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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 29418

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The drawing-room in Moray Place seemed in the partial gloom very large and lofty. It must be remembered that Walter was accustomed only to the comparatively small rooms of an English country town where there was nobody who was very rich-and the solid, tall Edinburgh houses were imposing to him. There was no light but that which came from a blazing fire, and which threw an irregular ruddy illumination upon everything, but no distinct vision. He saw the tall windows indefinitely draped, and looking not unlike three colossal women in abundant vague robes standing against the wall. In a smaller room behind, which opened from this, the firelight was still brighter, but still only partially lit up the darkness. It showed, however, a table placed near the fire, and glowing with bright reflections from its silver and china; and just beyond that, out of the depths of what looked like an elongated easy-chair, a piece of whiteness, which was a female countenance. Walter, confused at his entrance, made out after a moment that it was a lady, half reclining on a sort of invalid chaise longue, who raised herself slightly to receive him, with a flicker of a pair of white, attenuated hands. "You are very welcome, Lord Erradeen," she said, in a sweet, feeble voice. "Will you excuse my rising-for I'm a great invalid-and come and sit down here beside me? I have been looking for you this half-hour past." The hand which she held out to him was so thin that he scarcely felt its light pressure. "If you have no objection," said Miss Milnathort, "we will do with the firelight for a little longer. It is my favourite light. My brother sent me word I was to expect you, and after your cold walk you will be glad of a cup of tea." She did not pause for any reply, but went on, drawing the table towards her, and arranging everything with the skill of an accustomed hand. "I am just a cripple creature," she said. "I have had to learn to serve myself in this way, and Robert is extraordinarily thoughtful. There is not a mechanical convenience invented but I have it before it is well out of the brain that devised it; and that is how I get on so well with no backbone to speak of. All this is quite new to you," she said, quickly shaking off one subject and taking up another, with a little swift movement of her head.

"Do you mean-Edinburgh, or--"

"I mean everything," said the lady. "Edinburgh will be just a bit of scenery in the drama that is opening upon you, and here am I just another tableau. I can see it all myself with your young eyes. You can scarcely tell if it is real."

"That is true enough," said Walter, "and the scenery all turns upon the plot so far: which is what it does not always do upon the stage."

"Ay!" said Miss Milnathort, with a tone of surprise, "and how may that be? I don't see any particular significance in Holyrood. It is where all you English strangers go, as if Edinburgh had no meaning but Queen Mary."

"We did not go to Holyrood. We went to Lord Methven's Lodging, as I hear it is called: which was highly appropriate."

"Dear me," said the lady, "do you mean to tell me that John Bannatyne had that sense in him? I will remember that the next time Robert calls him an auld foozle. And so you saw the lodging of Methven? I have never seen it myself. Did it not make your heart sick to see all the poverty and misery in that awful street? Oh yes, I'm told it's a grand street: but I never have the heart to go into it. I think the place should die with the age that gave it birth."

This was a sentiment so entirely unlike what Walter had expected to hear, that for the moment it took from him all power of reply. "That would be hard upon antiquity," he said at length, "and I don't know what the artists would say, or our friend Mr. Bannatyne."

"He would have me burnt for a witch," the invalid said with a sweet little laugh; and then she added, "Ah, it is very well to talk about art; but there was great sense in that saying of the old Reformers, 'Ding down the nest, and the crows will flee away.'"

"I expected," said Walter, "to find you full of reverence for the past, and faith in mysteries and family secrets, and-how can I tell?-ghosts perhaps." He laughed, but the invalid did not echo his laugh. And this brought a little chill and check to his satisfaction. The sense that one has suddenly struck a jarring note is highly uncomfortable when one is young. Walter put back his chair a little, not reflecting that the firelight revealed very little of his sudden blush.

"I have had no experience in what you call ghosts," she said, gravely. "I cannot, to tell the truth, see any argument against them, except just that we don't see them; and I think that's a pity, for my part."

To this, as it was a view of the subject equally new to him, Walter made no reply.

"Take you care, Lord Erradeen," she resumed hastily, "not to let yourself be persuaded to adopt that sort of nomenclature." There was a touch of Scotch in her accent that naturalised the long word, and made it quite in keeping. "Conclude nothing to be a ghost till you cannot account for it in any other way. There are many things that are far more surprising," she said; then, shaking off the subject once more with that little movement of her head, "You are not taking your tea. You must have had a tiring day after travelling all night. That is one of the modern fashions I cannot make up my mind to. They tell me the railway is not so wearying as the long coach journeys we used to make in the old time."

"But you-can scarcely remember the old coach journeys? Why, my mother--"

"Very likely I am older than your mother; and I rarely budge out of this corner. I have never seen your mother, but I remember Captain Methven long long ago, who was not unlike the general outline of you, so far as I can make out. When the light comes you will see I am an old woman. It is just possible that this is why I am so fond of the firelight," she said with a laugh; "for I'm really very young though I was born long ago. Robert and me, we remember all our games and plays in a way that people that have had children of their own never do. We are just boy and girl still, and I've known us, after a long talk, forget ourselves altogether, and talk of papa and mamma!" She clapped her hands together at this, and went into a peal of genuine laughter, such as is always infectious. Walter laughed too, but in a half-embarrassed, half-unreal way. All was so strange to him, and this curious introduction into a half-seen, uncomprehended world the most curious of all.

"I would like to know a little about yourself," she resumed after a moment. "You were not in the secret that it was you who were the kin? It was strange your father should have left you in the dark."

"I can't remember my father," said Walter, hastily.

"That makes little difference; but you were always a strange family. Now you, Robert tells me, you're not so very much of an Erradeen-you take after your mother's side. And I'm very very glad to hear it. It will perhaps be you, if you have the courage, that will put a stop to-many things. There are old rhymes upon that subject, but you will put little faith in old rhymes; I none at all. I believe they are just made up long after the occasion, just for the sake of the fun, or perhaps because some one is pleased with himself to have found a rhyme. Now that one that they tell me is in the Canongate-that about 'Live, Me'even-'"

"I thought you said you didn't know it?"

"I have never seen it; but you don't suppose I am ignorant of the subject, Lord Erradeen? Do you know I have been here stretched out in my chair these thirty years? and what else could I give my attention to, considering all things? Well, I do not believe in that. Oh, it's far too pat! When a thing is true it is not just so terribly in keeping. I believe it was made up by somebody that knew the story just as we do; probably a hundred years or more after the event."

Walter did not say that he was quite unacquainted with the event. His interest perhaps, though he was not aware of it, was a little less warm since he knew that Miss Milnathort was his mother's contemporary rather than his own; but he had come to the conclusion that it was better not to ask any direct questions. The light had faded much, and was now nothing more than a steady red glow in place of the leaping and blazing of the flames. He scarcely saw his entertainer at all. There were two spots of brightness which moved occasionally, and which represented her face and the hands which she had clasped together (when they were not flickering about in incessant gesture) in her lap. But there was something altogether quaint and strange in the situation. It did not irritate him as the men had done. And then she had the good sense to agree with him in some respects, though the mélange of opinions in her was remarkable, and he did not understand what she would be at. There was an interval of quiet in which neither of them said anything, and then a large step was audible coming slowly up-stairs, and through the other drawing room.

"Here is Robert," the invalid said with a smile in her voice. It was nothing but a tall shadow that appeared, looming huge in the ruddy light.

"Have you got Lord Erradeen with you, Alison? and how are you and he getting on together?" said old Milnathort's voice.

Walter rose hastily to his feet with a feeling that other elements less agreeable were at once introduced, and that his pride was affronted by being discussed in this easy manner over his head.

"We are getting on fine, Robert. He is just as agreeable as you say, and I have great hopes will be the man. But you are late, and it will soon be time for dinner. I would advise you to show our young gentleman to his room, and see that he's comfortable. And after dinner, when you have had your good meal, we'll have it all out with him."

"I am thinking, Alison, that there is a good deal we must go over that will be best between him and me."

"That must be as you please, Robert, my man," said the lady, and Walter felt like a small child who is being discussed over his head by grown-up persons, whom he feels to be his natural enemies. He rose willingly, yet with unconscious offence, and followed his host to his room, inwardly indignant with himself for having thus impaired his own liberty by forsaking his inn. The room however was luxuriously comfortable, shining with firelight, and a grave and respectable servant in mourning, was arranging his evening clothes upon the bed.

"This is Symington," said Mr. Milnathort, "he was your late cousin's body-servant. The late Lord Erradeen gave him a very warm recommendation. There might be things perhaps in which he would be of use."

"Thanks," said Walter, impulsively. "I have a man coming. I am afraid the recommendation is a little too late."

This unfortunately was not true; but the young man felt that to allow himself to be saddled with a sort of governor in the shape of the late lord's servant was more than could be required of him; and that he must assert himself before it was too late.

"You will settle that at your pleasure, my lord," said old Milnathort, and he went away shutting the door carefully, his steady, slow step echoing along the passage. The man was not apparently in the least daunted by Walter's irritation. He went on mechanically, lightly brushing out a crease, and unfolding the coat with that affectionate care which a good servant bestows upon good clothes. Walter longed to have brought his old coat with him that everything should not have been so distressingly new.

"That will do," he said, "that will do. It is a pity to give you so much trouble when, as I tell you, I have another man engaged."

"It is no trouble, my lord; it is a pleasure. I came out of attachment to the family. I've been many years about my late lord. And however ye may remind yourself that you are but a servant, and service is no heritage, yet it's not easy to keep yourself from becoming attached."

"My good man," said Walter, half impatient, half touched, "you never saw me in your life before. I can't see how you can have any attachment to me."

Symington had a long face, with a somewhat lugubrious expression, contradicted by the twinkle of a pair of humorous, deep-set eyes. He gave a glance up at Walter from where he stood fondling the lappels of the new coat.

"There are many kinds of attachments, my lord," he said oracularly; "some to the person and some to the race. For a number of years past I have, so to speak, just identified myself with the Erradeens. It's not common in England, so far as I can hear, but it's just our old Scots way. I will take no other service. So, being free, if your lordship pleases, I will just look after your lordship's things till the other man comes."

Walter perceived in a moment by the way Symington said these words that he had no faith whatever in the other man. He submitted accordingly to the ministrations of the family retainer, with a great deal of his old impatience, tempered by a sense of the humour of the situation. It seemed that he was never to have any control over himself. He had barely escaped from the tutelage of home when he fell into this other which was much more rigid. "Poor mother!" he said to himself, with an affectionate recollection of her many cares, her anxious watchfulness; and laughed to himself at the thought that she was being avenged.

Mr. Milnathort's table was handsome and liberal; the meal even too abundant for the solitary pair who sat alone at a corner of the large table, amid a blaze of light. Miss Milnathort did not appear.

"She never comes down. She has never sat down at table since she had her accident, and that is thirty years since."

There was something in Mr. Milnathort's tone as he said this that made Walter believe that her accident too had something to do with the family. Everything tended towards that, or sprang from it. Had he been to the manner born, this would no doubt have seemed to him natural enough; but as it was he could not keep himself from the idea either that he was being laughed at, or that some design was hidden beneath this constant reference. The dinner, however, went off quietly. It was impossible to discuss anything of a private character in the presence of Milnathort's serious butler, and of the doubly grave apparition of Symington, who helped the other to wait.

Walter had never dined so solemnly before. It must be added, however, that he had seldom dined so well. It was a pity that he was so little knowing in this particular.

Mr. Milnathort encouraged him through the repast by judicious words of advice and recommendation. He was very genial and expansive at this most generous moment of the day. Fond of good fare himself he liked to communicate and recommend it, and Walter's appetite was excellent, if perhaps his taste was uncultivated. The two noiseless attendants circulating about the table served them with a gravity in perfect keeping with the importance of the event, which was to the old lawyer the most interesting of the day.

When they were left alone finally, the aspect of affairs changed a little. Mr. Milnathort cleared his throat, and laid aside his napkin. He said-

"We must not forget, Lord Erradeen, that we have a great deal of business to get through. But you have had a fatiguing day, and probably very little sleep last night"-

"I slept very well, I assure you," Walter replied cheerfully.

"Ay, ay, you are young," said Mr. Milnathort, with a half-sigh. "Still all the financial statements, and to give you a just view of all that's coming to you, will take time. With your permission we'll keep that till to-morrow. But there's just a thing or two-. Lord save us!" he cried suddenly, "you're not the kind of person for this. There is many a one I know that would have liked it all the better-till they knew-for what's attached to it. I thought as much when I first set eyes upon you. This will be one that will not take it all for gospel, I said to myself-one that will set up his own judgment, and demand the reason why."

Walter, a little uncertain at first how to take this, ended by being gratified with such an estimate of himself. It showed, he felt, more perception than he had looked for, and he answered, with a little complacency, "I hope you think that is the right way of approaching a new subject."

"I am not unbiased myself," said the lawyer, "and I have had to do with it all my life. There are conditions connected with your inheritance, Lord Erradeen, that may seem out of the way to a stranger. If you had succeeded in the way of nature, as your father's son, they would not have been new to you, and you would have been prepared. In that way it is hard upon you. There was one of your ancestors that laid certain conditions, as I was saying, upon every heir. He was one that had, as you may say, a good right to do that, or whatever else he pleased, seeing he was the making of the family. In old days it was no more than a bit small highland lairdship. It was he that gave it consequence; but he has held a heavy hand upon his successors ever since."

"Would it be he by any chance of whom Mr. Bannatyne was discoursing to me," said Walter, "under the title of the warlock-lord?"

"Ah! John Bannatyne took that upon him?" cried Mr. Milnathort with vivacity. His eyes gleamed from under his deep-set brows. "The less a man knows the more ready he is to instruct the world: but I never thought he would take that upon him. So you see, as I was saying, there are certain formalities to go through. It is understood that once a year, wherever he may be, Lord Erradeen should pass, say a week, say two or three days, in the old castle of Kinloch Houran, which is the old seat of the family, the original of the Methven race."

Walter had been listening with some anxiety. He drew a long breath as Mr. Milnathort came to a pause. "Is that all?" he cried, with a voice of relief. Then he laughed. "I was winding myself up to something heroic, but if it is only a periodical retirement to an old castle-to think, I suppose, upon one's sins and examine one's conscience--"

"Something very like that," said the old man, somewhat grimly.

"Well! It might be a great inconvenience; but there is nothing very appalling in the prospect, if that is all."

"It is all, Lord Erradeen-if ye except what passes there, a thing that is your own concern, and that I have never pried into for my part. And just this beside, that you are expected there at once and without delay."

"Expected-at once and without delay." Walter grew red with anger at these peremptory words. "This sounds a little arbitrary," he said. "Expected? by whom? and to what purpose? I don't understand--"

"Nor do I, my young lord. But it's so in the documents, and so has it been with every Lord of Erradeen up to this period. It is the first thing to be done. Before you come into enjoyment of anything, or take your place in the country, there is this visit-if you like to call it a visit: this-sojourn: not a long one, at least, you may be thankful-to be made--"

"To what purpose?" Walter repeated, almost mechanically. He could not, himself, understand the sudden tempest of resistance, of anger, of alarm that got up within him. "There is reason in everything," he said, growing pale. "What is it for? What am I to do?"

"Lord Erradeen, a minute since you said, was that all? And now you change colour: you ask why, and wherefore-"

Walter made a great effort to regain command of himself. "It is inconsistent, I allow," he said. "Somehow, the order to go now is irritating and unpleasant. I suppose it's simple enough, a piece of tyranny such as people seem to think they may indulge in after they're dead. But it is abominably arbitrary and tyrannical. What good does the old beggar think--"

"Hold your peace," cried Mr. Milnathort, with a little trepidation. "We have no right to call names, and I would not like it to be thought--" Here he paused with a sort of uneasy smile, and added, "I am speaking nonsense," with a vague glance about him. "I think we might join my sister up-stairs; and, as she knows just as much as I do, or, maybe, more, you can speak as freely as you please before her-oh, quite freely. But, my dear young lord, call no names!" cried Mr. Milnathort. He got up hurriedly, leaving his wine which he had just filled out, a demonstration of sincerity which made a great impression upon Walter: and threw open the door. "Putting off the business details till to-morrow, I know nothing else that we cannot discuss before Alison," he said.

Walter was much startled when he went back to the inner drawing-room and found it lighted. Miss Milnathort did not employ any of those devices by which light is softened to suit the exigencies of beauty which has passed its prime. The light (alas for the prejudices of the ?sthetic reader) was gas; and, though it was slightly disguised by means of opal glass, it still poured down in a brilliant flood, and the little room was almost as light as day. She lay in her chaise longue placed under this illumination. Her face was preternaturally young, almost childish, small, and full of colour, her hair snow-white. She seemed to have been exempted from the weight of years, in compensation, perhaps, for other sufferings; her skin was smooth and unwrinkled, her eyes full of dewy brightness like those of a girl. Her dress, so far as it was visible, was white, made of cashmere or some other woollen material, solid and warm, but with lace at the neck, and pretty ribbons breaking the monotony of the tint. She looked like a girl dressed for some simple party, who had lain there waiting for the little festivity to begin, for no one could imagine how many years. Her hands were soft and round and young like her face. The wind had not been allowed to visit her cheek too roughly for a lifetime. What had happened before the event which she and her brother had both referred to as her "accident" belonged to a period which had evidently nothing to do with the present. Walter saw at a glance that every possible convenience which could be invented for an invalid surrounded her. She had a set of bookshelves at one side with vacant spaces where she could place the book she was reading. Tables that wheeled towards her at a touch, with needlework, with knitting, with drawing materials, were arranged within reach. One of these made into a desk and put itself across her couch by another adaptation. It was evident that the tenderest affection and care had made this prison of hers into a sort of museum of every ingenuity that had ever been called to the help of the suffering. She lay, or rather sat, for that was her general position, with an air of pleasant expectation on her face, and received them with smiles and hands held out. "Come away, come away," she said in her soft Scotch. "I have been wearying for you." Walter thought there was something of age in her voice, but that might have been only the Scotch, and the unusual form of her salutation. She pointed out a chair to him carefully placed for her convenience in seeing and hearing. "Come and tell me what you think about it all," she said.

"I have not heard much," said Walter, "to think about: except that I am to go away directly, which does not please me at all, Miss Milnathort."

"Oh, you will come back, you will come back," she said.

"I hope so: but the reason why I should go doesn't seem very plain. What would happen, I wonder, if I didn't?" Walter said, lightly. He was surprised to see how much effect was produced upon his companions by this very simple utterance. Miss Milnathort put her hands together, as if to clasp them in triumph. Her brother stood looking down upon the others, with his back to the light, and an air of alarmed displeasure.

"One result would be that certain of the lands would pass to the next heir," he said; "besides, perhaps-other penalties: that I would not incur, Lord Erradeen, if I were you."

"What penalties? But do you think at this time of day," said Walter, "that ridiculous conditions of this kind that can mean nothing could really be upheld by the law-now that bequests of all kinds are being interfered with, and even charities?"

"Robert, that is true. There was the Melville mortification that you had so much trouble about, and that was a charity. How much more, as young Lord Erradeen is saying, when it is just entirely out of reason."

"You should hold your peace on legal subjects, Alison. What can you know about them? I disapprove of all interference with the will of a testator, Lord Erradeen. I hold it to be against the law, and against that honour and honesty that we owe to the dead as well as the living. But there has always been a license allowed in respect to charities. So far as they are intended to be for the good of the poor, we have a right to see that the testator's meaning is carried out, even if it be contrary to his stipulations. But in a private case there is no such latitude. And you must always respect the testator's meaning, which is very clear in this case, as even you will allow, Alison."

"Ay, clear enough," cried the young-old lady, shaking her white head. "But I'm on your side, Lord Erradeen. I would just let them try their worst, and see what would come of it, if, instead of a lame woman, I was a young man, lively and strong like you."

"The question is," said Walter, "for I have become prudent since I have had property-whether for such an insignificant affair it is worth while losing a substantial advantage, as Mr. Milnathort says? And then, perhaps, a new man like myself, coming into an antiquated routine, there would be a sort of discourtesy, a want of politeness-" He laughed. "One ought, I suppose, to be on one's best behaviour in such circumstances," he said.

Miss Milnathort's countenance fell a little. She did not make any reply; but she had been listening with an air so eager and full of vivacity, anxious to speak, that the young man at once perceived the disappointment in her expressive little face. He said quickly-

"That does not please you? What would you have me to do?" with an involuntary sense that she had a right to an opinion.

Mr. Milnathort at this moment sat heavily down on the other side, giving great emphasis to his interruption by the sound of his chair drawn forward, a sound which she protested against with a sudden contraction of her forehead, putting up a delicate hand.

"I beg your pardon, my dear, for making a noise. You must not consult Alison, Lord Erradeen; she is prejudiced on one side-and I-perhaps I am, if not prejudiced, yet biased, on the other. You must act on your own instinct, which, as far as I can judge, is a just one. It would be a great incivility, as you say, for a far-away collateral, that is really no more than a stranger, to set himself against the traditions of a house."

Walter did not much like to hear himself described as a far-away collateral. It sounded like a term of reproach, and as he did not choose to say anything more on this matter, he made the best change of subject he could.

"I wonder," he said, "what would happen with any of the fantastic old feudal tenures if a new heir, a new man like myself, should simply refuse to fulfil them."

"Mostly they take a pride and a pleasure in fulfilling them," said the old lawyer.

"But suppose," cried Walter, "for the sake of argument, that a new Duke of Marlborough should say, 'What rubbish! Why should I send that obsolete old flag to Windsor?' That is a modern instance; or suppose--"

"Just that," cried Miss Milnathort, striking in with a flicker of her pretty hands. "Suppose young Glenearn should refuse when he comes of age to hear a word about that secret cha'mer--"

"What would happen?" said Walter, with a laugh of profane and irreverent youth.

Mr. Milnathort rose to his full height; he pushed back his chair with an indignant movement.

"You may as well ask me," he said, "what would happen if the pillars of the earth should give way. It is a thing that cannot be, at least till the end of all things is at hand. I will ring for prayers, Alison. My Lord Erradeen is young; he knows little; but this kind of profane talk is not to be justified from you and me."

Then the bell was rung; the servants came trooping up-stairs, and Symington gave Walter a sidelong look as he took his seat behind their backs. It seemed to assert a demure claim of proprietorship, along with a total want of faith in the "other man." Young Lord Erradeen found that it was all he could do to restrain an irreverent laugh. The position was so comic, that his original sense of angry resistance disappeared before it. He was going off against his will to pass through a mysterious ordeal in an old ruined house, under charge of a servant whom he did not want, and in obedience to a stipulation which he disowned. He was not half so free an agent as he had been when he was poor Walter Methven, knocking about the streets of Sloebury and doing much what he liked, though he thought himself in bondage. Bondage! he did not know in the old days what the word would mean.

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