Chalmers of New Guinea
ON the voyage from Sydney to Samoa, Tamate had the unexpected pleasure of being a fellow-passenger with Robert Louis Stevenson and Mrs. Stevenson. This proved to be one of the most interesting rencontres of his life, resulting in a sincere friendship between these great men. We have most information of Stevenson’s estimate of Tamate; and when we have read the various letters in which he disclosed his opinion of "The Great-Heart of New Guinea," as he is said to have dubbed him, we do not feel that it is impertinent to claim that he found in him the ideal Christian, who commended his Master to his friend, and—by influence rather than by words—persuaded him to revise his views of the Christian faith as a rule of life and a sure and certain hope.
The friends would appear to have made an appointment to meet at Auckland in December, when Tam-ate had completed his tour, and was returning to New Guinea. Writing to Mr. Burlinghame in December, Stevenson says: "Christmas I go to Auckland, to meet Tamate, the New Guinea missionary, a man I love"; and to Tamate he had already written:
"I cannot come on the Richmond;our presence is very needful and work pressing; the most I can do (and in that I do not mean to fail) is to go by the next Wainui, and meet you, and arrive about the same time with you in Auckland. My wife, who is tired, and dirty, and rheumatic, and embittered by bad yeast, and yet (like myself) interested beyond means by our hard and busy life here on the mountains, bids me send all things nice. ‘I cannot think of anything nice enough,’ quo’ she, ‘to Tamate and his wife.’"
But the new-made friends did not forgather again. Instead, Stevenson wrote Tamate a long letter, which the Rev. Richard Lovett has given to the public in an article on "R. L. Stevenson in relation to Christian Life and Christian Missions," contributed to the Sunday at Home.
In this letter Stevenson confessed that he had looked forward to his second meeting with Tamate with a pleasure "hard to exaggerate." The position of his affairs at Vailima rendered his presence indispensable. He had purchased three hundred acres of bush land some months previously, and this was now being cleared of its dense tropical vegetation under his immediate oversight; he was his own architect, and was planning and re-planning the dwelling-house; in domestic matters he and Mrs. Stevenson had only the assistance of one servant, "a feckless, kindly creature," and " the less competent the servant, the more numerous and miscellaneous were the odd jobs which devolved upon his master and mistress," as Mr. Graham Balfour tells us; lastly, and finally, his wife was unwell and would not accompany him, and he could not leave her to rough it alone—" Fanny has been quite ill with earache. She won’t go, hating the sea at this wild season; I don’t like to leave her; so it drones on, steamer after steamer."
And so Stevenson reluctantly abandoned his project. "Forgive me my failure," he wrote. " I think your Master would have me break my word. I live in the hope of seeing you again. I pray God watch over you."
The expressed desire to see Tamate again was no pious platitude on the part of Tusitala. "I ask you as a particular favour, send me a note of the most healthy periods in New Guinea. I am only a looker-on. I have a (rather heavy) charge of souls and bodies. If I can make out any visit, it must be done sensibly, and with the least risk. But oh, Tamate, if I had met you when I was a boy and a bachelor, how different my life would have been.
"Dear Mrs. Chalmers, you say (and very justly) ‘Tamate is a rowdy ‘—your own excellent expression. I wonder if even you know what it means, to a man like me—a clever man, no modesty, observe !—a man fairly critical, a man of the world (in most of the ill senses), to meet one who represents the essential, and who is so free from the formal, from the grimace."
To his friend Mr. Sidney Colvin, Stevenson wrote, about the same time, " I wish you to get Pioneering in New Guinea, by J. Chalmers. It’s a missionary book, and has less pretensions to be literature than Spurgeon’s sermons. Yet I think even through that, you will see some of the traits of the hero that wrote it; a man that took me fairly by storm for the most attractive, simple, brave, and, interesting man in the whole Pacific:
He is away now to go up the Fly River; a desperate venture, it is thought; he is quite a Livingstone card."
A year later, Stevenson wrote to his friend Dr. H. Bellyse Bail-don: "Sick and well, I have had a splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little—and then only some little corners of misconduct for which I deserve hanging, and must infallibly be damned—and, take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time, unless, perhaps, it were (General) Gordon or our friend Chalmers: a man I admire for his virtues, love for his faults, and envy for the really A1 life he has, with everything heart—my heart, I mean—could wish. . . . I shall look forward to some record of your time with Chalmers: you can’t weary me of that fellow; he is as big as a house and far bigger than any church, where no man warms his hands."
In editing the letter from which we have just now quoted, Mr. Colvin, Stevenson’s literary executor, notes that Robert Louis Stevenson sometimes expressed a desire to survive Tamate, for the sake only of writing his life.
Dr. Baildon, who knew both men, has written since Tamate’s death: "These two men, in many respects such a contrast, had yet a great deal in common. They were both born adventurers, both explorers in different ways; and no two men I know of, in fact or fiction, were more sworn foes of conventionality. Both men had looked death almost daily between the eyes, without flinching; neither would perhaps have cared to alter the manner of his departure—the one suddenly smitten at the zenith of his intellectual powers, the other dying, like the Master he strove to follow, at the hands of those he sought to save."
Another comparison between Robert Louis Stevenson and Tamate comes from a different pen: "There was a remarkable difference in the ways these two men handled the natives. With all his Christian patience, Chalmers could be firm, and even stern when necessary, with the natives, and the smartest of them could never ‘pull his leg.’ Stevenson was imperious with the Samoans, but those wily humorists were always ‘getting at’ him."
It is to be hoped that written record of Tamate’s estimate of Stevenson will yet come to light. Meantime it is noteworthy that he once said of Robert Louis Stevenson that he was "the making of a good missionary gone wrong."