“Our voyage up here was most disastrous — calms, squalls, head seas, waterspouts of rain, hurricane weather all about, and we in the midst of the hurricane season. … We ran out of food and were quite given up for lost in Honolulu.”
That reads like an incident lifted out of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story, but it really describes a true-life episode lifted from one of his letters. The downside of sailing in tropical Oceania had been factored in the year before when RLS and Sam McClure planned the cruise in the firelight at Baker’s in Saranac Lake. “But,” said the daring Scot, “the perils of the deep were part of the program.” Stevenson didn’t force his family to go along, and they certainly knew the risks. Even Valentine, their servant, went for the ride, but by landfall in Hawaii, her tolerance reached a tipping point, and she charted her own course back to Europe.
The storm from astern that had finally propelled the Casco within sight of Diamondhead, an extinct volcano on Oahu, was potentially a killer and could have been avoided. Captain Otis had a refined weather sense and warned his boss that trouble was brewing from the south. Already overdue and out of food, avoiding the storm would have prolonged the ordeal. Faced with the decision, Louis told his skipper to go for it.
Here is art imitating life. Stevenson’s next novel, “The Wrecker,” was quite nautical with an obligatory tempest scene. Not for the first time did Louis dip into his own experience to put realism into fiction:
“It blew very strong … she carried her lee rail underwater and flew … We had the best hand at the wheel … At times it seemed we must have it; the helmsman would look over his shoulder with the queerest look and dive down his neck into his shoulders, and then it missed us somehow and only sprays came over our quarter.”
You don’t have to dig deep to discover that the best story that ever came out of Robert Louis Stevenson was his own. “It was like him,” said Mrs. Estella Martin, of an old Adirondack family.
Much was the relief ashore when the Casco pierced the horizon off Honolulu on Jan. 24, 1889. Stevenson’s fame had preceded him, and the fanfare and the reporters waiting for him at the wharf were suitable for a celebrity presumed lost at sea. First to meet them was the rest of the family — Stevenson’s stepdaughter Isobel, her artist husband Joe Strong and their 8-year-old son Austin (who would grow up to be a renowned playwright).
The Strongs had been in Hawaii since 1882. Joe had been invited there to paint for the royal court, namely King Kalakaua and his consort Liliuokalani. They went down in history as the last monarchs of their island realm. Joe’s position put him on the inside track to how things worked in the palace of a lame-duck king who went down trying to save his people’s culture and dignity, however strange his methods seemed to the world beyond.
If the king hadn’t already known all about RLS, Joe and Belle (Isobel) would have made handy conduits into the social fabric of this twilight dynasty. As it turned out, Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne had their first meeting with the king at the magnificent Iolani Palace only two days after the sails were furled on the Casco. A few days later the new friends had a royal time aboard the yacht and finally a huge luau, a photo of which has been widely published.
Here Louis waded into island politics and never came out. He was now with the “Royal Set,” defenders of the crown in a losing cause against the Reform (or Missionary) Party, the spear-point of American business and military interest in the islands. Honolulu already reeked of the influence, and a new friend found the Stevenson family a beach house to rent on Waikiki Beach. Land underfoot felt pretty good after all, and the wanderers decided to settle down for a spell.
For the first time since Saranac Lake, the passengers of the Casco resettled into a domestic routine, beachcomber style. The exception, in dress only, was Margaret — that is Maggie, Stevenson’s mother. She moved around their open-air cottage near the surf looking like she expected friends for tea any minute in her living room 12,000 miles away at 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh, Scotland. Topping off Maggie’s appearance was the ever-present Queen Victoria white starched cap. Fanny had taken to wearing the Hawaiian muumuu before they even got there, while Louis and Lloyd liked pajamas.
If there was a schedule at all, it was undemanding, but one practice was re-invoked from their experience at Baker’s, still less than a year in the rear view. It was called the weekly “At Home,” a three-hour window of opportunity for fans and the curious to meet the lion in his den. Louis detested it, but the alternative was to have them showing up all the time. In theory, it seemed sound, but they came all the time anyway. Fortunately, their beach front residence had a couple of shabby outbuildings in the back. RLS modified one of these into a hideaway to really hide away, as in “not home!” It had a bed and work area, mosquito nets, a resident mouse that seemed to like his flute playing, and a fence to hide it all. In function, it was a transplant of his study at Baker’s.
For those visitors who had the courtesy to call at the preferred time, Stevenson even got dressed. A glimpse of him in this setting goes thus:
“When his callers were admitted, they found a slight man, his coat always of velveteen, who weighed but ninety-eight pounds, and had a hollow chest and a thin body. Long dark hair framed his narrow face, with its blue-veined forehead, its fine long nose, its good chin and smiling mouth. But the glory of his face was in his dark eyes, which a friend of mine describes as ‘burning eyes,’ such as I’ve never seen in a human being, as if they looked out from a fiery inside that was consuming him!”
— “Recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific,” A. Johnstone