The sounds of Ratcliffe's voice had died on Isabella's ear; but as she frequently looked back, it was some encouragement to her to discern his form now darkening in the gloom. Ere, however, she went much farther, she lost the object in the increasing shade. The last glimmer of the twilight placed her before the hut of the Solitary. She twice extended her hand to the door, and twice she withdrew it; and when she did at length make the effort, the knock did not equal in violence the throb of her own bosom. Her next effort was louder; her third was reiterated, for the fear of not obtaining the protection from which Ratcliffe promised so much, began to overpower the terrors of his presence from whom she was to request it. At length, as she still received no answer, she repeatedly called upon the Dwarf by his assumed name, and requested him to answer and open to her.
``What miserable being is reduced,'' said the appalling voice of the Solitary, ``to seek refuge here? Go hence; when the heath-fowl need shelter, they seek it not in the nest of the night-raven.''
``I come to you, father,'' said Isabella, ``in my hour of adversity, even as you yourself commanded, when you promised your heart and your door should be open to my distress; but I fear''------
``Ha!'' said the Solitary, ``then thou art Isabella Vere? Give me a token that thou art she.''
``I have brought you back the rose which you gave me; it has not had time to fade ere the hard fate you foretold is come upon me!''
``And if thou hast thus redeemed thy pledge,'' said the Dwarf, ``I will not forfeit mine. The heart and the door that are shut against every other earthly being, shall be open to thee and to thy sorrows.''
She heard him move in his hut, and presently afterwards strike a light. One by one, bolt and bar were then withdrawn, the heart of Isabella throbbing higher as these obstacles to their meeting were successively removed. The door opened, and the Solitary stood before her, his uncouth form and features illuminated by the iron lamp which he held in his hand.
``Enter, daughter of affliction,'' he said,---``enter the house of misery.''
She entered, and observed, with a precaution which increased her trepidation, that the Recluse's first act, after setting the lamp upon the table, was to replace the numerous bolts which secured the door of his hut. She shrank as she heard the noise which accompanied this ominous operation, yet remembered Ratcliffe's caution, and endeavoured to suppress all appearance of apprehension. The light of the lamp was weak and uncertain; but the Solitary, without taking immediate notice of Isabella, otherwise than by motioning her to sit down on a small settle beside the fireplace, made haste to kindle some dry furze, which presently cast a blaze through the cottage. Wooden shelves, which bore a few books, some bundles of dried herbs, and one or two wooden cups and platters, were on one side of the fire; on the other were placed some ordinary tools of field-labour, mingled with those used by mechanics. Where the bed should have been there was a wooden frame, strewed with withered moss and rushes, the couch of the ascetic. The whole space of the cottage did not exceed ten feet by six within the walls; and its only furniture, besides what we have mentioned, was a table and two stools formed of rough deals.
Within these narrow precincts Isabella now found herself enclosed with a being, whose history had nothing to reassure her, and the fearful conformation of whose hideous countenance inspired an almost superstitious terror. He occupied the seat opposite to her, and dropping his huge and shaggy eyebrows over his piercing black eyes, gazed at her in silence, as if agitated by a variety of contending feelings. On the other side sate Isabella, pale as death, her long hair uncurled by the evening damps, and falling over her shoulders and breast, as the wet streamers droop from the mast when the storm has passed away, and left the vessel stranded on the beach. The Dwarf first broke the silence with the sudden, abrupt, and alarming question,---``Woman, what evil fate has brought thee hither?''
``My father's danger, and your own command,'' she replied faintly, but firmly.
``And you hope for aid from me?''
``If you can bestow it,'' she replied, still in the same tone of mild submission.
``And how should I possess that power?'' continued the Dwarf, with a bitter sneer; ``Is mine the form of a redresser of wrongs? Is this the castle in which one powerful enough to be sued to by a fair suppliant is likely to hold his residence? I but mocked thee, girl, when I said I would relieve thee.''
``Then must I depart, and face my fate as I best may.''
``No!'' said the Dwarf, rising and interposing between her and the door, and motioning to her sternly to resume her seat ---``No! you leave me not in this way; we must have farther conference. Why should one being desire aid of another? Why should not each be sufficient to itself? look round you--- I, the most despised and most decrepit on Nature's common, have required sympathy and help from no one. These stones are of my own piling; these utensils I framed with my own hands; and with this''---and he laid his hand with a fierce smile on the long dagger which he always wore beneath his garment, and unsheathed it so far that the blade glimmered clear in the fire-light---``With this,'' he pursued, as he thrust the weapon back into the scabbard, ``I can, if necessary, defend the vital spark enclosed in this poor trunk, against the fairest and strongest that shall threaten me with injury.''
It was with difficulty Isabella refrained from screaming out aloud; but she did refrain.
``This,'' continued the Recluse, ``is the life of nature, solitary, self-sufficing, and independent. The wolf calls not the wolf to aid him in forming his den; and the vulture invites not another to assist her in striking down her prey.''
``And when they are unable to procure themselves support,'' said Isabella, judiciously thinking he would be most accessible to argument couched in his own metaphorical style, ``what then is to befall them?''
``Let them starve, die, and be forgotten: it is the common lot of humanity.''
``It is the lot of the wild tribes of nature,'' said Isabella, ``but chiefly of those who are destined to support themselves by rapine, which brooks no partner; but it is not the law of nature in general; even the lower orders have confederacies for mutual defence. But mankind---the race would perish did they cease to aid each other.---From the time that the mother binds the child's head, till the moment that some kind assistant wipes the death-damp from the brow of the dying, we cannot exist without mutual help. All, therefore, that need aid, have right to ask it of their fellow-mortals; no one who has the power of granting can refuse it without guilt.''
``And in this simple hope, poor maiden,'' said the Solitary, ``thou hast come into the desert, to seek one whose wish it were that the league thou hast spoken of were broken for ever, and that, in very truth, the whole race should perish? Wert thou not frightened?''
``Misery,'' said Isabella, firmly, ``is superior to fear.''
``Hast thou not heard it said in thy mortal world that I have leagued myself with other powers, deformed to the eye, and malevolent to the human race as myself? Hast thou not heard this?---And dost thou seek my cell at midnight?''
``The being I worship supports me against such idle fears,'' said Isabella; but the increasing agitation of her bosom belied the affected courage which her words expressed.
``Ho! ho!'' said the Dwarf, ``thou vauntest thyself a philosopher? Yet, shouldst thou not have thought of the danger of entrusting thyself, young and beautiful, in the power of one so spited against humanity, as to place his chief pleasure in defacing, destroying, and degrading her fairest works?''
Isabella, much alarmed, continued to answer with firmness, ``Whatever injuries you may have sustained in the world, you are incapable of revenging them on one who never wronged you, nor, wilfully, any other.''
``Ay, but, maiden,'' he continued, his dark eyes flashing with an expression of malignity which communicated itself to his wild and distorted features, ``revenge is the hungry wolf, which asks only to tear flesh and lap blood. Think you the lamb's plea of innocence would be listened to by him?''
``Man!'' said Isabella, rising, and expressing herself with much dignity, ``I fear not the horrible ideas with which you would impress me. I cast them from me with disdain. Be you mortal or fiend, you would not offer injury to one who sought you as a suppliant in her utmost need. You would not ---you durst not.''
``Thou say'st truly, maiden,'' rejoined the Solitary; ``I dare not---I would not. Begone to thy dwelling. Fear nothing with which they threaten thee. Thou hast asked my protection ---thou shalt find it effectual.''
``But, father, this very night I have consented to wed the man that I abhor, or I must put the seal to my father's ruin.''
``This night?---at what hour?''
``And twilight,'' said the Dwarf, ``has already passed away. But fear nothing, there is ample time to protect thee.''
``And my father?'' continued Isabella in a suppliant tone.
``Thy father,'' replied the Dwarf, ``has been, and is, my most bitter enemy. But fear not; thy virtue shall save him. And now, begone; were I to keep thee longer by me, I might again fall into the stupid dreams concerning human worth from which I have been so fearfully awakened. But fear nothing---at the very foot of the altar I will redeem thee. Adieu, time presses, and I must act!''
He led her to the door of the hut, which he opened for her departure. She remounted her horse, which had been feeding in the outer enclosure, and pressed him forward by the light of the moon, which was now rising, to the spot where she had left Ratcliffe.
``Have you succeeded?'' was his first eager question.
``I have obtained promises from him to whom you sent me; but how can he possibly accomplish them?''
``Thank God!'' said Ratcliffe, ``doubt not his power to fulfil his promise.''
At this moment a shrill whistle was heard to resound along the heath.
``Hark!'' said Ratcliffe, ``he calls me---Miss Vere, return home, and leave unbolted the postern-door of the garden; to that which opens on the back stairs I have a private key.''
A second whistle was heard, yet more shrill and prolonged than the first.
``I come, I come,'' said Ratcliffe; and setting spurs to his horse, rode over the heath in the direction of the Recluse's hut. Miss Vere returned to the Castle, the mettle of the animal on which she rode, and her own anxiety of mind, combining to accelerate her journey.
She obeyed Ratcliffe's directions, though without well apprehending their purpose, and leaving her horse at large in a paddock near the garden, hurried to her own apartment, which she reached without observation. She now unbolted her door, and rang her bell for lights. Her father appeared along with the servant who answered her summons.
``He had been twice,'' he said, ``listening at her door during the two hours that had elapsed since he left her, and, not hearing her speak, had become apprehensive that she was taken ill.''
``And now, my dear father,'' she said, ``permit me to claim the promise you so kindly gave; let the last moments of freedom which I am to enjoy be mine without interruption; and protract to the last moment the respite which is allowed me.''
``I will,'' said her father; ``nor shall you again be interrupted. But this disordered dress---this dishevelled hair---do not let me find you thus when I call on you again; the sacrifice, to be beneficial, must be voluntary.''
``Must it be so?'' she replied; ``then fear not, my father! the victim shall be adorned.''
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