The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 2

Will none but Hearne the Hunter serve your turn?

Merry Wives of Windsor.

In one of the most remote districts of the south of Scotland, where an ideal line, drawn along the tops of lofty and bleak mountains, separates that land from her sister kingdom, a young man, called Halbert, or Hobbie Elliot, a substantial farmer, who boasted his descent from old Martin Elliot of the Preakin-tower, noted in Border story and song, was on his return from deer-stalking. The deer, once so numerous among these solitary wastes, were now reduced to a very few herds, which, sheltering themselves in the most remote and inaccessible recesses, rendered the task of pursuing them equally toilsome and precarious. There were, however, found many youth of the country ardently attached to this sport, with all its dangers and fatigues. The sword had been sheathed upon the Borders for more than a hundred years, by the peaceful union of the crowns in the reign of James the First of Great Britain. Still the country retained traces of what it had been in former days; the inhabitants, their more peaceful avocations having been repeatedly interrupted by the civil wars of the preceding century, were scarce yet broken in to the habits of regular industry, sheep-farming had not been introduced upon any considerable scale, and the feeding of black cattle was the chief purpose to which the hills and valleys were applied. Near to the farmer’s house, the tenant usually contrived to raise such a crop of oats or barley, as afforded meal for his family; and the whole of this slovenly and imperfect mode of cultivation left much time upon his own hands, and those of his domestics. This was usually employed by the young men in hunting and fishing; and the spirit of adventure, which formerly led to raids and forays in the same districts, was still to be discovered in the eagerness with which they pursued those rural sports.

The more high-spirited among the youth were, about the time that our narrative begins, expecting, rather with hope than apprehension, an opportunity of emulating their fathers in their military achievements, the recital of which formed the chief part of their amusement within doors. The passing of the Scottish act of security had given the alarm of England, as it seemed to point at a separation of the two British kingdoms, after the decease of Queen Anne, the reigning sovereign. Godolphin, then at the head of the English administration, foresaw that there was no other mode of avoiding the probable extremity of a civil war, but by carrying through an incorporating union. How that treaty was managed, and how little it seemed for some time to promise the beneficial results which have since taken place to such extent, may be learned from the history of the period. It is enough for our purpose to say, that all Scotland was indignant at the terms on which their legislature had surrendered their national independence. The general resentment led to the strangest leagues and to the wildest plans. The Cameronians were about to take arms for the restoration of the house of Stewart, whom they regarded, with justice, as their oppressors; and the intrigues of the period presented the strange picture of papists, prelatists, and presbyterians, caballing among themselves against the English government, out of a common feeling that their country had been treated with injustice. The fermentation was universal; and, as the population of Scotland had been generally trained to arms, under the act of security, they were not indifferently prepared for war, and waited but the declaration of some of the nobility to break out into open hostility. It was at this period of public confusion that our story opens.

The cleugh, or wild ravine, into which Hobbie Elliot had followed the game, was already far behind him, and he was considerably advanced on his return homeward, when the night began to close upon him. This would have been a circumstance of great indifference to the experienced sportsman, who could have walked blindfold over every inch of his native heaths, had it not happened near a spot, which, according to the traditions of the country, was in extremely bad fame, as haunted by supernatural appearances. To tales of this kind Hobbie had, from his childhood, lent an attentive ear; and as no part of the country afforded such a variety of legends, so no man was more deeply read in their fearful lore than Hobbie of the Heugh-foot; for so our gallant was called, to distinguish him from a round dozen of Elliots who bore the same Christian name. It cost him no efforts, therefore, to call to memory the terrific incidents connected with the extensive waste upon which he was now entering. In fact, they presented themselves with a readiness which he felt to be somewhat dismaying.

This dreary common was called Mucklestane-Moor, from a huge column of unhewn granite, which raised its massy head on a knell near the centre of the heath, perhaps to tell of the mighty dead who slept beneath, or to preserve the memory of some bloody skirmish. The real cause of its existence had, however, passed away; and tradition, which is as frequently an inventor of fiction as a preserver of truth, had supplied its place with a supplementary legend of her own, which now came full upon Hobbie’s memory. The ground about the pillar was strewed, or rather encumbered, with many large fragments of stone of the same consistence with the column, which, from their appearance as they lay scattered on the waste, were popularly called the Grey Geese of Mucklestane-Moor. The legend accounted for this name and appearance by the catastrophe of a noted and most formidable witch who frequented these hills in former days, causing the ewes to Keb, and the kine to cast their calves, and performing all the feats of mischief ascribed to these evil beings. On this moor she used to hold her revels with her sister hags; and rings were still pointed out on which no grass nor heath ever grew, the turf being, as it were, calcined by the scorching hoofs of their diabolical partners.

Once upon a time this old hag is said to have crossed the moor, driving before her a flock of geese, which she proposed to sell to advantage at a neighbouring fair; — for it is well known that the fiend, however liberal in imparting his powers of doing mischief, ungenerously leaves his allies under the necessity of performing the meanest rustic labours for subsistence. The day was far advanced, and her chance of obtaining a good price depended on her being first at the market. But the geese, which had hitherto preceded her in a pretty orderly manner, when they came to this wide common, interspersed with marshes and pools of water, scattered in every direction, to plunge into the element in which they delighted. Incensed at the obstinacy with which they defied all her efforts to collect them, and not remembering the precise terms of the contract by which the fiend was bound to obey her commands for a certain space, the sorceress exclaimed, “Deevil, that neither I nor they ever stir from this spot more!” The words were hardly uttered, when, by a metamorphosis as sudden as any in Ovid, the hag and her refractory flock were converted into stone, the angel whom she served, being a strict formalist, grasping eagerly at an opportunity of completing the ruin of her body and soul by a literal obedience to her orders. It is said, that when she perceived and felt the transformation which was about to take place, she exclaimed to the treacherous fiend, “Ah, thou false thief! lang hast thou promised me a grey gown, and now I am getting ane that will last for ever.” The dimensions of the pillar, and of the stones, were often appealed to, as a proof of the superior stature and size of old women and geese in the days of other years, by those praisers of the past who held the comfortable opinion of the gradual degeneracy of mankind.

All particulars of this legend Hobbie called to mind as he passed along the moor. He also remembered, that, since the catastrophe had taken place, the scene of it had been avoided, at least after night-fall, by all human beings, as being the ordinary resort of kelpies, spunkies, and other demons, once the companions of the witch’s diabolical revels, and now continuing to rendezvous upon the same spot, as if still in attendance on their transformed mistress. Hobbie’s natural hardihood, however, manfully combated with these intrusive sensations of awe. He summoned to his side the brace of large greyhounds, who were the companions of his sports, and who were wont, in his own phrase, to fear neither dog nor devil; he looked at the priming of his piece, and, like the clown in Hallowe’en, whistled up the warlike ditty of Jock of the Side, as a general causes his drums be beat to inspirit the doubtful courage of his soldiers.

In this state of mind, he was very glad to hear a friendly voice shout in his rear, and propose to him a partner on the road. He slackened his pace, and was quickly joined by a youth well known to him, a gentleman of some fortune in that remote country, and who had been abroad on the same errand with himself. Young Earnscliff, “of that ilk,” had lately come of age, and succeeded to a moderate fortune, a good deal dilapidated, from the share his family had taken in the disturbances of the period. They were much and generally respected in the country; a reputation which this young gentleman seemed likely to sustain, as he was well educated, and of excellent dispositions.

“Now, Earnscliff;” exclaimed Hobbie, “I am glad to meet your honour ony gate, and company’s blithe on a bare moor like this — it’s an unco bogilly bit — Where hae ye been sporting?”

“Up the Carla Cleugh, Hobbie,” answered Earnscliff, returning his greeting. “But will our dogs keep the peace, think you?”

“Deil a fear o’ mine,” said Hobbie, “they hae scarce a leg to stand on. — Odd! the deer’s fled the country, I think! I have been as far as Inger-fell-foot, and deil a horn has Hobbie seen, excepting three red-wud raes, that never let me within shot of them, though I gaed a mile round to get up the wind to them, an’ a’. Deil o’ me wad care muckle, only I wanted some venison to our auld gude-dame. The carline, she sits in the neuk yonder, upbye, and cracks about the grand shooters and hunters lang syne — Odd, I think they hae killed a’ the deer in the country, for my part.”

“Well, Hobbie, I have shot a fat buck, and sent him to Earnscliff this morning — you shall have half of him for your grandmother.”

“Mony thanks to ye, Mr. Patrick, ye’re kend to a’ the country for a kind heart. It will do the auld wife’s heart gude — mair by token, when she kens it comes frae you — and maist of a’ gin ye’ll come up and take your share, for I reckon ye are lonesome now in the auld tower, and a’ your folk at that weary Edinburgh. I wonder what they can find to do amang a wheen ranks o’ stane-houses wi’ slate on the tap o’ them, that might live on their ain bonny green hills.”

“My education and my sisters’ has kept my mother much in Edinburgh for several years,” said Earnscliff; “but I promise you I propose to make up for lost time.”

“And ye’ll rig out the auld tower a bit,” said Hobbie, “and live hearty and neighbour-like wi’ the auld family friends, as the Laird o’ Earnscliff should? I can tell ye, my mother — my grandmother I mean — but, since we lost our ain mother, we ca’ her sometimes the tane, and sometimes the tother — but, ony gate, she conceits hersell no that distant connected wi’ you.”

“Very true, Hobbie, and I will come to the Heugh-foot to dinner tomorrow with all my heart.”

“Weel, that’s kindly said! We are auld neighbours, an we were nae kin — and my gude-dame’s fain to see you — she clavers about your father that was killed lang syne.”

“Hush, hush, Hobbie — not a word about that — it’s a story better forgotten.”

“I dinna ken — if it had chanced amang our folk, we wad hae keepit it in mind mony a day till we got some mends for’t — but ye ken your ain ways best, you lairds — I have heard say that Ellieslaw’s friend stickit your sire after the laird himsell had mastered his sword.”

“Fie, fie, Hobbie; it was a foolish brawl, occasioned by wine and politics — many swords were drawn — it is impossible to say who struck the blow.”

“At ony rate, auld Ellieslaw was aiding and abetting; and I am sure if ye were sae disposed as to take amends on him, naebody could say it was wrang, for your father’s blood is beneath his nails — and besides there’s naebody else left that was concerned to take amends upon, and he’s a prelatist and a jacobite into the bargain — I can tell ye the country folk look for something atween ye.”

“O for shame, Hobbie!” replied the young Laird; “you, that profess religion, to stir your friend up to break the law, and take vengeance at his own hand, and in such a bogilly bit too, where we know not what beings may be listening to us!”

“Hush, hush!” said Hobbie, drawing nearer to his companion, “I was nae thinking o’ the like o’ them — But I can guess a wee bit what keeps your hand up, Mr. Patrick; we a’ ken it’s no lack o’ courage, but the twa grey een of a bonny lass, Miss Isabel Vere, that keeps you sae sober.”

“I assure you, Hobbie,” said his companion, rather angrily, “I assure you you are mistaken; and it is extremely wrong of you, either to think of, or to utter, such an idea; I have no idea of permitting freedoms to be carried so far as to connect my name with that of any young lady.”

“Why, there now — there now!” retorted Elliot; “did I not say it was nae want o’ spunk that made ye sae mim? — Weel, weel, I meant nae offence; but there’s just ae thing ye may notice frae a friend. The auld Laird of Ellieslaw has the auld riding blood far hetter at his heart than ye hae — troth, he kens naething about thae newfangled notions o’ peace and quietness — he’s a’ for the auld-warld doings o’ lifting and laying on, and he has a wheen stout lads at his back too, and keeps them weel up in heart, and as fu’ o’ mischief as young colts. Where he gets the gear to do’t nane can say; he lives high, and far abune his rents here; however, he pays his way — Sae, if there’s ony out-break in the country, he’s likely to break out wi’ the first — and weel does he mind the auld quarrels between ye, I’m surmizing he’ll be for a touch at the auld tower at Earnscliff.”

“Well, Hobbie,” answered the young gentleman, “if he should be so ill advised, I shall try to make the old tower good against him, as it has been made good by my betters against his betters many a day ago.”

“Very right — very right — that’s speaking like a man now,” said the stout yeoman; “and, if sae should be that this be sae, if ye’ll just gar your servant jow out the great bell in the tower, there’s me, and my twa brothers, and little Davie of the Stenhouse, will be wi’ you, wi’ a’ the power we can make, in the snapping of a flint.”

“Many thanks, Hobbie,” answered Earnscliff; “but I hope we shall have no war of so unnatural and unchristian a kind in our time.”

“Hout, sir, hout,” replied Elliot; “it wad be but a wee bit neighbour war, and Heaven and earth would make allowances for it in this uncuItivated place — it’s just the nature o’ the folk and the land — we canna live quiet like Loudon folk — we haena sae muckle to do. It’s impossible.”

“Well, Hobbie,” said the Laird, “for one who believes so deeply as you do in supernatural appearances, I must own you take Heaven in your own hand rather audaciously, considering where we are walking.”

“What needs I care for the Mucklestane-Moor ony mair than ye do yoursell, Earnscliff?” said Hobbie, something offended; “to be sure, they do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbit things about the land, but what need I care for them? I hae a good conscience, and little to answer for, unless it be about a rant amang the lasses, or a splore at a fair, and that’s no muckle to speak of. Though I say it mysell, I am as quiet a lad and as peaceable —”

“And Dick Turnbull’s head that you broke, and Willie of Winton whom you shot at?” said his travelling companion.

“Hout, Earnscliff, ye keep a record of a’ men’s misdoings — Dick’s head’s healed again, and we’re to fight out the quarrel at Jeddart, on the Rood-day, so that’s like a thing settled in a peaceable way; and then I am friends wi’ Willie again, puir chield — it was but twa or three hail draps after a’. I wad let onybody do the like o’t to me for a pint o’ brandy. But Willie’s lowland bred, poor fallow, and soon frighted for himsell — And, for the worricows, were we to meet ane on this very bit —”

“As is not unlikely,” said young Earnscliff, “for there stands your old witch, Hobbie.”

“I say,” continued Elliot, as if indignant at this hint —“I say, if the auld carline hersell was to get up out o’ the grund just before us here, I would think nae mair — But, gude preserve us, Earnscliff; what can yon, be!”

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