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David spends most of the day hanging around the House of Shaws. He finds a book in the library, signed by his father and dedicated to his Uncle Ebenezer on his fifth birthday. This confuses David, since he feels sure that Uncle Ebenezer must be much older than his father. It confuses him so much that he wonders whether perhaps his father was quick to learn to write, and so he asks Ebenezer if he and David's father were brothers. This enrages Ebenezer. But the uncle stops himself, and he pretends that he is so upset by his brother's death that he cannot bear to hear him spoken about. All of this only confuses David even more.
But it does make him suspicious. He begins to think that perhaps there is some great fortune due to him, by inheritance, that his uncle is trying to keep him from. So he becomes suspicious himself. But then Ebenezer gives him forty pounds sterling, supposedly a present he has held for David since his birth. This act of generosity, coming from such a miser, impresses David, and his heart melts slightly.
Ebenezer asks David to bring down a chest from the side-tower of the house. David agrees, but finds the stairway pitch-dark. He goes forward anyway, while a storm rages outside. By the lightning, he sees that there are hardly any steps; he could easily have fallen to his death. He goes back down the stairs and outside and discovers his uncle waiting, miserably. He sneaks up behind his uncle and nearly frightens him to death. David tries to interrogate his uncle, but Ebenezer only says he will tell him everything in the morning.
David sleeps a restless night, aware of his uncle's great dislike, even hatred of him. But, in his youth, David thinks himself the better man, and makes plans to trick his uncle and get the upper hand of him, and eventually to control him. When he confronts his uncle the next morning, the uncle mumbles that having David climb the stairs was "a little joke."
There is a knock at the door, and a cabin-boy is there, with a note for Ebenezer from Captain Hoseason. Hoseason is waiting at Queen's Ferry harbor with his ship, the Covenant, and Hoseason is awaiting any further orders from Ebenezer before he sets sail. It seems that Ebenezer has interests overseas, and they are not doing so well. Ebenezer decides to go see Hoseason with David and the cabin boy. On the way, David enters conversation with the cabin-boy and discovers his name is Ransome. Ransome describes life on the Covenant; particularly terrible is Mr. Shuan, the navigator, who abuses Ransome to the point of causing wounds. David decides life on the Covenant must be a living hell.
David and Ebenezer meet Hoseason, who is staying in an inn. Ebenezer sends David down to amuse himself while he and the captain speak. David goes and speaks to the sailors of the Covenant, whom he finds to be rather dirty and rude.
He talks with the bartender of the inn, who informs him that Many hate Ebenezer and they claim that he murdered David's father to get the House of Shaws. He also discovers that his own father was in fact the elder brother.
David meets with his uncle and Hoseason, and Hoseason invites him to take a look around the Covenant while he finishes his discussion with Ebenezer. David agrees, wanting to see more of the ship, but as soon as he gets on the ship he sees his uncle pulling away, and then he is knocked unconscious.
These chapters establish Ebenezer as a worthless, evil man. First, he attempts to kill his own nephew by tricking him into climbing a perilous stair, then he arranges for his kidnapping and perhaps his murder by a group of salty seamen.
Given the obviously despicable nature of Ebenezer, it is interesting that David falls so easily into the old man's traps. Ebenezer had just given David forty pounds sterling, and then asked the boy to do a favor for him to earn his keep. But even before this trick, David has recognized his uncle for what he is: "there came into my mind
a story like some ballad I had heard folk singing, of a poor lad who was the rightful heir and a wicked kinsman that tried to keep him from his own." David shows himself to be perceptive, and it would seem he is capable of handling his uncle.
Unfortunately, David's own pride gets in the way. In Chapter 5, David has visions of "taking the upper hand" against his uncle: "I saw myself [in my daydream] smell out his secrets one after another, and grow to be that man's kind and ruler." By supposing himself to be so able to deal with his uncle, David actually makes things worse; he underestimates his uncle's wickedness and intelligence, and suffers the consequences aboard the Covenant.
David's notion that he is part of a "ballad" in which his evil uncle is trying to rob him of his inheritance is interesting, because it means that a character in the novel itself has figured out the plot, perhaps before the reader even has. For a moment, David is as much as reader as the one holding the book, and perhaps a shrewder one. While Ebenezer's main motivation may not be greed, he certainly plans to withhold David's inheritance and do great harm to him in the process, perhaps even kill him. By realizing this and becoming suspicious, David has seemingly prepared himself to deal with his uncle, which makes it all the more surprising that he falls so easily for Ebenezer's traps.
The trap at the harbor is especially clumsy. The trap relies much more on Captain Hoseason's pleasant attitude than it does Ebenezer's cleverness. What gets David on the boat is Hoseason's whisper to David telling him that his uncle "means mischief" toward him. David now thinks Hoseason is an ally, making the captain's betrayal that much more biting. We are already aware of what will happen, due to foreshadowing in the beginning of Chapter 5, as David gazes into the fireplace: "The warlock of Essendean, they say, had made a mirror in which men could read the future; it must have been made of other stuff than burning coal, for in all the shapes
I gazed at, there was never a ship, never a seaman with a hairy cap, never a big bludgeon for my silly head."
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