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.