Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“
[graphic]

The boat-landing at the Maison Chevillon, where Stevenson kept his canoe

With Stevenson at Grez

By BIRGE HARRISON

T was a memorable day for Stevenson cigarette the Arethusa when the Cigarette and the Arethusa moored at the foot of the narrow little garden which leads from the shores of the Loing up to the old Pension Chevillon at Grez. Could he have foreseen that the apparently simple act of tying his canoerope to the landing-post that morning was to make of him a world-wanderer, that it would cut him off definitely from his beloved Scotland and all that Scotland meant to him, that it would lead him as an "Amateur Immigrant" to California, that it would start him on that year-long cruise of the Pacific, and waft him at last, like a piece of driftwood, to far-off Samoacould he have foreseen all this, would he, I wonder, have set foot ashore that warm summer morning, or, turning his prow once more to the current, paddled on down-stream to Paris and the sea? Truly I believe that he would have landed only the more joyously, for Stevenson was nothing if not a true sport. Despite a

frail physique, he sought adventure eagerly and stood always ready to meet it more than half-way. Nothing ever daunted him, and nothing so roused him to anger as any suggestion that his own health should be allowed to weigh in the balance when there was question of adventure by flood or by field. As a matter of fact, and as time proved, he possessed an astonishing reserve of nervous energy, and in certain cases where other stronger men went to pieces, his high spirits seemed to serve him adequately in lieu of physical strength.

But he well knew, and has himself said, that the great adventure is not that which we go forth to seek in far places, but that which comes to seek us by the fireside. And this was more than half true in his own case, for it was not upon any business of his own that he came to Grez, but rather because our fellow-art-student and comrade Willie Simpson was a brother to Sir Walter Simpson, who was the Cigar

ette of Stevenson's "An Inland Voyage" and his present companion.

It was a gay, picturesque, and genuinely Bohemian community in which he found himself at Grez, and it has seemed to me that it might be well worth while to describe it in some detail, in view of the fact that it was destined to form the background of Stevenson's life for many months to come.

The nucleus of the colony was AngloSaxon, and the majority of its members were either English or Americans; but there was a sufficient sprinkling of French and Scandinavians to give a cosmopolitan quality to the gathering, and an occasional Spaniard or Italian added a touch of Southern color. All of its members were either artists, artists' models en villégi ature, or students of art in painting and sculpture, or in music, literature, or the drama.

The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind and memory is my beloved chum and studio-companion Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters. Robinson, like Stevenson, was a semi-invalid, a great sufferer from asthma, which never gave him a moment's respite; but, like Stevenson again, he never allowed his weakness to interfere in any way with the main business of life or to intrude itself upon others. His infectious laugh I can hear to this day, and the subdued chuckle with which he met the little daily contretemps of existence was a tonic and an inspiration to those about him. Robinson was far from handsome in the

classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance. But when one of the French comrades threw an arm about his shoulders, and casting a sidewise and puzzled glance upon him remarked, “Tu es vilain, Robinson; mais je t'aime," we all understood, for out of those goggle-eyes

shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor. Stevenson and he at once became bosom friends and companions, for they were hewn out of the same block.

I shall not forget Stevenson's joy at the manner in which Robinson once put an end to a rather tiresome rainy-day discussion on the subject of genealogy, during which we had been treated to more or less colorful accounts of the distinguished lineage of most of those present.

Robinson had remained silent throughout the discussion, with only an occasional subterranean chuckle to indicate that he was listening to the conversation. Finally some one called out:

"Bobbie, we have not yet heard from you. Who were your noble ancestors, anyway?"

With a subdued twinkle he replied:

"Well, if you really wish to know, I will tell you. My father was a farmer, and my grandparents were both very respectable and deserving domestic servants. I have never carried my investigation any further up the family-tree."

There was a short, somewhat embarrassed silence, and then Stevenson threw his arms about Robinson's shoulders with a shout of joy.

"Tu es vilain, Robinson," he cried; "mais je t'aime."

It has always been a source of regret to me that no one of us painter-men ever thought of making a double portrait of the pair in that pose, for, if successful, it would have been a psychological document of surpassing interest. It would have been a failure indeed did it not demonstrate the profound fact that mere physical ugliness is no bar to the expression of spiritual beauty in the human countenance; for the almost Gothic mask of Robinson's features could and did radiate sweetness and light as readily as the nearly classic beauty of Stevenson's own profile.

Another member of our little colony who has left an indelible mark upon my memory is Robert Mowbray Stevenson,

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

Louis's cousin, the Bob of the "Vailima
Letters," who came down from Paris
shortly after Stevenson's own arrival.
Years later, as professor of art at Oxford
and as the author of a remarkable mono-
graph upon Velasquez, he was destined
to become widely known throughout the
world. At that time, however, he was
endeavoring to demonstrate to himself
and to others his right to be ranked seri-
ously as a landscape-painter, and wast-
ing considerable quantities of perfectly
good pigment in the effort, which before
many months he was frankly to abandon.
as a mistake. But although his talent did
not lie in the direction of pictorial expres-
sion, Bob Stevenson was, more nearly than
any other mortal I have ever met, a genius
in the true sense of the word; unfortu-
nately for himself, however, and still more
unfortunately for the world at large, his
genius could expand only under conditions
which precluded its finding permanent
expression. Just as those of us who have
heard Edwin Booth play Hamlet know
that there never was or never could be
such another Hamlet, so those of us who
have heard Bob Stevenson converse know
that, in this generation at least, there
never has been or could be such another
talker. But for its fullest and best ex-
pression, his special talent demanded an
interlocutor, or at least the figment of an
opponent in the scintillating monologue And, without asking, whither hurried hence!

What, without asking, hither hurried
Whence?

Ah! contrite heaven endowed us with the
vine

To drug the memory of that insolence!

which he was pleased to style a discussion. If it comes to a mere question of genius pure and simple, no one who knew the two cousins intimately would have hesitated for an instant to award the primacy to Bob, and Louis himself would have been the first to concur in the justice of this decision. When the after-dinner coffee was on the table in the old salle à manger, it was Louis's custom to stir up a discussion upon some subject connected with ethics or morals or the general conduct of life, and then, if he succeeded in getting Bob started, to sit back and enjoy the intellectual feast which was sure to follow, just dropping in a word of dissent now and then in order to keep the stream flowing.

""

On these occasions Bob's flights of imagination were not only brilliant to a degree, but they were often humorous and most entertaining. Not infrequently they took the form of a story, with a complicated plot evolved on the spur of the moment, and with characters who by their acts and words gave living form to the abstraction which he had set out to ride to earth. Louis, being the artist that he was, made notes, and several of the stories which later appeared in the "New Arabian Nights" and are there duly accredited to "my cousin Robert Mowbray Stevenson,' were thrown off by the latter during one of these impromptu symposia. First among these was the famous "Suicide Club," to which, however, Stevenson himself added what was perhaps the most original and telling touch-the incident of the young man with the cream tarts. The gruesome idea of the main story grew out of an indignant protest on the part of Bob to an opinion set forth by his cousin to the effect that in the domain of morals men were in no sense free agents, and that no man had the right to dispose of his own life any more than he had the right to dispose of the life of his friend or neighbor. Bob in reply quoted the verse from Omar:

contending hotly that inasmuch as we had not been consulted when we were thus rudely and without our Own consent dumped into life, the option was surely ours as to the time and the manner of leaving it.

Then followed the inevitable monologue, which gradually developed into the plot of the "Suicide Club" as printed in the "New Arabian Nights," and in which Bob set forth his own ideas as to the most agreeable mode of shuffling off this mortal coil. But not quite content with his first effort, he proceeded to evolve an alternate

plot, which, while not so dramatic as the original, was at least not quite so distressing. In this second story the device of the executioner who is selected by chance is replaced by a train which is scheduled to start once a month at midnight from Charing Cross, and is to carry all those who during the month have decided that life has no further attractions for them. The train is to be the last word in modern luxury, with a dancing-car for those who would dance and a dining-car for those who would dine, furnished with the most dainty and delectable dishes, and provided with champagne and fine liqueurs of the most expensive brands. The track is to be cleared, and the train started, without an engineer or a train crew, direct for the cliff of Dover, over which it is supposed to plunge at a moment unknown to any of the passengers, and when the revelry is at its height.

The mutual admiration of the two Stevensons was a delight to see, and that it was destined to be a lifelong affection is shown by the long series of "Vailima Letters" addressed to Bob. Fundamentally, of course, their mutual attraction for each other was due to the fact that both were true men; but it was doubtless partly attributable to the added fact that the quality of their genius was as different as was their outward appearance. Louis, as we all know, was of the blond, appealing Northern type, but Bob was as black and as fiery as an Andalusian. One could not help feeling that one of his ancestors at least must have been a Spaniard—one of those Spanish adventurers perchance who were wrecked upon the coast of Scotland at the time when the last ships of the Spanish Armada were dispersed in that historic storm which, with the assistance of Lord Howard and Drake, saved England. Legend has it that the daughters. of the isles were kind to the handsome and unfortunate waifs from the sea, and that the black Highlanders of the Scottish Hebrides have more than a little Spanish blood in their veins.

"The Cornhill Magazine," and he was also engaged upon "An Inland Voyage" and parts of the "New Arabian Nights." As if this were not sufficient to satisfy the cravings of the greediest of workers, he was also writing various stories and essays which he called "Studies," but which he afterward destroyed.

At this time Stevenson was publishing a series of studies of men and things in

I have a vivid recollection of a most interesting shop-talk with him about this time which occurred during a long walk to Fontainebleau. As we tramped along under the shade of the tall poplars, he outlined to me the writer's credo as he knew it, and explained his own methods of work.

"You painter-chaps make lots of studies, don't you?" he exclaimed. "And you don't frame them all and send them to the Salon, do you? You just stick them up. on the studio wall for a bit, and presently you tear them up and make more. And you copy Velasquez and Rembrandt and Vandyke and Corot; and from each you learn some little trick of the brush, some obscure little point in technic. And you know damn well that it is the knowledge thus acquired that will enable you later on to deliver your own message with a fine and confident bravado. You are simply learning your métier; and believe me, mon cher, an artist in any line without the métier is just a blind man with a stick. Now, in the literary line I am simply doing what you painter-men are doing in the pictorial line-learning the métier."

"Yes, but how do you work the game?" I inquired. "We artists use paint and canvas and brushes precisely as the masters did."

"Well, I use pen and ink and paper precisely as did the masters of the pen," laughed Stevenson, "only a pencil is quite good enough for me at present. Just now I am making a story à la Balzac, with a French plot, French local color, and every little touch and detail as close to the old boy as I can possibly make it. And is n't he a wizard! Look at 'Cousine Bette' and 'Peau de chagrin' and the 'Médecin de campagne.' Are n't they just marvels of literary perfection! Really, I believe that

Balzac held up to nature a more wonderful mirror than even the great W. S. himself. And dear old Père Goriot, don't you just know him better even than if you had met him right here on the grande route and had an hour's chat with him? I like to swallow a great master whole as it were, to read everything he 's written at one go, and then have a try myself at something in his manner. The only way to become a master is to study the masters, take my word for it. It's all one whether it 's in paint or clay or words. And then, if you are humble enough and keep an open mind. and have something of your own to say, you may one of these long days learn how to say it. I have at various periods thus sat at the feet of Sir Walter Scott and Smollett and Fielding and Dickens and Poe and Baudelaire, and the number of things which I have written in the style of each would fill a clothes-basket."

I have since occasionally regretted that some of the contents of this basket had not been rescued and given to us in a discreet little sub-rosa book, if only for an example to future students of art and of literature. Yet the master probably knew best, and pursued the wise course in destroying his tentative experiments. Upon another occasion, certainly, it befell me to regret still more poignantly that the studies of a great master had not been destroyed, for they stood like a blurring mist between the public and the finished masterpieces of the greatest sculptor of modern times.

Among the regular members of our artist band I remember Henley, a brother of the poet; Metcalf; Joe Heseltine; Enfield; Weldon Hawkins; and Walter Ullman, all English; Frank O'Meara, the handsome, debonair young Irishman who was to die before his great talent as a painter made its mark; Carl Larson and Shredswig, both now famous abroad as well as in their native Sweden; Will Low; Bentz; Walter Palmer; and Jameson, a young Scotch painter of talent, and a brother of Dr. Jameson of Kimberly, South Africa, who, as the author of the Jameson Raid, caused some little trouble in South Africa later on. This reminds

me that one day the young doctor turned up at the Pension Chevillon with the statement that, with the help and advice of a certain Cecil Rhodes, who was a chum of his down there, he had cleaned up the sum of two thousand pounds sterling, which sum he had brought back with him to defray the expenses of a Continental trip, he having neglected to do the grand tour before going to South Africa. He kindly invited the whole colony to join him as guests in the proposed round of Europe, promising that everything should be first-class, and that no wine more plebeian than champagne should be served on the trip. Accordingly, after a symposium. which lasted from daylight to daylight, a gay band of a dozen young and brave men started off upon this first Jameson Raid, which has hitherto been unchronicled and unknown to fame. Stevenson was not of the party, he having at the time other interests in Grez which were of a more absorbing nature and of which more anon. Perhaps it was just as well, on the whole, that he remained behind, for something under a month later a hollow-eyed, worn, bedraggled band limped into Grez, explaining that their condition was due to the fact that they had ended up the tour three days previously by climbing Mont Blanc!

One of the most picturesque and at the same time one of the most mysterious members of our group was a young Frenchman named Salis, who threw himself upon our mercy by explaining that he was an escaped convict, and that he did not dare return to his old haunts in Paris or even venture to live among French people elsewhere, knowing full well that he would be apprehended and sent back. hot-foot to New Caledonia. He had been a communard, it appeared, in fact the editor of a communard journal in Paris, whence he had been deported for advocating too strenuously the cause of "Liberté, egalité, fraternité." He was certainly an entertaining chap, and Stevenson, ever on the elert for the picturesque in human form, became his principal friend and companion among the Anglo-Saxon group.

« AnkstesnisTęsti »