———— My mind misgives,
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels.
Romeo and Juliet.
The new-comers were, according to the frequent custom of such frolickers all over the world, disguised in a sort of masquing habits, and designed to represent the Tritons and Mermaids, with whom ancient tradition and popular belief have peopled the northern seas. The former, called by Zetlanders of that time, Shoupeltins, were represented by young men grotesquely habited, with false hair, and beards made of flax, and chaplets composed of sea-ware interwoven with shells, and other marine productions, with which also were decorated their light-blue or greenish mantles of wadmaal, repeatedly before-mentioned. They had fish-spears, and other emblems of their assumed quality, amongst which the classical taste of Claud Halcro, by whom the masque was arranged, had not forgotten the conch-shells, which were stoutly and hoarsely winded, from time to time, by one or two of the aquatic deities, to the great annoyance of all who stood near them.
The Nereids and Water-nymphs who attended on this occasion, displayed, as usual, a little more taste and ornament than was to be seen amongst their male attendants. Fantastic garments of green silk, and other materials of superior cost and fashion, had been contrived, so as to imitate their idea of the inhabitants of the waters, and, at the same time, to show the shape and features of the fair wearers to the best advantage. The bracelets and shells, which adorned the neck, arms, and ankles of the pretty Mermaidens, were, in some cases, intermixed with real pearls; and the appearance, upon the whole, was such as might have done no discredit to the court of Amphitrite, especially when the long bright locks, blue eyes, fair complexions, and pleasing features of the maidens of Thule, were taken into consideration. We do not indeed pretend to aver, that any of these seeming Mermaids had so accurately imitated the real siren, as commentators have supposed those attendant on Cleopatra did, who, adopting the fish’s train of their original, were able, nevertheless, to make their “bends,” or “ends,” (said commentators cannot tell which,) “adornings.”45 Indeed, had they not left their extremities in their natural state, it would have been impossible for the Zetland sirens to have executed the very pretty dance, with which they rewarded the company for the ready admission which had been granted to them.
It was soon discovered that these masquers were no strangers, but a part of the guests, who, stealing out a little time before, had thus disguised themselves, in order to give variety to the mirth of the evening. The muse of Claud Halcro, always active on such occasions, had supplied them with an appropriate song, of which we may give the following specimen. The song was alternate betwixt a Nereid or Mermaid, and a Merman or Triton — the males and females on either part forming a semi-chorus, which accompanied and bore burden to the principal singer.
Fathoms deep beneath the wave,
Stringing beads of glistering pearl,
Singing the achievements brave
Of many an old Norwegian earl;
Dwelling where the tempest’s raving
Falls as light upon our ear,
As the sigh of lover, craving
Pity from his lady dear,
Children of wild Thule, we,
From the deep caves of the sea,
As the lark springs from the lea,
Hither come, to share your glee.
From reining of the water-horse,
That bounded till the waves were foaming,
Watching the infant tempest’s course,
Chasing the sea-snake in his roaming;
From winding charge-notes on the shell,
When the huge whale and sword-fish duel,
Or tolling shroudless seamen’s knell,
When the winds and waves are cruel;
Children of wild Thule, we
Have plough’d such furrows on the sea
As the steer draws on the lea,
And hither we come to share your glee.
We heard you in our twilight caves,
A hundred fathom deep below,
For notes of joy can pierce the waves,
That drown each sound of war and woe.
Those who dwell beneath the sea
Love the sons of Thule well;
Thus, to aid your mirth, bring we
Dance, and song, and sounding shell.
Children of dark Thule, know,
Those who dwell by haaf and voe,
Where your daring shallops row,
Come to share the festal show.
The final chorus was borne by the whole voices, excepting those carrying the conch-shells, who had been trained to blow them in a sort of rude accompaniment, which had a good effect. The poetry, as well as the performance of the masquers, received great applause from all who pretended to be judges of such matters; but above all, from Triptolemus Yellowley, who, his ear having caught the agricultural sounds of plough and furrow, and his brain being so well drenched that it could only construe the words in their most literal acceptation, declared roundly, and called Mordaunt to bear witness, that, though it was a shame to waste so much good lint as went to form the Tritons’ beards and periwigs, the song contained the only words of common sense which he had heard all that long day.
But Mordaunt had no time to answer the appeal, being engaged in attending with the utmost vigilance to the motions of one of the female masquers, who had given him a private signal as they entered, which induced him, though uncertain who she might prove to be, to expect some communication from her of importance. The siren who had so boldly touched his arm, and had accompanied the gesture with an expression of eye which bespoke his attention, was disguised with a good deal more care than her sister-masquers, her mantle being loose, and wide enough to conceal her shape completely, and her face hidden beneath a silk mask. He observed that she gradually detached herself from the rest of the masquers, and at length placed herself, as if for the advantage of the air, near the door of a chamber which remained open, looked earnestly at him again, and then taking an opportunity, when the attention of the company was fixed upon the rest of her party, she left the apartment.
Mordaunt did not hesitate instantly to follow his mysterious guide, for such we may term the masquer, as she paused to let him see the direction she was about to take, and then walked swiftly towards the shore of the voe, or salt-water lake, now lying full before them, its small summer-waves glistening and rippling under the influence of a broad moonlight, which, added to the strong twilight of those regions during the summer solstice, left no reason to regret the absence of the sun, the path of whose setting was still visible on the waves of the west, while the horizon on the east side was already beginning to glimmer with the lights of dawn.
Mordaunt had therefore no difficulty in keeping sight of his disguised guide, as she tripped it over height and hollow to the sea-side, and, winding among the rocks, led the way to the spot where his own labours, during the time of his former intimacy at Burgh-Westra, had constructed a sheltered and solitary seat, where the daughters of Magnus were accustomed to spend, when the weather was suitable, a good deal of their time. Here, then, was to be the place of explanation; for the masquer stopped, and, after a moment’s hesitation, sat down on the rustic settle. But, from the lips of whom was he to receive it? Norna had first occurred to him; but her tall figure and slow majestic step were entirely different from the size and gait of the more fairy-formed siren, who had preceded him with as light a trip as if she had been a real Nereid, who, having remained too late upon the shore, was, under the dread of Amphitrite’s displeasure, hastening to regain her native element. Since it was not Norna, it could be only, he thought, Brenda, who thus singled him out; and when she had seated herself upon the bench, and taken the mask from her face, Brenda it accordingly proved to be. Mordaunt had certainly done nothing to make him dread her presence; and yet, such is the influence of bashfulness over the ingenuous youth of both sexes, that he experienced all the embarrassment of one who finds himself unexpectedly placed before a person who is justly offended with him. Brenda felt no less embarrassment; but as she had sought this interview, and was sensible it must be a brief one, she was compelled, in spite of herself, to begin the conversation.
“Mordaunt,” she said, with a hesitating voice; then correcting herself, she proceeded —“You must be surprised, Mr. Mertoun, that I should have taken this uncommon freedom.”
“It was not till this morning, Brenda,” replied Mordaunt, “that any mark of friendship or intimacy from you or from your sister could have surprised me. I am far more astonished that you should shun me without reason for so many hours, than that you should now allow me an interview. In the name of Heaven, Brenda, in what have I offended you? or why are we on these unusual terms?”
“May it not be enough to say,” replied Brenda, looking downward, “that it is my father’s pleasure?”
“No, it is not enough,” returned Mertoun. “Your father cannot have so suddenly altered his whole thoughts of me, and his whole actions towards me, without acting under the influence of some strong delusion. I ask you but to explain of what nature it is; for I will be contented to be lower in your esteem than the meanest hind in these islands, if I cannot show that his change of opinion is only grounded upon some infamous deception, or some extraordinary mistake.”
“It may be so,” said Brenda —“I hope it is so — that I do hope it is so, my desire to see you thus in private may well prove to you. But it is difficult — in short, it is impossible for me to explain to you the cause of my father’s resentment. Norna has spoken with him concerning it boldly, and I fear they parted in displeasure; and you well know no light matter could cause that.”
“I have observed,” said Mordaunt, “that your father is most attentive to Norna’s counsel, and more complaisant to her peculiarities than to those of others — this I have observed, though he is no willing believer in the supernatural qualities to which she lays claim.”
“They are related distantly,” answered Brenda, “and were friends in youth — nay, as I have heard, it was once supposed they would have been married; but Norna’s peculiarities showed themselves immediately on her father’s death, and there was an end of that matter, if ever there was any thing in it. But it is certain my father regards her with much interest; and it is, I fear, a sign how deeply his prejudices respecting you must be rooted, since they have in some degree quarrelled on your account.”
“Now, blessings upon you, Brenda, that you have called them prejudices,” said Mertoun, warmly and hastily —“a thousand blessings on you! You were ever gentle-hearted — you could not have maintained even the show of unkindness long.”
“It was indeed but a show,” said Brenda, softening gradually into the familiar tone in which they had conversed from infancy; “I could never think, Mordaunt — never, that is, seriously believe, that you could say aught unkind of Minna or of me.”
“And who dares to say I have?” said Mordaunt, giving way to the natural impetuosity of his disposition —“Who dares to say that I have, and ventures at the same time to hope that I will suffer his tongue to remain in safety betwixt his jaws? By Saint Magnus the Martyr, I will feed the hawks with it!”
“Nay, now,” said Brenda, “your anger only terrifies me, and will force me to leave you.”
“Leave me,” said he, “without telling me either the calumny, or the name of the villainous calumniator!”
“O, there are more than one,” answered Brenda, “that have possessed my father with an opinion — which I cannot myself tell you — but there are more than one who say”——
“Were they hundreds, Brenda, I will do no less to them than I have said — Sacred Martyr! — to accuse me of speaking unkindly of those whom I most respected and valued under Heaven — I will back to the apartment this instant, and your father shall do me right before all the world.”
“Do not go, for the love of Heaven!” said Brenda; “do not go, as you would not render me the most unhappy wretch in existence!”
“Tell me then, at least, if I guess aright,” said Mordaunt, “when I name this Cleveland for one of those who have slandered me?”
“No, no,” said Brenda, vehemently, “you run from one error into another more dangerous. You say you are my friend:— I am willing to be yours:— be but still for a moment, and hear what I have to say; — our interview has lasted but too long already, and every additional moment brings additional danger with it.”
“Tell me, then,” said Mertoun, much softened by the poor girl’s extreme apprehension and distress, “what it is that you require of me; and believe me, it is impossible for you to ask aught that I will not do my very uttermost to comply with.”
“Well, then — this Captain,” said Brenda, “this Cleveland”——
“I knew it, by Heaven!” said Mordaunt; “my mind assured me that that fellow was, in one way or other, at the bottom of all this mischief and misunderstanding!”
“If you cannot be silent, and patient, for an instant,” replied Brenda, “I must instantly quit you: what I meant to say had no relation to you, but to another — in one word, to my sister Minna. I have nothing to say concerning her dislike to you, but an anxious tale to tell concerning his attention to her.”
“It is obvious, striking, and marked,” said Mordaunt; “and, unless my eyes deceive me, it is received as welcome, if, indeed, it is not returned.”
“That is the very cause of my fear,” said Brenda. “I, too, was struck with the external appearance, frank manners, and romantic conversation of this man.”
“His appearance!” said Mordaunt; “he is stout and well-featured enough, to be sure; but, as old Sinclair of Quendale said to the Spanish admiral, ‘Farcie on his face! I have seen many a fairer hang on the Borough-moor.’— From his manners, he might be captain of a privateer; and by his conversation, the trumpeter to his own puppetshow; for he speaks of little else than his own exploits.”
“You are mistaken,” answered Brenda; “he speaks but too well on all that he has seen and learned; besides, he has really been in many distant countries, and in many gallant actions, and he can tell them with as much spirit as modesty. You would think you saw the flash and heard the report of the guns. And he has other tones of talking too — about the delightful trees and fruits of distant climates; and how the people wear no dress, through the whole year, half so warm as our summer gowns, and, indeed, put on little except cambric and muslin.”
“Upon my word, Brenda, he does seem to understand the business of amusing young ladies,” replied Mordaunt.
“He does, indeed,” said Brenda, with great simplicity. “I assure you that, at first, I liked him better than Minna did; and yet, though she is so much cleverer than I am, I know more of the world than she does; for I have seen more of cities, having been once at Kirkwall; besides that I was thrice at Lerwick, when the Dutch ships were there, and so I should not be very easily deceived in people.”
“And pray, Brenda,” said Mertoun, “what was it that made you think less favourably of this young fellow, who seems to be so captivating?”
“Why,” said Brenda, after a moment’s reflection, “at first he was much livelier; and the stories he told were not quite so melancholy, or so terrible; and he laughed and danced more.”
“And, perhaps, at that time, danced oftener with Brenda than with her sister?” added Mordaunt.
“No — I am not sure of that,” said Brenda; “and yet, to speak plain, I could have no suspicion of him at all while he was attending quite equally to us both; for you know that then he could have been no more to us than yourself, Mordaunt Mertoun, or young Swaraster, or any other young man in the islands.”
“But, why then,” said Mordaunt, “should you not see him, with patience, become acquainted with your sister? — He is wealthy, or seems to be so at least. You say he is accomplished and pleasant; — what else would you desire in a lover for Minna?”
“Mordaunt, you forget who we are,” said the maiden, assuming an air of consequence, which sat as gracefully upon her simplicity, as did the different tone in which she had spoken hitherto. “This is a little world of ours, this Zetland, inferior, perhaps, in soil and climate to other parts of the earth, at least so strangers say; but it is our own little world, and we, the daughters of Magnus Troil, hold a first rank in it. It would I think, little become us, who are descended from Sea-kings and Jarls, to throw ourselves away upon a stranger, who comes to our coast, like the eider-duck in spring, from we know not whence, and may leave it in autumn, to go we know not where.”
“And who may yet entice a Zetland golden-eye to accompany his migration,” said Mertoun.
“I will hear nothing light on such a subject,” replied Brenda, indignantly; “Minna, like myself, is the daughter of Magnus Troil, the friend of strangers, but the Father of Hialtland. He gives them the hospitality they need; but let not the proudest of them think that they can, at their pleasure, ally with his house.”
She said this in a tone of considerable warmth, which she instantly softened, as she added, “No, Mordaunt, do not suppose that Minna Troil is capable of so far forgetting what she owes to her father and her father’s blood, as to think of marrying this Cleveland; but she may lend an ear to him so long as to destroy her future happiness. She has that sort of mind, into which some feelings sink deeply; — you remember how Ulla Storlson used to go, day by day, to the top of Vossdale-head, to look for her lover’s ship that was never to return? When I think of her slow step, her pale cheek, her eye, that grew dimmer and dimmer, like the lamp that is half extinguished for lack of oil — when I remember the fluttered look, of something like hope, with which she ascended the cliff at morning, and the deep dead despair which sat on her forehead when she returned — when I think on all this, can you wonder that I fear for Minna, whose heart is formed to entertain, with such deep-rooted fidelity, any affection that may be implanted in it?”
“I do not wonder,” said Mordaunt, eagerly sympathizing with the poor girl; for, besides the tremulous expression of her voice, the light could almost show him the tear which trembled in her eye, as she drew the picture to which her fancy had assimilated her sister — “I do not wonder that you should feel and fear whatever the purest affection can dictate; and if you can but point out to me in what I can serve your sisterly love, you shall find me as ready to venture my life, if necessary, as I have been to go out on the crag to get you the eggs of the guillemot; and, believe me, that whatever has been told to your father or yourself, of my entertaining the slightest thoughts of disrespect or unkindness, is as false as a fiend could devise.”
“I believe it,” said Brenda, giving him her hand; “I believe it, and my bosom is lighter, now I have renewed my confidence in so old a friend. How you can aid us, I know not; but it was by the advice, I may say by the commands, of Norna, that I have ventured to make this communication; and I almost wonder,” she added, as she looked around her, “that I have had courage to carry me through it. At present you know all that I can tell you of the risk in which my sister stands. Look after this Cleveland — beware how you quarrel with him, since you must so surely come by the worst with an experienced soldier.”
“I do not exactly understand,” said the youth, “how that should so surely be. This I know, that with the good limbs and good heart that God hath given me, ay, and with a good cause to boot — I am little afraid of any quarrel which Cleveland can fix upon me.”
“Then, if not for your own sake, for Minna’s sake,” said Brenda —“for my father’s — for mine — for all our sakes, avoid any strife with him, but be contented to watch him, and, if possible, to discover who he is, and what are his intentions towards us. He has talked of going to Orkney, to enquire after the consort with whom he sailed; but day after day, and week after week passes, and he goes not; and while he keeps my father company over the bottle, and tells Minna romantic stories of foreign people, and distant wars, in wild and unknown regions, the time glides on, and the stranger, of whom we know nothing except that he is one, becomes gradually closer and more inseparably intimate in our society. — And now, farewell. Norna hopes to make your peace with my father, and entreats you not to leave Burgh-Westra to-morrow, however cold he and my sister may appear towards you. I too,” she said, stretching her hand towards him, “must wear a face of cold friendship as towards an unwelcome visitor, but at heart we are still Brenda and Mordaunt. And now separate quickly, for we must not be seen together.”
She stretched her hand to him, but withdrew it in some slight confusion, laughing and blushing, when, by a natural impulse, he was about to press it to his lips. He endeavoured for a moment to detain her, for the interview had for him a degree of fascination, which, as often as he had before been alone with Brenda, he had never experienced. But she extricated herself from him, and again signing an adieu, and pointing out to him a path different from that which she was herself about to take, tripped towards the house, and was soon hidden from his view by the acclivity.
Mordaunt stood gazing after her in a state of mind, to which, as yet, he had been a stranger. The dubious neutral ground between love and friendship may be long and safely trodden, until he who stands upon it is suddenly called upon to recognise the authority of the one or the other power; and then it most frequently happens, that the party who for years supposed himself only a friend, finds himself at once transformed into a lover. That such a change in Mordaunt’s feelings should take place from this date, although he himself was unable exactly to distinguish its nature, was to be expected. He found himself at once received, with the most unsuspicious frankness, into the confidence of a beautiful and fascinating young woman, by whom he had, so short a time before, imagined himself despised and disliked; and, if any thing could make a change, in itself so surprising and so pleasing, yet more intoxicating, it was the guileless and open-hearted simplicity of Brenda, that cast an enchantment over every thing which she did or said. The scene, too, might have had its effect, though there was little occasion for its aid. But a fair face looks yet fairer under the light of the moon, and a sweet voice sounds yet sweeter among the whispering sounds of a summer night. Mordaunt, therefore, who had by this time returned to the house, was disposed to listen with unusual patience and complacency to the enthusiastic declamation pronounced upon moonlight by Claud Halcro, whose ecstasies had been awakened on the subject by a short turn in the open air, undertaken to qualify the vapours of the good liquor, which he had not spared during the festival.
“The sun, my boy,” he said, “is every wretched labourer’s day-lantern — it comes glaring yonder out of the east, to summon up a whole world to labour and to misery; whereas the merry moon lights all of us to mirth and to love.”
“And to madness, or she is much belied,” said Mordaunt, by way of saying something.
“Let it be so,” answered Halcro, “so she does not turn us melancholy-mad. — My dear young friend, the folks of this painstaking world are far too anxious about possessing all their wits, or having them, as they say, about them. At least I know I have been often called half-witted, and I am sure I have gone through the world as well as if I had double the quantity. But stop — where was I? O, touching and concerning the moon — why, man, she is the very soul of love and poetry. I question if there was ever a true lover in existence who had not got at least as far as ‘O thou,’ in a sonnet in her praise.”
“The moon,” said the factor, who was now beginning to speak very thick, “ripens corn, at least the old folk said so — and she fills nuts also, whilk is of less matter —sparge nuces, pueri.”
“A fine, a fine,” said the Udaller, who was now in his altitudes; “the factor speaks Greek — by the bones of my holy namesake, Saint Magnus, he shall drink off the yawl full of punch, unless he gives us a song on the spot!”
“Too much water drowned the miller,” answered Triptolemus. “My brain has more need of draining than of being drenched with more liquor.”
“Sing, then,” said the despotic landlord, “for no one shall speak any other language here, save honest Norse, jolly Dutch, or Danske, or broad Scots, at the least of it. So, Eric Scambester, produce the yawl, and fill it to the brim, as a charge for demurrage.”
Ere the vessel could reach the agriculturist, he, seeing it under way, and steering towards him by short tacks, (for Scambester himself was by this time not over steady in his course,) made a desperate effort, and began to sing, or rather to croak forth, a Yorkshire harvest-home ballad, which his father used to sing when he was a little mellow, and which went to the tune of “Hey Dobbin, away with the waggon.” The rueful aspect of the singer, and the desperately discordant tones of his voice, formed so delightful a contrast with the jollity of the words and tune, that honest Triptolemus afforded the same sort of amusement which a reveller might give, by appearing on a festival-day in the holyday-coat of his grandfather. The jest concluded the evening, for even the mighty and strong-headed Magnus himself had confessed the influence of the sleepy god. The guests went off as they best might, each to his separate crib and resting place, and in a short time the mansion, which was of late so noisy, was hushed into perfect silence.
45 See some admirable discussion on this passage, in the Variorum Shakspeare.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00