|By Arthur Paul Patterson
God, Do I Look Strange? • Samoa
FANNY WAS IN a mulish
mood. Robert Louis Stevenson muttered, “balmawhapple,” (Gaelic
for obstinate) under his breath as he descended to the basement
to retrieve his finest Burgundy. After a cigarette and a hand or
two of whist, he cajoled his discontented wife into helping him
construct a luscious salad of Samoan fruits and fresh green lettuce
harvested from their tropical garden. He tore a large juicy leaf;
his entire body jolted and shuddered as if electrocuted. His
His face melted down the side of his head.
The kitchen mirror trapped
a visage he’d seen only in his
face leering at him from the looking glass was a metaphysical anomaly,
a collage of faces, some resembling his
younger self, others from early Scottish eras: John Knox, William
Deacon Brodie. Discontented to take on a fixed form, the face sluiced
into hideous caricatures of his father Thomas,
his nanny Alice, and his boyhood friend
Bob. Sepia-toned images of the writer’s fictional characters
fueled the final macabre likeness: Long John Silver, Markheim the
murderer, Prince Florizel of the Suicide Club, and finally Dr.
Henry Jekyll metamorphosed into Edward Hyde.
Louis’ bony fingers clutched his scalp; he swung toward Fanny
and slurred, “My God! Do I look… strange?” Fanny
graciously lied. Stevenson sank into benevolent deception and died.
South England 1885
Stricken by Bluidy Jack, as he called
his lung disease, Louis, propped on a pillow, turned his face toward
the ornate dresser that his father had sent from Edinburgh. Crotchety
as his engineer father was at times, Thomas Stevenson had a sentimental
core. Louis remembered his father’s letters composed during
his lighthouse inspection tours. Often his father would ask, “How’s
my little smoutie (small fry) doing?” The nickname irritated
Louis. It drew attention to his frailty, but he understood that
the term came directly out of his father’s affectionate large
Thomas longed to be greeted by the scrawny
lad, whose gigantic imagination told Bible stories in hilarious
cigar-smoking Israelites trooping out of Egypt.
Memories of his father’s delight, his barrel-chested
laughter and proud embrace had a medicinal effect on the ailing,
The effect dissolved as he remembered that his father’s
love had changed over the years. Their relationship became shrouded
in disappointment and tarnished by stubbornness, suspicion and
argument. Recently, in a letter to his cousin and best friend,
Robert (Bob) Stevenson, Louis admitted that his parents expected
the worst of him and that he consistently gave it to them, to
his shame. Accompanied by another wrenching cough, this truth
tore into him.
He regretted hurting his parents yet couldn’t bear the
cost of conforming to their strict Calvinist beliefs and Victorian
morals. He was ashamed of his immaturity as he lay on his sickbed:
thirty-six years old, financially dependent, living in father’s
gift house, staring fish-eyed at the old dresser. He felt suffocated,
a split self: a passionate free spirit, with a butler and a bride,
in what Mark Twain called the gilded cage of duty-filled Victorianism,
crushed beneath the velvet glove of his father’s controlling
kindness. These thoughts and his ensuing rage brought on another
lung tearing coughing spell.
Why did an oversensitive conscience and hypersensitive lungs
plague him? Pondering the question, his eye turned toward the
ornamental design on the bureau on which the letters “W.D.
Brodie” were etched. A faintly wicked, mischievous smile
crossed his face as he fell asleep exhausted.