The Sire De Maletroit’s Door, part one
What was it like to know Robert Louis Stevenson and how did he come up with his stories? Sooner or later, everybody asks themselves these questions. When they do, those in the know, like BDO, go to the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake, N.Y., for assistance. It has been said that their Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage is first of all, the temple of a personality cult and secondly a literary shrine. One way the founders put it goes like this:
“His genius was so universal, his philosophy so boundless, that no one country can claim him; he belongs to the world.”
“His exquisite humor, kindly sympathy and dauntless courage, coupled with his literary talent, created for him a distinctive place in the mystic shrine of fame.”
These were the people who knew Stevenson. At the core of the Stevenson Society membership from its beginning on Oct. 15, 1915, were the friends and family members of the author who had lived long enough to join the memorial project at Baker’s. People like the American artist, Will Low, Stevenson’s two American publishers, Charles Scribner and Sam McClure, his cousin, Dr. Graham Balfour, his friend from law school, Lord Charles Guthrie, Sir Edmund Gosse, a fellow poet and writer, Sir Sidney Colvin, friend and mentor, even Dr. Trudeau.
Anybody who’s read a decent biography of RLS will know about Jules Simoneau, the restaurateur who befriended Stevenson in Monterey, CA., when the latter was broke and exhausted near unto death. He was a member. Annie Ide, the ‘Birthday Girl,’ was only nine when Stevenson had deeded over his own birthday on Nov. 13, to the little girl who felt cheated every year because her birthday fell on Christmas. It was one of the very few times the author used his lawyer’s education and about the only one to be remembered. Annie was a member, too. She was a daughter of an American diplomat in Samoa when she got her new birthday.
Prominent members in the early days of the Stevenson Society were the author’s stepchildren who had known RLS for eighteen years and had climbed Mt. Vaea to witness his burial on the morning of December 4, 1894. Lloyd Osbourne and his sister, Mrs. Isobel Field, are the persons of provenance for the juiciest relics and artifacts enshrined at Baker’s for over a century now on Stevenson Lane.
Today, whenever someone shows up at the Stevenson Cottage with the same old story, “I have to know–what was Robert Louis Stevenson like and how did he come up with his stories?”, the staff has ready a copy of a letter by Stevenson’s stepdaughter, written to the Stevenson Society in 1930 when she was living in Serena Carpentaria, California. The letter is free of charge as an educational service of this non-profit historical society. In her letter, Mrs. Field describes a half hour spent with RLS at 5 Rue Douay in the Montmartre part of Paris, France, in the Fall of 1876. At the time, she was known as Belle Osbourne, seventeen years of age:
“Louis Stevenson and I were sitting on the floor before the fire-place, playing that old game of finding pictures in the coals.”
“It was years ago in France–my mother had taken a little flat up in Montmartre that most picturesque part of old Paris, and here Louis had climbed four flights of slippery waxed stairs to take her out to dinner. While she was dressing he joined me on the hearth rug.”
“Louis was in his mid-twenties, a vivid slender young man with yellow hair and blazing dark eyes. He was so vitally alive that other people seemed colorless beside him. No one ever said of R.L.S., ‘I don’t remember whether I ever met him or not.’ He made an instant impression that was un-forgettable.”
“I knew him then as a charming and entertaining young man who had literary aspirations. In a letter to a friend I described him at the time as ‘such a good talker I’d rather listen to him than read the best novel ever written.'”
“He made any game exciting for whatever he did was entered into with enthusiasm. He led our canoe fights on the river at Grez, when we tried to upset each other in mid-stream. He was the moving spirit in our charades at the old Chevillon Inn–the masquerade when we all dressed in improvised costumes and it was he who suggested the trials we all made to see which one of us could best express an emotion–anger–hospitality–envy–jealousy, etc., each in turn trying to outdo the others. Our frantic endeavors and the comments of the rest of the company made the game hilariously funny.” (To Be Continued).