The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories by L. Adams Beck - HTML preview
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The Ninth Vibration ......................................................................................................... 3 The Interpreter A Romance Of The East..................................................................... 35 The Incomparable Lady................................................................................................. 82 The Hatred Of The Queen ............................................................................................. 91 Fire Of Beauty............................................................................................................... 106 The Building Of The Taj Mahal.................................................................................. 120 How Great Is The Glory Of Kwannon........................................................................ 127
The Round-Faced Beauty............................................................................................. 136
The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories
The Ninth Vibration
There is a place uplifted nine thousand feet in purest air where one of the most ancient tracks in the world runs from India into Tibet. It leaves Simla of the Imperial councils by a stately road; it passes beyond, but now narrowing, climbing higher beside the khuds or steep drops to the precipitous valleys beneath, and the rumor of Simla grows distant and the way is quiet, for, owing to the danger of driving horses above the khuds, such baggage as you own must be carried by coolies, and you yourself must either ride on horseback or in the little horseless carriage of the Orient, here drawn and pushed by four men. And presently the deodars darken the way with a solemn presence, for-
These are the Friars of the wood, The Brethren of the Solitude Hooded and grave-"
-their breath most austerely pure in the gradually chilling air. Their companies increase and now the way is through a great wood where it has become a trail and no more, and still it climbs for many miles and finally a rambling bungalow, small and low, is sighted in the deeps of the trees, a mountain stream from unknown heights falling beside it. And this is known as the House in the Woods. Very few people are permitted to go there, for the owner has no care for money and makes no provision for guests. You must take your own servant and the khansamah will cook you such simple food as men expect in the wilds, and that is all. You stay as long as you please and when you leave not even a gift to the khansamah is permitted.
I had been staying in Ranipur of the plains while I considered the question of getting to Upper Kashmir by the route from Simla along the old way to Chinese Tibet where I would touch Shipki in the Dalai Lama's territory and then pass on to Zanskar and so down to Kashmir - a tremendous route through the Himalaya and a crowning experience of the mightiest mountain scenery in the world. I was at Ranipur for the purpose of consulting my old friend Olesen, now an irrigation official in the Rampur district - a man who had made this journey and nearly lost his life in doing it. It is not now perhaps so dangerous as it was, and my life was of no particular value to any one but myself, and the plan interested me.
I pass over the long discussions of ways and means in the blinding heat of Ranipur. Olesen put all his knowledge at my service and never uttered a word of the envy that must have filled him as he looked at the distant snows cool and luminous in blue air, and, shrugging good-natured shoulders, spoke of the work that lay before him on the burning plains until the terrible summer should drag itself to a close. We had vanquished the details and were smoking in comparative silence one night on the veranda, when he said in his slow reflective way;
"You don't like the average hotel, Ormond, and you'll like it still less up Simla way with all the Simla crowd of grass-widows and fellows out for as good a time as they can cram into the hot weather. I wonder if I could get you a permit for The House in the Woods while you re waiting to fix up your men and route for Shipki."
He explained and of course I jumped at the chance. It belonged, he said, to a man named Rup Singh, a pandit, or learned man of Ranipur. He had always spent the summer there, but age and failing health made this impossible now, and under certain conditions he would occasionally allow people known to friends of his own to put up there.
"And Rup Singh and I are very good friends," Olesen said; "I won his heart by discovering the lost Sukh Mandir, or Hall of Pleasure, built many centuries ago by a Maharao of Ranipur for a summer retreat in the great woods far beyond Simla. There are lots of legends about it here in Ranipur. They call it The House of Beauty. Rup Singh's ancestor had been a close friend of the Maharao and was with him to the end, and that's why he himself sets such store on the place. You have a good chance if I ask for a permit.
He told me the story and since it is the heart of my own I give it briefly. Many centuries ago the Ranipur Kingdom was ruled by the Maharao Rai Singh a prince of the great lunar house of the Rajputs. Expecting a bride from some far away kingdom (the name of this is unrecorded) he built the Hall of Pleasure as a summer palace, a house of rare and costly beauty. A certain great chamber he lined with carved figures of the Gods and their stories, almost unsurpassed for truth and life. So, with the pine trees whispering about it the secret they sigh to tell, he hoped to create an earthly Paradise with this Queen in whom all loveliness was perfected. And then some mysterious tragedy ended all his hopes. It was rumoured that when the Princess came to his court, she was, by some terrible mistake, received with insult and offered the position only of one of his women. After that nothing was known. Certain only is it that he fled to the hills, to the home of his broken hope, and there ended his days in solitude, save for the attendance of two faithful friends who would not abandon him even in the ghostly quiet of the winter when the pine boughs were heavy with snow and a spectral moon stared at the panthers shuffling through the white wastes beneath. Of these two Rup Singh's ancestor was one. And in his thirty fifth year the Maharao died and his beauty and strength passed into legend and his kingdom was taken by another and the jungle crept silently over his Hall of Pleasure and the story ended.
"There was not a memory of the place up there," Olesen went on. "Certainly I never heard anything of it when I went up to the Shipki in 1904. But I had been able to be useful to Rup Singh and he gave me a permit for The House in the Woods, and I stopped there for a few days' shooting. I remember that day so well. I was wandering in the dense woods while my men got their midday grub, and I missed the trail somehow and found myself in a part where the trees were dark and thick and the silence heavy as lead. It was as if the trees were on guard - they stood shoulder to shoulder and stopped the way. Well, I halted, and had a notion there was something beyond that made me doubt whether to go on. I must have stood there five minutes hesitating. Then I pushed on, bruising the thick ferns under my shooting boots and stooping under the knotted boughs. Suddenly I tramped out of the jungle into a clearing, and lo and behold a ruined House, with blocks of marble lying all about it, and carved pillars and a great roof all being slowly smothered by the jungle. The weirdest thing you ever saw. I climbed some fallen columns to get a better look, and as I did I saw a face flash by at the arch of a broken window. I sang out in Hindustani, but no answer: only the echo from the woods. Somehow that dampened my ardour, and I didn't go in to what seemed like a great ruined hall for the place was so eerie and lonely, and looked mighty snaky into the bargain. So I came ingloriously away and told Rup Singh. And his whole face changed. 'That is The House of Beauty,' he said. 'All my life have I sought it and in vain. For, friend of my soul, a man must lose himself that he may find himself and what lies beyond, and the trodden path has ever been my doom. And you who have not sought have seen. Most strange are the way of the Gods'. Later on I knew this was why he had always gone up yearly, thinking and dreaming God knows what. He and I tried for the place together, but in vain and the whole thing is like a dream. Twice he has let friends of mine stay at The House in the Woods, and I think he won't refuse now.""Did he ever tell you the story?"
"Never. I only know what I've picked up here. Some horrible mistake about the Rani that drove the man almost mad with remorse. I've heard bits here and there. There's nothing so vital as tradition in India.""I wonder'. what really happened."
"That we shall never know. I got a little old picture of the Maharao - said to be painted by a Pahari artist. It's not likely to be authentic, but you never can tell. A Brahman sold it to me that he might complete his daughter's dowry, and hated doing it.""May I see it?" "Why certainly. Not a very good light, but - can do, as the Chinks say.
He brought it out rolled in silk stuff and I carried it under the hanging lamp. A beautiful young man indeed, with the air of race these people have beyond all others;- a cold haughty face, immovably dignified. He sat with his hands resting lightly on the arms of his chair of State. A crescent of rubies clasped the folds of the turban and from this sprang an aigrette scattering splendours. The magnificent hilt of a sword was ready beside him. The face was not only beautiful but arresting.
"A strange picture," I said. "The artist has captured the man himself. I can see him trampling on any one who opposed him, and suffering in the same cold secret way. It ought to he authentic if it isn't. Don't you know any more?"
"Nothing. Well - to bed, and tomorrow I'll see Rup Singh." I was glad when he returned with the permission. I was to be very careful, he said, to make no allusion to the lost palace, for two women were staying at the House in the Woods - a mother and daughter to whom Rup Singh had granted hospitality because of an obligation he must honor. But with true Oriental distrust of women he had thought fit to make no confidence to them. I promised and asked Olesen if he knew them.
"Slightly. Canadians of Danish blood like my own. Their name is Ingmar. Some people think the daughter good-looking. The mother is supposed to be clever; keen on occult subjects which she came back to India to study. The husband was a great naturalist and the kindest of men. He almost lived in the jungle and the natives had all sorts of rumours about his powers. You know what they are. They said the birds and beasts followed him about. Any old thing starts a legend.""What was the connection with Rup Singh?"
"He was in difficulties and undeservedly, and Ingmar generously lent him money at a critical time, trusting to his honour for repayment. Like most Orientals he never forgets a good turn and would do anything for any of the family - except trust the women with any secret he valued. The father is long dead. By the way Rup Singh gave me a queer message for you. He said; 'Tell the Sahib these words - "Let him who finds water in the desert share his cup with him who dies of thirst." He is certainly getting very old. I don't suppose he knew himself what he meant."
I certainly did not. However my way was thus smoothed for me and I took the upward road, leaving Olesen to the long ungrateful toil of the man who devotes his life to India without sufficient time or knowledge to make his way to the inner chambers of her beauty. There is no harder mistress unless you hold the pass-key to her mysteries, there is none of whom so little can be told in words but who kindles so deep a passion. Necessity sometimes takes me from that enchanted land, but when the latest dawns are shining in my skies I shall make my feeble way back to her and die at her worshipped feet. So I went up from Kalka.
I have never liked Simla. It is beautiful enough - eight thousand feet up in the grip of the great hills looking toward the snows, the famous summer home of the Indian Government. Much diplomacy is whispered on Observatory Hill and many are the lighter diversions of which Mr. Kipling and lesser men have written. But Simla is also a gateway to many things - to the mighty deodar forests that clothe the foot-hills of the mountains, to Kulu, to the eternal snows, to the old, old bridle way that leads up to the Shipki Pass and the mysteries of Tibet - and to the strange things told in this story. So I passed through with scarcely a glance at the busy gayety of the little streets and the tiny shops where the pretty ladies buy their rouge and powder. I was attended by my servant Ali Khan, a Mohammedan from Nagpur, sent up with me by Olesen with strong recommendation. He was a stout walker, so too am I, and an inveterate dislike to the man-drawn carriage whenever my own legs would serve me decided me to walk the sixteen miles to the House in the Woods, sending on the baggage. Ali Khan despatched it and prepared to follow me, the fine cool air of the hills giving us a zest. "Subhan Alla! (Praise be to God!) the air is sweet!" he said, stepping out behind me. "What time does the Sahib look to reach the House?""About five or six. Now, Ali Khan, strike out of the road. You know the way."
So we struck up into the glorious pine woods, mountains all about us. Here and there as we climbed higher was a little bank of forgotten snow, but spring had triumphed and everywhere was the waving grace of maiden-hair ferns, banks of violets and strangely beautiful little wild flowers. These woods are full of panthers, but in day time the only precaution necessary is to take no dog, - a dainty they cannot resist. The air was exquisite with the sun-warm scent of pines, and here and there the trees broke away disclosing mighty ranges of hills covered with rich blue shadows like the bloom on a plum, - the clouds chasing the sunshine over the mountain sides and the dark green velvet of the robe of pines. I looked across ravines that did not seem gigantic and yet the villages on the other side were like a handful of peas, so tremendous was the scale. I stood now and then to see the rhododendrons, forest trees here with great trunks and massive boughs glowing with blood-red blossom, and time went by and I took no count of it, so glorious was the climb.
It must have been hours later when it struck me that the sun was getting low and that by now we should be nearing The House in the Woods. I said as much to Ali Khan. He looked perplexed and agreed. We had reached a comparatively level place, the trail faint but apparent, and it surprised me that we heard no sound of life from the dense wood where our goal must be."I know not, Presence," he said. "May his face be blackened that directed me. I thought surely I could not miss the way, and yet-"
We cast back and could see no trail forking from the one we were on. There was nothing for it but to trust to luck and push on. But I began to be uneasy and so was the man. I had stupidly forgotten to unpack my revolver, and worse, we had no food, and the mountain air is an appetiser, and at night the woods have their dangers, apart from being absolutely trackless. We had not met a living being since we left the road and there seemed no likelihood of asking for directions. I stopped no longer for views but went steadily on, Ali Khan keeping up a running fire of low-voiced invocations and lamentations. And now it was dusk and the position decidely unpleasant.
It was at that moment I saw a woman before us walking lightly and steadily under the pines. She must have struck into the trail from the side for she never could have kept before us all the way. A native woman, but wearing the all-concealing boorka, more like a town dweller than a woman of the hills. I put on speed and Ali Khan, now very tired, toiled on behind me as I came up with her and courteously asked the way. Her face was entirely hidden, but the answering voice was clear and sweet. I made up my mind she was young, for it had the bird-like thrill of youth.
"If the Presence continues to follow this path he will arrive. It is not far. They wait for him."
"Ajaib! (Wonderful!) A strange place to meet one of the purdah-nashin (veiled women)" he muttered. "What would she be doing up here in the heights? She walked like a Khanam (khan's wife) and I saw the gleam of gold under the boorka."
I turned with some curiosity as he spoke, and lo! there was no human being in sight. She had disappeared from the track behind us and it was impossible to say where. The darkening trees were beginning to hold the dusk and it seemed unimaginable that a woman should leave the way and take to the dangers of the woods."Puna-i-Khoda - God protect us!" said Ali Khan in a shuddering whisper. "She was a devil of the wilds. Press on, Sahib. We should not be here in the dark."
There was nothing else to do. We made the best speed we could, and the trees grew more dense and the trail fainter between the close trunks, and so the night came bewildering with the expectation that we must pass the night unfed and unarmed in the cold of the heights. They might send out a search party from The House in the Woods - that was still a hope, if there were no other. And then, very gradually and wonderfully the moon dawned over the tree tops and flooded the wood with mysterious silver lights and about her rolled the majesty of the stars. We pressed on into the heart of the night. From the dense black depths we emerged at last. An open glade lay before us - the trees falling back to right and left to disclose - what?
A long low house of marble, unlit, silent, bathed in pale splendour and shadow. About it stood great deodars, clothed in clouds of the white blossoming clematis, ghostly and still. Acacias hung motionless trails of heavily scented bloom as if carved in ivory. It was all silent as death. A flight of nobly sculptured steps led up to a broad veranda and a wide open door with darkness behind it. Nothing more.
I forced myself to shout in Hindustani - the cry seeming a brutal outrage upon the night, and an echo came back numbed in the black woods. I tried once more and in vain. We stood absorbed also into the silence.
"Ya Alla! it is a house of the dead!" whispered Ali Khan, shuddering at my shoulder, - and even as the words left his lips I understood where we were. "It is the Sukh Mandir." I said. "It is the House of the Maharao of Ranipur."
It was impossible to be in Ranipur and hear nothing of the dead house of the forest and Ali Khan had heard - God only knows what tales. In his terror all discipline, all the inborn respect of the native forsook him, and without word or sign he turned and fled along the track, crashing through the forest blind and mad with fear. It would have been insanity to follow him, and in India the first rule of life is that the Sahib shows no fear, so I left him to his fate whatever it might be, believing at the same time that a little reflection and dread of the lonely forest would bring him to heel quickly.
I stood there and the stillness flowed like water about me. It was as though I floated upon it - bathed in quiet. My thoughts adjusted themselves. Possibly it was not the Sukh Mandir. Olesen had spoken of ruin. I could see none. At least it was shelter from the chill which is always present at these heights when the sun sets, - and it was beautiful as a house not made with hands. There was a sense of awe but no fear as I went slowly up the great steps and into the gloom beyond and so gained the hall.
The moon went with me and from a carven arch filled with marble tracery rained radiance that revealed and hid. Pillars stood about me, wonderful with horses ramping forward as in the Siva Temple at Vellore. They appeared to spring from the pillars into the gloom urged by invisible riders, the effect barbarously rich and strange - motion arrested, struck dumb in a violent gesture, and behind them impenetrable darkness. I could not see the end of this hall - for the moon did not reach it, but looking up I beheld the walls fretted in great panels into the utmost splendour of sculpture, encircling the stories of the Gods amid a twining and under-weaving of leaves and flowers. It was more like a temple than a dwelling. Siva, as Nataraja the Cosmic Dancer, the Rhythm of the Universe, danced before me, flinging out his arms in the passion of creation. Kama, the Indian Eros, bore his bow strung with honey-sweet black bees that typify the heart's desire. Krishna the Beloved smiled above the herd-maidens adoring at his feet. Ganesha the Elephant-Headed, sat in massive calm, wreathing his wise trunk about him. And many more. But all these so far as I could see tended to one centre panel larger than any, representing two life-size figures of a dim beauty. At first I could scarcely distinguish one from the other in the upward-reflected light, and then, even as I stood, the moving moon revealed the two as if floating in vapor. At once I recognized the subject - I had seen it already in the ruined temple of Ranipur, though the details differed. Parvati, the Divine Daughter of the Himalaya, the Emanation of the mighty mountains, seated upon a throne, listening to a girl who played on a Pan pipe before her. The goddess sat, her chin leaned upon her hand, her shoulders slightly inclined in a pose of gentle sweetness, looking down upon the girl at her feet, absorbed in the music of the hills and lonely places. A band of jewels, richly wrought, clasped the veil on her brows, and below the bare bosom a glorious girdle clothed her with loops and strings and tassels of jewels that fell to her knees - her only garment.
The girl was a lovely image of young womanhood, the proud swell of the breast tapering to the slim waist and long limbs easily folded as she half reclined at the divine feet, her lips pressed to the pipe. Its silent music mysteriously banished fear. The sleep must be sweet indeed that would come under the guardianship of these two fair creatures - their gracious influence was dewy in the air. I resolved that I would spend the night beside them. Now with the march of the moon dim vistas of the walls beyond sprang into being. Strange mythologies - the incarnations of Vishnu the Preserver, the Pastoral of Krishna the Beautiful. I promised myself that next day I would sketch some of the loveliness about me. But the moon was passing on her way - I folded the coat I carried into a pillow and lay down at the feet of the goddess and her nymph. Then a moonlit quiet I slept in a dream of peace.
Sleep annihilates time. Was it long or short when I woke like a man floating up to the surface from tranquil deeps? That I cannot tell, but once more I possessed myself and every sense was on guard.
My hearing first. Bare feet were coming, falling softly as leaves, but unmistakable. There was a dim whispering but I could hear no word. I rose on my elbow and looked down the long hall. Nothing. The moonlight lay in pools of light and seas of shadow on the floor, and the feet drew nearer. Was I afraid? I cannot tell, but a deep expectation possessed me as the sound grew like the rustle of grasses parted in a fluttering breeze, and now a girl came swiftly up the steps, irradiate in the moonlight, and passing up the hall stood beside me. I could see her robe, her feet bare from the jungle, but her face wavered and changed and re- united like the face of a dream woman. I could not fix it for one moment, yet knew this was the messenger for whom I had waited all my life - for whom one strange experience, not to be told at present, had prepared me in early manhood. Words came, and I said:"Is this a dream?" "No. We meet in the Ninth Vibration. All here is true." "Is a dream never true?"
"Sometimes it is the echo of the Ninth Vibration and therefore a harmonic of truth. You are awake now. It is the day-time that is the sleep of the soul. You are in the Lower Perception, wherein the truth behind the veil of what men call Reality is perceived.""Can I ascend?" "I cannot tell. That is for you, not me. "What do I perceive tonight?" "The Present as it is in the Eternal. Say no more. Come with me." She stretched her hand and took mine with the assurance of a goddess, and we went up the hall where the night had been deepest between the great pillars.
Now it is very clear to me that in every land men, when the doors of perception are opened, will see what we call the Supernatural clothed in the image in which that country has accepted it. Blake, the mighty mystic, will see the Angels of the Revelation, driving their terrible way above Lambeth - it is not common nor unclean. The fisherman, plying his coracle on the Thames will behold the consecration of the great new Abbey of Westminster celebrated with mass and chant and awful lights in the dead mid-noon of night by that Apostle who is the Rock of the Church. Before him who wanders in Thessaly Pan will brush the dewy lawns and slim-girt Artemis pursue the flying hart. In the pale gold of Egyptian sands the heavy brows of Osiris crowned with the pshent will brood above the seer and the veil of Isis tremble to the lifting. For all this is the rhythm to which the souls of men are attuned and in that vibration they will see, and no other, since in this the very mountains and trees of the land are rooted. So here, where our remote ancestors worshipped the Gods of Nature, we must needs stand before the Mystic Mother of India, the divine daughter of the Himalaya.
How shall I describe the world we entered? The carvings upon the walls had taken life - they had descended. It was a gathering of the dreams men have dreamed here of the Gods, yet most real and actual. They watched in a serenity that set them apart in an atmosphere of their own - forms of indistinct majesty and august beauty, absolute, simple, and everlasting. I saw them as one sees reflections in rippled water - no more. But all faces turned to the place where now a green and flowering leafage enshrined and partly hid the living Nature Goddess, as she listened to a voice that was not dumb to me. I saw her face only in glimpses of an indescribable sweetness, but an influence came from her presence like the scent of rainy pine forests, the coolness that breathes from great rivers, the passion of Spring when she breaks on the world with a wave of flowers. Healing and life flowed from it. Understanding also. It seemed I could interpret the very silence of the trees outside into the expression of their inner life, the running of the green life-blood in their veins, the delicate trembling of their finger-tips.
My companion and I were not heeded. We stood hand in hand like children who have innocently strayed into a palace, gazing in wonderment. The august life went its way upon its own occasions, and, if we would, we might watch. Then the voice, clear and cold, proceeding, as it were, with some story begun before we had strayed into the Presence, the whole assembly listening in silence.
"- and as it has been so it will be, for the Law will have the blind soul carried into a body which is a record of the sins it has committed, and will not suffer that soul to escape from rebirth into bodies until it has seen the truth -"
And even as this was said and I listened, knowing myself on the verge of some great knowledge, I felt sleep beginning to weigh upon my eyelids. The sound blurred, flowed unsyllabled as a stream, the girl's hand grew light in mine; she was fading, becoming unreal; I saw her eyes like faint stars in a mist. They were gone. Arms seemed to receive me - to lay me to sleep and I sank below consciousness, and the night took me.
When I awoke the radiant arrows of the morning were shooting into the long hall where I lay, but as I rose and looked about me, strange - most strange, ruin encircled me everywhere. The blue sky was the roof. What I had thought a palace lost in the jungle, fit to receive its King should he enter, was now a broken hall of State; the shattered pillars were festooned with waving weeds, the many coloured lantana grew between the fallen blocks of marble. Even the sculptures on the walls were difficult to decipher. Faintly I could trace a hand, a foot, the orb of a woman's bosom, the gracious outline of some young God, standing above a crouching worshipper. No more. Yes, and now I saw above me as the dawn touched it the form of the Dweller in the Windhya Hills, Parvati the Beautiful, leaning softly over something breathing music at her feet. Yet I knew I could trace the almost obliterated sculpture only because I had already seen it defined in perfect beauty. A deep crack ran across the marble; it was weathered and stained by many rains, and little ferns grew in the crevices, but I could reconstruct every line from my own knowledge. And how? The Parvati of Ranipur differed in many important details. She stood, bending forward, wheras this sweet Lady sat. Her attendants were small satyr-like spirits of the wilds, piping and fluting, in place of the reclining maiden. The sweeping scrolls of a great halo encircled her whole person. Then how could I tell what this neary obliterated carving had been? I groped for the answer and could not find it. I doubted-
"Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten of the insane root
That takes the reason captive?"
Memory rushed over me like the sea over dry sands. A girl - there had been a girl - we had stood with clasped hands to hear a strange music, but in spite of the spiritual intimacy of those moments I could not recall her face. I saw it cloudy against a background of night and dream, the eyes remote as stars, and so it eluded me. Only her presence and her words sur- vived; "We meet in the Ninth Vibration. All here is true." But the Ninth Vibration itself was dream-land. I had never heard the phrase - I could not tell what was meant, nor whether my apprehension was true or false. I knew only that the night had taken her and the dawn denied her, and that, dream or no dream, I stood there with a pang of loss that even now leaves me wordless.
A bird sang outside in the acacias, clear and shrill for day, and this awakened my senses and lowered me to the plane where I became aware of cold and hunger, and was chilled with dew. I passed down the tumbled steps that had been a stately ascent the night before and made my way into the jungle by the trail, small and lost in fern, by which we had come. Again I wandered, and it was high noon before I heard mule bells at a distance, and, thus guided, struck down through the green tangle to find myself, wearied but safe, upon the bridle way that leads to Fagu and the far Shipki. Two coolies then directed me to The House in the Woods.
All was anxiety there. Ali Khan had arrived in the night, having found his way under the guidance of blind flight and fear. He had brought the news that I was lost in the jungle and amid the dwellings of demons. It was, of course, hopeless to search in the dark, though the khansamah and his man had gone as far as they dared with lanterns and shouting, and with the daylight they tried again and were even now away. It was useless to reproach the man even if I had cared to do so. His ready plea was that as far as men were concerned he was as brave as any (which was true enough as I had reason to know later) but that when it came to devilry the Twelve Imaums themselves would think twice before facing it.
"Inshalla ta-Alla! (If the sublime God wills!) this unworthy one will one day show the Protector of the poor, that he is a respectable person and no coward, but it is only the Sahibs who laugh in the face of devils."
He went off to prepare me some food, consumed with curiosity as to my adventures, and when I had eaten I found my tiny whitewashed cell, for the room was little more, and slept for hours.
Late in the afternoon I waked and looked out. A, low but glowing sunlight suffused the wild garden reclaimed from the strangle-hold of the jungle and hemmed in with rocks and forest. A few simple flowers had been planted here and there, but its chief beauty was a mountain stream, brown and clear as the eyes of a dog, that fell from a crag above into a rocky basin, maidenhair ferns growing in such masses about it that it was henceforward scarcely more than a woodland voice. Beside it two great deodars spread their canopies, and there a woman sat in a low chair, a girl beside her reading aloud. She had thrown her hat off and the sunshine turned her massed dark hair to bronze. That was all I could see. I went out and joined them, taking the note of introduction which Olesen had given me.
I pass over the unessentials of my story; their friendly greetings and sympathy for my adventure. It set us at ease at once and I knew my stay would be the happier for their presence though it is not every woman one would choose as a companion in the great mountain country. But what is germane to my purpose must be told, and of this a part is the per- sonality of Brynhild Ingmar. That she was beautiful I never doubted, though I have heard it disputed and smiled inwardly as the disputants urged lip and cheek and shades of rose and lily, weighing and appraising. Let me describe her as I saw her or, rather, as I can, adding that even without all this she must still have been beautiful because of the deep significance to those who had eyes to see or feel some mysterious element which mingled itself with her presence comparable only to the delight which the power and spiritual essence of Nature inspires in all but the dullest minds. I know I cannot hope to convey this in words. It means little if I say I thought of all quiet lovely solitary things when I looked into her calm eyes, - that when she moved it was like clear springs renewed by flowing, that she seemed the perfect flowering of a day in June, for these are phrases. Does Nature know her wonders when she shines in her strength? Does a woman know the infinite meanings her beauty may have for the beholder? I cannot tell. Nor can I tell if I saw this girl as she may have seemed to those who read only the letter of the book and are blind to its spirit, or in the deepest sense as she really was in the sight of That which created her and of which she was a part. Surely it is a proof of the divinity of love that in and for a moment it lifts the veil of so-called reality and shows each to the other mysteriously perfect and inspiring as the world will never see them, but as they exist in the Eternal, and in the sight of those who have learnt that the material is but the dream, and the vision of love the truth.
I will say then, for the alphabet of what I knew but cannot tell, that she had the low broad brows of a Greek Nature Goddess, the hair swept back wing-like from the temples and massed with a noble luxuriance. It lay like rippled bronze, suggesting something strong and serene in its essence. Her eyes were clear and gray as water, the mouth sweetly curved above a resolute chin. It was a face which recalled a modelling in marble rather than the charming pastel and aquarelle of a young woman's colouring, and somehow I thought of it less as the beauty of a woman than as some sexless emanation of natural things, and this impression was strengthened by her height and the long limbs, slender and strong as those of some youth trained in the pentathlon, subject to the severest discipline until all that was superfluous was fined away and the perfect form expressing the true being emerged. The body was thus more beautiful than the face, and I may note in passing that this is often the case, because the face is more directly the index of the restless and unhappy soul within and can attain true beauty only when the soul is in harmony with its source.
She was a little like her pale and wearied mother. She might resemble her still more when the sorrow of this world that worketh death should have had its will of her. I had yet to learn that this would never be - that she had found the open door of escape.
We three spent much time together in the days that followed. I never tired of their company and I think they did not tire of mine, for my wanderings through the world and my studies in the ancient Indian literatures and faiths with the Pandit Devaswami were of interest to them both though in entirely different ways. Mrs. Ingmar was a woman who centred all her interests in books and chiefly in the scientific forms of occult research. She was no believer in anything outside the range of what she called human experience. The evidences had convinced her of nothing but a force as yet unclassified in the scientific categories and all her interest lay in the undeveloped powers of brain which might be discovered in the course of ignorant and credulous experiment. We met therefore on the common ground of rejection of the so-called occultism of the day, though I knew even then, and how infinitely better now, that her constructions were wholly misleading.
Nearly all day she would lie in her chair under the deodars by the delicate splash and ripple of the stream. Living imprisoned in the crystal sphere of the intellect she saw the world outside, painted in few but distinct colours, small, comprehensible, moving on a logical orbit. I never knew her posed for an explanation. She had the contented atheism of a certain type of French mind and found as much ease in it as another kind of sweet woman does in her rosary and confessional.
"I cannot interest Brynhild," she said, when I knew her better. "She has no affinity with science. She is simply a nature worshipper, and in such places as this she seems to draw life from the inanimate life about her. I have sometimes wondered whether she might not be developed into a kind of bridge between the articulate and the inarticulate, so well does she understand trees and flowers. Her father was like that - he had all sorts of strange power with animals and plants, and thought he had more than he had. He could never realize that the energy of nature is merely mechanical."
"You think all energy is mechanical?" "Certainly. We shall lay our finger on the mainspring one day and the mystery will disappear. But as for Brynhild - I gave her the best education possible and yet she has never understood the conception of a universe moving on mathematical laws to which we must submit in body and mind. She has the oddest ideas. I would not willingly say of a child of mine that she is a mystic, and yet -"
She shook her head compassionately. But I scarcely heard. My eyes were fixed on Brynhild, who stood apart, looking steadily out over the snows. It was a glorious sunset, the west vibrating with gorgeous colour spilt over in torrents that flooded the sky, Terrible splendours - hues for which we have no thought - no name. I had not thought of it as music until I saw her face but she listened as well as saw, and her expression changed as it changes when the pomp of a great orchestra breaks upon the silence. It flashed to the chords of blood-red and gold that was burning fire. It softened through the fugue of woven crimson gold and flame, to the melancholy minor of ashes-of-roses and paling green, and so through all the dying glories that faded slowly to a tranquil grey and left the world to the silver melody of one sole star that dawned above the ineffable heights of the snows. Then she listened as a child does to a bird, entranced, with a smile like a butterfly on her parted lips. I never saw such a power of quiet.
She and I were walking next day among the forest ways, the pine-scented sunshine dappling the dropped frondage. We had been speaking of her mother. "It is such a misfortune for her," she said thoughtfully, "that I am not clever. She should have had a daughter who could have shared her thoughts. She analyses everything, reasons about everything, and that is quite out of my reach."She moved beside me with her wonderful light step - the poise and balance of a nymph in the Parthenon frieze. "How do you see things?"
"See? That is the right word. I see things - I never reason about them. They are. For her they move like figures in a sum. For me every one of them is a window through which one may look to what is beyond.""To where?" "To what they really are - not what they seem." I looked at her with interest. "Did you ever hear of the double vision?"
For this is a subject on which the spiritually learned men of India, like the great mystics of all the faiths, have much to say. I had listened with bewilderment and doubt to the expositions of my Pandit on this very head. Her simple words seemed for a moment the echo of his deep and searching thought. Yet it surely could not be. Impossible.
"Never. What does it mean?" She raised clear unveiled eyes. "You must forgive me for being so stupid, but it is my mother who is at home with all these scientific phrases. I know none of them."
"It means that for some people the material universe - the things we see with our eyes - is only a mirage, or say, a symbol, which either hides or shadows forth the eternal truth. And in that sense they see things as they really are, not as they seem to the rest of us. And whether this is the statement of a truth or the wildest of dreams, I cannot tell."She did not answer for a moment; then said; "Are there people who believe this - know it?"
"Certainly. There are people who believe that thought is the only real thing - that the whole universe is thought made visible. That we create with our thoughts the very body by which we shall re-act on the universe in lives to be."Do you believe it?" "I don't know. Do you?" She paused; looked at me, and then went on: "You see, I don't think things out. I only feel. But this cannot interest you."
I felt she was eluding the question. She began to interest me more than any one I had ever known. She had extraordinary power of a sort. Once, in the woods, where I was reading in so deep a shade that she never saw me, I had an amazing vision of her. She stood in a glade with the sunlight and shade about her; she had no hat and a sunbeam turned her hair to pale bronze. A small bright April shower was falling through the sun, and she stood in pure light that reflected itself in every leaf and grass-blade. But it was nothing of all this that arrested me, beautiful as it was. She stood as though life were for the moment suspended;- then, very softly, she made a low musical sound, infinitely wooing, from scarcely parted lips, and instantly I saw a bird of azure plumage flutter down and settle on her shoulder, pluming himself there in happy security. Again she called softly and another followed the first. Two flew to her feet, two more to her breast and hand. They caressed her, clung to her, drew some joyous influence from her presence. She stood in the glittering rain like Spring with her birds about her - a wonderful sight. Then, raising one hand gently with the fingers thrown back she uttered a different note, perfectly sweet and intimate, and the branches parted and a young deer with full bright eyes fixed on her advanced and pushed a soft muzzle into her hand.
In my astonishment I moved, however slightly, and the picture broke up. The deer sprang back into the trees, the birds fluttered up in a hurry of feathers, and she turned calm eyes upon me, as unstartled as if she had known all the time that I was there.
She turned away and left me. I thought long over this episode. I recalled words heard in the place of my studies - words I had dismissed without any care at the moment. "To those who see, nothing is alien. They move in the same vibration with all that has life, be it in bird or flower. And in the Uttermost also, for all things are One. For such there is no death."That was beyond me still, but I watched her with profound interest. She recalled also words I had half forgotten-
"There was nought above me and nought below, My childhood had not learnt to know; For what are the voices of birds,
Aye, and of beasts, but words, our words, - Only so much more sweet."
She had found one day in the woods a flower of a sort I had once seen in the warm damp forests below Darjiling - ivory white and shaped like a dove in flight. She wore it that evening on her bosom. A week later she wore what I took to be another."You have had luck," I said; "I never heard of such a thing being seen so high up, and you have found it twice." "No, it is the same." "The same? Impossible. You found it more than a week ago." "I know. It is ten days. Flowers don't die when one understands them - not as most people think." Her mother looked up and said fretfully: "Since she was a child Brynhild has had that odd idea. That flower is dead and withered.
Throw it away, child. It looks hideous."
Was it glamour? What was it? I saw the flower dewy fresh in her bosom She smiled and turned away.
It was that very evening she left the veranda where we were sitting in the subdued light of a little lamp and passed beyond where the ray cut the darkness. She went down the perspective of trees to the edge of he clearing and I rose to follow for it seemed absolutely unsafe that she should be on the verge of the panther-haunted woods alone. Mrs. Ingmar turned a page of her book serenely;"She will not like it if you go. I cannot imagine that she should come to harm. She always goes her own way - light or dark."
I returned to my seat and watched steadfastly. At first I could see nothing but as my sight adjusted itself I saw her a long way down the clearing that opened the snows, and quite certainly also I saw something like a huge dog detach itself from the woods and bound to her feet. It mingled with her dark dress and I lost it. Mrs. Ingmar said, seeing my anxiety but nothing else; "Her father was just the same; - he had no fear of anything that lives. No doubt some people have that power. I have never seen her attract birds and beasts as he certainly did, but she is quite as fond of them."
I could not understand her blindness - what I myself had seen raised questions I found unanswerable, and her mother saw nothing! Which of us was right? presently she came back slowly and I ventured no word.
A woodland sorcery, innocent as the dawn, hovered about her. What was it? Did the mere love of these creatures make a bond between her soul and theirs, or was the ancient dream true and could she at times move in the same vibration? I thought of her as a wood-spirit sometimes, an expression herself of some passion of beauty in Nature, a thought of snows and starry nights and flowing rivers made visible in flesh. It is surely when seized with the urge of some primeval yearning which in man is merely sexual that Nature conceives her fair forms and manifests them, for there is a correspondence that runs through all creation.
Here I ask myself - Did I love her? In a sense, yes, deeply, but not in the common reading of the phrase. I have trembled with delight before the wild and terrible splendour of the Himalayan heights-; low golden moons have steeped my soul longing, but I did not think of these things as mine in any narrow sense, nor so desire them. They were Angels of the Evangel of beauty. So too was she. She had none of the "silken nets and traps of adamant," she was no sister of the "girls of mild silver or of furious gold"; - but fair, strong, and her own, a dweller in the House of Quiet. I did not covet her. I loved her.Days passed. There came a night when the winds were loosed - no moon, the stars flickering like blown tapers through driven clouds, the trees swaying and lamenting.
"There will be rain tomorrow." Mrs. Ingmar said, as we parted for the night. I closed my door. Some great cat of the woods was crying harshly outside my window, the sound receding towards the bridle way. I slept in a dream of tossing seas and ships labouring among them.
With the sense of a summons I waked - I cannot tell when. Unmistakable, as if I were called by name. I rose and dressed, and heard distinctly bare feet passing my door. I opened it noiselessly and looked out into the little passage way that made for the entry, and saw nothing but pools of darkness and a dim light from the square of the window at the end. But the wind had swept the sky clear with its flying bosom and was sleeping now in its high places and the air was filled with a mild moony radiance and a great stillness.
Now let me speak with restraint and exactness. I was not afraid but felt as I imagine a dog feels in the presence of his master, conscious of a purpose, a will entirely above his own and incomprehensible, yet to be obeyed without question. I followed my reading of the command, bewildered but docile, and understanding nothing but that I was called.
The lights were out. The house dead silent; the familiar veranda ghostly in the night. And now I saw a white figure at the head of the steps - Brynhild. She turned and looked over her shoulder, her face pale in the moon, and made the same gesture with which she summoned her birds. I knew her meaning, for now we were moving in the same rhythm, and followed as she took the lead. How shall I describe that strange night in the jungle. There were fire-flies or dancing points of light that recalled them. Perhaps she was only thinking them - only thinking the moon and the quiet, for we were in the world where thought is the one reality. But they went with us in a cloud and faintly lighted our way. There were exquisite wafts of perfume from hidden flowers breathing their dreams to the night. Here and there a drowsy bird stirred and chirped from the roof of darkness, a low note of content that greeted her passing. It was a path intricate and winding and how long we went, and where, I cannot tell. But at last she stooped and parting the boughs before her we stepped into an open space, and before us - I knew it - I knew it! - The House of Beauty.She paused at the foot of the great marble steps and looked at me. "We have met here already."
I did not wonder - I could not. In the Ninth vibration surprise had ceased to be. Why had I not recognized her before - O dull of heart! That was my only thought. We walk blindfold through the profound darkness of material nature, the blinder because we believe we see it. It is only when the doors of the material are closed that the world appears to man as it exists in the eternal truth."Did you know this?" I asked, trembling before mystery.
"I knew it, because I am awake. You forgot it in the dull sleep which we call daily life. But we were here and THEY began the story of the King who made this house. Tonight we shall hear it. It he story of Beauty wandering through the world and the world received her not. We hear it in this place because here he agonized for what he knew too late.""Was that our only meeting?"
"We meet every night, but you forget when the day brings the sleep of the soul. - You do not sink deep enough into rest to remember. You float on the surface where the little bubbles of foolish dream are about you and I cannot reach you then.""How can I compel myself to the deeps?"
"You cannot. It will come. But when you have passed up the bridle way and beyond the Shipki, stop at Gyumur. There is the Monastery of Tashigong, and there one will meet you-"His name?"
"Stephen Clifden. He will tell you what you desire to know. Continue on then with him to Yarkhand. There in the Ninth Vibration we shall meet again. It is a long journey but you will be content.""Do you certainly know that we shall meet again?"
"When you have learnt, we can meet when we will. He will teach you the Laya Yoga. You should not linger here in the woods any longer. You should go on. In three days it will be possible.""But how have you learnt - a girl and young?" "Through a close union with Nature - that is one of the three roads. But I know little as yet. Now take my hand and come. "One last question. Is this house ruined and abject as I have seen it in the daylight, or royal and the house of Gods as we see it now? Which is truth?"
"In the day you saw it in the empty illusion of blind thought. Tonight, eternally lovely as in the thought of the man who made it. Nothing that is beautiful is lost, though in the sight of the unwise it seems to die. Death is in the eyes we look through - when they are cleansed we see Life only. Now take my hand and come. Delay no more."She caught my hand and we entered the dim magnificence of the great hall. The moon entered with us.
Instantly I had the feeling of supernatural presence. Yet I only write this in deference to common use, for it was absolutely natural - more so than any I have met in the state called daily life. It was a thing in which I had a part, and if this was supernatural so also was I.
Again I saw the Dark One, the Beloved, the young Krishna, above the women who loved him. He motioned with his hand as we passed, as though he waved us smiling on our way. Again the dancers moved in a rhythmic tread to the feet of the mountain Goddess - again we followed to where she bent to hear. But now, solemn listening faces crowded in the shadows about her, grave eyes fixed immovably upon what lay at her feet - a man, submerged in the pure light that fell from her presence, his dark face stark and fine, lips locked, eyes shut, arms flung out cross-wise in utter abandonment, like a figure of grief invisibly crucified upon his shame. I stopped a few feet from him, arrested by a barrier I could not pass. Was it sleep or death or some mysterious state that partook of both? Not sleep, for there was no flutter of breath. Not death - no rigid immobility struck chill into the air. It was the state of subjection where the spirit set free lies tranced in the mighty influences which surround us invisibly until we have entered, though but for a moment, the Ninth Vibration.
And now, with these Listeners about us, a clear voice began and stirred the air with music. I have since been asked in what tongue it spoke and could only answer that it reached my ears in the words of my childhood, and that I know whatever that language had been it would so have reached me."Great Lady, hear the story of this man's fall, for it is the story of man. Be pitiful to the blind eyes and give them light."
There was long since in Ranipur a mighty King and at his birth the wise men declared that unless he cast aside all passions that debase the soul, relinquishing the lower desires for the higher until a Princess laden with great gifts should come to be his bride, he would experience great and terrible misfortunes. And his royal parents did what they could to possess him with this belief, but they died before he reached manhood. Behold him then, a young King in his palace, surrounded with splendour. How should he withstand the passionate crying of the flesh or believe that through pleasure comes satiety and the loss of that in the spirit whereby alone pleasure can be enjoyed? For his gift was that he could win all hearts. They swarmed round him like hiving bees and hovered about him like butterflies. Sometimes he brushed them off. Often he caressed them, and when this happened, each thought proudly "I am the Royal Favourite. There is none other than me."
Also the Princess delayed who would be the crest-jewel of the crown, bringing with her all good and the blessing of the High Gods, and in consequence of all these things the King took such pleasures as he could, and they were many, not knowing they darken the inner eye whereby what is royal is known through disguises.(Most pitiful to see, beneath the close-shut lids of the man at the feet of the Dweller in the
Heights, tears forced themselves, as though a corpse dead to all else lived only to anguish. They flowed like blood-drops upon his face as he lay enduring, and the voice proceeded.) What was the charm of the King? Was it his stately height and strength? Or his faithless gayety? Or his voice, deep and soft as the sitar when it sings of love? His women said - some one thing, some another, but none of these ladies were of royal blood, and therefore they knew not.Now one day, the all-privileged jester of the King, said, laughing harshly: "Maharaj, you divert yourself. But how if, while we feast and play, the Far Away Princess glided past and was gone, unknown and unwelcomed?" And the King replied: "Fool, content yourself. I shall know my Princess, but she delays so long that I weary.
Now in a far away country was a Princess, daughter of the Greatest, and her Father hesitated to give her in marriage to such a King for all reported that he was faithless of heart, but having seen his portrait she loved him and fled in disguise from the palaces of her Father, and being captured she was brought before the King in Ranipur.
He sat upon a cloth of gold and about him was the game he had killed in hunting, in great masses of ruffled fur and plumage, and he turned the beauty of his face carelessly upon her, and as the Princess looked upon him, her heart yearned to him, and he said in his voice that was like the male string of the sitar:"Little slave, what is your desire?"
Then she saw that the long journey had scarred her feet and dimmed her hair with dust, and that the King's eyes, worn with days and nights of pleasure did not pierce her disguise. Now in her land it is a custom that the blood royal must not proclaim itself, so she folded her hands and said gently:
"A place in the household of the King." And he, hearing that the Waiting slave of his chief favorite Jayashri was dead, gave her that place. So the Princess attended on those ladies, courteous and obedient to all authority as beseemed her royalty, and she braided her bright hair so that it hid the little crowns which the Princesses of her House must wear always in token of their rank, and every day her patience strengthened.
Sometimes the King, carelessly desiring her laughing face and sad eyes, would send for her to wile away an hour, and he would say; "Dance, little slave, and tell me stories of the far countries. You quite unlike my Women, doubtless because you are a slave."
And she thought - "No, but because I am a Princess," - but this she did not say. She laughed and told him the most marvellous stories in the world until he laid his head upon her warm bosom, dreaming awake.
There were stories of the great Himalayan solitudes where in the winter nights the white tiger stares at the witches' dance of the Northern Lights dazzled by the hurtling of their myriad spears. And she told how the King-eagle, hanging motionless over the peaks of Gaurisankar, watches with golden eyes for his prey, and falling like a plummet strikes its life out with his clawed heel and, screaming with triumph, bears it to his fierce mate in her cranny of the rocks.
"A gallant story!" the King would say. "More!" Then she told of the tropical heats and the stealthy deadly creatures of forest and jungle, and the blue lotus of Buddha swaying on the still lagoon,- And she spoke of loves of men and women, their passion and pain and joy. And when she told of their fidelity and valour and honour that death cannot quench, her voice was like the song of a minstrel, for she had read all the stories of the ages and the heart of a Princess told her the rest. And the King listened unwearying though he believed this was but a slave.
(The face of the man at the feet of the Dweller in the Heights twitched in a white agony. Pearls of sweat were distilled upon his brows, but he moved neither hand nor foot, enduring as in a flame of fire. And the voice continued.)So one day, in the misty green of the Spring, while she rested at his feet in the garden Pavilion, he said to her: "Little slave, why do you love me?" And she answered proudly: "Because you have the heart of a King." He replied slowly; "Of the women who have loved me none gave this reason, though they gave many." She laid her cheek on his hand. "That is the true reason."
But he drew it away and was vaguely troubled, for her words, he knew not why, reminded him of the Far Away Princess and of things he had long forgotten, and he said; "What does a slave know of the hearts of Kings?" And that night he slept or waked alone.
Winter was at hand with its blue and cloudless days, and she was commanded to meet the King where the lake lay still and shining like an ecstasy of bliss, and she waited with her chin dropped into the cup of her hands, looking over the water with eyes that did not see, for her whole soul said; "How long 0 my Sovereign Lord, how long before you know the truth and we enter together into our Kingdom?"
As she sat she heard the King's step, and the colour stole up into her face in a flush like the earliest sunrise. "He is coming," she said; and again; "He loves me."
So he came beside the water, walking slowly. But the King was not alone. His arm embraced the latest-come beauty from Samarkhand, and, with his head bent, he whispered in her willing ear.Then clasping her hands, the Princess drew a long sobbing breath, and he turned and his eyes grew hard as blue steel. "Go, slave," he cried. "What place have you in Kings' gardens? Go. Let me see you no more."
(The man lying at the feet of the Dweller in the Heights, raised a heavy arm and flung it above his head, despairing, and it fell again on the cross of his torment. And the voice went on.)
And as he said this, her heart broke; and she went and her feet were weary. So she took the wise book she loved and unrolled it until she came to a certain passage, and this she read twice; "If the heart of a slave be broken it may be mended with jewels and soft words, but the heart of a Princess can be healed only by the King who broke it, or in Yamapura, the City under the Sunset where they make all things new. Now, Yama, the Lord of this City, is the Lord of Death." And having thus read the Princess rolled the book and put it from her.
And next day, the King said to his women; "Send for her," for his heart smote him and he desired to atone royally for the shame of his speech. And they sought and came back saying;"Maharaj, she is gone. We cannot find her."
Fear grew in the heart of the King - a nameless dread, and he said, "Search." And again they sought and returned and the King was striding up and down the great hall and none dared cross his path. But, trembling, they told him, and he replied; "Search again. I will not lose her, and, slave though be, she shall be my Queen."So they ran, dispersing to the Four Quarters, and King strode up and down the hall, and Loneliness kept step with him and clasped his hand and looked his eyes.
Then the youngest of the women entered with a tale to tell. Majesty, we have found her. She lies beside the lake. When the birds fled this morning she fled with them, but upon a longer journey. Even to Yamapura, the City under the Sunset."
And the King said; "Let none follow." And he strode forth swiftly, white with thoughts he dared not think.
The Princess lay among the gold of the fallen leaves. All was gold, for her bright hair was out-spread in shining waves and in it shone the glory of the hidden crown. On her face was no smile - only at last was revealed the patience she had covered with laughter so long that even the voice of the King could not now break it into joy. The hands that had clung, the swift feet that had run beside his, the tender body, mighty to serve and to love, lay within touch but farther away than the uttermost star was the Far Away Princess, known and loved too late.And he said; "My Princess - 0 my Princess!" and laid his head on her cold bosom.
"Too late!" a harsh Voice croaked beside him, and it was the voice of the Jester who mocks at all things. "Too late! 0 madness, to despise the blood royal because it humbled itself to service and so was doubly royal. The Far Away Princess came laden with great gifts, and to her the King's gift was the wage of a slave and a broken heart. Cast your crown and sceptre in the dust, 0 King - 0 King of Fools."
(The man at the feet of the Dweller in the Heights moved. Some dim word shaped upon his locked lips. She listened in a divine calm. It seemed that the very Gods drew nearer. Again the man essayed speech, the body dead, life only in the words that none could hear. The voice went on.)
But the Princess flying wearily because of the sore wound in her heart, came at last to the City under the Sunset, where the Lord of Death rules in the House of Quiet, and was there received with royal honours for in that land are no disguises. And she knelt before the Secret One and in a voice broken with agony entreated him to heal her. And with veiled and pitying eyes he looked upon her, for many and grievous as are the wounds he has healed this was more grievous still. And he said;
"Princess, I cannot, But this I can do - I can give a new heart in a new birth - happy and careless as the heart of a child. Take this escape from the anguish you endure and be at peace."But the Princess, white with pain, asked only; "In this new heart and birth, is there room for the King?" And the Lord of Peace replied; "None. He too will be forgotten."
Then she rose to her feet. "I will endure and when he comes I will serve him once more. If he will he shall heal me, and if not I will endure for ever."And He who is veiled replied;
"In this sacred City no pain may disturb the air, therefore you must wait outside in the chill and the dark. Think better, Princess! Also, he must pass through many rebirths, because he beheld the face of Beauty unveiled and knew her not. And when he comes he will be weary and weak as a new-born child, and no more a great King." And the Princess smiled;"Then he will need me the more," she said; "I will wait and kiss the feet of my King."
And the Lord of Death was silent. So she went outside into the darkness of the spaces, and the souls free passed her like homing doves, and she sat with her hands clasped over the sore wound in her heart, watching the earthward way. And the Princess is keeping still the day of her long patience."The voice ceased. And there was a great silence, and the listening faces drew nearer.
Then the Dweller in the Heights spoke in a voice soft as the falling of snow in the quiet of frost and moon. I could have wept myself blind with joy to hear that music. More I dare not say."He is in the Lower State of Perception. He sorrows for his loss. Let him have one instant's light that still he may hope."
She bowed above the man, gazing upon him as a mother might upon her sleeping child. The dead eyelids stirred, lifted, a faint gleam showed beneath them, an unspeakable weariness. I thought they would fall unsatisfied. Suddenly he saw What looked upon him, and a terror of joy no tongue can tell flashed over the dark mirror of his face. He stretched a faint hand to touch her feet, a sobbing sigh died upon his lips, and once more the swooning sleep took him. He lay as a dead man before the Assembly.
"The night is far spent," a voice said, from I know not where. And I knew it was said not only for the sleeper but for all, for though the flying feet of Beauty seem for a moment to outspeed us she will one day wait our coming and gather us to her bosom.
As before, the vision spread outward like rings in a broken reflection in water. I saw the girl beside me, but her hand grew light in mine. I felt it no longer. I heard the roaring wind in the trees, or was it a great voice thundering in my ears? Sleep took me. I waked in my little room.
Strange and sad - I saw her next day and did not remember her whom of all things I desired to know. I remembered the vision and knew that whether in dream or waking I had heard an eternal truth. I longed with a great longing to meet my beautiful companion, and she stood at my side and I was blind.Now that I have climbed a little higher on the Mount of Vision it seems even to myself that this could not be. Yet it was, and it is true of not this only but of how much else!
She knew me. I learnt that later, but she made no sign. Her simplicities had carried her far beyond and above me, to places where only the winged things attain- "as a bird among the bird-droves of God."
I have since known that this power of direct simplicity in her was why among the great mountains we beheld the Divine as the emanation of the terrible beauty about us. We cannot see it as it is - only in some shadowing forth, gathering sufficient strength for manifestation from the spiritual atoms that haunt the region where that form has been for ages the accepted vehicle of adoration. But I was now to set forth to find another knowledge - to seek the Beauty that blinds us to all other. Next day the man who was directing my preparations for travel sent me word from Simla that all was ready and I could start two days later. I told my friends the time of parting was near."But it was no surprise to me," I added, "for I had heard already that in a very few days I should be on my way. Mrs. Ingmar was more than kind. She laid a frail hand on mine.
"We shall miss you indeed. If it is possible to send us word of your adventures in those wild solitudes I hope you will do it. Of course aviation will soon lay bare their secrets and leave them no mysteries, so you don't go too soon. One may worship science and yet feel it injures the beauty of the world. But what is beauty compared with knowledge?""Do you never regret it?" I asked. "Never, dear Mr. Ormond. I am a worshipper of hard facts and however hideous they may be I prefer them to the prismatic colours of romance." Brynhild, smiling, quoted;
"Their science roamed from star to star And than itself found nothing greater. What wonder? In a Leyden jar They bottled the Creator?"
"There is nothing greater than science," said Mrs. Ingmar with soft reverence. "The mind of man is the foot-rule of the universe."
She meditated for a moment and then added that my kind interests in their plans decided her to tell me that she would be returning to Europe and then to Canada in a few months with a favourite niece as her companion while Brynhild would remain in India with friends in Mooltan for a time. I looked eagerly at her but she was lost in her own thoughts and it was evidently not the time to say more.
If I had hoped for a vision before I left the neighbourhood of that strange House of Beauty where a spirit imprisoned appeared to await the day of enlightenment I was disappointed. These things do not happen as one expects or would choose. The wind bloweth where it listeth until the laws which govern the inner life are understood, and then we would not choose if we could for we know that all is better than well. In this world, either in the blinded sight of daily life or in the clarity of the true sight I have not since seen it, but that has mattered little, for having heard an authentic word within its walls I have passed on my way elsewhere.Next day a letter from Olesen reached me.
"Dear Ormond, I hope you have had a good time at the House in the Woods. I saw Rup Singh a few days ago and he wrote the odd message I enclose. You know what these natives are, even the most sensible of them, and you will humour the old fellow for he ages very fast and I think is breaking up. But this was not what I wanted to say. I had a letter from a man I had not seen for years - a fellow called Stephen Clifden, who lives in Kashmir. As a matter of fact I had forgotten his existence but evidently he has not repaid the compliment for he writes as follows - No, I had better send you the note and you can do as you please. I am rushed off my legs with work and the heat is hell with the lid off. And-"But the rest was of no interest except to a friend of years' standing. I read Rup Singh's message first. It was written in his own tongue. "To the Honoured One who has attained to the favour of the Favourable.
"You have with open eyes seen what this humble one has dreamed but has not known. If the thing be possible, write me this word that I may depart in peace. 'With that one who in a former birth you loved all is well. Fear nothing for him. The way is long but at the end the lamps of love are lit and the Unstruck music is sounded. He lies at the feet of Mercy and there awaits his hour.' And if it be not possible to write these words, write nothing, 0 Honoured, for though it be in the hells my soul shall find my King, and again I shall serve him as once I served."
I understood, and wrote those words as he had written them. Strange mystery of life - that I who had not known should see, and that this man whose fidelity had not deserted his broken King in his utter downfall should have sought with passion for one sight of the beloved face across the waters of death and sought in vain. I thought of those Buddhist words of Seneca - "The soul may be and is in the mass of men drugged and silenced by the seductions of sense and the deceptions of the world. But if, in some moment of detachment and elation, when its captors and jailors relax their guard, it can escape their clutches, it will seek at once the region of its birth and its true home."Well - the shell must break before the bird can fly, and the time drew near for the faithful servant to seek his lord. My message reached him in time and gladdened him. I turned then to Clifden's letter.
"Dear Olesen, you will have forgotten me, and feeling sure of this I should scarcely have intruded a letter into your busy life were it not that I remember your good-nature as a thing unforgettable though so many years have gone by. I hear of you sometimes when Sleigh comes up the Sind valley, for I often camp at Sonamarg and above the Zoji La and farther. I want you to give a message to a man you know who should be expecting to hear from me. Tell him I shall be at the Tashigong Monastery when he reaches Gyumur beyond the Shipki. Tell him I have the information he wants and I will willingly go on with him to Yarkhand and his destination. He need not arrange for men beyond Gyumur. All is fixed. So sorry to bother you, old man, but I don't know Ormond's address, except that he was with you and has gone up Simla way. And of course he will be keen to hear the thing is settled."
Amazing. I remembered the message I had heard and this man's words rang true and kindly, but what could it mean? I really did not question farther than this for now I could not doubt that I was guided. Stronger hands than mine had me in charge, and it only remained for me to set forth in confidence and joy to an end that as yet I could not discern. I turned my face gladly to the wonder of the mountains.
Gladly - but with a reservation. I was leaving a friend and one whom I dimly felt might one day be more than a friend - Brynhild Ingmar. That problem must be met before I could take my way. I thought much of what might be said at parting. True, she had the deepest attraction for me, but true also that I now beheld a quest stretching out into the unknown which I must accept in the spirit of the knight errant. Dare I then bind my heart to any allegiance which would pledge me to a future inconsistent with what lay before me? How could I tell what she might think of the things which to me were now real and external - the revelation of the only reality that underlies all the seeming. Life can never be the same for the man who has penetrated to this, and though it may seem a hard saying there can be but a maimed understanding between him and those who still walk amid the phantoms of death and decay.
Her sympathy with nature was deep and wonderful but might it not be that though the earth was eloquent to her the skies were silent? I was but a beginner myself - I knew little indeed. Dare I risk that little in a sweet companionship which would sink me into the contentment of the life lived by the happily deluded between the cradle and the grave and perhaps close to me for ever that still sphere where my highest hope abides? I had much to ponder, for how could I lose her out of my life - though I knew not at all whether she who had so much to make her happiness would give me a single thought when I was gone.
If all this seem the very uttermost of selfish vanity, forgive a man who grasped in his hand a treasure so new, so wonderful that he walked in fear and doubt lest it should slip away and leave him in a world darkened for ever by the torment of the knowledge that it might have been his and he had bartered it for the mess of pottage that has bought so many birthrights since Jacob bargained with his weary brother in the tents of Lahai-roi. I thought I would come back later with my prize gained and throwing it at her feet ask her wisdom in return, for whatever I might not know I knew well she was wiser than I except in that one shining of the light from Eleusis. I walked alone in the woods thinking of these things and no answer satisfied me.
I did not see her alone until the day I left, for I was compelled by the arrangements I was making to go down to Simla for a night. And now the last morning had come with golden sun - shot mists rolling upward to disclose the far white billows of the sea of eternity, the mountains awaking to their enormous joys. The trees were dripping glory to the steaming earth; it flowed like rivers into their most secret recesses, moss and flower, fern and leaf floated upon the waves of light revealing their inmost soul in triumphant gladness. Far off across the valleys a cuckoo was calling - the very voice of spring, and in the green world above my head a bird sang, a feathered joy, so clear, so passionate that I thought the great summer morning listened in silence to his rapture ringing through the woods. I waited until the Jubilate was ended and then went in to bid good-bye to my friends.
Mrs. Ingmar bid me the kindest farewell and I left her serene in the negation of all beauty, all hope save that of a world run on the lines of a model municipality, disease a memory, sewerage, light and air systems perfected, the charted brain sending its costless messages to the outer parts of the habitable globe, and at least a hundred years of life with a decent cremation at the end of it assured to every eugenically born citizen. No more. But I have long ceased to regret that others use their own eyes whether clear or dim. Better the merest glimmer of light perceived thus than the hearsay of the revelations of others. And by the broken fragments of a bewildered hope a man shall eventually reach the goal and rejoice in that dawn where the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy. It must come, for it is already here.
Brynhild walked with me through the long glades in the fresh thin air to the bridle road where my men and ponies waited, eager to be off. We stood at last in the fringe of trees on a small height which commanded the way; - a high uplifted path cut along the shoulders of the hills and on the left the sheer drop of the valleys. Perhaps seven or eight feet in width and dignified by the name of the Great Hindustan and Tibet Road it ran winding far away into Wonderland. Looking down into the valleys, so far beneath that the solitudes seem to wall them in I thought of all the strange caravans which have taken this way with tinkle of bells and laughter now so long silenced, and as I looked I saw a lost little monastery in a giant crevice, solitary as a planet on the outermost ring of the system, and remembrance flashed into my mind and I said;"I have marching orders that have countermanded my own plans. I am to journey to the
Buddhist Monastery of Tashigong, and there meet a friend who will tell me what is necessary that I may travel to Yarkhand and beyond. It will be long before I see Kashmir."In those crystal clear eyes I saw a something new to me - a faint smile, half pitying, half sad; "Who told you, and where?" "A girl in a strange place. A woman who has twice guided me -" I broke off. Her smile perplexed me. I could not tell what to say. She repeated in a soft undertone; "Great Lady, be pitiful to the blind eyes and give them light."
And instantly I knew. 0 blind - blind! Was the unhappy King of the story duller of heart than I? And shame possessed me. Here was the chrysoberyl that all day hides its secret in deeps of lucid green but when the night comes flames with its fiery ecstasy of crimson to the moon, and I - I had been complacently considering whether I might not blunt my own spiritual instinct by companionship with her, while she had been my guide, as infinitely beyond me in insight as she was in all things beautiful. I could have kissed her feet in my deep repentance. True it is that the gateway of the high places is reverence and he who cannot bow his head shall receive no crown. I saw that my long travel in search of knowledge would have been utterly vain if I had not learnt that lesson there and then. In those moments of silence I learnt it once and for ever.
She stood by me breathing the liquid morning air, her face turned upon the eternal snows. I caught her hand in a recognition that might have ended years of parting, and its warm youth vibrated in mine, the foretaste of all understanding, all unions, of love that asks nothing, that fears nothing, that has no petition to make. She raised her eyes to mine and her tears were a rainbow of hope. So we stood in silence that was more than any words, and the golden moments went by. I knew her now for what she was, one of whom it might have been written;
"I come from where night falls clearer Than your morning sun can rise;
From an earth that to heaven draws nearer Than your visions of Paradise,-
For the dreams that your dreamers dream We behold them with open eyes."
"I do not understand that fully myself," she said - "That is part of the knowledge we must wait for. But you have the eyes that see, and that is a tie nothing can break. I had waited long in the House of Beauty for you. I guided you there. But between you and me there is also love."
I stretched an eager hand but she repelled it gently, drawing back a little. "Not love of each other though we are friends and in the future may be infinitely more. But - have you ever seen a drawing of Blake's - a young man stretching his arms to a white swan which flies from him on wings he cannot stay? That is the story of both our lives. We long to be joined in this life, here and now, to an unspeakable beauty and power whose true believers we are because we have seen and known. There is no love so binding as the same purpose. Perhaps that is the only true love. And so we shall never be apart though we may never in this world be together again in what is called companionship.""We shall meet," I said confidently. She smiled and was silent. "Do we follow a will-o'-the wisp in parting? Do we give up the substance for the shadow? Shall I stay?" She laughed joyously;
"We give a single rose for a rose-tree that bears seven times seven. Daily I see more, and you are going where you will be instructed. As you know my mother prefers for a time to have my cousin with her to help her with the book she means to write. So I shall have time to myself. What do you think I shall do?""Blow away on a great wind. Ride on the crests of tossing waves. Catch a star to light the fireflies!" She laughed like a bird's song.
"Wrong - wrong! I shall be a student. All I know as yet has come to me by intuition, but there is Law as well as Love and I will learn. I have drifted like a happy cloud before the wind. Now I will learn to be the wind that blows the clouds."
I looked at her in astonishment. If a flower had desired the same thing it could scarcely have seemed more incredible, for I had thought her whole life and nature instinctive not intellective. She smiled as one who has a beloved secret to keep."When you have gained what in this country they call The Knowledge of Regeneration, come back and ask me what I have learnt." She would say no more of that and turned to another matter, speaking with earnestness;
"Before you came here I had a message for you, and Stephen Clifden will tell you the same thing when you meet. Believe it for it is true. Remember always that the psychical is not the mystical and that what we seek is not marvel but vision. These two things are very far apart, so let the first with all its dangers pass you by, for our way lies to the heights, and for us there is only one danger - that of turning back and losing what the whole world cannot give in exchange. I have never seen Stephen Clifden but I know much of him. He is a safe guide - a man who has had much and strange sorrow which has brought him joy that cannot be told. He will take you to those who know the things that you desire. I wish I might have gone too."Something in the sweetness of her voice, its high passion, the strong beauty of her presence woke a poignant longing in my heart. I said; "I cannot leave you. You are the only guide I can follow. Let us search together - you always on before."
"Your way lies there," she pointed to the high mountains. "And mine to the plains, and if we chose our own we should wander. But we shall meet again in the way and time that will be best and with knowledge so enlarged that what we have seen already will be like an empty dream compared to daylight truth. If you knew what waits for you you would not delay one moment."
She stood radiant beneath the deodars, a figure of Hope, pointing steadily to the heights. I knew her words were true though as yet I could not tell how. I knew that whereas we had seen the Wonderful in beautiful though local forms there is a plane where the Formless may be apprehended in clear dream and solemn vision-the meeting of spirit with Spirit. What that revelation would mean I could not guess - how should I? - but I knew the illusion we call death and decay would wither before it. There is a music above and beyond the Ninth Vibration though I must love those words for ever for what their hidden meaning gave me.
I took her hand and held it. Strange - beyond all strangeness that that story of an ancient sorrow should have made us what we were to each other - should have opened to me the gates of that Country where she wandered content. For the first time I had realized in its fulness the loveliness of this crystal nature, clear as flowing water to receive and transmit the light - itself a prophecy and fulfilment of some higher race which will one day inhabit our world when it has learnt the true values. She drew a flower from her breast and gave it to me. It lies before me white and living as I write these words.I sprang down the road and mounted, giving the word to march. The men shouted and strode on - our faces to the Shipki Pass and what lay beyond. We had parted. Once, twice, I looked back, and standing in full sunlight, she waved her hand. We turned the angle of the rocks.
What I found - what she found is a story strange and beautiful which I may tell one day to those who care to hear. That for me there were pauses, hesitancies, dreads, on the way I am not concerned to deny, for so it must always be with the roots of the old beliefs of fear and ignorance buried in the soil of our hearts and ready to throw out their poisonous fibres. But there was never doubt. For myself I have long forgotten the meaning of that word in anything that is of real value.
Do not let it be thought that the treasure is reserved for the few or those of special gifts. And it is as free to the West as to the East though I own it lies nearer to the surface in the Orient where the spiritual genius of the people makes it possible and the greater and more faithful teachers are found. It is not without meaning that all the faiths of the world have dawned in those sunrise skies. Yet it is within reach of all and asks only recognition, for the universe has been the mine of its jewels-"Median gold it holds, and silver from Atropatene, Ruby and emerald from Hindustan, and Bactrian agate, Bright with beryl and pearl, sardonyx and sapphire."- -and more that cannot be uttered - the Lights and Perfections. So for all seekers I pray this prayer - beautiful in its sonorous Latin, but noble in all the tongues;
"Supplico tibi, Pater et Dux - I pray Thee, Guide of our vision, that we may remember the nobleness with which Thou hast endowed us, and that Thou wouldest be always on our right and on our left in the motion of our wills, that we may be purged from the contagion of the body and the affections of the brute and overcome and rule them. And I pray also that Thou wouldest drive away the blinding darkness from the eyes of our souls that we may know well what is to be held for divine and what for mortal."
"The nobleness with which Thou hast endowed us-" this, and not the cry of the miserable sinner whose very repentance is no virtue but the consequence of failure and weakness is the strong music to which we must march.And the way is open to the mountains.
The Interpreter A Romance Of The EastI
There are strange things in this story, but, so far as I understand them, I tell the truth. If you measure the East with a Western foot-rule you will say, "Impossible." I should have said it myself.Of myself I will say as little as I can, for this story is of Vanna Loring. I am an incident only, though I did not know that at first.
My name is Stephen Clifden, and I was eight-and-thirty; plenty of money, sound in wind and limb. I had been by way of being a writer before the war, the hobby of a rich man; but if I picked up anything in the welter in France, it was that real work is the only salvation this mad world has to offer; so I meant to begin at the beginning, and learn my trade like a journeyman labourer. I had come to the right place. A very wonderful city is Peshawar - rather let us say, two cities - the compounds, the fortifications where Europeans dwell in such peace as their strong right arms can secure them; and the native city and bazaar humming and buzzing like a hive of angry bees with the rumours that come up from Lower India or down the Khyber Pass with the camel caravans loaded with merchandise from Afghanistan, Bokhara, and farther. And it is because of this that Peshawar is the Key of India, and a city of Romance that stands at every corner, and cries aloud in the market - place. For at Peshawar every able-bodied man sleeps with his revolver under his pillow, and the old Fort is always ready in case it should be necessary at brief and sharp notice to hurry the women and children into it, and possibly, to die in their defense. So enlivening is the neighbourhood of the frontier tribes that haunt the famous Khyber Pass and the menacing hills where danger is always lurking.But there was society here, and I was swept into it - there was chatter, and it galled me.
I was beginning to feel that I had missed my mark, and must go farther afield, perhaps up into Central Asia, when I met Vanna Loring. If I say that her hair was soft and dark; that she had the deepest hazel eyes I have ever seen, and a sensitive, tender mouth; that she moved with a flowing grace like "a wave of the sea - it sounds like the portrait of a beauty, and she was never that. Also, incidentally, it gives none of her charm. I never heard any one get any further than that she was "oddly attractive" - let us leave it at that. She was certainly attractive to me.
She was the governess of little Winifred Meryon, whose father held the august position of General Commanding the Frontier Forces, and her mother the more commanding position of the reigning beauty of Northern India, generally speaking. No one disputed that. She was as pretty as a picture, and her charming photograph had graced as many illustrated papers as there were illustrated papers to grace.
But Vanna - I gleaned her story by bits when I came across her with the child in the gardens. I was beginning to piece it together now.
Her love of the strange and beautiful she had inherited from a young Italian mother, daughter of a political refugee; her childhood had been spent in a remote little village in the West of England; half reluctantly she told me how she had brought herself up after her mother's death and her father's second marriage. Little was said of that, but I gathered that it had been a grief to her, a factor in her flight to the East.
We were walking in the Circular Road then with Winifred in front leading her Pekingese by its blue ribbon, and we had it almost to ourselves except for a few natives passing slow and dignified on their own occasions, for fashionable Peshawar was finishing its last rubber of bridge, before separating to dress for dinner, and had no time to spare for trivialities and sunsets.
"So when I came to three-and-twenty," she said slowly, "I felt I must break away from our narrow life. I had a call to India stronger than anything on earth. You would not understand but that was so, and I had spent every spare moment in teaching myself India
- its history, legends, religions, everything! And I was not wanted at home, and I had grown afraid."
I could divine years of patience and repression under this plain tale, but also a power that would be dynamic when the authentic voice called. That was her charm - gentleness in strength - a sweet serenity."What were you afraid of?"
"Of growing old and missing what was waiting for me out here. But I could not get away like other people. No money, you see. So I thought I would come out here and teach. Dare I? Would they let me? I knew I was fighting life and chances and risks if I did it; but it was death if I stayed there. And then- Do you really care to hear?""Of course. Tell me how you broke your chain."
"I spare you the family quarrels. I can never go back. But I was spurred - spurred to take some wild leap; and I took it. Six years ago I came out. First I went to a doctor and his wife at Cawnpore. They had a wonderful knowledge of the Indian peoples, and there I learned Hindustani and much else. Then he died. But an aunt had left me two hundred pounds, and I could wait a little and choose; and so I came here."It interested me. The courage that pale elastic type of woman has!
"Have you ever regretted it? Would they take you back if you failed?" "Never, to both questions," she said, smiling. "Life is glorious. I've drunk of a cup I never thought to taste; and if I died tomorrow I should know I had done right. I rejoice in every moment I live - even when Winifred and I are wrestling with arithmetic.""I shouldn't have thought life was very easy with Lady Meryon."
"Oh, she is kind enough in an indifferent sort of way. I am not the persecuted Jane Eyre sort of governess at all. But that is all on the surface and does not matter. It is India I care for -the people, the sun, the infinite beauty. It was coming home. You would laugh if I told you I knew Peshawar long before I came here. Knew it - walked here, lived. Before there were English in India at all." She broke off. "You won't understand.""Oh, I have had that feeling, too," I said patronizingly. "If one has read very much about a place-"
"That was not quite what I meant. Never mind. The people, the place - that is the real thing to me. All this is the dream." The sweep of her hand took in not only Winifred and myself, but the general's stately residence, which to blaspheme in Peshawar is rank infidelity.
"By George, I would give thousands to feel that! I can't get out of Europe here. I want to write, Miss Loring," I found myself saying. "I'd done a bit, and then the war came and blew my life to pieces. Now I want to get inside the skin of the East, and I can't do it. I see it from outside, with a pane of glass between. No life in it. If you feel as you say, for God's sake be my interpreter!"
I really meant what I said. I knew she was a harp that any breeze would sweep into music. I divined that temperament in her and proposed to use it for my own ends. She had and I had not, the power to be a part of all she saw, to feel kindred blood running in her own veins. To the average European the native life of India is scarcely interesting, so far is it removed from all comprehension. To me it was interesting, but I could not tell why. I stood outside and had not the fairy gold to pay for my entrance. Here at all events she could buy her way where I could not. Without cruelty, which honestly was not my besetting sin - especially where women were concerned, the egoist in me felt I would use her, would extract the last drop of the enchantment of her knowledge before I went on my way. What more natural than that Vanna or any other woman should minister to my thirst for information? Men are like that. I pretend to be no better than the rest. She pleased my fastidiousness - that fastidiousness which is the only austerity in men not otherwise austere."Interpret?" she said, looking at me with clear hazel eyes; "how could I? You were in the native city yesterday. What did you miss?"
"Everything! I saw masses of colour, light, movement. Brilliantly picturesque people. Children like Asiatic angels. Magnificently scowling ruffians in sheepskin coats. In fact, a movie staged for my benefit. I was afraid they would ring down the curtain before I had had enough. It had no meaning. When I got back to my diggings I tried to put down what I had just seen, and I swear there's more inspiration in the guide-book.""Did you go alone?" "Yes, I certainly would not go sight-seeing with the Meryon crowd. Tell me what you felt when you saw it first."
"I went with Sir John's uncle. He was a great traveler. The colour struck me dumb. It flames - it sings. Think of the grey pinched life in the West! I saw a grave dark potter turning his wheel, while his little girl stood by, glad at our pleasure, her head veiled like a miniature woman, tiny baggy trousers, and a silver nose-stud, like a star, in one delicate nostril. In her thin arms she held a heavy baby in a gilt cap, like a monkey. And the wheel turned and whirled until it seemed to be spinning dreams, thick as motes in the sun. The clay rose in smooth spirals under his hand, and the wheel sang, 'Shall the vessel reprove him who made one to honour and one to dishonour?' And I saw the potter thumping his wet clay, and the clay, plastic as dream-stuff, shaped swift as light, and the three Fates stood at his shoul- der. Dreams, dreams, and all in the spinning of the wheel, and the rich shadows of the old broken courtyard where he sat. And the wheel stopped and the thread broke, and the little new shapes he had made stood all about him, and he was only a potter in Peshawar."
Her voice was like a song. She had utterly forgotten my existence. I did not dislike it at the moment, for I wanted to hear more, and the impersonal is the rarest gift a woman can give a man."Did you buy anything?"
"He gave me a gift - a flawed jar of turquoise blue, faint turquoise green round the lip. He saw I understood. And then I bought a little gold cap and a wooden box of jade-green Kabul grapes. About a rupee, all told. But it was Eastern merchandise, and I was trading from Balsora and Baghdad, and Eleazar's camels were swaying down from Damascus along the Khyber Pass, and coming in at the great Darwazah, and friends' eyes met me everywhere. I am profoundly happy here."The sinking sun lit an almost ecstatic face.
I envied her more deeply than I had ever envied any one. She had the secret of immortal youth, and I felt old as I looked at her. One might be eighty and share that passionate impersonal joy. Age could not wither nor custom stale the infinite variety of her world's joys. She had a child's dewy youth in her eyes.
There are great sunsets at Peshawar, flaming over the plain, dying in melancholy splendour over the dangerous hills. They too were hers, in a sense in which they could never be mine. But what a companion! To my astonishment a wild thought of marriage flashed across me, to be instantly rebuffed with a shrug. Marriage - that one's wife might talk poetry to one about the East! Absurd! But what was it these people felt and I could not feel? Almost, shut up in the prison of self, I knew what Vanna had felt in her village - a maddening desire to escape, to be a part of the loveliness that lay beyond me. So might a man love a king's daughter in her hopeless heights."It may be very beautiful on the surface," I said morosely; "but there's a lot of misery below - hateful, they tell me." "Of course. We shall get to work one day. But look at the sunset. It opens like a mysterious flower. I must take Winifred home now." "One moment," I pleaded; "I can only see it through your eyes. I feel it while you speak, and then the good minute goes." She laughed. "And so must I. Come, Winifred. Look, there's an owl; not like the owls in the summer dark in England- "Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping, Wavy in the dark, lit by one low star." Suddenly she turned again and looked at me half wistfully. "It is good to talk to you. You want to know. You are so near it all. I wish I could help you; I am so exquisitely happy myself."
My writing was at a standstill. It seemed the groping of a blind man in a radiant world. Once perhaps I had felt that life was good in itself - when the guns came thundering toward the Vimy Ridge in a mad gallop of horses, and men shouting and swearing and frantically urging them on. Then, riding for more than life, I had tasted life for an instant. Not before or since. But this woman had the secret.Lady Meryon, with her escort of girls and subalterns, came daintily past the hotel compound, and startled me from my brooding with her pretty silvery voice. "Dreaming, Mr. Clifden? It isn't at all wholesome to dream in the East. Come and dine with us tomorrow. A tiny dance afterwards, you know; or bridge for those who like it." I had not the faintest notion whether governesses dined with the family or came in afterward with the coffee; but it was a sporting chance, and I took it. Then Sir John came up and joined us.
"You can't well dance tomorrow, Kitty," he said to his wife. "There's been an outpost affair in the Swat Hills, and young Fitzgerald has been shot. Come to dinner of course, Clifden. Glad to see you. But no dancing, I think."
Kitty Meryon's mouth drooped like a pouting child's. Was it for the lost dance, or the lost soldier lying out on the hills in the dying sunset. Who could tell? In either case it was pretty enough for the illustrated papers.
Next evening I went into Lady Meryon's flower-scented drawing-room. The electric fans were fluttering and the evening air was cool. Five or six pretty girls and as many men made up the party - Kitty Meryon the prettiest of them all, fashionably undressed in faint pink and crystal, with a charming smile in readiness, all her gay little flags flying in the rich man's honour. I am no vainer than other men, but I saw that. Whatever her charm might be it was none for me. What could I say to interest her who lived in her foolish little world as one shut in a bright bubble? And she had said the wrong word about young Fitzgerald - I wanted Vanna, with her deep seeing eyes, to say the right one and adjust those cruel values.
Governesses dine, it appeared, only to fill an unexpected place, or make a decorous entry afterward, to play accompaniments. Fortunately Kitty Meryon sang, in a pinched little soprano, not nearly so pretty as her silver ripple of talk.
It was when the party had settled down to bridge and I was standing out, that I ventured to go up to her as she sat knitting by a window - not unwatched by the quick flash of Lady Meryon's eyes as I did it."I think you hypnotize me, Miss Loring. When I hear anything I straightway want to know what you will say. Have you heard of Fitzgerald's death?"
"That is why we are not dancing tonight. Tomorrow the cable will reach his home in England. He was an only child, and they are the great people of the village where we are the little people. I knew his mother as one knows a great lady who is kind to all the village folk. It may kill her. It is travelling tonight like a bullet to her heart, and she does not know.""His father?"
"A brave man - a soldier himself. He will know it was a good death and that Harry would not fail. He did not at Ypres. He would not here. But all joy and hope will be dead in that house tomorrow."
"And what do you think?" "I am not sorry for Harry, if you mean that. He knew - we all know - that he was on guard here holding the outposts against blood and treachery and terrible things - playing the Great Game. One never loses at that game if one plays it straight, and I am sure that at the last it was joy he felt and not fear. He has not lost. Did you notice in the church a niche before every soldier's seat to hold his loaded gun? And the tablets on the walls; "Killed at Kabul River, aged 22." - "Killed on outpost duty." - "Murdered by an Afghan fanatic." This will be one memory more. Why be sorry."Presently:-
"I am going up to the hills tomorrow, to the Malakhand Fort, with Mrs. Delany, Lady Meryon's aunt, and we shall see the wonderful Tahkt-i-Bahi Monastery on the way. You should do that run before you go. The fort is the last but one on the way to Chitral, and beyond that the road is so beset that only soldiers may go farther, and indeed the regiments escort each other up and down. But it is an early start, for we must be back in Peshawar at six for fear of raiding natives."
"I know; they hauled me up in the dusk the other day, and told me I should be swept off to the hills if I fooled about after dusk. But I say - is it safe for you to go? You ought to have a man. Could I go too?"I thought she did not look enthusiastic at the proposal.
"Ask. You know I settle nothing. I go where I am sent." She said it with the happiest smile. I knew they could send her nowhere that she would not find joy. I thought her mere presence must send the vibrations of happiness through the household. Yet again - why? For where there is no receiver the current speaks in vain; and for an instant I seemed to see the air full of messages - of speech striving to utter its passionate truths to deaf ears stopped for ever against the breaking waves of sound. But Vanna heard.
She left the room; and when the bridge was over, I made my request. Lady Meryon shrugged her shoulders and declared it would be a terribly dull run - the scenery nothing, "and only" (she whispered) "Aunt Selina and poor Miss Loring?"Of course I saw at once that she did not like it; but Sir John was all for my going, and that saved the situation.
I certainly could have dispensed with Aunt Selina when the automobile drew up in the golden river of the sunrise at the hotel. There were only the driver, a personal servant, and the two ladies; Mrs. Delany, comely, pleasant, talkative, and Vanna-
Her face in its dark motoring veil, fine and delicate as a young moon in a cloud drift - the sensitive sweet mouth that had quivered a little when she spoke of Fitzgerald - the pure glance that radiated such kindness to all the world. She sat there with the Key of Dreams pressed against her slight bosom - her eyes dreaming above it. Already the strange airs of her unknown world were breathing about me, and as yet I knew not the things that belonged unto my peace.
We glided along the straight military road from Peshawar to Nowshera, the gold-bright sun dazzling in its whiteness - a strange drive through the flat, burned country, with the ominous Kabul River flowing through it. Military preparations everywhere, and the hills looking watchfully down - alive, as it were, with keen, hostile eyes. War was at present about us as behind the lines in France; and when we crossed the Kabul River on a bridge of boats, and I saw its haunted waters, I began to feel the atmosphere of the place closing down upon me. It had a sinister beauty; it breathed suspense; and I wished, as I was sure Vanna did, for silence that was not at our command.
For Mrs. Delany felt nothing of it. A bright shallow ripple of talk was her contribution to the joys of the day; though it was, fortunately, enough for her happiness if we listened and agreed. I knew Vanna listened only in show. Her intent eyes were fixed on the Tahkti-Bahi hills after we had swept out of Nowshera; and when the car drew up at the rough track, she had a strange look of suspense and pallor. I remember I wondered at the time if she were nervous in the wild open country.
"Now pray don't be shocked," said Mrs. Delany comfortably; "but you two young people may go up to the monastery, and I shall stay here. I am dreadfully ashamed of myself, but the sight of that hill is enough for me. Don't hurry. I may have a little doze, and be all the better company when you get back. No, don't try to persuade me, Mr. Clifden. It isn't the part of a friend."
I cannot say I was sorry, though I had a moment of panic when Vanna offered to stay with her - very much, too, as if she really meant it. So we set out perforce, Vanna leading steadily, as if she knew the way. She never looked up, and her wish for silence was so evident, that I followed, lending my hand mutely when the difficulties obliged it, she accepting absently, and as if her thoughts were far away.
Suddenly she quickened her pace. We had climbed about nine hundred feet, and now the narrow track twisted through the rocks - a track that looked as age-worn as no doubt it was. We threaded it, and struggled over the ridge, and looked down victorious on the other side.
There she stopped. A very wonderful sight, of which I had never seen the like, lay below us. Rock and waste and towering crags, and the mighty ruin of the monastery set in the fangs of the mountain like a robber baron's castle, looking far away to the blue mountains of the Debatable Land - the land of mystery and danger. It stood there - the great ruin of a vast habitation of men. Building after building, mysterious and broken, corridors, halls, refectories, cells; the dwelling of a faith so alien that I could not reconstruct the life that gave it being. And all sinking gently into ruin that in a century more would confound it with the roots of the mountains.
Grey and wonderful, it clung to the heights and looked with eyeless windows at the past. Somehow I found it infinitely pathetic; the very faith it expressed is dead in India, and none left so poor to do it reverence.
But Vanna knew her way. Unerringly she led me from point to point, and she was visibly at home in the intricacies. Such knowledge in a young woman bewildered me. Could she have studied the plans in the Museum? How else should she know where the abbot lived, or where the refractory brothers were punished?
Once I missed her, while I stooped to examine some scroll-work, and following, found her before one of the few images of the Buddha that the rapacious Museum had spared - a singularly beautiful bas-relief, the hand raised to enforce the truth the calm lips were speaking, the drapery falling in stately folds to the bare feet. As I came up, she had an air as if she had just ceased from movement, and I had a distinct feeling that she had knelt before it - I saw the look of worship! The thing troubled me like a dream, haunting, impossible, but real."How beautiful!" I said in spite of myself, as she pointed to the image. "In this utter solitude it seems the very spirit of the place." "He was. He is," said Vanna. "Explain to me. I don't understand. I know so little of him. What is the subject?"
She hesitated; then chose her words as if for a beginner;- "It is the Blessed One preaching to the Tree-Spirits. See how eagerly they lean from the boughs to listen. This other relief represents him in the state of mystic vision. Here he is drowned in peace. See how it overflows from the closed eyes; the closed lips. The air is filled with his quiet.""What is he dreaming?" "Not dreaming - seeing. Peace. He sits at the point where time and infinity meet. To attain that vision was the aim of the monks who lived here." "Did they attain?" I found myself speaking as if she could certainly answer.
"A few. There was one, Vasettha, the Brahman, a young man who had renounced all his possessions and riches, and seated here before this image of the Blessed One, he fell often into the mystic state. He had a strange vision at one time of the future of India, which will surely be fulfilled. He did not forget it in his rebirths. He remembers-"
She broke off suddenly and said with forced indifference, - "He would sit here often looking out over the mountains; the monks sat at his feet to hear. He became abbot while still young. But his story is a sad one."
"I entreat you to tell me."
She looked away over the mountains. "While he was abbot here,- still a young man,- a famous Chinese Pilgrim came down through Kashmir to visit the Holy Places in India. The abbot went forward with him to Peshawar, that he might make him welcome. And there came a dancer to Peshawar, named Lilavanti, most beautiful! I dare not tell you her beauty. I tremble now to think-"Again she paused, and again the faint creeping sense of mystery invaded me. She resumed;-
"The abbot saw her and he loved her. He was young still, you remember. She was a woman of the Hindu faith and hated Buddhism. It swept him down into the lower worlds of storm and desire. He fled with Lilavanti and never returned here. So in his rebirth he fell-"She stopped dead; her face pale as death. "How do you know? Where have you read it? If I could only find what you find and know what you know! The East is like an open book to you. Tell me the rest."
"How should I know any more?" she said hurriedly. "We must be going back. You should study the plans of this place at Peshawar. They were very learned monks who lived here. It is famous for learning."The life had gone out of her words-out of the ruins. There was no more to be said.
We clambered down the hill in the hot sunshine, speaking only of the view, the strange shrubs and flowers, and, once, the swift gliding of a snake, and found Mrs. Delany blissfully asleep in the most padded corner of the car. The spirit of the East vanished in her comfortable presence, and luncheon seemed the only matter of moment.
"I wonder, my dears," she said, "if you would be very disappointed and think me very dense if I proposed our giving up the Malakhand Fort? The driver has been giving me in very poor English such an account of the dangers of that awful road up the hill that I feel no Fort would repay me for its terrors. Do say what you feel, Miss Loring. Mr. Clifden can lunch with the officers at Nowshera and come any time. I know I am an atrocity."
There could be only one answer, though Vanna and I knew perfectly well the crafty design of the driver to spare himself work. Mrs. Delany remained brightly awake for the run home, and favored us with many remarkable views on India and its shortcomings, Vanna, who had a sincere liking for her, laughing with delight at her description of a visit of condolence with Lady Meryon to the five widows of one of the hill Rajas. But I own I was pre-occupied. I knew those moments at the monastery had given me a glimpse into the wonderland of her soul that made me long for more. It was rapidly becoming clear to me that unless my intentions developed on very different lines I must flee Peshawar. For love is born of sympathy, and sympathy was strengthening daily, but for love I had no courage yet.
I feared it as men fear the unknown. I despised myself - but I feared. I will confess my egregious folly and vanity - I had no doubt as to her reception of my offer if I should make it, but possessed by a colossal selfishness, I thought only of myself, and from that point of view could not decide how I stood to lose or gain. In my wildest accesses of vanity I did not suppose Vanna loved me, but I felt she liked me, and I believe the advantages I had to offer would be overwhelming to a woman in her position. So, tossed on the waves of indecision, I inclined to flight.
That night I resolutely began my packing, and wrote a note of farewell to Lady Meryon. The next morning I furiously undid it, and destroyed the note. And that afternoon I took the shortest way to the sun-set road to lounge about and wait for Vanna and Winifred. She never came, and I was as unreasonably angry as if I had deserved the blessing of her presence.
Next day I could see that she tried gently hut clearly to discourage our meeting and for three days I never saw her at all. Yet I knew that in her solitary life our talks counted for a pleasure, and when we met again I thought I saw a new softness in the lovely hazel deeps of her eyes.III
On the day when things became clear to me, I was walking towards the Meryons' gates when I met her coming alone along the sunset road, in the late gold of the afternoon. She looked pale and a little wearied, and I remembered I wished I did not know every change of her face as I did. It was a symptom that alarmed my selfishness - it galled me with the sense that I was no longer my own despot."So you have been up the Khyber Pass," she said as I fell into step at her side. "Tell me - was it as wonderful as you expected?" "No, no, -you tell me! It will give me what I missed. Begin at the beginning. Tell me what I saw." I could not miss the delight of her words, and she laughed, knowing my whim.
"Oh, that Pass! -the wonder of those old roads that have borne the traffic and romance of the world for ages. Do you think there is anything in the world so fascinating as they are? But did you go on Tuesday or Friday?"
For these are the only days in the week when the Khyber can be safely entered. The British then turn out the Khyber Rifles and man every crag, and the loaded caravans move like a tide, and go up and down the narrow road on their occasions.
"Well, you gave your word not to photograph or sketch - as if one wanted to when every bit of it is stamped on one's brain! And you went up to Jumrood Fort at the entrance. Did they tell you it is an old Sikh Fort and has been on duty in that turbulent place for five hundred years And did you see the machine guns in the court? And every one armed - even the boys with belts of cartridges? Then you went up the narrow winding track between the mountains, and you said to yourself, 'This is the road of pure romance. It goes up to silken Samarkhand, and I can ride to Bokhara of the beautiful women and to all the dreams. Am I alive and is it real?' You felt that?""All. Every bit. Go on!" She smiled with pleasure.
"And you saw the little forts on the crags and the men on guard all along the bills, rifles ready! You could hear the guns rattle as they saluted. Do you know that up there men plough with rifles loaded beside them? They have to be men indeed.""Do you mean to imply that we are not men?"
"Different men at least. This is life in a Border ballad. Such a life as you knew in France but beautiful in a wild - hawk sort of way. Don't the Khyber Rifles bewilder you? They are drawn from these very Hill tribes, and will shoot their own fathers and brothers in the way of duty as comfortably as if they were jackals. Once there was a scrap here and one of the tribesmen sniped our men unbearably. What do you suppose happened? A Khyber Rifle came to the Colonel and said, 'Let me put an end to him, Colonel Sahib. I know exactly where he sits. He is my grandfather.' And he did it!""The bond of bread and salt?"
"Yes, and discipline. I'm sometimes half frightened of discipline. It moulds a man like wax. Even God doesn't do that. Well - then you had the traders - wild shaggy men in sheepskin and women in massive jewelry of silver and turquoise,-great earrings, heavy bracelets loading their arms, wild, fierce, handsome. And the camels - thousands of them, some going up, some coming down, a mass of human and animal life. Above you, moving figures against the keen blue sky, or deep below you in the ravines. "The camels were swaying along with huge bales of goods, and dark beautiful women in wicker cages perched on them. Silks and carpets from Bokhara, and blue - eyed Persian cats, and bluer Persian turquoises. Wonderful! And the dust, gilded by the sunshine, makes a vaporous golden atmosphere for it all.""What was the most wonderful thing you saw there?"
"The most beautiful, I think, was a man - a splendid dark ruffian lounging along. He wanted to show off, and his swagger was perfect. Long black onyx eyes and a tumble of black curls, and teeth like almonds. But what do you think he carried on his wrist - a hawk with fierce yellow eyes, ringed and chained. Hawking is a favourite sport in the hills. Oh, why doesn't some great painter come and paint it all before they take to trains and cars? I long to see it all again, but I never shall.""Why not," said I. "Surely Sir John can get you up there any day?" "Not now. The fighting makes it difficult. But it isn't that. I am leaving." "Leaving?" My heart gave a leap. "Why? Where?" "Leaving Lady Meryon." "Why - for Heaven's sake?" "I had rather not tell you." "But I must know." "You cannot." "I shall ask Lady Meryon." "I forbid you." And then the unexpected happened, and an unbearable impulse swept me into folly - or was it wisdom? "Listen to me. I would not have said it yet, but this settles it. I want you to marry me. I want it atrociously!"
It was a strange word. What I felt for her at that moment was difficult to describe. I endured it like a pain that could only be assuaged by her presence, but I endured it angrily. We were walking on the sunset road - very deserted and quiet at the time. The place was propitious if nothing else was.She looked at me in transparent astonishment; "Mr. Clifden, are you dreaming? You can't mean what you say." "Why can't I? I do. I want you. You have the key of all I care for. I think of the world without you and find it tasteless." "Surely you have all the world can give? What do you want more?" "The power to enjoy it - to understand it. You have got that - I haven't. I want you always with me to interpret, like a guide to a blind fellow. I am no better." "Say like a dog, at once!" she interrupted. "At least you are frank enough to put it on that ground. You have not said you love me. You could not say it."
"I don't know whether I do or not. I know nothing about love. I want you. Indescribably. Perhaps that is love - is it? I never wanted any one before. I have tried to get away and I can't."I was brutally frank, you see. She compelled my very thoughts. "Why have you tried?"
"Because every man likes freedom. But I like you better." "I can tell you the reason," she said in her gentle unwavering voice. "I am Lady Meryon's governess, and an undesirable. You have felt that?"
"Don't make me out such a snob. No - yes. You force me into honesty. I did feel it at first like the miserable fool I am, but I could kick myself when I think of that now. It is utterly forgotten. Take me and make me what you will, and forgive me. Only tell me your secret of joy. How is it you understand everything alive or dead? I want to live - to see, to know."It was a rhapsody like a boy's. Yet at the moment I was not even ashamed of it, so sharp was my need.
"I think," she said, slowly, looking straight before her, "that I had better be quite frank. I don't love you. I don't know what love means in the Western sense. It has a very different meaning for me. Your voice comes to me from an immense distance when you speak in that way. You want me - but never with a thought of what I might want. Is that love? I like you very deeply as a friend, but we are of different races. There is a gulf.""A gulf? You are English."
"By birth, yes. In mind, no. And there are things that go deeper, that you could not understand. So I refuse quite definitely, and our ways part here, for in a few days I go. I shall not see you again, but I wish to say good-bye."
The bitterest chagrin was working in my soul. I felt as if all were deserting me-a sickening feeling of loneliness. I did not know the man who was in me, and was a stranger to myself.
"On no account. How can I make it more plain to you? I should have gone soon in any case. My place is in the native city - that is the life I want. I have work there, I knew it before I came out. My sympathies are all with them. They know what life is - why even the beggars, poorer than poor, are perfectly happy, basking in the great generous sun. Oh, the splendour and riot of life and colour! That's my life - I sicken of this.""But I'll give it to you. Marry me, and we will travel till you're tired of it." "Yes, and look on as at a play - sitting in the stalls, and applauding when we are pleased. No, I'm going to work there." "For God's sake, how? Let me come too." "You can't. You're not in it. I am going to attach myself to the medical mission at Lahore and learn nursing, and then I shall go to my own people." "Missionaries? You've nothing in common with them?" "Nothing. But they teach what I want. Mr. Clifden, I shall not come this way again. If I remember - I'll write to you, and tell you what the real world is like." She smiled, the absorbed little smile I knew and feared. I saw pleading was useless then. I would wait, and never lose sight of her and of hope. "Vanna, before you go, give me your gift of sight. Interpret for me. Stay with me a little and make me see." "What do you mean exactly?" she asked in her gentlest voice, half turning to me.
"Make one journey with me, as my sister, if you will do no more. Though I warn you that all the time I shall be trying to win my wife. But come with me once, and after that - if you will go, you must. Say yes."
Madness! But she hesitated - a hesitation full of hope, and looked at me with intent eyes.
"I will tell you frankly," she said at last, "that I know my knowledge of the East and kinship with it goes far beyond mere words. In my case the doors were not shut. I believe
- I know that long ago this was my life. If I spoke for ever I could not make you understand how much I know and why. So I shall quite certainly go back to it. Nothing - you least of all, can hold me. But you are my friend - that is a true bond. And if you would wish me to give you two months before I go, I might do that if it would in any way help you. As your friend only - you clearly understand. You would not reproach me afterwards when I left you, as I should most certainly do?"
"I swear I would not. I swear I would protect you even from myself. I want you for ever, but if you will only give me two months - come! But have you thought that people will talk. It may injure you.I'm not worth that, God knows. And you will take nothing I could give you in return." She spoke very quietly.
"That does not trouble me. - It would only trouble me if you asked what I have not to give. For two months I would travel with you as a friend, if, like a friend, I paid my own expenses-"
I would have interrupted, but she brushed that firmly aside. "No, I must do as I say, and I am quite able to or I should not suggest it. I would go on no other terms. It would be hard if because we are man and woman I might not do one act of friendship for you before we part. For though I refuse your offer utterly, I appreciate it, and I would make what little return I can. It would be a sharp pain to me to distress you."
Her gentleness and calm, the magnitude of the offer she was making stunned me so that I could scarcely speak. There was such an extraordinary simplicity and generosity in her manner that it appeared to me more enthralling and bewildering than the most finished coquetry I had ever known. She gave me opportunities that the most ardent lover could in his wildest dream desire, and with the remoteness in her eyes and her still voice she deprived them of all hope. It kindled in me a flame that made my throat dry when I tried to speak."Vanna, is it a promise? You mean it?" "If you wish it, yes. But I warn you I think it will not make it easier for you when the time is over. "Why two months?"
"Partly because I can afford no more. No! I know what you would say. Partly because I can spare no more time. But I will give you that, if you wish, though, honestly, I had very much rather not. I think it unwise for you. I would protect you if I could - indeed I would!"
It was my turn to hesitate now. Every moment revealed to me some new sweetness, some charm that I saw would weave itself into the very fibre of my I had been! Was I not now a fool? Would it not being if the opportunity were given. Oh, fool that be better to let her go before she had become a part of my daily experience? I began to fear I was courting my own shipwreck. She read my thoughts clearly."Indeed you would be wise to decide against it. Release me from my promise. It was a mad scheme."
The superiority - or so I felt it - of her gentleness maddened me. It might have been I who needed protection, who was running the risk of misjudgment - not she, a lonely woman. She looked at me, waiting - trying to be wise for me, never for one instant thinking of herself. I felt utterly exiled from the real purpose of her life."I will never release you. I claim your promise. I hold to it." "Very well then - I will write, and tell you where I shall be. Good-bye, and if you change your mind, as I hope you will, tell me." She extended her hand cool as a snowflake, and was gone, walking swiftly up the road. Ah, let a man beware when his wishes fulfilled, rain down upon him!
To what had I committed myself? She knew her strength and had no fears. I could scarcely realize that she had liking enough for me to make the offer. That it meant no shade more than she had said I knew well. She was safe, but what was to be the result for me? I knew nothing - she was a beloved mystery."Strange she is and secret, Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold as cold sea-shells." Yet I would risk it, for I knew there was no hope if I let her go now, and if I saw her again, some glimmer might fall upon my dark. Next day this reached me:- Dear Mr. Clifden,-
I am going to some Indian friends for a time. On the 15th of June I shall he at Srinagar in Kashmir. A friend has allowed me to take her little houseboat, the "Kedarnath." If you like this plan we will share the cost for two months. I warn you it is not luxurious, but I think you will like it. I shall do this whether you come or no, for I want a quiet time before I take up my nursing in Lahore. In thinking of all this will you remember that I am not a girl but a woman. I shall he twenty-nine my next birthday. Sincerely yours, VANNA LORING.
P.S. But I still think you would be wiser not to come. I hope to hear you will not. I replied only this :- Dear Miss Loring,- I think I understand the position fully. I will be there. I thank you with all my heart. Gratefully yours, STEPHEN CLIFDEN.IV
Three days later I met Lady Meryon, and was swept in to tea. Her manner was distinctly more cordial as she mentioned casually that Vanna had left - she understood to take up missionary work - "which is odd," she added with a woman's acrimony, "for she had no more in common with missionaries than I have, and that is saying a good deal. Of course she speaks Hindustani perfectly, and could be useful, but I haven't grasped the point of it yet" I saw she counted on my knowing nothing of the real reason of Vanna's going and left it, of course, at that. The talk drifted away under my guidance. Vanna evidently puzzled her. She half feared, and wholly misunderstood her.No message came to me, as time went by, and for the time she had vanished completely, but I held fast to her promise and lived on that only. I take up my life where it ceased to be a mere suspense and became life once more.
On the 15th of June, I found myself riding into Srinagar in Kashmir, through the pure tremulous green of the mighty poplars that hedge the road into the city. The beauty of the country had half stunned me when I entered the mountain barrier of Baramula and saw the snowy peaks that guard the Happy Valley, with the Jhelum flowing through its tranquil loveliness. The flush of the almond blossom was over, but the iris, like a blue sea of peace had overflowed the world - the azure meadows smiled back at the radiant sky. Such blossom! the blue shading into clear violet, like a shoaling sea. The earth, like a cup held in the hand of a god, brimmed with the draught of youth and summer and - love? But no, for me the very word was sinister. Vanna's face, immutably calm, confronted it.
That night I slept in a boat at Sopor, and I remember that, waking at midnight, I looked out and saw a mountain with a gloriole of hazy silver about it, misty and faint as a cobweb threaded with dew. The river, there spreading into a lake, was dark under it, flowing in a deep smooth blackness of shadow, and everything awaited - what? And even while I looked, the moon floated serenely above the peak, and all was bathed in pure light, the water rippling and shining in broken silver and pearl. So had Vanna floated into my sky, luminous, sweet, remote. I did not question my heart any more. I knew I loved her.
Two days later I rode into Srinagar, and could scarcely see the wild beauty of that strange Venice. of the East, my heart was so beating in my eyes. I rode past the lovely wooden bridges where the balconied houses totter to each other across the canals in dim splendour of carving and age; where the many-coloured native life crowds down to the river steps and cleanses its flower-bright robes, its gold-bright brass vessels in the shining stream, and my heart said only - Vanna, Vanna!
One day, one thought, of her absence had taught me what she was to me, and if humility and patient endeavor could raise me to her feet, I was resolved that I would spend my life in labor and think it well spent.
My servant dismounted and led his horse, asking from every one where the "Kedarnath" could be found, and eager black eyes sparkled and two little bronze images detached themselves from the crowd of boys, and ran, fleet as fauns, before us.
Above the last bridge the Jhelum broadens out into a stately river, controlled at one side by the banked walk known as the Bund, with the Club House upon it and the line of houseboats beneath. Here the visitors flutter up and down and exchange the gossip, the bridge appointments, the little dinners that sit so incongruously on the pure Orient that is Kashmir.
She would not be here. My heart told me that, and sure enough the boys were leading across the bridge and by a quiet shady way to one of the many backwaters that the great river makes in the enchanting city. There is one waterway stretching on afar to the Dal Lake. It looks like a river - it is the very haunt of peace. Under those mighty chenar, or plane trees, that are the glory of Kashmir, clouding the water with deep green shadows, the sun can scarcely pierce, save in a dipping sparkle here and there to intensify the green gloom. The murmur of the city, the chatter of the club, are hundreds of miles away. We rode downward under the towering trees, and dismounting, saw a little houseboat tethered to the bank. It was not of the richer sort that haunts the Bund, where the native servants follow in a separate boat, and even the electric light is turned on as part of the luxury. This was a long low craft, very broad, thatched like a country cottage afloat. In the forepart lived the native owner, and his family, their crew, our cooks and servants; for they played many parts in our service. And in the afterpart, room for a life, a dream, the joy or curse & many days to be.
But then, I saw only one thing - Vanna sat under the trees, reading, or looking at the cool dim watery vista, with a single boat, loaded to the river's edge with melons and scarlet tomatoes, punting lazily down to Srinagar in the sleepy afternoon.
She was dressed in white with a shady hat, and her delicate dark face seemed to glow in the shadow like the heart of a pale rose. For the first time I knew she was beautiful. Beauty shone in her like the flame in an alabaster lamp, serene, diffused in the very air about her, so that to me she moved in a mild radiance. She rose to meet me with both hands outstretched - the kindest, most cordial welcome. Not an eyelash flickered, not a trace of self- consciousness. If I could have seen her flush or tremble - but no - her eyes were clear and calm as a forest pool. So I remembered her. So I saw her once more.I tried, with a hopeless pretence, to follow her example and hide what I felt, where she had nothing to hide.
"What a place you have found. Why, it's like the deep heart of a wood!" "Yes, I saw it once when I was here with the Meryons. But we lay at the Bund then - just under the Club. This is better. Did you like the ride up?"I threw myself on the grass beside her with a feeling of perfect rest. "It was like a new heaven and a new earth. What a country!" The very spirit of Quiet seemed to be drowsing in those branches towering up into the blue, dipping their green fingers into the crystal of the water. What a heaven!
"Now you shall have your tea and then I will show you your rooms," she said, smiling at my delight. "We shall stay here a few days more that you may see Srinagar, and then they tow us up into the Dal Lake opposite the Gardens of the Mogul Emperors. And if you think this beautiful what will you say then?"
I shut my eyes and see still that first meal of my new life. The little table that Pir Baksh, breathing full East in his jade-green turban, set before her, with its cloth worked in a pattern of the chenar leaves that are the symbol of Kashmir; the brown cakes made by Ahmad Khan in a miraculous kitchen of his own invention - a few holes burrowed in the river bank, a smoldering fire beneath them, and a width of canvas for a roof. But it served, and no more need be asked of luxury. And Vanna, making it mysteriously the first home I ever had known, the central joy of it all. Oh, wonderful days of life that breathe the spirit of immortality and pass so quickly - surely they must be treasured somewhere in Eternity that we may look upon their beloved light once more.
"Now you must see the boat. The Kedarnath is not a Dreadnought, but she is broad and very comfortable. And we have many chaperons. They all live in the bows, and exist simply to protect the Sahiblog from all discomfort, and very well they do it. That is Ahmad Khan by the kitchen. He cooks for us. Salama owns the boat, and steers her and engages the men to tow us when we move. And when I arrived he aired a little English and said piously; The Lord help me to give you no trouble, and the Lord help you!" That is his wife sitting on the bank. She speaks little but Kashmiri, but I know a little of that. Look at the hundred rat-tail plaits of her hair, lengthened with wool, and see her silver and turquoise jewelry. She wears much of the family fortune and is quite a walking bank. Salama, Ahmad Khan and I talk by the hour. Ahmad comes from Fyzabad. Look at Salama's boy - I call him the Orange Imp. Did you ever see anything so beautiful?"
I looked in sheer delight, and grasped my camera. Sitting near us was a lovely little Kashmiri boy of about eight, in a faded orange coat, and a turban exactly like his father's. His curled black eyelashes were so long that they made a soft gloom over the upper part of the little golden face. The perfect bow of the scarlet lips, the long eyes, the shy smile, suggested an Indian Eros. He sat dipping his feet in the water with little pigeon-like cries of content.
"He paddles at the bow of our little shikara boat with a paddle exactly like a water-lily leaf. Do you like our friends? I love them already, and know all their affairs. And now for the boat."
It was like music, but a cold music that chilled me. She should have hesitated, should have flushed - it was I who trembled. So I followed her across the broad plank into our new home."This is our sitting-room. Look, how charming!"
It was better than charming; it was home indeed. Windows at each side opening down almost to the water, a little table for meals that lived mostly on the bank, with a grey pot of iris in the middle. Another table for writing, photography, and all the little pursuits of travel. A bookshelf with some well - worn friends. Two long cushioned chairs. Two for meals, and a Bokhara rug, soft and pleasant for the feet. The interior was plain unpainted wood, but set so that the grain showed like satin in the rippling lights from the water.
That is the inventory of the place I have loved best in the world, but what eloquence can describe what it gave me, what its memory gives me to this day? And I have no eloquence - what I felt leaves me dumb."It is perfect," was all I said as she waved her hand proudly. "It is home."
"And if you had come alone to Kashmir you would have had a great rich boat with electric light and a butler. You would never have seen the people except at meal - times. I think you will like this better. Well, this is your tiny bedroom, and your bathroom, and beyond the sitting - room are mine. Do you like it all?"
But I could say no more. The charm of her own personality had touched everything and left its fragrance like a flower - breath in the air. I was beggared of thanks, but my whole soul was gratitude. We dined on the bank that evening, the lamp burning steadily in the still air and throwing broken reflections in the water, while the moon looked in upon them through the leaves. I felt extraordinarily young and happy.
The quiet of her voice was soft as the little lap of water against the bows of the boat, and Kahdra, the Orange Imp, was singing a little wordless song to himself as he washed the plates beside us. It was a simple meal, and Vanna, abstemious as a hermit never ate anything but rice and fruit, but I could remember no meal in all my days of luxury where I had eaten with such zest.
"It looks very grand to have so many to wait upon us, doesn't it? But this is one of the cheapest countries in the world though the old timers mourn over present expenses. You will laugh when I show you your share of the cost."
"But you must listen to my plans. We must do a little camping the last three weeks before we part. Up in the mountains. Are they not marvellous? They stand like a rampart round us, but not cold and terrible, but "Like as the hills stand round about Jerusalem" - they are guardian presences. And running up into them, high -very high, are the valleys and hills where we shall camp. Tomorrow we shall row through Srinagar, by the old Maharaja's palace."V
And so began a life of sheer enchantment. We knew no one. The visitors in Kashmir change nearly every season, and no one cared-no one asked anything of us, and as for our shipmates, a willing affectionate service was their gift, and no more. Looking back, I know in what a wonder-world I was privileged to live. Vanna could talk with them all. She did not move apart, a condescending or indifferent foreigner. Kahdra would come to her knee and prattle to her of the great snake that lived up on Mahadeo to devour erring boys who omitted their prayers at proper Moslem intervals. She would sit with the baby in her lap while the mother busied herself in the sunny bows with the mysterious dishes that smelt so savory to a hungry man. The cuts, the bruises of the neighbourhood all came to Vanna for treatment.
"I am graduating as a nurse," she would say laughing as she bent over the lean arm of some weirdly wrinkled old lady, bandaging and soothing at the same moment. Her reward would be some bit of folk-lore, some quaintness of gratitude that I noted down in the little book I kept for remembrance - that I do not need, for every word is in my heart.
We rowed down through the city next day - Salama rowing, and little Kahdra lazily paddling at the bow - a wonderful city, with its narrow ways begrimed with the dirt of ages, and its balconied houses looking as if disease and sin had soaked into them and given them a vicious tottering beauty, horrible and yet lovely too. We saw the swarming life of the bazaar, the white turbans coming and going, diversified by the rose and yellow Hindu turbans, and the caste-marks, orange and red, on the dark brows.
I saw two women - girls - painted and tired like Jezebel, looking out of one window carved and old, and the grey burnished doves flying about it. They leaned indolently, like all the old, old wickedness of the East that yet is ever young - "Flowers of Delight," with smooth black hair braided with gold and blossoms, and covered with pale rose veils, and gold embossed disks swinging like lamps beside the olive cheeks, the great eyes artificially lengthened and darkened with soorma, and the curves of the full lips emphasized with vermilion. They looked down on us with apathy, a dull weariness that held all the old evil of the wicked humming city.
It had taken shape in those indolent bodies and heavy eyes that could flash into life as a snake wakes into fierce darting energy when the time comes to spring - direct inheritrixes from Lilith, in the fittest setting in the world - the almost exhausted vice of an Oriental city as old as time.
"When I came yesterday, a great broken crowd was collected here, almost shouldering each other into the water where a boat lay rocking. In it lay the body of a man brutally murdered for the sake of a few rupees and flung into the river. I could see the poor brown body stark in the boat with a friend weeping beside it. On the lovely deodar bridge people leaned over, watching with a grim open-mouthed curiosity, and business went on gaily where the jewelers make the silver bangles for slender wrists, and the rows of silver chains that make the necks like 'the Tower of Damascus builded for an armory.' It was all very wild and cruel. I went down to them-""Vanna - you went down? Horrible!"
"No, you see I heard them say the wife was almost a child and needs help. So I went. Once long ago at Peshawar I saw the same thing happen, and they came and took the child for the service of the gods, for she was most lovely, and she clung to the feet of a man in terror, and the priest stabbed her to the heart. She died in my arms."Good God!" I said, shuddering; "what a sight for you! Did they never hang him?"
"He was not punished. I told you it was a very long time ago. Her expression had a brooding quiet as she looked down into the running river, almost it might be as if she saw the picture of that past misery in the deep water. She said no more. But in her words and the terrible crowding of its life, Srinagar seemed to me more of a nightmare than anything I had seen, excepting only Benares; for the holy Benares is a memory of horror, with a sense of blood hidden under its frantic crazy devotion, and not far hidden either.
Our own green shade, when we pulled back to it in the evening cool, was a refuge of unspeakable quiet. She read aloud to me that evening by the small light of our lamp beneath the trees, and, singularly, she read of joy.
"I have drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable, I have found the key of the Mystery, Travelling by no track I have come to the Sorrowless Land; very easily has the mercy of the great Lord come upon me. Wonderful is that Land of rest to which no merit can win. There have I seen joy filled to the brim, perfection of joy. He dances in rapture and waves of form arise from His dance. He holds all within his bliss."
"What is that?" "It is from the songs of the great Indian mystic - Kabir. Let me read you more. It is like the singing of a lark, lost in the infinite of light and heaven."
So in the soft darkness I heard for the first time those immortal words; and hearing, a faint glimmer of understanding broke upon me as to the source of the peace that surrounded her. I had accepted it as an emanation of her own heart when it was the pulsing of the tide of the Divine. She read, choosing a verse here and there, and I listened with absorption.
Suppose I had been wrong in believing that sorrow is the keynote of life; that pain is the road of ascent, if road there be; that an implacable Nature and that only, presides over all our pitiful struggles and seekings and writes a black "Finis" to the holograph of our existence?
What then? What was she teaching me? Was she the Interpreter of a Beauty eternal in the heavens, and reflected like a broken prism in the beauty that walked visible beside me? So I listened like a child to an unknown language, yet ventured my protest."In India, in this wonderful country where men have time and will for speculation such thoughts may be natural. Can they be found in the West?"
"This is from the West - might not Kabir himself have said it? Certainly he would have felt it. 'Happy is he who seeks not to understand the Mystery of God, but who, merging his spirit into Thine, sings to Thy face, 0 Lord, like a harp, understanding how difficult it is to know - how easy to love Thee.' We debate and argue and the Vision passes us by. We try to prove it, and kill it in the laboratory of our minds, when on the altar of our souls it will dwell for ever."
Silence - and I pondered. Finally she laid the book aside, and repeated from memory and in a tone of perfect music; "Kabir says, 'I shall go to the House of my Lord with my Love at my side; then shall I sound the trumpet of triumph.'"
And when she left me alone in the moonlight silence the old doubts came back to me - the fear that I saw only through her eyes, and began to believe in joy only because I loved her. I remember I wrote in the little book I kept for my stray thoughts, these words which are not mine but reflect my thought of her; "Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman, and the virtue of St. Bride, and the faith of Mary the Mild, and the gracious way of the Greek woman, and the beauty of lovely Emer, and the tenderness of heart-sweet Deirdre, and the courage of Maev the great Queen, and the charm of Mouth-of-Music."Yes, all that and more, but I feared lest I should see the heaven of joy through her eyes only and find it mirage as I had found so much else.
SECOND PART Early in the pure dawn the men came and our boat was towed up into the Dal Lake through crystal waterways and flowery banks, the men on the path keeping step and straining at the rope until the bronze muscles stood out on their legs and backs, shouting strong rhythmic phrases to mark the pull.
"They shout the Wondrous Names of God - as they are called," said Vanna when I asked. "They always do that for a timid effort. Bad shah! The Lord, the Compassionate, and so on. I don't think there is any religion about it but it is as natural to them as One, Two, Three, to us. It gives a tremendous lift. Watch and see."
It was part of the delightful strangeness that we should move to that strong music. We sat on the upper deck and watched the dream - like beauty drift slowly by until we emerged beneath a little bridge into the fairy land of the lake which the Mogul Emperors loved so well that they made their noble pleasance gardens on the banks, and thought it little to travel up yearly from far - off Delhi over the snowy Pir Panjal with their Queens and courts for the perfect summer of Kashmir.
We moored by a low bank under a great wood of chenar trees, and saw the little table in the wilderness set in the greenest shade with our chairs beside it, and my pipe laid reverently upon it by Kahdra.
Across the glittering water lay on one side the Shalimar Garden known to all readers of "Lalla Ruhk" - a paradise of roses; and beyond it again the lovelier gardens of NourMahal, the Light of the Palace, that imperial woman who ruled India under the weak Emperor's name - she whose name he set thus upon his coins:"By order of King Jehangir. Gold has a hundred splendours added to it by receiving the name of Nour-Jahan the Queen."
Has any woman ever had a more royal homage than this most royal lady - known first as Mihr-u- nissa - Sun of Women, and later, Nour-Mahal, Light of the Palace, and latest, Nour-Jahan- Begam, Queen, Light of the World?
Here in these gardens she had lived - had seen the snow mountains change from the silver of dawn to the illimitable rose of sunset. The life, the colour beat insistently upon my brain. They built a world of magic where every moment was pure gold. Surely - surely to Vanna it must be the same. I believed in my very soul that she who gave and shared such joy could not be utterly apart from me? Could I then feel certain that I had gained any ground in these days we had been together? Could she still define the cruel limits she had laid down, or were her eyes kinder, her tones a more broken music? I did not know. Whenever I could hazard a guess the next minute baffled me.
Just then, in the sunset, she was sitting on deck, singing under her breath and looking absently away to the Gardens across the Lake. I could catch the words here and there, and knew them.
"Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now - who lies beneath your spell? Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway far, Before you agonize them in farewell?""Don't!" I said abruptly. It stung me. "What?" she asked in surprise. "That is the song every one remembers here. Poor Laurence Hope! How she knew and loved this India! What are you grumbling at?" Her smile stung me. "Never mind," I said morosely. "You don't understand. You never will." And yet I believed sometimes that she would - that time was on my side. When Kahdra and I pulled her across to Nour-Mahal's garden next day, how could I not believe it - her face was so full of joy as she looked at me for sympathy?
"I don't think so much beauty is crowded into any other few miles in the world - beauty of association, history, nature, everything!" she said with shining eyes. "The lotus flowers are not out yet but when they come that is the last touch of perfection. Do you remember Homer - 'But whoso ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, was neither willing to bring me word again, nor to depart. Nay, their desire was to remain there for ever, feeding on the lotus with the Lotus Eaters, forgetful of all return.' You know the people here eat the roots and seeds? I ate them last year and perhaps that is why I cannot stay away. But look at Nour- Mahal's garden!"
We were pulling in among the reeds and the huge carven leaves of the water plants, and the snake-headed buds lolling upon them with the slippery half-sinister look that waterflowers have, as though their cold secret life belonged to the hidden water world and not to ours. But now the boat was touching the little wooden steps.
O beautiful - most beautiful the green lawns, shaded with huge pyramids of the chenar trees, the terraced gardens where the marble steps climbed from one to the other, and the mountain streams flashed singing and shining down the carved marble slopes that cunning hands had made to delight the Empress of Beauty, between the wildernesses of roses. Her pavilion stands still among the flowers, and the waters ripple through it to join the lake - and she is - where? Even in the glory of sunshine the passing of all fair things was present with me as I saw the empty shell that had held the Pearl of Empire, and her roses that still bloom, her waters that still sing for others.
The spray of a hundred fountains was misty diamond dust in the warm air laden with the scent of myriad flowers. Kahdra followed us everywhere, singing his little tuneless happy song. The world brimmed with beauty and joy. And we were together. Words broke from me.
"Vanna, let it be for ever! Let us live here. I'll give up all the world for this and you."
"But you see," she said delicately, "it would be 'giving up.' You use the right word. It is not your life. It is a lovely holiday, no more. You would weary of it. You would want the city life and your own kind."I protested with all my soul.
"No. Indeed I will say frankly that it would be lowering yourself to live a lotus-eating life among my people. It is a life with which you have no tie. A Westerner who lives like that steps down; he loses his birthright just as an Oriental does who Europeanizes himself. He cannot live your life nor you his. If you had work here it would be different. No - six or eight weeks more; then go away and forget it."I turned from her. The serpent was in Paradise. When is he absent? On one of the terraces a man was beating a tom-tom, and veiled women listened, grouped about him in brilliant colours.
"Isn't that all India?" she said; "that dull reiterated sound? It half stupefies, half maddens. Once at Darjiling I saw the Lamas' Devil Dance - the soul, a white-faced child with eyes unnaturally enlarged, fleeing among a rabble of devils - the evil passions. It fled wildly here and there and every way was blocked. The child fell on its knees, screaming dumbly
- you could see the despair in the staring eyes, but all was drowned in the thunder of Tibetan drums. No mercy - no escape. Horrible!"
"I shall always see the face of the child, hunted down to hell, falling on its knees, and screaming without a sound, when I hear the drum. But listen - a flute! Now if that were the Flute of Krishna you would have to follow. Let us come!"
I could hear nothing of it, but she insisted and we followed the music, inaudible to me, up the slopes of the garden that is the foot-hill of the mighty mountain of Mahadeo, and still I could hear nothing. And Vanna told me strange stories of the Apollo of India whom all hearts must adore, even as the herd-girls adored him in his golden youth by Jumna river and in the pastures of Brindaban.
Next day we were climbing the hill to the ruins where the evil magician brought the King's daughter nightly to his will, flying low under a golden moon. Vanna took my arm and I pulled her laughing up the steepest flowery slopes until we reached the height, and lo! the arched windows were eyeless and a lonely breeze blowing through the cloisters, and the beautiful yellowish stone arches supported nothing and were but frames for the blue of far lake and mountain and the divine sky. We climbed the broken stairs where the lizards went by like flashes, and had I the tongue of men and angels I could not tell the wonder that lay before us, - the whole wide valley of Kashmir in summer glory, with its scented breeze singing, singing above it.We sat on the crushed aromatic herbs and among the wild roses and looked down. "To think," she said, "that we might have died and never seen it!" There followed a long silence. I thought she was tired, and would not break it. Suddenly she spoke in a strange voice, low and toneless;
"The story of this place. She was the Princess Padmavati, and her home was in Ayodhya. When she woke and found herself here by the lake she was so terrified that she flung herself in and was drowned. They held her back, but she died.""How do you know?" "Because a wandering monk came to the abbey of Tahkt-i-Bahi near Peshawar and told Vasettha the Abbot." I had nearly spoilt all by an exclamation, but I held myself back. I saw she was dreaming awake and was unconscious of what she said.
"The Abbot said, 'Do not describe her. What talk is this for holy men? The young monks must not hear. Some of them have never seen a woman. Should a monk speak of such toys?' But the wanderer disobeyed and spoke, and there was a great tumult, and the monks threw him out at the command of the young Abbot, and he wandered down to Peshawar, and it was he later - the evil one! - that brought his sister, Lilavanti the Dancer, to Peshawar, and the Abbot fell into her snare. That was his revenge!"
Her face was fixed and strange, for a moment her cheek looked hollow, her eyes dim and grief- worn. What was she seeing? - what remembering? Was it a story - a memory? What was it?"She was beautiful?" I prompted. "Men have said so, but for it he surrendered the Peace. Do not speak of her accursed beauty."
Her voice died away to a drowsy murmur; her head dropped on my shoulder and for the mere de- light of contact I sat still and scarcely breathed, praying that she might speak again, but the good minute was gone. She drew one or two deep breaths, and sat up with a bewildered look that quickly passed.
"I was quite sleepy for a minute. The climb was so strenuous. Hark - I hear the Flute of Krishna again."
And again I could hear nothing, but she said it was sounding from the trees at the base of the hill. Later when we climbed down I found she was right - that a peasant lad, dark and amazingly beautiful as these Kashmiris often are, was playing on the flute to a girl at his feet - looking up at him with rapt eyes. He flung Vanna a flower as we passed. She caught it and put it in her bosom. A singular blossom, three petals of purest white, set against three leaves of purest green, and lower down the stem the three green leaves were repeated. It was still in her bosom after dinner, and I looked at it more closely."That is a curious flower," I said. "Three and three and three. Nine. That makes the mystic number. I never saw a purer white. What is it?" "Of course it is mystic," she said seriously. "It is the Ninefold Flower. You saw who gave it?" "That peasant lad." She smiled. "You will see more some day. Some might not even have seen that." "Does it grow here?"
"This is the first I have seen. It is said to grow only where the gods walk. Do you know that throughout all India Kashmir is said to be holy ground? It was called long ago the land of the gods, and of strange, but not evil, sorceries. Great marvels were seen here."
I felt the labyrinthine enchantments of that enchanted land were closing about me - a slender web, grey, almost impalpable, finer than fairy silk, was winding itself about my feet. My eyes were opening to things I had not dreamed. She saw my thought."Yes, you could not have seen even that much of him in Peshawar. You did not know then." "He was not there," I answered, falling half unconsciously into her tone.
"He is always there - everywhere, and when he plays, all who hear must follow. He was the Pied Piper in Hamelin, he was Pan in Hellas. You will hear his wild fluting in many strange places when you know how to listen. When one has seen him the rest comes soon. And then you will follow."
"Not away from you, Vanna." "From the marriage feast, from the Table of the Lord," she said, smiling strangely. "The man who wrote that spoke of another call, but it is the same - Krishna or Christ. When we hear the music we follow. And we may lose or gain heaven."
It might have been her compelling personality - it might have been the marvels of beauty about me, but I knew well I had entered at some mystic gate. A pass word had been spoken for me - I was vouched for and might go in. Only a little way as yet. Enchanted forests lay beyond, and perilous seas, but there were hints, breaths like the wafting of the garments of unspeakable Presences. My talk with Vanna grew less personal, and more introspective. I felt the touch of her finger-tips leading me along the ways of Quiet - my feet brushed a shining dew. Once, in the twilight under the chenar trees, I saw a white gleaming and thought it a swiftly passing Being, but when in haste I gained the tree I found there only a Ninefold flower, white as a spirit in the evening calm. I would not gather it but told Vanna what I had seen.
"You nearly saw;' she said. "She passed so quickly. It was the Snowy One, Uma, Parvati, the Daughter of the Himalaya. That mountain is the mountain of her lord - Shiva. It is natural she should be here. I saw her last night lean over the height - her face pillowed on her folded arms, with a low star in the mists of her hair. Her eyes were like lakes of blue darkness. Vast and wonderful. She is the Mystic Mother of India. You will see soon. You could not have seen the flower until now.""Do you know," she added, "that in the mountains there are poppies of clear blue - blue as turquoise. We will go up into the heights and find them."
And next moment she was planning the camping details, the men, the ponies, with a practical zest that seemed to relegate the occult to the absurd. Yet the very next day came a wonderful moment.
The sun was just setting and, as it were, suddenly the purple glooms banked up heavy with thunder. The sky was black with fury, the earth passive with dread. I never saw such lightning - it was continuous and tore in zigzag flashes down the mountains like rents in the substance of the world's fabric. And the thunder roared up in the mountain gorges with shattering echoes. Then fell the rain, and the whole lake seemed to rise to meet it, and the noise was like the rattle of musketry. We were standing by the cabin window and she suddenly caught my hand, and I saw in a light of their own two dancing figures on the tormented water before us. Wild in the tumult, embodied delight, with arms tossed violently above their heads, and feet flung up behind them, skimming the waves like seagulls, they passed. Their sex I could not tell - I think they had none, but were bubble emanations of the rejoicing rush of the rain and the wild retreating laughter of the thunder. I saw the fierce aerial faces and their inhuman glee as they fled by, and she dropped my hand and they were gone. Slowly the storm lessened, and in the west the clouds tore raggedly asunder and a flood of livid yellow light poured down upon the lake
- an awful light that struck it into an abyss of fire. Then, as if at a word of command, two glorious rainbows sprang across the water with the mountains for their piers, each with its proper colours chorded. They made a Bridge of Dread that stood out radiant against the background of storm - the Twilight of the Gods, and the doomed gods marching forth to the last fight. And the thunder growled sullenly away into the recesses of the hill and the terrible rainbows faded until the stars came quietly out and it was a still night.
But I had seen that what is our dread is the joy of the spirits of the Mighty Mother, and though the vision faded and I doubted what I had seen, it prepared the way for what I was yet to see. A few days later we started on what was to be the most exquisite memory of my life. A train of ponies carried our tents and camping necessaries and there was a pony for each of us. And so, in the cool grey of a divine morning, with little rosy clouds flecking the eastern sky, we set out from Islamabad for Vernag. And this was the order of our going. She and I led the way, attended by a sais (groom) and a coolie carrying the luncheon basket. Half way we would stop in some green dell, or by some rushing stream, and there rest and eat our little meal while the rest of the cavalcade passed on to the appointed camping place, and in the late afternoon we would follow, riding slowly, and find the tents pitched and the kitchen department in full swing. If the place pleased us we lingered for some days; - if not, the camp was struck next morning, and again we wandered in search of beauty.
The people were no inconsiderable part of my joy. I cannot see what they have to gain from such civilization as ours - a kindly people and happy. Courtesy and friendliness met us everywhere, and if their labor was hard, their harvest of beauty and laughter seemed to be its reward. The little villages with their groves of walnut and fruit trees spoke of no unfulfilled want, the mulberries which fatten the sleek bears in their season fattened the children too. I compared their lot with that of the toilers in our cities and knew which I would choose. We rode by shimmering fields of barley, with red poppies floating in the clear transparent green as in deep sea water, through fields of millet like the sky fallen on the earth, so innocently blue were its blossoms, and the trees above us were trellised with the wild roses, golden and crimson, and the ways tapestried with the scented stars of the large white jasmine.
It was strange that later much of what she said, escaped me. Some I noted down at the time, but there were hints, shadows of lovelier things beyond that eluded all but the fringes of memory when I tried to piece them together and make a coherence of a living wonder. For that reason, the best things cannot be told in this history. It is only the cruder, grosser matters that words will hold. The half-touchings -vanishing looks, breaths
- O God, I know them, but cannot tell.
In the smaller villages, the head man came often to greet us and make us welcome, bearing on a flat dish a little offering of cakes and fruit, the produce of the place. One evening a man so approached, stately in white robes and turban, attended by a little lad who carried the patriarchal gift beside him. Our tents were pitched under a glorious walnut tree with a run- ning stream at our feet.
Vanna of course, was the interpreter, and I called her from her tent as the man stood salaaming before me. It was strange that when she came, dressed in white, he stopped in his salutation, and gazed at her in what, I thought, was silent wonder.
She spoke earnestly to him, standing before him with clasped hands, almost, I could think, in the attitude of a suppliant. The man listened gravely, with only an interjection, now and again, and once he turned and looked curiously at me. Then he spoke, evidently making some announcement which she received with bowed head - and when he turned to go with a grave salute, she performed a very singular ceremony, moving slowly round him three times with clasped hands; keeping him always on the right. He repaid it with the usual salaam and greeting of peace, which he bestowed also on me, and then departed in deep meditation, his eyes fixed on the ground. I ventured to ask what it all meant, and she looked thoughtfully at me before replying.
"It was a strange thing. I fear you will not altogether understand, but I will tell you what I can. That man though living here among Mahomedans, is a Brahman from Benares, and, what is very rare in India, a Buddhist. And when he saw me he believed he remembered me in a former birth. The ceremony you saw me perform is one of honour in India. It was his due.""Did you remember him?" I knew my voice was incredulous.
"Very well. He has changed little but is further on the upward path. I saw him with dread for he holds the memory of a great wrong I did. Yet he told me a thing that has filled my heart with joy.""Vanna-what is it?" She had a clear uplifted look which startled me. There was suddenly a chill air blowing between us. "I must not tell you yet but you will know soon. He was a good man. I am glad we have met." She buried herself in writing in a small book I had noticed and longed to look into, and no more was said.
We struck camp next day and trekked on towards Vernag - a rough march, but one of great beauty, beneath the shade of forest trees, garlanded with pale roses that climbed from bough to bough and tossed triumphant wreaths into the uppermost blue.
In the afternoon thunder was flapping its wings far off in the mountains and a little rain fell while we were lunching under a big tree. I was considering anxiously how to shelter Vanna, when a farmer invited us to his house - a scene of Biblical hospitality that delighted us both. He led us up some break-neck little stairs to a large bare room, open to the clean air all round the roof, and with a kind of rough enclosure on the wooden floor where the family slept at night. There he opened our basket, and then, with anxious care, hung clothes and rough draperies about us that our meal might be unwatched by one or two friends who had followed us in with breathless interest. Still further to entertain us a great rarity was brought out and laid at Vanna's feet as something we might like to watch
- a curious bird in a cage, with brightly barred wings and a singular cry. She fed it with fruit, and it fluttered to her hand. Just so Abraham might have welcomed his guests, and when we left with words of deepest gratitude, our host made the beautiful obeisance of touching his forehead with joined hands as he bowed. To me the whole incident had an extraordinary grace, and ennobled both host and guest. But we met an ascending scale of loveliness so varied in its aspects that I passed from one emotion to another and knew no sameness.
That afternoon the camp was pitched at the foot of a mighty hill, under the waving pyramids of the chenars, sweeping their green like the robes of a goddess. Near by was a half circle of low arches falling into ruin, and as we went in among them I beheld a wondrous sight - the huge octagonal tank or basin made by the Mogul Emperor Jehangir to receive the waters of a mighty Spring which wells from the hill and has been held sacred by Hindu and Moslem. And if loveliness can sanctify surely it is sacred indeed.
The tank was more than a hundred feet in diameter and circled by a roughly paved pathway where the little arched cells open that the devotees may sit and contemplate the lustral waters. There on a black stone, is sculptured the Imperial inscription comparing this spring to the holier wells of Paradise, and I thought no less of it, for it rushes straight from the rock with no aiding stream, and its waters are fifty feet deep, and sweep away from this great basin through beautiful low arches in a wild foaming river - the crystal life-blood of the mountains for ever welling away. The colour and perfect purity of this living jewel were most marvellous -clear blue-green like a chalcedony, but changing as the lights in an opal - a wonderful quivering brilliance, flickering with the silver of shoals of sacred fish.
But the Mogul Empire is with the snows of yesteryear and the wonder has passed from the Moslems into the keeping of the Hindus once more, and the Lingam of Shiva, crowned with flowers, is the symbol in the little shrine by the entrance. Surely in India, the gods are one and have no jealousies among them - so swiftly do their glories merge the one into the other.
"How all the Mogul Emperors loved running water," said Vanna. "I can see them leaning over it in their carved pavilions with delicate dark faces and pensive eyes beneath their turbans, lost in the endless reverie of the East while liquid melody passes into their dream. It was the music they best loved."
She was leading me into the royal garden below, where the young river flows beneath the pavilion set above and across the rush of the water.
"I remember before I came to India," she went on, "there were certain words and phrases that meant the whole East to me. It was an enchantment. The. first flash picture I had was Milton's-
and it still is. I have thought ever since that every man should wear a turban. It dignifies the un-comeliest and it is quite curious to see how many inches a man descends in the scale of beauty the moment he takes it off and you see only the skull-cap about which they wind it. They wind it with wonderful skill too. I have seen a man take eighteen yards of muslin and throw it round his head with a few turns, and in five or six minutes the beautiful folds were all in order and he looked like a king. Some of the Gujars here wear black ones and they are very effective and worth painting - the black folds and the sullen tempestuous black brows underneath."We sat in the pavilion for awhile looking down on the rushing water, and she spoke of Akbar, the greatest of the Moguls, and spoke with a curious personal touch, as I thought.
"I wish you would try to write a story of him - one on more human lines than has been done yet. No one has accounted for the passionate quest of truth that was the real secret of his life. Strange in an Oriental despot if you think of it! It really can only be understood from the Buddhist belief, which curiously seems to have been the only one he neglected, that a mysterious Karma influenced all his thoughts. If I tell you as a key-note for your story, that in a past life he had been a Buddhist priest - one who had fallen away, would that in any way account to you for attempts to recover the lost way? Try to think that out, and to write the story, not as a Western mind sees it, but pure East.""That would be a great book to write if one could catch the voices of the past. But how to do it?"
"I will give you one day a little book that may help you. The other story I wish you would write is the story of a Dancer of Peshawar. There is a connection between the two - a story of ruin and repentance.""Will you tell it to me?" "A part. In this same book you will find much more, hut not all. All cannot be told. You must imagine much. But I think your imagination will be true." "Why do you think so?"
"Because in these few days you have learnt so much. You have seen the Ninefold Flower, and the rain spirits. You will soon hear the Flute of Krishna which none can hear who cannot dream true."
That night I heard it. I waked, suddenly, to music, and standing in the door of my tent, in the dead silence of the night, lit only by a few low stars, I heard the poignant notes of a flute. If it had called my name it could not have summoned me more clearly, and I followed without a thought of delay, forgetting even Vanna in the strange urgency that filled me. The music was elusive, seeming to come first from one side, then from the other, but finally I tracked it as a bee does a flower by the scent, to the gate of the royal garden - the pleasure place of the dead Emperors.
The gate stood ajar - strange! for I had seen the custodian close it that evening. Now it stood wide and I went in, walking noiselessly over the dewy grass. I knew and could not tell how, that I must be noiseless. Passing as if I were guided, down the course of the strong young river, I came to the pavilion that spanned it - the place where we had stood that afternoon - and there to my profound amazement, I saw Vanna, leaning against a slight wooden pillar. As if she had expected me, she laid one finger on her lip, and stretching out her hand, took mine and drew me beside her as a mother might a child. And instantly I saw!
On the further bank a young man in a strange diadem or miter of jewels, bare-breasted and beautiful, stood among the flowering oleanders, one foot lightly crossed over the other as he stood. He was like an image of pale radiant gold, and I could have sworn that the light came from within rather than fell upon him, for the night was very dark. He held the flute to his lips, and as I looked, I became aware that the noise of the rushing water was tapering off into a murmur scarcely louder than that of a summer bee in the heart of a rose. Therefore the music rose like a fountain of crystal drops, cold, clear, and of an entrancing sweetness, and the face above it was such that I had no power to turn my eyes away. How shall I say what it was? All I had ever desired, dreamed, hoped, prayed, looked at me from the remote beauty of the eyes and with the most persuasive gentleness entreated me, rather than commanded to follow fearlessly and win. But these are words, and words shaped in the rough mould of thought cannot convey the deep desire that would have hurled me to his feet if Vanna had not held me with a firm restraining hand. Looking up in adoring love to the dark face was a ring of woodland creatures. I thought I could distinguish the white clouded robe of a snow- leopard, the soft clumsiness of a young bear, and many more, but these shifted and blurred like dream creatures - I could not be sure of them nor define their numbers. The eyes of the Player looked down upon their passionate delight with careless kindness.
Dim images passed through my mind. Orpheus - No, this was no Greek. Pan-yet again, No. Where were the pipes, the goat hoofs? The young Dionysos - No, there were strange jewels instead of his vines. And then Vanna's voice said as if from a great distance;
"Krishna - the Beloved." And I said aloud, "I see!" And even as I said it the whole picture blurred together like a dream, and I was alone in the pavilion and the water was foaming past me. Had I walked in my sleep, I thought, as I made my way hack? As I gained the garden gate, before me, like a snowflake, I saw the Ninefold Flower.
When I told her next day, speaking of it as a dream, she said simply; "They have opened the door to you. You will not need me soon.
"I was not there," she said smiling. "It was only the thought of me, and you can have that when I am very far away. I was sleeping in my tent. What you called in me then you can always call, even if I am - dead."
"That is a word which is beginning to have no meaning for me. You have said things to me - no, thought them, that have made me doubt if there is room in the universe for the thing we have called death."She smiled her sweet wise smile. "Where we are death is not. Where death is we are not. But you will understand better soon."
Our march curving took us by the Mogul gardens of Achibal, and the glorious ruins of the great Temple at Martund, and so down to Bawan with its crystal waters and that loveliest camping ground beside them. A mighty grove of chenar trees, so huge that I felt as if we were in a great sea cave where the air is dyed with the deep shadowy green of the inmost ocean, and the murmuring of the myriad leaves was like a sea at rest. I looked up into the noble height and my memory of Westminster dwindled, for this led on and up to the infinite blue, and at night the stars hung like fruit upon the branches. The water ran with a great joyous rush of release from the mountain behind, but was first received in a broad basin full of sacred fish and reflecting a little temple of Maheshwara and one of Surya the Sun. Here in this basin the water lay pure and still as an ecstasy, and beside it was musing the young Brahman priest who served the temple. Since I had joined Vanna I had begun with her help to study a little Hindustani, and with an aptitude for language could understand here and there. I caught a word or two as she spoke with him that startled me, when the high-bred ascetic face turned serenely upon her, and he addressed her as "My sister," adding a sentence beyond my learning, but which she willingly translated later. - "May He who sits above the Mysteries, have mercy upon thy rebirth."She said afterwards;
"How beautiful some of these men are. It seems a different type of beauty from ours, nearer to nature and the old gods. Look at that priest - the tall figure, the clear olive skin, the dark level brows, the long lashes that make a soft gloom about the eyes - eyes that have the fathomless depth of a deer's, the proud arch of the lip. I think there is no country where aristocracy is more clearly marked than in India. The Brahmans are aristocrats of the world. You see it is a religious aristocracy as well. It has everything that can foster pride and exclusiveness. They spring from the Mouth of Deity. They are His word incarnate. Not many kings are of the Brahman caste, and the Brahmans look down upon them from Sovereign heights. I have known men who would not eat with their own rulers who would have drunk the water that washed the Brahmans' feet."
She took me that day, the Brahman with us, to see a cave in the mountain. We climbed up the face of the cliff to where a little tree grew on a ledge, and the black mouth yawned. We went in and often it was so low we had to stoop, leaving the sunlight behind until it was like a dim eye glimmering in the velvet blackness. The air was dank and cold and presently obscene with the smell of bats, and alive with their wings, as they came sweeping about us, gibbering and squeaking. I thought of the rush of the ghosts, blown like dead leaves in the Odyssey. And then a small rock chamber branched off, and in this, lit by a bit of burning wood, we saw the bones of a holy man who lived and died there four hundred years ago. Think of it! He lived there always, with the slow dropping of water from the dead weight of the mountain above his head, drop by drop tolling the minutes away: the little groping feet through the cave that would bring him food and drink, hurrying into the warmth and sunlight again, and his only companion the sacred Lingam which means the Creative Energy that sets the worlds dancing for joy round the sun - that, and the black solitude to sit down beside him. Surely his bones can hardly be dryer and colder now than they were then! There must be strange ecstasies in such a life - wild visions in the dark, or it could never be endured.
And so, in marches of about ten miles a day, we came to Pahlgam on the banks of the dancing Lidar. There was now only three weeks left of the time she had promised. After a few days at Pahlgam the march would turn and bend its way back to Srinagar, and to - what? I could not believe it was to separation - in her lovely kindness she had grown so close to me that, even for the sake of friendship, I believed our paths must run together to the end, and there were moments when I could still half convince myself that I had grown as necessary to her as she was to me. No - not as necessary, for she was life and soul to me, but a part of her daily experience that she valued and would not easily part with. That evening we were sitting outside the tents, near the camp fire, of pine logs and cones, the leaping flames making the night beautiful with gold and leaping sparks, in an attempt to reach the mellow splendours of the moon. The men, in various attitudes of rest, were lying about, and one had been telling a story which had just ended in excitement and loud applause.
"These are Mahomedans," said Vanna, "and it is only a story of love and fighting like the Arabian Nights. If they had been Hindus, it might well have been of Krishna or of Rama and Sita. Their faith comes from an earlier time and they still see visions. The Moslem is a hard practical faith for men - men of the world too. It is not visionary now, though it once had its great mysteries.""I wish you would tell me what you think of the visions or apparitions of the gods that are seen here. Is it all illusion? Tell me your thought."
"How difficult that is to answer. I suppose if love and faith are strong enough they will always create the vibrations to which the greater vibrations respond, and so make God in their own image at any time or place. But that they call up what is the truest reality I have never doubted. There is no shadow without a substance. The substance is beyond us but under certain conditions the shadow is projected and we see it."Have I seen or has it been dream?" "I cannot tell. It may have been the impress of my mind on yours, for I see such things always. You say I took your hand?" "Take it now."
She obeyed, and instantly, as I felt the firm cool clasp, I heard the rain of music through the pines - the Flute Player was passing. She dropped it smiling and the sweet sound ceased."You see! How can I tell what you have seen? You will know better when I am gone. You will stand alone then."
"You will not go - you cannot. I have seen how you have loved all this wonderful time. I believe it has been as dear to you as to me. And every day I have loved you more. I depend upon you for everything that makes life worth living. You could not - you who are so gentle - you could not commit the senseless cruelty of leaving me when you have taught me to love you with every beat of my heart. I have been patient - I have held myself in, but I must speak now. Marry me, and teach me. I know nothing. You know all I need to know. For pity's sake be my wife."I had not meant to say it; it broke from me in the firelight moonlight with a power that I could not stay. She looked at me with a disarming gentleness.
"Is this fair? Do you remember how at Peshawar I told you I thought it was a dangerous experiment, and that it would make things harder for you. But you took the risk like a brave man because you felt there were things to be gained - knowledge, insight, beauty. Have you not gained them?""Yes. Absolutely." "Then, is it all loss if I go?" "Not all. But loss I dare not face."
"I will tell you this. I could not stay if I would. Do you remember the old man on the way to Vernag? He told me that I must very soon take up an entirely new life. I have no choice, though if I had I would still do it."
There was silence and down a long arcade, without any touch of her hand I heard the music, receding with exquisite modulations to a very great distance, and between the pillared stems, I saw a faint light.
"Do you wish to go?"
"Entirely. But I shall not forget you, Stephen. I will tell you something. For me, since I came to India, the gate that shuts us out at birth has opened. How shall I explain? Do you remember Kipling's 'Finest Story in the World'?""Yes. Fiction!"
"Not fiction - true, whether he knew it or no. But for me the door has opened wide. First, I remembered piecemeal, with wide gaps, then more connectedly. Then, at the end of the first year, I met one day at Cawnpore, an ascetic, an old man of great beauty and wisdom, and he was able by his own knowledge to enlighten mine. Not wholly - much has come since then. Has come, some of it in ways you could not understand now, but much by direct sight and hearing. Long, long ago I lived in Peshawar, and my story was a sorrowful one. I will tell you a little before I go."
"I hold you to your promise. What is there I cannot believe when you tell me? But does that life put you altogether away from me? Was there no place for me in any of your memories that has drawn us together now? Give me a little hope that in the eternal pilgrimage there is some bond between us and some rebirth where we may met again.""I will tell you that also before we part. I have grown to believe that you do love me - and therefore love something which is infinitely above me." "And do you love me at all? Am I nothing, Vanna - Vanna?" "My friend," she said, and laid her hand on mine. A silence, and then she spoke, very low.
"You must be prepared for very great change, Stephen, and yet believe that it does not really change things at all. See how even the gods pass and do not change! The early gods of India are gone and Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna have taken their places and are one and the same. The old Buddhist stories say that in heaven "The flowers of the garland the God wore are withered, his robes of majesty are waxed old and faded; he falls from his high estate, and is re-born into a new life." But he lives still in the young God who is born among men. The gods cannot die, nor can we nor anything that has life. Now I must go in.I sat long in the moonlight thinking. The whole camp was sunk in sleep and the young dawn was waking upon the peaks when I turned in.
The days that were left we spent in wandering up the Lidar River to the hills that are the first ramp of the ascent to the great heights. We found the damp corners where the mushrooms grow like pearls - the mushrooms of which she said - "To me they have always been fairy things. To see them in the silver-grey dew of the early mornings - mysteriously there like the manna in the desert - they are elfin plunder, and as a child I was half afraid of them. No wonder they are the darlings of folklore, especially in Celtic countries where the Little People move in the starlight. Strange to think they are here too among strange gods!"
We climbed to where the wild peonies bloom in glory that few eyes see, and the rosy beds of wild sweet strawberries ripen. Every hour brought with it some new delight, some exquisiteness of sight or of words that I shall remember for ever. She sat one day on a rock, holding the sculptured leaves and massive seed-vessels of some glorious plant that the Kashmiris believe has magic virtues hidden in the seeds of pure rose embedded in the white down.
"If you fast for three days and eat nine of these in the Night of No Moon, you can rise on the air light as thistledown and stand on the peak of Haramoukh. And on Haramoukh, as you know it is believed, the gods dwell. There was a man here who tried this enchantment. He was a changed man for ever after, wandering and muttering to himself and avoiding all human intercourse as far as he could. He was no Kashmiri - A Jat from the Punjab, and they showed him to me when I was here with the Meryons, and told me he would speak to none. But I knew he would speak to me, and he did.""Did he tell you anything of what he had seen in the high world up yonder?"
"He said he had seen the Dream of the God. I could not get more than that. But there are many people here who believe that the Universe as we know it is but an image in the dream of Ishvara, the Universal Spirit - in whom are all the gods - and that when He ceases to dream we pass again into the Night of Brahm, and all is darkness until the Spirit of God moves again on the face of the waters. There are few temples to Brahm. He is above and beyond all direct worship.""Do you think he had seen anything?" "What do I know? Will you eat the seeds? The Night of No Moon will soon be here."
She held out the seed-vessels, laughing. I write that down but how record the lovely light of kindliness in her eyes - the almost submissive gentleness that yet was a defense stronger than steel. I never knew - how should I? - whether she was sitting by my side or heavens away from me in her own strange world. But always she was a sweetness that I could not reach, a cup of nectar that I might not drink, unalterably her own and never mine, and yet - my friend.
She showed me the wild track up into the mountains where the Pilgrims go to pay their devotions at the Great God's shrine in the awful heights, regretting that we were too early for that most wonderful sight. Above where we were sitting the river fell in a tormented white cascade, crashing arid feathering into spray-dust of diamonds. An eagle was flying above it with a mighty spread of wings that seemed almost double-jointed in the middle - they curved and flapped so wide and free. The fierce head was outstretched with the rake of a plundering galley as he swept down the wind, seeking his meat from God, and passed majestic from our sight. The valley beneath us was littered with enormous boulders spilt from the ancient hollows of the hills. It must have been a great sight when the giants set them trundling down in work or play! - I said this to Vanna, who was looking down upon it with meditative eyes. She roused herself.
"Yes, this really is Giant-Land up here - everything is so huge. And when they quarrel up in the heights - in Jotunheim - and the black storms come down the valleys it is like colossal laughter or clumsy boisterous anger. And the Frost giants are still at work up there with their great axes of frost and rain. They fling down the side of a mountain or make fresh ways for the rivers. About sixty years ago - far above here - they tore down a mountain side and damned up the mighty Indus, so that for months he was a lake, shut back in the hills. But the river giants are no less strong up here in the heights of the world, and lie lay brooding and hiding his time. And then one awful day he tore the barrier down and roared down the valley carrying death and ruin with him, and swept away a whole Sikh army among other unconsidered trifles. That must have been a soulshaking sight."
She spoke on, and as she spoke I saw. What are her words as I record them? Stray dead leaves pressed in a book - the life and grace dead. Yet I record, for she taught me what I believe the world should learn, that the Buddhist philosophers are right when they teach that all forms of what we call matter are really but aggregates of spiritual units, and that life itself is a curtain hiding reality as the vast veil of day conceals from our sight the countless orbs of space. So that the purified mind even while prisoned in the body, may enter into union with the Real and, according to attainment, see it as it is.
She was an interpreter because she believed this truth profoundly. She saw the spiritual essence beneath the lovely illusion of matter, and the air about her was radiant with the motion of strange forces for which the dull world has many names aiming indeed at the truth, but falling - O how far short of her calm perception! She was indeed of a Household higher than the Household of Faith. She had received enlightenment. She beheld with open eyes.
Next day our camp was struck and we turned our faces again to Srinagar and to the day of parting. I set down but one strange incident of our journey, of which I did not speak even to her.
We were camping at Bijbehara, awaiting our house boat, and the site was by the Maharaja's lodge above the little town. It was midnight and I was sleepless - the shadow of the near future was upon me. I wandered down to the lovely old wooded bridge across the Jhelum, where the strong young trees grow up from the piles. Beyond it the moon was shining on the ancient Hindu remains close to the new temple, and as I stood on the bridge I could see the figure of a man in deepest meditation by the ruins. He was no European. I saw the straight dignified folds of the robes. But it was not surprising he should be there and I should have thought no more of it, had I not heard at that instant from the further side of the river the music of the Flute. I cannot hope to describe that music to any who have not heard it. Suffice it to say that where it calls he who hears must follow whether in the body or the spirit. Nor can I now tell in which I followed. One day it will call me across the River of Death, and I shall ford it or sink in the immeasurable depths and either will be well.
But immediately I was at the other side of the river, standing by the stone Bull of Shiva where he kneels before the Symbol, and looking steadfastly upon me a few paces away was a man in the dress of a Buddhist monk. He wore the yellow robe that leaves one shoulder bare; his head was bare also and he held in one hand a small bowl like a stemless chalice. I knew I was seeing a very strange inexplicable sight - one that in Kashmir should be incredible, but I put wonder aside for I knew now that I was moving in the sphere where the incredible may well be the actual. His expression was of the most unbroken calm. If I compare it to the passionless gaze of the Sphinx I misrepresent, for the Riddle of the Sphinx still awaits solution, but in this face was a noble acquiescence and a content that had it vibrated must have passed into joy.Words or their equivalent passed between us. I felt his voice. "You have heard the music of the Flute?" "I have heard." "What has it given?" "A consuming longing."
"It is the music of the Eternal. The creeds and the faiths are the words that men have set to that melody. Listening, it will lead you to Wisdom. Day by day you will interpret more surely.""I cannot stand alone." "You will not need. What has led you will lead you still. Through many births it has led you. How should it fail?" "What should I do?" "Go forward." "What should I shun?" "Sorrow and fear." "What should I seek?" "Joy." "And the end?"
"Joy. Wisdom. They are the Light and Dark of the Divine." A cold breeze passed and touched my forehead. I was still standing in the middle of the bridge above the water gliding to the Ocean, and there was no figure by the Bull of Shiva. I was alone. I passed back to the tents with the shudder that is not fear but akin to death upon me. I knew I had been profoundly withdrawn from what we call actual life, and the return is dread.
The days passed as we floated down the river to Srinagar. On board the Kedarnath, now lying in our first berth beneath the chenars near and yet far from the city, the last night had come. Next morning I should begin the long ride to Baramula and beyond that barrier of the Happy Valley down to Murree and the Punjab. Where afterwards? I neither knew nor cared. My lesson was before me to be learned. I must try to detach myself from all I had prized - to say to my heart it was but a loan and no gift, and to cling only to the imperishable. And did I as yet certainly know more than the A B C of the hard doctrine by which I must live? "Que vivre est difficile, 0 mon cocur fatigue!" - an immense weariness possessed me - a passive grief.Vanna would follow later with the wife of an Indian doctor. I believed she was bound for Lahore but on that point she had not spoken certainly and I felt we should not meet again.
And now my packing was finished, and, as far as my possessions went, the little cabin had the soulless emptiness that comes with departure. I was enduring as best I could. If she had held loyally to her pact, could I do less. Was she to blame for my wild hope that in the end she would relent and step down to the household levels of love?She sat by the window - the last time I should see the moonlit banks and her clear face against them. I made and won my fight for the courage of words. "And now I've finished everything - thank goodness! and we can talk. Vanna - you will write to me?" "Once. I promise that." "Only once? Why? I counted on your words." "I want to speak to you of something else now. I want to tell you a memory. But look first at the pale light behind the Takht-i-Suliman."
So I had seen it with her. So I should not see it again. We watched until a line of silver sparkled on the black water, and then she spoke again.
"Stephen, do you remember in the ruined monastery near Peshawar, how I told you of the young Abbot, who came down to Peshawar with a Chinese pilgrim? And he never returned."
"There was a Dancer. She was Lilavanti, and she was brought there to trap him but when she saw him she loved him, and that was his ruin and hers. Trickery he would have known and escaped. Love caught him in an unbreakable net, and they fled down the Punjab and no one knew any more. But I know. For two years they lived together and she saw the agony in his heart - the anguish of his broken vows, the face of the Blessed One receding into an infinite distance. She knew that every day added a link to the heavy Karma that was bound about the feet she loved, and her soul said "Set him free," and her heart refused the torture. But her soul was the stronger. She set him free.""How?" "She took poison. He became an ascetic in the hills and died in peace but with a long expiation upon him." "And she?" "I am she."
"You!" I heard my voice as if it were another man's. Was it possible that I - a man of the twentieth century, believed this impossible thing? Impossible, and yet - what had I learnt if not the unity of Time, the illusion of matter? What is the twentieth century, what the first? Do they not lie before the Supreme as one, and clean from our petty divisions? And I myself had seen what, if I could trust it, asserted the marvels that are no marvels to those who know."You loved him?" "I love him." "Then there is nothing at all for me." She resumed as if she had heard nothing.
"I have lost him for many lives. He stepped above me at once, for he was clean gold though he fell, and though I have followed I have not found. But that Buddhist beyond Islamabad - you shall hear now what he said. It was this. 'The shut door opens, and this time he awaits.' I cannot yet say all it means, but there is no Lahore for me. I shall meet him soon."
"Vanna, you would not harm yourself again?"
She passed like a shadow into her little dark cabin, and I was left alone. I will not dwell on that black loneliness of the spirit, for it has passed - it was the darkness of hell, a madness of jealousy, and could have no enduring life in any heart that had known her. But it was death while it lasted. I had moments of horrible belief, of horrible disbelief, but however it might be I knew that she was out of reach for ever. Near me - yes! but only as the silver image of the moon floated in the water by the boat, with the moon herself cold myriads of miles away. I will say no more of that last eclipse of what she had wrought in me.
The bright morning came, sunny as if my joys were beginning instead of ending. Vanna mounted her horse and led the way from the boat. I cast one long look at the little Kedarnath, the home of those perfect weeks, of such joy and sorrow as would have seemed impossible to me in the chrysalis of my former existence. Little Kahdra stood crying bitterly on the bank - the kindly folk who had served us were gathered saddened and quiet. I set my teeth and followed her.
How dear she looked, how kind, how gentle her appealing eyes, as I drew up beside her. She knew what I felt. She knew that the sight of little Kahdra crying as he said good - bye was the last pull at my sore heart. Still she rode steadily on, and still I followed. Once she spoke.
"Stephen, there was a man in Peshawar, kind and true, who loved that Lilavanti who had no heart for him. And when she died, it was in his arms, as a sister might cling to a brother, for the man she loved had left her. It seems that will not be in this life, but do not think I have been so blind that I did not know my friend."
I could not answer - it was the realization of the utmost I could hope and it came like healing to my spirit. Better that bond between us, slight as most men might think it, than the dearest and closest with a woman not Vanna. It was the first thrill of a new joy in my heart - the first, I thank the Infinite, of many and steadily growing joys and hopes that cannot be uttered here.
I bent to take the hand she stretched to me, but even as they touched, I saw, passing behind the trees by the road, the young man I had seen in the garden at Vernag - most beautiful, in the strange miter of his jewelled diadem. His flute was at his lips and the music rang out sudden and crystal clear as though a woodland god were passing to awaken all the joys of the dawn.
The horses heard too. In an instant hers had swerved wildly, and she lay on the ground at my feet. The music had ceased.
Days had gone before I could recall what had happened then. I lifted her in my arms and carried her into the rest-house near at hand, and the doctor came and looked grave, and a nurse was sent from the Mission Hospital. No doubt all was done that was possible, hut I knew from the first what it meant and how it would be. She lay in a white stillness, and the room was quiet as death. I remembered with unspeakable gratitude later that the nurse had been merciful and had not sent me away.
So Vanna lay all day and through the night, and when the dawn came again she stirred and motioned with her hand, although her eyes were closed. I understood, and kneeling, I put my hand under her head, and rested it against my shoulder. Her faint voice murmured at my ear.
"I dreamed - I was in the pine wood at Pahlgam and it was the Night of No Moon, and I was afraid for it was dark, but suddenly all the trees were covered with little lights like stars, and the greater light was beyond. Nothing to be afraid of.""Nothing, Beloved."
"And I looked beyond Peshawar, further than eyes could see, and in the ruins of the monastery where we stood, you and I - I saw him, and he lay with his head at the feet of the Blessed One. That is well, is it not?""Well, Beloved." "And it is well I go? Is it not?" "It is well." A long silence. The first sun ray touched the floor. Again the whisper. "Believe what I have told you. For we shall meet again." I repeated- "We shall meet again." In my arms she died. Later, when all was over I asked myself if I believed this and answered with full assurance - Yes.
If the story thus told sounds incredible it was not incredible to me. I had had a profound experience. What is a miracle? It is simply the vision of the Divine behind nature. It will come in different forms according to the eyes that see, but the soul will know that its perception is authentic.
I could not leave Kashmir, nor was there any need. On the contrary I saw that there was work for me here among the people she had loved, and my first aim was to fit myself for that and for the writing I now felt was to be my career in life. After much thought I bought the little Kedarnath and made it my home, very greatly to the satisfaction of little Kahdra and all the friendly people to whom I owed so much.
Vanna's cabin I made my sleeping room, and it is the simple truth that the first night I slept in the place that was a Temple of Peace in my thoughts, I had a dream of wordless bliss, and starting awake for sheer joy I saw her face in the night, human and dear, looking down upon me with that poignant sweetness which would seem to be the utmost revelation of love and pity. And as I stretched my hands, another face dawned solemnly from the shadow beside her with grave brows bent on mine - one I had known and seen in the ruins at Bijbehara. Outside and very near I could hear the silver weaving of the Flute that in India is the symbol of the call of the Divine. A dream - yes, but it taught me to live. At first, in my days of grief and loss, I did but dream - the days were hard to endure. I will not dwell on that illusion of sorrow, now long dead. I lived only for the night.
"When sleep comes to close each difficult day, When night gives pause to the long watch I keep, And all my bonds I needs must loose apart, Must doff my will as raiment laid away-
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep, I run - I run! I am gathered to thy heart!"
"Who am more to thee than other mortals are, Whose is the holy lot,
As friend with friend to walk and talk with thee, Hearing thy sweet mouth's music in mine ear, But thee beholding not."
That was much, but later, the sunshine was no bar, the bond strengthened and there have been days in the heights of the hills, in the depths of the woods, when I saw her as in life, passing at a distance, but real and lovely. Life? She had never lived as she did now - a spirit, freed and rejoicing. For me the door she had opened would never shut. The Presences were about me, and I entered upon my heritage of joy, knowing that in Kashmir, the holy land of Beauty, they walk very near, and lift up the folds of the Dark that the initiate may see the light behind.
So I began my solitary life of gladness. I wrote, aided by the little book she had left me, full of strangest stories, stranger by far than my own brain could conceive. Some to be revealed - some to be hidden. And thus the world will one day receive the story of the Dancer of Peshawar in her upward lives, that it may know, if it will, that death is nothing
- for Life and Love are all.
The Incomparable LadyA Story Of China With A Moral
It is recorded that when the Pearl Empress (his mother) asked of the philosophic Yellow Emperor which he considered the most beautiful of the Imperial concubines, he replied instantly: "The Lady A-Kuei": and when the Royal Parent in profound astonishment demanded bow this could be, having regard to the exquisite beauties in question, the Emperor replied;"I have never seen her. It was dark when I entered the Dragon Chamber and dusk of dawn when I rose and left her." Then said the Pearl Princess; "Possibly the harmony of her voice solaced the Son of Heaven?" But he replied; "She spoke not." And the Pearl Empress rejoined: "Her limbs then are doubtless softer than the kingfisher's plumage?" But the Yellow Emperor replied; "Doubtless. Yet I have not touched them. I was that night immersed in speculations on the Yin and the Yang. How then should I touch a woman?"
And the Pearl Empress was silent from very great amazement, not daring to question further but marveling how the thing might be. And seeing this, the Yellow Emperor recited a poem to the following effect:
"It is said that Power rules the world
And who shall gainsay it?
But Loveliness is the head-jewel upon the brow of Power."
Immediately, having entered her own palace of the Tranquil Motherly Virtues, she caused the Lady A-Kuei to be summoned to her presence, who came, habited in a purple robe and with pins of jade and coral in her hair. And the Pearl Empress considered her attentively, recalling the perfect features of the White Jade Concubine, the ambrosial smile of the Princess of Feminine Propriety, and the willow-leaf eyebrows of the Lady of Chen, and her astonishment was excessive, because the Lady A-Kuei could not in beauty approach any one of these ladies. Reflecting further she then placed her behind the screen, and summoned the court artist, Lo Cheng, who had been formerly commissioned to paint the heavenly features of the Emperor's Ladies, mirrored in still water, though he had naturally not been permitted to view the beauties themselves. Of him the Empress demanded:"Who is the most beautiful - which the most priceless jewel of the dwellers in the Dragon Palace?" And, with humility, Lo Cheng replied:
"What mortal man shall decide between the white Crane and the Swan, or between the paeony flower and the lotus?" And having thus said he remained silent, and in him was no help. Finally and after exhortation the Pearl Empress condescended to threaten him with the loss of a head so useless to himself and to her majesty. Then, in great fear and haste he replied:"Of all the flowers that adorn the garden of the Sun of Heaven, the Lady A-Kuei is the fittest to be gathered by the Imperial Hand, and this is my deliberate opinion."
Now, hearing this statement, the Pearl Empress was submerged in bewilderment, knowing that the Lady A-Kuei had modestly retired when the artist had depicted the reflection of the assembled loveliness of the Inner Chambers, as not counting herself worthy of portraiture, and her features were therefore unknown to him. Nor could the Empress further question the artist, for when she had done so, he replied only:"This is the secret of the Son of Heaven," and, having gained permission, he swiftly departed.
Nor could the Lady A-Kuei herself aid her Imperial Majesty, for on being questioned she was overwhelmed with modesty and confusion, and with stammering lips could only repeat:"This is the secret of his Divine Majesty," imploring with the utmost humility, forgiveness from the Imperial Mother.
The Pearl Empress was unable to eat her supper. In vain were spread before her the delicacies of the Empire. She could but trifle with a shark's fin and a "Silver Ear" fungus and a dish of slugs entrapped upon roses, with the dew-like pearls upon them. Her burning curiosity had wholly deprived her of appetite, nor could the amusing exertions of the Palace mimes, or a lantern fete upon the lake restore her to any composure. "This circumstance will cause my flight on the Dragon (death)," she said to herself, "unless I succeed in unveiling the mystery. What therefore should be my next proceeding?" And so, deeply reflecting, she caused the Chief of the Eunuchs to summon the Princess of Feminine Propriety, the White Jade Concubine and all the other exalted beauties of the Heavenly Palace.
In due course of time these ladies arrived, paying suitable respect and obeisance to the Mother of his Divine Majesty. They were resplendent in king-fisher ornaments, in jewels of jade, crystal and coral, in robes of silk and gauze, and still more resplendent in charms that not the Celestial Empire itself could equal, setting aside entirely all countries of the foreign barbarians. And in grace and elegance of manners, in skill in the arts of poetry and the lute, what could surpass them?
Like a parterre of flowers they surrounded her Majesty, and awaited her pleasure with perfect decorum, when, having saluted them with affability she thus addressed them - "Lovely ones - ladies distinguished by the particular attention of your sovereign and mine, I have sent for you to resolve a doubt and a difficulty. On questioning our sovereign as to whom he regarded as the loveliest of his garden of beauty he benignantly replied: "The Lady A-Kuei is incomparable," and though this may well be, he further graciously added that he had never seen her. Nor, on pursuing the subject, could I learn the Imperial reason. The artist Lo Cheng follows in his Master's footsteps, he also never having seen the favored lady, and he and she reply to me that this is an Imperial secret. Declare to me therefore if your perspicacity and the feminine interest which every lady property takes in the other can unravel this mystery, for my liver is tormented with anxiety beyond measure."
As soon as the Pearl Empress had spoken she realized that she had committed a great indiscretion. A babel of voices, of cries, questions and contradictions instantly arose. Decorum was abandoned. The Lady of Chen swooned, nor could she be revived for an hour, and the Princess of Feminine Propriety and the White Jade Concubine could be dragged apart only by the united efforts of six of the Palace matrons, so great was their fury the one with the other, each accusing each of encouragement to the Lady A-Kuei's pretensions. So also with the remaining ladies. Shrieks resounded through the Hall of Virtuous Tranquillity, and when the Pearl Empress attempted to pour oil on the troubled waters by speaking soothing and comfortable words, the august Voice was entirely inaudible in the tumult.
All sought at length in united indignation for the Lady A-Kuei, but she had modestly withdrawn to the Pearl Pavilion in the Imperial Garden and, foreseeing anxieties, had there secured herself on hearing the opening of the Royal Speech.
Finally the ladies were led away by their attendants, weeping, lamenting, raging, according to their several dispositions, and the Pearl Empress, left with her own maidens, beheld the floor strewn with jade pins, kingfisher and coral jewels, and even with fragments of silk and gauze. Nor was she any nearer the solution of the desired secret.
That night she tossed upon a bed sleepless though heaped with down, and her mind raged like a fire up and down all possible answers to the riddle, but none would serve. Then, at the dawn, raising herself on one august elbow she called to her venerable nurse and foster mother, the Lady Ma, wise and resourceful in the affairs and difficulties of women, and, repeating the circumstances, demanded her counsel.The Lady Ma considering the matter long and deeply, slowly replied:
"This is a great riddle and dangerous, for to intermeddle with the divine secrets is the high road to the Yellow Springs (death). But the child of my breasts and my exalted Mistress shall never ask in vain, for a thwarted curiosity is dangerous as a suppressed fever. I will conceal myself nightly in the Dragon Bedchamber and this will certainly unveil the truth. And if I perish I perish."
It is impossible to describe how the Empress heaped Lady Ma with costly jewels and silken brocades and taels of silver beyond measuring - how she placed on her breast the amulet of jade that had guarded herself from all evil influences, how she called the ancestral spirits to witness that she would provide for the Lady Ma's remotest descendants if she lost her life in this sublime devotion to duty.
That night Lady Ma concealed herself behind the Imperial couch in the Dragon Chamber, to await the coming of the Son of Heaven. Slowly dripped the water-clock as the minutes fled away; sorely ached the venerable limbs of the Lady Ma as she crouched in the shadows and saw the rising moon scattering silver through the elegant traceries of carved ebony and ivory; wildly beat her heart as delicately tripping footsteps approached the Dragon Chamber, and the Princess of Feminine Propriety, attended by her maidens, ascended the Imperial Couch and hastily dismissed them. Yet no sweet repose awaited this favored lady. The Lady Ma could hear her smothered sobs, her muttered exclamations - nay could even feel the couch itself tremble as the Princess uttered the hated name of the Lady A-Kuei, the poison of jealousy running in every vein. It was impossible for Lady Ma to decide which was the most virulent, this, or the poison of curiosity in the heart of the Pearl Empress. Though she loved not the Princess she was compelled to pity such suffering. But all thought was banished by the approach of the Yellow Emperor, prepared for repose and unattended, in simple but divine grandeur.
It cannot indeed be supposed that a Celestial Emperor is human, yet there was mortality in the start which his Augustness gave when the Princess of Feminine Propriety flinging herself from the Dragon couch, threw herself at his feet and with tears that flowed like that river known as "The Sorrow of China," demanded to know what she had done that another should be preferred before her; reciting in frantic haste such imperfections of the Lady A-Kuei's appearance as she could recall (or invent) in the haste of that agitating moment.
"That one of her eyes is larger than the other - no human being can doubt" sobbed the lady -" and surely your Divine Majesty cannot be aware that her hair reaches but to her waist, and that there is a brown mole on the nape of her neck? When she sings it resembles the croak of the crow. It is true that most of the Palace ladies are chosen for anything but beauty, yet she is the most ill-favored. And is it this - this bat-faced lady who is preferred to me! Would I had never been born: Yet even your Majesty's own lips have told me I am fair!"
The Yellow Emperor supported the form of the Princess in his arms. There are moments when even a Son of Heaven is but human. "Fair as the rainbow," he murmured, and the Princess faintly smiled; then gathering the resolution of the Philosopher he added manfully - "But the Lady A-Kuei is incomparable. And the reason is -"
The Lady Ma eagerly stretched her head forward with a hand to either ear. But the Princess of Feminine Propriety with one shriek had swooned and in the hurry of summoning attendants and causing her to be conveyed to her own apartments that precious sentence was never completed.Still the Lady Ma groveled behind the Dragon Couch as the Son of Heaven, left alone, approached the veranda and apostrophizing the moon, murmured -
"0 loveliest pale watcher of the destinies of men, illuminate the beauty of the Lady AKuei, and grant that I who have never seen that beauty may never see it, but remain its constant admirer!" So saying, he sought his solitary couch and slept, while the Lady Ma, in a torment of bewilderment, glided from the room.
The matter remained in suspense for several days. The White Jade Concubine was the next lady commanded to the Dragon Chamber, and again the Lady Ma was in her post of observation. Much she heard, much she saw that was not to the point, but the scene ended as before by the dismissal of the lady in tears, and the departure of the Lady Ma in ignorance of the secret.The Emperor's peace was ended.
The singular circumstance was that the Lady A-Kuei was never summoned by the Yellow Emperor. Eagerly as the Empress watched, no token of affection for her was ever visible. Nothing could be detected. It was inexplicable. Finally, devoured by curiosity that gave her no respite, she resolved on a stratagem that should dispel the mystery, though it carried with it a risk on which she trembled to reflect. It was the afternoon of a languid summer day, and the Yellow Emperor, almost unattended, had come to pay a visit of filial respect to the Pearl Empress. She received him with the ceremony due to her sovereign in the porcelain pavilion of the Eastern Gardens, with the lotos fish ponds before them, and a faint breeze occasionally tinkling the crystal wind-bells that decorated the shrubs on the cloud and dragon-wrought slopes of the marble approach. A bird of brilliant plumage uttered a cry of reverence from its gold cage as the Son of Heaven entered. As was his occasional custom, and after suitable inquiries as to his parent's health, the attendants were all dismissed out of earshot and the Emperor leaned on his cushions and gazed reflectively into the sunshine outside. So had the Court Artist represented him as "The Incarnation of Philosophic Calm."
"These gardens are fair," said the Empress after a respectful silence, moving her fan illustrated with the emblem of Immortality - the Ho Bird.
"Fair indeed," returned the Emperor. - "It might be supposed that all sorrow and disturbance would be shut without the Forbidden Precincts. Yet it is not so. And though the figures of my ladies moving among the flowers appear at this distance instinct with joy, yet -"He was silent.
"They know not," said the Empress with solemnity "that death entered the Forbidden Precincts but last night. A disembodied spirit has returned to its place and doubtless exists in bliss." "Indeed?" returned the Yellow Emperor with indifference - "yet if the spirit is absorbed into the Source whence it came, and the bones have crumbled into nothingness, where does the Ego exist? The dead are venerable, but no longer of interest."
"Not even when they were loved in life?" said the Empress, caressing the bird in the cage with one jewelled finger, but attentively observing her son from the corner of her august eye. "They were; they are not," he remarked sententiously and stifling a yawn; it was a drowsy afternoon. "But who is it that has abandoned us? Surely not the Lady Ma - your Majesty's faithful foster-mother?"
"A younger, a lovelier spirit has sought the Yellow Springs" replied the trembling Empress. "I regret to inform your Majesty that a sudden convulsion last night deprived the Lady A-Kuei of life. I would not permit the news to reach you lest it should break your august night's rest."
There was a silence, then the Emperor turned his eyes serenely upon his Imperial Mother. "That the statement of my august Parent is merely - let us say - allegoric - does not detract from its interest. But had the Lady A-Kuei in truth departed to the Yellow Springs I should none the less have received the news without uneasiness. What though the sun set - is not the memory of his light all surpassing?"
No longer could the Pearl Empress endure the excess of her curiosity. Deeply kowtowing, imploring pardon, with raised hands and tears which no son dare neglect, she besought the Emperor to enlighten her as to this mystery, recounting his praises of the lady and his admission that he had never beheld her, and all the circumstances connected with this remark- able episode. She omitted only, (from considerations of delicacy and others,) the vigils of the Lady Ma in the Dragon Chamber. The Emperor, sighing, looked upon the ground, and for a time was silent. Then he replied as follows:"Willingly would I have kept silence, but what child dare withstand the plea of a parent?
Is it necessary to inform the Heavenly Empress that beauty seen is beauty made familiar and that familiarity is the foe of admiration? How is it possible that I should see the Princess of Feminine Propriety, for instance, by night and day without becoming aware of her imperfections as well as her graces? How awake in the night without hearing the snoring of the White Jade Concubine and considering the mouth from which it issues as the less lovely. How partake of the society of any woman without finding her chattering as the crane, avid of admiration, jealous, destructive of philosophy, fatal to composure, fevered with curiosity; a creature, in short, a little above the gibbon, but infinitely below the notice of the sage, save as a temporary measure of amusement in itself unworthy the philosopher. The faces of all my ladies are known to me. All are fair and all alike. But one night, as I lay in the Dragon Couch, lost in speculation, absorbed in contemplation of the Yin and the Yang, the night passed for the solitary dreamer as a dream. In the darkness of the dawn I rose still dreaming, and departed to the Pearl Pavilion in the garden, and there remained an hour viewing the sunrise and experiencing ineffable opinions on the destiny of man. Returning then to a couch which I believed to have been that of the solitary philosopher I observed a depression where another form had lain, and in it a jade hairpin such as is worn by my junior beauties. Petrified with amazement at the display of such reserve, such continence, such august self-restraint, I perceived that, lost in my thoughts, I had had an unimagined companion and that this gentle reminder was from her gentle hand. But whom? I knew not. I then observed Lo Cheng the Court Artist in attendance and immediately despatched him to make secret enquiry and ascertain the name and circumstances of that beauty who, unknown, had shared my vigil. I learnt on his return that it was the Lady A-Kuei. I had entered the Dragon Chamber in a low moonlight, and guessed not her presence. She spoke no word. Finding her Imperial Master thus absorbed, she invited no attention, nor in any way obtruded her beauties upon my notice. Scarcely did she draw breath. Yet reflect upon what she might have done! The night passed and I remained entirely unconscious of her presence, and out of respect she would not sleep but remained reverently and modestly awake, assisting, if it may so be expressed, at a humble distance, in the speculations which held me prisoner. What a pearl was here! On learning these details by Lo Cheng from her own roseate lips, and remembering the unexampled temptation she had resisted (for well she knew that had she touched the Emperor the Philosopher had vanished) I despatched an august rescript to this favored Lady, conferring on her the degree of Incomparable Beauty of the First Rank. On condition of secrecy."The Pearl Empress, still in deepest bewilderment, besought his majesty to proceed. He did so, with his usual dignity.
"Though my mind could not wholly restrain its admiration, yet secrecy was necessary, for had the facts been known, every lady, from the Princess of Feminine Propriety to the Junior Beauty of the Bed Chamber would henceforward have observed only silence and a frigid decorum in the Dragon Bed Chamber. And though the Emperor be a philosopher, yet a philosopher is still a man, and there are moments when decorum -"
The Emperor paused discreetly; then resumed. "The world should not be composed entirely of A-Kueis, yet in my mind I behold the Incomparable Lady fair beyond expression. Like the moon she sails glorious in the heavens to be adored only in vision as the one woman who could respect the absorption of the Emperor, and of whose beauty as she lay beside him the philosopher could remain unconscious and therefore untroubled in body. To see her, to find her earthly, would be an experience for which the Emperor might have courage, but the philosopher never. And attached to all this is a moral:"The Pearl Empress urgently inquired its nature. "Let the wisdom of my august parent discern it," said the Emperor sententiously. "And the future?" she inquired.
"The - let us call it parable -" said the Emperor politely -"with which your Majesty was good enough to entertain me, has suggested a precaution to my mind. I see now a lovely form moving among the flowers. It is possible that it may be the Incomparable Lady, or that at any moment I may come upon her and my ideal be shattered. This must be safeguarded. I might command her retirement to her native province, but who shall insure me against the weakness of my own heart demanding her return? No. Let Your Majesty's words spoken - well - in parable, be fulfilled in truth. I shall give orders to the Chief Eunuch that the Incomparable Lady tonight shall drink the Draught of Crushed Pearls, and be thus restored to the sphere that alone is worthy of her. Thus are all anxieties soothed, and the honours offered to her virtuous spirit shall be a glorious repayment of the ideal that will ever illuminate my soul."
The Empress was speechless. She had borne the Emperor in her womb, but the philosopher outsoared her comprehension. She retired, leaving his Majesty in a reverie, endeavoring herself to grasp the moral of which he had spoken, for the guidance of herself and the ladies concerned. But whether it inculcated reserve or the reverse in the Dragon Chamber, and what the Imperial ladies should follow as an example she was, to the end of her life, totally unable to say. Philosophy indeed walks on the heights. We cannot all expect to follow it.That night the Incomparable Lady drank the Draught of Crushed Pearls.
The Princess of Feminine Propriety and the White Jade Concubine, learning these circumstances, redoubled their charms, their coquetries and their efforts to occupy what may be described as the inner sanctuary of the Emperor's esteem. Both lived to a green old age, wealthy and honored, alike firm in the conviction that if the Incomparable Lady had not shown herself so superior to temptation the Emperor might have been on the whole better pleased, whatever the sufferings of the philosopher. Both lived to be the tyrants of many generations of beauties at the Celestial Court. Both were assiduous in their devotions before the spirit tablet of the departed lady, and in recommending her example of reserve and humility to every damsel whom it might concern. It will probably occur to the reader of this unique but veracious story that there is more in it than meets the eye, and more than the one moral alluded to by the Emperor according to the point of view of the different actors.To the discernment of the reader it must accordingly be left.