The Hair Trunk by Robert Louis Stevenson

RLS scene-sets with colourful character sketches of his spirited and youthful protagonists. Picture: Getty
RLS scene-sets with colourful character sketches of his spirited and youthful protagonists. Picture: Getty
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This is an extract from The Hair Trunk, or The Ideal Commonwealth: An Extravaganza – an unfinished comic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, begun when he was 26 and abandoned two years and 30,000 words later. Previously only available in French, it is published for the first time in English by Humming Earth, with an introduction and notes by Roger G Swearingen.

If there is any one manifestation of the human spirit more out of credit than another in these days of Mr Spencer, it is the good old-fashioned quality of youthfulness. People make haste to be rid of it, as if it were an unpleasant malady; they travel past, for two and forty and a bank parlour; they regard life through the disenchanting spectacles of middle age. And yet even in the bald-head generation, there are instances of youth in its most acute form; and although the victims labour under serious social disability, they are none the less for that good fellows all, and may perhaps furnish the matter for a story out of their headlong and unwise existences.

Some years ago, in a certain College of the University of Cambridge, which shall here be nameless, a party of gay and fantastic striplings sought out more hardships, pursued more absurd adventures, ran more unnecessary risks, and generally excelled their contemporaries in this respect of youthfulness. Their monkey or donkey tricks, it is proper to mention, engrossed those hours of the day which should have been set apart for study, and often enough the best part of those hours of the night which should have been sacred to sleep. They believed in the accomplishment of their preposterous adventures, as fanatics believe in a mission. They were fools with all the seriousness in the world. A canoe voyage in mid-winter, a journey of some hundred miles on foot without purse or knapsack, a bold infringement of College or University discipline, seemed to them matters of a far higher order of importance than a degree, a place in a tripos, or even a comfortable fellowship for life. I am not prepared to say that they were altogether wrong in this opinion; for every man is the best judge of his own affairs; and a degree, a place in a tripos or a fellowship, is worth no more, when all is said than the amount of gratification it can minister to the successful candidate. Some would throw the chagrin of all the disappointed ones into the bargain; but this is an ill-natured and ungentlemanly doctrine, devoutly to be renounced. At any rate, there is one thing certain enough: that those who prefer canoe voyages in the present to chancellorships in the blue and dubious future, and suffer their footsteps to be conducted by the vagabond and shameless Spirit of Escapade instead of the Benthamite Angel of Prudence – however right and noble they may be from a high-philosophical point of view – are exceedingly unlikely to come to honours or riches in this huckstering and debilitated age. This was well illustrated by the University career of the young fellows in question; for though they were most of them capable enough, they all, with one exception, ended in the mud.

The exception, Hardy by name, had somehow or other, it would appear, found time for reading amidst his other and more apparent occupations; and when he was put to the proof, came out a high Wrangler and was made a fellow of the college. Hardy, therefore, remained in evidence at the University, as one of its educational pinnacles; while his companions, who had enjoyed three years of notoriety along with him, disappeared promptly and forever out of public view. And yet some of them were as much worth looking at as Hardy; and if this great nation should ever awaken to a sense of its true interests with regard to the eccentric and the partially insane, I have no doubt that more than one of them will be fished up out of the dark, anonymous strata of Society, and installed in some fitting situation. As things are, however, these fellows were for no use. They were all fatally incomplete, intellectually deformed, shortsighted with one eye and longsighted with the other, totally lacking any sense of proportion in conduct, unable to distinguish between a heroism and an absurdity – and in short, just such another as yourself, dear reader, if you are the man I take you for. To all their excellences, some neglected fairy godmother had added a damning ingredient. They saw things wrong-side-up, in a sublime confusion; and they were gifted with a strange instinct for the impracticable and the useless. Even their one successful man was tarred with the same stick, although not so intolerably as the others. He was an accomplished mathematician, and solved many difficult and curious problems; but then they were all problems belonging to an imaginary order of things; and he never condescended to employ his y’s and x’s on a universe of less than half a dozen dimensions at the least.

Another of the crew, who had shown some little talent for stringing verses, instead of following in the wake of Mr Swinburne and venting his passions in sanguinary, anapestic rhapsodies, struck out on an entirely new track for himself, or rather found an old track so entirely discredited and deserted, that he might walk therein with all the isolation of a pioneer. What do you think he took upon himself to revive? Why, the most barren and dry of all poetic heresies. He set himself to concoct a poem of some dimensions, from which the unoffending first letter of the alphabet was to be rigorously excluded. It is true that he soon wearied of the enterprise.

Hardy, the oldest of the party by some years, had possibly enjoyed all their pranks from a point of view rather different from that of the others; and stood best with the authorities, even before his unexpected degree.

Dick Turton, commonly called Turpin, was the opposite of Hardy in that particular; he spent his whole curriculum within an ace of being sent down; and after the most showy beginnings, and much talk of Kant and Hegel he had ended with a full degree in Botany, to the merriment of his acquaintances.

Ratcliffe (nicknamed The Highway) had done a great deal to form the manners of his companions. It was difficult to understand how he had obtained his influence; for he was very silent; and when he did offer a remark, it was vastly like anybody else’s. But his silence seemed to make disciples. He was an athletic fellow, and had moulded himself on the pattern of a Bargee. He declared loudly that he cared for nothing under the sun but beer and tobacco. He boxed, and refused to fence; characterising the latter exercise as too full of airs for the like of him. He wore a pea-jacket in the warmest weather, refused to clean his nails, and cultivated a heavy slouch in his carriage and a great brutality of manner. It was odd enough to see The Highway while he was thus fooling himself to the top of his bent; but Turton made a still more comical figure. He was a lightweight, and very elegant and slender; and yet he mimicked his companion to the echo and could never get his shoulders round enough, or his face sufficiently heavy and vacant. They were a pair of conscientious performers all over.

Hartley Strutt was of a different order of man, and tried to keep up a tradition of refinement in the band. He was a tall, slim fellow, with a blonde, ordinary face, an eyeglass, and irreproachable tweed clothes, in the English Gentleman on the Continent style of architecture, which were half the time brushed and comely, and half the time in a pitiful pickle from the exploits in which he was obliged to share. He knew a vast deal about the mysterious backward parts of London Theatres, was full of cynical prudence in his speech, and had always to be pushed and hauled into an adventure by the united encouragements of the others. Occasionally Strutt would leave his usual associates, and consort with other men in the colleges for a day or two. Amid these more congenial surroundings, the original Strutt revived and blossomed forth in gloves and neckties and a mincing ’haviour of the body! But there seemed to be a fatality upon the man; and he always returned to his wallowing in the mire. He had taken the degree he meant to take from the first; a humble one, but not abject like Turton’s.

Urquhart was a short, sturdy, vigorous fellow; underhung, which gave him an air of determination; and with a general look of intentness and capability, which was misleading in the highest degree. He was the maddest of the lot, by a great way. He had fits of everything, and everything by fits. His rooms were a kind of museum, and illustrated the phases of the man. There you would find canary birds, dogs, cats and land tortoises, trumpets and pianos, easels and paintboxes, basket-sticks, boxing gloves and canoe paddles, all very carefully arranged on the historical system, with the latest hobby nearest hand. In some one corner or other, there was sure to be a whiskey bottle; but he was faithful to that – at least until it was empty: the rest were his visits but this was his home. Poor Urquhart! All his desultory talents and accomplishments lay loose and higgledy-piggledy, like so many spelicans upon a table, and the whole man was nervous, wrong-headed and doleful, for lack of that one sunny gift of self-approval which keeps people in a good humour with themselves and the world at large. He could never believe that anybody liked him without some reserve; indeed it was only with a great deal of abatement, that he could tolerate himself; and so he would too often take refuge from the friends he mistrusted, and consequently misused, with guinea-pigs and whiskey punch. Whether it was the pigs or the punch or the piano, or all of them, he had made the one flagrant disaster of the party; he had been gently ploughed.

There had been others who took part in the perilous and illegal diversions already characterised, some to a greater extent than Strutt, many to a greater degree than Urquhart; but it is with those I have named that our business lies. They it was who formed the party for colonising Inchmagarrie, and who undertook the Strange Adventure of the Hair Trunk.