RLS on ice
“Walking over the fields, with a stick in his hand and his skates thrown over his shoulders, he looked and seemed his happiest.” — Bertha Baker, Saranac Lake
Behind glass in Robert Louis Stevenson’s former study at Baker’s in Saranac Lake lies a pair of very old and worn ice skates, the very ones used by the author of “The Master of Ballantrae” on Moody Pond in the winter of 1887-88.
Will Hickock Low, an American artist who, befriended by RLS in France in 1876, returned them to the Hunter’s Home in 1918, when he was a prominent member of the Stevenson Society of America. It was another member of the society who had provided the skates to the famous tenant of Andrew Baker in 1887. He was Charles Scribner, Stevenson’s first American publisher, and they were friends, too. From a letter by Scribner to Stephen Chalmers, co-founder of the Stevenson Society:
“I remember very well when Mr. Stevenson started from New York for the Adirondacks. We were anxious about him but I recall that the first direct word that came to me was a telegram for a pair of skates.”
It had been five years since Louis had strapped on a pair of skates, when he had been convalescing in Davos, Switzerland. Of skating there, he had said:
“Of skating, little need be said; in so snowy a climate the rinks must be intelligently managed; their mismanagement will lead to many days of vexation and some petty quarreling; but when all goes well, it is certainly curious, and perhaps rather unsafe, for the invalid to skate under a burning sun and walk back to his hotel in a sweat through long tracts of glare and passages of freezing shadow.”
The skinny skater from Scotland didn’t have that problem here, where it’s just as cold in the sun as it is in the shade. “He skated up on Moody Pond, directly back of the house. Always he went alone; sometimes, however, accompanied by his dog,” according to Bertha Baker, the landlord’s 10-year-old daughter and twin of Blanche.
Probably the best known account of this phenomenon is by Alfred L. Donaldson in “A History of the Adirondacks.” He, too, entered the Hunter’s Home while researching his book circa 1918. Andrew and Mary were still there in the house Andy had built with his own hands, where they raised five children, of whom only one was left and where they now admitted guests who knew the place only as the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage. Donaldson immortalized the situation in his book:
“But so does fame become a thief. Your sturdy woodsman toils long and late to possess his little home, and a stranger with long hair and a velvet coat, passing that way, steals it from him by lodging in it for the night!”
Donaldson’s account is presumably from a personal interview with the aging pioneer pair, maybe in front of the fireplace:
“The Bakers did not see much of their famous tenant. Mrs. Baker recalls mainly a gentleman who smoked many cigarettes, burning some famous scars in her mantelpiece, and a few infamous holes in her sheets. Mr. Baker saw more of him, as he built the fires and brought the mail, but these ministrations did not yield any vivid impress of contact with greatness. The one thing that raised Stevenson above the level of other men in his landlord’s eyes was his ability to skate. Moody Pond, a near-by lake, was used for the purpose, and Mr. Baker went along to sweep off the snow. This sheltered spot has since become a favorite one for winter sports, but in Stevenson’s day it was not much frequented, and he enjoyed its seclusion, and was inclined to look upon it as his private rink. He became jealous of intrusion, and if the curious came to spy upon him, he was filled with the aspiration to be elsewhere. He did not mind performing before Mr. Baker, however, and the latter asserts that Stevenson was the best amateur skater he has ever seen — that the author could write his name on ice as readily as on paper, and could execute the most difficult figures with perfect grace and ease. Somehow this seems an incongruous accomplishment to discover highly perfected in R.L.S. It doesn’t seem to fit into the picture of his lifelong invalidism.”
A less known and older account of the author’s use of Moody Pond long lay buried and forgotten, deep in the archives of the Stevenson Society at Baker’s. A lengthy newspaper article provides new picturesque details and contradictions. From The New York Times, March 30, 1901:
His Life in the Adirondacks in the Winter of 1887-8
by Raymond S. Spears
“… It seems curious to the native that anyone should bother himself about an old flat farmhouse stuck upon a little knoll. The surprise is rather numbing to the heart of a hero worshipper trembling at the sight of a place where a great man had walked, lived and worked — especially worked.
“… But Stevenson was too great a man not to leave a definite and visible impression on a town such as this Adirondack village was, a mark now observable though the place has vastly changed from weather-beaten boards to wonderfully contorted houses.
“The winter that Stevenson was in the Adirondacks was remarkable for the fact that the ice on the lakes and the ponds froze smooth and glassy. There was little snow comparatively, and during a large portion of the winter, skating was good, even after snow came, because of thaws and the wind. About a quarter of a mile from the Baker house is Moody Pond, a little hillside drop of water on which skating is excellent if good anywhere. Surrounded by woods with half a dozen mountains in sight — one overhanging it, so to speak — there were few places where one could enjoy the winter sports to better advantage, and Stevenson loved to skate.
“On the pond he was sheltered from the wind, and he would skate there for hours. It was this skating that left his mark on the otherwise impenetrable place. All of the boys could ‘cut tanbark,’ skate backward, right about, and do one or two other little figures on their skates, but, till the novelist showed them how, figure skating properly so-called was unknown. His name, bunches of roses and other curlicues astonished everyone. People stood around on the ice shivering just to see ‘that there feller to Baker’s’ skate. The boys, always quick to try, practiced and learned to cut the figures which Stevenson did, and now, in the winter, there is a skating rink on the river pond — called Lake Flower — where everyone skates and everyone has some pet figure to cut for show.
“… Finally, Stevenson, who had made Saranac Lake but a mere stopping place, left it suddenly, the Bakers packing his goods to send after him. He carried away the memory of some fine sunsets and a grayness of the heavens. He left behind him a building that straightaway became a resort for pilgrims, and a considerable number of boys whom he had taught to skate.”