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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 theTahkti-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 doesn'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 MeryonJ'
'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 I' 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 J 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.'
'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