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 forest."

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 our cook!'

"'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.