The hunter’s companion
George Berkeley was a local innkeeper in 1887. (No connection to Berkeley Square or the vanished hotel.) He was also a fan and friend of the illustrious resident author with the already famous initials RLS.
“On the Character of Dogs” is one title in the extensive list of Stevenson essays on a myriad of topics. To this day, it still is not known if Berkeley ever read it but something put it in his head to fill the vacancy in the cast of players in the “Hunter’s Home.” Before the first snowflake reached the ground, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Aunt Jane in Scotland knew about “the new addition to our circle, a large black and white puppy, half Newfoundland and half mongrel.”
That is how Stevenson’s mother saw him. Bertha Baker said, “The dog’s name was ‘Sport’ and was an Irish setter. The dog often went out with RLS on his snowshoe journeys and S. seemed to be very much attached to him as well as the dog to his master.”
Returning to Mother: “The Creature is a good natured goose of a thing, that will run after horses and bark at them, till the village turns out and pelts him with bricks, and Lloyd won’t call him off because he objects to acknowledging any connection with him. But he is Lou’s latest fancy, and he declares that there never yet was a Hunter’s Home without a dog in it.”
And so the stage was set: Hunter’s Home with a dog, stockpile of Native American-made buffalo furs, and the fireplace. It was time for Stevenson and company to hunker down and wait out the answers to two questions:
1. Are the winters as bad as they say?
2. Will there still be five of us in the spring?
A winter’s tale
For Andrew Baker and everyone of common sense, hunkering down for the winter included sealing up the fireplace to retain the heat from its primary source, the woodstoves. Andrew, the real woodsman of the house, was next in line to discover that this odd little fellow spitting blood now and then was … unconventional.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the pretend woodsman, forbade his landlord to do any such thing that would detract from the aura of his private hunting lodge. To him, the burning logs symbolized his Adirondack alter ego. Consequently, smoke poured out of that chimney all winter and some heat, too. His mother was quick to notice:
“There is not a footstool in the house, and the drafts along the floor make my feet very cold: so as a special favor to me, a log of wood is to be sawn into suitable pieces to serve as stools and still be in keeping with the ‘Hunter’s Home.'”
People who knew Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson called her ‘Maggie’ and her only son went by Louis or Lou. Bertha Baker, then age ten, recalled that “We all liked Mrs. Stevenson, the mother of the author, very much. She seemed more like an American than his wife [who was American], who was very quiet.”
Margaret, one of thirteen children, was a churchgoer whose father, the Reverend Dr. Lewis Balfour, had been mighty in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. While en route to Saranac Lake from N.Y.C. in that autumn of 1887, the Stevenson expedition had a one day layover in Plattsburgh. It happened to be Sunday, October 2nd, so the daughter of Rev. Balfour went to church for one more dose of her family brand of Christian worship before heading into the mountains. After the service, back at the hotel, Maggie wrote to sister Jane all about it, doubtless filled with a singular pride exclusive to the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson:
“I went to the Presbyterian Church here this morning and had a very good sermon. In the course of it the minister, in speaking of yielding to evil, said that by doing so ‘in the end Hyde would conquer Jekyll.’ Was it not odd that I should just happen to hear that in this out of the way place? And moreover, the last sermon I heard in N.Y. was on the same subject?”
Formal religion in the Saranac Lake of 1887 was confined to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Established under the impetus of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, in 1879, it stood near his own house where today is Medical Associates. Dividing them was a cow path down to the village waterhole, the Saranac River. As the settlement grew, the path became Church Street.
Margaret Stevenson hooked up with St. Luke’s congregation and was a regular for the duration. When it came time to go west in the spring, Maggie left behind more new friends than her co-travelers combined. Among the first was Mrs. Estella Martin of an old Adirondack family. While sipping tea near the fireplace during her first visit to the Hunter’s Home, Mrs. Martin felt a little apprehension when her hostess said, “I would like you to meet my son, Louis.”
Rumors were already rampant that the local icon was reclusive, therefore unfriendly. Cajoled by his mother to emerge from his study, Stevenson seemed at a loss and asked permission for a smoke. Who would have said no except Dr. Trudeau? For a man who once named a canoe Cigarette, there was nothing like a long drag on one to loosen up the writer’s tongue. Mrs. Martin was a kingpin in her crowd and word went around fast that she “had two hours of R.L.S. and he was the most interesting man I ever met.”