The Phantom Waterfall

HARDY, the Goal Superintendent, who bought Postlethwaite’s old hack mare and used to ride her about the sandy lanes of the Reserve Forest, was wont to declare that the animal always came to a halt on the brow of a hill, or at any place where there was a fine view. I heard a guileless person once protest that horses never admire views. ‘Nor did she,’ replied Hardy. ‘She used to start grazing. It was I that was expected to do the admiring.’

Postlethwaite was a dear old friend of mine, and without vouching for the literal accuracy of Hardy’s story — for Hardy, too, I knew very well — I will go so far as to say that if ever it could be true of a horse, that horse would be Postlethwaite’s. For indeed I never knew a man who took such an unfailing delight in the mere act of looking at nature as my old friend. The love of nature, like the romantic love of women, is a convention of the poets, a mystical experience to which we are all supposed to be subject, but which with many of us remains no more than a pretense, even when it is carried adroitly enough to deceive ourselves as well as others. Occasionally, however, one meets people who actually achieve one or other of these refinements of emotion. I never found out whether Postlethwaite had ever been in love. Probably he had, for he never married. About his realization of that other and safer and still rarer state of imaginative grace there could be no doubt whatever. The love of nature was his religion. He found in the leafy wilds, and in the revolution of the seasons, that spiritual consolation, that sense of an impersonal and lasting order, which others look for in a church. The splendor of the forest was his ritual, and the spring his literal Easter.

At least that is how I seem to myself best able to describe, albeit by a loose figure, his spiritual attitude. I am far from supposing myself able to explain it, although I have studied and considered long the general question involved. Young men, furnished with ability, tell me nowadays that the love of nature is no more essentially ‘æsthetic,’ as they hideously label the business and concern of beauty, than any other emotion. I am not concerned to show that they are wrong. Possibly Postlethwaite’s affection for the wild, his ‘forest sense,’ as the early Buddhists had it, was compounded of many little material preferences and personal habits and accidental associations

— the love of fresh air and bodily exercise, of solitude and thought and easier daydream, even of relief and relaxation and vacancy, for Postlethwaite was an overworked upcountry judge, and his morning walks and rides must have been a grateful change from the stuffy day-long drudgery, of the courthouse, and all the paraphernalia

— to quote another South Indian judge — of

Parallel cases and criminal faces
Of prisoners all in a row.

Postlethwaite remained a district judge to the end of his working life, for he steadily declined to go to the High Court, lest he should lose his rural recreation. Self-indulgence of this type has its own nobility, and I always refused to accept in any vulgar sense the allegation of certain cynics that what Postlethwaite really loved and cultivated and admired, like a platonic and middle-aged Narcissus, was his own company and his own soul. But in a finer sense he would have accepted it himself — in the sense, namely, of the sage of the Upanishads who declared that not for the love of a wife is a wife dear, not for the love of sons, or wealth, or virtue, or wisdom, are any of these things dear, ‘but for the love of the soul all these are clear.’ I remember his actually applying this passage to the love of nature, in amplification of the Swiss philosopher’s observation that ‘every landscape is a state of the soul.’ For Postlethwaite, like many lovers of nature who have never heard of the Upanishads, was a devout pantheist.

Whether his main interest in the higher life was 'æsthetic’ or not, he was a man of many interests and gifts. If he had not been a judge, — he generally pronounced the word as ‘drudge,’— I think he would have been a great painter, for he had a singularly vivid visual memory. He could draw faces, once seen, with uncanny suggestiveness. This gift of his, for some reason, he studiously concealed, but he had at one time practised the art of landscape painting in water color shamelessly and with much local glory. He told me that he had given it up because simple admirers persisted in likening his work to colored photographs, and because his conscience told him that they were right. From this it will be seen that he was ahead of his time, for this was many years ago. Later he became a great admirer of old Chinese landscape painting, and was led thence to a study of the Zen Buddhist and Taoist doctrines by which it was so largely inspired. By this devious path he finally tracked his favorite emotion to its fountainhead in the ancient culture, too often forgotten by her governors, of the land of his labor and exile. India, he used to say, anticipated Wordsworth by two thousand years. He was a devout Wordsworthian for all that, though I have heard him dismiss the famous Ode as a ‘fake.’

Despite his interest in abstruse philosophies, it must not be supposed that Postlethwaite was a mystic in the vulgar sense of a seeker after miracles and signs. The ancient Buddhists and Taoists professed to be able to control external nature by the naked operation of the will; but if the study of their thought had ever revealed the secret of any such feats Postlethwaite, as we knew him in the flesh, was at least, like the Taoist sage of the anecdote, ‘able to refrain from doing them.’ He had the reverence of the enlightened Victorian for the laws of nature as he knew them, and though he was well aware of the mystery that moved behind them he took no morbid pleasure in the thought of throwing them out of gear. He shared his devotion between beauty and knowledge in a way that reminded one of Ruskin, with whom he had much in common, and whom he admired even more than he admired Wordsworth.

But if he neither performed nor wished to perform practical miracles, he wrote marvelously good letters, an achievement far more conducive to the edification of posterity. He was also, as posterity will readily believe on the evidence of the same letters, an uncommonly entertaining talker. He was almost as fond of good conversation as he was of walking and riding, but he nevertheless preferred to enjoy his exercise alone, and never walked and talked or rode and talked at the same time; for at such a juncture, he declared, he found himself intolerably pulled between the appeal of the conversation on the one hand and that of the landscape on the other; and the better they both were, the more painful did his own case become. I have found a similar admission in Hazlitt, another of his literary cronies. But Postlethwaite at night upon his own verandah, when the distracting shows of external nature were obscured, was peerless.

He was always best seen in his own house. He used to come twice a week, perhaps, to our little upcountry club for tennis, but he never made of it, like many Anglo-Indians, a kind of evening home, for he disliked indoor games, and had no relish for the sort of conversation that lives on sufferance between the strokes at billiards or deals at the card table. At tennis, I remember, he was rather clever in a wayward fashion, but he would suspend his service in the most exciting game to contemplate a rosy cirrus at the zenith, or a flight of evening cranes. It was chiefly thus that his idiosyncrasy was brought home to most of us, for he never gushed about a sunset before the multitude, or babbled of green fields, like poor emended Falstaff. The ordinary man’s — and woman’s — comparative indifference to natural beauty he took philosophically. In fact I think he actually underrated the power of such influence upon common minds. Our clubhouse was built upon an ancient bastion facing westward across the stately river which gave its name to the district — an outlook hardly to be matched under an October sunset, or indeed at many another season of the day or year. Instead, however, of repairing to the platform whence this daily marvel was to be seen, I am sorry to say that custom and indolence led us, when the light failed for tennis, and the afterglow, the time of strangest splendor on the river, was at hand, to remain sitting with our backs to it beside the tennis court; finding in the latest gossip of the station matter more seductive than was offered by that familiar blazon, however curiously varied, of waves and colors, quaint sails and cloudy shoals, across half a league of luminous water. Pretty Mrs. Carew, when she first came to the place, declared that she would abolish this stupid habit, as she called it, and for a time her youthful and lovely enthusiasm effected a reformation; but in six months’ time she sat by the tennis court as oblivious as the rest of us, and it was Postlethwaite, I remember, who won of her a wager that it would be so.

For Postlethwaite, I think he visited the club as much for the sake of that river prospect as for social consolation. He declared, indeed, that he was more closely attached to places than to persons, but this, I think, was a paradox. His close friendship, no doubt, he shared among few, for few understood him, but the quality of such a share was the richer and sweeter for the reservation. With the rest, his natural kindliness, his disarming aloofness from all that was personal and petty, his rather elvish humor, and his unfailing cheerfulness — he was without exception the happiest person I ever knew — so combined with, or tempered, his intellectual reputation as to surround ‘Pozzy’ with an atmosphere of affection as near to popularity as was possible without entire comprehension. Besides, were we not proud of Pozzy as a picturesque and amusing feature of the club, like the scene from the river wall, our chief distinction in his eyes, or the new gramophone, his only aversion?

When he retired from service, his health did not allow him to remain in the plains. He did not leave without a pang our little station by the river. He was deeply attached to it, as indeed he generally became to places wherein it was his fate to live for any considerable time. He had a strong sense of indebtedness to external things. ‘All that I experience is I,’he once wrote to me, ‘and I am that. I am the food I eat, the books I read. I am the July rain, and the sunlight of this November morning.’ And again, ‘I never leave a place where I have lived long without leaving also at least a third of myself behind. The greater part of this remnant ultimately disentangles itself, I suppose, and straggles after me, but some of it remains, and is reabsorbed into the inanimate world from which it was derived. This “truncated” feeling always bewilders me when I migrate. I often wonder why what is left behind is not equally troublesome to my successors there.’ He had added between the lines as an afterthought, ‘Perhaps it is, only they don’t understand the reason of their trouble.'

He consoled himself very effectually, however, for his departure from the scene of his last years in service. He bought a house in the Indragiri Hills, a lodge originally built, I believe, by a tea planter, and by him styled, for local reasons, Halfway House — a name which Postlethwaite, but with symbolical intent, retained. There I visited him several times during the last ten years of his life. Halfway House was about four miles distant from a well-known hill station. It lay just below the brim of a lovely basin of the hills, and looked westward across the valley into a splendid waterfall. From its immediate terraces arose a solemn troop of pines of different species, such as flourish so vigorously in the hospitable climate of the Indragiris; and Postlethwaite had laid out part of the garden before them in the Chinese fashion, with a mimic stream and a little bridge, stone lanterns, mounds of rock, and a marsh for irises — little regions which he whimsically dignified, according to classical Far Eastern example, with a geography of imposing Chinese names, of which I remember only that a certain hillock of clean sand was nominally dedicated to the Contemplation of the Honorable Moon. At the back of this quaint pleasance, and somewhat apart from the main house, he had built a delightful Chinese apartment, — or rather a set of apartments, for it was divisible at will by means of paper panels, — upon the spotless planks of whose little lowrailed balcony he could sit like an Ashikaga and see the far-off waterfall in a frame of pine boughs, a picture visited by the breath of heaven, an aerial and magic fresco, charged with alteration and tremulously musical, He had spent much of his time in the Far East, and during his last years his delighted fancy followed more piously than before the tortuous paths of the Far Eastern mind. The curve was characteristic of Postlethwaite’s sensitive response to environment. In the plains the trend of his thought had latterly become from year to year more notably Indian, abstract and subjective; but in the temperate air and amid the romantic mountain grandeur of the Indragiris he was reminded again of the great landscape painters of China and Japan, and his native interest, his temperamental bias toward absorption in the visible beauty of the world, was confirmed and rejuvenated.

I found him, therefore, a more delightful companion than ever; but his habits had become crystallized with time and living much alone, and his devotion to nature had taken upon itself a certain ritual solemnity, which he treated only half seriously himself, but which was rendered almost formidable by the air of half-comprehending reverence with which his sister, who kept house for him, and the household of long-service familiars, had grown accustomed to surround it. Postlethwaite, I should have stated, had at his retirement taken for a time to color photography, had become in fact something of a pioneer in that study; and the brilliant glass transparencies which he produced were known throughout the province. He would conduct me, then, through the secrets of his chemicals, in which, to tell the truth, I was by temperament little interested; and he was content to find me a more intelligent collaborator in his gardening — a pursuit upon which he spent much time, not only in his metaphysical Chinese parterre, but amid the more sensuous profusion of the outer garden, whose floral paragons, chiefly roses, were famous throughout those years even among the gorgeous exhibits of the Indragiri Flower Show. He allowed me also to lend a hand in the care of his cattle, enormous milk-white creatures of both sexes, the result of a cross which he had initiated between certain Australian breeds and the stately zebus of Nellore.

I found, however, that he preferred to be left entirely to himself for certain considerable and well-marked portions of the day. He had always professed a periodical, I may say a daily, need of solitude as pressing as that which others feel for company. This appetite of his, I found, had grown with exercise, was more deliberately indulged, less tolerant of dispensation, than of old. The first hours of the day he had always reserved for himself, and now, though he was often seen about the farm in the early morning, he was always uncommunicative at such times, breakfasted alone, and did not appear in public until ten. An hour after lunch (and here lay the innovation) he was off again, generally for a long ramble, and he took tea alone, and rather late, on the balcony of the Chinese lodge. There he would sit smoking in his dressing gown until long after the colors had faded from the sky above the waterfall. The household were particularly careful not to disturb him at this time, which they seemed to regard as the most sacred hour of the master’s day. At dinner he appeared, genial and almost worldly, but still clad in his quaint Chinese dressing gown, unless there were unfamiliar visitors. From dinner onward he was entirely at his guest’s disposal, and we would sit until the small hours talking of life and art and science and history, of men and beasts and plants, of the kingdoms of this world, and of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes Postlethwaite would go out alone for the day, and the household were not perturbed if he even failed to return by bedtime, for he would sometimes sleep in the house of some friend at the far end of a favorite ramble. Sometimes, too, he and I and the camera — or sketchbooks, for he dropped his photography before the end — would spend a day upon the hills together, but for the most part the order of the days was as I have described. It suited my own humor well enough, as I was fond of sketching from nature and, like the majority of AngloIndians outside novels, used to being long alone; and I never spent happier days than those which are associated with the memory of that curious hermitage, with its choice, full-blooded roses and oxen, white and red, its great, symbolic pine trees, and gracious dreams, on the lovely hillside over against the waterfall.

After living ten years in this retreat, the master was moved to leave it for the last ramble, of which we had so often spoken together; and became, as he had loved to think, ‘a portion of that loveliness,’ which his life, for those at least who knew him well, had made more lovely. This event, so sorrowful to his friends, does not, however, mark the end of my story; nor perhaps of his, but I will proceed with mine. His excellent sister remained at Halfway House, though it was several years before I had the heart to visit her there. One day, however, she wrote that she wished to consult me on some matter connected with the disposal of his photographic patents, and I took advantage of a brief Easter vacation to go to her.

I found the house and grounds very much as he had left them. His books, his portfolios, his laboratory, the Chinese lodge and its quaint garden, had been preserved with an exact and pious care. The beeves and the roses, or their descendants, were as large and beautiful as ever, for of the beeves, at least, his sister had always known as much as, or more than, he. But in the neighborhood, beyond the pale of the sanctuary, heart-rending change had been at work. The rude mountain track below the house had become a metaled road, where periodic motor cars ran dustily. Above the trees that fringed the northern rim of the valley basin could be seen some of the roofs of the military settlement of Marlborough, which had grown up around the new cordite factory beyond. Worst of all, they had dammed the stream above the fall, and taken the water away to drive the factory engines.

Its naked cataract — I would rather say, its empty throne — still shone across the valley, a very metaphor of desolation, but beautiful still in its dumb suggestiveness — the tall embrasure of yellow rock whorled and rounded by the corrosion of its vanished waters, the tumultuous fringe of trees and creepers as thick, and almost as green, as when they trembled in the breeze and thunder of the fall. Few mere sights could be more poignant than the aspect of this void rock as I saw it between the pines from the balcony of the Chinese apartment on the morning after my arrival. The waterfall had always seemed to dominate the valley, to be the high altar, as it were, of an open-air cathedral; rather it had seemed a living presence, which had governed the orientation of that populous chapel of the cathedral which was Halfway House. The hills, the house itself, seemed strangely silent now, for although the sound of the great fall had come to us muffled from afar, and sweetened, as it were, with atmosphere, its pervasive murmur was the only silence that we knew. This hard and utter numbness, like the naked gash in the green heart of the hillside opposite, into which the morning sunlight now shone so pitilessly, was like the palpable and hopeless absence of my friend — an absence now raised to the power of a tragedy in nature.

But that evening at sundown, as I sat in the same place, the place and hour wherein the master of the house was wont to keep his ritual contemplation, sat and dreamed of him and of the days that were gone with him, almost suddenly the valley was filled with the familiar murmur, and lifting my eyes I saw the streams come down over the rock as of old. For more than an hour I watched and heard them, for it was as if my friend himself had appeared and spoke with me. I saw the long, throbbing veils of silver fade into the twilight. I could even see, with a strength beyond my usual vision, with a sharpness which reminded me of that eagle eyesight upon which my friend himself was wont, even to the last, to pride himself, the white plumes of the water overlap and follow one another into the gulf, like the breast of a great swan, the bird of creative Brahma, sinking forever through the void; and when at last I rose and went into the house the chant of the cataract still rang clear out of the darkness. My spirit was deeply moved, and my emotion, perhaps, made me refrain from speaking of the matter to my hostess that night. Afterward I wondered more prosaically that the people at the factory should allow so much water to run to waste. But when I was told by the old butler, after my hostess had retired, that no great quantity of water ever came over the old way now, and when I went out later and found the night all black and silent, a different kind of awe came upon me, and a conviction drew to light which was confirmed next day by the information given me at the factory — a conviction which I had perhaps subconsciously entertained from the first, but in the hour of deep feeling had regarded as based upon a distinction of no moment; the conviction, namely, that those were no material waters that I had seen and heard.

When I waited in the twilight the next evening, and when again, only a little later, the vision, the voice and the vision, were vouchsafed me, and again with that strange sensuous distinctness, my courage for a moment quailed, until the love and memory of my dead friend overshadowed every other feeling. That night I waited until the voice of the waterfall failed upon the darkness as softly as it came.

An illusion of the mind, you will say — the work of memory and overwrought regret. But wait.

Afterward, when I was bidding my hostess good-night and good-bye, she held my hand and said to me, ‘You have seen it, then?’ I said yes, I had seen it.

’I too saw it once,’ she said, with tears in her eyes, but I thought there was gladness in the voice. ‘That was two years ago. But you have seen it twice within three days. You were a dear friend of his.’ And thus, with shining eyes, and a certain sweetness in our hearts, we parted, and I never saw her again; for she too went forth finally from Halfway House not long after, but not until she had seen the phantom waterfall once more, for she wrote of it in one of her last letters.

That is all I have to tell. I am no mystic and a poor metaphysician, and I have searched in vain in my own mind and among current psychological and philosophical theories, aye, and ransacked the ancient wisdom of the East, for an explanation of that beloved and lovely mystery of the South Indian mountains. That it was in some way a manifestation, a unique and intimate manifestation, of the personality of our dear dead comrade, neither his sister nor myself had ever a doubt. She at least was content to leave the matter there; but Postlethwaite himself, in similar case, would not have been so, and I would willingly follow, if I could, the example of that fervent searcher of the spirit. My old friend neither greatly desired nor expected a personal survival other than objective, and I for one still see no clear reason to suppose that he now holds another opinion; but we cannot exclude the possibility that his disembodied spirit directly spoke to us in the garden house that he loved. Or had the repeated ardors of past contemplation established nomes and rhythms of the world-stuff thereabout that shook like an echo along the years, and played upon the sympathetic brain, as upon an instrument attuned, a symphony that spoke with all the subtle organ stops of sense? Or had our own poignant emotion induced in us a state, as it were, of backward clairvoyance, which for a time brought us into touch once more, not only with the virgin waterfall, but with the mind of the sage for whom it had ever been a symbol of such heart-uplifting sanctities? I write only in vague suggestion, feeling as I do that these conjectures are at best but parts and aspects of the solution that I seek. I have long suspected, however, that the past and the future alike exist, in a sense, now, and are perhaps even accessible to the living sense and mind of us, had we but strength and skill to find our way to them, or, if you wish, to summon them to us.

Marlborough has grown apace of late, I am told, and hill villas, with pretty posy names, have begun to grow up along the road by Halfway House, and to stare into the vacant cataract. I wonder whether any of their inmates ever see the phantom waterfall!

For myself, circumstances have borne me far, but I still hope to go back there again before I die, to see whether my old friend will remember me.