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The first chapter introduces David Balfour, the hero of the novel. David is a young boy of seventeen who has grown up in the town of Essendean, in the Lowlands of Scotland. David's father has recently died, leaving David an orphan, since his mother died some time ago. David is now preparing to leave Essendean to seek his fortunes elsewhere in the world. He meets Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, and a good friend to David and his late father. Mr. Campbell reveals the father's dying wishes to David. He wants David to take a letter to the House of Shaws in Cramond, near Edinburgh, which is where the father comes from. This means that David is, in fact, from a wealthy family, though he has grown up in poverty. David is to take the letter to Ebenezer Balfour, his uncle. Campbell then gives David four things: first, the little money left over from his father's estate; a Bible; a shilling; and a recipe for a healing ointment.
David walks two days toward Edinburgh. It is his first time in the city, and he is taken aback by the sight. He is especially interested in the ships he sees in the harbor. But he continues westward past Edinburgh, toward Cramond, where the House of Shaws is situated. He sees a troop of British soldiers (Redcoats) and is pleased by it.
Once he reaches Cramond, David begins asking for the House of Shaws, and is meant by some strange looks. He continues on, and finally asks someone about the House without revealing his connection to it. He discovers that the house seems to have little respect in the countryside, especially Ebenezer himself. David becomes disillusioned with the prospect of the House of Shaws, and suspects that his uncle is a mean old man. He almost turns back, but decides to press on. He comes upon a woman who points the House of Shaws out to him: a huge, decrepit old house that contrasts sharply with the beautiful countryside. As he stands there, the woman curses the house and its sole occupant.
Feeling very disappointed, David goes down to the house and knocks. He gets no answer, and must resort to pounding on the door to finally get some attention. An old man pops out of the window, armed with a gun, and demands to know David's business. David replies that he has a letter for Ebenezer, and gives his name. The man seems most interested in the fact that David's father is dead.
The old man allows David into the house, which is bare and just as run-down as the outside. The old man has many locks upon the door, and David thinks he is a servant. He is shocked to learn that the old man is, in fact, his uncle. The uncle asks whether he has read the letter he has brought, and David confesses that he hasn't. The uncle then asks whether he expects something, and David replies that he expects nothing, though he had hoped he might have wealthy relatives that would help him in life. David quickly becomes annoyed and angry with his ornery, suspicious uncle.
Ebenezer sends David to bed in a completely pitch-dark room. The next day, he badgers David with questions while being mildly hospitable. David tells him about Mr. Campbell, and Ebenezer threatens to throw him out if he sends word to anyone about the poverty of the House of Shaws. David then makes to leave, and Ebenezer tries to be friendly again. But when Ebenezer decides to go out, he tells David that he'll have to lock him out. David tells him that if the uncle locks him out, he'll never return, which distresses Ebenezer. The uncle decides not to leave.
David tells Ebenezer it's plain that he doesn't him, and offers to leave, but Ebenezer protests, claiming they will get along fine.
These early chapters set up the initial premise of the novel. David Balfour, a poor boy, is actually from a wealthy family, and is presumably in the position to inherit a great fortune. It seems like a fairy tale, and it partly is. Since the focus of the novel will be upon David's adventures with Alan Breck Stewart and not very much with David's quest to get his rightful inheritance, one might wonder why Stevenson bothers with the inheritance sub-plot in the first place.
There are several reasons for Stevenson creating this situation. First, he intended Balfour to represent one of his own ancestors, the well-known family of the Balfours, so it would be a misrepresentation to make David a poor boy. Second, and more importantly, Stevenson is writing for children, and some of those children may not be wealthy. It is every boy's dream to suddenly discover he is heir to a great inheritance. Finally, by making David one of the gentry (the upper class), Stevenson may have made the book more appealing to adults who want to believe they're reading something respectable, and not just a young boy's fantasy novel.
The attitudes of those he talks to toward the House of Shaws contribute to David's own growing sense of disappointment, which reaches a climax at the sight of the rickety old house. The house is large, but it has become run down and destroyed.
Ebenezer Balfour seems evil before he is even introduced, and his interest in David's father's death only makes the case against him worse. Stevenson makes no attempt to play on the reader's identification of the house with the man, as both are rotten. What makes Ebenezer interesting is the conflict that seems to rage within him. On the one hand, David is absolutely right. Ebenezer treats him like a thief, hates to have him in the house and lets him know, and clearly does not like David at all. Yet Ebenezer seems reluctant to let David leave once he has come to the house. Even after the reader has finished the story, Ebenezer's behavior makes little sense, since David is at this point not interested in claiming the decrepit House of Shaws and believes the family has no money.
It may be possible that the uncle is suffering from an inner conflict. On the one hand, he has fond memories of his brother, and he wants to do well by his brother's son. But on the other hand, he may feel vengeful toward David's father, and want to take out that vengeance upon David. He is probably also greedy and is worried that David will eventually try and claim his inheritance, which technically he has the right to do, as the eldest son of the eldest brother, though David does not know this; he thinks that Ebenezer is older than his late father. Whatever the reasons for his eccentric behavior, Ebenezer is clearly a villain, and this will not change by the end of the book.
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