THE GOLDEN KEY
BY: GEORGE MAC DONALD
First publication 1867 in ‘Dealings With the Fairies’
There was a boy who used to sit in the twilight and listen to his great-aunt’s stories. She told him that if he could reach the place where the end of the rainbow stands he would find there a golden key.
“And what is the key for?” the boy would ask. “What is it the key of? What will it open?”
“That nobody knows,” his aunt would reply. “He has to find that out.”
“I suppose, being gold,” the boy once said, thoughtfully, “that I could get a good deal of money for it if I sold it.”
“Better never find it than sell it,” returned his aunt.
And the boy went to bed and dreamed about the golden key.
Now all that his great-aunt told the boy about the golden key would have been nonsense, had it not been that their little house stood on the borders of Fairyland. For it is perfectly well known that out of Fairyland nobody ever can find where the rainbow stands. The creature takes such good care of its golden key, always flitting from place to place, lest any one should find it! But in Fairyland it is quite different. Things that look real in this country look very thin indeed in Fairyland, while some of the things that here cannot stand still for a moment, will not move there. So it was not in the least absurd of the old lady to tell her nephew such things about the golden key.
“Did you ever know anybody find it?” he asked, one evening.
“Yes. Your father, I believe, found it.”
“And what did he do with it, can you tell me?”
“He never told me.”
“What was it like?”
“He never showed it to me.”
“How does a new key come there always?”
“I don’t know. There it is.”
“Perhaps it is the rainbow’s egg.”
“Perhaps it is. You will be a happy boy if you find the nest.”
“Perhaps it comes tumbling down the rainbow from the sky.”
“Perhaps it does.”
One evening, in summer, he went into his own room and stood at the lattice-window, and gazed into the forest which fringed the outskirts of Fairyland. It came close up to his great-aunt’s garden, and, indeed, sent some straggling trees into it. The forest lay to the east, and the sun, which was setting behind the cottage, looked straight into the dark wood with his level red eye. The trees were all old, and had few branches below, so that the sun could see a great way into the forest and the boy, being keen-sighted, could see almost as far as the sun. The trunks stood like rows of red columns in the shine of the red sun, and he could see down aisle after aisle in the vanishing distance. And as he gazed into the forest he began to feel as if the trees were all waiting for him, and had something they could not go on with till he came to them. But he was hungry and wanted his supper. So he lingered.
Suddenly, far among the trees, as far as the sun could shine, he saw a glorious thing. It was the end of a rainbow, large and brilliant. He could count all seven colors, and could see shade after shade beyond the violet; while before the red stood a color more gorgeous and mysterious still. It was a color he had never seen before. Only the spring of the rainbow-arch was visible. He could see nothing of it above the trees.
“The golden key!” he said to himself, and darted out of the house, and into the wood.
He had not gone far before the sun set. But the rainbow only glowed the brighter. For the rainbow of Fairyland is not dependent upon the sun, as ours is. The trees welcomed him. The bushes made way for him. The rainbow grew larger and brighter; and at length he found himself within two trees of it.
It was a grand sight, burning away there in silence, with its gorgeous, its lovely, its delicate colors, each distinct, all combining. He could now see a great deal more of it. It rose high into the blue heavens, but bent so little that he could not tell how high the crown of the arch must reach. It was still only a small portion of a huge bow.
He stood gazing at it till he forgot himself with delight–even forgot the key which he had come to seek. And as he stood it grew more wonderful still. For in each of the colors, which was as large as the column of a church, he could faintly see beautiful forms slowly ascending as if by the steps of a winding stair. The forms appeared irregularly–now one, now many, now several, now none–men and women and children–all different, all beautiful.
He drew nearer to the rainbow. It vanished. He started back a step in dismay. It was there again, as beautiful as ever. So he contented himself with standing as near it as he might, and watching the forms that ascended the glorious colors towards the unknown height of the arch, which did not end abruptly but faded away in the blue air, so gradually that he could not say where it ceased.
When the thought of the golden key returned, the boy very wisely proceeded to mark out in his mind the space covered by the foundation of the rainbow, in order that he might know where to search, should the rainbow disappear. It was based chiefly upon a bed of moss.
Meantime it had grown quite dark in the wood. The rainbow alone was visible by its own light. But the moment the moon rose the rainbow vanished. Nor could any change of place restore the vision to the boy’s eyes. So he threw himself down upon the mossy bed, to wait till the sunlight would give him a chance of finding the key. There he fell fast asleep.
When he woke in the morning the sun was looking straight into his eyes. He turned away from it, and the same moment saw a brilliant little thing lying on the moss within a foot of his face. It was the golden key. The pipe of it was of plain gold, as bright as gold could be. The handle was curiously wrought and set with sapphires. In a terror of delight he put out his hand and took it, and had it.
He lay for a while, turning it over and over, and feeding his eyes upon its beauty. Then he jumped to his feet, remembering that the pretty thing was of no use to him yet. Where was the lock to which the key belonged? It must be somewhere, for how could anybody be so silly as make a key for which there was no lock? Where should he go to look for it? He gazed about him, up into the air, down to the earth, but saw no keyhole in the clouds, in the grass, or in the trees.
Just as he began to grow disconsolate, however, he saw something glimmering in the wood. It was a mere glimmer that he saw, but he took it for a glimmer of rainbow, and went towards it.–And now I will go back to the borders of the forest.
Not far from the house where the boy had lived, there was another house, the owner of which was a merchant, who was much away from home. He had lost his wife some years before, and had only one child, a little girl, whom he left to the charge of two servants, who were very idle and careless. So she was neglected and left untidy, and was sometimes ill-used besides.
Now it is well known that the little creatures commonly known as fairies, though there are many different kinds of fairies in Fairyland, have an exceeding dislike to untidiness. Indeed, they are quite spiteful to slovenly people. Being used to all the lovely ways of the trees and flowers, and to the neatness of the birds and all woodland creatures, it makes them feel miserable, even in their deep woods and on their grassy carpets, to think that within the same moonlight lies a dirty, uncomfortable, slovenly house. And this makes them angry with the people that live in it, and they would gladly drive them out of the world if they could. They want the whole earth nice and clean. So they pinch the maids black and blue and play them all manner of uncomfortable tricks.
But this house was quite a shame, and the fairies in the forest could not endure it. They tried everything on the maids without effect, and at last resolved upon making a clean riddance, beginning with the child. They ought to have known that it was not her fault, but they have little principle and much mischief in them, and they thought that if they got rid of her the maids would be sure to be turned away.
So one evening, the poor little girl having been put to bed early, before the sun was down, the servants went off to the village, locking the door behind them. The child did not know she was alone, and lay contentedly looking out of her window towards the forest, of which, however, she could not see much, because of the ivy and other creeping plants which had straggled across her window. All at once she saw an ape making faces at her out of the mirror, and the heads carved upon a great old wardrobe grinning fearfully. Then two old spider-legged chairs came forward into the middle of the room, and began to dance a queer, old-fashioned dance. This set her laughing and she forgot the ape and the grinning heads. So the fairies saw they had made a mistake, and sent the chairs back to their places. But they knew that she had been reading the story of Silverhair all day. So the next moment she heard the voices of the three bears upon the stair, big voice, middle voice, and little voice, and she heard their soft, heavy tread, as if they had stockings over their boots, coming nearer and nearer to the door of her room, till she could bear it no longer. She did just as Silverhair did, and as the fairies wanted her to do; she darted to the window, pulled it open, got upon the ivy, and so scrambled to the ground. She then fled to the forest as fast as she could run.
Now, although she did not know it, this was the very best way she could have gone; for nothing is ever so mischievous in its own place as it is out of it; and, besides, these mischievous creatures were only the children of Fairyland, as it were, and there are many other beings there as well; and if a wanderer gets in among them, the good ones will always help him more than the evil ones will be able to hurt him.
The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colors, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.
After running a long way, and as the last of the light was disappearing, she passed under a tree with drooping branches. It dropped its branches to the ground all about her, and caught her as in a trap. She struggled to get out, but the branches pressed her closer and closer to the trunk. She was in great terror and distress, when the air-fish, swimming into the thicket of branches, began tearing them with its beak. They loosened their hold at once, and the creature went on attacking them, till at length they let the child go. Then the air-fish came from behind her, and swam on in front, glittering and sparkling all lovely colors; and she followed.
It led her gently along till all at once it swam in at a cottage door. The child followed still. There was a bright fire in the middle of the floor, upon which stood a pot without a lid, full of water that boiled and bubbled furiously. The air-fish swam straight to the pot and into the boiling water, where it lay quiet. A beautiful woman rose from the opposite side of the fire and came to meet the girl. She took her up in her arms, and said,–
“Ah, you are come at last! I have been looking for you a long time.”
She sat down with her on her lap, and there the girl sat staring at her. She had never seen anything so beautiful. She was tall and strong, with white arms and neck, and a delicate flush on her face. The child could not tell what was the color of her hair, but could not help thinking it had a tinge of dark green. She had not one ornament upon her, but she looked as if she had just put off quantities of diamonds and emeralds. Yet here she was in the simplest, poorest little cottage, where she was evidently at home. She was dressed in shining green.
The girl looked at the lady, and the lady looked at the girl.
“What is your name?” asked the lady.
“The servants always called me Tangle.”
“Ah, that was because your hair was so untidy. But that was their fault, the naughty women! Still it is a pretty name, and I will call you Tangle too. You must not mind my asking you questions, for you may ask me the same questions, every one of them, and any others that you like. How old are you?”
“Ten,” answered Tangle.
“You don’t look like it,” said the lady.
“How old are you. please?” returned Tangle.
“Thousands of years old,’ answered the lady.
“You don’t look like it,” said Tangle.
“Don’t I? I think I do. Don’t you see how beautiful I am!”
And her great blue eyes looked down on the little Tangle, as if all the stars in the sky were melted in them to make their brightness.
“Ah! but,” said Tangle, “when people live long they grow old. At least I always thought so.”
“I have no time to grow old,” said the lady. “I am too busy for that. It is very idle to grow old – but I cannot have my little girl so untidy. Do you know I can’t find a clean spot on your face to kiss!”
“Perhaps,” suggested Tangle, feeling ashamed, but not too much so to say a word for herself,–“perhaps that is because the tree made me cry so.”
“My poor darling!” said the lady, looking now as if the moon were melted in her eyes, and kissing her little face, dirty as it was, “the naughty tree must suffer for making a girl cry.”
“And what is your name, please?” asked Tangle.
“Grandmother,” answered the lady.
“Is it really?”
“Yes, indeed. I never tell stories, even in fun.”
“How good of you!”
“I couldn’t if I tried. It would come true if I said it, and then I should be punished enough.” And she smiled like the sun through a summer shower.
“But now,” she went on, “I must get you washed and dressed, and then we shall have some supper.”
“Oh! I had supper long ago,” said Tangle.
“Yes, indeed you had,” answered the lady, “three years ago. You don’t know that it is three years since you ran away from the bears. You are thirteen and more now.”
Tangle could only stare. She felt quite sure it was true.
“You will not be afraid of anything I do with you–will you?” said the lady.
“I will try very hard not to be; but I can’t be certain, you know,” replied Tangle.
“I like your saying so, and I shall be quite satisfied,” answered the lady.
She took off the girl’s night-gown, rose with her in her arms, and going to the wall of the cottage, opened a door. Then Tangle saw a deep tank, the sides of which were filled with green plants, which had flowers of all colors. There was a roof over it like the roof of the cottage. It was filled with beautiful clear water, in which swam a multitude of such fishes as the one that had led her to the cottage. It was the light their colors gave that showed the place in which they were.
The lady spoke some words Tangle could not understand, and threw her into the tank.
The fishes came crowding about her. Two or three of them got under her head and kept it up. The rest of them rubbed themselves all over her, and with their wet feathers washed her quite clean. Then the lady, who had been looking on all the time, spoke again; whereupon some thirty or forty of the fishes rose out of the water underneath Tangle, and so bore her up to the arms the lady held out to take her. She carried her back to the fire, and, having dried her well, opened a chest, and taking out the finest linen garments, smelling of grass and lavender, put them upon her, and over all a green dress, just like her own, shining like hers, and soft like hers, and going into just such lovely folds from the waist, where it was tied with a brown cord, to her bare feet.
“Won’t you give me a pair of shoes too, Grandmother?” said Tangle.
“No, my dear; no shoes. Look here. I wear no shoes.”
So saying she lifted her dress a little, and there were the loveliest white feet, but no shoes. Then Tangle was content to go without shoes too. And the lady sat down with her again, and combed her hair, and brushed it, and then left it to dry while she got the supper.
First she got bread out of one hole in the wall; then milk out of another; then several kinds of fruit out a third; and then she went to the pot on the fire, and took out the fish, now nicely cooked, and, as soon as she had pulled off its feathered skin, ready to be eaten.
“But,” exclaimed Tangle. And she stared at the fish, and could say no more.
“I know what you mean,” returned the lady. “You do not like to eat the messenger that brought you home. But it is the kindest return you can make. The creature was afraid to go until it saw me put the pot on, and heard me promise it should be boiled the moment it returned with you. Then it darted out of the door at once. You saw it go into the pot of itself the moment it entered, did you not?”
“I did,” answered Tangle, “and I thought it very strange; but then I saw you, and forgot all about the fish.”
“In Fairyland,” resumed the lady, as they sat down to the table, “the ambition of the animals is to be eaten by the people; for that is their highest end in that condition. But they are not therefore destroyed. Out of that pot comes something more than the dead fish, you will see.”
Tangle now remarked that the lid was on the pot. But the lady took no further notice of it till they had eaten the fish, which Tangle found nicer than any fish she had ever tasted before. It was as white as snow, and as delicate as cream. And the moment she had swallowed a mouthful of it, a change she could not describe began to take place in her. She heard a murmuring all about her, which became more and more articulate, and at length, as she went on eating, grew intelligible. By the time she had finished her share, the sounds of all the animals in the forest came crowding through the door to her ears; for the door still stood wide open, though it was pitch-dark outside; and they were no longer sounds only; they were speech, and speech that she could understand. She could tell what the insects in the cottage were saying to each other too. She had even a suspicion that the trees and flowers all about the cottage were holding midnight communications with each other; but what they said she could not hear.
As soon as the fish was eaten, the lady went to the fire and took the lid off the pot. A lovely little creature in human shape, with large white wings, rose out of it, and flew round and round the roof of the cottage; then dropped, fluttering, and nestled in the lap of the lady. She spoke to it some strange words, carried it to the door, and threw it out into the darkness. Tangle heard the flapping of its wings die away in the distance.
“Now have we done the fish any harm?” she said, returning.
“No,” answered Tangle, “I do not think we have. I should not mind eating one every day.”
“They must wait their time, like you and me too, my little Tangle.”
And she smiled a smile which the sadness in it made more lovely.
“But,” she continued, “I think we may have one for supper to-morrow.
So saying she went to the door of the tank, and spoke; and now Tangle understood her perfectly.
“I want one of you.” she said, “the wisest.”
Thereupon the fishes got together in the middle of the tank, with their heads forming a circle above the water, and their tails a larger circle beneath it. They were holding a council, in which their relative wisdom should be determined. At length one of them flew up into the lady’s hand, looking lively and ready.
“You know where the rainbow stands?” she asked.
“Yes, mother, quite well,” answered the fish.
“Bring home a young man you will find there, who does not know where to go.”
The fish was out of the door in a moment. Then the lady told Tangle it was time to go to bed; and, opening another door in the side of the cottage, showed her a little arbor, cool and green, with a bed of purple heath growing in it, upon which she threw a large wrapper made of the feathered skins of the wise fishes, shining gorgeous in the firelight. Tangle was soon lost in the strangest, loveliest dreams. And the beautiful lady was in every one of her dreams.
In the morning she woke to the rustling of leaves over her head, and the sound of running water. But, to her surprise, she could find no door–nothing but the moss grown wall of the cottage. So she crept through an opening in the arbour, and stood in the forest. Then she bathed in a stream that ran merrily through the trees, and felt happier; for having once been in her grandmother’s pond, she must be clean and tidy ever after; and, having put on her green dress, felt like a lady.
She spent that day in the wood, listening to the birds and beasts and creeping things. She understood all that they said, though she could not repeat a word of it; and every kind had a different language, while there was a common though more limited understanding between all the inhabitants of the forest. She saw nothing of the beautiful lady, but she felt that she was near her all the time; and she took care not to go out of sight of the cottage. It was round, like a snow-hut or a wigwam; and she could see neither door nor window in it. The fact was, it had no windows; and though it was full of doors, they all opened from the inside, and could not even be seen from the outside.
She was standing at the foot of a tree in the twilight, listening to a quarrel between a mole and a squirrel, in which the mole told the squirrel that the tail was the best of him, and the squirrel called the mole Spade-fists, when, the darkness having deepened around her, she became aware of something shining in her face, and looking round, saw that the door of the cottage was open, and the red light of the fire flowing from it like a river through the darkness. She left Mole and Squirrel to settle matters as they might, and darted off to the cottage. Entering, she found the pot boiling on the fire, and the grand, lovely lady sitting on the other side of it.
“I’ve been watching you all day,” said the lady. “You shall have something to eat by-and-by, but we must wait till our supper comes home.”
She took Tangle on her knee, and began to sing to her–such songs as made her wish she could listen to them for ever. But at length in rushed the shining fish, and snuggled down in the pot. It was followed by a youth who had outgrown his worn garments. His face was ruddy with health, and in his hand he carried a little jewel, which sparkled in the firelight.
The first words the lady said were, “What is that in your hand, Mossy?”
Now Mossy was the name his companions had given him, because he had a favorite stone covered with moss, on which he used to sit whole days reading; and they said the moss had begun to grow upon him too.
Mossy held out his hand. The moment the lady saw that it was the golden key, she rose from her chair, kissed Mossy on the forehead, made him sit down on her seat, and stood before him like a servant. Mossy could not bear this, and rose at once. But the lady begged him, with tears in her beautiful eyes, to sit, and let her wait on him.
“But you are a great, splendid, beautiful lady,” said Mossy.
“Yes, I am. But I work all day long–that is my pleasure; and you will have to leave me so soon!”
“How do you know that, if you please, madam?” asked Mossy.
“Because you have got the golden key.”
“But I don’t know what it is for. I can’t find the keyhole. Will you tell me what to do?”
“You must look for the keyhole. That is your work. I cannot help you. I can only tell you that if you look for it you will find it.”
“What kind of box will it open? What is there inside?”
“I do not know. I dream about it, but I know nothing.”
“Must I go at once?”
“You may stop here tonight, and have some of my supper. But you must go in the morning. All I can do for you is to give you clothes. Here is a girl called Tangle, whom you must take with you.”
“That will be nice,” said Mossy.
“No, no!” said Tangle. “I don’t want to leave you, please, grandmother.”
“You must go with him, Tangle. I am sorry to lose you, but it will the best thing for you. Even the fishes, you see, have to go into the pot, and then out into the dark. If you fall in with the Old Man of the Sea, mind you ask him whether he has not got some more fishes ready for me. My tank is getting thin.”
So saying, she took the fish from the pot, and put the lid on as before. They sat down and ate the fish, and then the winged creature rose from the pot, circled the roof, and settled on the lady’s lap. She talked to it, carried it to the door, and threw it out into the dark. They heard the flap of its wings die away in the distance.
The lady then showed Mossy into just such another chamber as that of Tangle; and in the morning he found a suit of clothes laid beside him. He looked very handsome in them. But the wearer of Grandmother’s clothes never thinks about how he or she looks, but thinks always how handsome other people are.
Tangle was very unwilling to go.
“Why should I leave you? I don’t know the young man,” she said to the lady.
“I am never allowed to keep my children long. You need not go with him except you please, but you must go some day; and I should like you to go with him, for he has the golden key. No girl need be afraid to go with a youth that has the golden key. You will take care of her, Mossy, will you not?”
“That I will,” said Mossy.
And Tangle cast a glance at him, and thought she should like to go with him.
“And,” said the lady, “If you should lose each other as you go through the – the – I never can remember the name of that country; do not be afraid, but go on and on.”
She kissed Tangle on the mouth and Mossy on the forehead, led them to the door, and waved her hand eastward. Mossy and Tangle took each other’s hand and walked away into the depth of the forest. In his right hand Mossy held the golden key.
They wandered thus a long way, with endless amusement from the talk of the animals. They soon learned enough of their language to ask them necessary questions. The squirrels were always friendly, and gave them nuts out of their own hoards; but the bees were selfish and rude, justifying themselves on the ground that Tangle and Mossy were not subjects of their queen, and charity must begin at home, though indeed they had not one drone in their poorhouse at the time. Even the blinking moles would fetch them an earth-nut or a truffle now and then, talking as if their mouths, as well as their eyes and ears, were full of cotton wool, or their own velvety fur. By the time they got out of the forest they were very fond of each other, and Tangle was not in the least sorry that her grandmother had sent her away with Mossy.
At length the trees grew smaller, and stood farther apart, and the ground began to rise, and it got more and more steep, till the trees were all left behind, and the two were climbing a narrow path with rocks on each side. Suddenly they came upon a rude doorway, by which they entered a narrow gallery cut in the rock. It grew darker and darker, till it was pitch dark, and they had to feel their way. At length the light began to return, and at last they came out upon a narrow path on the face of a lofty precipice. This path went winding down the rock to a wide plain, circular in shape, and surrounded on all sides by mountains. Those opposite to them were a great way off, and towered to an awful height, shooting up sharp, blue, ice-enameled pinnacles. An utter silence reigned where they stood. Not even the sound of water reached them.
Looking down, they could not tell whether the valley below was a grassy plain or a great still lake. They had never seen any place look like it. The way to it was difficult and dangerous, but down the narrow path they went, and reached the bottom in safety. They found it composed of smooth, light-colored sandstone, undulating in parts, but mostly level. It was no wonder to them now that they had not been able to tell what it was, for this surface was everywhere crowded with shadows. It was a sea of shadows. The mass was chiefly made up of the shadows of leaves innumerable, of all lovely and imaginative forms, waving to and fro, floating and quivering in the breath of a breeze whose motion was unfelt, whose sound was unheard. No forests clothed the mountain-sides, no trees were anywhere to be seen, and yet the shadows of the leaves, branches, and stems of all various trees covered the valley as far as their eyes could reach. They soon spied the shadows of flowers mingled with those of the leaves, and now and then the shadow of a bird with open beak, and throat distended with song. At times would appear the forms of strange, graceful creatures, running up and down the shadow-boles and along the branches, to disappear in the wind-tossed foliage. As they walked they waded knee-deep in the lovely lake. For the shadows were not merely lying on the surface of the ground, but heaped up above it like substantial forms of darkness, as if they had been cast upon a thousand different planes of the air. Tangle and Mossy often lifted their heads and gazed upwards to descry whence the shadows came; but they could see nothing more than a bright mist spread above them, higher than the tops of the mountains, which stood clear against it. No forests, no leaves, no birds were visible.
After a while, they reached more open spaces, where the shadows were thinner; and came even to portions over which shadows only flitted, leaving them clear for such as might follow. Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite shadow group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes they seemed lovers that passed linked arm in arm, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers in loving contest, sometimes sisters entwined in gracefullest community of complex form. Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.
About the middle of the plain they sat down to rest in the heart of a heap of shadows. After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.
“We must find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.
“We must, dear Mossy,” responded Tangle. “What if your golden key should be the key to it?”
“Ah! That would be grand,” returned Mossy.
–“But we must rest here for a little, and then we shall be able to cross the plain before night.”
So he lay down on the ground, and about him on every side, and over his head, was the constant play of the wonderful shadows. He could look through them, and see the one behind the other, till they mixed in a mass of darkness. Tangle, too, lay admiring, and wondering, and longing after the country whence the shadows came. When they were rested they rose and pursued their journey.
How long they were in crossing this plain I cannot tell; but before night Mossy’s hair was streaked with grey, and Tangle had got wrinkles on her forehead.
As evening drew on, the shadows fell deeper and rose higher. At length they reached a place where they rose above their heads, and made all dark around them. Then they took hold of each other’s hand, and walked on in silence and in some dismay. They felt the gathering darkness, and something strangely solemn besides, and the beauty of the shadows ceased to delight them. All at once Tangle found that she had not a hold of Mossy’s hand, though when she lost it she could not tell.
“Mossy, Mossy!” she cried aloud in terror.
But no Mossy replied.
A moment after, the shadows sank to her feet, and down under her feet, and the mountains rose before her. She turned towards the gloomy region she had left, and called once more upon Mossy. There the gloom lay tossing and heaving, a dark stormy, foamless sea of shadows, but no Mossy rose out of it, or came climbing up the hill on which she stood. She threw herself down and wept in despair.
Suddenly she remembered that the beautiful lady had told them, if they lost each other in a country of which she could not remember the name, they were not to be afraid, but to go straight on.
“And besides,” she said to herself, “Mossy has the golden key, and so no harm will come to him, I do believe.”
She rose from the ground, and went on.
Before long she arrived at a precipice, in the face of which a stair was cut. When she had ascended halfway, the stair ceased, and the path led straight into the mountain. She was afraid to enter, and turning again towards the stair, grew giddy at sight of the depth beneath her, and was forced to throw herself down in the mouth of the cave.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a beautiful little creature with wings standing beside her, waiting.
“I know you,” said Tangle. “You are my fish.”
“Yes. But I am a fish no longer. I am an aëranth now.”
“What is that?” asked Tangle.
“What you see I am,” answered the shape. “And I am come to lead you through the mountain.”
“Oh! thank you, dear fish–aëranth, I mean,” returned Tangle, rising.
Thereupon the aëranth took to his wings, and flew on through the long narrow passage, reminding Tangle very much of the way he had swum on before her when he was a fish. And the moment his white wings moved, they began to throw off a continuous shower of sparks of all colors, which lighted up the passage before them. All at once he vanished, and Tangle heard a low, sweet sound, quite different from the rush and crackle of his wings. Before her was an open arch, and through it came light, mixed with the sound of sea-waves.
She hurried out, and fell, tired and happy, upon the yellow sand of the shore. There she lay, half asleep with weariness and rest, listening to the low plash and retreat of the tiny waves, which seemed ever enticing the land to leave off being land, and become sea. And as she lay, her eyes were fixed upon the foot of a great rainbow standing far away against the sky on the other side of the sea. At length she fell fast asleep.
When she awoke, she saw an old man with long white hair down to his shoulders, leaning upon a stick covered with green buds, and so bending over her.
“What do you want here, beautiful woman?” he said.
“Am I beautiful? I am so glad!” answered Tangle, rising. “My grandmother is beautiful.”
“Yes. But what do you want?” he repeated, kindly.
“I think I want you. Are not you the Old Man of the Sea?”
“Then grandmother says, have you any more fishes ready for her?”
“We will go and see, my dear,” answered the old man, speaking yet more kindly than before. “And I can do some thing for you, can I not?”
“Yes–show me the way up to the country from which the shadows fall,” said Tangle. For there she hoped to find Mossy again.
“Ah! indeed, that would be worth doing,” said the old man. “But I cannot, for I do not know the way myself. But I will send you to the Old Man of the Earth. Perhaps he can tell you. He is much older than I am.”
Leaning on his staff, he conducted her along the shore to a steep rock that looked like a petrified ship turned upside down. The door of it was the rudder of a great vessel, ages ago at the bottom of the sea. Immediately within the door was a stair in the rock, down which the old man went, and Tangle followed. At the bottom, the old man had his house, and there he lived.
As soon as she entered it, Tangle heard a strange noise, unlike anything she had ever heard before. She soon found that it was the fishes talking. She tried to understand what they said; but their speech was so old-fashioned, and rude, and undefined, that she could not make much of it.
“I will go and see about those fishes for my daughter,” said the Old Man of the Sea.
And moving a slide in the wall of his house, he first looked out, and then tapped upon a thick piece of crystal that filled the round opening. Tangle came up behind him, and peeping through the window into the heart of the great deep green ocean, saw the most curious creatures, some very ugly, all very odd, and with especially queer mouths, swimming about everywhere, above and below, but all coming towards the window in answer to the tap of the Old Man of the Sea. Only a few could get their mouths against the glass; but those who were floating miles away yet turned their heads towards it. The Old Man looked through the whole flock carefully for some minutes, and then turning to Tangle, said,–
“I am sorry I have not got one ready yet. I want more time than she does. But I will send some as soon as I can.”
He then shut the slide.
Presently a great noise arose in the sea. The old man opened the slide again, and tapped on the glass, whereupon the fishes were all as still as sleep.
“They were only talking about you,” he said. “And they do speak such nonsense!–Tomorrow,” he continued, “I must show you the way to the Old Man of the Earth. He lives a long way from here.”
“Do let me go at once,” said Tangle.
“No. That is not possible. You must come this way first.”
He led her to a hole in the wall, which she had not observed before. It was covered with the green leaves and white blossoms of a creeping plant.
“Only white-blossoming plants can grow under the sea,” said the old man. “In there you will find a bath, in which you must lie till I call you.”
Tangle went in, and found a smaller room or cave, in the further corner of which was a great basin hollowed out of a rock, and half full of the clearest sea-water. Little streams were constantly running into it from cracks in the wall of the cavern. It was polished quite smooth inside, and had a carpet of yellow sand in the bottom of it. Large green leaves and white flowers of various plants crowded up and over it, draping and covering it almost entirely.
No sooner was she undressed and lying in the bath, than she began to feel as if the water were sinking into her, and she was receiving all the good of sleep without undergoing its forgetfulness. She felt the good coming all the time. And she grew happier and more hopeful than she had been since she lost Mossy. But she could not help thinking how very sad it was for a poor old man to live there all alone, and have to take care of a whole seaful of stupid and riotous fishes.
After about an hour, as she thought, she heard his voice calling her, and rose out of the bath. All the fatigue and aching of her long journey had vanished. She was as whole, and strong, and well as if she had slept for seven days.
Returning to the opening that led into the other part of the house, she started back with amazement, for through it she saw the form of a grand man, with a majestic and beautiful face, waiting for her.
“Come,” he said; “I see you are ready.”
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 marvelous 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 race 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 marvelous 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 comer of the cave, a little naked child, sitting on the moss. He was playing with balls of various colors 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 colors, 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 colored 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 center. 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 send 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 an other archway, she found herself in a 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 with out looking back at the marvelous 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 seashore. 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 to undress, and laid him in the bath. And he saw that one of his hands Mossy did not open.
“What have you got 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.”
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 climbed 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 half-way 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 grandmother’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 moon light, for it gleamed through those seven pillars in the middle, and filled the place with all colors. 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 color 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.
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many of George MacDonald’s writings were stories for children, we felt it appropriate to include at least one such story.
GOLDEN KEY, THE [George MacDonald] ~ BOOK 1