The sixteen-year-old narrator, David Balfour, begins his story one morning in June 1751 as he is leaving his family home in Essendean, in the Lowlands of Scotland to seek his fortune. His father has recently died and his mother has been dead for some time. Mr. Campbell, the preacher who has looked after David since his father’s death, meets him at the garden gate. Mr. Campbell reveals that before David’s father died, he gave him a letter for David detailing David’s inheritance. Mr. Campbell adds that David’s father wanted his son to go to the house of Shaws, near Edinburgh, which is where David’s father came from. Mr. Campbell explains that the house of Shaws belongs to the Balfour family, and that David is a relative of theirs. Mr. Campbell gives David the letter, which is addressed to Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws. Mr. Campbell encourages David to go to the house of Shaws, as the worst that can happen is that David’s relatives turn him away and he has to make the two-day journey back.
Before David departs, Mr. Campbell gives him four things: the small sum of money left to him from his father’s estate, a shilling from Mr. Campbell and his wife, a Bible, and a recipe for a healing water made from lilies of the valley.
On his second day of walking, David reaches the neighborhood of the house of Shaws. When he asks passers-by for directions, he finds that they are wary of the place and of Ebenezer, and warn him against going there. Near sundown, David asks a woman for further directions. She points out a ruined house in the next valley. David’s heart sinks, as he was expecting to find wealthy relatives. The woman bitterly curses the house of Shaws and its laird (lord), Ebenezer. David trembles with shock, but approaches the house, which on closer inspection proves to be in a run-down condition, with one wing unfinished.
David knocks at the door. After some time, a man appears at an upstairs window, pointing a blunderbuss (an early form of shotgun) at David. David tells the man that he has a letter for Ebenezer Balfour. The man tells him to put the letter on the step and leave, but David insists that he must deliver it into Ebenezer’s hands. David reveals his name, and the man starts in surprise. The man speculates that David has come because his father is dead. David wonders how he knows this. The man reluctantly says he will let David in.
The man lets David into the house, which is as bare and run-down on the inside as it is on the outside. The table is set with a poor meal of porridge. The man is wearing a nightgown over a ragged shirt, and David wonders if he is an elderly servant. The man demands to see David’s letter, but David says it is for Mr. Balfour. The man reveals that he is Ebenezer Balfour, David’s uncle, and David’s late father’s brother. David, shocked, hands him the letter. Ebenezer asks if he knows what is in it, and David says he does not. Ebenezer asks if he hopes for something. David confesses that when he heard he had wealthy relatives, he hoped they might help him, but he wants no favors that are not freely given.
Ebenezer sends David to bed without any candles to light his way. The room is filthy and unkempt. Once David has entered the room, Ebenezer locks him in from the outside.
The next morning, David shouts for Ebenezer to let him out, which he does. Over a porridge breakfast, Ebenezer questions David about who his friends are. David tells him about Mr. Campbell. Ebenezer tells David that he means to help him, but warns him not to speak about him and the house of Shaws to anyone.
David reports Jennet Clouston’s message to Ebenezer, and Ebenezer reveals that it was he who forced her to sell up her house and belongings.
Ebenezer is about to go out when he says that he cannot leave David by himself in the house. He will have to lock him out. David is angry with the mean-minded Ebenezer, and says this will mark the end of any friendship between them. David says that it is plain that Ebenezer does not like him, and says he will leave, but Ebenezer insists that they will get along fine.
Examining Ebenezer’s books, David finds one with an inscription on the flyleaf in his father’s mature style of handwriting. It reads: “To my brother Ebenezer on his fifth birthday.” David is baffled. He had assumed that his father was the younger brother, as then Ebenezer, as the elder and first-born son, would have inherited the house of Shaws by the laws of primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born, normally male, child). But the inscription suggests that David’s father was the elder brother – unless David’s father was able to write well before he was five. David questions Ebenezer about this, and he becomes angry and threatening. David feels he can cope, as he is stronger than his uncle.
Both men mistrust one another. Ebenezer says that he once informally promised David’s father to put a little money aside for him, and gives David forty pounds. David thanks him, and asks what he can do in return. Ebenezer says he can help him with the house and garden, and begins by sending David up the stair-tower at the unfinished end of the house to fetch a chest containing some papers. Ebenezer says he has no lights, so David sets off up the stairs in pitch darkness. At one point, a flash of lightning reveals that David is within inches of stepping into mid-air, and falling into the well. He knows now that Ebenezer wanted to send him to his death. He comes back down the stairs and enters the main part of the house, surprising his uncle, who falls to the floor as if in shock. David arms himself with a dagger he finds in a cupboard. As Ebenezer comes round, David tries to question him, but all Ebenezer will say is that he will tell David everything in the morning. This time, it is David who locks Ebenezer in his bedroom for the night.
David feels proud of having defeated his uncle’s plot to kill him, and fantasizes about taking “the upper hand,” driving him “like a herd of sheep,” and becoming “that man’s king and ruler.” When he confronts his uncle the next morning, Ebenezer tries to pass off his actions as a joke.
There is a knock at the door. It is a cabin boy with a letter from Captain Hoseason to Ebenezer. In the letter, Hoseason says he is waiting at Queensferry harbor with his boat, the Covenant, and wants to know if Ebenezer has any further orders. It appears that Ebenezer and Hoseason have some kind of business partnership and that these business interests have run into problems. Hoseason also writes that he has had a disagreement with Mr. Rankeillor, a lawyer who has been acting as Ebenezer’s agent.
Ebenezer says that he must go to see Hoseason on business and that if David will go with him, they will both call on Mr. Rankeillor, a well-respected lawyer who knew David’s father. Though David does not trust Ebenezer, he reasons that he can come to little harm in a populated area like the harbor, and he wishes to consult the lawyer, so he agrees to go.
On the journey, David chats to the cabin boy, whose name is Ransome. Ransome talks about life on board the Covenant. He describes Hoseason as brutal, a quality that Ransome admires, and proudly shows David a wound on his leg caused by Mr. Shuan, the navigator. Ransome boasts about the wild and bad things he has done, but David only feels sorry for him. David learns that the Covenant has transported criminals to slavery in North America, as well as innocent people who were kidnapped for private interest or vengeance.
David, Ebenezer and Ransome arrive at the Hawes Inn, Queensferry, where they are to meet Hoseason. David catches sight of the Covenant in the harbor, and pities all those who sail in her.
While Ebenezer and Hoseason talk business in an upstairs room, Ebenezer sends David downstairs to amuse himself. David walks to the beach and chats to some of the sailors, who are a rough bunch of men. Then he talks to the landlord of the inn, who calls Ebenezer a wicked old man. He says that Jennet Clouston is not the only person who has been driven out of her home by Ebenezer. He also says that there is a rumor that Ebenezer killed David’s father to get the house of Shaws. The landlord adds that David’s father was the eldest son (and therefore would normally have inherited the estate of Shaws). David is stunned by this news of his good fortune: he is the heir to the estate.
Ebenezer and Hoseason emerge from their meeting. Hoseason invites David on board the Covenant, saying he will set him ashore at the town pier, near Rankeillor’s house. He whispers in David’s ear that Ebenezer “means mischief” towards him. David has always wanted to see the inside of a ship, and is convinced by Hoseason’s warning that he is an ally, so steps aboard the Covenant. Immediately, the ship casts off. David sees Ebenezer in a separate boat heading for the town. David cries out, and Ebenezer turns to look at him, his face full of “cruelty and terror.” At that moment, David is knocked unconscious.
Analysis of Chapters I-VI
In Kidnapped, Stevenson often uses foreshadowing, an element introduced into the story that predicts future events, to create a sense of suspense. The first major example of foreshadowing occurs when David asks passers-by directions to the house of Shaws, and they give an overwhelmingly negative impression of the place and its laird, Ebenezer Balfour. These negative responses reach a mini-climax in the melodramatic curse of Jennet Clouston, which shocks David in its violence. Such warnings are, of course, a typical element of gothic novels and the horror and suspense genres: the innocent stranger, when approaching the place of evil, is advised against going there by local inhabitants. Such foreshadowing sets up an expectation in the reader that something bad is going to happen to the innocent character in that place, and make the reader want to find out exactly what.
Another example of foreshadowing comes in Chapter IV. David feels that he is like a character in an old ballad, “of a poor lad that was a rightful heir and a wicked kinsman that tried to keep him from his own.” David’s intuition summarizes the story of Kidnapped. David’s comment is also an example of a character transcending the usual limitations of his role and standing outside his situation, looking at it from a privileged viewpoint. In this instance, he takes on the role of a particularly prescient reader, who knows what will happen to a character in advance.
However, David’s prescience in this instance does not prevent him from falling into Ebenezer’s traps: the first time, he narrowly escapes death through luck when a lightning strike illuminates his dangerous position in the stair-tower; and the second time, he fails to escape when he is tricked aboard the Covenant and kidnapped. The reader is entitled to ask whether David is unusually naïve. In David’s defense, he is only sixteen; he has lived a sheltered life among well-meaning people and is not used to dealing with evil-natured people; and it is reasonable for him to expect a relative (especially one to whom he has been sent by his loving father) to be kindly disposed towards him. In addition, David is an orphan, and it is natural for him to desire to find a parent-figure to stand in the place of the father he has just lost. It is his tragedy that the person best placed to take on the paternal role – Ebenezer – is, in fact, trying to do away with him.
David’s immaturity (a quality for which, at the age of sixteen, he can hardly be blamed severely) shows in the dangerous pride that blinds him as a result of foiling Ebenezer’s plot to have him fall to his death from the stairs. “I saw myself in fancy smell out his secrets one after another, and grow to be that man’s king and ruler,” reflects David in Chapter V. In the light of what follows, there is much irony in this, as what actually happens is the opposite. David may have momentarily got the better of Ebenezer, but he does not know that he is about to be kidnapped and sold into slavery on Ebenezer’s orders. He makes the mistake of submitting once again to Ebenezer’s direction in leaving the house before Ebenezer has explained his story. David’s mistaken thoughts about gaining control over his uncle show his naivety, as well as highlighting the dangers of pride, which frequently comes before a fall.
In a deft psychological touch by Stevenson, David falls into the kidnapping trap for two convincingly realistic reasons. The first is that, while Ebenezer is something of a storybook villain – a ragged, mean and miserly old man living in a run-down house – Captain Hoseason is a respectable-seeming man with polite and hospitable manners. To David, he must seem a welcome contrast to Ebenezer, to such an extent that he is eager to assume that he is a good man. The second reason is that Hoseason quietly warns David that Ebenezer “means mischief,” and invites him aboard the Covenant in order to tell him more. Thus Hoseason has all the appearance of being an ally for David against a common enemy, Ebenezer. However, David makes a serious mistake in leaving Hoseason and Ebenezer alone in conversation while going off to look at the ship. Overcome by the heat in Hoseason’s room, David is drawn instead to an essentially childish activity, which helps to blind him to the fact that his life and liberty are at risk.
The reader, in another example of foreshadowing, has been warned of the fate that awaits David on board the Covenant by hearing Ransome’s account of the brutalities of the crew and the wound that he received from Mr. Shuan.
The name of the ship, the Covenant, merits some discussion. A covenant is a one-way agreement or promise (the agreement or promise is binding on the covenanter but not on the recipient). Hoseason and the crew of the Covenant keep, and break, certain promises. In tricking David into coming aboard the ship, Hoseason breaks an unspoken covenant that was traditionally held dear in Scotland (and that Stevenson introduces later in the novel in the episode with James of the Glens) – that of hospitality to the stranger. Hoseason offers David “a bowl” of food or drink, tobacco, or anything he wishes, but he dishonors this covenant because his real motive is to lure David into his power. Hoseason also breaks the implicit covenant of common humanity that should prevent him from doing harm to David, who is little more than a boy. But neither of these spiritual covenants have any power over Hoseason because he has signed a worldly covenant with Ebenezer: to sell David into white slavery in the Carolinas. This is the one covenant that he intends to keep. It is governed by greed, not by humanity.
In the light of the slavery plot, it is noteworthy that Hoseason offers David various gifts from the Carolinas, such as Indian featherwork and tobacco. With these gifts, he is symbolically buying David’s liberty – and his innocence. Hoseason here takes on something of the flavor of the devil in a morality play, who tempts man with promises of worldly goods in exchange for his soul.
The name of Ransome, too, has symbolic resonance. The cabin boy has ransomed (exchanged) his innocence for the dubious rewards of his job on the Covenant.