The Hunt for the Beautiful
T HERE was once a boy named Karl, who lived in a little village in a valley, far from all the great cities. It was a simple and quiet village, but very pleasant to see, because of the many flowers that grew in the people's gardens, and of the beautiful hills that lay just behind it. In the middle of the village was an old chapel, and as the boy's father was the sexton, their little house and garden were next door. The chapel was a dim, restful place, with stained-glass windows, which had been made hundreds of years before, and had figures of saints and angels shimmering in them. Very often, when Karl was tired of both work and play, he would go in and sit there, and would sometimes fall asleep looking at the lovely pictures in the windows.
There was a particular reason why he was so much interested in the pictures, and that was that he wished to be a great artist. Before he had been old enough to read, he had drawn pictures wherever he could find a place to put them, and nothing made him so happy as to have a present of colored crayons or paints. Then, as he grew older, whatever money he could save for himself—which was not much, for his father and mother were poor—he spent in paying for lessons in drawing and painting from whoever could be found to teach him in the village.
But as the village was so small, Karl wished very much to go to see the world, and to study painting with great teachers. The village people thought that he was already a wonderful painter, because he could sit down before a flower, or a house, or even a child's face, and make a copy of it so good that no one could think how it might be better. They could not see, therefore, why Karl was not satisfied. But he always told them that there were better pictures in the world than either he or they had ever seen, and that if they could once see them, they would never again be pleased with his.
"Well, in that case," the people answered, "why should we want to see them? If what you say is true, we should be less happy than we are now. We are pleased with your pictures, and you should be pleased with them, too."
"No," said Karl. "I can not be pleased with anything until it is the very best I can do, and I believe I can do still better. If I could only see the most beautiful things in the world, I could paint them, at any rate. I have painted everything in this place,—the old chapel, and the hills behind the village, and the flowers in our garden, and the prettiest children. But all the time I have known that these are not the most beautiful sights. Somewhere is the most beautiful sight in the world. I shall never be happy till I have seen it."
So they could not make him believe that they were right, and, although he enjoyed his work, he was never pleased with it when it was done. At last there came a time when he thought he could go away to see the world. His brothers were now old enough to be of help to his father; and his mother, though she would be very lonely without him, seemed almost as eager as he was that he should make his great journey. So one morning he bade them all good-by, and started down the road that led into the big world.
There was really no one but Karl himself who knew why it was that he felt so sure he must go away. Something had happened more than a year before, which he had kept secret but had never forgotten. One day he had been working hard at a picture, as he always did in his spare minutes, and had grown tired and discouraged, because when it was finished it was not as beautiful as he had hoped. So he had gone into the little old chapel to rest and comfort himself, as I have said that he did so often.
There was one window in the chapel that Karl had always thought especially beautiful. In it was the figure of a great white angel, whom he always called the Angel of Beauty, not knowing what her real name might be. He knelt under the window, where he could look up into the face of this Angel, and thought how fine it would be if she could only speak to him, and give him a message, as the angels and saints had done in earlier times.
"I know what I would say to her," he said to himself. "I would ask her: When can I ever paint the beautiful picture that I am always trying to?"
Then a very wonderful thing happened. Karl had asked this question aloud, because he was so much in earnest about it, and knew that no one else was in the chapel to hear him. Now, as he looked at the face of the angel in the window, he suddenly saw her lips open; and then, before he realized what it could mean, she was speaking to him. This was what he heard:
"When you have seen the most beautiful sight in the world."
That was all. Karl asked more questions, and begged the angel to tell him how he could find the most beautiful sight, but she never spoke to him again, though sometimes afterward, when he would go to the little chapel to rest after a hard day's work, he would think that he saw her lips breaking into a kindly smile, as she looked down upon him in the dim light. He never told any one, not even his father and mother, of the words that she had spoken to him, but he never ceased to think of them; and this was why he was so eager to set out on his journey, as we have seen that he did at last.
It would take a very long time to tell about all of Karl's travels, during the months that followed his going away from home. On the whole, though he saw many fine sights and made new friends, it was a wearisome journey. He did not have money enough to travel in comfort, and sometimes he would find that he had spent everything he had, and would be obliged to stop somewhere for a few weeks until he could earn enough to take him farther. Sometimes he would walk many miles, from one city to another, and arrive there with his feet so sore and his back so tired and aching, that it seemed to him he wanted only one thing—his little bed in his little room in the old home.
But all this would not have mattered, if only he could have found the thing for which he had set out. It always seemed to be just a little distance ahead of him. At first he thought that he would be most likely to find it in the galleries where the paintings and statues of all the greatest artists were collected. So he visited these in the different cities, and once or twice he found a painting or a statue so wonderfully beautiful that he exclaimed: "Surely this is the most beautiful thing in the world!" But always some one said to him: "No; wait till you have seen such-and-such a picture in such-and-such a gallery. That is without doubt more beautiful than this." So he would go on hopefully to the other gallery, but always with the same uncertainty as to whether he had found what he was searching for.
After many weeks spent in this way, Karl decided that it was not in pictures or statues, but in beautiful scenes of nature, that he was most likely to find what he sought. For whenever he saw a lovely picture of a lake, or a mountain, or a valley, it would occur to him that if the picture were so beautiful, the landscape itself must be still more so. So, as the summer was now coming on, he visited the loveliest countries that he could hear of, where the mountains were covered with snow the year round, but the valleys between were filled with wonderful flowers, and brooks went singing down the slopes and emptied themselves into lakes as blue as the sky. He had never dreamed of anything so beautiful as some of these places, yet the same thing happened that had happened before. Whenever he would say to another traveler that he thought this must be the most beautiful sight in the world, the traveler would say: "No. I have seen one still better; you will find it in the Valley of So-and-so." So Karl would take up his journey again, always with new hope.
Meantime he did not get good news from home. His mother wrote him that his father was dead, and this made him very sad. Then she wrote that it had been a hard winter in their neighborhood, so that his brothers had found it difficult to earn as much as usual, and they had had to sell some of their land to buy fuel to keep them warm. But she did not ask Karl to come home, for she was as anxious as he was that he should become a great artist, and was sure that he would succeed if he only had good luck on his journey. So she told him to go on, and not to be troubled about the things that were happening at home, for she would not have written of them at all if it had not been to explain why she could not send him any money.
So Karl continued his journey a little farther, and tried to keep a good heart. At last he felt more certain than ever before that he was going to find the object of his search, for a number of travelers had told him that he ought to go to see a certain castle on a certain mountain, in a certain distant country, where the view was undoubtedly the most beautiful in the world. So many people told him this, that Karl felt now that all he had to do was to get money enough to take him to that country, when his journey would be ended; but this was hard to do. So he stopped in the city where he was, and found regular work to do, copying little pictures for a man who sold them; and all the money he earned, he saved for the expense of his journey.
One day, when he thought that he had almost enough, he received a letter. It was from the village where his home was, but not from his mother. A neighbor wrote to him, telling him that his mother was too sick to write for herself, and that his brothers were sick, too; for there was a fever in their valley, and half the people in the village had caught it. The neighbor said that he did not think Karl's mother would die, if she had good care, and that he was doing all he could for her and for the brothers, but there was no money with which to buy good food or medicines for them, and their near friends were almost as poor as they. So he had decided to write, although Karl's mother would not agree to it, asking him to come home.
It was pretty hard to receive a letter like this, when he was almost ready to finish the journey that had been so long and hard. Karl thought about it for a long time; but of course he decided that there was but one thing to do—he must go home where his mother needed him. He was now not so very far away, and the money that he had saved for the longer journey would be enough to buy a good many comforts for the sick ones. So he bade good-by to the man who had employed him, and took the quickest way he could find toward home.
Although it had been a little hard to change his plans, when Karl was once on his way home it was surprising how happy he felt about it. He did not know how much he had missed his mother and his brothers and the old place, until his face was turned toward them again. So instead of feeling sad about going in that direction, he could hardly wait to come in sight of the little village; and when he had really arrived in it, he could not wait to get a sight of his mother, but ran down the street as fast as his feet would carry him, until he reached the door of their little house. Sure enough! there was his mother at the door to meet him; for she was recovering from the fever, and through the window had seen him running down the street.
Then Karl told her about his journey, and why he had come home; that he had not yet found the most beautiful sight in the world, but that he now felt more willing to wait for it. "For," said he, "I have seen many beautiful things, and I can make pictures of them. Some day I may be able to finish the journey. But I am so happy to be at home again and to see you, that I do not feel now as if I cared about anything else."
Then his mother took him by the hand, and they walked together out into the little garden, where everything was gay with the late summer flowers. "Why, dear me!" said Karl, "I never knew that we had such a beautiful little garden! Have you changed it any since I have been away?"
"No," said his mother, "but it grows a little better every year, even when left to itself."
"It is certainly the prettiest garden I ever saw," said Karl. "And look at that view of the hills behind the village! How beautiful it is with the afternoon lights and shadows lying on it! Why, mother, was that view of the hills always there just in the same way?"
"I think it must have been," said his mother, smiling at him. "You always thought it was a pretty sight, Karl."
"Yes," said Karl, "but nothing half so beautiful as this. And you too, mother, you have grown lovelier than you ever were before, in spite of your having been sick and poor. If I were a great artist, I should paint your portrait and make my fortune by it."
His mother smiled again, not believing what he said, but being pleased that he should think so.
"Mother," said Karl again, "I will paint your picture, sitting here in the garden, with the flowers blossoming about you, and the view of the hills behind you. If I can only make it seem as beautiful to others as it does to me, it will be the best picture I have ever made."
So the next morning Karl made his mother sit in the garden, and then brought his paints and went to work. He was afraid that everything would not look so beautiful as it had the night before, when he had first come home, but it did. He worked faster and more joyfully than he had ever worked before, hoping that he would be able to put into the picture the wonderful new beauty that he saw all around him.
At sunset the picture was almost finished, and Karl sat alone in front of it, for his mother had gone into the house to get supper. He was feeling a little tired and discouraged, as he nearly always did after a long day's work. Perhaps, he thought, it would be impossible for him to make other people see what he was seeing, and the picture would be nothing, after all, but a pleasure to his mother and himself.
"As soon as it gets too dark to work on it any longer," he said, "I shall go into the chapel to see my Angel of Beauty. I am sure she will comfort me, as she always used to do."
Just then he thought he heard some one beside him, and when he looked up quickly, there stood the white Angel herself at his side, just as he had seen her so often in the chapel window! Karl was so surprised that he could not think of anything to say, but sat looking up at her with big, wondering eyes.
"I have been here helping you all day," she said, "but I thought it would comfort you more if you could see me." Then she touched his hand lightly with her hand, and Karl went to work again with his brush, which now seemed to do its work with a wonderful skill that he had never noticed in it before. "Ah," he said happily, "that was the color I wanted all the time! And that is the light on the hills that I saw last evening and thought so beautiful!"
Then, resting from his work a minute, he turned his face again toward the Angel, and said to her:
"Will this really be the picture that I have wanted to paint for so long?"
"Yes," said the Angel, "it will; for at last you have found the most beautiful sight in the world."
"And it was here all the time?" said Karl.
"What is here does not make the picture," said the Angel, "but what you see." Then she faded away as quietly as she had come, and Karl saw that his picture was finished.
This was the picture that made all the world know that Karl was a great artist; but how it came to be painted has never been told before.