At Swanston he first began to really write, “bad poetry,” he says, and during his solitary rambles fought with certain problems that perplexed him.
Here he made the acquaintance of the Scotch gardener, Robert Young, and John Todd, the “Roaring Shepherd, the oldest herd on the Pentlands,” whom he accompanied on his rounds with the sheep, listening to his tales told in broad Scotch of the highland shepherds in the old days when “he himself often marched flocks into England, sleeping on the hillsides with his caravan; and by his account it was rough business not without danger. The drove roads lay apart from habitation; the drivers met in the wilderness, as to-day the deep sea fishers meet off the banks in the solitude of the Atlantic.”
All this time Louis was idling through the university, knowing that in the end he would make nothing of himself as an engineer and dreading to confess it to his father. At length, however, his failure in his studies came to Thomas Stevenson’s attention, and, on being questioned about it “one dreadful day” as they were walking together, the boy frankly admitted that his heart was not with the work and he cared for nothing but to be able to write.
While at school his father had encouraged him to follow his own bent in his studies and reading, but when it came to the point of choosing his life-work, there ought to be no question of doubt. The only natural thing for Louis to do was to carry on the great and splendid work that he himself had helped to build up. That the boy should have other plans of his own surprised and troubled him. Literature, he said, was no profession, and thus far Louis had not done enough to prove he had a claim for making it his career.
After much debate it was finally decided that he should give up engineering, but should enter the law school and study to be admitted to the bar. This would not only give him an established profession, but leave him a little time to write as well.
“I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.
“There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the island of Desire.”
In spite of the fact that his law studies now left him an opportunity for the work he wanted so much to do, Louis was far from happy, for between his parents and himself, who had always been the best of friends, there were many misunderstandings.
Thomas Stevenson was bitterly disappointed that his only son should choose to be what he called “an idler”—generous to a fault and always out of money, dressing in a careless and eccentric way, which both amused and annoyed his friends and caused him to be ridiculed by strangers, preferring to roam the streets of old Edinburgh scraping acquaintance with the fishwives and dock hands, rather than staying at home and mingling in the social circle to which his parents belonged. But his father was still more troubled by certain independent religious opinions, far different from those in which he had been reared, that Louis adopted at this time.