‘Velvet Coat’

Robert Louis Stevenson

“Behind glass in the Stevenson museum at Saranac Lake, New York, is preserved a black velveteen jacket, the sprig of heather in its upper pocket annually renewed by admirers of its long dead owner.”

“Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” J.C. Furnas

In his address, read by proxy, at the unveiling ceremony of the Borglum plaque at Baker’s in 1915, Lloyd Osbourne recalled that:

“Once in this house Stevenson lay down a copy of ‘Don Quixote’ he was reading, and said, with a curious poignancy that lingers still in my ears: ‘That’s what I am — just another Don Quixote.’ I think that was the most illuminating thing he ever said about himself. It was the realization that his high-flown ideals, his supersensitive honor, his vehement resentment of wrong and injustice were perhaps hopelessly at discord with the world he lived in.”

He could have just said that his stepfather was a champion of the underdog. That quality was baked into RLS and began to show when he was old enough to skip school and descend into Old Town, a forbidden region if you are a New Town boy in this seemingly schizoid city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our truant was a New Town product born into a family of civil engineers who had the national nickname of the “Lighthouse Stevensons.”

There has been speculation that the stark dichotomy of this city of Roman beginnings, unconsciously instilled in Stevenson the baseline theme of duality that affected some of his writing, in particular “Jekyll and Hyde,” its quintessential expression.

For an adolescent who instinctively rebelled against his bourgeois background decorum, Old Town beckoned irresistibly — this “Old black city, which was for all the world like a rabbit-warren, not only by the numbers of its indwellers, but the complications of its passages and holes.” There young Louis spent his allowance in pubs and brothels and was called “Velvet Coat” by the prostitutes. Old Town was essential in fashioning Stevenson’s sense of justice. The personal code he developed made him protest against mistreatment of the Old Town prostitutes, “the harm of whose trade lies not in itself but on the disastrous moral influence of ostracism.”

Such was the moral compass that steered RLS on his brief passage. In Saranac, Velvet Coat was abnormally reclusive and probably missed opportunities to ignite his righteous indignation. But if the charger of windmills was hibernating inside the Hunter for that long cold winter of 1887-88, he would awake full of purpose in the brilliant light of the South Seas.

Robert Louis Stevenson had always dreamed of life in the South Seas. The prosperity which came to him in Saranac Lake gave him the means to finally go there. Stevenson died at his home on Dec. 3, 1894, in the Samoan Islands. He was 44 at the time of his death from a cerebral hemorrhage. Tribal chiefs attended his funeral on the top of Mount Vaea.

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie,

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be,

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

— Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today