I have possessed the regulation of the weather and the distribution of the seasons. The sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by my direction; the clouds, at my command, have poured forth their waters.
Any sudden cause for anxious and mortifying reflection, which, in advanced age, occasions sullen and pensive inactivity, stimulates youth to eager and active exertion; as if, like the hurt deer, they endeavoured to drown the pain of the shaft by the rapidity of motion. When Mordaunt caught up his gun, and rushed out of the house of Jarlshof, he walked on with great activity over waste and wild, without any determined purpose, except that of escaping, if possible, from the smart of his own irritation. His pride was effectually mortified by the report of the jagger, which coincided exactly with some doubts he had been led to entertain, by the long and unkind silence of his friends at Burgh-Westra.
If the fortunes of Cæsar had doomed him, as the poet suggests, to have been
“But the best wrestler on the green,”
it is nevertheless to be presumed, that a foil from a rival, in that rustic exercise, would have mortified him as much as a defeat from a competitor, when he was struggling for the empery of the world. And even so Mordaunt Mertoun, degraded in his own eyes from the height which he had occupied as the chief amongst the youth of the island, felt vexed and irritated, as well as humbled. The two beautiful sisters, also, whose smiles all were so desirous of acquiring, with whom he had lived on terms of such familiar affection, that, with the same ease and innocence, there was unconsciously mixed a shade of deeper though undefined tenderness than characterises fraternal love — they also seemed to have forgotten him. He could not be ignorant, that, in the universal opinion of all Dunrossness, nay, of the whole Mainland, he might have had every chance of being the favoured lover of either; and now at once, and without any failure on his part, he was become so little to them, that he had lost even the consequence of an ordinary acquaintance. The old Udaller, too, whose hearty and sincere character should have made him more constant in his friendships, seemed to have been as fickle as his daughters, and poor Mordaunt had at once lost the smiles of the fair, and the favour of the powerful. These were uncomfortable reflections, and he doubled his pace, that he might outstrip them if possible.
Without exactly reflecting upon the route which he pursued, Mordaunt walked briskly on through a country where neither hedge, wall, nor enclosure of any kind, interrupts the steps of the wanderer, until he reached a very solitary spot, where, embosomed among steep heathy hills, which sunk suddenly down on the verge of the water, lay one of those small fresh-water lakes which are common in the Zetland isles, whose outlets form the sources of the small brooks and rivulets by which the country is watered, and serve to drive the little mills which manufacture their grain.
It was a mild summer day; the beams of the sun, as is not uncommon in Zetland, were moderated and shaded by a silvery haze, which filled the atmosphere, and destroying the strong contrast of light and shade, gave even to noon the sober livery of the evening twilight. The little lake, not three-quarters of a mile in circuit, lay in profound quiet; its surface undimpled, save when one of the numerous water-fowl, which glided on its surface, dived for an instant under it. The depth of the water gave the whole that cerulean tint of bluish green, which occasioned its being called the Green Loch; and at present, it formed so perfect a mirror to the bleak hills by which it was surrounded, and which lay reflected on its bosom, that it was difficult to distinguish the water from the land; nay, in the shadowy uncertainty occasioned by the thin haze, a stranger could scarce have been sensible that a sheet of water lay before him. A scene of more complete solitude, having all its peculiarities heightened by the extreme serenity of the weather, the quiet grey composed tone of the atmosphere, and the perfect silence of the elements, could hardly be imagined. The very aquatic birds, who frequented the spot in great numbers, forbore their usual flight and screams, and floated in profound tranquillity upon the silent water.
Without taking any determined aim — without having any determined purpose — without almost thinking what he was about, Mordaunt presented his fowlingpiece, and fired across the lake. The large swan shot dimpled its surface like a partial shower of hail — the hills took up the noise of the report, and repeated it again, and again, and again, to all their echoes; the water-fowl took to wing in eddying and confused wheel, answering the echoes with a thousand varying screams, from the deep note of the swabie, or swartback, to the querulous cry of the tirracke and kittiewake.
Mordaunt looked for a moment on the clamorous crowd with a feeling of resentment, which he felt disposed at the moment to apply to all nature, and all her objects, animate or inanimate, however little concerned with the cause of his internal mortification.
“Ay, ay,” he said, “wheel, dive, scream, and clamour as you will, and all because you have seen a strange sight, and heard an unusual sound. There is many a one like you in this round world. But you, at least, shall learn,” he added, as he reloaded his gun, “that strange sights and strange sounds, ay, and strange acquaintances to boot, have sometimes a little shade of danger connected with them. — But why should I wreak my own vexation on these harmless sea-gulls?” he subjoined, after a moment’s pause; “they have nothing to do with the friends that have forgotten me. — I loved them all so well — and to be so soon given up for the first stranger whom chance threw on the coast!”
As he stood resting upon his gun, and abandoning his mind to the course of these unpleasant reflections, his meditations were unexpectedly interrupted by some one touching his shoulder. He looked around, and saw Norna of the Fitful-head, wrapped in her dark and ample mantle. She had seen him from the brow of the hill, and had descended to the lake, through a small ravine which concealed her, until she came with noiseless step so close to him that he turned round at her touch.
Mordaunt Mertoun was by nature neither timorous nor credulous, and a course of reading more extensive than usual had, in some degree, fortified his mind against the attacks of superstition; but he would have been an actual prodigy, if, living in Zetland in the end of the seventeenth century, he had possessed the philosophy which did not exist in Scotland generally, until at least two generations later. He doubted in his own mind the extent, nay, the very existence, of Norna’s supernatural attributes, which was a high flight of incredulity in the country where they were universally received; but still his incredulity went no farther than doubts. She was unquestionably an extraordinary woman, gifted with an energy above others, acting upon motives peculiar to herself, and apparently independent of mere earthly considerations. Impressed with these ideas, which he had imbibed from his youth, it was not without something like alarm, that he beheld this mysterious female standing on a sudden so close beside him, and looking upon him with such sad and severe eyes, as those with which the Fatal Virgins, who, according to northern mythology, were called the Valkyriur, or “Choosers of the Slain,” were supposed to regard the young champions whom they selected to share the banquet of Odin.
It was, indeed, reckoned unlucky, to say the least, to meet with Norna suddenly alone, and in a place remote from witnesses; and she was supposed, on such occasions, to have been usually a prophetess of evil, as well as an omen of misfortune, to those who had such a rencontre. There were few or none of the islanders, however familiarized with her occasional appearance in society, that would not have trembled to meet her on the solitary banks of the Green Loch.
“I bring you no evil, Mordaunt Mertoun,” she said, reading perhaps something of this superstitious feeling in the looks of the young man. “Evil from me you never felt, and never will.”
“Nor do I fear any,” said Mordaunt, exerting himself to throw aside an apprehension which he felt to be unmanly. “Why should I, mother? You have been ever my friend.”
“Yet, Mordaunt, thou art not of our region; but to none of Zetland blood, no, not even to those who sit around the hearth-stone of Magnus Troil, the noble descendants of the ancient Jarls of Orkney, am I more a well-wisher, than I am to thee, thou kind and brave-hearted boy. When I hung around thy neck that gifted chain, which all in our isles know was wrought by no earthly artist, but by the Drows,36 in the secret recesses of their caverns, thou wert then but fifteen years old; yet thy foot had been on the Maiden-skerrie of Northmaven, known before but to the webbed sole of the swartback, and thy skiff had been in the deepest cavern of Brinnastir, where the haaf-fish37 had before slumbered in dark obscurity. Therefore I gave thee that noble gift; and well thou knowest, that since that day, every eye in these isles has looked on thee as a son, or as a brother, endowed beyond other youths, and the favoured of those whose hour of power is when the night meets with the day.”
“Alas! mother,” said Mordaunt, “your kind gift may have given me favour, but it has not been able to keep it for me, or I have not been able to keep it for myself. — What matters it? I shall learn to set as little by others as they do by me. My father says that I shall soon leave these islands, and therefore, Mother Norna, I will return to you your fairy gift, that it may bring more lasting luck to some other than it has done to me.”
“Despise not the gift of the nameless race,” said Norna, frowning; then suddenly changing her tone of displeasure to that of mournful solemnity, she added — “Despise them not, but, O Mordaunt, court them not! Sit down on that grey stone — thou art the son of my adoption, and I will doff, as far as I may, those attributes that sever me from the common mass of humanity, and speak with you as a parent with a child.”
There was a tremulous tone of grief which mingled with the loftiness of her language and carriage, and was calculated to excite sympathy, as well as to attract attention. Mordaunt sat down on the rock which she pointed out, a fragment which, with many others that lay scattered around, had been torn by some winter storm from the precipice at the foot of which it lay, upon the very verge of the water. Norna took her own seat on a stone at about three feet distance, adjusted her mantle so that little more than her forehead, her eyes, and a single lock of her grey hair, were seen from beneath the shade of her dark wadmaal cloak, and then proceeded in a tone in which the imaginary consequence and importance so often assumed by lunacy, seemed to contend against the deep workings of some extraordinary and deeply-rooted mental affliction.
“I was not always,” she said, “that which I now am. I was not always the wise, the powerful, the commanding, before whom the young stand abashed, and the old uncover their grey heads. There was a time when my appearance did not silence mirth, when I sympathized with human passion, and had my own share in human joy or sorrow. It was a time of helplessness — it was a time of folly — it was a time of idle and unfruitful laughter — it was a time of causeless and senseless tears; — and yet, with its follies, and its sorrows, and its weaknesses, what would Norna of Fitful-head give to be again the unmarked and happy maiden that she was in her early days! Hear me, Mordaunt, and bear with me; for you hear me utter complaints which have never sounded in mortal ears, and which in mortal ears shall never sound again. I will be what I ought,” she continued, starting up and extending her lean and withered arm, “the queen and protectress of these wild and neglected isles — I will be her whose foot the wave wets not, save by her permission; ay, even though its rage be at its wildest madness — whose robe the whirlwind respects, when it rends the house-rigging from the roof-tree. Bear me witness, Mordaunt Mertoun — you heard my words at Harfra — you saw the tempest sink before them — Speak, bear me witness!”
To have contradicted her in this strain of high-toned enthusiasm, would have been cruel and unavailing, even had Mordaunt been more decidedly convinced than he was, that an insane woman, not one of supernatural power, stood before him.
“I heard you sing,” he replied, “and I saw the tempest abate.”
“Abate?” exclaimed Norna, striking the ground impatiently with her staff of black oak; “thou speakest it but half — it sunk at once — sunk in shorter space than the child that is hushed to silence by the nurse. — Enough, you know my power — but you know not — mortal man knows not, and never shall know, the price which I paid to attain it. No, Mordaunt, never for the widest sway that the ancient Norsemen boasted, when their banners waved victorious from Bergen to Palestine — never, for all that the round world contains, do thou barter thy peace of mind for such greatness as Norna’s.” She resumed her seat upon the rock, drew the mantle over her face, rested her head upon her hands, and by the convulsive motion which agitated her bosom, appeared to be weeping bitterly.
“Good Norna,” said Mordaunt, and paused, scarce knowing what to say that might console the unhappy woman —“Good Norna,” he again resumed, “if there be aught in your mind that troubles it, were you not best to go to the worthy minister at Dunrossness? Men say you have not for many years been in a Christian congregation — that cannot be well, or right. You are yourself well known as a healer of bodily disease; but when the mind is sick, we should draw to the Physician of our souls.”
Norna had raised her person slowly from the stooping posture in which she sat; but at length she started up on her feet, threw back her mantle, extended her arm, and while her lip foamed, and her eye sparkled, exclaimed in a tone resembling a scream — “Me did you speak — me did you bid seek out a priest! — would you kill the good man with horror? — Me in a Christian congregation! — Would you have the roof to fall on the sackless assembly, and mingle their blood with their worship? I— I seek to the good Physician! — Would you have the fiend claim his prey openly before God and man?”
The extreme agitation of the unhappy speaker naturally led Mordaunt to the conclusion, which was generally adopted and accredited in that superstitious country and period. “Wretched woman,” he said, “if indeed thou hast leagued thyself with the Powers of Evil, why should you not seek even yet for repentance? But do as thou wilt, I cannot, dare not, as a Christian, abide longer with you; and take again your gift,” he said, offering back the chain. “Good can never come of it, if indeed evil hath not come already.”
“Be still and hear me, thou foolish boy,” said Norna, calmly, as if she had been restored to reason by the alarm and horror which she perceived in Mordaunt’s countenance; —“hear me, I say. I am not of those who have leagued themselves with the Enemy of Mankind, or derive skill or power from his ministry. And although the unearthly powers were propitiated by a sacrifice which human tongue can never utter, yet, God knows, my guilt in that offering was no more than that of the blind man who falls from the precipice which he could neither see nor shun. O, leave me not — shun me not — in this hour of weakness! Remain with me till the temptation be passed, or I will plunge myself into that lake, and rid myself at once of my power and my wretchedness!”
Mordaunt, who had always looked up to this singular woman with a sort of affection, occasioned no doubt by the early kindness and distinction which she had shown to him, was readily induced to reassume his seat, and listen to what she had further to say, in hopes that she would gradually overcome the violence of her agitation. It was not long ere she seemed to have gained the victory her companion expected, for she addressed him in her usual steady and authoritative manner.
“It was not of myself, Mordaunt, that I purposed to speak, when I beheld you from the summit of yonder grey rock, and came down the path to meet with you. My fortunes are fixed beyond change, be it for weal or for woe. For myself I have ceased to feel much; but for those whom she loves, Norna of the Fitful-head has still those feelings which link her to her kind. Mark me. There is an eagle, the noblest that builds in these airy precipices, and into that eagle’s nest there has crept an adder — wilt thou lend thy aid to crush the reptile, and to save the noble brood of the lord of the north sky?”
“You must speak more plainly, Norna,” said Mordaunt, “if you would have me understand or answer you. I am no guesser of riddles.”
“In plain language, then, you know well the family of Burgh-Westra — the lovely daughters of the generous old Udaller, Magnus Troil — Minna and Brenda, I mean? You know them, and you love them?”
“I have known them, mother,” replied Mordaunt, “and I have loved them — none knows it better than yourself.”
“To know them once,” said Norna, emphatically, “is to know them always. To love them once, is to love them for ever.”
“To have loved them once, is to wish them well for ever,” replied the youth; “but it is nothing more. To be plain with you, Norna, the family at Burgh-Westra have of late totally neglected me. But show me the means of serving them, I will convince you how much I have remembered old kindness, how little I resent late coldness.”
“It is well spoken, and I will put your purpose to the proof,” replied Norna. “Magnus Troil has taken a serpent into his bosom — his lovely daughters are delivered up to the machinations of a villain.”
“You mean the stranger, Cleveland?” said Mordaunt.
“The stranger who so calls himself,” replied Norna —“the same whom we found flung ashore, like a waste heap of sea-weed, at the foot of the Sumburgh-cape. I felt that within me, that would have prompted me to let him lie till the tide floated him off, as it had floated him on shore. I repent me I gave not way to it.”
“But,” said Mordaunt, “I cannot repent that I did my duty as a Christian man. And what right have I to wish otherwise? If Minna, Brenda, Magnus, and the rest, like that stranger better than me, I have no title to be offended; nay, I might well be laughed at for bringing myself into comparison.”
“It is well, and I trust they merit thy unselfish friendship.”
“But I cannot perceive,” said Mordaunt, “in what you can propose that I should serve them. I have but just learned by Bryce the jagger, that this Captain Cleveland is all in all with the ladies at Burgh-Westra, and with the Udaller himself. I would like ill to intrude myself where I am not welcome, or to place my home-bred merit in comparison with Captain Cleveland’s. He can tell them of battles, when I can only speak of birds’ nests — can speak of shooting Frenchmen, when I can only tell of shooting seals — he wears gay clothes, and bears a brave countenance; I am plainly dressed, and plainly nurtured. Such gay gallants as he can noose the hearts of those he lives with, as the fowler nooses the guillemot with his rod and line.”
“You do wrong to yourself,” replied Norna, “wrong to yourself, and greater wrong to Minna and Brenda. And trust not the reports of Bryce — he is like the greedy chaffer-whale, that will change his course and dive for the most petty coin which a fisher can cast at him. Certain it is, that if you have been lessened in the opinion of Magnus Troil, that sordid fellow hath had some share in it. But let him count his vantage, for my eye is upon him.”
“And why, mother,” said Mordaunt, “do you not tell to Magnus what you have told to me?”
“Because,” replied Norna, “they who wax wise in their own conceit must be taught a bitter lesson by experience. It was but yesterday that I spoke with Magnus, and what was his reply? —‘Good Norna, you grow old.’ And this was spoken by one bounden to me by so many and such close ties — by the descendant of the ancient Norse earls — this was from Magnus Troil to me; and it was said in behalf of one, whom the sea flung forth as wreck-weed! Since he despises the counsel of the aged, he shall be taught by that of the young; and well that he is not left to his own folly. Go, therefore, to Burgh-Westra, as usual, upon the Baptist’s festival.”
“I have had no invitation,” said Mordaunt; “I am not wanted, not wished for, not thought of — perhaps I shall not be acknowledged if I go thither; and yet, mother, to confess the truth, thither I had thought to go.”
“It was a good thought, and to be cherished,” replied Norna; “we seek our friends when they are sick in health, why not when they are sick in mind, and surfeited with prosperity? Do not fail to go — it may be, we shall meet there. Meanwhile our roads lie different. Farewell, and speak not of this meeting.”
They parted, and Mordaunt remained standing by the lake, with his eyes fixed on Norna, until her tall dark form became invisible among the windings of the valley down which she wandered, and Mordaunt returned to his father’s mansion, determined to follow counsel which coincided so well with his own wishes.
36 The Drows, or Trows, the legitimate successors of the northern duergar, and somewhat allied to the fairies, reside, like them, in the interior of green hills and caverns, and are most powerful at midnight. They are curious artificers in iron, as well as in the precious metals, and are sometimes propitious to mortals, but more frequently capricious and malevolent. Among the common people of Zetland, their existence still forms an article of universal belief. In the neighbouring isles of Feroe, they are called Foddenskencand, or subterranean people; and Lucas Jacobson Debes,(h) well acquainted with their nature, assures us that they inhabit those places which are polluted with the effusion of blood, or the practice of any crying sin. They have a government, which seems to be monarchical.
h p. 151. “Lucas Jacobson Debes.” “Fœroae et Fœroa Reserata. A description of the Isles and inhabitants of Faeroe, Englished by John Sterpin,” 12mo, London 1676, Abbotsford Library. — A.L.
37 The larger seal, or sea-calf, which seeks the most solitary recesses for its abode. See Dr. Edmonstone’s Zetland, vol. ii., p. 294.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00