The setting sun was so bright upon the water that it dazzled our eyes. We were glad to settle down in the slight shade of a straggling tree, letting its feathery leaves act as a veil for us.
“How still it is,” Janet murmured. “And how shining bright,” I added.
“So still, so bright, so clear,” said our angel, “that it might be the beginning of time itself.” We sat for a while in deep content, and then the angel said: “I am going to tell you a story.” Janet and I exchanged a glad look, and she asked: “Does it begin with ‘Once upon a time’?”
“It begins, ‘Once, when time began,'” said our dear teacher, looking at us to see if we were comfortable (for he knew that if the body rested, the mind worked more actively and surely). “Once, when time began there was a great king who had one son, a fine, handsome prince who was the joy of his father’s heart. All the people expected this prince to become their ruler when he attained his majority (for it was the custom of that land) and so they watched his growth with the warmest interest.
“All the time the young prince was growing he had every advantage in his father’s palace. Heir to the throne and greatly beloved, he was given every honour and privilege. Judge, then, of the people’s astonishment when they heard that the prince had been sent away! None saw him leave. No-one knew the circumstances of his going. All was shrouded in mystery and darkness.”
“At first the people were angry, but the king sent out a proclamation into the land, asking all his subjects to trust him, and saying that if they would have faith in him now, later they would rejoice with him. So the people were content, and returned to their daily tasks.”
“But what of the prince?” I asked, when the angel paused.
“The prince went out alone, disguised as a peasant. He went out in the lonely midnight, but before that he had an interview with his father. It must be confessed that he was amazed, and somewhat in awe of the adventure when his father first proposed it. He, too, loved his father deeply, and besides, he had a beautiful and happy home at the palace at his parent’s side. However, his father said that he must go. He desired greatly that his son should ascend the throne on the attainment of his majority, but first there was something he had to do.”
“‘I give to you this shining lamp,’ said the king. ‘Travel throughout the length and the breadth of the land with it, and if, when you reach your majority, you return with it still untarnished, you shall be crowned king.’
“‘Oh, that is easy! ‘ said the young prince, smiling. ‘I will hide it beneath my cloak and then it will always be bright.’
“Father and son embraced fondly, and then the prince set off bravely, swinging through the outer gates of the palace and onto the dark, stony road beyond.”
“At first, all went well. From time to time the young man drew the lamp forth to look at it, and its brilliance, shining like a sun in the darkness, delighted him. But with the coming of dawn, he grew tired and his eyes were heavy. ‘This bank will make me a downy couch,’ he mused, pausing by a stream, and he rolled up, drawing his cloak more closely about him, and fell asleep.”
“When he awoke, the sun had risen. He lay basking in its warmth for a while, watching the rays dancing on the surface of the stream. Then suddenly, he was wide awake! For just beneath the water he glimpsed his lamp, which had evidently rolled down the bank while he slept. Leaping up, he hastened to retrieve it. He found it had sunk into the mud, and part of its surface was clouded and stained. Swiftly he plunged it into the water, washing it thoroughly, but his hardest rubbing failed to restore its shining. Here and there it glowed still, but the stains spread across the shining, turning the beautiful object into an ugly one.”
“Sadly, the young prince climbed the bank and sat down in his former place. ‘So soon, so soon!’ he mourned. ‘And I thought it would be an easy matter to bring my lamp untarnished to my father. Oh, why was I so careless? A little thought would have made me guard the lamp more securely. What if it had been stolen from me! Even this would have been possible.’ For a long time he sat, holding the stained lamp between his hands, and then a great cry burst from him.”
“‘My father, my father, do not forsake me! I want to return. I most heartily regret my carelessness! ‘and tears brimmed over, raining down on the clouded lamp.”
“When his contrition had been wept over until his eyes were dry again, he could scarcely believe what he saw. The lamp was clean! Once more it shone like the sun on that water, and his heart was filled with gratitude.”
“Did he reach his father with the untarnished lamp in the end?” Janet asked, when the angel had been silent for a while.
“He had many adventures first. Once he was met by a beautiful young girl who induced him to tarry on the way. She lured him with smiles and sweet music, and gradually his protests died. That day he did not journey at all and his father, watching and praying in the palace, knew, and was deeply grieved. While she held his eyes, this beautiful girl reached out for the shining lamp, but ere her fingers closed upon it, the prince became aware of his danger. Grasping his precious burden, he flung away from her, plunging up a rocky hillside (for she blocked his rightful way). When he had almost reached the top, exhausted by his unnecessary climb, his numbed fingers let fall his treasure and the lamp fell into some cactus bushes. Painfully he retrieved it, only to find it deeply scratched.”
“Another time, some young men accosted him and invited him to row with them in their boat. He was very tired, and when he told them his destination they said theirs was an easier and quicker way.”
“‘Rest,’ they invited. ‘There is no need for you to work all the time, nor carry your lamp all the way. Give it into our hands and we will return it when you reach the further bank.'”
“‘Very well,’ said the prince. The young men helped him into the boat, making him comfortable on soft cushions. ‘See, I will hold your lamp while you sleep, and when you awake will return it to you,’ said one.”
“But when the prince awoke the boat was moored and the young men were hurrying away over the marshes, carrying his lamp.”
“Springing up, he gave chase, crying to them to stop, but they only ran the faster. Plunging into the mud, gasping for breath, and with terror in his heart, he continued his chase, and at last overtook them. Even then, his troubles were not over, for he had to wrestle with them for the lamp, and in the process became bruised and cut so that when he finally regained his treasure, both he and the lamp were stained.”
“Did his tears of contrition cleanse the lamp always?” I asked soberly.
“When they really were tears of contrition,” said the Ruby Angel. “Sometimes they were tears of weariness, sometimes of rebellion, sometimes of hurt pride, sometimes of anger. Then, no matter how they flowed over the lamp, all its scratches and stains remained. For a long time he lost heart, and sat about, brooding, while his father, watching and praying unceasingly, yearned over his son. He longed to send out servants from the palace, to seek him, remind him of his mission and help him, but he could not. For then, would the prince be worthy to ascend the throne as ruler?”
“After this time of despair, the young prince began to see everything much more clearly.”
“It is useless for me to remain here,’ he reasoned with himself, ‘for then I shall never reach my father again, nor see the palace that is my home. It is useless to weep tears of anger or hurt pride, or rebellion or weariness, for these will not cleanse my lamp. But how can I weep tears of contrition if I do not feel contrite?'”
“He pondered for a while and then an inspiration came. He decided to think of other princes sent forth on a similar mission. In his mind’s eye he saw them overcoming all temptations and returning at last with an untarnished lamp. In imagination he saw the delight of the father, the jubilant welcome, the tumultuous joy of the people over whom he was to rule. He visualised the fond embrace of the father’s arms and the loving greetings of the mother-and suddenly the truly contrite tears were flowing down, cleansing the lamp from every smallest stain.”
“So the prince continued his way, and now his journey was one of gladness, for, although his lamp sometimes became stained through lack of watchfulness, he was so grieved that the tears of contrition flowed instantly, making his treasure bright again.”
“And at last his journey ended. He was a man, and his lamp was untarnished. He stood at the palace gates. How his heart beat with joy as the servants ran to open them, how swiftly he strode within and how warm was the welcome he received! Kneeling humbly, he delivered the untarnished lamp into his father’s hands, and the countenance of his father-king shone with pride and joy.”
“‘My son, you have returned to me!’ he whispered, and so the father and the son were re-united.”
There was a long silence when the story ended, and then Janet murmured: “I think I understand. But you tell us, dear Angel.”
“My children,” our teacher said solemnly, “when you see the sun, always remember the shining lamp – for this is the symbol of the soul.”