Peveril of the Peak, by Walter Scott

Chapter 35

Of airy tongues that syllable men’s names.

COMUS.

Julian had fallen asleep, with his brain rather filled with his own sad reflections, than with the mystical lore of the little Knight; and yet it seemed as if in his visions the latter had been more present to his mind than the former.

He dreamed of gliding spirits, gibbering phantoms, bloody hands, which, dimly seen by twilight, seemed to beckon him forward like errant-knight on sad adventure bound. More than once he started from his sleep, so lively was the influence of these visions on his imagination; and he always awaked under the impression that some one stood by his bedside. The chillness of his ankles, the weight and clatter of the fetters, as he turned himself on his pallet, reminded him on these occasions where he was, and under what circumstances. The extremity to which he saw all that was dear to him at present reduced, struck a deeper cold on his heart than the iron upon his limbs; nor could he compose himself again to rest without a mental prayer to Heaven for protection. But when he had been for a third time awakened from repose by these thick-stirring fancies, his distress of mind vented itself in speech, and he was unable to suppress the almost despairing ejaculation, “God have mercy upon us!”

“Amen!” answered a voice as sweet and “soft as honey dew,” which sounded as if the words were spoken close by his bedside.

The natural inference was, that Geoffrey Hudson, his companion in calamity, had echoed the prayer which was so proper to the situation of both. But the tone of voice was so different from the harsh and dissonant sounds of the dwarf’s enunciation, that Peveril was impressed with the certainty it could not proceed from Hudson. He was struck with involuntary terror, for which he could give no sufficient reason; and it was not without an effort that he was able to utter the question, “Sir Geoffrey, did you speak?”

No answer was returned. He repeated the question louder; and the same silver-toned voice, which had formerly said “Amen” to his prayers, answered to his interrogatory, “Your companion will not awake while I am here.”

“And who are you? — What seek you? — How came you into this place?” said Peveril, huddling, eagerly, question upon question.

“I am a wretched being, but one who loves you well. — I come for your good. — Concern yourself no farther.”

It now rushed on Julian’s mind that he had heard of persons possessed of the wonderful talent of counterfeiting sounds to such accuracy, that they could impose on their hearers the belief, that they proceeded from a point of the apartment entirely opposite to that which the real speaker occupied. Persuaded that he had now gained the depth of the mystery, he replied, “This trifling, Sir Geoffrey, is unseasonable. Say what you have to say in your own voice and manner. These apish pleasantries do not become midnight in a Newgate dungeon.”

“But the being who speaks with you,” answered the voice, “is fitted for the darkest hour, and the most melancholy haunts.”

Impatient of suspense, and determined to satisfy his curiosity, Julian jumped at once from his pallet, hoping to secure the speaker, whose voice indicated he was so near. But he altogether failed in his attempt, and grasped nothing save thin air.

For a turn or two, Peveril shuffled at random about the room, with his arms extended; and then at last recollected, that with the impediment of his shackles, and the noise which necessarily accompanied his motions, and announced where he was, it would be impossible for him to lay hands on any one who might be disposed to keep out of his reach. He therefore endeavoured to return to his bed; but, in groping for his way, lighted first on that of his fellow-prisoner. The little captive slept deep and heavy, as was evinced from his breathing; and upon listening a moment, Julian became again certain, either that his companion was the most artful of ventriloquists and of dissemblers, or that there was actually within the precincts of that guarded chamber, some third being, whose very presence there seemed to intimate that it belonged not to the ordinary line of humanity.

Julian was no ready believer in the supernatural; but that age was very far from being so incredulous concerning ghostly occurrences as our own; and it was no way derogatory to his good sense, that he shared the prejudices of his time. His hair began to bristle, and the moisture to stand on his brow, as he called on his companion to awake, for Heaven’s sake.

The dwarf answered — but he spoke without awaking. —“The day may dawn and be d — d. Tell the master of the horse I will not go to the hunting, unless I have the little black jennet.”

“I tell you,” said Julian, “there is some one in the apartment. Have you not a tinder-box to strike a light?”

“I care not how slight my horse be,” replied the slumberer, pursuing his own train of ideas, which, doubtless, carried him back to the green woods of Windsor, and the royal deer-hunts which he had witnessed there. “I am not overweight — I will not ride that great Holstein brute, that I must climb up to by a ladder, and then sit on his back like a pin-cushion on an elephant.”

Julian at length put his hand to the sleeper’s shoulder, and shook him, so as to awake him from his dream; when, after two or three snorts and groans, the dwarf asked peevishly, what the devil ailed him?

“The devil himself, for what I know,” said Peveril, “is at this very moment in the room here beside us.”

The dwarf on this information started up, crossed himself, and began to hammer a flint and steel with all despatch, until he had lighted a little piece of candle, which he said was consecrated to Saint Bridget, and as powerful as the herb called fuga dæmonum, or the liver of the fish burnt by Tobit in the house of Raguel, for chasing all goblins, and evil or dubious spirits, from the place of its radiance; “if, indeed,” as the dwarf carefully guarded his proposition, “they existed anywhere, save in the imagination of his fellow-prisoner.”

Accordingly, the apartment was no sooner enlightened by this holy candle’s end, than Julian began to doubt the evidence of his own ears; for not only was there no one in the room save Sir Geoffrey Hudson and himself, but all the fastenings of the door were so secure, that it seemed impossible that they could have been opened and again fixed, without a great deal of noise, which, on the last occasion at least, could not possibly have escaped his ears, seeing that he must have been on his feet, and employed in searching the chamber, when the unknown, if an earthly being, was in the act of retreating from it.

Julian gazed for a moment with great earnestness, and no little perplexity, first on the bolted door, then on the grated window; and began to accuse his own imagination of having played him an unpleasant trick. He answered little to the questions of Hudson, and returning to his bed, heard, in silence, a long studied oration on the merits of Saint Bridget, which comprehended the greater part of her long-winded legend, and concluded with the assurance, that, from all accounts preserved of her, that holy saint was the least of all possible women, except those of the pigmy kind.

By the time the dwarf had ceased to speak, Julian’s desire of sleep had returned; and after a few glances around the apartment, which was still illuminated by the expiring beams of the holy taper, his eyes were again closed in forgetfulness, and his repose was not again disturbed in the course of that night.

Morning dawns on Newgate, as well as on the freest mountain-turf which Welshman or wild-goat ever trode; but in so different a fashion, that the very beams of heaven’s precious sun, when they penetrate into the recesses of the prison-house, have the air of being committed to jail. Still, with the light of day around him, Peveril easily persuaded himself of the vanity of his preceding night’s visions; and smiled when he reflected that fancies, similar to those to which his ear was often exposed in the Isle of Man, had been able to arrange themselves in a manner so impressive, when he heard them from the mouth of so singular a character as Hudson, and in the solitude of a prison.

Before Julian had awaked, the dwarf had already quitted his bed, and was seated in the chimney-corner of the apartment, where, with his own hands, he had arranged a morsel of fire, partly attending to the simmering of a small pot, which he had placed on the flame, partly occupied with a huge folio volume which lay on the table before him, and seemed well-nigh as tall and bulky as himself. He was wrapped up in the dusky crimson cloak already mentioned, which served him for a morning-gown, as well as a mantle against the cold, and which corresponded with a large montero-cap, that enveloped his head. The singularity of his features, and of the eyes, armed with spectacles, which were now cast on the subject of his studies, now directed towards his little cauldron, would have tempted Rembrandt to exhibit him on canvas, either in the character of an alchymist, or of a necromancer, engaged in some strange experiment, under the direction of one of the huge manuals which treat of the theory of these mystic arts.

The attention of the dwarf was bent, however, upon a more domestic object. He was only preparing soup, of no unsavoury quality, for breakfast, which he invited Peveril to partake with him. “I am an old soldier,” he said, “and, I must add, an old prisoner; and understand how to shift for myself better than you can do, young man. — Confusion to the scoundrel Clink, he has put the spice-box out of my reach! — Will you hand it me from the mantelpiece? — I will teach you, as the French have it, faire la cuisine; and then, if you please, we will divide, like brethren, the labours of our prison house.”

Julian readily assented to the little man’s friendly proposal, without interposing any doubt as to his continuing an inmate of the same cell. Truth is, that although, upon the whole, he was inclined to regard the whispering voice of the preceding evening as the impression of his own excited fancy, he felt, nevertheless, curiosity to see how a second night was to pass over in the same cell; and the tone of the invisible intruder, which at midnight had been heard by him with terror, now excited, on recollection, a gentle and not unpleasing species of agitation — the combined effect of awe, and of awakened curiosity.

Days of captivity have little to mark them as they glide away. That which followed the night which we have described afforded no circumstance of note. The dwarf imparted to his youthful companion a volume similar to that which formed his own studies, and which proved to be a tome of one of Scuderi’s now forgotten romances, of which Geoffrey Hudson was a great admirer, and which were then very fashionable both at the French and English Courts; although they contrive to unite in their immense folios all the improbabilities and absurdities of the old romances of chivalry, without that tone of imagination which pervades them, and all the metaphysical absurdities which Cowley and the poets of the age had heaped upon the passion of love, like so many load of small coal upon a slender fire, which it smothers instead of aiding.

But Julian had no alternative, saving only to muse over the sorrows of Artamenes and Mandane, or on the complicated distresses of his own situation; and in these disagreeable divertisements, the morning crept through as it could.

Noon first, and thereafter nightfall, were successively marked by a brief visit from their stern turnkey, who, with noiseless step and sullen demeanour, did in silence the necessary offices about the meals of the prisoners, exchanging with them as few words as an official in the Spanish Inquisition might have permitted himself upon a similar occasion. With the same taciturn gravity, very different from the laughing humour into which he had been surprised on a former occasion, he struck their fetters with a small hammer, to ascertain, by the sound thus produced, whether they had been tampered with by file or otherwise. He next mounted on a table, to make the same experiment on the window-grating.

Julian’s heart throbbed; for might not one of those grates have been so tampered with as to give entrance to the nocturnal visitant? But they returned to the experienced ear of Master Clink, when he struck them in turn with the hammer, a clear and ringing sound, which assured him of their security.

“It would be difficult for any one to get in through these defences,” said Julian, giving vent in words to his own feelings.

“Few wish that,” answered the surly groom, misconstruing what was passing in Peveril’s mind; “and let me tell you, master, folks will find it quite as difficult to get out.” He retired, and night came on.

The dwarf, who took upon himself for the day the whole duties of the apartment, trundled about the room, making a most important clatter as he extinguished their fire, and put aside various matters which had been in use in the course of the day, talking to himself all the while in a tone of no little consequence, occasionally grounded on the dexterity with which an old soldier could turn his hand to anything. Then came the repetition of his accustomed prayers; but his disposition to converse did not, as on the former occasion, revive after his devotions. On the contrary, long before Julian had closed an eye, the heavy breathing from Sir Geoffrey Hudson’s pallet declared that the dwarf was already in the arms of Morpheus.

Amid the total darkness of the apartment, and with a longing desire, and at the same time no small fear, for the recurrence of the mysterious address of the preceding evening, Julian lay long awake without his thoughts receiving any interruption save when the clock told the passing hour from the neighbouring steeple of St. Sepulchre. At length he sunk into slumber; but had not slept to his judgment above an hour, when he was roused by the sound which his waking ear had so long expected in vain.

“Can you sleep? — Will you sleep? — Dare you sleep?” were the questions impressed on his ear, in the same clear, soft, and melodious voice, which had addressed him on the preceding night.

“Who is it asks me the question?” answered Julian. “But be the questioner good or evil, I reply that I am a guiltless prisoner; and that innocence may wish and dare to sleep soundly.”

“Ask no questions of me,” said the voice; “neither attempt to discover who speaks to you; and be assured that folly alone can sleep, with fraud around and danger before him.”

“Can you, who tell me of dangers, counsel me how to combat or how to avoid them?” said Julian.

“My power is limited,” said the voice; “yet something I can do, as the glow-worm can show a precipice. But you must confide in me.”

“Confidence must beget confidence,” answered Julian. “I cannot repose trust in I know not what or whom.”

“Speak not so loud,” replied the voice, sinking almost into a whisper.

“Last night you said my companion would not awake,” said Julian.

“To-night I warrant not that he shall sleep,” said the voice. And as it spoke, the hoarse, snatching, discordant tones of the dwarf were heard, demanding of Julian why he talked in his sleep — wherefore he did not rest himself, and let other people rest — and, finally, whether his visions of last night were returned upon him again?

“Say yes,” said the voice in a whisper, so low, yet so distinct, that Julian almost doubted whether it was not an echo of his own thought. — “Say but yes — and I part to return no more!”

In desperate circumstances men look to strange and unusual remedies; and although unable to calculate the chances of advantage which this singular communication opened to him, Julian did not feel inclined to let them at once escape from him. He answered the dwarf, that he had been troubled by an alarming dream.

“I could have sworn it, from the sound of your voice,” said Hudson. “It is strange, now, that you overgrown men never possess the extreme firmness of nerves proper to us who are cast in a more compact mould. My own voice retains its masculine sounds on all occasions. Dr. Cockerel was of opinion, that there was the same allowance of nerve and sinew to men of every size, and that nature spun the stock out thinner or stronger, according to the extent of surface which they were to cover. Hence, the least creatures are oftentimes the strongest. Place a beetle under a tall candlestick, and the insect will move it by its efforts to get out; which is, in point of comparative strength, as if one of us should shake his Majesty’s prison of Newgate by similar struggles. Cats also, and weasels, are creatures of greater exertion or endurance than dogs or sheep. And in general, you may remark, that little men dance better, and are more unwearied under exertion of every kind, than those to whom their own weight must necessarily be burdensome. I respect you, Master Peveril, because I am told you have killed one of those gigantic fellows, who go about swaggering as if their souls were taller than ours, because their noses are nearer to the clouds by a cubit or two. But do not value yourself on this as anything very unusual. I would have you to know it hath been always thus; and that, in the history of all ages, the clean, tight, dapper little fellow, hath proved an overmatch for his bulky antagonist. I need only instance out of Holy Writ, the celebrated downfall of Goliah, and of another lubbard, who had more fingers to his hand, and more inches to his stature, than ought to belong to an honest man, and who was slain by a nephew of good King David; and of many others whom I do not remember; nevertheless they were all Philistines of gigantic stature. In the classics, also, you have Tydeus, and other tight, compact heroes, whose diminutive bodies were the abode of large minds. And indeed you may observe, in sacred as well as profane history, that your giants are ever heretics and blasphemers, robbers and oppressors, outragers of the female sex, and scoffers at regular authority. Such were Gog and Magog, whom our authentic chronicles vouch to have been slain near to Plymouth, by the good little Knight Corineus, who gave name to Cornwall. Ascaparte also was subdued by Bevis, and Colbrand by Guy, as Southampton and Warwick can testify. Like unto these was the giant Hoel, slain in Bretagne by King Arthur. And if Ryence, King of North Wales, who was done to death by the same worthy champion of Christendom, be not actually termed a giant, it is plain he was little better, since he required twenty-four kings’ beards, which were then worn full and long, to fur his gown; whereby computing each beard at eighteen inches (and you cannot allow less for a beard-royal), and supposing only the front of the gown trimmed therewith, as we use ermine; and that the back was mounted and lined, instead of cat-skins and squirrels’ fur, with the beards of earls and dukes, and other inferior dignitaries — may amount to — But I will work the question tomorrow.”

Nothing is more soporific to any (save a philosopher or moneyed man) than the operation of figures; and when in bed, the effect is irresistible. Sir Geoffrey fell asleep in the act of calculating King Ryence’s height, from the supposed length of his mantle. Indeed, had he not stumbled on this abstruse subject of calculation, there is no guessing how long he might have held forth upon the superiority of men of little stature, which was so great a favourite with him, that, numerous as such narratives are, the dwarf had collected almost all the instances of their victories over giants, which history or romance afforded.

No sooner had unequivocal signs of the dwarf’s sound slumbers reached Julian’s ears, than he began to listen eagerly for the renewal of that mysterious communication which was at once interesting and awful. Even whilst Hudson was speaking, he had, instead of bestowing his attention upon his eulogy on persons of low statue, kept his ears on watchful guard to mark if possible, the lightest sounds of any sort which might occur in the apartment; so that he thought it scarce possible that even a fly should have left it withouts its motion being overheard. If, therefore, his invisible monitor was indeed a creature of this world — an opinion which Julian’s sound sense rendered him unwilling to renounce — that being could not have left the apartment; and he waited impatiently for a renewal of their communication. He was disappointed; not the slightest sound reached his ear; and the nocturnal visitor, if still in the room, appeared determined on silence.

It was in vain that Peveril coughed, hemmed, and gave other symptoms of being awake; at length, such became his impatience, that he resolved, at any risk, to speak first, in hopes of renewing the communication betwixt them. “Whoever thou art,” he said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by a waking person, but not so high as to disturb his sleeping companion —“Whoever, or whatever thou art, thou hast shown some interest in the fate of such a castaway as Julian Peveril, speak once more, I conjure thee; and be your communication for good or evil, believe me, I am equally prepared to abide the issue.”

No answer of any kind was returned to this invocation; nor did the least sound intimate the presence of the being to whom it was so solemnly addressed.

“I speak in vain,” said Julian; “and perhaps I am but invoking that which is insensible of human feeling, or which takes a malign pleasure in human suffering.”

There was a gentle and half-broken sigh from a corner of the apartment, which, answering to this exclamation, seemed to contradict the imputation which it conveyed.

Julian, naturally courageous, and familiarised by this time to his situation, raised himself in bed, and stretched out his arm, to repeat his adjuration, when the voice, as if alarmed at his action and energy, whispered, in a tone more hurried than that which it had hitherto used, “Be still — move not — or I am mute for ever!”

“It is then a mortal being who is present with me,” was the natural inference of Julian, “and one who is probably afraid of being detected; I have then some power over my visitor, though I must be cautious how I use it. — If your intents are friendly,” he proceeded, “there was never a time in which I lacked friends more, or would be more grateful for kindness. The fate of all who are dear to me is weighed in the balance, and with worlds would I buy the tidings of their safety.”

“I have said my power is limited,” replied the voice. “You I may be able to preserve — the fate of your friends is beyond my control.”

“Let me at least know it,” said Julian; “and, be it as it may, I will not shun to share it.”

“For whom would you inquire?” said the soft, sweet voice, not without a tremulousness of accent, as if the question was put with diffident reluctance.

“My parents,” said Julian, after a moment’s hesitation; “how fare they? — What will be their fate?”

“They fare as the fort under which the enemy has dug a deadly mine. The work may have cost the labour of years, such were the impediments to the engineers; but Time brings opportunity upon its wings.”

“And what will be the event?” said Peveril.

“Can I read the future,” answered the voice, “save by comparison with past? — Who has been hunted on these stern and unmitigable accusations, but has been at last brought to bay? Did high and noble birth, honoured age, and approved benevolence, save the unfortunate Lord Stafford? Did learning, capacity of intrigue, or high Court favour, redeem Coleman, although the confidential servant of the heir presumptive of the Crown of England? — Did subtilty and genius, and exertions of a numerous sect, save Fenwicke, or Whitbread, or any other of the accused priests? — Were Groves, Pickering, or the other humble wretches who have suffered, safe in their obscurity? There is no condition in life, no degree of talent, no form of principle, which affords protection against an accusation, which levels conditions, confounds characters, renders men’s virtues their sins, and rates them as dangerous in proportion as they have influence, though attained in the noblest manner, and used for the best purposes. Call such a one but an accessory to the Plot — let him be mouthed in the evidence of Oates or Dugdale — and the blindest shall foresee the issue of their trial.”

“Prophet of Evil!” said Julian, “my father has a shield invulnerable to protect him. He is innocent.”

“Let him plead his innocence at the bar of Heaven,” said the voice; “it will serve him little where Scroggs presides.”

“Still I fear not,” said Julian, counterfeiting more confidence than he really possessed; “my father’s cause will be pleaded before twelve Englishmen.”

“Better before twelve wild beasts,” answered the Invisible, “than before Englishmen, influenced with party prejudice, passion, and epidemic terror of an imaginary danger. They are bold in guilt in proportion to the number amongst whom the crime is divided.”

“Ill-omened speaker,” said Julian, “thine is indeed a voice fitted only to sound with the midnight bell, and the screeching owl. Yet speak again. Tell me, if thou canst”—(He would have said of Alice Bridgenorth, but the word would not leave his tongue)—“Tell me,” he said, “if the noble house of Derby ——”

“Let them keep their rock like the sea-fowl in the tempest; and it may so fall out,” answered the voice, “that their rock may be a safe refuge. But there is blood on their ermine; and revenge has dogged them for many a year, like a bloodhound that hath been distanced in the morning chase, but may yet grapple the quarry ere the sun shall set. At present, however, they are safe. — Am I now to speak farther on your own affairs, which involve little short of your life and honour?”

“There is,” said Julian, “one, from whom I was violently parted yesterday; if I knew but of her safety, I were little anxious for my own.”

“One!” returned the voice, “only one from whom you were parted yesterday?”

“But in parting from whom,” said Julian, “I felt separated from all happiness which the world can give me.”

“You mean Alice Bridgenorth,” said the Invisible, with some bitterness of accent; “but her you will never see more. Your own life and hers depend on your forgetting each other.”

“I cannot purchase my own life at that price,” replied Julian.

“Then DIE in your obstinacy,” returned the Invisible; nor to all the entreaties which he used was he able obtain another word in the course of that remarkable night.

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