The Hunter's Allegory

by Olive Schreiner (1880)


This Allegory is part of Olive Schreiner's semi-autobiographical novel The Story of an African Farm. The novel itself deals with many issues - feminism, loneliness, belief and non-belief, and the painful loss of faith. Although of uneven quality, the novel is rightly regarded as a classic of English literature, and is highly recommended. (Read Robert Ingersoll's review of this book).


"I think," he said blandly, when the boy had done, "that I partly understand you. It is something after this fashion, is it not?" (He smiled.) "In certain valleys there was a hunter." (He touched the grotesque little figure at the bottom.) "Day by day he went to hunt for wild-fowl in the woods; and it chanced that once he stood on the shores of a large lake. While he stood waiting in the rushes for the coming of the birds, a great shadow fell on him, and in the water he saw a reflection. He looked up to the sky; but the thing was gone. Then a burning desire came over him to see once again that reflection in the water, and all day he watched and waited; but night came and it had not returned. Then he went home with his empty bag, moody and silent. His comrades came questioning about him to know the reason, but he answered them nothing; he sat alone and brooded. Then his friend came to him, and to him he spoke.

"'I have seen today,' he said, 'that which I never saw before--a vast white bird, with silver wings outstretched, sailing in the everlasting blue. And now it is as though a great fire burnt within my breast. It was but a sheen, a shimmer, a reflection in the water; but now I desire nothing more on earth than to hold her.'

"His friend laughed.

"'It was but a beam playing on the water, or the shadow of your own head. Tomorrow you will forget her,' he said.

"But tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow the hunter walked alone. He sought in the forest and in the woods, by the lakes and among the rushes, but he could not find her. He shot no more wild fowl; what were they to him?

"'What ails him?' said his comrades.

"'He is mad,' said one.

"'No; but he is worse,' said another; 'he would see that which none of us have seen, and make himself a wonder.'

"'Come, let us forswear his company,' said all.

"So the hunter walked alone.

"One night, as he wandered in the shade, very heartsore and weeping, an old man stood before him, grander and taller than the sons of men.

"'Who are you?' asked the hunter.

"'I am Wisdom,' answered the old man; 'but some men call me Knowledge. All my life I have grown in these valleys; but no man sees me till he has sorrowed much. The eyes must be washed with tears that are to behold me; and, according as a man has suffered, I speak.'

"And the hunter cried:

"'Oh, you who have lived here so long, tell me, what is that great wild bird I have seen sailing in the blue? They would have me believe she is a dream; the shadow of my own head.'

"The old man smiled.

"'Her name is Truth. He who has once seen her never rests again. Till death he desires her.'

"And the hunter cried:

"'Oh, tell me where I may find her.'

"But the old man said:

"'You have not suffered enough,' and went.

"Then the hunter took from his breast the shuttle of Imagination, and wound on it the thread of his Wishes; and all night he sat and wove a net.

"In the morning he spread the golden net upon the ground, and into it he threw a few grains of credulity, which his father had left him, and which he kept in his breast-pocket. They were like white puff-balls, and when you trod on them a brown dust flew out. Then he sat by to see what would happen. The first that came into the net was a snow-white bird, with dove's eyes, and he sang a beautiful song--'A human-God! a human-God! a human-God!' it sang. The second that came was black and mystical, with dark, lovely eyes, that looked into the depths of your soul, and he sang only this--'Immortality!'

"And the hunter took them both in his arms for he said--

"'They are surely of the beautiful family of Truth.'

"Then came another, green and gold, who sang in a shrill voice, like one crying in the marketplace,--'Reward after Death! Reward after Death!'

"And he said--

"'You are not so fair; but you are fair too,' and he took it.

"And others came, brightly coloured, singing pleasant songs, till all the grains were finished. And the hunter gathered all his birds together, and built a strong iron cage called a new creed, and put all his birds in it.

"Then the people came about dancing and singing.

"'Oh, happy hunter!' they cried. 'Oh, wonderful man! Oh, delightful birds! Oh, lovely songs!'

"No one asked where the birds had come from, nor how they had been caught; but they danced and sang before them. And the hunter too was glad, for he said:

"'Surely Truth is among them. In time she will moult her feathers, and I shall see her snow-white form.'

"But the time passed, and the people sang and danced; but the hunter's heart grew heavy. He crept alone, as of old, to weep; the terrible desire had awakened again in his breast. One day, as he sat alone weeping, it chanced that Wisdom met him. He told the old man what he had done.

"And Wisdom smiled sadly.

"'Many men,' he said, 'have spread that net for Truth; but they have never found her. On the grains of credulity she will not feed; in the net of wishes her feet cannot be held; in the air of these valleys she will not breathe. The birds you have caught are of the brood of Lies. Lovely and beautiful, but still lies; Truth knows them not.'

"And the hunter cried out in bitterness--

"'And must I then sit still, to be devoured of this great burning?'

"And the old man said,

"'Listen, and in that you have suffered much and wept much, I will tell you what I know. He who sets out to search for Truth must leave these valleys of superstition forever, taking with him not one shred that has belonged to them. Alone he must wander down into the Land of Absolute Negation and Denial; he must abide there; he must resist temptation; when the light breaks he must arise and follow it into the country of dry sunshine. The mountains of stern reality will rise before him; he must climb them; beyond them lies Truth.'

"'And he will hold her fast! he will hold her in his hands!' the hunter cried.

"Wisdom shook his head.

"'He will never see her, never hold her. The time is not yet.'

"'Then there is no hope?' cried the hunter.

"'There is this,' said Wisdom: 'Some men have climbed on those mountains; circle above circle of bare rock they have scaled; and, wandering there, in those high regions, some have chanced to pick up on the ground one white silver feather, dropped from the wing of Truth. And it shall come to pass,' said the old man, raising himself prophetically and pointing with his finger to the sky, 'it shall come to pass, that when enough of those silver feathers shall have been gathered by the hands of men, and shall have been woven into a cord, and the cord into a net, that in that net Truth may be captured. Nothing but Truth can hold Truth.'

"The hunter arose. 'I will go,' he said.

"But wisdom detained him.

"'Mark you well--who leaves these valleys never returns to them. Though he should weep tears of blood seven days and nights upon the confines, he can never put his foot across them. Left--they are left forever. Upon the road which you would travel there is no reward offered. Who goes, goes freely--for the great love that is in him. The work is his reward.'

"'I go' said the hunter; 'but upon the mountains, tell me, which path shall I take?'

"'I am the child of The-Accumulated-Knowledge-of-Ages,' said the man; 'I can walk only where many men have trodden. On these mountains few feet have passed; each man strikes out a path for himself. He goes at his own peril: my voice he hears no more. I may follow after him, but cannot go before him.'

"Then Knowledge vanished.

"And the hunter turned. He went to his cage, and with his hands broke down the bars, and the jagged iron tore his flesh. It is sometimes easier to build than to break.

"One by one he took his plumed birds and let them fly. But when he came to his dark-plumed bird he held it, and looked into its beautiful eyes, and the bird uttered its low, deep cry--'Immortality!'

"And he said quickly: 'I cannot part with it. It is not heavy; it eats no food. I will hide it in my breast; I will take it with me.' And he buried it there and covered it over with his cloak.

"But the thing he had hidden grew heavier, heavier, heavier--till it lay on his breast like lead. He could not move with it. He could not leave those valleys with it. Then again he took it out and looked at it.

"'Oh, my beautiful! my heart's own!' he cried, 'may I not keep you?'

"He opened his hands sadly.

"'Go!' he said. 'It may happen that in Truth's song one note is like yours; but I shall never hear it.'

"Sadly he opened his hand, and the bird flew from him forever.

"Then from the shuttle of imagination he took the thread of his wishes, and threw it on the ground; and the empty shuttle he put into his breast, for the thread was made in those valleys, but the shuttle came from an unknown country. He turned to go, but now the people came about him, howling.

"'Fool, hound, demented lunatic!' they cried. 'How dared you break your cage and let the birds fly?'

"The hunter spoke; but they would not hear him.

"'Truth! who is she? Can you eat her? can you drink her? Who has ever seen her? Your birds were real: all could hear them sing! Oh, fool! vile reptile! atheist!' they cried, 'you pollute the air.'

"'Come, let us take up stones and stone him,' cried some.

"'What affair is it of ours?' said others. 'Let the idiot go,' and went away. But the rest gathered up stones and mud and threw at him. At last, when he was bruised and cut, the hunter crept away into the woods. And it was evening about him."

At every word the stranger spoke the fellow's eyes flashed back on him-- yes, and yes, and yes! The stranger smiled. It was almost worth the trouble of exerting oneself, even on a lazy afternoon, to win those passionate flashes, more thirsty and desiring than the love-glances of a woman.

"He wandered on and on," said the stranger, "and the shade grew deeper. He was on the borders now of the land where it is always night. Then he stepped into it, and there was no light there. With his hands he groped; but each branch as he touched it broke off, and the earth was covered with cinders. At every step his foot sank in, and a fine cloud of impalpable ashes flew up into his face; and it was dark. So he sat down upon a stone and buried his face in his hands, to wait in the Land of Negation and Denial till the light came.

"And it was night in his heart also.

"Then from the marshes to his right and left cold mists arose and closed about him. A fine, imperceptible rain fell in the dark, and great drops gathered on his hair and clothes. His heart beat slowly, and a numbness crept through all his limbs. Then, looking up, two merry wisp lights came dancing. He lifted his head to look at them. Nearer, nearer they came. So warm, so bright, they danced like stars of fire. They stood before him at last. From the centre of the radiating flame in one looked out a woman's face, laughing, dimpled, with streaming yellow hair. In the centre of the other were merry laughing ripples, like the bubbles on a glass of wine. They danced before him.

"'Who are you,' asked the hunter, 'who alone come to me in my solitude and darkness?'

"'We are the twins Sensuality,' they cried. 'Our father's name is Human- Nature, and our mother's name is Excess. We are as old as the hills and rivers, as old as the first man; but we never die,' they laughed.

"'Oh, let me wrap my arms about you!; cried the first; 'they are soft and warm. Your heart is frozen now, but I will make it beat. Oh, come to me!'

"'I will pour my hot life into you,' said the second; 'your brain is numb, and your limbs are dead now; but they shall live with a fierce free life. Oh, let me pour it in!'

"'Oh, follow us,' they cried, 'and live with us. Nobler hearts than yours have sat here in this darkness to wait, and they have come to us and we to them; and they have never left us, never. All else is a delusion, but we are real, we are real, we are real. Truth is a shadow; the valleys of superstition are a farce: the earth is of ashes, the trees all rotten; but we--feel us--we live! You cannot doubt us. Feel us how warm we are! Oh, come to us! Come with us!'

"Nearer and nearer round his head they hovered, and the cold drops melted on his forehead. The bright light shot into his eyes, dazzling him, and the frozen blood began to run. And he said:

"'Yes, why should I die here in this awful darkness? They are warm, they melt my frozen blood!' and he stretched out his hands to take them.

"Then in a moment there arose before him the image of the thing he had loved, and his hand dropped to his side.

"'Oh, come to us!' they cried.

"But he buried his face.

"'You dazzle my eyes,' he cried, 'you make my heart warm; but you cannot give me what I desire. I will wait here--wait till I die. Go!'

"He covered his face with his hands and would not listen; and when he looked up again they were two twinkling stars, that vanished in the distance.

"And the long, long night rolled on.

"All who leave the valley of superstition pass through that dark land; but some go through it in a few days, some linger there for months, some for years, and some die there."

The boy had crept closer; his hot breath almost touched the stranger's hand; a mystic wonder filled his eyes.

"At last for the hunter a faint light played along the horizon, and he rose to follow it; and he reached that light at last, and stepped into the broad sunshine. Then before him rose the almighty mountains of Dry-facts and Realities. The clear sunshine played on them, and the tops were lost in the clouds. At the foot many paths ran up. An exultant cry burst from the hunter. He chose the straightest and began to climb; and the rocks and ridges resounded with his song. They had exaggerated; after all, it was not so high, nor was the road so steep! A few days, a few weeks, a few months at most, and then the top! Not one feather only would he pick up; he would gather all that other men had found--weave the net--capture Truth- -hold her fast--touch her with his hands--clasp her!

"He laughed in the merry sunshine, and sang loud. Victory was very near. Nevertheless, after a while the path grew steeper. He needed all his breath for climbing, and the singing died away. On the right and left rose huge rocks, devoid of lichen or moss, and in the lava-like earth chasms yawned. Here and there he saw a sheen of white bones. Now too the path began to grow less and less marked; then it became a mere trace, with a footmark here and there; then it ceased altogether. He sang no more, but struck forth a path for himself, until it reached a mighty wall of rock, smooth and without break, stretching as far as the eye could see. 'I will rear a stair against it; and, once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there,' he said bravely; and worked. With his shuttle of imagination he dug out stones; but half of them would not fit, and half a month's work would roll down because those below were ill chosen. But the hunter worked on, saying always to himself, 'Once this wall climbed, I shall be almost there. This great work ended!'

"At last he came out upon the top, and he looked about him. Far below rolled the white mist over the valleys of superstition, and above him towered the mountains. They had seemed low before; they were of an immeasurable height now, from crown to foundation surrounded by walls of rock, that rose tier above tier in mighty circles. Upon them played the eternal sunshine. He uttered a wild cry. He bowed himself on to the earth, and when he rose his face was white. In absolute silence he walked on. He was very silent now. In those high regions the rarefied air is hard to breathe by those born in the valleys; every breath he drew hurt him, and the blood oozed out from the tips of his fingers. Before the next wall of rock he began to work. The height of this seemed infinite, and he said nothing. The sound of his tool rang night and day upon the iron rocks into which he cut steps. Years passed over him, yet he worked on; but the wall towered up always above him to heaven. Sometimes he prayed that a little moss or lichen might spring up on those bare walls to be a companion to him; but it never came." The stranger watched the boy's face.

"And the years rolled on; he counted them by the steps he had cut--a few for a year--only a few. He sang no more; he said no more, 'I will do this or that'--he only worked. And at night, when the twilight settled down, there looked out at him from the holes and crevices in the rocks strange wild faces.

"'Stop your work, you lonely man, and speak to us,' they cried.

"'My salvation is in work, if I should stop but for one moment you would creep down upon me,' he replied. And they put out their long necks further.

"'Look down into the crevice at your feet,' they said. 'See what lie there--white bones! As brave and strong a man as you climbed to these rocks.' And he looked up. He saw there was no use in striving; he would never hold Truth, never see her, never find her. So he lay down here, for he was very tired. He went to sleep forever. He put himself to sleep. Sleep is very tranquil. You are not lonely when you are asleep, neither do your hands ache, nor your heart. And the hunter laughed between his teeth.

"'Have I torn from my heart all that was dearest; have I wandered alone in the land of night; have I resisted temptation; have I dwelt where the voice of my kind is never heard, and laboured alone, to lie down and be food for you, ye harpies?'

"He laughed fiercely; and the Echoes of Despair slunk away, for the laugh of a brave, strong heart is as a death blow to them.

"Nevertheless they crept out again and looked at him.

"'Do you know that your hair is white?' they said, 'that your hands begin to tremble like a child's? Do you see that the point of your shuttle is gone?--it is cracked already. If you should ever climb this stair,' they said, 'it will be your last. You will never climb another.'

"And he answered, 'I know it!' and worked on.

"The old, thin hands cut the stones ill and jaggedly, for the fingers were stiff and bent. The beauty and the strength of the man was gone.

"At last, an old, wizened, shrunken face looked out above the rocks. It saw the eternal mountains rise with walls to the white clouds; but its work was done.

"The old hunter folded his tired hands and lay down by the precipice where he had worked away his life. It was the sleeping time at last. Below him over the valleys rolled the thick white mist. Once it broke; and through the gap the dying eyes looked down on the trees and fields of their childhood. From afar seemed borne to him the cry of his own wild birds, and he heard the noise of people singing as they danced. And he thought he heard among them the voices of his old comrades; and he saw far off the sunlight shine on his early home. And great tears gathered in the hunter's eyes.

"'Ah! They who die there do not die alone,' he cried.

"Then the mists rolled together again; and he turned his eyes away.

"'I have sought,' he said, 'for long years I have laboured; but I have not found her. I have not rested, I have not repined, and I have not seen her; now my strength is gone. Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb; by the stairs that I have built they will mount. They will never know the name of the man who made them. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll they will curse me. But they will mount, and on my work; they will climb, and by my stair! They will find her, and through me! And no man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself.'

"The tears rolled from beneath the shrivelled eyelids. If Truth had appeared above him in the clouds now he could not have seen her, the mist of death was in his eyes.

"'My soul hears their glad step coming,' he said; 'and they shall mount! they shall mount!' He raised his shrivelled hand to his eyes.

"Then slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling, falling, falling. Softly it fluttered down, and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands. It was a feather. He died holding it."


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