The Path, June, 1887.
In the midst of the great pine forests, which opened as if to reveal their secret, lay a vast lake. The frozen winds from the North beat upon it, and lashed its waves upon the Southern shore. The sun shone on it and great rifts of weeds with fallen trees floated upon it.
By its side stood two men; one old, bent with age, with long grey locks. He pointed with his hand over the stormy surface whilst the clouds hung closely down, and the long flight of wild birds that were passing over seemed in haste to escape. Listening to him was a young man, lame and slight of build, but giving intensest heed to what the old man said:
"Drain the waters of this lake, to clear away these waves and make firm land - that is your task."
"But," replied the young man, "I am single handed and the lake is vast. Each of its waves is as tall as I am. How shall I chase back its waters?"
The old man said nothing, but led him into the forests again and they passed between the bare pine stems, with here and there a sharp, jagged, broken branch jutting out, till they came to where the rocks sprang out of the earth and trees were fewer. Amongst them, reflecting in its sullen surface the scattered branches of the pine trees above, was a pool of water but a few yards across. Its surface was undisturbed and it looked black with depth.
"This task is yours," said the old man. "Empty this pool of its waters. No other task I give you."
He went on through the sparse pine trees till the darker woods received him and hid him.
The young man remained there, thinking. Then with a stone for a weight, and as long a plummet line as he could make, he tried to sound the pool. And sometimes he thought he had found the bottom; but it was only the weight resting on a ledge of rock. So when all his line was exhausted he gave up the attempt and set to work.
He hewed trees down and made levers and pries, and detached great masses of rock. Day and night he laboured, making a channel for the water to flow away by, and soon he made a passage and led a great current away from the pool.
But the still black surface hardly sank. Harder and harder he laboured till he led almost a river from the head of the pool flowing to the sloping lands of the south. And now the surface of the pool had receded more deeply below the rocks around it; and down by it, where he was at work, the sky looked small and dark. Still the water was not gone and the river kept flowing and flowing.
As he was working here he heard the old man's voice calling to him from above, and the words were: "Cast in your plummet line now again and see how deep the pool is."
So he cast in long lengths of line one after another, but reached not the bottom; therefore he sent answer back; "I cannot tell how deep the pool is; but deeper it seems to me than when I first began."
"Arise from your labour and come with me," the old man shouted into the depths.
Together they journeyed through the bare pine stems with the sharp broken branches jutting out, and the brown soil beneath their feet, till they came to where the forest opened to reveal its secrets.
And there, shone on by the sun, while a flight of wild birds circled round and round, lay a vast open plain hollowing towards the centre and here and there confused with masses of rift and blackened tree-trunks. But down the sides the grass had already begun to grow, and the deer of the forest found there the richest pasture land. Then the old man, turning, said: "You have fulfilled your task, Henceforth dwell in peace and make the land before you habitable and fair."
The young man, who was a young man no longer, looked forward over the expanse with joy. Then turning back to the old man he said: "But what completion is there to my labours whereto you set me? for the waters of the pool are as deep as ever!" Then the old man made answer:
"When you trembled to attempt to conquer the waves of the lake, I took you to the pool in the wood and bade you subdue it, you did not hesitate to attempt that. But know that in reality the pool and the lake are one and the same; for there is an underground channel that connects them and by lowering the waters of the pool you have emptied the lake."
Then the other asked him, "But how deep is the pool?"
"It is deeper than can ever be fathomed," answered the old man, "and you will sooner drain away all the waters of the earth than reach the bottom of it."
Therewith he went away and disappeared for the last time beneath the dark green of the waving pine-tree boughs, leaving the other to enter upon the fulfillment of his labours.
So thou who wishest to conquer the world, but fearest the greatness of the task and hast no means, learn that if thou conquerest thyself; thou wilt find (though in what way it will be, thou knowest not now) that thou hast achieved. And when thou hast achieved, the dark pool that is thyself; will still stretch unfathomably, endlessly down.
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