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 laborer.
I had come to the right place. A very wonderful city is Peshawar — the Key of India, and a city of Romance, which stands at every corner, and cries aloud in the market-place. 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 anyone 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.
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.
‘So when I came to three-andtwenty,’ 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.’
‘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 and teach here. 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. So 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 to-morrow I should know I had done right. I rejoice in every moment I live — even when Winifred and I are wrestling with arithmetic.’
‘I should n’t have thought life was very easy wit h 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!’
‘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 color, 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 sightseeing 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 color struck me dumb. It flames — it sings. Think of the gray 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 honor and one to dishonor ?" 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 shoulder. 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.
‘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, I 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.’
‘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 is n’t at all wholesome to dream in the East. Come and dine with us to-morrow. 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 to-morrow, 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.’
Next evening I went into Lady Meryon’s flower-scented drawing-room.
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 blue 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. To-morrow 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 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 traveling to-night like a bullet to her heart, and she does not know.’
‘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 to-morrow.’
‘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 Kabu River, aged 22.”— “Killed on outpost duty.” — “Murdered by an Afghan fanatic.” This will be one memory more. Why be sorry?’
‘ I am going up to the hills to-morrow, 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 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—
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 as 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 is n’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. Gray 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 Brahmin, 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? Mr. Clifden can lunch with the officers at Nowshera and come any day. I know I am an atrocity.’
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 Sunset 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 but 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.
On the day when things became clear to me, I was walking toward 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 remember that I wished I did not know every change of her face as I did.
‘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! But did you go on Tuesday or Friday?’
For these are the only two 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.
‘Tuesday. But make a picture for me.’
‘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 machineguns in the court? And everyone 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 Samarcand, 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 — 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 wildhawk 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 does n’t do that. Well — then you saw 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 with 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?’ I asked her.
‘The most beautiful of all, 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 favorite sport in the hills. Oh, why does n’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.’
‘ Surely Sir John can get you up there any day.’
‘I am leaving.’
‘Leaving?’ My heart gave a leap. ‘Why? Where?’
‘I had rather not tell you.’
‘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.
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.’
‘Surely you have all the world can give? What do you want more?’
‘The power to enjoy it — to understand it. 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 that 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 anyone before. I have tried to get away and I can’t.’
‘ 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. 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 wished to say goodbye.’
I felt as if my all were deserting me
— a sickening feeling of loneliness.
‘I entreat you to tell me why, and where.’
‘Since you have made me this offer, I will tell you why. Lady Meryon objected to my friendship with you, and objected in a way which —’
She stopped, flushing palely. I caught her hand.
‘That settles it, that she should have dared! I’ll go up this minute and tell her we are engaged. Vanna — Vanna! ’
For she disengaged her hand.
‘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 splendor and riot of life and color! That’s my life — I sicken of this.’
‘But I will give it to you. Marry me, and we will travel till you ’re tired of it.’
‘And look on as at a play. 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? ’
‘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.
‘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.’
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 forever, 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 afterward 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 forever; but if you will only give me two months — Come! But have you thought that people will talk? I’m not worth that, God knows.’
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. — No, I must do as I say; 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. She gave me such opportunities as the most ardent lover might in his wildest. dream desire, and with the remoteness in her eyes and her still voice she deprived them of all hope.
‘Vanna, is it a promise? You mean it?’
‘If you wish it, yes. But I warn you that 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. I think it unwise for you. I would protect you if I could — indeed I would!’
It was my turn to hesitate now. Would it not 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. I felt utterly exiled from the real purpose of her life.
‘I will never release you. I claim your promise. I hold to it.’
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?
Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold and as cold sea-shells.
Yet I would risk it.
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 be 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 be twenty-nine my next birthday.
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.
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 sea of peace, had overflowed the world, and the blue meadows smiled 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.
The night I had slept in a boat at Sopor had been my first in Kashmir; 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 waited — for what? Even while I looked, the moon floated serenely above the peak, and all was bathed in pure light, the water rippling in broken silver and pearl. So had Vanna floated into my life, sweet, remote, luminous.
I rode past the lovely wooden bridges, where the balconied houses totter to each other across the canals in a dim splendor of carving and age; where the many-colored native life crowds down to the river-steps and cleanses its flowerbright robes, its gold-bright brass vessels, in the shining stream; and my heart said only, ‘Vanna, Vanna!'
My servant dismounted and led his horse, asking from everyone where the Kedarnath could be found; 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. 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 and 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 afterpart the native owner and his family lived — our crew, our cooks and servants; for they played many parts in our service. And in the forepart, room for a life, a dream, the joy or curse of my 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,
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.
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.'
I threw myself on the grass beside her with a feeling of perfect rest.
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!
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 Ahmed Khan in a miraculous kitchen of his own invention — a few holes burrowed in the river-bank, a smouldering 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 stern, and exist simply to protect the Sahib-log from all discomfort; and very well they do it. That is Ahmed 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, Ahmed Khan, and I talk by the hour. Ahmed 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.’
‘One moment. If we are friends on a great adventure, I must call you Vanna, and you me Stephen.'
‘Yes, I suppose that is part of it,’ she said, smiling. ‘Come, Stephen.'
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, with a gray pot of irises in the middle; another table for writing, photographing, and all the little pursuits of travel; a bookshelf, with some well-worn friends; two low, cushioned chairs, two others 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.
‘It is perfect,’ was all I said, as she waved her hand proudly to show it; ‘it is home.’
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 us among the leaves. I felt extraordinarily young and happy.
The quiet of her voice was as soft as the little lap of water against the bank; and Kahdra, the Orange Imp, was singing a little wordless song to himself as he washed the plates beside us.
‘The wealth of the world could not buy this,’ I said; and was silent.
And so began a life of sheer enchantment. Looking back, I know in what a wonder-world I was privileged to live. Vanna could talk with all our shipmates. She did not move apart, a condescending or indifferent foreigner. Little Kahdra would come to her knee and chatter to her of the great snake that lived up on Mahadeo, to devour erring boys who omitted to say their prayers at proper Moslem intervals. She would sit with the baby in her lap, while the mother busied herself in the sunny boat with the mysterious dishes that smelt so good to a hungry man.
‘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 time. Her reward would be some bit of folk-lore, some quaintness of gratitude, which I noted down in the little book I kept for remembrance — and do not need, for every word is in my heart.
We pulled down through the city next day, Salama rowing, and 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, 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; the fine aquiline faces 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 gray 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, which 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.
‘Look — below here,’ said Vanna, pointing to one of the great ghats — long rugged steps running down to the river. ’When I came yesterday, a great broken crowd was collected, almost shouldering each other into the water, where a boat lay rocking. In it was 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 grim, open-mouthed curiosity, and business went on gayly where the jewelers make the silver bangles for slender wrists, and the rows of silver coins 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 needed 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.’
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 found the Key of the Mystery;
Traveling by no track, I have come to the Sorrowless Land; very easily has the mercy of the great Lord come upon me.
Wonder 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?’ I asked, when the music ceased for a moment.
‘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 key-note of life; that pain is the road of ascent, if road there be; that an implacable Nature presides over all our pitiful struggles and writes a black ‘Finis’ to the holograph of our existence? What then? Was she teaching me that joy is the only truth, — the only reality, — and all else illusion? Was she the Interpreter of a Beauty eternal in the heavens and reflected in broken prisms in the beauty that walked visible beside me? I listened as a man to an unknown tongue; but I listened, though I ventured my protest.
’In India, in this strange 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, O 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 forever.’
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."'
When she left me alone, the old doubts came back — the fear that I saw only through her eyes; and I began to believe in joy, only because I loved her. I remember that I wrote in the little book that I kept for my stray thoughts these words, which are not mine but reflect my vision 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 Deirdré, 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.
(To be concluded)