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BY LAURA SPENCER PORTOR
Is my heart ordered, clean, and sweet,
Is my heart warm, that, when He stands
And quiet that He may be blest —
And lighted, that He may forget
The rough road, and the storm and wet?
Garnished with fragrant flowers, that might
And is there bread? and wine? lest He
Hark! Who is there? Oh, enter in!
Behind him, bent, is one who stands,
And back of them (oh, shut the wild
A step! O Master do not wake
Thy friends who sleep here for thy sake!
Disturb them not, O Mighty Guest!
The Master smiles, then He and I
THE INTERPRETER. I
A ROMANCE OF THE EAST
BY L. ADAMS BECK
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 lear n 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 with Lady Meryon.'
'Oh, she is kind enough in an indifferent sort of way. I am not the persecuted Jane Eyre sort of governess at all. But that is all on the surface and does not matter. It is India I care for — the people, the sun, the infinite beauty. It
was coming home. You would laugh if I told you I knew Peshawar long before I came here. Knew it — walked here, lived. Before there were English in India at all.' She broke off. 'You won't understand.'
'Oh, I have had that feeling, too,' I said patronizingly. 'If one has read very much about a place —'
'That was not quite what I meant. Never mind. The people, the place — that is the real thing to me. All this is the dream.'
The sweep of her hand took in not only Winifred and myself, but the general's stately residence, which to blaspheme in Peshawar is rank infidelity.
'By George, I would give thousands to feel that! I can't get out of Europe here. I want to write, Miss Loring,' I found myself saying. 'I'd done a bit, and then the war came and blew my life to pieces. Now I want to get inside the skin of the East, and I can't do it. I see it from outside, with a pane of glass between. No life in it. If you feel as you say, for God's sake be my interpreter!'
'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.