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‘The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale’

An illustration from the first edition of “The Master of Ballantrae”

“I was walking one night in the verandah of a small house in which I lived, outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter; the night was very dark; the air extraordinary clear and cold, and sweet with the purity of forests. From a good way below, the river was to be heard contending with ice and boulders; a few lights appeared, scattered unevenly among the darkness, but so far away as not to lessen the sense of isolation. For the making of a story here were fine conditions. ‘Come,’ I said to my engine, ‘Let us make a tale, a story of many years and countries, of the sea and the land, savagery and civilization.'”

About five years before Robert Louis Stevenson and his family suddenly showed up in Saranac Lake, the author and his wife Fanny had interrupted their normal routine, if one existed, to tour some of Scotland’s remotest parts. In a rainstorm, their coach came to a crossroad and a sign with a new word for RLS — “Ballantrae.” Louis the tourist liked the sound of it and filed it away in his mental “to use” bin. His American friend, the painter Will H. Low, knew of this trait, saying that “his mind was a treasure house where every addition to its store was carefully guarded against the day of need.”

That day came in December of 1887, in Saranac Lake, when Ballantrae came out of lockup to take its place in literature and cinema. Having completed 12 essays for Scribner Magazine, the editor wanted more, specifically a new novel to serialize. The story that came to be, conceived on the porch Andy Baker built, with “A Winter’s Tale” for a sub-title, is a novel mixture of ingredients that has it stand apart from Stevenson’s main body of work like Whiteface Mountain stands off from the cluster of high peaks to the south, called the Great Range.

In fact, it is the originality of the plot, as tragic as any Greek drama, that keeps it in print, in spite of the glaring defect of its contrived ending, to which its author pleaded guilty. Stevenson had been so “bewitched” and “head over heels” with his new story that he sent out the first chapters without consideration for a conclusion — not exactly what you expect from a professional man of letters. That is how he explained it to his friend Sidney Colvin, a future member of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, telling him why “the second part will not be near so good,” but it seems to be good enough. Finding the solution to his predicament would make “The Master of Ballantrae,” geographically speaking, the most wide-ranging of Stevenson’s books, including two crucial sections set in the Adirondack region of New York state.

But “The Master” is more than action and adventure romance with still more pirates and buried riches. It was Stevenson’s first big project after the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the motif of the sinister double nature of the human soul was still active in his system. Getting to know James Durie, the antagonist, aka the Master of Ballantrae, is a walk on the Dark Side. To Colvin, RLS said of his new villain:

“The Master is all I know of the devil. I have known hints of him, in the world, but always cowards; he is as bold as a lion, but with the same deadly, careless duplicity I have watched with so much surprise in cowards. It’s true, I saw a hint of the same nature in another man, who was not a coward; but he had other things to attend to; the Master has nothing else but his devilry.”

Choosing the historical setting in which the Master would exercise his devilry came easy to his creator. In his very first essay from Baker’s, which was about dreams, Stevenson confesses to an “odd taste that he had for the Georgian costume and for stories laid in that period of English history,” that being the 18th century when England and France were squaring off for a duel in the New World for control of it. When the English got the upper hand, they named a lake in their New York province after their King George, one of a succession with the name, to give the name to the Georgian period which appealed so mightily to Robert Louis Stevenson. He even said that said period “began to rule the features of his dreams; so that he masqueraded there in a three-cornered hat, and was much engaged with Jacobite conspiracy, between the hour for bed and that for breakfast.”

When Stevenson was a boy subject of Queen Victoria of the conquering British Empire, he, like many boys in every generation, had favorite wars from history to imagine and recreate in play. At the time, the Crimean War was popular throughout the Empire, but for Louis from the land of Braveheart, that couldn’t hold a candle to the Jacobite Rebellion, aka the ’45 (1745) and, not surprisingly, the starting point for a winter’s tale called “The Master of Ballantrae.”

From the American point of view, 1745 would have been to the Scottish Rebellion what 1776 was to our revolution, except that they lost. They lost badly at a place called Culloden, a name that still stings the collective Scottish historical conscience. Bonnie Prince Charlie had led this doomed effort to dump the English king, which gave Robert Louis Stevenson suitable circumstances to bring about the fictional fall of the House of Durrisdeer, initiated with a coin toss at the outset of the ’45.

Once he set himself a course, RLS would set full sail, and here the metaphor applies to the zeal with which the writer applied himself to researching his projects. For “Treasure Island” he had soaked up the contents of Johnson’s “Buccaneers” and related items, but there the setting is imaginary whereas in “The Master” it is anything but. Stevenson needed facts for the fiction he wanted to write in Saranac Lake, and he knew where to go. In a letter to Charles Scribner, his publisher in New York City, on Dec. 15, 1887:

“I telegraphed you today for the ‘Memoirs of the Chevalier Johnstone,’ on which I depend; I cannot go on without it. I have to ask you now for works that will enable me to touch on colonial life here about 1760. I want any traveller’s books of early days; the best you can recommend. I want Dr. Eggleston’s book (‘A History of the Thirteen Colonies’) and how about somebody called McMasters (‘A History of the U.S.’). A journey in the woods at that date (1760-70) I have to make; can anything be produced? A missionary of that time; a military report of an expedition; what not? … What I want is originals.”

The best “original” Stevenson had was right in front of him all winter, a true-life Adirondacks pioneer woodsman with an education — his landlord, Andrew Baker. According to Baker’s daughter, Bertha, twin of Blanche:

“As to papa’s conversations with Stevenson. They did sit by the fire-grate often and the subject of the conversation was generally the early history of the Adirondacks. The changes which had taken place and the class of people visiting the ‘Mountains.’ He seemed greatly interested in the descriptions papa gave of his hunting trips, for at that time few came in search of health but to hunt, fish, etc. Stevenson always seemed cheerful on all occasions.”

How much did Andrew Baker contribute unwittingly to “The Master of Ballantrae,” if anything? That’s food for conjecture forever. When you cross the Crown Point Bridge between Vermont and New York state, you pass within yards of the ruins of French Fort St. Frederick on Lake Champlain. That is where Stevenson’s main character and his Irish sidekick, Col. Francis Burke, found refuge after their grueling “journey in the woods” in make-believe 1747.

To the British, they were outlaws guilty of treason, and to the Native American war parties in the neighborhood, they were a potential source of amusement. If you were ever lost in these mountains, you might remember something like this:

“Some parts of the forest were perfectly dense down to the ground, so that we must cut our way like mites in a cheese. In some the bottom was full of deep swamp, and the whole wood entirely rotten. I have leaped on a great fallen log and sunk to the knees in touchwood. I have sought to stay myself, in falling, against what looked to be a solid trunk, and the whole thing has whiffed away at my touch like a sheet of paper. Stumbling, falling, bogging to the knees, hewing our way, our eyes almost put out with twigs and branches, our clothes plucked from our bodies, we laboured all day, and it is doubtful if we made two miles. What was worse, as we could rarely get a view of the country and were perpetually jostled from our path by obstacles, it was impossible even to have a guess in what direction we were moving.”

That doesn’t sound like anything RLS would have got from Charles Scribner in New York City. It is from the first Adirondack section in “The Master,” while the second such scene is coincidental with the end of the tale, which is on a cold moon bright night somewhere in this primordial forest when it was still a pristine sacred hunting ground, not yet claimed by the white man.

About a year to the day it was, from start to finish, for Robert Louis Stevenson to send the last chapters of “The Master of Ballantrae” to go public in Scribner Magazine. By then RLS and family had moved on. Expeditions cease to be called that if they stay put. What Louis began in the cold of a dark night on his landlord’s veranda, he finished in a breezy shack on the warm sunny sands of Waikiki Beach, palm trees and all, in Hawaii.

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