—— If, by your art, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The storm had somewhat relaxed its rigour just before the entrance of Norna, otherwise she must have found it impossible to travel during the extremity of its fury. But she had hardly added herself so unexpectedly to the party whom chance had assembled at the dwelling of Triptolemus Yellowley, when the tempest suddenly resumed its former vehemence, and raged around the building with a fury which made the inmates insensible to any thing except the risk that the old mansion was about to fall above their heads.
Mistress Baby gave vent to her fears in loud exclamations of “The Lord guide us — this is surely the last day — what kind of a country of guisards and gyre-carlines is this! — and you, ye fool carle,” she added, turning on her brother, (for all her passions had a touch of acidity in them,) “to quit the bonny Mearns land to come here, where there is naething but sturdy beggars and gaberlunzies within ane’s house, and Heaven’s anger on the outside on’t!”
“I tell you, sister Baby,” answered the insulted agriculturist, “that all shall be reformed and amended — excepting,” he added, betwixt his teeth, “the scaulding humours of an ill-natured jaud, that can add bitterness to the very storm!”
The old domestic and the pedlar meanwhile exhausted themselves in entreaties to Norna, of which, as they were couched in the Norse language, the master of the house understood nothing.
She listened to them with a haughty and unmoved air, and replied at length aloud, and in English —“I will not. What if this house be strewed in ruins before morning — where would be the world’s want in the crazed projector, and the niggardly pinch-commons, by which it is inhabited? They will needs come to reform Zetland customs, let them try how they like a Zetland storm. — You that would not perish, quit this house!”
The pedlar seized on his little knapsack, and began hastily to brace it on his back; the old maid-servant cast her cloak about her shoulders, and both seemed to be in the act of leaving the house as fast as they could.
Triptolemus Yellowley, somewhat commoved by these appearances, asked Mordaunt, with a voice which faltered with apprehension, whether he thought there was any, that is, so very much danger?
“I cannot tell,” answered the youth, “I have scarce ever seen such a storm. Norna can tell us better than any one when it will abate; for no one in these islands can judge of the weather like her.”
“And is that all thou thinkest Norna can do?” said the sibyl; “thou shalt know her powers are not bounded within such a narrow space. Hear me, Mordaunt, youth of a foreign land, but of a friendly heart — Dost thou quit this doomed mansion with those who now prepare to leave it?”
“I do not — I will not, Norna,” replied Mordaunt; “I know not your motive for desiring me to remove, and I will not leave, upon these dark threats, the house in which I have been kindly received in such a tempest as this. If the owners are unaccustomed to our practice of unlimited hospitality, I am the more obliged to them that they have relaxed their usages, and opened their doors in my behalf.”
“He is a brave lad,” said Mistress Baby, whose superstitious feelings had been daunted by the threats of the supposed sorceress, and who, amidst her eager, narrow, and repining disposition, had, like all who possess marked character, some sparks of higher feeling, which made her sympathize with generous sentiments, though she thought it too expensive to entertain them at her own cost —“He is a brave lad,” she again repeated, “and worthy of ten geese, if I had them to boil for him, or roast either. I’ll warrant him a gentleman’s son, and no churl’s blood.”
“Hear me, young Mordaunt,” said Norna, “and depart from this house. Fate has high views on you — you shall not remain in this hovel to be crushed amid its worthless ruins, with the relics of its more worthless inhabitants, whose life is as little to the world as the vegetation of the house-leek, which now grows on their thatch, and which shall soon be crushed amongst their mangled limbs.”
“I— I— I will go forth,” said Yellowley, who, despite of his bearing himself scholarly and wisely, was beginning to be terrified for the issue of the adventure; for the house was old, and the walls rocked formidably to the blast.
“To what purpose?” said his sister. “I trust the Prince of the power of the air has not yet such-like power over those that are made in God’s image, that a good house should fall about our heads, because a randy quean” (here she darted a fierce glance at the Pythoness) “should boast us with her glamour, as if we were sae mony dogs to crouch at her bidding!”
“I was only wanting,” said Triptolemus, ashamed of his motion, “to look at the bear-braird, which must be sair laid wi’ this tempest; but if this honest woman like to bide wi’ us, I think it were best to let us a’ sit doun canny thegither, till it’s working weather again.”
“Honest woman!” echoed Baby —“Foul warlock thief! — Aroint ye, ye limmer!” she added, addressing Norna directly; “out of an honest house, or, shame fa’ me, but I’ll take the bittle26 to you!”
Norna cast on her a look of supreme contempt; then, stepping to the window, seemed engaged in deep contemplation of the heavens, while the old maid-servant, Tronda, drawing close to her mistress, implored, for the sake of all that was dear to man or woman, “Do not provoke Norna of Fitful-head! You have no sic woman on the mainland of Scotland — she can ride on one of these clouds as easily as man ever rode on a sheltie.”
“I shall live to see her ride on the reek of a fat tar-barrel,” said Mistress Baby; “and that will be a fit pacing palfrey for her.”
Again Norna regarded the enraged Mrs. Baby Yellowley with a look of that unutterable scorn which her haughty features could so well express, and moving to the window which looked to the north-west, from which quarter the gale seemed at present to blow, she stood for some time with her arms crossed, looking out upon the leaden-coloured sky, obscured as it was by the thick drift, which, coming on in successive gusts of tempest, left ever and anon sad and dreary intervals of expectation betwixt the dying and the reviving blast.
Norna regarded this war of the elements as one to whom their strife was familiar; yet the stern serenity of her features had in it a cast of awe, and at the same time of authority, as the cabalist may be supposed to look upon the spirit he has evoked, and which, though he knows how to subject him to his spell, bears still an aspect appalling to flesh and blood. The attendants stood by in different attitudes, expressive of their various feelings. Mordaunt, though not indifferent to the risk in which they stood, was more curious than alarmed. He had heard of Norna’s alleged power over the elements, and now expected an opportunity of judging for himself of its reality. Triptolemus Yellowley was confounded at what seemed to be far beyond the bounds of his philosophy; and, if the truth must be spoken, the worthy agriculturist was greatly more frightened than inquisitive. His sister was not in the least curious on the subject; but it was difficult to say whether anger or fear predominated in her sharp eyes and thin compressed lips. The pedlar and old Tronda, confident that the house would never fall while the redoubted Norna was beneath its roof, held themselves ready for a start the instant she should take her departure.
Having looked on the sky for some time in a fixed attitude, and with the most profound silence, Norna at once, yet with a slow and elevated gesture, extended her staff of black oak towards that part of the heavens from which the blast came hardest, and in the midst of its fury chanted a Norwegian invocation, still preserved in the Island of Uist, under the name of the Song of the Reimkennar, though some call it the Song of the Tempest. The following is a free translation, it being impossible to render literally many of the elliptical and metaphorical terms of expression, peculiar to the ancient Northern poetry:—
“Stern eagle of the far north-west,
Thou that bearest in thy grasp the thunderbolt,
Thou whose rushing pinions stir ocean to madness,
Thou the destroyer of herds, thou the scatterer of navies,
Thou the breaker down of towers,
Amidst the scream of thy rage,
Amidst the rushing of thy onward wings,
Though thy scream be loud as the cry of a perishing nation,
Though the rushing of thy wings be like the roar of ten thousand waves,
Yet hear, in thine ire and thy haste,
Hear thou the voice of the Reim-kennar.
“Thou hast met the pine-trees of Drontheim,
Their dark-green heads lie prostrate beside their uprooted stems;
Thou hast met the rider of the ocean,
The tall, the strong bark of the fearless rover,
And she has struck to thee the topsail
That she had not veiled to a royal armada;
Thou hast met the tower that hears its crest among the clouds,
The battled massive tower of the Jarl of former days,
And the cope-stone of the turret
Is lying upon its hospitable hearth;
But thou too shalt stoop, proud compeller of clouds,
When thou hearest the voice of the Reim-kennar.
“There are verses that can stop the stag in the forest,
Ay, and when the dark-coloured dog is opening on his track;
There are verses can make the wild hawk pause on the wing,
Like the falcon that wears the hood and the jesses,
And who knows the shrill whistle of the fowler.
Thou who canst mock at the scream of the drowning mariner,
And the crash of the ravaged forest,
And the groan of the overwhelmed crowds,
When the church hath fallen in the moment of prayer,
There are sounds which thou also must list,
When they are chanted by the voice of the Reim-kennar.
“Enough of woe hast thou wrought on the ocean,
The widows wring their hands on the beach;
Enough of woe hast thou wrought on the land,
The husbandman folds his arms in despair;
Cease thou the waving of thy pinions,
Let the ocean repose in her dark strength;
Cease thou the flashing of thine eye.
Let the thunderbolt sleep in the armoury of Odin;
Be thou still at my bidding, viewless racer of the north-western heaven,
Sleep thou at the voice of Norna the Reim-kennar!”
We have said that Mordaunt was naturally fond of romantic poetry and romantic situation; it is not therefore surprising that he listened with interest to the wild address thus uttered to the wildest wind of the compass, in a tone of such dauntless enthusiasm. But though he had heard so much of the Runic rhyme and of the northern spell, in the country where he had so long dwelt, he was not on this occasion so credulous as to believe that the tempest, which had raged so lately, and which was now beginning to decline, was subdued before the charmed verse of Norna. Certain it was, that the blast seemed passing away, and the apprehended danger was already over; but it was not improbable that this issue had been for some time foreseen by the Pythoness, through signs of the weather imperceptible to those who had not dwelt long in the country, or had not bestowed on the meteorological phenomena the attention of a strict and close observer. Of Norna’s experience he had no doubt, and that went a far way to explain what seemed supernatural in her demeanour. Yet still the noble countenance, half-shaded by dishevelled tresses, the air of majesty with which, in a tone of menace as well as of command, she addressed the viewless spirit of the tempest, gave him a strong inclination to believe in the ascendency of the occult arts over the powers of nature; for, if a woman ever moved on earth to whom such authority over the ordinary laws of the universe could belong, Norna of Fitful-head, judging from bearing, figure, and face, was born to that high destiny.
The rest of the company were less slow in receiving conviction. To Tronda and the jagger none was necessary; they had long believed in the full extent of Norna’s authority over the elements. But Triptolemus and his sister gazed at each other with wondering and alarmed looks, especially when the wind began perceptibly to decline, as was remarkably visible during the pauses which Norna made betwixt the strophes of her incantation. A long silence followed the last verse, until Norna resumed her chant, but with a changed and more soothing modulation of voice and tune.
“Eagle of the far north-western waters,
Thou hast heard the voice of the Reim-kennar,
Thou hast closed thy wide sails at her bidding,
And folded them in peace by thy side.
My blessing be on thy retiring path!
When thou stoopest from thy place on high,
Soft be thy slumbers in the caverns of the unknown ocean,
Rest till destiny shall again awaken thee;
Eagle of the north-west, thou hast heard the voice of the Reim-kennar!”
“A pretty sang that would be to keep the corn from shaking in har’st,” whispered the agriculturist to his sister; “we must speak her fair, Baby — she will maybe part with the secret for a hundred pund Scots.”
“An hundred fules’ heads!” replied Baby —“bid her five merks of ready siller. I never knew a witch in my life but she was as poor as Job.”
Norna turned towards them as if she had guessed their thoughts; it may be that she did so. She passed them with a look of the most sovereign contempt, and walking to the table on which the preparations for Mrs. Barbara’s frugal meal were already disposed, she filled a small wooden quaigh from an earthen pitcher which contained bland, a subacid liquor made out of the serous part of the milk. She broke a single morsel from a barley-cake, and having eaten and drunk, returned towards the churlish hosts. “I give you no thanks,” she said, “for my refreshment, for you bid me not welcome to it; and thanks bestowed on a churl are like the dew of heaven on the cliffs of Foulah, where it finds nought that can be refreshed by its influences. I give you no thanks,” she said again, but drawing from her pocket a leathern purse that seemed large and heavy, she added, “I pay you with what you will value more than the gratitude of the whole inhabitants of Hialtland. Say not that Norna of Fitful-head hath eaten of your bread and drunk of your cup, and left you sorrowing for the charge to which she hath put your house.” So saying, she laid on the table a small piece of antique gold coin, bearing the rude and half-defaced effigies of some ancient northern king.
Triptolemus and his sister exclaimed against this liberality with vehemence; the first protesting that he kept no public, and the other exclaiming, “Is the carline mad? Heard ye ever of ony of the gentle house of Clinkscale that gave meat for siller?”
“Or for love either?” muttered her brother; “haud to that, tittie.”
“What are ye whittie-whattieing about, ye gowk?” said his gentle sister, who suspected the tenor of his murmurs; “gie the ladie back her bonnie-die there, and be blithe to be sae rid on’t — it will be a sclate-stane the morn, if not something worse.”
The honest factor lifted the money to return it, yet could not help being struck when he saw the impression, and his hand trembled as he handed it to his sister.
“Yes,” said the Pythoness again, as if she read the thoughts of the astonished pair, “you have seen that coin before — beware how you use it! It thrives not with the sordid or the mean-souled — it was won with honourable danger, and must be expended with honourable liberality. The treasure which lies under a cold hearth will one day, like the hidden talent, bear witness against its avaricious possessors.”
This last obscure intimation seemed to raise the alarm and the wonder of Mrs. Baby and her brother to the uttermost. The latter tried to stammer out something like an invitation to Norna to tarry with them all night, or at least to take share of the “dinner,” so he at first called it; but looking at the company, and remembering the limited contents of the pot, he corrected the phrase, and hoped she would take some part of the “snack, which would be on the table ere a man could loose a pleugh.”
“I eat not here — I sleep not here,” replied Norna —“nay, I relieve you not only of my own presence, but I will dismiss your unwelcome guests. — Mordaunt,” she added, addressing young Mertoun, “the dark fit is past, and your father looks for you this evening.”
“Do you return in that direction?” said Mordaunt. “I will but eat a morsel, and give you my aid, good mother, on the road. The brooks must be out, and the journey perilous.”
“Our roads lie different,” answered the Sibyl, “and Norna needs not mortal arm to aid her on the way. I am summoned far to the east, by those who know well how to smooth my passage. — For thee, Bryce Snailsfoot,” she continued, speaking to the pedlar, “speed thee on to Sumburgh — the Roost will afford thee a gallant harvest, and worthy the gathering in. Much goodly ware will ere now be seeking a new owner, and the careful skipper will sleep still enough in the deep haaf, and care not that bale and chest are dashing against the shores.”
“Na, na, good mother,” answered Snailsfoot, “I desire no man’s life for my private advantage, and am just grateful for the blessing of Providence on my sma’ trade. But doubtless one man’s loss is another’s gain; and as these storms destroy a’ thing on land, it is but fair they suld send us something by sea. Sae, taking the freedom, like yoursell, mother, to borrow a lump of barley-bread, and a draught of bland, I will bid good-day, and thank you, to this good gentleman and lady, and e’en go on my way to Jarlshof, as you advise.”
“Ay,” replied the Pythoness, “where the slaughter is, the eagles will be gathered; and where the wreck is on the shore, the jagger is as busy to purchase spoil as the shark to gorge upon the dead.”
This rebuke, if it was intended for such, seemed above the comprehension of the travelling merchant, who, bent upon gain, assumed the knapsack and ellwand, and asked Mordaunt, with the familiarity permitted in a wild country, whether he would not take company along with him?
“I wait to eat some dinner with Mr. Yellowley and Mrs. Baby,” answered the youth, “and will set forward in half an hour.”
“Then I’ll just take my piece in my hand,” said the pedlar. Accordingly he muttered a benediction, and, without more ceremony, helped himself to what, in Mrs. Baby’s covetous eyes, appeared to be two-thirds of the bread, took a long pull at the jug of bland, seized on a handful of the small fish called sillocks, which the domestic was just placing on the board, and left the room without farther ceremony.
“My certie,” said the despoiled Mrs. Baby, “there is the chapman’s drouth27 and his hunger baith, as folk say! If the laws against vagrants be executed this gate — It’s no that I wad shut the door against decent folk,” she said, looking to Mordaunt, “more especially in such judgment-weather. But I see the goose is dished, poor thing.”
This she spoke in a tone of affection for the smoked goose, which, though it had long been an inanimate inhabitant of her chimney, was far more interesting to Mrs. Baby in that state, than when it screamed amongst the clouds. Mordaunt laughed and took his seat, then turned to look for Norna; but she had glided from the apartment during the discussion with the pedlar.
“I am glad she is gane, the dour carline,” said Mrs. Baby, “though she has left that piece of gowd to be an everlasting shame to us.”
“Whisht, mistress, for the love of heaven!” said Tronda Dronsdaughter; “wha kens where she may be this moment? — we are no sure but she may hear us, though we cannot see her.”
Mistress Baby cast a startled eye around, and instantly recovering herself, for she was naturally courageous as well as violent, said, “I bade her aroint before, and I bid her aroint again, whether she sees me or hears me, or whether she’s ower the cairn and awa. — And you, ye silly sumph,” she said to poor Yellowley, “what do ye stand glowering there for? —You a Saunt Andrew’s student! —you studied lair and Latin humanities, as ye ca’ them, and daunted wi’ the clavers of an auld randie wife! Say your best college grace, man, and witch, or nae witch, we’ll eat our dinner, and defy her. And for the value of the gowden piece, it shall never be said I pouched her siller. I will gie it to some poor body — that is, I will test28 upon it at my death, and keep it for a purse-penny till that day comes, and that’s no using it in the way of spending siller. Say your best college grace, man, and let us eat and drink in the meantime.”
“Ye had muckle better say an oraamus to Saint Ronald, and fling a saxpence ower your left shouther, master,” said Tronda.29
“That ye may pick it up, ye jaud,” said the implacable Mistress Baby; “it will be lang or ye win the worth of it ony other gate. — Sit down, Triptolemus, and mindna the words of a daft wife.”
“Daft or wise,” replied Yellowley, very much disconcerted, “she kens more than I would wish she kend. It was awfu’ to see sic a wind fa’ at the voice of flesh and blood like oursells — and then yon about the hearth-stane — I cannot but think”——
“If ye cannot but think,” said Mrs. Baby, very sharply, “at least ye can haud your tongue?”
The agriculturist made no reply, but sate down to their scanty meal, and did the honours of it with unusual heartiness to his new guest, the first of the intruders who had arrived, and the last who left them. The sillocks speedily disappeared, and the smoked goose, with its appendages, took wing so effectually, that Tronda, to whom the polishing of the bones had been destined, found the task accomplished, or nearly so, to her hand. After dinner, the host produced his bottle of brandy; but Mordaunt, whose general habits were as abstinent almost as those of his father, laid a very light tax upon this unusual exertion of hospitality.
During the meal, they learned so much of young Mordaunt, and of his father, that even Baby resisted his wish to reassume his wet garments, and pressed him (at the risk of an expensive supper being added to the charges of the day) to tarry with them till the next morning. But what Norna had said excited the youth’s wish to reach home, nor, however far the hospitality of Stourburgh was extended in his behalf, did the house present any particular temptations to induce him to remain there longer. He therefore accepted the loan of the factor’s clothes, promising to return them, and send for his own; and took a civil leave of his host and Mistress Baby, the latter of whom, however affected by the loss of her goose, could not but think the cost well bestowed (since it was to be expended at all) upon so handsome and cheerful a youth.
26 The beetle with which the Scottish housewives used to perform the office of the modern mangle, by beating newly-washed linen on a smooth stone for the purpose, called the beetling-stone.
27 The chapman’s drouth, that is, the pedlar’s thirst, is proverbial in Scotland, because these pedestrian traders were in the use of modestly asking only for a drink of water, when, in fact, they were desirous of food.
28 Test upon it, i. e., leave it in my will; a mode of bestowing charity, to which many are partial as well as the good dame in the text.
29 Although the Zetlanders were early reconciled to the reformed faith, some ancient practices of Catholic superstition survived long among them. In very stormy weather a fisher would vow an oramus to Saint Ronald, and acquitted himself of the obligation by throwing a small piece of money in at the window of a ruinous chapel.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00