This entire stretch of country was amazing; it was characterized by a grandeur that was almost religious, and yet it had an air of sinister desolation.
A great, wild lake, filled with stagnant, black water, in which thousands of reeds were waving to and fro, lay in the midst of a vast circle of naked hills, where nothing grew but broom, or here and there an oak curiously twisted by the wind.
Just one house stood on the banks of that dark lake, a small, low house inhabited by Uncle Joseph, an old boatman, who lived on what he could make by his fishing. Once a week he carried the fish he caught into the surrounding villages, returning with the few provisions that he needed for his sustenance.
I went to see this old hermit, who offered to take me with him to his nets, and I accepted.
His boat was old, worm-eaten and clumsy, and the skinny old man rowed with a gentle and monotonous stroke that was soothing to the soul, already oppressed by the sadness of the land round about.
It seemed to me as if I were transported to olden times, in the midst of that ancient country, in that primitive boat, which was propelled by a man of another age.
He took up his nets and threw the fish into the bottom of the boat, as the fishermen of the Bible might have done. Then he took me down to the end of the lake, where I suddenly perceived a ruin on the other side of the bank a dilapidated hut, with an enormous red cross on the wall that looked as if it might have been traced with blood, as it gleamed in the last rays of the setting sun.
"What is that?" I asked.
"That is where Judas died," the man replied, crossing himself.
I was not surprised, being almost prepared for this strange answer.
Still I asked:
"Judas? What Judas?"
"The Wandering Jew, monsieur," he added.
I asked him to tell me this legend.
But it was better than a legend, being a true story, and quite a recent one, since Uncle Joseph had known the man.
This hut had formerly been occupied by a large woman, a kind of beggar, who lived on public charity.
Uncle Joseph did not remember from whom she had this hut. One evening an old man with a white beard, who seemed to be at least two hundred years old, and who could hardly drag himself along, asked alms of this forlorn woman, as he passed her dwelling.
"Sit down, father," she replied; "everything here belongs to all the world, since it comes from all the world."
He sat down on a stone before the door. He shared the woman's bread, her bed of leaves, and her house.
He did not leave her again, for he had come to the end of his travels.
"It was Our Lady the Virgin who permitted this, monsieur," Joseph added, "it being a woman who had opened her door to a Judas, for this old vagabond was the Wandering Jew. It was not known at first in the country, but the people suspected it very soon, because he was always walking; it had become a sort of second nature to him."
And suspicion had been aroused by still another thing. This woman, who kept that stranger with her, was thought to be a Jewess, for no one had ever seen her at church. For ten miles around no one ever called her anything else but the Jewess.
When the little country children saw her come to beg they cried out: "Mamma, mamma, here is the Jewess!"
The old man and she began to go out together into the neighboring districts, holding out their hands at all the doors, stammering supplications into the ears of all the passers. They could be seen at all hours of the day, on by-paths, in the villages, or again eating bread, sitting in the noon heat under the shadow of some solitary tree. And the country people began to call the beggar Old Judas.
One day he brought home in his sack two little live pigs, which a farmer had given him after he had cured the farmer of some sickness.
Soon he stopped begging, and devoted himself entirely to his pigs. He took them out to feed by the lake, or under isolated oaks, or in the near-by valleys. The woman, however, went about all day begging, but she always came back to him in the evening.
He also did not go to church, and no one ever had seen him cross himself before the wayside crucifixes. All this gave rise to much gossip:
One night his companion was attacked by a fever and began to tremble like a leaf in the wind. He went to the nearest town to get some medicine, and then he shut himself up with her, and was not seen for six days.
The priest, having heard that the "Jewess" was about to die, came to offer the consolation of his religion and administer the last sacrament. Was she a Jewess? He did not know. But in any case, he wished to try to save her soul.
Hardly had he knocked at the door when old Judas appeared on the threshold, breathing hard, his eyes aflame, his long beard agitated, like rippling water, and he hurled blasphemies in an unknown language, extending his skinny arms in order to prevent the priest from entering.
The priest attempted to speak, offered his purse and his aid, but the old man kept on abusing him, making gestures with his hands as if throwing; stones at him.
Then the priest retired, followed by the curses of the beggar.
The companion of old Judas died the following day. He buried her himself, in front of her door. They were people of so little account that no one took any interest in them.
Then they saw the man take his pigs out again to the lake and up the hillsides. And he also began begging again to get food. But the people gave him hardly anything, as there was so much gossip about him. Every one knew, moreover, how he had treated the priest.
Then he disappeared. That was during Holy Week, but no one paid any attention to him.
But on Easter Sunday the boys and girls who had gone walking out to the lake heard a great noise in the hut. The door was locked; but the boys broke it in, and the two pigs ran out, jumping like gnats. No one ever saw them again.
The whole crowd went in; they saw some old rags on the floor, the beggar's hat, some bones, clots of dried blood and bits of flesh in the hollows of the skull.
His pigs had devoured him.
"This happened on Good Friday, monsieur." Joseph concluded his story, "three hours after noon."
"How do you know that?" I asked him.
"There is no doubt about that," he replied.
I did not attempt to make him understand that it could easily happen that the famished animals had eaten their master, after he had died suddenly in his hut.
As for the cross on the wall, it had appeared one morning, and no one knew what hand traced it in that strange color.
Since then no one doubted any longer that the Wandering Jew had died on this spot.
I myself believed it for one hour.