We thank Thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful; for our friends in all parts of the earth, and our friendly helpers in this foreign isle. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another.
--from Vailima Prayers
There is a libel leveled at the Scotch and encouraged, I am very sorry to say, by Chauncey Depew, when he told of approaching the docks in Glasgow and seeing the people on shore convulsed with laughter, and was told that their mirth was the result of one of his jokes told the year before, the point just being perceived.
Bearing on the same line we have the legend that the adage, "He laughs best who laughs last," was the invention of a Scotchman who was endeavoring to explain away a popular failing of his countrymen.
An adage seems to be a statement the reverse of which is true--or not. In all the realm of letters, where can be found anything more delightfully whimsical and deliciously humorous than James Barrie's "Peter Pan"? And as a writer of exquisite humor, as opposed to English wit, that other Scotchman, Robert Louis Stevenson, stands supreme.
To Robert Louis life was altogether too important a matter to be taken seriously. The quality of fine fooling shown in the creation of a mythical character called "John Libbel" remained with Stevenson to the end of his days.
Stevenson never knew the value of money, because he was not brought up to earn money. Very early he was placed on a small allowance, which he found could be augmented by maternal embezzlements and the kindly co-operation of pawnbrokers.
Once on a trip from home with his cousin he found they lacked just five shillings of the required amount to pay their fare. They boarded the train and paid as far as they could. The train stopped at Crewe fifteen minutes for lunch. Lunch is a superfluity if you haven't the money to pay for it--but stealing a ride in Scotland is out of the question. Robert Louis hastily took a pair of new trousers from his valise and ran up the main street of the town anxiously looking for a pawnshop. There at the end of the thoroughfare he saw the three glittering, welcome balls. He entered, out of breath, threw down the trousers and asked for five shillings. "What name?" asked the pawnbroker. "John Libbel," was the reply, given without thought. "How do you spell it?" "Two b's!"
He got the five shillings and hastened back to the station, where his cousin Bob was anxiously awaiting him. Robert Louis did not have to explain that his little run up the street was a financial success--that much was understood. But what pleased him most was that he had discovered a new man, a very important man, John Libbel, the man who made pawnbrokers possible, the universal client of the craft. "You mean patient, not client," interposed Bob.
Then they invented the word libbelian, meaning one with pawnbroker inclinations. Libbelattos meant the children of John Libbel, and so it went.
The boys had an old font of type, and they busied themselves printing cards for John Libbel, giving his name and supposed business and address. These they gave out on the street, slipped under doors, or placed mysteriously in the hands of fussy old gentlemen.
Finally the boys got to ringing doorbells and asking if John Libbel lived within. They sought Libbel at hotels, stopped men on the street and asked them if their name wasn't John Libbel, and when told no, apologized profusely and declared the resemblance most remarkable.
They tied up packages of ashes or sawdust, very neatly labeled, "Compliments of John Libbel," and dropped them on the street. This was later improved on by sealing the package and marking it, "Gold Dust, for Assayer's Office, from John Libbel." These packages would be placed along the street, and the youthful jokers would watch from doorways and see the packages slyly slipped into pockets, or if the finder were honest he would hurry away to the Assayer's Office with his precious find to claim a reward.
The end of this particular kind of fun came when the two boys walked into a shop
and asked for John Libbel. The clerk burst out laughing and said, "You are the Stevenson boys who have fooled the town!" Jokes explained cease to be jokes, and the young men sorrowfully admitted that Libbel was dead and should be buried.
* * * * * * *
Robert Louis was an only son, and alternately was disciplined and then humored, as only sons usually are.
His father was a civil engineer in the employ of the Northern Lights Company, and it was his business to build and inspect lighthouses. At his office used to congregate a motley collection of lighthouse-keepers, retired sea-captains, mates out of a job--and with these sad dogs of the sea little Robert used to make close and confidential friendships.
While he was yet a child he made the trip to Italy with his mother, and brought back from Rome and from Venice sundry crucifixes, tear-bottles and "Saint Josephs," all duly blessed, and these he sold to his companions at so many whacks apiece. That is to say, the purchaser had to pay for the gift by accepting on his bare hand a certain number of whacks with a leather strap. If the recipient winced, he forfeited the present.
The boy was flat-chested and spindle-shanked and used to bank on his physical weakness when lessons were to be evaded. He was two years at the Edinburgh Academy, where he reduced the cutting of lectures and recitations to a system, and substituted Dumas and Scott for more learned men who prepared books for the sole purpose of confounding boys.
As for making an engineer of the young man, the stern, practical father grew utterly discouraged when he saw mathematics shelved for Smollett. Robert was then put to studying law with a worthy barrister.
Law is business, and to suppose that a young man who religiously spent his month's allowance the day it was received, could make a success at the bar shows the vain delusion that often fills the parental head.
Stevenson's essay, "A Defense of Idlers," shows how no time is actually lost, not even that which is idled away. But this is a point that is very hard to explain to ambitious parents.
The traditional throwing overboard of the son the day he is twenty-one, allowing him to sink or swim, survive or perish, did not prevail with the Stevensons. At twenty-two Robert Louis still had his one guinea a month, besides what he could cajole, beg or borrow from his father and mother. He grew to watch the mood of his mother, and has recorded that he never asked favors of his father before dinner.
At twenty-three he sold an essay for two pounds, and referred gaily to himself as "one of the most popular and successful essayists in Great Britain." He was still a child in spirit, dependent upon others for support. He looked like a girl with his big wide-open eyes and long hair. As for society, in the society sense, he abhorred it and would have despised it if he had despised anything. The soft platitudes of people who win distinction by being nothing, doing nothing, and saying nothing except what has been said before, moved him to mocking mirth. From childhood he was a society rebel. He wore his hair long, because society men had theirs cut close.
His short velvet coat, negligee shirt and wide-awake hat were worn for no better reason. His long cloak gave him a look of haunting mystery, and made one think of a stage hero or a robber you read of in books. Motives are mixed, and foolish folks who ask questions about why certain men do certain things, do not know that certain men do certain things because they wish to, and leave to others the explanation of the whyness of the wherefore.
People who always dress, talk and act alike do so for certain reasons well understood, but the man who does differently from the mass is not so easy to analyze and formulate.
The feminine quality in Robert Louis' nature shows itself in that he fled the company of women, and with them held no converse if he could help it. He never wrote a love-story, and once told Crockett that if he ever dared write one it would be just like "The Lilac Sunbonnet."
Yet it will not do to call Stevenson effeminate, even if he was feminine. He had a courage that outmatched his physique. Once in a cafe in France, a Frenchman made the remark that the English were a nation of cowards.
The words had scarcely passed his lips before Robert Louis flung the back of his hand in the Frenchman's face. Friends interposed and cards were passed, but the fire-eating Frenchman did not call for his revenge or apology--much to the relief of Robert Louis.
Plays were begun, stories blocked out, and great plans made by Robert Louis and his cousin for passing a hawser to literature and taking it in tow.
When Robert Louis was in his twenty-fourth year he found a copy of "Leaves of Grass," and he and his cousin Bob reveled in what they called "a genuine book." They heard that Michael Rossetti was to give a lecture on Whitman in a certain drawing-room.
The young men attended, without invitation, and walked in coatless, just as they had heard that Walt Whitman appeared at the Astor House in New York, when he went by appointment to meet Emerson. After hearing Rossetti discuss Whitman they got the virus fixed in their systems.
They walked up and down Princess Street in their shirt-sleeves, and saw fair ladies blush and look the other way. Next they tried sleeveless jerseys for street wear, and speculated as to just how much clothing they would have to abjure before women would entirely cease to look at them.
* * * * * * *
The hectic flush was upon the cheek of Robert Louis, and people said he was distinguished. "Death admires me, even if the publishers do not," he declared. The doctors gave orders that he should go South and he seized upon the suggestion and wrote "Ordered South"--and started. Bob went with him, and after a trip through Italy, they arrived at Barbizon to see the scene of "The Angelus," and look upon the land of Millet--Millet, whom Michael Rossetti called "The Whitman of Art."
Bob was an artist: he could paint, write, and play the flageolet. Robert Louis declared that his own particular velvet jacket and big coat would save him at Barbizon, even if he could not draw any to speak of. "In art the main thing is to look the part--or else paint superbly well," said Robert Louis.
The young men got accommodations at "Siron's." This was an inn for artists, artists of slender means--and the patrons at Siron's held that all genuine artists had slender means. The rate was five francs a day for everything, with a modest pro-rata charge for breakage. The rules were not strict, which prompted Robert Louis to write the great line, "When formal manners are laid aside, true courtesy is the more rigidly exacted." Siron's was an inn, but it was really much more like an exclusive club, for if the boarders objected to any particular arrival, two days was the outside limit of his stay. Buttinsky the bounder was interviewed and the early coach took the objectionable one away forever.
And yet no artist was ever sent away from Siron's--no matter how bad his work or how threadbare his clothes--if he was a worker; if he really tried to express beauty, all of his eccentricities were pardoned and his pot-boiling granted absolution. But the would-be Bohemian, or the man in search of a thrill, or if in any manner the party on probation suggested that Madame Siron was not a perfect cook and Monsieur Siron was not a genuine grand duke in disguise, he was interviewed by Bailley Bodmer, the local headsman of the clan, and plainly told that escape lay in flight.
At Siron's there were several Americans, among them being Whistler; nevertheless Americans as a class were voted objectionable, unless they were artists, or perchance would-bes who supplied unconscious entertainment by an excess of boasting. Women, unless accompanied by a certified male escort, were not desired under any circumstances. And so matters stood when the "two Stensons" (the average Frenchman could not say Stevenson) were respectively Exalted Ruler and Chief Councilor of Siron's.
At that time one must remember that the chambermaid and the landlady might be allowed to mince across the stage, but men took the leading parts in life. The cousins had been away on a three-days' tramping tour through the forest. When they returned they were informed that something terrible had occurred--a woman had arrived: an American woman with a daughter aged, say, fourteen, and a son twelve. They had paid a month in advance and were duly installed by Siron. Siron was summoned and threatened with deposition. The poor man shrugged his shoulders in hopeless despair. Mon Dieu! how could he help it--the "Stensons" were not at hand to look after their duties--the woman had paid for accommodations, and money in an art colony was none too common! But Bailley Bodmer--had he, too, been derelict? Bailley appeared, his boasted courage limp, his prowess pricked.
He asked to have a man pointed out--any two or three men--and he would see that the early stage should not go away empty. But a woman, a woman in half-mourning, was different, and besides, this was a different woman. She was an American, of course, but probably against her will. Her name was Osbourne and she was from San Francisco. She spoke good French and was an artist. One of the Stevensons sneezed; the other took a lofty and supercilious attitude of indifference. It was tacitly admitted that the woman should be allowed to remain, her presence being a reminder to Siron of remissness, and to Bailley of cowardice.
So the matter rested, the Siron Club being in temporary disgrace, the unpleasant feature too distasteful even to discuss. As the days passed, however, it was discovered that Mrs. Osbourne did not make any demands upon the Club. She kept her own counsel, rose early and worked late, and her son and daughter were very well behaved and inclined to be industrious in their studies and sketching.
It was discovered one day that Robert Louis had gotten lunch from the Siron kitchen and was leading the Osbourne family on a little excursion to the wood back of Rosa Bonheur's. Self-appointed scouts who happened to be sketching over that way came back and reported that Mrs. Osbourne was seen painting, while Robert Louis sat on a rock near by and told pirate tales to Lloyd, the twelve-year-old boy. A week later Robert Louis had one of his "bad spells," and he told Bob to send for Mrs. Osbourne. Nobody laughed after this. It was silently and unanimously voted that Mrs. Osbourne was a good fellow, and soon she was enjoying all the benefits of the Siron Club. When a frivolous member suggested that it be called the Siren Club he was met with an oppressive stillness and black looks.
Mrs. Osbourne was educated, amiable, witty and wise. She evidently knew humanity, and was on good terms with sorrow, although sorrow never subdued her; what her history was nobody sought to inquire.
When she sketched, Robert Louis told pirate tales to Lloyd.
The Siron Club took on a degree of sanity that it had not known before. Little entertainments were given now and then, where Mrs. Osbourne read to the company from an unknown American poet, Joaquin Miller by name, and Bob expounded Walt Whitman.
The Americans as a people evidently were not wholly bad--at least there was hope for them. Bob began to tire of Barbizon, and finally went back to Edinburgh alone. Arriving there he had to explain why Robert Louis did not come too.
Robert Louis had met an American woman, and they seemed to like each other. The parents of Robert Louis did not laugh: they were grieved. Their son, who had always kept himself clear from feminine entanglements, was madly, insanely, in love with a woman, the mother of two grown-up children, and a married woman and an American at that--it was too much!
Just how they expostulated and how much will never be known. They declined to go over to France to see her, and they declined to have her come to see them: a thing Mrs. Osbourne probably would not have done--at that time, anyway.
But there was a comfort in this: their son was in much better health, and several of his articles had been accepted by the great London magazines.
So three months went by, when suddenly and without notice Robert Louis appeared at home, and in good spirits. As for Mrs. Osbourne, she had sailed for America with her two children. And the elder Stevensons breathed more freely.
* * * * * * *
On August Tenth, Eighteen Hundred Seventy-nine, Robert Louis sailed from Glasgow for New York on the steamship "Devonia." It was a sudden move, taken without the consent of his parents or kinsmen. The young man wrote a letter to his father, mailing it at the dock.
When the missive reached the father's hands, that worthy gentleman was unspeakably shocked and terribly grieved. He made frantic attempts to reach the ship before it had passed out of the Clyde and rounded into the North Sea, but it was too late. He then sent two telegrams to the Port of Londonderry, one to Louis begging him to return at once as his mother was very sick, and the other message to the captain of the ship ordering him to put the wilful son ashore bag and baggage.
The things we do when fear and haste are at the helm are usually wrong, and certainly do not mirror our better selves.
Thomas Stevenson was a Scotchman, and the Scotch, a certain man has told us, are the owners of a trinity of bad things--Scotch whisky, Scotch obstinacy and Scotch religion. What the first-mentioned article has to do with the second and the third, I do not know, but certain it is that the second and the third are hopelessly intertwined--this according to Ian MacLaren, who ought to know.
This obstinacy in right proportion constitutes will, and without will life languishes and projects die a-borning. But mixed up with this religious obstinacy is a goodly jigger of secretiveness, and in order to gain his own point the religion of the owner does not prevent him from prevarication. In "Margaret Ogilvie," that exquisite tribute to his mother by Barrie, the author shows us a most religious woman who was well up to the head of the Sapphira class. The old lady had been reading a certain book, and there was no reason why she should conceal the fact. The son suddenly enters and finds the mother sitting quietly looking out of the window. She was suspiciously quiet. The son questions her somewhat as follows:
"What are you doing, mother?"
"Nothing," was the answer.
"Have you been reading?"
"Do I look like it?"
"Why, yes--the book on your lap!"
"The book under your apron."
And so does this sweetly charming and deeply religious old lady prove her fitness in many ways to membership in the liar's league. She secretes, prevaricates, quibbles, lays petty traps and mouses all day long. The Eleventh Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Snoop," evidently had never been called to her attention, and even her gifted son is seemingly totally unaware of it. So Thomas Stevenson, excellent man that he was, turned to subterfuge, and telegraphed his runaway son that his mother was sick, appealing to his love for his mother to lure him back.
However, children do not live with their forebears for nothing--they know their parents just as well as their parents know them. Robert Louis reasoned that it was quite as probable that his father lied as that his mother was sick. He yielded to the stronger attraction--and stuck to the ship.
He was sailing to America because he had received word that Fanny Osbourne was very ill. Half a world divided them, but attraction to lovers is in inverse ratio to the square of the distance. He must go to her!
She was sick and in distress. He must go to her. The appeals of his parents--even their dire displeasure--the ridicule of relatives, all were as naught. He had some Scotch obstinacy of his own. Every fiber of his being yearned for her. She needed him. He was going to her!
Of course his action in thus sailing away to a strange land alone was a shock to his parents. He was a man in years, but they regarded him as but a child, as indeed he was. He had never earned his own living. He was frail in body, idle, erratic, peculiar. His flashing wit and subtle insight into the heart of things were quite beyond his parents--in this he was a stranger to them. Their religion to him was gently amusing, and he congratulated himself on not having inherited it. He had a pride, too, but Graham Balfour said it was French pride, not the Scotch brand. He viewed himself as a part of the passing procession. His own velvet jacket and marvelous manifestations in neckties added interest to the show. And that he admired his own languorous ways there is no doubt.
His "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde" he declared in sober earnest, in which was concealed a half-smile, was autobiography. And this is true, for all good things that every writer writes are a self-confession.
Stevenson was a hundred men in one and "his years were anything from sixteen to eighty," says Lloyd Osbourne in his "Memoirs." But when a letter came from San Francisco saying Fanny Osbourne was sick, all of that dilatory, procrastinating, gently trifling quality went out of his soul and he was possessed by one idea--he must go to her!
The captain of the ship had no authority to follow the order of an unknown person and put him ashore, so the telegram was given to the man to whom it referred.
He read the message, smiled dreamily, tore it into bits and dropped it on the tide. And the ship turned her prow toward America and sailed away. So this was the man who had no firmness, no decision, no will! Aye, heretofore he had only lacked a motive. Now love supplied it.
* * * * * * *
It is life supplies the writer his theme. People who have not lived, no matter how grammatically they may write, have no real message. Robert Louis had now severed the umbilical cord. He was going to live his own life, to earn his own living. He could do but one thing, and that was to write. He may have been a procrastinator in everything else, but as a writer he was a skilled mechanic. And so straightway on that ship he began to work his experiences up into copy. Just what he wrote the world will never know, for although the manuscript was sold to a publisher, yet Barabbas did not give it to the people. There are several ways by which a publisher can thrive.
To get paid for not publishing is easy money--it involves no risk. In this instance an Edinburgh publisher bought
the manuscript for thirty pounds, intending to print it in book form, showing the experience of a Scotchman in search of a fortune in New York.
In order to verify certain dates and data, the publisher submitted the manuscript to Thomas Stevenson. Great was that gentleman's interest in the literary venture of his son. He read with a personal interest, for he was the author of the author's being. But as he read he felt that he himself was placed in a most unenviable light, for although he was not directly mentioned, yet the suffering of the son on the emigrant ship seemed to point out the father as one who disregarded his parental duties. And above all things Thomas Stevenson prided himself on being a good provider. Thomas Stevenson straightway bought
the manuscript from the publisher for one hundred pounds.
On hearing of the fate of his book, Robert Louis intimated to his father that thereafter it would be as well for them to deal direct with each other and thus save the middleman's profits.
However, the father and son got together on the manuscript question some years later, and the over-sensitive parent was placated by striking out certain passages that might be construed as aspersions, and a few direct complimentary references inserted, and the printer got the book on payment of two hundred pounds. The transaction turned out so well that Thomas Stevenson said, "I told you so," and Robert Louis saw the patent fact that hindsight, accident and fear sometimes serve us quite as well as insight and perspicacity, not to mention perspicuity. We aim for one target and hit the bull's-eye on another. We sail for a certain port, where, unknown to us, pirates lie in wait, and God sends His storms and drives us upon Treasure Island. There we load up with ingots; the high tide floats us, and we sail away for home with our unearned increment to tell the untraveled natives how we most surely are the people and that wisdom will die with us.
* * * * * * *
Robert Louis was a sick man. The ship was crowded and the fare and quarters were far from being what he always had been used to. The people he met in the second cabin were neither literary nor artistic, but some of them had right generous hearts. On being interrogated by one of his messmates as to his business, Robert Louis replied that he was a stone-mason. The man looked at his long, slim, artistic fingers and knew better, but he did not laugh.
He respected this young man with the hectic flush, reverenced his secret whatever it might be, and smuggled delicacies from the cook's galley for the alleged stone-mason. "Thus did he shovel coals of fire on my head until to ease my heart I called him aft one moonlight night and told him I was no stone-mason, and begged him to forgive me for having sought to deceive one of God's own gentlemen." Meantime, every day our emigrant turned out a little good copy, and this made life endurable, for was it not Robert Louis himself who gave us this immortal line, "I know what pleasure is, for I have done good work"?
He was going to her. Arriving in New York he straightway invested two good dollars in a telegram to San Francisco, and five cents in postage on a letter to Edinburgh. These two things done he would take time to rest up for a few days in New York. One of the passengers had given him the address of a plain and respectable tavern, where an honest laborer of scanty purse could find food and lodging. This was Number Ten West Street.
Robert Louis dare not trust himself to the regular transfer-company, so he listened to the siren song of the owner of a one-horse express-wagon who explained that the distance to Number Ten West Street was something to be dreaded, and that five dollars for the passenger and his two tin boxes was like doing it for nothing. The money was paid; the boxes were loaded into the wagon, and Robert Louis seated upon one of them, with a horse-blanket around him, in the midst of a pouring rain, the driver cracked his whip and started away. He drove three blocks to the starboard and one to port, and backed up in front of Number Ten West Street, which proved to be almost directly across the street from the place where the "Devonia" was docked. But strangers in a strange country can not argue--they can only submit.
The landlord looked over the new arrival from behind the bar, and then through a little window called for his wife to come in from the kitchen. The appearance of the dripping emigrant who insisted in answer to their questions that he was not sick, and that he needed nothing, made an appeal to the mother-heart of this wife of an Irish saloonkeeper.
Straightway she got dry clothes from her husband's wardrobe for the poor man, and insisted that he should at once go to his room and change the wet garments for the dry ones. She then prepared him supper which he ate in the kitchen, and choked for gratitude when this middle-aged, stout and illiterate woman poured his tea and called him "dear heart."
She asked him where he was going and what he was going to do. He dare not repeat the story that he was a stone-mason--the woman knew he was some sort of a superior being, and his answer that he was going out West to make his fortune was met by the Irish-like response, "And may the Holy Mother grant that ye find it."
It is very curious how gentle and beautiful souls find other gentle and beautiful souls even in barrooms, and among the lowly--I really do not understand it! In his book Robert Louis paid the landlord of Number Ten West Street such a heartfelt compliment that the traditions still invest the place, and the present landlord is not forgetful that his predecessor once entertained an angel unawares.
When the literary pilgrim enters the door, scrapes his feet on the sanded floor, and says "Robert Louis Stevenson," the barkeeper and loafers straighten up and endeavor to put on the pose and manner of gentlemen and all the courtesy, kindness and consideration they can muster are yours. The man who could redeem a West Street barkeeper and glorify a dock saloon must indeed have been a most remarkable personality.
* * * * * * *
To get properly keelhauled for his overland emigrant trip across the continent, Robert Louis remained in New York three days. The kind landlady packed a big basket of food--not exactly the kind to tempt the appetite of an invalid, but all flavored with good-will, and she also at the last moment presented him a pillow in a new calico pillowcase that has been accurately described, and the journey began.
There was no sleeping-car for the author of "A Lodging for the Night." He sat bolt upright and held tired babies on his knees, or tumbled into a seat and wooed the drowsy god. The third night out he tried sleeping flat in the aisle of the car on the floor until the brakeman ordered him up, and then two men proposed to fight the officious brakeman if he did not leave the man alone. To save a riot Robert Louis agreed to obey the rules. It was a ten-day trip across the continent, filled with discomforts that would have tried the constitution of a strong man.
Robert Louis arrived "bilgy," as he expressed it, but alive. Mrs. Osbourne was better. The day she received the telegram was the turning-point in her case.
The doctor perceived that his treatment was along the right line, and ordered the medicine continued.
She was too ill to see Robert Louis--it was not necessary, anyway. He was near and this was enough. She began to gain. Just here seems a good place to say that the foolish story to the effect that Mr. Osbourne was present at the wedding and gave his wife away has no foundation in fact. Robert Louis never saw Mr. Osbourne and never once mentioned his name to any one so far as we know. He was a mine-prospector and speculator, fairly successful in his work. That he and his wife were totally different in their tastes and ambitions is well understood. They whom God has put asunder no man can join together.
The husband and wife had separated, and Mrs. Osbourne went to France to educate her children--educate them as far from their father as possible. Also, she wished to study art on her own account. So, blessed be stupidity--and heart-hunger and haunting misery that drive one out and away.
She returned to California to obtain legal freedom and make secure her business affairs. There are usually three parties to a divorce, and this case was no exception. It is a terrible ordeal for a woman to face a divorce-court and ask the State to grant her a legal separation from the father of her children. Divorce is not a sudden, spontaneous affair--it is the culmination of a long train of unutterable woe. Under the storm and stress of her troubles Mrs. Osbourne had been stricken with fever. Sickness is a result, and so is health.
When Robert Louis arrived in San Francisco Mrs. Osbourne grew better. In a few months she pushed her divorce case to a successful conclusion.
Mr. Osbourne must have been a man with some gentlemanly instincts, for he made no defense, provided a liberal little fortune for his former family, and kindly disappeared from view.
Robert Louis did desultory work on newspapers in San Francisco and later at Monterey, with health up and down as hope fluctuated. In the interval a cablegram had come from his father saying, "Your allowance is two hundred and fifty pounds a year." This meant that he had been forgiven, although not very graciously, and was not to starve.
Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne were married May Tenth, Eighteen Hundred Eighty. "The Silverado Squatters" shows how to spend a honeymoon in a miner's deserted cabin, a thousand miles from nowhere. The Osbourne children were almost grown, and were at that censorious age when the average youngster feels himself capable of taking mental and moral charge of his parents.
But these children were different; then, they had a different mother, and as for Robert Louis, he certainly was a different proposition from that ever evolved from creation's matrix. He belongs to no class, evades the label, and fits into no pigeonhole.
The children never called him "father": he was always "Louis"--simply one of them. He married the family and they married him. He had captured their hearts in France by his story-telling, his flute-playing and his skilful talent with the jackknife. Now he was with them for all time, and he was theirs. It was the most natural thing in the world.
Mrs. Stevenson was the exact opposite of her husband in most things. She was quick, practical, accurate, and had a manual dexterity in a housekeeping way beyond the lot of most women. With all his half-invalid, languid, dilettante ways, Robert Louis adored the man or woman who could do things. Perhaps this was why his heart went out to those who go down to the sea in ships, the folk whose work is founded not on theories, but on absolute mathematical laws.
In their fourteen years of married life, Robert Louis never tired of watching Fanny at her housekeeping. "To see her turn the flapjacks by a simple twist of the wrist is a delight not soon to be forgotten, and my joy is to see her hanging clothes on the line in a high wind."
The folks at home labored under the hallucination that Robert Louis had married "a native Californian," and to them a "native" meant a half-breed Indian. The fact was that Fanny was born in Indiana, but this explanation only deepened the suspicion, for surely people who lived in Indiana are Indians--any one would know that! Cousin Robert made apologies and explanations, although none was needed, and placed himself under the ban of suspicion of being in league to protect Robert Louis, for the fact that the boys had always been quite willing to lie for each other had been very well known.
Mrs. Stevenson made good all that Robert Louis lacked. In physique she was small, but sturdy and strong.
Mentally she was very practical, very sensible, very patient. Then she had wit, insight, sympathy and that fluidity of spirit which belongs only to the Elect Few who know that nothing really matters much either way. Such a person does not contradict, set folks straight as to dates, and shake the red rag of wordy warfare, even in the interests of truth.
Then keeping house on Silverado Hill was only playing at "keep-house," and the way all hands entered into the game made it the genuine thing. People who keep house in earnest or do anything else in dead earnest are serious, but not sincere. Sincere people are those who can laugh--even laugh at themselves--and thus are they saved from ossification of the heart and fatty degeneration of the cerebrum. The Puritans forgot how to play, otherwise they would never have hanged the witches or gone after the Quakers with fetters and handcuffs. Uric acid and crystals in the blood are bad things, but they are worse when they get into the soul.
That most delightful story of "Treasure Island" was begun as a tale for Lloyd Osbourne, around the evening campfire. Then the hearers begged that it be written out, and so it was begun, one chapter a day. As fast as a chapter was written it was read in the evening to an audience that hung on every word and speculated as to what the characters would do next. All applauded, all criticized--all made suggestions as to what was "true," that is to say, as to what the parties actually did and said. "Treasure Island" is the best story of adventure ever written, and if anybody knows a better recipe for story-writing than the plan of writing just for fun, for some one else, it has not yet been discovered.
The miracle is that Robert Louis the Scotchman should have been so perfectly understood and appreciated by this little family from the other side of the world.
The Englishman coming to America speaks a different language from ours--his allusions, symbols, aphorisms belong to another sphere. He does not understand us, nor we him. But Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne must have been "universals," for they never really had to get acquainted: they loved the same things, spoke a common language, and best of all recognized that what we call "life" isn't life at the last, and that an anxious stirring, clutching for place, self and power is not nearly so good in results as to play the flute, tell stories and keep house just for fun.
The Stevenson spirit of gentle raillery was well illustrated by Mrs. Strong in an incident that ran somewhat thus: A certain boastful young person was telling of a funeral where among other gorgeous things were eight "pallberries."
Said Mrs. Stevenson in admiration, "Just now, a-think, pallberries at a funeral; how delightful!" "My dear," said Robert Louis, reprovingly, "you know perfectly well that we always have pallberries at our funerals in Samoa."
"Quite true, my dear, provided it is pallberry season."
"And suppose it is not pallberry season, do we not have them tinted?"
"Yes, but there is a tendency to pick them green--that is awful!"
"But not so awful as to leave them on the bushes until they get rotten."
Finck in his fine book, "Romantic Love and Personal Beauty," says that not once in a hundred thousand times do you find man and wife who have reached a state of actual understanding.
Incompatibility comes from misunderstanding and misconstruing motives, and more often, probably, attributing motives where none exists. And until a man and a woman comprehend the working of each other's mind and "respect the mood," there is no mental mating, and without a mental mating we can talk of rights and ownership, but not of marriage.
The delight of creative work lies in self-discovery: you are mining nuggets of power out of your own cosmos, and the find comes as a great and glad surprise. The kindergarten baby who discovers he can cut out a pretty shape from colored paper, and straightway wants to run home to show mamma his find, is not far separated from the literary worker who turns a telling phrase, and straightway looks for Her, to read it to double his joy by sharing it. Robert Louis was ever discovering new beauties in his wife and she in him. Eliminate the element of surprise and anticipate everything a person can do or say, and love is a mummy. Thus do we get the antithesis--understanding and surprise.
Marriage worked a miracle in Robert Louis; suddenly he became industrious. He ordered that a bell should be tinkled at six o'clock every morning or a whistle blown as a sign that he should "get away," and at once he began the work of the day. More probably he had begun it hours before, for he had the bad habit of the midnight brain. Kipling calls Robert Louis our only perfect artist in letters--the man who filed down to a hair.
Robert Louis knew no synonyms; for him there was the right word and none other. He balanced the sentence over and over on his tongue, tried and tried again until he found the cadence that cast the prophetic purple shadow--that not only expressed a meaning, but which tokened what would follow.
He was always assiduously graceful, always desiring to present his idea in as persuasive a light as possible, and with as much harmony as possible. That self-revelatory expression of Stevenson's is eminently characteristic of the man: "I know what pleasure is, for I have done good work."
"Treasure Island" opened the market for Stevenson, and thereafter there was a steadily increasing demand for his wares.
Health came back; and the folks at home seeing that Robert Louis was getting his name in the papers, and noting the steady, triumphant tone of sanity in all he wrote, came to the conclusion that his marriage was not a failure.
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Above all men in the realm of letters Robert Louis had that peculiar and divine thing called "charm." To know him was to love him, and those who did not love him did not know him.
This welling grace of spirit was also the possession of his wife.
In his married life Stevenson was always a lover, never the loved. The habit of his mind is admirably shown in these lines:
TO MY WIFE
Trusty, dusky, vivid, true, With eyes of gold and bramble dew, Steel true and blade straight, The Great Artisan made my mate.
Honor, courage, valor, fire, A love that life could never tire, Death quench nor evil stir, The Mighty Master gave to her.
Teacher, pupil, comrade, wife, A fellow-farer true through life, Heart-whole and soul free, The august Father gave to me.
Edmund Gosse gives a pen-picture of Stevenson thus:
I came home dazzled with my new friend, saying as Constance does of Arthur, "Was ever such a gracious creature born?" That impression of ineffable mental charm was formed the first moment of acquaintance, about Eighteen Hundred Seventy-seven, and it never lessened or became modified. Stevenson's rapidity in the sympathetic interchange of ideas was, doubtless, the source of it. He has been described as an "egotist," but I challenge the description. If ever there was an altruist it was Louis Stevenson; he seemed to feign an interest in himself merely to stimulate you to be liberal in your confidences. Those who have written about him from later impressions than those of which I speak seem to me to give insufficient prominence to the gaiety of Stevenson. It was his cardinal quality in those early days. A childlike mirth leaped and danced in him; he seemed to skip the hills of life. He was simply bubbling with quips and jest; his inherent earnestness or passion about abstract things was incessantly relieved by jocosity; and when he had built one of his intellectual castles in the sand, a wave of humor was certain to sweep in and destroy it. I can not, for the life of me, recall any of his jokes; and written down in cold blood, they might not seem funny if I did. They were not wit so much as humanity, the many-sided outlook upon life. I am anxious that his laughter-loving mood should not be forgotten, because later on it was partly quenched by ill health, responsibility and the advance of years. He was often, in the old days, excessively, delightfully silly--silly with the silliness of an inspired schoolboy; I am afraid our laughter sometimes sounded ill in the ears of age.
* * * * * * *
A visit to Scotland and the elders capitulated, apologized, and asked for quarter. So delighted was Thomas Stevenson with Lloyd Osbourne that he made the boy his chief heir, and declared in the presence of Robert Louis that he only regretted that his own son was never half so likely a lad. To which Robert Louis made reply, "Genius always skips one generation."
Health had come to Robert Louis in a degree he had never before known. He also had dignity and a precision such as his parents and kinsmen had despaired of seeing in one so physically and mentally vacillating.
Stevenson was once asked by a mousing astrologer to state the date of his birth. Robert Louis looked at his wife soberly and slowly answered, "May Tenth, Eighteen Hundred Eighty." And not even a smile crossed the countenance of either. Each understood.
That the nature of Stevenson was buoyed up, spiritualized, encouraged and given strength by his marriage, no quibbler has ever breathed the ghost of a doubt. His wife supplied him the mothering care that gave his spirit wing. He loved her children as his own, and they reciprocated the affection in a way that embalms their names in amber forevermore.
When Robert Louis, after a hemorrhage, sat propped up in bed, forbidden to speak, he wrote on a pad with pencil: "Mr. Dumbleigh presents his compliments and praises God that he is sick so he has to be cared for by two tender, loving fairies. Was ever a man so blest?"
Again he begins the day by inditing a poem, "To the bare, brown feet of my wife and daughter dear." And this, be it remembered, was after the bare, brown feet had been running errands for him for thirteen years. And think you that women so loved, and by such a man, would not fetch and carry and run and find their highest joy in ministering to him? If he were thrice blest in having them, as he continually avowed, how about them? It only takes a small dole of love when fused with loyalty to win the abject, doglike devotion of a good woman. On the day of his death Stevenson said to his wife, "You have already given me fourteen years of life." And this is the world's verdict--fourteen years of life and love, and without these fourteen years the name and fame of Robert Louis Stevenson were writ in water; with them "R. L. S." has been cut deep in the granite of time, but better still, the gentle spirit of Stevenson lives again in the common heart of the world in lives made better.