Music in the Hunter’s home
“He looks extremely well and plays much on a battered old piano we have hired from a livery stableman.” — Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, Dec. 6, 1887
“In the daytime, when the blizzard piled snowdrifts window-high, the Penny Piper made ‘big medicine’ in his little room under the southern gable of Baker’s. In this room there was an old desk adorned with pens, ink and paper, also a piano …” — The Penny Piper of Saranac, by Stephen Chalmers
Visitors to the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake enter it by way of this little room, the author’s sanctuary. What he called “my study” was also his last hope for refuge when the unsolicited demands of fame came along, like “the day the lady novelists come calling,” to quote Anson Macintyre, or just “Mac,” the Bakers’ 13-year-old chore boy. Pretending not to be home was a new theme for the author of the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the success of which made the initials RLS iconic everywhere.
Stevenson’s hideaway, his study, is at the south end of his “Hunter’s Home,” meaning the rooms he was renting from Andrew Baker, a pioneer woodsman and Adirondack guide. This study has 10 by 12 feet of floor space with one window facing south and one to the west, the latter having been long ago converted to the door, by which the curious public has gained entrance into the Stevenson Cottage since it opened in 1916. A nice feature is a walk-in closet on the east side of the room that came with sound effects when RLS was using it. “You should hear the cows (‘Silky’ and ‘Sulky’) butt against the walls in the early morning while they feed,” he told a friend in England. The desk Andrew Baker allowed his sickly tenant to use is still there in the corner where he used it but the piano is gone.
“True, there were times,” continues Chalmers, “when the Penny Piper’s hands grew numb with cold. Then he would make a fierce attack upon Beethoven with a heavy bunch of rusty keys. But he would usually wind up with a Jacobite air upon the penny whistle after which he would resume with his pen.”
Somewhere between his chronic illness and his travels, Louis had learned to read and write music after realizing the role it could play as a life-enhancing activity. Graham Balfour, in his “Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” tells how his cousin “first discovered his taste for classical music. The revelation dated from a concert in Edinburgh for which someone had given him a ticket, and to which he went with reluctance. It was a Beethoven quartette, I think, that then burst upon him for the first time, and on that day he permanently added another to the many pleasures he so keenly enjoyed, although it was some years before he attempted to make any music for himself.”
Stevenson’s cheap and portable penny whistle was his instrument of choice, which he kept handy since he could be summoned by his muse, anytime, anywhere, to tootle a tune upon the air. “Its notes are beginning to seem pretty sweet to the player, the Penny Piper,” bragged Louis to his wife in his last letter to her from Baker’s, dated April 6, 1888. But the presence of a piano offered the invalid a way to combat cabin fever by exploring the music of the great and not-so-great masters. Friends in New York City kept Louis supplied with books and musical scores. A lot of music made its way to Baker’s like that, and some of it the Penny Piper passed on to fellow musical aspirants like his wife’s nephew Fred Thomas in Indiana, commentary included:
“Dear Fred, I send off to you today: Beethoven’s violin and piano forte sonatas, which are beyond belief for goodness. … In the two volumes of older music, which accompany the Beethovens, try to like for the sake of the giver, both Lully and Rameau; they are the most graceful and pleasant creatures. Bach and Handel are sometimes a little dry, but when they are not dry, they can be first rate. I think, too, we can always forgive Bach for his dryness when we think of the wonderful old boy, in his organ loft, with his large family and his empty pocket, and his world of unpublished music … and cherishing to the last the hope that he might someday see Handel, Handel the great, flourishing, eager fellow, fighting his battles in London … of Tartini I know nothing.”
Adelaide Boodle had been friend, neighbor and dog-sitter for the Stevensons at their former home in Bournemouth, England. She, too, was an amateur musician who got music in her mail from Louis, far away in the USA. The Penny Piper’s last letter from Saranac to Ms. Boodle was postmarked April 9, 1888. The last sentence reads: “I may be said to live for these instrumental labours now; but I always have some childishness on hand. I am, Dear Gamekeeper, your Indulgent but Intemperate Squire. Robert Louis Stevenson.”
Did RLS ever wonder what his landlords, the Bakers, thought about the audible results of “these instrumental labours”? What did his own family make of it? Ten people were living close together under one roof. The main kitchen which served both families was also the boundary between the two apartments. There wasn’t a shred of insulation in the building, a condition that persisted into the 1980s. Sound had no bounds at Baker’s. We know Mary Baker didn’t hide her disdain for her tenant’s chain-smoking of “those lighted things.” Maybe they didn’t like hearing the noise that “a heavy bunch of rusty keys” made, either. Maybe Ralph Baker, age 15, retaliated. From a letter to his wife, who was often away, Louis writes again in real time: “I am just in bed, not quite yet nine, and the lad is playing the devil with the organ in the next apartment, which confuses me.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was not a good musician, though he wanted to learn in a big way. His stepson Lloyd Osbourne chose words like “doleful whining” and “strange wailing and squeaking” to describe what they heard, but “It was amazing the amount of pleasure he got out of the effort,” said Lloyd in an article he wrote for the Tusitala Edition of Stevenson’s works. Yet Mary Baker always insisted that “He played the flute better ‘n he played the piano.” How awful must that have been if whining, squeaking and wailing sounded better?
Louis said, “I may be said to live for these instrumental labors now.” Everybody living under Andrew Baker’s roof that winter knew that the leader of the Stevenson expedition was a sick man. Was indulgence a common virtue among the occupants of the two thin-walled apartments sharing one kitchen? If there really was a nuisance factor to the Penny Piper’s audible hobby, there is no way to measure it. It’s just that to the people who think about it — there aren’t many — there must have been. It was a long winter, and if patience was required, no one was better equipped than the Penny Piper’s mother because she had the patience of a mother when she ventilated to her sister Jane, across the sea in Scotland: “He was busy all last Sunday afternoon arranging the words ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor,’ etc., to an air of Beethoven’s, the theme, I am told, of six variations faciles. Louis thinks the music all that a human being can conceive in the way of consolation,’ but alas! I feel my limitations, for to me it says nothing at all.”
The desk is still there, but the piano is gone. Where did it go? No one knows. It was last seen and can still be partially seen in a photograph of Andrew and Mary Baker lounging in front of their fireplace in 1915.
There is one other piano in the Baker story. Andrew’s father, Col. Milote Baker, imported the first piano into these mountains to surprise his daughter Emma on her 16th birthday in 1859. It was reportedly shipped from Boston in midwinter via railroad to Burlington, and from there by horse-drawn sled right to the door of Baker’s Tavern on the bank of the Saranac River near the present-day Pine Street bridge in Saranac Lake. Another of Col. Baker’s three daughters, Julia, donated this piano to the Adirondack (later Trudeau) Sanatorium circa 1900.