The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 4

I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind;

For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,

That I might love thee something.

Timon of Athens

On the following morning, after breakfast, Earnscliff took leave of his hospitable friends, promising to return in time to partake of the venison, which had arrived from his house. Hobbie, who apparently took leave of him at the door of his habitation, slunk out, however, and joined him at the top of the hill.

“Ye’ll be gaun yonder, Mr. Patrick; feind o’ me will mistryst you for a’ my mother says. I thought it best to slip out quietly though, in case she should mislippen something of what we’re gaun to do — we maunna vex her at nae rate — it was amaist the last word my father said to me on his deathbed.”

“By no means, Hobbie,” said Earnscliff; “she well merits all your attention.”

“Troth, for that matter, she would be as sair vexed amaist for you as for me. But d’ye really think there’s nae presumption in venturing back yonder? — We hae nae special commission, ye ken.”

“If I thought as you do, Hobbie,” said the young gentleman, “I would not perhaps enquire farther into this business; but as I am of opinion that preternatural visitations are either ceased altogether, or become very rare in our days, I am unwilling to leave a matter uninvestigated which may concern the life of a poor distracted being.”

“Aweel, aweel, if ye really think that,” answered Hobbie doubtfully —“And it’s for certain the very fairies — I mean the very good neighbours themsells (for they say folk suldna ca’ them fairies) that used to be seen on every green knowe at e’en, are no half sae often visible in our days. I canna depone to having ever seen ane mysell, but, I ance heard ane whistle ahint me in the moss, as like a whaup as ae thing could be like anither. And mony ane my father saw when he used to come hame frae the fairs at e’en, wi’ a drap drink in his head, honest man.”

Earnscliff was somewhat entertained with the gradual declension of superstition from one generation to another which was inferred In this last observation; and they continued to reason on such subjects, until they came in sight of the upright stone which gave name to the moor.

“As I shall answer,” says Hobbie, “yonder’s the creature creeping about yet! — But it’s daylight, and you have your gun, and I brought out my bit whinger — I think we may venture on him.”

“By all manner of means,” said Earnscliff; “but, in the name of wonder, what can he be doing there?”

“Biggin a dry-stane dyke, I think, wi’ the grey geese, as they ca’ thae great loose stanes — Odd, that passes a’ thing I e’er heard tell of!”

As they approached nearer, Earnscliff could not help agreeing with his companion. The figure they had seen the night before seemed slowly and toilsomely labouring to pile the large stones one upon another, as if to form a small enclosure. Materials lay around him in great plenty, but the labour of carrying on the work was immense, from the size of most of the stones; and it seemed astonishing that he should have succeeded in moving several which he had already arranged for the foundation of his edifice. He was struggling to move a fragment of great size when the two young men came up, and was so intent upon executing his purpose, that he did not perceive them till they were close upon him. In straining and heaving at the stone, in order to place it according to his wish, he displayed a degree of strength which seemed utterly inconsistent with his size and apparent deformity. Indeed, to judge from the difficulties he had already surmounted, he must have been of Herculean powers; for some of the stones he had succeeded in raising apparently required two men’s strength to have moved them. Hobbie’s suspicions began to revive, on seeing the preternatural strength he exerted.

“I am amaist persuaded it’s the ghaist of a stane-mason — see siccan band-statnes as he’s laid i — An it be a man, after a’, I wonder what he wad take by the rood to build a march dyke. There’s ane sair wanted between Cringlehope and the Shaws. — Honest man” (raising his voice), “ye make good firm wark there?”

The being whom he addressed raised his eyes with a ghastly stare, and, getting up from his stooping posture, stood before them in all his native and hideous deformity. His head was of uncommon size, covered with a fell of shaggy hair, partly grizzled with age; his eyebrows, shaggy and prominent, overhung a pair of small dark, piercing eyes, set far back in their sockets, that rolled with a portentous wildness, indicative of a partial insanity. The rest of his features were of the coarse, rough-hewn stamp, with which a painter would equip a giant in romance; to which was added the wild, irregular, and peculiar expression, so often seen in the countenances of those whose persons are deformed. His body, thick and square, like that of a man of middle size, was mounted upon two large feet; but nature seemed to have forgotten the legs and the thighs, or they were so very short as to be hidden by the dress which he wore. His arms were long and brawny, furnished with two muscular hands, and, where uncovered in the eagerness of his labour, were shagged with coarse black hair. It seemed as if nature had originally intended the separate parts of his body to be the members of a giant, but had afterwards capriciously assigned them to the person of a dwarf, so ill did the length of his arms and the iron strength of his frame correspond with the shortness of his stature. His clothing was a sort of coarse brown tunic, like a monk’s frock, girt round him with a belt of seal-skin. On his head he had a cap made of badger’s skin, or some other rough fur, which added considerably to the grotesque effect of his whole appearance, and overshadowed features, whose habitual expression seemed that of sullen malignant misanthropy.

This remarkable Dwarf gazed on the two youths in silence, with a dogged and irritated look, until Earnscliff, willing to soothe him into better temper, observed, “You are hard tasked, my friend; allow us to assist you.”

Elliot and he accordingly placed the stone, by their joint efforts, upon the rising wall. The Dwarf watched them with the eye of a taskmaster, and testified, by peevish gestures, his impatience at the time which they took in adjusting the stone. He pointed to another — they raised it also — to a third, to a fourth — they continued to humour him, though with some trouble, for he assigned them, as if intentionally, the heaviest fragments which lay near.

“And now, friend,” said Elliot, as the unreasonable Dwarf indicated another stone larger than any they had moved, “Earnscliff may do as he likes; but be ye man or be ye waur, deil be in my fingers if I break my back wi’ heaving thae stanes ony langer like a barrow-man, without getting sae muckle as thanks for my pains.”

“Thanks!” exclaimed the Dwarf, with a motion expressive of the utmost contempt —“There — take them, and fatten upon them! Take them, and may they thrive with you as they have done with me — as they have done with every mortal worm that ever heard the word spoken by his fellow reptile! Hence — either labour or begone!”

“This is a fine reward we have, Earnscliff, for building a tabernacle for the devil, and prejudicing our ain souls into the bargain, for what we ken.”

“Our presence,” answered Earnscliff, “seems only to irritate his frenzy; we had better leave him, and send some one to provide him with food and necessaries.”

They did so. The servant dispatched for this purpose found the Dwarf still labouring at his wall, but could not extract a word from him. The lad, infected with the superstitions of the country, did not long persist in an attempt to intrude questions or advice on so singular a figure, but having placed the articles which he had brought for his use on a stone at some distance, he left them at the misanthrope’s disposal.

The Dwarf proceeded in his labours, day after day, with an assiduity so incredible as to appear almost supernatural. In one day he often seemed to have done the work of two men, and his building soon assumed the appearance of the walls of a hut, which, though very small, and constructed only of stones and turf, without any mortar, exhibited, from the unusual size of the stones employed, an appearance of solidity very uncommon for a cottage of such narrow dimensions and rude construction. Earnscliff; attentive to his motions, no sooner perceived to what they tended, than he sent down a number of spars of wood suitable for forming the roof, which he caused to be left in the neighbourhood of the spot, resolving next day to send workmen to put them up. But his purpose was anticipated, for in the evening, during the night, and early in the morning, the Dwarf had laboured so hard, and with such ingenuity, that he had nearly completed the adjustment of the rafters. His next labour was to cut rushes and thatch his dwelling, a task which he performed with singular dexterity.

As he seemed averse to receive any aid beyond the occasional assistance of a passenger, materials suitable to his purpose, and tools, were supplied to him, in the use of which he proved to be skilful. He constructed the door and window of his cot, he adjusted a rude bedstead, and a few shelves, and appeared to become somewhat soothed in his temper as his accommodations increased.

His next task was to form a strong enclosure, and to cultivate the land within it to the best of his power; until, by transporting mould, and working up what was upon the spot, he formed a patch of garden-ground. It must be naturally supposed, that, as above hinted, this solitary being received assistance occasionally from such travellers as crossed the moor by chance, as well as from several who went from curiosity to visit his works. It was, indeed, impossible to see a human creature, so unfitted, at first sight, for hard labour, toiling with such unremitting assiduity, without stopping a few minutes to aid him in his task; and, as no one of his occasional assistants was acquainted with the degree of help which the Dwarf had received from others, the celerity of his progress lost none of its marvels in their eyes. The strong and compact appearance of the cottage, formed in so very short a space, and by such a being, and the superior skill which he displayed in mechanics, and in other arts, gave suspicion to the surrounding neighbours. They insisted, that, if he was not a phantom — an opinion which was now abandoned, since he plainly appeared a being of blood and bone with themselves — yet he must be in close league with the invisible world, and have chosen that sequestered spot to carry on his communication with them undisturbed. They insisted, though in a different sense from the philosopher’s application of the phrase, that he was never less alone than when alone; and that from the heights which commanded the moor at a distance, passengers often discovered a person at work along with this dweller of the desert, who regularly disappeared as soon as they approached closer to the cottage. Such a figure was also occasionally seen sitting beside him at the door, walking with him in the moor, or assisting him in fetching water from his fountain. Earnscliff explained this phenomenon by supposing it to be the Dwarf’s shadow.

“Deil a shadow has he,” replied Hobbie Elliot, who was a strenuous defender of the general opinion; “he’s ower far in wi’ the Auld Ane to have a shadow. Besides,” he argued more logically, “wha ever heard of a shadow that cam between a body and the sun? and this thing, be it what it will, is thinner and taller than the body himsell, and has been seen to come between him and the sun mair than anes or twice either.”

These suspicions, which, in any other part of the country, might have been attended with investigations a little inconvenient to the supposed wizard, were here only productive of respect and awe. The recluse being seemed somewhat gratified by the marks of timid veneration with which an occasional passenger approached his dwelling, the look of startled surprise with which he surveyed his person and his premises, and the hurried step with which he pressed his retreat as he passed the awful spot. The boldest only stopped to gratify their curiosity by a hasty glance at the walls of his cottage and garden, and to apologize for it by a courteous salutation, which the inmate sometimes deigned to return by a word or a nod. Earnscliff often passed that way, and seldom without enquiring after the solitary inmate, who seemed now to have arranged his establishment for life.

It was impossible to engage him in any conversation on his own personal affairs; nor was he communicative or accessible in talking on any other subject whatever, although he seemed to have considerably relented in the extreme ferocity of his misanthropy, or rather to be less frequently visited with the fits of derangement of which this was a symptom. No argument could prevail upon him to accept anything beyond the simplest necessaries, although much more was offered by Earnscliff out of charity, and by his more superstitious neighbours from other motives. The benefits of these last he repaid by advice, when consulted (as at length he slowly was) on their diseases, or those of their cattle. He often furnished them with medicines also, and seemed possessed, not only of such as were the produce of the country, but of foreign drugs. He gave these persons to understand, that his name was Elshender the Recluse; but his popular epithet soon came to be Canny Elshie, or the Wise Wight of Mucklestane-Moor. Some extended their queries beyond their bodily complaints, and requested advice upon other matters, which he delivered with an oracular shrewdness that greatly confirmed the opinion of his possessing preternatural skill. The querists usually left some offering upon a stone, at a distance from his dwelling; if it was money, or any article which did not suit him to accept, he either threw it away, or suffered it to remain where it was without making use of it. On all occasions his manners were rude and unsocial; and his words, in number, just sufficient to express his meaning as briefly as possible, and he shunned all communication that went a syllable beyond the matter in hand. When winter had passed away, and his garden began to afford him herbs and vegetables, he confined himself almost entirely to those articles of food. He accepted, notwithstanding, a pair of she-goats from Earnscliff, which fed on the moor, and supplied him with milk.

When Earnscliff found his gift had been received, he soon afterwards paid the hermit a visit. The old man was seated an a broad flat stone near his garden door, which was the seat of science he usually occupied when disposed to receive his patients or clients. The inside of his hut, and that of his garden, he kept as sacred from human intrusion as the natives of Otaheite do their Morai; — apparently he would have deemed it polluted by the step of any human being. When he shut himself up in his habitation, no entreaty could prevail upon him to make himself visible, or to give audience to any one whomsoever.

Earnscliff had been fishing in a small river at some distance. He had his rod in his hand, and his basket, filled with trout, at his shoulder. He sate down upon a stone nearly opposite to the Dwarf who, familiarized with his presence, took no farther notice of him than by elevating his huge mis-shapen head for the purpose of staring at him, and then again sinking it upon his bosom, as if in profound meditation. Earnscliff looked around him, and observed that the hermit had increased his accommodations by the construction of a shed for the reception of his goats.

You labour hard, Elshie,” he said, willing to lead this singular being into conversation.

“Labour,” re-echoed the Dwarf, “is the mildest evil of a lot so miserable as that of mankind; better to labour like me, than sport like you.”

“I cannot defend the humanity of our ordinary rural sports, Elshie, and yet —”

“And yet,” interrupted the Dwarf” they are better than your ordinary business; better to exercise idle and wanton cruelty on mute fishes than on your fellow-creatures. Yet why should I say so? Why should not the whole human herd butt, gore, and gorge upon each other, till all are extirpated but one huge and over-fed Behemoth, and he, when he had throttled and gnawed the bones of all his fellows — he, when his prey failed him, to be roaring whole days for lack of food, and, finally, to die, inch by inch, of famine — it were a consummation worthy of the race!”

“Your deeds are better, Elshie, than your words,” answered Earnscliff; “you labour to preserve the race whom your misanthropy slanders.”

“I do; but why? — Hearken. You are one on whom I look with the least loathing, and I care not, if, contrary to my wont, I waste a few words in compassion to your infatuated blindness. If I cannot send disease into families, and murrain among the herds, can I attain the same end so well as by prolonging the lives of those who can serve the purpose of destruction as effectually? — If Alice of Bower had died in winter, would young Ruthwin have been slain for her love the last spring? — Who thought of penning their cattle beneath the tower when the Red Reiver of Westburnflat was deemed to be on his death-bed? — My draughts, my skill, recovered him. And, now, who dare leave his herd upon the lea without a watch, or go to bed without unchaining the sleuth-hound?”

“I own,” answered Earnscliff; “you did little good to society by the last of these cures. But, to balance the evil, there is my friend Hobbie, honest Hobbie of the Heugh-foot, your skill relieved him last winter in a fever that might have cost him his life.”

“Thus think the children of clay in their ignorance,” said: the Dwarf, smiling maliciously, “and thus they speak in their folly. Have you marked the young cub of a wild cat that has been domesticated, how sportive, how playful, how gentle — but trust him with your game, your lambs, your poultry, his inbred ferocity breaks forth; he gripes, tears, ravages, and devours.”

“Such is the animal’s instinct,” answered Earnscliff; “but what has that to do with Hobbie?”

“It is his emblem — it is his picture,” retorted the Recluse. “He is at present tame, quiet, and domesticated, for lack of opportunity to exercise his inborn propensities; but let the trumpet of war sound — let the young blood-hound snuff blood, he will be as ferocious as the wildest of his Border ancestors that ever fired a helpless peasant’s abode. Can you deny, that even at present he often urges you to take bloody revenge for an injury received when you were a boy?”— Earnscliff started; the Recluse appeared not to observe his surprise, and proceeded —“The trumpet will blow, the young blood-hound will lap blood, and I will laugh and say, For this I have preserved thee!” He paused, and continued — “Such are my cures; — their object, their purpose, perpetuating the mass of misery, and playing even in this desert my part in the general tragedy. Were you on your sick bed, I might, in compassion, send you a cup of poison.”

“I am much obliged to you, Elshie, and certainly shall not fail to consult you, with so comfortable a hope from your assistance.”

“Do not flatter yourself too far,” replied the Hermit, “with the hope that I will positively yield to the frailty of pity. Why should I snatch a dupe, so well fitted to endure the miseries of life as you are, from the wretchedness which his own visions, and the villainy of the world, are preparing for him? Why should I play the compassionate Indian, and, knocking out the brains of the captive with my tomahawk, at once spoil the three days’ amusement of my kindred tribe, at the very moment when the brands were lighted, the pincers heated, the cauldrons boiling, the knives sharpened, to tear, scorch, seethe, and scarify the intended victim?”

“A dreadful picture you present to me of life, Elshie; but I am not daunted by it,” returned Earnscliff. “We are sent here, in one sense, to bear and to suffer; but, in another, to do and to enjoy. The active day has its evening of repose; even patient sufferance has its alleviations, where there is a consolatory sense of duty discharged.”

“I spurn at the slavish and bestial doctrine,” said the Dwarf, his eyes kindling with insane fury — “I spurn at it, as worthy only of the beasts that perish; but I will waste no more words with you.”

He rose hastily; but, ere he withdrew into the hut, he added, with great vehemence, “Yet, lest you still think my apparent benefits to mankind flow from the stupid and servile source, called love of our fellow-creatures, know, that were there a man who had annihilated my soul’s dearest hope — who had torn my heart to mammocks, and seared mp brain till it glowed like a volcano, and were that man’s fortune and life in my power as completely as this frail potsherd” (he snatched up an earthen cup which stood beside him), “I would not dash him into atoms thus”—(he flung the vessel with fury against the wall) — “No!” (he spoke more composedly, but with the utmost bitterness), “I would pamper him with wealth and power to inflame his evil passions, and to fulfil his evil designs; he should lack no means of vice and villainy; he should be the centre of a whirlpool that itself should know neither rest nor peace, but boil with unceasing fury, while it wrecked every goodly ship that approached its limits! he should be an earthquake capable of shaking the very land in which he dwelt, and rendering all its inhabitants friendless, outcast, and miserable — as I am!”

The wretched being rushed into his hut as he uttered these last words, shutting the door with furious violence, and rapidly drawing two bolts, one after another, as if to exclude the intrusion of any one of that hated race, who had thus lashed his soul to frenzy. Earnscliff left the moor with mingled sensations of pity and horror, pondering what strange and melancholy cause could have reduced to so miserable a state of mind, a man whose language argued him to be of rank and education much superior to the vulgar. He was also surprised to see how much particular information a person who had lived in that country so short a time, and in so recluse a manner, had been able to collect respecting the dispositions and private affairs of the inhabitants.

“It is no wonder,” he said to himself, “that with such extent of information, such a mode of life, so uncouth a figure, and sentiments so virulently misanthropic, this unfortunate should be regarded by the vulgar as in league with the Enemy of Mankind.”

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