Isobel – “Belle” – Osbourne was 21 when Robert Louis Stevenson suddenly showed up in September 1879 in her family’s rented mud house in Monterey, California. “I had no idea he was in the country at all!” she says in her book “I loved this life.” “He had come, of course, as The Amateur Emigrant (title of Stevenson’s travel book describing his journey from Scotland to California), but he wasn’t there because he wanted to study the manners and customs of the New World; he was there because he loved Fanny Osbourne (Belle’s mother). All his conversations were about her; Nellie, Lloyd, and I barely existed. He took a room in a hostel that now bears his name, but spent most of the time with Bonafascio (the landlord). We never thought he was an invalid, he was so happy, so full of vitality, his brown eyes sparkled with fun and interest. “
This last remark describes the Louis Stevenson whom Belle had known in France. She was Mrs. Isobel Field and was getting old when she published her book in 1934 when memories tend to blur. Other people who were present in Seora Bonafascio’s living room that day, such as Belle’s brother Lloyd (11), remembered a less gay, less vital Louis in their presence. “Up until that moment, I never thought he was sick. … Now he looked sick, even to my childish look … it was an indescribable decrease in his alertness and his self-confidence. “
Belle was also confused about the pension. The one named after him today is not the one he used immediately after leaving Senora Bonafascio’s house. It was Belle’s secret fiancé, the young artist Joe Strong, who found a room behind a saloon for the strange new stranger in town. When Louis, The Amateur Emigrant, put down his money for another week’s rent, he was turned down and shown the door thanks to his scabbed appearance from an eczema case. It probably looked like the plague to everyone else, and the owners burned the laundry he’d used. Who could have seen future greatness there?
Then what? The end of the emigrant’s search began with the fact that he soon left town to camp alone in the mountains behind Monterey, supposedly to get material for his next book, but also to fall back and take stock. Things had not gone according to plan, which meant that Mrs. Fanny Osbourne had given unmistakably negative reactions, mixed with her joy and relief to see her younger Scottish friend from France again after a full year. But look at it! Covered with scabs, more bones than flesh, clothes hung from his body, Louis was hardly the dashing figure she had known in France. In addition, he was almost broke and without a job or prospects and apparently rejected by his family. The swaying was written on Fanny’s face, so, yes, it was a good time for Louis to hold back.
Robert Louis Stevenson often tried to pretend he was not an invalid. “My illness is something outside of me” he would tell you. This attitude came close to killing him more than once. This time he had Joe Strong helping him commit suicide in the name of denial. Joe found two horses and a cart that RLS could rent to drive into the mountains on their own, with only basic camping supplies, stationery, and tobacco.
It was exactly a year since his camping trip in the south of France with his donkey Modestine. First he inspected the ruins of the Carmel Mission and then RLS drove up a canyon all day and spent the night as a rancher’s guest but had to sleep in the barn because the rancher’s wife was against scab. In the morning the rancher advised Louis to take one of his horses with him, as the path he wanted to take was impassable for a wagon. He did so, and in the afternoon horse and rider went up to the mountains of Santa Lucia.
By sunset Louis had found a place to camp by a stream, and that was where the reality of his condition caught up with him. Instead of getting off his horse, he passed out and fell off his horse. There he lay on the floor for up to three days, according to some reports, occasionally losing consciousness and occasionally ringing bells. RLS was off the beaten path and likely would have died there unnoticed. In the meantime his horse had run away and finally came to Jonathan Wright’s goat farm, the home of the goats with the bells that RLS kept hearing in his delirium. As he said “Bells ring and tree frogs sing when each new sound was enough to drive me insane.”
At the border, a riderless horse could mean someone in trouble. The world can be grateful that Jonathan Wright and his partner, Anson Smith, bear hunter and veteran of the Mexican War, went out of their way to find it. For the next three weeks, Stevenson would be her patient and guest in her cabin until he was strong enough to return to Monterey. At that time he moved into the pension that bears his name today. Louis stayed there for about three months while he returned to writing, which included a short story, “Pavilion on the Links”, and descriptive notes that he later put in “Treasure Island.”
Fanny’s youngest sister, Nellie Vandegrift, who was about Belle’s age, lived with Mrs. Fanny Osbourne and her children Belle and Lloyd at Senora Bonafascio’s. “We started a friendship that grew closer and closer over the years” wrote Belle, “Dear Nellie!” When Nellie Vandegrift Sanchez published Her Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson in 1920, she gave a vivid picture of RLS at this stage in his career: “He often came to this house in the afternoon to read the results of his morning work to the assembled family. As we sat in a circle and listened in appreciative silence, he nervously strode across the room, reading aloud in his full, sonorous voice – a voice that always seemed remarkable in such a frail man – his face was red and his demeanor embarrassed , because far from … Since he was too sure of his work, he always seemed to feel a shy fear that it might not achieve the goal. He always paid respectful attention and careful consideration to the criticism of the most humble of his listeners, but in the end, with Scottish persistence, held on to his own opinion when he was sure of its fairness. “
Meanwhile, the pressure had built on Belle and Joe to reveal their secret engagement. Belle knew her mom wouldn’t approve of Joe for financial reasons – “Security” – but there was a guy who, according to Fanny, had qualified and she had invited him to Monterey to propose to Belle a third time. The first time was on board a ship to Europe in 1875, when Belle was too young; Again in Grez-sur-Loing, France, in 1877, and now he came to Monterey for his third strike. He was in his 30s, owned a plantation in Kentucky and drove Mosby’s Rangers during the Civil War. He had even promised Belle that she would keep painting since she “no objection to science.”
“About this time my mother dropped a bomb on our camp by telling Joe that she would arrange a very good marriage for me… Joe was very upset by the news and rushed to San Francisco to speak to my father. “ What happened next was the escape of Joe and Belle Strong with the blessing of Sam Osbourne, which infuriated Belle’s mother, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, and complained in her glass house that her new foreign boyfriend had less money in town than her Joe.
“In the meantime,” continues Belle, “My father found us an apartment in San Francisco at 7 New Montgomery Avenue… Papa met us there after the painful interview with my mother. My dear father! … He helped us set up the rooms, invited us to dinner and, when we said goodbye, filled my handbag with twenty dollar gold pieces. Bless him! “
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