GOOD SOUL that she was, Mrs. Carson brought her guest snacks and gossip almost in equal measure. But she couldn't understand why Stevenson spent up to half his day in bed smoking his "enchanted cigarettes" and scrawling, always scrawling, on foolscap. In that cheerful room, he completed "The Amateur Emigrant." the account of his journey across an ocean and a continent, worked on an essay on Thoreau, whom he greatly admired, and made a start on what became a dismal historical novel, "Prince Otto."
He was eating for 70 cents a day at a coffee shop with oil cloth on the tables on dreary Market Street at Sixth Street and at Donadieu's French Restaurant on Kearny Street near Bush, on the fringe of Chinatown.Both are long gone. Stevenson ate French, though he was nearly a pauper, because cultivation dies hard. He sold minor literary pieces to the old San Francisco Bulletin for a few dollars. Several days a week he took the ferry across the bay, looking back to what he called "the citied hills of San Francisco," to visit Fanny in her cottage on East 18th Street in Oakland.
Hacking, sometimes with fever, sometimes so weary he felt as old as Methuselah, he nevertheless walked the streets of San Francisco, marveling at the endless eccentricities of Chinatown, enchanted by the oriental kites snagged on the occidental telephone wires. On the waterfront he was startled, yet fascinated, to witness a card cheater's hand pinned by knife to a gambling table. He rejected the anti-Asian harrangues of a fascist demagogue of that era, Dennis Kearney, whose forum was the sandlots of what is now the site of the domed San Francisco City Hall. He sat for hours at a time in Portsmouth Square, absorbed in the blue-robed Chinese and in the procession of panhandlers and bohemians. One night he climbed Telegraph Hill and there met the writer and world traveler, Charles Warren Stoddard, who introduced him to the delights of the South Seas and started him thinking of his own South Seas voyage.
Stevenson's biographer Furnas asserts: "Twenty times a year some hack writes another 'colorful' description of 'Old San Francisco' without ever coming close to (Stevenson's) impressionistic sketches of the city." Stevenson on San Francisco:
"The streets lie straight up and down the hills . . . these in sun, those in shadow, a trenchant pattern of gloom and glare; and what with the crisp illumination, the sea-air singing in your ears, the chill and glitter, the changing aspects of both things and people, the fresh sights at every corner of your walk -- sights of the bay, of Tamalpais, of steep, descending streets, of the outspread city -- whiffs of alien speech, sailors singing on shipboard, Chinese coolies toiling on the shore, crowds brawling all day in the street before the Stock Exchange -- one brief impression follows and obliterates another, and the city leaves upon the mind no general and stable picture, but a profusion of airy and incongruous images, of the sea and shore, the east and west, the summer and the winter (that) makes San Francisco a place apart."
As 1880 breaks, Fanny is finally divorced. Mrs Carson's little boy comes down with a drastic illness and Stevenson helps nurse him back to health, then, in a perverse turn of events, suffers a near fatal illness himself. Fanny moves him to her place in East Oakland -- so much for appearances. In late April, after a magical letter to him from Fanny, Thomas Stevenson, the dour head of the clan, cables: "Count on 250 pounds annually" -- the equivalent then of several thousand dollars.
The couple was married in San Francisco on May 19, 1880, by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, while Steveson lamented that he was "much fitter to be an emblem of mortality than a bridgegroom." Fanny was written up in the Oakland Tribune as "Miss Fanny Osbourne." On the marriage license she was a widow. Thus was her long liaison with San Osbourne, consummated when RLS was a lad of only seven, wiped out.
The newlyweds headed for a health-restoring honeymoon in the hot mud baths at Calistoga, 80 miles north of San Francisco, traveling by train a route that paralleled what is today California Highway 29 through the wine country. Seeing the vinyards "robed in sunshine," Stevenson's romantic nature was engaged. This was a happy, benign period for him. As "the skirts of civilisation," he wrote, the Napa Valley was "like England a hundred years ago."
The stories he heard about frontiersmen, desperadoes and speculators reinforced his conviction that "land is a subject on which there is no jesting in the West." The most famous of the highwaymen, Black Bart (Charles E. Boles), hid out in the canyons east of Calistoga. He composed verses for his victims. A humorous Stevenson noted of one robber: "He has been unwell,' so ran his defence, and 'the doctor told him to take something, so he took the express box.'"
One evening at a local spa, the foreigner talked to the daring stagecoach driver Clark Foss, "second to none in the handling of horse, whip and lines," according to local lore. "Next moment," Stevenson wrote in "The Silverado Squatters." the book that introduced him to American readers, "I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth, and found myself, with nothing in the the world to say, conversing with (Foss) several miles off among desolate hills." Thus was the urbane Scotsman introduced to the telephone -- not in London, not in San Francisco, but in a frontier town of 500 souls "running far ahead among the Indians and the grissly bears."
Stevenson was much taken with the skullcap-wearing Morris Friedberg, "Mr. Kelmar" in "Squatters," the Jewish merchant of Calistoga, who held his indebted customers in the fix of a "white slave." Stevenson, who balanced these words with others of genuine affection, was surprised later when a Scottish reader of his book accused him of anti-Semitism. Like Shakespeare declaiming for Shylock, Stevenson responded: "What a strange idea to think me a Jewhater! . . . Were I of Jew blood, I do not think I could ever forgive the Christians; the ghettos would get in my nostrils like mustard or lit gunpowder."
In Calistoga today, there is still a marquee over Lincoln Avenue, the main thoroughfare, which Major Peter Kagel considers an "esthetic disaster." mAnd there seem to be many more mineral baths. A gingerbread cottage, like the one Stevenson worked in, stands next to the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga's pioneers, across from the city hall with a curious belfry tower. And looming over all is Mount St. Helena, "quaking to its top-most pinnacle with the heat and brightness of the day." Calistoga, different in a hundred years, and grown, is still extraordinary.
But the Stevensons found it too expensive, and it was Friedberg who recommended other lodgings at deserted Silverado, once spoken of as "the second Virginia City," but now, in Stevenson's words, "a sylvan solitude." Its vein of silver and gold had run out in 1875. Friedberg suggested that the dry mountain air might benefit RLS. It was at 2,800 feet on the eastern slope of Mount St. Helena that Stevenson, exploring with a backwoodsman, discovered a bunkhouse left by miners, with a sprig of poison oak "handsomely prospering" in the middle of the floor.
The honeymooners, her son Lloyd and their dog Chuchu moved into "our mountain hermitage," which a visitor depicted as "incredibly uncomfortable." The smells, the openness, the great gaping seam in the cliff near the bunkhouse, the silences, the animals foraging close by, and the view of the Napa Valley floor beneath the awesome Cathedral Rock on the opposite side of his mountain -- all these lifted his imagination to Olympian heights. It was no place a well-bred Victorian, even one whose hero was Charles Darwin, would choose.The very idea appealed to Stevenson. He slyly remarked that "there is something singularly enticing in the idea of going, rent-free, into a ready-made house."
The squatters spent the summer where, "day after day, the sky was one dome of blue." Nights Stevenson roamed his mountain, "taking a bath of darkness before I slept." Poking about the tunnel of an old mine shaft, which he imagined "like a treasure grotto in a fairy story," he probably conceived his most famous work, "Treasure Island." Grizzlies and mountain lions dwelled on the same mountain, but Stevenson was confronted only by rattlesnakes "whizzing on every side like spinning wheels . . . but I was never in the least impressed, nor ever attacked."
From Calistoga, it is a winding, glorious half-hour trip up Highway 29 to the Stevenson State park. Watch for it on the left; it is poorly marked. The Silverado Trail, approximating the stage route of a century ago, can also be safely taken from Calistoga. Off aways from the unpaved parking area is a mile-long trail hacked out by the Silverado miners long ago, leading to the clearing where once the bunkhouse stood, now simply marked with a granite block in the shape of an open book. It was put there in 1911 by the women's clubs of Napa Country. The terrain appears untouched, as wild as in his time. Stevenson's mountain is an exhilarating experience, though the 'state of California has scandalously neglected the park site. The biographer Furnas wrote: "One feels more Stevenson in the air at Silverado than anywhere else except in Edinburgh."
At the end of the summer of 1880, sturdier than ever before in his life, RLS took Fanny and Lloyd to Scotland for a dramatic reunion with his parents. The beloved adventure stories followed. In the late 1880s, the Stevensons returned briefly to California to charter a boat for a voyage that culminated in Samoa, where, famous and extravagantly praised as an author, he died in 1894.
Fanny bought a great house at Lombard and Hyde Streets in San Francisco and furnished it with Samoan art objects. She entertained many distinguished visitors there, but was pestered by gawkers and doorbell-ringers, real or imagined. In her old age, she was an unpleasant woman. Oddly, her husband's presence was so pervasive that many San Franciscans belived he was alive and living in that house on the crest of Russian Hill. Even after Fanny sold it in 1908, and until it was torn down in the 1920s, it was known as the "Stevenson house."
Today a peeling grey stucco apartment house occupies the site, 2323 Hyde St., opposite the Lombard Street hill that is known everywhere as "the crookedest street in the world."