Opening Passage: There are two different versions of The Master of Ballantrae, one of which, the original, jumps directly into the story and the other of which has a preface describing how the author received the 'manuscript', which Stevenson later added as a sort of tribute to a friend. Mine was in the latter family, but it still makes sense to treat the opening of the work as beginning with Chapter One.
The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully. I knew the Master; on many secret steps of his career I have an authentic memoir in my hand; I sailed with him on his last voyage almost alone; I made one upon that winter’s journey of which so many tales have gone abroad; and I was there 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. Altogether, I think it not fit that so much evidence should perish; the truth is a debt I owe my lord’s memory; and I think my old years will flow more smoothly, and my white hair lie quieter on the pillow, when the debt is paid.
Summary: James and Henry Durie are the two sons of Lord Durrisdeer. James is the titular Master, the villain of the piece who will drive his younger brother to near madness and death. He is the reader of the two, the one with the sharper mind; Henry is solid, with a taste for sport and the practical. But James is also the wilder of the two, overly indulged from an early age, and intelligent enough, charming enough, and strong enough of will to do as he pleases. And it is, of course, doing merely as one pleases that makes a villain.
The family is caught in the middle during the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, and like many families that were in a comfortable position, attempts as a matter of policy to hedge its bets, with one son supporting Stuart in the field and one son supporting Hanover at home, but a dispute arises over which son will do which. Reason suggests that the older son should remain at home and marry, and the younger son leave home, but the Master will have none of it: he wants the adventuresome path. It is put to the toss of a coin, and the Master wins. An irony throughout the work is that the Master refers to Henry as 'Jacob', maliciously implying that Henry has usurped the Master's place; but if so, the Master is an Esau who sold his birthright for what turned out to be insignificant after all.
Thus begins the doom of the house of Durie, although, perhaps, the Master would have doomed it either way. In any case, the Master goes off to fight for bonnie Prince Charlie and apparently dies. His fiancee marries Henry instead, and Henry himself -- well, he receives a very unfavorable reputation in the neighborhood for failing to support the uprising and is treated very poorly in his own home as his father and his wife mourn, and continue to mourn, and don't stop mourning, the fallen Master. But the Master, cat-like, has more lives than one, or, rather, a knack for turning a desperate gamble in his own favor. One of the interesting aspects of the story is the way in which the Master poisons everyone's behavior, and manages to do it, often enough, when he is at his most charming and apparently harmless. He is indeed, as Stevenson thought him, something of a devil, filled with "deadly, causeless duplicty" made all the worse by his being "bold as a lion". He repeatedly uses the decency of those around him against them, whenever he thinks it is in his interest. And it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that while most of the Master's ilk are, unlike himself, cowards, there are a very great many people in the world who thrust decent characters into bad situations in the hope that they will blackmail themselves, who provoke people into excess and then use their shame to manipulate them, and who turn loyalty into corruption and generosity into a means of parasitism.
Favorite Passage: From Chapter IX:
He was quite capable of choosing out a graceful posture, even with no one to behold him but myself, and all the more if there were any element of peril. He sat now with one knee flung across the other, his arms on his bosom, fitting the swing of the ship with an exquisite balance, such as a featherweight might overthrow. All at once I had the vision of my lord at the table, with his head upon his hands; only now, when he showed me his countenance, it was heavy with reproach. The words of my own prayer—I were liker a man if I struck this creature down—shot at the same time into my memory. I called my energies together, and (the ship then heeling downward toward my enemy) thrust at him swiftly with my foot. It was written I should have the guilt of this attempt without the profit. Whether from my own uncertainty or his incredible quickness, he escaped the thrust, leaping to his feet and catching hold at the same moment of a stay.
I do not know how long a time passed by. I lying where I was upon the deck, overcome with terror and remorse and shame: he standing with the stay in his hand, backed against the bulwarks, and regarding me with an expression singularly mingled.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.
[ADDED LATER]: I almost forgot to add that I did manage to listen to the Orson Welles & Agnes Moorehead "Master of Ballantrae" episode for the Golden Age radio program This Is My Best. It wasn't bad, but despite some excellent acting, it was a weak episode. One of the problems with it is that the story moved far too quickly. It shows, I think, that much of the strength of the book is found in its relatively leisured pace.