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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 26529

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The sentiments of the spectators in such a grand alteration of fortune may be interesting enough, and it is in general more easy to get at them than at those which fill the mind of the principal actor. In the present case it is better to say of the principal subject of the change, for Walter could not be said to be an actor at all. The emotions of the first evening it would indeed be impossible to describe. To come in from his small country-town society, to whom even he was so far inferior that every one of them had facilities of getting and spending money which he did not possess, and to sit down, all tremulous and guilty, feeling himself the poorest creature, opposite to the serious and important personage who came to tell him, with documents as solemn as himself, that this silly youth who had been throwing away his life for nothing, without even the swell of excitement to carry him on, had suddenly become, without deserving it, without doing anything to bring it about, an individual of the first importance-a peer, a proprietor, a great man. Walter could have sobbed as his mother did, had not pride kept him back. When they sat down at table in the little dining-room there were two at least of the party who ate nothing, who sat and gazed at each other across the others with white faces and blazing eyes. Mr. Milnathort made a good dinner, and sat very watchful, making also his observations, full of curiosity and a certain half-professional interest. But Cousin Sophy was the only one who really got the good of this prodigious event. She asked if they might not have some champagne to celebrate the day. She was in high excitement but quite self-controlled, and enjoyed it thoroughly. She immediately began in her thoughts to talk of my young cousin Lord Erradeen. It was a delightful advancement which would bring her no advantage, and yet almost pleased her more than so much added on to her income; for Miss Merivale was not of any distinction in her parentage, and suddenly to find herself cousin to a lord went to her heart: it was a great benefit to the solitary lady fond of society, and very eager for a helping hand to aid her up the ascent. And it was she who kept the conversation going. She even flirted a little, quite becomingly, with the old lawyer, who felt her, it was evident, a relief from the high tension of the others, and was amused by the vivacious middle-aged lady, who for the moment had everything her own way. After dinner there was a great deal of explanation given, and a great many facts made clear, but it is to be doubted whether Walter knew very well what was being said. He listened with an air of attention, but it was as if he were listening to some fairy tale. Something out of the Arabian Nights was being repeated before him. He was informed how the different branches of his family had died out one after another. "Captain Methven was aware that he was in the succession," the lawyer said; and Mrs. Methven cast a thought back, half-reproachful, half-approving upon her husband, who had been dead so long that his words and ways were like shadows to her, which she could but faintly recall. Would it have been better if he had told her? After pursuing this thought a long time she decided that it would not, that he had done wisely-yet felt a little visionary grudge and disappointment to think that he had been able to keep such a secret from her. No doubt it was all for the best. She might have distracted herself with hopes, and worn out her mind with waiting. It was doubtful if the support of knowing what was going to happen would really have done her any good; but yet it seemed a want of trust in her, it seemed even to put her in a partially ridiculous position now, as knowing nothing, not having even an idea of what was coming. But Walter did not share any of these goings back upon the past. He had scarcely known his father, nor was he old enough to have had such a secret confided to him for long after Captain Methven died. He thought nothing of that. He sat with an appearance of the deepest attention, but unaware of what was being said, with a vague elation in his mind, something that seemed to buoy him up above the material earth. He could not bring himself down again. It was what he remembered to have felt when he was a child when some long-promised pleasure was coming-to-morrow. Even in that case hindrances might come in. It might rain to-morrow, or some similar calamity might occur. But rain could not affect this. He sat and listened and did not hear a word.

Next morning Walter awoke very early, before the wintry day had fully dawned. He opened his eyes upon a sort of paling and whitening of everything-a grey perception of the walls about him, and the lines of the window marked upon the paleness outside. What was it that made even these depressing facts exhilarate him and rouse an incipient delight in his mind, which for the moment he did not understand? Then he sat up suddenly in his bed. It was cold, it was dark. There was no assiduous servant to bring hot water or light his fire-everything was chilling and wretched; and he was not given to early rising. Ordinarily it was an affair of some trouble to get him roused, to see that he was in time for a train or for any early occupation. But this morning he found it impossible to lie still; an elasticity in him, an elation and buoyancy, which he almost felt, with a laugh, might float him up to the ceiling, like the mediums, made him jump up, as it were in self-defence. It buoyed him, it carried him as on floating pinions into a limitless heaven. What was it? Who was he? The chill of the morning brought him a little to himself, and then he sat down in his shirt-sleeves and delivered himself up to the incredible, and laughed low and long, with a sense of the impossibility of it that brought tears to his eyes. He Lord Erradeen, Lord Anything! He a peer, a great man! he with lands and money and wealth of every sort, who last night had been pleased to win two sixpences! After the buoyancy and sensation of rising beyond the world altogether, which was a kind of physical consciousness of something great that had happened before he was awake, came this sense of the ludicrous, this incredulity and confused amusement. He dressed himself in this mood, laughing low from time to time, to himself, as if it were some game which was being played upon him, but of which he was in the secret, and not to be deceived, however artfully it might be managed. But when he was dressed and ready to go down-stairs-by which time daylight had fully struggled forth upon a wet and clammy world-he stopped himself short with a sudden reminder that to-day this curious practical joke was to extend its career and become known to the world. He laughed again, but then he grew grave, standing staring at the closed door of his bedroom, out of which he was about to issue-no longer a nobody-in a new character, to meet the remarks, the congratulations of his friends. He knew that the news would fly through the little town like lightning; that people would stop each other in the streets and ask, "Have you heard it?-is it true?" and that throughout the whole place there would be a sort of revolution, a general change of positions, which would confuse the very world. He knew vaguely that whatever else might happen he would be uppermost. The people who had disapproved of him, and treated him de haut en bas, would find this to be impossible any longer. He would be in a position which is to be seen on the stage and in books more frequently than in common life-possessed of the power of making retribution, of punishing the wicked, and distributing to the good tokens of his favour. It is a thing we would all like to do, to avenge ourselves (within due Christian and social limits) on the persons who have despised us, and to reward those who have believed in us, showing the one how right they were, and the other how wrong they were, with a logic that should be undeniable. There is nobody who has ever endured a snub-and who has not?-who would not delight in doing this; but the most of us never get such a supreme gratification, and Walter was to have it. He was going to see everybody abashed and confounded who had ever treated him with contumely. Once more he felt that sensation of buoyancy and elation as if he were spurning earth with his foot and ready to soar into some sort of celestial sphere. And then once more he laughed to himself. Was it possible? could it be? would anybody believe it? He thought there would be an explosion of incredulous laughter through all the streets; but then, when that was over, both friends and foes would be forced to believe it-as he himself was forced to believe.

With that he opened his door, and went down-stairs into the new world. He stumbled over the housemaid's pail, of course, but did not call forth any frown upon that functionary's freckled forehead as he would have done yesterday. On the contrary, she took away the pail, and begged his pardon with awe-being of course entirely blameless. He paused for a moment on the steps as he faced the raw morning air going out, and lo! the early baker, who was having a word with cook at the area over the rolls, turned towards him with a reverential look, and pulled off his cap. These were the first visible signs of Walter's greatness; they gave him a curious sort of conviction that after all the thing was true.

There was scarcely anybody about the Sloebury streets except bakers and milkmen at this hour. It was a leisurely little town, in which nothing particular was doing, no manufactures or business to demand early hours; and the good people did not get up early. Why should they? the day was long enough without that: so that Walter met no one in his early promenade. But before he got back there were symptoms that the particular baker who had taken off his cap had whispered the news to others of his fraternity, who, having no tie of human connection, such as supplying the family with rolls, to justify a salutation, only stared at him with awe-stricken looks as he went past. He felt he was an object of interest even to the policeman going off duty, who being an old soldier, saluted with a certain grandeur as he tramped by. The young man took an aimless stroll through the half-awakened district. The roads were wet, the air raw: it was not a cheerful morning; damp and discouragement breathed in the air; the little streets looked squalid and featureless in shabby British poverty; lines of low, two-storied brick, all commonplace and monotonous. It was the sort of morning to make you think of the tediousness to which most people get up every day, supposing it to be life, and accepting it as such with the dull content which knows no better; a life made up of scrubbing out of kitchens and sweeping out of parlours, of taking down shutters and putting them up again; all sordid, petty, unbroken by an exhilarating event. But this was not what struck Walter as he floated along in his own wonderful atmosphere, seeing nothing, noting everything with the strange vision of excitement. Afterwards he recollected with extraordinary vividness a man who stood stretching his arms in shirt sleeves above his head for a long, soul-satisfying yawn, and remembered to have looked up at the shop-window within which he was standing, and read the name of Robinson in gilt letters. Robinson, yawning in his shirt-sleeves, against a background of groceries, pallid in the early light, remained with him like a picture for many a day.

When he got back the breakfast table was spread, and his mother taking her place at it. Mr. Milnathort had not gone away as he intended by the night train. He had remained in Mrs. Methven's spare room, surrounded by all the attentions and civilities that a household of women, regarding him with a sort of awe as a miraculous messenger or even creator of good fortune, could show to a bachelor gentleman, somewhat prim and old-fashioned in his habits and ways. It was his intention to leave Sloebury by the eleven o'clock train, and he had arranged that Walter should meet him in Edinburgh within a week, to be made acquainted with several family matters, in which, as the head of the house, it was necessary that he should be fully instructed. Neither Walter nor his mother paid very much attention to these arrangements, nor even remarked that the old lawyer spoke of them with great gravity. Mrs. Methven was busy making tea, and full of anxiety that Mr. Milnathort should breakfast well and largely, after what she had always understood to be the fashion of his country; and as for Walter, he was not in a state of mind to observe particularly any such indications of manner. Cousin Sophia was the only one who remarked the solemnity of his tone and aspect.

"One would suppose there was some ordeal to go through," she said in her vivacious way.

"A young gentleman who is taking up a large fortune and a great responsibility will have many ordeals to go through, madam," Mr. Milnathort said in his deliberate tones: but he did not smile or take any other notice of her archness. It was settled accordingly, that after a few days for preparatio

n and leave-taking, young Lord Erradeen should leave Sloebury. "And if I might advise, alone," Mr. Milnathort said, "the place is perhaps not just in a condition to receive ladies. I would think it wiser on the whole, madam, if you deferred your coming till his lordship there has settled everything for your reception."

"My coming?" said Mrs. Methven. The last twelve hours had made an extraordinary difference in her feelings and faith; but still she had not forgotten what had gone before, nor the controversies and struggles of the past. "We must leave all that for after consideration," she said.

Walter was about to speak impulsively, but old Milnathort stopped him with a skilful interruption-

"It will perhaps be the wisest way," he said; "there will be many things to arrange. When Lord Erradeen has visited the property, and understands everything about it, then he will be able to--"

Walter heard the name at first with easy unconsciousness: then it suddenly blazed forth upon him as his own name. His mother at the other end of the table felt the thrill of the same sensation. Their eyes met; and all the wonder of this strange new life suddenly gleamed upon them with double force. It is true that the whole condition of their minds was affected by this revelation, that there was nothing about them that was not full of it, and that they were actually at this moment discussing the business connected with it. Still it all came to life now as at the first moment at the sound of this name, Lord Erradeen! Walter could not help laughing to himself over his coffee.

"I can't tell who you mean," he said. "You must wait a little until I realise what Walter Methven has got to do with it."

Mrs. Methven thought that this was making too much of the change. She already wished to believe, or at least to persuade Mr. Milnathort to believe, that she was not so very much surprised after all.

"Lord Erradeen," she said, "is too much amused at present with having got a new name to take the change very seriously."

"He will soon learn the difference, madam," said Mr. Milnathort. "Property is a thing that has always to be taken seriously: and of all property the Erradeen lands. There are many things connected with them that he will have to set his face to in a way that will be far from amusing."

The old lawyer had a very grave countenance-perhaps it was because he was a Scotchman. He worked through his breakfast with a steady routine that filled the ladies with respect. First fish, then kidneys, then a leg of the partridge that had been left from dinner last night; finally he looked about the table with an evident sense of something wanting, and though he declared that it was of no consequence, avowed at last, with some shyness, that it was the marmalade for which he was looking: and there was none in the house! Mr. Milnathort was full of excuses for having made such a suggestion. It was just a Scotch fashion he declared; it was of no consequence. Mrs. Methven, who held an unconscious conviction that it was somehow owing to him that Walter had become Lord Erradeen, was made quite unhappy by the omission.

"I shall know better another time," she said regretfully. They were all still under the impression more or less that it was his doing. He was not a mere agent to them, but the god, out of the machinery, who had turned darkness into light. He justified this opinion still more fully before he went away, putting into Walter's hand a cheque-book from a London bank, into which a sum of money which seemed to the inexperienced young man inexhaustible, had been paid to his credit. The old gentleman on his side seemed half-embarrassed, half-impatient after a while by the attention shown him. He resisted when Walter declared his intention of going to the railway to see him off.

"That is just a reversal of our positions," he said.

At this Mrs. Methven became a little anxious, fearing that perhaps Walter's simplicity might be going too far. She gave him a word of warning when the cab drove up for Mr. Milnathort's bag. It was not a very large one, and Walter was quite equal to the condescension of carrying it to the station if his mother had not taken that precaution. She could not make up her mind that he was able to manage for himself.

"You must remember that after all he is only your man of business," she said, notwithstanding all the worship she had herself been paying to this emissary of fortune. It was a relief to shake hands with him, to see him drive away from the door, leaving behind him such an amazing, such an incalculable change. Somehow it was more easy to realise it when he was no longer there. And this was what Walter felt when he walked away from the railway, having seen with great satisfaction the grizzled head of the old Scotsman nod at him from a window of the departing train. The messenger was gone; the thing which he had brought with him, did that remain? Was it conceivable that it was now fixed and certain not to be affected by anything that could be done or said? Walter walked steadily enough along the pavement, but he did not think he was doing so. The world around him swam in his eyes once more. He could not make sure that he was walking on solid ground, or mounting up into the air. How different it was from the way in which he had come forth yesterday, idle, half-guilty, angry with himself and everybody, yet knowing very well what to do, turning with habitual feet into the way where all the other idlers congregated, knowing who he should meet and what would happen. He was separated from all that as if by an ocean. He had no longer anything to do with these foolish loungers. His mother had told him a thousand times in often varied tones that they were not companions for him; to-day he recognised the fact with a certain disgust. He felt it more strongly still when he suddenly came across Captain Underwood coming up eagerly with outstretched hands.

"I hope I am the first to congratulate you, Lord Erradeen," he said. "Now you will know why I asked you yesterday, Was there any news--"

"Now I shall know? I don't a bit; what do you mean? Do you mean me to believe that you had any hand in it?" Walter cried, with a tone of mingled incredulity and disdain.

"No hand in it, unless I had helped to put the last poor dear lord out of the way. I could scarcely have had that; but if you mean did I know about it, I certainly did, as you must if you had been a little more in the world."

"Why didn't you tell me then?" said Walter. He added somewhat hotly, with something of the sublime assumption of youth: "Waiting for a man to die would never have suited me. I much prefer to have been, as you say, out of the world--"

"Oh, Lord! I didn't mean to offend you," said the captain. "Don't get on a high horse. Of course, if you'd known your Debrett as I do, you would have seen the thing plain enough. However, we needn't quarrel about it. I have always said you were my pupil, and I hope I have put you up to a few things that will be of use on your entry into society."

"Have you?" said Walter. He could not think how he had ever for a moment put up with this under-bred person. Underwood stood before him with a sort of jaunty rendering of the appeal with which grooms and people about the stable remind a young man of what in his boyish days they have done for him-an appeal which has its natural issue in a sovereign. But he could not give Underwood a sovereign, and it was perhaps just a little ungenerous to turn in the first moment of his prosperity from a man who, from whatever purpose, had been serviceable to him in his poverty. He said, with an attempt to be more friendly: "I know, Underwood, you have been very kind."

"Oh, by Jove! kind isn't the word. I knew you'd want a bit of training; the best thoroughbred that ever stepped wants that; and if I can be of any use to you in the future, I will. I knew old Erradeen; I've known all about the family for generations. There are a great many curious things about it, but I think I can help you through them," said the captain with a mixture of anxiety and swagger. There had always been something of this same mixture about him, but Walter had never been fully conscious what it was till now.

"Thank you," he said; "perhaps it will be better to let that develop itself in a natural way. I am going to Scotland in a week, and then I shall have it at first hand."

"Then I can tell you beforehand you will find a great many things you won't like," said Underwood, abruptly. "It is not for nothing that a family gets up such a reputation. I know two or three of your places. Mulmorrel, and the shooting-box on Loch Etive, and that mysterious old place at Kinloch-houran. I have been at every one of them. It was not everybody, I can tell you, that old Erradeen would have taken to that place. Why, there is a mystery at every corner. There is--"

Walter held up his hand to stay this torrent. He coloured high with a curious sentiment of proprietorship and the shrinking of pride from hearing that which was his discussed by strangers. He scarcely knew the names of them, and their histories not at all. He put up his hand: "I would rather find out the mysteries for myself," he said.

"Oh," cried Underwood, "if you are standing on your dignity, my lord, as you like, for that matter. I am not one to thrust my company upon any man if he doesn't like it. I have stood your friend, and I would again; but as for forcing myself upon you now that you've come to your kingdom--"

"Underwood," cried the other, touched in the tenderest point, "if you dare to insinuate that this has changed me, I desire never to speak to you again. But it is only, I suppose, one of the figures of speech that people use when they are angry. I am not such a cad as you make me out. Whether my name is Methven or Erradeen-I don't seem to know very well which it is--"

"It is both," the other cried with a great laugh, and they shook hands, engaging to dine together at the hotel that evening. Underwood, who was knowing in such matters, was to order the dinner, and two or three of "the old set," were to be invited. It would be a farewell to his former comrades, as Walter intended; and with a curious recurrence of his first elation he charged his representative to spare no expense. There was something intoxicating and strange in the very phrase.

As he left Underwood and proceeded along the High Street, where, if he had not waved his hand to them in passing with an air of haste and pre-occupation, at least every second person he met would have stopped him to wish him joy, he suddenly encountered July Herbert. She was going home from the vicarage, out of which his mother had politely driven her; and it seemed the most wonderful luck to July to get him to herself, thus wholly unprotected, and with nobody even to see what she was after. She went up to him, not with Underwood's eagerness, but with a pretty frank pleasure in her face.

"I have heard a fairy tale," she said, "and it is true--"

"I suppose you mean about me," said Walter. "Yes, I am afraid it is true. I don't exactly know who I am at present."

"Afraid!" cried July. "Ah, you know you don't mean that. At all events, you are no longer just the old Walter whom we have known all our lives."

There was another girl with her whom Walter knew but slightly, but who justified the plural pronoun.

"On the contrary, I was going to say, when you interrupted me--"

"I am so sorry I interrupted you."

"That though I did not know who I was in the face of the world, I was always the old Walter, &c. A man, I believe, can never lose his Christian name."

"Nor a woman either," said July. "That is the only thing that cannot be taken from us. We are supposed, you know, rather to like the loss of the other one."

"I have heard so," said Walter, who was not unaccustomed to this sort of fencing. "But I suppose it is not true."

"Oh," said July, "if it were for the same reason that makes you change your name, I should not mind. But there is no peerage in our family that I know of, and I should not have any chance if there were, alas! Good-bye, Lord Erradeen. It is a lovely name! And may I always speak to you when I meet you, though you are such a grand personage? We do not hope to see you at the Cottage now, but mamma will like to know that you still recognise an old friend."

"I shall come and ask Mrs. Herbert what she thinks of it all," Walter said.

July's brown eyes flashed out with triumph as she laughed and waved her hand to him. She said-

"It will be too great an honour," and curtseyed; then laughed again as she went on, casting a glance at him over her shoulder.

He laughed too; he was young, and he was gratified even by this undisguised provocation, though he could not help saying to himself, with a slight beat of his heart, how near he was to falling in love with that girl! What a good thing it was that he did not-now!

As for July, she looked at him with a certain ferocity, as if she would have devoured him. To think of all that boy had it in his power to give if he pleased, and to think how little a poor girl could do!

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