TODAY book club

Excerpt: Read about Robert Louis Stevenson's romance in 'Under the Wide and Starry Sky' 

Jan. 23, 2014 at 8:50 AM ET

Video: A compelling read and mix of fact and fiction, author Nancy Horan takes readers on a journey into the dramatic relationship between “Treasure Island” author Robert Lewis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift, detailing how she helped Stevenson find his voice.

The third TODAY Book Club pick is "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," the second novel by Nancy Horan, the celebrated author of "Loving Frank." Share your thoughts about Horan's windswept romance by joining the TODAY Book Club community, a fresh and interactive digital discussion series. RSVP to the Google Hangout with Nancy Horan, happening Thursday March 6 at 11 a.m. ET., follow @TODAYsBooks and stay up to date with the TODAY Book Club newsletter

In this exclusive excerpt from Nancy Horan's "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," the new pick for the TODAY Book Club, Horan fictionalizes the story of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the intrepid American woman who leaves her unfaithful husband in San Francisco and travels with her three children to Belgium, only to cross paths withraffish Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, with whom she embarks on a truly epic romance. Here's an excerpt.

'Under the Wide and Starry Sky'
Ballantine Books

CHAPTER 1   1875

“Where are the dogs?” Sammy asked, staring up at her.

Fanny Osbourne stood at the boat’s rail, holding an um­brella against the August drizzle. Her feet were planted apart, and each of her boys leaned against a leg. Around them, a forest of masts creaked in the dark harbor. She searched the distance for the shape of a city. Here and there smudges of light promised Antwerp was waiting, just beyond the pier.

“We’ll see the dogs tomorrow,” she told him.

“Are they sleeping now?” the boy asked.

“Yes, they’re surely sleeping.”

Lanterns illuminated the other passengers, whose weary faces re­flected her own fatigue. After a ten-day Atlantic crossing, she and the children had transferred to this paddleboat for the tail end of their journey, across the English Channel to Antwerp. Now they huddled on deck among the others—mostly American and English businessmen— waiting for some sign that they could disembark.

Fanny had begun spinning stories about the famous cart-pulling dogs of Antwerp soon after they boarded the ship in New York. As her sons’ patience waned during the long trip, the dogs’ feats became in­creasingly more fantastic. They swam out to sea to rescue the drown­ing, dug through the mud to unearth gold, gripped trousers in their teeth and pulled old men out of burning buildings. When they weren’t busy delivering milk around town, the dogs carried children through the cobblestone streets, calling upon bakers who handed out sugar-dusted cakes and apple fritters. Now, moored a few yards away from the great port city, Fanny hoped that the dogcart was not a thing of the past in Antwerp these days.

“Eleven o’clock,” said Mr. Hendricks, the baby-faced surgeon from New York who stood nearby, eyeing his pocket watch. “I suspect we won’t be getting off this boat tonight.” They watched a cluster of cus­toms officials exchange heated Flemish with the captain of their chan­nel steamer.

“Do you understand what’s happening?” Fanny asked.

“The Belgians are refusing to inspect anyone’s trunks until tomor­row.”

“That’s impossible! There aren’t enough beds on this little boat for all of us.”

The surgeon shrugged. “What can one do? I am philosophical about these things.”

“And I am not,” she muttered. “The children are exhausted.”

“Shall I try to secure sleeping cabins for you?” Mr. Hendricks asked, his pretty features wreathed in concern.

The man had been kind to Fanny from the moment she’d met him at dinner the first evening of the voyage. “Why, art!” she responded when he asked what had prompted her journey. “Culture. Isn’t that the reason Americans travel to Europe?” The surgeon had stared intently at her across the table, as if deciding whether she was mad or heroic for bringing her three children abroad for an entire year.

“My daughter and I will study figure drawing and painting,” she’d explained. “I want her to have classical training with the best.”

“Ah,” he said knowingly, “you, too, then, are a voluntary exile. I come for the same reason—the best of everything Europe has to offer. This year it’s Paris in the autumn, then Italy for the winter.”

She had watched him maneuver a forkful of peas into his mouth and wondered when he had time to work. He was a bachelor and quite rich, judging from his itinerary and impeccable clothes. His soft black ringlets framed an unlined forehead, round pink cheeks, and the lips of a putto. She had glanced at Sammy next to her, pushing his peas onto a spoon with his left thumb. “Watch how Mr. Hendricks does it,” she whispered in the boy’s ear.

“I can see you have mettle, Mrs. Osbourne,” the surgeon said. “Do you have any French?”

“I don’t, but Belle knows a little.”

Hendricks emitted a worried hum. “If the Old World is to work its magic you’ll need to learn the language. Flemish is spoken in Belgium, but French is a close second. If you plan to travel at all, that’s the better language.”

“Then we all must learn it.”

Having determined the fastest route to the mother’s affections, the surgeon smilingly made his offer. “I would be happy to teach you a few phrases.” Every afternoon for the remainder of the journey, he had con­ducted language lessons for her and the children in the ship’s library.

Now she told Hendricks, “Don’t ask about the sleeping accommo­dations quite yet. Give me a few moments.”

Fanny glanced over at her daughter, Belle, who shared an umbrella with the nanny. She beckoned the girl, then bent down to her older boy. “Go to Miss Kate, Sammy,” she said. “You, too, Hervey.” She lifted the four-year-old and carried him to the governess. “Do keep in the background with the children, Kate,” Fanny told the young woman, who took Hervey into her arms. “It’s best the officials don’t see our whole entourage. Belle, you come with me.”

The girl’s eyes pleaded as she ducked under her mother’s umbrella. “Do I have to?”

“You needn’t say a word.” Looking distraught would be no chal­lenge for Belle right now. The wind had whipped the girl’s dark hair into a bird’s nest. Brown crescents hung below her eyes. “We’re almost there, darlin’.” Fanny Osbourne grabbed her daughter’s hand and pushed through a sea of shoulders to reach the circle of officials. Of the Belgians, only one—a lanky gray-headed man—had a promising as­pect. He started with surprise when Fanny rested a gloved hand on his forearm. “Do you understand English, sir?” she asked him.

He nodded.

“We are ladies traveling alone.”

The official, a foot taller than she, stared down at her, rubbing his forehead. Beneath the hand cupped over his brow, his eyes traveled art­lessly from her mouth to her waist.

“We have come all the way from New York and have experienced nothing but chivalry from the English officers on our ship. Surely there must be some way . . .”

The Belgian shifted from foot to foot while he looked off to the side of her head.

“Sir,” Fanny said, engaging his eyes. “Sir, we entrust ourselves to your courtesy.”

In a matter of minutes, the plump little surgeon was trundling their luggage onto the pier. On deck, the other passengers fumed as a cus­toms man lifted the lids of Fanny’s trunks, gave the contents a perfunc­tory glance, and motioned for her party to move through the gate.

“Bastards!” someone shouted at the officials as Fanny and her fam­ily, along with Mr. Hendricks, followed a porter who loaded their trunks on a cart and led them toward an open horse-drawn wagon with enormous wheels.

Near the terminal, masses of people waited beneath a metal canopy. Women in head scarves sat on stuffed grain sacks clutching their earthly valuables: babies, food baskets, rosaries, satchels. One woman clasped a violin case to her chest.

“They come from all over,” said the surgeon as he helped the chil­dren into the wagon. “They’re running from some war or potato field. This is their last stop before America. You can be sure the pickpockets are working tonight.”

Fanny shuddered. Her hand went to her breast to make certain the pouch of bills sewn into her corset was secure, and then to her skirt pocket, where she felt the smooth curve of her derringer.

“Take them to the Hôtel St. Antoine,” Hendricks ordered the driver as the last trunk was hoisted into the back of the vehicle. He turned to Fanny. “When you know where you will be staying permanently, leave a forwarding address at the desk. I will write to you from Paris.” He squeezed her hand, then lifted her into the wagon. “Take care of your­self, dear lady.”

Less than an hour later, ensconced in the only available room of the hotel, she stepped behind a screen, untied her corset, and groaned with relief as it dropped to the floor, money pouch and all. She threw a nightgown over her head and climbed into bed between her slumber­ing boys. In the narrow bed an arm’s length away, Belle’s head pro­truded from one end of the sheet, while Miss Kate’s open mouth sent up a snore from the other.

Fanny leaned against the headboard, eyes open. It had been a har­rowing monthlong journey to get to this bed. Twelve days’ travel on one rock-hard train seat after another from California to Indianapolis. A few days’ respite at her parents’ house, followed by a mad dash by wagon across flooded rivers to catch the train to New York before their tickets expired.

Six thousand miles lay between Fanny and her husband. Whether he would send her money, as he had promised, was uncertain. Tomor­row she would think about that. Tomorrow she would enroll herself and Belle at the art academy and wangle a ride on a dogcart for the boys. Tomorrow she would find a cheap apartment and begin a new life.

She got out of bed and went to the window. Across the square, Notre Dame Cathedral soared above the other night shapes of Ant­werp. The rain had stopped, and the unclouded moon poured white light through the lacy stone cutwork of the church spire. When the cathedral bells rang out midnight, she caught her breath. She had be­lieved in signs since she was a girl. The clanging, loud and joyful as Christmas matins, hit her marrow and set loose a month’s worth of tears.

If that isn’t a good omen, she thought, I don’t know what is.

She climbed back into bed, slid down between her boys, and slept at last.

Excerpted from Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Drew Horan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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