Parental love, my friend, has power o’er wisdom,
And is the charm, which, like the falconer’s lure,
Can bring from heaven the highest soaring spirits. —
So, when famed Prosper doff’d his magic robe,
It was Miranda pluck’d it from his shoulders.
Our wandering narrative must now return to Mordaunt Mertoun. — We left him in the perilous condition of one who has received a severe wound, and we now find him in the condition of a convalescent — pale, indeed, and feeble from the loss of much blood, and the effects of a fever which had followed the injury, but so far fortunate, that the weapon, having glanced on the ribs, had only occasioned a great effusion of blood, without touching any vital part, and was now wellnigh healed; so efficacious were the vulnerary plants and salves with which it had been treated by the sage Norna of Fitful-head.
The matron and her patient now sat together in a dwelling in a remote island. He had been transported, during his illness, and ere he had perfect consciousness, first to her singular habitation near Fitful-head, and thence to her present abode, by one of the fishing-boats on the station of Burgh-Westra. For such was the command possessed by Norna over the superstitious character of her countrymen, that she never failed to find faithful agents to execute her commands, whatever these happened to be; and, as her orders were generally given under injunctions of the strictest secrecy, men reciprocally wondered at occurrences, which had in fact been produced by their own agency, and that of their neighbours, and in which, had they communicated freely with each other, no shadow of the marvellous would have remained.
Mordaunt was now seated by the fire, in an apartment indifferently well furnished, having a book in his hand, which he looked upon from time to time with signs of ennui and impatience; feelings which at length so far overcame him, that, flinging the volume on the table, he fixed his eyes on the fire, and assumed the attitude of one who is engaged in unpleasant meditation.
Norna, who sat opposite to him, and appeared busy in the composition of some drug or unguent, anxiously left her seat, and, approaching Mordaunt, felt his pulse, making at the same time the most affectionate enquiries whether he felt any sudden pain, and where it was seated. The manner in which Mordaunt replied to these earnest enquiries, although worded so as to express gratitude for her kindness, while he disclaimed any feeling of indisposition, did not seem to give satisfaction to the Pythoness.
“Ungrateful boy!” she said, “for whom I have done so much; you whom I have rescued, by my power and skill, from the very gates of death — are you already so weary of me, that you cannot refrain from showing how desirous you are to spend, at a distance from me, the very first intelligent days of the life which I have restored you?”
“You do me injustice, my kind preserver,” replied Mordaunt; “I am not tired of your society; but I have duties which recall me to ordinary life.”
“Duties!” repeated Norna; “and what duties can or ought to interfere with the gratitude which you owe to me? — Duties! Your thoughts are on the use of your gun, or on clambering among the rocks in quest of sea-fowl. For these exercises your strength doth not yet fit you; and yet these are the duties to which you are so anxious to return!”
“Not so, my good and kind mistress,” said Mordaunt. —“To name one duty, out of many, which makes me seek to leave you, now that my strength permits, let me mention that of a son to his father.”
“To your father!” said Norna, with a laugh that had something in it almost frantic. “O! you know not how we can, in these islands, at once cancel such duties! And, for your father,” she added, proceeding more calmly, “what has he done for you, to deserve the regard and duty you speak of? — Is he not the same, who, as you have long since told me, left you for so many years poorly nourished among strangers, without enquiring whether you were alive or dead, and only sending, from time to time, supplies in such fashion, as men relieve the leprous wretch to whom they fling alms from a distance? And, in these later years, when he had made you the companion of his misery, he has been, by starts your pedagogue, by starts your tormentor, but never, Mordaunt, never your father.”
“Something of truth there is in what you say,” replied Mordaunt: “My father is not fond; but he is, and has ever been, effectively kind. Men have not their affections in their power; and it is a child’s duty to be grateful for the benefits which he receives, even when coldly bestowed. My father has conferred instruction on me, and I am convinced he loves me. He is unfortunate; and, even if he loved me not”——
“And he does not love you,” said Norna, hastily; “he never loved any thing, or any one, save himself. He is unfortunate, but well are his misfortunes deserved. — O Mordaunt, you have one parent only — one parent, who loves you as the drops of the heart-blood!”
“I know I have but one parent,” replied Mordaunt; “my mother has been long dead. — But your words contradict each other.”
“They do not — they do not,” said Norna, in a paroxysm of the deepest feeling; “you have but one parent. Your unhappy mother is not dead — I would to God that she were! — but she is not dead. Thy mother is the only parent that loves thee; and I— I, Mordaunt,” throwing herself on his neck, “am that most unhappy — yet most happy mother.”
She closed him in a strict and convulsive embrace; and tears, the first, perhaps, which she had shed for many years, burst in torrents as she sobbed on his neck. Astonished at what he heard, felt, and saw — moved by the excess of her agitation, yet disposed to ascribe this burst of passion to insanity — Mordaunt vainly endeavoured to tranquillize the mind of this extraordinary person.
“Ungrateful boy!” she said, “who but a mother would have watched over thee as I have watched? From the instant I saw thy father, when he little thought by whom he was observed, a space now many years back, I knew him well; and, under his charge, I saw you, then a stripling — while Nature, speaking loud in my bosom, assured me, thou wert blood of my blood, and bone of my bone. Think how often you have wondered to see me, when least expected, in your places of pastime and resort! Think how often my eye has watched you on the giddy precipices, and muttered those charms which subdue the evil demons, who show themselves to the climber on the giddiest point of his path, and force him to quit his hold! Did I not hang around thy neck, in pledge of thy safety, that chain of gold, which an Elfin King gave to the founder of our race? Would I have given that dear gift to any but to the son of my bosom? — Mordaunt, my power has done that for thee that a mere mortal mother would dread to think of. I have conjured the Mermaid at midnight, that thy bark might be prosperous on the Haaf! I have hushed the winds, and navies have flapped their empty sails against the mast in inactivity, that you might safely indulge your sport upon the crags!”
Mordaunt, perceiving that she was growing yet wilder in her talk, endeavoured to frame an answer which should be at once indulgent, soothing, and calculated to allay the rising warmth of her imagination.
“Dear Norna,” he said, “I have indeed many reasons to call you mother, who have bestowed so many benefits upon me; and from me you shall ever receive the affection and duty of a child. But the chain you mentioned, it has vanished from my neck — I have not seen it since the ruffian stabbed me.”
“Alas! and can you think of it at this moment?” said Norna, in a sorrowful accent. —“But be it so; — and know, it was I took it from thy neck, and tied it around the neck of her who is dearest to you; in token that the union betwixt you, which has been the only earthly wish which I have had the power to form, shall yet, even yet, be accomplished — ay, although hell should open to forbid the bans!”
“Alas!” said Mordaunt, with a sigh, “you remember not the difference betwixt our situation — her father is wealthy, and of ancient birth.”
“Not more wealthy than will be the heir of Norna of Fitful-head,” answered the Pythoness —“not of better or more ancient blood than that which flows in thy veins, derived from thy mother, the descendant of the same Jarls and Sea-Kings from whom Magnus boasts his origin. — Or dost thou think, like the pedant and fanatic strangers who have come amongst us, that thy blood is dishonoured because my union with thy father did not receive the sanction of a priest? — Know, that we were wedded after the ancient manner of the Norse — our hands were clasped within the circle of Odin,32 with such deep vows of eternal fidelity, as even the laws of these usurping Scots would have sanctioned as equivalent to a blessing before the altar. To the offspring of such a union, Magnus has nought to object. It was weak — it was criminal, on my part, but it conveyed no infamy to the birth of my son.”
The composed and collected manner in which Norna argued these points began to impose upon Mordaunt an incipient belief in the truth of what she said; and, indeed, she added so many circumstances, satisfactorily and rationally connected with each other, as seemed to confute the notion that her story was altogether the delusion of that insanity which sometimes showed itself in her speech and actions. A thousand confused ideas rushed upon him, when he supposed it possible that the unhappy person before him might actually have a right to claim from him the respect and affection due to a parent from a son. He could only surmount them by turning his mind to a different, and scarce less interesting topic, resolving within himself to take time for farther enquiry and mature consideration, ere he either rejected or admitted the claim which Norna preferred upon his affection and duty. His benefactress, at least, she undoubtedly was, and he could not err in paying her, as such, the respect and attention due from a son to a mother; and so far, therefore, he might gratify Norna without otherwise standing committed.
“And do you then really think, my mother — since so you bid me term you,”— said Mordaunt, “that the proud Magnus Troil may, by any inducement, be prevailed upon to relinquish the angry feelings which he has of late adopted towards me, and to permit my addresses to his daughter Brenda?”
“Brenda?” repeated Norna —“who talks of Brenda? — it was of Minna that I spoke to you.”
“But it was of Brenda that I thought,” replied Mordaunt, “of her that I now think, and of her alone that I will ever think.”
“Impossible, my son!” replied Norna. “You cannot be so dull of heart, so poor of spirit, as to prefer the idle mirth and housewife simplicity of the younger sister, to the deep feeling and high mind of the noble-spirited Minna? Who would stoop to gather the lowly violet, that might have the rose for stretching out his hand?”
“Some think the lowliest flowers are the sweetest,” replied Mordaunt, “and in that faith will I live and die.”
“You dare not tell me so!” answered Norna, fiercely; then, instantly changing her tone, and taking his hand in the most affectionate manner, she proceeded:—“You must not — you will not tell me so, my dear son — you will not break a mother’s heart in the very first hour in which she has embraced her child! — Nay, do not answer, but hear me. You must wed Minna — I have bound around her neck a fatal amulet, on which the happiness of both depends. The labours of my life have for years had this direction. Thus it must be, and not otherwise — Minna must be the bride of my son!”
“But is not Brenda equally near, equally dear to you?” replied Mordaunt.
“As near in blood,” said Norna, “but not so dear, no not half so dear, in affection. Minna’s mild, yet high and contemplative spirit, renders her a companion meet for one, whose ways, like mine, are beyond the ordinary paths of this world. Brenda is a thing of common and ordinary life, an idle laugher and scoffer, who would level art with ignorance, and reduce power to weakness, by disbelieving and turning into ridicule whatever is beyond the grasp of her own shallow intellect.”
“She is, indeed,” answered Mordaunt, “neither superstitious nor enthusiastic, and I love her the better for it. Remember also, my mother, that she returns my affection, and that Minna, if she loves any one, loves the stranger Cleveland.”
“She does not — she dares not,” answered Norna, “nor dares he pursue her farther. I told him, when first he came to Burgh-Westra, that I destined her for you.”
“And to that rash annunciation,” said Mordaunt, “I owe this man’s persevering enmity — my wound, and wellnigh the loss of my life. See, my mother, to what point your intrigues have already conducted us, and, in Heaven’s name, prosecute them no farther!”
It seemed as if this reproach struck Norna with the force, at once, and vivacity of lightning; for she struck her forehead with her hand, and seemed about to drop from her seat. Mordaunt, greatly shocked, hastened to catch her in his arms, and, though scarce knowing what to say, attempted to utter some incoherent expressions.
“Spare me, Heaven, spare me!” were the first words which she muttered; “do not let my crime be avenged by his means! — Yes, young man,” she said, after a pause, “you have dared to tell what I dared not tell myself. You have pressed that upon me, which, if it be truth, I cannot believe, and yet continue to live!”
Mordaunt in vain endeavoured to interrupt her with protestations of his ignorance how he had offended or grieved her, and of his extreme regret that he had unintentionally done either. She proceeded, while her voice trembled wildly, with vehemence.
“Yes! you have touched on that dark suspicion which poisons the consciousness of my power — the sole boon which was given me in exchange for innocence and for peace of mind! Your voice joins that of the demon which, even while the elements confess me their mistress, whispers to me, ‘Norna, this is but delusion — your power rests but in the idle belief of the ignorant, supported by a thousand petty artifices of your own.’— This is what Brenda says — this is what you would say; and false, scandalously false, as it is, there are rebellious thoughts in this wild brain of mine,” (touching her forehead with her finger as she spoke,) “that, like an insurrection in an invaded country, arise to take part against their distressed sovereign. — Spare me, my son!” she continued in a voice of supplication, “spare me! — the sovereignty of which your words would deprive me, is no enviable exaltation. Few would covet to rule over gibbering ghosts, and howling winds, and raging currents. My throne is a cloud, my sceptre a meteor, my realm is only peopled with fantasies; but I must either cease to be, or continue to be the mightiest as well as the most miserable of beings!”33
“Do not speak thus mournfully, my dear and unhappy benefactress,” said Mordaunt, much affected; “I will think of your power whatever you would have me believe. But, for your own sake, view the matter otherwise. Turn your thoughts from such agitating and mystical studies — from such wild subjects of contemplation, into another and a better channel. Life will again have charms, and religion will have comforts, for you.”
She listened to him with some composure, as if she weighed his counsel, and desired to be guided by it; but, as he ended, she shook her head and exclaimed —
“It cannot be. I must remain the dreaded — the mystical — the Reimkennar — the controller of the elements, or I must be no more! I have no alternative, no middle station. My post must be high on yon lofty headland, where never stood human foot save mine — or I must sleep at the bottom of the unfathomable ocean, its white billows booming over my senseless corpse. The parricide shall never also be denounced as the impostor!”
“The parricide!” echoed Mordaunt, stepping back in horror.
“Yes, my son!” answered Norna, with a stern composure, even more frightful than her former impetuosity, “within these fatal walls my father met his death by my means. In yonder chamber was he found a livid and lifeless corpse. Beware of filial disobedience, for such are its fruits!”
So saying, she arose and left the apartment, where Mordaunt remained alone to meditate at leisure upon the extraordinary communication which he had received. He himself had been taught by his father a disbelief in the ordinary superstitions of Zetland; and he now saw that Norna, however ingenious in duping others, could not altogether impose on herself. This was a strong circumstance in favour of her sanity of intellect; but, on the other hand, her imputing to herself the guilt of parricide seemed so wild and improbable, as, in Mordaunt’s opinion, to throw much doubt upon her other assertions.
He had leisure enough to make up his mind on these particulars, for no one approached the solitary dwelling, of which Norna, her dwarf, and he himself, were the sole inhabitants. The Hoy island in which it stood is rude, bold, and lofty, consisting entirely of three hills — or rather one huge mountain divided into three summits, with the chasms, rents, and valleys, which descend from its summit to the sea, while its crest, rising to great height, and shivered into rocks which seem almost inaccessible, intercepts the mists as they drive from the Atlantic, and, often obscured from the human eye, forms the dark and unmolested retreat of hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey.34
The soil of the island is wet, mossy, cold, and unproductive, presenting a sterile and desolate appearance, excepting where the sides of small rivulets, or mountain ravines, are fringed with dwarf bushes of birch, hazel, and wild currant, some of them so tall as to be denominated trees, in that bleak and bare country.
But the view of the sea-beach, which was Mordaunt’s favourite walk, when his convalescent state began to permit him to take exercise, had charms which compensated the wild appearance of the interior. A broad and beautiful sound, or strait, divides this lonely and mountainous island from Pomona, and in the centre of that sound lies, like a tablet composed of emerald, the beautiful and verdant little island of Græmsay. On the distant Mainland is seen the town or village of Stromness, the excellence of whose haven is generally evinced by a considerable number of shipping in the roadstead, and, from the bay growing narrower, and lessening as it recedes, runs inland into Pomona, where its tide fills the fine sheet of water called the Loch of Stennis.
On this beach Mordaunt was wont to wander for hours, with an eye not insensible to the beauties of the view, though his thoughts were agitated with the most embarrassing meditations on his own situation. He was resolved to leave the island as soon as the establishment of his health should permit him to travel; yet gratitude to Norna, of whom he was at least the adopted, if not the real son, would not allow him to depart without her permission, even if he could obtain means of conveyance, of which he saw little possibility. It was only by importunity that he extorted from his hostess a promise, that, if he would consent to regulate his motions according to her directions, she would herself convey him to the capital of the Orkney Islands, when the approaching Fair of Saint Olla should take place there.
33 Character of Norna.
The character of Norna is meant to be an instance of that singular kind of insanity, during which the patient, while she or he retains much subtlety and address for the power of imposing upon others, is still more ingenious in endeavouring to impose upon themselves. Indeed, maniacs of this kind may be often observed to possess a sort of double character, in one of which they are the being whom their distempered imagination shapes out, and in the other, their own natural self, as seen to exist by other people. This species of double consciousness makes wild work with the patient’s imagination, and, judiciously used, is perhaps a frequent means of restoring sanity of intellect. Exterior circumstances striking the senses, often have a powerful effect in undermining or battering the airy castles which the disorder has excited.
A late medical gentleman, my particular friend, told me the case of a lunatic patient confined in the Edinburgh Infirmary. He was so far happy that his mental alienation was of a gay and pleasant character, giving a kind of joyous explanation to all that came in contact with him. He considered the large house, numerous servants, &c., of the hospital, as all matters of state and consequence belonging to his own personal establishment, and had no doubt of his own wealth and grandeur. One thing alone puzzled this man of wealth. Although he was provided with a first-rate cook and proper assistants, although his table was regularly supplied with every delicacy of the season, yet he confessed to my friend, that by some uncommon depravity of the palate, every thing which he ate tasted of porridge. This peculiarity, of course, arose from the poor man being fed upon nothing else, and because his stomach was not so easily deceived as his other senses.
34 Birds of Prey.
So favourable a retreat does the island of Hoy afford for birds of prey, that instances of their ravages, which seldom occur in other parts of the country, are not unusual there. An individual was living in Orkney not long since, whom, while a child in its swaddling clothes, an eagle actually transported to its nest in the hill of Hoy. Happily the eyry being known, and the bird instantly pursued, the child was found uninjured, playing with the young eagles. A story of a more ludicrous transportation was told me by the reverend clergyman who is minister of the island. Hearing one day a strange grunting, he suspected his servants had permitted a sow and pigs, which were tenants of his farm-yard, to get among his barley crop. Having in vain looked for the transgressors upon solid earth, he at length cast his eyes upward, when he discovered one of the litter in the talons of a large eagle, which was soaring away with the unfortunate pig (squeaking all the while with terror) towards her nest in the crest of Hoy.
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