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The Black Dwarf, Page 2

Walter Scott


  The ideal being who is here presented as residing in solitude, andhaunted by a consciousness of his own deformity, and a suspicion ofhis being generally subjected to the scorn of his fellow-men, is notaltogether imaginary. An individual existed many years since, underthe author's observation, which suggested such a character. This poorunfortunate man's name was David Ritchie, a native of Tweeddale. He wasthe son of a labourer in the slate-quarries of Stobo, and must havebeen born in the misshapen form which he exhibited, though he sometimesimputed it to ill-usage when in infancy. He was bred a brush-maker atEdinburgh, and had wandered to several places, working at his trade,from all which he was chased by the disagreeable attention which hishideous singularity of form and face attracted wherever he came. Theauthor understood him to say he had even been in Dublin.

  Tired at length of being the object of shouts, laughter, and derision,David Ritchie resolved, like a deer hunted from the herd, to retreat tosome wilderness, where he might have the least possible communicationwith the world which scoffed at him. He settled himself, with this view,upon a patch of wild moorland at the bottom of a bank on the farmof Woodhouse, in the sequestered vale of the small river Manor, inPeeblesshire. The few people who had occasion to pass that way were muchsurprised, and some superstitious persons a little alarmed, to see sostrange a figure as Bow'd Davie (i.e. Crooked David) employed in a task,for which he seemed so totally unfit, as that of erecting a house. Thecottage which he built was extremely small, but the walls, as well asthose of a little garden that surrounded it, were constructed with anambitious degree of solidity, being composed of layers of large stonesand turf; and some of the corner stones were so weighty, as to puzzlethe spectators how such a person as the architect could possibly haveraised them. In fact, David received from passengers, or those who cameattracted by curiosity, a good deal of assistance; and as no one knewhow much aid had been given by others, the wonder of each individualremained undiminished.

  The proprietor of the ground, the late Sir James Naesmith, baronet,chanced to pass this singular dwelling, which, having been placed therewithout right or leave asked or given, formed an exact parallel withFalstaff's simile of a "fair house built on another's ground;" so thatpoor David might have lost his edifice by mistaking the property wherehe had erected it. Of course, the proprietor entertained no ideaof exacting such a forfeiture, but readily sanctioned the harmlessencroachment.

  The personal description of Elshender of Mucklestane-Moor has beengenerally allowed to be a tolerably exact and unexaggerated portrait ofDavid of Manor Water. He was not quite three feet and a half high, sincehe could stand upright in the door of his mansion, which was just thatheight. The following particulars concerning his figure and temper occurin the SCOTS MAGAZINE for 1817, and are now understood to have beencommunicated by the ingenious Mr. Robert Chambers of Edinburgh, who hasrecorded with much spirit the traditions of the Good Town, and, in otherpublications, largely and agreeably added to the stock of our popularantiquities. He is the countryman of David Ritchie, and had the bestaccess to collect anecdotes of him.

  "His skull," says this authority, "which was of an oblong and ratherunusual shape, was said to be of such strength, that he could strike itwith ease through the panel of a door, or the end of a barrel. His laughis said to have been quite horrible; and his screech-owl voice, shrill,uncouth, and dissonant, corresponded well with his other peculiarities.

  "There was nothing very uncommon about his dress. He usually wore an oldslouched hat when he went abroad; and when at home, a sort of cowlor night-cap. He never wore shoes, being unable to adapt them tohis mis-shapen finlike feet, but always had both feet and legs quiteconcealed, and wrapt up with pieces of cloth. He always walked with asort of pole or pike-staff, considerably taller than himself. His habitswere, in many respects, singular, and indicated a mind congenial to itsuncouth tabernacle. A jealous, misanthropical, and irritable temper,was his prominent characteristic. The sense of his deformity haunted himlike a phantom. And the insults and scorn to which this exposed him, hadpoisoned his heart with fierce and bitter feelings, which, from otherpoints in his character, do not appear to have been more largely infusedinto his original temperament than that of his fellow-men.

  "He detested children, on account of their propensity to insult andpersecute him. To strangers he was generally reserved, crabbed, andsurly; and though he by no means refused assistance or charity, heseldom either expressed or exhibited much gratitude. Even towardspersons who had been his greatest benefactors, and who possessed thegreatest share of his good-will, he frequently displayed much capriceand jealousy. A lady who had known him from his infancy, and whohas furnished us in the most obliging manner with some particularsrespecting him, says, that although Davie showed as much respect andattachment to her father's family, as it was in his nature to showto any, yet they were always obliged to be very cautious in theirdeportment towards him. One day, having gone to visit him with anotherlady, he took them through his garden, and was showing them, with muchpride and good-humour, all his rich and tastefully assorted borders,when they happened to stop near a plot of cabbages which had beensomewhat injured by the caterpillars. Davie, observing one of the ladiessmile, instantly assumed his savage, scowling aspect, rushed among thecabbages, and dashed them to pieces with his KENT, exclaiming, 'I hatethe worms, for they mock me!'

  "Another lady, likewise a friend and old acquaintance of his, veryunintentionally gave David mortal offence on a similar occasion.Throwing back his jealous glance as he was ushering her into his garden,he fancied he observed her spit, and exclaimed, with great ferocity, 'AmI a toad, woman! that ye spit at me--that ye spit at me?' and withoutlistening to any answer or excuse, drove her out of his gardenwith imprecations and insult. When irritated by persons for whom heentertained little respect, his misanthropy displayed itself in words,and sometimes in actions, of still greater rudeness; and he used onsuch occasions the most unusual and singularly savage imprecations andthreats." [SCOTS MAGAZINE, vol. lxxx. p.207.]

  Nature maintains a certain balance of good and evil in all her works;and there is no state perhaps so utterly desolate, which does notpossess some source of gratification peculiar to itself, This poorman, whose misanthropy was founded in a sense on his own preternaturaldeformity, had yet his own particular enjoyments. Driven into solitude,he became an admirer of the beauties of nature. His garden, which hesedulously cultivated, and from a piece of wild moorland made a veryproductive spot, was his pride and his delight; but he was also anadmirer of more natural beauty: the soft sweep of the green hill, thebubbling of a clear fountain, or the complexities of a wild thicket,were scenes on which he often gazed for hours, and, as he said, withinexpressible delight. It was perhaps for this reason that he was fondof Shenstone's pastorals, and some parts of PARADISE LOST. The authorhas heard his most unmusical voice repeat the celebrated description ofParadise, which he seemed fully to appreciate. His other studies were ofa different cast, chiefly polemical. He never went to the parish church,and was therefore suspected of entertaining heterodox opinions, thoughhis objection was probably to the concourse of spectators, to whom hemust have exposed his unseemly deformity. He spoke of a future statewith intense feeling, and even with tears. He expressed disgust at theidea, of his remains being mixed with the common rubbish, as he calledit, of the churchyard, and selected with his usual taste a beautiful andwild spot in the glen where he had his hermitage, in which to take hislast repose. He changed his mind, however, and was finally interred inthe common burial-ground of Manor parish.

  The author has invested Wise Elshie with some qualities which madehim appear, in the eyes of the vulgar, a man possessed of supernaturalpower. Common fame paid David Ritchie a similar compliment, for someof the poor and ignorant, as well as all the children, in theneighbourhood, held him to be what is called uncanny. He himself did notaltogether discourage the idea; it enlarged his very limited circleof power, and in so far gratified his conceit; and it
soothed hismisanthropy, by increasing his means of giving terror or pain. But evenin a rude Scottish glen thirty years back, the fear of sorcery was verymuch out of date.

  David Ritchie affected to frequent solitary scenes, especially suchas were supposed to be haunted, and valued himself upon his courage indoing so. To be sure he had little chance of meeting anything more uglythan himself. At heart, he was superstitious, and planted manyrowans (mountain ashes) around his hut, as a certain defence againstnecromancy. For the same reason, doubtless, he desired to haverowan-trees set above his grave.

  We have stated that David Ritchie loved objects of natural beauty.His only living favourites were a dog and a cat, to which he wasparticularly attached, and his bees, which he treated with great care.He took a sister, latterly, to live in a hut adjacent to his own, buthe did not permit her to enter it. She was weak in intellect, but notdeformed in person; simple, or rather silly, but not, like her brother,sullen or bizarre. David was never affectionate to her; it was not inhis nature; but he endured her. He maintained himself and her by thesale of the product of their garden and bee-hives; and, latterly,they had a small allowance from the parish. Indeed, in the simpleand patriarchal state in which the country then was, persons in thesituation of David and his sister were sure to be supported. They hadonly to apply to the next gentleman or respectable farmer, and were sureto find them equally ready and willing to supply their very moderatewants. David often received gratuities from strangers, which he neverasked, never refused, and never seemed to consider as an obligation. Hehad a right, indeed, to regard himself as one of Nature's paupers,to whom she gave a title to be maintained by his kind, even by thatdeformity which closed against him all ordinary ways of supportinghimself by his own labour. Besides, a bag was suspended in the mill forDavid Ritchie's benefit; and those who were carrying home a melder ofmeal, seldom failed to add a GOWPEN [Handful] to the alms-bag of thedeformed cripple. In short, David had no occasion for money, save topurchase snuff, his only luxury, in which he indulged himself liberally.When he died, in the beginning of the present century, he was foundto have hoarded about twenty pounds, a habit very consistent with hisdisposition; for wealth is power, and power was what David Ritchiedesired to possess, as a compensation for his exclusion from humansociety.

  His sister survived till the publication of the tale to which this briefnotice forms the introduction; and the author is sorry to learn that asort of "local sympathy," and the curiosity then expressed concerningthe Author of WAVERLEY and the subjects of his Novels, exposed the poorwoman to enquiries which gave her pain. When pressed about her brother'speculiarities, she asked, in her turn, why they would not permit thedead to rest? To others, who pressed for some account of her parents,she answered in the same tone of feeling.

  The author saw this poor, and, it may be said, unhappy man, in autumn1797 being then, as he has the happiness still to remain, connected byties of intimate friendship with the family of the venerable Dr. AdamFergusson, the philosopher and historian, who then resided at themansion-house of Halyards, in the vale of Manor, about a mile fromRitchie's hermitage, the author was upon a visit at Halyards, whichlasted for several days, and was made acquainted with this singularanchorite, whom Dr. Fergusson considered as an extraordinary character,and whom he assisted in various ways, particularly by the occasionalloan of books. Though the taste of the philosopher and the poor peasantdid not, it may be supposed, always correspond, [I remember David wasparticularly anxious to see a book, which he called, I think, LETTERS TOELECT LADIES, and which, he said, was the best composition he hadever read; but Dr. Fergusson's library did not supply the volume.] Dr.Fergusson considered him as a man of a powerful capacity and originalideas, but whose mind was thrown off its just bias by a predominantdegree of self-love and self-opinion, galled by the sense of ridiculeand contempt, and avenging itself upon society, in idea at least, by agloomy misanthropy.

  David Ritchie, besides the utter obscurity of his life while inexistence, had been dead for many years, when it occurred to the authorthat such a character might be made a powerful agent in fictitiousnarrative. He, accordingly, sketched that of Elshie of theMucklestane-Moor. The story was intended to be longer, and thecatastrophe more artificially brought out; but a friendly critic, towhose opinion I subjected the work in its progress, was of opinion, thatthe idea of the Solitary was of a kind too revolting, and more likely todisgust than to interest the reader. As I had good right to consider myadviser as an excellent judge of public opinion, I got off my subjectby hastening the story to an end, as fast as it was possible; and, byhuddling into one volume, a tale which was designed to occupy two, haveperhaps produced a narrative as much disproportioned and distorted, asthe Black Dwarf who is its subject.