But this sad evil which doth her infest,
Doth course of natural cause far exceed,
And housed is within her hollow breast,
That either seems some cursed witch’s deed,
Or evill spright that in her doth such torment breed.
Fairy Queen, Book III., Canto III.
The term had now elapsed, by several days, when Mordaunt Mertoun, as he had promised at his departure, should have returned to his father’s abode at Jarlshof, but there were no tidings of his arrival. Such delay might, at another time, have excited little curiosity, and no anxiety; for old Swertha, who took upon her the office of thinking and conjecturing for the little household, would have concluded that he had remained behind the other guests upon some party of sport or pleasure. But she knew that Mordaunt had not been lately in favour with Magnus Troil; she knew that he proposed his stay at Burgh-Westra should be a short one, upon account of his father’s health, to whom, notwithstanding the little encouragement which his filial piety received, he paid uniform attention. Swertha knew all this, and she became anxious. She watched the looks of her master, the elder Mertoun; but, wrapt in dark and stern uniformity of composure, his countenance, like the surface of a midnight lake, enabled no one to penetrate into what was beneath. His studies, his solitary meals, his lonely walks, succeeded each other in unvaried rotation, and seemed undisturbed by the least thought about Mordaunt’s absence.
At length such reports reached Swertha’s ear, from various quarters, that she became totally unable to conceal her anxiety, and resolved, at the risk of provoking her master into fury, or perhaps that of losing her place in his household, to force upon his notice the doubts which afflicted her own mind. Mordaunt’s good-humour and goodly person must indeed have made no small impression on the withered and selfish heart of the poor old woman, to induce her to take a course so desperate, and from which her friend the Ranzelman endeavoured in vain to deter her. Still, however, conscious that a miscarriage in the matter, would, like the loss of Trinculo’s bottle in the horse-pool, be attended not only with dishonour, but with infinite loss, she determined to proceed on her high emprize with as much caution as was consistent with the attempt.
We have already mentioned, that it seemed a part of the very nature of this reserved and unsocial being, at least since his retreat into the utter solitude of Jarlshof, to endure no one to start a subject of conversation, or to put any question to him, that did not arise out of urgent and pressing emergency. Swertha was sensible, therefore, that, in order to open the discourse favourably which she proposed to hold with her master, she must contrive that it should originate with himself.
To accomplish this purpose, while busied in preparing the table for Mr. Mertoun’s simple and solitary dinner-meal, she formally adorned the table with two covers instead of one, and made all her other preparations as if he was to have a guest or companion at dinner.
The artifice succeeded; for Mertoun, on coming from his study, no sooner saw the table thus arranged, than he asked Swertha, who, waiting the effect of her stratagem as a fisher watches his ground-baits, was fiddling up and down the room, “Whether Mordaunt was returned from Burgh-Westra?”
This question was the cue for Swertha, and she answered in a voice of sorrowful anxiety, half real, half affected, “Na, na! — nae sic divot had dunted at their door. It wad be blithe news indeed, to ken that young Maister Mordaunt, puir dear bairn, were safe at hame.”
“And if he be not at home, why should you lay a cover for him, you doting fool?” replied Mertoun, in a tone well calculated to stop the old woman’s proceedings. But she replied, boldly, “that, indeed, somebody should take thought about Maister Mordaunt; a’ that she could do was to have seat and plate ready for him when he came. But she thought the dear bairn had been ower lang awa; and, if she maun speak out, she had her ain fears when and whether he might ever come hame.”
“Your fears!” said Mertoun, his eyes flashing as they usually did when his hour of ungovernable passion approached; “do you speak of your idle fears to me, who know that all of your sex, that is not fickleness, and folly, and self-conceit, and self-will, is a bundle of idiotical fears, vapours, and tremors? What are your fears to me, you foolish old hag?”
It is an admirable quality in womankind, that, when a breach of the laws of natural affection comes under their observation, the whole sex is in arms. Let a rumour arise in the street of a parent that has misused a child, or a child that has insulted a parent — I say nothing of the case of husband and wife, where the interest may be accounted for in sympathy — and all the women within hearing will take animated and decided part with the sufferer. Swertha, notwithstanding her greed and avarice, had her share of the generous feeling which does so much honour to her sex, and was, on this occasion, so much carried on by its impulse, that she confronted her master, and upbraided him with his hard-hearted indifference, with a boldness at which she herself was astonished.
“To be sure it wasna her that suld be fearing for her young maister, Maister Mordaunt, even although he was, as she might weel say, the very sea-calf of her heart; but ony other father, but his honour himsell, wad have had speerings made after the poor lad, and him gane this eight-days from Burgh-Westra, and naebody kend when or where he had gane. There wasna a bairn in the howff but was maining for him; for he made all their bits of boats with his knife; there wadna be a dry eye in the parish, if aught worse than weal should befall him — na, no ane, unless it might be his honour’s ain.”
Mertoun had been much struck, and even silenced, by the insolent volubility of his insurgent housekeeper; but, at the last sarcasm, he imposed on her silence in her turn with an audible voice, accompanied with one of the most terrific glances which his dark eye and stern features could express. But Swertha, who, as she afterwards acquainted the Ranzelman, was wonderfully supported during the whole scene, would not be controlled by the loud voice and ferocious look of her master, but proceeded in the same tone as before.
“His honour,” she said, “had made an unco wark because a wheen bits of kists and duds, that naebody had use for, had been gathered on the beach by the poor bodies of the township; and here was the bravest lad in the country lost, and cast away, as it were, before his een, and nae are asking what was come o’ him.”
“What should come of him but good, you old fool,” answered Mr. Mertoun, “as far, at least, as there can be good in any of the follies he spends his time in?”
This was spoken rather in a scornful than an angry tone, and Swertha, who had got into the spirit of the dialogue, was resolved not to let it drop, now that the fire of her opponent seemed to slacken.
“O ay, to be sure I am an auld fule — but if Maister Mordaunt should have settled down in the Roost, as mair than ae boat had been lost in that wearifu’ squall the other morning — by good luck it was short as it was sharp, or naething could have lived in it — or if he were drowned in a loch coming hame on foot, or if he were killed by miss of footing on a craig — the haill island kend how venturesome he was — who,” said Swertha, “will be the auld fule then?” And she added a pathetic ejaculation, that “God would protect the poor motherless bairn! for if he had had a mother, there would have been search made after him before now.”
This last sarcasm affected Mertoun powerfully — his jaw quivered, his face grew pale, and he muttered to Swertha to go into his study, (where she was scarcely ever permitted to enter,) and fetch him a bottle which stood there.
“O ho!” quoth Swertha to herself, as she hastened on the commission, “my master knows where to find a cup of comfort to qualify his water with upon fitting occasions.”
There was indeed a case of such bottles as were usually employed to hold strong waters, but the dust and cobwebs in which they were enveloped showed that they had not been touched for many years. With some difficulty Swertha extracted the cork of one of them, by the help of a fork — for corkscrew was there none at Jarlshof — and having ascertained by smell, and, in case of any mistake, by a moderate mouthful, that it contained wholesome Barbadoes-waters, she carried it into the room, where her master still continued to struggle with his faintness. She then began to pour a small quantity into the nearest cup that she could find, wisely judging, that, upon a person so much unaccustomed to the use of spirituous liquors, a little might produce a strong effect. But the patient signed to her impatiently to fill the cup, which might hold more than the third of an English pint measure, up to the very brim, and swallowed it down without hesitation.
“Now the saunts above have a care on us!” said Swertha; “he will be drunk as weel as mad, and wha is to guide him then, I wonder?”
But Mertoun’s breath and colour returned, without the slightest symptom of intoxication; on the contrary, Swertha afterwards reported, that, “although she had always had a firm opinion in favour of a dram, yet she never saw one work such miracles — he spoke mair like a man of the middle world, than she had ever heard him since she had entered his service.”
“Swertha,” he said, “you are right in this matter, and I was wrong. — Go down to the Ranzelman directly, tell him to come and speak with me, without an instant’s delay, and bring me special word what boats and people he can command; I will employ them all in the search, and they shall be plentifully rewarded.”
Stimulated by the spur which maketh the old woman proverbially to trot, Swertha posted down to the hamlet, with all the speed of threescore, rejoicing that her sympathetic feelings were likely to achieve their own reward, having given rise to a quest which promised to be so lucrative, and in the profits whereof she was determined to have her share, shouting out as she went, and long before she got within hearing, the names of Niel Ronaldson, Sweyn Erickson, and the other friends and confederates who were interested in her mission. To say the truth, notwithstanding that the good dame really felt a deep interest in Mordaunt Mertoun, and was mentally troubled on account of his absence, perhaps few things would have disappointed her more than if he had at this moment started up in her path safe and sound, and rendered unnecessary, by his appearance, the expense and the bustle of searching after him.
Soon did Swertha accomplish her business in the village, and adjust with the senators of the township her own little share of per centage upon the profits likely to accrue on her mission; and speedily did she return to Jarlshof, with Niel Ronaldson by her side, schooling him to the best of her skill in all the peculiarities of her master.
“Aboon a’ things,” she said, “never make him wait for an answer; and speak loud and distinct, as if you were hailing a boat — for he downa bide to say the same thing twice over; and if he asks about distance, ye may make leagues for miles, for he kens naething about the face of the earth that he lives upon; and if he speak of siller, ye may ask dollars for shillings, for he minds them nae mair than sclate-stanes.”
Thus tutored, Niel Ronaldson was introduced into the presence of Mertoun, but was utterly confounded to find that he could not act upon the system of deception which had been projected. When he attempted, by some exaggeration of distance and peril, to enhance the hire of the boats, and of the men, (for the search was to be by sea and land,) he found himself at once cut short by Mertoun, who showed not only the most perfect knowledge of the country, but of distances, tides, currents, and all belonging to the navigation of those seas, although these were topics with which he had hitherto appeared to be totally unacquainted. The Ranzelman, therefore, trembled when they came to speak of the recompense to be afforded for their exertions in the search; for it was not more unlikely that Mertoun should be well informed of what was just and proper upon this head than upon others; and Niel remembered the storm of his fury, when, at an early period after he had settled at Jarlshof, he drove Swertha and Sweyn Erickson from his presence. As, however, he stood hesitating betwixt the opposite fears of asking too much or too little, Mertoun stopped his mouth, and ended his uncertainty, by promising him a recompense beyond what he dared have ventured to ask, with an additional gratuity, in case they returned with the pleasing intelligence that his son was safe.
When this great point was settled, Niel Ronaldson, like a man of conscience, began to consider earnestly the various places where search should be made after the young man; and having undertaken faithfully that the enquiry should be prosecuted at all the houses of the gentry, both in this and the neighbouring islands, he added, that, “after all, if his honour would not be angry, there was ane not far off, that, if any body dared speer her a question, and if she liked to answer it, could tell more about Maister Mordaunt than any body else could. — Ye will ken wha I mean, Swertha? Her that was down at the haven this morning.” Thus he concluded, addressing himself with a mysterious look to the housekeeper, which she answered with a nod and a wink.
“How mean you?” said Mertoun; “speak out, short and open — whom do you speak of?”
“It is Norna of the Fitful-head,” said Swertha, “that the Ranzelman is thinking about; for she has gone up to Saint Ringan’s Kirk this morning on business of her own.”
“And what can this person know of my son?” said Mertoun; “she is, I believe, a wandering madwoman, or impostor.”
“If she wanders,” said Swertha, “it is for nae lack of means at hame, and that is weel known — plenty of a’ thing has she of her ain, forby that the Fowd himsell would let her want naething.”
“But what is that to my son?” said Mertoun, impatiently.
“I dinna ken — she took unco pleasure in Maister Mordaunt from the time she first saw him, and mony a braw thing she gave him at ae time or another, forby the gowd chain that hangs about his bonny craig — folk say it is of fairy gold — I kenna what gold it is, but Bryce Snailsfoot says, that the value will mount to an hundred pounds English, and that is nae deaf nuts.”
“Go, Ronaldson,” said Mertoun, “or else send some one, to seek this woman out — if you think there be a chance of her knowing any thing of my son.”
“She kens a’ thing that happens in thae islands,” said Niel Ronaldson, “muckle sooner than other folk, and that is Heaven’s truth. But as to going to the kirk, or the kirkyard, to speer after her, there is not a man in Zetland will do it, for meed or for money — and that’s Heaven’s truth as weel as the other.”
“Cowardly, superstitious fools!” said Mertoun. —“But give me my cloak, Swertha. — This woman has been at Burgh-Westra — she is related to Troil’s family — she may know something of Mordaunt’s absence, and its cause — I will seek her myself — She is at the Cross-kirk, you say?”
“No, not at the Cross-kirk, but at the auld Kirk of Saint Ringan’s — it’s a dowie bit, and far frae being canny; and if your honour,” added Swertha, “wad walk by my rule, I wad wait until she came back, and no trouble her when she may be mair busied wi’ the dead, for ony thing that we ken, than she is wi’ the living. The like of her carena to have other folk’s een on them when they are, gude sain us! doing their ain particular turns.”
Mertoun made no answer, but throwing his cloak loosely around him, (for the day was misty, with passing showers,) and leaving the decayed mansion of Jarlshof, he walked at a pace much faster than was usual with him, taking the direction of the ruinous church, which stood, as he well knew, within three or four miles of his dwelling.
The Ranzelman and Swertha stood gazing after him in silence, until he was fairly out of ear-shot, when, looking seriously on each other, and shaking their sagacious heads in the same boding degree of vibration, they uttered their remarks in the same breath.
“Fools are aye fleet and fain,” said Swertha.
“Fey folk run fast,” added the Ranzelman; “and the thing that we are born to, we cannot win by. — I have known them that tried to stop folk that were fey. You have heard of Helen Emberson of Camsey, how she stopped all the boles and windows about the house, that her gudeman might not see daylight, and rise to the Haaf-fishing, because she feared foul weather; and how the boat he should have sailed in was lost in the Roost; and how she came back, rejoicing in her gudeman’s safety — but ne’er may care, for there she found him drowned in his own masking-fat, within the wa’s of his ain biggin; and moreover”——
But here Swertha reminded the Ranzelman that he must go down to the haven to get off the fishing-boats; “for both that my heart is sair for the bonny lad, and that I am fear’d he cast up of his ain accord before you are at sea; and, as I have often told ye, my master may lead, but he winna drive; and if ye do not his bidding, and get out to sea, the never a bodle of boat-hire will ye see.”
“Weel, weel, good dame,” said the Ranzelman, “we will launch as fast as we can; and by good luck, neither Clawson’s boat, nor Peter Grot’s, is out to the Haaf this morning, for a rabbit ran across the path as they were going on board, and they came back like wise men, kenning they wad be called to other wark this day. And a marvel it is to think, Swertha, how few real judicious men are left in this land. There is our great Udaller is weel eneugh when he is fresh, but he makes ower mony voyages in his ship and his yawl to be lang sae; and now, they say, his daughter, Mistress Minna, is sair out of sorts. — Then there is Norna kens muckle mair than other folk, but wise woman ye cannot call her. Our tacksman here, Maister Mertoun, his wit is sprung in the bowsprit, I doubt — his son is a daft gowk; and I ken few of consequence hereabouts — excepting always myself, and maybe you, Swertha — but what may, in some sense or other, be called fules.”
“That may be, Niel Ronaldson,” said the dame; “but if you do not hasten the faster to the shore, you will lose tide; and, as I said to my master some short time syne, wha will be the fule then?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00