Stevenson Under the Palm Treesby Alberto Manguel
“A miniature Gothic horror story that Stevenson himself and even Henry James would have found chilling.” –Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe
Casting Robert Louis Stevenson as his protagonist, Alberto Manguel, author of the international best-selling A History of Reading, spins an intoxicating murder mystery in the South Pacific that echoes Joseph Conrad and A. S. Byatt
Robert Louis Stevenson has become accustomed to the intense colors and severe humidity of Samoa, as well as the uninhibited sensuality of its people. Yet his thoughts turn nostalgically back to his native Edinburgh after a chance encounter with the newly arrived Scots missionary, Mr. Baker, whose religious invectives challenge Stevenson’s loosening moral code. And when a young Samoan woman is raped and brutally murdered–someone for whom Stevenson privately pined–the once idyllic island erupts into a barely controlled insurgency.
With a creeping sense of both dread and suspense as well as a playful nod to Stevenson’s own persona and imagination, Alberto Manguel has weaved together a compelling tale in the sultry South Pacific.
” Eight woodcuts throughout designed by Robert Louis Stevenson
“A miniature Gothic horror story that Stevenson himself and even Henry James would have found chilling.” –Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe
“Closely dissecting Stevenson’s conscious and dreamy observations of the unfolding events, Alberto Manguel’s brief, illustrated puzzle succeeds in ingeniously tracking Stevenson’s introspections along the path of deceit and creating a delightfully ambiguous trail of uncertainty.” –Buzz
‘manguel . . . offers a tiny but deft and quietly moving story of Robert Louis Stevenson at his premature death. . . . A small but rich little instant classic, as though Joseph Conrad had sent up a perfect new tale from the silence beyond the grave.” –Kirkus Reviews
“A fine stylist, Manguel punctuates the story with hyper-real descriptions of Samoa and Stevenson’s memories of Edinburgh.” –Publishers Weekly
“With obvious echoes of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Manguel merges fantasy and reality to create a deceptively simple tale that’s both evocative and subtly disturbing.” –The Observer (London)
“Thanks to Alberto Manguel, the fictional and real Robert Louis Stevenson meet at last. . . . Did a Mr
. Hyde lurk deep inside the master storyteller?” –Le Monde (Paris)
“Stevenson Under the Palm Trees is, as well as a fable and imagined biography, also a thriller. Its success is its complete credibility.” –The Spectator (London)
Praise for A History of Reading:
“A kaleidoscopic chrestomathy by a bookman-polymath who seems to know almost everything and grows on you, idiosyncratically.” –Edward Hoagland
“A History of Reading is a wonderful merger of scholarship and personal essay. Manguel is clearly enchanted with the act of reading, and he writes so beautifully and felicitously that he infects us with his enthusiasm again and again. He has perpetrated a delight.” –Phillip Lopate
Robert Louis Stevenson left the house and walked the long trek down to the beach just as the day was setting. From the verandah the sea was hidden by the trees, six hundred feet below, filling the end of two vales of forest. To enjoy the last plunge of the sun before the clear darkness set in, the best observation-post was among the mangrove roots, in spite (he said bravely to himself) of the mosquitoes and the sand-flies. He did not immediately notice the figure because it appeared to be merely one more crouching shadow among the shadows, but then it turned and seemed for a moment to be watching him. The man was wearing a broadrimmed hat not unlike Stevenson’s own and, even though he could see that the skin was white, he could not make out the man’s features.
“It goes down so quickly, you would think the water put out the flames,” Stevenson said to break the silence.
“And so it does,” the man answered, without standing up, and Stevenson joyfully recognised in the voice a robust Scots accent which, to his sorrow, was dying out in the better parts of Edinburgh.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” he smiled, coming up to the stranger with a welcoming hand. The white population of Apia was not large and Stevenson, Samoa’s chief celebrity, had been introduced, alas, to all.
“Baker,” the man said. “And of course, I know who you are. I’ve been island-hopping for only the Lord knows how long, and even as far as Tonga your name is mentioned. I sometimes claim blood-ties with you to foster my own cause.”
“And that may be?”
“The Cause of the True Way, the cause of all good men. Officially, I draw up a sort of census of missionary work in this god-forsaken ocean. We like to keep an eye on these things. The Edinburgh Missionary Society.”
Stevenson sat down on a root and looked up into the sky. The stars were out and the sea was white.
“When did you leave Edinburgh?” he asked.
“Longer ago than I care to remember,” the man said. “Now the city lies so far away, it hardly exists.”
“For me, the contrary is true,” Stevenson said. “The distance has made it even more present than when I lived there. I go to sleep with its cold dampness in my nostrils and I wake up with the smoke of its chimneys in my eyes.”
“A good climate to steel the soul, I say. Here the heat softens the sinews, makes sin burst like flowers from the mud.” He scooped up a handful of wet sand and let it trickle through his fingers.
“And how long do you intend to stay in Samoa?” Stevenson asked less out of curiosity than out of a desire to hear the man’s voice again.
“Until my work is done,” the man answered.
Later that evening, as supper was being prepared in the big hall of the House at Vailima, Stevenson mentioned the encounter to his wife who observed that there were far too many Scotsmen let loose in the world. “This one’s of the cold breed,” Stevenson remarked, almost to himself, and then wondered what exactly his ancestors had meant by that phrase.
The next day there was to be a feast up in the village and even before sunrise the carts could be heard carrying in supplies: the voices of the men, singing, the women calling after the children, the squeals of the pigs about to be slaughtered, the hacking of wood, the thundering fall of a coconut tree. Standing on the verandah, watching the vegetation soak up the growing light, Stevenson thought of how different the activities of life were here, under the hot sky, than in the place he used to call home and that he still, at times, longed for. He sometimes felt that he needed, in a physical sense, the edge of frosty cold and black rain, and the dour look of the Edinburgh stones, grey with a tinge of pink, like the rotting corpse of a mouse. Here things decayed in splendour, obscenely. He remembered his first year in Samoa and the yard covered in fallen papayas – the bright yellow skin turning dark, the fruit opening its many folds and exposing its sensuous, fleshy inside, smelling of saliva – and how he and Fanny had turned away without saying a word, as if they had unwittingly come upon a private and lewd spectacle. There had been a woman once, in a brothel near Perpignan, who had sat on a bench by the door as he came in, her legs impossibly open, and he had been both repulsed and dazzled by her sight, at a nakedness deeper than any nakedness he had ever known. In Samoa, the nakedness of women, which so troubled the missionaries, was never ugly. In the evening, when the villagers would go down to the sea to bathe, splashing in the waves with the children, the women’s thick black tangled hair opened like anemones in the water, while the hibiscus which they wore behind the ears would drift away around them, like fiery islands. Standing on the pier, Stevenson loved watching them, their dark skin as brilliant and hard as volcanic stones.
Here in Samoa, everything that had been reserved, whispered, buttoned-up in the cloistered world of his childhood, was out in the open – brash, unhidden – and in the beginning it had overwhelmed his senses and choked him, as it had upset Fanny and made her impatient and angry. But they had stayed on, and over the years the loudness of it all had charmed them, and they had grown accustomed to the lack of reserve. And even if they maintained at home, at Vailima, the proprieties due to a Scottish gentleman and his American wife and their family (his two grown step-children, his aged mother), they now rejoiced in the riot of colours and sounds outside, and in the sight of a world that seems to be constantly opening up, like a heavily-scented flower.
After breakfast, Fanny sat in the large hall going over the accounts, and he tried to read the London papers: he had been sick during the night, as usual, and now he felt that his head was not willing to do any work. He read, as if recalling a vague memory, names that were familiar to him but that he could not quite place, and he thought, as he did so often these days, how curious it was that the place he had once known so well had been taken over so utterly by such an unexpected geography, the remembered sensations of one mingling with the encroaching sensations of the other. He read of gossip and goings-on in the faraway island of Britain with the interest of a keen anthropologist, and it amused him to imagine his friends doing the same, as they pictured “old RLS among the savages of Samoa”.
Around eleven, Sosimo, the overseer, came in to say that the cart was ready. The whole family climbed in – Stevenson, Fanny, old Mrs Thomas Stevenson and Fanny’s children, Belle Strong and Lloyd Osbourne – and Sosimo whipped the mule into a trot.
The village had been decorated with branches of palm and strings of flowers. In front of newly stretched-out sheets of tapa, the drummers, crowned with triple wreaths of tiare flowers, were rehearsing with more good humour than skill, and a few of the younger girls, all giggles, were swinging their hips to the rhythm. Two or three of the elders came out to meet the Stevenson clan, and helped the ladies down from the cart. Mrs Thomas Stevenson, clutching her black parasol, jumped to the ground with surprising agility and was led off by a group of older women who started at once a cackling stream of gossip. Lloyd Osbourne offered to help carry the mats Sosimo was unloading from the cart, while Stevenson, protected by his wide-brimmed hat, and Fanny and Belle, shaded by their small white parasols, were conducted to the circle near the dug-out ovens. For a while, they watched the meat and the bundles of food being lowered onto the hot stones, all in the midst of great clouds of smoke. Then the ovens were covered with green palm leaves and the chief invited them to sit. Chairs were brought out for Fanny and Belle, but Stevenson sat crossed-legged with the other men.
People were coming and going, children were running, thin dogs sniffed in every corner until someone kicked them away, an odd chicken crossed the main circle at a flustered clip. Stevenson had never quite enjoyed what his childhood nurse, in her thick north-country brogue, had called “popular intemperance”: the movements of a crowd, unpredictable and strong as a blaze. In the midst of a large group of people, joyful or angry, mourning or seeking merriment, he felt naked, and he had tried, often, to overcome that feeling, which for want of a keener word he called shyness, but which his father had once branded cowardice, an accusation he had not forgotten. Now, something like a crowd began to assemble around them, and Stevenson forced himself to feel at ease, or look as if he felt at ease. Then the music began in earnest.
When they first arrived in Samoa, Stevenson had wondered whether the strange customs of the alien place would offend his mother. He had read about them and longed to see what they were in the flesh, and he suspected that Fanny, in spite of her American puritanism, as a faithful reader of Walt Whitman, would no doubt be capable of enjoying a healthy display of the human figure, clothed not by the wind and rain, but by the sun. What concerned him was how his mother would react to the bare black flesh and the swaying movements, the teeth that were too white and the hair too black for the simple Edinburgh lady, accustomed to bodies clad in stiff dark silks edged with lace. First in Hawaii and then in Tahiti, where the human face had slender features and the hair was long and straight, and later in these islands where the features became rounder, the skin far darker and the hair curled in thickly matted crowns, Mrs Thomas Stevenson had seemed merely to rejoice in the variety on God’s earth and delight in the multiplicity of His own image. She compared the Tahitian faces to golden lilies and the Samoan faces to inky roses, and everywhere she felt welcome. Stevenson watched her now, happily seated among the Samoan matrons, her slate-coloured dress and white face, hair and hands the shadow reflection of their white mumus and black skin.
The drums beat out a persistent rhythm that grew subtly, steadily, and a row of men, dabs of paint on their cheeks and green wreaths around their heads, began dancing in a straight line, while the women sang in counterpoint an encouraging chorus. Then it was the women’s turn, and they lifted their arms and swayed with wave-like motions, side to side, in perfect unison. Now the adolescents joined in, some more awkwardly or shyly than others, and suddenly Stevenson saw one girl of extraordinary beauty, moving with full confidence to the music.
She must have been thirteen or fourteen, her thick hair held away from her forehead by a string of tiare flowers, the black waves falling over her thin shoulders, a large red hibiscus bloom open behind her ear. Her small breasts were visible under a strip of coloured cloth (a concession to the visiting missionary), and as she swayed, her straw skirt decorated with shells and beads revealed her long slender legs. Stevenson loved her eyes, and as he watched her, she caught his look and smiled. Embarrassed, and surprised at being embarrassed, Stevenson turned his head. When he looked again, she had disappeared behind the drummers with several of the other girls. The beat changed. A large man began to dance alone in the centre of the circle.
All the rest of the day, Stevenson caught and lost sight of the girl when he least expected it. He looked out for her during the long speech by the chief, and afterwards, as they sat drinking the kava and eating the pork and taro root, but he didn’t see her. Then she suddenly appeared bearing a dish of baked breadfruit, and later, among the older women, combing someone’s hair, and then, for a moment, laughing with a couple of friends in the shade of a flame-tree. Once, he turned around and saw her watching him, but as he turned she ran away.
Many years before, in France, he had seen a girl of much the same age bathing behind a tattered screen in the courtyard of a farm, and he had felt this now-remembered surge of desire. Saint Augustine, he thought it was, had thanked God for not making him responsible for his dreams. He took a long drink of kava and uttered the same prayer of thanks.
The coughing began as it so often did, without warning, first as a rasping in the back of his throat and then a hacking, dry splutter that seemed never to end. His whole frame shook and pain shot up through his temples and down under his ribcage. Fanny put her arm around him, but he shook her off and tried to stand up, conscious that the villagers were watching him. Lloyd Osbourne came over and led him away, to the waiting cart, but before they had reached it, the cough became so violent that he began to tremble. For a long moment, he felt that his knees were giving way and, just before losing consciousness, he saw in the handkerchief he held before his mouth a large bright stain, as crimson as the flower the girl wore in her hair.
In the morning, he woke feeling curiously better than he had in a long time, as if the wracking cough had passed like a storm, leaving him almost refreshed, without even his usual shortness of breath. Fanny wanted him to stay in bed but he wouldn’t hear of it. He felt full of delicious energy, and, after breakfast, he sat down to write a new chapter of the dark Scottish romance he was composing. There was an urgency in his every gesture that puzzled and delighted him. He was anxious to get started. He sat down, straightened the brief row of books on his desk, pulled several sheets of paper from under the blotter and dipped his pen in the ink.
Though Lloyd or Belle usually took down his dictation because of the scrivener’s cramp that now added itself to his old list of afflictions, he preferred, whenever possible, to hold the pen himself and see the story literally flow onto the page. Today, as if by miracle, the writing went beautifully well: in the strong southern sunlight, he conjured up with ease the wind and the rain of Scotland, and the rich, careful language of his forebears. He had once remarked to Henry James that what he wished to do was to starve the visual sense in his books. He heard people talking, he felt them acting, and that was for him the definition of fiction. He made a note of his two literary aims:
1st. War on the adjective
2nd. Death to the optic nerve
Now he saw his villain cross the stormy heath in a passion and heard him justify himself to the Lord God of Hosts in sentences that rolled and rumbled like thunder. The girl at the feast lent her smile to the character of the young woman in his romance, and Stevenson told himself that this was possession enough: “a permissible sin” he said to himself, and he was grateful for it.
The story of right and wrong held his attention as it unravelled itself in his mind’s eye, and he felt contented in its very simplicity. He wrote until midday and then stopped. It was too hot to walk down to the beach again, so he wandered out into the garden to stretch his tightened muscles.
Sosimo was gathering the fallen breadfruit and Stevenson asked him whether he had seen the new missionary that morning.
“No new missionary in Vailima,” Sosimo answered. “Too many of them already in Apia.”
He thought no more about the girl. Instead, for the next few days, Stevenson looked out for his mysterious fellow countryman, moved by nostalgia for the Edinburgh drawl and a childlike need for knowing that everything was in its place. As he dictated the next chapters to Belle, he heard the missionary’s tones mark the rhythm of his sentences. He asked Sosima twice again and received the same reply and, in the evenings, went down to the beach where he had first met Mr Baker. He wondered with whom he might be lodging, and how it was possible for him to have avoided the overseer’s all-observant eyes and alert ears. A week later, when Stevenson had concluded that the missionary must have moved on to another island, the two men met once again in the same spot on the beach.
“This poisonous brightness,” Mr Baker said, shielding his eyes from the sun. “The burning brightness of hell.”
Stevenson laughed and asked him where he was staying. Mr Baker didn’t answer directly.
“I’ve been busy on the other side of Apia. A census like this isn’t easy to compile.”
‘do you simply write down the names?”
“Oh, no. Names are the least of it. Activities are what interest me. What work the devil finds for idle hands. I look in vain for doers of the word, not hearers only. And this place breeds sloth.”
“But you are comfortable with your board?”
“Comfortable enough. I never see my host and he never sees me, and therefore we get on splendidly. He is not a cultured man but he has some of your books in his house.”
“I sometimes think my publisher gives away copies to make me feel important.”
“I’ve never read them and never will. I have no time for the claptrap of fiction. Invented stories, indeed! Lies, I say, if you’ll forgive me. Our short time on this earth is meant to be one of redress, of learning, not of dissipation and fantasies. There is only one Book, Sir, to which I owe all my attention, and it does not tell fables.”
Stevenson felt he was being accused. “All I mean to do with my tales is to lend a little excitement, a little happiness. That is our obligation too, is it not?”
“Happiness?” The man chuckled. “Happiness is a reward, not a right. Have you seen what filth the natives get up to here on the beach, late at night, in this so-called paradise?” His voice grew harsh. “I have even seen white men, Europeans . . .” He broke off. “No, Sir. I don’t believe in the obligation of happiness.”
He woke up with a fierce hot pain in the joints of his right hand, and yet the idea that had come to him during the night would not bear dictating. He thanked his stepdaughter but told her he would do some work on his own that morning and sat down at his desk. He felt feverish and his fingers shook slightly, but he dutifully dipped his pen in the ink and began to write. He knew that the story had broken off, taken an unexpected sideroad. Darker and more violent the story came, and seemed to unearth vile, unspeakable things in its wake. He stopped for a moment, partly because of the pain and partly because of the horror that the story produced in him, but then he carried on, driven by a stronger need. On and on he wrote, his handwriting barely legible now because of the shaking. He covered twenty pages without a single erasure. He stopped when he heard his wife’s voice outside the door. His face was drenched in sweat.
He told Fanny he would not be taking lunch and that he would go lie down and see whether the pain would pass. Then he told her he had written something quite different, and would she care to take a look at it. It had become a habit: she always read everything he wrote and a story stood or fell on her approval. His flushed face and laboured breathing worried her, but he brushed off her attempt to help him to the bedroom. She knew he hated being fussed over, and she let him go.
Sleep came but was far from restful. No breeze drifted through the bamboo shutters and even the streaked light felt hot and full of dust, stinging his shut eyes, so that he dreamed of being buried alive in an immense furnace. He awoke to the deafening sound of crickets, and found himself tangled in the wet sheet. As in the very beginning, he once more longed for Edinburgh. As he poured water into the wash-basin, he saw his face in the mirror and it looked red as if burnt by the sun.
He went downstairs. Fanny was sitting in the leather armchair, the manuscript on her lap.
“And?” he asked.
She took a moment to answer. Then she spoke:
“This is dreadful. It is crass. It is unseemly. The story you were writing was dark but powerful, on its way to being a masterpiece. This is . . . worse than sensationalism. And totally unsuitable for fiction.”
“Unsuitable for fiction?”
“I would have wished you hadn’t allowed yourself even to dream such things. This is poison.”
He was furious. He felt his cheeks flush with rage and, without saying another word, snatched the pages from her hands. He stormed out of the room. Never had he felt so impassioned, so outraged. He looked at what he had written that morning and the words seemed to acquire a life of their own, snaking across the page in a handwriting he didn’t recognize.
He read for a few moments, as if in a daze. Then he went up to the hearth, threw the manuscript on the stones and lit a match. He watched the paper crackle, grow red and then darken. When there was nothing left but smouldering ashes, he drew himself back downstairs. Fanny had not moved. He drew himself up to her, kneeled down by her side and put his head on her lap.
“You are right. I have absolutely missed the heart of the story. I have been misled, I don’t know how. Will you forgive me?”
She combed her fingers through his hair. Neither he nor Fanny ever mentioned those pages again.
“I’ve written moral fables,” said Stevenson to Mr Baker, the next time they met. A group of naval officers had come to pay their respects at Vailima, and the master of the house had fled to seek a little private peace before supper, leaving Fanny and his stepchildren to entertain the guests. He had found Mr Baker once again near the mangrove trees, apparently watching a couple of battling crabs fight their way across the sand.
“I think you can learn through stories almost better than through sermons. Stories give you more to think about, because they are less to the point.”
“Exactly: less to the point is the wide, winding road. And I surely don’t need to remind a connoisseur of John Knox to where such a road will lead. There is only one tale that need be told, and that tale requires no re-writings.”
The moon hid behind a few clouds and all that was left in the darkness was the deep Edinburgh voice. When it emerged again, only one of the silver crabs scuttled across the sand towards the incoming tide.
‘do you know Salamander Island, off the coast of New Guinea?” the voice continued. “I was there three, maybe four years ago. It doesn’t matter. The natives are as savage as you may care, or not care, to meet, and speak a tongue marvelously different from any other spoken on earth. A missionary settled there a few years before my arrival, intent on bringing the word of God to these bestial people. It took him many months to learn their language, and once he had mastered it, he proceeded to translate into their grunts and squeals Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in which, as you remember, the Apostle entreats the heathen to follow the Lord, not with eyeservice, as menpleasers, but as servants of Christ. Several years this man spent translating the holy words into the tongue of the Salamander people, labouring day and night. But the ways of the flesh, as I need not remind you, are weak, and those who have not felt the piercing of the nails and thorns are defenceless against the evils of this world. One by one the natives fell victims to a simple disease, a mild form of smallpox that the man of God had contracted before his journey, and when I arrived on the island there were barely a handful of weak and emaciated men and women left to greet me. A few weeks later, when the missionary had completed his useful endeavour and the last word of Saint Paul’s letter had been penned in that primitive tongue, the sole remaining Salamander native took to his hut, never to emerge again. He was buried with his fellows who had gone before him to what they blindly called the sea beyond the sea. My brave missionary had completed his work, the translation of the Apostle’s word in a tongue that now no one spoke, except himself. You say this matters? Not at all: it only proves that the Word will always outlast the flesh.”
“But we need stories, don’t we, to teach us through the example?”
“Example of what? Your father was an engineer, I believe. What use were to him the exploits of Ivanhoe or the nonsense of Don Quixote? Facts and figures were what he built on, and so must I. To raise tall lights to guide us, far from the rocks of deceit.”
“The natives like stories. They are their history, you see. They listen to mine, sometimes. They call me “Tusitala”, the teller of tales.”
Then he added: “In this part of the world, the stories you tell become part of reality. Do you know what I mean? I wrote a story once about a magic wishing-bottle. Well, after I read it one night to a group from the village, they asked to see the bottle. They still do, from time to time. They think I have it. They think it’s real, because it appeared in a story. Anything else would be a lie in their eyes.”
‘superstition, that is all it is. You would be better employed reading to them from the Scriptures. That is the only truth. And now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Stevenson watched him stand up and disappear among the mangroves which, in the rising waters, looked like many-footed animals coming down to drink.
He heard the sound of voices outside and then Sosimo’s voice calling him. He told Fanny he’d go find out what was happening, put on his housecoat and went downstairs. A group of native men were arguing in the front hall and Sosimo seemed to be trying to keep them calm. Through the open door, he could see a number of large women dressed in the white of mourning, wailing softly.
‘master,” Sosimo said. “These men want to see you. Something bad has happened. Vaera, Tootei’s daughter,” he pointed at a large man with an enormous stomach, “was killed last night.”
Stevenson suddenly recognized the man as one of the drummers at the feast. He looked different now, without the crown of flowers and with a large white shirt buttoned up over his belly.
“How? Where? Has the chief justice been informed?”
“He has, and he is asking questions in the village. But Tootei wishes to talk to you.”
“Come,” Tootei said. “Come with us.”
“He thinks you can help, Master. He thinks that by seeing the place you might know.”
Stevenson hesitated. Then he answered. “I will come. Give me a minute.”
He went upstairs and told Fanny what had happened. Then he dressed, had a quick cup of black coffee and joined the men at the door.
The path led through a grove of papaya trees out into the fields and up the mountainside beyond. It was a difficult climb, because of the insects and the heat, but he enjoyed the strain on his muscles. Sweat was running down his scalp and he rubbed his handkerchief over his hair to dry it. Someone had told him admiringly that he worked harder than a man with twice his health, and he knew it was true.
Copyright ” 2002 by Alberto Manguel. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.