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The Threefold Quest

by
18 December 2020

A story by Evelyn Underhill

KING MELCHIOR walked the hanging gardens that terraced his palace walls. He was very lonely, old, and tired. Desire still lived in him, though its inheritor despair had long been born. He looked out upon the empty desert in which his city was set, and wished for death, for there alone he hoped to find reality. He was King of the Spirit of Man.

He walked the terrace with a certain air of impatience: for midnight was past, and he awaited the rising of the new star which, as he remembered with sardonic pleasure, had upset the calculations of the court astrologer. It shone with a peculiar splendour, and Melchior, who embellished a taste for science with some of the sentiments of an aesthete, felt himself drawn towards it with a rapidly increasing affection.

Its light fell upon a patch of sand, very far away; and it seemed to the king that this spot then became a focus of infinite peace and satisfaction. He had suspected of late that the walls of his comfortable city were barriers, which kept him from this radiant emptiness; where, as he was sure, old age and loneliness would no longer bear the disheartening significance that they had at home, and the profitless wisdom which had made his court a celebrated centre of learning would at least meet the Reality which it sought.

Because he could not bear the long and solitary watch, and the dark, unfriendly sky, he left his terraced garden, and went through sleeping streets to the temple that was in the heart of the town.

There an ever-living lamp burned before an empty shrine; for the king had set up many gods only to dethrone them, and the flame and the temple waited a Divine Guest. The place was very dreary, and the dusty symbols which his priests had erected were singularly meaningless. It increased his latent longing for great and empty spaces: for the desert, that was less desolate than this admirably appointed sanctuary, and for that object of a limitless adoration which his lonely kingdom could not provide.

He took a censer and lit the coals within it by the flame of the ever-living lamp. The perfume and smoke ascended, wrapped him round, shut him from the world; so that he forgot his kingship and the careful dignities of his little court, and became filled with the ardours of some unknown, incredible quest.

He left the temple, and saw the star that he longed for. It had risen over the desert whilst he lingered by the empty shrine. lt called to him insistently; and a voice within answered the call. It drew him to a little postern in the walls of his city; and so he left his sleeping kingdom, abruptly almost, and without deliberate intention, and descended by steep paths to the wilderness.

As he walked he swung the heavy censer, in long and rhythmic beats. The burning perfume filled the air with strange and elusive desires, dim suggestions of ineffable peace. The hot coals cast a light on his path. slowly, for he was very old, and had lost the habit of solitary pilgrimage.

 

THE star stood in mid-heaven. Melchior could no longer see the patch of sand that it lit; but its pale and steady fire drew him, as a lamp set in a window draws the lover across the dark and menacing desert towards some adorable and irresistible event. Because his face was set towards it, and all practical things were left behind, some of the ardours of the lover awoke in him — joy, desire, and unrest. He had forgotten his kingless city on the hill, and the strange folly of this undertaking. He looked with infinite satisfaction on the silent wastes before him, glad to know himself alone.

It was therefore with considerable annoyance that he presently perceived a patch of darkness, which crawled over the face of the desert as clouds crawl over the sky. His solitude was over. There were other wayfarers abroad, fellow-travellers, for the dark patch followed the star; and soon from another quarter came another moving shadow that would join it, and within it the moving lights of many lanterns and the glitter of polished arms. The wilderness, which he had loved for its desolation, teemed with life.

King Melchior drew near to the first company, and saw in its midst a great prince surrounded by his escort; tall and dark, the lord of mighty empires. He recognised his neighbour, Balthasar, the King of the Will of Man.

When they were come near enough to hear each other’s voice, Balthasar cried, “My cousin, what do you seek?”

Melchior answered, “I seek an escape from life, for it is illusion and weariness. What do you seek, cousin?”

Balthasar replied, “I seek this star, for I am assured that it ofters an escape from death, which threatens to destroy me, and with me all my power and joy.”

Melchior said, “You believe that you will die? I congratulate you on your good fortune.”

Then he turned, and saw that the third wayfarer had joined them: a pretty youth in fair clothing, who came surrounded by his camels, hounds and horses, his dancing girls and boys. He had great wealth, but little dominion, for he was Caspar, the King of Man’s Body, and Caesar’s feudatory. Melchior said to him with great courtesy, “And what, cousin, do you seek?”

Caspar replied, “Life brings pain, and death takes joy away. I seek in this star the satisfaction of perfect love eternally renewed.”

Then, because their road was the same, though the end of their adventure clearly different, they went on together, and so continued many days; a strange trio, set on a threefold quest. Melchior, the king of one lonely stronghold; Balthasar, who ruled great countries; Caspar, the royal slave. All were stricken with a vague and fevered craving, a dim knowledge of something that they must seek.

 

AND after long while the star led them to the confines of the desert, and they saw a great road which ran away to the horizon, with cornfields and thick woods on either hand. Far off, the black shafts of many mines and factories, the smoke and gloom of human habitations, lay dark in the curve of a hollow valley, and above them very great and awful hills. With the coming of the dawn the star had faded from the sky. There was nothing to guide them in this world.

The King of the Will looked up at the veiled summits of the mountains. “There”, he said, “is the ending of our pilgrimage; for those hidden peaks must dominate the world. There I shall pay my tribute, and be at peace.”

So they went all day upon the road that led to the hills: past the pleasant woods, and past the fields of hay and green corn. The crested grasses waved in the breeze, offering a scented resting-place. Small enticing paths wandered away to the shaded and flowery forest. Caspar looked at them with regret. The mountains were austere and terrible; as the day fell, they took on a peculiar majesty. He feared them; but Balthasar marched with eagerness and determination, as if to the conquest of a desirable kingdom.

Melchior went alone, swinging the smoking censer which gave to his journey the air of some secret and mystical rite. The Kings of the Will and the Body smiled at his curious fervour. They perceived him to be an eccentric and possibly senile person, who would have fared ill without their protection on the road.

But when night was come, and they were at the foot of the hills, Balthasar saw with disappointment that the star had turned aside. It shone over the smoky town in the curve of the valley, and was reflected in a thousand twinkling lights. Caspar said, “It is well! Warmth, joy, and the fulfilment of desire are in the lowlands. There I shall break my jars of myrrh and precious ointment, for the honouring of perfect beauty and the adornment of undying love.”

So they followed the star; and it brought them, whilst the night was still dark, to the city, where furnace fires blazed, and hammers rang incessantly upon anvils, and a pall of smoke shut out the sky.

The aspect of the place was not encouraging. But they went on, for though its precincts were unlit, the burning coals in Melchior’s censer cast a light on the muddy pathway; and presently they were caught in a network of mean streets and dingy tenements, ill-suited to the tastes of royal travellers.

Caspar and Balthasar turned this way and that, to find some decent road by which their camels and men-at-arms could pass. Thus, becoming entangled in the narrow courts and alleys, they soon lost one another; and when dawn came, each, looking for his companions, found himself alone amongst an inquisitive and ill-mannered population, which gave more ridicule than reverence to this pilgrimage of strange kings who had come down many worlds and countless centuries on a vague and unpractical quest.

 

NOW, about mid-day the King of the Spirit, having wandered for many hours through the dreary by-ways of a prosperous manufacturing town, came out with a great sense of thankfulness on to the waste ground on the far side of the city.

There he found by the roadside the King of the Will, who sat alone under the shadow of a great block of dwelling which was the last outpost of the poorer quarters. There were draggled women and screaming children all about him. He seemed very tired; his torn robes were soiled by the refuse of the streets.

He looked at King Melchior, and perceiving that he no longer carried his censer said, “What has happened to you, my cousin, and why did you forsake the quest? I have looked for you all day.”

Melchior answered, “I followed the star.”

Balthasar said, “That cannot be, for I went with it all night in solitude; and it brought me very early in the morning to the greatest king in all the world, even he who rules over this town.”

Melchior replied, “Yet all night I saw it go before me, shining very faintly through the smoke; and it brought me at last to the Ineffable Mystery, which is without doubt the true end of this quest. For after many weary hours, it stayed before a house in a wide street, where there was great business of buying and selling, and a concourse of people going to and fro with must jostling and noise.

“I knocked, and a man came to the door and took me in; and I saw a table set out with white and shining Bread, and a Cup that was filled with wine like fire. And many poor folk stood round the table, that they might be nourished; and the man of the house gave freely to all. And each, as he ate that Bread and drank of the Cup, left all his pain and unrest, which are but illusion, and opened his eyes on reality and peace.

“Then I knew that my quest was accomplished, and I knelt, and adored, and received; and so I stayed till the fire in my censer was spent. And after that I came out of the house, the star moved from the door and went before me; and it brought me to this place, whence no doubt I shall return to my kingdom in due time.”

Balthasar laughed, and said, “You were deceived, cousin. I too followed the star, and some of my men rode with me. lt brought us by sorry places, and past the tavern that you speak of; a foul place it seemed.

“The man that dwells there came out, and bade us enter. He is a charitable fellow, who nourishes poor travellers with broken victuals. He would have given us a meal of his rye-bread and sour wine; but my men mocked at such entertainment, for we had better things in our saddle-bags. So I rode on, and the star went before me, and when day broke it brought me to an open place in the midst of the city.

“There I saw a strange sight indeed, and glorious; even a King, who ruled from a Tree. He was poor and mean of aspect, without royal robes or any sign of sovereignty. His limbs were cruelly maimed. Yet he was set high above the earth, that all might do him homage, and none disputed his dignity. When I came near, I saw that he was dead; but none the less he continued his reign.

“Then I said, ‘This is the King of kings whom I seek, for his rule has triumphed over the grave.’ And I left my tribute of gold at the foot of the Tree. And when I had so done, the star went on, and brought me out of the town.”

 

WHILST they spoke together, they saw with great surprise the King of the Body, who came out of the many-storied tenement near which they sat. He was alone and empty-handed. He wept as he walked. The King of the Will said to him with great kindness, “Alas! my poor cousin, you had better have followed the star: for now I perceive that you have lost all and found nought.”

Caspar replied, “Not so. The star has been with me, even to this moment; and it has shown me perfect beauty and eternal love, which is the most piteous sight in all the world.”

Balthasar said, “What! Beauty in this foul dwelling?”

Caspar replied, “By many busy streets and by a poor house of refreshment, where the host offered me coarse food, and by the market-place, where a felon hung stark upon the gallows. And my pages and dancing girls were weary and frightened, and lagged behind, so that at last I lost them all in the tangle of the streets, and found myself alone. And a little after dawn, when the star was very faint and hard to see, it brought me to the door of this tenement.

“I went in, and climbed many stairs. I heard a sound of bitter weeping, that grew louder as I climbed; till I came at last to a little attic, and there I saw a marvellous Child, which lay dead on its mother’s knee. She wept, and her tears fell down on its white body like diamonds upon snow.

“I said to her, ‘Who is this child, and why is he so beautiful? For he is formed like a king’s son.’ She answered, ‘He is the fruit of perfect love. With pain he was born, and with pain he was taken away.’ Then I knew I had found that which I sought, the beauty which is eternally renewed: and I broke my jar of myrrh and anointed that perfect little body for its burial, weeping because I had seen the fulfilment of desire, which is the child of love and pain. And when I had so done, the star moved from that place and brought me here.”

King Melchior smiled, and said, “You have behaved with much condescension. As for me, I dislike the children of the poor. They disturb my meditations.”

Balthasar retorted, “Yet you found the food of poverty strangely sweet.”

Melchior answered, “At least I did not mistake a felon for my king, nor a pauper woman’s grief for perfect love.”

Thus they sat and disputed, and cloaked their very natural anxiety with recriminations; for their servants were lost, and their beasts, and all provisions for the homeward journey, and they found themselves reduced to the condition of any poor pilgrims on the road.

Each believed in his heart that he had achieved the quest, and was eager to return to his kingdom; but without guidance of the star they could not find the way. Each was very sorry for his companions, knowing that they had mistaken the sign and been duped by vulgar deceits.

 

BUT the star did not move. It stood with singular obstinacy above the thatch of a miserable outhouse that was by the wayside, and shone with ever-increasing splendour on the briars and brambles which grew over its door. And whilst they waited, very hungry and disconsolate, a messenger came and stood before them, and said, “Will you not come in?”

They said, “Where would you take us?”

He answered “To that which you seek.”

Each replied quickly, “But I have found!”

The messenger said, “No! for that which you found was Three, but the consummation of the quest is One.”

Then the three kings were full of distress, saying, “Alas! it is too late, for we came on this adventure bearing rich gifts to him whom we sought but now all that we have is spent, and we are empty-handed as the poor. It is not fitting that we should come in.”

The messenger answered, “What gifts did you bring?”

Melchior said, “I bore incense to the God.”

The messenger replied “Its perfume is yet about His feet.”

Balthasar said, “I brought tribute to the King.”

The messenger replied, “At daybreak it was laid before His throne.”

Caspar said, “I brought myrrh to the Man.”

The messenger replied, “Even now it it was poured out upon His limbs.”

And he went before them to the little outhouse on which the star still cast its light. And they were greatly displeased at it, for they were heartily tired of the sight of squalid dwellings, and this was a shelter ill-suited indeed to mighty kings.

 

Nevertheless for very weariness they followed him: and seeing it now to be all grown about with fragrant roses, that shone like living flames by the light of the star, each said in his heart, “Without doubt this is an hallucination produced by excessive fatigue; for we are yet upon the edge of the city, and this place is but an outhouse where drovers coming to market herd their beasts.”

The King of the Spirit was forced to stoop low that he might pass under its lintel; so low, that the briars which grew across it did not touch him at all, only a rose brushed his forehead very softly as he passed. The King of the Will and the King of the Body came after; but because Balthasar stood very tall and stooped not, he was compelled to remove his crown before he could go in, and the briar that hung below the lintel checked Caspar’s hasty entrance, and tore his brow.

But when they were come in, they forgot straightway all their weariness and the miseries and illusions of the way; being seized by the passions of adoration and service and love.

For the beams of the star lit the place with a light that was exceeding sweet and glorious.

And there they found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe.

 

This short story was first published by G. J. Palmer & Sons (proprietors of the Church Times) in their magazine The Treasury, January 1907. The illustrations were early work by F. E. Hiley. The first of Evelyn Underhill’s three novels, The Grey World, had appeared in 1904, as well as five short stories in Horlick’s Magazine, “The Death of a Saint”, “The Ivory Tower”, “Our Lady of the Gate”, “The Mountain Image”, and “A Green Mass”. Her book of Marian legends, The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary: Brought out of divers tongues and newly set forth in English, had been published in 1906. Later in 1907, her second novel, The Lost Word, was published, followed in 1909 by her third and last, The Column of Dust (London). In 1907, she was to marry her Anglican husband, and the Modernist crisis was to break in the Rome: two events that contributed to cementing her allegiance to Anglo-Catholicism rather than the Roman Catholicism towards which she had being attracted during the early 1900s. This story for The Treasury, edited by Canon Anthony C. Deane, reflects the new grounding of her explorations of mysticism in the religion of the incarnation, and precedes the “conversion” experience (after a stay in a Franciscan convent in Southampton in February 1907) which is recorded in her published letters. With her book Mysticism in 1911 began the stream of spiritual writings for which she is best remembered. She died in 1941, aged 65, and is commemorated in the Common Worship calendar on 15 June, the day of her death.

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