- 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
After Fanny’s divorce the lovers intended to postpone their marriage for a decent interval, but Stevenson made friends even in his solitude. In Portsmouth Square children gathered around him while he told them stories. Fanny came from Oakland when she could, and RLS saw her at the homes of artist friends like Dora and Virgil Williams, who arranged for Stevenson to use the library of the prestigious Bohemian Club. Other congenial souls gathered in the studio of Joe and Isobel Strong. Stevenson enjoyed an occasional meal there, and whenever he had a little money he returned their hospitality with a dinner at one of the many small, good, and inexpensive restaurants for which San Francisco was already famous.
The Carsons’ two little boys became special friends. RLS wrote to Colvin, “The youngest child of his landlady remarks several times a day, as this strange occupant enters or quits the house, ‘Dere’s de author.’” Robbie, aged four, was old enough to carry up the mail to the boarder in the second-floor front room, announcing, “Here, author, is some letters.”
As another month passed, Stevenson’s self-imposed penury took its toll. Not willing to use available family funds, he no longer allowed himself his fifty-cent dinner but had to find one for a quarter. The time came when the morning and evening meals were too expensive. Yet when Fanny came to see him, he was full of jokes and animated chatter. The situation had all the romantic irony of a tragic play: He too proud to take his parents’ help but nonetheless hoping against hope that his Scottish friends would tell them of his plight; his parents, grieved by his disregard for their standards and feelings, longing for a letter from their son; his friends sure they knew what was best for him.
In March 1880 there was an epidemic of influenza and pneumonia. Stevenson wrote to Colvin: “My landlord and landlady’s little four-year-old is dying in this house; and O what he has suffered! It has really affected my health. O never, never any family for me! I am cured of that.” Dora Williams later wrote, “He sat up with the child night after night and would bring me daily bulletins of his condition.” RLS was sure that the doctor was neglecting Robbie. But Robbie recovered; it was Stevenson who, in March, came close to death, as the result of long nights of nursing Robbie. In his sickness—high fever, coughing, cold sweats, and complete prostration—he harked back to his childhood. “Death is no bad friend,” he wrote, “a few aches and gasps, and we are done; like the truant child, I am beginning to grow weary and timid in this big, jostling city, and could run to my nurse, even though she should have to whip me before putting me to bed.”
In spite of Stevenson’s best efforts at concealment, Fanny eventually discovered the whole state of his affairs. As soon as he could be moved, she found a room for him at a hotel in Oakland. Soon afterward he had one of the hemorrhages that were to threaten his life repeatedly in the coming years. With sweeping disregard of what Oakland might think, Fanny brought RLS to her own house and, although she was not yet strong herself, began the nursing care that was never to relax as long as he lived.
She installed Stevenson in the parlor at 554 East Eighteenth Street. From his bed he looked out through the rose-covered piazza of the white frame cottage, along the garden path, to the dusty road and the pleasant rural scene beyond. There were cats and two dogs, of which Chuchu, “a setter crossed with a spaniel,” was Lloyd’s favorite pet. RLS welcomed pets and children into his room. As his health improved, he began to play a game with the younger generation. It was a sort of round-robin storytelling in which Lloyd inevitably twisted the plot to an adventure on the sea.
Stevenson was at last able to sit out in the garden. Meanwhile, Edinburgh friends had told the senior Stevensons that their son was desperately in need of help, and a telegram came from them: “Count on two hundred and fifty pounds annually.” RLS found out then that his parents had twice sent money, which had never arrived. At any rate the worst of his troubles were now over. On May 19, 1880, he and Fanny were married in a private ceremony.
It seemed unlikely that Stevenson would live through another year, and a honeymoon of lovemaking was probably out of the question. He later wrote to a friend in Scotland, “It was not my bliss that I was interested in when I was married; it was a sort of marriage in extremis; and if I am where I am, it is thanks to the care of that lady, who married me when I was a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” Fanny set off with him on her wedding trip more as a nurse than as a bride. Lloyd soon joined them.
They went first to the Springs Hotel, at Calistoga, in the Napa Valley, below Mount St. Helena. Calistoga was highly recommended by invalids who went there to bathe in the hot springs, but the Stevensons could not afford to stay there for long. They needed a place where they could live rent-free and found one on the mountain at an abandoned mine called Silverado. There stood a derelict bunkhouse, a forge, and debris from the mine. Not far away were a few buildings, the remains of a once flourishing mining town. The mine site was to be the setting of The Silverado Squatters, one of Stevenson’s most vivid pieces of writing about his American adventure.