These familiar initials are, I suppose, the best beloved in recent literature, certainly they are the sweetest to me, but there was a time when my mother could not abide them. She said ‘That Stevenson man’ with a sneer, and, it was never easy to her to sneer. At thought of him her face would become almost hard, which seems incredible, and she would knit her lips and fold her arms, and reply with a stiff ‘oh’ if you mentioned his aggravating name. In the novels we have a way of writing of our heroine, ‘she drew herself up haughtily,’ and when mine draw themselves up haughtily I see my mother thinking of Robert Louis Stevenson. He knew her opinion of him, and would write, ‘My ears tingled yesterday; I sair doubt she has been miscalling me again.’ But the more she miscalled him the more he delighted in her, and she was informed of this, and at once said, ‘The scoundrel!’ If you would know what was his unpardonable crime, it was this: he wrote better books than mine.
I remember the day she found it out, which was not, however, the day she admitted it. That day, when I should have been at my work, she came upon me in the kitchen, ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ beside me, but I was not reading: my head lay heavy on the table, and to her anxious eyes, I doubt not, I was the picture of woe. ‘Not writing!’ I echoed, no, I was not writing, I saw no use in ever trying to write again. And down, I suppose, went my head once more. She misunderstood, and thought the blow had fallen; I had awakened to the discovery, always dreaded by her, that I had written myself dry; I was no better than an empty ink-bottle. She wrung her hands, but indignation came to her with my explanation, which was that while R. L. S. was at it we others were only ‘prentices cutting our fingers on his tools. ‘I could never thole his books,’ said my mother immediately, and indeed vindictively.
‘You have not read any of them,’ I reminded her.
‘And never will,’ said she with spirit.
And I have no doubt that she called him a dark character that very day. For weeks too, if not for months, she adhered to her determination not to read him, though I, having come to my senses and seen that there is a place for the ‘prentice, was taking a pleasure, almost malicious, in putting ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ in her way. I would place it on her table so that it said good- morning to her when she rose. She would frown, and carrying it downstairs, as if she had it in the tongs, replace it on its book- shelf. I would wrap it up in the cover she had made for the latest Carlyle: she would skin it contemptuously and again bring it down. I would hide her spectacles in it, and lay it on top of the clothes-basket and prop it up invitingly open against her tea-pot. And at last I got her, though I forget by which of many contrivances. What I recall vividly is a key-hole view, to which another member of the family invited me. Then I saw my mother wrapped up in ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ and muttering the music to herself, nodding her head in approval, and taking a stealthy glance at the foot of each page before she began at the top. Nevertheless she had an ear for the door, for when I bounced in she had been too clever for me; there was no book to be seen, only an apron on her lap and she was gazing out at the window. Some such conversation as this followed:-