In the first week of January 1874 Sidney Colvin goes for some necessary work to Paris, with the intention of returning towards the end of the month. The following letter introduces the Russian sisters, Madame Nadia Zassetsky and Madame Sophie Garschine, whose society and that of their children is to do so much to cheer RLS during his remaining months on the Riviera. The French painter Robinet (sometimes in his days known as ‘le Raphael des cailloux’, from the minuteness of detail which he puts into his Provençal coast landscapes) is a chivalrous and affectionate soul in whom RLS delights in spite of his fervent clerical and royalist opinions.
The little American girl mentioned is Marie (or May) Johnstone.
Inside the Epiphany cake, or Galette des Rois, is hidden a figurine, la fève, and the person who finds it in the slice becomes king (or queen) for the day.
The Stool of Repentance is a parlour game in which the players sit in a circle around a stool; one of the group (the “victim”) leaves the room, and the rest say or write all sorts of things about him or her; the “victim” is then called back to sit on the stool, and one of the players begins to tell or read him or her the different charges that were made against him or her. If the “victim” guesses correctly, he or she returns to the circle, and the person who made the accusation takes the stool as the new “victim”.
[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 202 and 203].
To his mother [Colvin 1911, pp. 117-119]
[Menton,], January 7, 1874.
My dear Mother,
[…] I received yesterday two most charming letters – the nicest I have had since I left – December 26th and January 1st: this morning I got January 3rd. […]
[…] Into the bargain with Marie, the American girl, who is grace itself, and comes leaping and dancing simply like a wave – like nothing else, and who yesterday was Queen out of the Epiphany cake and chose Robinet (the French Painter) as her favori with the most pretty confusion possible – into the bargain with Marie, we have two little Russian girls, with the youngest of whom, a little polyglot button of a three-year old, I had the most laughable little scene at lunch to-day. I was watching her being fed with great amusement, her face being as broad as it is long, and her mouth capable of unlimited extension; when suddenly, her eye catching mine, the fashion of her countenance was changed, and regarding me with a really admirable appearance of offended dignity, she said something in Italian which made everybody laugh much. It was explained to me that she had said I was very polisson to stare at her. After this she was somewhat taken up with me, and after some examination she announced emphatically to the whole table, in German, that I was a Mädchen; which word she repeated with shrill emphasis, as though fearing that her proposition would be called in question – Mädchen, Mädchen, Mädchen, Mädchen. This hasty conclusion as to my sex she was led afterwards to revise, I am informed; but her new opinion (which seems to have been something nearer the truth) was announced in a third language quite unknown to me, and probably Russian. To complete the scroll of her accomplishments, she was brought round the table after the meal was over, and said good-bye to me in very commendable English.
The weather I shall say nothing about, as I am incapable of explaining my sentiments upon that subject before a lady. But my health is really greatly improved: I begin to recognise myself occasionally now and again, not without satisfaction.
Please remember me very kindly to Professor Swan; I wish I had a story to send him; but story, Lord bless you, I have none to tell, sir, unless it is the foregoing adventure with the little polyglot. The best of that depends on the significance of polisson, which is beautifully out of place. […]
Saturday, 10th January. – […] The little Russian kid is only two and a half: she speaks six languages. She and her sister (aet. 8) and May Johnstone (aet. 8) are the delight of my life. Last night I saw them all dancing – O it was jolly; kids are what is the matter with me. After the dancing, we all – that is the two Russian ladies, Robinet the French painter, Mr. and Mrs. Johnstone, two governesses, and fitful kids joining us at intervals – played a game of the stool of repentance in the Gallic idiom.
O – I have not told you that Colvin is gone; however, he is coming back again; he has left clothes in pawn to me.
[…] – Ever your affectionate son,
Robert Louis Stevenson