The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 15

The darksome cave they enter, where they found

The woful man, low sitting on the ground,

Musing full sadly in his sullen mind.

Faery Queen.

The intruder on Miss Vere’s sorrows was Ratcliffe. Ellieslaw had, in the agitation of his mind, forgotten to countermand the order he had given to call him thither, so that he opened the door with the words, “You sent for me, Mr. Vere.” Then looking around —“Miss Vere, alone! on the ground! and in tears!”

“Leave me — leave me, Mr. Ratcliffe,” said the unhappy young lady.

“I must not leave you,” said Ratcliffe; “I have been repeatedly requesting admittance to take my leave of you, and have been refused, until your father himself sent for me. Blame me not, if I am bold and intrusive; I have a duty to discharge which makes me so.”

“I cannot listen to you — I cannot speak to you, Mr. Ratcliffe; take my best wishes, and for God’s sake leave me.”

“Tell me only,” said Ratcliffe, “is it true that this monstrous match is to go forward, and this very night? I heard the servants proclaim it as I was on the great staircase — I heard the directions given to clear out the chapel.”

“Spare me, Mr. Ratcliffe,” replied the luckless bride; “and from the state in which you see me, judge of the cruelty of these questions.”

“Married? to Sir Frederick Langley? and this night? It must not cannot — shall not be.”

“It must be, Mr. Ratcliff, or my father is ruined.”

“Ah! I understand,” answered Ratcliffe; “and you have sacrificed yourself to save him who — But let the virtue of the child atone for the faults of the father it is no time to rake them up. — What can be done? Time presses — I know but one remedy — with four-and-twenty hours I might find many — Miss Vere, you must implore the protection of the only human being who has it in his power to control the course of events which threatens to hurry you before it.”

“And what human being,” answered Miss Vere, “has such power?”

“Start not when I name him,” said Ratcliffe, coming near her, and speaking in a low but distinct voice. “It is he who is called Elshender the Recluse of Mucklestane-Moor.”

“You are mad, Mr. Ratcliffe, or you mean to insult my misery by an ill-timed jest!”

“I am as much in my senses, young lady,” answered her adviser, “as you are; and I am no idle jester, far less with misery, least of all with your misery. I swear to you that this being (who is other far than what he seems) actually possesses the means of redeeming you from this hateful union.”

“And of insuring my father’s safety?”

“Yes! even that,” said Ratcliffe, “if you plead his cause with him — yet how to obtain admittance to the Recluse!”

“Fear not that,” said Miss Vere, suddenly recollecting the incident of the rose; “I remember he desired me to call upon him for aid in my extremity, and gave me this flower as a token. Ere it faded away entirely, I would need, he said, his assistance: is it possible his words can have been aught but the ravings of insanity?”

“Doubt it not fear it not — but above all,” said Ratcliffe, “let us lose no time — are you at liberty, and unwatched?”

“I believe so,” said Isabella: “but what would you have me to do?”

“Leave the castle instantly,” said Ratcliffe, “and throw yourself at the feet of this extraordinary man, who in circumstances that seem to argue the extremity of the most contemptible poverty, possesses yet an almost absolute influence over your fate. — Guests and servants are deep in their carouse — the leaders sitting in conclave on their treasonable schemes — my horse stands ready in the stable — I will saddle one for you, and meet you at the little garden-gate — O, let no doubt of my prudence or fidelity prevent your taking the only step in your power to escape the dreadful fate which must attend the wife of Sir Frederick Langley!”

“Mr. Ratcliffe,” said Miss Vere, “you have always been esteemed a man of honour and probity, and a drowning wretch will always catch at the feeblest twig — I will trust you — I will follow your advice — I will meet you at the garden-gate.”

She bolted the outer-door of her apartment as soon as Mr. Ratcliffe left her, and descended to the garden by a separate stair of communication which opened to her dressing-room. On the way she felt inclined to retract the consent she had so hastily given to a plan so hopeless and extravagant. But as she passed in her descent a private door which entered into the chapel from the back-stair, she heard the voice of the female-servants as they were employed in the task of cleaning it.

“Married! and to sae bad a man — Ewhow, sirs! onything rather than that.”

“They are right — they are right,” said Miss Vere, “anything rather than that!”

She hurried to the garden. Mr. Ratcliffe was true to his appointment — the horses stood saddled at the garden-gate, and in a few minutes they were advancing rapidly towards the hut of the Solitary.

While the ground was favourable, the speed of their journey was such as to prevent much communication; but when a steep ascent compelled them to slacken their pace, a new cause of apprehension occurred to Miss Vere’s mind.

“Mr. Ratcliffe,” she said, pulling up her horse’s bridle, “let us prosecute no farther a journey, which nothing but the extreme agitation of my mind can vindicate my having undertaken — I am well aware that this man passes among the vulgar as being possessed of supernatural powers, and carrying on an intercourse with beings of another world; but I would have you aware I am neither to be imposed on by such follies, nor, were I to believe in their existence, durst I, with my feelings of religion, apply to this being in my distress.”

“I should have thought, Miss Vere,” replied Ratcliffe, “my character and habits of thinking were so well known to you, that you might have held me exculpated from crediting in such absurdity.”

“But in what other mode,” said Isabella, “can a being, so miserable himself in appearance, possess the power of assisting me?”

“Miss Vere.” said Ratcliffe, after a momentary pause, “I am bound by a solemn oath of secrecy — You must, without farther explanation, be satisfied with my pledged assurance, that he does possess the power, if you can inspire him with the will; and that, I doubt not, you will be able to do.”

“Mr. Ratcliffe,” said Miss Vere, “you may yourself be mistaken; you ask an unlimited degree of confidence from me.”

“Recollect, Miss Vere,” he replied, “that when, in your humanity, you asked me to interfere with your father in favour of Haswell and his ruined family — when you requested me to prevail on him to do a thing most abhorrent to his nature — to forgive an injury and remit a penalty — I stipulated that you should ask me no questions concerning the sources of my influence — You found no reason to distrust me then, do not distrust me now.”

“But the extraordinary mode of life of this man,” said Miss Vere; “his seclusion — his figure — the deepness of mis-anthropy which he is said to express in his language — Mr. Ratcliffe, what can I think of him if he really possesses the powers you ascribe to him?”

“This man, young lady, was bred a Catholic, a sect which affords a thousand instances of those who have retired from power and affluence to voluntary privations more strict even than his.”

“But he avows no religious motive,” replied Miss Vere.

“No,” replied Ratcliffe; “disgust with the world has operated his retreat from it without assuming the veil of superstition. Thus far I may tell you — he was born to great wealth, which his parents designed should become greater by his union with a kinswoman, whom for that purpose they bred up in their own house. You have seen his figure; judge what the young lady must have thought of the lot to which she was destined — Yet, habituated to his appearance, she showed no reluctance, and the friends of — of the person whom I speak of, doubted not that the excess of his attachment, the various acquisitions of his mind, his many and amiable qualities, had overcome the natural horror which his destined bride must have entertained at an exterior so dreadfully inauspicious.”

“And did they judge truly?” said Isabella.

“You shall hear. He, at least, was fully aware of his own deficiency; the sense of it haunted him like a phantom. ‘I am,’ was his own expression to me — I mean to a man whom he trusted — ‘I am, in spite of what you would say, a poor miserable outcast, fitter to have been smothered in the cradle than to have been brought up to scare the world in which I crawl.’ The person whom he addressed in vain endeavoured to impress him with the indifference to external form which is the natural result of philosophy, or entreat him to recall the superiority of mental talents to the more attractive attributes that are merely personal. ‘I hear you,’ he would reply; ‘but you speak the voice of cold-blooded stoicism, or, at least, of friendly partiality. But look at every book which we have read, those excepted of that abstract philosophy which feels no responsive voice in our natural feelings. Is not personal form, such as at least can be tolerated without horror and disgust, always represented as essential to our ideas of a friend, far more a lover? Is not such a mis-shapen monster as I am, excluded, by the very fiat of Nature, from her fairest enjoyments? What but my wealth prevents all — perhaps even Letitia, or you — from shunning me as something foreign to your nature, and more odious, by bearing that distorted resemblance to humanity which we observe in the animal tribes that are more hateful to man because they seem his caricature?’”

“You repeat the sentiments of a madman,” said Miss Vere.

“No,” replied her conductor, “unless a morbid and excessive sensibility on such a subject can be termed insanity. “Yet I will not deny that this governing feeling and apprehension carried the person who entertained it, to lengths which indicated a deranged imagination. He appeared to think that it was necessary for him, by exuberant, and not always well-chosen instances of liberality, and even profusion, to unite himself to the human race, from which he conceived himself naturally dissevered. The benefits which he bestowed, from a disposition naturally philanthropical in an uncommon degree, were exaggerated by the influence of the goading reflection, that more was necessary from him than from others — lavishing his treasures as if to bribe mankind to receive him into their class. It is scarcely necessary to say, that the bounty which flowed from a source so capricious was often abused, and his confidence frequently betrayed. These disappointments, which occur to all, more or less, and most to such as confer benefits without just discrimination, his diseased fancy set down to the hatred and contempt excited by his personal deformity. — But I fatigue you, Miss Vere?”

“No, by no means; I— I could not prevent my attention from wandering an instant; pray proceed.”

“He became at length,” continued Ratcliffe, “the most ingenious self-tormentor of whom I have ever heard; the scoff of the rabble, and the sneer of the yet more brutal vulgar of his own rank, was to him agony and breaking on the wheel. He regarded the laugh of the common people whom he passed on the street, and the suppressed titter, or yet more offensive terror, of the young girls to whom he was introduced in company, as proofs of the true sense which the world entertained of him, as a prodigy unfit to be received among them on the usual terms of society, and as vindicating the wisdom of his purpose in withdrawing himself from among them. On the faith and sincerity of two persons alone, he seemed to rely implicitly — on that of his betrothed bride, and of a friend eminently gifted in personal accomplishments, who seemed, and indeed probably was, sincerely attached to him. He ought to have been so at least, for he was literally loaded with benefits by him whom you are now about to see. The parents of the subject of my story died within a short space of each other. Their death postponed the marriage, for which the day had been fixed. The lady did not seem greatly to mourn this delay — perhaps that was not to have been expected; but she intimated no change of intention, when, after a decent interval, a second day was named for their union. The friend of whom I spoke was then a constant resident at the Hall. In an evil hour, at the earnest request and entreaty of this friend, they joined a general party, where men of different political opinions were mingled, and where they drank deep. A quarrel ensued; the friend of the Recluse drew his sword with others, and was thrown down and disarmed by a more powerful antagonist. They fell in the struggle at the feet of the Recluse, who, maimed and truncated as his form appears, possesses, nevertheless, great strength, as well as violent passions. He caught up a sword, pierced the heart of his friend’s antagonist, was tried, and his life, with difficulty, redeemed from justice at the expense of a year’s close imprisonment, the punishment of manslaughter. The incident affected him most deeply, the more that the deceased was a man of excellent character, and had sustained gross insult and injury ere he drew his sword. I think, from that moment, I observed — I beg pardon — The fits of morbid sensibility which had tormented this unfortunate gentleman, were rendered henceforth more acute by remorse, which he, of all men, was least capable of having incurred, or of sustaining when it became his unhappy lot. His paroxysms of agony could not be concealed from the lady to whom he was betrothed; and it must be confessed they were of an alarming and fearful nature. He comforted himself, that, at the expiry of his imprisonment, he could form with his wife and friend a society, encircled by which he might dispense with more extensive communication with the world. He was deceived; before that term elapsed, his friend and his betrothed bride were man and wife. The effects of a shock so dreadful on an ardent temperament, a disposition already soured by bitter remorse, and loosened by the indulgence of a gloomy imagination from the rest of mankind, I cannot describe to you; it was as if the last cable at which the vessel rode had suddenly parted, and left her abandoned to all the wild fury of the tempest. He was placed under medical restraint. As a temporary measure this might have been justifiable; but his hard-hearted friend, who, in consequence of his marriage, was now his nearest ally, prolonged his confinement, in order to enjoy the management of his immense estates. There was one who owed his all to the sufferer, an humble friend, but grateful and faithful. By unceasing exertion, and repeated invocation of justice, he at length succeeded in obtaining his patron’s freedom, and reinstatement in the management of his own property, to which was soon added that of his intended bride, who having died without male issue, her estates reverted to him, as heir of entail. But freedom and wealth were unable to restore the equipoise of his mind; to the former his grief made him indifferent — the latter only served him as far as it afforded him the means of indulging his strange and wayward fancy. He had renounced the Catholic religion, but perhaps some of its doctrines continued to influence a mind, over which remorse and misanthropy now assumed, in appearance, an unbounded authority. His life has since been that alternately of a pilgrim and a hermit, suffering the most severe privations, not indeed in ascetic devotion, but in abhorrence of mankind. Yet no man’s words and actions have been at such a wide difference, nor has any hypocritical wretch ever been more ingenious in assigning good motives for his vile actions, than this unfortunate in reconciling to his abstract principles of misanthropy, a conduct which flows from his natural generosity and kindness of feeling.”

“Still, Mr. Ratcliffe — still you describe the inconsistencies of a madman.”

“By no means,” replied Ratcliffe. “That the imagination of this gentleman is disordered, I will not pretend to dispute; I have already told you that it has sometimes broken out into paroxysms approaching to real mental alienation. But it is of his common state of mind that I speak; it is irregular, but not deranged; the shades are as gradual as those that divide the light of noonday from midnight. The courtier who ruins his fortune for the attainment of a title which can do him no good, or power of which he can make no suitable or creditable use, the miser who hoards his useless wealth, and the prodigal who squanders it, are all marked with a certain shade of insanity. To criminals who are guilty of enormities, when the temptation, to a sober mind, bears no proportion to the horror of the act, or the probability of detection and punishment, the same observation applies; and every violent passion, as well as anger, may be termed a short madness.”

“This may be all good philosophy, Mr. Ratcliffe,” answered Miss Vere; “but, excuse me, it by no means emboldens me to visit, at this late hour, a person whose extravagance of imagination you yourself can only palliate.”

“Rather, then,” said Ratcliffe, “receive my solemn assurances, that you do not incur the slightest danger. But what I have been hitherto afraid to mention for fear of alarming you is, that now when we are within sight of his retreat, for I can discover it through the twilight, I must go no farther with you; you must proceed alone.”

“Alone? — I dare not.”

“You must,” continued Ratcliffe; “I will remain here and wait for you.”

“You will not, then, stir from this place,” said Miss Vere “yet the distance is so great, you could not hear me were I to cry for assistance.”

“Fear nothing,” said her guide; “or observe, at least, the utmost caution in stifling every expression of timidity. Remember that his predominant and most harassing apprehension arises from a consciousness of the hideousness of his appearance. Your path lies straight beside yon half-fallen willow; keep the left side of it; the marsh lies on the right. Farewell for a time. Remember the evil you are threatened with, and let it overcome at once your fears and scruples.”

“Mr. Ratcliffe,” said Isabella, “farewell; if you have deceived one so unfortunate as myself, you have for ever forfeited the fair character for probity and honour to which I have trusted.”

“On my life — on my soul,” continued Ratcliffe, raising his voice as the distance between them increased, “you are safe — perfectly safe.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/black/chapter15.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29