MR. STEVENSON'S LETTERS.*
EVER since it was announced that Mr. Stevenson's diary. letters, written from Samoa to Mr. Sidney Colvin, would be given to the world, the admirers of Mr. Stevenson have been pleasantly engaged in wondering whether or not their favourite author would prove to be among the great letter- writers, and whether we should have another volume added to that rare and delightful section of literature. At last we have got the Vailima Letters, and can judge the value of our
heritage. What is to be the verdict ? The present writer has no hesitation in describing himself as one of Mr. Stevenson's warmest admirers, and is moreover one who loves Mr. Steven- son best as a writer of familiar essays, and that is the side nearest to the diary-letter. Yet, if one must speak the exact truth, it appears to us impossible to say that we have a notable addition to the literature of letter-writing in the present volume. The work is full of charm, of brightness, of change- ful light and shadow and thick-coming fancies. Again, it is readable in a high degree, and will, we make no doubt, delight thousands of readers. But though the book is full of entertainment, and in no possible sense capable of injuring the writer's great reputation, we cannot rank it as high as we had hoped. The letters, that is, do not stand
anything like so high among letters as do Memories and Portraits or Virginibus Puerisque among essays, or With a Donkey in the Cevennes or The Amateur Emigrant in their special form of literature. The four books just named are each in its own way, perfect. No one can say of them, " Yes, very good, very pleasant, but so-and-so has done the same thing, and just a little better." The letters, on the other hand, though they are, as we have said, full of charm, and shot through with the quick and radiant genius of their author, do not sustain the same claim for inimitability.
With this reserve, we may enjoy undisturbed the delights of the island life which Mr. Stevenson unfolds to us. And first a word as to the high spirits and the boyish frankness and dash with which the book abounds. It is little short of a miracle that a man pressed by ill-health and by absence from his friends should have maintained so much youthfulness of heart. Most men of letters use their power over words to depict the troubles and worries of life, and confess
themselves on paper. Not so Mr. Stevenson ; he uses his gift of language to show us what a bright and pleasant place the earth is, and how full of what is beautiful and alluring. In his "Child's Garden of Verses" Mr. Stevenson makes his "mad little poet" say :— "The world is so full of a number of things That I think we should all be as happy as kings."
We hear the refrain as we turn the pages of the Vailima Letters. Though, of course, Mr. Stevenson had his worries and moments of depression like the rest of mankind, the
enduring strain is delight in the number of things with which the world is filled. That the mood was genuine,
and not forced or assumed, no one can doubt who reads these outpourings to his friend. Some men of letters have, doubtless, pretended to enjoy better spirits than they really possessed,—have whistled like boys going through a church- yard, to show that they felt no chill or depression. Mr. Stevenson's pleasure in life was, however, perfectly sincere. Take, as an example of his good-hearted pleasure in little things, the gusto with which he tells Mr. Colvin in the first Samoan letter how he has been tracing the course of a stream on his new property just as if he were a character in Treasure Island:— " The ascent of this lovely lane of my dry stream filled me with delight. I could not but be reminded of old Mayne Reid, as I have been more than once since I came to the tropics ; and I thought, if Reid had been still living, I would have written to tell him, that for me, it had come true; and I thought, forbye, that, if the great powers go on as they are going, and the Chief • (1.) Valletta Letters. being Correspondence addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin. London: Methuen and Co. 1895.--(2.) Collected Works of E. L. Stevenson. Vol. III. Edinburgh: Longman, Cassell, Seeley, dm. Sold
by Ohatto and Windue. 1895.
Justice delays, it would come truer still; and the war-conch will sound in the hills, and my home will be inclosed in camps, before the year is ended. And all at once—mark you, how Mayne Reid is on the spot—a strange thing happened. I saw a liana stretch across the bed of the brook about breast-high, swung up my knife to sever it, and—behold, it was a wire ! On either hand it plunged into thick bush ; to-morrow I shall see where it goes and get a guess perhaps of what it means. To-day I know no more than—there it is. A little higher the brook began to trickle, and then to fill. At last, as I meant to do some work upon the homeward trail, it was time to turn. I did not return by the stream ; knife in hand, as long as my endurance lasted, I was to cut a path in the congested bush. At first it went ill with me ; I got badly stung as high as the elbows by the stinging plant ; I was nearly hung in a tough liana—a rotten trunk giving way under my feet ; it was deplorable bad business. And an axe —if I dared swing one—would have been more to the purpose than my cutlass. Of a sudden things began to go strangely easier ; I found stumps bushing out again ; my body began to wonder, then my mind ; I raised my eyes and looked ahead ; and, by George, I was no longer pioneering, I had struck an old track overgrown, and was restoring an old path. So I laboured till I was in such a state that Carolina Wilhelmina Skeggs could scarce have found a name for it."
Note the extreme delight with which this boy-hearted man fastens upon each little incident in his pioneering, and makes it thrill for himself, and now also for us, with the sense of mystery and adventure. Truly, Mr. Stevenson was on one side of him the very Don Quixote of Pirates, Buccaneers, and Frontiersmen. Equally delightful was Mr. Stevenson in his Planter moods,—the bead and leader of a busy gang putting his estate in order, building his house, and looking after his stock, and always in the back of his mind a thought of what Masterman Ready would have done under similar circum- stances. Here is a delicious account of how Mr. Stevenson played truant from his MSS., and like the true boy he was, tried to cut a path which should be a surprise to his family :—
"Try to write a poem ; no go. Play the flageolet. Then sneakingly off to farmering and pioneering. Four gangs at work on our place ; a lively scene; axes crashing and smoke blowing ; all the knives are out. But I rob the garden party of one without a stock, and you should see my hand—cut to ribbons. Now I want to do my path up the Vaituliga single-handed, and I want it to burst on the public complete. Hence, with devilish ingenuity, I begin it at different places ; so that if you stumble on one section, you may not even then suspect the fulness of my labours. Accordingly, I started in a new place, below the wire, and hoping to work up to it. It was perhaps lucky I had so bad a cutlass, and my smarting hand bid me stay before I had got up to the wire, but just in season, so that I was only the better of my activity, not dead beat as yesterday."
But even on this errand the sense of mystery and adventure is not far distant. Mark how the Don Quixote vein—we use the phrase in no sense disrespectfully—appears again, but adorned with an admirable piece of descriptive writing :—
" A strange business it was, and infinitely solitary ; away above, the sun was in the high tree-tops; the lianas noosed and sought to hang me ; the saplings struggled, and came up with that sob of death that one gets to know so well ; great, soft, sappy trees fell at a lick of the cutlass, little tough switches laughed at and dared my best endeavour. Soon, toiling down in that pit of verdure, I heard blows on the far side, and then laughter. I confess a chill settled on my heart. Being so dead alone, in a place where by rights none should be beyond me, I was aware upon interrogation, if those blows had drawn nearer, I should (of course quite unaffectedly) have executed a strategic movement to the rear ; and only the other day I was lamenting ray insensibility to superstition ! Am I beginning to be sucked in ? Shall I become a midnight twitterer like my neighbours ? At times I thought the blows were echoes ; at times I thought the laughter was from birds. For our birds are strangely human in their calls. Vaea mountain about sundown sometimes rings with shrill cries, like the hails of merry, t.cattered children."
As the letters go on, and the Stevenson family settle down in their new quarters, we get less and less pioneering and more about other things,—native politics, descriptions of scenery, shrewd comments on his own work, general literary criticism, and, finally, samples of those pleasant general- isations about men and things which we find in the Essays. One of the pleasantest passages in the book describes the visit to Mr. Stevenson's house of a party of blue-jackets from an English man.of-war :—" Simply impossible to tell how
well these blue-jackets behaved ; a most interesting lot of men; this education of boys for the navy is making a class, wholly apart—how shall I call them ?—a kind of lower-class public-school boy, well-mannered, fairly intelligent, sentimental as a sailor. What is more shall be writ on board ship if any- where." On another occasion Mr. Stevenson gives an account of a ball he attended, at which some of the same ship's company were present, and notes the admiring comment of a " beach. comber ":—" It's a nice sight this someway, to see the officers
dancing like this with the men, but I tell you, sir, these are the men that '11 fight together. I tell you, Colvin, the acquaint- ance of the men—and boys—makes me feel patriotic."
To the present writer, and perhaps to other readers of Mr. Stevenson's letters, the most interesting of the literary remarks are those devoted to Orme, the Indian historian. Without doubt, Orme was one of the greatest writers of historical prose which the eighteenth century produced, and it is pleasant to see him get his rights from so capable a judge as Mr. Stevenson :—
" I do not much like novels, I begin to think, but I am enjoying exceedingly Orme's History of Hindostan, a lovely book in its way, in large quarto, with a quantity of maps, and written in a very lively and solid eighteenth century way, never picturesque ex- cept by accident and from a kind of conviction, and a fine sense of order. No historian I have ever read is so minute; yet he never gives you a word about the people ; his interest is entirely limited in the concatenation of events, into which he goes with a lucid, almost superhuman, and wholly ghostly gusto. 4 By the ghost of a mathematician' the book might be announced. A very brave, honest book."
The passage about the natives is not quite fair to Orme. His picture of Bengal before the Conquest, and his account of the overthrow of Sur Rajah Dowlah after the battle of Plessey, are not open to this charge. But perhaps Mr. Stevenson had not got as far as the volume which contains these, and had only read that which describes "The War in the Carnatic."
We have not space to dwell upon the light which these letters throw upon Mr. Stevenson's methods of literary work. The details are often very full and most carious and interesting. Again, we cannot touch the native politics which are so fully described, or deal with the striking last letters, in which a note of melancholy and depression appears for the first time. We will end our notice of this delightful book, for which the public owe a real debt of gratitude to Mr. Colvin, by quoting the following striking passage from a speech which Mr. Stevenson addressed to the
Samoan chiefs in order to induce them to take to road-making, and to turn from fighting to tbe works of peace. It shows that Mr. Stevenson's good-heartedness was a real and prac- tical thing, not a mere garment of the spirit :— " Chiefs ! On this road that you have made many feet shall follow. The Romans were the bravest and greatest of people ! mighty men of their hands, glorious fighters and conquerors. To this day in Europe you may go through parts of the country where all is marsh and bush, and perhaps after struggling through a thicket, you shall come forth upon an ancient road, solid and useful as the day it was made. You shall see men and women bearing their burdens along that even way, and you may tell yourself that it was built for them perhaps fifteen hundred years before,—perhaps before the coming of Christ,—by the Romans. And the people still remember and bless them for that convenience, and say to one another, that as the Romans were the bravest men to fight, so they were the best at building roads. Chiefs ! Our road is not built to last a thousand years, yet in a sense it is. When a road is once built, it is a strange thing how it collects traffic, how every year as it goes on, more and more people are found to walk thereon, and others are raised up to repair and perpetuate it, and keep it alive ; so that perhaps even this road of ours may, from reparation to reparation, continue to exist and be useful hundreds and hundreds of years after we are mingled in the dust. And it is my hope that our far-away descendants may remember and bless those who laboured for them to. day."