The Pirate, by Walter Scott

Chapter 11.

—— All your ancient customs,

And long-descended usages, I’ll change.

Ye shall not eat, nor drink, nor speak, nor move,

Think, look, or walk, as ye were wont to do.

Even your marriage-beds shall know mutation;

The bride shall have the stock, the groom the wall;

For all old practice will I turn and change,

And call it reformation — marry will I!

’Tis Even that we’re at Odds.

The festal day approached, and still no invitation arrived for that guest, without whom, but a little space since, no feast could have been held in the island; while, on the other hand, such reports as reached them on every side spoke highly of the favour which Captain Cleveland enjoyed in the good graces of the old Udaller of Burgh-Westra. Swertha and the Ranzelman shook their heads at these mutations, and reminded Mordaunt, by many a half-hint and innuendo, that he had incurred this eclipse by being so imprudently active to secure the safety of the stranger, when he lay at the mercy of the next wave beneath the cliffs of Sumburgh-head. “It is best to let saut water take its gate,” said Swertha; “luck never came of crossing it.”

“In troth,” said the Ranzelman, “they are wise folks that let wave and withy haud their ain — luck never came of a half-drowned man, or a half-hanged ane either. Who was’t shot Will Paterson off the Noss? — the Dutchman that he saved from sinking, I trow. To fling a drowning man a plank or a tow, may be the part of a Christian; but I say, keep hands aff him, if ye wad live and thrive free frae his danger.”

“Ye are a wise man, Ranzelman, and a worthy,” echoed Swertha, with a groan, “and ken how and whan to help a neighbour, as well as ony man that ever drew a net.”

“In troth, I have seen length of days,” answered the Ranzelman, “and I have heard what the auld folk said to each other anent sic matters; and nae man in Zetland shall go farther than I will in any Christian service to a man on firm land; but if he cry ‘Help!’ out of the saut waves, that’s another story.”

“And yet, to think of this lad Cleveland standing in our Maister Mordaunt’s light,” said Swertha, “and with Magnus Troil, that thought him the flower of the island but on Whitsunday last, and Magnus, too, that’s both held (when he’s fresh, honest man) the wisest and wealthiest of Zetland!”

“He canna win by it,” said the Ranzelman, with a look of the deepest sagacity. “There’s whiles, Swertha, that the wisest of us (as I am sure I humbly confess mysell not to be) may be little better than gulls, and can no more win by doing deeds of folly than I can step over Sumburgh-head. It has been my own case once or twice in my life. But we shall see soon what ill is to come of all this, for good there cannot come.”

And Swertha answered, with the same tone of prophetic wisdom, “Na, na, gude can never come on it, and that is ower truly said.”

These doleful predictions, repeated from time to time, had some effect upon Mordaunt. He did not indeed suppose, that the charitable action of relieving a drowning man had subjected him, as a necessary and fatal consequence, to the unpleasant circumstances in which he was placed; yet he felt as if a sort of spell were drawn around him, of which he neither understood the nature nor the extent; — that some power, in short, beyond his own control, was acting upon his destiny, and, as it seemed, with no friendly influence. His curiosity, as well as his anxiety, was highly excited, and he continued determined, at all events, to make his appearance at the approaching festival, when he was impressed with the belief that something uncommon was necessarily to take place, which should determine his future views and prospects in life.

As the elder Mertoun was at this time in his ordinary state of health, it became necessary that his son should intimate to him his intended visit to Burgh-Westra. He did so; and his father desired to know the especial reason of his going thither at this particular time.

“It is a time of merry-making,” replied the youth, “and all the country are assembled.”

“And you are doubtless impatient to add another fool to the number. — Go — but beware how you walk in the path which you are about to tread — a fall from the cliffs of Foulah were not more fatal.”

“May I ask the reason of your caution, sir?” replied Mordaunt, breaking through the reserve which ordinarily subsisted betwixt him and his singular parent.

“Magnus Troil,” said the elder Mertoun, “has two daughters — you are of the age when men look upon such gauds with eyes of affection, that they may afterwards learn to curse the day that first opened their eyes upon heaven! I bid you beware of them; for, as sure as that death and sin came into the world by woman, so sure are their soft words, and softer looks, the utter destruction and ruin of all who put faith in them.”

Mordaunt had sometimes observed his father’s marked dislike to the female sex, but had never before heard him give vent to it in terms so determined and precise. He replied, that the daughters of Magnus Troil were no more to him than any other females in the islands; “they were even of less importance,” he said, “for they had broken off their friendship with him, without assigning any cause.”

“And you go to seek the renewal of it?” answered his father. “Silly moth, that hast once escaped the taper without singeing thy wings, are you not contented with the safe obscurity of these wilds, but must hasten back to the flame, which is sure at length to consume thee? But why should I waste arguments in deterring thee from thy inevitable fate? — Go where thy destiny calls thee.”

On the succeeding day, which was the eve of the great festival, Mordaunt set forth on his road to Burgh-Westra, pondering alternately on the injunctions of Norna — on the ominous words of his father — on the inauspicious auguries of Swertha and the Ranzelman of Jarlshof — and not without experiencing that gloom with which so many concurring circumstances of ill omen combined to oppress his mind.

“It bodes me but a cold reception at Burgh-Westra,” said he; “but my stay shall be the shorter. I will but find out whether they have been deceived by this seafaring stranger, or whether they have acted out of pure caprice of temper, and love of change of company. If the first be the case, I will vindicate my character, and let Captain Cleveland look to himself; — if the latter, why, then, good-night to Burgh-Westra and all its inmates.”

As he mentally meditated this last alternative, hurt pride, and a return of fondness for those to whom he supposed he was bidding farewell for ever, brought a tear into his eye, which he dashed off hastily and indignantly, as, mending his pace, he continued on his journey.

The weather being now serene and undisturbed, Mordaunt made his way with an ease that formed a striking contrast to the difficulties which he had encountered when he last travelled the same route; yet there was a less pleasing subject for comparison, within his own mind.

“My breast,” he said to himself, “was then against the wind, but my heart within was serene and happy. I would I had now the same careless feelings, were they to be bought by battling with the severest storm that ever blew across these lonely hills!”

With such thoughts, he arrived about noon at Harfra, the habitation, as the reader may remember, of the ingenious Mr. Yellowley. Our traveller had, upon the present occasion, taken care to be quite independent of the niggardly hospitality of this mansion, which was now become infamous on that account through the whole island, by bringing with him, in his small knapsack, such provisions as might have sufficed for a longer journey. In courtesy, however, or rather, perhaps, to get rid of his own disquieting thoughts, Mordaunt did not fail to call at the mansion, which he found in singular commotion. Triptolemus himself, invested with a pair of large jack-boots, went clattering up and down stairs, screaming out questions to his sister and his serving-woman Tronda, who replied with shriller and more complicated screeches. At length, Mrs. Baby herself made her appearance, her venerable person endued with what was then called a joseph, an ample garment, which had once been green, but now, betwixt stains and patches, had become like the vesture of the patriarch whose name it bore — a garment of divers colours. A steeple-crowned hat, the purchase of some long-past moment, in which vanity had got the better of avarice, with a feather which had stood as much wind and rain as if it had been part of a seamew’s wing, made up her equipment, save that in her hand she held a silver-mounted whip of antique fashion. This attire, as well as an air of determined bustle in the gait and appearance of Mrs. Barbara Yellowley, seemed to bespeak that she was prepared to take a journey, and cared not, as the saying goes, who knew that such was her determination.

She was the first that observed Mordaunt on his arrival, and she greeted him with a degree of mingled emotion. “Be good to us!” she exclaimed, “if here is not the canty callant that wears yon thing about his neck, and that snapped up our goose as light as if it had been a sandie-lavrock!” The admiration of the gold chain, which had formerly made so deep an impression on her mind, was marked in the first part of her speech, the recollection of the untimely fate of the smoked goose was commemorated in the second clause. “I will lay the burden of my life,” she instantly added, “that he is ganging our gate.”

“I am bound for Burgh-Westra, Mrs. Yellowley,” said Mordaunt.

“And blithe will we be of your company,” she added —“it’s early day to eat; but if you liked a barley scone and a drink of bland — natheless, it is ill travelling on a full stomach, besides quelling your appetite for the feast that is biding you this day; for all sort of prodigality there will doubtless be.”

Mordaunt produced his own stores, and, explaining that he did not love to be burdensome to them on this second occasion, invited them to partake of the provisions he had to offer. Poor Triptolemus, who seldom saw half so good a dinner as his guest’s luncheon, threw himself upon the good cheer, like Sancho on the scum of Camacho’s kettle, and even the lady herself could not resist the temptation, though she gave way to it with more moderation, and with something like a sense of shame. “She had let the fire out,” she said, “for it was a pity wasting fuel in so cold a country, and so she had not thought of getting any thing ready, as they were to set out so soon; and so she could not but say, that the young gentleman’s nacket looked very good; and besides, she had some curiosity to see whether the folks in that country cured their beef in the same way they did in the north of Scotland.” Under which combined considerations, Dame Baby made a hearty experiment on the refreshments which thus unexpectedly presented themselves.

When their extemporary repast was finished, the factor became solicitous to take the road; and now Mordaunt discovered, that the alacrity with which he had been received by Mistress Baby was not altogether disinterested. Neither she nor the learned Triptolemus felt much disposed to commit themselves to the wilds of Zetland, without the assistance of a guide; and although they could have commanded the aid of one of their own labouring folks, yet the cautious agriculturist observed, that it would be losing at least one day’s work; and his sister multiplied his apprehensions by echoing back, “One day’s work? — ye may weel say twenty — for, set ane of their noses within the smell of a kail-pot, and their lugs within the sound of a fiddle, and whistle them back if ye can!”

Now the fortunate arrival of Mordaunt, in the very nick of time, not to mention the good cheer which he brought with him, made him as welcome as any one could possibly be to a threshold, which, on all ordinary occasions, abhorred the passage of a guest; nor was Mr. Yellowley altogether insensible of the pleasure he promised himself in detailing his plans of improvement to his young companion, and enjoying what his fate seldom assigned him — the company of a patient and admiring listener.

As the factor and his sister were to prosecute their journey on horseback, it only remained to mount their guide and companion; a thing easily accomplished, where there are such numbers of shaggy, long-backed, short-legged ponies, running wild upon the extensive moors, which are the common pasturage for the cattle of every township, where shelties, geese, swine, goats, sheep, and little Zetland cows, are turned out promiscuously, and often in numbers which can obtain but precarious subsistence from the niggard vegetation. There is, indeed, a right of individual property in all these animals, which are branded or tattooed by each owner with his own peculiar mark; but when any passenger has occasional use for a pony, he never scruples to lay hold of the first which he can catch, puts on a halter, and, having rode him as far as he finds convenient, turns the animal loose to find his way back again as he best can — a matter in which the ponies are sufficiently sagacious.

Although this general exercise of property was one of the enormities which in due time the factor intended to abolish, yet, like a wise man, he scrupled not, in the meantime, to avail himself of so general a practice, which, he condescended to allow, was particularly convenient for those who (as chanced to be his own present case) had no ponies of their own on which their neighbours could retaliate. Three shelties, therefore, were procured from the hill — little shagged animals, more resembling wild bears than any thing of the horse tribe, yet possessed of no small degree of strength and spirit, and able to endure as much fatigue and indifferent usage as any creatures in the world.

Two of these horses were already provided and fully accoutred for the journey. One of them, destined to bear the fair person of Mistress Baby, was decorated with a huge side-saddle of venerable antiquity — a mass, as it were, of cushion and padding, from which depended, on all sides, a housing of ancient tapestry, which, having been originally intended for a horse of ordinary size, covered up the diminutive palfrey over which it was spread, from the ears to the tail, and from the shoulder to the fetlock, leaving nothing visible but its head, which looked fiercely out from these enfoldments, like the heraldic representation of a lion looking out of a bush. Mordaunt gallantly lifted up the fair Mistress Yellowley, and at the expense of very slight exertion, placed her upon the summit of her mountainous saddle. It is probable, that, on feeling herself thus squired and attended upon, and experiencing the long unwonted consciousness that she was attired in her best array, some thoughts dawned upon Mistress Baby’s mind, which checkered, for an instant, those habitual ideas about thrift, that formed the daily and all-engrossing occupation of her soul. She glanced her eye upon her faded joseph, and on the long housings of her saddle, as she observed, with a smile, to Mordaunt, that “travelling was a pleasant thing in fine weather and agreeable company, if,” she added, glancing a look at a place where the embroidery was somewhat frayed and tattered, “it was not sae wasteful to ane’s horse-furniture.”

Meanwhile, her brother stepped stoutly to his steed; and as he chose, notwithstanding the serenity of the weather, to throw a long red cloak over his other garments, his pony was even more completely enveloped in drapery than that of his sister. It happened, moreover, to be an animal of an high and contumacious spirit, bouncing and curvetting occasionally under the weight of Triptolemus, with a vivacity which, notwithstanding his Yorkshire descent, rather deranged him in the saddle; gambols which, as the palfrey itself was not visible, except upon the strictest inspection, had, at a little distance, an effect as if they were the voluntary movements of the cloaked cavalier, without the assistance of any other legs than those with which nature had provided him; and, to any who had viewed Triptolemus under such a persuasion, the gravity, and even distress, announced in his countenance, must have made a ridiculous contrast to the vivacious caprioles with which he piaffed along the moor.

Mordaunt kept up with this worthy couple, mounted, according to the simplicity of the time and country, on the first and readiest pony which they had been able to press into the service, with no other accoutrement of any kind than the halter which served to guide him; while Mr. Yellowley, seeing with pleasure his guide thus readily provided with a steed, privately resolved, that this rude custom of helping travellers to horses, without leave of the proprietor, should not be abated in Zetland, until he came to possess a herd of ponies belonging in property to himself, and exposed to suffer in the way of retaliation.

But to other uses or abuses of the country, Triptolemus Yellowley showed himself less tolerant. Long and wearisome were the discourses he held with Mordaunt, or (to speak much more correctly) the harangues which he inflicted upon him, concerning the changes which his own advent in these isles was about to occasion. Unskilled as he was in the modern arts by which an estate may be improved to such a high degree that it shall altogether slip through the proprietor’s fingers, Triptolemus had at least the zeal, if not the knowledge, of a whole agricultural society in his own person; nor was he surpassed by any who has followed him, in that noble spirit which scorns to balance profit against outlay, but holds the glory of effecting a great change on the face of the land, to be, like virtue, in a great degree its own reward.

No part of the wild and mountainous region over which Mordaunt guided him, but what suggested to his active imagination some scheme of improvement and alteration. He would make a road through yon scarce passable glen, where at present nothing but the sure-footed creatures on which they were mounted could tread with any safety. He would substitute better houses for the skeoes, or sheds built of dry stones, in which the inhabitants cured or manufactured their fish — they should brew good ale instead of bland — they should plant forests where tree never grew, and find mines of treasure where a Danish skilling was accounted a coin of a most respectable denomination. All these mutations, with many others, did the worthy factor resolve upon, speaking at the same time with the utmost confidence of the countenance and assistance which he was to receive from the higher classes, and especially from Magnus Troil.

“I will impart some of my ideas to the poor man,” he said, “before we are both many hours older; and you will mark how grateful he will be to the instructor who brings him knowledge, which is better than wealth.”

“I would not have you build too strongly on that,” said Mordaunt, by way of caution; “Magnus Troil’s boat is kittle to trim — he likes his own ways, and his country-ways, and you will as soon teach your sheltie to dive like a sealgh, as bring Magnus to take a Scottish fashion in the place of a Norse one; and yet, if he is steady to his old customs, he may perhaps be as changeable as another in his old friendships.”

Heus, tu inepte!” said the scholar of Saint Andrews, “steady or unsteady, what can it matter? — am not I here in point of trust, and in point of power? and shall a Fowd, by which barbarous appellative this Magnus Troil still calls himself, presume to measure judgment and weigh reasons with me, who represent the full dignity of the Chamberlain of the islands of Orkney and Zetland?”

“Still,” said Mordaunt, “I would advise you not to advance too rashly upon his prejudices. Magnus Troil, from the hour of his birth to this day, never saw a greater man than himself, and it is difficult to bridle an old horse for the first time. Besides, he has at no time in his life been a patient listener to long explanations, so it is possible that he may quarrel with your purposed reformation, before you can convince him of its advantages.”

“How mean you, young man?” said the factor. “Is there one who dwells in these islands, who is so wretchedly blind as not to be sensible of their deplorable defects? Can a man,” he added, rising into enthusiasm as he spoke, “or even a beast, look at that thing there, which they have the impudence to call a corn-mill,38 without trembling to think that corn should be intrusted to such a miserable molendinary? The wretches are obliged to have at least fifty in each parish, each trundling away upon its paltry mill-stone, under the thatch of a roof no bigger than a bee-skep, instead of a noble and seemly baron’s mill, of which you would hear the clack through the haill country, and that casts the meal through the mill-eye by forpits at a time!”

“Ay, ay, brother,” said his sister, “that’s spoken like your wise sell. The mair cost the mair honour — that’s your word ever mair. Can it no creep into your wise head, man, that ilka body grinds their ain nievefu’ of meal in this country, without plaguing themsells about barons’ mills, and thirls, and sucken, and the like trade? How mony a time have I heard you bell-the-cat with auld Edie Netherstane, the miller at Grindleburn, and wi’ his very knave too, about in-town and out-town multures — lock, gowpen, and knaveship,(i) and a’ the lave o’t; and now naething less will serve you than to bring in the very same fashery on a wheen puir bodies, that big ilk ane a mill for themselves, sic as it is?”

“Dinna tell me of gowpen and knaveship!” exclaimed the indignant agriculturist; “better pay the half of the grist to the miller, to have the rest grund in a Christian manner, than put good grain into a bairn’s whirligig. Look at it for a moment, Baby — Bide still, ye cursed imp!” This interjection was applied to his pony, which began to be extremely impatient, while its rider interrupted his journey, to point out all the weak points of the Zetland mill —“Look at it, I say — it’s just one degree better than a hand-quern — it has neither wheel nor trindle — neither cog nor happer — Bide still, there’s a canny beast — it canna grind a bickerfu’ of meal in a quarter of an hour, and that will be mair like a mash for horse than a meltith for man’s use — Wherefore — Bide still, I say — wherefore — wherefore — The deil’s in the beast, and nae good, I think!”

As he uttered the last words, the shelty, which had pranced and curvetted for some time with much impatience, at length got its head betwixt its legs, and at once canted its rider into the little rivulet, which served to drive the depreciated engine he was surveying; then emancipating itself from the folds of the cloak, fled back towards its own wilderness, neighing in scorn, and flinging out its heels at every five yards.

Laughing heartily at his disaster, Mordaunt helped the old man to arise; while his sister sarcastically congratulated him on having fallen rather into the shallows of a Zetland rivulet than the depths of a Scottish mill-pond. Disdaining to reply to this sarcasm, Triptolemus, so soon as he had recovered his legs, shaken his ears, and found that the folds of his cloak had saved him from being much wet in the scanty streamlet, exclaimed aloud, “I will have cussers from Lanarkshire — brood mares from Ayrshire — I will not have one of these cursed abortions left on the islands, to break honest folk’s necks — I say, Baby, I will rid the land of them.”

“Ye had better wring your ain cloak, Triptolemus,” answered Baby.

Mordaunt meanwhile was employed in catching another pony, from a herd which strayed at some distance; and, having made a halter out of twisted rushes, he seated the dismayed agriculturist in safety upon a more quiet, though less active steed, than that which he had at first bestrode.

But Mr. Yellowley’s fall had operated as a considerable sedative upon his spirits, and, for the full space of five miles’ travel, he said scarce a word, leaving full course to the melancholy aspirations and lamentations which his sister Baby bestowed on the old bridle, which the pony had carried off in its flight, and which, she observed, after having lasted for eighteen years come Martinmas, might now be considered as a castaway thing. Finding she had thus the field to herself, the old lady launched forth into a lecture upon economy, according to her own idea of that virtue, which seemed to include a system of privations, which, though observed with the sole purpose of saving money, might, if undertaken upon other principles, have ranked high in the history of a religious ascetic.

She was but little interrupted by Mordaunt, who, conscious he was now on the eve of approaching Burgh-Westra, employed himself rather in the task of anticipating the nature of the reception he was about to meet with there from two beautiful young women, than with the prosing of an old one, however wisely she might prove that small-beer was more wholesome than strong ale, and that if her brother had bruised his ankle bone in his tumble, cumfrey and butter was better to bring him round again, than all the doctor’s drugs in the world.

But now the dreary moorlands, over which their path had hitherto lain, were exchanged for a more pleasant prospect, opening on a salt-water lake, or arm of the sea, which ran up far inland, and was surrounded by flat and fertile ground, producing crops better than the experienced eye of Triptolemus Yellowley had as yet witnessed in Zetland. In the midst of this Goshen stood the mansion of Burgh-Westra, screened from the north and east by a ridge of heathy hills which lay behind it, and commanding an interesting prospect of the lake and its parent ocean, as well as the islands, and more distant mountains. From the mansion itself, as well as from almost every cottage in the adjacent hamlet, arose such a rich cloud of vapoury smoke, as showed, that the preparations for the festival were not confined to the principal residence of Magnus himself, but extended through the whole vicinage.

“My certie,” said Mrs. Baby Yellowley, “ane wad think the haill town was on fire! The very hill-side smells of their wastefulness, and a hungry heart wad scarce seek better kitchen39 to a barley scone, than just to waft it in the reek that’s rising out of yon lums.”

38 Zetland Corn-mills.

There is certainly something very extraordinary to a stranger in Zetland corn-mills. They are of the smallest possible size; the wheel which drives them is horizontal, and the cogs are turned diagonally to the water. The beam itself stands upright, and is inserted in a stone quern of the old-fashioned construction, which it turns round, and thus performs its duty. Had Robinson Crusoe ever been in Zetland, he would have had no difficulty in contriving a machine for grinding corn in his desert island. These mills are thatched over in a little hovel, which has much the air of a pig-sty. There may be five hundred such mills on one island, not capable any one of them of grinding above a sackful of corn at a time.

i p. 173. “Multures — lock, gowpen, and knaveship.” Feudal and other dues on corn ground at the laird’s mill. — A.L.

39 What is eat by way of relish to dry bread is called kitchen in Scotland, as cheese, dried fish, or the like relishing morsels.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29