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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 27505

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Walter arrived in Edinburgh on a wintry morning white and chill. A sort of woolly shroud wrapped all the fine features of the landscape. He thought the dingy turrets of the Calton Jail were the Castle, and was much disappointed, as was natural. Arthur's Seat and the Crags were as entirely invisible as if they had been a hundred miles away, and the cold crept into his very bones after his night's journey, although it had been made luxuriously, in a way very different from his former journeyings. Also it struck him as strange and uncomfortable that nobody was aware of the change in his position, and that even the railway porter, to whom he gave a shilling (as a commoner he would have been contented with sixpence), only called him "Sir," and could not perceive that it would have been appropriate to say my lord. He went to an hotel, as it was so early, and found only a dingy little room to repose himself in, the more important part of the house being still in the hands of the housemaids. And when he gave his name as Lord Erradeen, the attendants stared at him with a sort of suspicion. They looked at his baggage curiously, and evidently asked each other if it was possible he could be what he claimed to be. Walter had a half-consciousness of being an impostor, and trying to take these surprised people in. He thawed, however, as he ate his breakfast, and the mist began to rise, revealing the outline of the Old Town. He had never been in Edinburgh before; he had rarely been anywhere before. It was all new to him, even the sense of living in an inn. There was a curious freedom about it, and independence of all restraint, which pleased him. But it was very strange to be absolutely unknown, to meet the gaze of faces he had never seen before, and to be obliged always to explain who he was. It was clear that a servant was a thing quite necessary to a man who called himself by a title, a servant not so much to attend upon him as to answer for him, and be a sort of guarantee to the world. Now that he was here in Edinburgh, he was not quite sure what to do with himself. It was too early to do anything. He could not disturb old Milnathort at such an hour. He must let the old man get to his office and read his letters before he could descend upon him. So that on the whole Walter, though sustained by the excitement of his new position, was altogether chilled and not at all comfortable, feeling those early hours of grim daylight hang very heavily on his hands. He went out after he had refreshed and dressed-and strolled about the fine but foreign street. It looked quite foreign to his inexperienced eyes. The Castle soared vaguely through the grey mist; the irregular line of roofs and spires crowning the ridge threw itself up vaguely against a darker grey behind. There was a river of mist between him and that ridge, running deep in the hollow, underneath the nearer bank, which was tufted with spectral bushes and trees, and with still more spectral white statues glimmering through. On the other side of the street, more cheerful and apparent, were the jewellers' shops full of glistening pebbles and national ornaments. Everybody knows that it is not these shops alone, but others of every luxurious kind, that form the glory of Prince's Street. But Walter was a stranger and foreigner; and in the morning mists the shining store of cairngorms was the most cheerful sight that met his eye.

Mr. Milnathort's office was in a handsome square, with a garden in the centre of it, and another statue holding possession of the garden. For the first time since he left home, Walter felt a little thrill of his new importance when he beheld the respectful curiosity produced among the clerks by the statement of his name. They asked his lordship to step in with an evident sensation. And for Walter himself to look into that office where his mother had so strongly desired that he should find a place, had the most curious effect. He felt for the moment as if he were one of the serious young men peeping from beyond the wooden railing that inclosed the office, at the fortunate youth whose circumstances were no different from their own. He did not realise at that moment the unfailing human complacency which would have come to his aid in such circumstances, and persuaded him that the gifts of fortune had nothing to do with real superiority. He thought of the possible reflections upon himself of the other young fellows in their lowly estate as if he had himself been making them. He was sorry for them all, for the contrast they must draw, and the strange sense of human inequality that they must feel. He was no better than they were-who could tell? perhaps not half as good. He felt that to feel this was a due tribute from Lord Erradeen in his good fortune to those who might have been Walter Methven's fellow-clerks, but who had never had any chance of being Lord Erradeen. And then he thought what a good thing it was that he had never written that letter to Mr. Milnathort, offering himself for a desk in the office. He had felt really guilty on the subject at the time. He had felt that it was miserable of him to neglect the occasion thus put before him of gaining a livelihood. Self-reproach, real and unmistakable, had been in his mind; and yet what a good thing he had not done it: and how little one knows what is going to happen! These were very ordinary reflections, not showing much depth; but it must be recollected that Walter was still in a sort of primary state of feeling, and had not had time to reach a profounder level.

Mr. Milnathort made haste to receive him, coming out of his own room on purpose, and giving him the warmest welcome.

"I might have thought you would come by the night train. You are not old enough to dislike night travelling as I do; but I will take it ill, and so will my sister, if you stay in an hotel, and your room ready for you in our little place. I think you will be more comfortable with us, though we have no grandeur to surround you with. My sister has a great wish to make your acquaintance, my Lord Erradeen. She has just a wonderful acquaintance with the family, and it was more through her than any one that I knew just where to put my hand upon you, when the time came."

"I did not like to disturb you so early," Walter said.

"Well, perhaps there is something in that. We are not very early birds: and as a matter of fact, Alison did not expect you till about seven o'clock at night. And here am I in the midst of my day's work. But I'll tell you what I'll do for you. We'll go round to the club, and there your young lordship will make acquaintance with somebody that can show you something of Edinburgh. You have never been here before? It is a great pity that there is an easterly haar, which is bad both for you and the objects you are wanting to see. However, it is lifting, and we'll get some luncheon, and then I will put you in the way. That is the best thing I can do for you. Malcolm, you will send down all the documents relative to his lordship's affairs to Moray Place, this afternoon; and you can tell old Symington to be in attendance in case Lord Erradeen should wish to see him. That is your cousin the late lord's body servant. He is a man of great experience, and you might wish-; but all that can be settled later on. If Drysdales should send over about that case of theirs, ye will say, Malcolm, that I shall be here not later than three in the afternoon; and if old Blairallan comes fyking, ye can say I am giving the case my best attention; and if it's that big north-country fellow about his manse and his augmentation--"

"I fear that I am unpardonable," said Walter, "in interfering with your valuable time."

"Nothing of the sort. It is not every day that a Lord Erradeen comes into his inheritance; and as there are, may be, things not over-cheerful to tell you at night, we may as well make the best of it in the morning," said the old lawyer. He got himself into his coat as he spoke, slowly, not without an effort. The sun was struggling through the mist as they went out again into the streets, and the mid-day gun from the Castle helped for a moment to disperse the haar, and show the noble cliff on which it rears its head aloft. Mr. Milnathort paused to look with tender pride along the line-the houses and spires lifting out of the clouds, the sunshine breaking through, the crown of St. Giles's hovering like a visible sign of rank over the head of the throned city, awakened in him that keen pleasure and elation in the beauty of his native place which is nowhere more warmly felt than in Edinburgh. He waved his hand towards the Old Town in triumph. "You may have seen a great deal, but ye will never have seen anything finer than that," he said.

"I have seen very little," said Walter; "but everybody has heard of Edinburgh, so that it does not take one by surprise."

"Ay, that is very wisely said. If it took you by surprise, and you had never heard of it before, the world would just go daft over it. However, it is a drawback of a great reputation that ye never come near it with your mind clear." Having said this the old gentleman dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand, and said, in a different tone, "You will be very curious about the family secrets you are coming into, Lord Erradeen."

Walter laughed.

"I am coming to them with my mind clear," he said. "I know nothing about them. But I don't believe much in family secrets. They belong to the middle ages. Nowadays we have nothing to conceal."

Mr. Milnathort listened to this blasphemy with a countenance in which displeasure struggled with that supreme sense that the rash young man would soon know better, which disarms reproof. He shook his head.

"You may say we can conceal but little," he said, "which is true enough, but not altogether true either. Courage is a fine thing, Lord Erradeen, and I am always glad to see it; and if you have your imagination under control, that will do ye still better service. In most cases it is not only what we see, but what we think we are going to see, that daunts us. Keep you your head cool, that is your best defence in all emergencies. It is better to be too bold than not to be bold enough, notwithstanding the poet's warning to yon warrior-maid of his."

These last words made Walter stare, for he was not very learned in poetry at the best, and was totally unprepared to hear Spenser from the lips of the old Scottish lawyer. He was silent for a little in mere perplexity, and then he said, with a laugh-

"You speak of danger as if we were on the eve of a battle. Are there giants to encounter or magicians? One would think we were living in the dark ages," Walter cried with a little impatience.

Mr. Milnathort said nothing more. He led the young man into one of the great stone palaces which form the line of Prince's Street, and which was then the seat of the old original club of Edinburgh society. Here Walter found himself in the midst of a collection of men with marked and individual faces, each one of whom ought to be somebody, he thought. Many of them were bound about the throat with white ties, like clergymen, but they did not belong to that profession. It gave the young man a sense of his own importance, which generally deserted him in Mr. Milnathort's presence, and of which he felt himself to stand in need, to perceive that he excited a great deal of interest among these grave and potent signors. There was a certain desire visible to make his acquaintance and to ascertain his political opinions, of which Walter was scarcely aware as yet whether he had any. It was suggested at once that he should be put up for the club, and invitations to dinner began to be showered upon him. He was stopped short in his replies to those cordial beginnings of acquaintance by Mr. Milnathort, who calmly assumed the guidance of his movements. "Lord Erradeen," he said, "is on his way West. Business will not permit him to tarry at this moment. We hope he will be back ere long, and perhaps stay a while in Edinburgh, and see what is to be seen in the way of society." This summary way of taking all control of his own movements from him astounded Walter so much that he merely stared at his old tyrant or vizier, and in his confusion of surprise and anger did not feel capable of saying anything, which, after all, was the most dignified way; for, he said to himself, it was not necessary to yield implicit obedience even if he refrained from open protest upon these encroachments on his liberty. In the mean time it was evident that the old lawyer did not intend him to have any liberty at all. He produced out of the recesses of the club library a beaming little man in spectacles, to whom he committed the charge of the young stranger.

"Mr. Bannatyne," he said, "knows Edinburgh as well as I know my chambers, and he will just take you round what is most worth seeing."

When Walter attempted to escape with a civil regret to give his new acquaintance trouble he was put down by both with eagerness.

"The Old Town is just the breath of my nostrils," said the little antiquary.

"It cannot be said that it's a fragrant breath," said old Milnathort; "but since that is so, Lord Erradeen, you would not deprive our friend of such a pleasure: and we'll look for you by five or six at Moray Place, or earlier if you weary, for it's soon dark at this time of the year."

To find himself thus arrested in the first day of his emancipation and put into the hands of a conductor was so annoying yet so comic that Walter's resentment evaporated in the ludicrous nature of the situation and his consciousness that otherwise he would not know what to do

with himself. But sight-seeing requires a warmer inspiration than this, and even the amusement of beholding his companion's enthusiasm over all the dark entries and worn-out inscriptions was not enough to keep Walter's interest alive. His own life at this moment was so much more interesting than anything else, so much more important than those relics of a past which had gone away altogether out of mortal ken. When the blood is at high pressure in our veins, and the future lying all before us, it is very difficult to turn back, and force our eager eyes into contemplation of scenes with which we ourselves have little or no connection. The antiquary, however, was not to be baulked. He looked at his young companion with his head on one side like a critical bird. "You are paying no attention to me," he said half pathetically; "but 'cod, man (I beg your pardon, my lord!), ye shall be interested before I'm done." With this threat he hurried Walter along to the noisiest and most squalid part of that noble but miserable street which is the pride of Edinburgh, and stopped short before a small but deep doorway, entering from a short flight of outside stairs. The door was black with age and neglect, and showed a sort of black cave within, out of which all kind of dingy figures were fluttering. The aspect of the muddy stairs and ragged wayfarers was miserable enough, but the mouldings of the lintel, and the spiral staircase half visible at one side, were of a grim antiquity, and so was the lofty tenement above, with its many rows of windows and high-stepped gable.

"Now just look here," said Mr. Bannatyne, "these arms will tell their own story."

There was a projecting boss of rude, half-obliterated carving on the door.

"I cannot make head nor tail of it," said the young man; his patience was beginning to give way.

"Lord Erradeen," cried the other with enthusiasm, "this is worth your fattest farm; it is of more interest than half your inheritance; it is as historical as Holyrood. You are just awfully insensible, you young men, and think as little of the relics that gave you your consequences in the world-!" He paused a little in the fervour of his indignation, then added-"But there are allowances to be made for you as you were bred in England, and perhaps are little acquainted-My lord, this is Me'even's Close, bearing the name even now in its decay. It was my Lord Methven's lodging in the old time. Bless me! can your young eyes not read the motto that many people have found so significant? Look here," cried Walter's cicerone, tracing with his stick the half-effaced letters, "Baithe Sune and Syne."

Young Lord Erradeen began, as was natural, to feel ashamed of himself. He felt a pang of discomfort too, for this certainly bore no resemblance to the trim piece of modern Latin about the conquering power of virtue which was on his father's seal. The old possibility that he might turn out an impostor after all gleamed across his mind. "Does this belong to me?" he added with some eagerness, to veil these other and less easy sentiments.

"I know nothing about that," said Mr. Bannatyne with a slight tone of contempt. "But it was the Lord of Methven's lodging in the days when Scots lords lived in the Canongate of Edinburgh." Then he added, "There is a fine mantelpiece up-stairs which you had better see. Oh nobody will have any objection, a silver key opens every door hereabout. If it should happen to be yours, my lord, and I were you," said the eager little man, "I would clear out the whole clanjamfry and have it thoroughly cleaned, and make a museum of the place. You would pick up many a curious bit as the auld houses go down. This way, to the right, and mind the hole in the wall. The doors are all carved, if you can see them for the dirt, and you'll not often see a handsomer room."

It was confusing at first to emerge out of the gloom of the stairs into the light of the great room, with its row of windows guiltless of either blind or curtain, which was in possession of a group of ragged children, squatting about in front of the deep, old-fashioned chimney, over which a series of elaborate carvings rose to the roof. The room had once been panelled, but half of the woodwork had been dragged down, and the rest was in a deplorable state. The contrast of the squalor and wretchedness about him, with the framework of the ancient, half-ruined grandeur, at once excited and distressed Walter. There was a bed, or rather a heap of something covered with the bright patches of an old quilt, in one corner, in another an old corner cupboard fixed into the wall, a rickety table and two chairs in the middle of the room. The solemn, unsheltered windows, like so many hollow, staring eyes, gazed out through the cold veil of the mist upon the many windows of an equally tall house on the other side of the street, the view being broken by a projecting pole thrust forth from the middle one, upon which some dingy clothes were hanging to dry. The children hung together, getting behind the biggest of them, a ragged, handsome girl, with wild, elf locks, who confronted the visitors with an air of defiance. The flooring was broken in many places, and dirty beyond description. Walter felt it intolerable to be here, to breathe the stifling atmosphere, to contemplate this hideous form of decay. He thought some one was looking at him from behind the torn panels. "This is horrible," he said. "I hope I have nothing to do with it." Disgust and a shivering, visionary dread was in his voice.

"Your race has had plenty to do with it," said the antiquary. "It was here, they say, that the warlock-lord played most of his pliskies. It was his 'warm study of deals' like that they made for John Knox on the other side of the street. These walls have seen strange sights: and if you believe in witchcraft, as one of your name ought--"

"Why should one of my name believe in witchcraft? It appears," he said, with petulance, "that I know very little about my name."

"So I should have said," said the antiquary, dryly. "But no doubt you have heard of your great ancestor, the warlock-lord? I am not saying that I admire the character in the abstract; but an ancestor like that is fine for a family. He was mixed up in all the doings of the time, and he made his own out of every one of them. And then he's a grand historical problem to the present day, which is no small distinction. You never heard of that? Oh, my lord, that's just not possible! He was the one whose death was never proved nor nothing about him, where he was buried, or the nature of his end, or if he ever came to an end at all; his son would never take the title, and forbade his son to do it: but by the time you have got to the second generation you are not minding so much. I noticed that the late lord would never enter into conversation on the subject. The family has always been touchy about it. It was the most complete disappearance I can recollect hearing of. Most historical puzzles clear themselves up in time: but this never was cleared up. Of course it has given rise to legends. You will perhaps be more interested in the family legends, Lord Erradeen?"

"Not at all," said Walter, abruptly. "I have told you I know very little about the family. What is it we came to see?-not this wretched place which makes me sick. The past should carry off its shell with it, and not leave these old clothes to rot here."

"Oh!" cried little Mr. Bannatyne, with a shudder. "I never suspected I was bringing in an iconoclast. That mantelpiece is a grand work of art, Lord Erradeen. Look at that serpent twisted about among the drapery-you'll not see such work now; and the ermine on that mantle just stands out in every hair, for all the grime and the smoke. It is the legend beneath the shield that is most interesting in the point of view of the family. It's a sort of rhyming slogan, or rather it's an addition to the old slogan, 'Live, Me'even,' which everybody knows."

Walter felt a mingled attraction and repulsion which held him there undecided in front of the great old fireplace, like Hercules or any other hero between the symbolical good and evil. He had a great curiosity to know what all this meant mingled with an angry disinclination impossible to put into words. Mr. Bannatyne, who of course knew nothing of what was going on in his mind, took upon himself the congenial task of tracing the inscription out. It was doggerel, bad enough to satisfy every aspiration of an antiquary. It was as follows:-

"Né fleyt atte Helle, né fond for Heeven,

Live, Me'even."

"You will see how it fits in with the other motto," cried the enthusiast. "'Baithe Sune and Syne,' which has a grand kind of indifference to time and all its changes that just delights me. And the other has the same sentiment, 'Neither frightened for hell nor keen about heaven.' It is the height of impiety," he said, with a subdued chuckle; "but that's not inappropriate-it's far from inappropriate; it is just, in fact, what might have been expected. The warlock lord--"

"I hope you won't think me ungrateful," cried Walter, "but I don't think I want to know any more about that old ruffian. There is something in the place that oppresses me." He took out from his pocket a handful of coins. (It was with the pleasure of novelty that he shook them together, gold and silver in one shining heap, and threw half a dozen of them to the little group before the fire.) "For heaven's sake let us get out of this!" he said, nervously. He could not have explained the sentiment of horror, almost of fear, that was in his mind. "If it is mine," he said, as they went down the spiral stair, groping against the black humid wall, "I shall pull it down and let in some air and clear the filth away."

"God bless me!" cried the antiquary in horror and distress, "you will never do that. The finest street in Christendom, and one of the best houses! No, no, Lord Erradeen, you will never do that!"

When Mr. Bannatyne got back to the club, he expressed an opinion of Lord Erradeen, which we are glad to believe further experience induced him to modify. He declared that old Bob Milnathort had given him such a handful as he had not undertaken for years. "Just a young Cockney!" he said, "a stupid Englishman! with no more understanding of history, or even of the share his own race has had in it, than that collie dog-indeed, Yarrow is far more intelligent, and a brute that is conscious of a fine descent. I am not saying that there are not fine lads among some of those English-bred young men, and some that have the sense to like old-fashioned things. But this young fellow is just a Cockney, he is just a young cynic. Pull down the house, said he? Spoil the first street in Europe! We'll see what the Town Council-not to say the Woods and Forests-will say to that, my young man! And I hope I have Bailie Brown under my thumb!" the enraged antiquary cried.

Meantime Walter made his way through the dark streets in a tremor of excitement and dislike of which he could give no explanation to himself. Why should the old house have affected him so strongly! There was no reason for it that he knew. Perhaps there was something in the suddenness of the transition from the comfortable English prose of Sloebury to all these old world scenes and suggestions which had a disenchanting effect upon him. He had not been aware that he was more matter of fact than another, less likely to be affected by romance and historical associations. But so it had turned out. The grimy squalor of the place, the bad atmosphere, the odious associations, had either destroyed for him all the more attractive prejudices of long family descent, and a name which had descended through many generations-or else, something more subtle still, some internal influence, had communicated that loathing and sickness of the heart. Which was it? He could not tell. He said to himself, with a sort of scorn at himself, that probably the bourgeois atmosphere of Sloebury had made him incapable of those imaginative flights for which the highest and the lowest classes have a mutual aptitude. The atmosphere of comfort and respectability was against it. This idea rather exasperated him, and he dwelt upon it with a natural perversity because he hated to identify himself as one of that stolid middle class which is above or beneath fanciful impulses. Then he began to wonder whether all this might not be part of a deep-laid scheme on the part of old Milnathort to get him, Walter, under his power. No doubt it was arranged that he should be brought to that intolerable place, and all the spells of the past called forth to subdue him by his imagination if never through his intellect. What did they take him for? He was no credulous Celt, but a sober-minded Englishman, not likely to let his imagination run away with him, or to be led by the nose by any diablerie, however skilful. They might make up their minds to it, that their wiles of this kind would meet with no success. Walter was by no means sure who he meant by they, or why they should endeavour to get him into their power; but he wanted something to find fault with-some way of shaking off the burden of a mental weight which he did not understand, which filled him with discomfort and new sensations which he could not explain. He could almost have supposed (had he believed in mesmerism, according to the description given of it in fiction-) that he was under some mesmeric influence, and that some expert, some adept, was trying to decoy him within some fatal circle of impression. But he set his teeth and all his power of resistance against it. They should not find him an easy prey.

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