The Pirate, by Walter Scott

Chapter 28.

The witch then raised her wither’d arm,

And waved her wand on high,

And, while she spoke the mutter’d charm,

Dark lightning fill’d her eye.

Meikle.

“This should be the stair,” said the Udaller, blundering in the dark against some steps of irregular ascent —“This should be the stair, unless my memory greatly fail me; ay, and there she sits,” he added, pausing at a half-open door, “with all her tackle about her as usual, and as busy, doubtless, as the devil in a gale of wind.”

As he made this irreverent comparison, he entered, followed by his daughters, the darkened apartment in which Norna was seated, amidst a confused collection of books of various languages, parchment scrolls, tablets and stones inscribed with the straight and angular characters of the Runic alphabet, and similar articles, which the vulgar might have connected with the exercise of the forbidden arts. There were also lying in the chamber, or hung over the rude and ill-contrived chimney, an old shirt of mail, with the headpiece, battle-axe, and lance, which had once belonged to it; and on a shelf were disposed, in great order, several of those curious stone-axes, formed of green granite, which are often found in those islands, where they are called thunderbolts by the common people, who usually preserve them as a charm of security against the effects of lightning. There was, moreover, to be seen amid the strange collection, a stone sacrificial knife, used perhaps for immolating human victims, and one or two of the brazen implements called Celts, the purpose of which has troubled the repose of so many antiquaries. A variety of other articles, some of which had neither name nor were capable of description, lay in confusion about the apartment; and in one corner, on a quantity of withered sea-weed, reposed what seemed, at first view, to be a large unshapely dog, but, when seen more closely, proved to be a tame seal, which it had been Norna’s amusement to domesticate.

This uncouth favourite bristled up in its corner, upon the arrival of so many strangers, with an alertness similar to that which a terrestrial dog would have displayed on a similar occasion; but Norna remained motionless, seated behind a table of rough granite, propped up by misshapen feet of the same material, which, besides the old book with which she seemed to be busied, sustained a cake of the coarse unleavened bread, three parts oatmeal, and one the sawdust of fir, which is used by the poor peasants of Norway, beside which stood a jar of water.

Magnus Troil remained a minute in silence gazing upon his kinswoman, while the singularity of her mansion inspired Brenda with much fear, and changed, though but for a moment, the melancholy and abstracted mood of Minna, into a feeling of interest not unmixed with awe. The silence was interrupted by the Udaller, who, unwilling on the one hand to give his kinswoman offence, and desirous on the other to show that he was not daunted by a reception so singular, opened the conversation thus:—

“I give you good e’en, cousin Norna — my daughters and I have come far to see you.”

Norna raised her eyes from her volume, looked full at her visitors, then let them quietly sit down on the leaf with which she seemed to be engaged.

“Nay, cousin,” said Magnus, “take your own time — our business with you can wait your leisure. — See here, Minna, what a fair prospect here is of the cape, scarce a quarter of a mile off! you may see the billows breaking on it topmast high. Our kinswoman has got a pretty seal, too — Here, sealchie, my man, whew, whew!”

The seal took no further notice of the Udaller’s advances to acquaintance, than by uttering a low growl.

“He is not so well trained,” continued the Udaller, affecting an air of ease and unconcern, “as Peter MacRaw’s, the old piper of Stornoway, who had a seal that flapped its tail to the tune of Caberfae, and acknowledged no other whatever.20— Well, cousin,” he concluded, observing that Norna closed her book, “are you going to give us a welcome at last, or must we go farther than our blood-relation’s house to seek one, and that when the evening is wearing late apace?”

“Ye dull and hard-hearted generation, as deaf as the adder to the voice of the charmer,” answered Norna, addressing them, “why come ye to me? You have slighted every warning I could give of the coming harm, and now that it hath come upon you, ye seek my counsel when it can avail you nothing.”

“Look you, kinswoman,” said the Udaller, with his usual frankness, and boldness of manner and accent, “I must needs tell you that your courtesy is something of the coarsest and the coldest. I cannot say that I ever saw an adder, in regard there are none in these parts; but touching my own thoughts of what such a thing may be, it cannot be termed a suitable comparison to me or to my daughters, and that I would have you to know. For old acquaintance, and certain other reasons, I do not leave your house upon the instant; but as I came hither in all kindness and civility, so I pray you to receive me with the like, otherwise we will depart, and leave shame on your inhospitable threshold.”

“How,” said Norna, “dare you use such bold language in the house of one from whom all men, from whom you yourself, come to solicit counsel and aid? They who speak to the Reimkennar, must lower their voice to her before whom winds and waves hush both blast and billow.”

“Blast and billow may hush themselves if they will,” replied the peremptory Udaller, “but that will not I. I speak in the house of my friend as in my own, and strike sail to none.”

“And hope ye,” said Norna, “by this rudeness to compel me to answer to your interrogatories?”

“Kinswoman,” replied Magnus Troil, “I know not so much as you of the old Norse sagas; but this I know, that when kempies were wont, long since, to seek the habitations of the gall-dragons and spae-women, they came with their axes on their shoulders, and their good swords drawn in their hands, and compelled the power whom they invoked to listen to and to answer them, ay were it Odin himself.”

“Kinsman,” said Norna, arising from her seat, and coming forward, “thou hast spoken well, and in good time for thyself and thy daughters; for hadst thou turned from my threshold without extorting an answer, morning’s sun had never again shone upon you. The spirits who serve me are jealous, and will not be employed in aught that may benefit humanity, unless their service is commanded by the undaunted importunity of the brave and the free. And now speak, what wouldst thou have of me?”

“My daughter’s health,” replied Magnus, “which no remedies have been able to restore.”

“Thy daughter’s health?” answered Norna; “and what is the maiden’s ailment?”

“The physician,” said Troil, “must name the disease. All that I can tell thee of it is”——

“Be silent,” said Norna, interrupting him, “I know all thou canst tell me, and more than thou thyself knowest. Sit down, all of you — and thou, maiden,” she said, addressing Minna, “sit thou in that chair,” pointing to the place she had just left, “once the seat of Giervada, at whose voice the stars hid their beams, and the moon herself grew pale.”

Minna moved with slow and tremulous step towards the rude seat thus indicated to her. It was composed of stone, formed into some semblance of a chair by the rough and unskilful hand of some ancient Gothic artist.

Brenda, creeping as close as possible to her father, seated herself along with him upon a bench at some distance from Minna, and kept her eyes, with a mixture of fear, pity, and anxiety, closely fixed upon her. It would be difficult altogether to decipher the emotions by which this amiable and affectionate girl was agitated at the moment. Deficient in her sister’s predominating quality of high imagination, and little credulous, of course, to the marvellous, she could not but entertain some vague and indefinite fears on her own account, concerning the nature of the scene which was soon to take place. But these were in a manner swallowed up in her apprehensions on the score of her sister, who, with a frame so much weakened, spirits so much exhausted, and a mind so susceptible of the impressions which all around her was calculated to excite, now sat pensively resigned to the agency of one, whose treatment might produce the most baneful effects upon such a subject.

Brenda gazed at Minna, who sat in that rude chair of dark stone, her finely formed shape and limbs making the strongest contrast with its ponderous and irregular angles, her cheek and lips as pale as clay, and her eyes turned upward, and lighted with the mixture of resignation and excited enthusiasm, which belonged to her disease and her character. The younger sister then looked on Norna, who muttered to herself in a low monotonous manner, as, gliding from one place to another, she collected different articles, which she placed one by one on the table. And lastly, Brenda looked anxiously to her father, to gather, if possible, from his countenance, whether he entertained any part of her own fears for the consequences of the scene which was to ensue, considering the state of Minna’s health and spirits. But Magnus Troil seemed to have no such apprehensions; he viewed with stern composure Norna’s preparations, and appeared to wait the event with the composure of one, who, confiding in the skill of a medical artist, sees him preparing to enter upon some important and painful operation, in the issue of which he is interested by friendship or by affection.

Norna, meanwhile, went onward with her preparations, until she had placed on the stone table a variety of miscellaneous articles, and among the rest, a small chafing-dish full of charcoal, a crucible, and a piece of thin sheet-lead. She then spoke aloud —“It is well that I was aware of your coming hither — ay, long before you yourself had resolved it — how should I else have been prepared for that which is now to be done? — Maiden,” she continued, addressing Minna, “where lies thy pain?”

The patient answered, by pressing her hand to the left side of her bosom.

“Even so,” replied Norna, “even so —’tis the site of weal or woe. — And you, her father and her sister, think not this the idle speech of one who talks by guess — if I can tell thee ill, it may be that I shall be able to render that less severe, which may not, by any aid, be wholly amended. — The heart — ay, the heart — touch that, and the eye grows dim, the pulse fails, the wholesome stream of our blood is choked and troubled, our limbs decay like sapless sea-weed in a summer’s sun; our better views of existence are past and gone; what remains is the dream of lost happiness, or the fear of inevitable evil. But the Reimkennar must to her work — well it is that I have prepared the means.”

She threw off her long dark-coloured mantle, and stood before them in her short jacket of light-blue wadmaal, with its skirt of the same stuff, fancifully embroidered with black velvet, and bound at the waist with a chain or girdle of silver, formed into singular devices. Norna next undid the fillet which bound her grizzled hair, and shaking her head wildly, caused it to fall in dishevelled abundance over her face and around her shoulders, so as almost entirely to hide her features. She then placed a small crucible on the chafing-dish already mentioned — dropped a few drops from a vial on the charcoal below — pointed towards it her wrinkled forefinger, which she had previously moistened with liquid from another small bottle, and said with a deep voice, “Fire, do thy duty;”— and the words were no sooner spoken, than, probably by some chemical combination of which the spectators were not aware, the charcoal which was under the crucible became slowly ignited; while Norna, as if impatient of the delay, threw hastily back her disordered tresses, and, while her features reflected the sparkles and red light of the fire, and her eyes flashed from amongst her hair like those of a wild animal from its cover, blew fiercely till the whole was in an intense glow. She paused a moment from her toil, and muttering that the elemental spirit must be thanked, recited, in her usual monotonous, yet wild mode of chanting, the following verses:—

“Thou so needful, yet so dread,

With cloudy crest, and wing of red;

Thou, without whose genial breath

The North would sleep the sleep of death;

Who deign’st to warm the cottage hearth,

Yet hurl’st proud palaces to earth —

Brightest, keenest of the Powers,

Which form and rule this world of ours,

With my rhyme of Runic, I

Thank thee for thy agency.”

She then severed a portion from the small mass of sheet-lead which lay upon the table, and, placing it in the crucible, subjected it to the action of the lighted charcoal, and, as it melted, she sung —

“Old Reimkennar, to thy art

Mother Hertha sends her part;

She, whose gracious bounty gives

Needful food for all that lives.

From the deep mine of the North,

Came the mystic metal forth,

Doom’d, amidst disjointed stones,

Long to cere a champion’s bones,

Disinhumed my charms to aid —

Mother Earth, my thanks are paid.”

She then poured out some water from the jar into a large cup, or goblet, and sung once more, as she slowly stirred it round with the end of her staff:—

“Girdle of our islands dear,

Element of Water, hear

Thou whose power can overwhelm

Broken mounds and ruin’d realm

On the lowly Belgian strand;

All thy fiercest rage can never

Of our soil a furlong sever

From our rock-defended land;

Play then gently thou thy part,

To assist old Norna’s art.”

She then, with a pair of pincers, removed the crucible from the chafing-dish, and poured the lead, now entirely melted, into the bowl of water, repeating at the same time —

“Elements, each other greeting,

Gifts and powers attend your meeting!”

The melted lead, spattering as it fell into the water, formed, of course, the usual combination of irregular forms which is familiar to all who in childhood have made the experiment, and from which, according to our childish fancy, we may have selected portions bearing some resemblance to domestic articles — the tools of mechanics, or the like. Norna seemed to busy herself in some such researches, for she examined the mass of lead with scrupulous attention, and detached it into different portions, without apparently being able to find a fragment in the form which she desired.

At length she again muttered, rather as speaking to herself than to her guests, “He, the Viewless, will not be omitted — he will have his tribute even in the work to which he gives nothing. — Stern compeller of the clouds, thou also shalt hear the voice of the Reimkennar.”

Thus speaking, Norna once more threw the lead into the crucible, where, hissing and spattering as the wet metal touched the sides of the red-hot vessel, it was soon again reduced into a state of fusion. The sibyl meantime turned to a corner of the apartment, and opening suddenly a window which looked to the north-west, let in the fitful radiance of the sun, now lying almost level upon a great mass of red clouds, which, boding future tempest, occupied the edge of the horizon, and seemed to brood over the billows of the boundless sea. Turning to this quarter, from which a low hollow moaning breeze then blew, Norna addressed the Spirit of the Winds, in tones which seemed to resemble his own:—

“Thou, that over billows dark

Safely send’st the fisher’s bark —

Giving him a path and motion

Through the wilderness of ocean;

Thou, that when the billows brave ye,

O’er the shelves canst drive the navy —

Did’st thou chafe as one neglected,

While thy brethren were respected?

To appease thee, see, I tear

This full grasp of grizzled hair;

Oft thy breath hath through it sung,

Softening to my magic tongue —

Now, ’tis thine to bid it fly

Through the wide expanse of sky,

’Mid the countless swarms to sail

Of wild-fowl wheeling on thy gale;

Take thy portion and rejoice —

Spirit, thou hast heard my voice!”

Norna accompanied these words with the action which they described, tearing a handful of hair with vehemence from her head, and strewing it upon the wind as she continued her recitation. She then shut the casement, and again involved the chamber in the dubious twilight, which best suited her character and occupation. The melted lead was once more emptied into the water, and the various whimsical conformations which it received from the operation were examined with great care by the sibyl, who at length seemed to intimate, by voice and gesture, that her spell had been successful. She selected from the fused metal a piece about the size of a small nut, bearing in shape a close resemblance to that of the human heart, and, approaching Minna, again spoke in song:—

“She who sits by haunted well,

Is subject to the Nixie’s spell;

She who walks on lonely beach

To the Mermaid’s charmed speech;

She who walks round ring of green,

Offends the peevish Fairy Queen;

And she who takes rest in the Dwarfie’s cave,

A weary weird of woe shall have.

“By ring, by spring, by cave, by shore,

Minna Troil has braved all this and more:

And yet hath the root of her sorrow and ill

A source that’s more deep and more mystical still.”

Minna, whose attention had been latterly something disturbed by reflections on her own secret sorrow, now suddenly recalled it, and looked eagerly on Norna as if she expected to learn from her rhymes something of deep interest. The northern sibyl, meanwhile, proceeded to pierce the piece of lead, which bore the form of a heart, and to fix in it a piece of gold wire, by which it might be attached to a chain or necklace. She then proceeded in her rhyme —

“Thou art within a demon’s hold,

More wise than Heims, more strong than Trolld;

No siren sings so sweet as he —

No fay springs lighter on the lea;

No elfin power hath half the art

To soothe, to move, to wring the heart —

Life-blood from the cheek to drain,

Drench the eye, and dry the vein.

Maiden, ere we farther go,

Dost thou note me, ay or no?”

Minna replied in the same rhythmical manner, which, in jest and earnest, was frequently used by the ancient Scandinavians —

“I mark thee, my mother, both word, look, and sign;

Speak on with the riddle — to read it be mine.”

“Now, Heaven and every saint be praised!” said Magnus; “they are the first words to the purpose which she hath spoken these many days.”

“And they are the last which she shall speak for many a month,” said Norna, incensed at the interruption, “if you again break the progress of my spell. Turn your faces to the wall, and look not hitherward again, under penalty of my severe displeasure. You, Magnus Troil, from hard-hearted audacity of spirit, and you, Brenda, from wanton and idle disbelief in that which is beyond your bounded comprehension, are unworthy to look on this mystic work; and the glance of your eyes mingles with, and weakens, the spell; for the powers cannot brook distrust.”

Unaccustomed to be addressed in a tone so peremptory, Magnus would have made some angry reply; but reflecting that the health of Minna was at stake, and considering that she who spoke was a woman of many sorrows, he suppressed his anger, bowed his head, shrugged his shoulders, assumed the prescribed posture, averting his head from the table, and turning towards the wall. Brenda did the same, on receiving a sign from her father, and both remained profoundly silent.

Norna then addressed Minna once more —

“Mark me! for the word I speak

Shall bring the colour to thy cheek.

This leaden heart, so light of cost,

The symbol of a treasure lost,

Thou shalt wear in hope and in peace,

That the cause of your sickness and sorrow may cease,

When crimson foot meets crimson hand

In the Martyrs’ Aisle, and in Orkney-land.”

Minna coloured deeply at the last couplet, intimating, as she failed not to interpret it, that Norna was completely acquainted with the secret cause of her sorrow. The same conviction led the maiden to hope in the favourable issue, which the sibyl seemed to prophesy; and not venturing to express her feelings in any manner more intelligible, she pressed Norna’s withered hand with all the warmth of affection, first to her breast and then to her bosom, bedewing it at the same time with her tears.

With more of human feeling than she usually exhibited, Norna extricated her hand from the grasp of the poor girl, whose tears now flowed freely, and then, with more tenderness of manner than she had yet shown, she knotted the leaden heart to a chain of gold, and hung it around Minna’s neck, singing, as she performed that last branch of the spell —

“Be patient, be patient, for Patience hath power

To ward us in danger, like mantle in shower;

A fairy gift you best may hold

In a chain of fairy gold;

The chain and the gift are each a true token,

That not without warrant old Norna has spoken;

But thy nearest and dearest must never behold them,

Till time shall accomplish the truths I have told them.”

The verses being concluded, Norna carefully arranged the chain around her patient’s neck so as to hide it in her bosom, and thus ended the spell — a spell which, at the moment I record these incidents, it is known, has been lately practised in Zetland, where any decline of health, without apparent cause, is imputed by the lower orders to a demon having stolen the heart from the body of the patient, and where the experiment of supplying the deprivation by a leaden one, prepared in the manner described, has been resorted to within these few years. In a metaphorical sense, the disease may be considered as a general one in all parts of the world; but, as this simple and original remedy is peculiar to the isles of Thule, it were unpardonable not to preserve it at length, in a narrative connected with Scottish antiquities.21

A second time Norna reminded her patient, that if she showed, or spoke of, the fairy gifts, their virtue would be lost — a belief so common as to be received into the superstitions of all nations. Lastly, unbuttoning the collar which she had just fastened, she showed her a link of the gold chain, which Minna instantly recognised as that formerly given by Norna to Mordaunt Mertoun. This seemed to intimate he was yet alive, and under Norna’s protection; and she gazed on her with the most eager curiosity. But the sibyl imposed her finger on her lips in token of silence, and a second time involved the chain in those folds which modestly and closely veiled one of the most beautiful, as well as one of the kindest, bosoms in the world.

Norna then extinguished the lighted charcoal, and, as the water hissed upon the glowing embers, commanded Magnus and Brenda to look around, and behold her task accomplished.

20 The MacRaws were followers of the MacKenzies, whose chief has the name of Caberfae, or Buckshead, from the cognisance borne on his standards. Unquestionably the worthy piper trained the seal on the same principle of respect to the clan-term which I have heard has been taught to dogs, who, unused to any other air, dance after their fashion to the tune of Caberfae.

21 The spells described in this chapter are not altogether imaginary. By this mode of pouring lead into water, and selecting the part which chances to assume a resemblance to the human heart, which must be worn by the patient around her or his neck, the sage persons of Zetland pretend to cure the fatal disorder called the loss of a heart.

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