Under the wide and starry sky, Part II

Lord Charles Guthrie with Alison Cunningham, “Cummy,” Stevenson’s childhood nurse to whom A Child’s Garden of Verses is dedicated. (Provided photo)

Jack London and his wife, Charmian, were huge fans of Robert Louis Stevenson and sailing in the wake of his voyages in the great South Seas, in their own yacht, the Snark, was what they liked to do in their spare time.

Jack was an amateur photographer and his bucket list included taking a selfie at the tomb of “Tusitala,” Stevenson’s Pacific nickname meaning “Teller-of-Tales.” Jack got his picture but that had been the easy part. The hard part was getting there

Today, it’s fast and easy by plane, but even today, the experts will tell you that the only respectable way to get to the island of Upolu, to ascend Mt. Vaea on such a personal mission, is to do it under sail, as did the Stevenson expedition in 1889 … and the Londons.

To do that, you have to be rich enough to own and maintain a yacht and be smart and brave enough and strong enough to use it, plus be free of commitments. That’s the way the Londons did it. If you’re an invalid taking your mother along, you will probably charter somebody’s yacht that comes with an able skipper and crew. That’s what Stevenson did, using the luxury schooner-yacht Casco, San Francisco, Capt. Otis. Either way, it was the stuff of real adventure for the two authors who gave us Treasure Island and Call of the Wild.

Once you have your boat and crew, you will proceed to sail far and wide, using the stars for your guide (no GPS!). If you are lucky, you will anchor safely in Apia’s harbor, your port of call, on Upolu, an example of the white man’s notion of tropical paradise, like Tahiti, both Polynesian.

When Mr. and Mrs. London went ashore, they hired a guide to take them to the trailhead of Mt. Vaea, a volcanic peak on Stevenson’s Vailima estate. From there it was up, by foot, over a poor excuse of a trail, in the heat, to the summit. There, in a clearing with a sea view, was the mountaintop cemetery for one and the end of their quest–the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, a great man, they say. In 1914, his wife, Fanny, died in California of a cerebral hemorrhage, just like him. Her cremated remains were returned to Samoa, to be with her Louis in a flower-filled graveside ceremony.

Mrs. London lived to be a widow, and as a widow, Charmian made a trip to Saranac Lake to visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage. She probably got in for free because she was a member of the Stevenson Society. (At the time, the Society was renting two of the rooms occupied by RLS in the winter of 1887/88.) The furniture in both rooms was then and is now the furniture used by the author: two beds, a dresser, a wash basin and the famous desk with bookcase. Within that bookcase rests the little piece of herself that the adventuress wanted here. It is her own book, “The Log of the Snark,” reliving her wanderings under sail with her husband, inscription included: “To the Stevenson Society–this true love tale of a quest over the Golden Trail emblazoned by our beloved ‘R.L.S.’, Charmian London, Glenn Ellen, In the Valley of the Moon, California, May, 1918.”

Just a few feet away from the desk is the one and only wood prototype of the bronze plaque on Stevenson’s tomb in Samoa, the one bearing his epitaph poem “Requiem.” It was designed by Gelett Burgess and made in San Francisco by L.U. Hoffman in 1913, 48“x20”. Few people know (or care) that RLS experimented with a third stanza, placed between the familiar ones, that goes:

Here may the winds about me blow,

Here the clouds may come and go;

Here shall he rest forevermore,

And the heart for aye shall be still.

RLS kept it at two stanzas, but when Gelett Burgess made his design, he put in a mistake which no one seemed to notice until the finished bronze was in place, in Oceania. It is in line no. 7 as it appears on the tomb: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.” Here is the same line in manuscript: “Home is the sailor home from sea.”

It doesn’t seem like much; home from sea or home from the sea, but that rogue second “the” has caused consternation among the purists, especially in the face of its acceptance by the masses, who are called thickheads by the purists because they refuse to believe the truth of the matter, even when faced with the evidence, which is always shrugged off as a forgery.

See which version John Wayne used in “They Were Expendable,” a war-time movie featuring the PT Boats in the Pacific theatre of WWII. The “Duke” plays the only officer present to preside over last rites for a fallen comrade, killed in action. His character wasn’t the religious type so he was at a total loss for words when suddenly Stevenson’s “Requiem came” to his rescue from the subconscious. In the movie, Wayne’s character has no idea who wrote the words that he can now recite, words that got him off the hook. To find out if he is a thickhead or a purist, see the movie.

This issue concerning a word in line 7 of “Requiem” did not go away and in good time, it landed on the desk of Lord Charles Guthrie, MP, and Secretary for the Robert Louis Stevenson Club in Edinburgh, Scotland, est. 1920, five years later than the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake. Lord Guthrie had received many inquiries about the blunder on the Stevenson tomb and since he really didn’t have a clue, he turned to his American counterpart, Livingston Chapman, Secretary for the Stevenson Society of America, for help of any kind. He says:

“Dear Sir … The Council of your Club have had under consideration for sometime the question of the error in the copying of the poem Requiem on the plate of the grave of R.L.S. at Samoa, in particular the last line but one … The well-known Children’s paper called The Children’s Newspaper have applied to our club in Edinburgh to know whether anything can be done … One idea made by an artist here was that if the Samoan one could be taken off and sent over to you or to use here, for a very small cost the line could be cut out and a new line put in and returned to Samoa …Would your Society in America care to help in this proposed correcting the error in the poem … ?”

Nothing came of it, no surprise, but it seemed to stimulate trans-Atlantic communications between the two RLS clubs. As for Lord Guthrie, he was already a British Representative in the Stevenson Society of America, by the time that he wrote to it about the plaque. In his own book, “Robert Louis Stevenson,” Guthrie says, “we did not forgather till he was nineteen and I was twenty, in the rooms of the Speculative Society, a famous debating and social club, housed in the University of Edinburgh, which we both frequented for three or four years … I differed from him in politics, civil and ecclesiastical, and, to some extent, in our ideas of personal conduct … All his friends of early days will agree in the description of Stevenson which became a proverb in Samoa: ‘Once Tusitala’s friend, always Tusitala’s friend.'”

Stephen Chalmers, Scottish-born charter member of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, also wrote the society’s official publication, “The Penny Piper of Saranac: An Episode in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.” In 1916, he went to Lord Guthrie for a preface to his new edition. This is a sample:

“The Penny Piper of Saranac is a most sane and real sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson … it shows much insight into his character, which was so complex that many people of broad minds but narrow sympathies thought it contradictory. His Puritanism was every bit as genuine as his Bohemianism. Such people could not, and their present-day representatives cannot, understand this. But that was, and is, their fault; not his. When people ask me what I thought of Stevenson … I usually reply, ‘Which Stevenson? I knew at least four!’

Swanston Cottage,


Midlothian, Scotland”


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