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The Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

















The Amateur Emigrant
Copyright, 1895
By Stone & Kimball

Copyright, 1905
By Charles Scribner's Sons

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ONE of the closest friends of my husband's youth was a clever young man whose life, up to that time, had been mostly spent in hospitals. Embittered by poverty and suffering, his turbulent spirit revolted against law and society, and he had become an ardent socialist. I remember meeting, in his house, a party of Russian anarchists, Stepniak among them, who greeted him as "brother," shouting and laughing like schoolboys on a holiday, and declaring that if they could only meet my husband face to face they would soon make a convert of him. Indeed, up to a certain point, he sympathized with the socialists. He could not think of the innocent victims of civilization—the men who only asked for work, and could get none, while their children were starving—without raging against the existing order of things; while his own comfortable circumstances filled him with shame when he contemplated the hardships of those less fortunate than himself. But, unlike his friend, he could suggest no remedy; the assassination of individuals and bomb-throwing seeming to him not only barbaric, but silly and futile.

While he could see no royal road for others, the path for himself showed plainly enough before him, and it was his duty to swerve neither to the right nor the left. He believed he had no rights, only undeserved indulgences. He must not eat unearned bread, but must pay the world, in some fashion, for what it gave him,—first, materially, then in kindness, sympathy, and love. Class distinctions, so strictly observed in England, he could not tolerate and never gave the slightest heed to their limitations. "Ladies?" he said in reply to an observation by a visitor, "one of the truest ladies in Bournemouth, Mrs. Waats, is at this moment washing my study windows." Once, coming upon a crowd of young roughs who were tormenting a wretched drunken creature of the streets, he pushed his way through them, and amid their jeers offered his arm to the woman and escorted her to the place she called home. "Don Quixote," he once said to my son, with a startled look, "why, I am Don Quixote!" Too much ease frightened him; he would occasionally insist on some sharp discomfort, such as sleeping on a mat on the floor, or dining on a ship's biscuit, to awaken him, as he said, to realities; and nothing pleased him more than to risk his life or health to serve another. Yet he never succeeded in wholly subduing the "old Adam" within him. Meanness or falsity or cruelty set his eyes blazing, and his language on such occasions became far from parliamentary.

Naturally his first visit to America, a land without class distinctions, was to him an event of extraordinary interest. The privations he endured as an amateur emigrant caused him much less suffering than his friends, who could not imagine themselves in a similar position, supposed. It was not the first time he had associated with the working-man on terms of equality; nor did it occur to him that it was a condescension on his part to join with his fellow-passengers in their attempts to make the time pass pleasantly, or to do for them what little kindly offices came in his way. One thing he did resent with bitterness—the visits of the first-class passengers, who came out of curiosity into the steerage, looking about as though they were passing through a menagerie. He never forgave "your wife, my good man?" "Why," he would ask, "should I be her good man any more than she my good woman? Her question, and manner of putting it, made me understand a great many things."

I remember, when we were living in Hyères, his receiving a letter from England that enclosed a petition asking for the release of a noted anarchist who was said to be dying in a French prison. This man, said the letter, had thrown everything away for the "cause,"—his entire fortune, his title, and his birthright as a subject of Russia, to which he could never return; while comparatively young in years, he presented the appearance of an old man, with hair prematurely white and his health broken by confinement in a damp, unsanitary prison. My husband's name was to head the list. "Poor devil," he said, as he dipped his pen in the ink. But he laid it down again thoughtfully, and, instead of signing the petition, wrote a letter stating that he had read the trial, and asking why the Russian gentleman had refused to say whether he had had a hand in the blowing up of a workingman's café in Lyons, in which catastrophe many persons, mostly peasants with their families, had been killed or shockingly injured. He could not, he said, withhold his admiration for a man who had given so much, but he could and would withhold his signature until he was satisfied on this point. No such assurance being forthcoming, the petition was returned with the remark "I think Monsieur —— had better complete his sacrifice by dying in prison."

For street musicians and wandering performers—acrobats, jugglers, etc.—my husband showed an understanding and sympathy that always won their confidence. "We're in the same boat," he would say, "earning our bread by amusing the public." "I always divide with a brother artist," he would remark, as he emptied his pockets into their hands. His acquaintance with such people, and his knowledge of the lives they led, gave him an almost morbid sense of the pitiless cruelty of modern civilization. It was only his strong intelligence and common sense that kept him from the ranks of the anarchists. He came to America with exaggerated views of the meaning of democracy, believing that there he would find the ideal social as well as political life. In the beginning he encountered many rude shocks, but he soon readjusted his point of view, though he never ceased regretting that this great country should have been lost to England. The name of George the Third was hardly to be spoken in his presence. "Had it not been for that idiot," he would cry, "we should now be one nation." Of New York, at this time, he saw very little, but on a later visit grew to love it as he would not have thought possible when he first arrived in America. A particularly attractive spot to him was Washington Square, where he spent many hours sitting on the benches under the trees enjoying the frank conversation of the children who used the park as a playground. On one memorable occasion he passed an afternoon there with Mark Twain.

At first the apparent rudeness of the average American repelled him, but when he found that the gentlest, most kindly acts accompanied the off-hand address, his heart warmed towards his "younger brother." In San Francisco he made many friendships that were only broken by death,—Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Williams, to whom he dedicated The Silverado Squatters: Dr. Chismore, Dr. Willy, Judge Rearden, who recognized a kindred spirit in the unknown, shabbily dressed young Scot living in the poor little lodging house on Bush Street kept by Mr. and Mrs. Carson. For the last few years on each thirteenth of November a small band of those who love to do honour to my husband's memory have met in San Francisco to celebrate his birthday. Nor would the party be considered complete without Jules Simoneau, now far past eighty years of age, but still as clear in mind and as strong in heart as when my husband first knew him in Monterey, the best beloved of all the friends of that time of adversity.

The journey by emigrant train across the continent was an experience far worse than that on shipboard, but through all the fatigue and active misery of it my husband managed to keep his diary posted up to date, and two months later, in Monterey, he wrote to Mr. Colvin: "The Amateur Emigrant is about half drafted. It was from Monterey that he also wrote to Mr. Colvin: "I am a reporter for the Monterey Californian at a salary of two dollars a week!" From this feeble joke the most foolish tales have arisen, and grown in the re-telling, of his having been a reporter connected with a San Francisco paper. The Monterey Californian was a tiny sheet that was hardly in a position to pay any one so much as two dollars a week. The editor was also the printer and did all the work on his paper with his own hands. The idea of a reporter in a place where "the population is about that of a dissenting chapel on a wet Sunday . . . mostly Mexican and Indian," was thought very amusing by both my husband and Mr. Bronson, the editor, but some one seems to have taken it very seriously.

The Amateur Emigrant was partly written in Monterey, and almost finished in San Francisco under the most depressing circumstances of ill health, poverty, and letters of adverse criticism from friends in England. In an unfinished letter dated Calistoga, June 4, 1880, he writes: "To-day at last I send the last of the Double Damned Emigrant. It was all written, after a fashion, months ago, before I caved in; yet I have not had the pluck and strength to finish copying these few sheets before to-day. The attempt has cost me many a heavy heart. ... I have done a quaint action—I have sent three of my poems to the Atlantic Monthly, and a fourth, heaven of heavens! to Stephen![1] I am not mad; only a poet."

  1. Leslie Stephen, at that time editing an English magazine.



Our friendship was not only founded before we were born by a community of blood, but is in itself near as old as my life. It began with our early ages, and, like a history, has been continued to the present time. Although we may not be old in the world, we are old to each other, having so long been intimates. We are now widely separated, a great sea and continent intervening; but memory, like care, mounts into iron ships and rides post behind the horseman. Neither time nor space nor enmity can conquer old affection; and as I dedicate these sketches, it is not to you only, but to all in the old country, that I send the greeting of my heart.

R. L. S.