The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 5

The bleakest rock upon the loneliest heath

Feels, in its barrenness, some touch of spring;

And, in the April dew, or beam of May,

Its moss and lichen freshen and revive;

And thus the heart, most sear’d to human pleasure,

Melts at the tear, joys in the smile, of woman.

Beaumont

As the season advanced, the weather became more genial, and the Recluse was more frequently found occupying the broad flat stone in the front of his mansion. As he sate there one day, about the hour of noon, a party of gentlemen and ladies, well mounted, and numerously attended, swept across the heath at some distance from his dwelling. Dogs, hawks, and led-horses swelled the retinue, and the air resounded at intervals with the cheer of the hunters, and the sound of horns blown by the attendants. The Recluse was about to retire into his mansion at the sight of a train so joyous, when three young ladies, with their attendants, who had made a circuit, and detached themselves from their party, in order to gratify their curiosity by a sight of the Wise Wight of Mucklestane-Moor, came suddenly up, ere he could effect his purpose. The first shrieked, and put her hands before her eyes, at sight of an object so unusually deformed. The second, with a hysterical giggle, which she intended should disguise her terrors, asked the Recluse, whether he could tell their fortune. The third, who was best mounted, best dressed, and incomparably the best-looking of the three, advanced, as if to cover the incivility of her companions.

“We have lost the right path that leads through these morasses, and our party have gone forward without us,” said the young lady. “Seeing you, father, at the door of your house, we have turned this way to —”

“Hush!” interrupted the Dwarf; “so young, and already so artful? You came — you know you came, to exult in the consciousness of your own youth, wealth, and beauty, by contrasting them with age, poverty, and deformity. It is a fit employment for the daughter of your father; but O how unlike the child of your mother!”

“Did you, then, know my parents, and do you know me?”

“Yes; this is the first time you have crossed my waking eyes, but I have seen you in my dreams.”

“Your dreams?”

“Ay, Isabel Vere. What hast thou, or thine, to do with my waking thoughts?”

“Your waking thoughts, sir,” said the second of Miss Vere’s companions, with a sort of mock gravity, “are fixed, doubtless, upon wisdom; folly can only intrude on your sleeping moments.”

“Over thine,” retorted the Dwarf, more splenetically than became a philosopher or hermit, “folly exercises an unlimited empire, asleep or awake.”

“Lord bless us!” said the lady, “he’s a prophet, sure enough.”

“As surely,” continued the Recluse,” as thou art a woman. — A woman! — I should have said a lady — a fine lady. You asked me to tell your fortune — it is a simple one; an endless chase through life after follies not worth catching, and, when caught, successively thrown away — a chase, pursued from the days of tottering infancy to those of old age upon his crutches. Toys and merry-makings in childhood — love and its absurdities in youth — spadille and basto in age, shall succeed each other as objects of pursuit — flowers and butterflies in spring — butterflies and thistle-down in summer — withered leaves in autumn and winter — all pursued, all caught, all flung aside. — Stand apart; your fortune is said.”

“All caught, however,” retorted the laughing fair one, who was a cousin of Miss Vere’s; “that’s something, Nancy,” she continued, turning to the timid damsel who had first approached the Dwarf; “will you ask your fortune?”

“Not for worlds,” said she, drawing back; “I have heard enough of yours.”

“Well, then,” said Miss Ilderton, offering money to the Dwarf, “I’ll pay for mine, as if it were spoken by an oracle to a princess.”

“Truth,” said the Soothsayer, “can neither be bought nor sold;” and he pushed back her proffered offering with morose disdain.

“Well, then,” said the lady, “I’ll keep my money, Mr. Elshender, to assist me in the chase I am to pursue.”

“You will need it,” replied the cynic; “without it, few pursue successfully, and fewer are themselves pursued. — Stop!” he said to Miss Vere, as her companions moved off, “With you I have more to say. You have what your companions would wish to have, or be thought to have — beauty, wealth, station, accomplishments.”

“Forgive my following my companions, father; I am proof both to flattery and fortune-telling.”

“Stay,” continued the Dwarf, with his hand on her horse’s rein, “I am no common soothsayer, and I am no flatterer. All the advantages I have detailed, all and each of them have their corresponding evils — unsuccessful love, crossed affections, the gloom of a convent, or an odious alliance. I, who wish ill to all mankind, cannot wish more evil to you, so much is your course of life crossed by it.”

“And if it be, father, let me enjoy the readiest solace of adversity while prosperity is in my power. You are old; you are poor; your habitation is far from human aid, were you ill, or in want; your situation, in many respects, exposes you to the suspicions of the vulgar, which are too apt to break out into actions of brutality. Let me think I have mended the lot of one human being! Accept of such assistance as I have power to offer; do this for my sake, if not for your own, that when these evils arise, which you prophesy perhaps too truly, I may not have to reflect, that the hours of my happier time have been passed altogether in vain.”

The old man answered with a broken voice, and almost without addressing himself to the young lady —

“Yes, ’tis thus thou shouldst think —’tis thus thou shouldst speak, if ever human speech and thought kept touch with each other! They do not — they do not — Alas! they cannot. And yet — wait here an instant — stir not till my return.” He went to his little garden, and returned with a half-blown rose. “Thou hast made me shed a tear, the first which has wet my eyelids for many a year; for that good deed receive this token of gratitude. It is but a common rose; preserve it, however, and do not part with it. Come to me in your hour of adversity. Show me that rose, or but one leaf of it, were it withered as my heart is — if it should be in my fiercest and wildest movements of rage against a hateful world, still it will recall gentler thoughts to my bosom, and perhaps afford happier prospects to thine. But no message,” he exclaimed, rising into his usual mood of misanthropy — “no message — no go-between! Come thyself; and the heart and the doors that are shut against every other earthly being, shall open to thee and to thy sorrows. And now pass on.”

He let go the bridle-rein, and the young lady rode on, after expressing her thanks to this singular being, as well as her surprise at the extraordinary nature of his address would permit, often turning back to look at the Dwarf, who still remained at the door of his habitation, and watched her progress over the moor towards her father’s castle of Ellieslaw, until the brow of the hill hid the party from his sight.

The ladies, meantime, jested with Miss Vere on the strange interview they had just had with the far-famed wizard of the Moor. “Isabella has all the luck at home and abroad! Her hawk strikes down the black-cock; her eyes wound the gallant; no chance for her poor companions and kinswomen; even the conjuror cannot escape the force of her charms. You should, in compassion, cease to be such an engrosser, my dear Isabel, or at least set up shop, and sell off all the goods you do not mean to keep for your own use.”

“You shall have them all,” replied Miss Vere, “and the conjuror to boot, at a very easy rate.”

“No! Nancy shall have the conjuror,” said Miss Ilderton, “to supply deficiencies; she’s not quite a witch herself, you know.”

“Lord, sister,” answered the younger Miss Ilderton, “what could I do with so frightful a monster? I kept my eyes shut, after once glancing at him; and, I protest, I thought I saw him still, though I winked as close as ever I could.”

“That’s a pity,” said her sister; “ever while you live, Nancy, choose an admirer whose faults can be hid by winking at them. — Well, then, I must take him myself, I suppose, and put him into mamma’s Japan cabinet, in order to show that Scotland can produce a specimen of mortal clay moulded into a form ten thousand times uglier than the imaginations of Canton and Pekin, fertile as they are in monsters, have immortalized in porcelain.”

“There is something,” said Miss Vere, “so melancholy in the situation of this poor man, that I cannot enter into your mirth, Lucy, so readily as usual. If he has no resources, how is he to exist in this waste country, living, as he does, at such a distance from mankind? and if he has the means of securing occasional assistance, will not the very suspicion that he is possessed of them, expose him to plunder and assassination by some of our unsettled neighbours?”

“But you forget that they say he is a warlock,” said Nancy Ilderton.

“And, if his magic diabolical should fail him,” rejoined her sister, “I would have him trust to his magic natural, and thrust his enormous head, and most preternatural visage, out at his door or window, full in view of the assailants. The boldest robber that ever rode would hardly bide a second glance of him. Well, I wish I had the use of that Gorgon head of his for only one half hour.”

“For what purpose, Lucy?” said Miss Vere.

“O! I would frighten out of the castle that dark, stiff, and stately Sir Frederick Langley, that is so great a favourite with your father, and so little a favourite of yours. I protest I shall be obliged to the Wizard as long as I live, if it were only for the half hour’s relief from that man’s company which we have gained by deviating from the party to visit Elshie.”

“What would you say, then,” said Miss Vere, in a low tone, so as not to be heard by the younger sister, who rode before them, the narrow path not admitting of their moving all three abreast — ” What would you say, my dearest Lucy, if it were proposed to you to endure his company for life?”

“Say? I would say, no, no, no, three times, each louder than another, till they should hear me at Carlisle.”

“And Sir Frederick would say then, nineteen nay-says are half a grant.”

“That,” replied Miss Lucy, “depends entirely on the manner in which the nay-says are said. Mine should have not one grain of concession in them, I promise you.”

“But if your father,” said Miss Vere, “were to say — Thus do, or —”

“I would stand to the consequences of his or, were he the most cruel father that ever was recorded in romance, to fill up the alternative.”

“And what if he threatened you with a catholic aunt, an abbess, and a cloister?”

“Then,” said Miss Ilderton, “I would threaten him with a protestant son-inlaw, and be glad of an opportunity to disobey him for conscience’ sake. And now that Nancy is out of hearing, let me really say, I think you would be excusable before God and man for resisting this preposterous match by every means in your power. A proud, dark, ambitious man; a caballer against the state; infamous for his avarice and severity; a bad son, a bad brother, unkind and ungenerous to all his relatives — Isabel, I would die rather than have him.”

“Don’t let my father hear you give me such advice,” said Miss Vere, “or adieu, my dear Lucy, to Ellieslaw Castle.”

“And adieu to Ellieslaw Castle, with all my heart,” said her friend, “if I once saw you fairly out of it, and settled under some kinder protector than he whom nature has given you. O, if my poor father had been in his former health, how gladly would he have received and sheltered you, till this ridiculous and cruel persecution were blown over!”

“Would to God it had been so, my dear Lucy!” answered Isabella; “but I fear, that, in your father’s weak state of health, he would be altogether unable to protect me against the means which would be immediately used for reclaiming the poor fugitive.”

“I fear so indeed,” replied Miss Ilderton; “but we will consider and devise something. Now that your father and his guests seem so deeply engaged in some mysterious plot, to judge from the passing and returning of messages, from the strange faces which appear and disappear without being announced by their names, from the collecting and cleaning of arms, and the anxious gloom and bustle which seem to agitate every male in the castle, it may not be impossible for us (always in case matters be driven to extremity) to shape out some little supplemental conspiracy of our own. I hope the gentlemen have not kept all the policy to themselves; and there is one associate that I would gladly admit to our counsel.”

“Not Nancy?”

“O, no!” said Miss Ilderton; “Nancy, though an excellent good girl, and fondly attached to you, would make a dull conspirator — as dull as Renault and all the other subordinate plotters in Venice Preserved. No; this is a Jaffier, or Pierre, if you like the character better; and yet though I know I shall please you, I am afraid to mention his name to you, lest I vex you at the same time. Can you not guess? Something about an eagle and a rock — it does not begin with eagle in English, but something very like it in Scotch.”

“You cannot mean young Earnscliff, Lucy?” said Miss Vere, blushing deeply.

“And whom else should I mean” said Lucy. “Jaffiers and Pierres are very scarce in this country, I take it, though one could find Renaults and Bedamars enow.”

“How call you talk so wildly, Lucy? Your plays and romances have positively turned your brain. You know, that, independent of my father’s consent, without which I never will marry any one, and which, in the case you point at, would never be granted; independent, too, of our knowing nothing of young Earnscliff’s inclinations, but by your own vivid conjectures and fancies — besides all this, there is the fatal brawl!”

“When his father was killed?” said Lucy. “But that was very long ago; and I hope we have outlived the time of bloody feud, when a quarrel was carried down between two families from father to son, like a Spanish game at chess, and a murder or two committed in every generation, just to keep the matter from going to sleep. We do with our quarrels nowadays as with our clothes; cut them out for ourselves, and wear them out in our own day, and should no more think of resenting our fathers’ feuds, than of wearing their slashed doublets and trunk-hose.”

“You treat this far too lightly, Lucy,” answered Miss Vere.

“Not a bit, my dear Isabella,” said Lucy. “Consider, your father, though present in the unhappy affray, is never supposed to have struck the fatal blow; besides, in former times, in case of mutual slaughter between clans, subsequent alliances were so far from being excluded, that the hand of a daughter or a sister was the most frequent gage of reconciliation. You laugh at my skill in romance; but, I assure you, should your history be written, like that of many a less distressed and less deserving heroine, the well-judging reader would set you down for the lady and the love of Earnscliff; from the very obstacle which you suppose so insurmountable.”

“But these are not the days of romance, but of sad reality, for there stands the castle of Ellieslaw.”

“And there stands Sir Frederick Langley at the gate, waiting to assist the ladies from their palfreys. I would as lief touch a toad; I will disappoint him, and take old Horsington the groom for my master of the horse.”

So saying, the lively young lady switched her palfrey forward, and passing Sir Frederick with a familiar nod as he stood ready to take her horse’s rein, she cantered on, and jumped into the arms of the old groom. Fain would Isabella have done the same had she dared; but her father stood near, displeasure already darkening on a countenance peculiarly qualified to express the harsher passions, and she was compelled to receive the unwelcome assiduities of her detested suitor.

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