Vailima Letters, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter XXIX

My Dear Colvin, — To-day early I sent down to Maben (Secretary of State) an offer to bring up people from Malie, keep them in my house, and bring them down day by day for so long as the negotiation should last. I have a favourable answer so far. This I would not have tried, had not old Sir George Grey put me on my mettle; ‘Never despair,’ was his word; and ‘I am one of the few people who have lived long enough to see how true that is.’ Well, thereupon I plunged in; and the thing may do me great harm, but yet I do not think so — for I think jealousy will prevent the trial being made. And at any rate it is another chance for this distracted archipelago of children, sat upon by a clique of fools. If, by the gift of God, I can do — I am allowed to try to do — and succeed: but no, the prospect is too bright to be entertained.

To-day we had a ride down to Tanugamanono, and then by the new wood paths. One led us to a beautiful clearing, with four native houses; taro, yams, and the like, excellently planted, and old Folau — ‘the Samoan Jew’ — sitting and whistling there in his new-found and well-deserved well-being. It was a good sight to see a Samoan thus before the world. Further up, on our way home, we saw the world clear, and the wide die of the shadow lying broad; we came but a little further, and found in the borders of the bush a Banyan. It must have been 150 feet in height; the trunk, and its acolytes, occupied a great space; above that, in the peaks of the branches, quite a forest of ferns and orchids were set; and over all again the huge spread of the boughs rose against the bright west, and sent their shadow miles to the eastward. I have not often seen anything more satisfying than this vast vegetable.

Sunday.

A heavenly day again! the world all dead silence, save when, from far down below us in the woods, comes up the crepitation of the little wooden drum that beats to church. Scarce a leaf stirs; only now and again a great, cool gush of air that makes my papers fly, and is gone. — The King of Samoa has refused my intercession between him and Mataafa; and I do not deny this is a good riddance to me of a difficult business, in which I might very well have failed. What else is to be done for these silly folks?

May 12th.

And this is where I had got to, before the mail arrives with, I must say, a real gentlemanly letter from yourself. Sir, that is the sort of letter I want! Now, I’ll make my little proposal. I will accept child’s play and Pan’s pipes. Then I want Pastoral, The Manse, The Islet, leaving out if you like all the prefacial matter and beginning at I. Then the portrait of Robert Hunter, beginning ‘Whether he was originally big or little,’ and ending ‘fearless and gentle.’ So much for Mem. and Portraits. Beggars, sections I. and II., random Memories II., and Lantern Bearers; I’m agreeable. These are my selections. I don’t know about Pulvis et Umbra either, but must leave that to you. But just what you please.

About Davie I elaborately wrote last time, but still Davie is not done; I am grinding singly at The Ebb Tide, as we now call the Farallone; the most of it will go this mail. About the following, let there be no mistake: I will not write the abstract of Kidnapped; write it who will, I will not. Boccaccio must have been a clever fellow to write both argument and story; I am not, et je me recuse.

We call it The Ebb Tide: A Trio and Quartette; but that secondary name you may strike out if it seems dull to you. The book, however, falls in two halves, when the fourth character appears. I am on p. 82 if you want to know, and expect to finish on I suppose 110 or so; but it goes slowly, as you may judge from the fact that this three weeks past, I have only struggled from p. 58 to p. 82: twenty-four pages, et encore sure to be rewritten, in twenty-one days. This is no prize-taker; not much Waverley Novels about this!

May 16th.

I believe it will be ten chapters of The Ebb Tide that go to you; the whole thing should be completed in I fancy twelve; and the end will follow punctually next mail. It is my great wish that this might get into The Illustrated London News for Gordon Browne to illustrate. For whom, in case he should get the job, I give you a few notes. A purao is a tree giving something like a fig with flowers. He will find some photographs of an old marine curiosity shop in my collection, which may help him. Attwater’s settlement is to be entirely overshadowed everywhere by tall palms; see photographs of Fakarava: the verandahs of the house are 12 ft. wide. Don’t let him forget the Figure Head, for which I have a great use in the last chapter. It stands just clear of the palms on the crest of the beach at the head of the pier; the flag-staff not far off; the pier he will understand is perhaps three feet above high water, not more at any price. The sailors of the Farallone are to be dressed like white sailors of course. For other things, I remit this excellent artist to my photographs.

I can’t think what to say about the tale, but it seems to me to go off with a considerable bang; in fact, to be an extraordinary work: but whether popular! Attwater is a no end of a courageous attempt, I think you will admit; how far successful is another affair. If my island ain’t a thing of beauty, I’ll be damned. Please observe Wiseman and Wishart; for incidental grimness, they strike me as in it. Also, kindly observe the Captain and Adar; I think that knocks spots. In short, as you see, I’m a trifle vainglorious. But O, it has been such a grind! The devil himself would allow a man to brag a little after such a crucifixion! And indeed I’m only bragging for a change before I return to the darned thing lying waiting for me on p. 88, where I last broke down. I break down at every paragraph, I may observe; and lie here and sweat, till I can get one sentence wrung out after another. Strange doom; after having worked so easily for so long! Did ever anybody see such a story of four characters?

Later, 2.30.

It may interest you to know that I am entirely Tapu, and live apart in my chambers like a caged beast. Lloyd has a bad cold, and Graham and Belle are getting it. Accordingly, I dwell here without the light of any human countenance or voice, and strap away at The Ebb Tide until (as now) I can no more. Fanny can still come, but is gone to glory now, or to her garden. Page 88 is done, and must be done over again tomorrow, and I confess myself exhausted. Pity a man who can’t work on along when he has nothing else on earth to do! But I have ordered Jack, and am going for a ride in the bush presently to refresh the machine; then back to a lonely dinner and durance vile. I acquiesce in this hand of fate; for I think another cold just now would just about do for me. I have scarce yet recovered the two last.

May 18th.

My progress is crabwise, and I fear only IX. chapters will be ready for the mail. I am on p. 88 again, and with half an idea of going back again to 85. We shall see when we come to read: I used to regard reading as a pleasure in my old light days. All the house are down with the influenza in a body, except Fanny and me. The influenza appears to become endemic here, but it has always been a scourge in the islands. Witness the beginning of The Ebb Tide, which was observed long before the Iffle had distinguished himself at home by such Napoleonic conquests. I am now of course ‘quite a recluse,’ and it is very stale, and there is no amanuensis to carry me over my mail, to which I shall have to devote many hours that would have been more usefully devoted to The Ebb Tide. For you know you can dictate at all hours of the day and at any odd moment; but to sit down and write with your red right hand is a very different matter.

May 20th.

Well, I believe I’ve about finished the thing, I mean as far as the mail is to take it. Chapter X. is now in Lloyd’s hands for remarks, and extends in its present form to p. 93 incl. On the 12th of May, I see by looking back, I was on p. 82, not for the first time; so that I have made 11 pages in nine livelong days. Well! up a high hill he heaved a huge round stone. But this Flaubert business must be resisted in the premises. Or is it the result of influenza? God forbid. Fanny is down now, and the last link that bound me to my fellow men is severed. I sit up here, and write, and read Renan’s Origines, which is certainly devilish interesting; I read his Nero yesterday, it is very good, O, very good! But he is quite a Michelet; the general views, and such a piece of character painting, excellent; but his method sheer lunacy. You can see him take up the block which he had just rejected, and make of it the corner-stone: a maddening way to deal with authorities; and the result so little like history that one almost blames oneself for wasting time. But the time is not wasted; the conspectus is always good, and the blur that remains on the mind is probably just enough. I have been enchanted with the unveiling of Revelations. And how picturesque that return of the false Nero! The Apostle John is rather discredited. And to think how one had read the thing so often, and never understood the attacks upon St. Paul! I remember when I was a child, and we came to the Four Beasts that were all over eyes, the sickening terror with which I was filled. If that was Heaven, what, in the name of Davy Jones and the aboriginal night-mare, could Hell be? Take it for all in all, l’antechrist is worth reading. The Histoire d’Israel did not surprise me much; I had read those Hebrew sources with more intelligence than the New Testament, and was quite prepared to admire Ahab and Jezebel, etc. Indeed, Ahab has always been rather a hero of mine; I mean since the years of discretion.

May 21st.

And here I am back again on p. 85! the last chapter demanding an entire revision, which accordingly it is to get. And where my mail is to come in, God knows! This forced, violent, alembicated style is most abhorrent to me; it can’t be helped; the note was struck years ago on the Janet Nicoll, and has to be maintained somehow; and I can only hope the intrinsic horror and pathos, and a kind of fierce glow of colour there is to it, and the surely remarkable wealth of striking incident, may guide our little shallop into port. If Gordon Browne is to get it, he should see the Brassey photographs of Papeete. But mind, the three waifs were never in the town; only on the beach and in the calaboose. By George, but it’s a good thing to illustrate for a man like that! Fanny is all right again. False alarm! I was down yesterday afternoon at Paupata, and heard much growling of war, and the delightful news that the C. J. and the President are going to run away from Mulinuu and take refuge in the Tivoli hotel.

23rd. Mail Day.

And lots of pleasures before me, no doubt! Among others the attempt to extract an answer from — before mail time, which may succeed or may not.

The Ebb Tide, all but (I take it) fifteen pages, is now in your hands — possibly only about eleven pp. It is hard to say. But there it is, and you can do your best with it. Personally, I believe I would in this case make even a sacrifice to get Gordon Browne and copious illustration. I guess in ten days I shall have finished with it; then I go next to D. Balfour, and get the proofs ready: a nasty job for me, as you know. And then? Well, perhaps I’ll take a go at the family history. I think that will be wise, as I am so much off work. And then, I suppose, Weir of Hermiston, but it may be anything. I am discontented with The Ebb tide, naturally; there seems such a veil of words over it; and I like more and more naked writing; and yet sometimes one has a longing for full colour and there comes the veil again. The Young Chevalier is in very full colour, and I fear it for that reason. —

Ever,
R. L. S.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30