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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 26706

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Mrs. Methven was conscious of a new revival of the old displeasure when Walter informed her of the engagement he had formed for the evening. She was utterly disappointed. She had thought that the great and beneficial shock of this new life would turn his character altogether, and convert him into that domestic sovereign, that object of constant reference, criticism, and devotion which every woman would have every man be. It was a wonderful mortification and enlightenment to find that without even the interval of a single evening devoted to the consideration of his new and marvellous prospects, and that talking over which is one of the sweetest parts of a great and happy event, he should return-to what?-to wallowing in the mire, as the Scripture says, to his old billiard-room acquaintances, the idlers and undesirable persons with whom he had formed associations. Could there be anything more unsuitable than Lord Erradeen in the midst of such a party, with Underwood, and perhaps worse than Underwood. It wounded her pride and roused her temper, and, in spite of all her efforts, it was with a lowering brow that she saw him go away. Afterwards, indeed, when she thought of it, as she did for hours together, while cousin Sophia talked, and she languidly replied, maintaining a conversation from the lips outward, so poor a substitute for the evening's talking over and happy consultation she had dreamed of-Mrs. Methven was more just to her son. She tried always to be just, poor lady. She placed before herself all the reasons for his conduct. That he should entertain the men who, much against her wish and his own good, yet in their way had been kind to and entertained him, was natural. But to do it this first evening was hard, and she could not easily accept her disappointment. Afterwards she reminded herself with a certain stern philosophy that because Walter had owned a touch of natural emotion, and had drawn near to her and confessed himself in the wrong, that was no reason why his character should be changed in a moment. There were numbers of men who on occasion felt and lamented their misdoing, yet went on again in the same way. He had been no doubt startled, as some are by calamity, by the more extraordinary shock of this good fortune; but why should he for that abandon all the tastes and occupations of his former life? It was she, she said to herself, with some bitterness, who was a fool. The fact was that Walter meant no harm at all, and that it was merely the first impulse of a half-scornful liberality, impatience of the old associations, which he had tacitly acknowledged were not fit for him, that led him back to his former companions. He felt afterwards that it would have been in better taste had he postponed this for a night. But he was very impatient and eager to shake himself free of them, and enter upon his new career.

Something of the same disappointed and disapproving sentiment filled Mrs. Methven's mind when she heard of his visit to the Cottage. She knew no reason why he should take a special leave of July Herbert; if he knew himself a reason, which he did not disclose, that was another matter. Thoughts like this embittered the preparations for his departure, which otherwise would have been so agreeable. She had to see after many things which a young man of more wealth, or more independent habits, would have done for himself-his linen, his portmanteau, most of the things he wanted, except the tailor part of the business; but it was not until the last evening that there was any of the confidential consultation, for which her heart had longed. Even on that last day Walter had been very little indoors. He had been busy with a hundred trifles, and she had begun to make up her mind to his going away without a word said as to their future relations, as to whether he meant his mother to share any of the advantages of his new position, or to drop her at Sloebury as something done with, which he did not care to burden himself with, any more than the other circumstances of his past career. She did so little justice to the real generosity of her son's temper in the closeness of her contest with him, and the heat of personal feeling, that she had begun to make up her mind to this, with what pain and bitterness it is unnecessary to say.

She had even began to make excuses for her own desertion in the tumult of endless thought upon this one subject which possessed her. She would be just; after all, was it not better perhaps that she should be left in the little house which was her independent home, for which she owed nothing to any one? If any unnecessary sense of gratitude made him offer her reluctantly a share in his new life, that would be humiliation indeed. If, as was apparent, her society, her advice, her love were nothing to him, was it not far better that both should recognise the situation, and view things in their true light? This the proud woman had made up her mind to, with what depth of wounded tenderness and embittered affection who could say? She had packed for him with her own hands, for all his permanent arrangements were to be made after he had left Sloebury, and to change her household in consequence of an alteration of fortune which, according to all appearances, would not concern her, was, she had proudly decided, quite out of the question. She packed for him as in the days when he was going to school, when he was a boy, and liked everything better that had been done by his mother. A woman may be pardoned for feeling such a difference with a passionate soreness and sense of downfall. In those days how she had thought of the time when he would be grown up, when he would understand all her difficulties and share all her cares, and in his own advancement make her triumphant and happy! God forgive me, she said to herself, now he has got advancement far above my hopes, and I am making myself wretched thinking of myself. She stopped and cried a little over his new linen. No, he was right; if it must be allowed that they did not "get on," it was indeed far better in the long run that there should be no false sentiment, no keeping up of an untenable position. Thank God she required nothing; she had enough; she wanted neither luxury nor grandeur, and her home, her natural place was here, where she had lived so many years, where she could disarm all comment upon Walter's neglect of her, by saying that she preferred the place where she had lived so long, and where she had so many friends. Why, indeed, should she change her home at her time of life? No doubt he would come back some time and see her; but after all why should her life be unsettled because his was changed? It was he who showed true sense in his way of judging the matter, she said to herself with a smile, through the hastily dried and momentary tears.

Walter came in when the packing was just about concluded. He came half way up the stairs and called "Mother, where are you?" as he had often done when he was a boy and wanted her at every turn, but as he never did now. This touched and weakened her again in her steady resolution to let him see no repining in her. "Are you packing for me?" he called out again; "what a shame while I have been idling! But come down, mother, please, and leave that. You forget we have everything to settle yet."

"What is there to settle?" she said, with a certain sharpness of tone which she could not quite suppress, coming out upon the landing. The maids who were going to bed, and who heard all this, thought it was beautiful to hear his lordship speaking like that, quite natural to his mother; but that missus was that hard it was no wonder if they didn't get on; and Cousin Sophia from her virgin retirement, where she sat in her dressing-gown reading a French novel, and very much alive to every sound, commented in her own mind, closing her book, in the same sense. "Now she will just go and hold him at arm's length while the boy's heart is melting, and then break her own," Miss Merivale said to herself. Thus everybody was against her and in favour of the fortunate young fellow who had been supping on homage and flattery, and now came in easy and careless to make everything straight at the last moment. Mrs. Methven on her side was very tired, and tremulous with the exertion of packing. It would have been impossible for her to banish that tone out of her voice. She stood in the subdued light upon the stairs looking down upon him, leaning on the banister to support herself; while he, with all the light from below upon his face, ruddy with the night air, and the applauses, and his own high well-being, looked up gaily at her. He had shaken off all his old irritability in the confidence of happiness and good fortune that had taken possession of him. After a moment he came springing up the stairs three at a time.

"You look tired, mother, while I have been wasting my time. Come down, and let us have our talk. I'll do all the rest to-morrow," he said, throwing his arm round her and leading her down-stairs. He brought her some wine first of all and a footstool, and threw himself into the easy task of making her comfortable. "Now," he said, "let's talk it all over," drawing a chair to her side.

All this was quite new upon Walter's part-or rather quite old, belonging to an age which had long ago gone.

"Isn't it rather late for that?" she said, with a faint smile.

"Yes, and I am ashamed of myself; but, unfortunately, you are so used to that. We must settle, however, mother. I am to go first of all to Kinloch-houran, which Milnathort says is not a place for you. Indeed, I hear--" here he paused a little as if he would have named his authority, and continued, "that it is a ruinous sort of place; and why I should go there, I don't know."

"Where did you hear?" she said, with quick suspicion.

"Well, mother, I would rather not have mentioned his name; but if you wish to know, from Underwood. I know you are prejudiced against him. Yes, it is prejudice, though I don't wonder at it. I care nothing for the fellow; but still it comes out, which is rather strange, that he knows these places, and a good deal about the Erradeens."

"Is that, then," cried the mother quickly, "the reason of his being here?"

"He never said so, nor have I asked him," answered Walter, with something of his old sullenness; but then he added-"The same thought has crossed my own mind, mother, and I shouldn't wonder if it were so."

"Walter," she said, "a man like that can have but one motive-the desire to aggrandise himself. For heaven's sake, don't have anything to do with him; don't let him get an influence over you."

"You must have a very poor opinion of me, mother," he said, in an aggrieved tone.

She looked at him with a curious gaze, silenced, as it seemed. She loved him more than anything in the world, and thought of him above everything; and yet perhaps in that wrath with those we love which works like madness in the brain, it was true what he said-that she had a poor opinion of him. Extremes meet, as the proverb says. However, this was a mystery too deep for Walter to enter into.

"Don't let us waste words about Underwood," he said. "I care nothing for the fellow; he is vulgar and presuming-as you always said."

Partly, no doubt, this avowal was made with the intention of pleasing his mother; at the same time it proved the great moral effect of promotion in rank. Lord Erradeen saw with the utmost distinctness what Walter Methven had only glimpsed by intervals. And it is impossible to describe how this speech pleased Mrs. Methven. Her tired eyes began to shine, her heart to return to its brighter hopes.

"The thing is, what arrangements you wish me to make," said Walter. "What are you going to do? I hear Mulmorrel is a handsome house, but it's November, and naturally it is colder in the north. Do you think you would care to go there now, or wait till the weather is better? It may want furnishing, for anything I know; and it appears we've got a little house in town."

"Walter," she said, in a voice which was husky and tremulous, "before you enter upon all this-you must first think, my dear. Are you sure it will be for your comfort to have me with you at all? Wouldn't you rather be free, and make your own arrangements, and leave me-as I am?"

"Mother?" the young man cried. He got up suddenly from where he was sitting beside her, and pushed away his chair, and stood facing her, with a sudden paleness and fiery eyes that seemed to dazzle her. He had almost kicked her footstool out of his way in his excitement and wounded feeling. "Do you mean to say you want to have nothing to do with me?" he said.

"Oh! my boy, you could not think so. I thought that was what-you meant. I wish only what is for your good."

"Would it be for my good to be an unnatural cad?" said the young man, with rising indignation-"a heartless, ill-conditioned whelp, with no sense and no feeling? Oh, mother! mother! what a poor opinion you must have of me!" he cried; and so stung was he with this blow that sudden tears sprang to his eyes. "All because I'm a fool and put everything off to the last moment," he added, in a sort of undertone, as if explaining it to himself. "But I'm not a beast for all that," he said, fiercely.

She mad

e him no reply, but sat and gazed at him with a remorse and compunction, which, painful sentiments as they are, were to her sweet as the dews from heaven. Yes, it appeared that through all her passionate and absorbing tenderness she had had a poor opinion of him. She had done him injustice. The conviction was like a new birth. That he should be Lord Erradeen was nothing in comparison of being, as he thus proved himself, good and true, open to the influences of affection and nature. She could not speak, but her eyes were full of a thousand things; they asked him mutely to forgive her. They repented, and were abashed and rejoiced all in one glance. The young man who had not been nearly so heartless as she feared, was now not nearly so noble as she thought: but he was greatly touched by the crisis, and by the suggestion of many a miserable hour which was in her involuntary sin against him and in her penitence. He came back again and sat close by her, and kissed her tremulously.

"I have been a cad," he said. "I don't wonder you lost all faith in me, mother."

"Not that, not that," she said faintly; and then there was a moment of exquisite silence, in which, without a word, everything was atoned for, and pardon asked and given.

And then began perhaps the happiest hour of Mrs. Methven's life, in which they talked over everything and decided what was to be done. Not to give up the house in Sloebury at present, nor indeed to do anything at present, save wait till he had made his expedition into Scotland and seen his new property, and brought her full particulars. After he had investigated everything and knew exactly the capabilities of the house, and the condition in which it was, and all the necessities and expediencies, they would then decide as to the best thing to be done; whether to go there, though at the worst time of the year, or to go to London, which was an idea that pleased Walter but alarmed his mother. Mrs. Methven did her best to remember what were the duties of a great landed proprietor and to bring them home to her son.

"You ought to spend Christmas at your own place," she said. "There will be charities and hospitalities and the poor people to look after."

She did not know Scotland, nor did she know very well what it was to be a great country magnate. She had been but a poor officer's daughter herself, and had married another officer, and been beaten about from place to place before she settled down on her small income at Sloebury. She had not much more experience than Walter himself had in this respect; indeed, if the truth must be told, both of them drew their chief information from novels, those much-abused sources of information, in which the life of rural potentates is a favourite subject, and not always described with much knowledge. Walter gravely consented to all this, with a conscientious desire to do what was right: but he thought the place would most likely be gloomy for his mother in winter, and that hospitalities would naturally be uncalled for so soon after the death of the old lord.

"What I would advise would be Park Lane," he said, with a judicial tone. "Milnathort said that it was quite a small house."

"What is a small house in Park Lane would look a palace at Sloebury," Mrs. Methven said: "and you must not begin on an extravagant footing, my dear."

"You will let us begin comfortably, I hope," he said; "and I must look for a nice carriage for you, mother."

Walter felt disposed to laugh as he said the words, but carried them off with an air of easy indifference as if it were the most natural thing in the world: while his mother on her side could have cried for pleasure and tenderness.

"You must not mind me, Walter; we must think what is best for yourself," she said, as proud and pleased as if she had twenty carriages.

"Nothing of the sort," he said. "We are going to be comfortable, and you must have everything that is right first of all."

What an hour it was! now and then there will be given to one individual out of a class a full measure of recompense heaped and overflowing, out of which the rest may get a sympathetic pleasure though they do not enjoy it in their own persons. Mrs. Methven had never imagined that this would come to her, but lo! in a moment it was pouring upon her in floods of consolation. So absorbing was this happy consultation that it was only when her eyes suddenly caught the clock on the mantelpiece, and saw that the hands were marking a quarter to two! that Mrs. Methven startled awoke out of her bliss.

"My poor boy! that I should keep you up to this hour talking, and a long journey before you to-morrow!" she cried.

She hustled him up to his room after this, talking and resisting gaily to the very door. He was happy too with that sense of happiness conferred, which is always sweet, and especially to youth in the delightful, easy sense of power and beneficence. When he thought of it he was a little remorseful, to think that he had possessed the power so long and never exercised it, for Walter was generous enough to be aware that the house in Park Lane and the carriage were not the occasions of his mother's blessedness. "Poor mother," he said to himself softly. He might have made her a great deal more happy if he had chosen before these fine things were dreamt of. But Mrs. Methven remembered that no more. She begged pardon of God on her knees for misjudging her boy, and for once in her life was profoundly, undoubtingly happy, with a perfection and fulness of content which perhaps could only come after long experience of the reverse. After such a moment a human creature, if possible, should die, so as to taste nothing less sweet: for the less sweet, to be sure, must come back if life goes on, and at that moment there was not a cloud or a suggestion of darkness upon the firmament. She grudged falling asleep, though she was very tired, and so losing this beautiful hour; but nature is wilful and will seldom abdicate the night for joy, whatever she may do for grief.

Next morning she went to the station with him to see him away. Impossible to describe the devotion of all the officials to Lord Erradeen's comfort on his journey. The station-master kindly came to superintend this august departure, and the porters ran about contending for his luggage with an excitement which made, at least, one old gentleman threaten to write to the Times. There was nothing but "my lord" and "his lordship" to be heard all over the station; and so many persons came to bid him good-bye and see the last of him, as they said, that the platform was quite inconveniently crowded. Among these, of course, was Captain Underwood, whose fervent-"God bless you, my boy"-drowned all other greetings. He had, however, a disappointed look-as if he had failed in some object. Mrs. Methven, whose faculties were all sharpened by her position, and who felt herself able to exercise a toleration which, in former circumstances, would have been impossible to her, permitted him to overtake her as she left the place, and acknowledged his greeting with more cordiality, or, at least, with a less forbidding civility than usual. And then a wonderful sight was seen in Sloebury. This béte noir of the feminine world, this man whom every lady frowned upon, was seen walking along the High Street, side by side, in earnest conversation with one of the women who had been most unfavourable to him. Was she listening to an explanation, a justification, an account of himself, such as he had not yet given, to satisfy the requirements of the respectability of Sloebury? To tell the truth, Mrs. Methven now cared very little for any such explanation. She did not remember, as she ought to have done, that other women's sons might be in danger from this suspicious person, though her own was now delivered out of his power. But she was very curious to know what anybody could tell her of Walter's new possessions, and of the family which it was rather humiliating to know so little about. It was she, indeed, who had begun the conversation after his first remark upon Walter's departure and the loss which would result to Sloebury.

"You know something about the Erradeens, my son tells me," she said almost graciously.

"Something! I know about as much as most people. I knew he was the heir, which few, except yourselves, did," the captain said. He cast a keen glance at her when he said, "except yourselves."

"Indeed," said Mrs. Methven, "that is scarcely correct, for Walter did not know, and I had forgotten. I had, indeed, lost sight of my husband's family and the succession seemed so far off."

It was thus that she veiled her ignorance and endeavoured to make it appear that indifference on her part, and a wise desire to keep Walter's mind unaffected by such a dazzling possibility, had been her guiding influence. She spoke with such modest gravity that Captain Underwood, not used to delusion under that form, was tempted into a sort of belief. He looked at her curiously, but her veil was down, and her artifice, if it was an artifice, was of a kind more delicate than any to which he was accustomed.

"Well!" he said, "then it was not such a surprise to you as people thought? Sloebury has talked of nothing else, I need not tell you, for several days; and everybody was of opinion that it burst upon you like a thunderbolt."

"Upon my son, yes," Mrs. Methven said with a smile.

He looked at her again, and she had the satisfaction of perceiving that this experienced man of the world was taken in.

"Well, then," he said, "you will join with me in wishing him well out of it: you know all the stories that are about."

"I have never been at Mulmorrel-my husband's chances in his own lifetime were very small, you know."

"It isn't Mulmorrel, it is that little ruined place where something uncanny is always said to go on-oh, I don't know what it is; nobody does but the reigning sovereign himself, and some hangers-on, I suppose. I have been there. I've seen the mysterious light, you know. Nobody can ever tell what window it shows at, or if it is any window at all. I was once with the late man-the late lord, he who died the other day-when it came out suddenly. We were shooting wildfowl, and his gun fell out of his hands. I never saw a man in such a funk. We were a bit late, and twilight had come on before we knew."

"So then you actually saw something of it yourself?" Mrs. Methven said. She had not the remotest idea what this was, but if she could find out something by any means she was eager enough to take advantage of it.

"No more than that; but I can tell you this: Erradeen was not seen again for twenty-four hours. Whether it was a call to him or what it was I can't undertake to say. He never would stand any questioning about it. He was a good fellow enough, but he never would put up with anything on that point. So I can only wish Walter well through it, Mrs. Methven. In my opinion he should have had some one with him; for he is young, and, I dare say, he is fanciful."

"My son, Lord Erradeen," said Mrs. Methven with dignity, "is man enough, I hope, to meet an emergency. Perhaps you think him younger than he is." She propounded this delicately as, perhaps, a sort of excuse for the presumption of the Christian name.

Underwood grew very red: he was disappointed and irritable. "Oh, of course you know best," he said. "As for my Lord Erradeen (I am sure I beg your pardon for forgetting his dignity), I dare say he is quite old enough to take care of himself-at least, we'll hope so; but a business of that kind will upset the steadiest brain, you know. Old Erradeen had not a bad spirit of his own, and he funked it. I confess I feel a little anxious for your boy; he's a nice fellow, but he's nervous. I was in a dozen minds to go up with him to stand by him; but, perhaps, it is better not, for the best motives get misconstrued in this world. I can only wish him well out of it," Captain Underwood said, taking off his hat, and making her a fine bow as he stalked away.

It is needless to say that this mysterious intimation of danger planted daggers in Mrs. Methven's heart. She stopped aghast: and for the moment the idea of running back to the station, and signalling that the train was to be stopped came into her mind. Ridiculous folly! Wish him well out of it? What, out of his great fortune, his peerage, his elevation in the world? Mrs. Methven smiled indignantly, and thought of the strange manifestations under which envy shows itself. But she went home somewhat pale, and could not dismiss it from her mind as she wished to do. Well out of it! And there were moments when, she remembered, she had surprised a very serious look on the countenance of Mr. Milnathort. Was Walter going unwarned, in the elation and happy confidence of his heart, into some danger unknown and unforeseen? This took her confidence away from her, and made her nervous and anxious. But after all, what folly it must be: something uncanny and a mysterious light! These were stories for Christmas, to bring a laugh or a shiver from idle circles round the fire. To imagine that they could effect anything in real life was a kind of madness; an old-fashioned, exploded superstition. It was too ridiculous to be worthy a thought.

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