For many years Vincent remained in the cave, and daily he learnt to love the old man more and to marvel at his great wisdom. One by one the others went back to where they had come from, at the stern call of duty, which summoned them back to their respective surroundings — and at last Vincent alone remained.
For the most part the old man and Vincent were together, spending their time in converse or doing some useful manual work, such as chopping wood for fuel or plaiting sandals of straw for themselves, but at certain hours of the day the old man would leave his friend by himself and disappear, returning only after a prolonged absence.
Vincent noticed that he always came back in a more thoughtful frame of mind and wondered whither he went, but this he did not dare to ask him, in spite of his curiosity. One day, however, as he was listlessly walking in the forest, his heart full of longing for her he loved, and an increasing doubt of ever seeing her again, he came upon the old man, sitting on a mound between the trees and thoughtfully contemplating the sky. He looked up as Vincent stopped before him in confusion, not wishing to intrude upon his thoughts, and smiled his kindly smile.
"Come nearer, my son," he said. "You seem afraid of advancing."
Vincent obeyed and sat down beside him on the mound, noting with surprise that this latter was a grave.
The old man looked at him attentively and said:
"Doubtless you are wondering at the identity of this grave. Each time I have gone hither I have seen the question in your eyes: to-day, as you have discovered me, I will tell you the story which is connected with it. It is the grave of my shadow, and I myself have killed it and buried it here. You look incredulous? I see you do not believe me capable of committing a murder. Nevertheless it is as I say.
"In my youth I was a man of thoughtless and impulsive action. Rarely I stopped to reflect, and the world loved me, for the world loves all who are thus made. And then, one day, as I rode past a crowd of people who openly admired the grace with which I sat in my saddle and the haughty pride which was stamped upon my countenance, filling me with delight and great self-satisfaction, I chanced to look down, and beheld upon the ground my Shadow, running beside me. I saw the proud curve of its shoulders and the careless charm which was leant it by the sword that hung at its side, and I became enamored of my own Shadow. From that day I loved to see it beside me, slim and dignified, and each day I discovered new beauty in it, new beauty and new fascination. And gradually I noticed how it grew more concrete under my love and admiration, until one day it was my Shadow no longer but a living companion that followed me about everywhere I went. I took pleasure in listening to the speech of this engaging creature, and where I had before consulted my own intuition I now asked for its advice. And then came the day when I realized that it was no longer my Shadow that followed me, but I who followed my Shadow. And my mind grew troubled and uneasy at this discovery, and then I turned to it and said, 'Go back to your appropriate place and follow me as you used to do, for it is not meet that a shadow should lead its master.' But at that it turned towards me fiercely, and I grew affrighted at its sight, for what I saw was a monster of huge dimensions, scowling at me with a threatening countenance. And then I drew my sword and fought my Shadow, and the fight was long and desperate; but I killed it at length, and buried it here . . . Ah, that men would learn from my lesson and be spared the despair and anguish that I had to undergo! Since then I have understood that it was a produce of Hell, for I saw many that resembled it when I descended into the chthonian depths."
"What do you mean?" Vincent cried. "Have you seen Hell? Does it, then, exist?"
The old man nodded slowly.
"It does, friend. So terrible was my experience that when I came back here my hair turned snow-white and my lips could not smile for a long, long time."
"Then show me the way to Hell!" Vincent exclaimed. "Perhaps I may find there the Secret of Existence!"
"'It is a ghastly experience," said the old man with a shake of his head. "I wonder whether you would have the strength to face it!"
"I have the strength to do anything for the sake of my beloved," said Vincent firmly. "I have searched for the Secret of Existence everywhere on earth, and I have not found it yet. She is waiting for me, old one, and Time is ever on the wing. Much have I gained in wisdom all these years I have spent in your company; now I think it were time for me to leave all this calm and beauty and once again renew my acquaintance with life's darker side."
The old man looked at him with close attention, and said:
"Yes, I believe you are right. You have grown pale with unsatisfied longing and thin with over-much reflection. Be it as you say! You shall know Hell."
And he rose and turned to Vincent.
"I will be your guide," he said, "for I have been there and know the way. Truth itself, which is my God, guided me before. Let a humble servant of Truth guide you when you go!" Then, placing his hands on Vincent's head, he cried imperatively, "Sleep! Sleep, that you might awake!"
And Vincent obeyed this command, and slept.
And then he felt a strange change taking place within himself. His consciousness, his inner perception was awakened and emerged from its physical prison. Light as a bird he soared into the air and was there met by his guide.
They flew across vast spaces, dim and wonderful, and alighted on a mountain which rose out of a bottomless sea.
"Look!" said the old man, "Hell is at your feet."
And Vincent looked — and beheld the earth.
A curious, heavy mist surrounded it like a thick blanket, and through it he distinguished a number of little black specks that moved about below. He knew what they were — men.
"I cannot see clearly because of the mist," he said to his companion. "Tell me, what causes its appearance?"
"These are the poisonous fumes that arise from men's thoughts," was the answer. "When they will have learnt to think rightly this mist will disperse and they will behold the universe as it is, and hear the voices of the gods clearly and not as through a sound-muffling partition, and they will understand the meaning of life at last. Now all celestial sound is adulterated by the thickness of the mist, and all glory is hidden from their sight by its denseness and impenetrability. They do not see the sun, but only its distorted reflection: they do not hear the singing of the planets and the atoms. They look for light in shadow, and for shadow in light. The poisonous mist stops up their ears and eyes and nostrils, and paralyzes their minds, and chills their hearts . . . But come! you have looked enough. Let us descend into Hell itself."
And Vincent took hold of his arm, and felt himself sink rapidly into unimagined depths. They passed through the belt of mist they had observed from the mountain-top, and touched ground. They were in Hell.
The first thing that attracted Vincent's attention was a sound that arose from every direction, a sound of such pain and despair that he trembled and was filled with a new fear. He clutched the shoulder of his companion and queried tremulously:
"What is this dreadful sound?"
The old man turned to him and said:
"Can you not guess, my son? Have you never heard the wailing of a human heart before?"
And Vincent was silent. Then they slowly began to move forward, side by side.
Terrible were the things that Vincent now saw. They descended into a valley, and this valley teemed with moral lepers. Great was Vincent's amazement when he saw the care and reverence with which they were treated. He beheld them, a host without number, with mouths from which dripped poisonous venom and minds that were soaked through with the deadly germ; but hearts they had none, for these had rotted away long ago. And he saw how their leprosy was transferred to the unhappy ones who touched them and allowed themselves to be kissed by their polluted lips. "Ah! If they could only see them as I do!" he cried. "They do not know how fatal is their nearness! If I could but show them what I see!"
"Hush!" said the old man. "This is but the beginning. There are many worse sights you have yet to see!"
And they moved on.
Vincent saw churches and temples where men went to pray and raise their inner consciousness as nigh the Divine as possible, and he saw them go out again and pass indifferently by beggars and other half-starved wretches, and go home and fill themselves with dainty viands and costly wines, pleased with their own piety.
He saw, and seeing marveled, how countless well-dressed, well-fed women who sacrificed themselves for their children so constantly and so utterly, could look down from their lace-curtained windows and show no signs of emotion when they saw those other mothers, ragged and unkempt, who sat upon the cold pavements and tried to hush the hungry cries of their babies, and to protect them as best they could from the bitter wind. And wherever men built altars to the gods, he saw, as it were, a huge Mirror. Their religion was a mirror, their love, and their altruism. And he saw Art, the pure and holy one, instead of being a mirror of the shadow of Truth, being made into a mirror of men's madness and imperfections.
He saw wars carried on, in the name of the God of peace and love and mercy, and as never before he understood what a monstrous thing was the fanatical love for one country and one people. He saw the hate of one nation for another — a cruel and terrible thing, and how certain men were given medals, tokens of high honor and public esteem, because of their exceeding skill in cold-blooded murder and butchery of other men. His heart grew numb and cold with sadness, for all of them were human beings, all of them had felt the sweetness of filial, conjugal, and brotherly love, and yet they glorified the day when they had slaughtered their human brothers — for the honor and glory of their country. And forgetting that he was in the spirit while they were in the flesh, he cried:
"Oh, my brothers! Break the slavish bonds of patriotism and taste of the freedom and sacredness of universality!"
But the old man touched him lightly and said:
"They cannot hear you, for are you not in the spirit? Such music as your present voice is too subtle for their ears."
Sadly Vincent turned his eyes away, seeking for new sights to see.
He saw men live and die for the possession of bits of metal and pieces of paper with numbers engraved and printed upon them. For these dead things he saw murder and shameful acts committed, and as he touched some of them with his hand, he hastily drew it back again, for the feelings of greed, despair, and deceit that clung to them scorched him. And he saw with puzzlement how no thing could be obtained by men unless exchanged for these round bits of metal or torn papers. Men did not give away what they did not need for what they needed, as would seem the most reasonable way of living, but all things must be gotten through and with these two grotesque inventions of the Dark Ages, which were covered with germs of physical sickness, and psychical pollution, and mental slime.
He saw men and women plunge into the depths of emotionalism, yet remain curiously inactive and calm before sights where the deepest feelings might overflow in turbulent waves of real emotion.
"I do not understand this," said Vincent sorrowfully. "There is so much emotion in the world: I have seen all its variations displayed before me — yet they are not transferred on the practical plane! Are, then, all emotions false?"
"Not false, but born of ignorance," answered the old man. "Emotions are a necessary rung in the ladder which leads to reality, but they are transitory things, and as such vapory and difficult to analyze. Those who have understood their right place in the scheme of life use them to climb up higher: those who have failed to do so use them as a mask to hide their selfishness. Men must-and will one day — learn to be calm always: calm in love, calm in sympathy, calm in joy, calm in sorrow. Is not the goal of evolution union with the Divine? Do you visualize the Divine as in the least emotional? No, its attributes, as seen by us, are perfect calm and immutability. Therefore must men learn to become at one with that divine calm and curb all storms within themselves."
Vincent nodded thoughtfully, then eagerly looked about him. His spirit traversed the realms of Time and slid back into untold antiquity. He heard a Sage utter words of pure wisdom; he saw men collect these most precious gems and hide them in their hearts, and there the words became covered with a coating of their own most unclean desires and thoughts. He heard these same words go forth from their mouths, long after the Sage had gone home to rest his spirit in a higher sphere of being, and the words were changed in meaning. Again men eagerly stored them in their minds — and again they were spoken, and again they were changed. Thus, through many ages, the words lived, and as each new century was born the words were given new robes of ceremony to wear in honor of the occasion. And churches were built because of the words, and creeds and doctrines sprung up from them. And Vincent could no longer recognize the words, for they were utterly changed. And he looked back towards the sphere where rested the Sage who had first spoken them, and behold! he was one of countless legions.
At that Vincent cried out in sorrow and indignation.
"Why does not heaven open and allow some rays of Truth to penetrate to this most dreary place and show these unfortunate creatures their way?" he asked.
"Do you wish it? Then be it so!" said his companion calmly, and made a sign with his hand. Immediately a most beautiful light became visible overhead, and thousands of pure, golden rays rained down upon the earth, and Vincent was ready to exclaim with joy when he saw a strange thing happen. As soon as these rays of soft light touched men's hearts they were changed into little particles of crystallized matter, and fell upon the ground, living and formless things no longer, but bits of dull clay. Then he understood at last, and turned away and wept. But the old man said nothing.
"How is it that men will not recognize the necessity for rebirth?" he said. "I think that they must experience the grinding of countless ages before their hearts will break through their shells, and like a mirror reflect the radiant light of whose rays they are now so unconscious."
"It is as you say," agreed the old man. "Any great change that takes place either on earth or on its celestial companions, requires thousands, often millions of years for that purpose-yet men would have a life of some paltry seventy years, partly spent in helpless childhood, and partly in sleep, suffice for the learning of its meaning!"
"But will men ever learn its meaning?" murmured Vincent. "Surely you cannot change humanity!"
"We can all help towards that end," said the old man.
"Many help as it is," said Vincent despondently, "but still the germ of evil is sown in men's minds and grows there, poisoning their lives."
"Because men have tried to help the effects of causes," said the old man. "When they will realize that the prevention of disastrous causes is the only cure, and change their tactics accordingly a wave of gladness will sweep away the sorrows of mankind. But not until then."
Then he looked kindly at Vincent, noting his extreme anguish, and said in a different voice:
"Come! I will now show you the queen of Hell, Vincent. She is a vampire and loves to drain men's hearts of their vitality. Many names are bestowed upon her, but I and those you saw in my cave know her best as Ignorance."
And they moved forward, and having traversed great stretches of land they stopped before an earthy elevation on which stood a most wonderful throne. On this throne sat a woman with a crown upon her head, and when Vincent saw her he cried out in terror and surprise, for this was not the first time that he saw her terrible beauty — the beauty of Perdita. However, she did not see him, and his surprise at this only equaled his gratefulness when he remembered that he had temporarily discarded his visible, material frame.
"I am life," she said to those who crowded around her throne, and seeing her sparkling loveliness they believed her and worshipped her.
Many came forward and demanded to be told the way to perfection, and each time her answer was different.
"Mortify your body, and your spirit will grow bright with wisdom as the morning star," she said to one.
"Walk upon your hands, so that your feet touch not the despicable earth, and your soul will know Truth," she told another.
"Make an idol of gold and precious stones, and worship it each morning and each night. Also, do not forget to wear a rabbit's foot dipped in holy water around your neck: you will then surely be rewarded for your piety.
"Raise your voice in melodious song, and wave your arms about this way and that, and juggle with cups and saucers and sparkling things, and lo! perfection is yours.
"Despise the thoughts of other men, and place a frame around your own and hang it on your chest. I will procure you an entrance into the land of the gods.
"Twist your mind into one knot and then another, and the excellence of this exercise will win you the approval of the higher powers."
And all the men and women threw themselves down before her and kissed the ground around her throne in ecstasy. And she laughed contentedly and passed goblets of sweet wine among them, until all were intoxicated and knew not where they stood. Then she sprinkled magic water among them, and as it fell upon them it changed to perfumed smoke, and enveloped them, and perverted their sight, so that they mistook one color for another and one object for another. Then they began to fight among themselves, and many were killed and many wounded. But the woman on the throne laughed and clapped her hands with glee.
And when Vincent saw this, his eyes grew dim with sadness and his heart became heavier than lead.
"I have seen enough," he said, and at that his companion took hold of his arm and uttered a strange sound, and Vincent felt himself rise in the air. Then he remembered nothing more until he found himself standing by the grave in the forest where the old man sat with crossed legs and looked at him gravely. Then Vincent was filled with understanding, and raising his eyes to the sky cried in a powerful voice:
"Forgive me, universal spirit of love, for my blindness! At last I see, at last I understand!"
Then he felt a heavy object at his feet and looking down saw a lifeless body stretched out before him.
"Who is this?" he asked in surprise.
The old man laughed.
"I have then lived to see you a murderer even as myself!" he said. "Do you not recognize the features of your Shadow? You have given it no food for many days, and now it has starved to death. Come, I will help you to dig a grave beside this one."
But for once Vincent did not heed his instructions. In accents of unspeakable yearning and grief he addressed her he loved.
"You have been my hope and my life, Beloved. All the darkness and despair that have ever weighed upon my heart have been effaced by the magic thought that you would one day so fill it, that there would be no place in it for anything but you. But at this moment I renounce all hope of being united with you. I have considered my salvation up till now: from this moment I will consider only the happiness and welfare of humanity. For the first time I am experiencing all the joint sorrows of my human brothers; for the first time I am forgetting my own despicable self. Life on earth is Hell indeed, for it abounds with horrors, physical, mental and moral. How, then, can I waste time in thoughts of myself? There is so much time wasted by many, and I know not how I could bear to see it if I did not see the future together with the present, and behold the humanity-to-be."
"What do you see?" asked the old man gravely.
"I see all men united in brotherhood," said Vincent. "I see Art smiling. I see that the poets of the future will glorify vice and sensuality no longer, but sing of true beauty and inspire us to climb ever nobler heights. Painters and sculptors will have forgotten how to create images of their unclean desires and create sheer loveliness only. Music will realize its holy mission and wash itself clean of all passion, and will be a sacred key to heaven in the hands of its exalted servants. Ambition, pride, indifference, will have faded away with the crimes and sins of the present Hell. All work, all thought, all feeling will be for all and not for one. And little by little misery and all its causes will disappear into the night of the Has Been. . . ."
He bent his head, so golden once, and now so generously streaked with grey, lost in thought. And then a most wonderful thing happened.
The figure that preceded his steps wherever he went, and which was with him night and day, underwent a remarkable change. It became diaphanous and radiant, and so beautiful that it quite took Vincent's breath away. It turned to him and with a smile beckoned to him. As in a dream Vincent whistled to his horse, grazing near-by, and mounting rode after his luminous guide. He knew not where he rode: all he was conscious of was that he was no longer beside the old man, and that the way before him was filled with light. Then he heard a familiar whisper around him, and knew suddenly that he was in a forest and that the whisper was that of trees. And then he knew where he was! In the forest of his hopes and dreams.
"Welcome, my Beloved!"
He heard the words in incredulous wonder. He stopped his horse and turned his head. SHE stood before him in all her unearthly beauty and greeted him with eyes that were brighter than two suns.
"Come to your bride, wanderer," She said. "You have found the Secret of Existence, and I am yours for all eternity!"
And as he knelt on the ground before her she stooped and kissed him, and in that moment Vincent knew earth and heaven and all the spaces of space, and the highest wisdom, and the most perfect love.
Thus ended his laborious quest.