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

Chapter VII

The Vailima Letters

THE Vailima Letters, written to Mr Sidney Colvin and other friends, are in their way delightful if not inimitable: and this, in spite of the idea having occurred to him, that some use might hereafter be made of these letters for publication purposes. There is, indeed, as little trace of any change in the style through this as well could be — the utterly familiar, easy, almost child-like flow remains, unmarred by self-consciousness or tendency “to put it on.”

In June, 1892, Stevenson says:

“It came over me the other day suddenly that this diary of mine to you would make good pickings after I am dead, and a man could make some kind of a book out of it, without much trouble. So for God’s sake don’t lose them, and they will prove a piece of provision for ‘my floor old family,’ as Simele calls it.”

But their great charm remains: they are as free and gracious and serious and playful and informal as before. Stevenson’s traits of character are all here: his largeness of heart, his delicacy, his sympathy, his fun, his pathos, his boylike frolicsomeness, his fine courage, his love of the sea (for he was by nature a sailor), his passion for action and adventure despite his ill-health, his great patience with others and fine adaptability to their temper (he says that he never gets out of temper with those he has to do with), his unbounded, big-hearted hopefulness, and fine perseverance in face of difficulties. What could be better than the way in which he tells that in January, 1892, when he had a bout of influenza and was dictating ST IVES to his stepdaughter, Mrs Strong, he was “reduced to dictating to her in the deaf-and-dumb alphabet”? — and goes on:

“The amanuensis has her head quite turned, and believes herself to be the author of this novel [AND IS TO SOME EXTENT. — A.M.] and as the creature (!) has not been wholly useless in the matter [I TOLD YOU SO! — A.M.] I propose to foster her vanity by a little commemoration gift! . . . I shall tell you on some other occasion, and when the A.M. is out of hearing, how VERY much I propose to invest in this testimonial; but I may as well inform you at once that I intend it to be cheap, sir — damned cheap! My idea of running amanuenses is by praise, not pudding, flattery, and not coins.”

Truly, a rare and rich nature which could thus draw sunshine out of its trials! — which, by aid of the true philosopher’s stone of cheerfulness and courage, could transmute the heavy dust and clay to gold.

His interests are so wide that he is sometimes pulled in different and conflicting directions, as in the contest between his desire to aid Mataafa and the other chiefs, and his literary work — between letters to the TIMES about Samoan politics, and, say, DAVID BALFOUR. Here is a characteristic bit in that strain:

“I have a good dose of the devil in my pipestem atomy; I have had my little holiday outing in my kick at THE YOUNG CHEVALIER, and I guess I can settle to DAVID BALFOUR, to-morrow or Friday like a little man. I wonder if any one had ever more energy upon so little strength? I know there is a frost; . . . but I mean to break that frost inside two years, and pull off a big success, and Vanity whispers in my ear that I have the strength. If I haven’t, whistle owre the lave o’t! I can do without glory, and perhaps the time is not far off when I can do without corn. It is a time coming soon enough, anyway; and I have endured some two and forty years without public shame, and had a good time as I did it. If only I could secure a violent death, what a fine success! I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.”

He would not consent to act the invalid unless the spring ran down altogether; was keen for exercise and for mixing among men — his native servants if no others were near by. Here is a bit of confession and casuistry quite A LA Stevenson:

“To come down covered with mud and drenched with sweat and rain after some hours in the bush, change, rub down, and take a chair in the verandah, is to taste a quiet conscience. And the strange thing that I mark is this: If I go out and make sixpence, bossing my labourers and plying the cutlass or the spade, idiot conscience applauds me; if I sit in the house and make twenty pounds, idiot conscience wails over my neglect and the day wasted.”

His relish for companionship is indeed strong. At one place he says:

“God knows I don’t care who I chum with perhaps I like sailors best, but to go round and sue and sneak to keep a crowd together — never!”

If Stevenson’s natural bent was to be an explorer, a mountain- climber, or a sailor — to sail wide seas, or to range on mountain- tops to gain free and extensive views — yet he inclines well to farmer work, and indeed, has to confess it has a rare attraction for him.

“I went crazy over outdoor work,” he says at one place, “and had at last to confine myself to the house, or literature must have gone by the board. NOTHING is so interesting as weeding, clearing, and path-making: the oversight of labourers becomes a disease. It is quite an effort not to drop into the farmer; and it does make you feel so well.”

The odd ways of these Samoans, their pride of position, their vices, their virtues, their vanities, their small thefts, their tricks, their delightful INSOUCIANCE sometimes, all amused him. He found in them a fine field of study and observation — a source of fun and fund of humanity — as this bit about the theft of some piglings will sufficiently prove:

“Last night three piglings were stolen from one of our pig-pens. The great Lafaele appeared to my wife uneasy, so she engaged him in conversation on the subject, and played upon him the following engaging trick: You advance your two forefingers towards the sitter’s eyes; he closes them, whereupon you substitute (on his eyelids) the fore and middle fingers of the left hand, and with your right (which he supposes engaged) you tap him on the head and back. When you let him open his eyes, he sees you withdrawing the two forefingers. ‘What that?’ asked Lafaele. ‘My devil,’ says Fanny. ‘I wake um, my devil. All right now. He go catch the man that catch my pig.’ About an hour afterwards Lafaele came for further particulars. ‘Oh, all right,’ my wife says. ‘By-and-by that man be sleep, devil go sleep same place. By-and-by that man plenty sick. I no care. What for he take my pig?’ Lafaele cares plenty; I don’t think he is the man, though he may be; but he knows him, and most likely will eat some of that pig to-night. He will not eat with relish.’”

Yet in spite of this R. L. Stevenson declares that:

“They are a perfectly honest people: nothing of value has ever been taken from our house, where doors and windows are always wide open; and upon one occasion when white ants attacked the silver chest, the whole of my family treasure lay spread upon the floor of the hall for two days unguarded.”

Here is a bit on a work of peace, a reflection on a day’s weeding at Vailima — in its way almost as touching as any:

“I wonder if any one had ever the same attitude to Nature as I hold, and have held for so long? This business fascinates me like a tune or a passion; yet all the while I thrill with a strong distaste. The horror of the thing, objective and subjective, is always present to my mind; the horror of creeping things, a superstitious horror of the void and the powers about me, the horror of my own devastation and continual murders. The life of the plants comes through my finger-tips, their struggles go to my heart like supplications. I feel myself blood-boltered; then I look back on my cleared grass, and count myself an ally in a fair quarrel, and make stout my heart.”

Here, again, is the way in which he celebrates an act of friendly kindness on the part of Mr Gosse:

“MY DEAR GOSSE, — Your letter was to me such a bright spot that I answer it right away to the prejudice of other correspondents or — dants (don’t know how to spell it) who have prior claims. . . . It is the history of our kindnesses that alone makes this world tolerable. If it were not for that, for the effect of kind words, kind looks, kind letters, multiplying, spreading, making one happy through another and bringing forth benefits, some thirty, some fifty, some a thousandfold, I should be tempted to think our life a practical jest in the worst possible spirit. So your four pages have confirmed my philosophy as well as consoled my heart in these ill hours.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter7.html

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