"You must not be vexed at my absences," he told his mother in a letter; "you must understand that I shall be a nomad more or less until my days are done. You don't know how much I used to long for it in the old days ; how I used to go and look at the trains leaving and long to go with them. I must be a bit of a vagabond ; it's your own fault, after all, isn't it ? You shouldn't have had a tramp for a son."
Paris and the artist colonies in the neighbourhood, Monaster, Nemours, Barbizon, were his favourite haunts. "I was for some time," he wrote, "a consistent Barbizonian ; et ego in Arcadia vixi." Indeed, he delighted in the life. Here he found it possible for him to be himself, to ignore small conventionalities, and to live with his own sweet thoughts ; they were much more interesting than stern realities.
Not far from Barbizon lay a little village called Grez, also sacred to artists. Here Stevenson spent a few days in the summer of 1875, but apparently the place did not appeal to him. At any rate, he wrote and told his mother that he was very glad to be back again at Barbizon and "to smell the wet forest in the morning."
In a letter written some time later, however, he declared that it was unspeakably delightful "to awake in Grez, to go down the green inn-garden, to find the river streaming through the bridge, and to see the dawn begin across the poplared level." And why ? Why this sudden change of opinion ? Usually there is only one answer to such questions - cherchez la femme. And perhaps it will serve again.
At any rate, when Stevenson arrived at Grez, in 1876, he found the little village in a state of great excitement. Preparations were being made for the reception of a woman artist. A woman artist! In those days such a phenomenon was almost unheard of outside Paris ; the woman of 1876 was a very different being to the woman of 1911.
And in due course the lady arrived. She proved to be an American, a certain Mrs. Osbourne, who had come to France to educate her children because her husband had made life impossible both for her and them at their home in California. In Paris she had made several artist friends, and they had recommended Grez to her as a peaceful, quiet retreat. It was, therefore, really quite natural that she should seek the place. And perhaps it was equally natural that Stevenson should fall in love with her immediately, for she happened to be the very woman for whom unconsciously he had long been seeking. He could not help himself ; she fascinated him, and her charm flooded him like an irresistible wave, carrying all before it. Of his friends, some laughed at his infatuation; others, those who esteemed him most highly, grew anxious and tried to stifle it, for Mrs. Osbourne was a married woman.
But there was no occasion for alarm. Stevenson saw the insuperable obstacles which stood between him and the realisation of his dreams. Indeed, his hopes for the future "seemed so remote that he dared not even to entertain them. For this reason, therefore, and to stay the voice of scandal, he buried his secret deep in his heart. And by discretion he displayed his wisdom.
And Mrs. Osbourne - she, too, loved, and she, too, saw the need of strangling that love, for she had children to consider, and for their sake was unwilling to divorce her husband. But, none the less, she cherished dearly her unattainable longing; in Stevenson she had found her ideal of manhood. And surely it is no matter for wonder that he should have appealed to her, for, in spite of ill-health and suffering, he was a big schoolboy, absurdly generous, bubbling with silliness and humour, and she a woman with whom the world had not dealt kindly. Besides, he possessed the divine gifts of sympathy and understanding, and that rare but curious power of attracting the good in everybody.
And it was in this man's company that Mrs. Osbourne passed the summer of 1876. A perfect friendship sprang up between them, and it was only when October came, and Stevenson found it necessary to return to Edinburgh, that they fully realised how much they had been to one another. But the man, at any rate, did not confide in anybody either his secret or his sorrow ; they were much too precious, much too dear. Even his parents suspected nothing ; outwardly he appeared as his own gay, irresponsible self.
From a sketch by F. S. Spence, N.p.g.
Only occasionally - sometimes in a letter - did he allow his true feelings to escape. " I am getting a lot of work ready in my mind," he wrote in 1878. "... What a blessing work is ! I don't think I could face life without it. . . . it helps so much." This he wrote in February, and at that time he had much need of consolation. Mrs. Osbourne had just returned to California.
He might never see her again; indeed, it was more than probable that he would not. The cruel thought obsessed him, and he found life an utter blank; the future seemed to hold nothing for him. No wonder he felt sad.
Do what he would, moreover, he could not banish the woman's portrait from his mind, nor the vision of an impossible happiness . " I heard," he wrote in September whi1e journeying through the Cevennes, " the voice of a woman singing some sad, old, endless ballad not far off. It seemed to be about love and a bel amonrenx. her handsome sweetheart ; and I wished I could have taken up the strain and answered her, as I went upon my invisible woodland way, weaving, like Pippa in the poem, my own thoughts with hers. What could I have told her ? Little enough, and yet all the heart requires. How the world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again in distant and strange lands ; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden ; and ' hope, which comes to all,' outwears the accidents of life and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say ; yea, but also, by God's mercy, both easy and grateful to believe ! "