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

Chapter XI

Miss Stubbs’ Record of a Pilgrimage

MRS STRONG, in her chapter of TABLE TALK IN MEMORIES OF VAILIMA, tells a story of the natives’ love for Stevenson. “The other day the cook was away,” she writes, “and Louis, who was busy writing, took his meals in his room. Knowing there was no one to cook his lunch, he told Sosimo to bring him some bread and cheese. To his surprise he was served with an excellent meal — an omelette, a good salad, and perfect coffee. ‘Who cooked this?’ asked Louis in Samoan. ‘I did,’ said Sosimo. ‘Well,’ said Louis, ‘great is your wisdom.’ Sosimo bowed and corrected him — ‘Great is my love!’”

Miss Stubbs, in her STEVENSON’S SHRINE; THE RECORD OF A PILGRIMAGE, illustrates the same devotion. On the top of Mount Vaea, she writes, is the massive sarcophagus, “not an ideal structure by any means, not even beautiful, and yet in its massive ruggedness it somehow suited the man and the place.”

“The wind sighed softly in the branches of the ‘Tavau’ trees, from out the green recesses of the ‘Toi’ came the plaintive coo of the wood-pigeon. In and out of the branches of the magnificent ‘Fau’ tree, which overhangs the grave, a king-fisher, sea-blue, iridescent, flitted to and fro, whilst a scarlet hibiscus, in full flower, showed up royally against the gray lichened cement. All around was light and life and colour, and I said to myself, ‘He is made one with nature’; he is now, body and soul and spirit, commingled with the loveliness around. He who longed in life to scale the height, he who attained his wish only in death, has become in himself a parable of fulfilment. No need now for that heart-sick cry:-

“‘Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?’

No need now for the despairing finality of:

“‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope,

I have endured and done in the days of yore,

I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope,

And I have lived, and loved, and closed the door.’

“Death has set his seal of peace on the unequal conflict of mind and matter; the All-Mother has gathered him to herself.

“In years to come, when his grave is perchance forgotten, a rugged ruin, home of the lizard and the bat, Tusitala — the story-teller — ‘the man with a heart of gold’ (as I so often heard him designated in the Islands), will live, when it may be his tales have ceased to interest, in the tender remembrance of those whose lives he beautified, and whose hearts he warmed into gratitude.”

The chiefs have prohibited the use of firearms or other weapons on Mount Vaea, “in order that the birds may live there undisturbed and unafraid, and build their nests in the trees around Tusitala’s grave.”

Miss Stubbs has many records of the impression produced on those he came in contact with in Samoa — white men and women as well as natives. She met a certain Austrian Count, who adored Stevenson’s memory. Over his camp bed was a framed photograph of R. L. Stevenson.

“So,” he said, “I keep him there, for he was my saviour, and I wish ‘good-night’ and ‘good-morning,’ every day, both to himself and to his old home.” The Count then told us that when he was stopping at Vailima he used to have his bath daily on the verandah below his room. One lovely morning he got up very early, got into the bath, and splashed and sang, feeling very well and very happy, and at last beginning to sing very loudly, he forgot Mr Stevenson altogether. All at once there was Stevenson himself, his hair all ruffled up, his eyes full of anger. “Man,” he said, “you and your infernal row have cost me more than two hundred pounds in ideas,” and with that he was gone, but he did not address the Count again the whole of that day. Next morning he had forgotten the Count’s offence and was just as friendly as ever, but — the noise was never repeated!

Another of the Count’s stories greatly amused the visitors:

“An English lord came all the way to Samoa in his yacht to see Mr Stevenson, and found him in his cool Kimino sitting with the ladies, and drinking tea on his verandah; the whole party had their feet bare. The English lord thought that he must have called at the wrong time, and offered to go away, but Mr Stevenson called out to him, and brought him back, and made him stay to dinner. They all went away to dress, and the guest was left sitting alone in the verandah. Soon they came back, Mr Osbourne and Mr Stevenson wearing the form of dress most usual in that hot climate a white mess jacket, and white trousers, but their feet were still bare. The guest put up his eyeglass and stared for a bit, then he looked down upon his own beautifully shod feet, and sighed. They all talked and laughed until the ladies came in, the ladies in silk dresses, befrilled with lace, but still with bare feet, and the guest took a covert look through his eyeglass and gasped, but when he noticed that there were gold bangles on Mrs Strong’s ankles and rings upon her toes, he could bear no more and dropped his eyeglass on the ground of the verandah breaking it all to bits.”

Miss Stubbs met on the other side of the island a photographer who told her this:

“I had but recently come to Samoa,” he said, “and was standing one day in my shop when Mr Stevenson came in and spoke. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘I tak ye to be a Scotsman like mysel’.’

“I would I could have claimed a kinship,” deplored the photographer, “but, alas! I am English to the backbone, with never a drop of Scotch blood in my veins, and I told him this, regretting the absence of the blood tie.”

“‘I could have sworn your back was the back of a Scotsman,’ was his comment, ‘but,’ and he held out his hand, ‘you look sick, and there is a fellowship in sickness not to be denied.’ I said I was not strong, and had come to the Island on account of my health. ‘Well, then,’ replied Mr Stevenson, ‘it shall be my business to help you to get well; come to Vailima whenever you like, and if I am out, ask for refreshment, and wait until I come in, you will always find a welcome there.’”

At this point my informant turned away, and there was a break in his voice as he exclaimed, “Ah, the years go on, and I don’t miss him less, but more; next to my mother he was the best friend I ever had: a man with a heart of gold; his house was a second home to me.”

Stevenson’s experience shows how easy it is with a certain type of man, to restore the old feudal conditions of service and relationship. Stevenson did this in essentials in Samoa. He tells us how he managed to get good service out of the Samoans (who are accredited with great unwillingness to work); and this he DID by firm, but generous, kindly, almost brotherly treatment, reviving, as it were, a kind of clan life — giving a livery of certain colours — symbol of all this. A little fellow of eight, he tells, had been taken into the household, made a pet of by Mrs Strong, his stepdaughter, and had had a dress given to him, like that of the men; and, when one day he had strolled down by himself as far as the hotel, and the master of it, seeing him, called out in Samoan, “Hi, youngster, who are you?” The eight-year-old replied, “Why, don’t you see for yourself? I am one of the Vailima men!”

The story of the ROAD OF THE LOVING HEART was but another fine attestation of it.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter11.html

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