She entered with reverence.
"Where is the old Man of the Sea?" she asked, humbly.
"There is no one here but me," he answered, smiling. "Some people call me the Old Man of the Sea. Others have another name for me, and are terribly frightened when they meet me taking a walk by the shore. Therefore I avoid being seen by them, for they are so afraid, that they never see what I really am. You see me now. But I must show you the way to the Old Man of the Earth."
He led her into the cave where the bath was, and there she saw, in the opposite corner, a second opening in the rock.
"Go down that stair, and it will bring you to him," said the old Man of the Sea.
With humble thanks Tangle took her leave. She went down the winding-stair, till she began to fear there was no end to it. Still down and down it went, rough and broken, with springs of water bursting out of the rocks and running down the steps beside her. It was quite dark about her, and yet she could see. For after being in that bath, people's eyes always give out a light they can see by. There were no creeping things in the way. All was safe and pleasant though so dark and damp and deep.
At last there was not one step more, and she found herself in a glimmering cave. On a stone in the middle of it sat a figure with its back towards her-the figure of an old man bent double with age. From behind she could see his white beard spread out on the rocky floor in front of him. He did not move as she entered, so she passed round that she might stand before him and speak to him. The moment she looked in his face, she saw that he was a youth of marvellous beauty. He sat entranced with the delight of what he beheld in a mirror of something like silver, which lay on the floor at his feet, and which from behind she had taken for his white beard. He sat on, heedless of her presence, pale with the joy of his vision. She stood and watched him. At length, all trembling, she spoke. But her voice made no sound. Yet the youth lifted up his head. He showed no surprise, however, at seeing her-only smiled a welcome.
"Are you the Old Man of the Earth?" Tangle had said.
And the youth answered, and Tangle heard him, though not with her ears:
"I am. What can I do for you?"
"Tell me the way to the country whence the shadows fall."
"Ah! that I do not know. I only dream about it myself. I see its shadows sometimes in my mirror: the way to it I do not know. But I think the Old Man of the Fire must know. He is much older than I am. He is the oldest man of all."
"Where does he live?"
"I will show you the way to his place. I never saw him myself."
So saying, the young man rose, and then stood for a while gazing at Tangle.
"I wish I could see that country too," he said. "But I must mind my work."
He led her to the side of the cave, and told her to lay her ear against the wall.
"What do you hear?" he asked.
"I hear," answered Tangle, "the sound of a great water running inside the rock."
"That river runs down to the dwelling of the oldest man of all-the old Man of the Fire. I wish I could go to see him. But I must mind my work. That river is the only way to him."
Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
"That is the way," he said.
"But there are no stairs."
"You must throw yourself in. There is no other way."
She turned and looked him full in the face-stood so for a whole minute, as she thought: it was a whole year-then threw herself headlong into the hole.
When she came to herself, she found herself gliding down fast and deep. Her head was under water, but that did not signify, for, when she thought about it, she could not remember that she had breathed once since her bath in the cave of the old Man of the Sea. When she lifted up her head a sudden and fierce heat struck her, and she sank it again instantly, and went sweeping on.
Gradually the stream grew shallower. At length she could hardly keep her head under. Then the water could carry her no farther. She rose from the channel, and went step for step down the burning descent. The water ceased altogether. The heat was terrible. She felt scorched to the bone, but it did not touch her strength. It grew hotter and hotter. She said, "I can bear it no longer." Yet she went on.
At the long last, the stair ended at a rude archway in an all but glowing rock. Through this archway Tangle fell exhausted into a cool mossy cave. The floor and walls were covered with moss-green, soft, and damp. A little stream spouted from a rent in the rock and fell into a basin of moss. She plunged her face into it and drank. Then she lifted her head and looked around. Then she rose and looked again. She saw no one in the cave. But the moment she stood upright she had a marvellous sense that she was in the secret of the earth and all its ways. Everything she had seen, or learned from books; all that her grandmother had said or sung to her; all the talk of the beasts, birds, and fishes; all that had happened to her on her journey with Mossy, and since then in the heart of the earth with the Old man and the Older man-all was plain: she understood it all, and saw that everything meant the same thing, though she could not have put it into words again.
The next moment she descried, in a corner of the cave, a little naked child, sitting on the moss. He was playing with balls of various colours and sizes, which he disposed in strange figures upon the floor beside him. And now Tangle felt that there was something in her knowledge which was not in her understanding. For she knew there must be an infinite meaning in the change and sequence and individual forms of the figures into which the child arranged the balls, as well as in the varied harmonies of their colours, but what it all meant she could not tell. He went on busily, tirelessly, playing his solitary game, without looking up, or seeming to know that there was a stranger in his deep-withdrawn cell.
Diligently as a lace-maker shifts her bobbins, he shifted and arranged his balls. Flashes of meaning would now pass from them to Tangle, and now again all would be not merely obscure, but utterly dark. She stood looking for a long time, for there was fascination in the sight; and the longer she looked the more an indescribable vague intelligence went on rousing itself in her mind. For seven years she had stood there watching the naked child with his coloured balls, and it seemed to her like seven hours, when all at once the shape the balls took, she knew not why, reminded her of the Valley of Shadows, and she spoke:-
"Where is the old Man of the Fire?" she said.
"Here I am," answered the child, rising and leaving his balls on the moss. "What can I do for you?"
There was such an awfulness of absolute repose on the face of the child that Tangle stood dumb before him. He had no smile, but the love in his large grey eyes was deep as the centre. And with the repose there lay on his face a shimmer as of moonlight, which seemed as if any moment it might break into such a ravishing smile as would cause the beholder to weep himself to death. But the smile never came, and the moonlight lay there unbroken. For the heart of the child was too deep for any smile to reach from it to his face.
"Are you the oldest man of all?" Tangle at length, although filled with awe, ventured to ask.
"Yes, I am. I am very, very old. I am able to help you, I know. I can help everybody."
And the child drew near and looked up in her face so that she burst into tears.
"Can you tell me the way to the country the shadows fall from?" she sobbed.
"Yes. I know the way quite well. I go there myself sometimes. But you could not go my way; you are not old enough. I will show you how you can go."
"Do not sent me out into the great heat again," prayed Tangle.
"I will not," answered the child.
And he reached up, and put his little cool hand on her heart.
"Now," he said, "you can go. The fire will not burn you. Come."
He led her from the cave, and following him through another archway, she found herself in vast desert of sand and rock. The sky of it was of rock, lowering over them like solid thunderclouds; and the whole place was so hot that she saw, in bright rivulets, the yellow gold and white silver and red copper trickling molten from the rocks. But the heat never came near her.
When they had gone some distance, the child turned up a great stone, and took something like an egg from under it. He next drew a long curved line in the sand with his finger, and laid the egg in it. He then spoke something Tangle could not understand. The egg broke, a small snake came out, and, lying in the line in the sand, grew and grew till he filled it. The moment he was thus full-grown, he began to glide away, undulating like a sea-wave.
"Follow that serpent," said the child. "He will lead you the right way."
Tangle followed the serpent. But she could not go far without looking back at the marvellous Child. He stood alone in the midst of the glowing desert, beside a fountain of red flame that had burst forth at his feet, his naked whiteness glimmering a pale rosy red in the torrid fire. There he stood, looking after her, till, from the lengthening distance, she could see him no more. The serpent went straight on, turning neither to the right nor left.
Meantime Mossy had got out of the lake of shadows, and, following his mournful, lonely way, had reached the sea-shore. It was a dark, stormy evening. The sun had set. The wind was blowing from the sea. The waves had surrounded the rock within which lay the old Man's house. A deep water rolled between it and the shore, upon which a majestic figure was walking alone.
Mossy went up to him and said, "Will you tell me where to find the old Man of the Sea?"
"I am the old Man of the Sea," the figure answered.
"I see a strong kingly man of middle age," returned Mossy.
Then the Old Man looked at him more intently, and said, "Your sight, young man, is better than that of most who take this way. The night is stormy: come to my house and tell me what I can do for you."
Mossy followed him. The waves flew from before the footsteps of the old Man of the Sea, and Mossy followed upon dry sand.
When they had reached the cave, they sat down and gazed at each other.
Now Mossy was an old man by this time. He looked much older than the Old Man of the Sea, and his feet were very weary.
After looking at him for a moment, the Old Man took him by the hand and led him into his inner cave. There he helped him undress, and laid him in the bath. And he saw that one of his hands Mossy did not open.
"What have you in that hand?" he asked.
Mossy opened his hand, and there lay the golden key.
"Ah!" said the old Man, "that accounts for your knowing me. And I know the way you have to go."
"I want to find the country whence the shadows fall," said Mossy.
"I dare say you do. So do I. But meantime, one thing is certain. What is that key for, do you think?"
"For a keyhole somewhere. But I don't know why I keep it. I never could find the keyhole. And I have lived a good while, I believe," said Mossy, sadly. "I'm not sure that I'm not old. I know my feet ache."
"Do they?" said the old Man, as if he really meant to ask the question; and Mossy, who was still lying in the bath, watched his feet for a moment before he replied,
"No, they do not," he answered. "Perhaps I am not old either."
"Get up and look at yourself in the water."
The Golden Key
The Golden Key: Part 2
The Golden Key: Part 4
He rose and looked at himself in the water, and there was not a grey hair on his head or a wrinkle on his skin.
"You have tasted of death now," said the Old Man. "Is it good?"
"It is good," said Mossy. "It is better than life."
"No," said the Old Man: "it is only more life. Your feet will make no holes in the water now."
"What do you mean?"
"I will show you that presently."
They returned to the outer cave, and sat and talked together for a long time. At length the old Man of the Sea rose, and said to Mossy, "Follow me."
He led him up the stair again, and opened another door. They stood on the level of the raging sea, looking towards the east. Across the waste of waters, against the bosom of a fierce black cloud, stood the foot of a rainbow, glowing in the dark.
"This indeed is my way," said Mossy, as soon as he saw the rainbow, and stepped out upon the sea. His feet made no holes in the water. He fought the wind, and clomb the waves, and went on towards the rainbow.
The storm died away. A lovely day and a lovelier night followed. A cool wind blew over the wide plain of the quiet ocean. And still Mossy journeyed eastward. But the rainbow had vanished with the storm.
Day after day he held on, and he thought he had no guide. He did not see how a shining fish under the waters directed his steps. He crossed the sea, and came to a great precipice of rock, up which he could discover but one path. Nor did this lead him farther than halfway up the rock, where it ended on a platform. Here he stood and pondered. It could not be that the way stopped here, else what was the path for? It was a rough path, not very plain, yet certainly a path. He examined the face of the rock. It was smooth as glass. But as his eyes kept roving hopelessly over it, something glittered, and he caught sight of a row of small sapphires. They bordered a little hole in the rock.
"The keyhole!" he cried.
He tried the key. It fitted. It turned. A great clang and clash, as of iron bolts on huge brazen caldrons, echoed thunderously within. He drew out the key. The rock in front of him began to fall. He retreated from it as far as the breadth of the platform would allow. A great slab fell at his feet. In front was still the solid rock, with this one slab fallen forward out of it. But the moment he stepped upon it, a second fell, just short of the edge of the first, making the next step of a stair, which thus kept dropping itself before him as he ascended into the heart of the precipice. It led him into a hall fit for such an approach-irregular and rude in formation, but floor, sides, pillars, and vaulted roof, all one mass of shining stones of every colour that light can show. In the centre stood seven columns, ranged from red to violet. And on the pedestal of one of them sat a woman, motionless, with her face bowed upon her knees. Seven years had she sat there waiting. She lifted her head as Mossy drew near. It was Tangle. Her hair had grown to her feet, and was rippled like the windless sea on broad sands. Her face was beautiful, like her grand- mother's, and as still and peaceful as that of the old Man of the Fire. Her form was tall and noble. Yet Mossy knew her at once.
"How beautiful you are, Tangle!" he said, in delight and astonishment.
"Am I?" she returned. "Oh, I have waited for you so long! But you, you are the old Man of the Sea. No. You are like the old Man of the Earth. No, no. You are like the oldest man of all. You are like them all. And yet you are my own old Mossy! How did you come here? What did you do after I lost you? Did you find the keyhole? Have you got the key still?
She had a hundred questions to ask him, and he a hundred more to ask her. They told each other all their adventures, and were as happy as man and woman could be. For they were younger and better, and stronger and wiser, than they had ever been before.
It began to grow dark. And they wanted more than ever to reach the country whence the shadows fall. So they looked about them for a way out of the cave. The door by which Mossy entered had closed again, and there was half a mile of rock between them and the sea. Neither could Tangle find the opening in the floor by which the serpent had led her thither. They searched till it grew so dark that they could see nothing, and gave it up.
After a while, however, the cave began to glimmer again. The light came from the moon, but it did not look like moonlight, for it gleamed through those seven pillars in the middle, and filled the place with all colours. And now Mossy saw that there was a pillar beside the red one, which he had not observed before. And it was of the same new colour that he had seen in the rainbow when he saw it first in the fairy forest. And on it he saw a sparkle of blue. It was the sapphires round the keyhole.
He took his key. It turned in the lock to the sounds of AEolian music. A door opened upon slow hinges, and disclosed a winding stair within.
The key vanished from his fingers. Tangle went up. Mossy followed. The door closed behind them. They climbed out of the earth; and, still climbing, rose above it. They were in the rainbow. Far abroad, over ocean and land, they could see through its transparent walls the earth beneath their feet. Stairs beside stairs wound up together, and beautiful beings of all ages climbed along with them.
They knew that they were going up to the country whence the shadows fall.
And by this time I think they must have got there.
The Golden Key
The Golden Key: Part 2
The Golden Key: Part 3