Stevenson at Vailima
by Edwin Watts Chubb
Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer of Treasure Island and many other
exciting romances, was an exile from home during the last few years of
his life. The state of his health demanded a sunny clime and so he was
forced to live in Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific.
About three miles behind Apia, on a slight plateau seven hundred feet
above the level of the sea, he cleared the forest and made a house. "I
have chosen the land to be my land, the people to be my people, to
live and die with," said Stevenson in his speech to the Samoan chiefs.
Mr. Lloyd Osbourne, his step-son, thus describes their abode:
"Unbroken forest covered Vailima when first we saw it; not the forest
of the temperate zone with its varied glades and open spaces, but the
thick tangle of the tropics, dense, dark, and cold in even the hottest
day, where one must walk cutlass in hand to slash the lianas and the
red-edged stinging leaves of a certain tree that continually bar one's
path. The murmur of streams and cascades fell sometimes upon our ears
as we wandered in the deep shade, and mingled with the cooing of wild
doves and the mysterious, haunting sound of a native woodpecker at
work. Our Chinaman, who was with us on our first survey, busied
himself with taking samples of the soil, and grew almost incoherent
with the richness of what he called the 'dirty.' We, for our part,
were no less enchanted with what we saw, and could realize, as we
forced our way through the thickets and skirted the deep ravines, what
a noble labor lay before our axes, what exquisite views and glorious
gardens could be carved out of the broken mountain side and the sullen
As Stevenson was afraid that villas might be made to intervene between
him and the sea, he bought much land that his view might be forever
unobstructed. He entered into the work of clearing the forest with
vigorous delight. For months he lived in pioneer confusion. Gangs of
native workmen worked from morning to night.
"The new house was built," says Mr. Osbourne; "I arrived from England
with the furniture, the library, and other effects of our old home;
the phase of hard work and short commons passed gradually away, and a
form of hollow comfort dawned upon us. I say hollow comfort, for
though we began to accumulate cows, horses, and the general apparatus
of civilized life, the question of service became a vexing one. An
expensive German cooked our meals and quarreled with the white
house-maid; the white overseer said 'that manual labor was the one
thing that never agreed with him,' and that it was an unwholesome
thing for a man to be awakened in the early morning, 'for one ought to
wake up natural-like,' he explained. The white carter 'couldn't bear
with niggers,' and though he did his work well and faithfully, he
helped to demoralize the place and loosen discipline. Everything was
at sixes and sevens, when, on the occasion of Mrs. Stevenson's going
to Fiji for a few months' rest, my sister and I took charge of
affairs. The expensive German was bidden to depart; Mr. Stevenson
discharged the carter; the white overseer (who was tied to us by
contract) was bought off in cold coin, to sleep out his 'natural
sleep' under a kindlier star and to engage himself (presumably) in
intellectual labors elsewhere. There are two sides to 'white
slavery'—that cherished expression of the labor agitator—and with
the departure of our tyrants we began again to raise our diminished
heads. My sister and I threw ourselves into the kitchen, and took up
the labor of cooking with zeal and determination; the domestic
boundaries proved too narrow for our new-found energies, and we
overflowed into the province of entertainment, with decorated menus,
silver plate and finger-bowls! The aristocracy of Apia was pressed to
lunch with us, to commend our independence and to eat our biscuits. It
was a French Revolution in miniature; we danced the carmagnole in the
kitchen and were prepared to conquer the Samoan social world. One
morning, before the ardor and zest of it all had time to be dulled by
custom, I happened to discover a young and very handsome Samoan on our
back veranda. He was quite a dandified youngster, with a red flower
behind his ear and his hair limed in the latest fashion. I liked his
open, attractive face and his unembarrassed manner, and inquired what
propitious fate had brought him to sit upon our ice-chest and radiate
good nature on our back porch. It seemed that Simele, the overseer,
owed him two Chile dollars, and that he was here, bland, friendly, but
insistent, to collect the debt in person. That Simele would not be
back for hours in no way daunted him, and he seemed prepared to swing
his brown legs and show his white teeth for a whole eternity.
"'Chief,' I said, a sudden thought striking me, 'you are he that I
have been looking for so long. You are going to stay in Vailima and be
"'But I don't know how to cook,' he replied.
"'That is no matter,' I said. 'Two months ago I was as you; to-day I
am a splendid cook. I will teach you my skill.'
"'But I don't want to learn,' he said, and brought back the
conversation to Chile dollars.
"'There is no good making excuses,' I said. 'This is a psychological
moment in the history of Vailima. You are the Man of Destiny.'
"'But I haven't my box,' he expostulated.
"'I will send for it,' I returned. 'I would not lose you for twenty
boxes. If you need clothes, why there stands my own chest; flowers
grow in profusion and the oil-bottle rests never empty beside my
humble bed; and in the hot hours of the afternoon there is the
beautifulest pool where one can bathe and wash one's lovely hair.
Moreover, so generous are the regulations of Tusitala's (Stevenson's)
government that his children receive weekly large sums of money, and
they are allowed on Sundays to call their friends to this elegant
house and entertain them with salt beef and biscuit.'
"Thus was Taalolo introduced into the Vailima kitchen, never to leave
it for four years save when the war-drum called him to the front with
a six-shooter and a 'death-tooth'—the Samoan war-cutlass or
head-knife. He became in time not only an admirable chef, but the
nucleus of the whole native establishment and the loyalest of our
whole Samoan family. His coming was the turning-point in the history
of the house. We had achieved independence of our white masters, and
their discontented white faces had disappeared one by one. Honest
brown ones now took their places and we gained more than good servants
by the change."
The following incident illustrates the high regard in which Stevenson
was held by the native Samoans. When Mataafa, a claimant for the
throne of Upolo, was imprisoned by the European powers, Stevenson
visited him in prison and gave him tobacco and other gifts to cheer
the disconsolate chief. He also visited other prisoners who had sided
in the affairs of Mataafa. When they were released they wished to show
their gratitude in some tangible way. So they built a fine wide road
to the home of the famous writer, a work which they disliked but which
their love for Stevenson enabled them to accomplish. They called it
"The Road of the Loving-Heart." Once when his favorite body-servant,
Sosimo, had anticipated some of his master's wants and Stevenson had
complimented him with, "Great is the wisdom!" "Nay," replied Sosimo
with truer insight, "Great is the Love!"
Stevenson's manner of life at Vailima was somewhat like this: At six
o'clock or earlier he arose and began the day's work. By dawn the
rest of the household were up, and at about eight his wife's daughter
began to take his dictation, working from then until noon. The
afternoons were usually spent in some form of recreation—riding was a
favorite pastime. He was fond of strolling through the tropical
forest, and of taking part in any of the numerous outdoor sports.
However, when he was in the height of literary inspiration, he stayed
at his desk all day long.
On Sunday evening the household was always called together for
prayers; a chapter was read from the Samoan Bible, Samoan hymns were
sung and one of Stevenson's own beautiful prayers, one usually written
for the occasion, was read, concluding with the Lord's Prayer in the
tongue of the natives. In the dominant note of these prayers, the call
for courage and cheerfulness, one can hear the cry of the dying
Stevenson's need: "The day returns and brings us the petty round of
irritating concerns and duties. Help us to play the man, help us to
perform them with laughter and kind faces, let cheerfulness abound
with industry.... Give us health, food, bright weather, and light
hearts.... As the sun lightens the world, so let our loving-kindness
make bright the house of our habitation."
Stevenson died as he wished—in the midst of his work. After a day
spent in writing his Weir of Hermiston, a day full of life and
gayety, he suddenly fainted and died a short time afterwards. In the
prayer offered the evening before had been this sentence,—"When the
day returns, return to us our sun and comforter, and call us up with
morning faces and with morning hearts, eager to be happy, if
happiness shall be our portion—and if the day be marked for sorrow,
strong to endure it."
On the following morning a group of powerful Samoans bore the coffin
upon their shoulders to the summit of Mount Vaea, where it was the
wish of Mr. Stevenson that he should rest. One of the inscriptions
upon the tomb is his own noble 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 the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.