The way leads upward, always, though at times it appears to plunge downward abruptly or to lose itself completely in a sea of cloud and mist. At such moments the pilgrim may doubt its existence; but according to legend an old, old path lies hidden there, and those who follow it to its very end will find a glory unspeakable. Yet between the plain and the attainment of the goal many an obstacle bars the way, and more than courage and persistence must go with him who would successfully master them.
— The Legend of the Path
Roger had spent a restless night: the weather was hot and uncomfortable, with promise of a fiercer heat to follow with the coming day; all the windows were open in the hope of capturing some stray breeze, but neither breeze nor sleep could be cajoled into that room.
Strange thoughts were buzzing in Roger's head. He had been reading the legend of the path, and as he lay there sleepless, he wondered if such as he might find it. The idea possessed him with so urgent a yearning that he determined to steal forth with the first faint rays of dawn. If luck were with him he might make his way across the plain before the sun was high enough to intensify the humid heat. He began making plans: what he would take; what he would wear; what course he would chart across the plain, and soon he was so lost in dreams that he knew not whether they were waking or sleeping.
Noiselessly he had stolen from the house even before there was a trace of light in the east, and striking in the general direction of the foothills, he followed a cow-path that gave promise of leading him to a road. Long before he reached the foothills, however, the sun had won the race, and beat down with a force that seemed to chide his efforts to evade it. The road was not much better than the cow-path and dust rose about him, making his eyes and throat burn intolerably. Roger thought he had never experienced such heat and felt as if every bit of moisture had been drained out of him. Parched, yet hesitant to draw upon an all too scant supply of water, he plodded on, the tantalizing thought of the canteen at his side beating through his consciousness with the rhythm of a drum.
The words came insistent and near at hand. It was not his own voice that repeated them, but a feeble cry from beside the road. Roger, startled into greater awareness of his surroundings, turned in the direction of the cry and saw, but a few feet from him, the emaciated form of a little child, its tiny hands reaching imploringly for his canteen. His own thirst, his purpose to save what little water he possessed for a greater need, swept over him, and the instinctive motion of his hand to give, was stayed. Again came the cry:
The sound was hardly a whisper now, but it hurt with the sharpness of a knife, and the eyes of the child were like burning coals to sear the wound. Roger, with one quick step, gathered the child in his arms and held the canteen to its lips. Long and greedily it drank, and once, when he thought it had finished, it snatched again at the canteen and only ceased when there was no water left.
What should he do with the child? He could not leave it alone and uncared for. It needed food, too, though at present it was too weak to eat. So with this added burden he trudged on towards the foothills. Surely, if he could last that long, he would find water there and, perhaps a herdsman who would care for the child.
The way seemed easier now, even with the child in his arms; and strangely, too, his thirst was lessened. On and on he went, and then at last the sound of running water greeted him. It was only a tiny hillside stream, but it was life to Roger and the child. And there beside it stood a shepherd.
"I will take the child," said the shepherd. He looked at Roger as though he knew all about him and what he had done and there was no need for further words.
Roger stopped by the stream and ate a frugal meal; then, refreshed, he began the climb anew. His spirits were high; the way was clear, the ascent easy, and he was companioned by a happy consciousness of the balance between what had been his professed belief and the manner in which he had acted under stress. It was a pleasant reverie from which he was rudely awakened. On a sudden, the trail had disappeared and, search as he would, he could find no trace of it.
At what point had he begun to stray? How had he so lost himself without being aware of it? Here was dense growth with matted vines that clung to his feet and tripped him as he sought to clear a passage. Roger stood bewildered, thought he saw a thinning of the undergrowth and made towards it, only to fall in a twisted heap as a vine caught in his sandal and threw him. Bruised, and angry that he should be so helpless in his search, he yanked at the vines and tried to force his way through them without regard to the direction.
At once it seemed a thousand imps were set to bar his progress: clinging to his feet, blinding his sight, pulling him here and there.
"This way, Roger!"
"No, no, just the opposite."
"Follow me, follow me, follow me!"
"No, me, I'm over here, follow me, Roger!"
He turned this way and that, trying to catch the direction of their voices, but nowhere could he see them. There was only the silvery echo of their laughter as they taunted him.
Wearied, he dropped to the ground and stared at the vines which now seemed to form a wall around him. As he looked the "wall" took on a pattern with tendrils here and there, the loosing of which seemed the key to untwining all the others. Roger studied the pattern, testing first one strand and then another; then, with infinite care, he began loosing the tendrils. As he worked, other tendrils freed themselves and fell away. Sometimes, however, he was too eager and pulled impatiently at the vines. Instantly they sprang back and became more closely enmeshed than ever. At long last he realized that only patient, unruffled effort would clear the way for him. Working thus, the vines appeared to untwine themselves, and to Roger's amazement, once an opening had been made, the trail stood revealed just beyond.
Stretched out by the side of the trail he asked himself if this were the same day that he had left home with the first faint glimmer of dawn? He could not say. True, the sun was not so high in the heavens as when he lost his way, but did that prove anything? The wall of vines had seemed impenetrable, yet it had parted as if by magic when he had learned its secret. And the trail — so hopelessly lost a short time ago, was right before him. Its course was easy to follow, and pleasant, too, for the mountain air was clear and invigorating, and fragrant with flowering shrubs. Yes, anything could happen, and it might be today, yesterday, or tomorrow — possibly all three rolled into one.
Higher and higher the trail wound its way, and the exuberance Roger felt on refinding it was beginning to wane. His muscles ached, and a sudden thunder-shower, catching him without protection, left him drenched to the skin. The trail was narrower, now, and not so clearly marked — or was it? Roger, pausing to rest, suspected that his eyes were playing tricks on him. One moment the trail was there, and his spirits rose accordingly; the next, its outlines faded and a black gloom settled upon him.
"Strange!" he thought. "What illusion plagues me now? Do I joy in the quest for the path because it is pleasant to follow, and therefore scorn it when the way seems rough? Small chance that I shall reach the goal if I blow hot and cold that way!" And forthwith he started on again, and cared not whether in rain or shine.
On, on, up and up he went. Clouds gathered and swirled around him; fingers of mist, damp and clammy, waved in and out of his sight, beckoning, pulling, enticing. He lost the trail again, and checked himself only in time to avoid slipping over a precipice. Nothing was real, nothing substantial: even the rocks that cut his feet became a part of the phantasmagoria as they ceased to be solid ground, turning to mire that bogged him down till he could scarcely move. Roger thrashed this way and that in an effort to free himself, and sank still deeper. All he could see or feel was loathsome mud, and his heart was sick that he should have come so far to end thus. The idea that it might very probably be the end, turned his thoughts with a new vision to the purpose of his quest. In imagination he saw the path as he had pictured it that night which now seemed lifetimes distant. He glimpsed the goal, too, though what it signified was hidden from him. With an energy he had not supposed he possessed, Roger flung out his arms towards the vision of his dream and touched solid rock. He was certain it had not been there a moment before, but there was no mistaking it, and clutching with desperate strength wherever he could find a hold, he pulled himself up from the clinging mud, and climbed at last to freedom.
Exhausted, he lost consciousness. How long, he did not know, but when he woke there was the path before him, leading from the rock whereon he had slept and winding ever upward in a blaze of golden light.
Someone was on the path ahead of him, and Roger quickened his pace that he might join the traveler. The distance separating them appeared a trifling thing, yet try as he might Roger could not lessen it. He would have hailed the stranger, but something strong within him warned against it. Step after step he strode forward, striving as he went to understand what had happened, how it was that the stranger was here on the path, so near to him, and yet he had not discovered his presence before. What relation was that other to himself? for there was a relation, he was certain, and that must be why they were on the path together. Pondering the question, he lost all consciousness of himself as Roger, and for a fleeting moment seemed one with the stranger ahead of him. It was then that the traveler turned.
Here was no stranger. Roger was looking into the eyes of the child he had befriended, only the child-body had become that of a youth.
He smiled at Roger. "That is the answer," he said. "You and I are one, have been, always, only you did not know me. But I have been with you even when the way seemed darkest. It was to understand this that you sought the path." He held out his hand. "Come, we will go the rest of the way together."
The golden light was all around them, pulsing as with the beating of unseen wings — overpowering in its effect; and even as he took a step forward, for a second time Roger slipped into unconsciousness. When he awoke the sun was shining full upon his face from the open window. He rubbed his eyes. Where was his companion? Was it only a dream, and had he not gone forth to find the Path?
Who should say? Roger, in his heart, knew that he had journeyed beyond the clouds.