Mr Robert Dalyell is laird of Yalton, but also a businessman who dabbles in many investments. As we learn later, he has been speculating on a large scale, and now the crash has come. It appears that he is worth more to his family dead than alive, having taken out an unusual number of large life insurance policies. When it is believed that he has accidentally drowned, the insurance pays up and is found to be enough to cover his debts and still support the family.
However two people, without consulting each other, fear it was a suicide - which would mean he had swindled the insurance companies. His son Fred and his best friend Bob Wedderburn are each left very uncomfortable, but without any positive knowledge. And so life goes on - developing in ways unforeseen by Mr Dalyell - until one day the past must be revisited.
Biographical and other notes
This novella's original title when published in Cornhill Magazine was The Strange Story of Mr Robert Dalyell. When later collected in The Ways of Life the title was changed to The Wonderful History of Mr Robert Dalyell.
In her preface to The Ways of Life Margaret Oliphant states that the central incident in Mr Dalyell was taken from real life, but that her characters and the subsequent story line were "purely imaginary". It is possible the idea for this story emanated from a Scottish law case ("MacDonald v Refuge Assurance") recently appealed before the Court of Session. The incident in question was whether a drowning death was accident or suicide. (Per the Glasgow Herald, 18 June 1890 page 4, and other sources.)
British publishing information
Periodical: Cornhill Magazine Jan - Mar 1892
First edition: Smith, Elder and Co (collected with another story in The Ways of Life) 1897