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An essay by Morley Roberts

A Visit To R. L. Stevenson

Title:     A Visit To R. L. Stevenson
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

It was late in May or early in June, for I cannot now remember the exact date, that I landed in Apia, in the island of Upolu. Naturally enough that island was not to me so much the centre of Anglo-American and German rivalries as the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, then become the literary deity of the Pacific. In a dozen shops in Honolulu I had seen little plaster busts of him; here and there I came across his photograph. And I had a theory about him to put to the test. Though I was not, and am not, one of those who rage against over-great praise, when there is any true foundation for it, I had never been able to understand the laudation of which he was the subject. At that time, and until the fragment of _Weir of Hermiston_ was given to the world, nothing but his one short story about the thief and poet, Villon, had seemed to me to be really great, really to command or even to be an excuse for his being in the position in which his critics had placed him. Yet I had read _The Wrecker_, _The Ebb Tide_, _The Beach of Falesa_, _Kidnapped_, _Catriona_, _The Master of Ballantrae_, and the _New Arabian Nights_. I came to the conclusion that, as most of the organic chorus of approval came from men who knew him, he must be (as all writers, I think, should be) immeasurably greater than his books. I was prepared then for a personality, and I found it. When his name is mentioned I no longer think of any of his works, but of a sweet-eyed, thin, brown ghost of a man whom I first saw upon horseback in a grove of cocoanut palms by the sounding surges of a tropic sea. There are writers, and not a few of them, whose work it is a pleasure to read, while it is a pain to know them, a disappointment, almost an unhappiness, to be in their disillusioning company. They have given the best to the world. Robert Louis Stevenson never gave his best, for his best was himself.

At any time of the year the Navigator Islands are truly tropical, and whether the sun inclines towards Cancer or Capricorn, Apia is a bath of warm heat. As soon as the _Monowai_ dropped her anchor inside the opening of the reef that forms the only decent harbour in all the group, I went ashore in haste. Our time was short, but three or four hours, and I could afford neither the time nor the money to stay there till the next steamer. I had much to do in Australia, and was not a little exercised in mind as to how I should ever be able to get round the world at all unless I once more shipped before the mast. I was, in fact, so hard put to it in the matter of cash, that when the hotel-keeper asked three dollars for a pony on which to ride to Vailima, I refused to pay it, and went away believing that after all I should not see him whom I most desired to meet. Yet it was possible, if not likely, that he would come down to visit the one fortnightly link with the great world from which he was an exile. I had to trust to chance, and in the meantime walked the long street of Apia and viewed the Samoans, whom he so loved, with vivid interest. These people, riven and torn by internal dissensions between Mataafa and Malietoa, and honeycombed by Anglo-American and German intrigue, were the most interesting and the noblest that I had met since I foregathered for a time with a wandering band of Blackfeet Indians close to Calgary beneath the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. Their dress, their customs, and their free and noble carriage, yet unspoiled by civilisation, appealed to me greatly. I could understand as I saw them walk how Stevenson delighted in them. Man and woman alike looked me and the whole world in the face, and went by, proud, yet modest, and with the smile of a happy, unconquered race.

As I walked with half a dozen curious indifferents whom the hazards of travel had made my companions, we turned from the main road into the seclusion of a shaded group of palms, and as I went I saw coming towards me a mounted white man behind whom rode a native. As he came nearer I looked at him without curiosity, for, as the time passed, I was becoming reconciled by all there was to see to the fact that I might not meet this exiled Scot. And yet, as he neared and passed me, I knew that I knew him, that he was familiar; and very presently I was aware that this sense of familiarity was not, as so often happens to a traveller, the awakened memory of a type. This was an individual and a personality. I stopped and stared after him, and suddenly roused myself. Surely this was Robert Louis Stevenson, and this his man. So might the ghosts of Crusoe and Friday pass one on the shore of Juan Fernandez.

I called the "boy" and gave him my card, and asked him to overtake his master. In another moment my literary apparition, this chief among the Samoans, was shaking hands with me. He alighted from his horse, and we walked together towards the town. I fell a victim to him, and forgot that he wrote. His writings were what packed dates might be to one who sat for the first time under a palm in some far oasis; they were but ice in a tumbler compared with seracs. He was first a man, and then a writer. The pitiful opposite is too common.

I think, indeed I am sure, for I know he could not lie, that he was pleased to see me. What I represented to him then I hardly reckoned at the time, but I was a messenger from the great world of men; I moved close to the heart of things; I was fresh from San Francisco, from New York, from London. He spoke like an exile, but one not discouraged. Though his physique was of the frailest (I had noted with astonishment that his thigh as he sat on horseback was hardly thicker than my forearm), he was alert and gently eager. That soft, brown eye which held me was full of humour, of pathos, of tenderness, yet I could imagine it capable of indignation and of power. It might be that his body was dying, but his mind was young, elastic, and unspoiled by selfishness or affectation. He had his regrets; they concerned the Samoans greatly.

"Had I come here fifteen years ago I might have ruled these islands."

He imagined it possible that international intrigue might not have flourished under him. Never had I seen so fragile a man who would be king. He owned, with a shyly comic glance, that he had leanings towards buccaneering. The man of action, were he but some shaggy-bearded shellback, appealed to him. His own physique was his apology for being merely a writer of novels.

We went on board the steamer, and at his request I bade a steward show his faithful henchman over her. In the meantime we sat in the saloon and drank "soft" drinks. It pleased him to talk, and he spoke fluently in a voice that was musical. He touched a hundred subjects; he developed a theory of matriarchy. Men loved to steal; women were naturally receivers. They adored property; their minds ran on possession; they were domestic materialists. We talked of socialism, of Bully Hayes, of Royat, of Rudyard Kipling. He regretted greatly not having seen the author of _Plain Tales from the Hills_.

"He was once coming here. Even now I believe there is mail-matter of his rotting at the post-office."

I asked him to accept a book I had brought from England, hoping to be able to give it to him. It was the only book of mine that I thought worthy of his acceptance. That he knew it pleased me. But he always desired to please, and pleased without any effort. When the boy came back from viewing the internal arrangements of the _Monowai_, he sat down with us as a free warrior. He was more a friend than a servant; Stevenson treated him as the head of a clan in his old home might treat a worthy follower. As there was yet an hour before the vessel sailed I went on shore with him again. We were rowed there by a Samoan in a waistcloth. His head was whitened by the lime which many of the natives use to bleach their dark locks to a fashionable red.

The air was hot and the sea glittered under an intense sun. The rollers from the roadstead broke upon the reef. The outer ocean was a very wonderful tropic blue; inside the reefs the water was calmer, greener, more unlike anything that can be seen in northern latitudes. A little island inside the lagoon glared with red rock in the sunlight; cocoanut palms adorned it gracefully; beyond again was the deeper blue of ocean; the island itself, a mass of foliage, melted beautifully into the lucid atmosphere. Yonder, said Stevenson, lay Vailima that I was not to see. But I had seen the island and the man, and the natural colour and glory of both.

As we went ashore he handed the book which I had given him to his follower. He thought it necessary to explain to me that etiquette demanded that no chief should carry anything. And etiquette was rigid there.

"Mrs Grundy," he remarked, "is essentially a savage institution."

We went together to the post-office. And in the street outside, while many passed and greeted "Tusitala" in the soft, native speech, we parted. I saw him ride away, and saw him wave his hand to me as he turned once more into the dark grove wherein I had met him in the year of his death.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Visit To R. L. Stevenson