Dead man’s chest, Part II | News, Sports, Jobs

“You must understand that I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days are done … I must be a bit of a vagabond; it’s your fault after all, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have had a tramp for a son.”

— RLS to his mother, 1874

The Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake had closed for the day at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 11, 1984, a sunny hot summer day. Around five o’clock came a knock on a residential door off the veranda, the same entry used by the members of the Stevenson expedition hundreds of times during the winter of 1887-88, and Dr. Trudeau, too.

The knock was that of an Englishman. He had been escorted to the Cottage by a patron of the Waterhole, a local bar, where the stranger had stopped to refresh himself with cold beer, having hitch-hiked into town from Westport on Lake Champlain — or so he said. He passed easily for a drifter, with weathered trench coat and duffel bag and unshaven. With his English accent, which is known for its appeal to gullible Americans, he claimed to be a writer working on a book about the author and namesake of this house in which you live, he said; that following the Stevenson trail would be the framework upon which the narrative relied, all of which explained his presence in this pleasant mountain community.

The assistant curator was a little skeptical. He had been living there for four years, and to him it seemed like his father, Jack Delahant, president of the Stevenson Society of America, was the only earthling who gave a darn about the “shrine” on Stevenson Lane. The caretaker advised Mr. Nicholas Rankin from London, England, he said, to return the next day during normal hours.

That he did. Within minutes, Mr. Rankin passed the credibility test by saying all the right things. He was traveling cheap for two reasons: 1. He didn’t have a choice; 2. He was emulating his subject, RLS, when the latter was a real vagabond making his autobiographical journey to the New World called “The Amateur Emigrant”–Stevenson’s quest to find and somehow marry Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne.

This modern-day make-believe amateur emigrant was California-bound too, and points way beyond, all the way to the top of Mt. Vaea, in Oceania, the final resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson–the “Patron Saint of Vagabonds.” Eventually Rankin returned to England to write his first book: “Dead Man’s Chest–Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson,” Faber and Faber, London, 1987.

But before all that, Mr. Rankin, or “Nick,” was guest author in the “Hunter’s Home” for a long weekend while he collected material for his project. In the prologue of his book, Rankin brings up the first of 12 essays RLS wrote in Saranac Lake for Scribners magazine. He says “Stevenson’s ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ should be read by anyone interested in the psychology of writing … All his life he was an ardent dreamer … Stevenson dreamed his Spanish vampire story, ‘Olalla,’ as well as the notorious ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’”

From Chapter 8– “Saranac Lake”:

“I recognized the house from a poster in a shop-window. ‘Visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage’ it said … There was a white picket fence around the house on a small hill at the end of Stevenson Lane … A bluff-looking young man with reddish hair opened the door. I introduced myself and he stuck out his hand. ‘Hi! I’m Mike Delahant.’ Mike was the third generation of his family to look after Baker’s since his grandfather took it on in 1953. I paid the admission and he showed me around … Mike had rooms at the back of the house where the Bakers used to live, and he kindly said it was OK for me to unroll a sleeping bag there for the weekend.”

“Dead Man’s Chest” makes for a fine inspection into R.L.S. For the author, it established his presence as a new writer on the scene and placed him among the elite of Stevenson know-it-alls around the world, some of whom would descend upon Saranac Lake for a biennial RLS Conference in 2006, Nick included. In 1988, Rankin became and remains the official British Representative of the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake. He was preceded by the likes of Lord Charles Guthrie, Sir Sidney Colvin and Sir Edmund Gosse. Nick’s inscribed copy of his book is kept behind glass on Stevenson’s desk, in his former study at Baker’s, his “Hunter’s Home.”

For this caretaker of the “Hunter’s Home,” the intrusion of an expert onto the scene, satisfied to a degree, his concerns concerning the viability of the shrine as a project worth the effort. Back then, Mike D. was still only ankle-deep in Stevenson lore, apparently waiting for a bolt from Zeus to proceed. Instead, inspiration came from a fellow vagabond his own age who was not above smoking marijuana as a social courtesy when it was a criminal activity, which is very Stevensonesque. Mr. Rankin told his host the facts he needed to hear that validated the solo preservation performances of Dr. Kinghorn and Jack Delahant during their terms as president of the Stevenson Society of America.

To repeat, Mike D. had long been sorely in need of the kind of knowledge a worldly figure like his unexpected guest could impart. His immediate avenue of inquiry was concerned with the staying power of Robert Louis Stevenson as an historical figure of reckoning on different levels. Nick avoided giving a direct response while he turned his eyes skyward like the prophets. Through a cloud of smoke, Rankin told his listeners about a nebulous entity called the “Worldwide Community of Stevenson Lovers,” meaning the people in every generation and from every country, who fall under the spell of this pied piper from Scotland, known in these parts as the “Penny Piper of Saranac.”

Some passers-by paused to listen to this excellent communicator (who had his own BBC radio program for 20 years). He went on to tell of the multitude of R.L. Stevenson connected sites on three continents and numerous islands in Oceania. He said there are three special sites in a separate category called the “Crown Jewels” of all that is Stevensonian. One is the family home where Louis grew up–17 Heriot Row in Edinburgh, Scotland. There is a plaque at the entry saying as much but the property remains residential. It is well photographed and painted by artists.

Number two is on the other side of the world in sub-equatorial Oceania, on the island called Upolu in the Samoan group. It is the author’s last home, the house he named “Vailima” and where he died on Dec. 3, 1894. In 1994, Vailima became the newest Stevenson shrine to go public as a museum.

Number three according to Nick is Saranac Lake, specifically “Baker’s,” seen by the faithful as the literal and figurative half-way house in Stevenson’s life and career. Halfway means inbetween the Old World and all he knew for the first thirty-seven years of his life, to be contrasted with the strange, steamy, exotic, tropical waterworld existence that would consume the seven years he had left. Saranac Lake was the mixing bowl where all the necessary circumstantial ingredients came together; things like fame, money, better health and even the idea itself, to voyage under sail to the ultimate destination of true vagabonds, that is the South Seas “where the golden apples grow.” They call it “Stevenson’s Saranac Connection,” said Nick.

Next week: Meet Nicholas Rankin, British Representative.

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