May Clarissa Gillington Byron.

A Day with Robert Louis Stevenson online

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Produced by Al Haines

[Illustration: Cover art]

[Illustration: Robert Louis Stevenson]

_Painting by W. Hatherell._

"Took down the folds of her hair - shook it
round her face and the pool repeated her
thus veiled."

_Prince Otto._

[Illustration: _Prince Otto_]




_In the same Series.


Supposing that in the month of April, 1886, you had arrived, a guest
foreseen, at the pleasant ivy-muffled dwelling in Bournemouth, which
had recently adopted the name of Skerryvore, and that you had been
permitted to enter its doors - you might account yourself a somewhat
favoured person. For the master of the house, "that rickety and
cloistered spectre," as he termed himself, the "pallid brute who lived
in Skerryvore like a weevil in a biscuit," might be invisible for the
nonce - shut upstairs, forbidden even to speak for fear of inducing
hemorrhage. Or again, you might yourself be afflicted with an obvious
cold: in which case you would not be admitted into his presence, lest
you left contagion of that cold.

But if fate befriended you, you would chance upon the most remarkable
personality, it might be, that you had yet encountered. A lean, long
flat-chested man, gracefully emphatic of gesture - pacing up and down
the room as he talked - burning with hectic energy - a man of rich brown
tints in hair and eyes and skin: mutable, mirthful, brilliant - above
all "vital," as he had described himself, "wholly vital with a buoyance
of life" which had upborne him hitherto over the crest of most
tumultuous distresses.

Robert Louis Stevenson was now thirty-six years old: and ever since his
sixth year, when, as his mother recorded in her diary, he dreamed that
he "heard the noise of pens writing," his aim had been set unswervingly
toward the one goal. Born of a strong and strenuous family, the great
lighthouse builders of the north, he was not, like them, intent upon
the subjugation of obstinate stone, the ordering and ordaining of rocks
and seas. Dhu Heartach and the Bell Rock and Skerryvore he could
admire at a distance: but the material which cried aloud to him for
mastery, was much more plastic, - yet, to him, no less stubborn. "I
imagine," he declared, "nobody ever had such pains to learn a trade as
I had; but I slogged at it day in and day out." His fastidious soul
refused to be contented with a facile and slipshod utterance. A
passionate quest: after _le mot propre_, which had led him, in his own
phrase, to "play the sedulus ape" to all the great prose writers of the
past - and a sense of style such as no man had ever so anxiously and
assiduously developed in himself - these had achieved their own reward.
"'Thanks to my dire industry," said Stevenson, "I have done more with
smaller gifts than almost any man of letters in the world."

And this was a just pride: for there was no branch of literature in
which he could not admirably acquit himself. So many years a struggler
in obscurity, with small hopes, few successes, little
encouragement - battling with continuous and crippling maladies, - this
indomitable artist, by sheer dint of "dire industry," now suddenly
stood forth in full blaze of public recognition. The author of
_Virginibus Puerisque_, _Treasure Island_, _Prince Otto_, _The Child's
Garden of Verse_, and _Dr. Jekyll_, was very much a man to be reckoned

Probably few modern books have met with such instantaneous and
triumphant success as _Treasure Island_ and _Dr. Jekyll_. The first,
after running its course, unannounced and comparatively unrecognized,
the serial of an obscure author, in _Young Folks' Paper_, was published
in book form, - and Stevenson, like Byron, "awoke to find himself
famous." The honours which he had failed to obtain with all the dainty
humour, all the valiant fatalism, of _Virginibus Puerisque_, had been
accorded without stint to _Treasure Island_. It was a tense and
stimulating piece of pure adventure. The authentic air of the
eighteenth century breathed through every sentence of it: and its fine
flavour of dare-devil romance kindled even sober statesmen, such as Mr.
Gladstone, to a very furore of avidity in devouring its breathless

As for _Dr. Jekyll_, that gruesome work - literally the product of a
nightmare - had been quoted in pulpits, discussed in newspapers, read by
everybody, - it had taken the world by storm. Yet Stevenson's head was
not turned by his tardily-won success: with his customary _sang froid_,
he took things as they came, failures and triumphs, and met each alike
with smiling gallantry.

The motives which had led him into authorship - or rather forced him,
despite all stress and hindrance of froward circumstances, - were as
curiously varied as his own nature; and it was these motives which
still drove him hard and incessantly. To fame he was perhaps not
wholly indifferent. No author sits so austerely aloft as to disdain
popular applause altogether. Yet a born stylist and a conscious
artist, like Stevenson, knew that his most finished work was above and
beyond the appreciation of the general public. For money, - though it
was a necessity of life to him, and although, with all his recent
triumphs, he was not at present earning more than £400 a year, - for
money he did not care, except as a means to an end. "Wealth is only
useful for two things," he said, "a yacht and a string quartet. Except
for these, I hold that £700 a year is as much as a man can possibly
want." Still, in declaring, "I do not write for the public," he added
with engaging candour, "I do write for money, a nobler deity," and
this, to a certain extent was true. It was for money only, no doubt,
that he was now undertaking, against the grain, that "romance of
tushery," _The Black Arrow_, a tale with a mediæval setting in which he
felt himself ill at ease. But "most of all," he allowed, "I write for
myself; not perhaps any more noble, but both more intelligent and
nearer home."

And that a man in such difficulties of health and finance, and so
precarious a position, should have the courage of his own determined
artistry, was in itself sufficiently remarkable: but the result more
than justified his choice.

All the morning, Stevenson had been upstairs writing: probably after a
bad night; very likely in what any other man would term a totally unfit
condition. Under any and all circumstances, he continued to write
unflinchingly; racked by coughing, reeling with weakness, with his
right arm in a sling, and his left hand holding the pen, - sitting up in
bed with a clinical thermometer in his mouth; and yet, as he declared,
"I like my life all the same ... I should bear false witness if I did
not declare life happy." ... He was, in his own words, "made for a
contest, and the powers have so willed that my battlefield should be
this dingy, inglorious one of the bed and the physic bottle."

"To declare life happy," became, in fact, his literary mission, - the
condensed philosophy of his gay, inveterate courage. "I believe that
literature should give joy," was his maxim, "one dank, dispirited word
is harmful, - a crime of _lèse-humanité_." This brave and cheerful
outlook is evident in all his essays, - it is, so to speak, a glorified
and artistic Mark-Tapleyism, all-pervading, unimpugnable, ready to
survive the most malevolent accidents of life, the crowning tragedy of
death itself. And so you find the "chronic sickist," as he termed
himself, still ready, in all but body, for great risks and inspiriting
adventures, and - through a mist of pain - leading forlorn hopes with a
waving sword of flame. You hear him proclaiming that:

"All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have done good
work, although they may die before they have the time to sign it.
Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful
impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.
And even if death catch people, like an open pitfall, and in
mid-career, laying out vast projects, and planning monstrous
foundations, flushed with hope, and their mouths full of boastful
language, they should be at once tripped up and silenced; is there not
something brave and spirited in such a termination? and does not life
go down with a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice,
than miserable struggling to an end in sandy deltas?" (_Virginibus

And to him, above all, applied his own triumphant lines, those which he
addressed to W. E. Henley, another writer, a man of like courageous
outlook, who, like himself, "in the fell grip of circumstances, had not
winced nor cried aloud:

"... Small the pipe; but oh! do thou,
Peak-faced and suffering piper, blow therein
The dirge of heroes dead; and to these sick,
These dying, sound the triumph over death.
Behold! each greatly breathes; each tastes a joy
Unknown before in dying; for each knows
A hero dies with him - though unfulfilled,
Yet conquering truly - and not dies in vain."

At present he was engaged upon _Kidnapped_, that admirable piece of
fiction which he had begun, "partly as a lark and partly as a
pot-boiler." It was a relief, after the concentrated horror of _Dr.
Jekyll_, to escape into the Scottish heather-scent and to feel the salt
sea-wind whistling through the cordage of _Kidnapped_.

_Painting by W. Hatherell._

"She stood on the bulwarks and held on by a
stay, the wind blowing in her petticoats.


[Illustration: _Catriona_]

Stevenson was desirous to "get free of this prison-yard of the
abominably ugly, where I take my daily exercise with my
contemporaries." Possibly he recognised that the amazing popularity of
_Jekyll_ had been due to the morbid attractiveness of its subject,
rather than to its merits of craftsmanship; for, as he had averred, "I
know that good work sometimes hits; but, with my hand on my heart, I
think it is an accident." But now he was at liberty to give play to
his infinite variety upon a true boys' book, - a story to satisfy the
inveterate boyishness of his own heart. "Of the romance of boyhood and
adolescence, it has been said, he is an unsurpassed master ... the
philosophy of life developed in both his essays and romances is that
rather of a gifted boy than a mature man." (J. W. Mackail.) And even
the girls of Stevenson's imagination have been accused of being "boys
in petticoats." The phrase has reason. "I have never admired a girl,"
he wrote, and again, "I have never pleased myself with any women of
mine." The other sex remained for him, throughout, a mystery which he
hardly cared to solve, - a sealed book which he was not desirous to
open. "Of the two eternal factors in the destiny of man, warfare and
love," although he allowed that "to love is the great amulet which
makes the world a garden," he preferred to deal almost exclusively with
the warfare.

And yet one women had played a very important part in Stevenson's life:
and it was practically with his marriage that the tide of his fortunes
had changed. His wife, - "trusty, dusky, vivid, true," was his very
_alter ego_: with "a character" (to quote Mr. Sidney Colvin) "as
strong, interesting, and romantic almost as his own: an inseparable
sharer of all his thoughts, the most shrewd and stimulating of critics:
and in sickness, despite her own precarious health, the most devoted
and most efficient of nurses." To while away the weary hours of
illness, Mrs. Stevenson made up stories to amuse him, - and subsequently
the husband and wife would write them out together. She, with her
"eyes of gold and bramble-dew," was literally all-in-all to him as
companion, helpmate, friend; - and far - how infinitely far! - above the
ideal wife whom he had described so adroitly, - in his bachelor
days, - that woman who should have "a fine touch for the affections,"
and who should at least be sufficiently talented to avoid boring her
life-long comrade. The character of the ideal wife, as there
indicated, - apt at gracious compromises, possessor of a cheerful fluent
tongue, - was very obviously set forth by a man who had never yet been
stirred by the sharp throbs of an imperative emotion. And now that
Stevenson realised what love in its depth and breadth might mean, it
held a certain sanctity for him, - he was loth to speak of it, as to
write of it. It was a marvel that had befallen him personally: but for
other people, it might still perhaps, be no more than that gentle
domesticated affection which he had portrayed with such amiable humour.
But there was one point in which he, consciously or unconsciously
insisted, in his _desiderata_ of the female character.

"It always warms a man," he had declared, "to see a woman brave," and
he saw it daily in his wife. Therefore it came about, that, unversed
in women - as Stevenson unquestionably was, he was able to endow his
heroines with a touch of gallant boyishness, a hint of the heroic - and
if they failed in flesh-and-blood-_vraisemblance_, they had that
"steel-true, blade-straight" quality which he adored in the women he
had chosen.

You will notice this courageous virtue in all of them, rich and poor;
from _Catriona_, that "tall, pretty, tender figure of a maiden, when,
having assured her father's escape from prison by a bold stratagem, she
arrives a fugitive and an exile at Helvoetsluys, and lands from the
staggering side of the _Rose_ into the little boat below; - when, in
David Balfour's words:

"I began to think I had made a fool's bargain, that it was merely
impossible Catriona should be got on board to me, and that I stood to
be set ashore in Helvoet all by myself ... But this was to reckon
without the lass's courage ... Up she stood on the bulwarks and held by
a stay, the wind blowing in her petticoats, which made the enterprise
more dangerous, and gave us rather more a view of her stockings than
would be thought genteel in cities" - (_Catriona._)

to Seraphina in _Prince Otto_, still inherently valorous in that
desperate flight through the forest: where:

"At length when she was well weary, she came upon a wide and shallow
pool. Stones stood in it, like islands; bulrushes fringed the coast;
the floor was paved with pine needles; and the pines themselves, whose
roots made promontories, looked down silently on their green images.
She crept to the margin and beheld herself with wonder, a hollow and
bright-eyed phantom, in the ruins of her palace robe ... She addressed
herself to make a toilette by that forest mirror, washed herself pure
from all the stains of her adventure, took off her jewels and wrapped
them in her handkerchief, re-arranged the tatters of her dress, and
took down the folds of her hair. She shook it round her face, and the
pool repeated her thus veiled." (_Prince Otto._)

Clara Huddlestone, in the _Pavilion on the Links_, repeats the same
undauntable note: Olalla is inexorable in moral courage of
renunciation, even the weeping Blanche, in the _Sieur de Malétroit's
Door_, has the mettle of some small creature at bay.

The charm of Stevenson's heroines is, in short, a cold charm; nor does
he often accord them the assistance of a personal description. But
they are finely tempered, of the best Toledo steel, and owing to their
boyish character, there is no very obvious gap in those novels where
they are conspicuously absent, such as _The Ebb Tide_, _The Wreckers_,
and _The Master of Ballantrae_. In the latter, indeed, there is a
slight "female interest," but a stronger personality in the heroine
must inevitably have changed or coloured the whole course of the book:
and one cannot but detect a certain vacuum, where at least some emotion
might have lifted a haggard head, in the character of Mrs. Henry, - even
in that scene, surcharged with hidden explosive possibilities, when the
author describes how:

"The Master played upon that little ballad, and upon those who heard
him, like an instrument, and seemed now upon the point of failing, and
now to conquer his distress, so that the words and music seemed to pour
out of his own heart and his own past, and to be aimed directly at Mrs.
Henry.... When it came to an end we all sat silent for a time: he had
chosen the dusk of the afternoon, so that none could see his
neighbour's face: but it seemed as if we held our breathing: only my
old lord cleared his throat. The first to move was the singer, who got
to his feet suddenly and softly, and went and walked softly to and fro
in the low end of the hall." (_The Master of Ballantrae._)

But Mrs. Henry plays a very minor part in the marring or making, here,
of two men's lives: it is a rôle of _vis inertiæ_ at best. And,
indeed, when all is said, what shall a petticoat be if not irrelevant,
among the clash of steel and smoke of pistols, in an atmosphere
permeated by Spanish doubloons or illicit piratical treasure?
Stevenson's infallible artistic instinct led him to keep the
adventure-story pendant upon the deeds of men, and the eager mistakes
of boys; and a certain curious penchant for the squalid, the submerged,
the picturesque, brought him by choice into such company as no heroine
should enter - that of Villon, for instance, and John Silver, and
Herrick the cockney vagabond. "The spice of life is battle," he said;
and his life, and his books, were brimful of battles with foes or with

_Painting by W. Hatherell._

"'The words and music seemed to pour out of
his own heart and his own past and to be
aimed directly at Mrs. Henry."

_Master of Ballantrae._

[Illustration: _Master of Ballantrae_]

The open-air life which he had perforce abandoned, the joy of physical
strength and hair-breadth 'scape, could still be his by proxy. He
revelled in delineating his ideal man:

"Being a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and
spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any
other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he touch
the goal. 'A peerage or Westminster Abbey!' cried Nelson in his
bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for any
of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about
their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of
every nation tread down the nettle danger, and pass flyingly over all
the stumbling-blocks of prudence." (_Virginibus Puerisque._)

The tramp of horse-hoofs, the clank of the capstan, the door ajar - a
thousand sights and sounds were but symbolisms to him of some
mysterious by-way of adventure to be followed up, quick with latent
possibilities of romance; and from one word, one name, he could evolve
a whole intricate plot. With the simplest of sentences, he could
electrify the startled reader, as when in _The Wrecker_, where the
desperate castaways sit gambling on the desert island, and one suddenly
cries aloud, "Sail ho!"

"All turned at the cry, - and there, in the wild light of the morning,
heading straight for Midway Reef, was the brig _Flying Scud_ of Hull."
(_The Wrecker._)

On that moment the whole tale hangs as on a pivot. All its involution
and evolution, all its intricate and tangled clues, lead - backwards or
forwards - to this one swift breathless sight.

His morning's work accomplished, the tall gaunt man came downstairs,
literally to play awhile. After weeks, it might be, of enforced
seclusion in his room, his eye rested pleasurably upon the various
attractive objects which almost seemed like new to him.
Stevenson, - the avowed evader of personal property, the rolling-stone
that had so long refused to gather moss, - was now, under a woman's
tender surveillance, surrounded with charm and comfort. "Our drawing
room," he maintained, "is a place so beautiful that it's like eating to
sit down in it. No other room is so lovely in the world ... I blush
for the figure I cut in such a bower." The garden, Mrs. Stevenson's
special pleasure, but one in which her husband did not share, was very
lovely, with a lawn, and heather-bank, and a half-acre of land, where a
little stream ran down a "chine" full of rhododendrons. A large
dovecot figured in the garden; and there also "Boguey," the Stevensons'
dog, was buried, to whom no other dog had ever been deemed a worthy

Stevenson, his clothes hanging loosely on his emaciated figure, and his
hands - "wonderful hands - long and fragile, like those in the early
portraits of Velasquez," lingered lovingly over the keys. For a while
he amused himself by picking out, note by note, the old-world dance
measures of Lully and Rameau; those gavottes, rigadoons and minuets,
which conveyed to him the indefinable _pot-pourri_-like, flavour of his
favourite eighteenth century, embued with a certain stately dignity,
"the periwig feeling," he called it, as of lords and ladies treading
courtly measures. Stevenson was passionately fond of classical music,
but he had never attained to any facility of execution. And when he
grew tired with his efforts as an interpreter of Lully, he turned to
"pickling," as he called it - composing, that is to say, after a
fashion, with "the manly and melodious forefinger." The fact that he
had invariably failed to master the rudiments of theory, in no wise
deterred him; on the contrary, difficulties rather enhanced his
delight. "Books are of no use," he avowed, "they tell you how to write
in four parts, and that cannot be done by man." So he continued to
"pickle" with a light heart, and to enjoy consecutive fifths and other
theoretical delinquencies with an enthusiasm worthy of the most modern

Nothing but the lunch hour brought his musical experiments to a close.
Stevenson, who had, in his own words, "been obliged to strip himself,
one after another, of all the pleasures that he had chosen, except
smoking" (and indeed, he was smoking cigarettes all day long) by no
means disdained the pleasures of the table. Not, perhaps, in the role
of a gourmet - but as an artist in the more recondite delicacies of
taste and smell. "To detect the flavour of an olive is no less a piece
of human perfection than to find beauty in the colours of a sunset," he
observed; he coupled the flavour of wine with the beauty of the dawn,
and declared that we do not recognise at its full value the great part
in life that is played by eating and drinking. "There is a romance
about the matter after all," he observed. "Probably the table has more
devotees than love; and I am sure food is more generally entertaining
than scenery." It was the "romance of the matter" that appealed to
him; especially the colour, and savour, and poetical tradition of wine.
"Books, and tobacco jars, and some old Burgundy as red as a November
sunset, and as fragrant as a violet in April" - these, he thought,
should suffice the most luxurious.

After lunch, if he anticipated an exhausting evening, he went to
sleep - at a moment's notice - and after a short, sound repose, was as
eager as ever to resume his pianoforte amusements; which he continued
until friends arrived.

At the age of four-and-twenty, Stevenson had noted down his three chief
wishes. "First, good health: secondly, a small competence: thirdly, _O
Du lieber Gott!_ friends." The first: wish was irrevocably denied: the
second was only just beginning to be granted, the guerdon of unresting
toil: the third petition had been abundantly answered. Never was a man
more happy in his friends; or one who made them so instantaneously and
without effort. "He had only to speak," said one friend, "in order to
be recognised in the first minute for a witty and charming gentleman,
and in the second, for a man of genius." Some, indeed, like Mr. Edmund
Gosse, came home dazzled and astounded, saying, as Constance does of
Arthur, "Was ever such a gracious creature born?" His expression, of
mingled tenderness and mirth, his "scholarly and eclectic
presence" - together with his picturesque, velvet-coated appearance, and
his flashing flow of words, combined to make a man so attractive and so
unique as could command all love at will. And the friends were very
many and very notable, who haunted Skerryvore. First and foremost was
"Bob," Mr. R. A. M. Stevenson, the poet's first cousin, the brilliant
art critic: "the man likest and most unlike to me," as R.L.S. described
him. "Bob's" sister, Mrs. de Mattos, and her child were frequent
visitors; then there were celebrities from London: such as Sargent the


Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA Day with Robert Louis Stevenson → online text (page 1 of 2)