The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson for Boys and Girls
The following is from The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson for Boys and Girls by Jacqueline M. Overton (published 1933):
Chapter IV - Edinburgh Days
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 "Encyclopædia" 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 Fère. "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 Fère. 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 Cévenne 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 Cévennes."
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."