Is all the counsel that we two have shared —
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us — O, and is all forgot?
The attention of Minna was powerfully arrested by this tale of terror, which accorded with and explained many broken hints respecting Norna, which she had heard from her father and other near relations, and she was for a time so lost in surprise, not unmingled with horror, that she did not even attempt to speak to her sister Brenda. When, at length, she called her by her name, she received no answer, and, on touching her hand, she found it cold as ice. Alarmed to the uttermost, she threw open the lattice and the window-shutters, and admitted at once the free air and the pale glimmer of the hyperborean summer night. She then became sensible that her sister was in a swoon. All thoughts concerning Norna, her frightful tale, and her mysterious connexion with the invisible world, at once vanished from Minna’s thoughts, and she hastily ran to the apartment of the old housekeeper, to summon her aid, without reflecting for a moment what sights she might encounter in the long dark passages which she had to traverse.
The old woman hastened to Brenda’s assistance, and instantly applied such remedies as her experience suggested; but the poor girl’s nervous system had been so much agitated by the horrible tale she had just heard, that, when recovered from her swoon, her utmost endeavours to compose her mind could not prevent her falling into a hysterical fit of some duration. This also was subdued by the experience of old Euphane Fea, who was well versed in all the simple pharmacy used by the natives of Zetland, and who, after administering a composing draught, distilled from simples and wild flowers, at length saw her patient resigned to sleep. Minna stretched herself beside her sister, kissed her cheek, and courted slumber in her turn; but the more she invoked it, the farther it seemed to fly from her eyelids; and if at times she was disposed to sink into repose, the voice of the involuntary parricide seemed again to sound in her ears, and startled her into consciousness.
The early morning hour at which they were accustomed to rise, found the state of the sisters different from what might have been expected. A sound sleep had restored the spirit of Brenda’s lightsome eye, and the rose on her laughing cheek; the transient indisposition of the preceding night having left as little trouble on her look, as the fantastic terrors of Norna’s tale had been able to impress on her imagination. The looks of Minna, on the contrary, were melancholy, downcast, and apparently exhausted by watching and anxiety. They said at first little to each other, as if afraid of touching a subject so fraught with emotion as the scene of the preceding night. It was not until they had performed together their devotions, as usual, that Brenda, while lacing Minna’s boddice, (for they rendered the services of the toilet to each other reciprocally,) became aware of the paleness of her sister’s looks; and having ascertained, by a glance at the mirror, that her own did not wear the same dejection, she kissed Minna’s cheek, and said affectionately, “Claud Halcro was right, my dearest sister, when his poetical folly gave us these names of Night and Day.”
“And wherefore should you say so now?” said Minna.
“Because we each are bravest in the season that we take our name from: I was frightened wellnigh to death, by hearing those things last night, which you endured with courageous firmness; and now, when it is broad light, I can think of them with composure, while you look as pale as a spirit who is surprised by sunrise.”
“You are lucky, Brenda,” said her sister, gravely, “who can so soon forget such a tale of wonder and horror.”
“The horror,” said Brenda, “is never to be forgotten, unless one could hope that the unfortunate woman’s excited imagination, which shows itself so active in conjuring up apparitions, may have fixed on her an imaginary crime.”
“You believe nothing, then,” said Minna, “of her interview at the Dwarfie Stone, that wondrous place, of which so many tales are told, and which, for so many centuries, has been reverenced as the work of a demon, and as his abode?”
“I believe,” said Brenda, “that our unhappy relative is no impostor — and therefore I believe that she was at the Dwarfie Stone during a thunderstorm, that she sought shelter in it, and that, during a swoon, or during sleep perhaps, some dream visited her, concerned with the popular traditions with which she was so conversant; but I cannot easily believe more.”
“And yet the event,” said Minna, “corresponded to the dark intimations of the vision.”
“Pardon me,” said Brenda, “I rather think the dream would never have been put into shape, or perhaps remembered at all, but for the event. She told us herself she had nearly forgot the vision, till after her father’s dreadful death — and who shall warrant how much of what she then supposed herself to remember was not the creation of her own fancy, disordered as it naturally was by the horrid accident? Had she really seen and conversed with a necromantic dwarf, she was likely to remember the conversation long enough — at least I am sure I should.”
“Brenda,” replied Minna, “you have heard the good minister of the Cross-Kirk say, that human wisdom was worse than folly, when it was applied to mysteries beyond its comprehension; and that, if we believed no more than we could understand, we should resist the evidence of our senses, which presented us, at every turn, circumstances as certain as they were unintelligible.”
“You are too learned yourself, sister,” answered Brenda, “to need the assistance of the good minister of Cross-Kirk; but I think his doctrine only related to the mysteries of our religion, which it is our duty to receive without investigation or doubt — but in things occurring in common life, as God has bestowed reason upon us, we cannot act wrong in employing it. But you, my dear Minna, have a warmer fancy than mine, and are willing to receive all those wonderful stories for truth, because you love to think of sorcerers, and dwarfs, and water-spirits, and would like much to have a little trow, or fairy, as the Scotch call them, with a green coat, and a pair of wings as brilliant as the hues of the starling’s neck, specially to attend on you.”
“It would spare you at least the trouble of lacing my boddice,” said Minna, “and of lacing it wrong, too; for in the heat of your argument you have missed two eyelet-holes.”
“That error shall be presently mended,” said Brenda; “and then, as one of our friends might say, I will haul tight and belay — but you draw your breath so deeply, that it will be a difficult matter.”
“I only sighed,” said Minna, in some confusion, “to think how soon you can trifle with and ridicule the misfortunes of this extraordinary woman.”
“I do not ridicule them, God knows!” replied Brenda, somewhat angrily; “it is you, Minna, who turn all I say in truth and kindness, to something harsh or wicked. I look on Norna as a woman of very extraordinary abilities, which are very often united with a strong cast of insanity; and I consider her as better skilled in the signs of the weather than any woman in Zetland. But that she has any power over the elements, I no more believe, than I do in the nursery stories of King Erick, who could make the wind blow from the point he set his cap to.”
Minna, somewhat nettled with the obstinate incredulity of her sister, replied sharply, “And yet, Brenda, this woman — half-mad woman, and the veriest impostor — is the person by whom you choose to be advised in the matter next your own heart at this moment!”
“I do not know what you mean,” said Brenda, colouring deeply, and shifting to get away from her sister. But as she was now undergoing the ceremony of being laced in her turn, her sister had the means of holding her fast by the silken string with which she was fastening the boddice, and, tapping her on the neck, which expressed, by its sudden writhe, and sudden change to a scarlet hue, as much pettish confusion as she had desired to provoke, she added, more mildly, “Is it not strange, Brenda, that, used as we have been by the stranger Mordaunt Mertoun, whose assurance has brought him uninvited to a house where his presence is so unacceptable, you should still look or think of him with favour? Surely, that you do so should be a proof to you, that there are such things as spells in the country, and that you yourself labour under them. It is not for nought that Mordaunt wears a chain of elfin gold — look to it, Brenda, and be wise in time.”
“I have nothing to do with Mordaunt Mertoun,” answered Brenda, hastily, “nor do I know or care what he or any other young man wears about his neck. I could see all the gold chains of all the bailies of Edinburgh, that Lady Glowrowrum speaks so much of, without falling in fancy with one of the wearers.” And, having thus complied with the female rule of pleading not guilty in general to such an indictment, she immediately resumed, in a different tone, “But, to say the truth, Minna, I think you, and all of you, have judged far too hastily about this young friend of ours, who has been so long our most intimate companion. Mind, Mordaunt Mertoun is no more to me than he is to you — who best know how little difference he made betwixt us; and that, chain or no chain, he lived with us like a brother with two sisters; and yet you can turn him off at once, because a wandering seaman, of whom we know nothing, and a peddling jagger, whom we do know to be a thief, a cheat, and a liar, speak words and carry tales in his disfavour! I do not believe he ever said he could have his choice of either of us, and only waited to see which was to have Burgh-Westra and Bredness Voe — I do not believe he ever spoke such a word, or harboured such a thought, as that of making a choice between us.”
“Perhaps,” said Minna, coldly, “you may have had reason to know that his choice was already determined.”
“I will not endure this!” said Brenda, giving way to her natural vivacity, and springing from between her sister’s hands; then turning round and facing her, while her glowing cheek was rivalled in the deepness of its crimson, by as much of her neck and bosom as the upper part of the half-laced boddice permitted to be visible — “Even from you, Minna,” she said, “I will not endure this! You know that all my life I have spoken the truth, and that I love the truth; and I tell you, that Mordaunt Mertoun never in his life made distinction betwixt you and me, until”——
Here some feeling of consciousness stopped her short, and her sister replied, with a smile, “Until when, Brenda? Methinks, your love of truth seems choked with the sentence you were bringing out.”
“Until you ceased to do him the justice he deserves,” said Brenda, firmly, “since I must speak out. I have little doubt that he will not long throw away his friendship on you, who hold it so lightly.”
“Be it so,” said Minna; “you are secure from my rivalry, either in his friendship or love. But bethink you better, Brenda — this is no scandal of Cleveland’s — Cleveland is incapable of slander — no falsehood of Bryce Snailsfoot — not one of our friends or acquaintance but says it has been the common talk of the island, that the daughters of Magnus Troil were patiently awaiting the choice of the nameless and birthless stranger, Mordaunt Mertoun. Is it fitting that this should be said of us, the descendants of a Norwegian Jarl, and the daughters of the first Udaller in Zetland? or, would it be modest or maidenly to submit to it unresented, were we the meanest lasses that ever lifted a milk-pail?”
“The tongues of fools are no reproach,” replied Brenda, warmly; “I will never quit my own thoughts of an innocent friend for the gossip of the island, which can put the worst meaning on the most innocent actions.”
“Hear but what our friends say,” repeated Minna; “hear but the Lady Glowrowrum; hear but Maddie and Clara Groatsettar.”
“If I were to hear Lady Glowrowrum,” said Brenda, steadily, “I should listen to the worst tongue in Zetland; and as for Maddie and Clara Groatsettar, they were both blithe enough to get Mordaunt to sit betwixt them at dinner the day before yesterday, as you might have observed yourself, but that your ear was better engaged.”
“Your eyes, at least, have been but indifferently engaged, Brenda,” retorted the elder sister, “since they were fixed on a young man, whom all the world but yourself believes to have talked of us with the most insolent presumption; and even if he be innocently charged, Lady Glowrowrum says it is unmaidenly and bold of you even to look in the direction where he sits, knowing it must confirm such reports.”
“I will look which way I please,” said Brenda, growing still warmer; “Lady Glowrowrum shall neither rule my thoughts, nor my words, nor my eyes. I hold Mordaunt Mertoun to be innocent — I will look at him as such — I will speak of him as such; and if I did not speak to him also, and behave to him as usual, it is in obedience to my father, and not for what Lady Glowrowrum, and all her nieces, had she twenty instead of two, could think, wink, nod, or tattle, about the matter that concerns them not.”
“Alas! Brenda,” answered Minna, with calmness, “this vivacity is more than is required for the defence of the character of a mere friend! — Beware — He who ruined Norna’s peace for ever, was a stranger, admitted to her affections against the will of her family.”
“He was a stranger,” replied Brenda, with emphasis, “not only in birth, but in manners. She had not been bred up with him from her youth — she had not known the gentleness, the frankness, of his disposition, by an intimacy of many years. He was indeed a stranger, in character, temper, birth, manners, and morals — some wandering adventurer, perhaps, whom chance or tempest had thrown upon the islands, and who knew how to mask a false heart with a frank brow. My good sister, take home your own warning. There are other strangers at Burgh-Westra besides this poor Mordaunt Mertoun.”
Minna seemed for a moment overwhelmed with the rapidity with which her sister retorted her suspicion and her caution. But her natural loftiness of disposition enabled her to reply with assumed composure.
“Were I to treat you, Brenda, with the want of confidence you show towards me, I might reply that Cleveland is no more to me than Mordaunt was; or than young Swartaster, or Lawrence Ericson, or any other favourite guest of my father’s, now is. But I scorn to deceive you, or to disguise my thoughts. — I love Clement Cleveland.”
“Do not say so, my dearest sister,” said Brenda, abandoning at once the air of acrimony with which the conversation had been latterly conducted, and throwing her arms round her sister’s neck, with looks, and with a tone, of the most earnest affection — “do not say so, I implore you! I will renounce Mordaunt Mertoun — I will swear never to speak to him again; but do not repeat that you love this Cleveland!”
“And why should I not repeat,” said Minna, disengaging herself gently from her sister’s grasp, “a sentiment in which I glory? The boldness, the strength and energy, of his character, to which command is natural, and fear unknown — these very properties, which alarm you for my happiness, are the qualities which ensure it. Remember, Brenda, that when your foot loved the calm smooth sea-beach of the summer sea, mine ever delighted in the summit of the precipice, when the waves are in fury.”
“And it is even that which I dread,” said Brenda; “it is even that adventurous disposition which now is urging you to the brink of a precipice more dangerous than ever was washed by a spring-tide. This man — do not frown, I will say no slander of him — but is he not, even in your own partial judgment, stern and overbearing? accustomed, as you say, to command; but, for that very reason, commanding where he has no right to do so, and leading whom it would most become him to follow? rushing on danger, rather for its own sake, than for any other object? And can you think of being yoked with a spirit so unsettled and stormy, whose life has hitherto been led in scenes of death and peril, and who, even while sitting by your side, cannot disguise his impatience again to engage in them? A lover, methinks, should love his mistress better than his own life; but yours, my dear Minna, loves her less than the pleasure of inflicting death on others.”
“And it is even for that I love him,” said Minna. “I am a daughter of the old dames of Norway, who could send their lovers to battle with a smile, and slay them, with their own hands, if they returned with dishonour. My lover must scorn the mockeries by which our degraded race strive for distinction, or must practise them only in sport, and in earnest of nobler dangers. No whale-striking, bird-nesting favourite for me; my lover must be a Sea-king, or what else modern times may give that draws near to that lofty character.”
“Alas, my sister!” said Brenda, “it is now that I must in earnest begin to believe the force of spells and of charms. You remember the Spanish story which you took from me long since, because I said, in your admiration of the chivalry of the olden times of Scandinavia, you rivalled the extravagance of the hero. — Ah, Minna, your colour shows that your conscience checks you, and reminds you of the book I mean; — is it more wise, think you, to mistake a windmill for a giant, or the commander of a paltry corsair for a Kiempe, or a Vi-king?”
Minna did indeed colour with anger at this insinuation, of which, perhaps, she felt in some degree the truth.
“You have a right,” she said, “to insult me, because you are possessed of my secret.”
Brenda’s soft heart could not resist this charge of unkindness; she adjured her sister to pardon her, and the natural gentleness of Minna’s feelings could not resist her entreaties.
“We are unhappy,” she said, as she dried her sister’s tears, “that we cannot see with the same eyes — let us not make each other more so by mutual insult and unkindness. You have my secret — it will not, perhaps, long be one, for my father shall have the confidence to which he is entitled, so soon as certain circumstances will permit me to offer it. Meantime, I repeat, you have my secret, and I more than suspect that I have yours in exchange, though you refuse to own it.”
“How, Minna!” said Brenda; “would you have me acknowledge for any one such feelings as you allude to, ere he has said the least word that could justify such a confession?”
“Surely not; but a hidden fire may be distinguished by heat as well as flame.”
“You understand these signs, Minna,” said Brenda, hanging down her head, and in vain endeavouring to suppress the temptation to repartee which her sister’s remark offered; “but I can only say, that, if ever I love at all, it shall not be until I have been asked to do so once or twice at least, which has not yet chanced to me. But do not let us renew our quarrel, and rather let us think why Norna should have told us that horrible tale, and to what she expects it should lead.”
“It must have been as a caution,” replied Minna —“a caution which our situation, and, I will not deny it, which mine in particular, might seem to her to call for; — but I am alike strong in my own innocence, and in the honour of Cleveland.”
Brenda would fain have replied, that she did not confide so absolutely in the latter security as in the first; but she was prudent, and, forbearing to awaken the former painful discussion, only replied, “It is strange that Norna should have said nothing more of her lover. Surely he could not desert her in the extremity of misery to which he had reduced her?”
“There may be agonies of distress,” said Minna, after a pause, “in which the mind is so much jarred, that it ceases to be responsive even to the feelings which have most engrossed it; — her sorrow for her lover may have been swallowed up in horror and despair.”
“Or he might have fled from the islands, in fear of our father’s vengeance,” replied Brenda.
“If for fear, or faintness of heart,” said Minna, looking upwards, “he was capable of flying from the ruin which he had occasioned, I trust he has long ere this sustained the punishment which Heaven reserves for the most base and dastardly of traitors and of cowards. — Come, sister, we are ere this expected at the breakfast board.”
And they went thither, arm in arm, with much more of confidence than had lately subsisted between them; the little quarrel which had taken place having served the purpose of a bourasque, or sudden squall, which dispels mists and vapours, and leaves fair weather behind it.
On their way to the breakfast apartment, they agreed that it was unnecessary, and might be imprudent, to communicate to their father the circumstance of the nocturnal visit, or to let him observe that they now knew more than formerly of the melancholy history of Norna.
Last updated Sunday, January 3, 2016 at 14:25