Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Change of Habits

Among a (probably very large) handful of things which I never expected to wax greatly enthusiastic about was the subject of red carpet. The idea, in the abstract, is either pretentious or demonstrative of a certain lack of decorative taste. But in the real world, much to my surprise, I saw a red carpet--or at least red carpeting--which caused me to stand and stare with nothing but a helpless awe.

Perhaps, to give the circumstances their due, it was not entirely the carpet. As a matter of fact, half of it was the shock of realizing I was indulging in the unprecedented venture of visiting a Robert Louis Stevenson museum--when it was open. I had laid a hand on the door, the door had swung inwards and I was--

I will go back a short space in time to explain that I was at the library in St. Helena, and I had arrived there mostly by a most pleasant, corkscrew-shaped trip over Highway 128, a route that had lead me up the north side of Davis, and out into the walnut groves, through Winters, and, at last, up into the foothills to the west, brown, homelike and holding up the sky with their share of oaks. Putah Creek runs along the highway for a space, laced tightly in the greys and whites and yellow sparks of late autumn's sycamores. The road climbs a little higher, up into country where stolid pines lift their fleet of masts above a mute, motionless ocean of manzanita thickets. Another few turns, and the way leads downhill again, among narrow valleys where the strange grey oaks of Solano County assuage the year-end theft of their leaves with eerie gonfalons of trailing moss. Right around high, bare red banks, left, finding pines and oaks behind and unambitious hills raising nothing more than a velvet of manzanita. Pines again, to frame the sky-grey shards of Lake Hennessey and beyond it the fringes of civilization that blossom suddenly into the Napa Valley, less wild than the country that came before it, but touched as it is by humankind, it might be considered a work of art, rather than of nature, a canvas of vineyards rusting richly in the long shadows thrown by the southbound sun.

It was small wonder if I was already slightly dazed when I reached the museum at last. At last, I say--after a time much longer than a drive through the mountains. I had, in essence been nearing that particular door since the Fourth of July. In great contrast to the sunbaked silence that had defined my memories of the place, the whole end of the street was now lined with cars, and the library was open to many hurried comings and goings.

Life even sprouted on the lintel of the museum itself as a man emerged, rasping with a broom at the impeccable walkway. I followed a little behind him as he went in again, walking more slowly the nearer I came to the door; the ambition of going inside suddenly seemed rather presumptuous. But the handle gave easily, the door swung aside, heavy and silent, and there I stood on the step, I must say in the interest of accurate reporting--gawking. I can recall hearing, as a child, a fairy tale that had, as one of its most impressive characters, a "dog with eyes as big as the Round Tower." I had no idea what the Round Tower was, and to be honest, I still have no idea. But it sounded very large indeed, and I now have a fair inkling, at least, of how it feels to have eyes approaching that size.

For I, pulling the door softly to behind me, was looking in on a room of opulent quiet, of glass cases and dark furniture all laid out against the thickest, reddest carpet I had ever seen. It had a welcoming, comfortable air, like a home library awaiting its intended reader, an impression hardly discouraged by the books which lay in every direction, most monumentalised in their appointed cases, but with a fair and tempting store of newer editions laid out for sale. A book of another sort lay on a table directly before me. A lady, who was standing several thousand miles away on the other side of the small room greeted me kindly and asked, "Will you please sign the guestbook?" I did that and accepted her invitation to come in and look around, though my feet, ever more deeply impressed by the carpeting and the sense of where I was, were slow to move. I began with the glass case to my left, and it's a wonder that in itself didn't finish me. There was a watch in the case. It was Stevenson's watch, open so that any casual passerby might see how the man who wrote Kidnapped told his hours. Next to it was a plain silver wedding band, also Stevenson's. I had seen many pictures (and there were plenty to see in that room) which recorded how extraordinarily thin that author was, but I was scarcely prepared for the sight of a ring which would have fit over one of my own fingers with very little room to spare. I was most certainly not prepared, despite my expedition to accomplish the same, to find myself in such close proximity to solid mementos of a man who had conjured such extraordinarily solid characters out of mere words.

The docent from the distant kingdoms on the other side of the room rescued me at that point, offering to give me a tour before I was left to my own devices. She was wonderfully patient, informative, and, above all, enthusiastic. Her story of the museum's founding was particularly interesting. I had supposed it had been settled in St. Helena piecemeal in vague deference to Stevenson's tarrying in the general neighbourhood. I had the story almost exactly backwards: the gentleman who began the collection, an advertising magnate named Norman Strouse, had a home in the area himself, and it was his perusing of The Silverado Squatters (at the site of the bunkhouse pictured in the book, if I remember correctly) that lead to a lifelong interest in the author. His enthusiasm resulted in a most impressive collection, impressive, at least, to others who might share his passion:

"And did you ever read 'A Child's Garden of Verses?'" the docent asked, pausing before another case. She didn't have to say much else. There in brave, garish paint, many gnarled by time and most in two ill-featured dimensions, marched and galloped the leaden legions of the Land of Counterpane.

Here was Louis' desk, the one he used at Vailima (the eyes now began to feel as though they had quite surpassed the Round Tower); there was his flageolet, rather like a recorder. . .this was his own collection of books. . .

Any one of these items would have astounded in itself, but I was particularly enthralled by the bookshelf. After my guide had completed the tour, I returned to savour the fading gold titles on the back of the bindings: some were worn away beyond reading, but I could still marvel at an age that published a life of Sir Walter Scott in. . .was it five volumes? (though the similar length of a nearby work on the Crimean War seemed a bit more readily believable). Popular Tales of the West Highlands had the distinction of having been quoted in a footnote of David Balfour, according to which it contains the uncanny air that Alan taught David to whistle toward the end of Kidnapped. Lower was a graceful two-volume set by another Stevenson--I believe it was Louis' father Thomas--on some fine point of lighthouse construction. The spines of several Dickens books were still legible: Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Martin Chuzzlewit. The shelves also contained several volumes of poetry, most of it fairly contemporaenous with its late owner, but also containing the inviting Poets and Poetry of Scotland, with Thomas the Rhymer and Richard Gall's names, in a gossamer of gold letters bookending the epoch the collection spanned. It was a rather delightful thought to picture a man who could work such magic with English as Stevenson, taking his own quiet enjoyment from words which had preceded him--even if, by an evil chance, he missed the added benefits of rich, red carpet in his own time.

No comments: