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Will Low remembers RLS

“We are here at a first-rate place. ‘Baker’s’ is the name of our house. … Baker’s has a prophet’s chamber, which the hypercritical might describe as a garret with a hole in the floor; in that garret, sir, I have to trouble you and your gifted wife to come and slumber. Not now, however … I won’t have you till I have a buffalo robe and leggings, lest you should want to paint me as a plain man, which I am not, but a rank Saranacker and wild man of the woods.”

— RLS to Will Low, Oct. 8, 1887, Saranac Lake

That’s what an invitation from Robert Louis Stevenson could look like when he was renting seven rooms for $50 a month from Andrew Baker for the winter of 1887-88.

His guest room, or “prophet’s chamber,” was the smaller of two rooms on a second-floor part of the rental. Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, had the larger, better room upstairs, the one with a west view overlooking the Saranac River, the one from which, with binoculars, one can witness the annual Winter Carnival parade as it passes Woodruff Street at the bottom of Broadway hill. As for the “garret with a hole in the floor” for guests, opposite Lloyd’s room, it was a glorified closet with a window facing east. It’s easy to imagine that the author’s guests in Saranac Lake probably preferred to put money down in one of two downtown hotels, usually the Berkeley, which didn’t burn down until 1981. Today the garret is gone, but the hole in the floor is still there for future generations of museum docents and caretakers to take note of during their orientation to the property.

Will Low and his wife never came to Saranac Lake until 1916, when they were distinguished members of the new Stevenson Society. Low tried to explain the failure to come when RLS was here, in his book “A Chronicle of Friendships”: “Three or four times that winter were visits projected, twice at least was luggage made ready, but the strange fatality which thrice the preceding year had prevented trips to Skerryvore (Low had been in England, in 1886) was still active to frustrate the plans of a busy man, and the visit was never made.”

Only two weeks before RLS had mailed out the above invitation from Baker’s, he had been a guest at St. Stephen Hotel near Washington Square in New York City. Here it was that Low arranged for two of his best friends to meet each other, and that resulted in a brand-new friendship between Robert Louis Stevenson and the American sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, which in turn led to the making of a new artwork to be called the Stevenson Medallion, copies of which are in art museums around the world, even at Baker’s, on Stevenson Lane. Will Low got to witness his two friends collaborating on this piece, and as an artist himself, northing at the moment could have been more exquisite. Of course he wrote about it.

“The relief rapidly took the form in which it was first conceived, a circular composition suggested probably by the lines of Stevenson’s figure propped by the pillows at his back, his knees raised; his usual position to read or write in bed. The general composition was quickly indicated in masses, but the head alone was finished at this time, the hands being completed the following year from casts which Saint-Gaudens made during Stevenson’s stay at Manasquan. By that time (May 1888) the whole medallion was advanced nearly to completion, and in this circular form it appears to me much to be preferred to the oblong relief which, about fifteen years later, was placed in position in the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh — the Scottish Westminster Abbey, where many of the greater men of the country are commemorated.”

The managers of St. Giles Cathedral had found a problem with the way RLS appeared on their larger, rectangular version of the medallion, in which the subject holds a cigarette in his right hand. That was no good, they said, and prevailed upon the sculptor to fix it by turning the cigarette into a quill pen. Robert Louis Stevenson would not be allowed to smoke in church, alive or dead. No wonder he had called Edinburgh “my cage” in his rebellious youth.

Will H. Low was one of the last surviving friends from the inner circle of friends of the long-deceased author in 1923, when he made his first address as guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Stevenson Society of America. He did it again in 1930. There could be nothing better than Will Low, in his own words, as he spoke them from Baker’s veranda to his audience seated on the lawn. He was talking about the posthumous staying power of RLS when he said:

“But the existence of a club, of a society like this, the fact that in only two or three years since has the Stevenson Society in Edinburgh also been formed, is proof of this most extraordinary survival, and this is growing. I don’t think Edinburgh supported Stevenson as a young man. They did not. But I tell you they were not proud of him. Gradually there has grown a sense of worth. Probably an understanding by many of things they did not understand when they — I suppose Edinburgh had a great deal to put up with in those days of Stevenson’s youth; but I suppose there was never an angel there. … I certainly think that no English writer has ever left a finer unfinished monument — and he died at forty-four.”

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