Robert Louis Stevenson > A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods > Life of Stevenson
Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).  A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods.  1913.
Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Alexander Harvey


        “Like Scott in his ardent and impressionable youth, he was all unconsciously storing up the materials for his fictions.”— Edinburgh Review.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, prodigally gifted in all that relates to tale-writing pure and simple, an essayist of such perfection that perhaps only Lamb is his peer, and a poet who has stirred the sensibilities of the Anglo-Saxon race on their most human side, lived less than forty-five years. He was born in Edinburgh on the thirteenth of November in the year 1850, and he died near Apia, in the Samoan Islands, on the third of December, 1894. Had Scott passed away at Stevenson’s age, as has been pointed out by Dr. Copeland, of Harvard, English literature would have been left without the Waverley novels. Had Dickens died so young, “A Tale of Two Cities” would not have been written. Stevenson at forty-four was as promising as Chatterton at eighteen, and his literary career may be said properly to have begun, according to Stevenson’s most sympathetic interpreter, only fourteen years before it ended.
  The unostentatious little stone house on Howard Place, Edinburgh, of which contemporary guide-books make so much as “the birthplace of the creator of Jekyll and Hyde,” undoubtedly planted in the child’s system the seeds of that organic malady to which his untimely taking off in the maturity of his powers is traceable. For the first year of his life, indeed, as we learn from his authorised biographer and from his mother’s precious diary, the baby seemed healthy. He climbed eighteen steps of the stairs when nine months old. He walked eight weeks later. He was calling people by their names before the average baby has cut eight teeth. But this precocity went with a weakness of the chest and a susceptibility to cold inherited from a sprightly, girlish mother who thus conditioned, on its physical side, the most personal genius in our literature. He acceded to his heritage of pallor and inflammation at the age of two, when the suffocation of an attack of croup seemed at one time to have carried him off altogether. It was at this crisis that “Cummie” came into his life in earnest—“Cummie,” the nurse, immortalised in the verse and the prose of “R. L. S.” His recollections of the endless hours when he was kept awake by coughing were brightened years afterward by the thought of the tenderness of his nurse. She was more patient, he tells us, than an angel—hours together would she encourage and sustain him. Many a restless night ended only with the coming of the files of farmers’ carts, and the clamour of drivers, whips and steeds under the window.   2
  The delicate child was nearly three when the family moved on his account to a roomier dwelling on the other side of the road. Here, to his father and his mother and his nurse he grew into a wonderful child of seven; but in his later years he fancied that he gathered all this time material for those essays upon which, as Mr. Richard Le Gallienne thinks, his final fame must rest. Within the three outside walls of his second home—soon to prove too cold for the frail child—he acquired an extreme terror of Hell. It was implanted by that faithful nurse to whom cards were the devices of Satan and who taught him to pray fervently that his father and mother might not be damned for playing whist. All this time the boy’s health was going from bad to worse. He would be kept indoors for a whole winter, saturating his mind with the Bible and the shorter catechism and the writings of Presbyterian divines. By way of relaxation he made himself little pulpits with chair and stool, sitting therein to read a service and standing up at proper intervals to give out a hymn.   3
  “You can never be good,” he observed at the age of four, “unless you pray.”   4
  His mother asked him how he knew. “Because,” he replied, “I’ve tried it.”   5
  His literary ambitions defined themselves when he was six. An uncle had offered a prize for the best history of Moses. Robert Louis Stevenson never had brother or sister, but his cousins were always legion. All competed, and little Louis submitted a version with the rest. It was dictated to his mother during five consecutive Sabbath nights, and won for him a Bible picture-book. From that time forward, asserts his mother, it became the heart’s desire of Robert Louis Stevenson to be an author.   6
  It looked then as if he might never become even a man. The first attack of croup had left his system defenceless against succeeding invasions of gastric fever, chills, pneumonia, and bronchitis. Many and longer nights the child spent awake, racked with the hacking cough that never would let go of his body. It seemed to him in after years that he must have perished at this period if he had been deserted in his little crib to cough his vitality away. But the sleepless nurse—who would not accept, we are told, a proposal of marriage because it entailed a parting from her boy—was ever at hand to lift the sufferer from his bed, to bear him in the darkness towards the window, to point out a light here and there in some other window, to surmise that other suffering little lads were looking for the break of day. And when little sallies of delirium brought him out of fevered sleep, there was the father, too, sitting by the bedside until slumber had come again.   7
  Louis was seven when the Stevensons tried once more to fly from his disease. They simply took it with them as inevitably as the family Bible. Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus was still in the future. The Stevensons had never heard of phthisis as a bedroom disease. So Louis was taken to live in the grey stone house at 17 Heriot Row—an abode solidly Scotch in the thickness of its walls. Here, behind closed doors and windows, the child sweltered anew in his own perspiration, sheltered as before from the air and the cold in fresh exile from the streets of winter. Bacteriology had still to proclaim that tubercular particles ejected from an invaded organism like his into even so healthy an abode as 17 Heriot Row must, unless at once devitalised, dry artificially. In that stage of culture they distributed themselves for further invasion of the organism cooped up behind the back windows that looked across Queen Street gardens. “I principally connect these nights,” he wrote in after years of the hacking, exhausting cough now as much a part of the history of literature as Carlyle’s dyspepsia or Milton’s blindness—“I principally connect these nights with our third house, in Heriot Row.” Thus, for some score of years, more or less, Robert Louis Stevenson grew to manhood in an atmosphere as bacterial as it was Calvinistic.   8

        “Even at sixteen the boy who, in the fulness of his powers, was to write the marvellous description of the ‘Merry Men of Aros,’ had begun to learn his trade.”—S. R. Crockett.

IT was the dream of the elder Stevenson’s life to be spared long enough to see his only son a celebrated engineer. It was a perfectly natural ambition in the circumstances. The family of Stevenson is associated as intimately with the history of lighthouses as is the family of M’Cormick with the invention and exploitation of the reaper. A certain friend of “R. L. S.” happened to visit the Spanish main once upon a time. He was asked by a Peruvian if he “knew Mr. Stevenson, the author” whose works were so esteemed in Peru. The friend of “R. L. S.” assumed the reference to be to the author of “Jekyll and Hyde.” But the Peruvian had never heard of that firm. He was thinking only of a particular member of the illustrious house of engineers to which science is so indebted for an authoritative account of the principle upon which the Bell Rock Lighthouse is constructed.
  Had Robert Louis Stevenson—to whom this Peruvian anecdote was a perennial joy—been wedded to the theory of adaptation to environment by natural selection he could not, as a lad, have shown more docility in charging his mind with the lore of the hereditary calling. To his latest day, in truth, he took a pride in the family lighthouses, while for many a year it seemed that the family position as head of the Stevenson firm and as engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses must come to him as a matter of course. From the lips of his father, Thomas Stevenson, the celebrated expert in optics as applied to lighthouse illumination, he learned of the still more famous Robert Stevenson, his grandfather, immortalised by the Bell Rock Lighthouse on the Inchcape rock. Scarcely less renowned—perhaps more famous still, indeed—is the Skerryvore lighthouse in Argyleshire, built by the uncle of “R. L. S.” with the coöperation of the father of the same. “The noblest of all extant deep-sea lights” is Skerryvore, says the Stevenson who, although he foreswore the hereditary line of the family glory for one more shining still, exulted to his latest day in the Inchcape beacon and the tower of Skerryvore. His most impressionable years were much filled with study of his father’s scientific volumes and inventions. Thus, he tells us, it was as a harbour engineer that his father became interested in the propagation and reduction of waves—“a difficult subject,” admits “R. L. S.” in the paper he penned upon it.  10
  Difficult it must have been to Louis—now grown too large for the childhood name of “Smout”—but he applied himself diligently to holophotal lights and louvre-boarded screens for optical instruments. So great was the paternal influence! Not that Thomas Stevenson was harshly dominant. He simply possessed, as “R. L. S.” possessed, a personality. This father of his is lovingly described by the son as a man of “somewhat antique strain,” as a blend of sternness and softness, essentially melancholy by disposition yet humourously genial in society. He delighted in sunflowers before Oscar Wilde was heard of, he showed excellent taste in collecting old furniture and he never grew weary of “Guy Mannering.” Loyal to the Church of Scotland, morbidly conscious of personal unworthiness in God’s sight, keenly studious of every branch of natural science a Tory in politics, favouring the divorce of any woman who wanted one while denying a right of separation to the husband on any ground whatever, Thomas Stevenson lavished every gift upon his son—except unlimited spending-money—and kept him perpetually edified upon the subject of lighthouses.  11
  Chills and colds, meanwhile, interfered not only with the son’s growth but with his education. When he was seven, Robert Louis Stevenson saw the inside of a real school for the first time. It was an unambitious but select temple of learning for the little, not very far from the child’s home. But every draught of cold air, each wetting of his feet, any breathing of foggy atmosphere seems to have developed an ailment of some respiratory passage. These “colds” set up every conceivable infectious malady of childhood in addition to whooping-cough, influenza, measles, and the quinsy. His mother, who so early in her wedded life became intimately acquainted with blisters and counter-irritants, poultices and fomentations, immured her son for another winter or two in Heriot Row. In the summer months he seems to have kept tolerably well. But he was then usually out in the fresh air where lived his grandfather—not the great Robert Stevenson, of the lighthouses, but Dr. Lewis Balfour, parish minister at Colinton. The mother of Louis was a Balfour, and every man who has read his “R. L. S.” knows what remarkable people these Balfours were. No less than forty Balfours, all born and reared in or near Edinburgh, were first cousins to Robert Louis Stevenson. Most of them were frequent visitors in the home of the clergyman grandfather, who was, none the less, according to the most illustrious of all his grandchildren, “pretty stiff.” Little Louis was well into his “Arabian Nights” once when this old gentleman stole up behind him. Louis “grew blind” with dread. But the old gentleman did not ban the book. He only said he envied Louis.  12
  Louis must, indeed, have been astonished. So firmly was the family face set against certain forms of imaginative recreation that even Louis’s nurse read Cassell’s Family Paper aloud to him with a consciousness of sin. Cummie would ease her uneasy conscience with the assurance to Robert Louis that the publication in question contained no novels. They were only tales—family tales. The little boy himself was still so very much afraid of Hell, and Cummie, taught by disconcerting experience, was so apprehensive that what began as an innocent tale would develop into a real novel, that Cassell’s Family Paper—“with my pious approval,” added R. L. S. himself in maturer years—was dropped forthwith. But on the following Saturday the little boy and his nurse were likely to wander in the direction of the newsman’s shop. The pair were then wont “to fish out of subsequent woodcuts and their legends” from the open sheets of Cassell’s exposed for sale, the ensuing instalments of these sinful serials.  13
  Constant anxiety for the health of her only child began in time to tell upon the health of the mother. Mrs. Thomas Stevenson had been a Miss Margaret Isabella Balfour. She retained to her latest day traces of the beauty of feature, the grace of movement, and the sprightliness of disposition which enabled her to produce lasting impressions of charm upon even perfect strangers. Her famous son’s resolute refusal through life to see the unpleasant side of things, his willingness to be pleased on every occasion, his fresh interest in any new experience, were part of a maternal inheritance. So devoted was the mother to the son that she saved practically every scrap of writing he ever sent her, she well-nigh mastered a whole branch of therapeutics in the meticulous care she took in nursing him, while the nature and the details of his innumerable lapses from health in childhood are set down in the diaries she commenced when he was a year old. His progress in the alphabet, the lines he recited at the age of three and the domestic crisis precipitated by his first and only meal of buttercups are recorded with a biographer’s insight by the worshipping young mother. What a sensation when Mr. Swan came to dinner, for example, and Louis, just thirty-six months old, recited: “On Linden when the sun was low!” waving his hand and making a splendid bow at the end. And no doubt, according to Mr. Graham Balfour, the trick of gesture, partly inherited from the father, which accompanied the conversation of Robert Louis Stevenson through life, “received some of its emphasis” from the elocutionary precocity of the babe. It was Cummie’s teaching, conceded the mother in her diary. Robert Louis Stevenson always insisted, too, that his dramatic instinct was developed by his nurse.  14
  “It’s you that gave me a passion for the drama, Cummie,” he declared to her before a room full of people.  15
  “Me, Master Lou!” she exclaimed. “I never put foot inside a playhouse in my life.”  16
  “Ay, woman,” retorted he, “but it was the grand dramatic way ye had of reciting.”  17
  Even the hymns received the benefit of these elocutionary powers. As for the things she read aloud to her boy, the real mother, who read with all the expression of a young lady whose education had been fashionable, could never make “The Cameronian Dream” a reality, as Cummie could. The fourteen stanzas of this north country classic first thrilled the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson into unison with the romantic spirit. So he has told the world himself, adding that in this and other ways his nurse not only dictated his choice of subjects in his famous days, but exercised a decided if not deciding influence upon the evolution of his literary style.  18
  The boy waxed large. Time came when, in addition to the works of science in that austere nook, his father’s library, he gained access to fields and fresh air in a “garden cut into provinces,” bounded by flower-pots and laurels and warm sunshine and overhanging woods. He had now the run of Colinton Manse, abode of his Balfour grandfather with the beautiful face and silver hair. Here the weak-lunged Louis led the physiological life. Perpetual irritation of his mucous membranes by interminable inhalations of cigarette smoke had not yet begun. The characteristic flatness of chest which accompanied his other Balfour inheritances was eased with oxygen copiously breathed into healthier tissue that set up in turn a better balanced metabolism. “Out of my reminiscences of life in that dear place,” he wrote in subsequent years, “I can recall nothing but sunshiny weather.” The painful and the morbid were no more for a time. But he often wondered what he had inherited from that old minister. He had never been made aware, seemingly, of that peculiarity in the chemistry of the body which renders successive members of one family a readier prey to the tubercle bacillus than the members of others. In body, about this time or not long after, he was, as an observer phrases it, “badly set up.” Long, lean and spidery arms and legs, sunken chest, eyes so far apart as to suggest a cast, and movements sluggish except in play—he was ugly. The oval of the brow, the soft brown eyes, the smile haunting the thick lips and the lankness of cheek combined to form the typically tuberculous countenance.  19
  His own health and that of his mother led to a first-hand acquaintance with the continent of Europe that began when Louis entered his teens and became very intimate before many years. His haphazard schooling and his desultory travel gave him an ultimate mastery of French, familiarity with German, much Latin, no particular Greek and an unorganised intellectual ferment in his brain of all that he had read and dreamed. With this material he began to build a style, taking for foundation the English of the Covenanting writers read to him by Cummie. His interest in his father’s lighthouses went with a firmer determination than ever to be an author. Hot upon the history of Moses had come his history of Joseph produced without collaborators at the age of seven. Then appeared a small book of travels in the handwriting of his mother, to whom he dictated the work. He was thirteen when he completed a description of the inhabitants of Peebles and when he was fourteen he could rhyme. So says his official biographer, who refers us to the libretto of an opera entitled. The Baneful Potato,” never in print. At last school and in his home circle he was always starting magazines of the illustrated monthly variety, devoted to fiction, poetry, ethics and the leading events of human history from the creation to date. He was now on the highroad to fiction, which took the form of a historical romance based upon that classical event in Covenanting annals, the Pentland rising of the seventeenth century.  20
  The parental Stevenson began at this point to divert his attention from the luminous field of his parabolic reflectors to those sterile regions of fancy and imagination in which his child was running riot. He assured his son that in “making a story” of the Pentland rising he had spoiled a good thing. Louis, now shooting up into a youth of sixteen, was so much under the spell of the paternal personality, that he set about the transformation of his romance into a history. Such submission did much to restore the confidence of father in son, for the latter had begun to be pointed out in the enormous Balfour-Stevenson circle as “the pattern of an idler.” And yet, to speak in the very words of Robert Louis Stevenson in after years, he was all this time busy with his own private project, which was to learn to write. He kept two books always in his pocket. One he read. The other he wrote in. Whithersoever he went his mind was busy fitting what he saw with appropriate words. If he sat by the roadside, it was either to read or to note down with pencil the aspects of nature before him or to rescue from forgetfulness what he is pleased to term “some halting stanzas.”  21
  Thus, to plagiarise his essays still, he lived with words; and what he thus wrote was for no ulterior use. It was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that he wished to be an author—though he wished that, too—as that he had vowed he would learn to write. “That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself.” Description was the form assumed by this literary travail mainly. “To any one with senses, there is always something worth describing and town and country are but one continuous subject.” But he worked in other ways as well. Often he accompanied his walks with dramatic dialogues in which he, like man, played many parts. He would even set down conversation from memory. Sometimes he would strive to keep a diary, but he always found it a thing of posturing and of melancholy self-deception and he always and very speedily discarded the thing. Whether or not, in maturer years, he followed the example of Anthony Trollope in burning with many blushes the diaries of these puppy periods, the Stevenson estimate of this branch of literary art has its significance to the student of Pepys.  22
  All this, however, he tells us, was not the most efficient part of his training. It was good for him, of course; but he thought in maturer years that it taught him only the “lower and less intellectual elements” of the art he mastered by these means. He learned the choice of “the essential note” and the “right word,” but, regarded as training, it all had one serious lack—it set him no standard of achievement. In his secret labours at home—they had to be secret because of the peculiar environment—he found, however, infinite profit though infinite labour. Did he read a book or a passage that thrilled him with its style, down he must sit immediately and set himself to ape that quality. He says he was unsuccessful, yet he strove once more. Again unsuccessful, he records, always unsuccessful, he will have us believe. He got some practice in construction of sentence and in coödination of passages, some mastery of rhythm and of harmony, yet were these but “vain bouts” to which he returned like some village Hampden. “I have thus played the sedulous ape,” he avers, “to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne.” He did not even shrink from Montaigne or Baudelaire or Obermann. “Monkey tricks” he designates the resultant fragments of prose and versification, “gouty footed lyrics.” But he was so very young! Even at the age of thirteen he had essayed impressionist sketches of the dwellers in Peebles in the style of “The Book of Snobs.” With that classic he had fallen in love almost as soon as he could spell. It had burst upon him suddenly in four old bound volumes of “London Punch” encountered—of all spots on earth—in his father’s library, among reports of learned societies and volumes on polemic divinity. Great was the surprise of Robert Louis Stevenson when he discovered in after years that the Snob papers were as famous as the man who wrote them. They had been published anonymously in the London paper and to the delighted little Louis they were necessarily the works of “Mr. Punch.”  23
  To Thomas Stevenson, immersed in the subject of wave propagation and reduction and prone to perusal of “The Parent’s Assistant,” his only son’s industry over an epic in imitation of Browning’s “Sordello” or a tragedy in the Elizabethan style was a matter of dubiety. This growing absorption in style as an instrument of many strings keyed to the scale of tragedy or comedy as the humour of Master Lou dictated from idle day to idle day was manifestly inadequate training. The youth’s light was not to shine athwart the shoreless ocean of his country’s literature, but to cast its blaze upon the boiling eddies and warn ships from the rock, the shallow, and the sand-bank. However, as Mr. Graham Balfour reflects in his biography of his gifted kinsman, the family capacity for its traditional work, though undeniable, was “very elusive.” It evinced itself mainly as “a sort of instinct for dealing with the forces of nature,” never being manifested with inerrancy until “called forth in actual practice.” Thus the elder Stevenson evidently reasoned, consoling himself the more readily inasmuch as the time was at hand for Robert Louis Stevenson to see something of the practical side of engineering and to work for his science degree at the University of Edinburgh.  24

        “It was part of his genius that he never seemed to be cramped like the rest of us at any given time of life, within the limits of his proper age, but to be child, boy, young man and old man at all times.” — Sidney Colvin.

IN the days that followed this seventeen-year-old youth’s entrance upon a university career he seemed to have put aside his ill health — possibly because his college life had little of restraint and, as he phrased it years later, “nothing of necessary gentility.” The crowded class-rooms, the gaunt quadrangle, the bell hourly booming over the traffic of the city, the first muster of his college class and the sight of so many lads, “fresh from the heather,” hanging round the stove in “cloddish embarrassment,” afraid, withal, of the noise of their own breaking voices, made upon Robert Louis Stevenson those ineffaceable impressions which impart to all his essays their masterly autobiographical ring. The delightful sight of all classes rubbing elbows on the same greasy benches, of “the raffish young gentleman in gloves” measuring scholarship with “the plain clownish laddie from the parish school,” so appealed to the democracy of his being as to be adopted, to use one of his own expressions again, into the very bosom of his mind. Now he could devise that extensive and, as he proudly proclaims it, that “highly rational” system of truantry which cost him such a deal of trouble to apply practically. It was in this capacity of chronic truant that Stevenson concentrated upon himself the fixed attention of Fleeming Jenkin. Old Professor Blackie, the most prodigious Greek scholar of his time, had already good reason to remark — as he did when the truant unblushingly asked him for a certificate of attendance — that the countenance of Robert Louis Stevenson was very unfamiliar. But Fleeming Jenkin, who had come to Edinburgh as Professor of Engineering when Stevenson’s system of truancy was functioning with the nicety of a parabolic reflector, was no professor to be fobbed off. He subdued the rebel by the process of fascinating him. The professor was fifteen years older than the student, but there was about him a “perpetual boyishness” and an insight into just such a temperament as that of Stevenson which made them instant comrades. Fleeming Jenkin was meat and drink to his pupil, confesses that pupil himself, for many a long evening.
  Now, too, commenced his explorations of the Advocates’ Library, the great Edinburgh temple of books. Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” tumbled the world upside down for him at about this period, he has said. It blew into space “a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion,” yet, as he would fain believe, set him back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues. Hard upon this discovery of Whitman came that of Herbert Spencer. But the greatest find of all was the New Testament and in particular the gospel according to Matthew. It startled and it moved him because he made a certain effort of imagination and “read it freshly like a book” and not “droningly and dully” like a portion of the Bible at home. But in charging his mind with Montaigne, Horace, Pepys, Shakespeare, and the rest he accumulated that golden material for talk in which his pride was always honest. For Robert Louis Stevenson talked brilliantly from boyhood and frankly avowed a consciousness of it. His vibrating voice, his leanness, his brown skin, long hair, great dark eyes, brilliant smile, gentle, deprecating bend of the head, and his trick of keeping a hand to his hip were blended into a vivid composite impression of a boy of eighteen, who talked as Charles Lamb wrote, or a “young Heine with the Scottish accent,” as the wife of Fleeming Jenkin says.  26
  Yet was he not to be “drunken with pride and hope” until he happened to sit one December morning in the library of the Speculative. The Speculative Society, observed this prince of autobiographers in the maturity of his powers, is a body of some antiquity. It has its rooms in the very buildings of the University of Edinburgh, and it has counted among its members Robert Emmett, Benjamin Constant, Jeffrey, Brougham, and the great Sir Walter. “Here,” writes our incorrigible truant, “a member can warm himself.” He can “loaf and read” and, in defiance of all the powers, he can smoke. Behold, accordingly, a Heine with a Scottish accent, a youth who talked as Lamb wrote, loafing in the library of the Speculative and proud of the pipe he anarchically smoked. Three very distinguished students talked animatedly in the next room. When they had called Robert Louis Stevenson in to them and made him a sharer in their design to found a university magazine, he walked on air.  27
  The magazine emerged, yellow covered, the maiden number edited by the four of them in vortices of energy. The ensuing issue saw the editorial staff reduced to two, while the third number was fathered by Robert Louis Stevenson alone. The fourth and last edition — at which the enterprise perished — led to an embarrassing interview with Mr. Thomas Stevenson, unwillingly but helplessly induced to make an outrageous remittance to the printer. It was “a grim fiasco,” and while the youth had known beforehand that the magazine would not be worth reading, and that even if it were nobody would read it, its fate subdued him. He told himself that the time was not yet ripe nor the man ready for literary fame and he returned to his sedulous aping of Hazlitt and the rest in manuscripts withheld from the world.  28
  His most dexterous evasions of the physical sciences were meanwhile baffled by the gentle suasion of Professor Fleeming Jenkin. Robert Louis Stevenson could accumulate no Greek, but he applied himself to statics and dynamics bravely. “The spinning of a top is a case of kinetic stability,” say his notes of the professor’s lectures, and he had actually prepared jottings for a paper on a new form of intermittent light. He failed wretchedly on such distinctions as that between the inflammable air obtained by the action of acids on metals and that formed by the destructive distillation of organic substances. Yet his paper on the thermal influence of forests was listened to by the members of a learned society in Edinburgh and even printed in a fat and heavy annual report. The young man’s father, fortunately for his peace of mind, set no store by abstract science. He was all for the practical side of lighthouse building, and accordingly fell into the habit of taking his son to assist him in the supervision of harbour works. “I can’t look at it practically, however,” Louis wrote to his mother. “That will come, I suppose, like grey hair or coffin nails.” But he made an immense hit in private theatricals as Sir Peter Teazle.  29
  The time came when he must at last tell his father that he could work up no interest in mathematical determinations of the amount of strain on a bridge. This seems to have been a staggering announcement to the man whose family had made Edinburgh a world centre for that branch of applied science with which the name of Stevenson will be associated perhaps for ever, whose beacons shone on every sea, and whose firm were consulting engineers to the Japanese and the Indian governments. But Thomas Stevenson, after his first outburst of natural and profound regret, countenanced the literary ambitions of his only son, and gave up with a sigh his one paternal dream. Nevertheless, the notion that his Louis should grow into maturity without even a nominal profession — literature being inconceivable as the avowed calling of a respectable person — was opposed to a strict Calvinist’s sense of duty to a son. Robert Louis Stevenson accordingly began to read for the bar, supplementing his uncoördinated notions of emphyteusis and levitation with detached impressions of the civil law and fraudulent conveyances. “Just enough mind work necessary to keep you from thinking of anything else,” runs one of his jottings relative to this phase, “so that one simply ceases to be a reasoning being and feels stodged and stupid about the head.” He was duly called to the Scotch bar when he was twenty-five and at once fled to France.  30

        “We read his books with the curious sense of a haunting presence, as of some light-footed Ariel, or, in more solemn moments, of a spiritual form hovering near us. There is a body terrestrial and a body celestial; the celestial body floats very near us in the liquid atmosphere of Stevenson’s best work.”—Rev. W. J. Dawson.

FULL of a thousand projects for literary work, unwearying in the elaboration of essays, sketches, and tales, Robert Louis Stevenson had by this time made the personal acquaintance of such men of letters as Sidney Colvin, Andrew Lang, and Professor Masson. He had had a piece printed in Macmillan’s Magazine and another in the Cornhill just a year prior to his admission to the Scotch bar. An article on Béranger, another on Poe, and others still on John Knox were finding their way into the publications of dignity to which they had been severally submitted by the advice of his new friends. Sidney Colvin helped him with introductions to editors, “who were glad, of course,” notes that gentleman, “to welcome so promising a recruit.” The head of the Stevensonian comet thus first showed itself definitely, although with starlike littleness. It now began to manifest its nucleus to the delighted constituency of the Cornhill, and in due time the scintillant tail filled the whole firmament of literature with its effulgence. The Academy, Temple Bar, and equally choice mediums for the dissemination of the Stevensonian brilliance, were resplendent with pleas for gas lamps, apologies for idlers, and dissertations on falling in love. So compelling was the blaze of style and so novel the point of view that every trifle inspired raptures, and the orbit of the latest luminary was computed hyperbolically.
  It was at this dawn of his fame, speedily brightened by the acceptance of the first of his stories ever printed, that Robert Louis Stevenson, amid the boats and bathers of the merry French tourist resort of Grez, met the woman he loved almost at first sight, and whom he crossed an ocean and a continent in something like beggary to wed. Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson was then simply Mrs. Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman with two young children, who had recently come to France and had taken up the study of art. In the green inn garden at Grez, the young author, just back from the trip that was to result in his first published book, — “An Inland Voyage,” — beheld a small, dark young woman, with clear-cut, delicate features, and endless sable hair. Not without significance are his epistolary allusions, at this period, to the delights of Grez and to the flow of its pellucid river and the meals in the cool arbour, under fluttering leaves. The lady was sketching in charcoal the head of her future husband, although she wore no widow’s veil. But the flowers of her first espousal had withered, and she bore unwillingly the name of Osbourne. Circumstances connected with her impending legal separation from the husband in California now took the lady back across the Atlantic to her San Francisco home, and an end was put to this golden aspect of life in Grez. Robert Louis Stevenson had now a new purpose in life. Inspired as never before, he went on his “travels with a donkey” that were to result in so perfect a book, worked at four essays and a story that appeared in the Cornhill, evolved the first of the “New Arabian Nights,” did a story for Temple Bar and charmed the readers of the Portfolio with his “Picturesque Notes on Edinburgh.” Thus at twenty-nine he had definitely taken up his life-work. But his fate was in California and thither he was now resolved to go.  32
  Robinson Crusoe was not more affectionately entreated by his father to stay at home than was Robert Louis Stevenson by his loving friends. But the Edinburgh youth imitated the mariner of York in that, consulting neither father nor mother any more, without any consideration of circumstances or consequences, he went on board a ship. It was bound for New York, and young Stevenson, while not a steerage passenger — travelling, indeed, second cabin — might as well, but for occasional leavings from the saloon passengers’ plates and the convenience of a rough table, have been in the steerage outright. He reached New York in a flood of rain, repaired to an emigrants’ boarding-house on the river front, sitting en route on some straw in the bottom of an express wagon, and in another twenty-four hours was speeding west on a freight train architecturally modified to accommodate tourists as hopeful and as destitute as himself. He reached San Francisco like a man at death’s door to learn that Mrs. Osbourne was ill. He at once wrote “The Amateur Emigrant,” plunged into essays on Thoreau and virtue, became lonely and unkempt, and was nursed by his future wife, who had by this time obtained her divorce. The far away father in Edinburgh now relented, a substantial allowance was forthcoming, and Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne became Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson. “As I look back,” he wrote years later, “I think my marriage was the best move I ever made in my life.” Not only would he do it again — he could not conceive the idea of doing otherwise.  33
  For the golden period of his literary achievement begins with this marriage. Until now he was a brilliant writer and that was all. Henceforth, he ceases to drift, for some subtle influence has brought home to him that the plastic art of literature is, in his very words, to embody character, thought or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkable, striking to the mind’s eye. “This is the highest and the hardest thing to do in words,” we find him saying a few years after his marriage, when “Treasure Island” had taken form and substance — and “Treasure Island” was the first Stevenson book of which his peculiar public ever heard. It was undertaken at a suggestion from his new stepson, and worked out under the inspiration of the wife. From the eager schoolboy, his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, he had derived his immense discovery that one of the natural, appetites with which any “lively literature” has to count is the demand for fit and striking incident. “The dullest of clowns tells, or tries to tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses invention in his play; and even as the imaginative grown person, joining in the game, at once enriches it with many delightful circumstances, the great creative writer shows us the realisation and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men.” The stories of the great creative writer may be informed with life’s realities. Nevertheless their proper function is to appease this appetite of readers for the right kind of thing falling out in the right kind of place. The characters must talk aptly, naturally. The incidents and the circumstances in the tale must blend like notes in music. The strands of a tale must be interwoven at proper intervals to form “a picture in the web,” while the characters respond to a common stimulus at the right moment until the organic unity of the piece speaks home to the mind, and leaves an impression never to be effaced. “Crusoe, recoiling from the footprint, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his ears — these are each culminating moments in the legend, and each has been printed on the mind’s eye for ever.” Other things, according to Stevenson’s exposition of his especial art, we may forget — the words themselves, beautiful as they may be, the writer’s incidental observations, charmed they never so well at the moment of reading, but these scenes, these epoch-making scenes, “which put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for sympathetic pleasure,” go to the making of our lives as truly as the prayers said at a mother’s knee, or the ecstasy of a first requited love.  34
  Until now we have had a Stevenson well content to write about some inn at Burford, or to describe scenery with the word-painters, the “sedulous ape” living with words for no ulterior purpose than practice, “as men learn to whittle.” Now, he longs to seize on the heart of every suggestion, and to make a country famous with a legend. “It is one thing to remark and to dissect, with the most cutting logic, the complications of life and of the human spirit; it is quite another to give them body and blood in the story of Ajax or of Hamlet.” The first is literature, of course. But the last is art as well, and to that art Robert Louis Stevenson now began to apply his fitting key of words, long practised on the literary scales. He sat down at last, legions of words swimming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wanted to do and able to do it. He had now figuratively as well as literally taken home his bride. The parental blessing had been bestowed. Three years after his marriage he had settled himself in the south of France in a cottage on the slope of a hill, his wife inspiring him, and his stepson becoming the most enthusiastic of literary constituents. But his nervous system had begun to be affected through the toxins evolved by the bacillus of his disease. Robert Louis Stevenson’s greatest work would well illustrate, in the opinion of Dr. Huber, the theory that the quality of a great man’s genius, if he be consumptive, is affected by his disease. There is surely, contends this expert, “some sort of literary pathology” manifested in the transformation of Dr. Jekyll’s benign face into the features of his devil nature; in that man who feigned death (“The Master of Ballantrae”) and was buried, remaining months under ground, only, when exhumed, to gasp with the spark of animation that yet remained; in the blind pirate of “Treasure Island,” he of the quick, sharp footfalls that drew near and ever nearer the inn where lay the trembling boy. Certainly, the bacillus of Stevenson’s tuberculosis clung cruelly to him, notwithstanding his devotion to fresh air. That chimerical terror of unpolluted oxygen, which made so many of our fathers close their windows, list their doors and seal themselves up with their own poisonous exhalations, had aroused Stevenson to protest in “The Amateur Emigrant.” By the time “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” had demonstrated to whole continents of readers that whomsoever else they read they must read Stevenson too, his physician was insisting upon a complete change of climate. The thoughts of the now illustrious romancer and essayist seem to have been more than ever tinged with the Celtic melancholy he attributes to his own father in the memorial sketch he gave to the world at this time. Thomas Stevenson died when “Jekyll and Hyde” was thrilling the world and in another twelvemonth Robert Louis Stevenson was settled once more in the United States at an elevation in the Adirondacks where a sanatorium had been lately set up for consumptive patients. So greatly had his lot altered since he rode through New York in an express wagon that he now refused an offer of ten thousand dollars from the New York World for an article every week for a year.  35
  “Kidnapped” was already, by its vogue, vindicating Stevenson’s theory that a writer of his school may, “for the sake of circumstantiation and because he is himself more or less grown up,” admit character into his design within certain limits, — but only within certain limits. To add more traits than those of the heroes and the heroines of the Stevenson fictions were, in their creator’s language, to be too clever, to stultify the tale, “to start the hare of moral or intellectual interest while we are running the fox of material interest,” to commit the blunder of the playwright whose very lackeys must be men of wit. Certain readers, confessed Stevenson in one of the expositions of his own art which interpret him so finely, are apt to look somewhat down on incident. “It is thought clever to write a novel with no story at all or at least with a very dull one.” Yet without Rawdon Crawley’s blow to knit it all together, “Vanity Fair” could never have been made the work of art it is. “That scene is the chief ganglion of the tale.” Not character, but incident — that woos us. Incident plunges us into the tale, submerging us in it with the force of a billow — we forget the characters and push even the hero aside. Narrative, action, something doing at the right time, in the right place! “Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.” Hence the artistic effort of Stevenson was everywhere and ever to fit the proper story to the proper place, and never to equip a puppet with a “character,” as the lady novelist, dealing in “situations,” does somehow. For he had not that incorrigible aberration of taste prompting a spirit of criticism yet more perverse to complain that the author of “The Master of Ballantrae” has no psychology of woman. The “tortured real,” to purloin from the gem casket of Miss Elisabeth Luther Cary’s rhetoric, “is corrected by the calm ideal” in such a description as that of Newmarch in Mr. Henry James’s novel of “The Sacred Fount;” but when Long John Silver, in “Treasure Island,” strikes the sailor square in the spine with his crutch we cannot — to quaff anew at the well of Miss Cary’s English undefiled — expect abstract synthesised beauty to hang like a brooding angel over the tangled human spectacle. It is well that in “A London Life,” by Mr. Henry James, the witty expression of Lady Davenant’s face “shines like a lamp through the ground glass of her good breeding.” It is better still that in the environment of Robert Louis Stevenson’s heroines he defines a pirate as a beard, a pair of wide trousers, and a liberal complement of pistols.  36

        “Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie;
Glad did I live and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
#‘Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’”
R. L. S.

WHEN Robert Louis Stevenson was thirty-three, he surprised his old nurse, “Cummie,” with the announcement that he meant to dedicate to her his first volume of poetry. She, he told her, in the letter from Nice containing this news, was the only person who would really understand it. “He must have felt that he was doing a piece of work altogether admirable,” is the comment of Professor William P. Trent upon this pretty incident, and, adds this subtle critic, “he made a wonderfully successful book because he based it on real experience” — he had taken walks in “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” swung in its trees, peeped over its wall. Marred as his boyhood had been by illness, adds Professor Trent, “it had been that rare thing in these modern days,” a true childhood. For that one reason was it possible for him to produce such a masterpiece of verse for the young as that beginning: “We built a ship upon the stairs.” “Underwoods” was a book of poetry for older readers, brought out simultaneously in London and New York. It went into a second edition speedily, and thus cheered Stevenson in the gloom of his illness among the Adirondacks. “In the verse business I can do just what I like better than anything else,” wrote Stevenson to a friend. Yet Professor Trent doubts if Stevenson’s verses represent him fully. They are sane, their strong point, said Stevenson again, and to this Professor Trent subscribes. They were a wholesome and pleasant contrast to the rondeaux and delicate decadence of which healthy readers had grown sick. Yet many of the poems were the work of an invalid, a dying man in some flashes of inspiration. For it had begun to be evident to a vast and loving constituency that Robert Louis Stevenson was under sentence of death. His health did not improve although his work had never been more brilliant. His wife travelled to San Francisco and chartered a yacht for those long cruises through the South Seas, of which he had dreamed as a child. For when little Louis played with his toy ships at Cummie’s knee in the long ago, as Miss Catherine T. Bryce words it, in her “Robert Louis Stevenson Reader,” he always wanted to sail to the far-away lands. “When I am a man,” he told Cummie, “I shall visit the far-away lands.” Just a week before he died Cummie, in Scotland, got a letter from her Master Lou, signed “your laddie, with all love,” and announcing that he was getting fat.
  The histrionic instinct of a David Garrick could scarcely have heightened the scenic effect of Robert Louis Stevenson’s departure with his whole household upon that cruise through the remote Pacific isles, which was to end after three years of circumnavigation in a still newer and more surprising existence. Had the Stevensonian Odyssey been projected by an author of mere talent for the exploitation of his own personality, it might have compared not unfavourably with the loftiest flight of self-advertising inspiration for which the late Phineas T. Barnum ever manifested a capacity. The more genuine spectacle of the greatest living artist in the use of English words, with the hand of death already raised to strike him, sailing for three adventurous years with his entire household among archipelagos of savages, imparted to the name of Robert Louis Stevenson an interest not less weird than that attaching to “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” His vicissitudes were now part of the news of the day. When in the year 1890 he fixed his abode among the Samoan Islands on the hills overlooking Apia and for the next four years played a prominent part in the affairs of a Pacific outpost of the first strategic importance, for the possession of which three great powers had strained their mutual diplomatic relations, it looked for a time as if the author of “The Master of Ballantrae” must prove as original a personality in world politics as he had become in English literature.  38
  But he had resolved to involve himself in no diplomatic intrigue. He strove from the very first to render his presence a source of uplift to the natives of the islands he learned to love. His three hundred acres in a mountain cleft were the setting of a big abode comprising a hall fifty feet long, wherein he dined in state, a great stairway leading to a library upstairs, and rooms sufficient to accommodate a patriarchal establishment. Such was Vailima, source of the famous “Vailima Letters.” And to this Vailima period belong “David Balfour” as we know him, “Weir of Hermiston,” and “St. Ives.” They sustain to the other books of Robert Louis Stevenson somewhat the artistic relation of “Little Dorrit” to the novels of Charles Dickens which preceded it. There is evidence everywhere of a growth of power distinguishing the writer of the highest genius from the mere author of popular books. We see evidence of Stevenson’s new attitude toward his own work when he thinks regretfully of “St. Ives” as “a mere tissue of adventures.” In “Weir of Hermiston” he cultivates what Mr. John Kelman impressively terms, “a solemnising and sometimes terrifying seriousness in dealing with grave moral subjects,” not discernible in “Prince Otto,” for instance, or, to go back to a work suggestive of his earliest manner, “The Black Arrow.” One might think the great performances of the Vailima days inspired by the beautiful prayers he composed for his household — an atavistic tendency being at work here surely, for his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather held family worship a thing as divinely ordained as the appointment of a definite number of the human race to eternal glory.  39
  The climate of Samoa, says Mr. Graham Balfour, had apparently answered the purpose of sustaining Stevenson in his long resistance of disease. His great embarrassment was on the score of expense. Prodigious as were his royalties, his mode of life consumed them ruthlessly. But his ambitious projects promised an adequate revenue for years. “Weir of Hermiston” and “St. Ives” grew in splendour from his pen, and he had actually formed some plan of a lecture tour in the United States. Of this last project his mind was full when on a certain afternoon at sunset he descended the wide staircase with its posts flanked by Burmese idols. He made light of some presentiment of his wife’s, yet, while gaily chatting, he cried out, putting his hands to his head: “What’s that?” His last words were spoken almost immediately afterward: “Do I look strange?” He died that night.




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