‘My Good Health,’ Part V

Walter Simpson, Bart to his friends, had memories with Robert Louis Stevenson going back to childhood when they were neighbors and could be seen playing together in Queen Street Gardens in the newer and nicer part of Edinburgh, Scotland. Bart’s father, Sir James Simpson, had earned his knightship by way of his great contribution to medicine and humanity when he introduced chloroform for anesthetic use in medical procedures. Simpson had experimented on himself to do it, a practice his son’s playmate remembered and exploited years later when Stevenson’s fictional Dr. Jekyll did the same thing in his fictional laboratory in London. When Sir James died his son inherited the baronetcy, becoming Sir Walter Simpson, Stevenson’s companion during the canoe odyssey in Belgium and France that gave him material for his first book, An Inland Voyage (1876). Sir Bart had health issues, too. Writing to his friend Bart from Baker’s in early October, 1887, Louis had this to say:

“My dear Simpson, the address is c/o Charles Scribner’s Sons, 243 Broadway, N.Y., where I wish you would write and tell us you are better. But the place of our abode is Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks; it is a mighty good place and I mean it shall do me good. Indeed the dreadful depression and collapse of last summer has quite passed away; it was a thorough change I wanted; I wonder perhaps if it wouldn’t pick you up–if you are not picked up already; you have been a long time in Great Britain, and that is a slow poison, very slow for the strong, but certain for all.”

Bart never came to Saranac Lake but thousands did, following the path blazed by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, himself a victim of tuberculosis or TB, also called consumption and the “white death” by the victims of it who came here, while they in turn, were called “lungers” by the native Adirondackers already here, like the Bakers. But Trudeau is the one who discovered that Stevenson, his “illustrious patient” as he liked to call him, did not have TB after all.

Stevenson liked to walk. When he was an adolescent, his invalidism did not yet restrict that activity except on days when he felt “seedy” or worse. Consequently, Louis routinely skipped school to wander down to the Old Town section of Edinburgh, the forbidden zone if you were a New Town boy like him. There Louis easily fit in with the less gilded people of Scotland’s capitol city where “I was,” he said, “the companion of seamen, chimney-sweeps and thieves.” That’s where he spent his allowance, in pubs and brothels, nicknamed “Velvet Coat” by the prostitutes.

The Pentland Hills, just outside the Edinburgh city limits, was and still is a fine place for summertime strolling. Swanston Cottage, all by itself in the middle of them, was leased by Thomas Stevenson, the truant’s father, to be a family get-away for many years. Some of the boy’s favorite memories were stored away there after exploring the region so when his days were numbered half a world away in Oceania, Louis returned there in his two unfinished novels, Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives.

Stevenson based his second book, “Travels With A Donkey,” on 12 days of walking in a remote part of France with a donkey while camping out at night in a wilderness populated with bandits and wolves. By then Louis was already embroiled in his romantic crisis with Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, who had returned to California with her two children. His pursuit of her by going there as “The Amateur Emigrant” would reveal his character and shape his future but it came darn close to killing him, too. His invalidism became more acute from then on in company with a new-comer, “Bloody Jack,” Stevenson’s nemesis for life, his bleeding lungs. Walking for fun was a thing of the past when RLS went to the Swiss Alps for his first winter at Davos, another health resort, the Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann’s famous novel. It was four months into the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson.

Seven years would pass before the author of “Treasure Island” would get to enjoy true nature walking again and it happened here, in Saranac Lake, specifically on the lower flanks of Mt. Baker between the Saranac River and Moody Pond, hundreds of acres of private woodlots and fields belonging to his landlord, Andrew Baker, to whom he paid $50 a month to provide shelter for himself and his family for the winter of 1887-88.

During those seven years of worse than usual bad health, Stevenson had somehow managed to dump onto the world, his ‘greatest hits’ in literature, the books that had already made him a household name in the U.S., before showing up all of a sudden in Saranac Lake. In fact, his most recent hit, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” had rocketed him to star status, here in the States, coincidental with his journey into these mountains. Fame like this was new to Louis and it was not his cup of tea. Stevenson was still a guest of the Fairchilds in Newport, Rhode Island, when he began complaining about it. “My reception here was idiotic to the last degree,” he wrote to Sidney Colvin. “If Jesus Christ came they would make less fuss.” On the same day he wrote to Henry James: “What a silly thing is popularity. I envy the cool obscurity of Skerryvore” (former home in Bournemouth, England).

Two and a half weeks later found Louis still harping on this subject after settling into Baker’s for the winter. In that letter to Bart Simpson, he says of fame that “the thing at large is a bore and a fraud; and I am much happier up here where I see no one and live my own life.” His next letter went to (Sir) Edmund Gosse, informing him that fame could “go a long way to spoil a man; and I like myself better in the woods.”

To her sister, Jane Balfour, in Scotland, Stevenson’s mother, Margaret, made this observation: “Louis always takes his walks quite alone, and hates to meet anyone when he is out; it is fortunate that we are some way from the village, and that there is a private pine-wood close behind the house.”

Residents of the Tri-Lakes get to soak up glorious Indian Summer days every fall and Stevenson made good use of them when he was here, too. Unfortunately, they don’t stick around. Louis was still able to go out in the snow, like we do, until sooner or later we get snowed in. For RLS, that came early, in November. On the 20th he writes again to Sidney Colvin: “But I wish I could still get to the woods; alas, ‘nous n’irons plus au bois’, is my poor song; the paths are buried, the dingles drifted full, a little walk is grown a long one; ’till spring comes, I fear the vurthen will hold good.”

Now Stevenson’s walks were confined to his landlord’s 58′ of porch, back and forth. That’s what he was doing on a December night, when he conceived the plot for his next adventure novel– “The Master of Ballantrae.” One of the last things he did, literally, from his last home in the South Seas, was to write about the genesis of Ballantrae:

“I was walking one night in the verandah of a small house in which I lived, outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter; the night was very dark; the air extraordinary clear and cold, and sweet with the purity of forests. From a good way below, the river was to be heard contending with ice and boulders; A few lights appeared, scattered unevenly among the darkness, but so far away as not to lessen the sense of isolation. For the making of a story here were fine conditions. ‘Come’ I said to my engine, ‘Let us make a tale, a story of many years and countries, of the sea and the land, savagery and civilization…”

To be continued.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today