Study Guide

Kidnapped Defeat

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Advertisement - Guide continues below


I set him on a chair and looked at him. It is true I felt some pity for a man that looked so sick, but I was full besides of righteous anger; and I numbered over before him the points on which I wanted explanation: why he lied to me at every word; why he feared that I should leave him; why he disliked it to be hinted that he and my father were twins–"Is that because it is true?" I asked; why he had given me money to which I was convinced I had no claim; and, last of all, why he had tried to kill me. He heard me all through in silence; and then, in a broken voice, begged me to let him go to bed.

"I'll tell ye the morn," he said; "as sure as death I will." (4.48-49)

Appearances can be deceiving. Here Davie is flying high and Ebenezer seems completely defeated. It's not an idle promise to claim "as sure as death" that he'll explain why he tried to kill Davie. We don't want to push this point about appearances and defeat too far, but much of this novel is dedicated to hiding: hiding clan loyalty, hiding outlaws, hiding from English soldiers. So Ebenezer's successful deception of Davie seems like a foreshadowing of future events.

"And then, besides," he continued, "it's no sae bad now as it was in forty-six. The Hielands are what they call pacified. Small wonder, with never a gun or a sword left from Cantyre to Cape Wrath, but what tenty folk have hidden in their thatch! But what I would like to ken, David, is just how long? Not long, ye would think, with men like Ardshiel in exile and men like the Red Fox sitting birling the wine and oppressing the poor at home. But it's a kittle thing to decide what folk'll bear, and what they will not. Or why would Red Colin be riding his horse all over my poor country of Appin, and never a pretty lad to put a bullet in him?" (12.53)

Alan regrets the English laws that have taken the Highlander's guns and swords from them and bemoans that the Highlands seem "pacified," made peaceful. But how long will the Highlands stay down, Alan wonders. This is one of those weird moments when the fact that this novel is historical fiction really matters, because we know that Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. So that pacification Alan regrets continues to this day.

The captain took no part. It seemed he was struck stupid. He stood holding by the shrouds, talking to himself and groaning out aloud whenever the ship hammered on the rock. His brig was like wife and child to him; he had looked on, day by day, at the mishandling of poor Ransome; but when it came to the brig, he seemed to suffer along with her. (13.36)

Real defeat only seems to accompany the loss of things that matter to you: in Ebenezer's case, the house of Shaws; in Hoseason's case, the Covenant. Is there some kind of message here about the fragility of investing all your love in objects that can be taken from you?

James carried me accordingly into the kitchen, and sat down with me at table, smiling and talking at first in a very hospitable manner. But presently the gloom returned upon him; he sat frowning and biting his fingers; only remembered me from time to time; and then gave me but a word or two and a poor smile, and back into his private terrors. His wife sat by the fire and wept, with her face in her hands; his eldest son was crouched upon the floor, running over a great mass of papers and now and again setting one alight and burning it to the bitter end; all the while a servant lass with a red face was rummaging about the room, in a blind hurry of fear, and whimpering as she went; and every now and again one of the men would thrust in his face from the yard, and cry for orders. (19.16)

James knows that he is going to be arrested and tried for the Appin murder, which he is innocent of. This scene gives us a sense of exactly how much power and influence the clans have lost in Scotland at this point, as James desperately tries to burn papers and bury weapons in case the English come.

By what I have read in books, I think few that have held a pen were ever really wearied, or they would write of it more strongly. I had no care of my life, neither past nor future, and I scarce remembered there was such a lad as David Balfour. I did not think of myself, but just of each fresh step which I was sure would be my last, with despair–and of Alan, who was the cause of it, with hatred. Alan was in the right trade as a soldier; this is the officer's part to make men continue to do things, they know not wherefore, and when, if the choice was offered, they would lie down where they were and be killed. And I dare say I would have made a good enough private; for in these last hours it never occurred to me that I had any choice but just to obey as long as I was able, and die obeying. (22.33)

Davie is frequently brought to a state of physical defeat. He falls ill repeatedly and often lags behind Alan as they travel across the Highlands. Why? Does Davie's physical troubles change your feelings about his character? Is his physical weakness accompanied by any other kind of weakness (moral, emotional…)?

To be sure, there might have been a purpose in his questions; for though he was thus sequestered, and like the other landed gentlemen of Scotland, stripped by the late Act of Parliament of legal powers, he still exercised a patriarchal justice in his clan. Disputes were brought to him in his hiding-hole to be decided; and the men of his country, who would have snapped their fingers at the Court of Session, laid aside revenge and paid down money at the bare word of this forfeited and hunted outlaw. When he was angered, which was often enough, he gave his commands and breathed threats of punishment like any king. (23.15)

Even in the middle of conquered land, where Cluny Macpherson is a wanted man, he manages to rule the internal affairs of his clan with absolute authority. If a conquered group does not accept its defeat, has it really been conquered?

As we got near the clachan, he made me take his arm and hang upon it like one almost helpless with weariness; and by the time he pushed open the change-house door, he seemed to be half carrying me. The maid appeared surprised (as well she might be) at our speedy return; but Alan had no words to spare for her in explanation, helped me to a chair, called for a tass of brandy with which he fed me in little sips, and then breaking up the bread and cheese helped me to eat it like a nursery-lass; the whole with that grave, concerned, affectionate countenance, that might have imposed upon a judge. It was small wonder if the maid were taken with the picture we presented, of a poor, sick, overwrought lad and his most tender comrade. She drew quite near, and stood leaning with her back on the next table. (26.46)

We've come full circle: Ebenezer starts out the novel tricking Davie onto the Covenant by pretending to be more pathetic than he really is. Now Davie and Alan are fooling a nice young woman into helping them get across the bay by emphasizing Davie's poor condition.

By this, I saw [Rankeillor] must have heard [Alan's] name all too clearly, and had already guessed I might be coming to the murder. If he chose to play this part of ignorance, it was no matter of mine; so I smiled, said it was no very Highland-sounding name, and consented. Through all the rest of my story Alan was Mr. Thomson; which amused me the more, as it was a piece of policy after his own heart. James Stewart, in like manner, was mentioned under the style of Mr. Thomson's kinsman; Colin Campbell passed as a Mr. Glen; and to Cluny, when I came to that part of my tale, I gave the name of "Mr. Jameson, a Highland chief." It was truly the most open farce, and I wondered that the lawyer should care to keep it up; but, after all, it was quite in the taste of that age, when there were two parties in the state, and quiet persons, with no very high opinions of their own, sought out every cranny to avoid offence to either. (27.46)

We may be stretching the definition of defeat a bit with this one, but bear with us for a second. Rankeillor is walking this difficult line where he wants to help Davie, but he also doesn't want to betray his work as a man of the law. So he starts these elaborate schemes to emphasize that he has no idea who "Mr. Thomson" is, going so far as to pretend to lose his glasses so that he's struck by sudden blindness in a later scene. Rankeillor is twisting the rules to maintain the appearance that he is not hanging around with outlaws. He's fooling no one with his charades, so why bother to do it at all?

Never a word said my uncle, neither black nor white; but just sat where he was on the top door-step and stared upon us like a man turned to stone. Alan filched away his blunderbuss; and the lawyer, taking him by the arm, plucked him up from the doorstep, led him into the kitchen, whither we all followed, and set him down in a chair beside the hearth, where the fire was out and only a rush-light burning.

There we all looked upon him for a while, exulting greatly in our success, but yet with a sort of pity for the man's shame. (29.58-59)

Perhaps the perfect revenge against Ebenezer for his poor treatment of Davie is not a trial or public condemnation, but this sudden deprivation of his wealth. After all, Ebenezer bargained away his love life for money, and money is all he's had for the last twenty years. By the end of the novel, he is completely defeated.

Kidnapped Defeat Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...