- 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
Stevenson wrote to a friend that the scene of Treasure Island, which began in play with Lloyd, was part California, part imagination.
The bunkhouse had three rooms, stacked against the side of the mountain. It faced a platform of earth as flat and bare as a stage, looking forth “into a great realm of air, and down upon tree-tops and hill-tops, and far and near on wild and varied country.” “A great streaming gale” poured ceaselessly over the mountain, and Stevenson hoped that in this mountain hermitage, if anywhere, he could be well again.
The first day at Silverado was strenuous. It was “a world of wreck and rust, splinters and rolling gravel.” Physically Stevenson could do little; as a handyman he was hopelessly inefficient. Apparently Fanny did not expect much help from Lloyd either and ended by clearing out the rubbish herself. Nothing more could be done until their trunks and boxes and some hay for mattresses were carted up the mountain, but as night fell, no wagons had appeared. The “squatters” had eaten their picnic lunch hours before and were famished. Halfway down the mountain was a tollhouse; since neither Fanny nor Lloyd had any sense of “locality,” Stevenson set off in the gathering dusk to buy some bread and perhaps get some news about the missing baggage. In his pocket was Lloyd’s watch, a treasured possession. The chain was broken, and Lloyd had given him the watch for safekeeping.
Stevenson bought the bread and, as he wrote, “returned up the trail, a breathing wreck, the mere offal of myself.” Since the hay had not arrived, there was nothing to do but settle their bones against the cold, bare wooden boards of the bunks and make the best of it. At that point RLS discovered that Lloyd’s watch was missing.
“Lloyd’s face became a picture. ... I saw myself face to face with another excursion down the canyon, not to speak of coming up again, and a hunt by lantern light for an object about two inches and a half in circumference.” But down he went without hesitation, bent over, searching every foot of the way, until against all probability he saw the watch lying in the path not far above the tollhouse.
At last they were settled, each with his own chosen activities. In the mornings at Silverado Stevenson was the first up and would carry a bucket of fresh water from the spring, make porridge and coffee, and split some kindling. This ended his work for the day. Lloyd did no work except for “some nightmare encounters over Euclid and the Latin Grammar,” which seem to have left him relatively unscarred but sent his kind tutor to bed in a state of collapse. It was Fanny, a born camper, who nailed white calico across the empty door and window frames, shutting out the wind but leaving the old bunkhouse full of light and air. She contrived furniture, cooked appetizing meals, and made Silverado an appealing home, “with the beds made, the plates on the rack, the pail of bright water behind the door, the stove crackling in a corner, and perhaps the table roughly laid against a meal.”
Lloyd installed a toy printing press in the top room of the bunkhouse and became expert enough to think he might someday print real books for real money. The printing press had come supplied with several cuts that could be used to illustrate stories of the Wild West. The following winter in Switzerland, Lloyd was to collaborate with RLS on a tiny volume of poems and new woodcuts printed on the toy press. The book, Not I and Other Poems, is among the rarest of all Stevensoniana.
Their greatest collaboration lay ahead. There came a dreary day in Scotland in the rainy summer of 1881 when RLS drew the map of a “treasure island” to amuse Lloyd. Later they disagreed about which of them had really started the map, but certainly Stevenson finished it. As he pored over it, “the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure. ... It was to be a story for boys, no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone.” He also had his memories of the beaches where he had so often walked at Monterey; later he wrote to Sidney Colvin that the scene of Treasure Island was part California, part imagination. The dedication to Samuel Lloyd Osbourne read: “To S. L. O., an American gentleman, in accordance with whose classic taste the following narrative has been designed, it is now, in return for numerous delightful hours, and with the kindest wishes dedicated by his affectionate friend, THE AUTHOR.” Other boys would see some “treasure island” of their own, but Lloyd would always see RLS and Monterey. So out of the long hard American year of 1879 to 1880 Stevenson had mined the treasure and carried it away with him.
The circumstances of his leaving California healed old wounds. His father and mother were begging him to bring Fanny home, and Fanny’s sensitive, tactful letters to the elder Stevensons prepared the way for a happy meeting. They left by train, traveling first class, and sailed from New York on August 7, 1880, a year to the day after his hurried departure from Scotland.