Hilaire Belloc: On a Hermit Whom I Knew

English writer Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a polemical apologist for the conservative Catholicism of his day. Here is a tour de force essay from his collection, "On Nothing & Kindred Subjects," published in 1908.

On a Hermit Whom I Knew

In a valley of the Apennines, a little before it was day, I went down by the side of a torrent wondering where I should find repose; for it was now some hours since I had given up all hope of discovering a place for proper human rest and for the passing of the night, but at least I hoped to light upon a dry bed of sand under some overhanging rock, or possibly of pine needles beneath closely woven trees, where one might get sleep until the rising of the sun.

As I still trudged, half expectant and half careless, a man came up behind me, walking quickly as do mountain men: for throughout the world (I cannot tell why) I have noticed that the men of the mountains walk quickly and in a sprightly manner, arching the foot, and with a light and general gait as though the hills were waves and as though they were in thought springing upon the crests of them. This is true of all mountaineers. They are but few.

This man, I say, came up behind me and asked me whether I were going towards a certain town of which he gave me the name, but as I had not so much as heard of this town I told him I knew nothing of it. I had no map, for there was no good map of that district, and a bad map is worse than none. I knew the names of no towns except th large towns on the coast. So I said to him:

"I cannot tell anything about this town, I am not making towards it. But I desire to reach the sea coast, which I know to be many hours away, and I had hoped to sleep overnight under some roof or at least in some cavern, and to start with the early morning; but here I am, at the end of the night, without repose and wondering whether I can go on."

He answered me:

"It is four hours to the sea coast, but before you reach it you will find a lane branching to the right, and if you will go up it (for it climbs the hill) you will find a hermitage. Now by the time you are there the hermit will be risen."

"Will he be at his prayers?" said I.

"He says no prayers to my knowledge," said my companion lightly; "for he is not a hermit of that kind. Hermits are many and prayers are few. But you will find him bustling about, and he is a very hospitable man. Now as it so happens that the road to the sea coast bends here round along the foot of the hills, you will, in his company, perceive the port below you and the populace and the high road, and yet you will be saving a good hour in distance of time, and will have ample rest before reaching your vessel, if it is a vessel indeed that you intend to take."

When he had said these things I thanked him and gave him a bit of sausage and went along my way, for as he had walked faster than me before our meeting and while I was still in the dumps, so now I walked faster than him, having received good news.

All happened just as he had described. The dawn broke behind me over the noble but sedate peaks of the Apennines; it first defined the heights against the growing colours of the sun, it next produced a general warmth and geniality in the air about me; it last displayed the downward opening of the valley, and, very far off, a plain that sloped towards the sea.

Invigorated by the new presence of the day I went forward more rapidly, and came at last to a place where a sculptured panel made out of marble, very clever and modern, and representing a mystery, marked the division between two ways; and I took the lane to my right as my companion of the night hours had advised me.

For perhaps a mile or a little more the lane rose continually between rough walls intercepted by high banks of thorn, with here and there a vineyard, and as it rose one had between the breaches of the wall glimpses of an ever-growing sea: for, as one rose, the sea became a broader and a broader belt, and the very distant islands, which at first had been but little clouds along the horizon, stood out and became parts of the landscape, and, as it were, framed all the bay.

Then at last, when I had come to the height of the hill, to where it turned a corner and ran level along the escarpment of the cliffs that dominated the sea plain, I saw below me a considerable stretch of country, between the fall of the ground and the distant shore, and under the daylight which was now full and clear one could perceive that all this plain was packed with an intense cultivation, with houses, happiness and men.

Far off, a little to the northward, lay the mass of a town; and stretching out into the Mediterranean with a gesture of command and of desire were the new arms of the harbour.

To see such things filled me with a complete content. I know not whether it be the effect of long vigil, or whether it be the effect of contrast between the darkness and the light, but certainly to come out of a lonely night spent on the mountains, down with the sunlight into the civilisation of the plain, is, for any man that cares to undergo the suffering and the consolation, as good as any experience that life affords. Hardly had I so conceived the view before me when I became aware, upon my right, of a sort of cavern, or rather a little and carefully minded shrine, from which a greeting proceeded.

I turned round and saw there a man of no great age and yet of a venerable appearance. He was perhaps fifty-five years old, or possibly a little less, but he had let his grey-white hair grow longish and his beard was very ample and fine. It was he that had addressed me. He sat dressed in a long gown in a modern and rather luxurious chair at a low long table of chestnut wood, on which he had placed a few books, which I saw were in several languages and two of them not only in English, but having upon them the mark of an English circulating library which did business in the great town at our feet. There was also upon the table a breakfast ready of white bread and honey, a large brown coffee-pot, two white cups, and some goat's milk in a bowl of silver. This meal he asked me to share.

"It is my custom," he said, "when I see a traveller coming up my mountain road to get out a cup and a plate for him, or, if it is midda, a glass. At evening, however, no one ever comes."

"Why not?" said I.

"Because," he answered, "this lane goes but a few yards further round the edge of the cliff, and there it ends in a precipice; the little platform where we are is all but the end of the way. Indeed, I chose it upon that account, seeing, when I first came here, that from its height and isolation it was well fitted for my retreat."

I asked him how long ago that was, and he said nearly twenty years. For all that time, he added, he had lived there, going down into the plain but once or twice in a season and having for his rare companions those who brought him food and the peasants on such days as they toiled up to work at their plots towards the summit; also, from time to time, a chance traveller like myself. But these, he said, made but poor companions, for they were usually such as had missed their way at the turning and arrived at that high place of his out of breath and angry. I assured him that this was not my case, for a man had told me in the night how to find his hermitage and I had come of set purpose to see him. At this he smiled.

We were now seated together at table eating and talking so, when I asked him whether he had a reputation for sanctity and whether the people brought him food. He answered with a little hesitation that he had a reputation, he thought, for necromancy rather than anything else, and that upon this account it was not always easy to persuade a messenger to bring him the books in French and English which he ordered from below, though these were innocent enough, being, as a rule, novels written by women or academicians, records of travel, the classics of the Eighteenth Century, or the biographies of aged statesmen.  As for food, the people of the place did indeed bring it to him, but not, as in an idyll, for courtesy; contrariwise, they demanded heavy payment, and his chief difficulty was with bread; for stale bread was intolerable to him. In the matter of religion he would not say that he had none, but rather that he had several religions; only at this season of the year, when everything was fresh, pleasant and entertaining, he did not make use of any of them, but laid them all aside. As this last saying of his had no meaning for me I turned to another matter and said to him:

"In any solitude contemplation is the chief business of the soul. How, then, do you, who say you practise no rites, fill up your loneliness here?"

In answer to this question he became more animated, spoke with a sort of laugh in his voice, and seemed as though he were young again and as though my question had aroused a whole lifetime of good memories.

"My contemplation," he said, not without large gestures, "is this wide and prosperous plain below: the great city with its harbour and ceaseless traffic of ships, the roads, the houses building, the fields yielding every year to husbandry, the perpetual activities of men. I watch my kind and I glory in them, too far off to be disturbed by the friction of individuals, yet near enough to have a daily companionship in the spectacle of so much life. The mornings, when they are all at labour, I am inspired by their energy; in the noons and afternoons I feel a part of their patient and vigorous endurance; and when the sun broadens near the rim of the sea at evening, and all work ceases, I am filled with their repose. The lights along the harbour front in the twilight and on into the darkness remind me of them when I can no longer see their crowds and movements, and so does the music which they love to play in their recreation after the fatigues of the day, and the distant songs which they sing far into the night.

"I was about thirty years of age, and had seen (in a career of diplomacy) many places and men; I had a fortune quite insufficient for a life among my equals. My youth had been, therefore, anxious, humiliated, and worn when, upon a feverish and unhappy holiday taken from the capital of this State, I came by accident to the cave and platform which you see. It was one of those days in which the air exhales revelation, and I clearly saw that happiness inhabited the mountain corner. I determined to remain for ever in so rare a companionship, and from that day she has never abandoned me. For a little while I kept a touch with the world by purchasing those newspapers in which I was reported shot by brigands or devoured by wild beasts, but the amusement soon wearied me, and now I have forgotten the very names of my companions."

We were silent then until I said: "But some day you will die here all alone."

"And why not?" he answered calmly. "It will be a nuisance for those who find me, but I shall be indifferent altogether."

"That is blasphemy," says I.

"So says the priest of St. Anthony," he immediately replied -- but whether as a reproach, an argument, or a mere commentary I could not discover.

In a little while he advised me to go down to the plain before the heat should incommode my journey. I left him, therefore, reading a book of Jane Austen's, and I have never seen him since.

Of the many strange men I have met in my travels he was one of the most strange and not the least fortunate. Every word I have written about him is true.