Walter Simpson, Bart for Friends, had memories with Robert Louis Stevenson going back to childhood when they were neighbors and could be seen playing together in Queen Street Gardens in the newer and nicer part of Edinburgh, in Scotland. Bart’s father, Sir James Simpson, had earned his knight’s title through his great contribution to medicine and humanity when he introduced chloroform for anesthetic purposes in medical procedures. Simpson had experimented on himself to do so, a practice his son’s playmate remembered and exploited years later when Stevenson’s fictional Dr Jekyll did the same in his fictional laboratory in London. On the death of Sir James, his son inherited the title of baronet, becoming Sir Walter Simpson, Stevenson’s companion during the canoe odyssey in Belgium and France which gave him material for his first book, An Inland Voyage (1876 ). Sir Bart also had health problems. Writing to his friend Bart de Baker’s in early October 1887, Louis had this to say:
“My dear Simpson, the address is c / o Charles Scribner’s Sons, 243 Broadway, NY, where I would like you to write to let us know you are doing better. But the place of our abode is Lake Saranac in the Adirondacks; it is a very good place and i mean it will do me good. Indeed, the terrible depression and collapse of last summer are over; it was a profound change that I wanted; I might be wondering if he wouldn’t pick you up – if you haven’t picked up already; you have been in Great Britain for a long time, and it is a slow poison, very slow for the strong, but certain for all.
Bart never came to Saranac Lake but thousands did, following the path laid out by Dr Edward Livingston Trudeau, himself a victim of tuberculosis or tuberculosis, also known as consumption and “white death” by the victims who came here, when they in turn were called ” lungs “ by the native Adirondackers already here, like the Bakers. But Trudeau was the one who discovered that Stevenson, his “Illustrious patient” as he liked to call it, ultimately didn’t have tuberculosis.
Stevenson liked to walk. As a teenager, his disability still restricted this activity only on the days when he felt “shabby” or worse. Therefore, Louis regularly skipped school to roam around Edinburgh’s Old Town, the no-go area if you were a New Town boy like him. There, Louis fits easily with the less fortunate inhabitants of the Scottish capital where “I was,” he said, “The companion of sailors, chimney sweeps and thieves”. It was there that he spent his income, in pubs and brothels, nicknamed “Velvet coat” by prostitutes.
The Pentland Hills, just outside the city limits of Edinburgh, were and still are a great place to walk in the summer. Swanston Cottage, all alone in the midst of them, was rented out by Thomas Stevenson, the father of skipping school, to be a family getaway for many years. Some of the boy’s favorite memories have been kept there after exploring the area. So when his days were numbered halfway across the world in Oceania, Louis returned there in his two unfinished novels, Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives.
Stevenson based his second book, “Trips with a donkey”, on 12 days of walking in a remote region of France with a donkey while camping at night in a wild nature populated by bandits and wolves. By this time, Louis was already in his love crisis with Ms Fanny Osbourne, who had returned to California with her two children. His pursuit of her by going there like “The amateur emigrant” would reveal his character and shape his future, but it nearly killed him too. His disability is therefore accentuated in the company of a newcomer, “Bloody Jack” Stevenson’s nemesis, his lungs bleeding. Walking for fun was a thing of the past when RLS traveled to the Swiss Alps for its first winter in Davos, another spa town, the Magic Mountain from Thomas Mann’s famous novel. It was four months after the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson.
Seven years will pass before the author of “Treasure Island” could enjoy real nature again while walking and it happened here at Saranac Lake especially on the lower slopes of Mount Baker between the Saranac River and Moody Pond, hundreds of acres of private woodlots and fields owned by its owner, Andrew Baker, to whom he paid $ 50 a month to house him and his family during the winter of 1887-1888.
During those seven years of worse-than-usual ill health, Stevenson had managed to throw into the world, his “greatest hits” in literature, the books that had already made him a household name in the United States, before. to show up all of a sudden. in Lake Saranac. In fact, his most recent move, “The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, had propelled him to star status here in the United States, coinciding with his trip to those mountains. Such fame was new to Louis and it was not his cup of tea. Stevenson was still a guest of the Fairchilds in Newport, Rhode Island, when he started complaining. “My welcome here was stupid to the last degree”, he wrote to Sidney Colvin. “If Jesus Christ came, they would make less noise. “ The same day he wrote to Henry James: “What a silly thing is popularity. I envy the cold darkness of Skerryvore “ (old house in Bournemouth, England).
Two and a half weeks later, Louis was harping on this subject again after moving to Baker’s for the winter. In this letter to Bart Simpson he says of the fame that “The thing in general is a nuisance and a fraud; and i’m much happier here where i don’t see anyone and i live my own life. His next letter went to (Sir) Edmund Gosse, informing him that the celebrity could “go a long way to spoil a man; and I like myself better in the woods.
To her sister, Jane Balfour, in Scotland, Stevenson’s mother, Margaret, made this observation: “Louis always walks around on his own, and hates meeting someone when he’s out; he is happy that we are far from the village and that there is a private pine forest very close behind the house.
Every fall the residents of the Tri-Lakes take advantage of the glorious Indian summer days and Stevenson put it to good use when he was here as well. Unfortunately, they don’t stay. Louis was still able to go out in the snow, like us, until sooner or later we were snowy. For RLS, it happened early, in November. On the 20th, he wrote to Sidney Colvin again: “But I wish I could still go into the woods; alas, ‘we will no longer go to the woods’, is my poor song; the paths are buried, the dingles are full adrift, a small walk becomes long; until spring arrives I’m afraid the Vurthen will resist.
Now Stevenson’s walks were limited to his owner’s 58-foot porch, front to back. That’s what he was doing one evening in December, when he was designing the plot of his next adventure novel … “The Master of Ballantrae.” One of the last things he’s done, literally, since his last home in the South Seas, was to write about the genesis of Ballantrae:
“I was walking one night in the veranda of a small house in which I lived, outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter; The night was very dark; the extraordinary air, clear and cold, and soft with the purity of the forests. From a good path below, we could hear the river struggling against the ice and the rocks; A few lights appeared, scattered unevenly in the darkness, but so far away that they did not diminish the feeling of isolation. To make a story, those were good conditions. ‘Come’ I said to my engine, ‘Let’s make a tale, a story of many years and countries, of sea and land, of savagery and civilization … “
To be continued.