From a Far Country
HERE lived a Spirit once upon a time. I cannot tell the name of the place where he lived, but it was a good place, and there were many other spirits in it, and beautiful and bright and they all wrought together at happy tasks, following the bidding of a heavenly Voice.
But the Spirit of whom I speak was not happy. He knew not what ailed him, but it was a cruel ail, and left him no rest. He saw some spirits who were set at higher tasks than his, and he said: "They are wiser than I; they can tell me what my ail is, and how to cure it."
So he went to those spirits, and looking in their faces, he saw them full of peace and light. And he asked them: "Whence have ye this peace and this light, while I am empty save of darkness, and cannot rest?"
They looked kindly on him and said: "We have learned the Earth-lesson; now your time is come to learn it, and therefore you cannot rest. Ask of the Voice, and do what it bids you!"
Then the Spirit asked, and the Voice said: "They speak the truth; your time is come. Shall I send you, or will you choose for yourself?"
And he said, "I will choose."
Then the Earth Book was opened before him, and he saw many pictures therein, as it were spirits like himself, clothed in mortal flesh. He saw a beggar in fluttering rags, and a soldier in a red coat; a poet with threadbare cloak, his eyes fixed on the stars, and a prince clad all in gold and silver. And he said, "I will be a prince."
Then sleep fell upon him like a mantle; and the next hour, in a kingly house on the earth, a prince was born.
Every one said that so beautiful a prince had never been seen. Courtiers and ladies bowed around his cradle, and whenever he opened his baby eyes, he saw smiles and soft faces, and rich colors of gold and gems.
"But why does he cry?" asked the Queen his mother; and that no one, not even the wisest, could tell her.
The prince grew up. All the days of his youth were filled with gay and joyous things, and every hour brought its pleasure; for his parents said: "His life shall be perfect. He shall lack nothing that earth can give."
Yet no one thought the prince a happy youth. True, no one heard an ungentle word from him, and his lips wore a smile, because he was kind at heart; but his eyes were grave, and seemed to be always asking a question that was never answered. Sometimes those who were about him would see him take up a corner of his rich cloak and look at it wonderingly, as if it were strange to him; and when travellers came from foreign countries, the prince would send for them, and look earnestly on them, and ask them searchingly of the lands whence they came.
One day came one in a threadbare cloak, with a lute on his arm, and bright eyes that were at once sad and joyful. The prince looked on him and trembled, yet could not cease looking.
"Who are you, stranger?" he cried.
The man laughed.
"A stranger indeed," he said; "yet no more strange than you, Brother," and he touched his lute, and sang a few words in an unknown tongue.
Then the prince came down from his throne, and laid his arm round the stranger's neck, and led him away into his garden. Long they walked and talked together there, this one questioning and the other making answer; and the prince's laughter came ringing through the trees.
"But why does he laugh!" asked the Queen his mother; and that no one, not even the wisest, could tell her.
When the stranger was gone, the prince laughed no more, but he smiled often, with kind lips. He sought no more for pleasures, but set himself to labor for his people, toiling early and late to raise them from poverty and ignorance, and to make them happy. After a time he died, and his people said: "He was a good prince, but a stranger to us; the others loved festivals and good cheer, and that we could understand, for it is the same with us."
But the free Spirit went back to the good place whence he came, and where the other spirits went to and fro at their happy tasks. They crowded about him with joyful faces, welcoming him home.
"Have you learned your lesson?" they cried.
But he shook his head and answered sadly: "It was not my lesson that I tried to learn, but another's. Pray for me, that I may be suffered to try once more."
Then all the spirits prayed, and he with them; and the Voice said, "Be it so; he shall try once more."
Then again the Earth Book was spread open before him, with the pictures of prince and peasant, gay soldier and learned sage; but he laid his hands over his eyes. "Choose thou!" he said.
And sleep fell upon him like a mantle; and in that hour, in a green place under a blossoming tree, in a humble cottage on the earth, a poet was born.
"He is a healthy child," said the village gossips. "May he have strength to earn his bread!"
"But why does he laugh?" asked the poor mother; and that no one, not even the wisest, could tell her.