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Stevenson at Twenty-six
by Lloyd Osbourne
IT WAS AT the old inn at Grez-sur-Loing that I first saw Robert Louis Stevenson. I was eight years old, a tousled-haired, barefooted child who was known to that company of artists as 'Pettifish.' Though I sat at the long table d'hôte I was much too insignificant a person to be noticed by this wonderful new arrival, whose coming had caused such a stir.
But after the meal when we all trooped down to the riverside to see the Cigarette and the Arethusa--the two canoes that had just finished the 'Inland Voyage'--the stranger allowed me to sit in his, and even went to the trouble of setting up the little masts and sails for my amusement. I was very flattered to be treated so seriously--RLS always paid children the compliment of being serious, no matter what mocking light might dance in his brilliant brown eyes--and I instantly elected him to a high place in my esteem.
While the others talked I appraised him silently. He was tall and slight, with light brown hair, a small golden moustache, and a beautiful ruddy complexion; and was so gay and buoyant that he kept everyone in fits of laughter. He wore a funny-looking little round cap such as schoolboys used to have in England: a white flannel shirt, dark trousers, and very neat shoes. Stevenson had very shapely feet; they were long and narrow with a high arch and instep, and he was proud of them. However shabbily he might be dressed he was always smartly shod. I remember being much impressed by his costume, which was in such contrast to that of his cousin, 'Bob,' who had preceded him to Grez, and whom I already knew quite well. Bob was attired in a tattered blue jersey such as fishermen wore, trousers that needed no Sherlock Holmes to decide that he was a landscape painter, and wooden sabots of a slightly superior order.
All these lads--for they were scarcely more--were gloriously under the spell of the Vie de Boheme; they wanted to be poor, improvident and reckless; they were eager to assert that they were outcasts and rebels. One of the Americans. who had an ample allowance, found enjoyment in wearing an old frock coat and a fez; another, equally well provided for, always wore expensive rings so as to have the extreme enjoyment of pawning them; but to some poverty was no masquerade, and was bitter enough. I doubt if poor little Bloomer had more than a spare shirt to his name, or even enough buttons for his one shabby suit. Once he had been refused admission to the Luxembourg gallery as 'indecently clothed.' It was supposed to be a wonderful joke, but Bloomer's fine, sensitive face always winced when it was repeated in his presence.
It was the custom for them all to rail at the respectable and well-to-do; RLS's favourite expression was 'a common banker,' used as one might refer to a common labourer. 'Why, even a common banker would renig at a thing like that!'--'renig' being another favourite word. I got the impression that people with good clothes and money in their pockets, and pleasant big houses, were somehow odious, and should be heartily despised. They belonged to a strange race called Philistines, and were sternly to be kept in their place. If any had dared install themselves in the Hôtel Chevillon they would have found it a nest of hornets.
RLS always said he hoped to die in a ditch. He must have dwelt on it at great length, and with all his matchless humour, for while I have forgotten the details, the picture of him as a white-haired and expiring wanderer is ineffaceably fixed in my mind. It cost me many a pang that such was to be his end while common bankers jingled by in shining equipages, oblivious and scornful. But the tragedy that hung over Bob was even worse. Bob had divided his modest patrimony into ten equal parts, and after spending one of these every year was to commit suicide at the end. I never saw him lay out a few coppers for tobacco without a quivery feeling that he had shortened his life.
Young as I was, I could not help noticing that RLS and my mother were greatly attracted to each other; or rather how they would sit and talk interminably on either side of the dining-room stove while everybody else was out and busy, under vast white umbrellas, in the fields and woods. I grew to associate them as always together, and in a queer, childish way I think it made me very happy. I had grown to love Luly Stevenson as I called him; he used to read the Pilgrim's Progress and the Tales of a Grandfather to me, and tell me stories 'out of his head'; he gave me a sense of protection and warmth, and though I was far too shy ever to have said it aloud, he seemed so much like Greatheart in the book that this was my secret name for him.
When autumn merged into early winter, and it was time for us to return to Paris, I was overjoyed when my mother said to me: 'Luly is coming, too.'
This is one of thirteen papers on Stevenson at different ages by Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson and collaborator, who shared his life from 1876 until its end in 1894.