The wind blew keen frae north and east;
It blew upon the floor.
Quo’ our goodman to our goodwife,
“Get up and bar the door.”
“My hand is in my housewife-skep,
Goodman, as ye may see;
If it shouldna be barr’d this hundred years,
It’s no be barr’d for me!”
We can only hope that the gentle reader has not found the latter part of the last chapter extremely tedious; but, at any rate, his impatience will scarce equal that of young Mordaunt Mertoun, who, while the lightning came flash after flash, while the wind, veering and shifting from point to point, blew with all the fury of a hurricane, and while the rain was dashed against him in deluges, stood hammering, calling, and roaring at the door of the old Place of Harfra, impatient for admittance, and at a loss to conceive any position of existing circumstances, which could occasion the exclusion of a stranger, especially during such horrible weather. At length, finding his noise and vociferation were equally in vain, he fell back so far from the front of the house, as was necessary to enable him to reconnoitre the chimneys; and amidst “storm and shade,” could discover, to the increase of his dismay, that though noon, then the dinner hour of these islands, was now nearly arrived, there was no smoke proceeding from the tunnels of the vents to give any note of preparation within.
Mordaunt’s wrathful impatience was now changed into sympathy and alarm; for, so long accustomed to the exuberant hospitality of the Zetland islands, he was immediately induced to suppose some strange and unaccountable disaster had befallen the family; and forthwith set himself to discover some place at which he could make forcible entry, in order to ascertain the situation of the inmates, as much as to obtain shelter from the still increasing storm. His present anxiety was, however, as much thrown away as his late clamorous importunities for admittance had been. Triptolemus and his sister had heard the whole alarm without, and had already had a sharp dispute on the propriety of opening the door.
Mrs. Baby, as we have described her, was no willing renderer of the rites of hospitality. In their farm of Cauldacres, in the Mearns, she had been the dread and abhorrence of all gaberlunzie men, and travelling packmen, gipsies, long remembered beggars, and so forth; nor was there one of them so wily, as she used to boast, as could ever say they had heard the clink of her sneck. In Zetland, where the new settlers were yet strangers to the extreme honesty and simplicity of all classes, suspicion and fear joined with frugality in her desire to exclude all wandering guests of uncertain character; and the second of these motives had its effect on Triptolemus himself, who, though neither suspicious nor penurious, knew good people were scarce, good farmers scarcer, and had a reasonable share of that wisdom which looks towards self-preservation as the first law of nature. These hints may serve as a commentary on the following dialogue which took place betwixt the brother and sister.
“Now, good be gracious to us,” said Triptolemus, as he sat thumbing his old school-copy of Virgil, “here is a pure day, for the bear seed! — Well spoke the wise Mantuan —ventis surgentibus— and then the groans of the mountains, and the long-resounding shores — but where’s the woods, Baby? tell me, I say, where we shall find the nemorum murmur, sister Baby, in these new seats of ours?”
“What’s your foolish will?” said Baby, popping her head from out of a dark recess in the kitchen, where she was busy about some nameless deed of housewifery.
Her brother, who had addressed himself to her more from habit than intention, no sooner saw her bleak red nose, keen grey eyes, with the sharp features thereunto conforming, shaded by the flaps of the loose toy which depended on each side of her eager face, than he bethought himself that his query was likely to find little acceptation from her, and therefore stood another volley before he would resume the topic.
“I say, Mr. Yellowley,” said sister Baby, coming into the middle of the room, “what for are ye crying on me, and me in the midst of my housewifeskep?”
“Nay, for nothing at all, Baby,” answered Triptolemus, “saving that I was saying to myself, that here we had the sea, and the wind, and the rain, sufficient enough, but where’s the wood? where’s the wood, Baby, answer me that?”
“The wood?” replied Baby —“Were I no to take better care of the wood than you, brother, there would soon be no more wood about the town than the barber’s block that’s on your own shoulders, Triptolemus. If ye be thinking of the wreck-wood that the callants brought in yesterday, there was six ounces of it gaed to boil your parritch this morning; though, I trow, a carefu’ man wad have ta’en drammock, if breakfast he behoved to have, rather than waste baith meltith and fuel in the same morning.”
“That is to say, Baby,” replied Triptolemus, who was somewhat of a dry joker in his way, “that when we have fire we are not to have food, and when we have food we are not to have fire, these being too great blessings to enjoy both in the same day! Good luck, you do not propose we should starve with cold and starve with hunger unico contextu. But, to tell you the truth, I could never away with raw oatmeal, slockened with water, in all my life. Call it drammock, or crowdie, or just what ye list, my vivers must thole fire and water.”
“The mair gowk you,” said Baby; “can ye not make your brose on the Sunday, and sup them cauld on the Monday, since ye’re sae dainty? Mony is the fairer face than yours that has licked the lip after such a cogfu’.”
“Mercy on us, sister!” said Triptolemus; “at this rate, it’s a finished field with me — I must unyoke the pleugh, and lie down to wait for the dead-thraw. Here is that in this house wad hold all Zetland in meal for a twelvemonth, and ye grudge a cogfu’ of warm parritch to me, that has sic a charge!”
“Whisht — haud your silly clavering tongue!” said Baby, looking round with apprehension —“ye are a wise man to speak of what is in the house, and a fitting man to have the charge of it! — Hark, as I live by bread, I hear a tapping at the outer yett!”
“Go and open it then, Baby,” said her brother, glad at any thing that promised to interrupt the dispute.
“Go and open it, said he!” echoed Baby, half angry, half frightened, and half triumphant at the superiority of her understanding over that of her brother —“Go and open it, said he, indeed! — is it to lend robbers a chance to take all that is in the house?”
“Robbers!” echoed Triptolemus, in his turn; “there are no more robbers in this country than there are lambs at Yule. I tell you, as I have told you an hundred times, there are no Highlandmen to harry us here. This is a land of quiet and honesty. O fortunati nimium!”
“And what good is Saint Rinian to do ye, Tolimus?” said his sister, mistaking the quotation for a Catholic invocation. “Besides, if there be no Highlandmen, there may be as bad. I saw sax or seven as ill-looking chields gang past the Place yesterday, as ever came frae beyont Clochna-ben; ill-fa’red tools they had in their hands, whaaling knives they ca’ed them, but they looked as like dirks and whingers as ae bit airn can look like anither. There is nae honest men carry siccan tools.”
Here the knocking and shouts of Mordaunt were very audible betwixt every swell of the horrible blast which was careering without. The brother and sister looked at each other in real perplexity and fear. “If they have heard of the siller,” said Baby, her very nose changing with terror from red to blue, “we are but gane folk!”
“Who speaks now, when they should hold their tongue?” said Triptolemus. “Go to the shot-window instantly, and see how many there are of them, while I load the old Spanish-barrelled duck-gun — go as if you were stepping on new-laid eggs.”
Baby crept to the window, and reported that she saw only “one young chield, clattering and roaring as gin he were daft. How many there might be out of sight, she could not say.”
“Out of sight! — nonsense,” said Triptolemus, laying aside the ramrod with which he was loading the piece, with a trembling hand. “I will warrant them out of sight and hearing both — this is some poor fellow catched in the tempest, wants the shelter of our roof, and a little refreshment. Open the door, Baby, it’s a Christian deed.”
“But is it a Christian deed of him to come in at the window, then?” said Baby, setting up a most doleful shriek, as Mordaunt Mertoun, who had forced open one of the windows, leaped down into the apartment, dripping with water like a river god. Triptolemus, in great tribulation, presented the gun which he had not yet loaded, while the intruder exclaimed, “Hold, hold — what the devil mean you by keeping your doors bolted in weather like this, and levelling your gun at folk’s heads as you would at a sealgh’s?”
“And who are you, friend, and what want you?” said Triptolemus, lowering the but of his gun to the floor as he spoke, and so recovering his arms.
“What do I want!” said Mordaunt; “I want every thing — I want meat, drink, and fire, a bed for the night, and a sheltie for to-morrow morning to carry me to Jarlshof.”
“And ye said there were nae caterans or sorners here?” said Baby to the agriculturist, reproachfully. “Heard ye ever a breekless loon frae Lochaber tell his mind and his errand mair deftly? — Come, come, friend,” she added, addressing herself to Mordaunt, “put up your pipes and gang your gate; this is the house of his lordship’s factor, and no place of reset for thiggers or sorners.”
Mordaunt laughed in her face at the simplicity of the request. “Leave built walls,” he said, “and in such a tempest as this? What take you me for? — a gannet or a scart do you think I am, that your clapping your hands and skirling at me like a madwoman, should drive me from the shelter into the storm?”
“And so you propose, young man,” said Triptolemus, gravely, “to stay in my house, volens nolens— that is, whether we will or no?”
“Will!” said Mordaunt; “what right have you to will any thing about it? Do you not hear the thunder? Do you not hear the rain? Do you not see the lightning? And do you not know this is the only house within I wot not how many miles? Come, my good master and dame, this may be Scottish jesting, but it sounds strange in Zetland ears. You have let out the fire, too, and my teeth are dancing a jig in my head with cold; but I’ll soon put that to rights.”
He seized the fire-tongs, raked together the embers upon the hearth, broke up into life the gathering-peat, which the hostess had calculated should have preserved the seeds of fire, without giving them forth, for many hours; then casting his eye round, saw in a corner the stock of drift-wood, which Mistress Baby had served forth by ounces, and transferred two or three logs of it at once to the hearth, which, conscious of such unwonted supply, began to transmit to the chimney such a smoke as had not issued from the Place of Harfra for many a day.
While their uninvited guest was thus making himself at home, Baby kept edging and jogging the factor to turn out the intruder. But for this undertaking, Triptolemus Yellowley felt neither courage nor zeal, nor did circumstances seem at all to warrant the favourable conclusion of any fray into which he might enter with the young stranger. The sinewy limbs and graceful form of Mordaunt Mertoun were seen to great advantage in his simple sea-dress; and with his dark sparkling eye, finely formed head, animated features, close curled dark hair, and bold, free looks, the stranger formed a very strong contrast with the host on whom he had intruded himself. Triptolemus was a short, clumsy, duck-legged disciple of Ceres, whose bottle-nose, turned up and handsomely coppered at the extremity, seemed to intimate something of an occasional treaty with Bacchus. It was like to be no equal mellay betwixt persons of such unequal form and strength; and the difference betwixt twenty and fifty years was nothing in favour of the weaker party. Besides, the factor was an honest good-natured fellow at bottom, and being soon satisfied that his guest had no other views than those of obtaining refuge from the storm, it would, despite his sister’s instigations, have been his last act to deny a boon so reasonable and necessary to a youth whose exterior was so prepossessing. He stood, therefore, considering how he could most gracefully glide into the character of the hospitable landlord, out of that of the churlish defender of his domestic castle, against an unauthorized intrusion, when Baby, who had stood appalled at the extreme familiarity of the stranger’s address and demeanour, now spoke up for herself.
“My troth, lad,” said she to Mordaunt, “ye are no blate, to light on at that rate, and the best of wood, too — nane of your sharney peats, but good aik timber, nae less maun serve ye!”
“You come lightly by it, dame,” said Mordaunt, carelessly; “and you should not grudge to the fire what the sea gives you for nothing. These good ribs of oak did their last duty upon earth and ocean, when they could hold no longer together under the brave hearts that manned the bark.”
“And that’s true, too,” said the old woman, softening —“this maun be awsome weather by sea. Sit down and warm ye, since the sticks are a-low.”
“Ay, ay,” said Triptolemus, “it is a pleasure to see siccan a bonny bleeze. I havena seen the like o’t since I left Cauldacres.”
“And shallna see the like o’t again in a hurry,” said Baby, “unless the house take fire, or there suld be a coal-heugh found out.”
“And wherefore should not there be a coal-heugh found out?” said the factor, triumphantly —“I say, wherefore should not a coal-heugh be found out in Zetland as well as in Fife, now that the Chamberlain has a far-sighted and discreet man upon the spot to make the necessary perquisitions? They are baith fishing-stations, I trow?”
“I tell you what it is, Tolemus Yellowley,” answered his sister, who had practical reasons to fear her brother’s opening upon any false scent, “if you promise my Lord sae mony of these bonnie-wallies, we’ll no be weel hafted here before we are found out and set a-trotting again. If ane was to speak to ye about a gold mine, I ken weel wha would promise he suld have Portugal pieces clinking in his pouch before the year gaed by.”
“And why suld I not?” said Triptolemus —“maybe your head does not know there is a land in Orkney called Ophir, or something very like it; and wherefore might not Solomon, the wise King of the Jews, have sent thither his ships and his servants for four hundred and fifty talents? I trow he knew best where to go or send, and I hope you believe in your Bible, Baby?”
Baby was silenced by an appeal to Scripture, however mal à propos, and only answered by an inarticulate humph of incredulity or scorn, while her brother went on addressing Mordaunt. —“Yes, you shall all of you see what a change shall coin introduce, even into such an unpropitious country as yours. Ye have not heard of copper, I warrant, nor of iron-stone, in these islands, neither?” Mordaunt said he had heard there was copper near the Cliffs of Konigsburgh. “Ay, and a copper scum is found on the Loch of Swana, too, young man. But the youngest of you, doubtless, thinks himself a match for such as I am!”
Baby, who during all this while had been closely and accurately reconnoitring the youth’s person, now interposed in a manner by her brother totally unexpected. “Ye had mair need, Mr. Yellowley, to give the young man some dry clothes, and to see about getting something for him to eat, than to sit there bleezing away with your lang tales, as if the weather were not windy enow without your help; and maybe the lad would drink some bland, or sic-like, if ye had the grace to ask him.”
While Triptolemus looked astonished at such a proposal, considering the quarter it came from, Mordaunt answered, he “should be very glad to have dry clothes, but begged to be excused from drinking until he had eaten somewhat.”
Triptolemus accordingly conducted him into another apartment, and accommodating him with a change of dress, left him to his arrangements, while he himself returned to the kitchen, much puzzled to account for his sister’s unusual fit of hospitality. “She must be fey,”24 he said, “and in that case has not long to live, and though I fall heir to her tocher-good, I am sorry for it; for she has held the house-gear well together — drawn the girth over tight it may be now and then, but the saddle sits the better.”
When Triptolemus returned to the kitchen, he found his suspicions confirmed; for his sister was in the desperate act of consigning to the pot a smoked goose, which, with others of the same tribe, had long hung in the large chimney, muttering to herself at the same time — “It maun be eaten sune or syne, and what for no by the puir callant?”
“What is this of it, sister?” said Triptolemus. “You have on the girdle and the pot at ance. What day is this wi’ you?”
“E’en such a day as the Israelites had beside the flesh-pots of Egypt, billie Triptolemus; but ye little ken wha ye have in your house this blessed day.”
“Troth, and little do I ken,” said Triptolemus, “as little as I would ken the naig I never saw before. I would take the lad for a jagger,25 but he has rather ower good havings, and he has no pack.”
“Ye ken as little as ane of your ain bits o’ nowt, man,” retorted sister Baby; “if ye ken na him, do ye ken Tronda Dronsdaughter?”
“Tronda Dronsdaughter!” echoed Triptolemus —“how should I but ken her, when I pay her twal pennies Scots by the day, for working in the house here? I trow she works as if the things burned her fingers. I had better give a Scots lass a groat of English siller.”
“And that’s the maist sensible word ye have said this blessed morning. — Weel, but Tronda kens this lad weel, and she has often spoke to me about him. They call his father the Silent Man of Sumburgh, and they say he’s uncanny.”
“Hout, hout — nonsense, nonsense — they are aye at sic trash as that,” said the brother, “when you want a day’s wark out of them — they have stepped ower the tangs, or they have met an uncanny body, or they have turned about the boat against the sun, and then there’s nought to be done that day.”
“Weel, weel, brother, ye are so wise,” said Baby, “because ye knapped Latin at Saint Andrews; and can your lair tell me, then, what the lad has round his halse?”
“A Barcelona napkin, as wet as a dishclout, and I have just lent him one of my own overlays,” said Triptolemus.
“A Barcelona napkin!” said Baby, elevating her voice, and then suddenly lowering it, as from apprehension of being overheard —“I say a gold chain!”
“A gold chain!” said Triptolemus.
“In troth is it, hinny; and how like you that? The folk say here, as Tronda tells me, that the King of the Drows gave it to his father, the Silent Man of Sumburgh.”
“I wish you would speak sense, or be the silent woman,” said Triptolemus. “The upshot of it all is, then, that this lad is the rich stranger’s son, and that you are giving him the goose you were to keep till Michaelmas!”
“Troth, brother, we maun do something for God’s sake, and to make friends; and the lad,” added Baby, (for even she was not altogether above the prejudices of her sex in favour of outward form,) “the lad has a fair face of his ain.”
“Ye would have let mony a fair face,” said Triptolemus, “pass the door pining, if it had not been for the gold chain.”
“Nae doubt, nae doubt,” replied Barbara; “ye wadna have me waste our substance on every thigger or sorner that has the luck to come by the door in a wet day? But this lad has a fair and a wide name in the country, and Tronda says he is to be married to a daughter of the rich Udaller, Magnus Troil, and the marriage-day is to be fixed whenever he makes choice (set him up) between the twa lasses; and so it wad be as much as our good name is worth, and our quiet forby, to let him sit unserved, although he does come unsent for.”
“The best reason in life,” said Triptolemus, “for letting a man into a house is, that you dare not bid him go by. However, since there is a man of quality amongst them, I will let him know whom he has to do with, in my person.” Then advancing to the door, he exclaimed, “Heus tibi, Dave!”
“Adsum,” answered the youth, entering the apartment.
“Hem!” said the erudite Triptolemus, “not altogether deficient in his humanities, I see. I will try him further. — Canst thou aught of husbandry, young gentleman?”
“Troth, sir, not I,” answered Mordaunt; “I have been trained to plough upon the sea, and to reap upon the crag.”
“Plough the sea!” said Triptolemus; “that’s a furrow requires small harrowing; and for your harvest on the crag, I suppose you mean these scowries, or whatever you call them. It is a sort of ingathering which the Ranzelman should stop by the law; nothing more likely to break an honest man’s bones. I profess I cannot see the pleasure men propose by dangling in a rope’s-end betwixt earth and heaven. In my case, I had as lief the other end of the rope were fastened to the gibbet; I should be sure of not falling, at least.”
“Now, I would only advise you to try it,” replied Mordaunt. “Trust me, the world has few grander sensations than when one is perched in midair between a high-browed cliff and a roaring ocean, the rope by which you are sustained seeming scarce stronger than a silken thread, and the stone on which you have one foot steadied, affording such a breadth as the kittywake might rest upon — to feel and know all this, with the full confidence that your own agility of limb, and strength of head, can bring you as safe off as if you had the wing of the gosshawk — this is indeed being almost independent of the earth you tread on!”
Triptolemus stared at this enthusiastic description of an amusement which had so few charms for him; and his sister, looking at the glancing eye and elevated bearing of the young adventurer, answered, by ejaculating, “My certie, lad, but ye are a brave chield!”
“A brave chield?” returned Yellowley — “I say a brave goose, to be flichtering and fleeing in the wind when he might abide upon terra firma! But come, here’s a goose that is more to the purpose, when once it is well boiled. Get us trenchers and salt, Baby — but in truth it will prove salt enough — a tasty morsel it is; but I think the Zetlanders be the only folk in the world that think of running such risks to catch geese, and then boiling them when they have done.”
“To be sure,” replied his sister, (it was the only word they had agreed in that day,) “it would be an unco thing to bid ony gudewife in Angus or a’ the Mearns boil a goose, while there was sic things as spits in the warld. — But wha’s this neist!” she added, looking towards the entrance with great indignation. “My certie, open doors, and dogs come in — and wha opened the door to him?”
“I did, to be sure,” replied Mordaunt; “you would not have a poor devil stand beating your deaf door-cheeks in weather like this? — Here goes something, though, to help the fire,” he added, drawing out the sliding bar of oak with which the door had been secured, and throwing it on the hearth, whence it was snatched by Dame Baby in great wrath, she exclaiming at the same time —
“It’s sea-borne timber, as there’s little else here, and he dings it about as if it were a fir-clog! — And who be you, an it please you?” she added, turning to the stranger — “a very hallanshaker loon, as ever crossed my twa een!”
“I am a jagger, if it like your ladyship,” replied the uninvited guest, a stout vulgar, little man, who had indeed the humble appearance of a pedlar, called jagger in these islands —“never travelled in a waur day, or was more willing to get to harbourage. — Heaven be praised for fire and house-room!”
So saying, he drew a stool to the fire, and sat down without further ceremony. Dame Baby stared “wild as grey gosshawk,” and was meditating how to express her indignation in something warmer than words, for which the boiling pot seemed to offer a convenient hint, when an old half-starved serving-woman — the Tronda already mentioned — the sharer of Barbara’s domestic cares, who had been as yet in some remote corner of the mansion, now hobbled into the room, and broke out into exclamations which indicated some new cause of alarm.
“O master!” and “O mistress!” were the only sounds she could for some time articulate, and then followed them up with, “The best in the house — the best in the house — set a’ on the board, and a’ will be little aneugh — There is auld Norna of Fitful-head, the most fearful woman in all the isles!”
“Where can she have been wandering?” said Mordaunt, not without some apparent sympathy with the surprise, if not with the alarm, of the old domestic; “but it is needless to ask — the worse the weather, the more likely is she to be a traveller.”
“What new tramper is this?” echoed the distracted Baby, whom the quick succession of guests had driven wellnigh crazy with vexation. “I’ll soon settle her wandering, I sall warrant, if my brother has but the saul of a man in him, or if there be a pair of jougs at Scalloway!”
“The iron was never forged on stithy that would hauld her,” said the old maid-servant. “She comes — she comes — God’s sake speak her fair and canny, or we will have a ravelled hasp on the yarn-windles!”
As she spoke, a woman, tall enough almost to touch the top of the door with her cap, stepped into the room, signing the cross as she entered, and pronouncing, with a solemn voice, “The blessing of God and Saint Ronald on the open door, and their broad malison and mine upon close-handed churls!”
“And wha are ye, that are sae bauld wi’ your blessing and banning in other folk’s houses? What kind of country is this, that folk cannot sit quiet for an hour, and serve Heaven, and keep their bit gear thegither, without gangrel men and women coming thigging and sorning ane after another, like a string of wild-geese?”
This speech, the understanding reader will easily saddle on Mistress Baby, and what effects it might have produced on the last stranger, can only be matter of conjecture; for the old servant and Mordaunt applied themselves at once to the party addressed, in order to deprecate her resentment; the former speaking to her some words of Norse, in a tone of intercession, and Mordaunt saying in English, “They are strangers, Norna, and know not your name or qualities; they are unacquainted, too, with the ways of this country, and therefore we must hold them excused for their lack of hospitality.”
“I lack no hospitality, young man,” said Triptolemus, “miseris succurrere disco— the goose that was destined to roost in the chimney till Michaelmas, is boiling in the pot for you; but if we had twenty geese, I see we are like to find mouths to eat them every feather — this must be amended.”
“What must be amended, sordid slave?” said the stranger Norna, turning at once upon him with an emphasis that made him start —“What must be amended? Bring hither, if thou wilt, thy new-fangled coulters, spades, and harrows, alter the implements of our fathers from the ploughshare to the mouse-trap; but know thou art in the land that was won of old by the flaxen-haired Kempions of the North, and leave us their hospitality at least, to show we come of what was once noble and generous. I say to you beware — while Norna looks forth at the measureless waters, from the crest of Fitful-head, something is yet left that resembles power of defence. If the men of Thule have ceased to be champions, and to spread the banquet for the raven, the women have not forgotten the arts that lifted them of yore into queens and prophetesses.”
The woman who pronounced this singular tirade, was as striking in appearance as extravagantly lofty in her pretensions and in her language. She might well have represented on the stage, so far as features, voice, and stature, were concerned, the Bonduca or Boadicea of the Britons, or the sage Velleda, Aurinia, or any other fated Pythoness, who ever led to battle a tribe of the ancient Goths. Her features were high and well formed, and would have been handsome, but for the ravages of time and the effects of exposure to the severe weather of her country. Age, and perhaps sorrow, had quenched, in some degree, the fire of a dark-blue eye, whose hue almost approached to black, and had sprinkled snow on such parts of her tresses as had escaped from under her cap, and were dishevelled by the rigour of the storm. Her upper garment, which dropped with water, was of a coarse dark-coloured stuff, called wadmaal, then much used in the Zetland islands, as also in Iceland and Norway. But as she threw this cloak back from her shoulders, a short jacket, of dark-blue velvet, stamped with figures, became visible, and the vest, which corresponded to it, was of crimson colour, and embroidered with tarnished silver. Her girdle was plated with silver ornaments, cut into the shape of planetary signs — her blue apron was embroidered with similar devices, and covered a petticoat of crimson cloth. Strong thick enduring shoes, of the half-dressed leather of the country, were tied with straps like those of the Roman buskins, over her scarlet stockings. She wore in her belt an ambiguous-looking weapon, which might pass for a sacrificing knife, or dagger, as the imagination of the spectator chose to assign to the wearer the character of a priestess or of a sorceress. In her hand she held a staff, squared on all sides, and engraved with Runic characters and figures, forming one of those portable and perpetual calendars which were used among the ancient natives of Scandinavia, and which, to a superstitious eye, might have passed for a divining rod.
Such were the appearance, features, and attire, of Norna of the Fitful-head, upon whom many of the inhabitants of the island looked with observance, many with fear, and almost all with a sort of veneration. Less pregnant circumstances of suspicion would, in any other part of Scotland, have exposed her to the investigation of those cruel inquisitors, who were then often invested with the delegated authority of the Privy Council, for the purpose of persecuting, torturing, and finally consigning to the flames, those who were accused of witchcraft or sorcery. But superstitions of this nature pass through two stages ere they become entirely obsolete. Those supposed to be possessed of supernatural powers, are venerated in the earlier stages of society. As religion and knowledge increase, they are first held in hatred and horror, and are finally regarded as impostors. Scotland was in the second state — the fear of witchcraft was great, and the hatred against those suspected of it intense. Zetland was as yet a little world by itself, where, among the lower and ruder classes, so much of the ancient northern superstition remained, as cherished the original veneration for those affecting supernatural knowledge, and power over the elements, which made a constituent part of the ancient Scandinavian creed. At least if the natives of Thule admitted that one class of magicians performed their feats by their alliance with Satan, they devoutly believed that others dealt with spirits of a different and less odious class — the ancient Dwarfs, called, in Zetland, Trows, or Drows, the modern fairies, and so forth.
Among those who were supposed to be in league with disembodied spirits, this Norna, descended from, and representative of, a family, which had long pretended to such gifts, was so eminent, that the name assigned to her, which signifies one of those fatal sisters who weave the web of human fate, had been conferred in honour of her supernatural powers. The name by which she had been actually christened was carefully concealed by herself and her parents; for to its discovery they superstitiously annexed some fatal consequences. In those times, the doubt only occurred, whether her supposed powers were acquired by lawful means. In our days, it would have been questioned whether she was an impostor, or whether her imagination was so deeply impressed with the mysteries of her supposed art, that she might be in some degree a believer in her own pretensions to supernatural knowledge. Certain it is, that she performed her part with such undoubting confidence, and such striking dignity of look and action, and evinced, at the same time, such strength of language, and energy of purpose, that it would have been difficult for the greatest sceptic to have doubted the reality of her enthusiasm, though he might smile at the pretensions to which it gave rise.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00