From Scotland to Silverado, the journey begins

Robert Louis Stevenson

The famous telegram mentioned in all the Robert Louis Stevenson biographies found Louis in a receptive mood when it made his day in midsummer, 1879. It had been a full year since his farewell to the sender, his American girlfriend, Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne. Their parting at the Chelsea train station in England was the prelude to Fanny’s voyage that would put 6,000 miles between the lovers, leaving Louis alone in Edinburgh, Scotland, with Fanny way out west in California. The telegram did not survive and no one but Louis saw it while speculation about the message in it remains another pastime for Stevenson scholars. Most of the guesswork has Fanny telling Louis that she was ill and desired his presence. Whatever it said, to him it had the force of the word GO! in the same way General Eisenhower had used the word on June 5, 1944. Reading that telegram pushed a button in Stevenson that began the irreversible process that would take the 28-year-old author on his first voyage to the New World. Louis was off on his quest and from all appearances, the odds were against him. It would be nine years before RLS would jump into another adventure on such a grand scale, that being the one he conceived in Saranac Lake, to voyage under sail in sub-equatorial Oceania with no particular destination, never to return.

But Stevenson did want to return from this trip to the U.S.A. and he hoped to bring ‘the goods’ home with him. Stevenson’s optimism is always praised as a marvelous trait he possessed but, in this case, he was pushing it to new limits in a way his friend, Edmund Gosse, called, “the maddest of enterprises.” RLS could have countered his friend’s derision of this “enterprise” by reciting a passage from one of his recent essays: “Falling in love is the one illogical adventure…the effect is out of all proportion with the cause.”

Having made up his mind, Louis next set about to hide the scheme from his parents. He told them he was going down to London “on business,” which was normal enough, but he left out the part that it wasn’t the normal business. The willful, invalid son of Thomas and Margaret Stevenson was on a radical course replete with dangers for someone cursed with a frail physical constitution on a limited budget.

Dr. Graham Balfour, Stevenson’s cousin and future member of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, wrote about his cousin at this crossroads in his book The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson: “He need look for no further countenance from home. He had long felt it to be a duty that every man on reaching manhood should cease to be a burden to his father; he had now learned his craft, and every circumstance seemed to him to point out that the time was come for him to seek his own livelihood and justify his independence. These considerations were very present to his mind, and perhaps he hardly realized the distress which he would inevitably cause his parents by leaving them without a word and in almost total ignorance of the hopes and motives which inspired him.”

The news finally came to the couple through Sidney Colvin, to whom RLS had given a letter addressed to them but not to be sent until it was too late to stop him like in already at sea. Thomas Stevenson shot back a letter to Colvin full of concern e.g. “For God’s sake use your influence. Is it fair that we should be half-murdered by his conduct? I am unable to write more about this sinful mad business. I see nothing but destruction to himself as well as to all of us.”

Stevenson’s real business in London on this trip was to say goodbye to his many friends who, without exception, opposed his plan and agreed with Gosse that it was an enterprise of madness. W.E. Henley spoke for them all in a simple sentence from his letter to Charles Baxter, “If it come to the worst, my boy, we shall lose the best friend man ever had.”

Charles Baxter reluctantly helped Louis make final arrangements for his departure, which included a line of credit for 150 pounds. Then, with 30 pounds in his pocket he took the night train to Glasgow, Scotland, where he had booked passage on the Devonia, an iron single-screw steamship of 4,270 tons. By the evening of Aug. 6, 1879, RLS was on board the Devonia, writing another letter to Colvin: “Dear Colvin, the enclosed is to go to my father. I have never been so much detached from life … I seem to have died last night…The weather is threatening; I have a strange, rather horrible, sense of the sea before me, and can see no further into the future …” The next morning the Devonia sailed for America.


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