Thursday, November 13, 2014

Battle of the Round-house: Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" (Part 2)

Happy 164th, RLS
One hundred and sixty-four years ago on this day, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a great storyteller was born. Yes--Robert Louis Stevenson. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while already know how much I admire him. This post, the second in a series of posts on his novel Kidnapped, is the one "birthday present" I can give to the fine writer who only lived 44 years. So thank you, Stevenson, and happy birthday.
What is it about great stories that is so real to us? My siblings and I talk of the Shire, Minas Tirith, and Mordor as if they were quite real places. Not in a literal sense, I suppose. But it seems that way, because although Middle-earth can only ever live in our imaginations, it's still something we share. We feel the fireside at Bag End must have really existed, in some sense, because we've all "been" there; we have the same memories of it, though we all read Lord of the Rings at different times. Those worlds--in books that are very precious to us--seem to take on a life that does not depend on our imagination.
Perhaps this is foolishness. But I bet that at least a few--if not many--book-lovers have had the exact same experience. So allow me, over the next few posts, to share with you a handful of the places I've lived, and loved, between the covers of a book called Kidnapped.
The Round-house

The roundhouse was built very strong, to support the breaching of the seas. Of its five apertures, only the skylight and the two doors were large enough for the passage of a man. The doors, besides, could be drawn close: they were of stout oak, and ran in grooves, and were fitted with hooks to keep them either shut or open, as the need arose. (Kidnapped, Chapter 9, "The Man with the Belt of Gold")

Welcome to the captain's quarters of the merchant ship Covenant. If you're an ordinary sailor, you're probably not in here much. But if you're a lad named David Balfour, this is where you lived for a while--an involuntary cabin boy, waiting on a dour captain and a drunken first mate, on your way to seven years of slavery in the American colonies. By all rights, the round-house should be one of your least favorite memories.
But it's also the place where you meet Alan Breck Stewart. It's the place where you decide to save a man's life, though he is a stranger--indeed, might have been an enemy in any other situation. You're a law-abiding citizen; he's a wild outlaw. And yet, for the sake of the right, you throw in your lot with his:

...I walked right up to the table and put my hand on his shoulder.
"Do ye want to be killed?" said I.
He sprang to his feet, and looked a question at me as clear as if he had spoken.
"O!" cried I, "they're all murderers here; it's a ship full of them! They've murdered a boy already. Now it's you."
"Ay, ay," said he; "but they haven't got me yet." And then looking at me curiously, "Will ye stand with me?"

Your answer to that question is the true beginning of your story. In the next few hours, through the heat of battle, you will forge a friendship with this "wild Hielander" that will change your life. "Let your hand keep your head, for the grip is coming," says Alan. It comes fiercely, and against all the odds--you win out. So far you've been deceived by malicious relatives and kidnapped by greedy sailors; the round-house is your first victory. 

The roundhouse was like a shambles; three were dead inside, another lay in his death agony across the threshold; and there were Alan and I victorious and unhurt.
He came up to me with open arms. "Come to my arms!" he cried, and embraced and kissed me hard upon both cheeks. "David," said he, "I love you like a brother! And O, man," he cried in a kind of ecstasy, "am I no a bonny fighter?"
So he is, though you're rather too shaken by shedding your first blood (albeit in self-defense) to compliment your new friend on his swordsmanship. But the night isn't over yet. You and Alan have driven off the treacherous sailors for now, but there's no sense taking any chances. Inside the little fortress of the round-house, you set up your night-watch:
So I made up my bed on the floor; and he took the first spell, pistol in hand and sword on knee, three hours by the captain's watch upon the wall. Then he roused me up, and I took my turn of three hours; before the end of which it was broad day, and a very quiet morning, with a smooth, rolling sea that tossed the ship and made the blood run to and fro on the round-house floor, and a heavy rain that drummed upon the roof.
There's something haunting about that muted rain, after the clash and fury of last night. But you are glad of it. It gives you a chance to take a breath, regain your wits, ponder this strangely fortunate twist of fate. Your comrade-in-arms stretches out in the captain's bunk, sleeping like a child. Who is this Alan Breck Stewart, after all? Well--you'll know him better presently.
The triumphant duo
To be continued