Recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson

By Andrew Lang.



We spoke of a rest in a Fairy hill of the north, but he
   Far from the firths of the east and the racing tides of the west
Sleeps in the sight and the sound of the infinite southern sea,
   Weary and well content, in his grave on the Vaëa crest.

Tusitala, the lover of children, the teller of tales,
   Giver of counsel and dreams, a wonder, a world’s delight,
Looks o’er the labour of men in the plain and the hill, and the sails
   Pass and repass on the sea that he loved, in the day and the night.

Winds of the west and the east in the rainy season blow,
   Heavy with perfume, and all his fragrant woods are wet,
Winds of the east and the west as they wander to and fro,
   Bear him the love of the lands he loved, and the long regret.

Once we were kindest, he said, when leagues of the limitless sea,
   Flowed between us, but now that no range of the refluent tides
Sunders us each from each, yet nearer we seem to be,
   When only the unbridged stream of the River of Death divides.

Before attempting to give any “reminiscences” of Mr. Stevenson, it is right to observe that reminiscences of him can best be found in his own works.  In his essay on “Child’s Play,” and in his “Child’s Garden of Verse,” he gave to the world his vivid recollections of his imaginative infancy.  In other essays he spoke of his boyhood, his health, his dreams, his methods of work and study.  “The Silverado Squatters” reveals part of his experience in America.  The Parisian scenes in “The Wrecker” are inspired by his sojourn in French Bohemia; his journeys are recorded in “Travels with a Donkey” and “An Inland Voyage”; while his South Sea sketches, which appeared in periodicals, deal with his Oceanic adventures.  He was the most autobiographical of authors, with an egoism nearly as complete, and to us as delightful, as the egoism of Montaigne.  Thus, the proper sources of information about the author of “Kidnapped” are in his delightful books.

“John’s own John,” as Dr. Holmes says, may be very unlike his neighbour’s John; but in the case of Mr. Stevenson, his Louis was very similar to my Louis; I mean that, as he presents his personality to the world in his writings, even so did that personality appear to me in our intercourse.  The man I knew was always a boy.

“Sing me a song of the lad that is gone,”

he wrote about Prince Charlie, but in his own case the lad was never “gone.”  Like Keats and Shelley, he was, and he looked, of the immortally young.  He and I were at school together, but I was an elderly boy of seventeen, when he was lost in the crowd of “gytes,” as the members of the lowest form are called.  Like all Scotch people, we had a vague family connection; a great-uncle of his, I fancy, married an aunt of my own, called for her beauty, “The Flower of Ettrick.”  So we had both heard; but these things were before our day.  A lady of my kindred remembers carrying Stevenson about when he was “a rather peevish baby,” and I have seen a beautiful photograph of him, like one of Raffael’s children, taken when his years were three or four.  But I never had heard of his existence till, in 1873, I think, I was at Mentone, in the interests of my health.  Here I met Mr. Sidney Colvin, now of the British Museum, and, with Mr. Colvin, Stevenson.  He looked as, in my eyes, he always did look, more like a lass than a lad, with a rather long, smooth oval face, brown hair worn at greater length than is common, large lucid eyes, but whether blue or brown I cannot remember, if brown, certainly light brown.  On appealing to the authority of a lady, I learn that brown was the hue.  His colour was a trifle hectic, as is not unusual at Mentone, but he seemed, under his big blue cloak, to be of slender, yet agile frame.  He was like nobody else whom I ever met.  There was a sort of uncommon celerity in changing expression, in thought and speech.  His cloak and Tyrolese hat (he would admit the innocent impeachment) were decidedly dear to him.  On the frontier of Italy, why should he not do as the Italians do?  It would have been well for me if I could have imitated the wearing of the cloak!

I shall not deny that my first impression was not wholly favourable.  “Here,” I thought, “is one of your æsthetic young men, though a very clever one.”  What the talk was about, I do not remember; probably of books.  Mr. Stevenson afterwards told me that I had spoken of Monsieur Paul de St. Victor, as a fine writer, but added that “he was not a British sportsman.”  Mr. Stevenson himself, to my surprise, was unable to walk beyond a very short distance, and, as it soon appeared, he thought his thread of life was nearly spun.  He had just written his essay, “Ordered South,” the first of his published works, for his “Pentland Rising” pamphlet was unknown, a boy’s performance.  On reading “Ordered South,” I saw, at once, that here was a new writer, a writer indeed; one who could do what none of us, nous autres, could rival, or approach.  I was instantly “sealed of the Tribe of Louis,” an admirer, a devotee, a fanatic, if you please.  At least my taste has never altered.  From this essay it is plain enough that the author (as is so common in youth, but with better reason than many have) thought himself doomed.  Most of us have gone through that, the Millevoye phase, but who else has shown such a wise and gay acceptance of the apparently inevitable?  We parted; I remember little of our converse, except a shrewd and hearty piece of encouragement given me by my junior, who already knew so much more of life than his senior will ever do.  For he ran forth to embrace life like a lover: his motto was never Lucy Ashton’s—

“Vacant heart, and hand, and eye,
Easy live and quiet die.”

Mr. Stevenson came presently to visit me at Oxford.  I make no hand of reminiscences; I remember nothing about what we did or said, with one exception, which is not going to be published.  I heard of him, writing essays in the Portfolio and the Cornhill, those delightful views of life at twenty-five, so brave, so real, so vivid, so wise, so exquisite, which all should know.  How we looked for “R. L. S.” at the end of an article, and how devout was our belief, how happy our pride, in the young one!

About 1878, I think (I was now a slave of the quill myself), I received a brief note from Mr. Stevenson, introducing to me the person whom, in his essay on his old college magazine, he called “Glasgow Brown.”  What his real name was, whence he came, whence the money came, I never knew.  G. B. was going to start a weekly Tory paper.  Would I contribute?  G. B. came to see me.  Mr. Stevenson has described him, not as I would have described him: like Mr. Bill Sikes’s dog, I have the Christian peculiarity of not liking dogs “as are not of my breed.”  G. B.’s paper, London, was to start next week.  He had no writer of political leading articles.  Would I do a “leader”?  But I was not in favour of Lord Lytton’s Afghan policy.  How could I do a Tory leader?  Well, I did a neutral-tinted thing, with citations from Aristophanes!  I found presently some other scribes for G. B.

What a paper that was!  I have heard that G. B. paid in handfuls of gold, in handfuls of bank-notes.  Nobody ever read London, or advertised in it, or heard of it.  It was full of the most wonderfully clever verses in old French forms.  They were (it afterwards appeared) by Mr. W. E. Henley.  Mr. Stevenson himself astonished and delighted the public of London (that is, the contributors) by his “New Arabian Nights.”  Nobody knew about them but ourselves, a fortunate few.  Poor G. B. died and Mr. Henley became the editor.  I may not name the contributors, the flower of the young lions, elderly lions now, there is a new race.  But one lion, a distinguished and learned lion, said already that fiction, not essay, was Mr. Stevenson’s field.  Well, both fields were his, and I cannot say whether I would be more sorry to lose Virginibus Puerisque and “Studies of Men and Books,” or “Treasure Island” and “Catriona.”  With the decease of G. B., Pactolus dried up in its mysterious sources, London struggled and disappeared.

Mr. Stevenson was in town, now and again, at the old Saville Club, in Saville Row, which had the tiniest and blackest of smoking-rooms.  Here, or somewhere, he spoke to me of an idea of a tale, a Man who was Two Men.  I said “‘William Wilson’ by Edgar Poe,” and declared that it would never do.  But his “Brownies,” in a vision of the night, showed him a central scene, and he wrote “Jekyll and Hyde.”  My “friend of these days and of all days,” Mr. Charles Longman, sent me the manuscript.  In a very commonplace London drawing-room, at 10.30 P.M., I began to read it.  Arriving at the place where Utterson the lawyer, and the butler wait outside the Doctor’s room, I threw down the manuscript and fled in a hurry.  I had no taste for solitude any more.  The story won its great success, partly by dint of the moral (whatever that may be), more by its terrible, lucid, visionary power.  I remember Mr. Stevenson telling me, at this time, that he was doing some “regular crawlers,” for this purist had a boyish habit of slang, and I think it was he who called Julius Cæsar “the howlingest cheese who ever lived.”  One of the “crawlers” was “Thrawn Janet”; after “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (but certainly after it), to my taste, it seems the most wonderful story of the “supernatural” in our language.

Mr. Stevenson had an infinite pleasure in Boisgobey, Montépin, and, of course, Gaboriau.  There was nothing of the “cultured person” about him.  Concerning a novel dear to culture, he said that he would die by my side, in the last ditch, proclaiming it the worst fiction in the world.  I make haste to add that I have only known two men of letters as free as Mr. Stevenson, not only from literary jealousy, but from the writer’s natural, if exaggerated, distaste for work which, though in his own line, is very different in aim and method from his own.  I do not remember another case in which he dispraised any book.  I do remember his observations on a novel then and now very popular, but not to his taste, nor, indeed, by any means, impeccable, though stirring; his censure and praise were both just.  From his occasional fine efforts, the author of this romance, he said, should have cleared away acres of brushwood, of ineffectual matter.  It was so, no doubt, as the writer spoken of would be ready to acknowledge.  But he was an improviser of genius, and Mr. Stevenson was a conscious artist.

Of course we did by no means always agree in literary estimates; no two people do.  But when certain works—in his line in one way—were stupidly set up as rivals of his, the person who was most irritated was not he, but his equally magnanimous contemporary.  There was no thought of rivalry or competition in either mind.  The younger romancists who arose after Mr. Stevenson went to Samoa were his friends by correspondence; from them, who never saw his face, I hear of his sympathy and encouragement.  Every writer knows the special temptations of his tribe: they were temptations not even felt, I do believe, by Mr. Stevenson.  His heart was far too high, his nature was in every way as generous as his hand was open.  It is in thinking of these things that one feels afresh the greatness of the world’s loss; for “a good heart is much more than style,” writes one who knew him only by way of letters.

It is a trivial reminiscence that we once plotted a Boisgobesque story together.  There was a prisoner in a Muscovite dungeon.

“We’ll extract information from him,” I said.


“With corkscrews.”

But the mere suggestion of such a process was terribly distasteful to him; not that I really meant to go to these extreme lengths.  We never, of course, could really have worked together; and, his maladies increasing, he became more and more a wanderer, living at Bournemouth, at Davos, in the Grisons, finally, as all know, in Samoa.  Thus, though we corresponded, not unfrequently, I never was of the inner circle of his friends.  Among men there were school or college companions, or companions of Paris or Fontainebleau, cousins, like Mr. R. A. M. Stevenson, or a stray senior, like Mr. Sidney Colvin.  From some of them, or from Mr. Stevenson himself, I have heard tales of “the wild Prince and Poins.”  That he and a friend travelled utterly without baggage, buying a shirt where a shirt was needed, is a fact, and the incident is used in “The Wrecker.”  Legend says that once he and a friend did possess a bag, and also, nobody ever knew why, a large bottle of scent.  But there was no room for the bottle in the bag, so Mr. Stevenson spilled the whole contents over the other man’s head, taking him unawares, that nothing might be wasted.  I think the tale of the endless staircase, in “The Wrecker,” is founded on fact, so are the stories of the atelier, which I have heard Mr. Stevenson narrate at the Oxford and Cambridge Club.  For a nocturnal adventure, in the manner of the “New Arabian Nights,” a learned critic already spoken of must be consulted.  It is not my story.  In Paris, at a café, I remember that Mr. Stevenson heard a Frenchman say the English were cowards.  He got up and slapped the man’s face.

Monsieur, vous m’avez frappé!” said the Gaul.

A ce qu’il parait,” said the Scot, and there it ended.  He also told me that years ago he was present at a play, I forget what play, in Paris, where the moral hero exposes a woman “with a history.”  He got up and went out, saying to himself:

“What a play! what a people!”

Ah, Monsieur, vous êtes bien jeune!” said an old French gentleman.

Like a right Scot, Mr. Stevenson was fond of “our auld ally of France,” to whom our country and our exiled kings owed so much.

I rather vaguely remember another anecdote.  He missed his train from Edinburgh to London, and his sole portable property was a return ticket, a meerschaum pipe, and a volume of Mr. Swinburne’s poems.  The last he found unmarketable; the pipe, I think, he made merchandise of, but somehow his provender for the day’s journey consisted in one bath bun, which he could not finish.

These trivial tales illustrate a period in his life and adventures which I only know by rumour.  Our own acquaintance was, to a great degree, literary and bookish.  Perhaps it began “with a slight aversion,” but it seemed, like madeira, to be ripened and improved by his long sea voyage; and the news of his death taught me, at least, the true nature of the affection which he was destined to win.  Indeed, our acquaintance was like the friendship of a wild singing bird and of a punctual, domesticated barn-door fowl, laying its daily “article” for the breakfast-table of the citizens.  He often wrote to me from Samoa, sometimes with news of native manners and folklore.  He sent me a devil-box, the “luck” of some strange island, which he bought at a great price.  After parting with its “luck,” or fetish (a shell in a curious wooden box), the island was unfortunate, and was ravaged by measles.

I occasionally sent out books needed for Mr. Stevenson’s studies, of which more will be said.  But I must make it plain that, in the body, we met but rarely.  His really intimate friends were Mr. Colvin and Mr. Baxter (who managed the practical side of his literary business between them); Mr. Henley (in partnership with whom he wrote several plays); his cousin, Mr. R. A. M. Stevenson; and, among other literati, Mr. Gosse, Mr. Austin Dobson, Mr. Saintsbury, Mr Walter Pollock, knew him well.  The best portrait of Mr. Stevenson that I know is by Sir. W. B. Richmond, R.A., and is in that gentleman’s collection of contemporaries, with the effigies of Mr. Holman Hunt, Mr. William Morris, Mr. Browning, and others.  It is unfinished, owing to an illness which stopped the sittings, and does not show the subject at his best, physically speaking.  There is also a brilliant, slight sketch, almost a caricature, by Mr. Sargent.  It represents Mr. Stevenson walking about the room in conversation.

The people I have named, or some of them, knew Mr. Stevenson more intimately than I can boast of doing.  Unlike each other, opposites in a dozen ways, we always were united by the love of letters, and of Scotland, our dear country.  He was a patriot, yet he spoke his mind quite freely about Burns, about that apparent want of heart in the poet’s amours, which our countrymen do not care to hear mentioned.  Well, perhaps, for some reasons, it had to be mentioned once, and so no more of it.

Mr. Stevenson possessed, more than any man I ever met, the power of making other men fall in love with him.  I mean that he excited a passionate admiration and affection, so much so that I verily believe some men were jealous of other men’s place in his liking.  I once met a stranger who, having become acquainted with him, spoke of him with a touching fondness and pride, his fancy reposing, as it seemed, in a fond contemplation of so much genius and charm.  What was so taking in him? and how is one to analyse that dazzling surface of pleasantry, that changeful shining humour, wit, wisdom, recklessness; beneath which beat the most kind and tolerant of hearts?

People were fond of him, and people were proud of him: his achievements, as it were, sensibly raised their pleasure in the world, and, to them, became parts of themselves.  They warmed their hands at that centre of light and heat.  It is not every success which has these beneficent results.  We see the successful sneered at, decried, insulted, even when success is deserved.  Very little of all this, hardly aught of all this, I think, came in Mr. Stevenson’s way.  After the beginning (when the praises of his earliest admirers were irritating to dull scribes) he found the critics fairly kind, I believe, and often enthusiastic.  He was so much his own severest critic that he probably paid little heed to professional reviewers.  In addition to his “Rathillet,” and other MSS. which he destroyed, he once, in the Highlands, long ago, lost a portmanteau with a batch of his writings.  Alas, that he should have lost or burned anything!  “King’s chaff,” says our country proverb, “is better than other folk’s corn.”

I have remembered very little, or very little that I can write, and about our last meeting, when he was so near death, in appearance, and so full of courage—how can I speak?  His courage was a strong rock, not to be taken or subdued.  When unable to utter a single word, his pencilled remarks to his attendants were pithy and extremely characteristic.  This courage and spiritual vitality made one hope that he would, if he desired it, live as long as Voltaire, that reed among oaks.  There were of course, in so rare a combination of characteristics, some which were not equally to the liking of all.  He was highly original in costume, but, as his photographs are familiar, the point does not need elucidation.  Life was a drama to him, and he delighted, like his own British admirals, to do things with a certain air.  He observed himself, I used to think, as he observed others, and “saw himself” in every part he played.  There was nothing of the cabotin in this self-consciousness; it was the unextinguished childish passion for “playing at things” which remained with him.  I have a theory that all children possess genius, and that it dies out in the generality of mortals, abiding only with people whose genius the world is forced to recognise.  Mr. Stevenson illustrates, and perhaps partly suggested, this private philosophy of mine.

I have said very little; I have no skill in reminiscences, no art to bring the living aspect of the man before those who never knew him.  I faintly seem to see the eager face, the light nervous figure, the fingers busy with rolling cigarettes; Mr. Stevenson talking, listening, often rising from his seat, standing, walking to and fro, always full of vivid intelligence, wearing a mysterious smile.  I remember one pleasant dark afternoon, when he told me many tales of strange adventures, narratives which he had heard about a murderous lonely inn, somewhere in the States.  He was as good to hear as to read.  I do not recollect much of that delight in discussion, in controversy, which he shows in his essay on conversation, where he describes, I believe, Mr. Henley as “Burley,” and Mr. Symonds as “Opalstein.”  He had great pleasure in the talk of the late Professor Fleeming Jenkin, which was both various and copious.  But in these noctes coenaeque deum I was never a partaker.  In many topics, such as angling, golf, cricket, whereon I am willingly diffuse, Mr. Stevenson took no interest.  He was very fond of boating and sailing in every kind; he hazarded his health by long expeditions among the fairy isles of ocean, but he “was not a British sportsman,” though for his measure of strength a good pedestrian, a friend of the open air, and of all who live and toil therein.

As to his literary likings, they appear in his own confessions.  He revelled in Dickens, but, about Thackeray—well, I would rather have talked to somebody else!  To my amazement, he was of those (I think) who find Thackeray “cynical.”  “He takes you into a garden, and then pelts you with”—horrid things!  Mr. Stevenson, on the other hand, had a free admiration of Mr. George Meredith.  He did not so easily forgive the longueus and lazinesses of Scott, as a Scot should do.  He read French much; Greek only in translations.

Literature was, of course, his first love, but he was actually an advocate at the Scottish Bar, and, as such, had his name on a brazen door-plate.  Once he was a competitor for a Chair of Modern History in Edinburgh University; he knew the romantic side of Scottish history very well.  In his novel, “Catriona,” the character of James Mohr Macgregor is wonderfully divined.  Once I read some unpublished letters of Catriona’s unworthy father, written when he was selling himself as a spy (and lying as he spied) to the Hanoverian usurper.  Mr. Stevenson might have written these letters for James Mohr; they might be extracts from “Catriona.”

In turning over old Jacobite pamphlets, I found a forgotten romance of Prince Charles’s hidden years, and longed that Mr. Stevenson should retell it.  There was a treasure, an authentic treasure; there were real spies, a real assassin; a real, or reported, rescue of a lovely girl from a fire at Strasbourg, by the Prince.  The tale was to begin sur le pont d’Avignon: a young Scotch exile watching the Rhone, thinking how much of it he could cover with a salmon fly, thinking of the Tay or Beauly.  To him enter another shady tramping exile, Blairthwaite, a murderer.  And so it was to run on, as the author’s fancy might lead him, with Alan Breck and the Master for characters.  At last, in unpublished MSS. I found an actual Master of Ballantrae, a Highland chief—noble, majestically handsome—and a paid spy of England!  All these papers I sent out to Samoa, too late.  The novel was to have been dedicated to me, and that chance of immortality is gone, with so much else.

Mr. Stevenson’s last letters to myself were full of his concern for a common friend of ours, who was very ill.  Depressed himself, Mr. Stevenson wrote to this gentleman—why should I not mention Mr. James Payn?—with consoling gaiety.  I attributed his depression to any cause but his own health, of which he rarely spoke.  He lamented the “ill-staged fifth act of life”; he, at least, had no long hopeless years of diminished force to bear.

I have known no man in whom the pre-eminently manly virtues of kindness, courage, sympathy, generosity, helpfulness, were more beautifully conspicuous than in Mr. Stevenson, no man so much loved—it is not too strong a word—by so many and such various people.  He was as unique in character as in literary genius.


This is taken from Adventures Among Books.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved