THE LIFE OF
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
JACQUELINE M. OVERTON
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
TO THE BOYS AT THE YORKVILLE LIBRARY AND TO ALL OTHER BOYS WHO LOVE TO TRAMP AND CAMP AND SEEK ADVENTURE I DEDICATE THIS BOOK WITH THE HOPE OF MAKING THEM BETTER FRIENDS WITH A MAN WHO ALSO LOVED THESE THINGS
I. THE LIGHTHOUSE BUILDERS 3
II. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON 16
III. THE LANTERN BEARER 31
IV. EDINBURGH DAYS 47
V. AMATEUR EMIGRANT 72
VI. SCOTLAND AGAIN 93
VII. SECOND VISIT TO AMERICA 108
VIII. IN THE SOUTH SEAS 121
IX. VAILIMA 148
Robert Louis Stevenson Frontispiece From a photograph by Mr. Lloyd Osbourne FACING PAGE
No. 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, Stevenson's birthplace 18
Colinton Manse 26
Swanston Cottage 42
Edinburgh Castle 64
Skerryvore Cottage, Bournemouth 98
The Treasure Island map 100
Facsimile of letter sent to Cummy with "An Inland Voyage" 106
Bas-relief of Stevenson by Augustus Saint Gaudens 112
South Sea houses 130
The house at Vailima 154
A feast of chiefs 162
The tomb of Stevenson on Vaea Mountain 172
THE LIFE OF
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
"Write me as one who loves his fellowmen." —HUNT.
THE LIGHTHOUSE BUILDERS
"... For the sake Of these, my kinsmen and my countrymen, Who early and late in the windy ocean toiled To plant a star for seamen."
The pirate, Ralph the Rover, so legend tells, while cruising off the coast of Scotland searching for booty or sport, sank the warning bell on one of the great rocks, to plague the good Abbot of Arbroath who had put it there. The following year the Rover returned and perished himself on the same rock.
In the life of one of Scotland's great men, Robert Louis Stevenson, we find proud record of his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, having built Bell Rock Lighthouse on this same spot years afterward.
No story of Robert Louis Stevenson's life would be complete that failed to mention the work done for Scotland and the world at large by the two men he held most dear, the engineers, his father and grandfather.
When Robert Stevenson, his grandfather, received his appointment on the Board of Northern Lights the art of lighthouse building in Scotland had just begun. Its bleak, rocky shores were world-famous for their danger, and few mariners cared to venture around them. At that time the coast "was lighted at a single point, the Isle of May, in the jaws of the Firth of Forth, where, on a tower already a hundred and fifty years old, an open coal-fire blazed in an open chaufer. The whole archipelago thus nightly plunged in darkness was shunned by seagoing vessels." [Footnote: Stevenson, "Family of Engineers."]
The board at first proposed building four new lights, but afterward built many more, so that to-day Scotland stands foremost among the nations for the number and splendor of her coast lights.
Their construction in those early days meant working against tremendous obstacles and dangers, and the life of the engineer was a hazardous one.
"The seas into which his labors carried him were still scarce charted, the coasts still dark; his way on shore was often far beyond the convenience of any road; the isles in which he must sojourn were still partly savage. He must toss much in boats; he must often adventure much on horseback by dubious bridle-track through unfrequented wildernesses; he must sometimes plant his lighthouses in the very camp of wreckers.
"The aid of steam was not yet. At first in random coasting sloop, and afterwards in the cutter belonging to the service, the engineer must ply and run amongst these multiplied dangers and sometimes late into the stormy autumn."
All of which failed to daunt Robert Stevenson who loved action and adventure and the scent of things romantic.
"Not only had towers to be built and apparatus transplanted, the supply of oil must be maintained and the men fed, in the same inaccessible and distant scenes, a whole service with its routine ... had to be called out of nothing; and a new trade (that of light-keeper) to be taught, recruited and organized."
Bell Rock was only one of twenty lighthouses Robert Stevenson helped to build, but it was by far the most difficult one ... and even to-day, after it has been lighted for more than a hundred years, it still remains unique—a monument to his skill.
Bell Rock was practically a reef completely submerged at full tide and only a few feet of its crest visible at low water. To raise a tower on it meant placing a foundation under water, a new and perilous experiment.
"Work upon the rock in the earliest stages was confined to the calmest days of the summer season, when the tides were lowest, the water smoothest, and the wind in its calmest mood. Under such conditions the men were able to stay on the site for about five hours....
"One distinct drawback was the necessity to establish a depot some distance from the erecting site. Those were the days before steam navigation, and the capricious sailing craft offered the only means of maintaining communication between rock and shore, and for the conveyance of men and materials to and fro....
"A temporary beacon was placed on the reef, while adjacent to the site selected for the tower a smith's forge was made fast, so as to withstand the dragging motion of the waves when the rock was submerged. The men were housed on the Smeaton, which, during the spells of work on the rock, rode at anchor a short distance away in deep water." [Footnote: Talbot, "Lightships and Lighthouses."]
Once the engineers were all but lost when the Smeaton slipped her moorings and left them stranded on the rock.
In spite of all the obstacles, the work was completed at the end of two years and the light was shown for the first time February 1, 1811.
"I found Robert Stevenson an appreciative and intelligent companion," writes Sir Walter Scott in his journal, speaking of a cruise he made among the islands of Scotland with a party of engineers. The notes made by him on this trip were used afterward in his two stories, "The Pirate" and "Lord of the Isles."
"My grandfather was king in the service to his finger-tips," wrote Louis Stevenson. "All should go his way, from the principal light-keeper's coat to the assistant's fender, from the gravel in the garden walks to the bad smell in the kitchen, or the oil spots on the storeroom floor. It might be thought there was nothing more calculated to awaken men's resentment, and yet his rule was not more thorough than it was beneficent. His thought for the keepers was continual.... When a keeper was sick, he lent him his horse and sent him mutton and brandy from the ship.... They dwelt, many of them, in uninhabited isles or desert forelands, totally cut off from shops.
"No servant of the Northern Lights came to Edinburgh but he was entertained at Baxter Place. There at his own table my grandfather sat down delightedly with his broad-spoken, homespun officers."
As he grew old his "medicine and delight" was his annual trip among his lighthouses, but at length there came a time when this joy was taken away from him and there came "the end of all his cruising; the knowledge that he had looked the last on Sunburgh, and the wild crags of Skye, and the Sound of Mull; that he was never again to hear the surf break in Clashcarnock; never again to see lighthouse after lighthouse (all younger than himself, and the more, part of his own device) open in the hour of dusk their flower of fire, or the topaz and ruby interchange on the summit of Bell Rock."
Throughout the rank and file of his men he was adored. "I have spoken with many who knew him; I was his grandson, and their words may very well have been words of flattery; but there was one thing that could not be affected, and that was the look that came over their faces at the name of Robert Stevenson."
Of his family of thirteen children, three of his sons became engineers. Thomas Stevenson, the father of Robert Louis, like the others of his family, contributed largely to lighthouse building and harbor improvement, serving under his older brother, Allen, in building the Skerryvore, one of the most famous deep-sea lights erected on a treacherous reef off the west coast where, for more than forty years, one wreck after another had occurred.
"From the navigator's point of view, the danger of this spot lay chiefly in the fact that it was so widely scattered. The ridge runs like a broken backbone for a distance of some eight miles.... In rough weather the whole of the rocks are covered, and the waves, beating heavily on the mass, convert the scene into one of indescribable tumult....
"There was only one point where a tower could be placed, and this was so exposed that the safe handling of men and material constituted a grave responsibility."
It was necessary to erect a tower one hundred and thirty feet high; "the loftiest and weightiest work of its character that had ever been contemplated up to this time....
"The Atlantic swell, which rendered landing on the ridge precarious and hazardous, did not permit the men to be housed upon a floating home, as had been the practice in the early days of the Bell Rock tower. In order to permit the work to go forward as uninterruptedly as the sea would allow, a peculiar barrack was erected. It was a house on stilts, the legs being sunk firmly into the rock, with the living quarters perched some fifty feet up in the air.
"Residence in this tower was eerie. The men climbed the ladder and entered a small room, which served the purposes of kitchen, living-room, and parlor....
"When a storm was raging, the waves, as they combed over the rock, shook the legs violently and scurried under the floor in seething foam. Now and again a roller, rising higher than its fellows, broke upon the rock and sent a mass of water against the flooring to hammer at the door. Above the living-room were the sleeping quarters, high and dry, save when a shower of spray fell upon the roof and walls like heavy hail.... The men, however, were not perturbed. Sleeping, even under such conditions, was far preferable to doubtful rest in a bunk upon an attendant vessel, rolling and pitching with the motion of the sea. They had had a surfeit of such experience ... while the barrack was under erection.
"For two years it withstood the seas without incident, and the engineer and men came to regard the eyrie as safe as a house on shore. But one night the little colony received a shock. The angry Atlantic got one or two of its trip-hammer blows well home, and smashed the structure to fragments. Fortunately, at the time it was untenanted."
No time was lost in rebuilding the barrack and this time it withstood all tests until it was torn down after Skerryvore was finished.
"While the foundations were being prepared, and until the barrack was constructed, the men ran other terrible risks every morning and night landing upon and leaving the polished surface of the reef. Five months during the summer was the working season, but even then many days and weeks were often lost owing to the swell being too great to permit the rowing boat to come alongside. The engineer relates that the work was 'a good lesson in the school of patience,' because the delays were frequent and galling, while every storm which got up and expended its rage upon the reef left its mark indelibly among the engineer's stock in trade. Cranes and other materials were swept away as if they were corks; lashings, no matter how strong, were snapped like pack-threads.
"Probably the worst experience was when the men on the rock were weather-bound for seven weeks during one season.... Their provisions sank to a very low level, they ran short of fuel, their sodden clothing was worn to rags....
"Six years were occupied in the completion of the work, and, as may be imagined, the final touches were welcomed with thankfulness by those who had been concerned in the enterprise."
It was in meteorological researches and illumination of lighthouses, however, that Thomas Stevenson did his greatest work. It was he who brought to perfection the revolving light now so generally used.
In spite of this and other valuable inventions his name has remained little known, owing to the fact that none of his inventions were ever patented. The Stevensons believed that, holding government appointments, any original work they did belonged to the nation. "A patent not only brings in money but spreads reputation," writes his son, "and my father's instruments enter anonymously into a hundred light rooms and are passed anonymously over in a hundred reports, where the least considerable patent would stand out and tell its author's story."
He was beloved among a wide circle of friends and the esteem of those in his profession was shown when in 1884 they chose him for president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. To the general public, however, he remained unknown in spite of the fact that "His lights were in all parts of the world guiding the mariners."
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
"As from the house your mother sees You playing round the garden trees, So you may see, if you will look Through the window of this book, Another child, far, far away, And in another garden, play."
—"Child's Garden of Verses."
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born at No. 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, Scotland, November 13, 1850.
In 1852 the family moved from Howard Place to Inverleith Terrace, and two years later to No. 17 Heriot Row, which remained their home for many years.
As a child Louis was very delicate and often ill, for years hardly a winter passed that he did not spend many days in bed.
Edinburgh in winter is extremely damp and he tells us: "Many winters I never crossed the threshold, but used to lie on my face on the nursery floor, chalking or painting in water-colors the pictures in the illustrated newspapers; or sit up in bed with a little shawl pinned about my shoulders, to play with bricks or what not."
The diverting history of "Hop-O'-My-Thumb" and the "Seven-League Boots," "Little Arthur's History of England," "Peter Parley's Historical Tales," and "Harry's Ladder to Learning" were books which he delighted to pore over and their pages bore many traces of his skill with the pencil and paint-brush.
Those who have read the "Child's Garden of Verses" already know the doings of his childish days, for although those rhymes were not written until he was a grown man he was "one of the few who do not forget their own lives" and "through the windows of this book" gives us a vivid and living picture of the boy who dwelt so much in a world of his own with his quaint thoughts.
If his body was frail his spirit was strong and his power of imagination so great that he cheered himself through many a weary day by playing he was "captain of a tidy little ship," a soldier, a fierce pirate, an Indian chief, or an explorer in foreign lands. Miles he travelled in his little bed.
"I have just to shut my eyes, To go sailing through the skies— To go sailing far away To the pleasant Land of Play"
In spite of his power for amusing himself, days like these would have gone far harder had it not been for two devoted people, his mother and his nurse, Alison Cunningham or "Cummie" as he called her. His mother was devoted to him in every way and encouraged his love for reading and story-making. She kept a diary of his progress from day to day, and treasured every picture he drew or scrap he wrote. Cummie came to him as a Torryburn lassie when he was eighteen months old and was like a second mother to him. She not only cared for his bodily comforts but was his friend and comrade as well. She sang for him, danced for him, spun fine tales of pirates and smugglers, and read to him so dramatically that his mind was fired then and there with a longing for travel and adventure which he never lost. When they took their walks through the streets together Cummie had many stories to tell him of Scotland and Edinburgh in the old days. For Edinburgh is a wonderful old city with a wonderful history full of tales of stirring adventure and romance. "For centuries it was a capitol thatched with heather and more than once, in the evil days of English invasion, it has gone up in flames to Heaven, a beacon to ships at sea.... It was the jousting-ground of jealous nobles, not only on Greenside or by the King's Stables, where set tournaments were fought to the sound of trumpets and under the authority of the royal presence, but in every alley where there was room to cross swords.... In the town, in one of those little shops plastered like so many swallows' nests among the buttresses of the old Cathedral, that familiar autocrat James VI. would gladly share a bottle of wine with George Heriot the goldsmith. Up on the Pentland Hills, that so quietly look down on the castle with the city lying in waves around it, those mad and dismal fanatics, the Sweet Singers, haggard from long exposure on the moors, sat day and night 'with tearful psalms.'... In the Grassmarket, stiff-necked covenanting heroes offered up the often unnecessary, but not less honorable, sacrifice of their lives, and bade eloquent farewell to sun, moon and stars and earthly friendships, or died silent to the roll of the drums. Down by yon outlet rode Grahame of Claverhouse and his thirty dragoons, with the town beating to arms behind their horses' tails—a sorry handful thus riding for their lives, but with a man at their head who was to return in a different temper, make a bold dash that staggered Scotland, and die happily in the thick of the fight....
"The palace of Holyrood is a house of many memories.... Great people of yore, kings and queens, buffoons and grave ambassadors played their stately farce for centuries in Holyrood. Wars have been plotted, dancing has lasted deep into the night, murder has been done in its chambers. There Prince Charlie held his phantom levees and in a very gallant manner represented a fallen dynasty for some hours....
"There is an old story of the subterranean passage between the castle and Holyrood and a bold Highland piper who volunteered to explore its windings. He made his entrance by the upper end, playing a strathspey; the curious footed it after him down the street, following his descent by the sound of the chanter from below; until all of a sudden, about the level of St. Giles the music came abruptly to an end, and the people in the street stood at fault with hands uplifted. Whether he choked with gases, or perished in a quag, or was removed bodily by the Evil One, remains a point of doubt, but the piper has never again been seen or heard of from that day to this. Perhaps he wandered down into the land of Thomas the Rhymer, and some day, when it is least expected, may take a thought to revisit the sunlit upper world. That will be a strange moment for the cabmen on the stands beside St. Giles, when they hear the crone of his pipes reascending from the earth below their horses' feet."
In Edinburgh to-day there are armed men and cannon in the castle high up on the great rock above you: "You may see the troops marshalled on the high parade, and at night after the early winter evenfall and in the morning before the laggard winter dawn, the wind carries abroad over Edinburgh the sounds of drums and bugles." (Stevenson, "Essay on Edinburgh.")
Long before Louis could write he made up verses and stories for himself, and Cummie wrote them down for him. "I thought they were rare nonsense then," she said, little dreaming that these same bits of "rare nonsense" were the beginnings of what was to make "her boy" famous across two seas in years to come.
He writes of her when speaking of long nights he lay awake unable to sleep because of a troublesome cough: "How well I remember her lifting me out of bed, carrying me to the window and showing me one or two lit windows up in Queen Street across the dark belt of garden, where also, we told each other, there might be sick little boys and their nurses waiting, like us, for the morning."
Her devotion to him had its reward in the love he gave her all his life. One of his early essays written when he was twenty and published in the Juvenilia was called "Nurses." Fifteen years later came the publication of the "Child's Garden of Verses" with a splendid tribute to her as a dedication. He sent her copies of all his books, wrote letters to her, and invited her to visit him. She herself tells that the last time she ever saw him he said to her, "before a room full of people, 'It's you that gave me a passion for the drama, Cummie,' 'Me, Master Lou,' I said, 'I never put foot inside a playhouse in my life.' 'Ay, woman,' said he, 'but it was the good dramatic way ye had of reciting the hymns.'"
When he was six years old his Uncle David offered a Bible picture-book as a prize to the nephews who could write the best history of Moses.
This was Louis's first real literary attempt. He was not able to write himself, but dictated to his mother and illustrated the story and its cover with pictures which he designed and painted himself.
He won the prize and from that time, his mother says, "it was the desire of his heart to be an author."
During the winter of 1856-57 his favorite cousin, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, usually called Bob, visited them; a great treat for Louis, not only because his ill health kept him from making many companions of his own age, but because Bob loved many of the same things he did and to "make believe" was as much a part of his life as Louis's. Many fine games they had together; built toy theatres, the scenery and characters for which they bought for a "penny plain and twopence colored," and were never tired of dressing up. One of their chief delights, he says, was in "rival kingdoms of our own invention—Nosingtonia and Encyclopaedia, of which we were perpetually drawing maps." Even the eating of porridge at breakfast became a game. Bob ate his with sugar and said it was an island covered with snow with here a mountain and there a valley; while Louis's was an island flooded by milk which gradually disappeared bit by bit.
In the spring and summer his mother took him for short trips to the watering-places near Edinburgh. But the spot unlike all others for a real visit was at Colinton Manse, the home of his grandfather, the Reverend Lewis Balfour, at Colinton, on the Water of Leith, five miles southwest of Edinburgh. Here he spent glorious days. Not only was there the house and garden, both rare spots for one of an exploring turn of mind, but, best of all, there were the numerous cousins of his own age sent out from India, where their parents were, to be nursed and educated under the loving eye of Aunt Jane Balfour, for whom he wrote:
"Chief of our aunts—not only I, But all the dozen nurslings cry— What did the other children do? And what was childhood, wanting you?"
If Louis lacked brothers and sisters he had no dearth of cousins, fifty in all they numbered, many of them near his own age. Alan Stevenson, Henrietta and Willie Traquair seem to have been his favorite chums at Colinton.
Of his grandfather Balfour he says: "We children admired him, partly for his beautiful face and silver hair ... partly for the solemn light in which we beheld him once a week, the observed of all observers in the pulpit. But his strictness and distance, the effect, I now fancy, of old age, slow blood, and settled habits, oppressed us with a kind of terror. When not abroad, he sat much alone writing sermons or letters to his scattered family.... The study had a redeeming grace in many Indian pictures gaudily colored and dear to young eyes.... When I was once sent in to say a psalm to my grandfather, I went, quaking indeed with fear, but at the same time glowing with hope that, if I said it well, he might reward me with an Indian picture."
"There were two ways of entering the Manse garden," he says, "one the two-winged gate that admitted the old phaeton and the other a door for pedestrians on the side next the kirk.... On the left hand were the stables, coach-houses and washing houses, clustered around a small, paved court.... Once past the stable you were fairly within the garden. On summer afternoons the sloping lawn was literally steeped in sunshine....
"The wall of the church faces the manse, but the church yard is on a level with the top of the wall ... and the tombstones are visible from the enclosure of the manse.... Under the retaining wall was a somewhat dark pathway, extending from the stable to the far end of the garden, and called the 'witches' walk' from a game we used to play in it.... Even out of the 'witches' walk' you saw the Manse facing toward you, with its back to the river and the wooded bank, and the bright flower-plots and stretches of comfortable vegetables in front and on each side of it; flower plots and vegetable borders, by the way, on which it was almost death to set foot, and about which we held a curious belief,—namely, that my grandfather went round and measured any footprints that he saw, to compare the measurement at night with the boots put out for brushing; to avoid which we were accustomed, by a strategic movement of the foot to make the mark longer....
"So much for the garden; now follow me into the house. On entering the door you had before you a stone paved lobby.... There stood a case of foreign birds, two or three marble deities from India and a lily of the Nile in a pot, and at the far end the stairs shut in the view. With how many games of 'tig' or brick-building in the forenoon is the long low dining room connected in my mind! The storeroom was a most voluptuous place, with its piles of biscuit boxes and spice tins, the rack for buttered eggs, the little window that let in the sunshine and the flickering shadows of leaves, and the strong sweet odor of everything that pleaseth the taste of men....
"Opposite the study was the parlor, a small room crammed full of furniture and covered with portraits, with a cabinet at the side full of foreign curiosities, and a sort of anatomical trophy on the top. During a grand cleaning of the apartment I remember all the furniture was ranged on a circular grass plot between the churchyard and the house. It was a lovely still summer evening, and I stayed out, climbing among the chairs and sofas. Falling on a large bone or skull, I asked what it was. Part of an albatross, auntie told me. 'What is an albatross?' I asked, and then she described to me this great bird nearly as big as a house, that you saw out miles away from any land, sleeping above the vast and desolate ocean. She told me that the Ancient Mariner was all about one; and quoted with great verve (she had a duster in her hand, I recollect)—
'With my crossbow I shot the albatross.'
... Willie had a crossbow, but up to this date I had never envied him its possession. After this, however, it became one of the objects of my life."
With many playmates, free to roam and romp as he chose, his illness forgotten, it is no wonder he says he felt as if he led two lives, one belonging to Edinburgh and one to the country, and that Colinton ever remained an enchanted spot to which it was always hard to say good-by.
THE LANTERN BEARER
"Perhaps there lives some dreamy boy, untaught In school, some graduate of the field or street, Who shall become a master of the art, An admiral sailing the high seas of thought, Fearless and first, and steering with his fleet For lands not yet laid down on any chart."
School days began for Louis in 1859, but were continually interrupted by illness, travel, and change of school. His father did not believe in forcing him to study; so he roamed through school according to his own sweet will, attending classes where he cared to, interesting himself in the subjects that appealed to him—Latin, French, and mathematics—neglecting the others and bringing home no prizes, to Cummie's distress.
Certain books were his prime favorites at this time. "Robinson Crusoe," he says, "and some of the books of Mayne Reid and a book called Paul Blake—Swiss Family Robinson also. At these I played, conjured up their scenes and delighted to hear them rehearsed to seventy times seven.
"My father's library was a spot of some austerity; the proceedings of learned societies, cyclopaedias, physical science and above all, optics held the chief place upon the shelves, and it was only in holes and corners that anything legible existed as if by accident. Parents' Assistant, Rob Roy, Waverley and Guy Mannering, Pilgrim's Progress, Voyages of Capt. Woods Rogers, Ainsworth's Tower of London and four old volumes of Punch—these were among the chief exceptions.
"In these latter which made for years the chief of my diet, I very early fell in love (almost as soon as I could spell) with the Snob Papers. I knew them almost by heart ... and I remember my surprise when I found long afterward that they were famous, and signed with a famous name; to me, as I read and admired them, they were the works of Mr. Punch."
Two old Bibles interested him particularly. They had belonged to his grandfather Stevenson and contained many marked passages and notes telling how they had been read aboard lighthouse tenders and on tours of inspection among the islands.
After he was thirteen his health was greatly improved and he was able to enjoy the comradeship of other lads, though he never cared greatly for sports. He was the leader of a number of boys who used to go about playing tricks on the neighbors—"tapping on their windows after nightfall, and all manner of wild freaks."
"Crusoing" was a favorite game and its name stood for all picnicking in the open air, building bonfires and cooking apples, but the crowning sport of all was "Lantern Bearing," a game invented by himself and shared by a dozen of his cronies.
"Toward the end of September," he says, "when school time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull's-eye lantern.... We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noxiously of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull's-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.
"When two of these asses met there would be an anxious, 'Have you your lantern?' and a gratified 'Yes,' That was the shibboleth, and a very needful one too; for as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern-bearer, unless like a polecat, by the smell.
"The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night, the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned, not a ray escaping whether to conduct your footsteps or make your glory public, a mere pillar of darkness in the dark, and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt and exult and sing over the knowledge."
In later years one of the Lantern Bearers describes Louis as he was then. "A slender, long legged boy in pepper and salt tweeds, with an undescribable influence that forced us to include him in our play as a looker on, critic and slave driver.... No one had the remotest intention of competing with R.L.S. in story making, and his tales, had we known it, were such as the world would listen to in silence and wonder."
At home and at his last school he was always starting magazines. The stories were illustrated with much color and the magazines circulated among the boys for a penny a reading. One was called The Sunbeam Magazine, an illustrated miscellany of fact, fiction, and fun, and another The School Boy Magazine. The latter contained four stories and its readers must have been hard to satisfy if they did not have their fill of horrors—"regular crawlers," Louis called them. In the first tale, "The Adventures of Jan Van Steen," the hero is left hidden in a boiler under which a fire is lit. The second is a "Ghost Story" of robbers in a deserted castle.... The third is called, "by curious anticipation of a story he was to write later on, 'The Wreckers.'"
Numerous plays and novels he began but they eventually found their fate in the trash basket. An exception to this was a small green pamphlet of twenty pages called "The Pentland Rising, a page of history, 1666." It was published through his father's interest on the two-hundredth anniversary of the fight at Rullion Green. This event in Scotland's history had been impressed on his mind by the numerous stories. Cummie had told him of the Covenanters and the fact that they had spent the night before their defeat in the town of Colinton.
From the time he was a little chap, balancing on the limb of an apple-tree in the Colinton garden trying to see what kind of a world lay beyond the garden wall, Louis had had a longing to travel and see sights. This began to find satisfaction now.
His father took him on a trip around the coast of Fife, visiting the harbor lights. The little towns along the coast were already familiar to him by the stories of the past. Dunfermline, where, according to the ballad, Scotland's king once "sat in his tower drinking blood-red wine"; Kerkcaldy, where the witches used to sink "tall ships and honest mariners in the North Sea"; and "Wemyss with its bat-haunted caves, where the Chevalier Johnstone on his flight from Colloden passed a night of superstitious terrors."
Later the family made a trip to the English Lakes and in the winter of the same year to the south of France, where they stayed two months, then making a tour through Italy and Switzerland. The following Christmas found Louis and his mother again in Mentone, where they stayed until spring.
French was one of his favorite studies at school, and now after a few months among French people he was able to speak fluently. Indeed, in after life he was often mistaken for a Frenchman.
His French teacher on his second visit to Mentone gave him no regular lessons, but "merely talked to him in French, teaching him piquet and card tricks, introducing him to various French people and taking him to concerts and other places; so, his mother remarks, like Louis' other teachers at home I think they found it pleasanter to talk to him then to teach him."
After their return to Edinburgh came the time when, his school days finished, Louis must make up his mind what his career is to be and train himself for it.
Even then he knew what he wanted to do was to write. He had fitted up a room on the top floor at Heriot Row as a study and spent hours there covering paper with stories or trying to describe in the very best way scenes which had impressed him. Most of these were discarded when finished. "I liked doing them indeed," he said, "but when done I could see they were rubbish." He never doubted, however, that some day his attempts would prove worth while, if he could only devote his time to learning to write and write well.
His father, he knew, had different plans for him, however. Of course, Louis would follow in his footsteps and be the sixth Stevenson to hold a place on the Board of Northern Lights. So, although he had little heart in the work, he entered the University of Edinburgh and spent the next three and a half years studying for a science degree.
The summer of 1868 he was sent with an engineering party to Anstruther, on the coast, where a breakwater was being built. There he had his first opportunity of seeing some of the practical side of engineering. It was rough work, but he enjoyed it. Later he spent three weeks on Earraid Island, off Mull, a place which left a strong impression on his mind and figured afterward as the spot where David Balfour was shipwrecked.
Among the experiences at that time which pleased him most was a chance to descend in a diver's dress to the foundation of the harbor they were building. In his essays, "Random Memories," he tells of the "dizzy muddleheaded joy" he had in his surroundings, swaying like a reed, and grabbing at the fish which darted past him.
In writing afterward of these years he says: "What I gleaned I am sure I do not know, but indeed I had already my own private determination to be an author ... though I haunted the breakwater by day, and even loved the place for the sake of the sunshine, the thrilling sea-side air, the wash of the waves on the sea face, the green glimmer of the diver's helmets far below.... My own genuine occupation lay elsewhere and my only industry was in the hours when I was not on duty. I lodged with a certain Bailie Brown, a carpenter by trade, and there as soon as dinner was despatched ... drew my chair to the table and proceeded to pour forth literature.
"I wish to speak with sympathy of my education as an engineer. It takes a man into the open air; keeps him hanging about harbor sides, the richest form of idling; it carries him to wild islands; it gives him a taste of the genial danger of the sea ... and when it has done so it carries him back and shuts him in an office. From the roaring skerry and the wet thwart of the tossing boat, he passes to the stool and desk, and with a memory full of ships and seas and perilous headlands and shining pharos, he must apply his long-sighted eyes to the pretty niceties of drawing or measure his inaccurate mind with several pages of consecutive figures."
"The roaring skerry and the tossing boat," appealed to him as they had to his grandfather before him, but they did not balance his dislike for the "office and the stool" or make him willing to devote his time and energy to working for them, so his university record was very poor. "No one ever played the truant with more deliberate care," he says, "and no one ever had more certificates (of attendance) for less education."
One thing that he gained from his days at the university was the friendship of Professor Fleeming Jenkin. He was fifteen years older than Louis, but they had many common interests and the professor had much good influence over him. He was one of the first to see promise in his writing and encouraged him to go on with it.
Both the professor and Mrs. Jenkin were much interested in dramatics and each year brought a group of friends together at their house for private theatricals. Stevenson was a constant visitor at their home, joining heartily in these plays and looking forward to them, although he never took any very important part.
After Professor Jenkin's death Stevenson wrote his biography, and says it was a "mingled pain and pleasure to dig into the past of a dead friend, and find him, at every spadeful, shine brighter."
About this time Thomas Stevenson bought Swanston Cottage in the Pentland Hills, about five miles from Edinburgh, and for the next fourteen years the family spent their summers there, and Louis often went out in winter as well. It ever remained one of his favorite spots and with Colinton stood out as a place that meant much in his life.
These years saw great change in him; from a frank and happy child he had grown into a lonely, moody boy making few friends and shunning the social life that his father's position in Edinburgh offered him. He describes himself as a "lean, ugly, unpopular student," but those who knew him never applied the term "ugly" to him at any time.
At Swanston he explored the hills alone and grew to know them so well that the Pentland country ever remained vividly in his memory and found its way into many of his stories, notably "St. Ives," where he describes Swanston as it was when they first made it their summer home.
Many solitary winter evenings he spent there rereading his favorite novels, particularly Dumas's "Vicomte de Bragelonne," which always pleased him. "Shakespeare has served me best," he said. "Few living friends have had upon me an influence so strong for good as Hamlet or Rosalind. Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside of Shakespeare is D'Artagnan, the elderly D'Artagnan of the 'Vicomte de Bragelonne.'
"I would return in the early night from one of my patrols with the shepherd, a friendly face would meet me in the door, a friendly retriever scurry up stairs to fetch my slippers, and I would sit down with the Vicomte for a long, silent, solitary lamp-lit evening by the fire."
At Swanston he first began to really write, "bad poetry," he says, and during his solitary rambles fought with certain problems that perplexed him.
Here he made the acquaintance of the Scotch gardener, Robert Young, and John Todd, the "Roaring Shepherd, the oldest herd on the Pentlands," whom he accompanied on his rounds with the sheep, listening to his tales told in broad Scotch of the highland shepherds in the old days when "he himself often marched flocks into England, sleeping on the hillsides with his caravan; and by his account it was rough business not without danger. The drove roads lay apart from habitation; the drivers met in the wilderness, as to-day the deep sea fishers meet off the banks in the solitude of the Atlantic."
All this time Louis was idling through the university, knowing that in the end he would make nothing of himself as an engineer and dreading to confess it to his father. At length, however, his failure in his studies came to Thomas Stevenson's attention, and, on being questioned about it "one dreadful day" as they were walking together, the boy frankly admitted that his heart was not with the work and he cared for nothing but to be able to write.
While at school his father had encouraged him to follow his own bent in his studies and reading, but when it came to the point of choosing his life-work, there ought to be no question of doubt. The only natural thing for Louis to do was to carry on the great and splendid work that he himself had helped to build up. That the boy should have other plans of his own surprised and troubled him. Literature, he said, was no profession, and thus far Louis had not done enough to prove he had a claim for making it his career.
After much debate it was finally decided that he should give up engineering, but should enter the law school and study to be admitted to the bar. This would not only give him an established profession, but leave him a little time to write as well.
"I am fevered with the sunset, I am fretful with the bay, For the wander-thirst is on me And my soul is in Cathay.
"There's a schooner in the offing, With her topsails shot with fire, And my heart has gone aboard her For the island of Desire."
In spite of the fact that his law studies now left him an opportunity for the work he wanted so much to do, Louis was far from happy, for between his parents and himself, who had always been the best of friends, there were many misunderstandings.
Thomas Stevenson was bitterly disappointed that his only son should choose to be what he called "an idler"—generous to a fault and always out of money, dressing in a careless and eccentric way, which both amused and annoyed his friends and caused him to be ridiculed by strangers, preferring to roam the streets of old Edinburgh scraping acquaintance with the fishwives and dock hands, rather than staying at home and mingling in the social circle to which his parents belonged. But his father was still more troubled by certain independent religious opinions, far different from those in which he had been reared, that Louis adopted at this time.
How any good result could come from all this neither his father nor mother could see, and with the loss of their sympathy he was thrown upon himself and was lonely and rebellious.
He longed to get away from it all, to quit Edinburgh with its harsh climate, and often on his walks he leaned over the great bridge that joins the New Town with the Old "and watched the trains smoking out from under, and vanishing into the tunnel on a voyage to brighter skies." He longed to go with them "to that Somewhere-else of the imagination where all troubles are supposed to end."
It was a comfort to him at this time to remember other Scotchmen, Jeffries, Burns, Fergusson, Scott, Carlyle, and others, who had roamed these same streets before him, not a few of them fighting with the same problems he faced in their struggle to win their ideal.
This unhappy time, this "Greensickness," as he called it, came to an end, however, through the help of what Louis had always secretly longed for—friends. Several whom he met at this time influenced him, but first of them all he put his cousin Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (Bob), who returned to Edinburgh about this time from Paris, where he had been studying art.
Louis says: "The mere return of Bob changed at once and forever the course of my life; I can give you an idea of my relief only by saying that I was at last able to breathe.... I was done with the sullens for good.... I had got a friend to laugh with."
Here at last was a companion who understood him and sympathized with what he was trying to do. Since as children they had made believe together in their rival kingdoms of "Nosingtonia" and "Encyclopaedia" they had had many traits and tastes in common. They now began where they had left off and proceeded to enjoy themselves once more by all sorts of wild pranks and gay expeditions.
The Speculative Society became another great source of pleasure. It was an old society and had numbered among its members such men of note as Scott, Jeffrey, Robert Emmet, and others. Once a week from November to March the "Spec," as it was called, met in rooms in the University of Edinburgh. An essay was read and debates followed with much hot discussion, which delighted Stevenson. "Oh, I do think the Spec is about the best thing in Edinburgh," he said enthusiastically.
Sir Walter Simpson, son of the famous doctor, Sir James Simpson, who discovered chloroform, became another chum about this time, and for the next ten years they were much together. He likewise was studying law and was a near neighbor. The Simpsons kept open house, and it was the custom for a group of cronies to drop in at all hours of day and night. Louis was among those who came oftenest, and Sir Walter's sister writes: "He would frequently drop in to dinner with us, and of an evening he had the run of the smoking room. After ten p.m. the 'open sesame' to our door was a rattle on the letter box and Louis' fancy for the mysterious was whetted by this admittance by secret sign, and we liked his special rat-a-tat for it was the forerunner of an hour or two of talk."
They teased him about his queer clothes and laughed at some of his wild ideas, but he seldom was angry at them for it and never stayed away very long.
With them he often skated on Duddington Loch or canoed on the Firth of Forth. One summer he and Sir Walter yachted off the west coast of Scotland, and still another year, when longing for further wandering possessed them, they made a trip in canoes through the inland waters of Belgium from Antwerp to Brussels, and then into France and by the rivers Sambre and Oise nearly to Paris.
In the "Inland Voyage," where Stevenson describes this trip, he calls Sir Walter and his canoe "Cigarette" while he was "Arethusa." Adventures were plentiful, and they aroused much curiosity among the dwellers on the banks, with whom they made friends as they went along.
Once Arethusa was all but drowned, when his canoe was overturned by the rapids; and on several occasions, when they applied for a night's lodging, they were suspected of being tramps or peddlers because of their bedraggled appearance.
One evening after a hard day's paddling in the rain they landed tired, wet, and hungry at the little town of La Fere. "The Cigarette and I could not sufficiently congratulate each other on the prospect," says the Arethusa, "for we had been told there was a capital inn at La Fere. Such a dinner as we were going to eat. Such beds as we were going to sleep in, and all the while the rain raining on homeless folk over all the poplared country-side. It made our mouths water. The inn bore the name of some woodland animal, stag, or hart, or hind, I forget which. But I shall never forget how spacious and how eminently comfortable it looked as we drew near.... A rattle of many dishes came to our ears; we sighted a great field of tablecloth; the kitchen glowed like a forge and smelt like a garden of things to eat.
"Into this ... you are now to suppose us making our triumphal entry, a pair of damp rag-and-bone men, each with a limp india-rubber bag upon his arm. I do not believe I have a sound view of that kitchen; I saw it through a sort of glory, but it seemed to me crowded with the snowy caps of cook-men, who all turned round from their saucepans and looked at us with surprise. There was no doubt about the landlady however; there she was, heading her army, a flushed, angry woman, full of affairs. Her I asked politely—too politely, thinks the Cigarette—if we could have beds, she surveying us coldly from head to foot.
"'You will find beds in the suburb,' she remarked. 'We are too busy for the like of you.'
"If we could make an entrance, change our clothes, and order a bottle of wine I felt sure we could put things right, so I said, 'If we can not sleep, we may at least dine,' and was for depositing my bag.
"What a terrible convulsion of nature was that which followed in the landlady's face! She made a run at us and stamped her foot.
"'Out with you—out of the door!' she screeched.
"I do not know how it happened, but the next moment we were out in the rain and darkness. This was not the first time that I have been refused a lodging. Often and often I have planned what I would do if such a misadventure happened to me again, and nothing is easier to plan. But to put in execution, with a heart boiling at the indignity? Try it, try it only once, and tell me what you did."
Frequently on this trip the Arethusa's odd dress and foreign looks led him to be taken for a spy. It was not long after the Franco-Prussian war, and all sorts of rumors of suspicious characters were afloat. Once he was actually arrested and thrown into a dungeon because he could show no passport, and the commissary refused to believe he was English and puzzled his head over the scraps of notes and verses found in his knapsack.
He was rescued by the faithful Cigarette, who finally convinced the officials that they were British gentlemen travelling in this odd way for pleasure, and the things in his friend's bag were not plans against the government, but merely scraps of poetry and notes on their travels that he liked to amuse himself by making as they went along. [Footnote: This incident is told in the "Epilogue to An Inland Voyage."]
The canoe trips ended in a visit to the artists' colony at Fontainebleau, where Bob Stevenson and a brother of Sir Walter's were spending their summer. This place always had a particular attraction for Louis and he spent many weeks both there and at Grez near by during the next few years.
The free and easy life led by the artists suited him exactly, although he found it hard to accomplish any work of his own, but dreamed and planned all sorts of essays, verses, and tales which he never wrote, while the others put their pictures on canvas.
"I kept always two books in my pocket," he says, "one to read and one to write in. As I walked my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside I would either read, or a pencil and penny version-book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words."
If there was little work, to show after a stop at Fontainebleau he had many memories of good-fellowship and some of the friends he met there were to be the first to greet him when he came to live on this side of the water.
While on their "Inland Voyage" the two canoemen had decided that the most perfect mode of travel was by canal-boat. What could be more delightful? "The chimney smokes for dinner as you go along; the banks of the canal slowly unroll their scenery to contemplative eyes; the barge floats by great forests and through great cities with their public buildings and their lamps at night; and for the bargee, in his floating home, 'travelling abed,' it is merely as if he were listening to another man's story or turning the leaves of a picture book in which he had no concern. He may take his afternoon walk in some foreign country on the banks of the canal, and then come home to dinner at his own fireside."
They grew most enthusiastic over the idea and told one another how they would furnish their "water villa" with easy chairs, pipes, and tobacco, and the bird and the dog should go along too.
By the time Fontainebleau was reached they had planned trips through all the canals of Europe. The idea took the artists' fancy also, and a group of them actually purchased a canal-boat called The Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. Furnishing a water villa, however, was more expensive than they had foreseen, and she came to a sad end. "'The Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne' rotted in the stream where she was beautified ... she was never harnessed to the patient track-horse. And when at length she was sold, by the indignant carpenter of Moret, there was sold along with her the Arethusa and the Cigarette ... now these historic vessels fly the tricolor and are known by new and alien names."
In 1873 Stevenson planned to try for admission to the English bar instead of the Scottish and went to London to take the examination. But his health, which had been rather poor, became worse, and on reaching London the doctor ordered him to Mentone in the south of France, where he had been before as a boy.
There he spent his days principally lying on his back in the sun reading and playing with a little Russian girl with whom he struck up a great friendship. His letters to his mother were full of her sayings and doings. He was too ill to write much, although one essay, "Ordered South," was the outcome of this trip, the only piece of writing in which he ever posed as an invalid or talked of his ill health.
At the end of two months he improved enough to return to Edinburgh, but gave up the idea of the English bar. His illness and absence seemed to have smoothed out some of the difficulties at home, and after he returned things went happier in every way.
On July 14, 1875, he passed his final law examinations, and was admitted to the Scottish bar. He was now entitled to wear a wig and gown, place a brass plate with his name upon the door of 17 Heriot Row, and "have the fourth or fifth share of the services of a clerk" whom it is said he didn't even know by sight. For a few months he made some sort of a pretense at practising, but it amounted to very little. Gradually he ceased paying daily visits to the Parliament House to wait for a case, but settled himself instead in the room on the top floor at home and began to write, seriously this time—it was to be his life-work from now on—and the law was forgotten.
His first essays were published in the Cornhill Magazine and The Portfolio under the initials R.L.S., which signature in time grew so familiar to his friends and to those who admired his writings it became a second name for him, and as R.L.S. he is often referred to.
He was free now to roam as he chose and spent much time in Paris with Bob. The life there in the artists' quarter suited him as well as it had at Fontainebleau. There, among other American artists, he was associated with Mr. Will Low, a painter, whom he saw much of when he came to New York.
One September he took a walking trip in the Cevenne Mountains with no other companion than a little gray donkey, Modestine, who carried his pack and tried his patience by turns with her pace, which was "as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run," as he tells in the chronicle of the trip.
A visit at Grez in 1876 was to mark a point in his life. Heretofore the artists' colony had been composed only of men. This year there were three new arrivals, Americans, a Mrs. Osbourne and her young son and daughter. Their home in California had been broken up and the mother had come to Grez to paint for the summer.
Those who had been there for a number of years, R.L.S. among them, looked on the newcomers as intruders and did not hesitate to say so among themselves. Before the summer was over, however, they were obliged to confess that the newcomers had added to the charms of Grez, and Louis found in Mrs. Osbourne another companion to add to his rapidly growing list.
When the artists scattered in the autumn and he returned to Edinburgh and Mrs. Osbourne to California, he carried with him the hope that some time in the future they should be married.
For the next three years he worked hard. He published numerous essays in the Cornhill Magazine and his first short stories, "A Lodging for the Night," "Will O' the Mill," and the "New Arabian Nights." These were followed by his first books of travel, "An Inland Voyage," giving a faithful account of the adventures of the Arethusa and the Cigarette, and "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes."
When the latter was published, Mr. Walter Crane made an illustration for it showing R.L.S. under a tree in the foreground in his sleeping-bag, smoking, while Modestine contentedly crops grass by his side. Above him winds the path he is to take on his journey, encouraging Modestine with her burden to a livelier pace with his goad; receiving the blessing of the good monks at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows; stopping for a bite and sup at a wayside tavern; conversing with a fellow traveller by the way; and finally disappearing with the sunset over the brow of the hill.
Some time previous to all this he had written in a letter: "Leslie Stephen, who was down here to lecture, called on me, and took me up to see a poor fellow, a poet who writes for him, and who has been eighteen months in our Infirmary, and may be for all I know eighteen months more. Stephen and I sat on a couple of chairs, and the poor fellow sat up in his bed with his hair and beard all tangled, and talked as cheerfully as if he had been in a king's palace of blue air."
This was William Ernest Henley, and his brave determination to live and work, though he knew he must ever remain in a maimed condition, roused Stevenson's sincere admiration. With his usual impetuous generosity, he brought him books and other comforts to make his prolonged stay in the infirmary less wearisome and a warm friendship sprang up between them.
As Henley grew stronger they planned to work together and write plays. Stevenson had done nothing of the kind since he was nineteen. Now they chose to use the same plot that he had experimented with at that time. It was the story of the notorious Deacon Brodie of Edinburgh, which both considered contained good material for a play.
"A great man in his day was the Deacon; well seen in good society, crafty with his hands as a cabinet-maker, and one who could sing a song with taste. Many a citizen was proud to welcome the Deacon to supper, and dismiss him with regret ... who would have been vastly disconcerted had he known how soon, and in what guise his visitor returned. Many stories are told of this redoubtable Edinburgh burgher.... A friend of Brodie's ... told him of a projected visit to the country, and afterwards detained by some affairs, put it off and stayed the night in town. The good man had lain some time awake; it was far on in the small hours by the Tron bell; when suddenly there came a crack, a jar, a faint light. Softly he clambered out of bed and up to a false window which looked upon another room, and there, by the glimmer of a thieves' lantern, was his good friend the Deacon in a mask."
At length after a certain robbery in one of the government offices the Deacon was suspected. He escaped to Holland, but was arrested in Amsterdam as he was about to start for America. He was brought back to Edinburgh, was tried and convicted and hanged on the second of October, 1788, at the west end of the Tolbooth, which was the famous old Edinburgh prison known as the Heart of Midlothian.
This story of Brodie had always interested Stevenson since he had heard it as a child, and a cabinet made by the clever Deacon himself formed part of the furniture of his nursery.
"Deacon Brodie" and other plays were finished and produced, but never proved successful. Indeed, the money came in but slowly from any of his writings and, aside from the critics, it was many a long day before he was appreciated by the people of his own city and country. They refused to believe that "that daft laddie Stevenson," who had so often shocked them by his eccentric ways and scorn of conventions, could do anything worth while. So by far his happiest times were spent out of Scotland, principally in London, where a membership in the Savile Club added to his enjoyment. Here he met several interesting men, among them Edmund William Gosse and Sidney Colvin, both writers and literary critics, with whom he became very intimate.
"My experience of Stevenson," writes Mr. Gosse, "during these first years was confined to London upon which he would make sudden piratical descents, staying a few days or weeks and melting into thin air again. He was much at my house, and it must be told that my wife and I, as young married people, had possessed ourselves of a house too large for our slender means immediately to furnish. The one person who thoroughly approved of our great bare absurd drawing room was Louis, who very earnestly dealt with us on the immorality of chairs and tables, and desired us to sit always, as he delighted to sit, upon hassocks on the floor. Nevertheless, as armchairs and settees straggled into existence, he handsomely consented to use them, although never in the usual way, but with his legs thrown sidewise over the arms of them, or the head of a sofa treated as a perch. In particular, a certain shelf with cupboards below, attached to a bookcase, is worn with the person of Stevenson, who would spend half an evening, while passionately discussing some question ... leaping sidewise in a seated posture to the length of this shelf and back again.
"... These were the days when he most frequented the Savile Club, and the lightest and most vivacious part of him there came to the surface. He might spend the morning in work or business, and would then come to the club for luncheon. If he were so fortunate as to find a congenial companion disengaged, or to induce them to throw over their engagements, he would lead him off to the smoking-room, and there spend an afternoon in the highest spirits and the most brilliant and audacious talk.
"He was simply bubbling with quips and jests. I am anxious that his laughter-loving mood should not be forgotten, because later on it was partly, but I think never wholly quenched, by ill health, responsibility and advance of years.
"His private thoughts and prospects must often have been of the gloomiest, but he seems to have borne his unhappiness with a courage as high as he ever afterwards displayed."
Sidney Colvin he met some time previous while visiting relatives in England, and their friendship was renewed when they met again in London; a friendship which lasted throughout their lives and which even the distance of two seas failed to obliterate. They kept up a lively correspondence and Mr. Colvin aided him with the publication of his writings while he was absent from his own country. After his death, according to Stevenson's wishes, Mr. Colvin edited a large collection of his letters and in the notes which he added paid his friend many splendid tributes which show him to be a fair critic as well as an ardent admirer. "He had only to speak," he says, "in order to be recognized in the first minute for a witty and charming gentleman, and within the first five minutes for a master spirit and man of genius."
Louis's long absences from home often troubled his mother and caused her to complain when writing. In one answer to her about this time he said:
"You must not be vexed at my absences, you must understand I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days be done. You don't know how much I used to long for it in the old days; how I used to go and look at the trains leaving, and wish to go with them. And now, you know, that I have a little more that is solid under my feet, you must take my nomadic habit as a part of me. Just wait till I am in swing and you will see that I shall pass more of my life with you than elsewhere; only take me as I am and give me time. I must be a bit of a vagabond."
For all so little of his writing was ever done in his own country, nevertheless he turned to Scotland again and again for the setting of his stories and the subject of his essays. Although he often spoke harshly of Edinburgh when at home, he paid her many loving tributes in writing of her in a foreign land: "The quaint grey-castled city where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat.... I do not even know if I desire to live there, but let me hear in some far land a kindred voice sing out 'Oh, why left I my hame?' and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my own country. And although I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scotch clods. I will say it fairly, it grows on me with every year; there are no stars so lovely as the Edinburgh street lamps. When I forget thee, Auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning."
"Hope went before them And the world was wide."
In the summer of 1879 R.L.S. was once more seized with the desire to roam and to roam farther than ever before. California had been beckoning to him for some time, and in August he suddenly made up his mind, and with scarcely a word of farewell to his family and friends he embarked on the steamship Devonia, bound for New York.
Partly for the sake of economy, for he determined to pay his own way on this venture, and partly because he was anxious to experience emigrant life, he engaged passage in the second cabin, which in those days differed very little from the steerage. The main advantages were a trifle better food and a cabin to himself with a table where he could write.
In his usual way he soon made acquaintance with his fellow passengers and did them many a friendly turn. They took him for one of themselves and showed little curiosity as to where he came from, who he was, or where he was going. He says: "The sailors called me 'mate,' the officers addressed me as 'my man,' my comrades accepted me without hesitation for a person of their own character and experience. One, a mason himself, believed I was a mason, several, among these at least one of the seamen, judged me to be a petty officer in the American navy; and I was so often set down for a practical engineer that at last I had not the heart to deny it."
The emigrants were from many countries, though the majority were Scotch and Irish bound for the new world with the hope of meeting with better fortune than they had had in the old, and they whiled away the days at sea in their several ways, making the best of their discomforts and cheering one another when they grew lonely or homesick for those they had left behind.
When the weather was good their spirits rose and there were many rounds of singing and story-telling as they sat clustered together like bees under the lee of the deck-house, and in all of these Stevenson joined heartily.
"We were indeed a musical ship's company," he says, "and cheered our way into exile with the fiddle, the accordion, and the songs of all nations, good, bad or indifferent—Scottish, English, Irish, Russian or Norse—the songs were received with generous applause. Once or twice, a recitation, very spiritedly rendered in a powerful Scotch accent, varied the proceedings; and once we sought in vain to dance a quadrille, eight men of us together, to the music of the violin. The performers were humorous, frisky fellows, who loved to cut capers in private life; but as soon as they were arranged for the dance, they conducted themselves like so many mutes at a funeral. I have never seen decorum pushed so far; and as this was not expected, the quadrille was soon whistled off, and the dancers departed.
"But the impulse to sing was strong, and triumphed over modesty and even the inclemencies of the sea and sky. On one rough Saturday night, we got together by the main deck-house, in a place sheltered from the wind and rain. Some clinging to the ladder which led to the hurricane-deck and the rest knitting arms or taking hands, we made a ring to support the women in the violent lurching of the ship, and when we were thus disposed, sang to our hearts' content.
"There was a single chess-board and a single pack of cards. Sometimes as many as twenty of us would be playing dominoes for love. There were feats of dexterity, puzzles for the intelligence and a regular daily competition to guess the vessel's progress; at twelve o'clock when the result was published in the wheel house, came to be a moment of considerable interest.... We had beside, romps in plenty. Puss in the Corner, which we rebaptized, in more manly style, Devil and Four Corners, was my favorite game; but there were many who preferred another, the humor of which was to box a person's ears until he found out who cuffed him."
The voyage, which lasted ten days, was uneventful except for some rough weather when Stevenson found his cabin most stuffy and uncomfortable. He was not really ill, however, and spent much of the time finishing a tale called "The Story of a Lie," while his table played "Bob Jerry with the ink bottle." On his arrival in New York the story was sent back to London with the following letter to Sidney Colvin:
"On Board S.S. Devonia an hour or two out of New York, Aug., 1879.
"MY DEAR COLVIN:
"I have finished my story. The handwriting is not good because of the ship's misconduct; thirty-one pages in ten days at sea is not bad. I am not very well; bad food, bad air and hard work have brought me down. But the spirits keep good. The voyage has been most interesting and will make, if not a series of Pall Mall articles, at least the first part of a new book. The last weight on me has been trying to keep notes for this purpose. Indeed I have worked like a horse and am tired as a donkey. If I should have to push on far by rail, I shall bring nothing but my fine bones to port.
"Goodbye to you all. I suppose it is now late afternoon with you all across the seas. What shall I find over here? I dare not wonder.—Ever yours R.L.S."
As California was the goal he aimed for, in spite of his fatigue after ten days of poor living and the sea, he determined to push on immediately in an emigrant train bound for the Pacific coast.
On reaching port he and a man named Jones, with whom he had had more in common than with any of his other fellow passengers, landed together.
"Jones and I issued into West Street, sitting on some straw in the bottom of an open baggage wagon. It rained miraculously, and from that moment till on the following night I left New York, there was scarce a lull, and no cessation of the downpour....
"It took but a few moments, though it cost a good deal of money, to be rattled along West Street to our destination: Reunion House, No. 10 West Street, 'kept by one Mitchell.'
"Here I was at last in America and was soon out upon the New York streets, spying for things foreign....
"The following day I had a thousand and one things to do; only the day to do them in and a journey across the continent before me in the evening.... It rained with potent fury; every now and then I had to get under cover for a while in order, so to speak, to give my mackintosh a rest; for under this continued drenching it began to grow damp on the inside. I went to banks, post-offices, railway offices, restaurants, publishers, book sellers and money changers.
"I was so wet when I got back to Mitchell's toward evening, that I had simply to divest myself of my shoes, socks and trousers, and leave them behind for the benefit of New York City. No fire could have dried them ere I had to start; and to pack them in their present condition was to spread ruin among my other possessions. With a heavy heart I said farewell to them as they lay a pulp in the middle of a pool upon the floor of Mitchell's kitchen. I wonder if they are dry by now."
That night he joined a party of emigrants bound for the West, the weight of his baggage much increased by the result of his day's purchases—Bancroft's "History of the United States" in six fat volumes. So in less than twenty-four hours after landing on one coast he was on his way to the other.
If at times he had been uncomfortable on the steamer he was ten times more so on the train. It is hard to realize in these days of easy travelling what the discomforts of riding in the emigrant trains were; crowded together in badly lighted, badly ventilated cars, with stiff wooden benches on either side, which were most uncomfortable to sit on and next to impossible to lie down upon. Meals were taken as best they might when they stopped at way stations while some bought milk and eggs and made a shift to cook themselves a meal or brew a cup of tea on the stove at the end of the car.
Over a week of this sort of slow travelling through the heat of the plains was enough to tax the strength and courage of the most robust man, let alone one in as delicate health as Stevenson at that time, and it is a wonder he ever lived through it. Indeed, he was ill but kept cheerful in spite of all, and was interested in the country and the sights along the way. His own discomforts seemed to dwindle when he contrasted them with those the pioneers endured travelling that same direction twenty years before; crawling along in ox-carts with their cattle and family possessions; suffering hunger, thirst, and infinite weariness, and living in daily terror of attack from the Indians.
He made note of all he saw and the doings of his fellow emigrants, to be used later on. Letters to Henley and Colvin en route are interesting.
"In the Emigrant Train from New York to San Francisco, Aug., 1879.
DEAR COLVIN,—I am in the cars between Pittsburg and Chicago, just now bowling through Ohio. I am taking charge of a kid, whose mother is asleep, with one eye while I write you this with the other. I reached N.Y. Sunday night, and by five o'clock Monday was underway for the West.—It is now about ten on Wednesday morning, so I have already been forty hours in the cars. It is impossible to lie down in them, which must end by being very wearying....
"No man is any use until he has dared everything; I feel just now as if I had, and so might become a man. 'If ye have faith like a grain of mustard seed.' That is so true! Just now I have faith as big as a cigar case, I will not say die, and I do not fear man nor fortune.—R.L.S."
"Crossing Nebraska, Saturday, Aug. 23, 1879.
"My Dear Henley,—I am sitting on the top of the cars with a mill party from Missouri going west for his health. Desolate flat prairie upon all hands.... When we stop, which we do often, for emigrants and freight travel together, the kine first, the man after, the whole plain is heard singing with cicadae. This is a pause, as you may see from the writing. What happened to the old pedestrian emigrants; what was the tedium suffered by the Indians and trappers of our youth, the imagination trembles to conceive. This is now Saturday, 23rd, and I have been steadily travelling since I parted from you at St. Pancras. It is a strange vicissitude from the Savile Club to this; I sleep with a man from Pennsylvania who has been in the Navy Yard, and mess with him and the Missouri bird already alluded to. We have a tin wash-bowl among four, I wear nothing but a shirt and a pair of trousers and never button my shirt. When I land for a meal, I pass my coat and feel dressed. This life is to last until Friday, Saturday or Sunday next. It is a strange affair to be an emigrant, as I hope you shall see in a future work. I wonder if this will be legible; my present station on the wagon roof, though airy, compared to the cars, is both dirty and insecure. I can see the track straight before and straight behind me to either horizon....
"Our journey is through ghostly deserts, sage brush and alkali, and rocks without form or color, a sad corner of the world. I confess I am not jolly, but mighty calm, in my distresses. My illness is a subject of great mirth to some of my fellow travellers, and I smile rather sickly at their jests.
"We are going along Bitter Creek just now, a place infamous in the history of emigration, a place I shall remember myself among the blackest.—R.L.S."
When California was finally reached he decided to rest and recover strength by camping out for a few days in the Coast Range Mountains beyond Monterey, but the anxiety and strain of the long journey had been greater than he realized, and he broke down and became very ill. For two nights he lay out under the trees in a kind of stupor and at length was rescued by two frontiersmen in charge of a goat-ranch, who took him to their cabin and cared for him until he partly recovered.
"Here is another curious start in my life," he wrote to Sidney Colvin. "I am living at an Angora goat-ranch, in the Coast Line Mountains, eighteen miles from Monterey. I was camping out, but got so sick that the two rancheros took me in and tended me. One is an old bear hunter, seventy-two years old, and a captain from the Mexican War; the other a pilgrim, and one who was out with the bear flag and under Fremont when California was taken by the States. They are both true frontiersmen, and most kind and pleasant. Captain Smith, the bear hunter, is my physician, and I obey him like an oracle....
"I am now lying in an upper chamber, with the clinking of goat bells in my ears, which proves to me that the goats are come home and it will soon be time to eat. The old bear hunter is doubtless now infusing tea; and Tom the Indian will come in with his gun in a few moments....
"The business of my life stands pretty nigh still. I work at my notes of the voyage. It will not be very like a book of mine; but perhaps none the less successful for that. I will not deny that I feel lonely to-day.... I have not yet had a word from England, partly, I suppose, because I have not yet written for my letters to New York; do not blame me for this neglect, if you knew all I have been through, you would wonder I had done as much as I have. I teach the ranch children reading in the morning, for the mother is from home sick.
"Ever your affectionate friend.
As soon as Stevenson was well enough he returned to Monterey and fell to working upon several short stories and the notes of his voyage, which he brought together and published later under the titles "The Amateur Emigrant" and "Across the Plains."
Monterey in those days was a small Mexican town; "a place of two or three streets economically paved with sea-sand, and two or three lanes, which were the water courses in the rainy season.... The houses were, for the most part, built of unbaked adobe brick....
"There was no activity but in and around the saloons, where the people sat almost all day playing cards. The smallest excursion was made on horseback. You would scarcely ever see the main street without a horse or two tied to posts, and making a fine figure with their Mexican housings. In a place so exclusively Mexican as Monterey, you saw not only Mexican saddles, but true Vaquero riding—men always at a hand gallop, up hill and down dale, and round the sharpest corners, urging their horses with cries and gesticulations and cruel rotary spurs, checking them dead, with a touch, or wheeling them right about face in a square yard. Spanish was the language of the street."
He lodged with a doctor and his wife, and took his meals at the little restaurant kept by Jules Simoneau, "a most pleasant old boy," with whom he played chess and discussed the universe daily.
About the middle of December he pushed on to San Francisco, and prepared to settle down and work for an indefinite time. Though he had known but few people in Monterey, nevertheless it was a social little place in comparison to a great city like San Francisco, where Stevenson found himself indeed a stranger and friendless and learned for the first time in his life what it really meant to be lonely.
Funds were running low; so he secured the cheapest possible lodging and took his meals at various small restaurants, living at the rate of seventy cents a day.
On December 26 he wrote: "For four days I have spoken to no one but my landlady or landlord or the restaurant waiters. This is not a gay way to pass Christmas, is it?" But some days later, nothing daunted, he added: "I lead a pretty happy life, though you might not think it. I have great fun trying to be economical, which I find as good a game of play as any other. I have no want of occupation and though I rarely see any one to speak to, have little time to worry."
To make matters worse, letters containing money went astray and word came that some articles submitted to his publishers in England, on which he had depended for funds, were not satisfactory, and this forced him to reduce his living expenses to forty-five cents a day. The letters from home were most unsatisfactory and lacked the kind of news he longed for. "Not one soul ever gives me any news," he complained to Sidney Colvin, "about people or things, everybody writes me sermons; it is good for me, but hardly the food necessary for a man who lives all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts. If one of you could write me a letter with a jest in it, a letter like what is written to real people in the world—I am still flesh and blood—I should enjoy it. Simpson did the other day, and it did me as much good as a bottle of wine—man alive I want gossip."
Day in and day out he worked doggedly, fighting discouragement, with little strength or inspiration to write anything very worth while.
To cap all, his landlady's little boy fell ill, and Stevenson, who had a great love and sympathy for all children, helped to nurse him, and this proved too much in the nervous and exhausted state he was in. The boy recovered, but Stevenson fell ill again, and for six weeks hovered between life and death.
This seems to have been the turning-point in his ill luck. Toward the middle of February, as he slowly began to mend, he was cheered on by long letters from home, full of anxiety for his health and advances of money from his father, with strict instructions that from now on he was no longer to stint and deny himself the bare necessities of life, as he had been doing. Later, in April, came a telegram from Thomas Stevenson saying that in future Louis was to count on an income of two hundred and fifty pounds a year.
Cheered with the prospect of an easier road ahead of him, he struggled back to life once more with a strong resolve to work harder and make those at home proud of him.
"It was a considerable shock to my pride to break down," he wrote to a friend, "but there it's done and can not be helped. Had my health held out another month, I should have made a year's income, but breaking down when I did, I am surrounded by unfinished works. It is a good thing my father was on the spot, or I should have had to work and die."
Early in the spring he and Mrs. Osbourne met again, and on May 19, 1880, they were married in San Francisco.
For the rest of his life Stevenson had no cause to complain of loneliness, for in his wife he had an "inseparable sharer of all his adventures; the most open-hearted of friends to all those who loved him; the most shrewd and stimulating critic of his work; and in sickness, despite her own precarious health, the most devoted and most efficient of nurses."
Immediately after their marriage Stevenson and his wife and stepson—and the dog—went to the Coast Range Mountains and, taking possession of an old deserted miner's camp, practically lived out-of-doors for the next few months, with no neighbors aside from a hunter and his family.
This was healthy, but the life of a squatter has its limitations, and their trials and tribulations during these weeks Stevenson told most amusingly in "The Silverado Squatters."
Gradually a longing began to come to R.L.S. to see those at home once more and have them know his wife. This desire grew so from day to day that July found them bidding good-by to California, and on the 7th of August they sailed from New York for Liverpool.
"Bells upon the city are ringing in the night, High above the gardens are the houses full of light, On the heathy Pentlands is the curlew flying free, And the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie.
"We canna break the bonds that God decreed to bind, Still we'll be the children of the heather and the wind, Far away from home O, it's still for you and me That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie."
On his return to Scotland the spell of his own land fell upon R.L.S. for the first time. He realized now how he loved it spite of its bad climate, how much there was at home waiting for him. "After all," he said, "new countries, sun, music, and all the rest, can never take down our gusty, rainy, smoky, grim old city out of the first place it has been making for itself in the bottom of my soul."
But he had returned only to be banished. The doctors found his lungs too weak to risk Edinburgh winters and advised him to try the Alps.
Accordingly a cottage was rented in Davos Platz, a health resort. There and at similar places near by they spent the next few winters with visits to England and France between. Switzerland never suited Stevenson. He disliked living among invalids, and with his love for exploring the nooks and corners of any spot he was in he felt like a prisoner when he found himself shut in a valley among continual snow with few walks possible for him to take. "The mountains are about me like a trap," he complained. "You can not foot it up a hillside and behold the sea on a great plain, but live in holes and corners and can change only one for the other."
Tobogganing was the only sport of Davos Platz he really enjoyed, and he pursued that to his heart's content. "Perhaps the true way to toboggan is alone and at night," he said. "First comes the tedious climb dragging your instrument behind you. Next a long breathing space, alone with the snow and pine woods, cold, silent and solemn to the heart. Then you push off; the toboggan fetches away, she begins to feel the hill, to glide, to swim, to gallop. In a breath you are out from under the pine-trees and the whole heaven full of stars reels and flashes overhead."
He accomplished little work at this time. Sometimes for days he would be unable to write at all. But the little boy who had once told his mother, "I have been trying to make myself happy," was the same man now who could say: "I was never bored in my life." When unable to do anything else he would build houses of cards or lie in bed and model little figures in clay. Anything to keep his hands busy and his mind distracted from the stories that crowded his brain and he had not strength to put on paper. His one horror, the fear that urged him on to work feverishly when he was suffering almost beyond endurance, was the thought that his illness might one day make him a helpless invalid.
The splendid part to think of is that no hint of his dark days and pains crept into his writings or saddened those who came to see him. Complaint he kept to himself, prayed that he might "continue to be eager to be happy," lived with the best that was in him from day to day, and the words that went forth from his sick-room have cheered and encouraged thousands.
When asked why he wrote so many stories of pirates and adventurers with few women to soften them he replied: "I suppose it's the contrast; I have always admired great strength, even in a pirate. Courage has interested me more than anything else."
He and his stepson had grown to be great chums. At Silverado Lloyd had been seized with a desire to write stories and had set up a toy printing-press which turned off several tales. At Davos Platz they both tried their hand at illustrating these stories with pictures cut on wood-blocks and gayly colored. Lloyd's room was quite a gallery of these artistic attempts. But their favorite diversion was to play at a war game with lead soldiers. In after-years Lloyd wrote his recollections of the days they spent together enjoying this fun and he says: "The war game was constantly improved and elaborated, until from a few hours, a war took weeks to play, and the critical operations in the attic monopolized half our thoughts. This attic was a most chilly and dismal spot, reached by a crazy ladder, and unlit save for a single frosted window; so low at the eaves and so dark that we could seldom stand upright, nor see without a candle. Upon the attic floor a map was roughly drawn in chalks of different colors, with mountains, rivers, towns, bridges, and roads of two classes. Here we would play by the hour, with tingling fingers and stiffening knees, and an intentness, zest, and excitement that I shall never forget.
"The mimic battalions marched and counter-marched, changed by measured evolutions from column formation into line, with cavalry screens in front and massed support behind, in the most approved military fashion of to-day."
Neither of them ever grew too old for this sport. Year after year they went back to the game. Even when they went to Samoa they laid out a campaign room with maps chalked on the floor.
In the spring of 1885 Thomas Stevenson purchased a house at Bournemouth, England, near London, as a present for his daughter-in-law.
They named the cottage "Skerryvore," after the famous lighthouse he had helped to build in his young days, and it was their home for the next three years—busy ones for R.L.S.
It was a real joy to have his father and mother and Bob Stevenson with them again and his friends in London frequently drop in for a visit.
His health was never worse than during the Bournemouth days. He seldom went beyond his own garden-gate but lived, as he says, "like a weevil in a biscuit." Yet he never worked harder or accomplished more. He wrote in bed and out of bed, sick or well, poems, plays, short stories, and verses.
He finished "Treasure Island," the book that gained him his first popularity, and wrote "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which made him famous at home and abroad.
"Treasure Island" had been started some time previous to please Lloyd, who asked him to write a "good story." It all began with a map. Stevenson always loved maps, and one day during a picture-making bout he had drawn a fine one. "It was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored," he says. "The shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased me like sonnets.... I ticketed my performance Treasure Island."
Immediately the island began to take life and swarm with people, all sorts of strange scenes began to take place upon it, and as he gazed at his map Stevenson discovered the plot for the "good story."
"It is horrid fun," he wrote, "and begins in the Admiral Benbow public house on the Devon coast; all about a map and a treasure and a mutiny, and a derelict ship ... and a doctor and a sea-cook with one leg with the chorus 'yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum,' ... No women in the story, Lloyd orders."
Parts of the coast at Monterey flashed back to his mind and helped him to picture the scenery of his "Treasure Island." "It was just such a place as the Monterey sand hills the hero John Hawkins found himself on leaving his mutinous shipmates. It was just such a thicket of live oak growing low along the sand like brambles, that he crawled and dodged when he heard the voices of the pirates near him and saw Long John Silver strike down with his crutch one of his mates who had refused to join in his plan for murder."