The condition of Minna much resembled that of the village heroine in Lady Ann Lindsay’s beautiful ballad. Her natural firmness of mind prevented her from sinking under the pressure of the horrible secret, which haunted her while awake, and was yet more tormenting during her broken and hurried slumbers. There is no grief so dreadful as that which we dare not communicate, and in which we can neither ask nor desire sympathy; and when to this is added the burden of a guilty mystery to an innocent bosom, there is little wonder that Minna’s health should have sunk under the burden.
To the friends around, her habits and manners, nay, her temper, seemed altered to such an extraordinary degree, that it is no wonder that some should have ascribed the change to witchcraft, and some to incipient madness. She became unable to bear the solitude in which she formerly delighted to spend her time; yet when she hurried into society, it was without either joining in, or attending to, what passed. Generally she appeared wrapped in sad, and even sullen abstraction, until her attention was suddenly roused by some casual mention of the name of Cleveland, or of Mordaunt Mertoun, at which she started, with the horror of one who sees the lighted match applied to a charged mine, and expects to be instantly involved in the effects of the explosion. And when she observed that the discovery was not yet made, it was so far from being a consolation, that she almost wished the worst were known, rather than endure the continued agonies of suspense.
Her conduct towards her sister was so variable, yet uniformly so painful to the kind-hearted Brenda, that it seemed to all around, one of the strongest features of her malady. Sometimes Minna was impelled to seek her sister’s company, as if by the consciousness that they were common sufferers by a misfortune of which she herself alone could grasp the extent; and then suddenly the feeling of the injury which Brenda had received through the supposed agency of Cleveland, made her unable to bear her presence, and still less to endure the consolation which her sister, mistaking the nature of her malady, vainly endeavoured to administer. Frequently, also, did it happen, that, while Brenda was imploring her sister to take comfort, she incautiously touched upon some subject which thrilled to the very centre of her soul; so that, unable to conceal her agony, Minna would rush hastily from the apartment. All these different moods, though they too much resembled, to one who knew not their real source, the caprices of unkind estrangement, Brenda endured with such prevailing and unruffled gentleness of disposition, that Minna was frequently moved to shed floods of tears upon her neck; and, perhaps, the moments in which she did so, though embittered by the recollection that her fatal secret concerned the destruction of Brenda’s happiness as well as her own, were still, softened as they were by sisterly affection, the most endurable moments of this most miserable period of her life.
The effects of the alternations of moping melancholy, fearful agitation, and bursts of nervous feeling, were soon visible on the poor young woman’s face and person. She became pale and emaciated; her eye lost the steady quiet look of happiness and innocence, and was alternately dim and wild, as she was acted upon by a general feeling of her own distressful condition, or by some quicker and more poignant sense of agony. Her very features seemed to change, and become sharp and eager, and her voice, which, in its ordinary tones, was low and placid, now sometimes sunk in indistinct mutterings, and sometimes was raised beyond the natural key, in hasty and abrupt exclamations. When in company with others, she was sullenly silent, and, when she ventured into solitude, was observed (for it was now thought very proper to watch her on such occasions) to speak much to herself.
The pharmacy of the islands was in vain resorted to by Minna’s anxious father. Sages of both sexes, who knew the virtues of every herb which drinks the dew, and augmented those virtues by words of might, used while they prepared and applied the medicines, were attended with no benefit; and Magnus, in the utmost anxiety, was at last induced to have recourse to the advice of his kinswoman, Norna of the Fitful-head, although, owing to circumstances noticed in the course of the story, there was at this time some estrangement between them. His first application was in vain. Norna was then at her usual place of residence, upon the sea-coast, near the headland from which she usually took her designation; but, although Eric Scambester himself brought the message, she refused positively to see him, or to return any answer.
Magnus was angry at the slight put upon his messenger and message, but his anxiety on Minna’s account, as well as the respect which he had for Norna’s real misfortunes and imputed wisdom and power, prevented him from indulging, on the present occasion, his usual irritability of disposition. On the contrary, he determined to make an application to his kinswoman in his own person. He kept his purpose, however, to himself, and only desired his daughters to be in readiness to attend him upon a visit to a relation whom he had not seen for some time, and directed them, at the same time, to carry some provisions along with them, as the journey was distant, and they might perhaps find their friend unprovided.
Unaccustomed to ask explanations of his pleasure, and hoping that exercise and the amusement of such an excursion might be of service to her sister, Brenda, upon whom all household and family charges now devolved, caused the necessary preparations to be made for the expedition; and, on the next morning, they were engaged in tracing the long and tedious course of beach and of moorland, which, only varied by occasional patches of oats and barley, where a little ground had been selected for cultivation, divided Burgh-Westra from the north-western extremity of the Mainland, (as the principal island is called,) which terminates in the cape called Fitful-head, as the south-western point ends in the cape of Sumburgh.
On they went, through wild and over wold, the Udaller bestriding a strong, square-made, well-barrelled palfrey, of Norwegian breed, somewhat taller, and yet as stout, as the ordinary ponies of the country; while Minna and Brenda, famed, amongst other accomplishments, for their horsemanship, rode two of those hardy animals, which, bred and reared with more pains than is usually bestowed, showed, both by the neatness of their form and their activity, that the race, so much and so carelessly neglected, is capable of being improved into beauty without losing any thing of its spirit or vigour. They were attended by two servants on horseback, and two on foot, secure that the last circumstance would be no delay to their journey, because a great part of the way was so rugged, or so marshy, that the horses could only move at a foot pace; and that, whenever they met with any considerable tract of hard and even ground, they had only to borrow from the nearest herd of ponies the use of a couple for the accommodation of these pedestrians.
The journey was a melancholy one, and little conversation passed, except when the Udaller, pressed by impatience and vexation, urged his pony to a quick pace, and again, recollecting Minna’s weak state of health, slackened to a walk, and reiterated enquiries how she felt herself, and whether the fatigue was not too much for her. At noon the party halted, and partook of some refreshment, for which they had made ample provision, beside a pleasant spring, the pureness of whose waters, however, did not suit the Udaller’s palate, until qualified by a liberal addition of right Nantz. After he had a second, yea and a third time, filled a large silver travelling-cup, embossed with a German Cupid smoking a pipe, and a German Bacchus emptying his flask down the throat of a bear, he began to become more talkative than vexation had permitted him to be during the early part of their journey, and thus addressed his daughters:—
“Well, children, we are within a league or two of Norna’s dwelling, and we shall soon see how the old spell-mutterer will receive us.”
Minna interrupted her father with a faint exclamation, while Brenda, surprised to a great degree, exclaimed, “Is it then to Norna that we are to make this visit? — Heaven forbid!”
“And wherefore should Heaven forbid?” said the Udaller, knitting his brows; “wherefore, I would gladly know, should Heaven forbid me to visit my kinswoman, whose skill may be of use to your sister, if any woman in Zetland, or man either, can be of service to her? — You are a fool, Brenda — your sister has more sense. — Cheer up, Minna! — thou wert ever wont to like her songs and stories, and used to hang about her neck, when little Brenda cried and ran from her like a Spanish merchantman from a Dutch caper.”15
“I wish she may not frighten me as much to-day, father,” replied Brenda, desirous of indulging Minna in her taciturnity, and at the same time to amuse her father by sustaining the conversation; “I have heard so much of her dwelling, that I am rather alarmed at the thought of going there uninvited.”
“Thou art a fool,” said Magnus, “to think that a visit from her kinsfolks can ever come amiss to a kind, hearty, Hialtland heart, like my cousin Norna’s. — And, now I think on’t, I will be sworn that is the reason why she would not receive Eric Scambester! — It is many a long day since I have seen her chimney smoke, and I have never carried you thither — She hath indeed some right to call me unkind. But I will tell her the truth — and that is, that though such be the fashion, I do not think it is fair or honest to eat up the substance of lone women-folks, as we do that of our brother Udallers, when we roll about from house to house in the winter season, until we gather like a snowball, and eat up all wherever we come.”
“There is no fear of our putting Norna to any distress just now,” replied Brenda, “for I have ample provision of every thing that we can possibly need — fish, and bacon, and salted mutton, and dried geese — more than we could eat in a week, besides enough of liquor for you, father.”
“Right, right, my girl!” said the Udaller; “a well-found ship makes a merry voyage — so we shall only want the kindness of Norna’s roof, and a little bedding for you; for, as to myself, my sea-cloak, and honest dry boards of Norway deal, suit me better than your eider-down cushions and mattresses. So that Norna will have the pleasure of seeing us without having a stiver’s worth of trouble.”
“I wish she may think it a pleasure, sir,” replied Brenda.
“Why, what does the girl mean, in the name of the Martyr?” replied Magnus Troil; “dost thou think my kinswoman is a heathen, who will not rejoice to see her own flesh and blood? — I would I were as sure of a good year’s fishing! — No, no! I only fear we may find her from home at present, for she is often a wanderer, and all with thinking over much on what can never be helped.”
Minna sighed deeply as her father spoke, and the Udaller went on:—
“Dost thou sigh at that, my girl? — why, ’tis the fault of half the world — let it never be thine own, Minna.”
Another suppressed sigh intimated that the caution came too late.
“I believe you are afraid of my cousin as well as Brenda is,” said the Udaller, gazing on her pale countenance; “if so, speak the word, and we will return back again as if we had the wind on our quarter, and were running fifteen knots by the line.”
“Do, for Heaven’s sake, sister, let us return!” said Brenda, imploringly; “you know — you remember — you must be well aware that Norna can do nought to help you.”
“It is but too true,” said Minna, in a subdued voice; “but I know not — she may answer a question — a question that only the miserable dare ask of the miserable.”
“Nay, my kinswoman is no miser,” answered the Udaller, who only heard the beginning of the word; “a good income she has, both in Orkney and here, and many a fair lispund of butter is paid to her. But the poor have the best share of it, and shame fall the Zetlander who begrudges them; the rest she spends, I wot not how, in her journeys through the islands. But you will laugh to see her house, and Nick Strumpfer, whom she calls Pacolet — many folks think Nick is the devil; but he is flesh and blood, like any of us — his father lived in Græmsay — I shall be glad to see Nick again.”
While the Udaller thus ran on, Brenda, who, in recompense for a less portion of imagination than her sister, was gifted with sound common sense, was debating with herself the probable effect of this visit on her sister’s health. She came finally to the resolution of speaking with her father aside, upon the first occasion which their journey should afford. To him she determined to communicate the whole particulars of their nocturnal interview with Norna — to which, among other agitating causes, she attributed the depression of Minna’s spirits — and then make himself the judge whether he ought to persist in his visit to a person so singular, and expose his daughter to all the shock which her nerves might possibly receive from the interview.
Just as she had arrived at this conclusion, her father, dashing the crumbs from his laced waistcoat with one hand, and receiving with the other a fourth cup of brandy and water, drank devoutly to the success of their voyage, and ordered all to be in readiness to set forward. Whilst they were saddling their ponies, Brenda, with some difficulty, contrived to make her father understand she wished to speak with him in private — no small surprise to the honest Udaller, who, though secret as the grave in the very few things where he considered secrecy as of importance, was so far from practising mystery in general, that his most important affairs were often discussed by him openly in presence of his whole family, servants included.
But far greater was his astonishment, when, remaining purposely with his daughter Brenda, a little in the wake, as he termed it, of the other riders, he heard the whole account of Norna’s visit to Burgh-Westra, and of the communication with which she had then astounded his daughters. For a long time he could utter nothing but interjections, and ended with a thousand curses on his kinswoman’s folly in telling his daughters such a history of horror.
“I have often heard,” said the Udaller, “that she was quite mad, with all her wisdom, and all her knowledge of the seasons; and, by the bones of my namesake, the Martyr, I begin now to believe it most assuredly! I know no more how to steer than if I had lost my compass. Had I known this before we set out, I think I had remained at home; but now that we have come so far, and that Norna expects us”——
“Expects us, father!” said Brenda; “how can that be possible?”
“Why, that I know not — but she that can tell how the wind is to blow, can tell which way we are designing to ride. She must not be provoked; — perhaps she has done my family this ill for the words I had with her about that lad Mordaunt Mertoun, and if so, she can undo it again; — and so she shall, or I will know the cause wherefore. But I will try fair words first.”
Finding it thus settled that they were to go forward, Brenda endeavoured next to learn from her father whether Norna’s tale was founded in reality. He shook his head, groaned bitterly, and, in a few words, acknowledged that the whole, so far as concerned her intrigue with a stranger, and her father’s death, of which she became the accidental and most innocent cause, was a matter of sad and indisputable truth. “For her infant,” he said, “he could never, by any means, learn what became of it.”
“Her infant!” exclaimed Brenda; “she spoke not a word of her infant!”
“Then I wish my tongue had been blistered,” said the Udaller, “when I told you of it! — I see that, young and old, a man has no better chance of keeping a secret from you women, than an eel to keep himself in his hold when he is sniggled with a loop of horse-hair — sooner or later the fisher teazes him out of his hole, when he has once the noose round his neck.”
“But the infant, my father,” said Brenda, still insisting on the particulars of this extraordinary story, “what became of it?”
“Carried off, I fancy, by the blackguard Vaughan,” answered the Udaller, with a gruff accent, which plainly betokened how weary he was of the subject.
“By Vaughan?” said Brenda, “the lover of poor Norna, doubtless! — what sort of man was he, father?”
“Why, much like other men, I fancy,” answered the Udaller; “I never saw him in my life. — He kept company with the Scottish families at Kirkwall; and I with the good old Norse folk — Ah! if Norna had dwelt always amongst her own kin, and not kept company with her Scottish acquaintance, she would have known nothing of Vaughan, and things might have been otherwise — But then I should have known nothing of your blessed mother, Brenda — and that,” he said, his large blue eyes shining with a tear, “would have saved me a short joy and a long sorrow.”
“Norna could but ill have supplied my mother’s place to you, father, as a companion and a friend — that is, judging from all I have heard,” said Brenda, with some hesitation. But Magnus, softened by recollections of his beloved wife, answered her with more indulgence than she expected.
“I would have been content,” he said, “to have wedded Norna at that time. It would have been the soldering of an old quarrel — the healing of an old sore. All our blood relations wished it, and, situated as I was, especially not having seen your blessed mother, I had little will to oppose their counsels. You must not judge of Norna or of me by such an appearance as we now present to you — She was young and beautiful, and I gamesome as a Highland buck, and little caring what haven I made for, having, as I thought, more than one under my lee. But Norna preferred this man Vaughan, and, as I told you before, it was, perhaps, the best kindness she could have done to me.”
“Ah, poor kinswoman!” said Brenda. “But believe you, father, in the high powers which she claims — in the mysterious vision of the dwarf — in the”——
She was interrupted in these questions by Magnus, to whom they were obviously displeasing.
“I believe, Brenda,” he said, “according to the belief of my forefathers — I pretend not to be a wiser man than they were in their time — and they all believed that, in cases of great worldly distress, Providence opened the eyes of the mind, and afforded the sufferers a vision of futurity. It was but a trimming of the boat, with reverence,”— here he touched his hat reverentially; “and, after all the shifting of ballast, poor Norna is as heavily loaded in the bows as ever was an Orkneyman’s yawl at the dog-fishing — she has more than affliction enough on board to balance whatever gifts she may have had in the midst of her calamity. They are as painful to her, poor soul, as a crown of thorns would be to her brows, though it were the badge of the empire of Denmark. And do not you, Brenda, seek to be wiser than your fathers. Your sister Minna, before she was so ill, had as much reverence for whatever was produced in Norse, as if it had been in the Pope’s bull, which is all written in pure Latin.”
“Poor Norna!” repeated Brenda; “and her child — was it never recovered?”
“What do I know of her child,” said the Udaller, more gruffly than before, “except that she was very ill, both before and after the birth, though we kept her as merry as we could with pipe and harp, and so forth; — the child had come before its time into this bustling world, so it is likely it has been long dead. — But you know nothing of all these matters, Brenda; so get along for a foolish girl, and ask no more questions about what it does not become you to enquire into.”
So saying, the Udaller gave his sturdy little palfrey the spur, and cantering forward over rough and smooth, while the pony’s accuracy and firmness of step put all difficulties of the path at secure defiance, he placed himself soon by the side of the melancholy Minna, and permitted her sister to have no farther share in his conversation than as it was addressed to them jointly. She could but comfort herself with the hope, that, as Minna’s disease appeared to have its seat in the imagination, the remedies recommended by Norna might have some chance of being effectual, since, in all probability, they would be addressed to the same faculty.
Their way had hitherto held chiefly over moss and moor, varied occasionally by the necessity of making a circuit around the heads of those long lagoons, called voes, which run up into and indent the country in such a manner, that, though the Mainland of Zetland may be thirty miles or more in length, there is, perhaps, no part of it which is more than three miles distant from the salt water. But they had now approached the north-western extremity of the isle, and travelled along the top of an immense ridge of rocks, which had for ages withstood the rage of the Northern Ocean, and of all the winds by which it is buffeted.
At length exclaimed Magnus to his daughters, “There is Norna’s dwelling! — Look up, Minna, my love; for if this does not make you laugh, nothing will. — Saw you ever any thing but an osprey that would have made such a nest for herself as that is? — By my namesake’s bones, there is not the like of it that living thing ever dwelt in, (having no wings and the use of reason,) unless it chanced to be the Frawa-Stack off Papa, where the King’s daughter of Norway was shut up to keep her from her lovers — and all to little purpose, if the tale be true;16 for, maidens, I would have you to wot that it is hard to keep flax from the lowe.”17
14 It is worth while saying, that this motto, and the ascription of the beautiful ballad from which it is taken to the Right Honourable Lady Ann Lindsay, occasioned the ingenious authoress’s acknowledgment of the ballad, of which the Editor, by her permission, published a small impression, inscribed to the Bannatyne Club.
(d) p. 86. “Auld Robin Gray.” In the Abbotsford MSS. is a long correspondence between Lady Ann Lindsay and Scott. She had known him as a child. There was a project of editing all her poems, but perhaps her own modesty, perhaps the quality of the work, caused this to be dropped, and Scott only edited the ballad, with a letter of the lady’s. This small quarto sells for some £5 when it comes into the market. It has a frontispiece by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, and is apparently the only book of Scott’s which is valued as a rarity by bibliomaniacs. — A.L.
15 A light-armed vessel of the seventeenth century, adapted for privateering, and much used by the Dutch.
16 The Frawa-Stack or Maiden-Rock, an inaccessible cliff, divided by a narrow gulf from the Island of Papa, has on the summit some ruins, concerning which there is a legend similar to that of Danaë.
17 Lowe, flame.
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