Treasure island, p.24
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       Treasure Island, p.24

           Robert Louis Stevenson
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  Here, then, was everything to keep me up—sympathy, help, and now a positive engagement. I had chosen besides a very easy style. Compare it with the almost contemporary “Merry Men;” one may prefer the one style, one the other—’tis an affair of character, perhaps of mood; but no expert can fail to see that the one is much more difficult, and the other much easier, to maintain. It seems as though a full-grown, experienced man of letters might engage to turn out “Treasure Island” at so many pages a day, and keep his pipe alight. But alas! this was not my case. Fifteen days I stuck to it, and turned out fifteen chapters; and then, in the early paragraphs of the sixteenth, ignominiously lost hold. My mouth was empty; there was not one word more of “Treasure Island” in my bosom; and here were the proofs of the beginning already waiting me at the “Hand and Spear!”7 There I corrected them, living for the most part alone, walking on the heath at Weybridge in dewy autumn mornings, a good deal pleased with what I had done, and more appalled than I can depict to you in words at what remained for me to do. I was thirty-one; I was the head of a family; I had lost my health; I had never yet paid my way, had never yet made two hundred pounds a year; my father had quite recently bought back and cancelled a book that was judged a failure; was this to be another and last fiasco? I was indeed very close on despair; but I shut my mouth hard, and during the journey to Davos, where I was to pass the winter, had the resolution to think of other things, and bury myself in the novels of M. du Boisgobey.8 Arrived at my destination, down I sat one morning to the unfinished tale, and behold! it flowed from me like small talk; and in a second tide of delighted industry, and again at the rate of a chapter a day, I finished “Treasure Island.” It had to be transacted almost secretly. My wife was ill, the schoolboy remained alone of the faithful, and John Addington Symonds9 (to whom I timidly mentioned what I was engaged on) looked on me askance. He was at that time very eager I should write on the “Characters” of Theophrastus, so far out may be the judgments of the wisest men. But Symonds (to be sure) was scarce the confidant to go to for sympathy in a boy’s story. He was large-minded; “a full man,” if there ever was one; but the very name of my enterprise would suggest to him only capitulations of sincerity and solecisms of style. Well, he was not far wrong.

  “Treasure Island”—it was Mr. Henderson who deleted the first title, “The Sea Cook”—appeared duly in the story paper, where if figured in the ignoble midst without woodcuts, and attracted not the least attention. I did not care. I liked the tale myself, for much the same reason as my father liked the beginning: it was my kind of picturesque. I was not a little proud of John Silver also, and to this day rather admire that smooth and formidable adventurer. What was infinitely more exhilarating, I had passed a landmark; I had finished a tale, and written “The End” upon my manuscript, as I had not done since the “Pentland Rising,” when I was a boy of sixteen, not yet at college. In truth it was so by a set of lucky accidents: had not Dr. Jaap come on his visit, had not the tale flowed from me with singular ease, it must have been laid aside like its predecessors, and found a circuitous and unlamented way to the fire. Purists may suggest it would have been better so. I am not of that mind. The tale seems to have given much pleasure, and it brought (or was the means of bringing) fire and food and wine to a deserving family in which I took an interest. I need scarce say I mean my own.

  But the adventures of “Treasure Island” are not yet quite at an end. I had written it up to the map. The map was the chief part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet “Skeleton Island,” not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque; and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe and stole Flint’s pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbours that the Hispaniola was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands. The time came when it was decided to republish, and I sent in my manuscript and the map along with it to Messrs. Cassell. The proofs came, they were corrected, but I heard nothing of the map. I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast. It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it, and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships; and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately forged the signature of Captain Flint and the sailing directions of Billy Bones. But somehow it was never “Treasure Island” to me.

  I have said it was the most of the plot. I might almost say it was the whole. A few reminiscences of Poe, Defoe, and Washington Irving, a copy of Johnson’s “Buccaneers,” the name of the Dead Man’s Chest from Kingsley’s “At Last,”10 some recollections of canoeing on the high seas, a cruise in a fifteen-ton schooner yacht, and the map itself with its infinite, eloquent suggestion, made up the whole of my materials. It is perhaps not often that a map figures so largely in a tale; yet it is always important. The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. And how troublesome the moon is! I have come to grief over the moon in “Prince Otto;”11 and, so soon as that was pointed out to me, adopted a precaution which I recommend to other men—I never write now without an almanac.12 With an almanac, and the map of the country and the plan of every house, either actually plotted on paper or clearly and immediately apprehended in the mind, a man may hope to avoid some of the grossest possible blunders. With the map before him, he will scarce allow the sun to set in the east, as it does in the “Antiquary.”13 With the almanac at hand, he will scarce allow two horsemen, journeying on the most urgent affair, to employ six days, from three of the Monday morning till late in the Saturday night, upon a journey of, say, ninety or a hundred miles; and before the week is out, and still on the same nags, to cover fifty in one day, as he may read at length in the inimitable novel of “Rob Roy.”14 And it is certainly well, though far from necessary, to avoid such croppers. But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that he who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words. Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone. But, even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map. As he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon. He will discover obvious though unsuspected short cuts and footpaths for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in “Treasure Island,” it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.


  Notes to “My First Book”

  1. “Rathillet.” The titles which follow are those of fledgling novels by Stevenson that were never published. As his own note indicates, he did produce in his teens a pamphlet account of an incident caused by the persecution of Scots Covenantors during the Restoration in 1666, which was not to be confused with the unpublished novel that bore the same title.

  2. bogie stories. Horror or ghost stories (cf. “bogey”), though Stevenson’s favored term at the time these stories were written seems to have been “bogle,” or goblin. The cooperative project with Fanny, the former Mrs. Samuel Osbourne, did not come to much. “The Shadow on the Bed” was never published, although “Thrawn Janet” and “The Merry Men” are counted among Stevenson’s best short works, despite their heavy use of Scots dialect. His interest in Washington living’s “The Gold Diggers” in Tales of a Traveller, which contains a number of ghost stories, seems to date from this period. It is worth noting here the effect of the rugged Scottish landscape on Stevenson’s imagination, which is demonstrate
d at length in “The Merry Men.”

  3. Women were excluded. Where his partner in the projected collection of ghost stories had been his wife, here Stevenson’s father, Thomas, and most especially his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, were collaborators, lending double weight to this sentence.

  4. an admired friend. The poet-editor William Ernest Henley.

  5. parrot … skeleton … stockade. See the introduction for a brief discussion of these specific debts. Marryat’s Masterman Ready is a castaway novel for young readers that attempted to “correct” The Swiss Family Robinson by denying the characters a ship loaded with supplies assisting in their survival. The title character is a seaman whose common sense and practical know-how are responsible for saving the castaway family.

  6. Dr. Jaap. Alexander Jaap, who suggested to Stevenson that he publish his novel as a serial in James Henderson’s Young Folks, a popular children’s magazine of the day.

  7. “Hand and Spear.” The logo and sign of Stevenson’s publishers, Cassell & Co.

  8. M. du Boisgobey. Fortuné du Boisgobey (1824–91), a writer of detective fiction, first published serially in newspapers, hence a byword for escapist literature.

  9. John Addington Symonds. Symonds (1840–93), a historian of the Italian Renaissance and an occasional poet, shared little in common with his friend Stevenson beyond weak tubercular lungs, as the proposed study of Theophrastus (c. 370–285 b.c.) suggests. At this time, Stevenson was thought of as a promising essayist, a genre to which the satiric Characters is regarded as belonging, being studies of individual human types, which may have inspired his friend’s suggestion.

  10. Johnson’s “Buccaneers” … Kingsley’s “At Last.” Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates (1724) was a popular if imaginative source of piratical lore. Charles Kingsley (1819–75), a popular novelist who in 1871 wrote At Last, an account of a trip to the West Indies, which seems not to have had much effect on Stevenson’s knowledge of Caribbean flora and fauna.

  11. “Prince Otto.” A romance by Stevenson (1885) not generally regarded as one of his best.

  12. almanac. An annual publication containing a calendar of meteorological and astronomical data. Stevenson here is suggesting that a writer wishing to be accurate in matters of moonshine should make use of an almanac for the year and date in question.

  13. “Antiquary.” The Antiquary (1816), a historical romance by Sir Walter Scott, Stevenson’s famous predecessor and therefore rival, so well known in 1894 as not to need further identification.

  14. “Rob Roy.” Rob Roy (1817), also by Scott, as above. The proximity of the dates confirms that Scott wrote more quickly than carefully, and he regarded fiction as a lesser craft than poetry, hence the anonymous initial publication of his romances. By Stevenson’s day, standards of literary realism were having their impact even on romance fiction, as the author’s punctiliousness regarding maps and almanacs indicates, though as our introduction suggests, he was still capable of “croppers” regarding matters of West Indian vegetation and wildlife.

  *Ne pas confondre. Not the slim green pamphlet with the imprint of Andrew Elliott, for which (as I see with amazement from the book-lists) the gentlemen of England are willing to pay fancy prices; but its predecessor, a bulky historical romance without a spark of merit, and now deleted from the world.


  The episode in Irving’s Tales of a Traveller that inspired the opening chapters of Treasure Island occurs in Volume II, Part IV, “The Money Diggers,” which is made up of four sections that have to do with pirate lore and buried treasure. The last of these, “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams” (which includes a separate but related tale, “The Adventure of the Black Fisherman,” not included here), contains the material in question, the important parts of which follow. Placed back in context, the episode in which an old pirate terrorizes a rural seaside inn is surrounded by gothic tales and anecdotes, involving actual or storied ghosts, but by itself it is a relatively realistic narrative, if given a romantic coloring in keeping with the surrounding material. Only the climax, with the drowning during a violent thunderstorm of the old pirate—whose ghost will reappear in a closing episode, eliminated here for sake of brevity—shares the tendency toward the supernatural that characterizes “The Money Diggers” throughout, most especially the section entitled “The Devil and Tom Walker,” a story often anthologized by itself. This material, not relevant to Treasure Island, does bear comparison with Stevenson’s short story “The Merry Men,” written, as the author notes, at about the same time as his first novel.

  Many months had elapsed since Wolfert had frequented his old resort, the rural inn. He was taking a long lonely walk one Saturday afternoon, musing over his wants and disappointments, when his feet took instinctively their wonted direction, and on awaking out of a reverie, he found himself before the door of the inn. For some moments he hesitated whether to enter, but his heart yearned for companionship; and where can a ruined man find better companionship than at a tavern, where there is neither sober example nor sober advice to put him out of countenance?

  Wolfert found several of the old frequenters of the inn at their usual places; but one was missing, the great Ramm Rapelye, who for many years had filled the leather-bottomed chair of state. His place was supplied by a stranger, who seemed, however, completely at home in the chair and the tavern. He was rather under size, but deep-chested, square, and muscular. His broad shoulders, double joints, and bow knees, gave tokens of prodigious strength. His face was dark and weather-beaten; a deep scar, as if from the slash of a cutlass, had almost divided his nose, and made a gash in his upper lip, through which his teeth shone like a bull-dog’s. A mop of iron-gray hair gave a grisly finish to this hard-favored visage. His dress was of an amphibious character. He wore an old hat edged with tarnished lace, and cocked in martial style, on one side of his head; a rusty blue military coat with brass buttons, and a wide pair of short petticoat trousers, or rather breeches, for they were gathered up at the knees. He ordered everybody about him with an authoritative air; talking in a brattling voice, that sounded like the crackling of thorns under a pot; d——d the landlord and servants with perfect impunity, and was waited upon with greater obsequiousness than had ever been shown to the mighty Ramm himself.

  Wolfert’s curiosity was awakened to know who and what was this stranger, who had thus usurped absolute sway in this ancient domain. Peechy Prauw took him aside, into a remote corner of the hall, and there, in an under voice, and with great caution, imparted to him all that he knew on the subject. The inn had been aroused several months before, on a dark night, by repeated long shouts, that seemed like the howling of a wolf. They came from the waterside and at length were distinguished to be hailing the house in the seafaring manner, “House-a-hoy!” The landlord turned out with his head waiter, tapster, hostler, and errand-boy,—that is to say, with his old negro Cuff. On approaching the place whence the voice proceeded, they found this amphibious-looking personage at the water’s edge, quite alone, and seated on a great oaken sea-chest. How he came there, whether he had been set on shore from some boat, or had floated to land on his chest, nobody could tell, for he did not seem disposed to answer questions; and there was something in his looks and manners that put a stop to all questioning. Suffice it to say, he took possession of a corner-room of the inn, to which his chest was removed with great difficulty. Here he had remained ever since, keeping about the inn and its vicinity. Sometimes, it is true, he disappeared for one, two, or three days at a time, going and returning without giving any notice or account of his movements. He always appeared to have plenty of money, though often of very strange, outlandish coinage; and he regularly paid his bill every evening before turning in.

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