The Path, March, 1891.
Among the solemn forests that fringe the chill waters of Baltic seas, this legend has been told among the peasants for centuries.
There was once a great Bishop who rode on his white palfrey at the head of his retinue, on his way to the court of the King. One hand stoutly carried his carved crosier of oak, the other held his jewelled reins; he mused now upon the Courts of Heaven and now upon Courts of earthly splendor. Behind him, in the respectful silence due to the revery of the Lord of the Church, his own small court followed slowly.
All at once the stillness was sharply broken; shrill, sweet streams of laughter, flute notes, and then a bubbling song gushed out upon the air as if from some hidden fount of joy. A song so madly gay, so softly, so bewitchingly merry, so innocent and pure, yet so contagious in its mirth that the very horses curvetted and caracalled, whilst rude men at arms, pages, nobles, acolytes even, beat time and swung to and fro in the saddle. The Bishop forgot his reveries; he smiled, then laughed aloud as he listened. The child-like, infectious merriment of laughter and song blended with the plash and trickle of some unseen cascade. Liquid notes, purling notes; voices of the wind upon the tense branches of slender white birches; voice of flute and water voice and human voice together, filled all the woods with a cadenced merriment, with the full, the ripe delight of harmony.
"Who lives and knows nought of Life's sadness? Who, in this world below, has tasted bliss so perfect that the very soul of him pours forth in pure gladness? quoth the Bishop. "I must see and congratulate tins singer." Turning his steed, he pushed into the woods, following the airy trail of song to find the wonderful, light-hearted musician. Soon - too soon, alas! - he came to a cascade falling into a beryl-brown pool, where sat a young Trolle, a water sprite, brown of eye and limb as the pool itself, playing upon his pipe of reeds and singing. Every forest creature left its lair to hear him. The ptarmigan nestled near in the moss; the slim deer looked on with friendly, pathetic eyes; the innumerable small lives of fen and fern and solitude, even the fish in the water, the motes in the sunbeam, paused, drawn by those compelling notes of gladness.
"How now, how now, thou naughty nature-spirit!" called the Bishop, frowning; "how darest thou thus to sing?"
The merry Trolle twinkled his shy brown eyes, laughed and cut a caper, then blew such notes upon his flute as set every foot to tapping and every spur to jingling.
"Why should I not sing, my Lord?" smiled he; "I who am born to gladness as the water mists are born to rise."
"They rise, to fall again. Thou, born to gladness: thou?" spate the Church's Lord in scorn. "Thou art born to nought; thou art born to bitterness, to the frosts of death eternal. For, mark it well, thou witch's son, thou hast no soul."
"What is that, to have no soul?" asked the Trolle, wistfully.
"It means that He who made the world and His Sweet Son who died for it have no place for such as thee, in all the great hereafter. When the soulless die, for them is no salvation; they die eternally. They pass as the shadows on the bracken, as the hoar frost from the rocks."
The Trolle shivered. "I? To die forever? Say not so, my Lord," and his voice trembled, but not for gladness. He lifted beseeching hands; his flute fell into the water. "We of the forest see the broad swathe Death cuts at fall of the leaf and in the bleak black winter, but in the springtide we see also the renewal of Life. Thou art wise in these things, great Lord, and if I sang my best today, it was to cheer thy journey through the sylvan silences. Tell me not that I must die, that I must pass forever into leaf and mold and chill crawling things, with never a hope of return to the blithe sunshine, the jovial pipes, and saucy sparkling waters. Has not He whom I know not, but whom thou knowest, a place for such as I in all the future fields of Life?" He bent his knee before the Bishop, looking up with entreating fawn-like eyes, startled, widening with their first pain, clouding with the mists of misery.
The austere Bishop raised his great oaken staff in air. "I tell thee, Trolle, sooner shall this, my dead and carvens staff, burst forth into bud and bloom before mine eyes, than that the soulless, such as thou, shall be saved. For thee is no salvation, no miracle."
The Trolle fell upon his face at the palfrey's feet, weeping bitterly. The Bishop turned and rode away, his staff following. A shade fell upon the forest; a shuddering breeze ran through it; lowering looks and mutterings ran from rider to rider, and were echoed by Heaven's low thunder, while ever through the forest wailed notes of pain and dispair.
Yet still the Bishop rode serenely on, safe in a Heaven of his own making, which excluded him not. Slowly a spicy fragrance stole upon his senses, a perfume as of celestial flowers. He plunged his searching eyes among the mosses; he lifted them to rocks and cedars; he scanned the air, and lo! his staff had burst into white and crimson bloom. Shot through with living, radiant light, its blossoms shed Heaven's own dew upon him: they had a mute but mighty voice, and smote his heart as never flowers smote human heart before. Springing from the saddle, he knelt before that cross miraculous, his awe-stricken retinue kneeling with him. Then, mounting, he spurred back into the forest depths where the voice of grief still complained beside the plaintive waters. Bereft of all his woodland friends, who fled from him as from a human thing, the Trolle wept alone.
"Hear now, oh Sprite" the Bishop cried: "Behold a miracle wrought for thy comforting and for my rebuking. The dead has come to life; the staff has blossomed." He held it high; it shed its holy balm upon the poor sprite's heart. "Thou mayst yet be saved. Thou mays't yet have a soul. Sing thy blithe song again."
The Trolle scattered the tears from his eyes. "I shall never sing it more", he said, laying his tremulous hands upon his heart. "I have now a soul; I feel it within me, weak yet heavy, like a new-born thing. And I know, oh Lord of the Church, that the High Soul descends upon all Nature, and that its first baptism is sorrow. Woe is me for my forest life; to be human is to suffer."
"And to suffer is to conquer", said the Bishop very humbly. "Take up the cross of the soul and follow me."
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