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Chapter 20


Chapter XX. The Prince and the hermit.

The high hedge hid him from the house, now; and so, under the
impulse of a deadly fright, he let out all his forces and sped
toward a wood in the distance.  He never looked back until he had
almost gained the shelter of the forest; then he turned and
descried two figures in the distance.  That was sufficient; he did
not wait to scan them critically, but hurried on, and never abated
his pace till he was far within the twilight depths of the wood.
Then he stopped; being persuaded that he was now tolerably safe.
He listened intently, but the stillness was profound and solemn--
awful, even, and depressing to the spirits.  At wide intervals his
straining ear did detect sounds, but they were so remote, and
hollow, and mysterious, that they seemed not to be real sounds,
but only the moaning and complaining ghosts of departed ones.  So
the sounds were yet more dreary than the silence which they
interrupted.

It was his purpose, in the beginning, to stay where he was the
rest of the day; but a chill soon invaded his perspiring body, and
he was at last obliged to resume movement in order to get warm.
He struck straight through the forest, hoping to pierce to a road
presently, but he was disappointed in this.  He travelled on and
on; but the farther he went, the denser the wood became,
apparently.  The gloom began to thicken, by-and-by, and the King
realised that the night was coming on.  It made him shudder to
think of spending it in such an uncanny place; so he tried to
hurry faster, but he only made the less speed, for he could not
now see well enough to choose his steps judiciously; consequently
he kept tripping over roots and tangling himself in vines and
briers.

And how glad he was when at last he caught the glimmer of a light!
He approached it warily, stopping often to look about him and
listen.  It came from an unglazed window-opening in a shabby
little hut.  He heard a voice, now, and felt a disposition to run
and hide; but he changed his mind at once, for this voice was
praying, evidently.  He glided to the one window of the hut,
raised himself on tiptoe, and stole a glance within.  The room was
small; its floor was the natural earth, beaten hard by use; in a
corner was a bed of rushes and a ragged blanket or two; near it
was a pail, a cup, a basin, and two or three pots and pans; there
was a short bench and a three-legged stool; on the hearth the
remains of a faggot fire were smouldering; before a shrine, which
was lighted by a single candle, knelt an aged man, and on an old
wooden box at his side lay an open book and a human skull.  The
man was of large, bony frame; his hair and whiskers were very long
and snowy white; he was clothed in a robe of sheepskins which
reached from his neck to his heels.

"A holy hermit!" said the King to himself; "now am I indeed
fortunate."

The hermit rose from his knees; the King knocked.  A deep voice
responded--

"Enter!--but leave sin behind, for the ground whereon thou shalt
stand is holy!"

The King entered, and paused.  The hermit turned a pair of
gleaming, unrestful eyes upon him, and said--

"Who art thou?"

"I am the King," came the answer, with placid simplicity.

"Welcome, King!" cried the hermit, with enthusiasm.  Then,
bustling about with feverish activity, and constantly saying,
"Welcome, welcome," he arranged his bench, seated the King on it,
by the hearth, threw some faggots on the fire, and finally fell to
pacing the floor with a nervous stride.

"Welcome!  Many have sought sanctuary here, but they were not
worthy, and were turned away.  But a King who casts his crown
away, and despises the vain splendours of his office, and clothes
his body in rags, to devote his life to holiness and the
mortification of the flesh--he is worthy, he is welcome!--here
shall he abide all his days till death come."  The King hastened
to interrupt and explain, but the hermit paid no attention to him-
-did not even hear him, apparently, but went right on with his
talk, with a raised voice and a growing energy.  "And thou shalt
be at peace here.  None shall find out thy refuge to disquiet thee
with supplications to return to that empty and foolish life which
God hath moved thee to abandon.  Thou shalt pray here; thou shalt
study the Book; thou shalt meditate upon the follies and delusions
of this world, and upon the sublimities of the world to come; thou
shalt feed upon crusts and herbs, and scourge thy body with whips,
daily, to the purifying of thy soul.  Thou shalt wear a hair shirt
next thy skin; thou shalt drink water only; and thou shalt be at
peace; yes, wholly at peace; for whoso comes to seek thee shall go
his way again, baffled; he shall not find thee, he shall not
molest thee."

The old man, still pacing back and forth, ceased to speak aloud,
and began to mutter.  The King seized this opportunity to state
his case; and he did it with an eloquence inspired by uneasiness
and apprehension.  But the hermit went on muttering, and gave no
heed.  And still muttering, he approached the King and said
impressively--

"'Sh!  I will tell you a secret!"  He bent down to impart it, but
checked himself, and assumed a listening attitude.  After a moment
or two he went on tiptoe to the window-opening, put his head out,
and peered around in the gloaming, then came tiptoeing back again,
put his face close down to the King's, and whispered--

"I am an archangel!"

The King started violently, and said to himself, "Would God I were
with the outlaws again; for lo, now am I the prisoner of a
madman!"  His apprehensions were heightened, and they showed
plainly in his face.  In a low excited voice the hermit continued-
-

"I see you feel my atmosphere!  There's awe in your face!  None
may be in this atmosphere and not be thus affected; for it is the
very atmosphere of heaven.  I go thither and return, in the
twinkling of an eye.  I was made an archangel on this very spot,
it is five years ago, by angels sent from heaven to confer that
awful dignity.  Their presence filled this place with an
intolerable brightness.  And they knelt to me, King! yes, they
knelt to me! for I was greater than they.  I have walked in the
courts of heaven, and held speech with the patriarchs.  Touch my
hand--be not afraid--touch it.  There--now thou hast touched a
hand which has been clasped by Abraham and Isaac and Jacob!  For I
have walked in the golden courts; I have seen the Deity face to
face!"  He paused, to give this speech effect; then his face
suddenly changed, and he started to his feet again saying, with
angry energy, "Yes, I am an archangel; A MERE ARCHANGEL!--I that
might have been pope!  It is verily true.  I was told it from
heaven in a dream, twenty years ago; ah, yes, I was to be pope!--
and I SHOULD have been pope, for Heaven had said it--but the King
dissolved my religious house, and I, poor obscure unfriended monk,
was cast homeless upon the world, robbed of my mighty destiny!"
Here he began to mumble again, and beat his forehead in futile
rage, with his fist; now and then articulating a venomous curse,
and now and then a pathetic "Wherefore I am nought but an
archangel--I that should have been pope!"

So he went on, for an hour, whilst the poor little King sat and
suffered.  Then all at once the old man's frenzy departed, and he
became all gentleness.  His voice softened, he came down out of
his clouds, and fell to prattling along so simply and so humanly,
that he soon won the King's heart completely.  The old devotee
moved the boy nearer to the fire and made him comfortable;
doctored his small bruises and abrasions with a deft and tender
hand; and then set about preparing and cooking a supper--chatting
pleasantly all the time, and occasionally stroking the lad's cheek
or patting his head, in such a gently caressing way that in a
little while all the fear and repulsion inspired by the archangel
were changed to reverence and affection for the man.

This happy state of things continued while the two ate the supper;
then, after a prayer before the shrine, the hermit put the boy to
bed, in a small adjoining room, tucking him in as snugly and
lovingly as a mother might; and so, with a parting caress, left
him and sat down by the fire, and began to poke the brands about
in an absent and aimless way.  Presently he paused; then tapped
his forehead several times with his fingers, as if trying to
recall some thought which had escaped from his mind.  Apparently
he was unsuccessful.  Now he started quickly up, and entered his
guest's room, and said--

"Thou art King?"

"Yes," was the response, drowsily uttered.

"What King?"

"Of England."

"Of England?  Then Henry is gone!"

"Alack, it is so.  I am his son."

A black frown settled down upon the hermit's face, and he clenched
his bony hands with a vindictive energy.  He stood a few moments,
breathing fast and swallowing repeatedly, then said in a husky
voice--

"Dost know it was he that turned us out into the world houseless
and homeless?"

There was no response.  The old man bent down and scanned the
boy's reposeful face and listened to his placid breathing.  "He
sleeps--sleeps soundly;" and the frown vanished away and gave
place to an expression of evil satisfaction.  A smile flitted
across the dreaming boy's features.  The hermit muttered, "So--his
heart is happy;" and he turned away.  He went stealthily about the
place, seeking here and there for something; now and then halting
to listen, now and then jerking his head around and casting a
quick glance toward the bed; and always muttering, always mumbling
to himself.  At last he found what he seemed to want--a rusty old
butcher knife and a whetstone.  Then he crept to his place by the
fire, sat himself down, and began to whet the knife softly on the
stone, still muttering, mumbling, ejaculating.  The winds sighed
around the lonely place, the mysterious voices of the night
floated by out of the distances.  The shining eyes of venturesome
mice and rats peered out at the old man from cracks and coverts,
but he went on with his work, rapt, absorbed, and noted none of
these things.

At long intervals he drew his thumb along the edge of his knife,
and nodded his head with satisfaction.  "It grows sharper," he
said; "yes, it grows sharper."

He took no note of the flight of time, but worked tranquilly on,
entertaining himself with his thoughts, which broke out
occasionally in articulate speech--

"His father wrought us evil, he destroyed us--and is gone down
into the eternal fires!  Yes, down into the eternal fires!  He
escaped us--but it was God's will, yes it was God's will, we must
not repine.  But he hath not escaped the fires!  No, he hath not
escaped the fires, the consuming, unpitying, remorseless fires--
and THEY are everlasting!"

And so he wrought, and still wrought--mumbling, chuckling a low
rasping chuckle at times--and at times breaking again into words--

"It was his father that did it all.  I am but an archangel; but
for him I should be pope!"

The King stirred.  The hermit sprang noiselessly to the bedside,
and went down upon his knees, bending over the prostrate form with
his knife uplifted.  The boy stirred again; his eyes came open for
an instant, but there was no speculation in them, they saw
nothing; the next moment his tranquil breathing showed that his
sleep was sound once more.

The hermit watched and listened, for a time, keeping his position
and scarcely breathing; then he slowly lowered his arms, and
presently crept away, saying,--

"It is long past midnight; it is not best that he should cry out,
lest by accident someone be passing."

He glided about his hovel, gathering a rag here, a thong there,
and another one yonder; then he returned, and by careful and
gentle handling he managed to tie the King's ankles together
without waking him.  Next he essayed to tie the wrists; he made
several attempts to cross them, but the boy always drew one hand
or the other away, just as the cord was ready to be applied; but
at last, when the archangel was almost ready to despair, the boy
crossed his hands himself, and the next moment they were bound.
Now a bandage was passed under the sleeper's chin and brought up
over his head and tied fast--and so softly, so gradually, and so
deftly were the knots drawn together and compacted, that the boy
slept peacefully through it all without stirring.


Mark Twain