Slowly Vincent rode along, his gaze listlessly searching the bright depths of the summer sky. For a long while he watched the creamy clouds floating by overhead: when he at length looked down again his eyes met those of an old, white-haired man who was sitting beside the road. It was none other than the old man who had so openly disapproved of him in the city which he had delivered from the dragon! Immediately Vincent stopped his horse and greeted him courteously.
"I trust that you have not forgotten me," he said.
The old man smiled a kindly smile.
"Indeed, I have not," he said. And then:
"You did not stay in the king's beautiful palace and partake of princely pleasures and entertainments, I perceive!"
Vincent flushed and looked down on his far from princely garb, and then laughed.
"No," he said, "I did not."
Then they both laughed together, and Vincent jumped off his horse and sat down beside the old man.
"And where might you be going now, my son?" the latter asked, after a moment's silence. The youth's brow clouded, and he answered in a different voice:
"I am seeking Happiness."
The old man gave him a surprised look, but said nothing. Vincent went on:
"I have ridden through many cities, many lands, and I am weary; yet Happiness I have not found. But you, who seem so wise, can you not tell me where and how to find it?"
And he turned eagerly to his companion. The latter was looking at him with eyes full of compassion and pity.
"I will tell you a story," he said slowly, "a story about Happiness. Listen!
"There was once a child, a human child. It laughed, and wept, and played, and chased brightly-colored butterflies and dreams after the fashion of all human children. But sometimes, in the middle of its play and laughter it would stop and listen perplexedly, for deep down within its heart it heard the voice of a strange longing, a longing for something . . .
"The years passed by and the child allowed them to go by amid laughter and sunshine, but now and again its laughter would cease and its face grow puzzled, for then it grew conscious of the strange longing at the bottom of its heart . . .
"Then, one day, it looked into its mother's eyes and saw in them a great hunger, and it asked her what it was that her eyes were asking for, and she smiled and answered hastily, 'Nothing, nothing at all!' But when it looked into her eyes again they answered and said, 'We are hungry for happiness!'
"Then the child ran out into the garden and down to the pool, and there it lay down on the grass and bent over the water and beheld its own face — and in its eyes it read the same hunger that it had seen in those of its mother. Then it looked up and cried, 'I am going to find happiness!' — and ran across the flower — besprinkled meadows, away to where the blue mountains stretched across the horizon, dim and beautiful.
"For many days it walked, and at last it came to a big castle.
" 'Surely happiness must dwell here!' it thought, and without hesitation walked in through the open gates. In the court-yard it beheld a beautiful lady walking slowly up to the castle. She was dressed in a richly embroidered robe, and her neck and arms sparkled with priceless jewels. Suddenly she caught sight of the child and turned and walked towards it.
" 'What are you doing here, child?' she asked with surprise.
" 'I am looking for happiness,' it answered eagerly. 'Tell me, pretty lady, does it dwell here?'
"Sadly she shook her head.
" 'No, my child, it dwells not in this palace,' she said, and now the child saw that her face was full of sorrow and that her eyes were sad. The child looked at her, a wistful question in its eyes, then turned and walked away from the castle. After a time it came to a dark forest.
" 'Perhaps I will find happiness in there,' it said, and entered in. As it walked along it came to a big, black cave and there it saw an old, old man with a flowing beard, sitting on a dry, cracked log, and reading a thick book with black covers.
"Timidly the child came nearer and at that the old man looked up and gruffly asked it what it wanted.
" 'I am looking for happiness,' answered the child; 'can you tell me where to find it?'
"Then the old man slowly combed his white beard with his fingers, looked thoughtful, and began to turn over the pages of his book. He looked at the first pages, he looked at the last, he looked in the middle of the book, and then shut it with an annoyed exclamation.
" 'I cannot find it in here!' he said petulantly. 'Go and ask the wise old owl who sits day and night on the oak-tree with the seventy-seven twisted branches. He is wiser than I.'
"And the child thanked him and went to look for the oak-tree with the seventy-seven twisted branches. In the densest, darkest part of the forest it found the oak-tree, and on its thickest branch sat the wise old owl and glared at the child with its round, glassy eyes.
" 'Can you tell me where to find happiness?' asked the child.
" 'How should I know?' it answered ungraciously. 'Go to the fairy Fata Morgana, who lives beyond the forest. She knows.'
"And the old owl blinked its yellow eyes and turned away. The child thanked it timidly and went to find the fairy Fata Morgana. When it had walked for many days it saw the gleaming castle of the fairy in the distance. Slowly, awed by its splendor, it approached the castle, when lo! the fairy herself appeared, radiant and lovely, and went towards it.
" 'What do you seek here, mortal?' she said in a voice like the tinkling of a silver bell.
" 'I am looking for happiness,' said the child. 'Oh, can you tell me where to find it?'
"And then the fairy's radiant smile faded, and she looked at the child with eyes full of sadness.
" 'Oh, child,' she said, 'you have then come for nothing! Know you not that happiness does not exist? Nay, it is but a myth — a dream!'
"With a heavy heart the child turned back home. It went past the wise old owl; past the grey sage in his cave; past the castle where dwelt the beautiful lady; and at last it came home.
"And there it resumed its former life. As before it laughed and wept and danced and frolicked, but sometimes it would stop in the middle of its playing, and stand still and listen to the voice within its heart, for it spoke loudly of a longing, a longing for something. . . ."
As the old man stopped Vincent turned to him and addressed him almost violently.
"You do not believe in your story, surely?" he said. "You cannot, you dare not believe in it!"
And he looked eagerly into his face. But the old man did not answer.
"I have gone so far," he continued. "I have searched everywhere, everywhere . . . But you tell me of a child! I am a man, and I tell you, I will find it! I will find happiness!"
"What! Do you hope to succeed where a child has failed?" cried the old man, and laughed softly. "Oh, Man! Your conceit is beyond words! "
Vincent looked at him disbelievingly.
"Then you think that there is no happiness in the world?" he asked.
"No," said his companion, "not for men. For those who are higher than men there is peace, but for mortal men there is only sorrow."
"Oh!" said Vincent and shuddered. Then he clenched his fists and spoke with agitation.
"Yes, I know Sorrow, I know her only too well," he said. "When the sky was clear and smiling she made it dark and dreary for me. When the birds sang joyously around me she placed her hands over my ears, so as to deafen the sound of their singing, and made me listen to the dismal song of my heart instead. She has turned my cup of sweet wine to gall; she has plucked off the petals of my roses and left me the thorns alone; she has turned my laughter to tears and strewn my path with stinging nettles! Stealthily does she come, her face covered up so that no man may see it to loathe it. She is cruel, and there is not one grain of mercy in her heart! Then he stood up and said resolutely:
"Since you say there is no happiness, I will go forth and find Sorrow. She, I know, exists. I wish to look into her hateful face and curse her!"
"Then you will not have far to go," said the old man, and pointed straight before him. "Unless my eyes deceive me, there she is, moving along with such haste."
Vincent followed his gaze and saw a dark figure in the distance moving speedily between the trees. Quick as lightning he jumped into the saddle, called "Farewell!" to the old man, and rode after it. He rode as rapidly as his horse would carry him, but soon noticed that however quickly he moved the figure was ever quicker, and that the distance between them remained the same.
They passed through an alley of poplars and as Vincent rode along between the trees he heard them rustle: Sorrow! Sorrow is pass-s-sing by! and the flowers bent their heads in awe and trembled.
From a distance he saw the dark figure stop before a wooden hut that stood at the foot of the mountain which rose majestically before them, and as he rode by, the figure moving swiftly before him, he saw its inmates bend over a prostrate form and heard them wail: "Alas! Death has touched the peace of our home! Sorrow has passed by our house and looked in through the window!"
He pursued the closely draped figure with grim determination, and soon they came to the banks of a river all aglow with the flame of the sunset. She stopped and touched a little figure sitting by the water, and when he came nearer he saw that it was that of a beautiful child which was sobbing as if its heart would break.
"Oh, the bitterness of Sorrow!" he heard it say as he rode by. He looked at the river that flowed beside him. There was a sound as of tears in its waters and all the little waves gurgled as they rushed past: "Sorrow! Sorrow has looked upon us with her melancholy eyes!"
And then, at last, that somber Form stopped and sat down on a stone that lay beneath two aspens, the leaves of which hung and trembled in the wind like so many tears. With a cry of triumph Vincent jumped off his horse and went up to her.
"Turn round and let me see your face, that I may know whom to curse!" he cried. "Show me your face that I may recognize another time the features of her who is the slayer of all that is sweet, and dear, and precious to man!"
At the sound of his voice she stood up and turned towards him. Never as long as he lived would the youth forget the face that he now saw! It was pure and bright with the brightness and purity of all that is high and lofty, and there was in its expression all of the majesty and awesomeness of true divinity. He was completely overwhelmed by the limitless compassion that shone in her eyes. Something pushed him forward and throwing himself on the ground, he reverently kissed the hem of her flowing robe.
"Forgive me!" he whispered. "I thought you were Sorrow . . ."
"I am Sorrow," she said.
* * * *
When Vincent looked up again she was already far away, merging into the blue mist that enveloped the mountains, behind which the sun was slowly sinking.