Many cities did Vincent pass through: in none did he linger, in none abide.
After many days of travel he once again espied on the road before him a city surrounded by a high wall. He caught a glimpse of white marble palaces, gleaming like snow-clad mountain tops from afar; of lofty towers with roofs of bright, red copper. Like a fair oasis in a vast desert seemed this city to him.
"Here will I stay and dwell for a while!" he said to himself, "for methinks I have at last found a city which will satisfy the cravings of my soul!" And he spurred his horse impatiently.
Not a voice greeted him as he entered through the open gates — not a face did he see in the empty streets. All was still; all was silent. It seemed as though the city were sunk in sleep. Filled with wonder, Vincent rode slowly through the deserted streets, and with every moment his wonder increased, for strange were the sights that presented themselves to his view. Only now he saw that all the buildings which had seemed so fair from the distance were in ruins: the doors had long ago lost support from their hinges, the marble columns that decorated each entrance had broken and fallen down upon the ground. Dead seemed the city. Time had visibly touched with his wings each stone of the pavement, each empty house.
In the distance Vincent beheld a magnificent palace which proudly raised golden cupolas towards the sky, and his heart beat quicker with joy — for never had he seen a thing of greater beauty.
"There will I live!" he cried. "In this deserted city will I remain, and thou, beautiful building, shalt be my dwelling-place!"
And as he finished speaking his words echoed strangely through the air, and he shuddered at the hollowness of the sound in spite of himself . . . And eagerly he hurried to the white marble palace which he saw before him, and which he had chosen for his dwelling.
Alas! He was there now, beside it, and it lay in ruins as all else! The windows gaped horribly black and empty upon him — like eye-holes from whence the eyes had been removed. One tower had fallen down upon the ground: it lay, a mass of broken marble at his feet. Through a hole in the wall he could hear the wind howl dismally, like the voice of a creature in pain. . . . Slowly he turned his horse and rode away.
He rode along the silent streets, and as he did so his eyes fell upon a bronze statue standing like an immovable sentinel where two streets crossed one another. Curious to know what it represented he rode up to it, and saw that it portrayed a youth with the full ecstasy of joy written upon his face. "There is nothing lacking in my heaven! I have reached the very summit of happiness!" his whole being seemed to proclaim.
Vincent's lips curled in a sad smile.
"What foolish joy!" he said aloud. "How I pity you, poor youth! Do you then not know that perfect joy is denied to man?"
At the sound of his voice the statue seemed to come to life, and to his amazement, said:
"Hush, O man! I am but the image of yourself as you once were!"
Vincent was struck dumb with surprise. Then, recovering himself he repeated incredulously:
"The image of myself? . . ."
And then, with a cry he recognized his own face as it had been in his youth. With mixed feelings he stood and contemplated it for a few moments, and then thoughtfully rode on. Strangely sounded the clatter of his horse's hoofs as they struck the stones, awakening the slumbering thoughts that nestled in the ivy-covered porticos or lingered on the moss-covered garden-walls. Vincent seemed to feel how the spirit of the place resented this movement, and almost unconsciously he slackened his horse's walk, until its footsteps fell with a softer thud upon the worn stone-squares.
Suddenly he caught sight of a second statue, made of bronze as the one he had previously seen, and immediately he rode up to it, as though a magnet had drawn him thither. It represented a youth whose features were contorted into an expression of the utmost despair. As Vincent stood before him he shook his head slowly, and sighed.
"Oh, you dejected one!" he said. "Do you not know that all emotion is transitory, joy as well as sorrow?"
The lips of the statue moved.
"I am but yourself as you once were!" it said, and again Vincent started and looked incredulous — and again he recognized his own features.
"Yes, it is indeed I," he said in amazement; and then cried fearfully:
"But what city is this? Whither have I strayed?"
And the sound of many voices came to him through the air, crying:
"The City of Memory! The City of Memory!"
Aghast, he listened to this strange sound, then turning his horse abruptly rode back towards the gates through which he had entered.
As he was about to pass out, his glance fell upon a lonely grave by the gates. A monument of stone was set upon it, and in this stone was carved the image of a young girl with lowered eye-lids, immersed in Sleep Eternal. Carelessly he noted it, and then his attention was attracted by a rose of singular beauty that grew beside the grave. It was so lovely that he stooped to pluck it, but when he touched it with his fingers it crumbled and turned to dust, and mingled with the earth which had given it sustenance. Two grey moths arose from the spot on which it had stood, and flitted past his face, blending with the shadows behind him, and he watched the progress of these creatures of decay with resentment not unmixed with awe. Then he resolutely turned away and rode out through the gates.
As he rode along he thought of the strange city he had left behind him and of the many strange things he had seen there. And as he thought of the last object that had attracted his attention, the grave with the strange monument, and wondered at the identity of the young girl, he suddenly knew who she was! It was One he had once thought he loved more than any other thing in the world.