Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter X

A Samoan Memorial of R. L. Stevenson

A FEW weeks after his death, the mail from Samoa, brought to Stevenson’s friends, myself among the number, a precious, if pathetic, memorial of the master. It is in the form of “A Letter to Mr Stevenson’s Friends,” by his stepson, Mr Lloyd Osbourne, and bears the motto from Walt Whitman, “I have been waiting for you these many years. Give me your hand and welcome.” Mr Osbourne gives a full account of the last hours.

“He wrote hard all that morning of the last day; his half-finished book, HERMISTON, he judged the best he had ever written, and the sense of successful effort made him buoyant and happy as nothing else could. In the afternoon the mail fell to be answered — not business correspondence, for this was left till later — but replies to the long, kindly letters of distant friends received but two days since, and still bright in memory. At sunset he came downstairs; rallied his wife about the forebodings she could not shake off; talked of a lecturing tour to America that he was eager to make, ‘as he was now so well’; and played a game of cards with her to drive away her melancholy. He said he was hungry; begged her assistance to help him make a salad for the evening meal; and, to enhance the little feast he brought up a bottle of old Burgundy from the cellar. He was helping his wife on the verandah, and gaily talking, when suddenly he put both hands to his head and cried out, ‘What’s that?’ Then he asked quickly, ‘Do I look strange?’ Even as he did so he fell on his knees beside her. He was helped into the great hall, between his wife and his body- servant, Sosimo, losing consciousness instantly as he lay back in the armchair that had once been his grandfather’s. Little time was lost in bringing the doctors — Anderson of the man-of-war, and his friend, Dr Funk. They looked at him and shook their heads; they laboured strenuously, and left nothing undone. But he had passed the bounds of human skill. He had grown so well and strong, that his wasted lungs were unable to bear the stress of returning health.”

Then ‘tis told how the Rev. Mr Clarke came and prayed by him; and how, soon after, the chiefs were summoned, and came, bringing their fine mats, which, laid on the body, almost hid the Union jack in which it had been wrapped. One of the old Mataafa chiefs, who had been in prison, and who had been one of those who worked on the making of the “Road of the Loving Heart” (the road of gratitude which the chiefs had made up to Mr Stevenson’s house as a mark of their appreciation of his efforts on their behalf), came and crouched beside the body and said:

“I am only a poor Samoan, and ignorant. Others are rich, and can give Tusitala 6 the parting presents of rich, fine mats; I am poor, and can give nothing this last day he receives his friends. Yet I am not afraid to come and look the last time in my friend’s face, never to see him more till we meet with God. Behold! Tusitala is dead; Mataafa is also dead. These two great friends have been taken by God. When Mataafa was taken, who was our support but Tusitala? We were in prison, and he cared for us. We were sick, and he made us well. We were hungry, and he fed us. The day was no longer than his kindness. You are great people, and full of love. Yet who among you is so great as Tusitala? What is your love to his love? Our clan was Mataafa’s clan, for whom I speak this day; therein was Tusitala also. We mourn them both.”

A select company of Samoans would not be deterred, and watched by the body all night, chanting songs, with bits of Catholic prayers; and in the morning the work began of clearing a path through the wood on the hill to the spot on the crown where Mr Stevenson had expressed a wish to be buried. The following prayer, which Mr Stevenson had written and read aloud to his family only the night before, was read by Mr Clarke in the service:

“We beseech thee, Lord, to behold us with favour, folk of many families and nations, gathered together in the peace of this roof; weak men and women, subsisting under the covert of Thy patience. Be patient still; suffer us yet a while longer — with our broken purposes of good, with our idle endeavours against evil — suffer us a while longer to endure, and (if it may be) help us to do better. Bless to us our extraordinary mercies; if the day come when these must be taken, have us play the man under affliction. Be with our friends; be with ourselves. Go with each of us to rest: if any awake, temper to them the dark hours of watching; and when the day returns to us, our Sun and Comforter, call us up with morning faces and with morning hearts — eager to labour — eager to be happy, if happiness shall be our portion; and if the day be marked for sorrow, strong to endure it.

“We thank Thee and praise Thee, and in the words of Him to whom this day is sacred, close our oblations.”

Mr Bazzet M. Haggard, H.B.M., Land-Commissioner, tells, by way of reminiscence, the story of “The Road of Good Heart,” how it came to be built, and of the great feast Mr Stevenson gave at the close of the work, at which, in the course of his speech, he said:

“You are all aware in some degree of what has happened. You know those chiefs to have been prisoners; you perhaps know that during the term of their confinement I had it in my power to do them certain favours. One thing some of you cannot know, that they were immediately repaid by answering attentions. They were liberated by the new Administration. . . . As soon as they were free men — owing no man anything — instead of going home to their own places and families, they came to me. They offered to do this work (to make this road) for me as a free gift, without hire, without supplies, and I was tempted at first to refuse their offer. I knew the country to be poor; I knew famine threatening; I knew their families long disorganised for want of supervision. Yet I accepted, because I thought the lesson of that road might be more useful to Samoa than a thousand bread-fruit trees, and because to myself it was an exquisite pleasure to receive that which was so handsomely offered. It is now done; you have trod it to-day in coming hither. It has been made for me by chiefs; some of them old, some sick, all newly delivered from a harassing confinement, and in spite of weather unusually hot and insalubrious. I have seen these chiefs labour valiantly with their own hands upon the work, and I have set up over it, now that it is finished the name of ‘The Road of Gratitude’ (the road of loving hearts), and the names of those that built it. ‘In perpetuam memoriam,’ we say, and speak idly. At least, as long as my own life shall be spared it shall be here perpetuated; partly for my pleasure and in my gratitude; partly for others continually to publish the lesson of this road.”

And turning to the chiefs, Mr Stevenson said:

“I will tell you, chiefs, that when I saw you working on that road, my heart grew warm; not with gratitude only, but with hope. It seemed to me that I read the promise of something good for Samoa; it seemed to me as I looked at you that you were a company of warriors in a battle, fighting for the defence of our common country against all aggression. For there is a time to fight and a time to dig. You Samoans may fight, you may conquer twenty times, and thirty times, and all will be in vain. There is but one way to defend Samoa. Hear it, before it is too late. It is to make roads and gardens, and care for your trees, and sell their produce wisely; and, in one word, to occupy and use your country. If you do not, others will . . . .

“I love Samoa and her people. I love the land. I have chosen it to be my home while I live, and my grave after I am dead, and I love the people, and have chosen them to be my people, to live and die with. And I see that the day is come now of the great battle; of the great and the last opportunity by which it shall be decided whether you are to pass away like those other races of which I have been speaking, or to stand fast and have your children living on and honouring your memory in the land you received of your fathers.”

Mr James H. Mulligan, U.S. Consul, told of the feast of Thanksgiving Day on the 29th November prior to Mr Stevenson’s death, and how at great pains he had procured for it the necessary turkey, and how Mrs Stevenson had found a fair substitute for the pudding. In the course of his speech in reply to an unexpected proposal of “The Host,” Mr Stevenson said:

“There on my right sits she who has but lately from our own loved native land come back to me — she to whom, with no lessening of affection to those others to whom I cling, I love better than all the world besides — my mother. From the opposite end of the table, my wife, who has been all in all to me, when the days were very dark, looks to-night into my eyes — while we have both grown a bit older — with undiminished and undiminishing affection.

“Childless, yet on either side of me sits that good woman, my daughter, and the stalwart man, my son, and both have been and are more than son and daughter to me, and have brought into my life mirth and beauty. Nor is this all. There sits the bright boy dear to my heart, full of the flow and the spirits of boyhood, so that I can even know that for a time at least we have still the voice of a child in the house.”

Mr A. W. Mackay gives an account of the funeral and a description of the burial-place, ending:

“Tofa Tusitala! Sleep peacefully! on thy mountain-top, alone in Nature’s sanctity, where the wooddove’s note, the moaning of the waves as they break unceasingly on the distant reef, and the sighing of the winds in the distant tavai trees chant their requiem.”

The Rev. Mr Clarke tells of the constant and active interest Mr Stevenson took in the missionaries and their work, often aiding them by his advice and fine insight into the character of the natives; and a translation follows of a dirge by one of the chiefs, so fine that we must give it:

I.

“Listen, O this world, as I tell of the disaster

That befell in the late afternoon;

That broke like a wave of the sea

Suddenly and swiftly, blinding our eyes.

Alas for Loia who speaks tears in his voice!

REFRAIN— Groan and weep, O my heart, in its sorrow.

Alas for Tusitala, who rests in the forest!

Aimlessly we wait, and sorrowing. Will he again return?

Lament, O Vailima, waiting and ever waiting!

Let us search and inquire of the captain of ships,

‘Be not angry, but has not Tusitala come?’

II.

“Teuila, sorrowing one, come thou hither!

Prepare me a letter, and I will carry it.

Let her Majesty Victoria be told

That Tusitala, the loving one, has been taken hence.

REFRAIN— Groan and weep, O my heart, etc., etc.

III.

“Alas! my heart weeps with anxious grief

As I think of the days before us:

Of the white men gathering for the Christmas assembly!

Alas for Aolele! left in her loneliness,

And the men of Vailima, who weep together

Their leader — their leader being taken.

REFRAIN— Groan and weep, O my heart, etc., etc.

IV.

“Alas! O my heart! it weeps unceasingly

When I think of his illness

Coming upon him with fatal swiftness.

Would that it waited a glance or a word from him,

Or some token, some token from us of our love.

REFRAIN— Groan and weep, O my heart, etc., etc.

V.

“Grieve, O my heart! I cannot bear to look on

All the chiefs who are there now assembling:

Alas, Tusitala! Thou art not here!

I look hither and thither in vain for thee.

REFRAIN— Groan and weep, O my heart, etc., etc.”

And the little booklet closes with Mr Stevenson’s own lines:

“REQUIEM.

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie;

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

‘Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea;

And the hunter home from the hill.’”

Every touch tells here was a man, with heart and head, with soul and mind intent on the loftiest things; simple, great,

“Like one of the simple great ones gone

For ever and ever by.

His character towered after all far above his books; great and beautiful though they were. Ready for friendship; from all meanness free. So, too, the Samoans felt. This, surely, was what Goethe meant when he wrote:

“The clear head and stout heart,

However far they roam,

Yet in every truth have part,

Are everywhere at home.”

His manliness, his width of sympathy, his practicality, his range of interests were in nothing more seen than in his contributions to the history of Samoa, as specially exhibited in A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY and his letters to the TIMES. He was, on this side, in no sense a dreamer, but a man of acute observation and quick eye for passing events and the characters that were in them with sympathy equal to his discernments. His portraits of certain Germans and others in these writings, and his power of tracing effects to remote and underlying causes, show sufficiently what he might have done in the field of history, had not higher voices called him. His adaptation to the life in Samoa, and his assumption of the semi-patriarchal character in his own sphere there, were only tokens of the presence of the same traits as have just been dwelt on.

6 Tusitala, as the reader must know, is the Samoan for Teller of Tales.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter10.html

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