The Master of Ballantrae

by Robert Louis Stevenson
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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988

First published: 1889

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Mid-eighteenth century

Locale: Scotland, India, France, and America

Principal Characters:

James Durie, Master of Ballantrae

Henry Durie, James’s brother

Alison Graeme, Henry’s wife

Ephraim Mackellar, the factor of Durrisdeer

Secundra Dass, James’s servant

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Latest answer posted October 11, 2010, 3:01 pm (UTC)

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The Story:

Stuart Pretender landed in Scotland in 1745 to assert his right to the throne of England by force of arms if necessary. At this time, the Duries of Durrisdeer decided to steer a middle course. One son would fight for the exiled Stuart, and the other would bide at home in loyalty to King George. James, Master of Ballantrae and his father’s heir, won the toss of a coin and elected to join the Stuart cause. The younger son, Henry, stayed at Durrisdeer. By this means, it was hoped by their shrewd old father that either way the struggle went, the family estate would remain intact.

Word of the defeat of the Scottish forces at Culloden and the news of James’s death came soon after. Henry became the Master of Ballantrae. In 1748, he married Alison Graeme, who had been betrothed to James; but even after a daughter and a son had been born to them, their marriage was overshadowed by the spirit of the former Master of Ballantrae. James had been the favorite son. Old Lord Durrisdeer had denied him nothing, and Alison had loved him. This feeling led to domestic difficulties, and later the village gossips idolized James and accused Henry of selling out the Stuart cause.

Colonel Francis Burke, an Irishman, came into this strained situation and announced that he and James had escaped together from the field at Culloden. The old Lord was exceedingly happy with this news; Henry felt frustrated; Alison seemed pleased. Burke’s mission was to get money from the estate to take to James, who was living in France. Henry arranged to send him money through Burke.

Burke described his association with James and their adventures after leaving Scotland. The ship on which they escaped was boarded by pirates, and James and Burke were taken aboard the pirate ship. The pirates, under the leadership of Teach, their captain, were a drunken, incompetent, and ignorant lot.

James bided his time, and when the ship put in for repairs, he escaped with Burke and several members of the crew, after robbing the store chest of money and treasure Teach had accumulated. With their spoils, James and Burke eventually arrived in New York, where they met Chew, an Indian trader. They took off with him into the wilderness. When Chew died, they were left without a guide. James and Burke quarreled and separated. James buried his treasure and set off through the wilderness for Fort St. Frederick. When he arrived at the fort, he again met Burke, who welcomed him as a long-lost brother and paid his fare to France.

In France, James served in the French army and became a man of consequence at the French court because of his adeptness at politics, his unscrupulousness, and the money from his inheritance in Scotland. His demands finally put the estate in financial difficulties; over a period of seven years, he demanded and obtained a sum amounting to more than eight thousand pounds. Because he practiced strict economy to provide funds for his brother, Henry acquired a reputation as a miser and was upbraided by his wife. Then in 1756, Alison learned the true state of affairs from Mackellar, Henry’s factor.

Matters ran more smoothly in the household until James returned suddenly from France aboard a smuggler’s lugger. His father was overjoyed to see his favorite son, who during his stay at Durrisdeer was known as Mr. Bally. James’s hatred for Henry was known only to Henry and Mackellar. In the presence of the household, James seemed to be on the friendliest terms with his brother, but when no one was around, he goaded Henry by subtle innuendoes and insinuations. Henry bore this state of affairs as best he could because James, even in exile, was the true Master of Ballantrae. As a further torment for his patient brother, James paid marked attention to Alison, and it seemed that she preferred his company to Henry’s.

Matters came to a head one night when James casually mentioned to Henry that there never was a woman who did not prefer him when Henry was around. When this assertion was made, there was no one present but Mackellar, Henry, and James. Henry struck James, and hot words quickly led to drawn swords. The brothers ordered Mackellar to carry candles into the garden. They went outside, Mackellar remonstrating all the while, but he could not stop the duel. The air was so still that the light of the candles did not waver as the brothers crossed swords. From the onset, Henry became the aggressor, and it was not long before James realized he stood to lose the fight. He then resorted to trickery. As Henry lunged, James seized his brother’s blade in his left hand. Henry saved himself from James’s stroke by leaping to one side, and James, slipping to one knee from the force of his lunge, impaled himself on Henry’s sword. Mackellar ran to the fallen James and declared him dead.

Henry seemed stupified and made off toward the house at a stumbling pace. Mackellar took it upon himself to tell Alison and the old Lord what had happened. The four decided that the first thing to do was to remove James’s corpse. When they arrived at the scene of the duel, however, the body had disappeared. They decided that smugglers, attracted by the light of the candles in the shrubbery, had found the body and taken it away, and their belief was confirmed by bloodstains they found on the boat landing the next morning. Mr. Bally was reported in the neighborhood to have left Durrisdeer as suddenly as he had arrived.

As the affair turned out, James had been found alive but seriously wounded. He was taken aboard a smuggler’s ship, and when he recovered, he went to India. After he made a fortune there, he returned once more to Scotland in the company of an Indian named Secundra Dass.

James and Secundra Dass arrived at Durrisdeer early one morning. That night Henry, his wife, and two children left the house secretly and took the next ship to New York. James, having learned of Henry’s plans through the eavesdropping of Secundra Dass, sailed for New York three weeks later, and Mackellar, hoping to help his master, went with James and his servant. When they arrived in New York, Mackellar was pleased to learn that Henry had already taken precautions to forestall any claims that James might make.

When James’s allowance from his brother proved insufficient for him to live in the style he desired, he set up shop as a tailor, and Secundra Dass employed himself as a goldsmith. Hatred for James gradually became an obsession with Henry. He reveled in the fact that after many years of humiliation and distress he had his wicked brother in his power.

To recoup his fortunes, James made plans to recover the treasure that he had previously hidden in the wilderness. He asked Henry to lend him the money to outfit an expedition, but Henry refused. Although he hated James, Mackellar could not bear to see a Durie treated in such a haughty manner; therefore, he sent to Scotland for his own savings to assist James. Henry, however, had plans of his own, and he conspired with a man of unsavory reputation to guide James into the wilderness and kill him there. Again, Secundra Dass overheard a chance conversation and warned his master of danger. Then James sickened and died. He was buried, and his guide returned to report his death to Henry.

Henry, however, believed his brother James to be in league with the devil, with the ability to die and return to life seemingly at will. He set out for James’s grave with Mackellar and a small party. They arrived one moonlit night in time to see Secundra Dass in the act of exhuming James’s body, and they gathered around to see what would happen. After digging through the frozen earth for a short distance, Secundra Dass removed his master’s body from the shallow grave. Then the Indian began strange ministrations over the corpse. The moon was setting. The watchers imagined that in the pale light they saw the dead man’s eyelids flutter. When the eyes opened and James looked full into his brother’s face, Henry fell to the ground. He died before Mackellar could reach his side.

The Indian trick of swallowing the tongue to give the appearance of death, however, would not work in the cold American climate, and Secundra Dass failed to bring James completely to life. James, the Master of Ballantrae, and his brother were united in death in the wilderness of America.

Critical Evaluation:

THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE: A WINTER’S TALE is considered by many to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s best novel, although it probably is not as well-known as TREASURE ISLAND or KIDNAPPED. The story is engrossing, moves with commendable speed, and generally does not seem incredible. Although marred by a weak setting and an uneven plot, the novel is nevertheless a remarkable study in human insufficiency. Stevenson structures his moral fable around a tragic view of man’s proclivity for evil, evidenced first and most powerfully in the person of James Durie, and, later, in his once-virtuous brother, Henry.

It would be incorrect to term the novel an allegory; it is nothing so firm in either its moral or narrative patterns. Rather, it is an intricate ethical exemplum that borrows richly, even indiscriminately, from biblical legend and from PARADISE LOST. Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, the Prodigal Son (here unrepentant) are all obvious references as is the splendor of Milton’s Satan, made radiant in the character of James. (Throughout the tale, he is almost an archetypal Satan.)

The book’s first part locates its ethical absolutes in the two brothers—one good (Henry), one bad (James). Directed by Ephraim Mackellar’s irresolute judgments, the reader has little difficulty establishing the moral natures of the two men, but beginning with Henry’s presumed slaying of James, the novel takes on an imposing moral obliquity. In a gradual, then more sudden fashion, Henry becomes a villain in his own right and possibly a madman, if the narrator can be believed. For the reader familiar with THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886), this turnabout, of course, is no novelty, for Stevenson repeats the notion of a man destroying what is (by implication) part of himself. The human tragedy depicted in the book, therefore, is clear: Satan tempts and man falls, made insufficient not so much by weak virtue as by newfound strength in evil.

The tale is ostensibly a “history” of the kind common in the eighteenth century (the temporal setting of the work). Therefore, the narrator, Mackellar, documents his facts, sorts out truth from rumor, and calls attention to his own conjectures. Stevenson, however, does much more than imitate a century-old genre. The reporter-narrator becomes himself a figure of interest, a firm believer in Providence and a moral prism, as it were, through which judgments of several kinds are refracted. Point of view is made to call into question the very nature of truth itself (the most common word in the novel is “know”) to the point where THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE becomes a study in epistemological doubt. If one cannot know human nature, the book seems to argue, neither can one know the greater mystery of evil and of the Providence that permits it to flourish.

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