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Happy once

Chalet La Solitude, circa 1920

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson had settled into their seemingly misplaced rental Swiss chalet on the French Riviera in March 1883. At 32, the invalid Scottish author would soon witness his first novel, “Treasure Island,” show off its staying power by going from a serial in Young Folks magazine into its first edition in hardcover, a real book with illustrations.

“This is an entrancing spot,” Louis wrote of his new surroundings in a letter to his mother, Margaret, who was way up north in Edinburgh. Margaret’s only son and daughter-in-law had nicknamed their new home Chalet La Solitude, and it came with a large garden on a hillside, with paths and trees. To his painter friend Will Low in New York City, RLS wrote about this garden: “By day this garden fades into nothing, overpowered by its surroundings and the luminous distance; but at night and when the moon is out, that garden, the arbour, the flight of stairs that mount the artificial hillock, the plumed blue-gum trees, that hang, trembling, become the very skirt of Paradise. Angels, I know, frequent it … and by day it is gone.”

Chalet La Solitude, with its landing pad for extraterrestrials, was secluded but conveniently close by the village of Hyeres. Eight years later and from his last home in Polynesia, Louis would write: “I was only happy once, that was at Hyeres.”

What exactly Stevenson’s idea of “happy” was is still questioned. He felt well enough to write (most of the time), something most people take for granted. He was finally seeing incoming funds from his pen, however modest. His goal was being realized. In May, he wrote to Edmund Gosse that “This year I should be able to live and keep my family on my own earnings, and that in spite of eight months and more of perfect idleness (illness). It is a sweet thought.” To his parents, about the same time: “My dearest people, I have had a great piece of news. There has been offered for ‘Island’ — how much do you suppose? … A hundred pounds, all alive, oh! A hundred jingling, tingling, golden, minted quid. Is not this wonderful?” That sounds happy.

Writing about his daily routine, some say, indicates happiness, too, because he is bragging about his ability to do simple things that, when put together, begin to resemble an actual life. Take a picture while it lasts: “Breakfast before eight; work till dinner at noon, with sometimes ten minutes at my roses; dinner; messages, letters, etc., a walk when I have no messages; supper at six; work again till nine; and then I feel inclined for nothing, I can tell you.”

That’s what Louis told his parents about the same time he asked their help in sending Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson, now 14, from a London boarding school south to Hyeres, to share their cramped chalet with a sea view. The plan was for Louis to homeschool the boy there, just like he did near the old forge when they were fellow squatters at an abandoned silver mine in California. “He learns Latin in French, and French, I suppose, in Latin,” said Lloyd’s tutor, “which seems to me a capital education.” At the Silverado mine, Lloyd had at hand a toy printing press with which to play after his lessons. Three years later in Hyeres, a bicycle became his new passion. His stepfather said of this, “he is most new-fangled over this instrument and does not willingly converse on other subjects.” Lloyd was always the gadget guy. When he came to Saranac Lake in 1887, it was a typewriter.

Again, Louis seems to be happy when he writes to his friend Jules Simoneau, in Monterey, California. Three years had passed since their farewell. “I have no wish that is not fulfilled; a beautiful small house in a large garden; a fine view of plain, sea and mountain; a wife that suits me down to the ground; and a barrel of good Beaujolais. To this I must add that my books grow steadily more popular; and if I could only avoid illness, I should be well to do for money. As it is, I keep pretty near the wind.”

As it was, illness didn’t spare RLS even when he was “happy” at Hyeres. “Bloody Jack,” as in hemorrhages from his lungs, had not gone away. He came frequently, in fact, but in smaller doses. The malaria he had contracted in France made a recurrence while savage attacks of sciatica made their debut. Then came his eye infection that kept him sightless from bandages for a spell. Then came news from the family home front that his father, Thomas, was ill, and strains within the family firm of civil engineers threatened to force him into early retirement, which could threaten his son’s safety net. Things were far from perfect — a “mixed bag,” as they say. Add to that, his uncle Alan, the genius behind the celebrated Skerryvore lighthouse, had encroaching mental illness. Alan was the father of cousin Bob.

By 1891, Saranac Lake had been in Stevenson’s rear view for three years. By then he had built a house of his own and called it Vailima. Valima was and still is on a plateau overlooking the harbor town of Apia, also the capital of British or Western Samoa, an island group in Polynesia. Vailima, now a museum, sits on the windward side of Upolu and enjoys a constant sea breeze, which mitigates the heat and humidity in the surrounding jungle. Planting a garden had been high on the to-do list for Fanny after the couple moved into the first section of their last home together in 1890. A year later, Louis was doing some weeding in the garden. Maybe he had too much sun because he went into an imaginary conversation with his friend and mentor Sidney Colvin, who was half a world away. That night Louis wrote Sidney a letter.

“Methought you asked me — frankly, was I happy. Happy (said I); I was only happy once; that was at Hyeres; it came to an end for a variety of reasons, decline of health, change of place, increase of money, age with his stealing steps; since then, as before then, I know not what it means.”