The dinner party, part II
George Iles was a Canadian journalist when he met Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Fanny,” in Montreal in the fall of 1887. The latter had just settled her invalid husband into Baker’s, in Saranac Lake, for the winter. Fanny’s trip to Montreal was her first escape from this isolated, primitive hamlet, which she apparently despised, plausibly because it evoked memories of her girlhood in the 1840s on the American frontier, Indiana style, and she wanted no more of that. Fanny preferred cities.
After stocking up on Native American-made buffalo fur winter garb for the members of the Stevenson expedition, Fanny headed back into these mountains after having promised Mr. Iles that she would be in touch because Iles wanted to meet the latest product from the American cult of celebrity. The request was approved, and George was invited to dine at “Chateau Baker” with the star author and at least two other guests, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fairchild from Boston. Stevenson had been their guest in their house in Newport, Rhode Island, just before he came to Saranac Lake. The date this dinner came to be was Nov. 17, 1887, four days after Stevenson’s 37th birthday.
Many years later when Iles was a member of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, he shared details of the occasion in an article dated Sept. 29, 1923 in the Manitoba Free Press. The text suggests that two of the essays his host had underway at the time may have been on his mind, namely, “Confessions of a Unionist,” about his politics and unpublished, and “Pulvis et Umbra,” his pet theories about evolution.
Here is an evening at “Chateau Baker” as a guest of Robert Louis Stevenson, in this case George Iles. The logs burning in the Hunter’s fireplace threw light on the little party:
“Robert Louis Stevenson, as I first saw him early in November, 1887, was unmistakably a Norseman. As he rose to greet me in the Baker Cottage at Saranac Lake, he was tall and wasted, his features blanched by years of ill-health. His plentiful light brown hair thrown behind his ears; his forehead, high and wide, lighted by large eyes far apart — all declared the Norse strain which has so much enriched the blood of Scotland. My visit took place just before the railroad was completed to Saranac Lake, and Mr. Stevenson’s sleigh was harnessed to the best pair of ponies in Franklin County — ponies which had served President Cleveland not long before. At dinner Mr. Stevenson was gayety itself. Here is the menu he wrote for us:
Menu du Nov. 17, 1887.
Huitres au batter.
Fowls a la barn door.
Pie a la pie crust.
Pain a l’Americaine.
Sel Poivre rouge.
Vin rouge de Cantenac.
Eau de fontaine de Saranac.
“As these courses followed one another our host exchanged views with his guests in a hearty, outspoken fashion. For his own part he confessed himself so ingrained a Tory that he regretted the Reformation, and yet he trusted that the Kirk of Scotland regarded him as a faithful son. Speaking of Feudalism, he contrasted it with modern wage labor, and affirmed that machinery and its minute severance of tasks had utterly banished a man’s joy in his work. By endeavoring to reinstate that joy, William Morris and John Ruskin had best served the world. Among American writers he placed Thoreau above Emerson, owning, however, that he had read Emerson too late. Of Thoreau’s few poems, he liked ‘The Fisher’s Boy’ best. For Parkman, the historian, he had unstinted praise. He was warmly interested in the tilts against the ‘trusts’ and the railroad sharks appearing in the Atlantic Monthly from Henry D. Lloyd. Said he: ‘I have some thought of writing a tale with a great, overshadowing trust-builder as its hero.’ When I told him that I had seen his play, ‘Deacon Brodie,’ at the Academy of Music in Montreal, he was chagrined to hear that I had found it much less interesting than his books. In truth, Stevenson had but little talent as a playwright; and his bad health prevented the first-hand knowledge of dramatic production indispensable for success.
“As the evening wore on, the creator of David Balfour and John Silver spoke of the amazing intelligence he had observed in dogs. They have means of communication which as yet we do not comprehend. Often he had seen dogs touch noses and separate on new errands. A Scottish shepherd whom he knew, would bid a collie bring him ‘Nannie’ or ‘Dinah’ or some other particular sheep. In two minutes the dog would return, tugging his charge where the wool was longest. Stevenson believed that primitive man may have had powers of communication such as dogs still display. These powers were dropped and forgotten when man rose to articulate speech, a faculty incomparably higher.
“And if the brute creation eludes our analysis, how much more perplexing are the puzzles of human character, remarked our host. From early boyhood he had known cases where saint and sinner were blended in the same human heart. He was inclined to think that man an ‘individual’ is really made up of two or more personalities, each by turn taking the rudder. This led to his touching, for a moment, on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when he asked: ‘Don’t you think Mr. Hyde the better character of the two?’ During the following May Mr. Stevenson and his family came to New York, staying at the Hotel St. Stephen, now merged in the Hotel Albert, on East Eleventh Street and University Place. He often visited friends in New Jersey, and on the trains his patience was sorely tried as newsboys cast into his lap pirated editions of ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Kidnapped.’ Copyright was still in abeyance, and it came all too late to pay just wages to this great entertainer. His portrait was one day requested by a publisher. I suggested his sending for Mr. James Notman, an artist from Montreal, then conducting a photographic studio nearby on Fifth Avenue. Mr. Notman came, and so good were his pictures that Mr. Stevenson eventually walked to his studio, and sat for a series of portraits which have made his features familiar to all the world.”