6

At first Gib thought the hermit was not at home, although that would have been passing strange. Of late years, since he had grown feeble, the hermit had never left the cave except to sally out on occasions to collect the roots, the herbs, the leaves, and barks that went into his medications.

The fire in the cave was out, and there was no smell of smoke, which meant it had been out for long. Dried egg yolk clung to the lone plate on the rough trestle table.

Gib peered into the darkness. “Hermit,” he said softly, half afraid to speak, stricken with a sudden apprehension that he could not understand. “Hermit, are you here?”

A weak sound came from a corner. It could have been a mouse.

“Hermit,” Gib said again.

The sound repeated.

Carefully Gib walked toward the corner, crouching to see better.

“Here,” said the hermit weakly. The voice was no louder than the fluttering of a leaf.

Then Gib, his eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, made it out—the low dark mound in the corner, the paleness of the face.

“Hermit, what is wrong?”

Gib crouched above the pallet and saw the wasted form, a blanket pulled up to the chin.

“Bend low,” the hermit said. “I can barely speak.”

“Are you sick?” Gib asked.

The pale lips barely moved. “I die,” they said. “Thank God that you came.”

“Do you want something? Water? Soup? I could make some soup.”

“Listen,” said the hermit. “Do not talk, but listen.”

“I’ll listen.”

“The cabinet over against the wall.”

“I see it.”

“The key is around my neck. Cord around my neck.”

Gib reached out his hand.

“No, wait.”

“Yes?”

“In the cabinet—in the cabinet…”

The hermit struggled to talk.

“A book, leather-bound. A fist ax. Ax made out of stone. Take both to the bishop…”

“Which bishop?”

“Bishop of the Tower. Up the river, north and west. Ask. People will tell you.”

Gib waited. The hermit did not speak. He did not try to speak.

Gently, Gib reached out a hand, found the cord that lay against the hermit’s neck. He lifted the hermit’s head to slip it free. A small key dangled at the end.

He let the hermit’s head fall back against the pillow.

He waited for a moment, but the hermit did not stir. He rose to his feet and went across the cave to unlock the cabinet. The book was there, a small book bound in leather. Beside it lay the ax. It was like no ax Gib had ever seen before. It was made of stone and was pointed at one end. Even made of stone, it had the smooth look of metal. Only by looking closely could one see where the chips had been flaked off to shape it.

There were other items in the cabinet—a razor, a pair of shears, a comb, a small vial half filled with a blue substance.

He took out the book and ax and went back to the pallet.

The hermit opened bleary eyes and looked at him. “You have them? Good.”

“I’ll take them to the bishop.”

“You are Gib. You’ve been here before.”

Gib nodded.

“You’ll wait?”

“I’ll wait. Is there nothing I can do? No water?”

The hermit rolled his head from side to side. “Nothing,” he said.

Gib waited, on his knees beside the pallet. The hermit’s breathing was so shallow that his chest scarcely moved and it was a long time between breaths. Occasionally hairs on the upper lip of the hermit’s bearded face fluttered slightly when the breath came from his nostrils.

Once the hermit spoke. “I am old,” he said. “It is time. Past time.” Then he lapsed back into silence. The shallow breathing went on. Twice Gib was almost convinced it had stopped entirely. But it had not stopped. It was only faint.

“Gib?”

“Yes?”

“Leave me here. When it is done, leave me here.”

Gib did not answer. The silence hummed. The shallow breathing still went on.

Then: “Wall up the cave. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” said Gib, “I will.”

“I would not want the wolves…”

He did not finish the sentence. Gib continued sitting beside the pallet. Once he went to the cave mouth and looked out. The sun had passed the zenith and was inclining toward the west. From the high point of the cave he could see that part of the marsh from which he had set out that morning. He could see almost to the river.

Gib went back and resumed his vigil. He tried to think and found that he could not think. There were too many things to think, too much to think about. He could not get it sorted out. There was confusion in his mind.

For some time he had not been watching the hermit, but simply sitting there. When he did look at him, he could detect no breathing movement. He waited, remembering there had been times before when he could detect no movement. But time stretched out and there was no flutter of the whiskers on the upper lip, no sign of life at all. He bent his head close against the chest and could detect no heartbeat. He rolled a lid back from an eye and the eye stared back in glassiness.

The hermit, he knew, was dead. But he continued to sit beside him, as if the mere fact of continuing the vigil would beat back the fact of death. He found that now he could think, while he had not been able to before. Had there been, he wondered, anything that he could have done? He remembered in horror that he had not even tried to give the hermit any water. He had asked and the hermit had said that he had no need of water. But even so, should he have tried to give him some? Should he have tried to bring some help? But where could he have gone for help? And who could have been of help? And, he told himself, he could not have brought himself to leave a dying man, to let him die alone.

The hermit, he thought, had been an old man and had not been afraid of death. He wondered if he might not have looked on death as a welcome friend. This very morning Drood had wondered what the hermit had gotten out of life and that, of course, was a question still unanswered. But, Gib told himself, he must have gotten something out of life, perhaps a great deal out of life, to have been able to face death so serenely.

Now there were things to do, he told himself, and the afternoon was waning. He pulled back the blanket and crossed the hands of the hermit decently on his chest, then pulled the blanket up to cover his face. Having done that, he went outside to search for boulders he could use to block the entrance to the cave.

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