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The Master of Ballantrae

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale is a book by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, focusing upon the conflict of two brothers, Scottish noblemen whose family is torn apart by the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Variant openings

In the first edition of 1889, the book began with Chapter One, "Summary of Events During the Master's Wanderings". For the second edition (known as the Edinburgh Edition), Stevenson added a preface in which he pretended to have been given the manuscript by an acquaintance. Stevenson stated in a letter that he made this change because he wanted to draw a portrait of a real-life friend of his, upon whom the acquaintance in the preface is based. In the many reprintings since then, the preface has sometimes been included and sometimes not. Nothing in the preface has any relevance to the story, which may be why some editors leave it out.


The Rising

The novel is presented as the memoir of one Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate in Scotland. The novel opens in 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rising. When Bonnie Prince Charlie raises the banner of the Stewarts, the Durie family--the Laird of Durrisdeer, his older son James Durie (the Master of Ballantrae), and the younger son Henry Durie--decide on a common strategy: one son will join the uprising while the other will join the loyalists. That way, whichever side wins, the family estate will be preserved. Logically, the younger son should join the rebels; but the Master insists on going, and contemptously accuses Henry of trying to usurp his place, comparing him to Jacob. The two sons agree to flip a coin to determine who goes. The Master wins, and departs to join the Rising, while Henry remains to support King George II.

The Rising fails, and the Master is reported dead. Henry becomes the heir of the estate, though he does not assume his martyred brother's title. At the insistence of the Laird, the Master's heartbroken fiancee marries Henry, to repair the Durie fortunes.

Some years pass, in which Henry is unfairly vilified by the townspeople, who accuse him of betraying the rising (although they know perfectly well that he did not.) He is treated with complete indifference by his family, since his wife and father spend all their time mourning the fallen favorite and ignore the younger son. The mild-tempered Henry bears the injustice quietly, even sending money to support his brother's bastard child and abandoned mistress, who abuses him foully.

Colonel Burke

In April 1749, however, a messenger appears; this is Colonel Francis Burke, an Irishman who had been out with the Prince. He bears letters from the Master, who is alive and living in France.

At this point the narrator, Mackellar, introduces a story within the story: it is the memoir of Colonel Burke, from which Mackellar extracts the sections that deal with the Master. From Burke's memoir it appears that the Master--who was only attached to the Prince for the chance of money and high station, and was a quarrelsome hindrance, always in favor of whatever he thought the Prince wanted to hear--abandoned the Rising as soon as it looked sure to fail, and in company with Burke took a ship for France, refusing to wait in case they might be able to rescue the Prince. However, the ship was old and unseaworthy, and commanded by an incompetent, and after seven days of being lost in bad weather it was taken by pirates. The pirate captain was called Teach (not the famous Edward Teach, called Blackbeard, who had died some thirty years previously, but an imitator) and took both Burke and the Master aboard to join his pirate crew, killing the rest of the ship's company. Burke and the Master sailed with the pirates for some time. The Master eventually succeeded in overthrowing Teach and becoming the new captain, and a brutal and ruthless one, seizing several ships and slaughtering all their crews to prevent their identifying him. Eventually he carried the ship to the coast of North Carolina, where he abandoned it and its crew to be taken by the Royal Navy while he escaped with Burke and two confederates, carrying all the ship's treasure between them. In the course of their escape through the swamp, the Master treacherously killed the two confederates and took their shares. Burke and the Master obtained passage to Albany on a merchant ship, deserting it once it made port and striking out across land for Canada, where they hoped to find sanctuary among the French, who supported the Rising. They took along a guide, an Indian trader named Chew, but he died of a fever and the pair became hopelessly lost. For some days the Master navigated his way through the wilderness by flipping a coin, saying, "I can think of no better way to express my contempt for human reason." In the end they buried the treasure. Burke records that the Master blamed his younger brother for all his troubles:

"Have you ever a brother?" said he. "By the blessing of Heaven," said I, "not less than five." "I have the one," said he, with a strange voice; and then presently, "He shall pay me for all this," he added. And when I asked him what was his brother's part in our distress, "What!" he cried, "he sits in my place, he bears my name, he courts my wife; and I am here alone with a damned Irishman in this tooth-chattering desert! Oh, I have been a common gull!" he cried.

After the Master's uncharacteristic explosion, the two quarrelled and separated. Burke never learned how the Master made it to France, where they met again.

The Master in Exile

Henry Durie and Mackellar learn something of the Master's piratical ventures, but do not inform the Laird or Mrs. Durie, both of whom continue to regard the Master as an angel lost to them. Henry continues to support the Master's mistress and bastard child, and also answers the Master's demands for money. The Master is in fact well-supported by a pension assigned by the French monarchy to Scotsmen who lost their estates due to the rising; but he continues to demand money from his brother anyway, accusing him of stealing the inheritance:

"'My dear Jacob' - This is how he begins!" cries he - "'My dear Jacob, I once called you so, you may remember; and you have now done the business, and flung my heels as high as Criffel.' What do you think of that, Mackellar," says he, "from an only brother? I declare to God I liked him very well; I was always staunch to him; and this is how he writes! But I will not sit down under the imputation" - walking to and fro - "I am as good as he; I am a better man than he, I call on God to prove it! I cannot give him all the monstrous sum he asks; he knows the estate to be incompetent; but I will give him what I have, and it is more than he expects. I have borne all this too long. See what he writes further on; read it for yourself: 'I know you are a niggardly dog.' A niggardly dog! I niggardly? Is that true, Mackellar? You think it is?" I really thought he would have struck me at that. "Oh, you all think so! Well, you shall see, and he shall see, and God shall see. If I ruin the estate and go barefoot, I shall stuff this bloodsucker. Let him ask all - all, and he shall have it! It is all his by rights. Ah!" he cried, "and I foresaw all this, and worse, when he would not let me go."

Henry bleeds the estate dry to answer the Master's demands, consequently getting a name for a miser; he does not tell even his family where the money is going. This continues for seven years, in the course of which Henry sends the Master some eight thousand pounds.

Colonel Burke Again

In July 1756, Mackellar receives a letter from Colonel Burke in Champagne. Burke relates that the Master's court intrigues have backfired on him, and he has been imprisoned in the Bastille. He has since been released, but has lost his Scots Fund pension and the regiment he had been commanding, and is now destitute again. He plans an expedition to India, but will require a good deal of money to send him on his way. Mackellar exults at this chance to be rid of the leech, but by an ill fate this letter has crossed with another letter, in which Henry has told the Master the estate is at last exhausted.

The Master Returns

In November 1756, the Master returns to Durrisdeer, under the alias of "Mr. Bally". He meets Henry on the road to the house, sneeringly comparing the two of them to Jacob and Esau, and ominously says that Henry has chosen his fate by not agreeing to the Master's plan to go to India. On his return he ingratiates himself with his father and with his brother's wife (who was once his own fiancee). Neither have seen him in eleven years, and both are overjoyed at his return. With Satanic gifts of deceit and manipulation, the Master turns the family against Henry, always putting him in the wrong, always cruelly insulting him while making it seem as though Henry is insulting the Master. To the family it seems that the Master is a long-suffering kind-hearted hero and saint, while Henry is a cruel, unfeeling monster. In private, the Master gloats over his success to Henry, taunting him by pointing out that their father does not love him, that Henry's daughter prefers the Master's company, and that despite the Master's falseness and crimes he is everyone's favorite. He exults that he will destroy Henry's virtue:

"[Y]ou need not look such impotent malice, my good fly. You can be rid of your spider when you please. How long, O Lord? When are you to be wrought to the point of a denunciation, scrupulous brother? It is one of my interests in this dreary hole. I ever loved experiment."

However, Henry suffers in silence.

Mackellar eventually discovers that the Master has betrayed the Jacobites, and sold himself to the English by becoming a paid agent of King George; this is the real reason for his safe return. However, even when Henry confronts the Master with this--right in the middle of the Master's holding forth on the great peril of his life he is running by returning to be with his family--the Laird and Mrs. Durie remain blind to the Master's nature. Even when the Master demands that the Laird break the entail, and sell off a large part of the estate at a disadvantageous price to finance the Master's expedition to India, the Laird remains besotted, and rebukes Henry for ungenerosity when he objects.

Eventually, the Master goads Henry one time too many. On the night of 27 February 1757, he tells Henry that Mrs. Durie has never loved him, and has always loved the Master instead. Henry strikes him, and the two brothers fight a duel. In the course of the duel, Henry runs the Master through, and he falls to the ground as though dead. Mackellar takes Henry indoors, and then rouses the house; but when he and the Laird return to the duelling ground, the body is gone. By the tracks they can see that the body was dragged away by smugglers, who carried it to a boat; but whether alive or dead they do not know.

The Master in India

The Master survives the duel, and, with the money extorted from his father, goes to India to make his fortune. Back at the Durrisdeer estate, the old Laird declines and dies, and Henry becomes the new Laird. Mackellar, on his own authority, shows to Mrs. Durie all the correspondence between Henry and the Master, as well as the papers that prove the Master was a paid spy, and her eyes are opened; she becomes reconciled with Henry. The two have a son, whom they name Alexander. However, after the duel, Henry gradually becomes mentally unstable. His personality changes, and he becomes careless about business and the estate. When Mackellar tells him that the Master is probably still alive, he responds strangely:

"Ah!" says Mr. Henry; and suddenly rising from his seat with more alacrity than he had yet discovered, set one finger on my breast, and cried at me in a kind of screaming whisper, "Mackellar" - these were his words - "nothing can kill that man. He is not mortal. He is bound upon my back to all eternity - to all eternity!" says he, and, sitting down again, fell upon a stubborn silence.

When Alexander is a toddler, Mackellar comes across Henry showing Alexander the duelling ground, and telling him that this was where a man fought with the Devil. A second excerpt of Colonel Burke's memoirs details a brief encounter he had with the Master while in India. While caught in a "mellay", Burke and his cipaye flee and climb into a garden, where Burke sees the Master sitting with an Indian servant named Secundra Dass. Burke requests help from the Master, but the Master does not acknowledge him, and Secundra Dass (in English) tells the two of them to leave and threatens them with a pistol. Burke leaves, and the story within a story ends.

The Second Return

In the Spring of 1764, Mackellar comes downstairs one day to find the Master in the house, accompanied by Secundra Dass. The new Laird receives him coldly, and Mackellar warns him that there will be no money forthcoming. The Master sneers and answers him:

"[S]peech is very easy, and sometimes very deceptive. I warn you fairly: you will find me vitriol in the house. You would do wiser to pay money down and see my back."

The Laird takes his wife and children and leaves Scotland for New York, where Mrs. Durie has a family estate. Mackellar remains behind and tells the Master that he may have room and board at Durrisdeer, but he will not be permitted to contact the family, nor given any money. The Master furiously answers:

"Inside of a week, without leaving Durrisdeer, I will find out where these fools are fled to. I will follow; and when I have run my quarry down, I will drive a wedge into that family that shall once more burst it into shivers. I shall see then whether my Lord Durrisdeer" (said with indescribable scorn and rage) "will choose to buy my absence; and you will all see whether, by that time, I decide for profit or revenge."

New York

Eventually the Master discovers where the Duries have gone, and he takes ship for New York. Mackellar follows, to get ahead of the Master and warn the Laird. The Master finds the family prepared against him, and sets up shop in the town, pretending to work as a tailor, but really only working to poison the town against his brother. Henry, who has grown more unstable as the years pass, takes pleasure in rubbing the Master's face in his failure. Eventually the Master makes his demand: the pirate treasure he buried years ago is still there; if Henry will give him the money to set out to retrieve it, he will go. However, Henry refuses. Mackellar remonstrates that it would be worth the money to be rid of the Master, but Henry will not be moved. Desperate, Mackellar goes to the Master and offers to pay for the expedition himself. The Master refuses, and rants that he only cares about ruining his brother:

"Three times I have had my hand upon the highest station: and I am not yet three-and-forty. I know the world as few men know it when they come to die - Court and camp, the East and the West; I know where to go, I see a thousand openings. I am now at the height of my resources, sound of health, of inordinate ambition. Well, all this I resign; I care not if I die, and the world never hear of me; I care only for one thing, and that I will have."

Around this time a ship arrives from Britain, carrying news; among the papers it brings is an anonymous political pamphlet asserting that the Master of Ballantrae is to be restored to the lordship of Durrisdeer, and young Alexander disinherited. The pamphlet is obviously false, but the already unhinged Henry believes it and is driven to madness. Unknown to Mackellar, Henry arranges with a smuggler to gather a crew of riff-raff and present themselves to the Master as willing to set out with him for a share of the treasure; though their real mission will be to murder him. The Master is deceived, but in the course of the expedition he discovers their plan. He tries to escape them, and fails; he tries to set them against one another, and fails; at last he announces that he has fallen ill. He wastes away, and on his deathbed tells them where the treasure is hidden. Secundra Dass wraps up his body and buries him, and the party sets out; but they fall afoul of hostile Indians, and all but Secundra Dass and one man named Mountain are killed.

Mountain encounters the diplomat Sir Willam Johnson, on his way to negotiate with the hostile Indians; with him are Henry Durie and Mackellar. Mountain tells them the story of the Master's burial, and also that Secundra Dass has gone back towards where it happened; Mountain thinks Dass is after the treasure. Henry, however, is convinced that the Master is not really dead:

"He's not of this world," whispered my lord, "neither him nor the black de'il that serves him. I have struck my sword throughout his vitals," he cried; "I have felt the hilt dirl on his breastbone, and the hot blood spirt in my very face, time and again, time and again!" he repeated, with a gesture indescribable. "But he was never dead for that," said he, and sighed aloud. "Why should I think he was dead now? No, not till I see him rotting," says he.

The party finds Dass digging up the Master's body. Caught in the act, he tells them that the Master was faking his illness, and Dass had showed him how to swallow his tongue and fake death. They unearth the Master's body, and he opens his eyes briefly; at the sight, Henry falls faint to the ground and dies. The Master's resurrection is only momentary, as he too dies almost immediately. Mackellar buries the two of them under the same stone, with the inscription:

J. D.,
* * * * *
H. D.,
* * * * *



It was made into a movie in 1953 with Errol Flynn as the Master.

There have been several TV adaptations, the most recent in 1984, with John Gielgud as the Laird.

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