Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
BACK Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the Cévennes from the book ‘The Cevennes Journal’ the passage he quotes, ‘A night among the pines’, takes place on the 28th/29th September 1878 By the time I had made my camp and fed Modestine, the day was already beginning to decline. I buckled myself to the knees into my sack and ate a hearty meal of bread, sausage, chocolate and brandy and warter, and as soon as the sun went down, I pulled my cap over my eyes and went to sleep. Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest, she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet. It is then that the cock first crows, not this time to announce the dawn, but like a cheerful watchman speeding the course of night. Cattle awake on the meadows; sheep break their fast on dewy hillsides, and change to a new lair among the ferns; and houseless men, who have lain down with the fowls, open their dim eyes and behold the beauty of the night. At what inaudible summons, at what gentle touch of Nature, are all these sleepers thus recalled in the same hour to life? Do the stars rain down an influence, or do we share some thrill of mother earth below our resting bodies? Even shepherds and old country-folk, who are the deepest read in these arcana, have not a guess as to the means or purpose of this nightly resurrection. Towards two in the morning they declare the thing takes place; and neither know nor inquire further. And at least it is a pleasant incident. We are disturbed in our slumber only, like the luxurious Montaigne, 'that we may the better and more sensibly relish it.' We have a moment to look upon the stars. And there is a special pleasure for some minds in the reflection that we share the impulse with all outdoor creatures in our neighbourhood, that we have escaped out of the Bastille of civilisation, and are become, for the time being, a mere kindly animal and a sheep of Nature's flock. When that hour came to me among the pines, I awakened very thirsty, from the wholesome food on which I had dined; my tin was standing by me half full of water and  I emptied it at a draught; and feeling broad awake after this internal cold aspersion, sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but neither sharp nor frosty; A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way; all around me, the black fir-points stood upright and stook-still. By the pack saddle, I could see Modestine walking round and round at the length of her tether and hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound, except the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where, high above, it showed glossy blue-black between the steady sapphires and emeralds of the heavenly bodies. To be like a pedlar, if possible, I wear a silver ring. This I could see faintly shining as I lowered and raised my cigarette; and at each whiff the inside of my hand was lit up, and became for a moment the highest light in the landscape. In the whole of my life I have never tasted a more perfect hour of life. I thought with horror of my last night at Chasserades, and the congregated nightcaps, and with true, physical disgust of all the bank clerks who were at the moment stealing homeward, or already snoring in close garrets, after evenings passed in foul saloons. A faint wind, more like a moving coolness than a stream of air, passed down the glade from time to time; so that even in my great chamber the air was being renewed all night long. O sancta Solitudo! I was such a world away from the roaring streets, the delivery of cruel letters, and the saloons where people love to talk, that it seemed to me as if life had begun again afresh, and I knew no one in all the universe but the almighty maker. I promised myself, as Jacob set up an altar, that I should never again sleep under a roof when I could help it, so gentle, so cool, so singularly peaceful and large, were my sensations And yet even as I thought the words, I was aware of a strange lack. I could have wished for a companion, to be near me in the starlight, silent and not moving if you like, but ever near and within touch. For there is, after all, a sort of fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. The woman whom a man has learned to love wholly, in and out, with utter comprehension, is no longer another person in the troublous sense. What there is of exacting in other companionship has disappeared; there is no need to speak; a look or a word stand for such a world of feeling; and where the two watches go so nicely together, beat for beat, thought for thought, there is no call to conform the minute hands and make an eternal trifling compromise of life. As I thus lay, lapped in enjoyment and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. At first, I imagined it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually, it took articulate form in my ears, until at last I was aware  that a passenger was going by on  the highroad in the valley below, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens and what could be more striking in sentiment to me as I lay above in the high woods, than this lighthearted, strong lunged voyager, chanting in the contentment of his soul as he footed it through the valley in the glimmering starlit night. I have heard people passing by night, in sleeping cities; some of them sang; one, I remember, played loudly on the bagpipes. I have heard the rattle of a cart or carriage spring up suddenly after hours of stillness, and pass, for the space of a minute or so, within the range of my hearing as I lay abed. There is a romance about all who are abroad in the black hours; one wonders what may be their business. But here the romance was double. This glad passenger, lit internally with wine, who sent up his voice in music through the night; and I, on the other hand, buckled into my sack and smoking alone in the firwoods two thousand feet towards the stars (1400 metres). Using modern data we find that on this day, sunset is at approx. 19:40 with sunrise at approx 07:40, this is important because Stevenson  states that “as soon as the sun went down, I pulled my cap over my eyes and went to sleep” and when he awoke “Day was plainly at hand”, thus we can assume that Stevenson spent approx. 12 hour in bed that night. Ekirch states that “rather than resting until dawn, Stevenson awoke shortly past midnight” however nowhere in the passage does Stevenson mention the time he awoke merely “When that hour came to me among the pines, I awakened”, ‘that hour’ is explained earlier in the passage where Stevenson states that the “shepherds and old country-folk” declare that this “nightly resurrection” occurs “Towards two in the morning”, and thus we can n probably assume that he believed he woke up at around 2am.  It is interesting to note that he states that “I awakened very thirsty” and we can perhaps speculate that this may have actually been the cause of his waking. (For some reason Ekirch writes "bastille” of civilization whereas is is ‘Bastille’ in the original, hopefully this is merely an unfortunate typo rather than a lack of awareness of the famous Paris prison). However this was not the only that Stevenson spent sleeping in the open air on the journey, nor was it the first, which actually occurred a couple of nights earlier on the 24th/25th September. On this occasion he slept through the night with only a couple of short awakenings “Twice, once the stone once Modestine stamping in the course of the dark hours, I woke for a minute or two and saw a star or two overhead, and the lacelike foliage against the sky.” And when he finally woke it was already just before dawn (“When I recovered consciousness for the third time the world was flooded with a blue light, the mother of the dawn.”). He also slept outside on the night of the 29th/30th September when his sleep was disturbed by rats and loud noises. Although sleeping in the same conditions of darkness as on the night among the pines Stevenson does not experience a “nightly resurrection” nor does he makes any of the positive comments about the pleasures of being awake during the night that he did on the previous night. (see below) He uses the phase ‘first sleep’ 6 years earlier in a letter to his father date from Frankfurt, dated 4th August 1872 in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson - Volume 1 here  “Last night we went to bed about ten, for the first time HOUSEHOLDERS in Germany - real Teutons, with no deception, spring, or false bottom.  About half-past one there began such a trumpeting, shouting, pealing of bells, and scurrying hither and thither of feet as woke every person in Frankfurt out of their first sleep with a vague sort of apprehension that the last day was at hand.” The whole street was alive, and we could hear people talking in their rooms, or crying to passers-by from their windows, all around us.  At last I made out what a man was saying in the next room.  It was a fire in Sachsenhausen, he said (Sachsenhausen is the suburb on the other side of the Main), and he wound up with one of the most tremendous falsehoods on record, 'HIER ALLES RUHT - here all is still.'  If it can be said to be still in an engine factory, or in the stomach of a volcano when it is meditating an eruption, he might have been justified in what he said, but not otherwise.  The tumult continued unabated for near an hour; but as one grew used to it, it gradually resolved itself into three bells, answering each other at short intervals across the town, a man shouting, at ever shorter intervals and with superhuman energy, 'FEUER, - IM SACHSENHAUSEN, and the almost continuous winding of all manner of bugles and trumpets, sometimes in stirring flourishes, and sometimes in mere tuneless wails.  Occasionally there was another rush of feet past the window, and once there was a mighty drumming, down between us and the river, as though the soldiery were turning out to keep the peace.  This was all we had of the fire, except a great cloud, all flushed red with the glare, above the roofs on the other side of the Gasse; but it was quite enough to put me entirely off my sleep and make me keenly alive to three or four gentlemen who were strolling leisurely about my person, and every here and there leaving me somewhat as a keepsake. However, everything has its compensation, and when day came at last, and the sparrows awoke with trills and CAROL-ETS, the dawn seemed to fall on me like a sleeping draught.  I went to the window and saw the sparrows about the eaves, and a great troop of doves go strolling up the paven Gasse, seeking what they may devour.  And so to sleep, despite fleas and fire-alarms and clocks chiming the hours out of neighbouring houses at all sorts of odd times and with the most charming want of unanimity.” This is an example that challenges Ekirch’s assertions that “Typically, descriptions recounted how an aroused individual had "had," "taken," or "gotten" his or her "first sleep." and that  “the vast weight of surviving evidence indicates that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber”. In his novel Treasure Island  published 4 years after his journey, Stevenson also uses the phrase first sleep, however his usage in this instance does not seem to conform to the conceptualisation of of ‘first sleep’ that Ekirch describes. here “Five of them were on their feet, flushed and swollen, suddenly called out of the first sleep of drunkenness”. “suddenly called out of the first sleep” is an example that challenges Ekirch’s assertions that “Typically, descriptions recounted how an aroused individual had "had," "taken," or "gotten" his or her "first sleep." and that  “the vast weight of surviving evidence indicates that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber”. The Cevennes Journal 24th/25th September. I questioned at first if I were sleepy, for I felt my heart beating rather faster than usual, as if with an agreeable excitement to which my mind remained a stranger. But as soon as my eyelids touched, that subtle glue leaped between them, and they would no more come separate. The wind among the trees was my lullaby; sometimes with a steady even rush, not raising nor abating, a minute or two together; and again it would rise and burst like a great crashing breaker, and the trees would patter me all over with great drops from the rain of the afternoon. I tried to find out where it differed from the same concert heard in my own bedroom in the country at home; but whether it was a difference in the trees, or the lie of the ground, or the fact that i was lying outside in the midst of it, the fact remains that the wind sang to a different tune among these woods of Gevaudan.  At home, the noise is not distinguishable from that of the surf; here it was not so, it had an unmistakable note throughout, this tumultuary multitude of leaves, tossing together in the night, had a sibilant undernote that no amount of tumbling water could have imitated. I was soon asleep but still my last waking effort was to listen and distinguish, and my last conscious state was one of wonder that these tumultuary chase of wind and foliage should sound with foreign clamour in my ears. Twice, once the stone once Modestine stamping in the course of the dark hours, I woke for a minute or two and saw a star or two overhead, and the lacelike foliage against the sky. (Wednesday, September 25th), When I recovered consciousness for the third time the world was flooded with a blue light, the mother of the dawn. I could see the leaves labouring in the wind, the ribbon of the road; and on turning my head, there was prim Modestine tied to a beech, and standing half across the path in an attitude of inimitable patience. I closed my eyes again and set to thinking over the incidents of the day before. I own I was both astonished and gratified to remember how I had taken my misfortunes, for I had not once lost my temper nor once felt tempted to despair. And again, as this was my first night in the world of sleeping in the open air, I was surprised to find how easy and pleasant it had been, even in this tempestuous weather. The stone that had galled me a little would not have been there, had I not been forced to choose my bed blindfold in the opaque darkness; and I had felt no other inconvenience, except when my feet encountered the lantern or the second volume of Peyrat's Pastors of the Desert among the mixed contents of my sleeping-bag; nay, more, I had felt not a touch of cold, and awakened with unusually lightsome and clear sensations. The Cevennes Journal 29th/30th September The shrill song of frogs, like the tremolo note of a whistle with a pea in it, had begun before sunset; and now in the dusk, faint rustlings began to run to and fro among the fallen leaves and I could sometimes catch sight of something dark stirring for an instant between the branches; from time to time, also,  a faint chirping or cheaping noise fell upon my ear; as the drone of a msiquito passed overhead between me and the sky, a profusion of large ants ran about the ground, walked all over me inside my clothes and bit me serveral times before morning.  The long boughs with their bunches of leaves hung against the sky like garlands; and those immediately above and around me had somewhat the air of a trellis which should have been wrecked and half overthrown in a storm of wind. This was a very different camp from that of last night in the cool and silent firwoods. Whether it was from a little over-fatigue, or from these continued and inexplicable noises all around me, or because I knew I must awake early, or from the heat which was considerable, I do not know, but certain it is that Sleep fled my eyelids. I turned and turned again; I threw off my cover and drew it on again. The pistol kept getting in my way until I was almost ready to throw it away, and just as I was beginning at last to feel quiet stealing over my limbs and settling densely on my mind, a noise at my head startled me broad awake again, and, I will frankly confess it, brought my heart into my mouth. It was such a noise as a person would make scratching with their finger-nail; it came from under the knapsack which served me for pillow, and was thrice repeated before I had time to sit up and turn about. Nothing was to be seen, nothing more was to be heard, but a few of these mysterious rustlings far and near, and the ceaseless accompaniment of the river and the frogs. I own I was profoundly shaken; I would have given a great deal for an explanation, which dare I say, would have done little for my comfort, for the truth was I learnt next morning  that the chestnut gardens are infested by rats. At any rate, the whole business of getting to sleep had to be begun again from the beginning. I perspired in fits, my limbs trembled, fever got into my mind and prevented all continuous and happy thinking; I was only conscious of broken vanishing thoughts, travelling through my mind as if upon a whirlwind. I could not, however, be sufficiently grateful that I was out here alone in the sweet night air, with nothing but stars and chestnuts around me, and not in some stifling inn room, among some chance companions; and although I was unable to fix my attention on this cause of satisfaction, it recurred ever and again in the wanderings of my mind and help tranquilise my spirits. I did not wish a compromise then; pleasure to be shared, not discomfort. Suddenly, as if all the troubles had given each other tryst for that night, a great stamping and consequent rolling downhill of the stones awake me to the recollection of Modestine. I felt persuaded that the brute had broken loose, leaped to my feet, jumped into my boots and started for her terrace. Among these sliding stones in the starlight, it was not possible even for a man to make much head, and this consoled me; it was evident that my donkey could not get far. When at last I arrived, she was still safely fastened, and had not even stirred; only in a fit of obdurate anger with the world, she was stamping and kicking at the stones. I felt pleased and amused, i scarce know why, and sitting down at the root of a chestnut, whence i had a view to the opposite side of the glen, i smoked a cigarette with a nearer approach to contentment than I had yet experienced. Right opposite, a couple of stars rested exactly on the ridge of the hill, and to me, who cannot pardon a want of composition even in nature, this sight was annoying. I averted my eyes; and when I looked up again, the starts in question had gone down. The human mind is a mighty strange contrivance, for this infinitesimal relief caused me great joy; it was like an answer to prayer, the fever seemed to abate from that moment; and when I returned to my sack, it was to drop asleep, as doctors say, with the first intention. (Monday, 30th September) I was wakened in the grey of the morning by the sound of footsteps not far off upon the stones, and opening my eyes, I beheld a peasant going by among the chestnuts by a footpath that I had not hitherto observed.   BACK
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2018