Merged and mixed up in a quadruple existence

RLS’s cousin and friend, Bob (Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, 1847-1900), painter and art critic, is recovering at Swanston, staying there with his sisters Katharine and Dora (the ‘two cousins from Portobello’) and another cousin of RLS’s (on mother’s side), Maggie.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 279].

To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1912, pp. 78-80]

Swanston, Sunday [June, 1874].

Dear friend,

[…] I fear to have added something to your troubles by telling you of the grief in which I find myself; but one cannot always come to meet a friend smiling, although we should try for the best cheer possible. All today I have been very weary, resting myself after the trouble and fatigue of yesterday. The day was warm enough, but it blew a whole gale of wind; and the noise and the purposeless rude violence of it somehow irritated and depressed me. There was good news however, though the anxiety must still be long. O peace, peace, whither are you fled and where have you carried my old quiet humour? […] I am so bitter and disquiet and speak even spitefully to people. And somehow, though I promise myself amendment, day after day finds me equally rough and sour to those about me. But this would pass with good health and good weather; and at bottom I am not unhappy; the soil is still good although it bears thorns; and the time will come again for flowers. […]


Wednesday. – I got your letter this morning and have to thank you so much for it. […] Bob is much better; and I do hope out of danger.

Today has been more glorious than I can tell you. It has been the first day of blue sky that we have had; and it was happiness for a week to see the clear bright outline of the hills and the glory of sunlit foliage and the darkness of green shadows, and the big white clouds that went voyaging overhead deliberately. My two cousins from Portobello were here: and they and I and Maggie ended the afternoon by lying half an hour together on a shawl. The big clouds had all been carded out into a thin luminous white gauze, miles away; and miles away too seemed the little black birds that passed between this and us as we lay with faces upturned. The similarity of what we saw struck in us a curious similarity of mood; and in consequence of the small size of the shawl, we all lay so close that we half pretended, half felt, we had lost our individualities and had become merged and mixed up in a quadruple existence. We had the shadow of an umbrella over ourselves, and when any one reached out a brown hand into the golden sunlight overhead we all feigned that we did not know whose hand it was, until at last I don’t really think we quite did. Little black insects also passed over us and in the same half wanton manner we pretended we could not distinguish them from the birds. There was a splendid sunlit silence about us, and as Katharine said the heavens seemed to be dropping oil on us, or honey-dew – it was all so ‘bland’.

Claude Monet, The Artist s Family in the Garden, 1875 []

Cl. Monet, ‘La liseuse’, 1872 []

Cl. Monet, Madame Monet in the garden []

Cl. Monet, Le jardin, 1872 []


Thursday evening. – I have seen Bob again, and I was charmed at his convalescence. Le bon dieu has been so bon this time: here’s his health! Still the danger is not over by a good way; it is so miserable a thing for reverses.


I hear the wind outside roaring among our leafy trees as the surf on some loud shore. The hill-top is whelmed in a passing rain-shower and the mist lies low in the valleys. But the night is warm and in our little sheltered garden it is fair and pleasant, and the borders and hedges and evergreens and boundary trees are all distinct in an equable diffusion of light from the horned moon and the day not altogether passed away. My dear friend, as I hear the wind rise and die away in that tempestuous world of foliage, I seem to be conscious of I know not what breath of creation.

P. Gauguin, Un coin du mur (effet de nuit), 1881 []

I know what this warm wet wind of the west betokens, I know how already, in this morning’s sunshine, we could see all the hills touched and accentuated with little delicate golden patches of young fern; how day by day the flowers thicken and the leaves unfold; how already the year is a-tip-toe on the summit of its finished youth; and I am glad and sad to the bottom of my heart at the knowledge. If you knew how different I am from what I was last year; how the knowledge of you has changed and finished me, you would be glad and sad also. […] – Ever your faithful friend,

Robert Louis Stevenson


Jean-Francois Millet, The Gust of Wind, 1871-73 []

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Gust of Wind, c. 1865 []

P.A. Renoir, The Gust of Wind, c. 1872 []



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1 Response to Merged and mixed up in a quadruple existence

  1. rdury says:

    Wonderful desription of the experience of lying on a shawl toether and looking up at the birds in the sky.


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