RLS at Manasquan, part II
“Wealth is only useful for two things, a yacht and a string quartette.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, Saranac Lake, October 1887
It happened one day in May of 1888, on the seashore near the mouth of the Manasquan River in New Jersey, that a telegram arrived for Robert Louis Stevenson, who handed it to his friend Will Low to read out loud. It was from Louis’ wife Fanny in California: “Can get the Casco for the South Seas cruise,” it said.
“What will you do?” asked Low. “Do?” he said, “Why, go, of course!”
This was it, the turning point. Louis was going to make it happen by acting on the decision he made in Saranac Lake, which was to go west by train, then by boat, far, far away, into the sunset until he reached the islands “where the golden apples grow” — where rich vagabonds go, the ones who know what money is good for. Because Mrs. Fanny Stevenson had found and retained the schooner yacht Casco for the next leg of the Stevenson expedition, it would become the stuff of literary legend, thanks to the stature and popularity of the thin man from Scotland who wanted to use it.
The Casco, named after Portland, Maine’s Casco Bay, was a shiny, expensive new toy custom-built for Dr. Merritt, a San Francisco-based dentist who had enough money to get classified as an eccentric millionaire. The two-masted schooner Casco, 94 feet at the waterline, weighing in at 70 tons, was conceived with luxury in mind, bundled with ocean-crossing capabilities. Robert Louis Stevenson would be the first sailor to put her to that test; that’s how new she was.
Now that a seaworthy vessel had been found, preparations began. Louis wrote to his fellow writer friend Henry James in England: “This, dear James, is a valedictory. On June 15, the schooner yacht Casco will (weather and jealous providence permitting) steam through the Golden Gates for Honolulu, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Guayaquil, and — I hope not the bottom of the Pacific. It will contain your ‘umble servant and party. It seems too good to be true …”
With the die cast, the new normal was to count down the days to Stevenson’s departure for California on the first of June. Said Low, “Our quiet life, the open air and, above all, the glimmer of hope that the projected voyage inspired, had worked wonders with Stevenson’s physical condition. … One evening, after an early dinner, he proposed an excursion to the sea, and the two of us set out … about two miles.” As they walked, they talked about the good old days and artists and poets and writers and so on. After awhile, they stopped doing that. Low continued: “We had not spoken for a moment and alone, we two upon the beach, the world seemed very large, the sea boundless and the sky without limit, when Louis broke the silence:
“‘Low, I wish to live! Life is better than art, to do things is better than to imagine them, yes, or to describe them. And God knows, I have not lived all these last years. No one knows, no one can know the tedium of it. I’ve supported it as I could — I don’t think that I am apt to whimper — but to be, even as I am now, is not to live. Yes, that’s what art is good for, for without my work, I suppose that I would have given up, long ago. … There’s England over there, with a gesture seaward, and I’ve left it — perhaps I may never go back — and there on the other side of this big continent there’s another sea rolling in. I loved the Pacific in the days when I was at Monterey, and perhaps now it will love me a little. I am going to meet it; ever since I was a boy the South Seas have laid a spell upon me and, though you have seen me all these weeks low enough in my mind, I begin to feel a dawn of hope …'”
And so it was that Robert Louis Stevenson followed the sun, while way up north in these mountains, some guides retained by Andrew Baker lost a good contract. Said Bertha Baker, Andrew’s daughter, in 1899: “The trip to the Pacific coast was never spoken of. They did not then intend going further than Manasquan. They intended on having to return to Floodwood Pond in the spring. … Papa had gotten guides for them but in the next letter the author had decided to go to San Francisco”… never to return.