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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDevereux - Book 6 - Chapter 3. The Hermit Of The Well
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Devereux - Book 6 - Chapter 3. The Hermit Of The Well Post by :darrelrichards Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :3273

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Devereux - Book 6 - Chapter 3. The Hermit Of The Well

BOOK VI CHAPTER III. THE HERMIT OF THE WELL

THE thorough and deep investigation of those principles from which we learn the immortality of the soul, and the nature of its proper ends, leads the mind through such a course of reflection and of study; it is attended with so many exalting, purifying, and, if I may so say, etherealizing thoughts,--that I do believe no man has ever pursued it, and not gone back to the world a better and a nobler man than he was before. Nay, so deeply must these elevating and refining studies be conned, so largely and sensibly must they enter the intellectual system, that I firmly think that even a sensualist who has only considered the subject with a view to convince himself that he is clay, and has therefore an excuse to the curious conscience for his grosser desires; nay, should he come to his wished-for yet desolate conclusion, from which the abhorrent nature shrinks and recoils, I do nevertheless firmly think, should the study have been long and deep, that he would wonder to find his desires had lost their poignancy and his objects their charm. He would descend from the Alp he had climbed to the low level on which he formerly deemed it a bliss to dwell, with the feeling of one who, having long drawn in high places an empyreal air, has become unable to inhale the smoke and the thick vapour he inhaled of yore. His soul once aroused would stir within him, though he felt it not, and though he grew not a believer, he would cease to be only the voluptuary.

I meant at one time to have here stated the arguments which had perplexed me on one side, and those which afterwards convinced me on the other. I do not do so for many reasons, one of which will suffice; namely, the evident and palpable circumstance that a dissertation of that nature would, in a biography like the present, be utterly out of place and season. Perhaps, however, at a later period of life, I may collect my own opinions on the subject into a separate work, and bequeath that work to future generations, upon the same conditions as the present memoir.

One day I was favoured by a visit from one of the monks at the neighbouring abbey. After some general conversation he asked me if I had yet encountered the Hermit of the Well?

"No," said I, and I was going to add, that I had not even heard of him, "but I now remember that the good people of the house have more than once spoken to me of him as a rigid and self-mortifying recluse."

"Yes," said the holy friar; "Heaven forbid that I should say aught against the practice of the saints and pious men to deny unto themselves the lusts of the flesh, but such penances may be carried too far. However, it is an excellent custom, and the Hermit of the Well is an excellent creature. _Santa Maria! what delicious stuff is that Hungary wine your scholarship was pleased to bestow upon our father Abbot. He suffered me to taste it the eve before last. I had been suffering with a pain in the reins, and the wine acted powerfully upon me as an efficacious and inestimable medicine. Do you find, my Son, that it bore the journey to your lodging here as well as to the convent cellars?"

"Why, really, my Father, I have none of it here; but the people of the house have a few flasks of a better wine than ordinary, if you will deign to taste it in lieu of the Hungary wine."

"Oh--oh!" said the monk, groaning, "my reins trouble me much: perhaps the wine may comfort me!" and the wine was brought.

"It is not of so rare a flavour as that which you sent to our reverend father," said the monk, wiping his mouth with his long sleeve. "Hungary must be a charming place; is it far from hence? It joins the heretical,--I pray your pardon, it joins the continent of England, I believe?"

"Not exactly, Father; but whatever its topography, it is a rare country--for those who like it! But tell me of this Hermit of the Well. How long has he lived here? and how came he by his appellation? Of what country is he? and of what birth?"

"You ask me too many questions at once, my Son. The country of the holy man is a mystery to us all. He speaks the Tuscan dialect well, but with a foreign accent. Nevertheless, though the wine is not of Hungary, it has a pleasant flavour. I wonder how the rogues kept it so snugly from the knowledge and comfort of their pious brethren of the monastery!"

"And how long has the Hermit lived in your vicinity?"

"Nearly eight years, my Son. It was one winter's evening that he came to our convent in the dress of a worldly traveller, to seek our hospitality, and a shelter for the night, which was inclement and stormy. He stayed with us a few days, and held some conversation with our father Abbot; and one morning, after roaming in the neighbourhood to look at the old stones and ruins, which is the custom of travellers, he returned, put into our box some alms, and two days afterwards he appeared in the place he now inhabits and in the dress he assumes."

"And of what nature, my Father, is the place, and of what fashion the dress?"

"Holy Saint Francis!" exclaimed the Father, with a surprise so great that I thought at first it related to the wine, "Holy Saint Francis! have you not seen the well yet?"

"No, Father, unless you speak of the fountain about a mile and a quarter distant."

"Tusk--tusk!" said the good man, "what ignoramuses you travellers are! You affect to know what kind of slippers Prester John wears and to have been admitted to the bed-chamber of _the Pagoda of China_; and yet, when one comes to sound you, you are as ignorant of everything a man of real learning knows as an Englishman is of his missal. Why, I thought that every fool in every country had heard of the Holy Well of St. Francis, situated exactly two miles from our famous convent, and that every fool in the neighbourhood had seen it."

"What the fools, my Father, whether in this neighbourhood or any other, may have heard or seen, I, who profess not ostensibly to belong to so goodly an order, cannot pretend to know; but be assured that the Holy Well of St. Francis is as unfamiliar to me as the Pagoda of China--Heaven bless _him_--is to you."

Upon this the learned monk, after expressing due astonishment, offered to show it to me; and as I thought I might by acquiescence get rid of him the sooner, and as, moreover, I wished to see the Abbot, to whom some books for me had been lately sent, I agreed to the offer.

The well, said the monk, lay not above a mile out of the customary way to the monastery; and after _we had finished the flask of wine, we sallied out on our excursion,--the monk upon a stately and strong ass, myself on foot.

The Abbot, on granting me his friendship and protection, had observed that I was not the only stranger and recluse on whom his favour was bestowed. He had then mentioned the Hermit of the Well, as an eccentric and strange being, who lived an existence of rigid penance, harmless to others, painful only to himself. This story had been confirmed in the few conversations I had ever interchanged with my host and hostess, who seemed to take a peculiar pleasure in talking of the Solitary; and from them I had heard also many anecdotes of his charity towards the poor and his attention to the sick. All these circumstances came into my mind as the good monk indulged his loquacity upon the subject, and my curiosity became at last somewhat excited respecting my fellow recluse.

I now learned from the monk that the post of Hermit of the Well was an office of which the present anchorite was by no means the first tenant. The well was one of those springs, frequent in Catholic countries, to which a legend and a sanctity are attached; and twice a year--once in the spring, once in the autumn--the neighbouring peasants flocked together, on a stated day, to drink, and lose their diseases. As the spring most probably did possess some medicinal qualities, a few extraordinary cures had occurred, especially among those pious persons who took not biennial, but constant draughts; and to doubt its holiness was downright heresy.

Now, hard by this well was a cavern, which, whether first formed by nature or art, was now, upon the whole, constructed into a very commodious abode; and here, for years beyond the memory of man, some solitary person had fixed his abode to dispense and to bless the water, to be exceedingly well fed by the surrounding peasants, to wear a long gown of serge or sackcloth, and to be called the Hermit of the Well. So fast as each succeeding anchorite died there were enough candidates eager to supply his place; for it was no bad _metier to some penniless imposter to become the quack and patentee of a holy specific. The choice of these candidates always rested with the superior of the neighbouring monastery; and it is not impossible that he made an indifferently good percentage upon the annual advantages of his protection and choice.

At the time the traveller appeared, the former hermit had just departed this life, and it was, therefore, to the vacancy thus occasioned that he had procured himself to be elected. The incumbent appeared quite of a different mould from the former occupants of the hermitage. He accepted, it is true, the gifts laid at regular periods upon a huge stone between the hermitage and the well, but he distributed among the donors alms far more profitable than their gifts. He entered no village, borne upon an ass laden with twin sacks, for the purpose of sanctimoniously robbing the inhabitants; no profane songs were ever heard resounding from his dwelling by the peasant incautiously lingering at a late hour too near its vicinity; my guide, the monk, complained bitterly of his unsociability, and no scandalous legend of nymph-like comforters and damsel visitants haunting the sacred dwelling escaped from the garrulous friar's well-loaded budget.

"Does he study much?" said I, with the interest of a student.

"I fear me not," quoth the monk. "I have had occasion often to enter his abode, and I have examined all things with a close eye,--for, praised be the Lord, I have faculties more than ordinarily clear and observant,--but I have seen no books therein, excepting a missal, and a Latin or Greek Testament, I know not well which; nay, so incurious or unlearned is the holy man that he rejected even a loan of the 'Life of Saint Francis,' notwithstanding it has many and rare pictures, to say nothing of its most interesting and amazing tales."

More might the monk have said, had we not now suddenly entered a thick and sombre wood. A path cut through it was narrow, and only capable of admitting a traveller on foot or horseback; and the boughs overhead were so darkly interlaced that the light scarcely, and only in broken and erratic glimmerings, pierced the canopy.

"It is the wood," said the monk, crossing himself, "wherein the wonderful adventure happened to Saint Francis, which I will one day narrate at length to you."

"And we are near the well, I suppose?" said I.

"It is close at hand," answered the monk.

In effect we had not proceeded above fifty yards before the path brought us into a circular space of green sod, in the midst of which was a small square stone building, of plain but not inelegant shape, and evidently of great antiquity. At one side of this building was an iron handle, for the purpose of raising water, that cast itself into a stone basin, to which was affixed by a strong chain an iron cup. An inscription in monkish Latin was engraved over the basin, requesting the traveller to pause and drink, and importing that what that water was to the body, faith was to the soul; near the cistern was a rude seat, formed by the trunk of a tree. The door of the well-house was of iron, and secured by a chain and lock; perhaps the pump was so contrived that only a certain quantum of the sanctified beverage could be drawn up at a time, without application to some mechanism within; and wayfarers were thereby prevented from helping themselves _ad libitum_, and thus depriving the anchorite of the profit and the necessity of his office.

It was certainly a strange, lonely, and wild place; and the green sward, round as a fairy ring, in the midst of trees, which, black, close, and huge, circled it like a wall; and the solitary gray building in the centre, gaunt and cold, startled the eye with the abruptness of its appearance, and the strong contrast made by its wan hues to the dark verdure and forest gloom around it.

I took a draught of the water, which was very cold and tasteless, and reminded the monk of his disorder in the reins, to which a similar potation might possibly be efficacious. To this suggestion the monk answered that he would certainly try the water some other time; but that at present the wine he had drunk might pollute its divine properties. So saying, he turned off the conversation by inviting me to follow him to the hermitage.

In our way thither he pointed out a large fragment of stone, and observed that the water would do me evil instead of good if I forgot to remunerate its guardian. I took the hint, and laid a piece of silver on the fragment.

A short journey through the wood brought us to the foot of a hill covered with trees, and having at its base a strong stone door, the entrance to the excavated home of the anchorite. The monk gently tapped thrice at this door, but no answer came. "The holy man is from home," said he, "let us return."

We did so; and the monk, keeping behind me, managed, as he thought unseen, to leave the stone as naked as we had found it! We now struck through another path in the wood, and were soon at the convent. I did not lose the opportunity to question the Abbot respecting his tenant: I learned from him little more than the particulars I have already narrated, save that in concluding his details, he said:--

"I can scarcely doubt but that the Hermit is, like yourself, a person of rank; his bearing and his mien appear to denote it. He has given, and gives yearly, large sums to the uses of the convent: and, though he takes the customary gifts of the pious villagers, it is only by my advice and for the purpose of avoiding suspicion. Should he be considered rich, it might attract cupidity; and there are enough bold hands and sharp knives in the country to place the wealthy and the unguarded in some peril. Whoever he may be--for he has not confided his secret to me--I do not doubt but that he is doing penance for some great crime; and, whatever be the crime, I suspect that its earthly punishment is nearly over. The Hermit is naturally of a delicate and weak frame, and year after year I have marked him sensibly wearing away; so that when I last saw him, three days since, I was shocked at the visible ravages which disease or penance had engraven upon him. If ever Death wrote legibly, its characters are in that brow and cheek."

"Poor man! Know you not even whom to apprise of his decease when he is no more?"

"I do not yet; but the last time I saw him he told me that he found himself drawing near his end, and that he should not quit life without troubling me with one request."

After this the Abbot spoke of other matters, and my visit expired.

Interested in the recluse more deeply than I acknowledged to myself, I found my steps insensibly leading me homeward by the more circuitous road which wound first by the holy well. I did not resist the impulse, but walked musingly onward by the waning twilight, for the day was now over, until I came to the well. As I emerged from the wood, I started involuntarily and drew back. A figure, robed from head to foot in a long sable robe, sat upon the rude seat beside the well; sat so still, so motionless, that coming upon it abruptly in that strange place, the heart beat irregularly at an apparition so dark in hue and so death-like in its repose. The hat, large, broad, and overhanging, which suited the costume, was lying on the ground; and the face, which inclined upward, seemed to woo the gentle air of the quiet and soft skies. I approached a few steps, and saw the profile of the countenance more distinctly than I had done before. It was of a marble whiteness; the features, though sharpened and attenuated by disease, were of surpassing beauty; the hair was exceedingly, almost effeminately, long, and hung in waves of perfect jet on either side; the mouth was closed firmly, and deep lines or rather furrows were traced from its corners to either nostril. The stranger's beard, of a hue equally black as the hair, was dishevelled and neglected, but not very long; and one hand, which lay on the sable robe, was so thin and wan you might have deemed the very starlight could have shone through it. I did not doubt that it was the recluse whom I saw; I drew near and accosted him.

"Your blessing, holy Father, and your permission to taste the healing of your well."

Sudden as was my appearance, and abrupt my voice, the Hermit evinced by no startled gesture a token of surprise. He turned very slowly round, cast upon me an indifferent glance, and said, in a sweet and very low tone,--

"You have my blessing, Stranger: there is water in the cistern; drink, and be healed."

I dipped the bowl in the basin, and took sparingly of the water. In the accent and tone of the stranger, my ear, accustomed to the dialects of many nations, recognized something English; I resolved, therefore, to address him in my native tongue, rather than the indifferent Italian in which I had first accosted him.

"The water is fresh and cooling: would, holy Father, that it could penetrate to a deeper malady than the ills of flesh; that it could assuage the fever of the heart, or lave from the wearied mind the dust which it gathers from the mire and travail of the world."

Now the Hermit testified surprise; but it was slight and momentary. He gazed upon me more attentively than he had done before, and said, after a pause,--

"My countryman! and in this spot! It is not often that the English penetrate into places where no ostentatious celebrity dwells to sate curiosity and flatter pride. My countryman: it is well, and perhaps fortunate. Yes," he said, after a second pause, "yes; it were indeed a boon, had the earth a fountain for the wounds which fester and the disease which consumes the heart."

"The earth has oblivion, Father, if not a cure."

"It is false!" cried the Hermit, passionately, and starting wildly from his seat; "the earth has _no oblivion. The grave,--is _that forgetfulness? No, no: _there is no grave for the soul_! The deeds pass; the flesh corrupts: but the memory passes not, and withers not. From age to age, from world to world, through eternity, throughout creation, it is perpetuated; and immortality,--a curse,--_a hell_!"

Surprised by the vehemence of the Hermit, I was still more startled by the agonizing and ghastly expression of his face.

"My Father," said I, "pardon me if I have pressed upon a sore. I also have that within which, did a stranger touch it, would thrill my whole frame with torture, and I would fain ask from your holy, soothing, and pious comfort, something of alleviation or of fortitude."

The Hermit drew near to me; he laid his thin hand upon my arm, and looked long and wistfully in my face. It was then that a suspicion crept through me which after observation proved to be true, that the wanderings of those dark eyes and the meaning of that blanched brow were tinctured with insanity.

"Brother and fellow man," said he, mournfully, "hast thou in truth suffered? and dost thou still smart at the remembrance? We are friends then. If thou hast suffered as much as I have, I will fall down and do homage to thee as a superior; for pain has its ranks, and I think at times that none ever climbed the height that I have done. Yet you look not like one who has had nights of delirium, and days in which the heart lay in the breast, as a corpse endowed with consciousness might lie in the grave, feeling the worm gnaw it, and the decay corrupt, and yet incapable of resistance or of motion. Your cheek is thin, but firm; your eye is haughty and bright; you have the air of one who has lived with men, and struggled and not been vanquished in the struggle. Suffered! No, man, no,--_you have not suffered!"

"My Father, it is not in the countenance that Fate graves her records. I have, it is true, contended with my fellows; and if wealth and honour be the premium, not in vain: but I have not contended against Sorrow with a like success; and I stand before you, a being who, if passion be a tormentor and the death of the loved a loss, has borne that which the most wretched will not envy."

Again a fearful change came over the face of the recluse: he grasped my arm more vehemently, "You speak my own sorrows; you utter my own curse; I will see you again; you may do my last will better than yon monks. Can I trust you? If you have in truth known misfortune, I will! I will! yea, even to the outpouring--merciful, merciful God, what would I say,--what would I reveal!"

Suddenly changing his voice, he released me, and said, touching his forehead with a meaning gesture and a quiet smile, "You say you are my rival in pain. Have you ever known the rage and despair of the heart mount _here_? It is a wonderful thing to be calm as I am now, when that rising makes itself felt in fire and torture!"

"If there be aught, Father, which a man who cares not what country he visit, or what deed--so it be not of guilt or shame--he commit, can do towards the quiet of your soul, say it, and I will attempt your will."

"You are kind, my Son," said the Hermit, resuming his first melancholy and dignified composure of mien and bearing; "and there is something in your voice which seems to me like a tone that I have heard in youth. Do you live near at hand?"

"In the valley, about four miles hence; I am, like yourself, a fugitive from the world."

"Come to me then to-morrow at eve; to-morrow! No, that is a holy eve, and I must keep it with scourge and prayer. The next at sunset. I shall be collected then, and I would fain know more of you than I do. Bless you, my Son; adieu."

"Yet stay, Father, may I not conduct you home?"

"No; my limbs are weak, but I trust they can carry me to that home, till I be borne thence to my last. Farewell! the night grows, and man fills even these shades with peril. The eve after next, at sunset, we meet again."

So saying, the hermit waved his hand, and I stood apart, watching his receding figure, until the trees cloaked the last glimpse from my view. I then turned homeward, and reached my cottage in safety, despite of the hermit's caution. But I did not retire to rest: a powerful foreboding, rather than suspicion, that, in the worn and wasted form which I had beheld, there was identity with one whom I had not met for years, and whom I had believed to be no more, thrillingly possessed me.

"Can--can it be?" thought I. "Can grief have a desolation, or remembrance an agony, sufficient to create so awful a change? And of all human beings, for that one to be singled out; that one in whom passion and sin were, if they existed, nipped in their earliest germ, and seemingly rendered barren of all fruit! If too, almost against the evidence of sight and sense, an innate feeling has marked in that most altered form the traces of a dread recognition, would not his memory have been yet more vigilant than mine? Am I so changed that he should have looked me in the face so wistfully, and found there naught save the lineaments of a stranger?" And, actuated by this thought, I placed the light by the small mirror which graced my chamber. I recalled, as I gazed, my features as they had been in earliest youth. "No," I said, with a sigh, "there is nothing here that he should recognize."

And I said aright: my features, originally small and delicate, had grown enlarged and prominent. The long locks of my youth (for only upon state occasions did my early vanity consent to the fashion of the day) were succeeded by curls, short and crisped; the hues, alternately pale and hectic, that the dreams of romance had once spread over my cheek, had settled into the unchanging bronze of manhood; the smooth lip and unshaven chin were clothed with a thick hair; the once unfurrowed brow was habitually knit in thought; and the ardent, restless expression that boyhood wore had yielded to the quiet unmoved countenance of one in whom long custom has subdued all outward sign of emotion, and many and various events left no prevalent token of the mind save that of an habitual but latent resolution. My frame, too, once scarcely less slight than a woman's, was become knit and muscular; and nothing was left by which, in the foreign air, the quiet brow, and the athletic form, my very mother could have recognized the slender figure and changeable face of the boy she had last beheld. The very sarcasm of the eye was gone; and I had learned the world's easy lesson,--the dissimulation of composure.

I have noted one thing in others, and it was particularly noticeable in me; namely, that few who mix very largely with men, and with the courtier's or the citizen's design, ever retain the key and tone of their original voice. The voice of a young man is as yet modulated by nature, and expresses the passion of the moment; that of the matured pupil of art expresses rather the customary occupation of his life. Whether he aims at persuading, convincing, or commanding others, his voice irrevocably settles into the key he ordinarily employs; and, as persuasion is the means men chiefly employ in their commerce with each other, especially in the regions of a court, so a tone of artificial blandness and subdued insinuation is chiefly that in which the accents of worldly men are clothed; the artificial intonation, long continued, grows into nature, and the very pith and basis of the original sound fritter themselves away. The change was great in me, for at that time which I brought in comparison with the present my age was one in which the voice is yet confused and undecided, struggling between the accents of youth and boyhood; so that even this most powerful and unchanging of all claims upon the memory was in a great measure absent in me; and nothing but an occasional and rare tone could have produced even that faint and unconscious recognition which the Hermit had confessed.

I must be pardoned these egotisms, which the nature of my story renders necessary.

With what eager impatience did I watch the hours to the appointed interview with the Hermit languish themselves away! However, before that time arrived and towards the evening of the next day, I was surprised by the rare honour of a visit from Anselmo himself. He came attended by two of the mendicant friars of his order, and they carried between them a basket of tolerable size, which, as mine hostess afterwards informed me, with many a tear, went back somewhat heavier than it came, from the load of certain _receptacula of that rarer wine which she had had the evening before the indiscreet hospitality to produce.

The Abbot came to inform me that the Hermit had been with him that morning, making many inquiries respecting me. "I told him," said he, "that I was acquainted with your name and birth, but that I was under a solemn promise not to reveal them, without your consent; and I am now here, my Son, to learn from you whether that consent may be obtained?"

"Assuredly not, holy Father!" said I, hastily; nor was I contented until I had obtained a renewal of his promise to that effect. This seemed to give the Abbot some little chagrin: perhaps the Hermit had offered a reward for my discovery. However, I knew that Anselmo, though a griping was a trustworthy man, and I felt safe in his renewed promise. I saw him depart with great satisfaction, and gave myself once more to conjectures respecting the strange recluse.

As the next evening I prepared to depart towards the hermitage, I took peculiar pains to give my person a foreign and disguised appearance. A loose dress, of rude and simple material, and a high cap of fur, were pretty successful in accomplishing this purpose. And, as I gave the last look at the glass before I left the house, I said inly, "If there be any truth in my wild and improbable conjecture respecting the identity of the anchorite, I think time and this dress are sufficient wizards to secure me from a chance of discovery. I will keep a guard upon my words and tones, until, if my thought be verified, a moment fit for unmasking myself arrives. But would to God that the thought be groundless! In such circumstances, and after such an absence, to meet _him_! No; and yet--Well, this meeting will decide."

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