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Robert Neilson Stephens

( Originally Published 1907 )

AS we write this sketch, we have in mind the familiar picture of Robert Louis Stevenson, stretched out on a couch in his Samoan home, ailing, working. There is a sad sweetness in the sharpened face, and in the eyes is a gleam of bravery or determination. The Scot whom the entire reading world still loves so dearly, and will continue to love, it seems, when the babes of to-day are trembling graybeards, knew the strenuous life much more intimately than most of its new advocates ; but it was a part of his art, and the artist conceals his art. Stevenson's sentences glitter, for they are gems of literature; but the glitter was given them at the expense of sublime patience and infinite pains. Unconsciously he presented an ex-ample of heroism; consciously he showed the young writers of his day that anything approaching perfection must be the product of scrupulous industry. Like the diamond polisher, he was never satisfied with a merely smooth facet: the facet dazzled or he was not content.

We have Stevenson in mind at this time for many reasons. In the first place, the subject of this chapter, Robert Neilson Stephens, may know of the letter of con-gratulation which, when he was writing for the Philadelphia Press, some of the young men of that journal sent to the distinguished writer on the Pacific island; and possibly he may have seen the answer that Stevenson sent—an answer filled with modest thanks and sound advice and sincere good wishes. The letter ended with the remark that if the young Philadelphians labored skillfully and ambitiously they would surely make their mark. If Stevenson had lived he would have congratulated Robert Neilson Stephens four years ago.

You will notice that there is a certain similarity between the features of the author of "The Master of Ballantrae" and the author of "Philip Winwood"—the same delicacy, the same lurking kindness, the same suggestion of indomitable intellectuality. And the resemblance extends beyond the features, also. Stevenson, in his youth, suffered from poverty ; so did Stephens. The Scotchman for a long time clipped his pen in water, making no impression, receiving no encouragement, entertaining no luck; so, also, did the American. It is a story almost as old as the world, a story illustrated occasionally in the skies. Astronomers tells us that light, fast as it travels, takes years upon years to come to us. Often it is the same with men of genius: they blaze long before our narrow vision gives any sign of recognition.

Someone, by the way, once sympathized with Stephens on his ill health. Yes, he was far from strong, he admitted; "but," he said, " they may say what they please those who have never been poor I would rather be ill and well-to-do, as I am, than poor and in good health, as I was for many years. I have had many sorrows, but hardly a sorrow that was not aggravated, if not caused, by poverty, or that very moderate wealth would not have ameliorated or pre-vented. The difference between pecuniary ease and poverty is oftentimes simply as the difference between heaven and hell."

We may not all agree with the sentiment suggested, that riches in most circumstances or under most conditions are preferable to poverty with good health, but no one can fail to discern in the sentiment the bitter memory of a man who has been acquainted with great distress. At any rate, his is a philosophy based on experience. To experience, also, we may ascribe Stephens's animadversion regarding friendship.

" When a man makes any kind of success, however small," he says, " he finds that his old friends resolve themselves into three classes. The first class turn sullen, and show their envy in many mean ways. The second class wax more friendly than ever, and come showering their attentions. The third class show a reasonable pleasure at your success, and remain just as they were before. God bless the last kind ! God mend the second ! and God pity the first ! "

Before generalizing farther it might be better to reveal some of Stephens's career. Robert Neilson Stephens, a descendant of the Jacobite fugitive who was grandfather of Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, was born on July 22, 1867, in New Bloomfield, a little town in Central Pennsylvania. The house in which he was born lay a stone's throw from the academy founded by his grandfather and conducted by his father.

The first distressful event came into Robert's life when, at the age of nine, some seven years after the family had moved from New Bloomfield to Huntingdon, on the Juniata River, his father died. His mother, to support her children, took a position as a school teacher. Notwithstanding the lack of wealth, however, Robert went through the public high school. After leaving school he went to work, for three dollars and a half a week, in a bookstore connected with a stationery factory. Aside from his pride and his poverty, which seem to have influenced him to no small extent, he was a delicate youth, and his steadiest companions were books. Besides, he cultivated assiduously the faculty of observation. This cultivation shows itself in his books. He is unsurpassed among the novelists of the day for mastery of the life of bygone periods.

The work in the bookstore was distasteful to him in many ways. The narrowness and the ignorance of the factory hands chafed his delicate sensibilities ; the nature of the work itself jarred on his always strengthening mental equipment. He looked about him for a means of escape from this sort of prison, incarceration in which was little sweetened by the fact that in the second year his salary was raised to four dollars and a half. One of the modes of escape which he attempted was stenography. By assiduous practice he acquired such facility in this branch of writing that the Hon. John Scott, solicitor-general of the Pennsylvania Railroad, aided by Mr. William B. Wilson, an old friend of the boy's father, before long secured him a position in the railroad company's office in Philadelphia. When settled down, Robert brought his mother and brother to the city on the Delaware.

But, pleasant as its environment was, the young stenographer saw in his new position no very rosy future. It was not — as it is not to-day — his disposition to confound mere comfort with success. We have quoted his remark that he would rather be rich and sick than poor and well ; but we venture to think that the riches of Mr. Rockefeller would fail to give him absolute satisfaction so long as the feeling of professional success were absent from him. At any rate, we judge by his present pursuits and aims that his ideal is nearer to the revered and affluent workman, like Zola, for example, than like to a man whose sole object is the enjoyment and disbursement of dollars and cents.

From the Pennsylvania road he went to the Philadelphia Press, which in those days was a veritable cradle of authors. Here his literary instinct took hold of him. It had taken hold of him once before, in Huntingdon, one vacation, when he had worked as printer's devil in the office of a weekly newspaper, and, as often happens to devils," had been stricken down with what may be called typographical fever. The great are not alone in the enjoyment of authorship. We believe that Mr. Stephens's first literary offering, an article describing the joys and woes of budding printers, appeared in that Huntingdon weekly.

That, however, was a mere juvenile spasm, It was nothing like the powerful impulse that came to him just previous to his début as a writer of theatrical notices for the Press. He showed so marked an aptitude for this employment that within a year he was virtually in full charge of the paper's important dramatic column. Stephens's career on the Press was as varied as that of the average newspaper man, and, consequently, as interesting and precious. For the patience that, like the steam-drill, bores it way through every obstacle ; for accumulative industry, for tireless zeal, for unaffected modesty dashed with power, for knowledge of the overt and covert ways of men — for such a unique mixture of crude virtue and wisdom combined commend us to the enthusiastic journalist.

Stephens unconsciously heeded Stevenson's caution and retired from journalism before its hypnotic spell had taken complete possession of him. One of the reasons for his retirement from journalism was the singular rule made by the Press that members of its staff must not write for any other periodical. Stephens had been fortunate in placing his extra work, and naturally he felt that the rule shut out promising opportunities.

Besides, in 1889, he had married — Mrs. Stephens was, before her marriage, Miss Maude Helfenstein, of Chicago — and there were other reasons for his practical view of the situation. There was no risk in the retirement, for he had made many friends while on the Press, especially among the in-habitants of the theatrical world. He received and accepted, in 1893, an offer to become general agent for a firm of theatrical managers.

Incidentally he was required to write cheap plays — plays for the vulgar public that Gautier despised and ridiculed. These dutiful efforts are hardly noteworthy, but we must mention " On the Bowery," a melodrama which afforded the picturesque and withal good-hearted Steve Brodie a chance to be heroic some sixty-four times a week. But although this grade of work was uncongenial to the author, it opened the way to a better field, and, in September, 1896, his play, " An Enemy to the King," written during the winter of 1894-95, was produced in New York by E. H. Sothern. As this was his first ambitious production, the author displayed some lack of nerve. In-stead of accompanying his wife to the the-atre, he shrank back to a nearby comfortable refuge, whither, between the acts, a friend brought him tidings of the performance. The call for him was led by Richard Harding Davis and DeWolf Hopper, who, running across him outside the theatre, half suffocated him with congratulatory em-braces. By and by Mr. Sothern took the successful play to Boston ; and there happened the circumstance which established the author's fame.

The play was seen in Boston by Mr. L. Cones Page, the Boston publisher, who, recognizing in it the elements which constitute a popular semi-historical romance. and foreseeing the extensive demand for that branch of literature, sought the author and proposed that he should make a novel out of his play. The proposal was readily accepted ; in fact the contract was signed twenty-four hours after the author and publisher had first met.

The instantaneous popularity of the book, which was published in the fall of 1897, had a two-sided effect : it induced the author to abandon hack-work entirely and devote his best energy and proficiency to fiction.

It is deeply to be regretted that Stephens's health declined simultaneously with his procession to the seats of the famous, yet these distressing conditions are hardly discernible in either the quantity or the quality of his work. In April, 1898, his second novel, " The Continental Dragoon," appeared, and in the following June the latest of his plays, " The Ragged Regiment," was produced at the Herald Square Theatre, New York. In October of that year appeared his third novel, " The Road to Paris "; in May, 1899, " A Gentleman Player " ; in May, 1900, his highly popular Revolutionary romance, "Philip Win-wood," written almost entirely in England, and published on the same day in England, Canada, and the United States. His latest novel, " Captain Ravenshaw," in which he returns to the scene of " A Gentleman Player "— Elizabethan London — has just reached the public.

Shortly after the publication of " A Gentleman Player," the novelist, in the assurance of a handsome income and of consequent ease, went abroad with his wife. Abroad he has lived ever since. This fall, we understand, he will spend traveling on the Continent. The first part of the winter he plans to pass in Italy or in Sicily, the second part on the Riviera. The spring of 1902 will find him in Paris, whence, by the end of spring, he expects to start for home. We say "home " purposely, for we are told that his protracted residence abroad has served if anything to deepen and enliven his loyalty to his native land.

We have been privileged to read the preface to " Captain Ravenshaw." The main part of it is a spirited and well-pointed defence of the neo-romanticists against the eccentric assault of Mr. William Dean Howells. Then, referring to the book itself, Stephens goes on to say;

"Now, as to this little attempt at romance in a certain kind, I wish merely to say, for the benefit of those who turn over the first leaves of a novel in a bookstore or library, before deciding whether to take it or leave it, that it differs from the usual adventure story in being concerned merely with private life and unimportant people. Though it has incidents enough, and perils enough, it deals neither with war nor with state affairs. It contains no royal person ; not even a lord—nor a baronet, indeed, for baronets had not yet been invented at the period of the tale. The characters are every-day people of the London of the time, and the scenes in which they move are the street, the tavern, the citizen's house and garden, the shop, the river, the public resort — such places as the ordinary reader would see if a miracle turned back time and transported him to London in the closing part of Elizabeth's reign. The atmosphere of that place and time, as one may find it best in the less known and more realistic comedies of Shakespeare's contemporaries, in prose narratives and anecdotes, and in the records left of actual transactions, strike us of the twentieth century as a little strange, somewhat of a world which we can hardly take to be real. If I have succeeded in putting a breath of this strangeness, this (to us) seeming unreality, into this busy tale, and yet have kept the tale vital with a human nature the same then as now, I have done something not altogether bad. Bad or good, I have been a long time about it, for I have grown to believe that though novel-reading properly comes under the head of play, novel-writing properly comes under the head of work. My work herein has not gone to attain the preciosity of style which distracts attention from the story, or the brilliancy of dialogue which — as the author of ' John Inglesant' says, 'declares the glory of the author more pregnantly than it increases reality of effect.' My work has gone, very much, to the avoidance of anachronisms. This is a virtue possessed by few novels which deal with the past, as only the writers of such novels know. It may be a virtue not worth achieving, but it was a whim of mine to achieve it. Ill health forbade fast writing, the success of my last previous work permitted slow writing, and I resolved to utilize the occasion by achieving one merit which, as it required neither genius nor talent, but merely care, was within my powers. The result of my care must appear as much in what the story omits as in what it contains. The reader may be assured at the outset, if it matters a straw to him, that the author of this romance of Elizabethan London (and its neighborhood) is himself at home in Elizabethan London ; if he fails to make the reader also a little at home there in the course of the story, it is only because he lacks the gift, or skill of imparting."

Months ago the demand for "Captain Ravenshaw " was so great that the publishers were forced to issue an unprecedentedly large first edition. The present circumstance is an eloquent commentary on the increase of the author's power and popularity.

That power and that popularity seem destined to grow larger book by book. The master of a most graceful style and of diction unsurpassed for simplicity and clearness ; a trained observer, as every successful writer must be ; a diligent and uncommonly perspicacious student of the periods from which he takes his characters, the author of " Captain Ravenshaw " promises ably to sustain his already high reputation. As the fulfilment of this promise depends largely on the state of his health, we wish him well, confident that in expressing the wish we but echo the sentiment of his wide circle of admirers.

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