Idly looking about him Vincent rode through the crowded streets of the, to him, unknown city where the pedestrians talked and laughed loudly as they passed by, and where the street merchants addressed one another with a marked lack of civility, fighting for place on the pavements where to display their various wares. As he slowly turned round the corner of a street lie perceived two men engaged in conversation, and as he rode past them he could not help but hear their words.
"Have you ever heard such foolish prattle before?" he heard one of them say to the other. "The old hag is either mad or else possessed by a devil thus to talk about life and death and destiny. I wish that some sensible man would go up to her and shut the old fool's mouth!"
And he heard his companion answer:
"Yes, it is as you say. She could pass for the queen of all the cranks in the world; but people will persist in calling her a sibyl and a philosopher. Oh, ye gods! A philosopher!"
Having heard this much Vincent stopped his horse and turned to the first speaker.
"Friend," he said, "forgive me if I chanced to hear your words. I did not intend to listen but your remark caught my ear as I was riding by. To what person did you refer?"
The two men looked at him curiously. Then, "Sir," answered the one he had addressed, "we spoke of a crazed old woman who utters foolish speeches. It is one who professes to speak philosophy, but those who hear her know better, for her words convey no sense."
"And where may this mad woman be found?" Vincent asked. "I also wish to go and see her — and laugh, perchance, at her foolishness."
"You need only go round the corner and continue straight on," said the man. "It is not difficult to find her: there is always a great crowd around her."
Vincent thanked him and rode on in the indicated direction.
"For," he said to himself, "I may perhaps hear words of wisdom. The fool doth often despise that which a wise man doth most highly value."
He did not go far before he came upon a crowd of people, attentively listening to someone in their midst, and he guessed that this must be the sibyl. He was not mistaken, for when he came nearer he saw an old woman with flowing white hair, sitting on a rug on the ground. As Vincent stopped before her the old woman looked up, and it seemed to him that her eyes smiled at him, but the next moment she turned away her head and gave her full attention to a man who was addressing her. Vincent remained where he was and listened with the others.
"Old one," said the man, "if you be truly a speaker of truth, tell me this — you, who claim that joy and mercy rule the world: why do men suffer so much in life? Also, you never weary of talking about the beauty, the nobleness of friendship and understanding among men: tell me, then, what of men's constant betrayal of the love and friendship bestowed on them? Where, here, is the beauty you speak of ?"
Vincent leaned forward in his saddle, eager to hear the sibyl's answer.
"My son," said the latter, "you speak bitterly; almost it seemed to me that I heard the voice of the world when you spoke. But listen.
"The rain falls upon the earth, and all is grey and sad and cheerless; the bright heads of the flowers droop sorrowfully, and the trees bend down their branches and sigh among themselves. The wild beasts hide in their lairs and the birds forget to sing. And then the sun reappears from behind the clouds, and the earth begins to smile again! The flowers lift their faces to greet the Bright One, more fresh and fragrant than before: the birds sing more joyously after their forced silence; the dales and forests are more gay and colorful than they had been, all the better for the temporary darkness of the sky. Even so is man; each cheerless, grey rain-cloud that passes above him leaves him stronger, nobler than before. Lo! I teach you the beauty of suffering.
"Life is a school, and each new individual you meet, a lesson. When you see your own faults reflected in another do you not shrink with loathing at the sight of them and do your utmost to tear them out of your own heart forever? And when you meet a noble man, resplendent with the light of his virtues, does not your soul long to be thus also? The weakness of the weak teaches you the worth of strength and firmness, the blindness of the conceited and the self-seeking urges you to raise your eyes to ever nobler heights, the infinite calmness of the pure teaches you to curb the storms that rage in your own breast, that you may become as they. There is no man living, no creature upon the earth, however humble, from whom you cannot learn something!"
And as she stopped speaking she looked at the man keenly. He stood before her with bowed head, his face full of thought. Then he slowly looked up and saying, "I thank you, Mother," turned and walked away: but Vincent saw that his face shone with a new understanding.
Then another man stepped forward and spoke. There were bitter lines around his mouth and in his eyes there was a deep disappointment.
"Some days ago you talked in this same street, old woman," he said, "and you spoke long and earnestly about the great worth and preciousness of aspirations and ideals. I could not talk to you then, for you went away, but I am telling you to-day that you uttered lies. I know what I am saying, for the ideals of my youth were high and lofty — so high and so lofty that men thought me mad when I talked about them. They have caused my ruin; they have caused my life to be a total failure; they have given birth to much suffering and pain. How is it that you dare to speak of ideals, old woman? If you would teach men truth, tell them to flee from all high thoughts, and reveal to them the hollow mockery of noble aspirations!"
And he looked challengingly, defiantly at the old woman. But the latter returned his look calmly, and said, after a short silence:
"Man, your bitterness against the sweet and precious things that life contains is unjust. Do not blame life if you have failed, for life is but an obedient instrument in the hands of man.
"There are many who spend their days in looking up at the clouds and in vainly longing to reach them, and such a one you are, my son. This is exceedingly foolish, for to be able to reach the clouds one must first learn to fly!
"I will show you a picture.
"Three men are walking on a high-way, three pilgrims immersed in thought.
"The foremost among them walks with his eyes raised, watching the clouds as they sail past overhead. Oh, thou unwary one! Bend thy gaze downwards on the road before thee — else wilt thou surely stumble over the stone that lies in your path, and fall, and grievously hurt thyself!
"The second pilgrim walks with a bent head, his gaze painfully searching the ground.
" 'Oh, how dark is the earth!' he groans, 'how black and dreary!'
"Poor, blind pilgrim! He sees not the clear sky above him — he is conscious only of the dark earth below.
"The third pilgrim walks with a brisk, gay step, his eyes fixed straight before him, seeing both the sky and the earth. There is a smile on his face and courage in his bearing. In sooth, thou last one, thou wilt never stumble, nor miss the light of the sun or the gladness of the sky!"
And then the old woman suddenly rose, picked up her rug from the ground, and walked away from the silent crowd.
Vincent remained immovable, strange emotions surging up within him. The recent words of the sibyl filled him with a great longing to study the wisdom of life, not as he had done heretofore, by traversing various parts of the earth and contacting different men and different customs, but through solitary meditation and occasional glimpses of a greater mind than his.
Not unnaturally, he thought of the old man and his cave by the hills, and exclaimed:
"What a fool I was not to have gone with him when we parted!"
And he turned his horse, filled with a new resolution, and made for the city gates, thence intending to ride back to the forest and find the old man; but at that moment he chanced to look aside and saw a girl standing some few steps away from him, looking at him boldly, and all his resolution melted away as dew before the sun, and he forthwith forgot the old man and his cave in the forest.
The girl was very beautiful. Her hair, black and of a rather course texture, fell down to her shoulders in rich waves. Her face was full of laughter and coquetry, and her mouth very red and sensually curved. There was an unmaidenly boldness about her that chilled the youth's delicate senses, and instinctively he turned away and sought to ride in the opposite direction. But at that she put forth her hand and patted his horse's head and said in a clear, cool voice:
"You have a pretty horse, stranger."
"Yes," Vincent said abruptly, watching the movement of her hand as it caressed his horse's muzzle with an involuntary satisfaction. Then he added uncertainly:
"Do you want to ride him?"
She laughed lightly.
"Perhaps, later on," she said. "Just now I would prefer to converse with you, handsome youth."
"Oh!" said Vincent awkwardly, "then I will descend." And he jumped off his horse and came up to her, a curious mixture of resentment and admiration in his heart. She put one arm unceremoniously through his and twined his horse's reins round the other, and in this manner they walked towards the city gates, Vincent moving like a man in a dream, amid confused thoughts. It was with an immense relief that his ear caught the sound of music. Unconsciously he quickened his step in the direction of the sound. Soon they came within sight of a street musician who was playing upon a stringed instrument which emitted unusually tender and reverberatory tones. Vincent stopped, enchanted by his play, for it was full of feeling. He was not surprised to see a crowd of listeners around him, solemnly watching his nimble fingers as they lightly touched the strings. It is uncertain how long he might have stood there had not the girl given his arm an inpatient tug. Reluctantly he moved on, and when he could hear the music no longer turned towards her and said with a sudden eloquence:
"That man's play is inspired. How I revere those thus privileged to hold frequent communion with Truth — for music is truly the voice of Truth, did men but realize it. It penetrates the coarse, thick walls of human understanding and speaks to the spirit within."
"I think music is a thing of little or no merit. It appeals chiefly to slightly exalted people such as poets and dreamers. I confess, to me it seems but poor entertainment," she drawled indifferently.
Vincent looked at her aghast.
"You cannot mean that!" he exclaimed. "Look about you; music is everywhere, in everything! It is in the motion of the atoms and in the light of the stars. It is . . ."
"If you are thinking of giving a lecture on music, then, pray, choose another audience!" the girl interrupted him coldly. Vincent looked startled, and then was silent. In silence they walked along for some time, following their own train of thought. At length they came to a round stone-well, and the girl sat down on its edge, Vincent following her example. Then she turned to him and asked him curiously:
"What is your name? I know nothing about you as yet, not even what you are called. My name is Perdita."
"And mine Vincent," the youth hastened to answer.
"Which of the peoples of the earth is yours, and which country?" she again queried.
"The World is my country," he answered, "and my people humanity, the greatest on earth."
"Oh!" she said. "And what do you seek here, in this city?"
"I am a pilgrim," said Vincent, "a wanderer who goes from one city to another, in quest of wisdom."
Perdita laughed derisively.
"You are foolish," she said. "There is no need to wander through the world in order to acquire wisdom. For that end you need only to sit and peruse books on philosophy and science. This method is infinitely less troublesome than yours, and is practiced by all so-called sages."
"You are confounding learning with knowledge," said Vincent with a slight smile. "Learning is indisputably profitable when rightly pursued, but wisdom, real wisdom, cannot be acquired through the mere study of books, and it is wisdom I seek. This latter it is only possible to obtain through the perusal of the Book of Life."
"What meaningless words!" said Perdita with disdain. "The two are one and the same thing, only some men prefer to give it the one name and some the other."
"No, you are wrong," said the youth. "There are many truths which you may grasp mentally to-day — and yet not understand spiritually until much later. You are told a truth: you weigh it carefully in your mind, you turn it this way and that, and then you finally accept it as perfectly reasonable and logically admissible. And then, when some time has elapsed you will perhaps understand it spiritually; it comes to you as an intuitional revelation, as it were. And herein lies the wide yet often unperceived gulf between mere learning and true wisdom, between mechanical reasoning and real understanding. The one is of earth — the other of heaven."
"I see. You are so much nearer heaven than earth that contemptible information on things terrestrial is not worthy of your notice!" said Perdita with a sneer. "I prefer to feel the firm earth under my feet, and do not mind telling you that I find material knowledge more satisfactory than abstract meditation on unrealities. What care I whether there be seven planes of existence or fourteen or a hundred, so long as my position on this one is safe! What possible good would I derive from the contemplation of the probable or possible condition of humanity a millennium hence? I am content to live in the present and let the future take care of itself even though you, wisdom-seekers, love to discuss remote possibilities and forget the present! What have your wanderings taught you? Have they taught you how to fly in the air, or how to breathe under the sea, or how to stop the stars in their courses? Have they taught you how to move the mountains, and how to regulate the winds and the rain?"
"No, Perdita, but they have taught me many other things," said Vincent gravely. "They have helped to develop my spiritual perception and, I think, have brought me a little nearer to my goal."
"Your goal?" she asked with surprise. "What do you mean?"
"I will tell you my story," said the youth, "and you will then better understand why I seek wisdom so eagerly.
"I love a being so glorious, so exalted that I am but a shadow beside her. Once only have I seen her, and it was then she told me that I could only hope to unite my destiny with hers if I found the Secret of Existence: only then would her mighty father deem me worthy of her."
"How did you meet her, this woman?" asked Perdita after a short silence.
"I . . . saw her in a dream, I think," faltered the youth.
"In a dream?" she repeated with amazement, and then laughed long and loudly. "Oh, you foolish pilgrim! Do you then vainly chase evanescent phantom figures in order to win a phantasm? I would not have believed it of you for I thought you had the face of a man of sense! Come, do you believe in this dream yourself?"
Vincent grew pale at her words and made as if to answer — and said nothing. She rose and went up to him.
"You are trying to believe it to be true," she said with slow emphasis, "but at heart, Vincent, at heart . . ."
"Spare me!" he cried, "Oh, spare me!"
". . . you know that you are deceiving yourself!"
"It is not true!" he whispered. "I do believe in her! I want to believe in her!"
"Yes, you want to believe in her," she said calmly, "but you know full well that she is but a pleasant dream and has no actual existence. Am I not right?"
"Yes, you are right! She was but a dream in the night, but a vision of my thoughts!" he said, and burying his face in his hands he wept.
But Perdita smiled triumphantly, and placing one hand on his shoulder, murmured in his ear:
"I will teach you to love me instead. I, too, am beautiful, and infinitely more real."
And as he slowly rose and took her arm and listlessly allowed her to lead him away from the well, he chanced to look up, and beheld the ever-present shadowy figure running before him: only now he saw a look of slyness and cunning on its face.
Thus began Vincent's long and disastrous acquaintance with Perdita.
He loved her, as she had promised him and with each day he felt himself fall more and more under the influence of this evil woman — for he was convinced that she was evil. Sometimes he would talk to her and with his words try to awaken the spiritual side of her nature, but to these attempts she never responded. On one occasion he turned towards her and looked into her magnificent eyes, searching for a sign, a flicker of spirituality in their depths, and shuddering at what he saw, said to her:
"I see death, and sin, and evil in you, Perdita. Sometimes I think I see all the vice and wickedness of the world reflected in your eyes. Have you then no soul?"
"No," she answered with a laugh, "nor have you, nor has any one else! This is another word which I hope with time to wipe out of your vocabulary. When will you realize that there is but one reality, the reality in which you now live? Live, be merry, and take the utmost out of life, and leave all speculations to the sorry fools who have naught better to do. Life is too short to be spent in search of questionable wisdom!"
"But do you then deny the possibility of life after death?" he asked her.
"I do," she answered.
"Who knows? You may be right!" he said wearily. "I do not know what I believe any longer. Since I have known you, you have been steadily killing all that is best in me. And yet, knowing this, I cannot leave you! I know that you are altogether evil. Your beauty is evil, your speech, your life! All about you is evil! And are you not now teaching me your evil ways?"
"I am teaching you how to live," she said; "already you have beheld the futility of your former quest, and you are becoming more like other men and less like the exceptional being you once were. You are at last beginning to respect and be swayed by the criticism of men, and are abandoning your one-time absurd indifference to public opinion."
"That is not true!" exclaimed the youth. "I have long ago learnt to disdain the judgment of those who seek to find fault with me only, and to respect and heed the criticism of those who seek for the good within me — for the approval of the latter is the only one worth having — and in this I remain unchanged, say what you will, Perdita. As for my search after wisdom, I greatly fear that you are right," he added sadly. "When I look back on my recent past I stand amazed at the change I have undergone. Never would I have believed at the time that I would abandon it in this manner! I think man must be re-born a different creature each day!"
She laughed again and stroked his arm.
"Do not think so much," she admonished him gently. "It will make your head ache."
One sole being could make Vincent forget Perdita and her theories for a while. It was a poet whose works were on everybody's lips. He seemed oblivious of his fame, and led a simple and unobtrusive life, shunning the public gaze when possible. In his company Vincent found rest for his dark thoughts, and he clung to their friendship as if it were his last hope of salvation. And it so happened that it did prove his salvation, although it caused him sorrow and regret.
A messenger came running to Vincent one afternoon when he was sitting and talking to Perdita, with the news that the poet was dying and wished to see him while there was yet time. Pale and filled with dismay Vincent hastily rose, and leaving Perdita with a mumbled apology, he ran as quickly as his legs would carry him to the poet's home. He found him in the garden and instantly saw that his strength was rapidly ebbing away from him.
"Thank you for coming, my friend," said the dying man, with a weak smile, when he perceived the youth. "I wished to take leave of you before departing for home."
"Home?" muttered Vincent. "Are you not dying?"
"Yes, that is what I mean. Only you call it in while I call it returning home," whispered the poet. "I am going to the land of my ideals, my hopes and my aspirations. No more will I move in the twilight greyness of earth, but dwell in light, and let the music of my mind bring forth bright flowers of memory . . ."
"Do you then believe that it exists, this land of your longing and desire?" Vincent asked him.
"It does; most certainly!" the dying man said with conviction. "Thought is a creator always, a creator who follows the design of the architect, our will. I have dreamed dreams of beauty all my life, and with all my soul striven for their realization: now it comes!
"Yes, thought is a marvelous thing," he went on. "With thought come many revelations of the verities of life, both bitter and beautiful, but I think mostly the former. For instance, the perfect loneliness of each man. It is a terrifying fact, and yet sublime. Truth is made up of paradoxes, and this is the most paradoxical of all — truths: that man is alone always and everywhere — yet can understand life and himself only when he has understood the unity of all things with himself — of himself with all things. I imagine that the innermost core of man's being is this great universal unity with all life, and that the great loneliness pertains to man himself, the thinking, loving, hating, suffering man. And it is a sad and pitiful thing, that men will not see this, and will seek human union, and know disillusionment each time! Small wonder, then, if the passing away from earth comes as a welcome change, filling us with peace and restfulness!"
Then he made an effort to sit up, and looking with mingled joy and sadness at the flowers and trees that grew around him, he whispered:
"Farewell, my silent companions! And you also, friend," turning to Vincent, "for I think that I am already leaving this life for a more wonderful one — I feel it!"
"Are you not afraid of annihilation, of death" Vincent said with agitation. "Do you know that there is a life beyond this sphere?"
"Death? Annihilation?" The poet laughed softly. "These are empty words. There is only life; life with its infinite changes and phases. Nature herself answers your question. Is there any real death in nature? I tell you, there is not. Have you not seen new life issue from seeming corruption, new vital force from seeming decomposition? Have you seen any finiteness in nature? I have not. Does not the day merge into the night, and the night into the day? Does winter not ripen to summer, and summer re-become winter? Do men not sleep and wake alternately? Then why do you imagine that there is an end to man's consciousness at death?"
His words had gradually grown weaker and softer, and as he finished speaking he sent Vincent a calm, sweet smile and fell back suddenly. The latter had no need to look at him again; he knew that the poet was dead. With a cry of terror the poet's faithful old servant rushed forward, but with an imperative movement of his hand Vincent held him back, and slowly bent over the corpse. And as he gazed at it long and yearningly there came to him the full conviction that what he had before him was not a quenched consciousness but a shell devoid of its essential contents. Then, little by little, he remembered all his former convictions, and all his doubts fell away from him, and as he thought of Perdita and all her poisonous theories about life he was filled with utter loathing for her, and out of a neglected corner of his mind arose the image, radiant and pure, of her he had loved. And he knew in that moment that she was no dream but a reality, and filled with shame, remorse, and joy, exclaimed:
"Forgive me, dearest love! I have failed in my plight to you: but it is not too late yet, and I will resume my quest with renewed strength and hope!"
And he seemed to perceive a faint voice saying:
"Go forth, my beloved! I am watching over you always."
And he turned and ran out of the garden, but not before he had thrown a look of gratefulness and love on the body of his departed friend. At the gate he came face to face with Perdita. Never had she taken such pains over her appearance before! He could not help but marvel at the voluptuous, siren-like beauty of her, and understood and pitied as never before all those who loved her — for he knew that they were many. But now her beauty and her seductive charm were as nothing to him. He looked at her coldly, impersonally, feeling nothing but repugnance at the sight of her.
"Come, my beloved," she said sweetly, "come and drink wine with me and be happy! Forget your friend: he is dead now and nothing can bring him back to life. See, this wine is red as blood, and it will infuse fire into your veins and recklessness into your heart!"
And with that she held up a goblet of sparkling, red wine, and smiled. But Vincent roughly pushed her hand away from him and said firmly:
"You have tempted me enough, vampire! Long have you held me ensnared in your witcheries, but from this day I will not let you tempt me any more! Go, vilest of all that is vile, and do not attempt to seduce me again, for all your exertions will prove of no avail!"
Her face assumed an expression of mockery at his words and as he stopped she said slowly:
"Do not accuse me of having ensnared you by my wiles. You have a free will: if I am so repugnant to you, why, then, did you not turn your back on me from the first? I did not force you to stay by my side; by your own desire have you done it!"
"I have no time to listen to you any longer," said Vincent sternly. "Enough days have I wasted on you already."
"Days?" she repeated, malignant triumph in her face. "Oh, you fool, you fool! Many years have passed since you abandoned your search after wisdom for my sake! Have you not looked upon yourself ? Have you not seen the silver streaks in your hair? The days pass pleasantly with me: had you been a little less of a moon-gazer you would surely have remained with me until death overtook you!"
"Have many years passed by?" cried Vincent. "Have I wasted many years in your company? Have I caused my beloved to wait patiently for many years that I awake from this long sleep of ignorance and remember my promise to her? Alas! How could I thus betray her trust in me? No enemy of mine would I wish to feel what I now feel, for oh! the bitter, bitter sorrow of him who realizes his littleness!"
And he buried his face his hands. When he looked up again Perdita had vanished, and before him stood his horse, impatiently pawing the ground with his foot. With a cry of relief Vincent jumped into the saddle, and away they went towards the city gates.
As he rode out Vincent beheld before him the little impish figure that he knew so well, jumping, leaping, running at his horse's head, and he saw with joy that the recent malicious look was gone from its face, and its place taken by one of joy and brightness.
"I will go to the old man!" he said to himself; "to the old man in his lonely cave!"
Then he looked again at his strange companion and said aloud:
"I will let him lead me whithersoever he will. He will surely lead me in the right direction. If he lead me to the old man, then thither will I go; if not, then will I go elsewhere."
But his elfin guide did not lead him to the cave by the hills; he led him along paths that were new and unknown to him.