Imágenes de página

possessed in a more eligible situation, in a different part of the island, and seldom visited his possessions at Sumburgh Head. He was an honest, plain Zetland gentleman, somewhat passionate, the necessary result of being surrounded by dependents; and somewhat over convivial in his habits, the consequence, perhaps, of having too much time at his disposal; but frank-tempered and generous to his people, and kind and hospitable to strangers. He was descended also of an old and noble Nor. wegian family,-a circumstance which rendered him dearer to the lower orders, most of whom are of the same race,-while the lairds, or proprietors, are generally of Scottish extraction, who, at that early period, were still considered as strangers and intruders. Magnus Troil, who deduced his descent from the very Earl who was supposed to have founded Jarlshof, was peculiarly of this opinion.

The present inhabitants of Jarlshof had experienced, on several occasions, the kindness and goodwill of the proprietor of the territory. When Mr. Mertoun-such was the name of the present inhabitant of the old mansion-first arrived in Zetland, some years before the story commences, he had been received at the house of Mr. Troil with that warm and cordial hospitality for which the islands are distinguished. No one asked him whence he came, where he was going, what was his purpose in visiting so remote a corner of the empire, or what was likely to be the term of his stay. He arrived a perfect stranger, yet was instantly overpowered by a succession of invitations; and in each house which he visited he found a home as long as he chose to accept it, and lived as one of the family, unnoticed and unnoticing, until he thought proper to remove to some other dwelling.

This apparent indifference to the rank, character, and qualities of their guests did not arise from apathy on the part of his kind hosts, for the islanders had their full share of natural curiosity; but their delicacy deemed it would be an infringement upon the laws of hospitality to ask questions which their guests might have found it difficult or unpleasing to answer; and instead of endeavouring, as is usual in other countries, to wring out of Mr. Mertoun such communications as he might find it agreeable to withhold, the considerate Zetlanders contented themselves with eagerly gathering up such scraps of information as could be collected in the course of conversation.

But the rock in an Arabian desert is not more reluctant to afford water than Mr. Basil Mertoun was niggard in imparting his confidence, even incidentally; and certainly the politeness of the gentry of Thule was never put to a more severe test than when they felt that goodbreeding enjoined them to abstain from inquiring into the situation of so mysterious a personage.

All that was actually known of him was easily summed up. Mr. Mertoun had come to Lerwick, then rising into some importance, but not yet acknowledged as the principal town of the island, in a Dutch vessel, accompanied only by his son, a handsome boy of about fourteen

years old. His own age might exceed forty. The Dutch skipper introduced him to some of the very good friends with whom he used to barter gin and ginger-bread for little Zetland bullocks, smoked geese, and stockings of lambs-wool; and although Meinheer could only say that “ Meinheer Mertoun hab bay his bassage like one gentlemans, and hab given a Kretiz-dollar beside to the crew,” this introduction served to establish the Dutchman's passenger in a respectable circle of acquaintances, which gradually enlarged, as it appeared that the stranger was a man of considerable acquirements.

This discovery was made almost per force ; for Mertoun was as unwilling to speak upon general subjects as upon his own affairs. But he was sometimes led into discussions, which showed, as it were in spite of himself, the scholar and the man of the world; and, at other times, as if in requital of the hospitality which he experienced, he seemed to compel himself, against his fixed nature, to enter into the society of those around him, especially when it assumed the grave, melancholy, or satirical cast which best suited the temper of his own mind. Upon such occasions, the Zetlanders were universally of opinion that he must have had an excellent education, neglected in one striking particular-namely, that Mr. Mertoun scarce knew the stem of a ship from the stern; and in the management of a boat a cow could not be more ignorant. It seemed astonishing such gross ignorance of the most necessary art of life in the Zetland Isles, at least) should subsist along with his accomplishments in other respects; but so it was.

Unless called forth in the manner we have mentioned, the habits of Basil Mertoun were retired and gloomy. From loud mirth he instantly fled; and even the moderated cheerfulness of a friendly party had the invariable effect of throwing him into deeper dejection than even his usual demeanour indicated.

Women are always particularly desirous of investigating mystery, and of alleviating melancholy, especially when these circumstances are united in a handsome man about the prime of life. It is possible, therefore, that amongst the fair-haired and blue-eyed daughters of Thule this mysterious and pensive stranger might have found some one to take upon herself the task of consolation, had he shown any willingness to accept such kindly offices; but, far from doing so, he seemed even to shun the presence of the sex to which in our distresses, whether of mind or body, we generally apply for pity and comfort.

To these peculiarities Mr. Mertoun added another, which was particularly disagreeable to his host and principal patron, Magnus Troil. This magnate of Zetland, descended by the father's side, as we have already said, from an ancient Norwegian family, by the marriage of its representative with a Danish lady, held the devout opinion that a cup of Geneva or Nantz was specific against all cares and afflictions whatever. These were remedies to which Mr. Mertoun never applied ; his drink

was water, and water alone, and no persuasion or entreaties could induce him to taste any stronger beverage than was afforded by the pure spring. Now this Magnus Troil could not tolerate ; it was a defiance to the ancient northern laws of conviviality, which, for his own part, he had so rigidly observed, that although he was wont to assert that he had never in his life gone to bed drunk (that is, in his own sense of the word), it

would have been impossible
to prove that he had ever
resigned himself to slumber
in a state of actual and
absolute sobriety. It may
be therefore asked, What
did this stranger bring into
society to compensate the
displeasure given by his
austere and abstemious
habits ? He had, in the
first place, that manner and
self-importance which mark
a person
of some

consequence: and although it

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

was conjectured that he could not be rich, yet it was certainly known by his expenditure that neither was he absolutely poor. He had, besides, some powers of conversation, when, as we have already hinted, he chose to exert them, and his misanthropy or aversion to the business and intercourse of ordinary life was often expressed in an antithetical manner, which passed for wit, when better was not to be had. Above all, Mr. Mertoun's secret seemed impenetrable, and his presence had all

the interest of a riddle, which men love to read over and over, because they cannot find out the meaning of it.

Notwithstanding these recommendations, Mertoun differed in so many material points from his host, that after he had been for some time a guest at his principal residence, Magnus Troil was agreeably surprised when, one evening after they had sat two hours in absolute silence, drinking brandy-and-water,—that is, Magnus drinking the alcohol, and Mertoun the element,—the guest asked his host's permission to occupy, as his tenant, this deserted mansion of Jarlshof, at the extremity of the territory called Dunrossness, and situated just beneath Sumburgh Head." I shall be handsomely rid of him," quoth Magnus to himself, “and his kill-joy visage will never again stop the bottle in its round. His departure will ruin me in lemons, however, for his mere look was quite sufficient to sour a whole ocean of punch.”

Yet the kind-hearted Zetlander generously and disinterestedly remonstrated with Mr. Mertoun on the solitude and inconveniences to which he was about to subject himself. “ There were scarcely," he said, “even the most necessary articles of furniture in the old house -there was no society within many miles; for provisions, the principal article of food would be sour sillocks, and his only company gulls and gannets."

“My good friend,” replied Mertoun, “if you could have named a circumstance which would render the residence more eligible to me than any other, it is that there would be neither human luxury nor human society near the place of my retreat ; a shelter from the weather for my own head and for the boy's is all I seek for. So name your rent, Mr. Troil, and let me be your tenant at Jarlshof.”

“Rent?" answered the Zetlander; "why, no great rent for an old house which no one has lived in since my mother's time-God rest her! -and as for shelter, the old walls are thick enough, and will bear many a bang yet. But, Heaven love you, Mr. Mertoun! think what you are purposing. For one of us to live at Jarlshof were a wild scheme enough ; but you, who are from another country, whether English, Scotch, or Irish, no one can tell

“ Nor does it greatly matter,” said Mertoun, somewhat abruptly.

“Not a herring scale," answered the Laird ; "only that I like you the better for being no Scot, as I trust you are not one. Hither they have come like the clack-geese-every chamberlain has brought over a flock of his own name, and his own hatching, for what I know, and here they roost for ever-catch them returning to their own barren Highlands or Lowlands, when once they have tasted our Zetland beef, and seen our bonny voes and lochs. No, sir ” (here Magnus proceeded with great animation, sipping from time to time the half-diluted spirit, which at the same time animated his resentment against the intruders, and enabled him to endure the mortifying reflection which it suggested), “no, sir, the ancient days, and the genuine manners of

these islands are no more ; for our ancient possessors—our Patersons, our Feas, our Schlag brenners, our Thorbiorns—have given place to Giffords, Scotts, Mouats, men whose names bespeak them or their ancestors strangers to the soil which we the Troils have inhabited long before the days of Turf-Einar, who first taught these Isles the mystery.

[graphic][merged small]

of burning peat for fuel, and who has been handed down to a grateful posterity by a name which records the discovery.”

This was a subject upon which the potentate of Jarlshof was usually very diffuse, and Mertoun saw him enter upon it with pleasure, because he knew he should not be called upon to contribute any aid to the conversation, and might therefore indulge his own saturnine humour while the Norwegian Zetlander declaimed on the change of times and inhabitants. But just as Magnus had arrived at the melancholy conclusion,

« AnteriorContinuar »