The old Pacific capital, part II
When Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t playing chess with Jules Simoneau at the latter’s restaurant, or exploring on foot the Monterey peninsula, a storehouse of material for future writing, the skinny, Scottish, convalescing author could hang out at the large two-story dwelling of the Senorita Maria Ygnacia Bonifacio in downtown Monterey.
There Stevenson’s wanna-be fiancee, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, was living in one wing of the house with her two children, Lloyd and Isobel, and her youngest sister, Nellie Vandegrift. Isobel, or “Belle,” and Nellie were both in their early 20s and were best of friends. Belle was secretly married to Joe Strong, a young artist, and Nellie was engaged to Adolpho Sanchez, the handsome young man with a rich baritone voice who had poured RLS his first shot of brandy in California, inside the Bohemia saloon. Sam Osbourne, Fanny’s estranged husband, was usually in San Francisco. Sam knew about Louis, even met him, even liked him, but in deference to good sense, Louis kept his distance from the walled-in adobe on Alvarado Street when Sam was in town, which became less and less.
When Nellie wrote the first biography about her sister Fanny, “The Violent Friend,” she recalled those days at Monterey when “He (RLS) came often to visit us and share our simple meals, each of which became a little fete in the thrill of his presence and conversation. Something he had in him that made life seem a more exciting thing, better worth living, to everyone associated with him, and it seemed impossible to be dull or bored in his company. It is true that he loved to talk … but it seemed to me that flood of talk he sometimes poured out was the overflow of a full mind, a mind so rich in ideas that he could well afford to bestow some of it upon his friends without hope of return. … His was no narrow view to be jealously hoarded for use in his writings, but his difficulty lay rather in choosing from the wealth of his store. He has remarked that he could not understand a man’s having to struggle to find ‘something to write about,’ and perhaps it is true that one who has to do that has no real vocation as a writer.”
Joe Strong liked Louis, too, and gave reassurance to the latter’s friends back in England, in a letter to Charles Baxter, declaring that “You may depend on my writing or telegraphing in case of his illness, or doing anything else within my power for him. Though at present he is quite able to write for himself as he is in excellent health and actually growing fat. This climate seems to agree well with him — his spirits are equal to his health. I hope his friends will not worry unnecessarily, as he is in good hands. I am greatly attached to him — as I think every one must be who has an opportunity of knowing him. Hoping that I may have the pleasure of meeting you some day — Believe me yours sincerely, Joe D. Strong, Jr.”
Baxter received good news from Louis personally, in a letter the latter penned on Oct. 15, 1879: “In coming here, I did the right thing … the effect of my arrival has straightened out everything. As now arranged, there is to be a private divorce in January … and yours truly will himself be a married man as soon thereafter as the law and decency permit. The only question is whether I shall be alive for the ceremony.”
Six days later, Louis wrote Sidney Colvin: “I am now all alone in Monterey, a real inhabitant with a box of my own at the P.O.F. and all are gone.” The two sisters, Fanny and Nellie, returned to the cottage in Oakland, and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Strong moved into their first apartment in San Francisco. For two months Louis would live alone in his cheap, unfurnished room at the French House, but he had a second home and company at Simoneau’s restaurant, where playing chess with Jules while discussing the universe was always on the menu.
Completing another short story, “Pavillion on the Links,” would help keep the author in Louis busy for the duration of his stay in Monterey while the beachcomber and woods-lover in Louis would keep him on his daily walks around the peninsula, weather and health permitting. One day he started a forest fire.
Wildfires have been a menace to man in California since the Stone Age.
“These fires are one of the great dangers in California,” wrote RLS. “I have seen from Monterey as many as three at the same time. A little thing will start them … they gallop over miles of country faster than a horse. The inhabitants must turn out and work like demons.”
One day, and within sight of some locals combating such a conflagration, the scientist inside the beachcomber got the best of him:
“I wished to be certain whether it was the moss … which blazed up so rapidly when the flame first touched the tree. I suppose I must have been under the influence of Satan, for instead of plucking off a piece for my experiment, what should I do but walk up to a great pine tree … strike a match, and apply the flame gingerly to one of the tassels. The tree went off simply like a rocket; in three seconds it was a roaring pillar of fire.”
If any one of the locals nearby had eyewitnessed Louis in the act of holding up the lit match, you would not be reading this. Arson like that was capital punishment on the frontier and vigilante justice would have been quick about it. As the unwitting arsonist put it: “After a few minutes of passionate expostulation I should have been run up to a convenient bough. … I have run repeatedly, but never as I ran that day. At night I went out of town, and there was my own particular fire, quite distinct from the other and burning, as I thought, with even greater vigour.”
“Majestically irresponsible,” said one writer whose name is lost about Robert Louis Stevenson. It seems to fit.