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‘The Second Coming of R.L.S.’

Robert Louis Stevenson (Provided photo — Sir Percy Shelley)

Sept. 7, 1887, for Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, was a day befitting the popular phrase, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It started aboard the cargo steamer Ludgate Hill, about to complete her 12-day trans-Atlantic haul from London to New York via Le Havre, France, with a cargo of fellow passengers, 100 horses and as many apes, all consigned to American zoos, plus hay and matches. Unaware of these details upon boarding ship on the Thames, the so-called Stevenson expedition had agreed “to look upon it as an adventure” in the words of the author’s mother, Margaret Stevenson.

The Stevenson expedition was actually an ongoing migration to locales or climates believed or hoped to be beneficial to the health of its leader, Robert Louis Stevenson, an invalid with a frail hold on life, who suffered spontaneous episodes of hemorrhaging lungs, a condition he personified as “Bloody Jack.” Bloody Jack could kill and almost had, several times since his debut in California in March 1880. Since then Stevenson and his wife Fanny, his stepson Lloyd Osbourne and their Skye terrier Bogue had made home for a while in four countries: namely, Scotland, Switzerland, France and England. While in France in 1885, they enlisted a young Swiss girl, Valentine Roch, to serve as a portable servant so Fanny could focus more on her husband as his portable nurse.

Following the death of the author’s father Thomas Stevenson in May 1887, his widow Margaret (Maggie to friends) joined the expedition at this fateful milestone, leaving everything she knew behind to be with her only child, whom she would outlive. Fortunately, Maggie wrote letters to her sister Jane White Balfour throughout the journey, which were edited and published by Scribner’s in 1903 with the title “From Saranac to the Marquesas, Some Letters Written to Miss J.W. Balfour.” To have been technically correct, the title should have read “letters from London to Hawaii.”

Bogue, the Skye terrier, was brave but foolish, and had lost his life in Bournemouth by challenging a bigger dog to a fight. His remains should still be in the grounds of Skerryvore, the house where Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came out of a dream.

That dream had a lot to do with events dockside on the Hudson in New York City on Sept. 7, 1887, when the Ludgate Hill stopped moving. By this time Stevenson’s reputation had crossed the ocean. The first clue that something was in the air had come in the morning when they met the pilot-boat off Fire Island. In a letter to her sister, Maggie wrote, “I must not forget to tell you that the pilot was greatly delighted when he found out who Louis was; it seems that he himself actually went by the name of ‘Mr. Hyde’ on board the pilot-boat, and his partner was called ‘Dr. Jekyll,’ because the one was easy and good-natured and the other rather hard and inclined to screw the men down to their work. Was it not strange that he, out of so many, should have been the one to bring us into New York?”

The serendipitous timing of Robert Louis Stevenson’s arrival in the Big Apple at the height of the American craze over “Jekyll & Hyde” is the kind of stuff movies are made of. It really was the first day of the rest of his life. His American painter friend, Will Low, was there to meet him. In the book Low would someday be writing, to be called “A Chronicle of Friendships,” he would devote a chapter to this day and call it “The Second Coming of R.L.S.” There are Christians who take issue with Low’s choice of words. They see them like a copyright infringement on their association of “Second Coming” with the hero of the New Testament, like a hijacking in a blasphemous way to elevate RLS to deity status. This, of course, is ridiculous. There is no evidence that Will Low was very religious, but he was educated and capable of perceiving a similitude in the two “comings” of two historic individuals: namely, Jesus Christ and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In the case of Jesus, his first coming was like one of us: just another mortal in the crowd, no money, no property, no distinctive traits except that he could talk really well on themes that appealed to the downtrodden masses subjected to the rule of Rome; plus, he could work miracles. For doing those things, he was tortured to death, but his return is still expected to this day. In the case of RLS, his first coming, according to Low, was on Aug. 18, 1879, when he descended the gangplank of the emigrant ship Devonia at a nearby pier on the Hudson in lower Manhattan. On that occasion, Louis was all but invisible, just another face in a mass of desperate emigrants stepping onto American soil for the first time. Nobody knew who he was, and nobody cared. Comparison between the first comings of JC and RLS ends there.

Today, some Christian denominations believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ already happened in an inconspicuous way, but most Adventists believe it is in the future and when it happens there will be no mistaking who it is. He will return with power and glory, they say. According to Low, the “Second Coming of R.L.S.” already happened on Sept. 7, 1887, when his old bohemian friend from Fontainebleau days returned to America, his second time coming here, only this time he wasn’t just another kickable nobody in a crowd of nobodies. Instead of returning with power and glory like the first second-comer is expected to do, this time Robert Louis Stevenson returned with fame and popularity, and that is all Low ever meant, which should finally put to rest any lingering concerns that RLS is an upstart deity of a renegade cult. And yet, even Louis, as ill as he was at the time, noticed a similitude, too, from all the attention he was getting at his second coming destination. To Sidney Colvin he wrote from Newport, Rhode Island, on Sept. 18: “My reception here was idiotic to the last degree; if Jesus Christ came, they would make less fuss.”

Robert Louis Stevenson had arrived. Things would never be the same. From now on publishers would come to him, not vice versa. Will Low would write in his book that in the company of Edward L. Burlingame, editor of Scribner’s Magazine, he boarded the Ludgate Hill and “We found Louis on deck, and all his thoughts of stealing into the city incognito must have been rudely shattered, for he was already surrounded by a dozen reporters.” That’s the kind of thing that can happen if it’s the first day of the rest of your life.

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