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RLS meets Mrs. Custer

The Cooper house as it appears today was also once the home of Dr. Lawrason Brown, a charter member of the Stevenson Society of America. (Photo provided)

Stephen Chalmers, charter member of the Stevenson Society of America and author of the society’s little book, “The Penny Piper of Saranac,” had three things in common with Robert Louis Stevenson. Both men were sons of Scotland, both became professional writers, and they both came to Saranac Lake for the same reason, though not at the same time.

Chalmers was only 25 when he felt his life derailing while his New York City doctor told him, “I am sorry, but I find that you are suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs. … You will have to leave the city at once. … But, whatever you do, my boy, don’t get the blues. Keep up your courage. Fresh air — fresh eggs — and read Robert Louis Stevenson.”

So wrote Chalmers in his article “Watching the Hourglass” (1907), his personal account of living under the gun of the “white death” – TB. “It would be necessary for me to go to the mountains; some place — say, the Adirondacks — where it is cold and dry.” Multiply his experience by thousands of times, and you get an idea of Saranac Lake as it was for roughly 70 years — a giant open-air sick room. “It’s something like Davos here,” said Stevenson’s wife, meaning another colony of sick people. That’s what her husband meant when he called Saranac Lake a “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks.”

Chalmers hadn’t been in town long before a fellow exile pointed to a solitary white clapboard farmhouse on the far side of the Saranac River: “That’s where Robert Louis Stevenson lived.” That revelation gave Stephen Chalmers the pleasantest kind of shock. To think, he thought — his distinguished fellow countryman and fellow writer was actually here, of all places, in the wilds of upstate New York — across this river, in that house.

Upon learning that the occupants of that house, Andrew and Mary Baker, were friendly and long used to literary pilgrims poking around their place, Chalmers planned to make a visit. Only a short time passed before he found himself ringing Baker’s bell for the first of many times, to meet the aging landlords of Robert Louis Stevenson, still there after all those years. It was a fruitful meeting. By the time he left, Chalmers had conceived a brand-new healthy distraction — to write an account of his favorite author, RLS, when he was a resident of Saranac Lake in the winter of 1887-88. From the preface of the 1916 edition of “The Penny Piper of Saranac: An Episode in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson”:

“‘The Penny Piper of Saranac’ is a most sane and real sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson. I call it a sketch of Stevenson, and not merely of his life at Saranac, for it shows much insight into his character, which was so complex that many people of broad minds but narrow sympathies thought it contradictory.

“His puritanism was every bit as genuine as his Bohemianism. Such people could not, and their present-day representatives cannot, understand this. But that was, and is, their fault; not his. When people ask me what I thought of Stevenson, when, in the early (18)70s, we were much together in Edinburgh, at college and in the Speculative Society, and in 17 Heriot Row, his father’s house, I usually reply, ‘Which Stevenson? I knew at least four!'” — Lord Charles Guthrie

For the writing of his little book about RLS in the Adirondacks, Chalmers had a valuable source. He tells us that “The following brief sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life at Saranac Lake during the winter of 1887-88, was done in collaboration with the late Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who carefully edited the original manuscript, paying particular attention to the precise wording, so far as his memory served him, of the various conversations between the distinguished patient and himself.”

The Stevenson Society of America Inc. recommends that everybody buy a copy of “The Penny Piper of Saranac.” A sampling is here provided. The setting of the narrative to follow is in the house of George Cooper, a man of great wealth from New York City whose money couldn’t save him from succumbing to consumption — that is, the “white death.”

Tuberculosis brought George Cooper to Saranac Lake in 1884, and he rented a house across the street from his new doctor, E.L. Trudeau. The house has survived and is today 115 Main St., plum red and white and next to the library. Cooper had brought with him his two sisters for help, and all three imported their ostentatious metropolitan lifestyle, quite the novelty for a backwoods hamlet — chandeliers, sumptuous furniture, flashy silverware and to top it off, the first butler in these parts.

George Cooper was very generous, and he it was who paid for Trudeau’s brand-new stone laboratory. It replaced the first one, which was in the doctor’s wooden house when all went up in flames in 1893, leaving a smoking black stain on the corner of Church and Main. But most of all, George liked to invite friends in the city to come north and visit and throw dinner parties.

It was to one such event that Dr. Trudeau escorted his other new friend and patient, R.L. Stevenson. Dinner at Cooper’s had become routine for the doctor, but the experience was one that his author companion would not care to repeat. Trudeau learned a little more about his chain-smoking fellow guest that evening and passed it on to us in his autobiography:

“I remember on one occasion I went to dine there with Mr. Stevenson. … When dinner was announced, as we walked through the hall we got a glimpse of the dining room table, which was set up as usual with lighted candles and their coloured shades, with flowers, glittering glassware, and silver. I thought it a very attractive prospect, but Mr. Stevenson, who walked by my side, took my arm and said: ‘This sort of thing always gives me stage-fright; does it affect you that way?’ … Mr. Stevenson was very democratic in his ideas, simple in his mode of life, and disliked dress-parade entertainment and the restraints and glitter of society etiquette.”

What Trudeau described there was symptomatic of the bohemianism that still filled the soul of Lord Guthrie’s old college chum. No fancy table settings or showy evening dress for him. As for the butler, Alfred L. Donaldson seemed to know something about Stevenson in his “A History of the Adirondacks”:

“These things, especially the butler, always overawed Stevenson. He quailed before nothing else as he did before a butler … he felt that he had no recourse against the prandial sphinx. The latter’s silent scriptures were beyond appeal. For him no gift of repartee could atone for using the wrong fork. This power of voiceless condemnation always got on Stevenson’s nerves, and the butler was a factor in his not becoming intimate with the Coopers.”

We can only wonder if RLS was annoyed because of the butler when he was seated for dinner and found himself looking across the table at the widow of America’s most legendary oppressor of Native Americans – Gen. George Armstrong Custer. The events of June 25, 1876, at a place called Little Big Horn, had dramatically terminated the general’s ambitions and his wife, Elizabeth or “Libby,” was not left destitute. She lived well — well enough to travel to Saranac Lake and spend time with her friends, the Coopers. What follows is lifted entirely from “The Penny Piper of Saranac.” It reveals how it came to be that Libby Custer injected her input into the literary evolution of Saranac Lake’s resident icon over dinner on a cold December night in 1887. After the soup, Mrs. Custer opened fire upon the Penny Piper:

Mrs. Custer: Now, why is it, Mr. Stevenson, that you never put a real woman in your stories?

Stevenson (with twinkling gravity): Madam, I have little knowledge of Greek.

Mrs. Custer: But you have some knowledge of women, surely! Why, you have been a married man these seven years!

Stevenson: With the result, Mrs. Custer, that I have forgotten all the Greek I ever knew.

Mrs. Custer: But the public expects it of you, and the feminine portion demands it. Come! When are we to be introduced to the Stevenson woman in fiction?

Stevenson (with sudden enthusiasm): Mrs. Custer! I promise you there shall be a woman in my next book!

The Penny Piper regretted his rash gallantry before the close of the evening. Later, he confided his fears to Dr. Trudeau.

Trudeau: I’ve often wondered, Stevenson, but never thought to ask: Why do you never put a real woman in a story?

Stevenson: Good Heavens! Trudeau, when I have tried I find she talks like a grenadier!

Nevertheless, he kept his promise to Mrs. Custer, and the result is that wooden effigy in “The Master of Ballantrae,” who is called, for identification’s sake, Alison Durie.

But the ice was broken, and from this point the evolution of the real Stevenson woman in fiction is interesting to trace. Jim Pinkerton’s wife in “The Wrecker” is true — almost painfully true. Catriona in “David Balfour” is better — much; but both are girls. It is not until we meet Uma in “The Beach of Falesa” and a full-grown heroine in “St. Ives” that we begin to find boldness and accuracy in his strokes.

For this, as for many other reasons, what a pity that death stayed his hand in “Weir of Hermiston,” for in the elder Kirstie he was etching a masterpiece of deep womanhood — “a severe case of middle age.” But the work had progressed far enough to indicate beyond cavil that “Greek” might safely be added to his accomplishments.

NOTE:

Stephen Chalmers, a charter member of the Stevenson Society of America Inc., wrote another commendable piece of biography during his personal TB exile in Saranac Lake. Published in 1916, “The Beloved Physician” is his tribute to Dr. Edward L. Trudeau who had assisted him with the text of “The Penny Piper of Saranac” in 1907. From his introduction:

“The last public utterance of Dr. E.L. Trudeau, who died at Saranac Lake, New York, November 15, 1915, was at Washington, May 2, 1910, when, as President of the Eighth Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, he delivered some of his best philosophy in an address entitled, The Value of Optimism in Medicine, which was written while he lay on a bed of suffering and delivered at a time when he was hardly able to stand up before his colleagues.”

The following is the conclusion of that speech. In his own words, Dr. Trudeau gave this advice:

“Let us not, therefore, quench the faith nor turn from the vision which, whether we own it or not, we carry, as Stevenson’s lantern-bearers their lanterns, hidden from the outer world, and, thus inspired, many will reach the goal; and if for most of us our achievements inevitably fall short of our ideals, if when age and infirmity overtake us ‘we come not within sight of the castle of our dreams,’ nevertheless all will be well with us, for as Stevenson tells us rightly, ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is in the labor.'”

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