‘Do you think he will show himself to-day?’ The voice came from a row of white-clad figures squatting in the thread of shade under the eaves.
‘This is the fifth day,’ murmured another. The heads of the speakers did not turn, but their low whispers ran clearly along the wall.
‘The visitors are all annoyed because they cannot see him.’
‘No one else ever comes here now. It is six months since he has had a new disciple.’
‘You were the last, Abib.’ Avendi’s voice was slightly mocking. ‘We all thought when you came it would be the beginning of a new time.’
The man at the end of the line did not reply, and the others lapsed into silence. The hot wind whipped up a little column of reddish dust which danced dervish-like on the beaten earth floor of the courtyard. Their eyes followed it through nearly closed lids.
Presently one of them broke the silence again. ‘When I came it was like a court. Do you remember how gay it was?’ He sighed reminiscently. ‘So many people were camped here you might have thought you were in a city, and there was a bazaar where you could buy almost anything you wanted.’ Chundra’s voice trailed off into silence, and his head dropped lower over his fat knees.
‘Mottee, the rug maker, is still here,’ remarked Pertab with a slight chuckle. ‘Did you hear him at the gateway this morning demanding a charm? I thought I should have to stuff his turban down his throat to silence him. He swears that no one but the master can cure his headaches.’
‘Old Nada, now,’ interrupted Chundra, ‘says his charms have lost their power. His calf died last week.’
’Why does the master let them trouble him?’ demanded Avendi impatiently. ‘He listens to stupid women and babbling old men as though they were sages.’
‘The angel Fazil on his visit to earth found Truth on a dungheap,’ said Chota oracularly, after a short pause.
Abib rose abruptly from his station under the wall and, pushing aside a cotton hanging which covered the arched doorway, went inside. He could feel the surprised glances of the others, but he shrugged his shoulders and continued along the bare passageway past a series of low doors until he reached his own cubicle. It was a narrow dark space not more than three feet wide. The only illumination came from four small openings through which the light filtered and lay like the fallen petals of a flower. Abib picked up a watering pot and sprinkled the floor and walls. A faint pleasant scent came from the trodden earth. He unrolled a thin mattress and stretched himself full length upon it, his hands under his head. The cool dusk was very soothing after the piercing white heat of the courtyard, and he lay with wide eyes staring up at the shadowed ceiling.
The silence was broken by a faint dry scratching as a lizard ran up the side of the tall water jar and came to rest under its broad lip. Abib watched it idly, his mind soothed by the beauty of its green body on the sombre jar. ‘How easy to be a saint when one is alone,’ he thought.
The consciousness of a frail brown figure sitting motionless in half darkness, every sense sealed, its spirit far away gathering light, oppressed him, and in some subtle sense left him drained of strength. They all felt it. Even the children in the school seemed absent-minded and listless, as though the master had absorbed something of them, too, and taken it with him on this far journey. ‘We are like fish stranded by the tide, lying gasping till it reaches us again,’ he thought.
To-morrow, or to-day perhaps, he would come forth with his mild face beaming, and his disciples would be filled with enthusiasm once more. The looms would weave faster, the spinning wheels whirl busily, and everyone would be full of talk and confidence.
Abib tossed restlessly on his mattress, startling the lizard, who scurried away out of sight. How absurd to think that all this was significant and important, that in this group of buildings a nation was being forged and a people welded together. Like children they played at ploughing and spinning and weaving, and sang songs, and fasted, while outside men and women were being killed.
He took a letter from the folds of his robe. It was from his father, and had come only that morning. It mentioned that two cousins with whom he had played as a child in the old compound had been arrested and thrown into prison as agitators. ‘There is unrest everywhere,’ his father wrote. ‘Processions are fired upon, people are imprisoned. On our side there are divided councils, some saying one thing and some another, and no one speaks with a clear voice.’
‘No one speaks with a clear voice.’ How different it had all been two years ago — a year ago, even. Freedom had seemed within their grasp. A word, surely, and it would have been theirs. Why had it not been spoken?
Abib thought of his coming to this place. Hot from the councils of students, he had been sent to urge the master to take up the leadership he seemed to have laid down. ‘Wake him, Abib,’ they said.
How strange it had all been. None of the pictures he had seen, or the descriptions of his friends, had quite prepared him for the tiny figure squatting on the floor. ‘It’s a child,’ was his first astonished thought. Then he saw that the face lifted to his own was lined and worn, and the mouth sunken. Only the brown eyes still shone with the candor and innocence of childhood. The man smiled, showing dark, toothless gums.
‘Come and sit with me while we pick over these lentils for to-morrow’s meal,’ he said in a high, cracked voice.
The young man sat down. His tongue trembled with the exhortation he had prepared, his hands were cold. Suddenly the shrill voice demanded, ‘Can you tell me why the lizard is like the crow?’
Abib stammered in confusion that he could not. The master laughed, and it seemed to the youth that there was something impish in his mirth. ‘I always ask my followers that when they come to me. No one has yet been able to tell me.'
‘And what is the answer?’ said Abib at last.
‘Ah, if I told you it would no longer be a riddle.’ He laughed again, and they worked a little in silence. Then he asked: —
‘Can you sing songs?’
‘No,’ replied Abib.
‘That is a pity. A man who cannot sing is more apt to fail into despair than one who can. You must learn. I will sing you a song I made to-day while I was spinning.’
He began to chant in a high, windy voice as tuneless as the drone of the cicada. Abib felt ashamed for the childish doggerel of the verses. The little brown man babbled on, laughing at his own sayings, while the boy’s spirit grew sick. He would have liked to cover his face with his hands and creep away. Was this really the one to whom they all looked as their leader? When they had finished their task he rose awkwardly to go. His message would mean nothing to this man. They had been mistaken.
Suddenly the brown eyes became wells of light and the cracked voice full of tenderness and love.
‘You are disappointed,’ he said with gentle raillery. ‘You expected to see wonderful things.’ Abib bowed his head. ‘You thought I should set to work at once on great plans.’
He looked away and sighed before he went on. ‘ Because you are young, my way will be hard for you. It will not be easy for you to see that it is by ploughing and spinning and not by speech or the sword that we become strong.’
He pointed to a pot in one corner where a bean sprout was pushing through the earth. ‘I keep this to remind me of the mystery and power of the seed, which, buried out of sight, springs up, and by no will of ours bears fruit and becomes food for the hungry. The peasant does not rise and call on his fields to bring forth the harvest. He plants his seed and waits. If it is good seed and the gods are kind, it will bring forth a good harvest. You and I are to be that patient peasant.’
He paused and sifted the lentils through his fingers, and Abib thought he had finished. His eyes were far away, and he seemed to have forgotten his visitor, but presently he spoke again. ‘It is hard to be so patient. When I was young I dreamed of becoming a great leader. Now I am content to be the poor husbandman. I look at my bean sprout, and I am comforted.’
The boy had thrown himself at the feet of the little man. ‘Master, teach me,’ he had cried; and he had stayed.
How wonderful the days had been: the hours behind the plough, when after the first days, his muscles grown strong, he had trodden the moist furrows, and smelled the deep scent of the earth; quiet hours at the spinning wheel, when all life seemed to be caught and twisted into the thread he was spinning; mornings, when they hurried out like eager pilgrims to greet the sun’s rising with song.
The wheel, the song, and the loom — the master’s three symbols of salvation. They had acquired an almost godlike significance. In them lay a strange magic virtue. They were a mirror into which a people might look and see themselves and become strong. They were . . .
Abib sat up abruptly. They were poetry, not life. He looked at his father’s letter again. ‘No one speaks with a clear voice. It will be tragic if the noble spirit of freedom, like a sword in its sheath, rusts because there is no hand to draw it.’
The sound of a gong interrupted his reflections, and the young man rose reluctantly. He settled his robe about his hips, and took a long drink from the earthenware jar in the corner. The courtyard was deserted now except for one figure keeping watch outside the master’s door. Abib paused in the archway, looking out. In the hard afternoon light the place looked poor and mean. Nothing screened the low buildings from the glare of the sun, and there was ahout them an air of neglect and desertion. The fields which they cultivated were patchy and dry, and some of them showed traces still of the thriving little colony which at one time surrounded the master. Beyond the school were a number of huts, and encircling them all like a sea was the great plain which the master called Our Mother’s Breast, because the whole country drew nourishment from it. Field and village, village and field, red clay, gray dust and yellow, it stretched for hundreds of miles. Abib, who had been born in the moist jungle lands, could never get used to its openness, or to the sense of being unable to hide which had overwhelmed him when he first came.
Voices in shrill dispute assailed his cars. One of them he recognized as Mottee’s. He could not distinguish any words, but it was doubtless the daily argument over charms. He shrugged his shoulders and went on to the school. In the big main room a dozen men and women were seated at the clumsy hand looms weaving, singing as they worked. They made little effort at harmony, but above the clacking of the looms the singing had a pleasant sound like that of a running stream. Usually it pleased Abib, but to-day he was irritated by its lifelessness, and turned away without acknowledging the greeting of Chota.
He moved on to another room. Two women were squatting on the floor painting a great water jar, while a man shaped an earthenware lamp, and a girl bent over a bowl. Abib seated himself at one end of the room and took a fresh lump of clay from the mass under the wet sacking. The cool, yielding firmness of the material soothed him, and he sank his fingers deep into it. The others glanced at him expectantly. Abib taught them history, but no one ever taught or listened with idle hands. Even the master stitched on canvas bags when he talked.
The young man was giving them a brief history of the Western world. To-day he had meant to talk to them about the Industrial Revolution; yet, looking at these placid faces, at the crude wheel, the slightly misshapen pots, it seemed impossible to make them understand. Not so impossible, perhaps, he thought abruptly. There were two empty spaces in the room which earlier in the month had been occupied. Those young men had been placid-eyed, too, but Avendi, who heard everything, said they had found work in Nala Longa’s big pottery works, which employed over eight hundred men and women. Abib looked sharply at his fellow workers. Their smooth, bent faces told him nothing.
The two women commenced to whisper as they painted on the design of an eye and a feather which was older than the oldest building in the country, a design which had been found again and again in remote and unrelated parts of the world. Abib noticed it for the first time and, leaning forward, spoke to one of the women. ‘ What is the meaning of that design you are painting?’
She seemed surprised by his question, and after a moment’s thought shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’
The other woman looked up. ‘My mother always put it round the neck of water jars to keep away evil.’
‘But it did n’t prevent her from dying of typhoid,’ growled the man beside her.
‘My mother is still living, as you know well,’ retorted the woman with spirit. ‘Typhoid never visited us.’
‘Perhaps not,’ answered the man. ‘But it did thousands of others.’ He pressed the clay handle of the lamp into place, and then looked up from his work. ‘What I meant,’he explained, ‘is, what is the use of our doing all these things that have been done for ten thousand years, and saying it will make a nation of us? We did them, having no choice, and see where it has brought us. Why should it be any better if we go on now and choose to do them? There should be new designs and new decorations and new ways.'
He looked at Abib defiantly, and then at the others. Abib’s face was stern and thoughtful, and the women looked at him sorrowfully. No one argued with him, and the girl said, ‘I suppose you will be following Rama and his brother to Nala Longa’s.'
‘Perhaps,’replied the man. ‘Eight of us here can hardly make more than a few pots a day. At Nala Longa’s we should be working on hundreds. Why should we limp when we can run?’
‘The master . . .’ began one of the women timidly.
‘The master is a saint,’ he answered.
They were all silent under the spell of the name. Their eyes grew wistful and gentle, and Abib thought that something childlike crept into their faces.
The song of the weavers came to them clearly through the stillness, and the women hummed softly. Now and then they glanced at Abib, but they were used to his silences, and they talked quietly among themselves.
‘They are no surer than I,'/ he thought. Pity for the lonely figure of the master overwhelmed him. So many followers and disciples had left. Some of them he knew had even become enemies. Only a few foolish ones like Chundra remained faithful. Strange to think that two years ago the whole country hung on his words.
The tormenting questions that had lain so long in the background rushed upon him in their full force. Had the master really faltered? Had he been afraid of his own power and hesitated to speak the freeing words? Was his part not played now, and something new needed to carry them on to the final goal? He thought of his father’s words: ‘A great many fires will have to be lighted and burn down before there is one hot enough to smelt this ore.’ Would the new way be found here in this withdrawn spot, or must it not be fought for in the midst of the restlessness, and indecision, and turmoil outside?
As the young man pondered, the bell for evening preparation sounded. The women put aside their brushes, and Ramchandra covered the lamp on which he had been working. He looked at Abib as he passed, and seemed about to speak, but after a moment’s hesitation followed the others out of the room. Abib frowned at his ruined cup and, crushing it back into a lump of clay again, put it under the wet sacking.
It was the hour of meditation; groups of twos and threes were walking up and down the courtyard with bent heads, and when they spoke it was in whispers. Abib joined them, though he longed to be striding across the open country. Here his thoughts were thrown back to him like echoes from the walls, and he felt himself imprisoned. Chundra fell into step beside him, and they paced slowly up and down.
‘You are looking ill,’ whispered Chundra at length. ‘The food here does not agree with you.'
When his companion did not answer, he added with a sigh, ‘ I confess that today I went down into the village and bought some cakes and ate them as I came home through the fields. Saints must be born without stomachs.’ He patted his own round one ruefully.
Abib turned on him suddenly. ’Your father is very rich, Chundra?’
’Oh, yes,’ responded the other indifferently. ‘Very. He owns three mills. He is very angry with me.’
‘You could go back to him and be comfortable and eat as much as you pleased?’
‘Oh, yes — I could do that.’
‘Then why don’t you?’
Chundra stopped in his tracks. His little eyes grew round, and his fat cheeks puffed out.
’The master,’ he said simply.
Abib felt a pang of mingled irritation and envy of this clear faith, but he smiled a little at the consternation on his companion’s face and added lightly, ‘In another life doubtless you will be born without, a stomach.’
Suddenly the watcher outside the master’s tent prostrated himself. The curtain was drawn back. The tiny familiar figure in its white cotton robe emerged, and, swaying a little, walked slowly to the middle of the court. Two arms no stouter than ropes were raised to the sky, and the high, windy voice intoned a prayer. The disciples knelt and bowed till their foreheads touched the ground, and as the invocation ceased a long sigh seemed to rise from the whole company. When they rose again their faces were eager and alive.
‘ When he is here,’ said Chundra enthusiastically into Abib’s ear, ‘I feel as though I could do anything.’
The master moved about among them, stopping to speak to the little groups that gathered expectantly. His shrill laughter echoed from the walls, and Abib could hear him asking a new riddle. Under his gaze the men became talkative and animated, and the brooding inertia of the past days was cast off. When the first awe of his return had worn off, they crowded childishly to tell him all that had happened. With many chuckles Pertab repeated the tale of Mottee’s demands for charms, and Chota recited a new rhyme he had made. Then the huge steaming bowl of rice for their supper was brought in and set down on a stone slab in the centre.
‘Rice,’ cried Chundra, stooping to inhale the steam, ‘and every grain like a little white egg.’ He helped himself liberally and filled another bowl for Abib, who stood motionless in the shadow of the wall. During these days men and women had been brutally assaulted and killed, and they spoke of a rug maker’s charms! He took the food which Chundra held out, and, sitting down, ate mechanically. For a moment an impulse rose in him to spring up and denounce them all, to tear away the mantle of leadership from the master and show them the figure that shivered behind it. But he put it away, with a hysterical desire to laugh as he thought of their stricken faces.
‘Alone, my brother?’ said a voice, and he looked up to find the master standing beside him. The others had finished their meal and were already laughing and talking together again. Before Abib could reply the other went on: ‘Come and walk with us in the fields. It is five days since I have seen them.’
They streamed through the narrow archway on to the plain. Word had already gone forth that the master’s fast was over, and a number of the villagers were gathered outside the walls and crowded as close as they dared to his side. Many of them had their children with them, and these skipped about among the dry furrows, shrieking and laughing. It was nearing sundown, and the cattle were being driven home to the villages. The dust raised by their plodding hoofs lay like a golden veil over the harvested fields. The powdery earth was still warm under their bare feet, and the master picked up a handful, letting it drift through his fingers. ‘What poet,’ he said at last, addressing the grains that still clung to his palms, ‘is great enough to sing the love between thee and me?’
As they walked their long shadows striped the fields, and the birds flew chattering toward the stream. The sun dropped lower through the golden mist, and the little company raised the chant, ‘Farewell to Day.’
‘The evening fields are bright carpets under thy feet, departing sun,’ they sang, their voices rising shrill and sweet. A momentary peace descended on Abib. ‘So it must have been in the first green days of the world,’ he thought, and he wished dreamily that they might walk on forever in the sunset glory.
At the three trees on the stream’s bank they paused to watch the last fiery spark of the sun burn out on the earth’s rim, and to dabble their feet in the sluggish water. When they turned to go back the fields were already gray around them, and the little white moths rose like ghosts from the dry stalks.
At the gateway the master spoke to Abib. ‘Come and sit with me tonight after the prayer.’
Abib stood outside the master’s door. He had been standing there some minutes, but he did not knock. He listened intently to the night noises. The insects chorused loudly from the fields, and from the village came the insistent barking of a dog. In the building he could hear indistinct murmurs and the slapping of sandals on the earth floors. How familiar they were, and yet he did not remember that he had ever noticed them before. He lifted the curtain and went in. The soft flames from the little oil lamps burned like golden leaves against the whitewashed wall. The master sat sewing with a coarse needle on a pile of sacks. Abib seated himself opposite; taking up another needle, he threaded it carefully and began to stitch. The rough feel of the stuff against his fingers seemed to ease the pain in his throat a little.
‘Master,’ he said at last, ‘I must go away.'
The other might not have heard. He sewed steadily, and did not lift his eyes.
Abib could bear it no longer and, throwing down his work, cried, ‘Forgive me, master! I cannot stay. Outside, people are crying for help. There are riots and unrest everywhere, and wrongs. And you are silent. Surely the time is ripe and overripe for leadership, and you refuse it. Men come to you and say, “ What shall we do?” and you tell them to return to their ploughs and spinning wheels, and to keep themselves free from evil thoughts.’
Still the man opposite did not look up, and the flying fingers held the needle firmly.
‘Master,’ pleaded Abib in anguish, ‘forgive me if I cannot see. We believed you could lead us out of our degradation and make us a people again. We would have given our lives for you. We were ready for the word of power, and you withheld it. You laid aside your leadership when we most needed it.
‘Oh,’ he exclaimed bitterly, ‘it is pleasant to live here and pass our days simply, like children. But the crying beyond the walls troubles my dreams.’
The brown eyes lifted suddenly and gazed into his with such blazing intensity that Abib drew back.
‘It is pain and suffering and penance to me,’ said the master in a low voice. ‘I have come on torn knees to this place.’
He fell silent again. Presently he resumed in a low monotone, so faint that Abib had to bend forward to catch the words.
‘Two years ago this room was like a king’s council chamber. Our people were being persecuted, and it seemed to me that it would be evil for them to submit any longer. I would have had them throw off the badge of slavery. It was because I saw that under this bondage they were losing their souls and becoming false to their destiny. But I saw that in rebellion also there was danger that the soul might be destroyed, for it is only to pure souls that rebellion is salvation. It might be that, in lighting the fire which would destroy this one evil thing, we should destroy the whole house. Therefore I called on our people for sacrifice and purification, I was lifted up by the spirit I thought I saw. I told myself that one people should attain the heights without descending into the shambles.
‘You know what I did. When the time seemed ready I bade the people fast so that in love and gentleness they should assume their birthright. You know what happened. Before the first hour of consecration had passed, some of our people rose up and massacred their oppressors. Then I knew that the time was not ripe. I had spoken too soon. It was my sin. I withheld the command. I bade them wait and cleanse their minds of all stain of that deed of blood. There were many words of bitterness because of what I had done. My friends were faithful, but I saw their doubts. I tried to purify my own mind by fasting and prayer. I remained nine days alone without food in contemplation here, but it seemed as though the voices of all the world were beating round my ears. Nowhere could I find a tiny place of silence to hide myself. Every turn of my thoughts seemed weighted with the destiny of millions. At last, in doubt and uncertainty, I bade the people fast and prepare themselves again. I set a day of deliverance. . . .’
He was silent for a space, and his words when they came again dropped slowly and heavily. ‘ Before that day came, others who called themselves my followers resisted provocation with bloodshed, and the evil thing became a devouring flame. Then I knew that the word which would free them was not yet born. I called back my own words. . . .
‘I was arrested and thrown into prison. I welcomed it, though my sin was one no court could punish.’
He paused again. The curtain stirred softly in the night breeze.
’In the prison, where one is much alone, one by one the weights dropped from my thoughts, the voices receded, and I found the place of silence. I lay there quivering like the hare which has been pursued by dogs, even when they have passed.
’Presently the voice of wisdom, which is not heard in the bazaar or the council chamber, spoke to me in my cell. I understood at last the nature of my sin. It was that I had tried to lift myself above our people, and had tried to mould them into one pattern with myself. For a time they were wax in my fingers. In the end they were less than I and greater than I, and they would not take my stamp. I had been caught in the snare of time. I could not wait, and the whole people suffered. . . ._’
‘But, master!’ Abib cried.
‘When I came out from prison I had learned my lesson — the lesson of the seed, which all great teachers have known.’
His head dropped lower on his chest, and the needle fell from his fingers.
‘In the still place of silence, where time is but the even pulse of eternity, I saw the beauty of ordered working; I saw all who seek to lead as winds that blow upon fields of grain, bending it this way and that. But the wind passes and the grain is not changed. I saw that that which is to last must come out of the ground itself.’
His voice trailed into silence, and Abib sat mute and shaken; but across his mind passed images of the wrongs and sufferings he had seen, memories of his comrades and the hours of conflict they had shared, and the thought of that strong spirit of freedom like a restive horse waiting for the rider. His breath quickened.
‘Master,’ he said at last, sorrowfully, ‘your words come from too far away to reach us.’
The master picked up the needle again, and pushed it swiftly through the coarse cloth. ‘I saw your spirit fretting, my brother, but I longed to keep you at my side. It was to gather light for you that I fasted.’
Abib knelt and touched the brown feet with his forehead. He would have spoken, but the master raised his hand.
‘Go now,’ he said, smiling a little wistfully. ‘Whose hand can stay the lightning when it is ready to leap forth?’
The rosy east flamed to orange, and the gray plain woke to warmth and life. From the village came the sound of cattle, the tinkling of many small bells, and the exultant crow of a cock. As the light increased, the pale dust became golden, and the dry stalks of the weeds shone like silver. Birds chattered noisily in the few trees beside the water.
The solitary figure hurrying along the road toward the village turned and looked back. From the low cluster of buildings he had left, a procession of white-clad figures was just emerging. They moved slowly toward the east, and in another minute their voices reached him, sounding sweet and thin across the fields. ‘The shadows of the night fly like birds before thy coming, O lord of light.’ He sang the words softly under his breath, and his eyes grew misty as he watched the little group fall on its knees as the sun’s rim rose above the edge of the plain. So it might be in some golden to-morrow of freedom. . . .
In the distance the whistle of a train blew shrilly, and Abib broke into a run.