“Idolatry” by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Once in a while, when the name of R. L. S. is mentioned in conversation, someone says to us: “Ah well, you’re one of the Stevenson idolators, aren’t you?” And this is said with a curious air of cynical superiority, as of one who has experienced all these things and is superbly tolerant of the shallow mind that can still admire Tusitala. His work (such people will generally tell you) was brilliant but “artificial” … and for the true certificated milk of the word one must come along to such modern giants as Dreiser and Hergesheimer and Cabell. For these artists, each in his due place, we have only the most genial respect. But when the passion of our youth is impugned as “idolatry” we feel in our spirit an intense weariness. We feel the pacifism of the wise and secretive mind that remains tacit when its most perfect inward certainties are assailed. One does not argue, for there are certain things not arguable. One shrugs. After all, what human gesture more eloquent (or more satisfying to the performer) than the shrug?

There is a little village on the skirts of the Forest of Fontainebleau (heavenly region of springtime and romance!) where the crystal-green eddies of the Loing slip under an old gray bridge with sharp angled piers of stone. Near the bridge is a quiet little inn, one of the many happy places in that country long frequented by artists for painting and “villegiature.” Behind the inn is a garden beside the river-bank. The salle a manger, as in so many of those inns at Barbizon, Moret, and the other Fontainebleau villages, is panelled and frescoed with humorous and high-spirited impromptus done by visiting painters.

In the summer of 1876 an anxious rumour passed among the artist colonies. It was said that an American lady and her two children had arrived at Grez, and the young bohemians who regarded this region as their own sacred retreat were startled and alarmed. Were their chosen haunts to be invaded by tourists–and tourists of the disturbing sex? Among three happy irresponsibles this humorous anxiety was particularly acute. One of the trio was sent over to Grez as a scout, to spy out the situation and report. The emissary went, and failed to return. A second explorer was dispatched to study the problem. He, too, was swallowed up in silence. The third, impatiently waiting tidings from his faithless friends, set out to make an end of this mystery. He reached the inn at dusk: it was a gentle summer evening; the windows were open to the tender air; lamps were lit within, and a merry party sat at dinner. Through the open window the suspicious venturer saw the recreant ambassadors, gay with laughter. And there, sitting in the lamplight, was the American lady–a slender, thoughtful enchantress with eyes as dark and glowing as the wine. Thus it was that Robert Louis Stevenson first saw Fanny Osbourne.

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A few days later Mrs. Osbourne’s eighteen-year-old daughter Isobel wrote in a letter: “There is a young Scotchman here, a Mr. Stevenson. He is such a nice-looking ugly man, and I would rather listen to him talk than read the most interesting book…. Mama is ever so much better and is getting prettier every day.”

“The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson,” written by her sister Mrs. Sanchez (the mother of “little Louis Sanchez on the beach at Monterey” remembered by lovers of “A Child’s Garden of Verses”) is a book that none of the so-called idolaters will want to overlook. The romantic excitements of R. L. S.’s youth were tame indeed compared to those of Fanny Van de Grift. R. L. S. had been thrilled enough by a few nights spent in the dark with the docile ass of the Cevennes; but here was one, sprung from sober Philadelphia blood, born in Indianapolis and baptized by Henry Ward Beecher, who had pioneered across the fabled Isthmus, lived in the roaring mining camps of Nevada, worked for a dressmaker in Frisco, and venturously taken her young children to Belgium and France to study art. She had been married at seventeen, had already once thought herself to be a widow in fact by the temporary disappearance of her first husband; and was now, after enduring repeated infidelities, prepared to make herself a widow in law. Daring horse woman, a good shot, a supreme cook, artist, writer, and a very Gene Stratton Porter among flowers, fearless, beautiful, and of unique charm–where could another woman have been found so marvellously gifted to be the wife of a romancer? It seems odd that Philadelphia and Edinburgh, the two most conservatively minded cities of the Anglo-Saxon earth, should have combined to produce this, the most radiant pair of adventurers in our recent annals.

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The reading of this delightful book has taken us back into the very pang and felicity of our first great passion–our idolatry, if you will–which we are proud here and now to re-avow. When was there ever a happier or more wholesome worship for a boy than the Stevenson mania on which so many of this generation grew up? We were the luckier in that our zeal was shared in all its gusto and particularity by a lean, long-legged, sallow-faced, brown-eyed eccentric (himself incredibly Stevensonian in appearance) with whom we lay afield in our later teens, reading R. L. S. aloud by the banks of a small stream which we vowed should become famous in the world of letters. And so it has, though not by our efforts, which was what we had designed; for at the crystal headwater of that same creek was penned “The Amenities of Book Collecting,” that enchanting volume of bookish essays which has swelled the correspondence of a Philadelphia business man to insane proportions, and even brought him offers from three newspapers to conduct a book page. It seems appropriate to the present chronicler that in a quiet library overlooking the clear fount and origin of dear Darby Creek there are several of the most cherished association volumes of R. L. S.–we think particularly of the “Child’s Garden of Verses” which he gave to Cummy, and the manuscript of little “Smoutie’s” very first book, the “History of Moses.”

* * * * *

Was there ever a more joyous covenant of affection than that of Mifflin McGill and ourself in our boyish madness for Tusitala? It is a happy circumstance, we say, for a youth, before the multiplying responsibilities of maturity press upon him, to pour out his enthusiasm in an obsession such as that; and when this passion can be shared and doubled and knitted in partnership with an equally freakish, insane, and innocent idiot (such as our generously mad friend Mifflin) admirable adventures are sure to follow. The quest begun on Darby Creek took us later on an all-summer progress among places in England and Scotland hallowed to us by association with R. L. S. Never, in any young lives past or to come, could there be an instant of purer excitement and glory than when, after bicycling hotly all day with the blue outline of Arthur’s Seat apparently always receding before us, we trundled grimly into Auld Reekie and set out for the old Stevenson home at 17 Heriot Row, halting only to bestow our pneumatic steeds in the nearest and humblest available hostelry. There (for we found the house empty and “To Let”) we sat on the doorstep evening by evening, smoking in the long northern twilight and spinning our youthful dreams. This lust for hunting out our favourite author’s footsteps even led one of the pair to a place perhaps never visited by any other Stevensonian pilgrim–old Cockfield Rectory, in Suffolk, where Mrs. Sitwell and Sidney Colvin first met the bright-eyed Scotch boy in 1873. The tracker of footprints remembers how kind were the then occupants of the old rectory, and how, in a daze of awe, he trod the green and tranquil lawn and hastened to visit a cottage near by where there was an ancient rustic who had been coachman at the rectory when R. L. S. stayed there, fabled to retain some pithy recollection. Alas, the Suffolk ancient, eager enough to share tobacco and speech, would only mull over his memories of a previous rector, describing how it had fallen to him to prepare the good man for burial; how he smiled in death and his cheeks were as rosy as a babe’s.

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It would take many pages to narrate all the bypaths and happy excursions trod by these simple youths in their quest of the immortal Louis. The memories come bustling, and one knows not where to stop. The supreme adventure, for one of the pair, lay in the kindness of Sir Sidney Colvin. To this prince of gentlemen and scholars one of these lads wrote, sending his letter (with subtle cunning) from a village in Suffolk only a few miles from Sir Sidney’s boyhood home. He calculated that this might arouse the interest of Sir Sidney, whom he knew to be cruelly badgered with letters from enthusiasts; and fortune turned in his favour, granting him numerous ecstatic visits to Sir Sidney and Lady Colvin and much unwarranted generosity. But, since our mind has been turned in this direction by Mrs. Sanchez’s book, it might be appropriate to add that one of the most thrilling moments in the crusade was a season of April days spent beside the green and stripling Loing, in the forest of Fontainebleau region, visiting those lovely French villages where R. L. S. roamed as a young man, crowned by an afternoon at Grez. One remembers the old gray bridge across the eddying water, and the door of the inn where the young pilgrim lingered, trying to visualize scenes of thirty-five years before.

It is not mere idolatry when the hearts of the young are haunted by such spells. There was some real divinity behind the enchantment, some marvellous essence that made all roads Tusitala trod the Road of Loving Hearts. In these matters we would trust the simple Samoans to come nearer the truth than our cynic friend in Greenwich Village. The magic of that great name abides unimpaired.

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