RLS’s first introduction to the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903): the acquaintance ripened quickly into a close and stimulating friendship. Henley suffered from a tubercolous disease: he had a wooden leg, and when the desease threatened his other foot, he went to Edinburgh to seek treatment from a great pioneer of antiseptic surgery, Professor Joseph Lister; the doctor saved his foot but Henley had to spend two years in bed.
Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904) is the editor of Cornill Magazine and future father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
The Italian story just finished is called When the Devil was well. Of the other story called A Country Dance no trace remains.
[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 364].
To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 207-209]
Edinburgh, Tuesday [9 February 1875].
I got your nice long gossiping letter today – I mean by that that there was more news in it than usual – and so, of course, I am pretty jolly. I am in the house, however, with such a beastly cold in the head. Our east winds begin already to be very cold. […]O, I have such a longing for children of my own; and yet I do not think I could bear it if I had one. I fancy I must feel more like a woman than like a man about that. I sometimes hate the children I see on the street – you know what I mean by hate – wish they were somewhere else, and not there to mock me; and sometimes, again, I don’t know how to go by them for the love of them, especially the very wee ones.
Thursday. – I have been still in the house since I wrote, and I have worked. I finished the Italian story; not well, but as well as I can just now; I must go all over it again, some time soon, when I feel in the humour to better and perfect it.
And now I have taken up an old story, begun years ago; and I have now rewritten all I had written of it then, and mean to finish it. What I have lost and gained is odd. As far as regards simple writing, of course, I am in another world now; but in some things, though more clumsy, I seem to have been freer and more plucky: this is a lesson I have taken to heart. I have got a jolly new name for my old story. I am going to call it A Country Dance; the two heroes keep changing places, you know; and the chapter where the most of this changing goes on is to be called ‘Up the middle, down the middle.’ It will be in six, or (perhaps) seven chapters. I have never worked harder in my life than these last four days. If I can only keep it up. […]
Saturday. – Yesterday, Leslie Stephen, who was down here to lecture, called on me and took me up to see a poor fellow, a poet who writes for him, and who has been eighteen months in our infirmary, and may be, for all I know, eighteen months more. It was very sad to see him there, in a little room with two beds, and a couple of sick children in the other bed; a girl came in to visit the children, and played dominoes on the counterpane with them; the gas flared and crackled, the fire burned in a dull economical way; Stephen and I sat on a couple of chairs, and the poor fellow sat up in his bed with his hair and beard all tangled, and talked as cheerfully as if he had been in a King’s palace, or the great King’s palace of the blue air. He has taught himself two languages since he has been lying there. I shall try to be of use to him.
[…] We have had two beautiful spring days, mild as milk, windy withal, and the sun hot. I dreamed last night I was walking by moonlight round the place where the scene of my story is laid; it was all so quiet and sweet, and the blackbirds were singing as if it was day; it made my heart very cool and happy.[…] – Ever yours,
Robert Louis Stevenson