RLS at Manasquan, part I

“The doctor (E.L. Trudeau) is anxious that he (Robert Louis Stevenson) should return here (to Saranac Lake) in July and camp out in the woods.” That was the plan as the mother of RLS explained it to her sister by letter from Baker’s shortly before her departure for New York City in the company of her now-famous son. Valentine Roch, their young Swiss servant, made it a party of three.

April 16, 1888, is the traditional date assigned to the exit of Robert Louis Stevenson from Saranac Lake. It was one of those “Get out of Dodge” situations, an impulsive decision made after seeing his wife Fanny off to California and leaving him, the patient of Dr. Trudeau, overcome with cabin fever after six-and-a-half months in a frozen prison at the foot of Mount Baker, in the middle of a wilderness. Louis needed a change. His leaving Saranac Lake is often described as “sudden,” but many biographies fail to notice that RLS had planned all along to return to the Adirondacks. Like his mother said, “The doctor is anxious he should return here.”

That was still the plan when they got to their Hotel St. Stephen on East Eleventh Street, Manhattan, where they hooked up with Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s stepson, now 20, for whom “Treasure Island” was written. It was still the plan when RLS and his entourage left New York City on May 1, to migrate south under the guidance of his friend Will Low. Low wasn’t surprised when the urban environment got the best of Louis. He had seen it before in Paris, France, in London, England, and now New York, New York. Low knew exactly what to do when, one late April morning in Lower Manhattan, his friend said, “Low, you must get me out of this.”

Then, as now, there’s no place like the Jersey shore, at least in New Jersey. Low, a native of Albany, knew the area well and in particular a Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright, who owned a seaside hostelry for summer vacationers who had yet to arrive. Called the Union House, the Stevenson expedition checked in there and would have the run of the place for the whole month of May while the Wainwrights made every provision for their invalid guest’s comfort.

The Union House was situated next to the lagoon-like mouth of the Manasquan River so that the pleasantries of riverside and oceanside were both within easy reach. “The weather was only intermittently good from my point of view,” said Low in his book “A Chronicle of Friendships,” “but Stevenson found it to his liking, and was much out-of-doors.” A long dock on the river crammed with catboats had caught the attention of the author of “An Inland Voyage,” and Lloyd Osbourne saw them, too. Several afternoons were thus spent by the trio “sailing up and down the river, Stevenson being greatly pleased. … One afternoon we landed on an island a little way up the river, whose shore upon one side was protected by a bulkhead. As the island was nameless, we proceeded to repair the oversight and christened it Treasure Island, after which we fell to with our pocket-knives to carve the name upon the bulkhead, together with our initials and the date.”

Few people knew RLS better than Will Low, to whom the poet in Louis had dedicated his poem “Youth Now Flees.” In Manasquan, Low noticed that his friend was “showing the arbitrary and whimsical fancies of a nervous invalid. … Mrs. Low and I felt as never before that, as to the members of his own family, he clung to us with a singular dependence that measured the depth of his depression more eloquently than words.”

A Canadian artist happened to be in the neighborhood, one who had once shared a peasant’s loft with Low in Barbizon, France, in 1874. When Wyatt Eaton returned from abroad, he made a reputation by specializing in portraits, but he, too, died young. Eaton’s wife Charlotte was a huge fan of RLS. She wrote a little book in 1921 called “Stevenson at Manasquan,” very rare, a limited edition for a select audience:

“My husband, the late Wyatt Eaton, and Stevenson were friends in their student days abroad, and it was in honor of those early days that I was to clasp the hand of my favorite author. It was, of course, the fanciful, adventure-loving Stevenson that I looked forward to seeing … the Stevenson who wrote the things over which I had burned the midnight oil … and I was not disappointed.

“He came promptly at the hour fixed, appearing on the threshold as frail and distinguished-looking as a portrait by Velasquez. … I shall never forget the sensation of delight that thrilled me, as he entered the room — tall, emaciated, yet radiant, his straight, glossy hair so long that it lay upon the collar of his coat, throwing into bold relief his long neck and keenly sensitive face.

“His hands were of the psychic order, and were of marble whiteness, save the thumb and first finger of the right hand, that were stained from constant cigarette rolling — for he was an inveterate smoker — and he had the longest fingers I have ever seen on a human being. … His voice, low in tone, had an endearing quality in it, that was almost like a caress … was without the slightest Scotch accent; on the contrary, he spoke his English like a world citizen, speaking a universal tongue, and always looked directly at the person spoken to.”

One sunny May day, the boys of Barbizon were having lunch on a patio by the sea and a telegram came. It was from Stevenson’s wife Fanny in San Francisco. Low wrote, “He asked me to read it and I read: ‘Can get the Casco for the South Seas cruise.’ What will you do? I asked. ‘Do?’ he said, ‘Why go, of course!”

To be continued.


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