Robert Louis Stevenson Day (#RLSDay) takes place every year on 13th November to mark the great Scottish author’s birthday, and this year is no exception. While we may not be able to come together in Edinburgh to celebrate with events, readings and moustache competitions, the spirit of RLS lives on through the internet this year with digital events at the Writers’ Museum, an online ‘Hydeathon’ reading at Typewronger Books and much more besides (click here for up-to-date listings).
We are delighted to throw our own wide-brimmed hat into the ring and present you with this brand new short story and film for RLS Day 2020, ‘Ordinary Case of RLS and RLS’ by Kevin MacNeil, inspired by the great man himself.
Watch the short film below, scroll down for the full manuscript, and prepare for a shiver in your soul.
Film by Jen Josephs.
Ordinary Case of RLS and RLS
By Kevin MacNeil
There once lived in Edinburgh’s affluent New Town a man called Robert Louis Stevenson. He was born into a family of eminent engineers, whose accomplishments included numerous ‘impossible’ lighthouses. Robert Louis Stevenson’s father, Thomas, wished for him to be a lighthouse engineer, to continue the family’s noble tradition. RLS was an imaginative, romantic young man; he secretly yearned to be a writer.
As he approached adulthood, RLS deviated from his parents’ Presbyterian world-view. He enthused in a poem:
I love night in the city,
The lighted streets and the swinging gait of harlots.
The burgeoning Bohemian met, and fell in love with, a woman of the night named Mary. ’We had much to talk about,’ Stevenson was heard to say, ‘and found that we had been dear friends without knowing it’.
So much in love was RLS that he proposed to marry this soul-mate of his. It was with enormous difficulty that the young man persuaded his mother and father a woman of ill repute might make a worthy bride. Robert’s appeal to his parents’ Christian propensity towards forgiveness and redemption, coupled with Mary’s natural charm, convinced them a marriage was acceptable: the great and necessary disappointment therein being, if he were to have his parents’ blessing, RLS must give up his literary ambitions and follow his father’s upstanding vocation. RLS must become a lighthouse engineer.
Stevenson thus sacrificed his preferred talents and studied engineering at the University of Edinburgh. Three days after graduating, RLS married Mary and Thomas bought for the couple a cottage in Colinton. And there, RLS and Mary lived more or less contentedly, and had two children, a boy and a girl.
Stevenson, however, could not forget his real dream and often wondered about the direction his life might have taken had he disobeyed his father and lived a more artistic life. By now, he had designed a number of ‘impossible’ lighthouses of his own and, while these received public and professional acclaim, he saw in them only the impossible books he could have written in their stead.
‘But darling,’ said Mary, ‘your lighthouses save lives – and they shall outlast all of us. You ought to be proud of them, as I am and as your parents are.’
‘Aye,’ replied Stevenson with a thin smile.
At night, he retreated into dreams as vivid as his daily existence; pirates, brownies and bodysnatchers visited him.
When he was able, he escaped his responsibilities and sat at a gravestone in Greyfriars Kirkyard, saturated in melancholy, leafing through a novel by Henry James, panging with jealousy. Sometimes he pictured the life he could – should – have had and he squirmed with restlessness. He saw himself adventuring in Europe and America and in – the most exotic place he could imagine – Samoa. What on Earth, he asked himself, could life in Samoa actually be like?
Time passed with a dual nature, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Stevenson’s melancholy deepened and he grew frail and jaundiced. At length, he could no longer suppress his dissatisfaction and he confessed to his wife that he felt unhappy with his life. Shocked, Mary shared this information with her parents-in-law. They agreed that since the children were now fully grown, they should arrange for RLS to make a journey to Samoa, accompanied by Mary, that RLS might regain his vitality.
The Stevensons’ voyage was a difficult joy. Sea-sick but excited, they endeavoured to re-live their courting days. And when they landed at Samoa – what a transformation took place in RLS. His face brightened with wonder. Wide-eyed, he exclaimed, ‘Why I have had the most curious sensation, almost as though I have been here before!’
‘Naturally, darling,’ said Mary, ‘you have dreamed of Samoa so often and so yearningly that you’re half-convinced you have previously visited.’
They settled into a rented home along with a retinue of servants, and so began a bemused surrender to the unfamiliar. One of the servants told them of a popular man known as the Teller of Tales, whom they might visit, for he had a wealth of fantastic stories and had originally come from a distant land where they spoke English like the Stevensons did.
RLS was unsure. He was feeling inspired to write and was uncertain about meeting a fellow writer who seemed to be popular and successful – and possibly a compatriot at that. The more he heard about the Teller of Tales, however, the more intrigued he grew. It was said, for example, that the Teller of Tales knew many famous authors such as Henry James.
Encouraged by Mary, RLS resolved to visit this tale-teller. Arrangements were made, facilitated by their respective servants.
The day arrived and as they approached the storyteller’s house, RLS fell silent.
‘Don’t be so anxious, dear,’ said Mary.
A woman opened the door to them – not a servant, but clearly the lady of the house. ‘Good afternoon – welcome,’ she said in an American accent. ‘We have been so looking forward to making your acquaintance.’
RLS stared at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He was quite literally unable to move. He could not even blink. She gave him a strange look, her lips unconsciously parting.
‘Do – do come in,’ the American woman said, but as she did so, Stevenson blanched and his stare intensified further. For the man now moving from the inner darkness towards them – surely the Teller of Tales himself – looked as like RLS as if he were a brother, perhaps even a twin. He stared at Mary and it was as though a look of the most charged love passed between them. Then he turned to RLS. The two men mirrored each other. Even their mannerisms were uncannily similar. At the same moment, as if recognising something, they both made to speak.
‘I can hardly tell – ’ said the Teller of Tales –
‘- which is really me,’ said Stevenson.
And at a stroke, both men – mirror-perfect, as one – fell down dead.
The Teller of Tales is remembered for his stories, which have lived on in printed and oral form. RLS is commemorated by a number of impressive lighthouses, which have saved countless lives. On RLS’s gravestone and on Mary’s gravestone alike is inscribed Robert Louis Stevenson’s only publicly seen literary work:
Life – what is life? Upon a moorland bare
To see love coming and see love depart.
Kevin MacNeil is a leading Scottish novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter, born and raised in the Outer Hebrides. His most recent novel, The Brilliant & Forever, was published to huge critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Saltire Fiction of the Year Award. Kevin is the editor of Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology, Selected by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Kevin has won a number of prestigious literary awards. He is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling.
Click here to view all books by Kevin MacNeil on the Birlinn website.
Click here to visit Kevin MacNeil’s website.