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The storm had ceased its wintry roar,
Hoarse dash the billows of the sea;
That long, narrow, and irregular island, usually called the Main-land of Zetland, because it is by far the largest of that Archipelago, terminates, as is well known to the mariners who navigate the stormy seas which surround the Thule of the ancients, in a cliff of tremendous height, entitled Sumburgh-Head, which presents its bare scalp and naked sides to the weight of a tremendous surge, and forms the extreme point of the isle to the south
This lofty promontory is constantly exposed to the current of a strong and furious tide, which setting in betwixt the Orkney and Zetland Islands, and running with force only inferior to that of the Pentland Frith, takes its name from the headland we have mentioned, and is called the Roost of Sumburgh; roost being the phrase assigned in these isles to currents of this description.
On the land side, the promontory is covered with short grass, and slopes steeply down to a little isthmus, upon which the sea has encroached in creeks, which, advancing from either side of the island,
gradually work their way forward, and seem as if in a short time they would form a junction, and altogether insulate Sumburgh-Head, when what is now a cape, will become a lonely mountain islet, severed from the main-land, of which it is at present the terminating extremity.
Man, however, had in former days considered this as a remote or unlikely event; for a Norwegian chief of other times, or, as other accounts said, and as the name of Jarlshof seemed to imply, an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land as the place for establishing a mansion-house. It has been long entirely deserted, and the vestiges can only be discerned with difficulty; for the loose sand, borne on the tempestuous gales of these stormy regions, has overblown, and almost buried the ruins of the buildings; but in the end of the seventeenth century, a part of the Earl's mansion was still entire and inhabitable. It was a rude building of rough stone, with nothing about it to gratify the eye, or to excite the imagination;-a large oldfashioned house, with a very steep roof, covered with flags composed of gray sandstone, would perhaps convey the best idea of the place to a modern reader. The windows were few, were very small in size, and were distributed up and down the building with utter contempt of regularity. Against the main building had rested, in former times, certain smaller copartments of the mansion-house, containing offices, or subordinate apartments, necessary for the accommodation of the Earl's retainers and menials. But these had become ruinous; and the rafters had been taken down for fire-wood, or for other purposes; the walls had given way in many places; and, to complete the devastation, the sand had already drifted amongst the ruins, and filled up what had been once the chambers they contained, to the depth of two or three feet.
Amid this desolation, the inhabitants of Jarlshof
had contrived, by constant labour and attention, to keep in order a few roods of land, which had been inclosed as a garden, and which, sheltered by the walls of the house itself, from the relentless seablast, produced such vegetables as the climate could bring forth, or rather as the sea-gale would permit to grow; for these islands experience even less of the rigour of cold than is encountered on the mainland of Scotland; but, unsheltered by a wall of some sort or other, it is scarce possible to raise even the most ordinary culinary vegetables; and as for shrubs or trees, they are entirely out of the question, such is the force of the sweeping sea-blast.
At a short distance from the mansion, and near to the sea-beach, just where the creek forms a sort of imperfect harbour, in which lay three or four fishing-boats, there were a few most wretched cottages for the inhabitants and tenants of the township of Jarlshof, who held the whole district of the landlord upon such terms as were in those days usually granted to persons of this description, and which of course, were hard enough. The landlord himself resided upon an estate which he 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 dependants; 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 Norwegian 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 this early period, were even 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 good will 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 received at the house of Mr. Troil 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 guest, 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 guest 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 of 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 task than when they felt that good-breeding enjoined