Vailima Letters, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter X

My Dear Colvin, — Yours from Lochinver has just come. You ask me if I am ever homesick for the Highlands and the Isles. Conceive that for the last month I have been living there between 1786 and 1850, in my grandfather’s diaries and letters. I had to take a rest; no use talking; so I put in a month over my lives of the Stevensons with great pleasure and profit and some advance; one chapter and a part drafted. The whole promises well Chapter I. Domestic Annals. Chapter II. The Northern Lights. Chapter III. The Bell Rock. Chapter IV. A Family of Boys. Chap. V. The Grandfather. VI. Alan Stevenson. VII. Thomas Stevenson. My materials for my great-grandfather are almost null; for my grandfather copious and excellent. Name, a puzzle. A Scottish Family, A Family of Engineers, Northern Lights, The Engineers of the Northern Lights: a Family History. Advise; but it will take long. Now, imagine if I have been homesick for Barrahead and Island Glass, and Kirkwall, and Cape Wrath, and the Wells of the Pentland Firth; I could have wept.

Now for politics. I am much less alarmed; I believe the Malo (=Raj, government) will collapse and cease like an overlain infant, without a shot fired. They have now been months here on their big salaries — and Cedarcrantz, whom I specially like as a man, has done nearly nothing, and the Baron, who is well-meaning, has done worse. They have these large salaries, and they have all the taxes; they have made scarce a foot of road; they have not given a single native a position — all to white men; they have scarce laid out a penny on Apia, and scarce a penny on the King; they have forgot they were in Samoa, or that such a thing as Samoans existed, and had eyes and some intelligence. The Chief Justice has refused to pay his customs! The President proposed to have an expensive house built for himself, while the King, his master, has none! I had stood aside, and been a loyal, and, above all, a silent subject, up to then; but now I snap my fingers at their Malo. It is damned, and I’m damned glad of it. And this is not all. Last ‘Wainiu,’ when I sent Fanny off to Fiji, I hear the wonderful news that the Chief Justice is going to Fiji and the Colonies to improve his mind. I showed my way of thought to his guest, Count Wachtmeister, whom I have sent to you with a letter — he will tell you all the news. Well, the Chief Justice stayed, but they said he was to leave yesterday. I had intended to go down, and see and warn him! But the President’s house had come up in the meanwhile, and I let them go to their doom, which I am only anxious to see swiftly and (if it may be) bloodlessly fall.

Thus I have in a way withdrawn my unrewarded loyalty. Lloyd is down today with Moors to call on Mataafa; the news of the excursion made a considerable row in Apia, and both the German and the English consuls besought Lloyd not to go. But he stuck to his purpose, and with my approval. It’s a poor thing if people are to give up a pleasure party for a Malo that has never done anything for us but draw taxes, and is going to go pop, and leave us at the mercy of the identical Mataafa, whom I have not visited for more than a year, and who is probably furious.

The sense of my helplessness here has been rather bitter; I feel it wretched to see this dance of folly and injustice and unconscious rapacity go forward from day to day, and to be impotent. I was not consulted — or only by one man, and that on particular points; I did not choose to volunteer advice till some pressing occasion; I have not even a vote, for I am not a member of the municipality.

What ails you, miserable man, to talk of saving material? I have a whole world in my head, a whole new society to work, but I am in no hurry; you will shortly make the acquaintance of the Island of Ulufanua, on which I mean to lay several stories; the bloody Wedding, possibly the High Woods — (O, it’s so good, the High Woods, but the story is craziness; that’s the trouble,) — a political story, the labour slave, etc. Ulufanua is an imaginary island; the name is a beautiful Samoan word for the top of a forest; ulu — leaves or hair, fanua=land. The ground or country of the leaves. ‘Ulufanua the isle of the sea,’ read that verse dactylically and you get the beat; the u’s are like our double oo; did ever you hear a prettier word?

I do not feel inclined to make a volume of Essays, but if I did, and perhaps the idea is good — and any idea is better than South Seas — here would be my choice of the Scribner articles: Dreams, Beggars, Lantern-Bearers, Random Memories. There was a paper called the Old Pacific Capital in Fraser, in Tulloch’s time, which had merit; there were two on Fontainebleau in the Magazine of Art in Henley’s time. I have no idea if they’re any good; then there’s the Emigrant Train. Pulvis Et Umbra is in a different key, and wouldn’t hang on with the rest.

I have just interrupted my letter and read through the chapter of the High Woods that is written, a chapter and a bit, some sixteen pages, really very fetching, but what do you wish? the story is so wilful, so steep, so silly — it’s a hallucination I have outlived, and yet I never did a better piece of work, horrid, and pleasing, and extraordinarily true; it’s sixteen pages of the South Seas; their essence. What am I to do? Lose this little gem — for I’ll be bold, and that’s what I think it — or go on with the rest, which I don’t believe in, and don’t like, and which can never make aught but a silly yarn? Make another end to it? Ah, yes, but that’s not the way I write; the whole tale is implied; I never use an effect, when I can help it, unless it prepares the effects that are to follow; that’s what a story consists in. To make another end, that is to make the beginning all wrong. The denouement of a long story is nothing; it is just a ‘full close,’ which you may approach and accompany as you please — it is a coda, not an essential member in the rhythm; but the body and end of a short story is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the beginning. Well, I shall end by finishing it against my judgment; that fragment is my Delilah. Golly, it’s good. I am not shining by modesty; but I do just love the colour and movement of that piece so far as it goes.

I was surprised to hear of your fishing. And you saw the ‘Pharos,’ thrice fortunate man; I wish I dared go home, I would ask the Commissioners to take me round for old sake’s sake, and see all my family pictures once more from the Mull of Galloway to Unst. However, all is arranged for our meeting in Ceylon, except the date and the blooming pounds. I have heard of an exquisite hotel in the country, airy, large rooms, good cookery, not dear; we shall have a couple of months there, if we can make it out, and converse or — as my grandfather always said — ‘commune.’ ‘Communings with Mr. Kennedy as to Lighthouse Repairs.’ He was a fine old fellow, but a droll.


Lloyd has returned. Peace and war were played before his eyes at heads or tails. A German was stopped with levelled guns; he raised his whip; had it fallen, we might have been now in war. Excuses were made by Mataafa himself. Doubtless the thing was done — I mean the stopping of the German — a little to show off before Lloyd. Meanwhile — was up here, telling how the Chief Justice was really gone for five or eight weeks, and begging me to write to the Times and denounce the state of affairs; many strong reasons he advanced; and Lloyd and I have been since his arrival and —‘s departure, near half an hour, debating what should be done. Cedarcrantz is gone; it is not my fault; he knows my views on that point — alone of all points; — he leaves me with my mouth sealed. Yet this is a nice thing that because he is guilty of a fresh offence — his flight — the mouth of the only possible influential witness should be closed? I do not like this argument. I look like a cad, if I do in the man’s absence what I could have done in a more manly manner in his presence. True; but why did he go? It is his last sin. And I, who like the man extremely — that is the word — I love his society — he is intelligent, pleasant, even witty, a gentleman — and you know how that attaches — I loathe to seem to play a base part; but the poor natives — who are like other folk, false enough, lazy enough, not heroes, not saints — ordinary men damnably misused — are they to suffer because I like Cedarcrantz, and Cedarcrantz has cut his lucky? This is a little tragedy, observe well — a tragedy! I may be right, I may be wrong in my judgment, but I am in treaty with my honour. I know not how it will seem tomorrow. Lloyd thought the barrier of honour insurmountable, and it is an ugly obstacle. He (Cedarcrantz) will likely meet my wife three days from now, may travel back with her, will be charming if he does; suppose this, and suppose him to arrive and find that I have sprung a mine — or the nearest approach to it I could find — behind his back? My position is pretty. Yes, I am an aristocrat. I have the old petty, personal view of honour? I should blush till I die if I do this; yet it is on the cards that I may do it. So much I have written you in bed, as a man writes, or talks, in a bittre Wahl. Now I shall sleep, and see if I am more clear. I will consult the missionaries at least — I place some reliance in M. also — or I should if he were not a partisan; but a partisan he is. There’s the pity. To sleep! A fund of wisdom in the prostrate body and the fed brain. Kindly observe R. L. S. in the talons of politics! ’Tis funny — ’tis sad. Nobody but these cursed idiots could have so driven me; I cannot bear idiots.

My dear Colvin, I must go to sleep; it is long past ten — a dreadful hour for me. And here am I lingering (so I feel) in the dining-room at the Monument, talking to you across the table, both on our feet, and only the two stairs to mount, and get to bed, and sleep, and be waked by dear old George — to whom I wish my kindest remembrances — next morning. I look round, and there is my blue room, and my long lines of shelves, and the door gaping on a moonless night, and no word of S. C. but his twa portraits on the wall. Good-bye, my dear fellow, and goodnight. Queer place the world!


No clearness of mind with the morning; I have no guess what I should do. ’Tis easy to say that the public duty should brush aside these little considerations of personal dignity; so it is that politicians begin, and in a month you find them rat and flatter and intrigue with brows of brass. I am rather of the old view, that a man’s first duty is to these little laws; the big he does not, he never will, understand; I may be wrong about the Chief Justice and the Baron and the state of Samoa; I cannot be wrong about the vile attitude I put myself in if I blow the gaff on Cedarcrantz behind his back.


One more word about the South Seas, in answer to a question I observe I have forgotten to answer. The Tahiti part has never turned up, because it has never been written. As for telling you where I went or when, or anything about Honolulu, I would rather die; that is fair and plain. How can anybody care when or how I left Honolulu? A man of upwards of forty cannot waste his time in communicating matter of that indifference. The letters, it appears, are tedious; they would be more tedious still if I wasted my time upon such infantile and sucking-bottle details. If ever I put in any such detail, it is because it leads into something or serves as a transition. To tell it for its own sake, never! The mistake is all through that I have told too much; I had not sufficient confidence in the reader, and have overfed him; and here are you anxious to learn how I— O Colvin! Suppose it had made a book, all such information is given to one glance of an eye by a map with a little dotted line upon it. But let us forget this unfortunate affair.


Yesterday I went down to consult Clarke, who took the view of delay. Has he changed his mind already? I wonder: here at least is the news. Some little while back some men of Manono — what is Manono? — a Samoan rotten borough, a small isle of huge political importance, heaven knows why, where a handful of chiefs make half the trouble in the country. Some men of Manono (which is strong Mataafa) burned down the houses and destroyed the crops of some Malietoa neighbours. The President went there the other day and landed alone on the island, which (to give him his due) was plucky. Moreover, he succeeded in persuading the folks to come up and be judged on a particular day in Apia. That day they did not come; but did come the next, and, to their vast surprise, were given six months’ imprisonment and clapped in gaol. Those who had accompanied them cried to them on the streets as they were marched to prison, ‘Shall we rescue you?’ The condemned, marching in the hands of thirty men with loaded rifles, cried out ‘No’! And the trick was done. But it was ardently believed a rescue would be attempted; the gaol was laid about with armed men day and night; but there was some question of their loyalty, and the commandant of the forces, a very nice young beardless Swede, became nervous, and conceived a plan. How if he should put dynamite under the gaol, and in case of an attempted rescue blow up prison and all? He went to the President, who agreed; he went to the American man-of-war for the dynamite and machine, was refused, and got it at last from the Wreckers. The thing began to leak out, and there arose a muttering in town. People had no fancy for amateur explosions, for one thing. For another, it did not clearly appear that it was legal; the men had been condemned to six months’ prison, which they were peaceably undergoing; they had not been condemned to death. And lastly, it seemed a somewhat advanced example of civilisation to set before barbarians. The mutter in short became a storm, and yesterday, while I was down, a cutter was chartered, and the prisoners were suddenly banished to the Tokelaus. Who has changed the sentence? We are going to stir in the dynamite matter; we do not want the natives to fancy us consenting to such an outrage.

Fanny has returned from her trip, and on the whole looks better. The High Woods are under way, and their name is now the Beach of Falesa, and the yarn is cured. I have about thirty pages of it done; it will be fifty to seventy I suppose. No supernatural trick at all; and escaped out of it quite easily; can’t think why I was so stupid for so long. Mighty glad to have Fanny back to this ‘Hell of the South Seas,’ as the German Captain called it. What will Cedarcrantz think when he comes back? To do him justice, had he been here, this Manono hash would not have been.

Here is a pretty thing. When Fanny was in Fiji all the Samoa and Tokelau folks were agog about our ‘flash’ house; but the whites had never heard of it.

Robert Louis Stevenson,
Author of The Beach of Falesa.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00