Sunday, 9 September 2012

A House of Many Windows

The Cloch Lighthouse, Gourock, Scotland  (my home town) was built by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather. 
My name is Robert G Stevenson and I have a father called Thomas and so it was with Robert Louis Stevenson.

“The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.” Robert Louis Stevenson

In his diaries the Reverend Aston was a meticulous recorder of Coldharbour’s weather and in the winter of 1869 he made a note in a margin intimating that it had been the very worst of conditions within living memory.

‘It had started thus with a snow blizzard that lasted for more than seven days, followed on its heels by several more inches of the miserable stuff. At times like these one has to question why we live in this particular place, which at it rawest feels like the very edge of the world.’

Now the Reverend could never be described as a despondent soul, on the contrary it always seemed as if the Holy Spirit was forever bouncing around inside the man. So when the cold weather started to penetrate the religious shores of our good Reverend, one could only guess as to the impact of the weather on the other less sturdy residents of the town.

It should be remembered dear reader that these were the days before the rail passed within a few miles of the town. Oban, for instance, would be a good day’s ride by cart and would not be attempted lightly. Many folks found work in Fort William, Tyndrum and Inveraray and to lessen the cost would stay in those locations for most of the week. It didn’t take much to consider making the move permanent and so month by month the once healthy population of Coldharbour began to drift and diminish.

The loss was nothing new, the valleys and slopes of the West Highlands were awash with ghost towns. A few caused by the Clearances but many more were for more basic economic reasons - the young could not find employment and the severe weather only made matters worse.

Every night the Reverend Aston prayed for an answer to his problem. With his flock evaporating there would soon be no need for his services and although his faith was never in doubt, he did write a letter to his brother in Glasgow to enquire after churches that were on the lookout for a minister. Perhaps God wanted him to be of service in another way.

All mortal souls cower in the blackness of night and imagine the darkest of thoughts and, if lucky, the lightest of dreams – ideas that are washed and bleached by the morning light and very rarely crossed again until the next sleepless night. But sometimes in those sad and wistful thoughts solutions are forged. It is as if the universe has been listening and delivers hope in a routine that was not envisaged. One of those answers came in the shape of two men who arrived by coach on a summer’s evening.

They took rooms at the Covenanters Inn, an old coaching house on the Glasgow to Oban route. It was probably kindness itself to say that this establishment had seen better days. As the town’s population fell so young Stuart McAndrew, the Inn’s owner, was already making plans to move to North Carolina to join his elder brother Alex who had made a tidy sum growing tobacco.

Of the two men who stepped from the coach that evening, the younger was a gangly youth of perhaps eighteen years of age. He answered to the name of Robert and the elder gentleman was his father Thomas. 

Thomas Stevenson was one of the Lighthouse Stevensons, his own father having successfully built several lauded examples around the country. Thomas was carrying on the tradition which he hoped to pass on to his own son.

Robert was in the middle of studying engineering at Edinburgh University and in the summer months would accompany his father on his tours where they would inspect possible sites for more lighthouses. Their halt at Coldharbour had been unavoidable as the road to the open sea was blocked by a large rock fall – a common occurrence in these parts. They planned to continue by ferry on to the Isle of Mull when the opportunity dictated.

Word had got back to the Reverend Aston about the latest arrivals and he, being a man who believed that God moved in mysterious ways, sent a note to invite them to dinner the following evening.
Thomas, the father, did most of the talking that evening but the Reverend Aston's eye was always drawn to the boy who appeared to be noting many points of their conversations.

“Are you committing my utterances to paper young man?“

There was no reaction to this question from the scribbler.

“Robert, the Reverend has asked you a question, please be so good as to offer a reply. Goodness knows there are times when you try even my patience.”

“It is of no consequence” said the kindly Reverend “it is merely a light hearted exchange.”

“My son is studying to be an engineer but he is forever writing stories of one nature or another. You have no need to be alarmed, the words are not accountable to you.I can assure you."

In some ways the Reverend looked disappointed not to be considered worthy enough to be noted in the book. After a fine meal and several whiskies the discussion got around to the business of Thomas and Robert.

“Lighthouses, you say. So you are the famous Thomas Stevenson.”

Thomas was genuinely pleased at this description, after all what they were involved in was dangerous work, yet it saved so many lives and he thanked the Almighty that he was able to serve in such a manner.
When the evening was complete, the Stevensons trudged their way back to The Covenanters and as they did so, the spark of an idea flickered just behind the eyes of  Reverend Aston, one that was to gestate and present itself in all its glory the next day.

“Eureka!” was exclaimed in a full rounded Glasgow accent and woke the startled Mistress Aston the following morning.

“Have you lost your senses husband?”

“On the contrary, I may have just found them.”

And so the Reverend Aston explained to his ever patient wife about the need for a lighthouse at Old Man’s Corner. Apparently there had been several ships which had headed for Davy Jones’ locker off that particularly dangerous headland.

“And to what ends? There have been ships sinking all over the West dear husband which have never had you this excited" stated his wife with even more patience than normal.

“Why woman, to bring people back to Coldharbour, labourers will be needed, as will bricklayers and cooks and carpenters and...well you can see my point.”

And she could.
She could see it very well and for the first time, in a long time, she looked at her husband with new eyes and liked what she saw.

So with all haste the Reverend rushed around to The Covenanters Inn and placed his proposal in front of the gentleman and his boy.Money for the build would have to be begged, borrowed and raised but when they sat around the table and the finances were considered, it seemed that it was indeed possible. Plans would be drawn up over the winter and if all was well, building could start in late May when the tides would be beneficial and the weather would be more kindly.

Fund raising began almost straight away with dances being held in the village hall and in one of the larger rooms of The Covenanters. This brought in folks from surrounding farms and villages and caused Stuart  McAndrew to delay his departure for New World.

It was agreed the following spring that Robert and his uncle David would oversee the build as Thomas was already committed to the building of a new lighthouse in the far reaches of the Orkney Isles. Robert agreed to this without hesitation, his uncle was the more lenient of the brothers and this would allow time for Robert to write the stories which had begun to occupy more of his time.

By the May of the following year everything was underway. Money had been raised and although the final payment from Edinburgh was still outstanding, the Reverend saw no need to panic. He had prayed long and hard about the problem and felt assured that his prayers would not be ignored by the Almighty.

The Covenanters Inn was so full that three or more men were sharing each of the fourteen rooms. The only exception was Robert and his uncle who were given a room to themselves. However they decided to sleep in one room and use the second bedroom as offices.

Within three weeks the foundation of the lighthouse had been laid and the weather had indeed been kind. On the nights that Robert walked by himself back from the headland he would always see a forlorn face staring from the upper windows of The Covenanters which he assumed was Stuart. This type of behaviour intrigued Robert and each night it would be written into some story or another.

The Reverend’s dream of a re-populated  Coldharbour was beginning to take form. The workers at the hotel were missing their families that they had left in the outlying areas and so small shacks were built to accommodate the wives and children. This meant more money being spent in the village shop and more pews filled in the local churches.

During the long daylight hours that were available in such northern latitudes, the men would work the sixteen hours from sun up to sun set. Every second evening, and although working hard himself, Robert would set up a room in the village hall for the children and read them one of his latest stories. One such popular story was The Mutiny of The Hispaniola. For much of his childhood Robert had been confined to his bed with sicknesses and illnesses which were far from the norm. This led to a lonely existence whereupon he wrote little stories to entertain himself while the children of Edinburgh were running and screaming in the streets below. He was still unhappy with the title of the story but he knew that there should be the word Treasure in it.

His uncle David, although a kindly and considerate man, was forever chastising his nephew over the time that was wasted on such trivial nonsense – this did not stop Robert however, indeed he felt compelled in not only continuing but increasing his activities in the business of story writing and telling.

Needless to say reports were getting back to his father that Robert was a less than enthusiastic engineer and this would have prompted a visit from Thomas at some point in the summer had circumstances not dictated otherwise.

On the morning of the 7th of June a body was found half concealed on the far side of Old Man’s Corner. It was the corpse of a twenty four year old labourer from Dublin by the name of Patrick – no one used a surname in these parts as they were very rarely given with any honesty. Those who toiled in such environments were more than likely to be on the run from one authority or another. 

Reverend Aston had sent a messenger to the nearest garrison at Fort William describing the death of the young man. He did so with some reluctance as this type of news would discourage the movement of families to the area.A note was sent back to Coldharbour that due to the imminent visit of  Queen Victoria most of the military were engaged elsewhere but that a most competent fellow would be sent when available.

In the absence of any authority Robert took it upon himself to investigate the death with a mind to passing on the findings to whoever was assigned to the case at a later date.

Patrick had shared a room with three other Irishmen who all professed innocence of knowing anything about anything and Robert felt that the situation was not likely to improve any time soon.The local doctor reported back that the man's head wound was probably caused by a blunt instrument, although a fall on the rocks could have had the same effect. The suspicious element was the way the body was found, as if someone or something had attempted to hide their handy work.

Robert had to agree with the doctor, that even if he had slipped it was very unlikely that with such a grave injury to the head that the man would have crawled into the grass. It was suggested that he may he been trying to keep warm but the doctor felt that the body had been carried to that spot. So it was murder and Robert felt the hairs stand on the back of his neck. Half of him was shocked at the violence and the other half hoping that he could find a good story in it all.

Patrick, if that was his name, seemed to have been a well liked fellow with no obvious enemies. After sending the majority of his earnings home to his family, he was known to share what little he had left  with his room mates.

Robert was ashamed of his poor detective skills which were under ever increasing pressure from David who wanted him to get his mind back on more practical matters – like building a lighthouse. 
There had to be something he was missing, or rather someone, surely the culprit would have gone on the run after attempting to hide the body. If it was one of the labourers who were so used to covering their tracks, then the game was up. Robert Louis decided he would talk to the one man who knew what went on in The Covenanters Inn.

Stuart was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he had gone to Inverness to attend some business meeting or other and was unsure when he would return. A thought went through Robert’s head that he dared not speak.

So either Robert could  wait for Stuart’s return or make a trip himself to Inverness - assuming that was where Stuart was, and for a second he wanted to say, hiding.

Robert rode to Fort William by horse and on to Inverness by the midday coach. By dusk he had arrived in the town just as the centre market was packing up for the night. On the off chance Robert asked the coachman if he had transported or had known of anyone fitting Stuart’s description and by luck he had.

“Strange fellows”
“Aye, there were two of them and one kept his face covered.”
“Do you know where they were headed?”
“I heard one of them say they would try the hotel on Castle Street.”
So Robert set off with all haste for the hotel. 

The receptionist had no one of the name of Stuart McAndrew. The only fellows that she had roomed in the past five days were a young doctor and his patient.For whatever reason Robert asked for their room number and the receptionist, for whatever reason, gave it to him.

Robert knocked the door of room 12. Inside he could hear people moving around very quickly and a door being slammed. He knocked again.
The door opened an inch and an eye looked out.
“Yes?” It was Stuart. 

“It’s me, Robert Stevenson I've come to talk to you. There has been a dreadful occurrence at the Inn.”

“Please go away. Please for your own sake.”
Suddenly a door inside the room was kicked open by a person who moved in the shadows.
“Looked what you’ve done, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Robert rushed in and helped Stuart wrestle the man to the ground, a man who had the strength of four men.

“Don’t hurt him, he’s my brother.”
And sure enough when they had finally got the frightened creature under control, Robert could see just that – the man was Stuart’s identical twin.

“He’s ill you see, my brother Ian. Always has been. He killed the young Irishman for no other reason than he could. All I ask you is that you give us some time to leave and we will never be in your lives again. There is a ship leaving Greenock for New York two days from now and we intend to be on it. Alex our elder brother will take care of us in the Carolinas.”

As Robert descended the stairs he felt troubled, the poor Irishman had not deserved his fate and who was to say that Ian would not do the same in the New World.

He asked the receptionist for a pen and paper and decided to write a note to the local magistrate explaining Ian and Stuart’s circumstances and that they intended to leave via Greenock. It would be up to the authorities to deal with the consequences.

As he folded the paper he caught sight of the false names that the twins had used; Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Robert made a note of them in his book.    

bobby stevenson 2012

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