The Pirate, by Walter Scott

Chapter 14.

We’ll keep our customs — what is law itself,

But old establish’d custom? What religion,

(I mean, with one-half of the men that use it,)

Save the good use and wont that carries them

To worship how and where their fathers worshipp’d?

All things resolve in custom — we’ll keep ours.

Old Play.

We left the company of Magnus Troil engaged in high wassail and revelry. Mordaunt, who, like his father, shunned the festive cup, did not partake in the cheerfulness which the ship diffused among the guests as they unloaded it, and the pinnace, as it circumnavigated the table. But, in low spirits as he seemed, he was the more meet prey for the story-telling Halcro, who had fixed upon him, as in a favourable state to play the part of listener, with something of the same instinct that directs the hooded crow to the sick sheep among the flock, which will most patiently suffer itself to be made a prey of. Joyfully did the poet avail himself of the advantages afforded by Mordaunt’s absence of mind, and unwillingness to exert himself in measures of active defence. With the unfailing dexterity peculiar to prosers, he contrived to dribble out his tale to double its usual length, by the exercise of the privilege of unlimited digressions; so that the story, like a horse on the grand pas, seemed to be advancing with rapidity, while, in reality, it scarce was progressive at the rate of a yard in the quarter of an hour. At length, however, he had discussed, in all its various bearings and relations, the history of his friendly landlord, the master fashioner in Russel Street, including a short sketch of five of his relations, and anecdotes of three of his principal rivals, together with some general observations upon the dress and fashion of the period; and having marched thus far through the environs and outworks of his story, he arrived at the body of the place, for so the Wits’ Coffeehouse might be termed. He paused on the threshold, however, to explain the nature of his landlord’s right occasionally to intrude himself into this well-known temple of the Muses.

“It consisted,” said Halcro, “in the two principal points, of bearing and forbearing; for my friend Thimblethwaite was a person of wit himself, and never quarrelled with any jest which the wags who frequented that house were flinging about, like squibs and crackers on a rejoicing night; and then, though some of the wits — ay, and I daresay the greater number, might have had some dealings with him in the way of trade, he never was the person to put any man of genius in unpleasant remembrance of such trifles. And though, my dear young Master Mordaunt, you may think this is but ordinary civility, because in this country it happens seldom that there is either much borrowing or lending, and because, praised be Heaven, there are neither bailiffs nor sheriff-officers to take a poor fellow by the neck, and because there are no prisons to put him into when they have done so, yet, let me tell you, that such a lamblike forbearance as that of my poor, dear, deceased landlord, Thimblethwaite, is truly uncommon within the London bills of mortality. I could tell you of such things that have happened even to myself, as well as others, with these cursed London tradesmen, as would make your hair stand on end. — But what the devil has put old Magnus into such note? he shouts as if he were trying his voice against a north-west gale of wind.”

Loud indeed was the roar of the old Udaller, as, worn out of patience by the schemes of improvement which the factor was now undauntedly pressing upon his consideration, he answered him, (to use an Ossianic phrase,) like a wave upon a rock,

“Trees, Sir Factor — talk not to me of trees! I care not though there never be one on the island, tall enough to hang a coxcomb upon. We will have no trees but those that rise in our havens — the good trees that have yards for boughs, and standing-rigging for leaves.”

“But touching the draining of the lake of Braebaster, whereof I spoke to you, Master Magnus Troil,” said the persevering agriculturist, “whilk I opine would be of so much consequence, there are two ways — down the Linklater glen, or by the Scalmester burn. Now, having taken the level of both”——

“There is a third way, Master Yellowley,” answered the landlord.

“I profess I can see none,” replied Triptolemus, with as much good faith as a joker could desire in the subject of his wit, “in respect that the hill called Braebaster on the south, and ane high bank on the north, of whilk I cannot carry the name rightly in my head”——

“Do not tell us of hills and banks, Master Yellowley — there is a third way of draining the loch, and it is the only way that shall be tried in my day. You say my Lord Chamberlain and I are the joint proprietors — so be it — let each of us start an equal proportion of brandy, lime-juice, and sugar, into the loch — a ship’s cargo or two will do the job — let us assemble all the jolly Udallers of the country, and in twenty-four hours you shall see dry ground where the loch of Braebaster now is.”

A loud laugh of applause, which for a time actually silenced Triptolemus, attended a jest so very well suited to time and place — a jolly toast was given — a merry song was sung — the ship unloaded her sweets — the pinnace made its genial rounds — the duet betwixt Magnus and Triptolemus, which had attracted the attention of the whole company from its superior vehemence, now once more sunk, and merged into the general hum of the convivial table, and the poet Halcro again resumed his usurped possession of the ear of Mordaunt Mertoun.

“Whereabouts was I?” he said, with a tone which expressed to his weary listener more plainly than words could, how much of his desultory tale yet remained to be told. “O, I remember — we were just at the door of the Wits’ Coffeehouse — it was set up by one”——

“Nay, but, my dear Master Halcro,” said his hearer, somewhat impatiently, “I am desirous to hear of your meeting with Dryden.”

“What, with glorious John? — true — ay — where was I? At the Wits’ Coffeehouse — Well, in at the door we got — the waiters, and so forth, staring at me; for as to Thimblethwaite, honest fellow, his was a well-known face. — I can tell you a story about that”——

“Nay, but John Dryden?” said Mordaunt, in a tone which deprecated further digression.

“Ay, ay, glorious John — where was I? — Well, as we stood close by the bar, where one fellow sat grinding of coffee, and another putting up tobacco into penny parcels — a pipe and a dish cost just a penny — then and there it was that I had the first peep of him. One Dennis sat near him, who”——

“Nay, but John Dryden — what like was he?” demanded Mordaunt.

“Like a little fat old man, with his own grey hair, and in a full-trimmed black suit, that sat close as a glove. Honest Thimblethwaite let no one but himself shape for glorious John, and he had a slashing hand at a sleeve, I promise you — But there is no getting a mouthful of common sense spoken here — d — n that Scotchman, he and old Magnus are at it again!”

It was very true; and although the interruption did not resemble a thunder-clap, to which the former stentorian exclamation of the Udaller might have been likened, it was a close and clamorous dispute, maintained by question, answer, retort, and repartee, as closely huddled upon each other as the sounds which announce from a distance a close and sustained fire of musketry.

“Hear reason, sir?” said the Udaller; “we will hear reason, and speak reason too; and if reason fall short, you shall have rhyme to boot. — Ha, my little friend Halcro!”

Though cut off in the middle of his best story, (if that could be said to have a middle, which had neither beginning nor end,) the bard bristled up at the summons, like a corps of light infantry when ordered up to the support of the grenadiers, looked smart, slapped the table with his hand, and denoted his becoming readiness to back his hospitable landlord, as becomes a well-entertained guest. Triptolemus was a little daunted at this reinforcement of his adversary; he paused, like a cautious general, in the sweeping attack which he had commenced on the peculiar usages of Zetland, and spoke not again until the Udaller poked him with the insulting query, “Where is your reason now, Master Yellowley, that you were deafening me with a moment since?”

“Be but patient, worthy sir,” replied the agriculturist; “what on earth can you or any other man say in defence of that thing you call a plough, in this blinded country? Why, even the savage Highlandmen, in Caithness and Sutherland, can make more work, and better, with their gascromh, or whatever they call it.”

“But what ails you at it, sir?” said the Udaller; “let me hear your objections to it. It tills our land, and what would ye more?”

“It hath but one handle or stilt,” replied Triptolemus.

“And who the devil,” said the poet, aiming at something smart, “would wish to need a pair of stilts, if he can manage to walk with a single one?”

“Or tell me,” said Magnus Troil, “how it were possible for Neil of Lupness, that lost one arm by his fall from the crag of Nekbreckan, to manage a plough with two handles?”

“The harness is of raw seal-skin,” said Triptolemus.

“It will save dressed leather,” answered Magnus Troil.

“It is drawn by four wretched bullocks,” said the agriculturist, “that are yoked breast-fashion; and two women must follow this unhappy instrument, and complete the furrows with a couple of shovels.”

“Drink about, Master Yellowley,” said the Udaller; “and, as you say in Scotland, ‘never fash your thumb.’ Our cattle are too high-spirited to let one go before the other; our men are too gentle and well-nurtured to take the working-field without the women’s company; our ploughs till our land — our land bears us barley; we brew our ale, eat our bread, and make strangers welcome to their share of it. Here’s to you, Master Yellowley.”

This was said in a tone meant to be decisive of the question; and, accordingly, Halcro whispered to Mordaunt, “That has settled the matter, and now we will get on with glorious John. — There he sat in his suit of full-trimmed black; two years due was the bill, as mine honest landlord afterwards told me — and such an eye in his head! — none of your burning, blighting, falcon eyes, which we poets are apt to make a rout about — but a soft, full, thoughtful, yet penetrating glance — never saw the like of it in my life, unless it were little Stephen Kleancogg’s, the fiddler, at Papastow, who”——

“Nay, but John Dryden?” said Mordaunt, who, for want of better amusement, had begun to take a sort of pleasure in keeping the old gentleman to his narrative, as men herd in a restiff sheep, when they wish to catch him. He returned to his theme, with his usual phrase of “Ay, true — glorious John — Well, sir, he cast his eye, such as I have described it, on mine landlord, and ‘Honest Tim,’ said he, ‘what hast thou got here?’ and all the wits, and lords, and gentlemen, that used to crowd round him, like the wenches round a pedlar at a fair, they made way for us, and up we came to the fireside, where he had his own established chair — I have heard it was carried to the balcony in summer, but it was by the fireside when I saw it — so up came Tim Thimblethwaite, through the midst of them, as bold as a lion, and I followed with a small parcel under my arm, which I had taken up partly to oblige my landlord, as the shop porter was not in the way, and partly that I might be thought to have something to do there, for you are to think there was no admittance at the Wits’ for strangers who had no business there. — I have heard that Sir Charles Sedley said a good thing about that”——

“Nay, but you forget glorious John,” said Mordaunt.

“Ay, glorious you may well call him. They talk of their Blackmore, and Shadwell, and such like — not fit to tie the latchets of John’s shoes —‘Well,’ he said to my landlord, ‘what have you got there?’ and he, bowing, I warrant, lower than he would to a duke, said he had made bold to come and show him the stuff which Lady Elizabeth had chose for her nightgown. —‘And which of your geese is that, Tim, who has got it tucked under his wing?’—‘He is an Orkney goose, if it please you, Mr. Dryden,’ said Tim, who had wit at will, ‘and he hath brought you a copy of verses for your honour to look at.’—‘Is he amphibious?’ said glorious John, taking the paper — and methought I could rather have faced a battery of cannon than the crackle it gave as it opened, though he did not speak in a way to dash one neither; — and then he looked at the verses, and he was pleased to say, in a very encouraging way indeed, with a sort of good-humoured smile on his face, and certainly for a fat elderly gentleman — for I would not compare it to Minna’s smile, or Brenda’s — he had the pleasantest smile I ever saw — ‘Why, Tim,’ he said, ‘this goose of yours will prove a swan on your hands.’ With that he smiled a little, and they all laughed, and none louder than those who stood too far off to hear the jest; for every one knew when he smiled there was something worth laughing at, and so took it upon trust; and the word passed through among the young Templars, and the wits, and the smarts, and there was nothing but question on question who we were; and one French fellow was trying to tell them it was only Monsieur Tim Thimblethwaite; but he made such work with his Dumbletate and Timbletate, that I thought his explanation would have lasted”——

“As long as your own story,” thought Mordaunt; but the narrative was at length finally cut short, by the strong and decided voice of the Udaller.

“I will hear no more on it, Mr. Factor!” he exclaimed.

“At least let me say something about the breed of horses,” said Yellowley, in rather a cry-mercy tone of voice. “Your horses, my dear sir, resemble cats in size, and tigers in devilry!”

“For their size,” said Magnus, “they are the easier for us to get off and on them —[as Triptolemus experienced this morning, thought Mordaunt to himself]— and, as for their devilry, let no one mount them that cannot manage them.”

A twinge of self-conviction, on the part of the agriculturist, prevented him from reply. He darted a deprecatory glance at Mordaunt, as if for the purpose of imploring secrecy respecting his tumble; and the Udaller, who saw his advantage, although he was not aware of the cause, pursued it with the high and stern tone proper to one who had all his life been unaccustomed to meet with, and unapt to endure, opposition.

“By the blood of Saint Magnus the Martyr,” he said, “but you are a fine fellow, Master Factor Yellowley! You come to us from a strange land, understanding neither our laws, nor our manners, nor our language, and you propose to become governor of the country, and that we should all be your slaves!”

“My pupils, worthy sir, my pupils!” said Yellowley, “and that only for your own proper advantage.”

“We are too old to go to school,” said the Zetlander. “I tell you once more, we will sow and reap our grain as our fathers did — we will eat what God sends us, with our doors open to the stranger, even as theirs were open. If there is aught imperfect in our practice, we will amend it in time and season; but the blessed Baptist’s holyday was made for light hearts and quick heels. He that speaks a word more of reason, as you call it, or any thing that looks like it, shall swallow a pint of sea-water — he shall, by this hand! — and so fill up the good ship, the Jolly Mariner of Canton, once more, for the benefit of those that will stick by her; and let the rest have a fling with the fiddlers, who have been summoning us this hour. I will warrant every wench is on tiptoe by this time. Come, Mr. Yellowley, no unkindness, man — why, man, thou feelest the rolling of the Jolly Mariner still”—(for, in truth, honest Triptolemus showed a little unsteadiness of motion, as he rose to attend his host)—“but never mind, we shall have thee find thy land-legs to reel it with yonder bonny belles. Come along, Triptolemus — let me grapple thee fast, lest thou trip, old Triptolemus — ha, ha, ha!”

So saying, the portly though weatherbeaten hulk of the Udaller sailed off like a man-of-war that had braved a hundred gales, having his guest in tow like a recent prize. The greater part of the revellers followed their leader with loud jubilee, although there were several stanch topers, who, taking the option left them by the Udaller, remained behind to relieve the Jolly Mariner of a fresh cargo, amidst many a pledge to the health of their absent landlord, and to the prosperity of his roof-tree, with whatsoever other wishes of kindness could be devised, as an apology for another pint-bumper of noble punch.

The rest soon thronged the dancing-room, an apartment which partook of the simplicity of the time and of the country. Drawing-rooms and saloons were then unknown in Scotland, save in the houses of the nobility, and of course absolutely so in Zetland; but a long, low, anomalous store-room, sometimes used for the depositation of merchandise, sometimes for putting aside lumber, and a thousand other purposes, was well known to all the youth of Dunrossness, and of many a district besides, as the scene of the merry dance, which was sustained with so much glee when Magnus Troil gave his frequent feasts.

The first appearance of this ball-room might have shocked a fashionable party, assembled for the quadrille or the waltz. Low as we have stated the apartment to be, it was but imperfectly illuminated by lamps, candles, ship-lanterns, and a variety of other candelabra, which served to throw a dusky light upon the floor, and upon the heaps of merchandise and miscellaneous articles which were piled around; some of them stores for the winter; some, goods destined for exportation; some, the tribute of Neptune, paid at the expense of shipwrecked vessels, whose owners were unknown; some, articles of barter received by the proprietor, who, like most others at the period, was somewhat of a merchant as well as a landholder, in exchange for the fish, and other articles, the produce of his estate. All these, with the chests, boxes, casks, &c., which contained them, had been drawn aside, and piled one above the other, in order to give room for the dancers, who, light and lively as if they had occupied the most splendid saloon in the parish of St. James’s, executed their national dances with equal grace and activity.

The group of old men who looked on, bore no inconsiderable resemblance to a party of aged tritons, engaged in beholding the sports of the sea-nymphs; so hard a look had most of them acquired by contending with the elements, and so much did the shaggy hair and beards, which many of them cultivated after the ancient Norwegian fashion, give their heads the character of these supposed natives of the deep. The young people, on the other hand, were uncommonly handsome, tall, well-made, and shapely; the men with long fair hair, and, until broken by the weather, a fresh ruddy complexion, which, in the females, was softened into a bloom of infinite delicacy. Their natural good ear for music qualified them to second to the utmost the exertions of a band, whose strains were by no means contemptible; while the elders, who stood around or sat quiet upon the old sea-chests, which served for chairs, criticised the dancers, as they compared their execution with their own exertions in former days; or, warmed by the cup and flagon, which continued to circulate among them, snapped their fingers, and beat time with their feet to the music.

Mordaunt looked upon this scene of universal mirth with the painful recollection, that he, thrust aside from his pre-eminence, no longer exercised the important duties of chief of the dancers, or office of leader of the revels, which had been assigned to the stranger Cleveland. Anxious, however, to suppress the feelings of his own disappointment, which he felt it was neither wise to entertain nor manly to display, he approached his fair neighbours, to whom he had been so acceptable at table, with the purpose of inviting one of them to become his partner in the dance. But the awfully ancient old lady, even the Lady Glowrowrum, who had only tolerated the exuberance of her nieces’ mirth during the time of dinner, because her situation rendered it then impossible for her to interfere, was not disposed to permit the apprehended renewal of the intimacy implied in Mertoun’s invitation. She therefore took upon herself, in the name of her two nieces, who sat pouting beside her in displeased silence, to inform Mordaunt, after thanking him for his civility, that the hands of her nieces were engaged for that evening; and, as he continued to watch the party at a little distance, he had an opportunity of being convinced that the alleged engagement was a mere apology to get rid of him, when he saw the two good-humoured sisters join the dance, under the auspices of the next young men who asked their hands. Incensed at so marked a slight, and unwilling to expose himself to another, Mordaunt Mertoun drew back from the circle of dancers, shrouded himself amongst the mass of inferior persons who crowded into the bottom of the room as spectators, and there, concealed from the observation of others, digested his own mortification as well as he could — that is to say, very ill — and with all the philosophy of his age — that is to say, with none at all.

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