A few years ago Lord and Lady Eskside's son, the Honourable Richard Ross, had married a beautiful gipsy wanderer, a woman with no home and no real understanding of what it meant to settle in one place. Eventually she gave birth to twins, and shortly thereafter ran away with them and could not be traced. Now seven years later she has been "moved by a tremendous moral influence, against her own will" to return one of the children to her husband's family at Rosscraig House. The dark child Val (Valentine) is left at the door, while she flees again with the blond child Dick.
In a smaller subplot Mr Alexander Pringle W.S. of Edinburgh is the next heir-at-law if Richard were to be childless. When he hears strange rumours of a child delivered by a beggar woman, he believes there is no proof that this child is indeed the real Valentine. In order to keep an eye on things he takes a nearby cottage, the Hewan, for family holidays and vacations. His little daughter Violet spends a great deal of time there, and thus becomes friends with Val.
Later when Val attends Eton, he befriends a poor boy, Dick, and helps him find a job. The wandering mother agrees to stay in one place awhile, and the friendship between the boys becomes close. More story lines develop as the novel progresses. Even after all is revealed near the end of the novel there will be one more surprise.
Biographical and other notes
Margaret Oliphant's favourite childhood home was the village of Lasswade in Midlothian. She was only age 6 when her family moved to Glasgow, but she retained vivid memories of Lasswade, and visited it again in later years. She was especially fond of a walk which led to a cottage "the Hewan" at the top of a hill overlooking the Esk River, with a view of Hawthornden Castle (Rosscraig House in this story). A couple of times in this novel she speaks in her own voice, remembering those years. Little Violet's runaway adventure with Valentine is based on her own adventure with her brother Frank. See "Lasswade" in Series and Themes below.
This novel also provides a vivid portrait of Eton in the 1870s. Margaret Oliphant's own boys were at Eton at that time, as seen in her dedication: "To my Eton Boys: C.F.O. [son Cyril Francis Oliphant], F.R.O. [son Francis Romano Oliphant], and F.W." [nephew Francis Wilson, who had already left Eton and was at engineering college at Coopers Hill].
British publishing information
Periodical: Blackwood's Magazine Jan 1874 - Feb 1875