Manguel (News from a Foreign Country Came, 1990; the nonfiction A History of Reading, 1995; etc.) offers a tiny but deft and quietly moving story of Robert Louis Stevenson at his premature death.
Stevenson’s health brought him first to America and then to Samoa, but he was still to die at the age of 44, in 1894. Here, we follow him through the last weeks of his life, beginning one evening when he goes down to the beach to see the sunset and finds someone else there, a rather sullen fellow-Scot named Baker. Stevenson is pleased to hear an Edinburgh accent, but not to learn that Baker is on the island as a missionary, that he virulently disapproves of fiction, and that he disdains the natives for their heathenism and depravity—especially for their nudity, which Stevenson—and perhaps even his American wife—has come to accept and value for the simple beauty that it is. Baker, though, is the serpent in Eden. He disappears for certain periods and then turns up again, while Stevenson goes through spells of racking fever and cough, then periods of inexplicably hale respite. At a festival in the town, his eye is caught by an especially lovely young girl, one of a dancing group—and in his mind she remains, even as he suffers through another especially grim period time of illness. When this same girl is found murdered, her father suspects Stevenson—even his brimmed hat was found at the scene. Impossible. The reader knows—from page one—that Baker wears a hat “not unlike Stevenson’s own.” But we’ll never know the truth: Baker disappears and Stevenson dies, suddenly and pathetically. And we’ll never know what was in the story the author wrote, furiously and at the height of his fever—because he burned it immediately upon his wife’s saying, aghast after reading it, “This is poison.”
A small but rich little instant classic, as though Joseph Conrad had sent up a perfect new tale from the silence beyond the grave.