta Scott Smith, daughter of the minister of Galston. There had been thirteen children in the manse of Colinton, and father and mother had made of the picturesque old house a home in truth as well as in name. Many of these children survived long enough, two of them indeed are still living, to carry the sacred traditions of that happy home out into a world where they made honourable positions for themselves.

After the death of the mother her place was taken by her daughter Jane, that aunt of whom Robert Louis Stevenson wrote so sweetly in his Child's Garden of Verses

'Chief of our Aunts not only I But all your other nurslings cry, What did the other children do? And what were childhood wanting you?'

To other 'motherless bairns,' as well as to her own brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, that most motherly heart and gentle and beautiful soul has been a comfort and a refuge on the thorny highway of life, and many whose love she has earned by the tenderness of her sympathy still call Miss Balfour blessed.

She was a true helper to her father in the motherless home and in his parish work, and in spite of much bad health filled the mother's place in the house and won for herself the undying affection and regard not only of her own family but of her father's parishioners and friends.

A testimony to the high esteem in which her father's memory and hers, and indeed that of all the Balfour family, is still held in Colinton, was given to me a few years ago by the old beadle there. Fond as he was of Dr Lockhart, to speak to him of the Balfours, whom he remembered in his younger days, at once won his attention and regard. On my saying to him it was for their sakes I wished to see the inside of the church he queried with a brightening face:

'Ye'll no be ane o' them, will ye?'

'No' was the reply, 'but they have been so long known and loved they seem like my "ain folk" to me.'

'Aweel come awa' an' see the kirk. Will ye mind o' him?'

Alas! no; for the minister of Colinton had died seven years before my friendship with the Balfours began.

'Eh!' was all the old man said, but that and the shake of his head eloquently expressed what a loss that was for me!

'But ye'll ken her?' meaning Miss Balfour, he queried again, and as I said I did and well, the face brightened with a great brightness.

So, having found a friend in common, together we went over the church and the manse grounds, but, as Dr Lockhart was away from home, I resisted his persuasion to ask leave to go through the house and contented myself with a pleasant talk with him of Dr John Balfour, who had fought the mutineers in India and the cholera at Davidson's Mains, Slateford, and Leven; of Dr George, who is still fighting the ills that flesh is heir to, in Edinburgh; of the sons and daughters of the manse who had gone to their rest; of Mrs Stevenson, then in Samoa with her son, and whose charm of personality made her dear to the old man, and lastly of 'the clivir lad,' her son, who had spent such happy days in the old manse garden.

Of all the children in that large family Maggie, the youngest, was perhaps especially her sister's charge; and one knows, from that elder sister's description, how sweet, and good, and bright the little girl was, and how charming was the face, and how loving the heart of the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson when she too was a child at play in the manse garden. The mother's beauty and that dainty refinement of face and voice which she bequeathed to her son came to her in a long and honourable descent from a family that had for many centuries been noted for the beauty and the sincere goodness of its women, for the godliness and the manliness of its men.

The Rev. Dr Lewis Balfour of Colinton was the third son of Mr Balfour, the Laird of Pilrig. The quaint old house of Pilrig stands a little back from Leith Walk, the date on it is 1638; and the text inscribed on its door-stone, 'For we know, that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God, an house not made with hands eternal in the heavens,' is a fitting motto for a race whose first prominent ancestor was that James Balfour of Reformation times, who not only was a cousin of Melville the Reformer, but who married one of the Melville family. This double tie to those so entwined with the very life of that great period in Scotland's history brought Mr James Balfour into very close communion with such men as Erskine of Dun, the Rev. John Durie, and many others of the Reforming ministers and gentlemen, with whom a member of the Pilrig family, the late James Balfour-Melville, Esq., W.S., in his interesting pamphlet dealing with his family says, that his ancestor had much godly conversation and communing.

The early promise of the race was not belied in its later descendants, and the Balfours were noted for their zeal in religion, and in their country's affairs, as well as for an honourable and prudent application to the business of life on their own account. Andrew Balfour, the minister of Kirknewton, signed the protestation for the Kirk in 1617, and was imprisoned for it. His son James was called to the Scotch Bar, and was a Clerk of Session in Cromwell's time. A son of his was a Governor of the Darien Company, and his son, in turn, purchased the estate of Pilrig where his descendants kept up the godly and honourable traditions of the house, and dispensed a pleasant and a kindly hospitality to their friends in Edinburgh, from whom, at that time, their pretty old home was somewhat distant in the country!

With such an ancestry on both sides one can easily understand the bent of Robert Louis Stevenson's mind towards old things, the curious traditions of Scotch family history and the lone wild moorlands,

'Where about the graves of the martyrs The whaups are calling,'

one can comprehend, too, the attraction for him of the power and the mystery of the sea. All these things came to him as a natural inheritance from those who had gone before, and in the characters who people his books, in Kidnapped, in Catriona, in Weir of Hermiston, we see live again, the folk of that older Edinburgh, whom those bygone Balfours knew.

In the fresh salt breeze that, as it were, blows keen from the sea in Treasure Island, in The Merry Men, and about the sad house of Durrisdeer in The Master of Ballantrae, we recognise the magic wooing of the mighty ocean that made of the Stevensons builders of lighthouses and harbours, and masters of the rough, wild coasts where the waves beat and the spray dashes, and the sea draws all who love it to ride upon its breast in ships.

From the union of two families who have been so long and so honourably known in their different ways, there came much happiness, and one feels somewhat sorry that when Louis Stevenson signed his name to the books by which he is so lovingly remembered, he did not write it in full and spell 'Lewis' in the old-time fashion that was good enough for our Scotch ancestors in the days when many a 'Lewis' drew sword for Gustavus Adolphus, or served as a gentleman volunteer in the wars of France or the Netherlands, and when 'O, send Lewie Gordon hame' rang full of pathos to the Scotch ears, to which the old spelling was familiar. Mr Stevenson's Balfour relatives naturally regret the alteration of the older spelling and the omission of his mother's family name from his signature. With regard to the latter, he himself assured his mother that having merely dropped out the Balfour to shorten a very long name, he greatly regretted having done so, after it was too late, and he had won his literary fame as 'Robert Louis Stevenson,' and much wished that he had invariably written his name as R. L. Balfour Stevenson. The spelling of Lewis he altered when he was about eighteen, in deference to a wish of his father's, as at one time the elder Mr Stevenson had a prejudice against the name of Lewis, so his son thereafter signed himself Louis. That he may have himself also preferred it is very possible; he was fond of all things French, and he may have liked the link to that far off ancestor, the French barber-surgeon who landed at St Andrews to be one of the suite of Cardinal Beaton! In spite of the belief on the part of Robert Louis, who had a fancy to the contrary, the name in the Balfour family was invariably spelt Lewis. His grandfather was christened Lewis, and so the entry of his name remains to this day in the old family Bible at Pilrig; so also it is spelt in that, already mentioned, most interesting pamphlet for private circulation, written by the late James Balfour-Melville, Esq., who gives the name of his uncle, the minister of Colinton, as Lewis Balfour, and so the old clergyman signed himself all his life.


[1] The portion of this family history—Family of Engineers—which Mr Stevenson had completed, at the time of his death, is to be found in 'The Edinburgh Edition' of his works.



... 'With love divine My mother's fingers folded mine.' —FROM VERSES IN AN AMERICAN PAPER.

'We built a ship upon the stairs, All made of the back bedroom chairs; And filled it full of sofa pillows, To go a-sailing on the billows.' —R. L. STEVENSON.

Mr and Mrs Thomas Stevenson, who were married in 1848, made their first home at 8 Howard Place, and there, on 13th November 1850, Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born. In 1853 they moved to a house in Inverleith Terrace, and in 1857, when Louis was about seven years old, they took possession of 17 Heriot Row, the house so long and so intimately associated with them in the minds of their many friends.

The little Louis was from his earliest babyhood a very delicate child, and only the most constant and tender care of his devoted mother and nurse enabled him to survive those first years which must have been so full of anxiety to his parents. In The Child's Garden of Verses there are some lines called 'The Land of Counterpane,' the picture heading of which is a tiny child propped up against his bed pillows, and with all his toys scattered on the coverlet. Beneath it are four verses that give a wonderfully graphic description of the life the little boy too often led.

In the last verse he was a giant who saw before him all 'the pleasant land of counterpane,' and in the very word 'pleasant' the temperament of the child shows itself. How many children would have found anything 'pleasant' in the enforced days of lie-a-bed quietness, and would have made no murmurs over the hard fate which forbade to them the active joys of other boys and girls?

But this small lad had a sweet temper and an unselfish, contented disposition, and so he bore the burden of his bad health as bravely in those days as he did in after years, and made for himself plays and pleasures with his nimble brain while his weary body was often tired and restless in that bed whereof he had so much. His mother used to describe, with the same graphic touch that gives life to all her son wrote, the bright games the little fellow invented for himself when he was well enough to be up and about, and tell how, in a corner of the room, he made for himself a wonder-world all his own, in which heroes and heroines of romance loved and fought and walked and talked at the bidding of the wizard in frock and pinafore.

It was not all indoor life happily, and if there were many bad days there were some good and glad ones also, when he was well and allowed to be out and at play in the world of outdoor life he always loved so dearly.

Two quaint pictures of the child as he was in those days have been supplied by his aunt, Miss Balfour. One of them is from a note-book of his mother's, in which she had jotted down a few things that had been said or written of him. The first interesting description is that given by a very dear old friend of the family, and is an exceedingly early one, for it was written in October 1853, when Louis was barely three, and the family had just settled in Inverleith Terrace.

'One day,' she says, 'I called and missed you, and found Cummie' (the valued nurse) 'and Louis just starting for town, so we walked up together by Canonmills, keeping the middle of the road all the way.'

Louis, she continues, was dressed in a navy blue pelisse trimmed with fur, a beaver hat, a fur ruff, and white gloves. A very quaint little figure he must have been with the thin delicate face and the wonderfully bright eyes, so luminous and far-seeing even then!

The tiny mite repeated hymns all the way, 'emphasising so prettily,' the friend goes on to say, 'with the dear little baby hands. All of a sudden, when near St Mary's Church he stood still, and looking in my face, said:

'"But by-the-bye did I ever give you my likeness?"

'"No," was the reply, "have you got your likeness?"

'"Oh! yes, I will give it you; I will send it by the real post to-morrow."'

'It seemed,' the lady adds, 'as if the wonderful little mind had been considering what other kind thing he could do besides repeating the hymns.'

The whole incident is an excellent example of his sweetness of disposition, and his innate thoughtfulness for others. It is pleasant to know that the pretty promise was fulfilled, Mrs Stevenson herself acting 'postman,' and taking the likeness to her friend next day.

The second picture is from the memory of Miss Balfour herself. She too describes the blue pelisse trimmed with grey astrakhan, which he wore in the winter of 1853 and '54. In the spring of 1854 she went to the Stevensons' house to tell her sister that their father had been given the degree of Doctor of Divinity. The small Louis, on hearing his grandfather spoken of as 'Doctor,' immediately said:

'Now that grandpapa is a doctor, surely you'll have him instead of Dr Hunter?'

A wonderfully quick thought and old-fashioned remark from a child not four years old, but a suggestively sad one too; he already knew so well the necessity of a doctor to help human bodies, although he could not yet comprehend the use of one for the 'cure' of human souls!

When he heard that his aunt was going to see a relative in Saxe Coburg Place, he begged to be allowed to go with her, and, the permission granted, started off in great pride on his very first expedition without his nurse, that faithful friend of the Stevenson family having promised to follow later to take him home. The aunt at least had cause to remember that walk! He had started gloveless, and would not go back for his gloves, but popped his cold hands under the cape of his pelisse, and even then, unconventional as to clothing, said cheerfully:

'That will keep them from John Frost.'

So the pair set out on what proved a chilly and prolonged excursion; for, in spite of all remonstrances, the child calmly sat down on every doorstep and rested till he felt inclined to go on again, to the no small dismay of his aunt, who knew how serious a thing the taking of a cold was to the placid little personage smiling at her from the steps.

During the Crimean war, while he was still a very tiny mite, he, entirely of his own accord, always prayed for the soldiers. When asked by his mother if he would like to be a soldier, his answer was—

'I would neither like to kill nor to be killed,'—a very sensible reason to have been thought out by so young a child.

His aunt says of him—

'I never knew so sweet a child.'

And his mother always said of him that his sweetness and patience were beautiful. On one subject only mother and child sometimes differed. Louis wished her to agree with him that grandpapa's home was the nicest in the world, but the mother maintained their own home was best.

Until his grandfather died in 1860, when he was ten years old, the manse at Colinton was the little boy's favourite abiding place. Here 'Auntie' lived, and near here, too, was the home of the 'sister-cousin,' and her brother who grew up with him, and who, of all the much loved cousins of that large connection, were nearest and dearest in his child-life, and to whom he sings—

'If two may read aright These rhymes of old delight, And house and garden play You two, my cousins, and you only may.

'You in a garden green, With me were king and queen, Were soldier, hunter, tar, And all the thousand things that children are.'

With these two cousins the favourite game was the fleeing from, conquering, and finally slaying a huge giant called Bunker, invented by Louis, who, the trio believed, haunted the manse garden, and required continual killing. One time, on the Bonaly Road, they were shipwrecked hungry sailors, who ate so many buttercups that the little boys were poisoned and became very ill, and the little girl only escaped because she found the flowers too bitter to eat! In the 'Redford burn of happy memories' they sailed ships richly laden with whin pods for vanilla, and yellow lichen for gold. They always hoped to see ghosts, or corpse candles, and were much disappointed they never saw anything more terrible, in the gruesome place where the sexton kept his tools, than a swaying branch of ivy.

Of the tall, pale, venerable grandfather, with his snowy hair, Louis stood a good deal in awe; and he tells us in his charming paper, 'The Manse,' in Memories and Portraits, that he had not much in common with the old man although he felt honoured by his connection with a person reverend enough to enter the pulpit and preach the sermon every Sunday. So many Balfours were scattered over the world, in India and the Colonies, that the old rooms at the manse were full of eastern curiosities and nick-nacks from distant lands dear to the hearts of little folks. And, while the garden was a bower of delight, the house was a veritable treasure trove to the grandchildren from far and near who played in it.

To Robert Louis Stevenson, with his mind full of romance, it must have been a paradise indeed, and one that he admirably pictures in the verses addressed to an Anglo-Indian cousin who, as a married woman, has returned to the India of her birth.

It is worth mentioning—as a note by the way which illustrates that abiding boyishness in Mr Stevenson, so well known to all who knew him—that four particularly hideous Indian idols stood guard at the hall door of 'The Turret,' the house of his uncle, John Balfour, at Leven. Two of them were life-size with their hands discreetly folded in prayer, two of them were smaller and made in a kneeling posture, and, as something rattled if you shook them, it was our juvenile belief that treasure was concealed inside their bodies. This idea Mr R. L. Stevenson eagerly fostered in the slightly younger generation, and, with the love of harmless mischief natural to him, implored us to 'rattle them soundly when we were about it!'

In the manse garden at Colinton there was a mysterious and delightful gap that gave egress to the Water of Leith, and to pass through this and stray, out of safe and guarded precincts, into a wide and wet world beyond was a keen pleasure to the little boy whose gipsy instincts were already loudly calling to him to take 'the road' his wandering soul so dearly loved.

'Keepsake Mill' is a charming tribute to the joys of those illicit escapes and to the memories of the cousin playfellows now scattered in far lands, or for ever at rest from life's labour, who played in the garden where the delicate bright-eyed lad was the inventor and leader in their games.

One sweet fancy of the imaginative child, who all his life had a fine mental and physical courage in spite of his delicacy, is still recalled by his 'sister-cousin'; the graveyard wall was at one place high above the garden it partially enclosed, and the little boy, afflicted with no superstitious terrors, had an idea that the souls of the dead people at rest in 'God's acre,' peeped out at him from the chinks of the wall. And one feels sure that here as all through his life, shadowed by so much of suffering, he held fast, after a fashion of his own, the belief that goes deeper than his playful rendering of it in The Unseen Playmate seems at first to infer:

'Whene'er you're happy and cannot tell why, The Friend of the children is sure to be by.'

A faith that was taught him by an earnest father and by the loving voice of a mother who held it fast through her own happy childhood and the joys and sorrows that as wife and mother came to her in later years.

After the death of the Rev. Dr Balfour, in April 1860, the manse ceased to be the second home of Louis Stevenson, and in the November of that year his aunt, Miss Balfour, and the nephews and nieces who stayed with her moved to a house in Howard Place.

In 1858 he went to school, and from 1860 to 1861 he and his cousin, Lewis Charles Balfour, were together at Mr Henderson's preparatory school in India Street from which both went to the Academy in 1861. Of Lewis Stevenson,—who in later life was always called Louis or Lou by his family and friends,—Mr Henderson reports: 'Robert's reading is not loud, but impressive.'

In July he was in bed with scarlet fever on his examination day, which was a great disappointment to him. He had a first prize for reading that year; but his zeal over school and lessons was very short-lived, and he never hungered for scholastic honours.

As a child he did not learn quickly, and he was in his eighth year before he could read fluently for himself. Nevertheless his especial bent showed itself early, and when in his sixth year he dictated a History of Moses, which he illustrated, giving the men pipes in their mouths. This, and an account of Travels in Perth, composed in his ninth year, are still in existence. The History of Moses was written because an uncle had offered a prize to his own children for the best paper on the subject, and the little Louis was so disappointed at not being asked to compete that he was finally included among the competitors, and did a paper which though not best was still good and which was given a prize. He had begun to print it for himself, with much toil, but his mother offered to write it out from his dictation. Another composition of this time was a fierce story of shipwreck and fighting with savages.

In 1863 he was sent for a few months to a boarding school kept by a Mr Wyatt at Spring Grove, near London. Life at a boarding school was misery to a lad so fond of wandering at his own sweet will as the small Louis, and he was full of distress at the prospect of leaving home. In Random Memories he gives his ideas as to going to school, and expresses his belief that it is not so much the first night or day at school that is so terrible to a courageous child, as the dismay at the thought of leaving home with its familiar life and surroundings, and the painful suspense for some days before the plunge into the new world of school is taken. It was, he says, this miserable feeling of suspense that made him share his sorrows with a desolate, but amiable cat in the Easter Road, which mingled its woes with his and as it purred against him consoled him.

His tender-hearted parents were so touched by his evident affliction, and especially by the little story of the cat that his father took him a trip round the coast of Fife in The Pharos and he thus made an early and delightful acquaintance with some of the lights and harbours which his father had gone to inspect.

Although the cousin, Lewis Charles Balfour, who had been his schoolfellow in Edinburgh, and two of his younger brothers were day pupils at the Spring Grove School, and his aunt, Miss Balfour, was living near, he became very homesick and unhappy, and the regular school work, with its impositions and punishments, fretted him and made him so ill, that in December his father, who had been at Mentone with his mother, hastily returned and took him away from school. It was too late, however, the few months had been too great a trial for his health, and he had a serious illness, during which, Dr Henry Bennett prescribed some very bracing treatment of which the youthful patient highly disapproved.

Of the home where so much consideration was shown to a child's health and feelings, no better description can be given than the graphic one of a little Stevenson cousin who had gone with his parents to stay there, and who thus spoke of it: 'A child who never cries, a nurse who is never cross, and late dinners.'

Can one imagine a dignified, childish paradise that could go much further! Nor were the joys of books awanting to the happy small boy who describes himself as in early days being carried off by his nurse

'To bed with backward looks, At my dear world of story books.'

As soon as he had learned to read he was an eager and an omnivorous reader, and could, from his eighth year, pass happy hours with a book, any book so long as it did not mean lessons.

He was before very long a book-buyer as well as a book-lover, and he has for ever immortalised, in the charming pages of A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured, that old bookshop (late J. L. Smith) at the corner of Leith Walk, where eager boys without coppers were but coldly received, but whence the fortunate capitalist could emerge, after having spent his Saturday pocket-money, the proud possessor of plays positively bristling with pirates and highwaymen. With these treasures he fled home in the gathering dusk, while 'Leerie-Light-the-Lamps' was kindling his cheery beacons along the streets, and, with pleasant terrors, devoured the weird productions, finally adding to their weirdness by the garish contents of a child's paint-box.



'A boy's will is the wind's will, And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.' —LONGFELLOW.

... 'Strange enchantments from the past And memories of the friends of old, And strong tradition binding fast The "flying terms" with bands of gold.' —ANDREW LANG.

The years 1861 and 1862 found Louis, with his childhood left behind him, a boy among other boys who sat on the forms and who played in the yards of the Academy, at which, during the greater part of the present century, many of the sons of Edinburgh men, and indeed of Scotsmen everywhere at home and abroad, have received their education.

From 1864 to 1867 he was principally at a Mr Thompson's school in Frederick Street, and he studied from time to time with private tutors at the different places to which his parents went for the benefit of their own health or his. These rather uncommon educational experiences were of far more value to him in after life than a steady attendance at any one school, as they made him an excellent linguist and gave him, from very youthful years, a wide knowledge of foreign life and foreign manners. In 1862 the Stevenson family visited Holland and Germany, in 1863 they were in Italy, in 1864 in the Riviera, and at Torquay for some months during the winter of 1865 and 1866; but after 1867 the family life became more settled and was chiefly passed between Edinburgh and Swanston.

In those days Louis was a lean, slim lad, inclined to be tall, and with soft, somewhat lank, brown hair and brown eyes of a shade that seemed to deepen and change with every passing impression of his quick working brain. His features were rather long, the upper part of his narrow face was delicately formed like his mother's, but the lips were full, and a more virile strength in chin and jaw faintly reminded one of his father's powerful physiognomy.

He had opinions of his own in regard to education, and they by no means led him to consider a strict attendance at school or a close application to lessons as necessary for his future life-work. He read, it is true, voraciously, but it was hardly on the lines of the sternly respectable classical curriculum which his tutors or the Academy offered him. He was an historical student after a fashion of his own, dipping deep into such books of bygone romance as Sir Walter Scott had conned and loved. His geography at that time took a purely practical and somewhat limited form, and resolved itself into locating correctly the places and abodes sacred to the characters in his favourite books.

In the delightful dedication of Catriona,—to Mr Charles Baxter, W.S., Edinburgh, who was his life-long friend—he describes those pilgrimages charmingly, and one can, in imagination, see the eager lads wandering in search of famous 'streets and numbered houses,' made historic for them by some such magic pen as that which has for ever made sacred the Old Tolbooth or the Heart of Midlothian, from the coblestones of which, in the pavement of St Giles and near the Parliament House, one reverently steps aside lest careless feet should touch that memento of the past. One can picture too as he himself does, the romantic boys of to-day following the wanderings of David Balfour by Broughton and Silver-mills, the Water of Leith, the Hawes Inn at Queensferry, and the wind-swept shores of the Forth. But one can still more clearly see that slim, brown-eyed youth—a-quiver with the eagerness that was so conspicuous a characteristic of his,—as in these very places he remembered bygone tales and even then formed plans for, and saw visions of, his own stories yet to be.

One can think of him with his eyes shining, and his face luminous, as he held forth to some choice friend, of sympathetic soul, on all these things of which his heart and brain were so full. One knows that when his walks were solitary his time was already put to a good account, and that the note-books which even then he carried in his pocket were in constant requisition.

The boy, from the very first, felt a strong leading to the profession of letters, which he ultimately followed; and he describes himself as from very early boyhood having been given to make notes for possible romances, and to choose words of peculiar fitness for the purpose he had in hand, as well as to weave tales of thrilling adventure.

Style was from the first a passion with him; and the lad had already begun in these juvenile note-books that careful choice of words and language which was at the very outset of his literary career to make so competent a critic as Mr Hamerton call him one of the greatest living masters of English prose. That he became something of a master in verse also those few thin volumes of deep thoughts, in a setting of fitly chosen words and rhymes, which he has published, amply prove.

To return, however, to the boy who went to the Academy, or rather who did not go to the Academy, for he had a faculty for playing truant which must have been extraordinarily provoking to parents and masters. No sooner was he out of the door in the morning than he could truly say—

'I heard the winds, with unseen feet, Pass up the long and weary street,

'They say "We come from hill and glen To touch the brows of toiling men."

'That each may know and feel we bring The faint first breathings of the spring.'

And the voice of the spring thus calling him as soon as it was heard, was obeyed; and, careless of the frowns that were bound to greet his return, he was off to wander on his beloved Braids and Pentlands, to lie long days among the whin and the broom, or to slip away to watch the busy shipping on the Forth, and to think deep thoughts beside the wave-washed shore of that sea which ever drew him like the voice of a familiar friend.

To that intense love of Nature, and of Nature's solitude, his readers owe much, and we to-day may all say with the writer who gave such an interesting description of Swanston in Good Words in the spring of 1895, that those truant hours of his educated him for his future work far better than a careful attendance at school and college could have done. The same writer says that it was this open air life that he loved so dearly which gave to Stevenson's books their large leisure, and to his style its dignity. There is much truth in the remark; but as far as the style is concerned it is the product of time and thought, and it was most carefully and diligently formed by labour so earnest and painstaking, that few authors can even conceive of it.

In Memories and Portraits Mr Stevenson gives a delightful account of boyish days at a seaside resort, that is evidently North Berwick, and lovingly describes adventures with bull's-eye lanterns; adventures which seem to be intimately associated with the young folk of his connection, and which repeated themselves a few years later on the other side of the Forth, where boys and girls recalled the doings of Robert Louis and his friends with bull's-eye lanterns and gunpowder, in that cheerful form known to Louis Stevenson as a 'peeoy,' and considered it a point of honour to do likewise, no matter how indignant such mischief made the authorities. As for him, he was always the inventor and prime mover in every mischievous escapade the heart of youth could glory in.

The wind-swept coast about North Berwick had a strong fascination for him, and in several of his books we feel the salt breeze blowing in from the sea, across the bents, and hear the sea birds crying on the lonely shore. The autumn holidays were a great joy to him, and another epoch-making event must have been the taking of Swanston Cottage, in May 1867, to be the summer home of the Stevensons.

The boy took intense pleasure in his rambles about the hills, in his dreamy rests on 'Kirk Yetton'[2] and 'Allermuir,' and in his wanderings with John Todd, the shepherd, after that worthy had ceased, as he comically puts it, to hunt him off as a dangerous sheep-scarer, and so to play 'Claverhouse to his Covenanter'! The two soon became great friends, and many a bit of strange philosophy, many a wild tale of bygone droving days the lad heard from the old man. Another great friend of early Swanston years was Robert Young, the gardener, whose austere and Puritan views of life were solemnly shared with his young master.

Existence at Swanston was even more provocative of truant-playing than it had been in Edinburgh, and Louis, in his later school days and his early sessions at the University, was more than ever conspicuous by his absence from classes, more lovingly wedded to long hours among the hills, long rambles about the 'Old Town,' the Figgate Whins, the port of Leith, and the rapidly changing localities round Leith Walk, somewhat back from which, Pilrig, the ancient home of his ancestors, still stands gravely retired from the work-a-day world.

In the year 1867 he went with his father to the 'Dhu Heartach' Lighthouse, and so began to develop that passion for the Western Isles and the Western seas which future voyages in The Pharos were to bring to the state of fervour and perfection which gave birth of The Merrymen, and to those descriptions of the wild and lovely scenery of Appin and the West Highlands, in which David Balfour and Alan Breck wander through the pages of Kidnapped.

It was his father's intention that he should follow the family profession of engineering, and with this in view he went to the Edinburgh University in the autumn of 1868. The professors in those days included Professors Kelland, Tait, Crum-Brown, Fleeming-Jenkin, Blackie, Masson, and many others whose names are still remembered as 'a sweet-smelling savour' in that Edinburgh which they and the truant student, who honoured his class attendance 'more in the breach than the observance,' loved so well.

It was a stirring time at the University, and the students who warred manfully against the innovation of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake and the pioneers of the Lady Doctors' movement, were, it would seem on looking back, scarcely so mildly mannered, so peacefully inclined as those who now sit placidly beside 'the sweet girl graduates' of our day, on the class-room benches, and acknowledge the reign of the lady doctor as an accomplished fact. A torchlight procession of modern times is apparently a cheerful and picturesque function, smiled on by the authorities, and welcomed as a rather unique means of doing honour to a new Lord Rector or some famous guest of the city or the University. In Mr Stevenson's time, a torchlight procession had all the joys of 'forbidden fruit' to the merry lads who braved the police and the professors for the pleasure of marching through the streets to the final bonfire on the Calton Hill, from the scrimmage round which they emerged with clothes well oiled and singed, and faces and hands as black as much besmearing could make them; while anxious friends at home trembled lest a night in the police cells should be the reward of the ringleaders.

Of one such procession, in the spring when Mr Stevenson's law studies were first interrupted by a journey south for his health, a clever student wrote an epic which was presented to me by one of Louis Stevenson's Balfour cousins as something very precious! The occasion was the Duke of Edinburgh's wedding, in 1874, and, yellow and faded, the Epic still graces my Every Day Book, and, as one reads its inspiriting lines, one sees again those bygone days in which the slim figure and eager face of Louis Stevenson are always so conspicuous in every memory of the old, grey city of his birth.

The following lines from the clever skit give a really excellent picture of the college life in his day.

... 'A deputation we Sent hither by the students to demand That they—that is the students—in a band May march, illumed by torches flaring bright, Along the leading streets on Friday night. Brave was the Provost, yet towards his heart The glowing life blood thrilled with sudden start; Well might he tremble at the name he heard, The Students! Kings might tremble at the word! He thought of all the terrors of the past, Of that fell row in Blackie's, April last— Of Simpson wight, and Stirling-Maxwell too, Of Miss Jex-Blake and all her lovely crew— He thought, "If thus these desperadoes dare To act with ladies, learned, young and fair, Old women, like the Councillors and me, To direr torments still reserved may be. The better part of valour is discretion, I'll try to soften them by prompt concession." Then coughing thrice, impression due to make And clear his throat, in accents mild he spake, "Ye have my leave, 'V.R.,' I mean 'D.V.'" The students bowed, retired, and he was free.'

The High Sheriff and the Chief of Police, when they heard of the Provost's weakness, were filled with wrath and dismay, and very promptly insisted on his lordship taking back the concession, so that this historic procession was as much 'forbidden fruit' as its predecessors, and the students probably enjoyed it the more that they had as usual to dare all those in authority to carry it out.

Another old-time enjoyment of that date was a snowball fight. Whether snow is less plentiful, or students are too cultured and too refined for these rough pastimes it is impossible to say, but certain it is that a really great snowball fight is also a thing of the past. In those days they were Homeric combats, and a source of keen enjoyment to Robert Louis Stevenson, a very funny account of whom, on one of these occasions, was given me at the time by his cousin, Lewis Balfour, from Leven, himself a jovial medical student enjoying an active part in the melee. On the occasion of a great battle in the winter of 1869—or 1870—Mr Stevenson and one or two men, now well known in various professions, had seated themselves on a ledge in the quadrangle to watch the fight. From this vantage ground they encouraged the combatants, but took no active part in the fray. Within swarmed the students armed with snowballs, without, the lads of the town, equally active, stormed the gates. All were too intent on the battle to notice the advent of the police, who rushed into the college quadrangle and made prisoners where they could. Craning his neck too much, in his keen enjoyment, Mr Stevenson overbalanced himself, slipped from his perch and was promptly captured by 'a bobby,' and, in spite of gallant efforts for his rescue, was ignominiously marched off to the Police Office at the very moment that his blandly unconscious mother was driving up the Bridges. It was useless for his attendant friends to assert that he had been a non-combatant. Was he not taken in the very thick of the fight? The police had him and they meant to keep him for he could not produce sufficient bail from his somewhat empty pockets. His cousin and his friends, by leaving all their stray coins, their watches and other valuables, managed to secure his release so that he had not the experience—which it is possible he might have enjoyed—of passing a night in the police cells of his native city.

In his introduction to the Memoirs of Professor Fleeming-Jenkin, he himself tells a good story of his relations with that Professor, who was always a true and appreciative friend to his clever if idle student. He had handed in so few cards at the class of Engineering that his certificate was not forthcoming until he told his friend that his father would be very vexed if he could not produce the certificate—which he never intended to use—whereat the tender-hearted Professor handed it to him.

Another prime favourite of his among the Professors was Professor Kelland; and one can well understand the attraction which the dainty, gentle refinement of that most kind-hearted of men had for a nature so akin to it as young Stevenson's. All Professor Kelland's students loved him; this one understood him also. Professor Masson was one of the giants of those days whom he was also most capable of appreciating, and whose lectures he occasionally attended although not a member of his class; and, himself not without his amiable eccentricities, he could not fail to have a soft spot in his heart for the quaint humour and the pleasant eccentricity which endeared Professor Blackie to his class and to the public. He was a poor attender at the Greek Class, however, and when he presented himself for his certificate the keen blue eyes of the Professor looked at him critically, and the Professor's remark was that he had been so seldom present at lectures it was hardly possible to recognise his face!

Many of the students of that day have taken a good place in the world; some of them have long ere now left the things of time behind them; one or two of them Mr Stevenson has pictured in his graphic pages. Several of them regarded him as an interesting personality, but very few of them suspected that he was 'the chiel amang them takin' notes' for future work that would bring world-wide fame, not only to himself, but to his University and to the city of his birth.

On the 2nd March 1869 he was proposed by George Melville, Esq., Advocate, as a member of the Speculative Society, and we know from Memories and Portraits how much he appreciated his membership of that Society, which has in its day included in the roll, on which his name stood No. 992, most of the men whose names are honoured in Scotland's capital, and many of whom the fame and the memory are revered in far places of the earth. That he might smoke in the hall of the Speculative, in the very stronghold of University authority, he playfully professes to have been his chief pleasure in the thing; but other men, to whom his earnest face, his eagerness in debate, made one of the pleasures of its meetings, tell another story, and it was commonly said in those days that there would always be something of interest in hand if Stevenson took a part in it.

When he forsook the profession of engineering, Mr Stevenson attended the Law classes at the University, with the intention of being called to the Bar, but it is not on record that he was a more exemplary student of law than he had been of engineering, and he still found more satisfaction in his truant rambles and his meditations in old graveyards than he did in the legitimate study of his profession.


[2] Cairketton is the form used in the Ordnance Survey.



'Blessed are his parents in a son, so graced in face and figure And of mind so wise.' —LORD DERBY'S TRANSLATION OF The Iliad.

That was one of the quotations by which in those days we were wont to describe Mr Stevenson. Strictly speaking, perhaps he was not a handsome man. He was too slim, too ethereal, if one may use the term, to attain to anything sufficiently commonplace to be described as merely handsome. But he was indeed 'graced in face and figure,' for he possessed that rare attribute distinction, and his face, with its wonderfully luminous eyes, its ever changing expression, had a beauty peculiar to itself, and one which harmonised perfectly with the quaint wisdom of his mind.

That wisdom was so deep, yet so whimsical, so peculiar and so many-sided that one can only apply to its possessor another quotation half indignantly thrown at him, when he was too successful in argument, by an acquaintance of his, whose quick wit had a great charm for him.

'We gaze and still the wonder grows That one small head can carry all he knows.'

He bowed to the compliment, he demurred as to the smallness of his head, and he enjoyed the quotation immensely. With the same opponent he once tried a competition in verse-making. Both showed considerable skill, but the umpire decided that Louis had won, so he bore off in triumph the prize of a bottle of olives, and was only sorry that he could not compel the loser to share his feast, which he well knew would be as abhorrent to her as it was delightful to him.

With Edinburgh, wind-swept and grey, with its biting breeze, its swirling dust of March, there will always be associated in my mind certain memories of Robert Louis Stevenson, and of that happy home of the Stevenson family, 17 Heriot Row. In summer sunshine Swanston, lying cosily at the foot of the Pentlands, claimed them year by year, but every winter found them, for business or pleasure, established in that most homelike house, the windows of which, to the front, looked into the Heriot Row gardens, and at the back, from that upper flat where was the book-lined study of the son of the house, snatched a glimpse, over roofs and chimney cans, of the gold-fringed shores of Fife.

Across the blue Forth in Fife, at the little seaside town of Leven, well known to golfing fame, there had settled in 1866 an uncle of R. L. Stevenson, Dr John Balfour, who was noted for his gallantry and skill throughout the Indian Mutiny, and in more than one outbreak of cholera in India and at home. Of the town and the man Mr Stevenson gives a graphic picture in Random Memories, when describing a visit to the Fife coast, where his father was making an inspection of lights and harbours.

In 1849 when home on leave Dr Balfour volunteered to go to Davidson's Mains, in the parish of Cramond, where as a specialist in cholera symptoms he was amazed to find the outbreak as virulent and as fatal as the Asiatic cholera he had seen in India. In 1866, when another wave of cholera swept over Britain, he was asked to go to Slateford, where he coped with its ravages almost single-handed, saving life in every case after he went, except those already too far gone before his arrival. In late autumn of the same year the scourge broke out seriously in the small towns on the coast of Fife, and Dr Balfour went to Leven, where the doctor had just died of it, and a state of panic prevailed, and there too he succeeded in quickly stamping it out.

Having retired from his Indian appointment he felt idle time hang heavy on hand, so he acceded to the request of the inhabitants and went to Leven to take up practice there. His wife, who was a cousin of his own, and their four children, shortly after followed him from Edinburgh, and he built a house called 'The Turret' there, where he remained until his greatly lamented death in 1887.

There from childhood I grew up in intimate friendship with the young Balfours, and went out and in to the doctor's house, receiving in it such kindness from parents and children that it was regarded by me as a second home, and its inmates were looked upon as one's 'ain folk.' As one's 'ain folk,' too, by-and-bye, were regarded those other Balfour families, notably Dr George W. Balfour's household and Miss Balfour, and the nephews and nieces who had their home with her—who made of the little Fife town their holiday resort. Later an Edinburgh school and long visits to Edinburgh relatives made the Scotch capital as familiar to me as Fife; and then the Stevenson family in their home at Heriot Row were added to the little circle of friends, now, alas! so thinned by grievous blanks. Old and young have passed into 'The Silent Land,' and life is infinitely the poorer for those severed friendships—those lost regards of early days.

Not a few of the old folk were notable in their time, some of the younger generation have made, or mean to make, some stir in the world. But round none of them gathers so much of romance of honour and of distinction as about Robert Louis Stevenson, who used to visit his uncle's house in Leven, doubtless from one of those expeditions to Anstruther, of which he tells us that he spent his time by day in giving a perfunctory attention to the harbour, at which his father's firm were working, and lived his real life by night scribbling romances in his lodgings. It is on record that he felt a thrill of well-merited pride when an Anstruther small boy pointed to him, as he stood beside the workmen, and said: 'There's the man that's takin' charge.' But he assuredly knew more of pleasure in his hours of scribbling than in his hours of inspection, although the out-of-door, wind-swept, wave-splashed part of engineering was never so abhorrent to him as office work. In the office he was known very little; but tradition has it that a small pile of evil spellings is still treasured there as a characteristic memento of the genius, and the thought has been known to comfort the sad hearts of other apprentice engineers afflicted with a like shakiness in their orthography, that the now much appreciated man of letters once shared their melancholy failing.

Stories of all sorts were handed about in our little clique of the wondrous Robert Louis whose sayings and doings were already precious to an appreciative circle of relatives and friends. But it was not till sometime in the autumn of 1869 that he first became personally known to me.

The introduction took place on a September afternoon in the drawing-room of 'The Turret,' and he inspired a great deal of awe in a youthful admirer who even then had literary aspirations, and who therefore looked up to him with much respect as someone who already wrote. From that time he was regarded as one of the quaintest, the most original and the most charming personalities among one's acquaintances. There was about him, in those days, a whimsical affectation, a touch of purely delightful vanity that never wholly left him in later life, and that far from repelling, as it would have done in any one more commonplace, was so intrinsically a part of his artistic nature that it was rather attractive than otherwise. Full of delightful humour, his idlest sayings—when he took the trouble to say anything which he frequently did not!—were teeming with the elements not only of laughter but of thought, and you wondered, long after you had talked with him, why it was that you saw new lights on things, and found food for mirth and matter for reflection where neither had suggested itself before.

In those days he was not only original himself, but he had to a great degree that rare faculty of bringing to the surface in others the very smallest spark of originality, and of remembering it and appreciating it in a way that was stimulating and helpful to those who had the pleasure of knowing him. When the little seaside town was empty of visitors, and it was not time to pay Edinburgh visits for the season, in February and March, one kindness of his was very greatly prized by some of us who beguiled the tedium of the winter months by writing for and conducting an amateur magazine, called Ours. For this, in 1872 and 1873, Mr Stevenson gave us a short contribution, The Nun of Aberhuern, a trifle in his own graceful style, which, as he was even then beginning to be known in the world of letters, we valued much. Moreover, he took a friendly interest in the sheets of blue MS. paper so closely written over with our somewhat juvenile productions, and made here a criticism, there a prediction, which has not been without its effect on the future work of some of us.

Mr Stevenson was always kind and always sympathetic; he laughed at your follies of course, but he did it so pleasantly that the laughter seemed almost a compliment, and the kindness was more memorable than the mirth. In one among his juniors at least, imbued like himself with a love of old-time romance and of ancient story, he inspired a passion of gratitude that abides to this day. Mr Stevenson not only never laughed, as the other boys and girls did, nor treated the memory of delightful childish plays with contempt, as was the fashion of the generation just grown up, he never even smiled over the unfeminine tastes of a child who went pirate-hunting in an upturned table with a towel for a sail and dried orange skins for provender—or whose dolls were not treated as those dainty girlish playthings ought to be, as pretty babies and gay society dames, but figured as the tattered and battered followers of Prince Charlie—himself a hero very much the worse for the wear in a plaid and a kilt!—after Culloden. Or, in gayer moods, the same dolls attended his receptions at Holyrood in garish garments, or masqueraded as Mary Queen of Scots and her four Maries in that 'turret chamber high of ancient Holyrood' where 'she summoned Rizzio with his lute and bade the minstrel play.'

Mr Stevenson listened gravely to all these things. He professed a real interest in them. He even remembered the names of the puppets and the parts they had played, and so gained for himself an enduring niche in the heart that had bitterly resented the mockery of the others. It is quite possible that a nature so gentle and so appreciative as his really felt the sympathy. The juniors are rarely mistaken as to the genuineness of the feelings of their elders, and his interest certainly rang true to the youthful mind. He had been himself a delicate child, so he was capable of understanding how many weary and solitary hours the romantic plays had filled pleasantly.

It is not a memory of much moment, perhaps, but it shows that even at an age when most young men are too keenly concerned with themselves and their own affairs to take much trouble for those who are a few years their juniors, Mr Stevenson had thought and sympathy to spare for the small joys and sorrows, the interests, and the 'make-believes' that had amused a lonely child, and which, after all, in one form or another, make up a good deal of life to most of us.

One is inclined to gather from his books, and from the statements accredited to him in magazines and newspapers, that he never took women very seriously. He may not have done so—save those who were very near and dear to him, and they were set in a sacred shrine of their own—but he certainly always treated women very charmingly; and the young girl relatives and friends, who were accustomed to be much in his home circle, had never any reason to complain of the lack of the most dainty and courtly attentions or of a most constant and spontaneous kindness from the somewhat solemn youth, who, like other youths of twenty, considered that it showed a great knowledge of the world to affect a rather cynical disdain of the feminine half of humanity. In himself there was, curiously enough, always a reminder of the feminine; an almost girlish look passed now and again, in those days, over the thin delicately-tinted face, and a womanly gentleness in voice and manner reminded one of his mother.

The same ready sympathy, the same power, as it were, of putting himself into a friend's place and entering with heart and soul into the affairs of others which made him so interested a listener to a young girl's story of her childhood's plays, made him in his later years the friend of the Samoans, the champion of Samoan liberties, and, all through his life, the one man whom the men and women who knew him loved with the love that is only given to the very few, and those the few, too often, whose death in life's prime, or before it, prove them to have been among those whom the old poet tells us 'the gods love.'

Nothing at this time was more remarkable in Mr Stevenson than his extraordinary youthfulness of mind. At an age when other young men affect to be blase and world weary he was delightfully and fearlessly boyish. Boyish even in his occasional half-comic solemnity of appearance; he was boyish likewise in his charming jests and jokes, and, above all, in his hearty delight in any outdoor 'ploy' that came in his way.

A comical instance of this nearness of the boy to the surface in him displayed itself one grey east-windy afternoon at Leven, when one saw quite another side to him than the literary and dilettante one displayed, with something of a mannered affectation, the day before in 'The Turret' drawing-room. He had walked down to the sands with his aunt and there were assembled various younger members of the Balfour clique, and some whom age and sex ought perhaps to have taught to despise, though it had not, the hoydenish pleasures of 'a sea-house.' A 'sea-house,' for the benefit of the uninitiated, is a deep hole dug in the sand while the tide is out, and the sand taken from the hole is built round in broad, high walls to make the fort resist as long as possible the rush of the incoming waves. It takes hours to make, but no trouble is too great, for is there not the fierce joy of adventure at the last when the waves finally win in the struggle and the huddled-together inmates of the now submerged house are thoroughly soaked with spray and salt water?

The 'sea-house,' the shouts of its builders, the tempting curl on the waves, as each one came a little further, the slight rise of the wind driving the breakers hurriedly landwards, were evidently too much for Mr Stevenson. One moment the weight of his nineteen years and the duty of politeness to his aunt restrained him, the next Mrs Balfour was left standing alone, and overcome with laughter, while Louis was in the sea house scolding, praising, and exhorting all at once, but above all imploring us to 'sit it out a little longer' as wave after wave widened the breach in the ramparts of sand, and

'In every hole the sea came up, Till it could come no more,'

while wetter and wetter grew the heroic few who, with Mr Stevenson 'sat it out' loyally, till it was possible to sit there no longer. Then wet—wetter indeed than ever before—the remnant crept home to be frowned upon and punished but to know no repentance; for had not Robert Louis been the ringleader, and was there any punishment invented that could take from the joy and the pride of a mischievous adventure in which he had had a part! And he, with the water dripping from his trousers and 'squirching' in his boots, was perfectly and placidly happy, regardless of his aunt's dismay and the future horrors of a possible bad cold. He had been a schoolboy again for the all too brief half hour beside the grey and gurly sea, and that youthfulness, that survived through all the patient suffering of his life and that seems to laugh out of the pages of his books to the last, was in the ascendant as he walked off jauntily townwards, amiably oblivious of the lecture his aunt gave him by the way.

Anything which brought him into close contact with the sea had a charm for him, even that mock combat with the waves of the autumn equinox on the flat shore of Fife. Therefore at this time although classes and study were a weariness to him his days spent in the old-fashioned town of Anstruther, or on the desolate coast of Caithness, had many pleasures; had many romances also, for everywhere he went he picked up odd and out-of-the-way knowledge, and came across strange stories and stranger characters, from the lingering tradition of the poor relic of the Spanish Armada, the Duke of Modena Sidonia,[3] who after his sojourn in Fair Isle landed at Anstruther and still glorified the quaint sea-port in the East Neuk with his ghostly dignity—to the peer of the realm, in actual flesh and blood, whom Mr Stevenson found acting as a home missionary to the present day population of the Fair Isle. All things were treasured in the note-book of his memory, or jotted down in the note-book in his pocket; and, while the engineer progressed very little in his profession, the future novelist was undergoing a training for his work almost perfect in its way and assuredly most admirably suited to the nature that loved an open air life and revelled in an existence on the sea or beside it.'

Possibly not all aspiring civil engineers, certainly very few budding novelists, so test the reality of things as to go down into the ocean depths in a diver's dress and in the company of a professional diver, but this Robert Louis Stevenson actually did. His account of it, in bygone days, was gruesomely graphic, his pen-and-ink sketch of it, to be read in Random Memories, is not less so; and the thing itself must have been an experience well worth having to a mind like his. Well worth knowing too, both to the man and to the future creator of character, were those brave hardy sons of toil who did the rough work of his firm's harbours and lighthouses; and many a good yarn he must have heard them spin as he stood side by side with them on some solid block of granite, or on some outlying headland, or chatted and smoked with the captain and the sailors of The Pharos as she made her rounds among the islands.


[3] Although Mr Stevenson spoke and wrote of this personage as 'the Duke of Modena Sidonia,' he was in reality Don Jan Gomez de Modena, who is mentioned in T. M'Crie's 'Life of Andrew Melville.'



'O, pleasant party round the fire.' —R. L. STEVENSON.

Often a little indifferent, sometimes politely bored in general society, it was at home that Robert Louis Stevenson seemed to me to be seen to the greatest advantage. That little household of three, that delightful trio who so thoroughly appreciated each other were charming everywhere, but only quite perfect when taken together within the hospitable walls that enshrined so true a home. Not a house or an abiding place merely, whence the business or the gaieties of life could be comfortably indulged in, but a home where, however much the amusements of the Scotch capital were shared in and appreciated, the truest happiness lay around the quiet fireside where the mother, father, and son loved and understood each other with a love the deeper, that the intense Scotch reticence of all made it, like a hidden jewel, the more precious because so rarely displayed to strangers' eyes.

No son could be more fortunate in his parents, no parents could have given a child a more unselfish devotion, a more comprehending sympathy. His very delicacy and the anxiety it had so often caused them had drawn their hearts more tenderly to him, and, absolutely happy in each other, they were equally happy in their pride and pleasure in their son's evident genius and most original personality.

In days when discontent and extravagance have done so much to lessen, at least upon the surface of things, the sacredness of home, and weaken the solemnity of marriage, it is comforting and pleasant to look back upon such a home as that was, and to realise that it is possible, in the midst of a busy life of work and of pleasure, to preserve an inner holy of holies around the domestic hearth, into which no jarring discord, no paltry worldly worry, can come, because love is there. Before love's clear gaze all that is selfish and petty and false dies away, while all that is true, good, and gentle makes for sweet peace and that perfect union of hearts which can alone create a true marriage and a perfect home life.

Into the Stevenson household, as into other households, came from time to time real worry, real grief, and not infrequent anxiety. The very frailty of tenure by which their son had always held his life was in itself a daily burden to the parents. Mrs Stevenson, especially in her earlier married life, was often far from strong; to Mr Stevenson came now and then those darker moods to which the Scotch temperament, particularly when tinged with the Celtic, is liable. Personal and business disappointments were not wholly unknown, although life in these latter respects was one saved at least from monetary anxieties, and crowned with a large measure of success. But in "all the changes and chances of this mortal life" this household had a sure sheet anchor on which to depend. Love met the trials smiling, and because they loved each other they were clothed in the armour of defence.

It was a home ennobled by a high ideal of what life ought to be, and hallowed by a strong and personal faith in God. Mr Stevenson's somewhat austere Calvinism gave a gravity to his character and his religion that were admirably balanced by the happy nature and the sunny active faith of his wife, whose religion was none the less real and earnest that it was bright and always cheerfully practical. Both loved the grand old Church of Scotland, with her far-reaching history and her noble traditions; both, with money and with personal interest, helped not only their own congregation of St Stephen's but the missions and schemes of the Church at large, and many private kindnesses and public charities besides evinced their liberality of heart. Mrs Stevenson, among other things, took a keen pleasure in work for the Indian Zenanas, and among his many engrossments Mr Stevenson was greatly occupied as to the public good of Edinburgh, and notably interested himself in the restoration of St Giles, that grand old landmark of national history of which, in its present condition, Scotland has every reason to be proud.

In such a home as this Robert Louis Stevenson was from early childhood educated in a deeply-rooted respect for the Bible and the old solemn teachings which gave to Scotland those 'graves of the martyrs,' of which he so often writes. The Calvinism of his ancestors, inherited to a certain extent by his father, softened to him by his mother's sweetness of nature and brightness of faith, always remained with him something to be regarded with a tender reverence; and if, as he grew to manhood, the 'modern spirit' changed and modified his beliefs, so that it might be said of him, as of so many large natures and earnest souls,

'His God he cabins not in creeds,'

God and religion remained very real to him; and the high ideal of duty first learned in his childhood's home guided his life to the last. Robert Fergusson's life and poems interested him greatly, and he often declared himself drawn to him by a certain spiritual affinity; while, when suffering from his frequent attacks of distressing illness, he sometimes thought with dread of Fergusson's sad fate.

Pleasure as well as duty, however, was always made welcome in the Stevenson home. Mr and Mrs Thomas Stevenson held no stern views of everyday life, no gayer or brighter household could be found than theirs. None certainly existed where young folk received a warmer welcome, whether the family were established for the winter at 17 Heriot Row, or were spending the summer at Swanston, that delightful nook, nestling in the shelter of the Pentland hills, where the old-fashioned flowers had so sweet a scent, the rustic sounds of country life were so full of charming music, and where the home trio themselves loved

'Every path and every plot, Every bush of roses, Every blue forget-me-not Where the dew reposes.'

Differing much in their natures, but fitting, as it were, closely into each other's souls and characters, Louis Stevenson's parents early made for him that ideal of home and of marriage that shows itself from the first in his writings, just here a line and there a sentence, which indicates how his thoughts ran, and how, whatever enjoyment he might take in poking cynicism at women in the abstract, he was full of a noble idea, a manly longing for that one woman, of whose soul and his own, he could say—

'Once and beyond recollection, Once ere the skies were unfurled, These an immortal affection Found at the birth of the world,'

a woman who would be what his mother was to his father, a something as sacred as all through his life that mother was to him. Save that Mrs Thomas Stevenson's eyes were rather hazel than blue, it might have been of her that the late Professor Blackie wrote so sweetly:—

'True to herself and to the high ideal That God's grace gave her to inform the real, True to her kind, and to your every feeling Respondent with a power of kindliest healing She knows no falseness, even the courtliest lie; She dreams not, truth flows from her deep blue eye, And if her tongue speaks pleasant things to all, 'Tis that she loveth well both great and small, And all in her that mortals call politeness Is but the image of her bright soul's brightness.'

That Stevenson home was to many of us, besides the son of the house, a picture of what a true life ought to be, and one that seemed to make the realisation of all high ideals possible in whatever fashion one's own existence might ultimately be led.

There was something so strong and manly in Mr Thomas Stevenson, something so sweetly womanly in his wife. A beautiful woman always, because hers was the beauty of soul, as well as of feature, in those early seventies, one cannot imagine anyone more graceful, more gracious, or more charming than she was.

It would also be difficult to imagine a wife or mother more sympathetic or more sensible. She could always see the fun of things; she never objected to clubs and men's dinners, and the excuse for a night away from the home hearth, that is so dear to the best of men.

Not many weeks before her death, when we were talking of those happy days of long ago, she told me that she always took a book and contented herself, and then was ready to be interested when the truant returned with a latch-key. An example, that if closely followed, would assuredly make for domestic peace. And one fancies that the woman who said smilingly, she always much approved of 'The Evening Club,' because her husband or son could make merry there so late, that she was sound asleep, and could not miss their conversation, was likely to be a pleasant wife to live with, and an ideal mother for a son of such Bohemian tendencies as Robert Louis.

Even that marvellous taste in dress which her son affected, and which would certainly have dismayed more conventional mothers, only amused her immensely. Among other jottings of hers about him in her little note-book is one which relates with much appreciation that a faithful servant says of him, 'One summer he tried to wear a frock-coat and tall hat, but after a little he laid them aside and said, "I am not going to be a swell any more," and returned to the velveteen coat and the straw hat which he preferred.'

Except at a wedding, or some such solemn function, whereat he probably looked misery personified, one cannot remember him so conventionally apparelled as in the frock-coat and the tall hat. Possibly it was before this access of propriety temporarily had him in its grasp that one day we saw him in Princes Street 'taking the air' in an open cab with a Stevenson cousin, attired in like manner with himself. In those days fashionable people often walked in Princes Street in the afternoon, so what was our dismay, in the midst of quite a crowd of the gay world, to see that open cab, at a word of command from Robert Louis, draw near the pavement as we approached, when two battered straw hats were lifted to us with quite a Parisian grace. Both young men wore sailor hats with brilliant ribbon bands, both were attired in flannel cricketing jackets with broad bright stripes, and round Louis's neck was knotted a huge yellow silk handkerchief, while over both their heads one of them held an open umbrella. In days when the wearing of cricketing clothes, except in the playing fields, was in Scotland still so uncommon that it is on authentic record that an elderly unmarried lady in an east coast watering place, on meeting in its high street a young man in boating flannels, was so shocked at the innovation that she promptly went home, leaving all her shopping undone and her tea-drinking and friendly gossip forgotten, such an apparition as that in the open cab required more courage to face than people accustomed to the present-day use of gay tennis garb can easily imagine. It was fortunate that nerve to return the salutation smilingly was not wanting, or Mr Stevenson would certainly have pitilessly chaffed the timid victims of conventionality afterwards.

Having borne the ordeal with such courage as we possessed, we hastened to have tea with Mrs Stevenson, whose first question was, 'Have you seen Lou?'

And when we described that startling vision that was slowly creeping along Princes Street in the open cab, she laughed till her tears fell. In half an hour or so her son came in cool and unconcerned, and as punctiliously polite as if his attire had been the orthodox apparel for an afternoon tea-party.

The effects of his dressing and appearance on the foreign mind is most humorously described by himself in his Epilogue to an Inland Voyage, where the extraordinary nature of his garments so dismayed the French police that while his friend, the late Sir Walter G. Simpson, 'The Cigarette,' was allowed to go free, 'The Arethusa' was popped into prison, kept there for an hour or two, and finally hustled off to Paris, an adventure of the two friends, who were so systematically taken for 'bagmen,' on that charming expedition, which was always told with much laughter by 'The Arethusa's' parents.

One of the last memories of Mr Stevenson in Edinburgh that distinctly remains with me was finding him looking into the window of Messrs Douglas & Foulis in Castle Street on a grey, east windy day that was cold enough to make the thickest great-coat necessary. But he was visibly shivering in one of his favourite short velvet coats. It was palpably too short in the arms, and certainly the worse for wear; his long hair fell almost to his shoulders, and he wore a Tyrolese hat of soft felt. With a whimsical and appreciative glance at his garments, he offered to accompany me along Princes Street; so we set off westwards together, when, so charming was his conversation, that long before we reached the doorsteps of his relative's house, which was my destination, one had forgotten that the wind was in the east, and the sky greyer than the pavements, and only longed for the walk to begin over again, that he might talk all the way. These eccentricities of attire were merely a part of the rather attractive vanity of a clever youth, whose exuberance of spirits was, in spite of much bad health, at that time so great that he was often merry with a gaiety that was as child-like as it was amusing. In later life he gradually modified his ideas as to dress, and in the Vailima Letters he writes of himself in Samoa as going to Apia to social amusements in most orthodox coats and ties.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse