Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter VI

Some Earlier Letters

CARLYLE was wont to say that, next to a faithful portrait, familiar letters were the best medium to reveal a man. The letters must have been written with no idea of being used for this end, however - free, artless, the unstudied self-revealings of mind and heart. Now, these letters of R. L. Stevenson, written to his friends in England, have a vast value in this way — they reveal the man — reveal him in his strength and his weakness — his ready gift in pleasing and adapting himself to those with whom he corresponded, and his great power at once of adapting himself to his circumstances and of humorously rising superior to them. When he was ill and almost penniless in San Francisco, he could give Mr Colvin this account of his daily routine:

“Any time between eight and half-past nine in the morning a slender gentleman in an ulster, with a volume buttoned into the breast of it, maybe observed leaving No. 608 Bush and descending Powell with an active step. The gentleman is R. L. Stevenson; the volume relates to Benjamin Franklin, on whom he meditates one of his charming essays. He descends Powell, crosses Market, and descends in Sixth on a branch of the original Pine Street Coffee-House, no less. . . . He seats himself at a table covered with waxcloth, and a pampered menial of High-Dutch extraction, and, indeed, as yet only partially extracted, lays before him a cup of coffee, a roll, and a pat of butter, all, to quote the deity, very good. A while ago, and R. L. Stevenson used to find the supply of butter insufficient; but he has now learned the art to exactitude, and butter and roll expire at the same moment. For this rejection he pays ten cents, or fivepence sterling.

“Half an hour later, the inhabitants of Bush Street observed the same slender gentleman armed, like George Washington, with his little hatchet, splitting kindling, and breaking coal for his fire. He does this quasi-publicly upon the window-sill; but this is not to be attributed to any love of notoriety, though he is indeed vain of his prowess with the hatchet (which he persists in calling an axe), and daily surprised at the perpetuation of his fingers. The reason is this: That the sill is a strong supporting beam, and that blows of the same emphasis in other parts of his room might knock the entire shanty into hell. Thenceforth, for from three hours, he is engaged darkly with an ink-bottle. Yet he is not blacking his boots, for the only pair that he possesses are innocent of lustre, and wear the natural hue of the material turned up with caked and venerable slush. The youngest child of his landlady remarks several times a day, as this strange occupant enters or quits the house, ‘Dere’s de author.’ Can it be that this bright-haired innocent has found the true clue to the mystery? The being in question is, at least, poor enough to belong to that honourable craft.”

Here are a few letters belonging to the winter of 1887-88, nearly all written from Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks, celebrated by Emerson, and now a most popular holiday resort in the United States, and were originally published in SCRIBNER’S MAGAZINE . . . “It should be said that, after his long spell of weakness at Bournemouth, Stevenson had gone West in search of health among the bleak hill summits — ‘on the Canadian border of New York State, very unsettled and primitive and cold.’ He had made the voyage in an ocean tramp, the LUDGATE HILL, the sort of craft which any person not a born child of the sea would shun in horror. Stevenson, however, had ‘the finest time conceivable on board the “strange floating menagerie.”’” Thus he describes it in a letter to Mr Henry James:

“Stallions and monkeys and matches made our cargo; and the vast continent of these incongruities rolled the while like a haystack; and the stallions stood hypnotised by the motion, looking through the port at our dinner-table, and winked when the crockery was broken; and the little monkeys stared at each other in their cages, and were thrown overboard like little bluish babies; and the big monkey, Jacko, scoured about the ship and rested willingly in my arms, to the ruin of my clothing; and the man of the stallions made a bower of the black tarpaulin, and sat therein at the feet of a raddled divinity, like a picture on a box of chocolates; and the other passengers, when they were not sick, looked on and laughed. Take all this picture, and make it roll till the bell shall sound unexpected notes and the fittings shall break loose in our stateroom, and you have the voyage of the LUDGATE HILL. She arrived in the port of New York without beer, porter, soda-water, curacoa, fresh meat, or fresh water; and yet we lived, and we regret her.”

He discovered this that there is no joy in the Universe comparable to life on a villainous ocean tramp, rolling through a horrible sea in company with a cargo of cattle.

“I have got one good thing of my sea voyage; it is proved the sea agrees heartily with me, and my mother likes it; so if I get any better, or no worse, my mother will likely hire a yacht for a month or so in the summer. Good Lord! what fun! Wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartette. For these two I will sell my soul. Except for these I hold that 700 pounds a year is as much as anybody can possibly want; and I have had more, so I know, for the extra coins were of no use, excepting for illness, which damns everything. I was so happy on board that ship, I could not have believed it possible; we had the beastliest weather, and many discomforts; but the mere fact of its being a tramp ship gave us many comforts. We could cut about with the men and officers, stay in the wheel-house, discuss all manner of things, and really be a little at sea. And truly there is nothing else. I had literally forgotten what happiness was, and the full mind — full of external and physical things, not full of cares and labours, and rot about a fellow’s behaviour. My heart literally sang; I truly care for nothing so much as for that.

“To go ashore for your letters and hang about the pier among the holiday yachtsmen — that’s fame, that’s glory — and nobody can take it away.”

At Saranac Lake the Stevensons lived in a “wind-beleaguered hill- top hat-box of a house,” which suited the invalid, but, on the other hand, invalided his wife. Soon after getting there he plunged into THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE.

“No thought have I now apart from it, and I have got along up to page ninety-two of the draught with great interest. It is to me a most seizing tale: there are some fantastic elements, the most is a dead genuine human problem — human tragedy, I should say rather. It will be about as long, I imagine, as KIDNAPPED. . . . I have done most of the big work, the quarrel, duel between the brothers, and the announcement of the death to Clementina and my Lord — Clementina, Henry, and Mackellar (nicknamed Squaretoes) are really very fine fellows; the Master is all I know of the devil; I have known hints of him, in the world, but always cowards: he is as bold as a lion, but with the same deadly, causeless duplicity I have watched with so much surprise in my two cowards. ‘Tis true, I saw a hint of the same nature in another man who was not a coward; but he had other things to attend to; the Master has nothing else but his devilry.”

His wife grows seriously ill, and Stevenson has to turn to household work.

“Lloyd and I get breakfast; I have now, 10.15, just got the dishes washed and the kitchen all clean, and sit down to give you as much news as I have spirit for, after such an engagement. Glass is a thing that really breaks my spirit; and I do not like to fail, and with glass I cannot reach the work of my high calling — the artist’s.”

In the midst of such domestic tasks and entanglements he writes THE MASTER, and very characteristically gets dissatisfied with the last parts, “which shame, perhaps degrade, the beginning.”

Of Mr Kipling this is his judgment — in the year 1890:

“Kipling is by far the most promising young man who has appeared since — ahem — I appeared. He amazes me by his precocity and various endowments. But he alarms me by his copiousness and haste. He should shield his fire with both hands, ‘and draw up all his strength and sweetness in one ball.’ (‘Draw all his strength and all his sweetness up into one ball’? I cannot remember Marvell’s words.) So the critics have been saying to me; but I was never capable of — and surely never guilty of — such a debauch of production. At this rate his works will soon fill the habitable globe, and surely he was armed for better conflicts than these succinct sketches and flying leaves of verse? I look on, I admire, I rejoice for myself; but in a kind of ambition we all have for our tongue and literature I am wounded. If I had this man’s fertility and courage, it seems to me I could heave a pyramid.

“Well, we begin to be the old fogies now, and it was high time SOMETHING rose to take our places. Certainly Kipling has the gifts; the fairy godmothers were all tipsy at his christening. What will he do with them?”

Of the rest of Stevenson’s career we cannot speak at length, nor is it needful. How in steady succession came his triumphs: came, too, his trials from ill-health — how he spent winters at Davos Platz, Bournemouth, and tried other places in America; and how, at last, good fortune led him to the South Pacific. After many voyagings and wanderings among the islands, he settled near Apia, in Samoa, early in 1890, cleared some four hundred acres, and built a house; where, while he wrote what delighted the English-speaking race, he took on himself the defence of the natives against foreign interlopers, writing under the title A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY, the most powerful EXPOSE of the mischief they had done and were doing there. He was the beloved of the natives, as he made himself the friend of all with whom he came in contact. There, as at home, he worked — worked with the same determination and in the enjoyment of better health. The obtaining idea with him, up to the end, as it had been from early life, was a brave, resolute, cheerful endeavour to make the best of it.

“I chose Samoa instead of Honolulu,” he told Mr W. H. Trigg, who reports the talk in CASSELLS’ MAGAZINE, “for the simple and eminently satisfactory reason that it is less civilised. Can you not conceive that it is awful fun?” His house was called “Vailima,” which means Five Waters in the Samoan, and indicates the number of streams that flow by the spot.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30