Vailima Letters, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter XVII

My Dear S. C., — Take it not amiss if this is a wretched letter. I am eaten up with business. Every day this week I have had some business impediment — I am even now waiting a deputation of chiefs about the road — and my precious morning was shattered by a polite old scourge of a Faipule — parliament man — come begging. All the time DaviD.Balfour is skelping along. I began it the 13th of last month; I have now 12 chapters, 79 pages ready for press, or within an ace, and, by the time the month is out, one-half should be completed, and I’ll be back at drafting the second half. What makes me sick is to think of Scott turning out Guy Mannering in three weeks! What a pull of work: heavens, what thews and sinews! And here am I, my head spinning from having only re-written seven not very difficult pages — and not very good when done. Weakling generation. It makes me sick of myself, to make such a fash and bobbery over a rotten end of an old nursery yarn, not worth spitting on when done. Still, there is no doubt I turn out my work more easily than of yore, and I suppose I should be singly glad of that. And if I got my book done in six weeks, seeing it will be about half as long as a Scott, and I have to write everything twice, it would be about the same rate of industry. It is my fair intention to be done with it in three months, which would make me about one-half the man Sir Walter was for application and driving the dull pen. Of the merit we shall not talk; but I don’t think Davie is Without merit.

March 12th.

And I have this day triumphantly finished 15 chapters, 100 pages — being exactly one-half (as near as anybody can guess) of DaviD.Balfour; the book to be about a fifth as long again (altogether) as Treasure Island: could I but do the second half in another month! But I can’t, I fear; I shall have some belated material arriving by next mail, and must go again at the History. Is it not characteristic of my broken tenacity of mind, that I should have left Davie Balfour some five years in the British Linen Company’s Office, and then follow him at last with such vivacity? But I leave you again; the last (15th) chapter ought to be re-wrote, or part of it, and I want the half completed in the month, and the month is out by midnight; though, to be sure, last month was February, and I might take grace. These notes are only to show I hold you in mind, though I know they can have no interest for man or God or animal.

I should have told you about the Club. We have been asked to try and start a sort of weekly ball for the half-castes and natives, ourselves to be the only whites; and we consented, from a very heavy sense of duty, and with not much hope. Two nights ago we had twenty people up, received them in the front verandah, entertained them on cake and lemonade, and I made a speech — embodying our proposals, or conditions, if you like — for I suppose thirty minutes. No joke to speak to such an audience, but it is believed I was thoroughly intelligible. I took the plan of saying everything at least twice in a different form of words, so that if the one escaped my hearers, the other might be seized. One white man came with his wife, and was kept rigorously on the front verandah below! You see what a sea of troubles this is like to prove; but it is the only chance — and when it blows up, it must blow up! I have no more hope in anything than a dead frog; I go into everything with a composed despair, and don’t mind — just as I always go to sea with the conviction I am to be drowned, and like it before all other pleasures. But you should have seen the return voyage, when nineteen horses had to be found in the dark, and nineteen bridles, all in a drench of rain, and the club, just constituted as such, sailed away in the wet, under a cloudy moon like a bad shilling, and to descend a road through the forest that was at that moment the image of a respectable mountain brook. My wife, who is president with power to expel, had to begin her functions . . . .

25TH March.

Heaven knows what day it is, but I am ashamed, all the more as your letter from Bournemouth of all places — poor old Bournemouth! — is to hand, and contains a statement of pleasure in my letters which I wish I could have rewarded with a long one. What has gone on? A vast of affairs, of a mingled, strenuous, inconclusive, desultory character; much waste of time, much riding to and fro, and little transacted or at least peracted.

Let me give you a review of the present state of our live stock. — Six boys in the bush; six souls about the house. Talolo, the cook, returns again today, after an absence which has cost me about twelve hours of riding, and I suppose eight hours’ solemn sitting in council. ‘I am sorry indeed for the Chief Justice of Samoa,’ I said; ‘it is more than I am fit for to be Chief Justice of Vailima.’ — Lauilo is steward. Both these are excellent servants; we gave a luncheon party when we buried the Samoan bones, and I assure you all was in good style, yet we never interfered. The food was good, the wine and dishes went round as by mechanism. — Steward’s assistant and washman Arrick, a New Hebridee black boy, hired from the German firm; not so ugly as most, but not pretty neither; not so dull as his sort are, but not quite a Crichton. When he came first, he ate so much of our good food that he got a prominent belly. Kitchen assistant, Tomas (Thomas in English), a Fiji man, very tall and handsome, moving like a marionette with sudden bounds, and rolling his eyes with sudden effort. — Washerwoman and precentor, Helen, Tomas’s wife. This is our weak point; we are ashamed of Helen; the cook-house blushes for her; they murmur there at her presence. She seems all right; she is not a bad-looking, strapping wench, seems chaste, is industrious, has an excellent taste in hymns — you should have heard her read one aloud the other day, she marked the rhythm with so much gloating, dissenter sentiment. What is wrong, then? says you. Low in your ear — and don’t let the papers get hold of it — she is of no family. None, they say; literally a common woman. Of course, we have out-islanders, who may be villeins; but we give them the benefit of the doubt, which is impossible with Helen of Vailima; our blot, our pitted speck. The pitted speck I have said is our precentor. It is always a woman who starts Samoan song; the men who sing second do not enter for a bar or two. Poor, dear Faauma, the unchaste, the extruded Eve of our Paradise, knew only two hymns; but Helen seems to know the whole repertory, and the morning prayers go far more lively in consequence. — Lafaele, provost of the cattle. The cattle are Jack, my horse, quite converted, my wife rides him now, and he is as steady as a doctor’s cob; Tifaga Jack, a circus horse, my mother’s piebald, bought from a passing circus; Belle’s mare, now in childbed or next door, confound the slut! Musu — amusingly translated the other day ‘don’t want to,’ literally cross, but always in the sense of stubbornness and resistance — my wife’s little dark-brown mare, with a white star on her forehead, whom I have been riding of late to steady her — she has no vices, but is unused, skittish and uneasy, and wants a lot of attention and humouring; lastly (of saddle horses) Luna — not the Latin moon, the Hawaiian Overseer, but it’s pronounced the same — a pretty little mare too, but scarce at all broken, a bad bucker, and has to be ridden with a stock-whip and be brought back with her rump criss-crossed like a clan tartan; the two cart horses, now only used with pack-saddles; two cows, one in the straw (I trust) tomorrow, a third cow, the Jersey — whose milk and temper are alike subjects of admiration — she gives good exercise to the farming saunterer, and refreshes him on his return with cream; two calves, a bull, and a cow; God knows how many ducks and chickens, and for a wager not even God knows how many cats; twelve horses, seven horses, five kine: is not this Babylon the Great which I have builded? Call it Subpriorsford.

Two nights ago the club had its first meeting; only twelve were present, but it went very well. I was not there, I had ridden down the night before after dinner on my endless business, took a cup of tea in the Mission like an ass, then took a cup of coffee like a fool at Haggard’s, then fell into a discussion with the American Consul . . . I went to bed at Haggard’s, came suddenly broad awake, and lay sleepless the live night. It fell chill, I had only a sheet, and had to make a light and range the house for a cover — I found one in the hall, a macintosh. So back to my sleepless bed, and to lie there till dawn. In the morning I had a longish ride to take in a day of a blinding, staggering sun, and got home by eleven, our luncheon hour, with my head rather swimmy; the only time I have feared the sun since I was in Samoa. However, I got no harm, but did not go to the club, lay off, lazied, played the pipe, and read — a novel by James Payn — sometimes quite interesting, and in one place really very funny with the quaint humour of the man. Much interested the other day. As I rode past a house, I saw where a Samoan had written a word on a board, and there was an A, perfectly formed, but upside down. You never saw such a thing in Europe; but it is as common as dirt in Polynesia. Men’s names are tattooed on the forearm; it is common to find a subverted letter tattooed there. Here is a tempting problem for psychologists.

I am now on terms again with the German Consulate, I know not for how long; not, of course, with the President, which I find a relief; still, with the Chief Justice and the English Consul. For Haggard, I have a genuine affection; he is a loveable man.

Wearyful man! ‘Here is the yarn of Loudon Dodd, not as he told it, but as it was afterwards written.’ These words were left out by some carelessness, and I think I have been thrice tackled about them. Grave them in your mind and wear them on your forehead.

The Lang story will have very little about the treasure; The Master will appear; and it is to a great extent a tale of Prince Charlie after the ‘45, and a love story forbye: the hero is a melancholy exile, and marries a young woman who interests the prince, and there is the devil to pay. I think the Master kills him in a duel, but don’t know yet, not having yet seen my second heroine. No — the Master doesn’t kill him, they fight, he is wounded, and the Master plays deus ex machina. I think just now of calling it The Tail of the Race; no — heavens! I never saw till this moment — but of course nobody but myself would ever understand Mill-Race, they would think of a quarter-mile. So — I am nameless again. My melancholy young man is to be quite a Romeo. Yes, I’ll name the book from him: Dyce of Ythan — pronounce Eethan.

Dyce of Ythan
by R. L. S.

O, Shovel — Shovel waits his turn, he and his ancestors. I would have tackled him before, but my State Trials have never come. So that I have now quite planned:-

Dyce of Ythan. (Historical, 1750.)
Sophia Scarlet. (To-day.)
The Shovels of Newton French. (Historical, 1650 to 1830.)

And quite planned and part written:-

The Pearl Fisher. (To-day.) (With Lloyd a machine.)
David Balfour. (Historical, 1751.)

And, by a strange exception for R. L. S., all in the third person except D. B.

I don’t know what day this is now (the 29th), but I have finished my two chapters, ninth and tenth, of Samoa in time for the mail, and feel almost at peace. The tenth was the hurricane, a difficult problem; it so tempted one to be literary; and I feel sure the less of that there is in my little handbook, the more chance it has of some utility. Then the events are complicated, seven ships to tell of, and sometimes three of them together; O, it was quite a job. But I think I have my facts pretty correct, and for once, in my sickening yarn, they are handsome facts: creditable to all concerned; not to be written of — and I should think, scarce to be read — without a thrill. I doubt I have got no hurricane into it, the intricacies of the yarn absorbing me too much. But there — it’s done somehow, and time presses hard on my heels. The book, with my best expedition, may come just too late to be of use. In which case I shall have made a handsome present of some months of my life for nothing and to nobody. Well, through Her the most ancient heavens are fresh and strong.


After I had written you, I re-read my hurricane, which is very poor; the life of the journalist is hard, another couple of writings and I could make a good thing, I believe, and it must go as it is! But, of course, this book is not written for honour and glory, and the few who will read it may not know the difference. Very little time. I go down with the mail shortly, dine at the Chinese restaurant, and go to the club to dance with islandresses. Think of my going out once a week to dance.

Politics are on the full job again, and we don’t know what is to come next. I think the whole treaty Raj seems quite played out! They have taken to bribing the Faipule men (parliament men) to stay in Mulinuu, we hear; but I have not yet sifted the rumour. I must say I shall be scarce surprised if it prove true; these rumours have the knack of being right. — Our weather this last month has been tremendously hot, not by the thermometer, which sticks at 86 degrees, but to the sensation: no rain, no wind, and this the storm month. It looks ominous, and is certainly disagreeable.

No time to finish,
Yours ever,
R. L. S.

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