As the story opens, the Duchess of Agostini discards an unwanted newborn, to be raised in Rocca by a woman of the peasant class. After the boy Francisco grows up, he is a poor painter in Rome, in love with a rich English girl whom he believes he can never attain to. Then he is told the truth about his birth mother - perhaps he is a Duke! He decides to fight for his "rights".
Biographical and other notes
Mrs Oliphant based this partly true story on a recent scandal of the Cesarini family, still the talk of Rome: Duchess Sforza-Cesarini's second son, Filippo Montani, was the result of an affair with a Russian officer. After her husband and her elder son had both died, Filippo (later known as Lorenzo) came forward to claim the Dukedom and the estate. The outcome of his lawsuit was the same as that in Mrs Oliphant's story.
This story was written in the year following a stay in Rome, where Margaret Oliphant's husband died of tuberculosis on 20 October 1859. A few weeks later Mrs Oliphant's last child Francis Romano Oliphant was born on 12 December 1859. The Irish nurse in the story's opening scenes is based on Mrs Oliphant's nurse in Rome, Madame Margherita, who brought her and the baby safely through childbirth.