« ElőzőTovább »
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?'
1 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 be
fore 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.'
Sheextended 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 she is and secret,
Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold and as cold sea-shells.
Yet I would risk it.
Next day this reached me: —
Dear Mr. Cld'den, —
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 in to the crystal of the water. What ^Wp^arieaven!
^P* *y \ shut my eyes and see still that first fe'#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
VOL. 118—NO. 1
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 face^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 builder! 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 drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable,
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