Trusty, dusky, vivid, true,
Steel-true and blade-straight
The great Artificer
Made my mate.
And surely the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson deserved this tribute from her husband. She must have been a splendid, fascinating woman. What one knows of her suffices to prove this, and one knows very much less than one would like to know.
The love affairs of most great men, especially writers, are common knowledge. But Stevenson's, by some strange mischance, has been allowed to remain veiled in obscurity. As a matter of fact, he had only one. This may serve partly to explain the mystery. And that one ended happily. This, perhaps, completes the explanation. To Byron, for example, and to Shelley the pen brought fame ; the heart notoriety, and notoriety too often lives longer in the memory of man either than fame or happiness, a still more precious prize.
As a lover, therefore, Stevenson is barely known. The popular impression of the man is merely as a great writer who travelled incessantly, who knew all that was to be known about the South Sea Islands, and who was comparatively indifferent to the attractiveness of women. But he was much more than this. He was one of the most compelling characters of modern times, a giant among giants in spite of his frail body. He travelled widely, it is true, but mainly because he possessed a restless, Bohemian spirit. Similarly, he lived in the South Seas mainly because the state of his health made it impossible for him to live elsewhere. And, if he paid but little attention to women, surely it was because the influence of a few monopolised his life entirely. In his mother, his nurse, and then in his wife were centred all his affections. The only other woman in whom he took a serious interest was a little girl two and a half years old whom he met once on his Continental travels. But his friends were numberless.
Love came to him but once. It came then, however, in all its fulness. Indeed, ' the woman whom," Gerald Balfour declares, " Fate brought halfway across the world to meet him " grew in his eyes to be incomparably the most precious thing in life ; he adored her with all his soul. But, alas! she was already married when he met her. Love, therefore, seemed likely always to remain with him a hopeless passion, but still it did not waver ; it was a love such as few men bear, and in the end it triumphed over every obstacle. How could it have done otherwise ? Amor vincit omnia.
By birth Stevenson was a Scotsman, but only by birth ; he inherited the qualities neither of his parents nor his race. An idealist and a dreamer, he possessed an inborn love for the lawlessness of Nature, and in the fantastic and the mysterious he revelled, even as a child, perhaps because he was delicate, for, like most delicate children, he was wildly imaginative.
" Mamma," he said once, " I have drawed a man. Shall I draw his soul now ? ' And the remark was characteristic. The boy proved in truth to be the father to the man. Indeed, the passing years, instead of ordering his mind, made it only more fanciful.
And yet his parents wanted him to become an engineer, and to spend his life in an office poring over maps and plans. It was an impossible desire. The training, it is true, proved greatly to his liking, but only the training, for it entailed no actual work ; it merely kept him " hanging about harbour-sides," and this he found to be " the richest form of idling." In short, the boy loved ships not as ships, but because they sailed upon the sea, the sea in whose depths he saw buried all the beauties and mysteries of life.
And before long this truth dawned even upon his father. But to the latter, for he was a practical minded man, it came as a sorry disappointment to know that he had a son endowed with the temperament of an artist and the soul of a poet. But, for he was also a wise man, he disguised his feelings, and allowed his son to follow his natural bent towards literature.
But he made one condition. The boy, he said, must at the same time study for the Bar, in order that, should he fail as a writer - and this, needless to say, was assumed - he might have some other calling to fall back upon.
And Robert accepted this condition readily. In fact, he welcomed it; his legal studies, he hoped, would enable him sometimes to escape from the dull respectability of a Scottish household and to mingle with men who did not regard every question from a standpoint tediously conventional. Much as he loved his home, he often found life there intolerably monotonous.
Besides, his mother firmly refused to recognise him as a man or to release him from the bondage of her apron strings. This was ridiculous. Indeed, in 1872, when he suggested to her that he should spend the summer session at some German university, the idea horrified the good lady to such an extent that, being a dutiful son, he had no alternative other than to abandon it. And he was then twenty-two years old.
Early in 1873, however, he secured emancipation. His health broke down completely, and the symptoms were unmistakable ; consumption had fastened a hold upon him. Forthwith, therefore, he was sent to Switzerland, and more than a year elapsed before he returned to Scotland. And then, since he came back apparently strong and well, it was impossible for him to be regarded longer as a child. Indeed, his father even went so far as to undertake in future to allow him the munificent sum of £7 a month.
To Robert this meant undreamed-of wealth, and that which is more valuable than wealth - freedom. Henceforth, he felt, he would be able to live how and where he liked. And, what is more, he did. He was perpetually on the travel.