The Saranac Connection: Part III

Before this fireplace, Robert Louis Stevenson planned his voyage to the South Seas. (Photo provided)

Miss Adelaide Boodle was formerly a neighbor of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson when they were living in Bournemouth, England, their last home before they came to America and then to Saranac Lake. An amateur musician herself, just like RLS, the two had got along famously trying to make music together in the house Stevenson had named “Skerryvore,” after one of the lighthouses the Stevenson family firm of engineers had built off the west coast of Scotland.

It was the house in which the invalid author had written two of his greatest hits: “Kidnapped” and “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Miss Boodle also took writing lessons from Louis and returned the favor by taking care of the Stevensons’ pets and poultry when they were absent which earned her the affectionate title “Gamekeeper.”

Miss Boodle outlived Louis like most of his friends did. In 1899, she published her own contribution to the still expanding universe of Stevensonia. “R.L.S and His Sine Qua Non –Flashlights From Skerryvore” is an insider’s look at the deeply sympathetic relationship between RLS and his wife, Fanny, his Sine Qua Non.

Naturally, letters from Louis and Fanny from Baker’s to Adelaide in England would first go through the hands of the relatively new U.S. Post Office in Saranac Lake. The story has been around since 1887 and with some feasibility that when Robert Louis Stevenson was the resident celebrity in town, the locals with too much time on their hands would gather each morning at the post office while the postmaster gave a kind of geography lesson by reading off the return addresses on a considerable daily volume of mail and packages. On Dec. 10, while RLS was writing again to the Gamekeeper, he mentioned his health. “I am very well, better than for years.” He also mentioned a lesser-known character who also had an important role to play that winter, in the “Hunter’s Home”:

“You should also see the lad who ‘does chores’ for us, and with his red stockings and his thirteen-year-old face, and his highly manly tramp into the room; and his two alternative answers to all questions about the weather: either ‘Cold’, or with a really lyrical movement of the voice, ‘Lovely-rainning!'”

Meet Anson MacIntyre, “Mac,” of Lake Placid whose first job might have been his job as the chore boy for the Bakers at 25 cents a day. He did important things like haul water in buckets (no well), haul firewood and possibly chop it, haul other stuff like latrine duty, even milk the cows, “Silky” and “Sulkie.” He talked a lot to RLS, too.

Many years later when the Adirondacks-oriented novelist, T. Morris Longstreth, came by chance to meet a grown-up Mac and after he heard Mac’s story, he jumped on it and told a mutual friend, Alfred Donaldson, that “I’m full of an idea. I’m going to do him (Mac) up into a romance tighter than the four and twenty blackbirds in their pie.” The finished product was and still is “Mac of Placid” (1920), a book that convincingly describes life in these parts in the 1880s. Longstreth’s portrayal of RLS as Mac’s friend and mentor seems to be based on research but for Mac to legally play his part in this story he had to become 18 years old all of a sudden. There is high drama in this winter’s tale, which features a heroine and a villain. Mac is the hero, of course, and the villain is coincidentally a literary reincarnation of James Durisdeer, also known as The Master of Ballantrae, a devilish personality in the novel Stevenson was writing at Baker’s that winter.

So far, Stevenson’s letters from Baker’s during that winter of 1887-88, reflect two new wonderful themes in his existence, each a surprise: one, sudden wealth, thanks to American appreciation of his talent and two, better health, the reward for putting up with a winter in “this bleak, blackguard, beggarly climate” as he put it, which he nevertheless had to admit was the best thing for him. All that was missing was a purpose with which to exploit these positive new realities. Like he had told his cousin Bob in his first letter from Baker’s: “Wealth is only useful for two things–a yacht and a string quartette.”

Samuel McClure, owner of a publishing syndicate in New York City, would play the catalyst in putting Stevenson’s new potential to good use. When RLS and his family came to America in 1887, they expected to return to Britannia in 1888, if all went well. We already know that all went beyond well, a story book success story in real life. McClure came to Saranac Lake several times that winter to see Stevenson. He came to do business. He bought the rights to the American edition of “The Black Arrow” here, for instance. They became friends and years later, McClure would have his own magazine, McClure’s magazine, in which he proudly placed feature articles on RLS. They spent many evenings talking in Andrew Baker’s living room with the fireplace and out of those talks came the next great adventure to be for the author of “Treasure Island.”

In the real and figurative sense, Baker’s, or the “Hunter’s Home,” is the half-way house in the mortal existence of Robert Louis Stevenson, meaning the great divide between his Old World roots and his final home in faraway Oceania; also between obscurity and fame. And the reality of it all came down on The Penny Piper of Saranac like a ton of bricks while he was living in a farmhouse, on the outskirts of town. That’s why they still call it his Saranac connection, after all these years.

In 1922, McClure came to Saranac Lake for the last time when he was guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Stevenson Society of America. Their meetings were held on the grounds of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage, est. 1916. From the veranda, McClure talked for a long time without notes and eventually got around to mentioning Stevenson’s modesty:

“After some conversation, I asked him how much he wanted for his serial rights; he said 800 pounds. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I am going to pay you $8000.’ He was somewhat reluctant and blushingly said that he didn’t feel he ought to take so much money, and was I sure he was worth it? I told him the matter was all settled …We were right in this room here (pointing inside from the veranda) with the fireplace. Gradually he became reconciled to the offer; but still he felt he was rather greedy and wanted to explain and apologize.

“He was unlike almost any author I ever met, singularly loveable as an author and as a man. He wouldn’t be tempted to take as much money as that for a novel, he said, but for a plan that he had in mind. Then he explained to me that he was always better at sea than anywhere else, and he wanted to fit up a yacht and take long cruises and make his home at sea for a while. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s easy. If you get a yacht and take long sea voyages and write about them, stories of adventure and so forth, I will pay all the expenses of the yacht.’ … I think the South Seas must have been mentioned that evening for I remember that after I returned to New York I sent him a number of books about the South Seas, including a South Pacific directory. The next time I came to Saranac, we actually planned out the South Pacific cruise, talking until late in the night. That was one of the most extraordinary evenings of my life. Mr. Stevenson walked up and down that room with the fireplace, or stopped occasionally to lean his elbow on the mantelpiece and we made the most splendid plans and arrangements … and out of that talk came the South Seas cruise.”

In 1917, while giving one of his own talks, this one at the Saranac Lake Free Library, Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, the dedicatee of “Treasure Island,” recalled that momentous turning point in his stepfather’s life, when he was living in the “Hunter’s Home”:

“Mr. McClure had suggested the great South Seas trip, and it appealed most urgently to Mr. Stevenson’s love of wandering and adventure. I remember he was so full of it that he promptly sent for all sorts of directories, maps and books on the subject of harbors, soundings, strange islands and their anchorage. It amuses me while it touches me still to think of him in those days, loaded up with directories, living a dream as it were–a dream of the coming great adventure.”

This is the big link in Stevenson’s Saranac connection, the birth place of his last great adventure which would have been inconceivable without the sudden wealth and better health that came to him when he was a resident of Saranac Lake.


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