The True Lord by Grace Greenwood

Philip Alfred Reginald, Lord Alverley, only son and heir of the Earl of Ellenwood, was taking a morning walk in the park of Alverley Castle, in the beautiful county of Wicklow, Ireland. He was a very little lord indeed, only about six years old, and he was accompanied by a very stout nurse, Mrs. Marsham, quite a dignified and important personage. The family had but the day previous arrived from London, after an absence of four years.

Philip was an only child, fondly beloved by his parents, and, as the heir to a great estate, much petted and flattered by all about him. He was a pretty child, always richly and daintily dressed, and had much the air of a little courtier, or the pet page of some gay young queen.

This morning, as Mrs. Marsham led him down one of the broad walks of the park, they encountered a little peasant lad, who looked a good deal impressed, but saluted the small nobleman with a bashful bow, and was about hurrying on, when the lordling asked, condescendingly, "What is your name, little boy?"

"Arty O'Neill, may it please your lordship," was the reply.

"What, a son of Norah O'Neill?" asked Mrs. Marsham.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Why, then, my lord, he is your foster-brother. Norah O'Neill, the lodge-keeper's wife, was your first nurse, and a very good creature she is, I believe," said Mrs. Marsham, attempting to move on.

But Philip, who had always, in spite of his grandeur, felt a little lonely, was caught by the term "foster-brother," and held back to examine the boy more attentively, and to ask him several childish questions.

In spite of his uncouth dress, Arthur or Arty was a fine-looking little fellow, and though modest, was by no means awkwardly shy; so the small folk got along very well together. The next day Philip insisted on making a visit to the lodge, where he was greeted by his old nurse Norah with an exhibition of true Irish emotion,—tears, laughter, and passionate caresses, that rather annoyed than gratified him. "What a fine little gentleman he has grown, bless God," she exclaimed, wiping her eyes with her apron.

"Yes," replied Mrs. Marsham, "and your Arty is also a fine, sturdy little lad. Was he not a delicate baby?"

"Ah, yes indeed, ma'am; we did n't think to raise him till he was well past three. Then he grew stout and rosy, and sturdy on his legs, the saints be praised!"

A day or two later, the weather not allowing of walking, Philip felt lonely, and sent for Arty to come and play with him. The child went, and returned to the lodge at night quite loaded with playthings, the gifts of the little lord and his mother. After this he was often sent for from the Castle, and gradually became a decided favorite with Lord and Lady Ellenwood, and consequently with all their retainers. As for Philip, he soon grew devotedly fond of his peasant playmate, and declared he could not live a day without him; and, as his will was already law at the Castle, even this whim for a companionship quite unsuited to his rank was indulged.

Norah O'Neill dressed her son in his best for those grand visits; but even his holiday suit was soon pronounced too rude for his new position, and an entire new wardrobe was provided for him. It was a pretty page-like costume, and singularly becoming, so much so that Lady Ellenwood, after regarding him with a pleased smile for some minutes, remarked to Mrs. Marsham, "Really, that child has something superior about him; I certainly should not take him for a peasant boy."

"Indeed, my lady, you surprise me. The child is well enough for an O'Neill, but he lacks the noble look, after all. I can see the common bird through all the 'fine feathers.' Only mark, my lady, the vast difference between him and my little lord."

"Ah, yes, I can see that Philip is the more dainty and delicate, but Arty is, in some respects, the handsomer child of the two; and, in truth, I think he has quite a high-bred look. There is a certain resemblance to my own family, which struck me when I first saw him. He has decidedly a Cavendish nose, and I have heard my old nurse say that my hair was once of that same golden auburn. I have never seen a child of any rank that my heart has been so drawn towards as towards this same little O'Neill. Surely we must do something for him."

This partiality for the lodge-keeper's child did not prove a mere fine lady's passing freak. Like little Philip, she grew more and more fond of little Arty; and when, after a six months' stay in Ireland, the noble family returned to London, little Arthur, really though not formally adopted, went with them. He received his earliest instruction with Philip from a kind governess, with the best of care and the most affectionate counsel. Lady Ellenwood was very gracious and motherly towards him, and the Earl always kind; yet he never forgot his humble Irish parents, whom he was allowed to visit every year.

Thus years went on, and Arty was regarded as a beloved member of that high family,—as the chosen friend, the brother elect, of his young master. They were taught by one tutor, and finally sent to school together, always keeping along hand in hand, in the utmost brotherly good feeling, with a great, tender love between them,—a love neither tainted by haughty condescension on the one side, nor by flattering subserviency on the other. It was a beautiful and marvellous affection.

At length the lads were spending their last vacation at home, in the old Castle in Wicklow. They were nearly sixteen, and as fine looking, gallant lads as the country could boast. Such loving, inseparable companions were they, that they were playfully named "David and Jonathan."

The pleasure of this visit to the Castle was only marred by the illness of Mrs. O'Neill, who was thought to be in a decline. Arthur, though so far removed from his simple life by the patronage of the great, had always been a good and dutiful son, while Philip had ever evinced a remarkable fondness for the warm-hearted foster-mother, whose sad blue eyes dwelt on his merry face with a singular expression of yearning, sorrowful tenderness.

It was the sixteenth birthday of Philip, Lord Alverley, and his happy parents gave a ball in honor of the occasion. All the "best people" of the country were present, and all was brightness, music, and gayety,—joyous hearts keeping time to light, dancing feet. But, in the midst of the festivities, the young lord of the fête and Arthur were summoned from the ball-room by Terence O'Neill, the lodge-keeper, who came to tell them that his poor wife had taken a turn for the worse, and was sinking rapidly, and that she desired to see her two dear lads before she should pass away.

Without a moment's hesitation the friends set out together for the Lodge. Terence O'Neill left them there and hastened away to summon the parish priest. So it happened that the lads found themselves alone by the bedside of Norah O'Neill. They sank on their knees beside her and burst into tears. The dying woman gazed at them with a look of wild, passionate love, which seemed struggling with a strange fear, or remorse.

"O my poor lads!" she said, "I have loved ye both, yet ye have both much to forgive. When the priest comes I will tell you before him all my sin,—all the wrong I have done ye both."

They looked bewildered, but waited silently and patiently for the coming of Terence and the priest. But the anxious minutes went on, and no one came. At last Norah half raised herself in bed and hoarsely whispered, "He does not come, and I am dying! I must confess to you, boys; but if you can't forgive, don't curse your poor broken-hearted mother when you know all. You, Arthur, are not my son, though you were nursed at my breast, and became like the very pulse of my heart. You are the Earl's own son; and you, Philip, are not Lord Alverley; you are my first-born, my only son. I changed you in your cradles. The Countess was very ill for weeks, the Earl never left her to visit her poor, puny baby. It was sickly; I was sure it would die; I was tempted to put my own healthier child in its place. I meant a kindness to my lord and lady, yet I have never known an hour's peace since that day. Nobody knew my secret, not even my husband, for he was away in England, with some harvesters, at the time. He never suspected. I never dared lisp a word of it to the priest. I shut it all close in my heart, where it stung like a serpent and ate like a poison. It is killing me. O my poor, dear, injured lads, can you forgive me before I die?"

There was an agony of supplication in the straining eyes and in the broken sob.

Philip spoke first, very tenderly: "As for myself, mother, I forgive you, though you have wronged me by making me a party to a great wrong; but it was very wicked of you to keep so noble a boy as Arthur so long out of his rights."

"O no," cried Arthur, "I have really suffered no wrong. God so wonderfully overruled the evil for good. I have had all the happiness I could have had as the heir of Ellenwood Castle, and added to it, your love, my more than brother. So, mother dear, I too forgive you, fully and freely, and do not despair of God's forgiveness, now that all is well between us three."

Norah O'Neill lifted her bowed head and stretched out her arms with a cry, half joy, half sorrow, then fell back on her pillow. A mist gathered over her eyes, and she spoke no more, but her hands groped about till they found a hand of each of her boys. These she raised one after the other to her lips, and, meekly kissing them, she died.

The poor lads had never looked upon death before: they were both awe-struck, silent, and motionless for a while. Then Philip bent down and closed his mother's eyes, and pressed his lips on her forehead. But Arthur spoke first. Laying his hand on Philip's shoulder, he said, in a tone of eager imploring, "Dear brother, we two only know of this sad revelation. Let us bury it in our hearts, and let all be as though this had never been. You are far better suited to your present position than I am. You are one of Nature's noblemen. It would make me wretched beyond expression to have to take from you wealth, title, parents, everything. I would rather die. Let us both keep a life-long silence about this sad affair. I beg, I implore you."

"O Arthur!" cried Philip, reproachfully, "I did not look for this from you. Though a peasant born, it seems, I am not base enough to do anything so dishonorable as that. You are the last one I would wrong. I will strip myself of everything that belongs to you. You shall have your birthright."

"I will not take it, Philip."

"You must take it, and you will yet see it is right for you to take it. But we have never quarrelled yet, and we must not begin by the side of our dead mother. Ah! here comes O'Neill, my father. We will not tell him all now."

The lodge-keeper, coming too late with the priest, was so absorbed by his grief that he noticed nothing unusual in the manner of the lads, scarcely knew when they took leave of him and returned home.

On the way, Arthur again urged Philip to conceal the strange secret just revealed to them. Philip said no word in reply, but shook his proud young head very firmly. As soon as they reached the Castle, Philip strode with the step and bearing of a man to the ball-room, at the head of which stood the Earl and Countess in a gay circle of friends. They pleasantly welcomed back the lads, but all were struck by the paleness of the two faces,—by the look of heroic determination in Philip's, and by Arthur's expression of agonized entreaty, as he clung to the arm of his friend.

With strange clearness and calmness of voice, Philip spoke: "My Lord, and my dear Lady, I have something strange and startling to tell you, and I desire to say it before all these guests of ours. I am not your son and heir. There was a fraud perpetrated upon you in my infancy, by the nurse, Norah O'Neill, my unhappy mother. But you suffer no loss now; you rather gain, for here, in our dear Arthur, is your real son, the true Lord Alverley."

After a time of blank amazement and incredulity, followed by scores of eager questions, which Philip calmly answered, the truth of the strange story was admitted, and the Earl and Countess turned to embrace their new-found son. But the painful excitement of the scene had been too much for that grateful, generous heart. With a piteous look at Philip, and a gasping sob, the poor boy fell in a swoon at the feet of his parents.

Well, the strange, perplexing change about was arranged after a while, even to the names of the lads, and Philip became plain Arthur O'Neill, and Arthur found himself Philip Alfred Reginald, Lord Alverley, &c.

It was long before he was fully reconciled to the greatness thrust upon him at the expense of his best friend. He hated his title like a born Democrat. Indeed, it was said that when he was first my-lorded by his brother's valet, he flew into a most unbecoming rage. He took to his new condition more kindly, however, when he found that Philip was not desperate or unhappy, that he was not too proud to accept from him such aid in life as an older brother might give. They went to the University and travelled over the Continent together. Then Arthur O'Neill entered the army, and his regiment was soon after ordered to India.

Seas rolled between the foster-brothers for years, yet their hearts were not divided. "Many waters cannot quench love," neither can the floods of death drown it. The "golden auburn" locks of the last Earl of Ellenwood were scarcely touched with silver when the coffin-lid hid them from sight.

Colonel O'Neill fell in the wilds of Afghanistan. One was "the true lord," one was a hero; both were noblemen.