Selected Writings of William Sharp, Vol. IV, Literary Geography


THE first time I saw Robert Louis Stevenson was at Waterloo Station.  I did not at that time know him even by sight, and there was no speculation as to identity in my mind when my attention was attracted by a passenger, of a strangeness of appearance almost grotesque, emerging from a compartment in the Bournemouth train which had just arrived.  I was at the station to meet a French friend coming by the Southampton route, but as I did not expect his arrival till by the express due some twenty minutes later, I allowed myself an idle and amused interest in the traveller who had just stepped on to the platform close by me. He was tall, thin, spare--indeed, he struck me as almost fantastically spare: I remember thinking that the station draught caught him like a torn leaf flowing at the end of a branch. His clothes hung about him, as the clothes of a convalescent who has lost bulk and weight after long fever. He had on a jacket of black velveteen--I cannot swear to the colour, but that detail always comes back in the recalled picture--a flannel shirt with a loose necktie negligently bundled into a sailor's-knot, somewhat fantastical trousers, though no doubt this effect was due in part to their limp amplitude about what seemed rather the thin green poles familiar in dahlia-pots than the legs of a human creature. He wore a straw hat, that in its rear rim suggested forgetfulness on the part of its wearer, who had apparently, in sleep or heedlessness, treated it as a cloth cap. These, however, were details in themselves trivial, and were not consciously noted till later. The long, narrow face, then almost sallow, with somewhat long, loose, dark hair, that draggled from beneath the yellow straw hat well over the ears, along the dusky hollows of temple and cheek, was what immediately attracted attention. But the extraordinariness of the impression was of a man who had just been rescued from the sea ora river. Except for the fact that his clothes did not drip, that the long black locks hung limp but not moist, and that the short velveteen jacket was disreputable but not damp, this impression of a man just come or taken from the water was overwhelming. That it was not merely an impression of my own was proved by the exclamation of a cabman, who was standing beside me expectant of a "fare" who had gone to look after his luggage: "Looks like a sooercide, don't he, sir? one o' them chaps as takes their down-on-their luck 'eaders inter the Thimes!"  And, truth to tell, my fancy was somewhat to the same measure. I looked again, seriously wondering if the unknown had really suffered a recent submersion, voluntary or involuntary.

Meanwhile he had stepped back into the compartment, and was now emerging again with a travelling rug and a book he had obviously forgotten. Our eyes met. I was struck by their dark luminousness below the peculiar eyebrows; and, if not startled, which is perhaps too exaggerated a term, was certainly impressed by their sombre melalicholy. Some poor fellow, I thought, on the last coasts of consumption with Shadow-Ferry almost within hail.

The next moment another and more pleasing variant of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mystery was enacted. The stranger, who had been standing as if  bewildered, certainly irresolute, had dropped his book, and with long, white, nervous fingers was with one hand crumpling and twisting the loose ends of his plaid or rug. Suddenly the friend whom he was expecting came forward. The whole man seemed to change. The impression of emaciation faded; the "drowned" look passed; even the damaged straw hat and the short velveteen jacket and the shank-inhabited wilderness of trouser shared in this unique "literary renascence."  But the supreme change was in the face. The dark locks apparently receded, like weedy tangle in the ebb; the long sallow oval grew rounder and less wan; the sombre melancholy vanished like cloud-scud on a day of wind and sun, and the dark eyes lightened to a violet-blue and were filled with sunshine and laughter. An extraordinarily winsome smile invaded the face . . . pervaded the whole man, I was about to say.

The two friends were about to move away when I noticed the fallen book. I lifted and restored it, noticing as I did so that it was The Tragic Comedians.

"Oh, a thousand thanks . . . how good of you! "The manner was of France, the accent North-country, the intonation somewhat strident--that of the Lothians or perhaps of  Fife.

Who was this puzzling and interesting personality, I now wondered--this stranger like a consumptive organ-grinder, with such charm of manner, perforce or voluntarily so heedless in apparel, and a lover of George Meredith?

This problem was solved for me by the sudden appearance on the scene of my French friend. After all he had come by this train, but, a traveller in an end carriage, had not seen me on arrival, and, too, had been immersed in that complicated jargon indulged in between foreigners and the British porter which is our Anglo-Franco variety of Pidgeon-English.

We had hardly greeted each other, when he exclaimed, "Ah ! . . . so you know him?" indicating, as he spoke, the retreating fellow traveller in the velveteen jacket and straw hat.

"No? why . . . I thought you would have known . . . why, it is your homme-de-lettres vraiment charmant, Robert Louis Stevenson!" I have met him more than once in France, and when he saw me at a station he jumped out and spoke to me--and at Basingstoke he sent me by a porter this French volume, see, with a kind message that he had read it and desired me not to trouble about its return."

Often, of course, in later years, I recalled that meeting. It was the more strange to encounter Robert Louis Stevenson, and to hear of him thus from, a foreigner, at an English railway-station, as only a few days earlier I had received a letter from him, apropos of something on a metrical point which I had written in the Academy. How glad I would have been to know to whom it was I handed back the dropped Tragic Comedians!

And as the outward man was, so was his genius, so is the country of his imagination. The lands of Stevenson-country know the same extremes: sombre, melancholy, stricken--or radiant, picturesque, seductive; full of life and infinite charm; so great a range between the snow-serenities of Silverado and the lone Beach of Falesa, or between the dreary manse-lands of "Thrawn Janet" or the desolate sea-highlands of   "The Merry Men" and the bright dance of waters round the Bass and beyond the Pavilion on the Links, or the dreamy peace of "Will O' the Mill," or the sunlit glades of Fontainebleau which hid the treasure of Franchard--as, again, between Pew or Huish or other vivid villains of all degrees, from Long John Silver to James More, and the polished Prince Florizel, the Chevalier de Brisetout, the old French colonel in St. Ives, the dour David Balfour and the irrepressible Alan Breck, between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, between the Stevenson of Aes Triplex or Pulvis et Umbya, and the Stevenson of Travels with a Donkey or An Inland Voyage. And through all the countries of Stevenson, as through his genius, as ever with the man himself, the heart-warming, radiant smile is ever near or is suddenly come.

The true Stevenson--because nature and temperament concur in expression with dramatic selection and literary instinct--is continually revealed when he writes of the open. The most ordinary statements have sea in them: we are thrilled, as was the the leap of the wind and the dance of the hero of Kidnapped, at the "first sight of the Firth lying like a blue floor." What intoxication--certainly, at least, for those who know the country--to read of that blithe windy, East-Scotland coast that Stevenson loved so well, the country so lovingly depicted in The Pavilion on the Links, Catriona, and elsewhere, that tract of windy bent-grass, with its "bustle of down-popping rabbits and up-flying gulls," where Cassilis watched the Red Earl beyond the sea-wood of Graden, where Alan Breck and David Balfour so impatiently awaited the long-delaying boat of the sloop Thistle. But those down-popping rabbits and upflying gulls are too seductive . . . one is mentally transported to the east-wind-bitten sea-sounding shores of the Lothians. The passage must be quoted in full--for here we have the core of the country which Stevenson loved above all else, his own homelands, from Edinburgh and the Pentlands on the north and west to the Lammerrmuir and the coast of Lothian on the east:

"As we had first made inland " (thus the sober David Balfour sets forth in Catriona) " so our road came in the end to be very near due north; the old kirk of Aberlady for a landmark on the left; on the right, the top of the Berwick Law; and it was thus we struck the shore again, not far from Dirleton. From North Berwick east to Gullane Ness there runs a string of four small islets--Craigleith, the Lamb, Fidra, and Eyebrough--notable by their diversity of size and shape. Fidra is the most particular, being a strange grey islet of two humps, made the more conspicuous by a piece of ruin; and I mind that (as we drew closer to it) by some door or window of the ruins the sea peeped through like a man's eye. Under the lee of Fidra there is a good anchorage in westerly winds, and there, from a far way off, we could see the Thistle riding. . . . The shore in face of these islets is altogether waste. Here is no dwelling of man, and scarce any passage, or at most of vagabond children running at their play. Gullane is a small place on the far side of the Ness; the folk of Dirleton go to their business in the inland fields, and those of North Berwick straight to the seafishing from their haven, so that few parts of the coast are lonelier. But I mind, as we crawled upon our bellies into that multiplicity of heights and hollows, keeping a bright eye upon all sides, and our hearts hammering at our ribs, there was such a shining of the sun and the sea, such a stir of the wind in the bent-grass, and such a bustle of down- popping, rabbits and up-flying gulls, that the desert seemed to me like a place that is alive."

Certainly this brings us to the point as to what is Stevenson's country.  If we were to follow that wandering pen of his, it would lead us far afield: through the Scottish Lowlands and the Highland West by Ochil and Pentland to Corstorphine Height and the Braid Hills, with Edinburgh between them and the sea; from Arthur's Seat to Berwick Law and from the moorlands of Pomathorn and La Mancha to Lammermuir, where it breaks in vast grassy slopes and heath-tangled haughs to the wild shores between Tantallon and St. Abbs'; from the lone Solway shores, where the sorrows of Durrisdeer were enacted, to storm-swept Aros and the foam-edged Earraid of Mull, and thence by Morven and the Braes of Balquhidder; and then, southward, through long tracts of England from Carlisle and winding Eden to Market Bosworth, in a field near which, it will be remembered, the hero of St. Ives and "the Major" buried the old French colonel--a fit companion for Colonel Newcome, if they met, as surely they have done, at the Club of the Immortals. From the Midlands may be struck the Great North Road, whose name haunted Stevenson's imagination like music, so that he dreamed to weave around it one of his best romances; and that in turn will lead to London and the scenic background of so many fantastic episodes, and above all (to the true Stevensonian) to Rupert Street, off   Leicester Square, where, it is understood, the ever delightfully urbane Prince Florizel of Bohemia kept a tobacconist's shop. Then would come Burford Bridge, in the heart of Surrey, so wed to a great personal association and to a famous passage in the Essay on Romance. Due south lies the English coast, with all its associations with the boyhood of the hero of Treasure Island . . . and its many personal associations with Stevenson himself, who lived awhile at Bournemouth West, in a pleasant house on the pine-lands to which he had given the name of "Skerryvore," in remembrance of that greatest achievement of his family "the lighthouse builders."

But this covers only a small tract of the literary geography of the Stevenson-lands. Across the near seas are Flanders and the Dutch Netherlands, where David Balfour followed Catriona, and where James More intrigued and idly dreamed to the last: Paris, the background of so many fine episodes, from that of the Sire de Maletroit's Door and A Lodging for the Night to the famous scene where Prince Florizel throws the Rajah's Diamond into the Seine: Fontainebleau, with all its happy personal memories of   "R. L. S." when resident at Barbizon with his cousin "R. A. M. S.,"*  and all its associations with that delightful tale The Treasure of Franchard; the lovely river scenery of  An Inland Voyage, and the picturesque Cevennes Highlands of Travels with a Donkey; and Marseilles and HyEres, each of them "a paradise" till the Serpent soon or late (and generally, here as elsewhere, soon) entered in guise of a crafty landlord or servant-worry or relaxing climate or fever or other ailment. When I was last in the HyŤres neighbourhood I visited the charming villa where Stevenson declared he had at last found the ideal place "to live in, to work in, and to die in" and understood why, a little later, he alluded to it in terms more vigorous and unconventional than eulogistic! Nevertheless, his HyŤres home, and its garden that "thrilled all night with the flutes of silence," had ever a treasured place in his memory.

*The late Robert Allen Mowbray Stevenson was commonly known by his initials: one of the most lovable of men, an artist, and the most illuminating and suggestive of modern writers on art (his study of Velasquez and Fromentin's maitres d'Autyefois are I think, two of the most suggestive and fascinating of modern books on art), he lackcd in creative power that energy and charm which in person he had to a degree not less than revealed in R. L. S.

Then across the wider seas there are the forests of New England, where Ticonderoga wandered, and where the Master of Ballantrae came to his tragic end; the green Adirondacks and the snow-clad heights where the Silverado squatters gained new life and hope; the vast prairies across which the emigrant train wearily toiled; and San Francisco, like a white condor from the Andes at her sea-eyrie by the Golden Horn--the San Francisco whence sailed the Stevensonian schooners of fact and fancy, now bearing "R. L. S." to Pacific Isles, now carrying one or other of those adventurers whose very existence on earth was a wellspring of joy to Stevenson's romantic imagination--the San Francisco where he married the lady who as "Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson" was afterwards to share with him the repute won by some of his most fantastic and delightful work. It is, however, pleasanter to turn from Callfornia, where, at an earlier period, at Los Angeles and elsewhere, "R. L. S." knew so much privation and disheartenment at a time when health, finances, and prospects ran a neck-and-neck race for final collapse, to that wide sunlit ocean where to the imagination Romance for ever sails in a white sloop before a south wind. The Samoan Islands--here, above all, we may find ourselves at one of the least unstable of Stevenson's wandering homes! His only home of late years, indeed, and where the desire of change and movement ceased to irritate the longing mind acutely, and where some of his finest work was achieved, and much that was delightful and fascinating sent out to an ever-widening circle of eager readers. Nor, to the lover of Stevenson, can any place be more sacred than that lonely island in the Pacific, and the lonely highland forest in the heart of it, at whose summit lies the mortal part of "Tusitala," the teller of tales, the singer of songs, whose lovely requiem is, in his own words, so unforgettable in their restful music and in the inward cadence of the heart speaking:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie;
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

A friend who saw Stevenson in Samoa told me that once, on half-jocularly asking him "what's your secret?" "R. L. S." answered: "Oh, it's only that I've always known what I liked and what I wanted; and that, with the power to convince yourself and others, is rarer than you think." And though that is only a facet of truth, it's an acute flash on life so far as it extends. In Samoa as elsewhere he knew what he liked, and why he liked, whether in life or literature. Years before, in An Inland Voyage, he had said the same thing: "To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive."

But the Stevenson country! How are we to define that? We cannot, in this instance, follow the wandering genius of the author whom we all love: a map of  "Treasure Island" we can have, it is true, for who has forgotten that delightful chart which once set so many hearts a-beating? but from the coral-circt isles of the Pacific round the long world of green and grey to the dark Water of Swift, by the wastes of Solway, or to the lone House of Aros by the seafacing hills of Argyll, to follow the devious track of "R.L.S." would be too extensive a trip for us to overtake here. And then, too, there is the Land of Counterpane! How is one to chart that delightful country? We all know that it comes within the literary geography of the imagination, but then that rainbow-set continent itself is as difficult to reach as Atlantis, or the Isle of Avalon, or Hy Brasil, or any other of the Islands of Dreams.

No, obviously we must take the more local sense, and by Stevenson's country mean the country of his birth and upbringing--"the lands that made him," as he said once. In his case, certainly, this does not mean dissociation from his work. The "literary geography of Rudyard Kipling," for instance, would be everywhere save the place where that distinguished writer's forbears dwelt; nor does it matter to any one (be it said without impertinence) that Mr. Kipling lived and wrote at Rottingdean, or wrote and lived in Manhattan. This is neither a compliment nor the reverse: simply a statement of a sentiment many feel . . . a sentiment to which allusion is made in another article in this series, in connection with George Eliot. We are keenly interested in Gad's Hill, in Abbotsford, in Vailima--in Stevenson's instance, as in Dickens' and Scott's, in every place where he made or attempted to make a home. There are other writers, whose work perhaps we admire as much or more, who, for all we care, might have written their books in a Swiss hotel or a New York boarding-house, or even inside a London 'bus. It is not a thing easily to be explained, perhaps is not explicable: it either is, or is not, to be felt.

How would Stevenson himself define his country? In one of his essays he alludes to youthful seductive avenues to romance as "Penny plain and twopence coloured." For all the multi-coloured shift and chance of foreign travel and life in South-sea climes, I think the "Twopence coloured" country to which his imagination and longing would have come for choice, had to choose one way been necessary, would have been those beloved home-lands between the links of Gullane and that old manse by Swanston in the Pentlands. The way would be by one of those old green drove-roads such as that by which David Balfour left Essendean after his father's death, when he set out for distant Cramond, a two-days' long march till he should come upon the House of Shaws. It would wind through the Lothians, with many a glimpse of the sea leaning ashine across the green bar of the landward horizon, or of the Firth of Forth lying like "a blue floor." It would lead by the Braid Hills to Bristo and the Bruntsfield links--whereby the hero of Catriona fought his fantastic duel with the touchy Highland officer, Lieutenant Hector Duncansby, who, as he informed David, was "ferry prave myself, and pold as a lions"--and so "to the top of a hill," where still the sheep nibble the sweet grass save when the golfer's artillery drives them to the furze-garths, to where "all the country will fall away down to the sea, and, in the midst of the descent, on a long.ridge, the city of Edinburgh smoking like a kiln." The green drove-road would end, and Edinburgh be entered by way of the white roads of  Liberton or the Braid; and the old picturesque city be traversed and retraversed this way and that, and of course, not unmindful of that Howard Place where, at No. 8, Robert Louis Stevenson was born--to emerge beyond the Dean Bridge, or where Murrayfield leans over the Water of Leith and looks towards Corstorphine Hill, whose woods are now metropolitan-at whose familiar landmark, the "Rest-and-Be-Thankful," Alan Breck and David Balfour parted when they had all but come upon Silvermills after that long perilous flight of theirs towards and hitherward the Highland line. Then looping Cramond and the House of Shaws, the way would cross over the strath between Corstorphine and Dreghorn, and mount by Colinton and Juniper Green, to embrace that pleasant isolated manse of Swanston, where Stevenson spent so many happy days of boyhood, and to which his thoughts so often lovingly wandered, and, further, the higher Pentland moorland region, to be for ever associated with Weir of Hermiston. One can, in a word, outline Stevenson's own country as all the region that on a clear day one may in the heart of Edinburgh descry from the Castle walls. Thence one may look down towards the climbing streets of the old town, with its many closes and wynds, where the young advocate pursued so many avocations to the detriment of his formal vocation; one may think of all Stevenson's personal associations with Edinburgh, and of how St. Ives looked over these very walls, and how, within them, the French prisoners of war "ate their hearts out": of yonder building, still the Bank of the British Linen Company, within whose doors David Balfour was to find fortune at last, and at whose portal, when the reader comes upon the closing words of Kidnapped, the young Laird of Shaws is left standing; of that hidden close yonder, where Catriona Drummond met her fate when she accepted the "saxpence" that had come "all the way from Balquhidder"; of the gloomy house over against the Canongate and the Netherbow where Prestongrange and Simon Fraser spun their webs of intrigue; away down to where the Leith spires glitter against the glittering Forth, whence David and Catriona looked up that morning when Captain Sang brought his brigantine out of the Roads, and saw "Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills glinting above in a kind of smuisty brightness, now and again overcome with blots of cloud," with no more than the chimney-tops of Leith visible because of the haar; or over westward to "the village of Dean lying in the hollow of a glen by the waterside," now a grey declivity by a ravine in the very body of the city; or sheer down, where now are pleasant gardens and a continual business of hurried folk and idlers, but once was marish and thick undergrowth of gorse and bramble, to the most splendid street in Europe, changed indeed from the days of Kidnapped and Catriona and the final upbreak of all the broken families who held by the Stuart dynasty--the Lang Dykes, as Princes Street was then called, when it was a broad walk by the water-edge to the north of the grey bristling lizard of the old town; or due westward, past Corstorphine, round which the houses now gather like the clotted foam upon a rising tide, and over Colinton way to Swanston "in the green lap of the Pentland Hills," and so to Cauldstaneslap and all the scenery of the history of the Weirs and Rutherfords and Black Elliotts, to where Archie and Kirstie met by night on the moor, and where Lord Heriniston's grim smile seems to be part of the often beautiful but oftener sombre landscape. From distant Berwick Law and the dim blur of the Bass Rock--in certain pages concerning which, both as to the imprisonment there of David and as to how Black Andie entertained him with the awful tale of Tod Lapraik, Stevenson is at the same inimitable height of narrative as with --a still broader handling he attained in Weir of Hermiston--to the Hawes Inn by the Queen's Ferry, there is hardly a mile of land which is not coloured by the life and romantic atmosphere of him whom we lovingly speak of as "R. L. S."

Was he really "a changeling," as one of his friends half-seriously averred ? No, he was only one of those rare temperaments which gather to themselves the floating drift blowing upon every wind from every quarter; one of those creative natures which, in their own incalculable seasons and upon their own shifting pastures, reveal again, in a new and fascinating texture and pageant of life, the innumerable flowers and weeds come to them in invisible seed from near and far. But, to many people, Stevenson had something of the elfish character. A bookseller's assistant, who knew him well in the early Edinburgh days, told me that "Mr. Stevenson often gave the impression he wasna quite canny"--not in the sense that he was " wandering," but that "he had two ways wi' him, an' you never kenned which was Mr. Stevenson and which was the man who wasna listening, but was, as ye micht say, thinkin' and talkin' wi' some one else." Very likely "R. L. S." occasionally gave a fillip to any bewildered fancy of the kind. Some will recall how he himself at one time thought that the unfortunate Scottish poet Ferguson was reincarnate in himself. But others also "felt strangely" to him. There is that singular story, told by a friend of the family, Miss Blantyre Simpson, of how the late Sir Percy and Lady Shelley both believed that Shelley had been re-born in Robert Louis Stevenson, and how Lady Shelley went so far as to bear a deep resentment against Mrs. Stevenson as the mother of the child that ought to have been her own Mrs. Stevenson told us, hearing Lady Shelley had called and was alone, she, glancing at herself in a glass to see there was no hair awry, went smiling into the room, ready, she said, to be adored as the mother of the man her visitor and Sir Percy flattered and praised. But when she introduced herself, Lady Shelley rose indignantly and turned from her proffered hand. She accused Mrs. Stevenson of having robbed her of a son, for she held Louis should have been sent to her, that he was the poet's grandson; but by some perverse trickery, of which she judged Mrs. Stevenson guilty, this descendant of Percy Bysshe had come to a house in Howard Place, Edinburgh, instead of hers at Boscombe Manor."

I do not know if Stevenson ever heard of this story. It might have touched his mind to some grotesque or tragic imaginative fancy.

As for his elfin-country, it was not changeling-land; but that country bordered by the shores of old Romance of which he traversed so many provinces, and even, as is the wont of explorers, gave a name to this or that virgin tract, as "The Land of Counterpane."

It would be difficult indeed to say where Stevenson is at his best. By common consent Weir of Hermiston is held his most masterly achievement, so far as one may discern a finished masterpiece in a masterly fragment. If  I had to name three pieces of descriptive writing, I think I should say the chapter on the Bass Rock in Catriona, the account of the wild Mull coast and desolate highlands in The Merry Men, and, in another kind, A Lodging for the Night. Probably no living writer--unless it be Mr. Meredith--has surpassed Stevenson here; as few, if any, have equalled him in dramatic episode such as the quarrel of Alan Breck and David Balfour in Kidnapped (concerning which Mr. Henry James said once that he knew "few better examples of the way genius has ever a surprise in its pocket "), or the immortal duel between Henry Durrisdeer and the Master of Ballantrae, or the outwardly more commonplace but not less dramatic and impressive final scene between Archie Weir and Lord Hermiston. Read these, and then consider how even a writer of the calibre of Mr. Rudard Kipling can misjudge--as when the author of Kim (a book itself commonly misjudged, I think, and one, surely, that Stevenson would have ranked among its writer's best) wrote in the unpleasing arrogance of rivalry : "There is a writer called Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson who makes the most delicate inlay-work in black and white, and files out to the fraction of a hair."

It is impossible in a short article to give adequate illustration by quotation. But even a. few words may reveal the master's touch. Here is the passage where (in Catriona) the Bass is seen at dawn:

"There began to fall a grayness on the face of the sea; little dabs of pink and red, like coals of slow fire, came in the east; and at the same time the geese awakened, and began crying about the top of the Bass. It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from. The sea was extremely little, but there went a hollow plowter round the base of it. With the growing of the dawn, I could see it clearer and clearer; the straight crags painted with sea-birds' droppings like a morning frost, the sloping top of it green with grass, the clan of white geese that cried about the sides, and the black broken buildings of the prison sitting close on the sea's edge."

Or, again, take the following from The Merry Men:

"The night, though we were so little past midsummer, was as dark as January. Intervals of a groping twilight alternated with spells of utter blackness; and it was impossible to trace the reason of these changes in the flying horror of the sky. The wind blew the breath out of a man's nostrils; all heaven seemed to thunder overhead like one huge sail; and when there fell a momentary lull on Aros, we could hear the gusts dismally sweeping in the distance. Over all the lowlands of the Ross the wind must have blown as fierce as on the open sea; and God only knows the uproar that was raging round the head of Ben Kyaw. Sheets of mingled spray and rain were driven in our faces. All round the isle of Aros the surf, with an incessant, hammering thunder, beat upon the reefs and beaches. Now louder in one place, now lower in another, like the combinations of orchestral music, the constant mass of sound was hardly varied for a moment. And loud above all this burly-burly I could hear the changeful voices of the Roost and the intermittent roaring of The Merry Men."

How virile this is, how vivid and convincing !

That wonderful West described in The Merry Men and in the Highland chapters of Kidnapped is seized with extraordinary insight and sympathetic power by Stevenson, who, though a Lowlander and Edinburgh-born (and Edinburgh folk, it is said, are all born with a bit of North Sea ice in their veins and a touch of the grey east wind in their minds), wrote of the Gaelic lands with the love and understanding which so often beget essential intimacy.

Stevenson complained sadly of Thoreau that he had no waste-lands in his "improved-and-sharpened-to-a-point nature," and added that he was "almost shockingly devoid of weaknesses."  None could write so of "R.L.S."; but it is the weaknesses in which he was so "shockingly" conspicuous that, along with high and rare qualities of mind and nature, as well as of imagination and art, have endeared to us, and surely will endear to those who come after us, the most winsome and most lovable of men of genius.

Return to Volume IV, Contents