Zinsser on Friday

Stevenson's Ghost

By William Zinsser | July 16, 2010


In 1956 my wife and I spent three weeks in Western Samoa, staying at Aggie Grey’s Hotel, a ramshackle boarding house that was an iconic destination for traders and beachcombers–and writers–roaming the islands of the South Seas. Aggie herself, who was half Samoan, was no less iconic, a warm-hearted host to every stray who gravitated to her porch overlooking the busy harbor of Apia and its lively traffic of inter-island boats.

Samoa’s other famous landmark was a ménage household of high respectability. Poised on a hillside just outside town, “Vailima” was the house that Robert Louis Stevenson built in 1890 for his extended family from Scotland–including his mother and wife and stepson, the writer Lloyd Osbourne–where he would spend the last four years of his life. He had come to the South Seas in search of a benign climate for his tuberculosis and sailed widely among the islands, which had first beckoned to him as a boy in Scotland. The Samoans called him “Tusitala,” teller of tales, and when he died in 1894, at the age of 44, they carried his coffin to the top of the small mountain that rose out of his garden, where he wished to be buried. In a clearing at the summit–probably the most inaccessible grave in English letters–the teller of tales lies beneath a simple stone inscribed with the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Under a 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 is the verse that 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

“Vailima” was an agreeable white frame house with a blue roof, several verandas, and broad views down to the Pacific. It was the only house in Samoa with a fireplace. Some Samoans thought Stevenson’s ghost lived in the house, but I only felt serene vibrations there, and so did G. R. Powles, the New Zealand high commissioner, whose official residence it was. Western Samoa was then a New Zealand trust territory.

“Mrs. Powles and I have lived here for eight years,” he told me, “and we’re alone at night–the servants sleep out. But never once have I snapped awake in the dark and thought, ‘What was that?’ as you do in so many houses.” I couldn’t help thinking of all the boys who stayed up late reading Treasure Island or Kidnapped or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and later snapped awake thinking, “What was that?”

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