Vailima Letters, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter XXXIII

My Dear Colvin, — Your pleasing letter re The Ebb Tide, to hand. I propose, if it be not too late, to delete Lloyd’s name. He has nothing to do with the last half. The first we wrote together, as the beginning of a long yarn. The second is entirely mine; and I think it rather unfair on the young man to couple his name with so infamous a work. Above all, as you had not read the two last chapters, which seem to me the most ugly and cynical of all.

You will see that I am not in a good humour; and I am not. It is not because of your letter, but because of the complicated miseries that surround me and that I choose to say nothing of. Life is not all Beer and Skittles. The inherent tragedy of things works itself out from white to black and blacker, and the poor things of a day look ruefully on. Does it shake my cast-iron faith? I cannot say it does. I believe in an ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it! But it is hard walking, and I can see my own share in the missteps, and can bow my head to the result, like an old, stern, unhappy devil of a Norseman, as my ultimate character is . . . .

Well, il faut cultiver son jardin. That last expression of poor, unhappy human wisdom I take to my heart and go to St. Ives.

24th Aug.

And did, and worked about 2 hours and got to sleep ultimately and ‘a’ the clouds has blawn away.’ ‘Be sure we’ll have some pleisand weather, When a’ the clouds (storms?) has blawn (gone?) away.’ Verses that have a quite inexplicable attraction for me, and I believe had for Burns. They have no merit, but are somehow good. I am now in a most excellent humour.

I am deep in St. Ives which, I believe, will be the next novel done. But it is to be clearly understood that I promise nothing, and may throw in your face the very last thing you expect — or I expect. St. Ives will (to my mind) not be wholly bad. It is written in rather a funny style; a little stilted and left-handed; the style of St. Ives; also, to some extent, the style of R. L. S. dictating. St. Ives is unintellectual and except as an adventure novel, dull. But the adventures seem to me sound and pretty probable; and it is a love story. Speed his wings!

Sunday Night.

de coeur un peu plus dispos, Monsieur et cher confrere, je me remets a vous ecrire. St. Ives is now in the 5th chapter copying; in the 14th chapter of the dictated draft. I do not believe I shall end by disliking it.


Well, here goes again for the news. Fanny is very well indeed, and in good spirits; I am in good spirits but not very well; Lloyd is in good spirits and very well; Belle has a real good fever which has put her pipe out wholly. Graham goes back this mail. He takes with him three chapters of The Family, and is to go to you as soon as he can. He cannot be much the master of his movements, but you grip him when you can and get all you can from him, as he has lived about six months with us and he can tell you just what is true and what is not — and not the dreams of dear old Ross. He is a good fellow, is he not?

Since you rather revise your views of The Ebb Tide, I think Lloyd’s name might stick, but I’ll leave it to you. I’ll tell you just how it stands. Up to the discovery of the champagne, the tale was all planned between us and drafted by Lloyd; from that moment he has had nothing to do with it except talking it over. For we changed our plan, gave up the projected Monte Cristo, and cut it down for a short story. My jmpression — (I beg your pardon — this is a local joke — a firm here had on its beer labels, ‘sole jmporters’) — is that it will never be popular, but might make a little succes de scandale. However, I’m done with it now, and not sorry, and the crowd may rave and mumble its bones for what I care.

Hole essential. I am sorry about the maps; but I want ’em for next edition, so see and have proofs sent. You are quite right about the bottle and the great Huish, I must try to make it clear. No, I will not write a play for Irving nor for the devil. Can you not see that the work of falsification which a play demands is of all tasks the most ungrateful? And I have done it a long while — and nothing ever came of it.

Consider my new proposal, I mean Honolulu. You would get the Atlantic and the Rocky Mountains, would you not? for bracing. And so much less sea! And then you could actually see Vailima, which I would like you to, for it’s beautiful and my home and tomb that is to be; though it’s a wrench not to be planted in Scotland — that I can never deny — if I could only be buried in the hills, under the heather and a table tombstone like the martyrs, where the whaups and plovers are crying! Did you see a man who wrote the Stickit Minister, and dedicated it to me, in words that brought the tears to my eyes every time I looked at them, ‘Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying. His heart remembers how.’ Ah, by God, it does! Singular that I should fulfil the Scots destiny throughout, and live a voluntary exile, and have my head filled with the blessed, beastly place all the time!

And now a word as regards the delusions of the dear Ross, who remembers, I believe, my letters and Fanny’s when we were first installed, and were really hoeing a hard row. We have salad, beans, cabbages, tomatoes, asparagus, kohl-rabi, oranges, limes, barbadines, pine-apples, Cape gooseberries — galore; pints of milk and cream; fresh meat five days a week. It is the rarest thing for any of us to touch a tin; and the gnashing of teeth when it has to be done is dreadful — for no one who has not lived on them for six months knows what the Hatred of the Tin is. As for exposure, my weakness is certainly the reverse; I am sometimes a month without leaving the verandah — for my sins, be it said! Doubtless, when I go about and, as the Doctor says, ‘expose myself to malaria,’ I am in far better health; and I would do so more too — for I do not mean to be silly — but the difficulties are great. However, you see how much the dear Doctor knows of my diet and habits! Malaria practically does not exist in these islands; it is a negligeable quantity. What really bothers us a little is the mosquito affair — the so-called elephantiasis — ask Ross about it. A real romance of natural history, quoi!

Hi! stop! you say The Ebb Tide is the ‘working out of an artistic problem of a kind.’ Well, I should just bet it was! You don’t like Attwater. But look at my three rogues; they’re all there, I’ll go bail. Three types of the bad man, the weak man, and the strong man with a weakness, that are gone through and lived out.

Yes, of course I was sorry for Mataafa, but a good deal sorrier and angrier about the mismanagement of all the white officials. I cannot bear to write about that. Manono all destroyed, one house standing in Apolima, the women stripped, the prisoners beaten with whips — and the women’s heads taken — all under white auspices. And for upshot and result of so much shame to the white powers — Tamasese already conspiring! as I knew and preached in vain must be the case! Well, well, it is no fun to meddle in politics!

I suppose you’re right about Simon. But it is Symon throughout in that blessed little volume my father bought for me in Inverness in the year of grace ‘81, I believe — the trial of James Stewart, with the Jacobite pamphlet and the dying speech appended — out of which the whole of Davie has already been begotten, and which I felt it a kind of loyalty to follow. I really ought to have it bound in velvet and gold, if I had any gratitude! and the best of the lark is, that the name of David Balfour is not anywhere within the bounds of it.

A pretty curious instance of the genesis of a book. I am delighted at your good word for David; I believe the two together make up much the best of my work and perhaps of what is in me. I am not ashamed of them, at least. There is one hitch; instead of three hours between the two parts, I fear there have passed three years over Davie’s character; but do not tell anybody; see if they can find it out for themselves; and no doubt his experiences in Kidnapped would go far to form him. I would like a copy to go to G. Meredith.


Well, here is a new move. It is likely I may start with Graham next week and go to Honolulu to meet the other steamer and return: I do believe a fortnight at sea would do me good; yet I am not yet certain. The crowded up-steamer sticks in my throat.

Tuesday, 12th Sept.

Yesterday was perhaps the brightest in the annals of Vailima. I got leave from Captain Bickford to have the band of the Katoomba come up, and they came, fourteen of ’em, with drum, fife, cymbals and bugles, blue jackets, white caps, and smiling faces. The house was all decorated with scented greenery above and below. We had not only our own nine out-door workers, but a contract party that we took on in charity to pay their war-fine; the band besides, as it came up the mountain, had collected a following of children by the way, and we had a picking of Samoan ladies to receive them. Chicken, ham, cake, and fruits were served out with coffee and lemonade, and all the afternoon we had rounds of claret negus flavoured with rum and limes. They played to us, they danced, they sang, they tumbled. Our boys came in the end of the verandah and gave them a dance for a while. It was anxious work getting this stopped once it had begun, but I knew the band was going on a programme. Finally they gave three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, shook hands, formed up and marched off playing — till a kicking horse in the paddock put their pipes out something of the suddenest — we thought the big drum was gone, but Simele flew to the rescue. And so they wound away down the hill with ever another call of the bugle, leaving us extinct with fatigue, but perhaps the most contented hosts that ever watched the departure of successful guests. Simply impossible to tell how well these blue-jackets behaved; a most interesting lot of men; this education of boys for the navy is making a class, wholly apart — how shall I call them? — a kind of lower-class public school boy, well-mannered, fairly intelligent, sentimental as a sailor. What is more shall be writ on board ship if anywhere.

Please send Catriona to G. Meredith.

S. S. Mariposa.

To-morrow I reach Honolulu. Good-morning to your honour. R. L. S.

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