The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's TaleRobert Louis Stevenson
Transcribed from the 1914 Cassell and Company edition by David Price,email [email protected]
The Master of Ballantrae A Winter’s Tale
To Sir Percy Florence and Lady Shelley
Here is a tale which extends over many years and travels into manycountries. By a peculiar fitness of circumstance the writer began,continued it, and concluded it among distant and diverse scenes. Aboveall, he was much upon the sea. The character and fortune of thefraternal enemies, the hall and shrubbery of Durrisdeer, the problem ofMackellar’s homespun and how to shape it for superior flights; these werehis company on deck in many star-reflecting harbours, ran often in hismind at sea to the tune of slatting canvas, and were dismissed (somethingof the suddenest) on the approach of squalls. It is my hope that thesesurroundings of its manufacture may to some degree find favour for mystory with seafarers and sea-lovers like yourselves.
And at least here is a dedication from a great way off: written by theloud shores of a subtropical island near upon ten thousand miles fromBoscombe Chine and Manor: scenes which rise before me as I write, alongwith the faces and voices of my friends.
Well, I am for the sea once more; no doubt Sir Percy also. Let us makethe signal B. R. D.!
R. L. S.
WAIKIKI, _May_ 17, 1889
Although an old, consistent exile, the editor of the following pagesrevisits now and again the city of which he exults to be a native; andthere are few things more strange, more painful, or more salutary, thansuch revisitations. Outside, in foreign spots, he comes by surprise andawakens more attention than he had expected; in his own city, therelation is reversed, and he stands amazed to be so little recollected.Elsewhere he is refreshed to see attractive faces, to remark possiblefriends; there he scouts the long streets, with a pang at heart, for thefaces and friends that are no more. Elsewhere he is delighted with thepresence of what is new, there tormented by the absence of what is old.Elsewhere he is content to be his present self; there he is smitten withan equal regret for what he once was and for what he once hoped to be.
He was feeling all this dimly, as he drove from the station, on his lastvisit; he was feeling it still as he alighted at the door of his friendMr. Johnstone Thomson, W.S., with whom he was to stay. A hearty welcome,a face not altogether changed, a few words that sounded of old days, alaugh provoked and shared, a glimpse in passing of the snowy cloth andbright decanters and the Piranesis on the dining-room wall, brought himto his bed-room with a somewhat lightened cheer, and when he and Mr.Thomson sat down a few minutes later, cheek by jowl, and pledged the pastin a preliminary bumper, he was already almost consoled, he had alreadyalmost forgiven himself his two unpardonable errors, that he should everhave left his native city, or ever returned to it.
“I have something quite in your way,” said Mr. Thomson. “I wished to dohonour to your arrival; because, my dear fellow, it is my own youth thatcomes back along with you; in a very tattered and withered state, to besure, but—well!—all that’s left of it.”
“A great deal better than nothing,” said the editor. “But what is thiswhich is quite in my way?”
“I was coming to that,” said Mr. Thomson: “Fate has put it in my power tohonour your arrival with something really original by way of dessert. Amystery.”
“A mystery?” I repeated.
“Yes,” said his friend, “a mystery. It may prove to be nothing, and itmay prove to be a great deal. But in the meanwhile it is trulymysterious, no eye having looked on it for near a hundred years; it ishighly genteel, for it treats of a titled family; and it ought to bemelodramatic, for (according to the superscription) it is concerned withdeath.”
“I think I rarely heard a more obscure or a more promising annunciation,”the other remarked. “But what is It?”
“You remember my predecessor’s, old Peter M’Brair’s business?”
“I remember him acutely; he could not look at me without a pang ofreprobation, and he could not feel the pang without betraying it. He wasto me a man of a great historical interest, but the interest was notreturned.”
“Ah well, we go beyond him,” said Mr. Thomson. “I daresay old Peter knewas little about this as I do. You see, I succeeded to a prodigiousaccumulation of old law-papers and old tin boxes, some of them of Peter’shoarding, some of his father’s, John, first of the dynasty, a great manin his day. Among other collections, were all the papers of theDurrisdeers.”
“The Durrisdeers!” cried I. “My dear fellow, these may be of thegreatest interest. One of them was out in the ’45; one had some strangepassages with the devil—you will find a note of it in Law’s _Memorials_,I think; and there was an unexplained tragedy, I know not what, muchlater, about a hundred years ago—”
“More than a hundred years ago,” said Mr. Thomson. “In 1783.”
“How do you know that? I mean some death.”
“Yes, the lamentable deaths of my Lord Durrisdeer and his brother, theMaster of Ballantrae (attainted in the troubles),” said Mr. Thomson withsomething the tone of a man quoting. “Is that it?”
“To say truth,” said I, “I have only seen some dim reference to thethings in memoirs; and heard some traditions dimmer still, through myuncle (whom I think you knew). My uncle lived when he was a boy in theneighbourhood of St. Bride’s; he has often told me of the avenue closedup and grown over with grass, the great gates never opened, the last lordand his old maid sister who lived in the back parts of the house, aquiet, plain, poor, hum-drum couple it would seem—but pathetic too, asthe last of that stirring and brave house—and, to the country folk,faintly terrible from some deformed traditions.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Thomson. “Henry Graeme Durie, the last lord, died in1820; his sister, the honourable Miss Katherine Durie, in ’27; so much Iknow; and by what I have been going over the last few days, they werewhat you say, decent, quiet people and not rich. To say truth, it was aletter of my lord’s that put me on the search for the packet we are goingto open this evening. Some papers could not be found; and he wrote toJack M’Brair suggesting they might be among those sealed up by a Mr.Mackellar. M’Brair answered, that the papers in question were all inMackellar’s own hand, all (as the writer understood) of a purelynarrative character; and besides, said he, ‘I am bound not to open thembefore the year 1889.’ You may fancy if these words struck me: Iinstituted a hunt through all the M’Brair repositories; and at last hitupon that packet which (if you have had enough wine) I propose to showyou at once.”
In the smoking-room, to which my host now led me, was a packet, fastenedwith many seals and enclosed in a single sheet of strong paper thusendorsed:
Papers relating to the lives and lamentable deaths of the late Lord Durisdeer, and his elder brother James, commonly called Master of Ballantrae, attainted in the troubles: entrusted into the hands of John M’Brair in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh, W.S.; this 20th day of September Anno Domini 1789; by him to be kept secret until the revolution of one hundred years complete, or until the 20th day of September 1889: the same compiled and written by me, EPHRAIM MACKELLAR,
For near forty years Land Steward on the estates of his Lordship.
As Mr. Thomson is a married man, I will not say what hour had struck whenwe laid down the last of the following pages; but I will give a few wordsof what ensued.
“Here,” said Mr. Thomson, “is a novel ready to your hand: all you have todo is to work up the scenery, develop the characters, and improve thestyle.”
“My dear fellow,” said I, “they
are just the three things that I wouldrather die than set my hand to. It shall be published as it stands.”
“But it’s so bald,” objected Mr. Thomson.
“I believe there is nothing so noble as baldness,” replied I, “and I amsure there in nothing so interesting. I would have all literature bald,and all authors (if you like) but one.”
“Well, well,” add Mr. Thomson, “we shall see.”