The penny whistle

Music-making in Hawaii. Robert Louis Stevenson is seated in profile at left, tootling on his penny whistle. To his right, her back to the camera, is his mother. (Photo provided)

“I need scarcely say how much I am at one with you in your plans (the Stevenson Society) and can assure you of my hearty cooperation. As to relics of RLS, my sister, now Mrs. Salisbury Field (Belle), if she should have the inclination, could help you far better than I can, though I certainly intend to do my best. My mother bequeathed everything to her.”

— Lloyd Osborne, stepson of Robert Louis Stevenson, to Stephen Chalmers of the Stevenson Society, Oct. 21, 1916

The Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake, because of its age, retains certain bragging rights unobtainable to the like minded establishments that have followed its example in California, Samoa and Scotland. Provenance is the fancy word museum curators use to convey the history of a piece of memorabilia, like who had it? How did they get it? Does it have a story? Can we have it?

Memorabilia, says the dictionary, means “things that are remarkable and worthy of remembrance.” Usually a person has to be dead before his or her belongings can be classified as memorabilia, and it is left up to the living to bestow meaning to certain material objects that gives to them a transcendental aspect and makes them worth keeping. Anthropologists might say that is a lovely description of primitive vestigial traits having their origins in prehistoric ancestral religious cults.

No one knows what Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson– “Fanny” –thought about the subject when she went cherry-picking through her Lou’s belongings to select keepsakes of him after his sudden death in Samoa on Dec. 3, 1894. All of it went to her children, Lloyd and Isobel, when their mother gave up her own ghost in the home she called “Stonehenge” near Santa Barbara, California, on Feb. 18, 1914.

It remains unclear exactly how Lloyd and Isobel connected with the fledgling Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake in 1916. As new and very special members in this first of its kind organization it must have seemed fitting to start putting their stepfather’s relics to good use. Why not in this village he had called his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks,” in the house he called “a hatbox on a hill in the eye of all winds,” in the very rooms where he smoked and coughed and burned holes in the linen and tooted on his penny whistle and where he wrote with his quill pen. Said Stephen Chalmers in his book, “The Penny Piper of Saranac”:

“Today what he wrote under that little southern gable, where the drift-snow piled up against the window is bound in morocco and gold, is scrolled on vellum and hung as mottoes in garret and mansion alike, in the offices of commerce and in the waiting rooms of pain, in the temples of wisdom and in the heart of humanity, for it brings strength to the strong and cheer to the sick.”

R.L. Stevenson toyed with music as a hobby and his favorite penny whistle went everywhere with him to serve as his immediate connection to the muse. “I am a great performer before the Lord on the penny whistle,” said he, “and have always some childishness on hand.”

“The Penny Piper of Saranac: An Episode in the Life of RLS” was already in circulation when the penny piper’s stepchildren came on board the memorial project at Baker’s. What could have been more suitable than to start this first public assemblage of Stevenson lore than this long, thin, silvery cylinder? The purity of its provenance is a curator’s dream though nobody seems to know where Stevenson got it. This simple article of amusement for its former owner had travelled halfway around the world before coming back to the Hunter’s Home. Along the way, cannibals in the Marquesas Islands and the last king and queen of Hawaii were among the select, like the Bakers, who got to hear, for better or worse, the sounds that came out of it.

Said Mrs. Baker to her spouse, “He tootles the whistle better ‘n he plays the piano!”

“And a sight oftener,” said the woodsman.


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