Once upon a time something extraordinary happened. If it had not happened it would not be told. It was when the wolves lay down to rest with the sheep, and the shepherds feasted in the green fields with emperors and kings, when one sun rose and another set.
There was once a man, my dear good friends. This man would now—I am telling no lie—this man would now be a hundred years old, if not twenty more to boot; his wife, too, was older than any body I know; she was like the Friday-goddess (Venus), and from youth to age had never had a single child. Only those who know what children are in a house can understand the uncontrollable grief in the empty home of the old man and his wife. The poor old man had done every thing in his power to have his house brightened and filled with joy by what he himself so greatly desired. He had given alms to the convents and churches, he had had liturgies read in seven churches, had sent for priests with white beards, because they are the holiest men and have more earnestness in prayer, and had had masses read for all the saints and prayers for the last unction. But every thing was useless. The old wife had clung to the witches and magicians. There was not an enchanter to whom she had not gone for advice, even if he lived a week's journey off. As I said before, what wouldn't she have done! But it was vain, all was useless.
One day the old man said sadly and thoughtfully:
"What do you want?"
"Give me some provisions to take with me on my journey, for I intend to travel through the wide world, looking wherever I go to try and find a child, for my heart aches and burns when I think that the end of my life is drawing near, and no heir will have my house after me, but all my property fall into the hands of strangers. I have tried all ways, now I will take this one. And I'll tell you one thing: If I find no child, I won't come home any more."
With these words the old man took his knapsack on his back, went out of the house, and began his journey. He walked on and on and on through the kingdom and the world, as God willed. Listen, good friends, I am telling the truth. He walked on till he came to a thick forest, so dense that it seemed like a wall. Tree was intwined with tree, bush with bush, so that the sun could not even send so much as a ray of light through the foliage. When the old man saw these vast woods he thrice made the sign of the cross toward the east, prostrated himself three times, also toward the east, and then entered with great sorrow. How long a time he spent in groping about the forest I don't know, but I do know that one day he reached the entrance of a cave. This cave was hundreds and thousands of times darker than the deep forest, as dark as it is when we shut our eyes, as dark as it usually is in endless caverns. The old man crossed himself three times, fell on his knees several times, and then, with God's assistance, turned around a projection of a rock. He went about the distance of a gun-shot and saw a light in a cranny. Approaching nearer and nearer he could not believe his eyes when he saw what was standing beside it. An old hermit! He was very old, as ancient as the world. He had a white beard that reached to his knees, and when he raised his eyebrows and then lowered them again they shaded the whole cave.
The hermit stood like a pillar of stone, his eyes fixed on a psalm-book on which his elbow rested, and which was sprinkled with big red characters; it was very, very old, so old that God alone knew to what period it belonged; and on a broad stone a yellow wax-candle blazed with a red flame and a blue smoke that was as dense as a cloud. The old man approached the praying saint and, again falling on his knees, said:
"Good-evening, holy father!"
The hermit was so absorbed in his litany that he heard nothing. So our old man spoke louder. The hermit did not stir, but made him a sign with his crutch to move aside. The old man stood aloof till the hermit had finished his prayer. When it was over, he raised his eyebrows and began:
"My son, what do you seek from me in this dark, cheerless abode? For many centuries my eyes have seen no human face, and now I wonder what has led your footsteps hither."
The old man answered:
"I kiss your right hand. My unhappiness has brought me here. I have lived with my wife many years, but we have no children, and I should like to have an heir when I behold our Lord's glorious face."
The hermit took an apple, and, after having blessed it, cut it in two, and said:
"Take these two halves of the apple; give this one to your wife, eat the other yourself, and in God's name do not wander over the world so."