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The Saracen Dwarf. A Chronicle of the Middle Ages by Rev. Horatio Alger, Jr.

Author: Alger, Horatio, 1832-1899.
Title: The Saracen Dwarf. A Chronicle of the Middle Ages.
In: Gleason's Literary Companion. Boston : F. Gleason. Vol. 6, no. 52 (December 30, 1865)
Format: 4 columns ; 28 cm.
Horatio Alger Collection.
Other Title: Gleason's Literary Companion
Location: AP 2 .L546a (Special Collections)
Optically scanned and encoded by Mark A. Williams
Horatio Alger Digital Serials Project, Northern llinois University Libraries
DeKalb, IL
30-May-2000


The rich Jew Issachar, attended by a servant, was riding slowly homeward, having been absent ten days on a journey to a brother merchant in the neighboring city of York, with whom he had many dealings. From the perturbed looks which he from time to time cast on either side, it was evident that his mind was not free from apprehensions regarding his personal safety.

It must be confessed that his apprehensions were far from being groundless. England was not then the law-abiding country she has since become. Might took precedence of right, and the greatest atrocities were daily committed with impunity. Especially did this lawlessness affect the unfortunate countrymen of Issachar, who having to a great extent the monoply of trade, amassed fortunes large enough to excite in a dangerous degree the cupidity of the bold barons who not unfrequently found their coffers in need of replenishment.

"Come hither, Benjamin," said he to his attendant, who was riding a little behind, "draw near me, and, hark ye, have your sword in readiness, for night draweth on, and I greatly fear me lest some of the unbelieving Nazaranes may take advantage of the darkness to attack me, in hopes of wringing from me a portion of my hard earned gains."

"Truly," said his attendant, who, like himself was of Jewish extraction, "the times are perilous, and the hand of the spoiler is heavy upon us. Heard you, how Reuben, of York, was treated but a few weeks since?"

"No. How was it?"

"He was waylaid while on a journey, and conveyed to the castle of Sir Hugh de Lancy, where he was tortured into the surrender of one half his ample possessions."

"father Abraham defend us! is it indeed so? He is an old friend of mine, this Reuban. Together we learned the art of trafficking, from Ben David, the great merchant, I grieve greatly that he should.have fallen into the hands of these Philistines——"

"Philistines, sir Jew?" said a deep voice near at hand. "Is that the way you speak of your superiors? It is time you were taught better manners."

Issachar turned round with a sinking heart, and beheld to his dismay the stern face of a man-at-arms, whom he readily recognized as one of the followers of the Norman Baron, Sir Reginald de Courcy, over whose domains he was now travelling.

"Nay," said he apologetically, "take no offence, my master, I meant no disrespect."

"Meant no disrespect! So it is no disrespect to call a noble baron a Philistine. Beshrew me, Jew, if I do not think you are growing too purse-proud. Prithee, let me be thy leech. I would counsel a little letting of the blood, which with thee and thy race is but another name for gold. How likest thou the prescription?"

"Not over well," said the Jew, nervously, anxious to get away from his interlocator, of whom he entertained an undefined feeling of apprehension. "Not over well. but I must bid thee a good-night as it is growing late, and I have affairs that demand my instant attention. Hasten, good Benjamin, we must put spurs to our steeds."

"Nay," said their chance companion, coolly laying his hand on the animal that Issachar bestrode, "not so fast, my good friend. Perchance thou mayest find other matters which demand thy attention still more weighty."

"Delay me not, good sir," said the Jew, in a tone of entreaty, "there can be no dealings between me and thee, since, so far as my knowledge goes, this is the first time we have ever met."

"Very likely; but it may not be the last. I am sorry to put you to inconvenience, master Jew, but it is absolutely necessary that you should accompany me to the castle of my master, Sir Reginald de Courcy, who, I very well know, is just at this time most anxious to see one of thy race."

"I know him not," said Issachar, turning pale, for he well knew the reputation of the baron, and that, once in his clutches, he would not escape without paying a heavy ransom. "I know him not," he said hastily, "and therefore he cannot wish to see me. Let go thy hold and arrest my progress no longer. Already I am fifteen minutes detained through thy means."

"It is needless talking. You must go with me," was the firm reply.

"Nay, then, I must force myself away," said Issachar, striking the spurs deep into his horse's sides, and endeavoring to urge him forward, at the same time calling out to his attendant:

"Draw your sword, Benjamin, and spur forward. He is but one, and we must make resistance."

The stranger applied a hunting horn to his lips, and drew a blast. Instantly from the covert hard by, sprang a half dozen of his companions, who were lying in ambush.

"How, now ?" was his triumphant reply, as he beheld the dismay pictured in the faces of Issachar and his attendant, "you will escape now, will you?"

Issachar looked for a moment at the stern faces which surrounded him, as if to discover whether an appeal would do him any good. Apparently, however, the result was unfavorable, since, without a word of remonstrance, he submitted to be bound to his horse, after which he was led, between two men-at-arms, in the direction of Sir Reynald's castle.

His capturers amused themselves with bantering him upon his crest-fallen appearance.

"Nay, man, never look so sober. You may be sure our master will be rejoiced to see you, and will give you a rousing welcome. He will be very sorry to part with thee, Jew. I fear me he will not consent to let thee go at all, unless thou consent to leave behind something by which he may remember thee,—a thousand pieces of gold or so."

So saying, they laughed at their own rude wit.

As for Issachar, his mind was too much occupied with gloomy apprehensions of what was in store him, to note the raillery of those about him. At length the frowning walls of the castle made their appearance. At a signal the draw-bridge was lowered, and the whole party entered the court yard.

Sir Reginald de Courcy sat in his banquet-hall, at the head of his retainers. Besides his own household, there were present two reverend abbots, each of which presided over a neighboring monastery. The hall rang with cries of "wassail," in obediance to which the company would lift up the immense beakers usual in that age, and quaff them with an appearance of enjoyment which evinced that their thirst was not easily slaked.

Of all the knights who marched forth under the standard of the cross to the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre, perhaps no one was more famed for prowess, or struck more terror into the hearts of the foemen, than Sir Reginald de Courcy. Wielded by his powerful arm, the battle-axe became a weapon before which whole squadrons of the enemy fell as the grain falls before the sickle.

But in the courtesy of a true knight. Sir Reginald was wanting. Brute strength and untamable passions, with the love of oppression to which they naturally lead, were his chief characteristics. Not one of his followers but blenched with fear when the frowning eye of his chief was upon him.

Such was Sir Reginald de Courcy, who now, but recently returned from the Holy Land, was holding a feast of rejoicing for his safe arrival.

At length the feast, which had been long protracted, terminated. All had eaten to repletion. At a signal from the knights, the tables were divested of the fragments of the feast. Then it was that Sir Reginald, having first smote the table before him with his iron-gloved hand, in order to command a general attention, turned to the abbots, and said :

"Reverend fathers, I have something to show you, which may give you cause for wonder. While in the Holy Land, I beheld in the ranks opposed to me, a Saracen dwarf not over three feet high, who, in spite of his small size, was contending most manfully. The fancy seized me to take him alive and bring him home, as a source of amusement. I am sure you will confess, after seeing him, that you have never beheld the like."

At a sign from the knight, two of his attendants left the ball, and quickly returned with the person to whom allusion had been made. He was scarcely three feet high, having, as is usual in such cases, a head whose size was very disproportionate to the rest of his body. His shoulders were broad, his chest deep, and his arms of such length that, when standing erect, he could without difficulty touch the floor with the end of his long fingers. His hair, parted in the middle, hung down in long elfin locks by the side of a countenance whose swarthy hue clearly indicated his Oriental origin.

Altogether, Hafim, for such was his name, was a most singular looking being, and well calculated, in that superstitious age, to give rise to the opinion that he was acquainted with the secrets of the infernal powers, if not actually in league with them.

Every eye was turned upon Hafim as he entered. The abbots who were not prepared to behold anything quite so uncouth, simultaneously crossed themselves, and exclaimed, below their breath, "The saints preserve us?"

"Saw you ever the like, holy fathers?" asked the knight, turning to his guests.

"Never," said the Abbot Wilfred; "I could not have believed that nature could bring forth such a wonder of deformity."

The dwarf, who had been standing passively, suddenly shot a malignant glance from underneath his overhanging brows, which caused the latter to start back.

"Does he understand our language?" inquired he hastily of the baron, who had not noticed this circumstance.

"Yes, he has some knowledge of it, I believe," replied Sir Reginald. "I will command him to dance, and you shall see."

"Sir dwarf," said he, turning to Hafim, "these reverend fathers are very anxious to see you dance. Will you favor me with a specimen of your skill?"

The dwarf was passive for a moment, and, on the request being repeated, inclined his head in the negative.

"How now, sirrah!" exclaimed the knight, his passions quickly taking fire, "would you refuse! Then, by all the saints, we shall see whether I am to be disobeyed with impunity. Rodolph, heat me that iron hot."

He pointed to a long iron instrument, with a wooden handle, lying near him.

It was heated accordingly.

"Now," he continued, "apply it to the legs of that heathen dog, till he sees fit to dance, as I command him."

The expedient proved completely successful. With yells of pain and rage the dwarf leaped about with most surprising agility, gnashing big teeth the while with impotent rage. It was a sight well suited to afford amusement to a mind like that of Sir Reginald. With shouts of laughter he marked the uncouth performances of Hafim, till he was obliged, in self-defence, to order his tormentor to desist. Hafim darted a look of the most malignant and vindictive hatred towards the knight, which in his hilarious mood, only made him laugh the more.

"You should beware of that fellow," said father Wilfred, " he has a venomous eye."

"Tush, what is he, and what can he do?"

said the latter, timing a contemptuous look upon the ungainly proportions of the dwarf.

At that moment a messenger came in to announce to the knight the capture of the rich Jew Issachar.

"Say you so?" exclaimed the knight, gladly, "that is good service. You shall have a gold mark for the intelligence. It is odd but I get it out of the dog of a Jew before we part. Have him put in the outer dungeon,—do you hear,— and securely fastened. By-and by I will give him audience."

"I am about to do the church good service," he resumed, addressing the abbots, "or, in other words, to relieve a rich Jew of a portion of his worldly possessions, which he has extorted by his usury from the followers of the church.

"You will do very right, my son," returned the Abbot Wilfred. "The unbelieving dogs monopolize all our wealth, defrauding those who are rightfully entitled to it. But I trust you will not forget the church, but, lay a tithe of the spoils upon the altar."

"That depends on what I get," was the careless reply.

Not long afterwards the abbots withdrew to the chambers provided for their entertainment, and the knight, commanding the attendance of the dwarf to hold the lamp, descended to the less commodious apartment which had been provided for Issachar. The Jew was crouching in a corner of the dungeon, to which he was confined by heavy manacles.

"How like you your accommodations, sir Jew?" asked the knight.

"Not over much," returned Isaachar.

"You would like to be released?"

"Yes, so please your nobleness. May the blessings of Abraham light upon your head, if you will but dismiss me.''

"Why, as to that, I can't say that I care particularly about them. You may keep them all for yourself. However, I will release you upon certain conditions."

"What are they?" said the Jew, apprehensively.

"The payment of a thousand crowns, and a complete suit of armor for myself, and also a horse of the best breed, folly caparisoned."

"Holy Abraham!" exclaimed Issachar, lifting his hands in dismay. "You would ruin me completely. The whole of my fortune, with all that I could borrow, would not be sufficient to defray so great an expense. Nevertheless, I would provide you with the horse and armor, if you would omit the thousand gold pieces."

"Tush, Jew," said the knight, sternly, "this is mere trifling. You would have me believe you are poor, when every one knows you as Issachar, the rich Jew. It is a trick of your race. Come, will you sign a bond for the payment of the sum and articles I named?"

"So help me, I cannot," retorted the Jew. "If it were in the compass of my fortune—"

"Jew," said Sir Reginald, sternly, going to a corner of the dungeon, and throwing aside a scarlet cloth, which revealed the most fearful of all tortures, the rack, "look, and consider whether you had best submit to the loss of a portion of your extortionate gains, or die a fearful and lingering death."

"I can give no other answer," said the Jew obdurately. "What I have not, I cannot give, though I were to be torn limb from limb."

The knight turned to another portion of the apartment, and lifting aside a huge trap-door, revealed the mouth of a deep pit, saying, in a stern voice:

"In that pit, Jew, one of your countrymen, years ago, was plunged, because, like you, he was obdurate. Would you join him? I swear to you that, if you do not comply with my commands, such shall be your fate."

"Nay, rather yours, proud knight!" was hissed forth by the dwarf, as he pushed forward the knight, who was standing on the brink, with such fearful force that, entirely unable to recover himself, he fell down with a cry of mingled rage and apprehension, endeavoring vainly to arrest his descent by clutching at the sides of the aperture.

"Revenged, revenged!" shrieked the dwarf, laughing a most unearthly laugh, as he looked down into the fearful depth.

Taking advantage of this unexpected conjuncture, Issachar bribed the dwarf for a small sum to let him out of the dungeon, whence he speedily made his way to his own home. As for the dwarf, nothing was seen of him from that day. The retainers of Sir Reginald unable to account for the disappearance of their lord in any other way, reported that he bad been spirited away by Satan, whom they believed to be one and the same with the SARACEN DWARF.