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Word from Wormingford

20 September 2013

Ronald Blythe reads about life on Samoa for the Stevensons

THE day has progressed from wild beginnings to limpid sunshine; so no need to have put friends off. It leaves me, however, with the best thing ever - a day in hand.

For the white cat, it is always a day in hand. She murmurs at departing birds. Bunches of blackberries, tomatoes, and grapes hang heavily in the thinning leaves. A palaeontologist holds forth on the radio, learned and enticing. BC and AD become mere yesterdays. The years, the years!

And stony evidence of immense time in the Stour Valley, some of it fixed in the church tower and scrubbed by our weather. "Read Wisdom," the lectionary orders. I am reading Mrs Stevenson's intro- duction to her husband's prayers on Samoa, however. She called him Robert; their household called him Tusitala, storyteller.

And thus evensong. A hundred years later, I find them apt for our household the Church. The Samoans blew a war conch to summon people to prayer; but all that I can hear when I put the South Sea shell to my ear, as I did as a child, is the faraway and wonderful sounds of Pacific waves, distant yet always close. Friends' children listen to them, and are mesmerised.

"I don't think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer," Stevenson's wife wrote. "The Samoans trooped in through all the open doors, some carrying lanterns if the evening were dark, all moving quietly, and dropping with Samoan decorum in a wide semicircle on the floor beneath the great lamp that hung from the ceiling. . . Often, we were forced to pause until the strangely savage, monotonous noise had ceased."

Poor young Robert was dying, and he like everyone else with a fresh flower daily stuck behind his ear, and the stories tumbling out of him. He wrote torrentially on anything and everything, feeling time running him into the ground. And he so young. The classic consumptive.

When I was a boy, I was taken to see a dying girl, Lily, but all I saw was her waxen loveliness. All that the Samoans heard was the Edin- burgh voice running on, ravished as it was with words.

Stevenson has been ordered south. "And yet the ties that still attach him to the world are many and kindly. The sight of children has a significance for him, as it may have for the aged also, but not for others. If he has been used to feel humanely, and to look upon life somewhat more widely than from the narrow loophole of personal pleasure and advancement, it is strange how small a portion of his thoughts will be changed or embittered by this proximity of death.

"He knows that already, in English counties, the sower follows the ploughman up the face of the field, and the rooks follow the sower; and he knows also that he may not live to go home again and see the corn spring and ripen, and be cut down at last, and brought home with gladness."

The farmers apart, I doubt if anyone in the village experiences gladness when they see a combine and its lone driver at work. But the stubble invites young riders. Harvest opportunists, girls wave as he drives past. Gulls fly in stages over the fields, which have been lightly turned over, crying wildly.

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