The call of the sea
“It is the only life to live.” — RLS to Will Low
In the dead of winter, February 1917, the stepchildren of Robert Louis Stevenson, namely Mr. Lloyd Osbourne and Mrs. Isobel Field, were guests of the village of Saranac Lake for a three-day weekend of festivities while recalling the winter of 1887-88, when their stepfather was the “illustrious patient” described by Dr. E.L. Trudeau in his autobiography.
Both men, only two years apart in age, had achieved significant recognition in their individual spheres of influence, namely literature and medicine, and in their individual ways helped to put Saranac Lake on the map. Dr. Trudeau stayed here and died here and has been given patron saint status ever since, while RLS moved on as soon as he could, which has been interpreted by generations of insecure natives to mean that the famous author disliked, even hated Saranac Lake. It’s called small-town mentality.
So while Lloyd and Isobel, better known as “Belle,” were in town, Lloyd brought the subject up in a talk he gave at the Saranac Lake Free Library. The Saranac Lake News on Feb. 8, 1917, reported that at the beginning of his address, Mr. Osbourne said:
“The one thing that has distressed me since my arrival here has been the repeated question, ‘Is it true that Mr. Stevenson hated Saranac Lake?’ That such an idea should persist has made me quite unhappy, for Mr. Stevenson often spoke of Saranac Lake in the after-years, and he always spoke so kindly, so warmly, that I am quite able to assure you, from what he said and from my own personal observations during that winter, that he was very happy while here.
“It is true that in some of his letters he spoke harshly of the weather, but you must remember that he was a Scotsman, to whom weather has a strange fascination, and that he spoke much more unkindly about the weather of his native Scotland and persistently railed against the climate of his own dear Edinburgh. And there were other letters written from Saranac Lake in which he spoke very highly of the place.
“Of course the Saranac Lake of that time was not the jolly town it is today. Then our friends had to be instructed in geography. They had heard of Lake Champlain, but that was the limit of their knowledge of the Adirondacks. When we came, there were about 200 people, and the Baker Cottage was about the finest house in the town. There were French voyageurs in the main street. In fact it looked like a Siberian settlement or a frontier town inhabited by frontiersmen.
“You must therefore picture Mr. Stevenson living here under conditions which it is unfair to him and to the town to compare with the present-day Saranac Lake and what Mr. Stevenson would think of it were he alive and here this afternoon. And yet he loved it. The romance of the wilderness, which we find in ‘The Master of Ballantrae,’ appealed most strongly to him, although I am compelled to say that the happiest recollection of Saranac Lake is the leaving of it.
“You see, it was not that we were so very glad to get away from Saranac Lake, but Mr. McClure had suggested the great South Seas trip, and it appealed most urgently to Mr. Stevenson’s love of wandering and adventure.”
“The great South Seas trip,” which would provide RLS biographers with seven years of material right up to his death, began as a fond memory finding expression in Stevenson’s first letter from Baker’s to his old sidekick, cousin Bob. Louis is describing his recent voyage to America aboard the steamer Ludgate Hill: “I was so happy on board that ship, I could not have believed it possible. … And truly there is nothing else, I had literally forgotten what happiness was. … My heart literally sang; I truly care for nothing so much as for that. … I have been made a lot of here, and it is sometimes pleasant, sometimes the reverse, but I would give it all up, and agree that Gladstone (British prime minister, despised by RLS) was the author of my works for a good 70 ton schooner and the coins to keep her on. And to think, there are parties who would make the exchange.”
To make his home on the water was a daydream already in progress when RLS rolled into town in a rainstorm around dinnertime on Oct. 3, 1887. “I have got one good thing of my sea voyage,” his letter to Bob continues, “it is proved the sea agrees heartily with me.” It appears that leaving here was already on Stevenson’s mind before he even got here. He goes on to say, “my mother likes it, too” — being at sea, that is — “so if I get any better, or no worse, my mother will likely hire a yacht for a month or so in the summer. Good Lord! What fun! Wealth is only useful for two things: a yacht and a string quartet. For these two I will sell my soul.”
All Louis had to do was stay alive through the encroaching winter and his daydream could become a reality. That’s what sudden wealth is good for. “I know a little about fame now; it is no good compared to a yacht; and anyway there is more fame in a yacht, more genuine fame; to cross the Atlantic and come to anchor in, say, Newport with the Union Jack, and go ashore for your letters and hang about the pier, among the holiday yachtsmen — that’s fame, that’s glory — and nobody can take it away; they can’t say your book is bad, you have crossed the Atlantic.”
And so it was that talk of summer cruising on the ocean became conventional dinnertime conversation for the members of the Stevenson expedition, seated around the small, drop-leaf, stain-covered table in front of Andrew Baker’s flaming fireplace as the days were getting shorter. Then Samuel McClure from New York City showed up, and he would have something to say about this yacht scheme.