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PAGE 2

Robert Louis Stevenson
by [?]

But what is the human problem in The Bottle Imp? (Imagine Scheherazadé with a human problem!) Nothing less, if you please than the problem of Alcestis–nothing less and even something more; for in this case when the wife has made her great sacrifice of self, it is no fortuitous god but her own husband who wins her release, and at a price no less fearful than she herself has paid. Keawe being in possession of a bottle which must infallibly bring him to hell-flames unless he can dispose of it at a certain price, Kokua his wife by a stratagem purchases the bottle from him, and stands committed to the doom he has escaped. She does her best to hide this from Keawe, but he, by accident discovering the truth, by another stratagem wins back the curse upon his own head, and is only rescued by a deus ex machin� in the shape of a drunken boatswain.

Two or three reviewers have already given utterance upon this volume; and they seem strangely unable to determine which is the best of its three tales. I vote for The Bottle Imp without a second’s doubt; and, if asked my reasons, must answer (1), that it deals with a high and universal problem, whereas in The Isle of Voices there is no problem at all, and in the Beach of Falesá the problem is less momentous and perhaps (though of this I won’t be sure) more closely restricted by the accidents of circumstance and individual character; (2) as I have hinted, the Beach of Falesá has faults of construction, one of which is serious, if not vital, while The Isle of Voices, though beautifully composed, is tied down by the triviality of its subject. But The Bottle Imp is perfectly constructed: the last page ends the tale, and the tale is told with a light grace, sportive within restraint, that takes nothing from the seriousness of the subject. Some may think this extravagant praise for a little story which, after all (they will say), is flimsy as a soap bubble. But let them sit down and tick off on their fingers the names of living authors who could have written it, and it may begin to dawn on them that a story has other dimensions than length and thickness.

* * * * *

Sept. 9, 1893. First thoughts on “Catriona.”

Some while ago Mr. Barrie put together in a little volume eleven sketches of eleven men whose fame has travelled far beyond the University of Edinburgh. For this reason, I believe, he called them “An Edinburgh Eleven”–as fond admirers speak of Mr. Arthur Shrewsbury (upon whose renown it is notorious that the sun never sets) as “the Notts Professional,” and of a yet more illustrious cricketer by his paltry title of “Doctor”–

“Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither’d be.”

Of the Eleven referred to, Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson was sent in at eighth wicket down to face this cunning “delivery”:–“He experiments too long; he is still a boy wondering what he is going to be. With Cowley’s candor he tells us that he wants to write something by which he may be for ever known. His attempts in this direction have been in the nature of trying different ways, and he always starts off whistling. Having gone so far without losing himself, he turns back to try another road. Does his heart fail him, despite his jaunty bearing, or is it because there is no hurry?… But it is quite time the great work was begun.”

I have taken the liberty to italicise a word or two, because in them Mr. Barrie supplied an answer to his question. “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne!” is not an exhortation to hurry: and in Mr. Stevenson’s case, at any rate, there was not the least need to hurry. There was, indeed, a time when Mr. Stevenson had not persuaded himself of this. In Across the Plains he tells us how, at windy Anstruther and an extremely early age, he used to draw his chair to the table and pour forth literature “at such a speed, and with such intimations of early death and immortality, as I now look back upon with wonder. Then it was that I wrote Voces Fidelium, a series of dramatic monologues in verse; then that I indited the bulk of a Covenanting novel–like so many others, never finished. Late I sat into the night, toiling (as I thought) under the very dart of death, toiling to leave a memory behind me. I feel moved to thrust aside the curtain of the years, to hail that poor feverish idiot, to bid him go to bed and clap Voces Fidelium on the fire before he goes, so clear does he appear to me, sitting there between his candles in the rose-scented room and the late night; so ridiculous a picture (to my elderly wisdom) does the fool present!”