In 1878, R.L. Stevenson and Modestine, his donkey, trekked through the Cevennes region of southern France for 12 days, covering 120 miles. Stevenson wrote about their trip in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. It is a classic travelogue, among the first to celebrate hiking and camping. The Kindle edition is currently free on Amazon.
To carry his cargo, Stevenson needed something “cheap and small and hearty, and of a stolid and peaceful temper; and all these requisites pointed to a donkey.” The animal “passed into his service for sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy.” With tongue in cheek, but foreshadowing his encounters with Protestants and Catholics of the region, Stevenson “instantly baptised her Modestine.” Fearing the he should “brutalize this creature,” Stevenson “let her go at her own pace.” And, in two lovely, herky-jerky-speed-up-slow-down rhythmic sentences he says:
What that pace was, there is no word mean enough to describe; it was something as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run; it kept me hanging on each foot for an incredible length of time; in five minutes it exhausted the spirit and set up a fever in all the muscles of the leg. And yet I had to keep close at hand and measure my advance exactly upon hers; for if I dropped a few yards into the rear, or went on a few yards ahead, Modestine came instantly to a halt and began to browse.
Modestine’s exploits “purged” Stevenson’s “heart of all humanity.” After one day on the trail, an inn keeper made Stevenson a goad.
This plain wand, with an eighth of an inch of pin, was indeed a sceptre… in my hands. Thenceforward Modestine was my slave. A prick, and she passed the most inviting stable door. A prick, and she broke forth into a gallant little trotlet that devoured the miles.
With her courage, her quiet dignity, her joy of eating out of Stevenson’s hand, her intelligence – a nose for “smelling mischief ahead” – and her “attitude of inimitable patience,” Modestine became Stevenson’s “lady friend.” Taking the advice of a muleteer, Stevenson made two parcels of her load, evenly redistributing its weight. “You will love her like a dog,” said the muleteer. And Stevenson did. Tears streaked his face as he “betrayed” her for sixty-five francs, but no cup of brandy.
French Protestant Huguenots lived with Catholics in the Cevennes, relations being little more than civil. Stevenson was a Protestant by birth, but
feels very similarly to all sects of religion, and has never been able, even for a moment, to weigh seriously the merit of this or that creed on the eternal side of things, however much he [Stevenson] may see to praise or blame upon the secular and temporal side…
After spending several days at a monastery and time with local Protestants, Stevenson said that
We are all embarked upon a troublesome world, the children of one Father, striving in many essential points to do and to become the same.
the true Babel is a divergence upon morals. In this world of imperfection we gladly welcome even partial intimacies. And if we find but one to whom we can speak out of our heart freely, with whom we can walk in love and simplicity without dissimulation, we have no ground of quarrel with the world or God.
Stevenson found dogma too confining, content to bless “God that he was free to wonder, free to hope, and free to love.”
— Tucker Cox, Contributing Writer
Part I (April 24) comments on Stevenson’s reasons for traveling.
Robert Louis Stevenson Day poster photo courtesy of Pinterest