THERE once lived a hermit, who in a remote cave passed day and night in God's service. Not far from his cell there was a flock kept by a shepherd, who one day fell into a deep sleep, when a robber, seeing him careless, carried off his sheep. When the keeper awoke, he began to swear in good set terms that he had lost his sheep; and where they were gone to he knew not. But the lord of the flock bade him be put to death. This gave to the hermit great offence. "O heaven," said he to himself, "seest thou this deed? The innocent suffers for the guilty: why permittest thou such things? If thus injustice triumph, why do I remain here? I will again enter the world, and do as other men do."
And so he left his hermitage, and went again into the world; but God willed not that he should be lost: an angel in the form of a man was sent to join him. And so, crossing the hermit's path, he said to him, "Whither bound, my friend?" "I go," said he, "to yonder city." "I will go with you," replied the angel; "I am a messenger from heaven, come to be your companion on the way."
So they walked on together to the city. When they had entered, they begged for the love of God harbourage during the night, at the house of a certain soldier, who received them cheerfully and entertained them nobly. The soldier had an only and most dear son lying in the cradle. After supper, their bed-chamber was sumptuously adorned for them; and the angel and the hermit went to rest. But about the middle of the night the angel rose, and strangled the sleeping infant. The hermit, horror-struck at what he witnessed, said within himself, "Never can this be an angel of God. The good soldier gave us everything that was necessary; he had but this poor innocent, and he is strangled." Yet he was afraid to reprove him.
In the morning both arose and went forward to another city, in which they were honourably entertained at the house of one of the inhabitants. This person had a rich gold cup, which he highly valued; and of which, during the night, the angel robbed him. But still the hermit held his peace, for great was his fear.
On the morrow they went forward; and as they walked they came to a certain river, over which was a bridge. They went on the bridge, and about midway a poor pilgrim met them. "My friend," said the angel to him, "show us the way to yonder city." The pilgrim turned, and pointed with his finger to the road they were to take; but as he turned the angel seized him by the shoulders, and hurled him into the stream below. At this the terror of the hermit became greater. "It is the devil," he said to himself; "it is the devil, and no good angel! What evil had the poor man done that he should be drowned?"
He would now have gladly gone alone; but was afraid to speak his mind. About the hour of vespers they came to a city, in which they again sought shelter for the night; but the master of the house where they applied sharply refused it. "For the love of heaven," said the angel, "give us shelter, lest we fall prey to the wolves." The man pointed to a sty. "That," said he, "has pigs in it; if it please you to lie there you may, but to no other place will I admit you." "If we can do no better," said the angel, "we must accept your ungracious offer." They did so; and next morning the angel calling their host, said, "My friend, I give you this cup;" and he gave him the gold cup he had stolen. The hermit, more and more amazed at what he saw, said to himself, "Now I am sure this is the devil. The good man who received us with all kindness he despoiled, and now he gives the plunder to this fellow who refused us a lodging."
Turning therefore to the angel, he cried, "I will travel with you no more. I commend you to God." "Dear friend," the angel said, "first hear me, and then go thy way."
"When thou wert in thy hermitage, the owner of the flock unjustly put to death his servant. True it is he died innocently, and therefore was in a fit state to enter another world. God permitted him to be slain, foreseeing, that if he lived he would commit a sin, and die before repentance followed. But the guilty man who stole the sheep will suffer eternally; while the owner of the flock will repair, by alms and good works, that which he ignorantly committed. As for the son of the hospitable soldier whom I strangled in the cradle, know, that before the boy was born he performed numerous works of charity and mercy; but afterwards grew parsimonious and covetous in order to enrich the child, of which he was inordinately fond. This was the cause of its death; and now its distressed parent is again become a devout Christian. Then for the cup which I purloined from him who received us so kindly, know, that before the cup was made, there was not a more abstemious person in the world; but afterwards he took such pleasure in it, and drank from it so often, that he was intoxicated twice or thrice during the day. I took away the cup, and he has returned to his former sobriety. Again I cast the pilgrim into the river; and know that he whom I drowned was a good Christian, but had he proceeded much further, he would have fallen into a mortal sin. Now he is saved, and reigns in celestial glory. Then, that I bestowed the cup upon the inhospitable citizen, know nothing is done without reason. He suffered us to occupy the swine-house and I gave him a valuable consideration. But he will hereafter reign in hell. Put a guard, therefore, on thy lips, and detract not from the Almighty. For He knoweth all things."
The hermit, hearing this, fell at the feet of the angel and entreated pardon. He returned to his hermitage, and became a good and pious Christian.