"The Hermit," from Fairburn's Cabinet of Instruction and Amusement, by John Fairburn. (London: Fairburn, 1819)
Early 19th-century English children's literature was still primarily didactic in purpose, and "The Hermit" in this Fairburn collection is representative of this genre, intent to moralize rather than entertain. The hermit represents the child-reader as the innocent or naive one who questions human suffering, evil, and God's permission. Presenting a simple, unattached adult (the hermit) to ask these questions substitutes a child character in that role, and relieves a child-reader of the philosophical and theological burdens. The story uses a hermit character but does not attempt to portray a true one, who, of course, would not pursue his questions literally out into the world.
A hermit, who had passed the greatest part of his life in the middle of a lonely desert, remote from all mankind, whose food was the fruits of the earth, whose drink was the crystal fountain, who might, had not one single doubt arisen, have ended his days in devotion and happiness. This doubt was, whether Providence guided the actions of men or not; for, said he, if heaven does really interest itself in the concerns of mortals, how happens it, that we so often see vice triumphing over virtue, and the good man suffering great injuries from the hands of the wicked?
In order to clear the matter up, he determined, even in his old age, to leave
cell, and to visit the world. Accordingly he arose at break of day, and after travelling for
some time, he perceived a youth come posting over a cross way; his raiment was decent, his complexion fair, and his hair fell in loose ringlets down his shoulders: when they met: "Good-day to you, honoured father," said the youth; and " Good-day to you, young man," replied the Hermit. Words brought on words, and question produced answers; and the agreeable conversation deceived the length of their journey till night approached. They observed a stately palace just by the road side; the knight who resided there was hospitable, but very ostentatious; they stepped up to the door, and giving a gentle knock, were admitted in an instant; a splendid supper was served up, and a large train of livery servants attended, and waited upon the two guests with as much respect as if they had been noblemen: at length they went to bed, being fatigued with their journey, and did not wake till morning.
As soon as they were up, however, they were summoned, by their kind host, to breakfast; the table in the hall was covered with a sumptuous banquet, and rich wines were handed round in a large golden cup. When they had eaten and drank as much as they pleased, the knight dismissed them, and they left his door with ten thousand thanks; the landlord had only reason to be sorry, for the young man was so ungrateful as to purloin the golden cup.
They had not pursued their journey far, before the youth took an opportunity of showing it to the Hermit, and acquainted him of having secreted it under his cloak. The sage stood for some time in astonishment and confusion; he wished, but did not dare to hint his desire of parting; he turned his eyes to heaven, and thought it hard, that generous actions should be so strangely rewarded.
The weather now became cloudy, a rustling noise was heard in the air, the
cattle in the
fields scudded across the plain in search of shelter, and at length so violent a shower fell, that the two travellers were obliged to seek shelter at a neighbouring seat; it stood upon a rising ground, and was built in the old Gothic taste, with turrets at every corner: it was large and very strong; and the uncultivated state of the fields round about, bespoke the residence of some penurious miser.
They stood knocking at the door for a long time, driven by the wind, battered by rain, and almost blinded by lightning. At length a small gleam of pity warmed the breast of the master of the house, he advanced with slow and creeping steps, the lock wag turned with a suspicious care, and, for the first time, his threshold received the feet of a stranger. They were but half welcomed. One frugal faggot only lighted the naked wall; a small pittance of coarse brown bread was brought out, and a little flat small beer to allay their thirst; even this refreshment was not granted without grudging, and as soon as the tempest ceased, a ready warning bid them depart in peace.
The Hermit could not help privately expressing his amaze, that a man of such possessions could lead so sordid a life; and here again he blamed Providence, for suffering so much wealth to be so uselessly locked up, when by an equal distribution it might have made thousands happy. But with what new wonder was he seized, when he beheld his companion reward such stinginess with the valuable cup, that had before been stolen from a more generous benefactor.
Night soon after once more came on, and once more they wanted a place of rest; and looking round they perceived a mansion not far off, the dwelling was neither mean nor idly superb, and it seemed to bespeak the mind of its owner, a man content and benevolent, not for the sake of idle praise, but from a principal of virtue. Hither they bent their way, and were very kindly received ; the host gave them a sober, welcome repast: and they talked upon subjects of religion and virtue till bed-time.
In the morning, before they departed, the youth drew near to a cradle, where laid an innocent infant (the pride and joy of its aged father) and writhed its neck. But how looked the Hermit, when he beheld the black deed! O strange return for so much hospitality!
Confused and struck with horror, the good old man was determined to get rid
of so vile a
companion: he fled, but the youth pursued and soon overtook him. As the country laid wide, and the roads were difficult to find, a servant went before to show the way; they had occasion at last to pass a river, when the youth, who seemed to watch every opportunity of mischief, approached the careless guide as he was crossing a wooden bridge, and soused him into the river ; for some time he plunged and called for help; but being at length worn out and suffocated, he sunk to rise no more.
The Hermit's eyes now sparkled with rage and detestation; he overcame his fears, and wildly exclaimed, "Detested wretch." Before he could speak another word, his partner seemed no longer a man; a sweet serenity graced his youthful visage, his robe turned as white as snow, and flowed down to his feet; a radiant crown adorned his temples, heavenly odours breathed round about him, and his wings displayed colours more beautiful than the rainbow.
The Hermit stood astonished; surprise had stopped his speech, and he knew not
what to do. The beauteous angel at length broke silence in the following manner:
"Thy prayers and praises, O holy Hermit, thy virtue and religion, rise in sweet memorial before the throne of Grace, and call even an angel down to calm thy mind. Then know
this truth; the great Creator of the universe justly claims the world he has created, and
his Majesty depends on using second means to work his own good purposes. The vain man, who fared sumptuously, and whose life was too luxurious to be good, whose sideboard displayed his wealth, and who forced his guests to morning draughts of wine, by loosing the golden cup, has broke off so bad a custom; and though he still welcomes every stranger, yet he now does it with less pomp and expense.
"As for the suspicious wretch, whose doors were bolted with so much precaution, with him I left the cup, that he might learn, that if mortals will be kind, heaven can repay their benevolence; conscious of this, his icy bosom, now for the first time, feels the warm touch of compassion.
"The child of our pious friend had almost weaned the affections of his father
duty he owed to the Almighty; but God, to save the parents, took the child; to all but
thee he seemed to die in fits, and I was ordained to call him hence. The poor humble, fond father now owns, in tears, the punishment was just.
"But had the false servant, whom I drowned, returned back in safety, what a fund of charity would then have been lost! for he had laid a plot against the life and possessions of his master, and this night, this very night, it would have been put in execution. Thus then, by heaven instructed, depart in peace, resign and sin no more."
The vision vanished. On bended knees the Hermit gazed with holy admiration, and said, "Lord, as in heaven on earth thy will be done": then rising sought his ancient residence, and spent the remainder of his life in piety and peace: convinced of this great duty, that when men cannot investigate the Almighty's operations, they ought to trust to the rectitude of them, without doubting or discontent.