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Robert Louis Stevenson - Master Of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale (1889)

In January, 1870, Robert Louis Stevenson, while on a tramp through Carrick and Galloway, spent a night at Ballantrae. Striking names always had a fascination for him, and the flowing, mellifluous sound of The Master of Ballantrae seemed to him specially fitted to convey the impression of elegance and smooth duplicity suggesting the character he meant to portray. For years the name lay dormant in his mind, but though the earlier portion of the story was planned in August, 1881, it was not until the winter of x887, when the author was at Saranac in the Adirondacks, that the inspiration seized him to work seriously on The Master. It subsequently appeared as a serial in Scribner's Magazine in 188$, though the book was not actually finished until May, 1889. The writer began the story, continued it, and concluded it among distant and diverse scenes. The story is consequently one of many climes and countries, of sea and land, of savagery and civilization.

THE world has long waited for the true story of the Master, and as I was intimately acquainted with the last few years of his life and with the history of his house, I feel well fitted to narrate the facts aithfully. I knew the many secret steps of my Master's career; I sailed with him on his last voyage almost alone; and I was present at the man's death. As for my late Lord Durrisdeer, I served him and loved him near twenty years, and thought more of him the more I knew of him.

The Duries of Durrisdeer and Ballantrae were a strong family in the southwest from the days of David First. The house of Durrisdeer, near St. Bride's on the Solway shore, had been the chief stronghold of their race since the Reformation. In the year 1745 the house was occupied by my old lord, eighth of the name, suffering prematurely from the disabilities of age, with few words for any man and wry words for none. He was reputed in the county to be more cunning than he seemed. This same policy in the father became black dissimulation in his son James, the Master of Ballantrae- Mr. Henry, his brother (my late Lord Durrisdeer), was an honest, solid sort of lad, his chief occupation being the management of the estate. This thankless task won for him the reputation of a tyrant and a miser.

The fourth person in the house was Miss Alison Graeme, a near kinswoman, an orphan, and heiress to a considerable for-tune. This money was loudly called for by my lord's necessities, and Miss Alison was designed accordingly to be the Master's wife, gladly enough on her side, but reluctantly on his. She was a comely girl, and in those days very spirited and self-willed, growing up as she might and doing as she pleased.

To these four came the news one day of Prince Charlie's landing; and the family decided to steer a middle course. One son should go forth and strike a blow for King James, my lord and the others staying at home to keep in favor with King George. The question now arose as to which son should go forth for King James, and the decision was made by the toss of a guinea.

"Heads, I go; shield, I stay," said Mr, Henry. The coin was spun, and it fell shield.

"We shall live to repent of this," said Mr. Henry, and flung out of the hall.

As for Miss Alison, she caught up that piece of gold which sent James, her lover, to the wars, and sent it clean through the family shield in the great painted window.

"If you loved me as well as I love you, you would have stayed I" she cried.

"`I could not love you, dear, so well, loved I not honor more,' sang the Master.

"You are heartless," she answered, "and I hope you may be killed!" And she ran from the room in tears.

It seems the Master then turned to my lord and said: "This looks like the devil of a wife!"

"I think you are the devil of a son to me," retorted his father; "you that have always been the favorite, to my shame be it spoken."

Altogether it was in pretty ill blood with his family that the Master rode forth to the north, making their grief all the more poignant when the venture ended in defeat at Culloden, and a report of the Master's death.

"I have still one son," says my lord. "And, Henry, I will do you this justice, it is the kinder that is left."

Miss Alison bitterly resented this speech, considering it an implied reproach to the Master, and called him the flower of the flock.

Mr. Henry angrily exclaimed : "I know you loved him."

"The world knows that!" said she. "There is none but me to know one thing—that you were a traitor to him in your heart."

Even the country folk began to murmur, and deplore the loss of their Master, comparing him with his brother who was accused of spending his time persecuting poor tenants. They even went so far as to throw stones at him, until Miss Alison took compassion on him. After the Master's death had been announced, my lord had set his heart on her marrying Mr. Henry, but she had refused. Now she decided to accept him, saying to my lord :

"If Henry still wants me, he can have me now." To him-self she had a different speech: " I bring you no love, Henry, but God knows all the pity in the world."

They were married on the first day of June, 1748, and that same year I went to Durrisdeer. I shall now give the history of events as they befell under my own observation. Mr. Henry, with whom I worked, soon won my affection and sympathy. The fault of most of his unhappiness lay with Mrs. Henry, who felt herself a martyr because she had married him and made a merit of her constancy to the dead. Mr. Henry bore this all with infinite patience, loving her with all his heart.

Just after Miss Katharine was born befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives. On the seventh day of April, 1749, Colonel Francis Burke, one of the Prince's Irishmen, came to Durrisdeer with strange news. He announced that the Master had escaped from Culloden and was at that moment in Paris. He then related a wonderful story of their adventures together on a pirate ship and afterward in the icy wilderness of Canada, concluding his recital with a request for much needed funds for the Master.

The enormous sum named was given ungrudgingly by Mr. Henry, and for seven years the Master continued to drain the family exchequer, making rigid economy at Durrisdeer a necessity. When the usual yearly trip to Edinburgh was postponed, Mrs. Henry upbraided her husband for being a miser; but when I explained the facts of the case she forgave him and said she was in the wrong.

Things went more smoothly now in the family, until a letter containing a further request for money was unavoidably delayed a week, and caused a sudden return of the Master him-self to Durrisdeer. He was received with a hearty welcome by my lord and by Mrs. Henry, but it went hard with poor Mr. Henry. The Master was an adept at the art of placing his brother in an unenviable light.

"Henry, will you ride with me?" he asked one day, and Mr. Henry, who had been goaded to madness by the man, raps out sharply: "I will not!"

" Sometimes I wish you would be kinder," said the Master with a wistful air.

One evening the Master dilated on the song of an exile's sweetheart, and the rustic words set forth a poor girl's aspirations for an exiled lover. He sang it well even as a song, but did better yet as a performer. When it came to the end, we all sat silent for a time. He had chosen the dusk of the afternoon, so that none could see his neighbor's face; but it seemed as if we held our breath, and only my lord cleared his throat.

When the lights were brought in, me thought Mrs. Henry's face was a shade pale, and she withdrew almost at once. Thus he ventured to lay siege to her heart, though so deftly she was hardly aware of it herself.

The Master seemed to take a fiendish delight in thus aggravating his brother, even making up to little Miss Katharine, so that they played together like children. Like all his diabolical acts, this cut in several ways. It was the last stroke to Mr. Henry, making him harsh with the poor innocent and bringing him a peg lower in his wife's estimation. She naturally turned to the Master for sympathy, and methought she breathed of some quiet, melancholy happiness.

To look on at this was a torment to Mr. Henry, and the climax came one evening at a game of cards, after my lord and His wife found the sentiment quite natural, and having learned from me the cause of the duel, loved her husband the more. We were all three of the same mind, that no news could reach Durrisdeer more welcome than tidings of the Master's death.

About this time my old lord sickened and died, broken-hearted at the conduct of his sons. Mr. Henry was not troubled with remorse, talking of the dead with regretful cheerfulness, and apparently finding a solid gratification in his own accession to the title. His cup of happiness was filled at the birth of the present lord, Alexander, in 1757. As soon as the child could walk the two would share in all sorts of boyish entertainments, with the same childish delight.

One day I found them in the shrubbery, Mr. Henry, or rather, my lord, standing with Alexander in the open space where the duel was fought. My lord had his hand on the boy's shoulder, and was speaking with much gravity. When he saw me he said :

"Ah, here comes the good Mackellar. I have just been telling Sandie the story of this place, and how there was a man whom the devil tried to kill, and how near he came to kill the devil instead."

I had thought it strange enough he should bring the child into that scene, but that he should actually tell him about it passed my comprehension. But the worst was yet to come, when he added, turning to his son: "You can ask Mackellar. He was here and saw it."

"Is it true, Mr. Mackellar?" asked the child. "And did you really see the devil?"

"I have not heard the tale," I replied, "and I am in a press of business."

Another time I took my lord to task for his slavish devotion to his child, warning him that he was following his father's bad example :

"Beware, my lord, lest (when he grows up) your son should follow in the Master's footsteps."

I received no reply, for my lord rose to his feet in anger, and then fell heavily on the floor. When he came to himself he put his hand to his head, saying in a broken voice: "I have been ill, Mackellar. Something broke—or was going to break—and then all swam away. I think I will go to Mrs. Henry." And he left me overcome with penitence.

Presently the door flew open, and my lady swept in with flashing eyes.

"What is all this?" she demanded. "What have you done to my husband?"

When I explained I could see her animosity fall.

"You meant well, indeed," she said. "But, dear God ! can you not understand that he can bear no more. The cord is stretched to snapping. What matters the future, if he have one or two good days?"

"Amen!" said I. "I will meddle no more. I am pleased enough that you should recognize the kindness of my meaning."

No more incident of note occurred in the family until the return of that ill-starred man, the Master. He was accompanied this time by Secundra Pass, with whom he had become acquainted in India. They arrived at dawn, and that very night my lord and his family left the house secretly, taking the next ship to New York.

Three weeks later, the Master and Secundra Dass (who had learned my plans by eavesdropping and pretending he could not understand English) followed, and perforce I was obliged to accompany them. On landing in America I hastened to Mr. Henry and told him the news, which he received calmly. He had taken his precautions, and the Master found that his fangs were drawn.

The Master dissembled his true feelings and tried by every device to win sympathy for himself among all persons he met, but without avail. Then he changed his tactics, and played his game so skilfully that I fell into the trap. Knowing how much we desired his absence from town, he persuaded me to give him sufficient money to go in search of some treasure he had buried while in the Adirondacks with Colonel Burke.

Desirous to be rid of him, I lent him the desired amount, and had the satisfaction of seeing him embark with a Captain Harris, at that time engaged in the business of an Indian trader, and leader of a party of nine desperate miscreants. Secundra Dass went as the Master's faithful servant, and his apparent ignorance of English served him to good purpose.

During the journey into the Adirondack wilderness the Captain was apparently friendly with the Master, who shared the command with him, but the latter suspected treachery. Secundra Dass was on his guard. One day he overheard a conversation, which led him to infer that the life of his Master was in danger, and he warned him accordingly.

The Master trade several attempts to escape but without avail, and finally simulated sickness and death. The wailing of Secundra one night announced that all was over, and before ten o'clock the Indian was toiling at the grave. Sunrise of next day beheld the Master's burial, all hands attending with great decency of demeanor. The body was laid in the earth wrapped in a fur robe with only the face uncovered. It was of a waxy whiteness, and had the nostrils plugged, according to some Oriental custom.

No sooner was the grave filled than the lamentations of the Indian once more struck concern to every heart. His distress seemed so genuine that it appealed to this rough gang of murderers, and they kindly endeavored to console him. As the Master had told the men the hidden treasure was near by, they concluded not to break camp, and spent the day in unavailing explorations of the woods. Secundra meanwhile lay stretched on the Master's grave.

That night no sentinel was placed on guard, and all lay together about the fire, woodman fashion, their heads outward like the spokes of a wheel. Morning found them in the same position, but during the night one of the men had been secretly scalped. The Indians were suspected; so the camp was moved the following night and a sentinel set on guard, but with the same result. The party kept on moving, but each night their number was lessened, until only a trader named Mountain and Secundra remained.

Mountain decided it was best to return to my lord and narrate what had happened, but what puzzled him greatly was the fact that Secundra declined to accompany him. On the contrary, he immediately retraced his footsteps along that pathway whose every stage was marked, as with a milestone, by a mutilated corpse.

When my lord heard the news of his brother's death he re-fused to believe it, even though the man was buried.

"This man has the name of my brother," he exclaimed, "but it's well understood he was never canny."

Then he whispered to me, looking around furtively: "He's not of this world, neither him nor the black de'il that serves hint I have struck my sword through him, and felt the hot blood spurt in my very face, time and time again, yet he was never dead for a that. Why should I think he is dead now? No, I won't believe it till I see him rotting."

Then nothing would do but that my lord must follow the trail of the traders; and, guided by Mountain, We were shown the way to the Master's grave: It was a moonlight night when we arrived, and then we saw a sight which chilled the blood in our veins.

Secundra Dass stood ankle deep in the grave of his late master, his face contracted with anxiety and expectation, his blows resounding on the grave as thick sobs: I heard Mountain whisper: "Good God, it's the grave! He's digging him up!" It was what we had all guessed, yet the gruesome fact thrilled me when put in words.

Secundra leaped irk the air whet we spoke to him and started to run swift as an arrow to the woods, but the next instant, with a violent gesture of resolution, he retraced his steps:

"Well, then, you come; you help—" he was saying, when my lord went to the grave, then Securdra screamed harshly: "Hint, my master's enemy!" Pointing to the grave, he continued: "The Sahib, he not dead. He bury; but he not dead."

My lord sighed, and moving nearer to the grave stared into it, saying not a word,

" Buried and not dead?" exclaimed Mountain. " What kind of rant is this, pray?

"See, Sahib!" said Secundra. "The Sahib and I, alone with murderers, try all way to escape; no way good. Then try this way; good way in warm climate, good way in India; here in this cold place, who can tell? I tell you, pretty good hurry; you help, you light a fire, help rub: Now I go, dig the Sahib up.

My lord stood rooted to the spot; I stood at his side, fearing I knew not what.

The frost was not very deep, and the Indian presently threw aside his tool, and, scooping up the dirt by handfuls, came upon the buffalo-robe. A moment more and the moon shone on something white. Secundra crouched upon his knees, scraping with delicate fingers, breathing with puffed lips, and when he moved aside I beheld the face of the Master wholly uncovered.

Secundra continued his work, digging swift as a terrier in the loose earth, until the form of the Master could be seen at the bottom of the shallow grave. The sight filled us with horror, and I dared not look my lord in the face; but for as long as it lasted I never observed him to draw breath.

"Now," said Secundra, "you help me lift him out."

Of the flight of time I knew nothing, but it seemed hours while the Indian tried to reanimate his master's body. The moon was not yet set, although it had sunk low and now barred the plateau with long shadows. Suddenly Secundra gave a cry of joy, and, leaning forward, I saw myself that a change had come over that icy countenance of the disinterred. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they rose entirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face.

This is all I can vouch for, though others say he visibly strove to speak, and that his brow was contorted with an agony of pain and effort. At any rate, the shock was too great for my lord, for at the first opening of the dead man's eyes he fell to the ground, and when I raised him he was a corpse.

Day came, and Secundra was still trying to reanimate the dead body of his master, and not until noon was he convinced his efforts were useless. He realized the truth with unshaken quietude.

"Too cold," said he. "Good way in India; no good here."

Ravenously devouring some food placed before him, he then drew near the camp-fire and fell into a childlike slumber. Some hours afterward I had to arouse him to take his part as one of the mourners at the double funeral.

As for myself, I had a fitting inscription chiseled on a boulder, testifying to the memory of the two brothers, and with this I bring my narrative to a close:

J. D.,

H. D.,


( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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