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The Stalking Horse (Review)

by Ruth Heredia

by Rafael Sabatini
published 1933 expanded from the short story "The Mask", published in Cassell's Magazine of Fiction, February 1916

Beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed, and a fanatical Jacobite, Ailsa Macdonald, a chieftain's daughter, is married very young and unhappily to the Earl of Lochmore. Fortunately for her, she is soon widowed, and fortune is the apt word because she is left a wealthy widow, able to put her home and considerable means at the disposal of the Jacobite cause. Her brother, Ian, is the new chieftain (hence referred to as Invernaion, the name of his castle and estate), and after escaping the massacre at Glencoe he has become a kind of Jacobite Scarlet Pimpernel. There is one striking difference, however, for Sir Percy Blakeney would have been appalled at the enlargement of the Pimpernel role that Ian takes on. Ian Macdonald conspires at assassination and contemplates murder without a qualm.

It is at Ailsa's home that the Assassination Plot of 1696 is hatched besides sundry other conspiracies between the years 1692 and 1698. Much of the novel is an account of one Jacobite conspiracy after another, their failures, and the consequences t Fact and fiction are so skilfully blended here that only a reader thoroughly acquainted with the history of that period can distinguish between them.

The completely fictitious, and romantic, portion of the novel, that which justifies the title, begins very late, in Chapter 10 (out of 23), and is set in the final two years of the novel's time-span. It partly concerns the rivalry between Ailsa's Macdonald cousin, James Viscount Glenleven, and Colonel Dudley Watson, English and a Jacobite though not a Roman Catholic. For Ailsa the choice between them is fraught with dreadful consequences if she chooses wrongly, for either one could be a traitor – in which case her brother's life would be forfeit.

The word 'mask' turns up frequently as is suitable for this story. The original short story from which the novel derives was called "The Mask". A stalking-horse is a decoy which masks (that word again!) the hunter's movements. The revelation of who the hunter is, who the stalking-horse, and who/what the prey comes in a thrilling and chilling dénouement.

Sometimes this novel seems to me less of a spy story than – well ahead of its time—a kind of very modern fiction (which I only know of by hearsay), that seeks to comprehend a terrible modern phenomenon, the fanatics who commit themselves to terrorist acts not even sparing their own lives. Chapter 16, Vain Remonstrances, gives what may well be Sabatini's own view of attitudes and activities which we classify as terrorism. If he can offer no more penetrating insights than he does it is because he is a rational man. There are regions of irrationality which one may explore only by abandoning reason oneself.

I find this a book with much to like, yet it leaves me somewhat uncomfortable on account of the marriage of two elements which in my view do not mingle. A romance between a beautiful woman of such spirit and character and a very likeable hero worthy of respect should be a pleasure, but not if the lady, her brother and their associates treat murder as a deed most natural and befitting the circumstances. Whether it is the assassination of a deemed usurping monarch or the murder of a knavish informer, the premeditated taking of a life is unacceptable. Never mind that the plans to kill do not come off.

Yet even this aspect of The Stalking-Horse tells in Sabatini's favour. He was sometimes compelled to write mere potboilers. That is hardly unusual among writers. In 1933 Sabatini had reasons to keep the pot boiling by re-using a story on a subject that will always readily yield a tale of intrigue and suspense. But to save his life he could not conceal his own opinion of a way of thinking and acting he clearly found abhorrent. One need not suppose that he believed William of Orange to be rightfully ruler of England, but in more than one novel and story he makes plain his opinion of the means used by James II and his supporters against Monmouth and the rebels of Sedgemoor, and against the rulers who kept James away from the throne he once occupied. A so-called romantic 'cause' was not going to make injustice and cold-blooded murder acceptable to Sabatini.

On the other hand, no matter how dissatisfied Sabatini might be with his subject matter, he did not fail to do justice to himself or to his readers in his writing. Here are two typical examples of Sabatini's dry, even sly, humour:

(James II is sending Invernaion off on what is likely to be a suicide mission.)"For those whose devotion makes for such sacrifice is the Kingdom of Heaven." Having added this to the Beatitudes, he fetched a sigh.
For Lochmore's father had been possessed of an affectation of scholarship, and he had assembled and displayed here the outward signs of an inwardly absent grace of mind.
(This is a parody of the definition of 'Sacrament' in the Catholic Catechism: "An outward sign of an inwardly present grace".)

To my taste, even a potboiler of Sabatini's gives more pleasurable exercise to the mind than I can get from some novels that are classed as 'Literature'. The Stalking-Horse merits its place on my shelf. It should not lessen any reader's enjoyment of the book to contemplate some of the disturbing aspects of human nature that it touches upon.

The chronology and note below may be interesting to some readers.


William of Orange & Mary Stuart, his wife, depose her father James II of England, and rule jointly as Mary II & William III


Ailsa Macdonald of Invernaion married to the Earl of Lochmore

Feb 13 Campbells massacre Macdonalds in Glencoe


April Ian Macdonald & Lochmore go to join James II in France

May 17 French fleet assembled at La Hogue ( Barfleur), to invade England & restore James, attacked & dispersed by Admiral Edward Russell, the Earl of Orford


June 30 French capture Namur; reverse for William


August 3 French defeat William at Steinkeerke


Autumn Lochmore killed in duel

July 29 French defeat William in Battle of Landen (Neerwinden)


Christmas Glenleven proposes to Ailsa


Another plot to kidnap William is abandoned

December 28 Queen Mary dies


July 27 William recaptures Namur


January Duke of Berwick comes secretly to England; fails to stir Jacobite uprising

Colonel Dudley Walton accompanies Berwick

February 14 Prendergass reveals Assassination Plot to Portland


February 21 Plotters are named


February 22 Second assassination attempt foiled


February 23 most plotters arrested


March 18 Charnock hanged



April Glenleven arrested

January 28 Sir John Fenwick executed



March Walton quits James's service; comes to England

September Treaty of Ryswick puts an end to hostilities between English & French



May Walton returns to London from year-long countrywide wanderings


Sunday, June 8 Dénouement


Piazza/piazzas of Covent Garden

Sabatini's intention in writing at first, "the Piazza at Covent Garden" (Chapter 6), and later, "in Covent Garden, over those piazzas" (Chapter11), is difficult to discern. But it caused more than one publisher to stumble, thereby mystifying readers.

That Covent Garden has a Piazza we all know. That it once had piazzas Sabatini has induced us to learn.

See this entry in the OED:

piazza, n.
2. a. A colonnade or covered gallery surrounding an open square; a single gallery or walk of this kind in front of a building. Also fig. Obs.

1642 London Apprentices Declar. in Harl. Misc. (1746) VIII. 571/2 Desiring all the Subscribers to meet at the Piazza's in Covent-Garden.

1695 in Miscellanea (Surtees, No. 37) 54 They live in one of the Piazzas in Covent Garden.

1861 G. M. MUSGRAVE By-roads in Picardy 201 All four sides of the area display continuous rows of open arcades; in England termed piazzas.

For more on this subject you might like to visit these sites and use the Find option on this page tool to zero in on Piazza/piazzas:

Covent Garden History
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1834
The Adelphi Theatre 1806-1900
Camden New Journal
Landscape Architecture Guide - Covent Garden

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Last updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 2006 Ruth Heredia. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.