- Historic Sites
When Robert Louis Stevenson Was One Of Us
Out of an agonizing American experience, the frail Scots author mined a treasure and carried it away with him
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
During the two weeks of his convalescence, Stevenson gave reading lessons to the “ranch children,” two little girls whose ill mother was away from home. A less patient and warmhearted man would have turned his face to the wall, but RLS could never say no to a child. He sat up in bed, paper and pencil in hand, a robe over his knees, as Augustus Saint-Gaudens was later to picture him on a famous medallion. Stevenson had a lively and resonant voice, astonishing in one whose lungs were so delicate, and he made learning into play.
The newlyweds needed a place where they could live rent-free; they found a bunkhouse at an abandoned California mine called Silverado.
At the end of the two weeks he was able to return to Monterey, looking more than ever like a tramp. There he found that Fanny had made up her mind. She could not give him up; she would go through with the divorce. Presumably the grounds were Sam’s various infidelities. It was uncontested.
Meanwhile, Stevenson’s daily visits to Fanny raised problems at Monterey; landladies there were dubious about renting a room to a man with a rash. At last he found a pleasant room in the French Hotel, a two-story adobe house. The room was small and cheap, only fortyfive cents a day, but it was clean and comfortable. Light poured in from a balcony that looked down on a warm and aromatic garden on the sheltered landward side of the house. The other side faced the sea; the distant roar of the waves could always be heard “in the clean, empty rooms of Monterey as in a shell upon the chimney.” Stevenson’s letters and essays from this time were full of the sea: “The waves come in slowly, vast and green, curve their translucent necks, and burst with a surprising uproar, that runs, waxing and waning, up and down the long keyboard of the beach.” He and Lloyd walked for miles, skirting the beaches among the strangely contorted live oaks and seaswept pines. They shared their excitement when an old coin was dug up and there was talk in the town about buried treasure.
The circumstances of his leaving California healed old wounds. By the time he visited America again, he was rich and famous.
When an explanation to the twelve-year-old boy could be postponed no longer, RLS chose the beach for the crucial conversation. One afternoon he asked Lloyd to go for a walk. As Lloyd remembered it years later, they tramped silently, side by side, for some time. At last Stevenson, with perfect tact and straightforward sympathy, said, “I want to tell you something. You may not like it, but I hope you will. I am going to marry your mother.” Lloyd could find no words for an answer. A few moments later he put his hand into that of his friend. A pact of confidence and loyalty had been sealed for a lifetime.
Stevenson tried to hide his anxiety from Fanny, but it came out in his letters to friends in Scotland and London: “At times I get terribly frightened about my work, which seems to advance too slowly. I hope soon to have a greater burthen to support, and must make money a great deal quicker than I used.” He was working obsessively and begging his friends to find publishers for his manuscripts, but no one at home wanted him to succeed in California. His friends were convinced that his only salvation lay in the failure of the whole American adventure. Money arrived only in driblets, and letters were full of criticism. It was all calculated to break his spirit and bring him home. But nothing could do that. However unconventional his relationship to Fanny had been so far, Stevenson was committed heart and soul to supporting her in a totally orthodox way. “What else should I do?” he wrote to Colvin. “Do I not want to have all rights to protect my darling?” He also meant to protect Lloyd, and even Nellie and Belle if need be. Furthermore, he might, at long last, become a father himself.
In the middle of October Fanny took Nellie and Lloyd to the house Sam Osbourne still owned jointly with her in Oakland. Her divorce became final on December 15, 1879, and Stevenson moved to San Francisco to be closer to her. He found a cheap room in a decent boardinghouse run by an Irish pair, William and Mary Carson, at 608 Bush Street.
In January he wrote to Colvin in cheerful spirits about the schedule and budget he had set up for himself: “Any time between eight and half-past nine in the morning, a slender gentleman in an ulster, with a volume buttoned into the breast of it, may be observed leaving No. 608 Bush and descending Powell with an active step.” He was on his way to a ten-cent breakfast of coffee, roll, and butter. A noon dinner was fifty cents, and supper duplicated the breakfast menu. Otherwise, he worked alone from morning until almost midnight or took solitary walks, often sitting in the sunshine of Portsmouth Square on the edge of Chinatown.