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Samoa - Our Samoan Adventure - Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson

A romantic literary discovery - the diary of the Stevenson's last years together


An so the year 1893 ended. At the end of January he was writing, "Yes, if I could die just now, or say in half a year, I should have had a splendid time of it on the whole. but it gets a little stale, and my work will begin to senesce; and parties to shy bricks at me; and now it begins to look as if I should survive to see myself impotent and forgotten. It's a pity suicide is not thought the ticket in the best circles." He had but ten months to live.

In February he reports to Colvin that they have given a ball at Vailima, in March that he is struggling with St. Ives, which he was never to finish. In April he writes to Charles Baxter, who was then planning the Edinburgh Edition of Stevenson's works, and requests literary materials which he desires for St. Ives. In May he communicates to Baxter his delight and gratitude over the projected collected edition, and there is discussion with Colvin about 3what is to be included. In June, in a letter to his cousin Bob (R.A.M. Stevenson), he explains his involvement in island politics.

But it is impossible to live here and not feel very sorely the consequences of the horrid white mismanagement, I tried standing by and looking on, and it became too much for me. They are such illogical fools; a logical fool in an office, with a lot of red tape, is inconceivable. Furthermore, he is as much as we have any reason to expect of officials - a thoroughly commonplace, unintellecltual lot. But these people are wholly on wires; laying their ears down, skimming away, pausing as though shot, and presto! full spread on the other tack. I observe in the official class mostly an insane jealousy of the smallest kind, as compared to which the artist's is of a grave, modest character - the actor's, even; a desire to extend his little authority, and to relish it like a glass of wine, that is impayable. Sometimes, when I see one of these little kings strutting over one of his victories - wholly illegal, perhaps, and certain to be reversed to his shame if his superiors ever heard of it - I could weep. The strange thing is that they have nothing else. I auscultate them in vain; no real sense of duty, no real comprehension, no real attempt to comprehend, no wish for information - you cannot offend one of them more bitterly than by offering information, though it is certain you have more, and obvious that you have other, information than they have; and talking of policy, they could not play a better stroke than by listening to you, and it need by no means influence their action. Tenez, you know what a French post-office or railway official is? That is the diplomatic card to the life. Dickens is not in it; caricature fails.
Fanny Stevenson
All this keeps me from my work, and gives me the unpleasant side of the world. When your letters are disbelieved it makes you angry, and that is rot; and I wish I could keep out of it with all my soul. But I have just got into it again, and farewell peace!
In June Graham Balfour arrived, and then Lloyd and "Aunt Maggie". Louis was feeling well physically, but his writing balked. He wrote to Henry James on July 7th:
And when that is wrong, as you must be very keenly aware, you begin every day with a smarting disappointment, which is not good for the temper. I am in one of the humours when a man wonders how any one can be such an ass to embrace the profession of letters, and not get apprenticed to a barber or keep a baked-potato stall. but I have no doubt in the course of a week, or perhaps to-morrow, things will look better.
But in September he was still wrestling with St. Ives. In that month also he saw the beginning of the Road of Gratitude, or Road of the Loving Heart - a road developed and finished by Samoan who wished to express their gratitude to him for all his aid and sympathy in their trials. It was his private road which they worked on, and he was profoundly moved. In October his spirits were improving, and soon he began dictating Weir of Hermiston, and feeling all his old powers - more, feeling at the summit of his achievement. He felt well physically, and optimistic about the future. And then, on the afternoon of December 3, 1894, at the age of forty-four, he was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage. His mother, writing from Vailima to her sister, Jane Whyte Falfour, described the tragic event the following day.
"How am I to tell you the terrible news that my beloved son was suddenly called home last evening. At six o'clock he was well, hungry for dinner, and helping Fanny to make a mayonnaise sauce; when suddenly he put both hands to his head and said, 'Oh, what a pain!' and then added, 'Do I look strange?' Fanny said no, not wishing to alarm him, and helped him into the hall, where she put him into the nearest easy-chair. She called for us to come, and I was there in a minute; but he was unconscious before I reached his side, and remained so for two hours, till at ten minutes past 8 p.m. all was over.
Family and servants on the steps of the house at Vailima
Left to right: Joe Strong, Auvea (a plantation hand), Mary Carter
(maid to Mrs. M. I. Stevenson), Mrs. M. I. Stevenson, Elena, Lloyd Osbourne,
Arrick, Talolo, RLSl, Austin Strong, Fanny Stevenson, Isobel Strong, Simi (butler),
Lafaele and Tomasi
"Lloyd went for help at once, and got two doctors wonderfully quickly - one from the Wallaroo and the other, Dr. Funk, from Apia; but we had already done all that was possible, and they could suggest nothing more. Before the end came we brought a bed into the hall, and he was lifted on to it. When all was over his boys gathered about him, and the chiefs from Tanugamanono arrived with fine mats which they laid over the bed; it was very touching when they came in bowing, and saying 'Talofa, Tusitala'; and then, after kissing him and saying 'Tofa, Tusitala,' went out. After that our Roman Catholic boys asked if they might 'make a church', and they chanted prayers and hymns for a long time, very sweetly .... We had sent for Mr. Clarke, who stayed with us till all was over; Louis wished to be buried on the top of Vaea Mountain, and before six this morning forty men arrived with axes to cut a path up and dig the grave. Some of Mataafa's chiefs came this morning; one wept bitterly, saying, 'Mataafa is gone, and Tusitala is gone, and we have none left.' ...
"They have just gone up the mountain now. The letters must be posted tonight, and I scarcely know what I am writing. None of us has realised yet what has happened, and we shall only feel it all the more as days go by. . . . I feel desolate indeed, and don't know what I shall do. ..."
On the ninth of December "Aunt Maggie" wrote again to Jane Balfour.
"Life seems to have stood still with us since Tuesday, and none of us can do anything but think over our loss, which only grows greater as we begin dimly to realise it. No one, at least, was ever more universally mourned than my beloved son. ... The ascent to the top of Vaea Mountain was a very difficult matter, and many of the men found it more than they could manage. The coffin left half an hour before the invited guests, as the labour of climbing with it was so great; but there were many relays of loving Samoan hands ready to carry their dear Tusitala to his last home amongst them, and they took the utmost pains to bear him shoulder high, and as steadily and reverently as possible. Behind them came the few near and good friends that we had invited to the present; and when they reached the top of the mountain they found the coffin laid beside the grave, and covered with the flat that used to fly over us in those happy days upon the Casco. . . .
"As soon as it was lowered into its place, and the wreaths and crosses thrown in till it was hidden from sight, our house-boys seized the spades from the 'outside' boys who had dug the grave; no hands but theirs, who had been specially 'Tusitala's family', should fill it in, and do the last service for him that was left to them. Mr. Clarke read portions of the Church of England burial-service, and also a prayer written by Louis himself, which he had read at family worship only the night before his death; and Mr. Newell gave an address in Samoan, which made all who understood it weep and prayed also in the same language, that Louis loved so well. . . .
Robert Louis Stevenson lying in state, December 4, 1894
"I must tell you a very strange thing that occurred just before his death. For a day or two Fanny had been telling us that she knew - that she felt - something dreadful was going to happen to someone we cared for; as she put it, to one of our friends. On Monday she was very low about it, and upset, and dear Lou tried hard to cheer her. He read aloud to her the chapter of his book that he had just finished, played a game or two of Patience to induce her to look on, and I fancy it was as much for her sake as his own that the mayonnaise sauce was begun upon. And, strangely enough, both of them had agreed that it could not be to either of them that the dreadful thing was to happen! Thus far, and no further, can our intuitions, our second sight, go. . . . 
"Sosimo, Lou's special boy, is quite inconsolable; he keeps Tusitala's room in exquisite order, and when Fanny and I were there this morning, we were touched to find two glasses filled with beautiful fresh white flowers on the table beside his bed."
On December 16th she writes:
"Another Sunday without my child; his leaving us was so swift and sudden, that I seem only now to begin to realise that I shall see him on earth no more. . . . Yesterday we had another sad scene to go through, the paying-off of the outside boys; their last work had been to make a better road to the top of the mountain, and it was finished yesterday. In the afternoon we all assembled in the hall, the first time that it had been used since the funeral; and Lloyd made a speech, explaining how sorry we were that we could not keep them any longer now that Tusitala had left us, and thanking them for all their loving services. One of them replied, saying how happy they had been here, that they had always been made to feel themselves like members of the family, had been well fed and taken care of when they were sick, and that they were very sorry to go away and leave us. Then they sang a couple of songs of farewell to Tusitala that two of them had composed, and we drank kava together and shook hands with them all. Some of them kissed our hands, as they said, Tofa, soifua, 'Farewell, may you live.' ...
"Of the outside boys we have only kept our old friend Lafaele, who takes care of the cows and pigs, Leuelo, Fanny's boys, who works in the garden, and a Tongan who has only one eye, and is delicate as well. Some time ago Lloyd suggested to Louis that as he was of little use, he had better be sent away; but Louis replied that he had no home to go to, and there was every chance of his becoming altogether blind, and that as long as he was at Vailima, the Tongan should have a home there too."
January  13, 1895:
"I don't think I told you of a remark made by the doctor of the Wallaroo that haunts me constantly. We were watching round dear Lou, Fanny and I were rubbing his arms with brandy, and his shirt-sleeves were pushed up, and showed their thinness; some one made a remark about his writing, and Dr. A said, 'How can anybody write books with arms like these?'
"I turned round indignantly and burst out with, 'He has written all his books with arms like these!'
"I don't think I was ever before so terribly impressed with the greatness of the struggle that my beloved child had made against his bad health. He has written at the rate of a volume a year for the last twenty years, in spite of weakness which most people would have looked on as an excuse for confirmed invalidism; and he has lived, too, and loved his life in spite of it all. Do you remember how years ago, when some one was comforting him by saying that the Balfours always got stronger as they grew older, he replied, 'Yes, but just as I begin to outgrow the Balfour delicacy, the Nemesis of the short-lived Stevensons will come in and finish me off!' that has been at the back of my mind all these years, and you see it has come true."
Of all the messages of condolence which come to her, perhaps the finest which Fanny received - a tribute to her as well as to Louis - was a letter from Henry James.
"My dear Fanny Stevenson," it began, "What can I say to you that will not seem cruelly irrelevant or vain? We have been sitting in darkness for nearly a fortnight, but what is our darkness to the extinction of your magnificent light? You will probably know in some degree what has happened to us - how the hideous news first came to us via Auckland, etc., and then how, in the newspapers, a doubt was raised about its authenticity - just enough to give one a flicker of hope; until your telegram to me via San Francisco - repeated also from other sources - converted my pessimistic convictions into the wretched knowledge. All this time my thoughts have hovered round you all, around you in particular, with a tenderness of which I could have wished you might have, afar-off, the divination. You are such a visible picture of desolation that I need to remind myself, that courage, and patience, and fortitude are also abundantly with you. The devotion that Louis inspired - and of which all the air about you must be full - must also be much to you. Yet as I write the word, indeed, I am almost ashamed of it - as if anything could be 'much' in the presence of such an abysmal void. To have lived in the light of that splendid life, that beautiful, bountiful thing - only to see it, from one moment to the other, converted into a fable as strange and romantic as one of his own, a thing that has been and has ended, is an anguish into which no one can enter fully and of which no one can drain the cup for you. You are nearest to the pain, because you were nearest to joy and the pride. But if it is anything to you to know that no woman was ever more felt with and that your personal grief is the intensely personal grief of innumerable hearts - know it well, my de4ar Fanny Stevenson, for during all these days there has been friendship for you in the very air. For myself, how shall I tell y9ou how much poorer and shabbier the whole world seems, and how one of the closest and strongest reasons for going on, for trying and doing, for planning and dreaming of the future, has dropped in an instant out of life. I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him - but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him, at any rate one heard of him, and felt him and awaited and counted him into everything one most loved and lived for. He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one's imagination. We are smaller fry and meaner people without him. I feel as if I know that there is nothing narrow or selfish in your sense of loss - for himself, however, for the happy name and his great visible good fortune, it strikes one as another matter. I mean that I feel him to have been as happy in his death (struck down that way, as by the gods, in a clean, glorious hour) as he had been in his frame of mind. And, with all the sad allowance in his rich full life, he had the best of it - the thick of the fray, the loudest of the music, the freshest and finest of himself. It isn't as if there had been no full achievement and no supreme thing. It was all intense, all gallant, all exquisite from the first, and the experience, the fruition, had something dramatically complete in them. He has gone in time not to be old, early enough to be so generously young and late enough to have drunk deep of the cup. there have been - I think - for men of letters few deaths more romantically right. Forgive me, I beg you, what may sound cold blooded in such words - or as if I imagined there could be anything for you 'right' in the rupture of such an affection and the loss of such a presence. I have in my mind in that view only the rounded career and the consecrated work. When I think of your own situation I fall into a mere confusion of pity and wonder, with the sole sense of your being as brave a spirit as he was (all of whose bravery you shared) to hold on by. Of what solutions or decisions you see before you we shall  hear in time; meanwhile please believe that I am most affectionately with you. . . . More than I can say, I hope your first prostration and bewilderment are over, and that you are feeling your way in feeling all sorts of encompassing arms - all sorts of outstretched hands of friendship. don't, my dear Fanny Stevenson, be unconscious of mine, and believe me more than ever faithfully yours, Henry James."
In April, 1825, Fanny, tired and ill, set sail for San Francisco. She spent the summer of that year in California, wintered in Hawaii, during which time Lloyd married, and in May of the next year, accompanied by Belle, returned to Vailima. But soon it became evident to her that with Louis gone and her children needed elsewhere, she could no longer be happy in that place. Accordingly, she sold Vailima to a Russian merchant named Kunst, whose heirs in turn sold it to the German government, whereupon it became the residence of the German governor of Samoa. During World War I New Zealand occupied Upolu, and Vailima, with many changes and enlargements made, stood under the Union Jack as the British government house.
The tomb of the Stevensons on Mt. Vaea
Fanny went to England in 1898, where she underwent a major operation, and in December travelled through France, Spain, and Portugal. She purchased a home in San Francisco, made excursions into Mexico, lived for a while at lonely Rancho El Sausal, six miles from Ensenada, in Lower California, visited Europe in 1906 and 1907, and in 1908 made her last home in Santa Barbara, California, where she died February 18, 1914, like Louis of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the spring of 1915 Belle and her husband sailed for Samoa with Fanny's ashes, in accordance with her mother's request. On June 22 they were finally interred beside the remains of Louis. The small crowd on the mountaintop above Vailima included Sitione (now Amatua), Laulii, and Mitaele. Under the name Aolele the following inscription was placed in bronze on Fanny's tomb:
Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart whole and soul free,
The August Father gave to me
  The monument also contains lines in memory of Louis - his own 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.
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