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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Wizard's Son, Vol. 1(of 3) By Margaret Oliphant Characters: 27054

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The castle looked more grim and ruined than ever as Walter set foot once more upon the rough grass of the mound behind. He dismissed the smiling Duncan with regret. As he went up to the door, which now stood open, he thought to himself with relief that another day would finish his probation here, and that already it was more than half over; but next moment remembered that the end of his stay at Kinloch Houran would mean also an end of intercourse with his new friends, which gave a different aspect to the matter altogether. At the door of the castle old Macalister was waiting with a look of anxiety.

"Ye'll have had no luncheon," he said, "and here's Mr. Shaw the factor waiting to see ye."

Macalister had not the manners of Symington, and Walter already felt that it was a curious eccentricity on the part of the old man to leave out his title. The factor was seated waiting in the room up-stairs; he was a middle-aged man, with grizzled, reddish locks, the prototype in a higher class of Duncan in the boat. He got up with a cordial friendliness which Walter began to feel characteristic, but which was also perhaps less respectful than might have been supposed appropriate, to meet him. He had a great deal to say of business which to Walter was still scarcely intelligible. There were leases to renew, and there was some question about a number of crofter families, which seemed to have been debated with the former lord, and to have formed the subject of much discussion.

"There is that question about the crofters at the Truach-Glas," Mr. Shaw said.

"What crofters? or rather what are crofters? and what is the question and where is the Truach-Glas?" Lord Erradeen said.

He pronounced it, alas! Truack, as he still called loch, lock-which made the sensitive natives shudder. Mr. Shaw looked at him with a little disapproval. He felt that the English lad should have been more impressed by his new inheritance, and more anxious to acquire a mastery of all the facts connected with it. If, instead of wandering about the loch all the morning, he had been looking up the details of the business and the boundaries of the estate, and studying the map! But that not being the case, of course there was nothing to be done but to explain.

"I had thought that Mr. Milnathort would have put the needs of the estate more clearly before you. There are several questions to be settled. I don't know what may be your views as to a landlord's duties, Lord Erradeen--"

"I have no views," said Walter; "I am quite impartial. You must recollect that I have only been a landlord for a fortnight."

"But I suppose," said the factor somewhat severely, "that the heir to such a fine property has had some kind of a little training?"

"I have had no training-not the slightest. I had no information even that I was the heir to any property. You must consider me as entirely ignorant, but ready to learn."

Shaw looked at him with some surprise, but severely still. "It is very curious," he said, as if that too had been Walter's fault, "that you did not know you were the heir. We knew very well here; but the late lord was like most people, not very keen about his successor; and then he was a comparatively young man when he died."

"I know nothing of my predecessor," said Walter. "What was the cause of his death? I should like to hear something about him. Several of them must have died young, I suppose, or I, so far off, could never have become the heir."

The factor looked at him keenly, but with doubtful eyes. "There are secrets in all families, my Lord Erradeen," he said.

"Are there? I thought that was rather an old-fashioned sentiment. I don't think, except that I was not always virtuously occupied, that there was any secret in mine."

"And I am sure there is no secret in mine," said Mr. Shaw, energetically; "but then you see I am not, and you were not till a very recent date, Lord Erradeen. There is a kind of something in the race that I will not characterise. It is a kind of a melancholy turn; the vulgar rumours ye will have heard, to which I attach no credence. It is little worth while living in the nineteenth century," the factor said with emphasis, "if ye are to be subject to delusions like that."

"I tell you I am quite ignorant; and, except by hints which I could not understand, Mr. Milnathort did not give me any information. Speak plainly, I want to know what the mystery is; why am I here in this tumble-down old place?" Walter cried with an accent of impatience.

Shaw kept a watchful eye upon him, with the air of a man whom another is trying to deceive.

"It is something in the blood, I'm thinking," the factor said. "They all seem to find out there's a kind of contrariety in life, which is a thing we all must do to be sure, but generally without any fatal effects. After a certain age they all seem to give way to it. I hope that you, my lord, being out of the direct line, will escape: the populace-if ye can accept their nonsense-say it's a-well, something supernatural-a kind of an influence from him they call the Warlock Lord." Shaw laughed, but somewhat uneasily, apologetically. "I think shame to dwell upon such absurdity," he said.

"It does sound very absurd."

"That is just it-nonsense! not worth the consideration of sensible men. And I may say to you, that are, I hope, of a more wholesome mind, that they are terribly given up to caprice in this family. The Truach-Glas crofters have been up and down twenty times. The late lord made up his mind he would let them stay, and then that they must go, and again that he would just leave them their bits of places, and then that he would help them to emigrate; and after all, I had the order that they were to be turned out, bag and baggage. I could not find it in my heart to do it. I just put off, and put off, and here he is dead; and another," said Shaw, with a suppressed tone of satisfaction, "come to the throne. And you're a new man and a young man, and belong to your own century, not to the middle ages," the factor cried with a little vehemence. Then he stopped himself, with a "I beg your pardon, my lord; I am perhaps saying more than I ought to say."

Walter made no reply. He was not sure that he did not think the factor was going too far, for though he knew so little of his family, he already felt that it was something not to be subjected to discussion by common men. These animadversions touched his pride a little; but he was silent, too proud to make any remark. He said, after a pause-

"I don't know that I can give my opinion without a further acquaintance with the facts. If I were to do so on so slight a knowledge, I fear you might think that a caprice too."

The factor looked at him with a still closer scrutiny, and took the hint. There is nothing upon which it is so necessary to understand the permitted limit of observation as in the discussion of family peculiarities. Though he was so little responsible for this, and even so little acquainted with them, it was impossible that Lord Erradeen should not associate himself with his race. Mr. Shaw got out his papers, and entered upon the questions in which the opinion of the new proprietor was important, without a word further about the late lord and the family characteristics. He explained to Walter at length the position of the crofters, with their small holdings, who in bad seasons got into arrears with their rents, and sometimes became a burden upon the landlord, in whom, so far north, there was some admixture of a Highland chief. The scheme of the estate altogether was of a mixed kind. There were some large sheep farms and extensive moors still intermingled with glens more populated than is usual in these regions. Some of them were on lands but recently acquired, and the crofters in particular were a burden transmitted by purchase, which the father of the last lord had made. It was believed that there had been some covenant in the sale by which the rights of the poor people were secured, but this had fallen into forgetfulness, and there was no reason in law why Lord Erradeen should not exercise all the rights of a proprietor and clear the glen, as so many glens had been cleared. This was the first question that the new lord would have to decide. The humble tenants were all under notice to leave, and indeed were subject to eviction as soon as their landlord pleased. It was with a kind of horror that Walter listened to this account of his new possibilities.

"Eviction!" he said; "do you mean the sort of thing that happens in Ireland?" He held his breath in unfeigned dismay and repugnance. "I thought there was nothing of the sort here."

"Ireland is one thing, and Scotland another," said the factor. "We are a law-abiding people. No man will ever be shot down behind a hedge by a Highlander: so if you should resolve to turn them out to-morrow, my lord, ye need stand in no personal fear."

Walter put aside this somewhat contemptuous assurance with a wave of his hand.

"I have been told of a great many things I could do," he said, "in this last fortnight; but I never knew before that I could turn out a whole village full of people if I chose, and make their houses desolate."

It was a new view altogether of his new powers. He could not help returning in thought to all the prepossessions of his former middle-class existence, where arbitrary power was unknown, and where a mild, general beneficence towards "the poor" was the rule. He said, half to himself, "What would my mother say?" and in the novelty of the idea, half laughed. What a thrill it would send through the district visitors, the managers of the soup kitchen, all the charitable people! There suddenly came up before him a recollection of many a conversation he had heard, and taken no note of-of consultations how to pay the rent of a poor family here and there, how to stop a cruel landlord's mouth. And that he should appear in the character of a cruel landlord! No doubt it would have been easy to show that the circumstances were quite different. But in the mean time the son of Mrs. Methven could not throw off the traditions in which he had been brought up. He contemplated the whole matter from a point of view altogether different even from that of Mr. Shaw, the factor. Shaw was prepared to prove that on the whole the poor crofters were not such bad tenants, and that sheep farms and deer forests, though more easily dealt with, had some disadvantages too; for there was Paterson of Inverchory that had been nearly ruined by a bad lambing season, and had lost the half of his flock; and as for the shootings, was there not the dreadful example before them of the moors at Finlarig, where everything had been shot down, and the game fairly exterminated by a set of fellows that either did not know what they were doing, or else were making money of it, and not pleasure. The very veins in Shaw's forehead swelled when he spoke of this.

"I would like to have had the ducking of him," he cried; "a man with a grand name and the soul of a henwife, that swept out the place as if he had done it with a broom, and all for the London market; grant me patience! You will say," added Shaw, "that the thing to do at Inverchory is to get a man with more capital now that John Paterson's tack is done; and that there's few sportsmen like Sir John. That's all very true; but it just shows there are risks to be run in all ways, and the poor folk at Truach-Glas would never lead you into losses like that."

Walter, however, did not pay much attention even to this view. His mind had not room at the moment for Paterson of Inverchory, who was behind with the rent, or Sir John, who had devastated the moors. He did not get beyond the primitive natural horror of what seemed to him an outrage of all natural laws and kindness. He had not been a landowner long enough to feel the sacred right of property. He turn the cottagers out of their poor little homes for the sake of a few pounds more or less of which he stood in no need? The very arguments against taking this step made him angry. Could anybody suppose he could do it? he, Walter Methven! As for the Erradeen business, and all this new affair altogether-good heavens, if anybody thought he would purchase it by that! In short, the young man, who was not born a grand seigneur, boiled up in righteous wrath, and felt it high scorn and shame that it could be supposed of him that he was capable, being rich, of oppressing the poor-which was the way in which he put it, in his limited middle-class conditions of thought.

Mr. Shaw was half-gratified, half-annoyed by the interview. He said to the minister with whom he stopped to dine, and who was naturally much interested about the new young man, that assuredly the young fellow had a great deal of good in him, but he was a trifle narrow in his way of looking at a question, "which is probably just his English breeding," the factor said. "I would have put the Crofter question before him in all its bearings; but he was just out of himself at the idea of eviction-like what happened in Ireland, he said. I could not get him to go into the philosophy of it. He just would not hear a word. Nothing of the kind had ever come his way before, one could see, and he was just horrified at the thought."

"I don't call that leemited, I call it Christian," the minister said, "and I am not surprised he should have a horror of it. I will go and see him in the morning, if you

think it will be well taken, for I'm with him in that, heart and soul."

"Yes, yes, that's all in your way," said Mr. Shaw; "but I am surprised at it in a young man. There is a kind of innocence about it. But I would not wonder after a little if he should change his mind, as others have done."

"Do you form any theory in your own thoughts, Shaw," said the minister, "as to what it is that makes them so apt to change?"

"Not I," cried the factor, with a shrug of his shoulders; and then he added hurriedly, "you've given me a capital dinner, and that whisky is just excellent: but I think I must be going my ways, for already it's later than I thought."

Mr. Cameron, who was minister of the parish, was, like Walter, a stranger to the district and its ways. He was a great antiquary and full of curiosity about all the relics of the past, and he had an enlightened interest in its superstitions too. But Shaw was a Loch Houran man. He had a reverence for the traditions which of course he vowed he did not believe, and though he was very ready to make this statement in his own person he did not like to hear outsiders, as he called the rest of the world, discussing them disrespectfully? So he desired his dog-cart to be "brought round," and drove home in the clear, cold night, warm at his heart, good man, because of the good news for the Crofters, but a little dissatisfied in his mind that the new lord should be doing this simply as a matter of sentiment, and not from a reasonable view of the situation. "Provided even that he keeps of that mind," the factor said to himself.

Walter subsided out of his just indignation when the business part of the interview ended, and he came out to the open air to see Mr. Shaw away.

"This must all be put in order," he said, as he accompanied his visitor to the boat.

Shaw looked at him with a little curiosity mingled with a slight air of alarm.

"Auchnasheen being so near," he said, "which is a very comfortable place, there has never been much notice taken of the old castle."

"But I mean to take a great deal of notice of it," the young man said with a laugh. "I shall have some of the antiquaries down and clear out all the old places."

His laugh seemed to himself to rouse the echoes, but it called forth no responsive sound from his companion, and he caught a glimpse of old Macalister in the distance shaking his old head. This amused yet slightly irritated Walter, in the sense of power which alternated with a sense of novelty and unreality in his mind.

"So you object to that?" he said to the old man. "You don't like your privileges invaded?"

"It's no that," said Macalister; "but ye'll never do it. I've a lang, lang acquaintance with the place, and I've witnessed many a revolution, if I may say sae. One was to pull down the auld wa's altogether; another was to clean it a' out like you. But it's never been done. And it'll never be done. I'm just as sure o' that as your young lordship is that you have a' the power in your hands."

Walter turned away with a little disdain in his laugh. It was not worth while arguing out the matter with Macalister. Who should prevent him from doing what he liked with his old house? He could not but reflect upon the curious contradictions with which he was beset. He was supposed to be quite capable of turning out a whole village out of their homes, and making them homeless and destitute; but he was not supposed capable of clearing out the blocked-up passage and rooms of an old ruin! He smiled with a kind of scornful indignation as he went up to his sitting-room. By this time the afternoon had lost all light and colour. It was not dark, but neither was it day. A greyness had come into the atmosphere; the shadows were black, and had lost all transparency. The two windows made two bars of a more distinct greyness in the room, with a deep line of shade in the centre between, which was coloured, but scarcely lighted up, by the fire. He could not but think with a sense of relief that the three days which were all he believed that were necessary for his stay at Kinloch Houran were half over at least. Another night and then he would be free to go. He did not mean to go any further than to Auchnasheen, which was exactly opposite to the island; and then, with a smile creeping about the corners of his mouth, he said to himself, that he could very well amuse himself for a few days, what with the shooting and what with--

And it would be comfortable to get out of this place, where the air, he could not tell why, seemed always insufficient. The wainscot, the dark hangings, the heavy old walls, seemed to absorb the atmosphere. He threw up the window to get a little air, but somehow the projecting masonry of the old walls outside seemed to intercept it. He felt an oppression in his breast, a desire to draw long breaths, to get more air into his lungs. It was the same sensation which he had felt last night, and he did not contemplate with any pleasure the idea of another long evening alone in so strange an atmosphere. However, he must make the best of it. He went to the bookshelf and got down again his Trois Mousquetaires. When the candles were lighted, he would write a dutiful long letter to his mother, and tell her all that had been going on about him, especially that barbarous suggestion about the cottagers.

"Fancy me in the character of a rapacious landlord, turning a whole community out of doors!" he said to himself, concocting the imaginary letter, and laughed aloud with a thrill of indignation.

Next moment he started violently, and turned round with a wild rush of blood to his head, and that sort of rallying and huddling together of all the forces of his mind which one feels in a sudden catastrophe. It was, however, no loud alarm that had sounded. It was the clear and distinct vibration of a voice close to him, replying calmly to his thought.

"Is there anything special in you to disqualify you for doing a disagreeable duty?" some one said.

Walter had started back at the first sound, his heart giving a bound in him of surprise-perhaps of terror. He had meant to take that great chair by the fire as soon as he had taken his book from the shelf, so that it must (he said to himself in instantaneous self-argument) have been vacant then. It was not vacant now. A gentleman sat there, with his face half turned towards the light looking towards the young man; his attitude was perfectly easy, his voice a well-bred and cultivated voice. There seemed neither hurry nor excitement about him. He had not the air of a person newly entered, but rather of one who had been seated there for some time at his leisure, observing what was going on. He lifted his hand with a sort of deprecating yet commanding gesture.

"There is no occasion," he said, in his measured voice, "for alarm. I have no intention of harming you, or any one. Indeed I am not aware that I have any power of harm."

Never in his life before had Walter's soul been swept by such violent sensations. He had an impulse of flight and of deadly overwhelming terror, and then of sickening shame at his own panic. Why should he be afraid? He felt dimly that this moment was the crisis of his life, and that if he fled or retreated he was lost. He stood his ground, grasping the back of a chair to support himself.

"Who are you?" he said.

"That is a searching question," said the stranger, with a smile. "We will come to it by and by. I should like to know in the first place what there is in you which makes it impossible to act with justice in certain circumstances?"

The air of absolute and calm superiority with which he put this question was beyond description.

Walter felt like a criminal at the bar.

"Who are you?" he repeated hoarsely. He stood with a curious sense of being supported only by the grasp which he had taken of the back of the chair, feeling himself a mere bundle of impulses and sensations, hardly able to keep himself from flight, hardly able to keep from falling down at the feet of this intruder, but holding to a sort of self-restraint by his grasp upon the chair. Naturally, however, his nerves steadied as the moments passed. The first extreme shock of surprise wore away. There was nothing to alarm the most timid in the countenance upon which he gazed. It was that of a handsome man who had scarcely turned middle age, with grey but not white hair very thin on the forehead and temples, a high delicate aquiline nose, and colourless complexion. His mouth closed somewhat sternly, but had a faint melting of a smile about it, by movements which were ingratiating and almost sweet. The chief thing remarkable about the stranger, however, besides the extraordinary suddenness of his appearance, was the perfect composure with which he sat, like a man who not only was the most important person wherever he went, but also complete master of the present scene. It was the young man who was the intruder, not he.

"I will tell you presently who I am," he said. "In the mean time explain to me why you should be horrified at a step which better men than yourself take every day. Sit down." The stranger allowed himself to smile with distinct intention, and then said in a tone of which it is impossible to describe the refined mockery, "You are afraid?"

Walter came to himself with another sensible shock: his pride, his natural spirit, a certain impulse of self-defence which never forsakes a man, came to his aid. He was inclined to say "No," with natural denial of a contemptuous accusation; but rallying more and more every moment, answered with something like defiance, "Yes-or rather I am not afraid. I am startled. I want to know how you come here, and who you are who question me-in my own house."

"You are very sure that it is your own house? You mean to have it restored and made into a piece of sham antiquity-if nothing prevents?"

"What can prevent? if I say it is to be done," cried the young man. His blood seemed to curdle in his veins when he heard the low laugh with which alone the stranger replied. "May I ask you-to withdraw or to tell me who you are?" he said. His voice trembled in spite of himself. The words left his lips quite sturdily, but quivered when they got into the air, or so in the fantastic hurry of his mind he thought.

"If I refuse, what then?" the stranger said.

These two individuals confronted each other, defying each other, one angry and nervous, the other perfectly calm. In such circumstances only one result is sure: that he who retains his self-possession will have the mastery. Walter felt himself completely baffled. He could not turn out with violence a dignified and serious visitor, who assumed indeed an intolerable superiority, and had come in without asking leave, but yet was evidently a person of importance-if nothing more. He stared at him for a moment, gradually becoming familiarized with the circumstances. "You are master of the situation," he said, with a hard-drawn breath. "I suppose I can do nothing but submit. But if politeness on my part requires this of me, it requires on yours some information. Your name, your object?"

They looked at each other once more for a moment.

"When you put it in that way, I have nothing to say," said the stranger, with great courtesy; "but to acknowledge your right to require-"

At that moment the door opened hurriedly, and Symington came in.

"Your lordship will be wanting something?" he said. "I heard your voice. Was it to light the lights? or would it be for tea, or--"

He gave a sort of scared glance round the room, and clung to the handle of the door, but his eyes did not seem to distinguish the new-comer in the failing twilight.

"I did not call; but you may light the candles," Walter said, feeling his own excitement, which had been subsiding, spring up again, in his curiosity to see what Symington's sensations would be.

The old man came in reluctantly. He muttered something uneasily in his throat. "I would have brought a light if I had known. You might have cried down the stairs. It's just out of all order to light the lights this gate," he muttered. But he did not disobey. He went round the room lighting one after another of the twinkling candles in the sconces. Now and then he gave a scared and tremulous look about him; but he took no further notice. The stranger sat quite composedly, looking on with a smile while this process was gone through. Then Symington came up to the table in front of which Walter still stood.

"Take a seat, my lord, take a seat," he said. "It's no canny to see you standing just glowering frae ye, as we say in the country. You look just as if you were seeing something. And take you your French fallow that you were reading last night. It's better when you're by yourself in an auld house like this, that has an ill-name, always to do something to occupy your thoughts."

Walter looked at the stranger, who made a little gesture of intelligence with a nod and smile; and old Symington followed the look, still with that scared expression on his face.

"Your lordship looks for all the world as if you were staring at something in that big chair; you must be careful to take no fancies in your head," the old servant said. He gave a little nervous laugh, and retreated somewhat quickly towards the door. "And talk no more to yourself; it's an ill habit," he added, with one more troubled glance round him as he closed the door.

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