Treasure Island by Vincent McCaffrey
I had been reading purposefully on my own for little more than a year when my family moved to a temporary residence at the Bevan Hotel on Park Street in Larchmont. My parents had bought their first house, an older Victorian, and naturally encountered the unexpected difficulties of renovation.
I have used that nearly six-month residence at the Bevan Hotel several times in stories, and key to the impact of the place was the owner, a man about whom I actually know almost nothing.
His name was Frederick Merrow. I have no picture of him now to compare with my memory, so that I see him in my mind somewhat mythically. In any case, what a boy sees in a man has little to do with fact. We often only see what we need in others and little more.
However, the internet offers a little more, perhaps. Merrow was the nephew of the legendary F.F. Proctor, a wizard who had built some of the great theatre palaces during the first part of the 20th century. In the 1920’s Frederick Merrow had been the first manager of the RKO Proctor theatre in New Rochelle, a place where I was coincidentally to spend a great deal of my youth in later years.
But in 1957, I was ten, and Frederick Merrow was a gaunt and brooding eminence who walked uneasily with a cane, and wore dark suits. He had a great nose that seemed to soar when looked at from lower heights. Though taller than my father, he too had a mustache and spoke in a theatrically deep voice.
One image of the man has dominated my imagination, whether accurate or not. On a wall in the lobby there was a display of signed photographs of famous actors—John and Ethel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Basil Rathbone, George M. Cohan, Zasu Pitts, Tom Mix. They had all stayed at the little hotel in their time. But I had paid special attention to a photograph of Eugene O’Neill, sitting in a chair, smoking, and staring unhappily at the camera. It was unsigned. And for some time I thought it was a picture of Mr. Merrow himself until I asked why he had not signed his like the others had. I think he was flattered by the mistake. He explained and added something else about O’Neill.
“He wouldn’t sign it. He was unhappy with his contract.”
That enforced stay, which was so financially unfortunate for my parents, became a great blessing for me. A seaside resort hotel in its heyday, with a famous kitchen and dining room, the Bevan had fallen on difficult times itself, and its nooks and crannies were probably improved by the occasional missing light bulb and the odd accumulations of the past. I wandered unrestrained.
In an alcove off the lobby, designated as ‘the library,’ Mr. Merrow often used to sit and read. The hotel was quiet during the day, and made quieter still by the small sounds of an aging building and distant footsteps on the wood floors of narrow halls.
One day, early on, while exploring, I had entered that precinct without realizing he was there at the far side of a high backed leather chair. He had suddenly taken me by the arm, fingers gripping with bony strength, and given me a fright. This was followed by a full laugh and an echo I can still hear. The clear pleasure he took with this surprise was in the first open smile I had seen on his face up to that moment. And this became the opening to many conversations about literature—the first I ever had with another human being beyond school.
That day, Mr. Merrow asked me if I had read Mark Twain. I think he was reading Huckleberry Finn again just then himself. I had only read Tom Sawyer, and told him so.
He asked, “Then you must know Jim Hawkins?”
I said I had never met him.
This got another laugh, nearly as loud as the first. With his free hand and barely a look—no look at all as I recall it—he plucked an oversize volume by the spine from a shelf close by. The image of two pirates beneath a black flag stared out from the cover.
“Then you can borrow this. It’s better than Tom Sawyer, I think, and maybe even as good as Huckleberry Finn. It involves some old friends of mine.”
He winked but I mistook what he said for a fact. I took the book with both of my hands and read the title aloud. “Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.”
I was immediately intrigued with the thought that he knew someone in a book, and turned it in my hands like a discovered object. It fell open to the vivid colors of N.C. Wyeth, of men with swords and pistols and then a boy with his back turned to a weeping woman. I was aware without reading a word that this boy was leaving his home to go on a great adventure.
Mr. Merrow squinted at me, his chin raised so that his eyes reached mine only after following the course of his nose for every bit of its length. “Now don’t mistake that inn you will read about there, the Admiral Benbow, for our humble hotel. This is a much more peaceful establishment, and cutlasses are forbidden. But that’s where Jim’s story begins. Not all that different a place than this.”
As an adult, I went back to the place only once. Most of the original building is gone now. What is left has been remade into a private home. One summer day I walked up to a fellow painting a front step as his dog watched and asked him if he knew anything about the building. No. The previous owner had died before they came along.
That may be just as well, I suppose. The facts can be a spoiler for the truth.