A dull, sodden fellow, even in his young manhood obviously a slave to the vice of drunkenness, he climbed the hillside each morning before daybreak to carry away the garbage from the monastery. Only at the full of the moon did he meet any of those belonging to the monastery, when the gatekeeper was on hand to give him his small payment. The gatekeeper spoke once to his Head and asked whether it was well to have one so extremely foul and unpleasant coming even to the precincts of the sacred place. The Head inquired whether he did his work well; and upon being told that the work was carefully and thoroughly done, he replied that no change should be made.
The years passed by, and hardly a word of any import ever passed between the gatekeeper and the garbage-carrier when payment was delivered, until one morning, to the amazement of the gatekeeper, Svag asked whether he might in future perform his work without remuneration. Upon inquiry being made of the Head, the answer was: Yes, if the work be as well done as before.
Seven years more passed, and the garbage-carrier still faithfully pursued his calling, and had even attained to some slight dignity of appearance. It was his turn to be surprised when one morning the gatekeeper addressed him thus: "My Superior wishes me to say that there is such a thing as right occupation, and that if you so wish you may take a place in the outer court of the monastery."
With bowed head and streaming tears the poor fellow protested his unworthiness to do so. The gatekeeper answered that he himself had no power of decision in the matter, but would venture this remark: that if the wish to do so were not somewhere deep within Svag's heart the offer would not have been made to him; and that it would be wise not to make a hasty refusal.
So Svag entered the service of the monastery, and was given the new name of Strivan. The life was quiet and well-ordered: such as can make for inward growth where the heat of outer excitement does not fever the brain. Through the years that ensued many were the failures he made through his besetting sin of drunkenness; yet ever when he returned to the gates and question was made of the Head as to whether he should be admitted, the answer was: Yes, let him try again.
At length he surely prevailed over his fault, and with his new self-confidence grew rapidly strength of mind and perception — and ambition. Small and simple enough in its beginning, founded well enough upon truth, yet it was a thought for self alone that began to flourish weed-like in the garden of his life. He hoped, he expected, with what seemed to him some justification, that he would be allowed to see the Great One who came to the monastery at intervals from the mountains to the north. Consider what a remarkable history was his! He had risen from the lowliest degradation to his present strength and dignity. Many had climbed higher, but had they started from such depths? Surely he would receive even an encouraging glance of the eye if he were but allowed to be present when the Great One passed through the courtyard to the Inner Temple. But no, his duties were always placed elsewhere at such times.
At length he resolved that he would no longer endure this unjustified obloquy, but would fare forth to the mountains in the north, find the Master, and present himself to his notice. He announced his intention to his Head, and set forth with a warning and a blessing.
His journey to the foothills was uneventful: the temptations to pleasure in the villages through which he passed did not affect him, though in the fertile vineyards at the foot of the mountains there was the richest wine to be had for the asking. The last village before he began his steep ascent he did not enter. The people had become so debauched and careless that a foul plague had broken out, and no one who entered would be allowed to leave for fear of spreading the contagion.
The stench of the place, as it was borne on the breeze, revolted him, and he hurried upward to the purity of the mountain air, inquiring of news concerning the Great One as he went. "Yes, certainly, such a one lived on the heights; but who knew where?" "Was it their business to be curious as to his dwelling: had he not a greater right than others to his privacy?"
Meeting with such answers on every hand, whether honest or evasive, he searched and searched until the weariness of his spirit was even greater than the tiredness of his body, and the bitter disappointment of his heart turned to sourness and disgust. No one seemed actually to have seen the Master, but all were sure that he lived somewhere on the heights. Well, one might search for a lifetime in the midst of such ignorance! What had he gained but experience; and what had he not given up in order to get that only!
Strivan descended the mountain gloomily, and without noticing it found himself in the plague-stricken village. Well, what of that? He might as well die there as elsewhere. He approached one of the village wells to drink, but was prevented by one who stood guard there, but who directed him to where he could obtain water that had been carried down from the mountain. He found a band of the hardy mountain-dwellers carrying on a valiant fight to stay the progress of the plague. Greatly overburdened, they were working under the direction of an elderly man, very insignificant of stature, but obviously a capable leader. At the moment he was doing his best to induce a body of villagers to persevere in cleaning the accumulated refuse from the streets, himself wielding a shovel to inspire them. Strivan approached and deliberately took the shovel from his hands. "This is no work for you! Let me attend to this!"
The old man appraised Strivan's sturdy frame with a keen and somewhat amused glance. He gave him a quick outline of what he was aiming to accomplish, begged him not to allow the villagers to drink at the polluted wells, and left him.
This was work at which Strivan had served a long apprenticeship and in the days that followed the work went forward rapidly and well to its finish. It was several weeks before the village was free of the plague, and during that time Strivan and the old mountaineer had become firm friends. Strivan told him of his quest, and the old man laughed outright at his pursuit of the elusive Great One on the mountain. He advised Strivan to have more dignity and to wait and work until the Master should find it worth his while to seek Strivan. He advised him to go back to the monastery, admit his fault, and ask to be readmitted.
Strivan did this, and was well received, being given a position but a little lower than that he occupied on leaving. But as the quiet years passed and his judgment and insight matured, he became more and more convinced that for him there was no place among those worthy to meet the Master.
One day as he was quietly occupied with his duties one of the brothers came to him with a message: "The Master wishes to see you." Sudden dismay overcame Strivan: "No, no! I am not ready! Tell him I am not worthy!"
"My instructions were to bring you; not to carry messages for you," said the messenger. "What has become of your bravery, Strivan? You who went to seek the Master are now sought by him."
A quick memory stirred in Strivan. Those were almost the same words that the old mountaineer had used. . . . As Strivan entered the presence of the Master a familiar voice said: "Well, Strivan, I have more work for you to do."
It was the Great One from the mountains to the north: the old mountaineer indeed — the same, but not the same.