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The Hermit and the Wild Woman   By: (1862-1937)

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First Page:







I The Hermit and the Wild Woman

II The Last Asset

III In Trust

IV The Pretext

V The Verdict

VI The Pot Boiler

VII The Best Man



THE Hermit lived in a cave in the hollow of a hill. Below him was a glen, with a stream in a coppice of oaks and alders, and on the farther side of the valley, half a day's journey distant, another hill, steep and bristling, which raised aloft a little walled town with Ghibelline swallow tails notched against the sky.

When the Hermit was a lad, and lived in the town, the crenellations of the walls had been square topped, and a Guelf lord had flown his standard from the keep. Then one day a steel coloured line of men at arms rode across the valley, wound up the hill and battered in the gates. Stones and Greek fire rained from the ramparts, shields clashed in the streets, blade sprang at blade in passages and stairways, pikes and lances dripped above huddled flesh, and all the still familiar place was a stew of dying bodies. The boy fled from it in horror. He had seen his father go forth and not come back, his mother drop dead from an arquebuse shot as she leaned from the platform of the tower, his little sister fall with a slit throat across the altar steps of the chapel and he ran, ran for his life, through the slippery streets, over warm twitching bodies, between legs of soldiers carousing, out of the gates, past burning farmsteads, trampled wheat fields, orchards stripped and broken, till the still woods received him and he fell face down on the unmutilated earth.

He had no wish to go back. His longing was to live hidden from life. Up the hillside he found a hollow in the rock, and built before it a porch of boughs bound together with withies. He fed on nuts and roots, and on trout which he caught with his hands under the stones in the stream. He had always been a quiet boy, liking to sit at his mother's feet and watch the flowers grow on her embroidery frame, while the chaplain read aloud the histories of the Desert Fathers from a great silver clasped volume. He would rather have been bred a clerk and scholar than a knight's son, and his happiest moments were when he served mass for the chaplain in the early morning, and felt his heart flutter up and up like a lark, up and up till it was lost in infinite space and brightness. Almost as happy were the hours when he sat beside the foreign painter who came over the mountains to paint the chapel, and under whose brush celestial faces grew out of the rough wall as if he had sown some magic seed which flowered while you watched it. With the appearing of every gold rimmed face the boy felt he had won another friend, a friend who would come and bend above him at night, keeping off the ugly visions which haunted his pillow visions of the gnawing monsters about the church porch, evil faced bats and dragons, giant worms and winged bristling hogs, a devil's flock who crept down from the stone work at night and hunted the souls of sinful children through the town. With the growth of the picture the bright mailed angels thronged so close about the boy's bed that between their interwoven wings not a snout or a claw could force itself; and he would turn over sighing on his pillow, which felt as soft and warm as if it had been lined with down from those sheltering pinions.

All these thoughts came back to him now in his cave on the cliff side. The stillness seemed to enclose him with wings, to fold him away from life and evil. He was never restless or discontented. He loved the long silent empty days, each one as like the other as pearls in a well matched string. Above all he liked to have time to save his soul. He had been greatly troubled about his soul since a band of Flagellants had passed through the town, exhibiting their gaunt scourged bodies and exhorting the people to turn from soft raiment and delicate fare, from marriage and money getting and dancing and games, and think only how they might escape the devil's talons and the great red blaze of hell... Continue reading book >>

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