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Making music in Hawaii. Robert Louis Stevenson is seated in profile at left, whistling on his whistle. To his right, with his back to the camera, is his mother. (Photo provided)

“I need hardly say how much I agree with you in your plans (the Stevenson Society) and I can assure you of my warm co-operation. As for the relics of RLS, my sister, now Mrs. Salisbury Field (Belle), if she felt like it, could help you far better than I, though I certainly intend to do my best. My mother left everything to her.

— Lloyd Osborne, son-in-law of Robert Louis Stevenson, to Stephen Chalmers of the Stevenson Society, October 21, 1916

The Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage at Saranac Lake, because of its age, retains certain bragging rights inaccessible to like-minded establishments that have followed its example in California, Samoa and Scotland. Provenance is the fancy word museum curators use to convey the story of a memory, like who had it? How did they figure it out? Does it have a story? Can we have it?

Memories, says the dictionary, means “remarkable and memorable things.” A person usually must be dead for their possessions to qualify as keepsakes, and it is up to the living to give meaning to certain material objects that gives them a transcendental aspect and makes them worth keeping. Anthropologists might say this is a fine description of primitive vestigial features with their origins in prehistoric ancestral religious cults.

No one knows what Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson– “Cat” – pondered the subject when she rummaged through her Lou’s belongings to select keepsakes of him after his sudden death in Samoa on December 3, 1894. It all went to her children, Lloyd and Isobel, when their mother abandoned her own ghost in the house she called “Stonehenge” near Santa Barbara, California, February 18, 1914.

It is unclear exactly how Lloyd and Isobel became connected to the fledgling Stevenson Society at Saranac Lake in 1916. As very special new members of this first-of-its-kind organization, it must have seemed fitting to begin putting the relics to good use. of their stepfather. Why not in this village he had called his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks”, in the house he called “a hatbox on a hill in the eye of all the winds”, in the very rooms where he smoked, coughed, made holes in the laundry, whistled on his whistle and wrote with his quill pen. Says Stephen Chalmers in his book, “The Penny Piper of Saranac”:

“Today, what he wrote under this little southern gable, where the snow heaped against the window is bound in morocco and gold, is rolled up on vellum and hung as a motto in garrets and mansions, in offices of commerce and in the waiting rooms of pain, in the temples of wisdom and in the hearts of humanity, for it brings strength to the strong and joy to the sick.

RL Stevenson played with music as a hobby and his favorite whistle accompanied him everywhere to serve as his immediate link to the muse. “I am a great performer before the Lord at the whistle,” he said, “and always have a little childishness on hand.”

“The Penny Piper of Saranac: an episode in the life of RLS” was already in circulation when the Pied Piper’s stepchildren joined Baker’s memorial project. What could have been more fitting than to begin this first public assemblage of Stevenson’s lore than this long, thin, silvery cylinder? The purity of its provenance is a curator’s dream although no one seems to know where Stevenson got it. This simple object of amusement for its former owner had traveled half the world before returning to the House of the Hunter. Along the way, the cannibals of the Marquesas Islands and the last king and queen of Hawaii were among the chosen ones, like the bakers, who could hear, for better or for worse, the sounds coming out of it.

Said Mrs. Baker to her husband, “He whistles better than he plays the piano!”

“And a show more often,” said the woodcutter.



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