Maggie’s Room, Part IV

Robert Louis Stevenson (Photo provided)

Spring was just beginning to do its thing on April 16, 1888, the day Robert Louis Stevenson and his mother along with the maid, Valentine, left town to get out of town.

Mother is Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, called “Maggie” since childhood. She didn’t know it yet, but she had just left her private room at Baker’s, the one she said was “cheery and bright,” for the last time. Her son, the now famous author with famous RLS initials, had a case of acute cabin fever.

Among the five members of the Stevenson expedition, he alone had endured the winter of 1887-88, without once escaping elsewhere and often, as did his fellow travelers. In late March, Louis had escorted his wife, Fanny, to the new Chateaugay railroad station, to see her off on a journey to Monterey, California, to see her sister, Mrs. Nellie Vandegrift Sanchez, author of “The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson,” 1925.

During their goodbye exchange, husband asked wife to keep one eye on constant alert while out there, for an ocean-going vessel they might charter to start on the next leg of their wanderings, to voyage under sail to Oceania, the daydream that helped them get through the winter, a daydream still popular today among poor people.

A fact rarely mentioned in the hundreds of books about RLS was his intention to return to these parts after his spring break in the Big Apple. There, he reunited with old friends like Will Low and Wyatt Eaton, both veterans of the Fontainebleau days of their youth in France; also, his new friend and sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Charles Scribner, his publisher.

Stevenson was in agreement with his backwoods physician Dr. E.L. Trudeau that “this harsh, beggarly climate,” as Louis put it, “of which I can say no good,” was in fact, very good for him. On April 10, he wrote a letter to an old family friend in Scotland, Mr. A. Charteris, to say, “I have myself passed a better winter than for years, and now that it is nearly over have hopes of doing well in the summer and ‘eating a little more air’ than usual.” (Camping?)

With the projected Pacific cruise still just a daydream, Trudeau had suggested Floodwood, an area near the Saranac Inn golf course, to be a good place for camping out in the healthy woods that surround all the lakes, rivers and ponds. Andrew Baker had already retained guides to take his famous tenant out there, upon their return. They must have been sorely disappointed when word came that the author’s over-efficient wife had actually found a suitable yacht, the Casco, Capt. Otis, to make the daydream real. Said Baker’s daughter, Bertha: “Papa had gotten guides for them, owing to the fact that they were expected to return but in the next letter the author had decided to go to San Francisco.”

This change in their plans explains something else in Maggie’s Room. The Stevensons were at the seaside in Manasquan, New Jersey, when Louis made the decision to abort the camp plan and instead make a straight line to San Francisco. Meanwhile, most of their belongings had been left at Baker’s because they had expected to return there. A letter, no. 102, to Mr. Baker from Maggie contained a check and a polite note which can still be read through glass in Maggie’s Room. It says:

“Union House, Manasquan, May 23rd–Dear Mr. Baker–I enclose a cheque for $7. With many thanks for attending to our wishes about the baggage. We all unite in kind wishes and hearty goodbyes to you all and I am yours very truly.”

–M.I. Stevenson

Like everyone else, Margaret had been caught off guard by this surprising turn of events. A somewhat dangerous enterprise was about to begin. Maggie’s scrapbooks would come through it all and through it all, she kept writing letters to sister Jane, e.g., “This great and sudden change in our plans has so far upset me that I can scarcely write at all. George (Dr. George Balfour, brother) will have told you, of course, that we have got a yacht, and are to sail from San Francisco on the 15th June for a seven months’ cruise in the South Seas.”

The seed of this event — “this great and sudden change” according to Maggie — had been planted in her son’s mind the previous winter in Saranac Lake. Samuel McClure owned a publishing syndicate and made the three days trip from Manhattan to Baker’s several times to talk business with the new celebrity in Andrew Baker’s living room. Instead, he found himself mystified by the unexpected modesty of his host when he offered him $8,000 for his next book. Many years later when he was a guest speaker for the Stevenson Society of America, he described the scene: “He was somewhat reluctant and blushingly said that he didn’t feel he ought to take so much money … He was unlike any other author I ever met, singularly lovable as an author and as a man.”

We can blame Sam McClure for directing Stevenson’s attention to the other side of the world and down under, too. Said the speaker from Baker’s veranda on Aug. 31, 1922: “I think the South Seas must have been mentioned that evening for … The next time I came to Saranac, we actually planned out the South Pacific cruise, talking about it late into the night.”

When Maggie learned of this spontaneous extension of their travelling plans, she wrote to Jane again, from her room overlooking the Saranac River: “It seems almost too good to be true; and for Louis’s sake, I can’t but be glad, for his heart has so long been set upon it, and it must surely be good for his health to have such a desire granted, so, just as I went to Saranac in fear and trembling for the winter, I now go to meet the southern summer. If it only suits Louis as well as Saranac did, we shall have every reason to be thankful.”

And so it was. The Stevenson expedition proceeded to follow the Sun, all the way to “where the golden apples grow.” But it was still 1888 and it would take some doing. It was Dr. George Balfour, Maggie’s brother, who had advised a long-distance vacation to a healthy place, emphasizing their need for a change. Saranac Lake wasn’t exactly the kind of change they thought they expected but in the end, Saranac had worked out well–very well–enough to reinforce the belief held by some, that RLS was the subject of a master, possibly divine plan for his destiny. That’s ludicrous of course, but this pseudo-theory has found a home among adherents of Q-Anon, who expect Stevenson’s return with power and glory to happen at Yellowstone National Park, anytime soon.

From Saranac to the Marquesas and Beyond, Some Letters written to Miss. J.W. Balfour was published by “Scribner’s Sons” in 1903. The copy of it in the Stevenson Cottage is Mary Baker’s signed possession. The introduction is by Margaret’s brother, George W. Balfour, M.D., L.L.D., F.R.S.E. Selected fragments from these letters can provide readers with a sense of the adventures that the widow of Thomas Stevenson shared with her famous son:

Manasquan, May 23– “This week the weather has turned damp and raw, and Louis has a threatening cold … I have just made all the arrangements for starting for San Francisco on Thursday. We are to have a compartment all to ourselves, and, if possible, we shall travel straight through; of course it is a trying journey …”

New York, June 1 — “Fortunately Louis threw off the cold, as he has done ever since we went to Saranac, in a wonderful way … there has been no hemorrhage…”

San Francisco, June 9 — “Here we are all safe after our long journey. It was very tiring and we have not yet got over the effects … I must add that we have just got very nice letters of introduction to King Kalakaua of Hawaii, where we hope to call in the yacht.”

June 25 — “It is not so easy to lay in all the innumerable things that may be required by eleven people during seven months away from shops … I may write a line from the yacht before we sail, but I look on this as my farewell letter.”

Next week: Maggie in the South Seas.


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