He woke to find tears streaming down his face, and, amazed at the vividness of his dream hastily wiped them away. On looking up he met the calm, quizzical gaze of a man. The latter was entirely wrapped up in a dark cloak with a hood, so that his eyes were all that was visible of him.
"You are weeping," said the stranger. "There must be a great sorrow oppressing you for you to weep even in your sleep, where all sad things should be forgotten."
"I have dreamt a sad dream," Vincent hastened to inform him, "and so real did it seem to me that I woke up and found my checks wet."
"It ill becomes youth to weep, even in its sleep," said the man, and the ghost of a smile lit up his face.
"Youth," said Vincent, and smiled likewise, and there was a touch of sadness in his smile. "I am not young, stranger."
"You are not young?" repeated the cloaked man. "That is astonishing, for as I see you now there are no silver threads in your hair, no wrinkles on your face, no film covering your eyes. Your voice is strong and steady, and your hand both firm and smooth. To me you do not look like an old man."
"Must age necessarily go with physical decrepitude and decline?" Vincent said gravely. "Youth is happy; youth is thoughtless and selfish and impulsive. It is as unstable as April sunshine and as changeable as the wind. It is quick to love, and resent, and sympathize — and forget. It has all the delightful qualities of a summer's day and all the short-comings of an unfinished work of art.
"Look at me, stranger. Do my eyes sparkle with fire and passion? Does my face look young and thoughtless? Does my mouth seem to you like the organ of butterfly-speeches, sweet and meaningless as those of all youth?"
"You speak heatedly, aged youth!" said the stranger merrily. "You almost appear to resent your strong and vigorous frame and smooth cheeks!"
Vincent smiled in spite of himself.
"No," he said more calmly, "I am indeed only too thankful to be in the full prime of my physical being; but I am tired of seeing men incline their heads, full of veneration, before the grey hair of an imbecile, and scorn the words of a prophet or sage because he happens to be in his teens. Would-be intellectuals condemn and look down on bigotry and narrow-mindedness: is not Age an empty form and crude sophism formed of man's imagination? Yet men will venerate senility and ignore the sagacity of youth! Do not imagine that I talk at random! I have been called a fool and a knave because I have dared to treat human beings according to their character and intelligence, without consideration for their sex or age."
"I sympathize with you in your indignation at the folly of the world," said the stranger when Vincent ceased speaking, and nodded his head with a kindly look at him. "Time, as it is generally understood, exists only in the imagination of men who know not how to live rightly. And now, since we have met again, let us talk of other things! No doubt you will have much to tell me — when you grow more familiar with my countenance!"
And he uncovered his face and smiled at Vincent, who with joy recognized in him the old man whom he had first seen on the day when he slew the dragon in the walled city. He greeted him a second time with such genuine pleasure that the old man laughed and said a trifle maliciously:
"Yes, you are glad to see me again, but had I not chosen to uncover my face, your joy would have been very restricted, I fear; in fact, altogether unmanifest! To think that I should be popular because of my face! I thought that this was the privilege of beautiful young maidens only!"
Vincent laughed likewise, and at the same time wondered at the devotion he felt for this old man.
"How far have your wanderings brought you, my son?" he asked the youth. The latter frowned and said with a dissatisfied shake of his head:
"I am in search of a religion and a God. Every one is the adherent of some religion, claiming the love of some God, and I would fain do the same."
"I see," said the old man. "I think, however, that you are made of too elastic a substance to tie yourself down to a religion and a God. But, tell me this — are you in earnest?"
"Absolutely," replied Vincent.
"Then come with me," said the old man. "I am on my way to the Forest of Gods where I have a task to perform. It is not far from here."
"I have heard about the Forest of Gods," said Vincent eagerly. "I should like nothing better than to go with you."
"Yes, but are you courageous enough?" said the old man. "Take care lest the sight of so many gods do not overpower you!"
"Have no fear," said Vincent, and having tied his horse securely to a tree, he resolutely faced his companion.
"Let us go," he said.
Curious was the Forest of Gods. With each step they took it grew darker and darker around them. Thick clouds floated about overhead and a strange grey mist enveloped the trees. Vincent began to fear that he would be stifled, for the air was unaccountably close and thick. A nauseating odor began to tickle his nostrils and, touching his companion's arm, he said:
"I am feeling faint. Tell me, what causes this odor?"
"It is nothing: you will soon get used to it," the old man answered. "It is but all the different incense mingling."
Then they heard a mighty roar, ferocious and terrible, and Vincent shuddered involuntarily, for he had never heard such a sound before. Then his companion turned towards him and said:
"We are coming to one of the gods, already. Do not forget to look at each one in turn attentively, so as to be able to decide which pleases you most."
The youth nodded silently, and they walked on quickly. And so, at last, they came in sight of the first god.
Vincent grew pale as he looked, and began to tremble from head to foot. Before him on a splendid throne he beheld a monster whose eyes flashed fire and lightning, whose mouth leered like that of a madman, and whose face was a very mask of hatred and cruelty. With quavering nostrils it inhaled the fumes of the incense that arose around it. Then Vincent saw its hideous black tongue loll out, and a voice, indescribable in all its horror shouted mightily:
"Fear and tremble, ye my worshippers! I am a jealous, unforgiving God, who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation! Those who do not, in worshipping me, follow my decrees to the letter, I cause to endure unspeakable tortures in flames that die not nor are appeased ever, but burn eternally, causing the cries of anguish of the sinners to arise in notes that tickle my ears agreeably with their music! Fear me, ye puppets of my stern pleasure! I created you; therefore you are mine. There is no power in earth or heaven that can hide you from my fierce anger. Beware of exciting my vengeance, for my power is illimitable: with one movement of my finger I can make you as nothing, and wipe you off the face of the earth!"
And the roar they had already heard again rent the incense-permeated air. And Vincent heard many voices wall around the throne:
"We fear Thee, God of vengeance and terror! We fear Thee with all our hearts! None is so terrible as Thou!"
Half unconscious with terror the youth reeled and would have fallen but for the sustaining arm of the old man who hastened to drag him away from thence.
"Courage, my son!" he heard him say; "courage, or I will think you a weakling!"
And mechanically he followed the calm figure in front of him. After a while it stopped, and pointing at something said, "Here is another god."
Fearfully the youth looked in the indicated direction, but this time it was no monster that he saw; it was something very different indeed. He saw a big, gilt-edged book lying on a scarlet cushion, and around it perceived many voices chanting in unison:
"Holy, holy is our blessed God!"
"But where is the god himself?" the youth asked in amazement.
"That is the god," said the old man, pointing at the book.
"Oh!" said Vincent blankly.
With a slight smile the old man moved on. The next sight that met them was very delightful indeed. They saw a kind-looking old man on a throne of gold and ivory inlaid with many precious stones. All around the throne stretched streets of every kind of metal imaginable, so that it hurt one's eyes to look at them — so bright were they. Trees with golden fruits grew by the throne; rivers of milk and honey flowed past. But most delightful of all was the crowd of beings that surrounded the throne. They were clad in flowing garments, somewhat resembling nightgowns, but of a more graceful appearance, and they were singing hymns to the glory and honor of their King. Their singing was accompanied by themselves on golden harps.
"Do they often entertain their Lord with their singing?" Vincent whispered curiously.
"It is their one and only occupation, for they care to do nothing save this," answered his companion.
It was with great reluctance that Vincent finally tore himself away from this charming god and his musical saints, and followed after the old man, who led him to the next god. The next ruler of men's souls was an astounding sight. He was the most curiously twisted creature Vincent had ever seen. His arms and legs and neck were all out of proportion and bent the wrong way, reminding him of the roots of mandrakes. A grotesquely elevated forehead bulged out from beneath his mop of colorless hair, while an enormous mouth stretched from ear to ear, as of one who is fond of exercising his tongue.
"Waste not your time in the useless pursuits of material existence!" he cried in a hollow voice. "There is only Thought that can lead you to the innermost heart of Life! Thought, the noble one, Thought, the delicate one!"
"Oh, beautiful God!" whined some voices around him. "God of abstract reasoning and metaphysical theorizing! Praise be to Thee!"
And columns of incense-smoke curled up to the feet of the god and there fell down in blocks of ice.
With fascinated eyes Vincent gazed upon him. Then he turned to his companion and said as in a dream, "Let us go on!" The old man nodded his head in agreement, and they moved on.
"We are now coming to the most popular God of all," he said as they were about to stop again, and Vincent looked eagerly, full of curiosity and expectation. Great was his disappointment when he saw nothing beyond a huge mirror surrounded by a golden frame, standing on a beautifully carved pedestal.
When they had looked at it for some moments the old man took a step forward and began, turning to the youth:
"The next god . . ."
But before he could go on the youth laid his hand on his guide's shoulder and said wearily:
"I have seen enough gods — more than I should have seen. Unless you wish otherwise, let us go back."
The old man smiled and said quietly:
"Very well, we will go back. Let us go this way, however, for I have not yet accomplished my errand."
And they turned off to another path. Soon the forest became less dense, and Vincent saw with joy that they had almost come to where it ended. There a new spectacle met their eyes. In a circular space walked a little dog: round and round it walked without once stopping, and Vincent grew quite dizzy with looking at it. All about it he saw men in robes of ceremony kneeling down in worship and engaged in hymnic singing. Sometimes the dog, in passing, would lick the face of one of them, and then the one thus favored would exhibit great pride and pleasure, and look at the others as one superior to them. Vincent's companion moved forward, and coming up to one of the kneeling figures bent down and said something in a low voice. The man looked up and answered angrily, motioning him away with an impatient gesture. Then the old man went up to the man beside him, and was treated in a like manner. Without displaying any annoyance he patiently went round, going up to each one of them in turn. The youth looked on wonderingly, understanding nothing of this performance. And all the time the little dog was moving round and round in a circle, half-heartedly licking the face of some of the men in passing. Having spoken to them all the old man came back to Vincent, shaking his head with evident disappointment.
"Come, I am ready to go," he said to the youth. "There remains nothing further for me to do in this place."
Only too thankful to come out into the sunlight and the pure air the latter gladly followed him. As they emerged from behind the last tree Vincent suddenly asked:
"Tell me, what is the meaning of the scene I have just witnessed? Why do all those men worship the little dog?"
"I will tell you," said the old man. "All those you saw me address are high-priests of the different gods, some of which we saw a while ago. In the animal you mention they recognize the common symbol of their several gods. Although your tact prevented you from asking me my business with these upholders of creeds I will answer the question so clearly written in your eyes. It is thus: I go from time to time to ask them whether they will not serve my God instead of theirs, whether they will not amalgamate and join forces in their separate attempts to awaken the soul of man. Sometimes I win the approval of one among them, but mostly my visits to this forest are fruitless — as to-day."
"But who is your God?" asked Vincent with some surprise, the idea of this old man worshipping any divinity never having entered his mind.
"As to that, let my answer sleep with the future," the singular old man replied. "From the frequency of our past meetings I dare hope that this is by no means the last, and as our acquaintance will grow so will our minds unroll before each other in mutual sympathy."
Vincent received these words in silence and then asked again:
"I must ask you — since you are so familiar with the singularities of this forest — another question. It concerns the little dog who was the object of worship of all the high-priests you spoke to. Why did it persist in moving in a circle? Is there any reason for its strange mode of progress?"
"Yes, there is a definite reason for its unusual movements," the old man answered. "It has had one side of its brain injured in an accident, and since that day it is unable to move in more than one direction. It cannot even go straight but must of a necessity go in a circle. It is a peculiar phenomenon, is it not?"
"Yes," agreed Vincent, "very peculiar."
Then the old man said, with a keen look at the youth out of his disconcertingly penetrating eyes:
"Now it is my turn to ask questions. I will only ask you one, however, and that is, have you chosen a god to worship and be guided by?"
Vincent looked up into his face and said firmly:
"I have not; nor do I wish to do so at present. I am satisfied to remain as free of any religious bonds as I was heretofore."
They walked along in silence after that, and only when Vincent beheld his horse and hurried to its side did his companion address him again.
"Stay!" the youth heard him say, and turning round looked at him wonderingly, for by the old man's face he could see that he was about to hear something important.
"I fear I must leave you now, my son," he said. "I must not tarry here any longer, and you, I think, are ready to continue on your way. You look distressed: I see that you are unwilling to part company with me, and I can assure you that this feeling is shared by me. But I am going back to my cave, which is in this neighborhood. It is there, beyond the hills, hidden among the trees. Whither you are going you must know best yourself. This I wish to say to you: when you will have grown tired of the turbulence of the world, come back and look for me in my cave. You will always find a brother's welcome there!"
"Then let me come now!" cried the youth.
"No, do not follow me so hastily," said the old man gently. "You do not seem to me to be quite ready for the peace and stillness of the woods. Look at your fairy-guide! He is pulling the reins of your horse in the opposite direction."
Vincent looked with mixed feelings at the impish form hopping around his horse and eagerly pulling the reins. He sighed impatiently, then turned to the old man and said:
"You are wiser than I. Be it as you say. But rest assured that I will come back soon and ask for admittance into your cave!"
"You are welcome whenever you come," said the old man simply. Then he looked at him searchingly and said after a short silence:
"Do not forget that love is more lasting than anything else in the world!"
Vincent caught his breath sharply, struck by the world of meaning that lay beneath his words.
"Then — you know?" he cried. "You have guessed my love?"
"I guessed it from the longing in your eyes," answered the old man. Then, with a nod and a smile he turned away, and walked towards the hills where lay his cave; and Vincent disengaged his horse from the tree to which it was tied, and mounting on its back, rode in the opposite direction, while before him, leaping fantastically over brooks and stones and yawning abysses sped his inseparable companion, the ever-different, elusive imp.