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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 gingerbread for little Zetland bullocks, smoked geese, and stockings of lambs' wool; and although meinheer could only say, that 66 Meinheer Mertoun hab bay his bassage like one gentlemans, and lab given a Kreitz-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 as it were 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
own mind. Upon such occasions, the Zetlanders were universally of opinion that he must have had an excellent education, neglected only 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
and afflictions whatsoever. 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 as
sert 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 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 can not 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 sate 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, the deserted mansion of Jarlshof, at the extremity of the territory called Dunrossness, and situated just beneath Sumburgh-Head. 66 I shall be handsomely rid of him," quoth Magnus to himself, 6 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. 66 There were scarce, 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's 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 ruost forever -catch them returning to their own barren High
lands or Lowlands, when 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 reflections which it suggested,) “ No, sir, the ancient days and the genuine manners of these islands are no more; for our ancient possessors,ếour Patersons, our Feas, our Schlagbrenners, our Yhiorbiorns, have given place to Giffords, Scotts, Mouatts, 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 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 would not be called upon to contribute any aid to the conversation, and might therefore indulge his owe saturnine humour while the Norwegian Zetlander declaimed on the change of times and inhabitants. But just as Magnus had arrived at the melancholy conclusion, “how probable it was, that in another century scarce a merk-scarce even an ure of land, would be in possession of the Norse inhabitants, the true Udallers* of Zetland,” he recollected the circumstances of his guest, and stopped suddenly short. “ I do not say all this,” he added, interrupting himself, if I were unwilling that you should settle on my estate, Mr. Mertoun—but for Jarlshof-the place is a wild one-Come from where you will, I warrant you
* The Udallers are the allodial possessors of Zotland, who hold their possessions under the old Norwegian law, instead of the feudal tenures introduced among them from Scotland.