"You're a generous soul, Lance!" Roy broke out with sudden warmth. "Anyway—coward or no—I simply can't face—the ordeal, yet awhile. I believe my father will understand. After all—here I am in India, as planned, before the Great Interruption. So—given the chance, I might as well take it. The dear old place is mostly empty, these days—with Tiny married and Dad's Air Force job pinning him to Town. So—as I remarked before——!"
"You'll hang on out here for the present? Thank God for that much."
Desmond's pious gratitude was so fervent that they both burst out laughing; and their laughter cleared the air of ghosts.
"Jaipur it is, I suppose, as planned. Thea will be overjoyed. Whether Jaipur's precisely a health resort——?"
"I'm not after health resorts. I'm after knowledge—and a few other things. Not Jaipur first, anyway. The moment I get the official order of the boot—I'm for Chitor."
"Chitor?" Faint incredulity lurked in Desmond's tone.
"Yes—the casket that enshrines the soul of a race; buried in the wilds of Rajasthan. Ever heard tell of it, you arrant Punjabi? Or does nothing exist for you south of Delhi?"
"Just a thing or two—not to mention Thea!"
"Of course—I beg her pardon! She would appreciate Chitor."
"Rather. They went there—and Udaipur, last year. She's death on getting Vincent transferred. And the Burra Sahibs are as wax in her hands. If they happen to be musical, and she applies the fiddle, they haven't an earthly——!"
Roy's eyes took on their far-away look.
"It'll be truly uplifting to see her—and hear her fiddle once more, if she's game for an indefinite dose of my society. Anyway, there's my grandfather——"
"Quite superfluous," Desmond interposed a shade too promptly. "If I know Thea, she'll hang on to you for the cold weather; and ensure you a pied a terre if you want to prowl round Rajputana and give the bee in your bonnet an airing! You'll be in clover. The Residency's a sort of palace. Not precisely Thea's ideal of bliss. She's a Piffer at heart; and her social talents don't get much scope down there. Only half a dozen whites; and old Vinx buried fathoms deep in ethnology, writing a book. But, being Thea, she has pitched herself head foremost, into it all. Got very keen on Indian women. She's mixed up in some sort of a romance now. A girl who's been educated at home. It seems an unfailing prescription for trouble. I rather fancy she's a cousin of yours."
Roy started. "What—Aruna?"
"She didn't mention the name. Only ructions—and Thea to the rescue!"
"Poor Aruna!—She stayed in England a goodish time, because of the War—and Dyan. I've not heard of Dyan for an age; and I don't believe they have either. He was knocked out in 1915. Lost his left arm. Said he was going to study art in Calcutta.—I wonder——?" Desmond—who had chiefly been talking to divert the current of his thoughts—noted, with satisfaction, how his simple tactics had taken effect.
"We'll write to-morrow—eh?" said he. "Better still—happy thought!—I'll bear down on Jaipur myself, for Christmas leave. Rare fine pig-sticking in those parts."
The happy thought proved a masterstroke. In the discussion of plans and projects Roy became almost his radiant self again: forgot, for one merciful hour, that he was dead, damned, and done for—the wraith of a 'Might-Have-Been.'
[Footnote 3: Punjab Irregular Frontier Force.]
"Oh, not more subtly silence strays Amongst the winds, between the voices... Than thou art present in my days.
My silence, life returns to thee In all the pauses of her breath. And thou, wake ever, wake for me!" —ALICE MEYNELL.
Some five weeks later, Roy sat alone—very completely and desolately alone—in a whitewashed, unhomely room that everywhere bore the stamp of dak bungalow; from the wobbly teapoy at his elbow to the board of printed rules that adorned the empty mantelpiece. The only cheering thing in the room was the log fire that made companionable noises and danced shadow-dances on the dingy white walls. But the optimism of the fire was discounted by the pessimism of the lamp that seemed specially constructed to produce a minimum of light with a maximum of smell—and rank kerosene at that.
Dak bungalows had seemed good fun in the days of his leave, when he and Lance made merry over their well-worn failings. But it was quite another affair to smoke the pipe of compulsory solitude, on the outskirts of Chitor, hundreds of miles away from Kohat and the Regiment; to feel oneself the only living being in a succession of empty rooms—for the servants were housed in their own little colony apart. Solitude, in the right mood and the right place, was bread and wine to his soul; but acute loneliness of the dak bungalow order was not in the bond. For four years he had felt himself part of a huge incarnate purpose; intimately part of his regiment—a closely-knit brotherhood of action. Now, the mere fact of being an unattached human fragment oddly intensified his feeling of isolation. With all his individuality, he was no egoist; and very much a lover of his kind. Imbued with the spirit of the quest, yet averse by temperament to ploughing the lonely furrow.
It had been his own choice—if you could call it so,—starting this way, instead of in the friendly atmosphere of the Jaipur Residency. But was there really such a thing as choice? The fact was, he had simply obeyed an irresistible impulse,—and to-morrow he would be glad of it. To-night, after that interminable journey, his head ached atrociously. He felt limp as a wet dish-clout; his nerves all out of gear ... Perhaps those confounded doctors were not such fools as they seemed. He cursed himself for a spineless ineffectual—messing about with nerves when he had been lucky enough to come through four years of war with his full complement of limbs and faculties unimpaired. Two slight wounds, a passing collapse, from utter fatigue and misery, soon after his mother's death; a spell of chronic dysentery, during which he had somehow managed to keep more or less fit for duty;—that was his record of physical damage, in a War that had broken its tens of thousands for life.
But there are wounds of the mind; and the healing of them is a slow, complex affair. Roy, with his fastidious sense of beauty, his almost morbid shrinking from inflicted pain, had suffered acutely, where more robust natures scarcely suffered at all. Yet it was the robust that went to pieces—which was one of the many surprises of a War that shattered convictions wholesale, and challenged modern man to the fiercest trial of faith at a moment when Science had almost stripped him bare of belief in anything outside himself.
Roy, happily for him, had not been stripped of belief; and his receptive mind, had been ceaselessly occupied registering impressions, to be flung off, later, in prose and verse, that She might share them to the full. A slim volume—published, at her wish, in 1916—had attracted no small attention in the critical world. At the time, he had deprecated premature rushings into print; but afterwards it was a blessed thing to remember the joy he had given her that last Christmas—the very last....
On the battlefield, if there had been nerve-shattering moments, these had their counterpart in moments when the spirit of his Rajput ancestors lived again in him, when he knew neither shrinking nor horror nor pity: and in moments of pure pleasure, during some quiet interlude, when larks rained music out of the blue; when he found himself alone with the eerie wonder of dawn over the scarred and riven fields of death; or when he discovered his Oriental genius for scout work that had rapidly earned him distinction and sated his love of adventure to the full.
And always, unfailingly he had obeyed his mother's parting injunction. As a British officer, he had fought for the Empire. As Roy Sinclair—son of Lilamani—he had fought for the sanctities of Home and Beauty—intrinsic beauty of mind and body and soul—against hideousness and licence and the unclean spirit that could defile the very sanctuaries of God.
And always, when he went into battle, he remembered Chitor. Mentally, he put on the saffron robe, insignia of 'no surrender.' To be taken prisoner was the one fate he could not bring himself to contemplate: yet that very fate had befallen him and Lance, in Mesopotamia—the sequel of a daring and successful raid.
Returning, in the teeth of unexpected difficulties, they had found themselves ambushed, with their handful of men—outnumbered, no loophole for escape.
For three months, that seemed more like years, they had lost all sense of personal liberty—the oxygen of the soul. They had endured misery, semi-starvation, and occasionally other things, such as a man cannot bring himself to speak about or consciously recall: not least, the awful sense of being powerless—and hated. From the beginning, they had kept their minds occupied with ingenious plans for escape, that, at times, seemed like base desertion of their men, whom they could neither help nor save. But when—as by a miracle—the coveted chance came, no power on earth could have stayed them....
It had been a breathless affair, demanding all they possessed of bodily fleetness and suppleness, of cool, yet reckless, courage. And it had been crowned with success; the good news wired home to mothers who waited and prayed. But Roy's nerves had suffered more severely than Desmond's. A sharp attack of fever had completed his prostration. And it was then, in the moment of his passing weakness, that Fate turned and smote him with the sharpest weapon in her armoury....
He had not even heard his mother was ill. He had just received her ecstatic response to his wire—and that very night she came to him, vividly, as he hovered on the confines of sleep.
There she stood by his bed, in her mother-o'-pearl gown and sari; clear in every detail; lips just parted; a hovering smile in her eyes. And round about her a shimmering radiance, as of moonbeams, heightened her loveliness, yet seemed to set her apart; so that he could neither touch her nor utter a word of welcome. He could only gaze and gaze, while his heart beat in long slow hammer-strokes, with a double throb between.
With a gesture of mute yearning her hands went out to him. She stooped low and lower. A faint breeze seemed to flit across his forehead as if her lips, lightly brushing it, had breathed a blessing.
Then, darkness fell abruptly—and a deep sleep....
He woke late next morning: woke to a startling, terrible certainty that his vision had been no dream; that her very self had come to him—that she was gone....
When the bitter truth reached him, he learnt, without surprise, that on the night of his vision, her spirit passed....
* * * * *
It was a sharp attack of pneumonia that gave her the coup de grace. But, in effect, the War had killed her, as it killed many another hyper-sensitive woman, who could not become inured to horror on horror, tragedy on tragedy, whose heart ached for the sorrows of others as if they were her own. And her personal share had sufficiently taxed her endurance, without added pangs for others, unseen and unknown. George—her baby—had gone down in the Queen Mary. Jerry, too early sent out to France, had crashed behind the German lines; and after months of uncertainty they had heard he was alive, wounded—in German hands. Tara, faithful to the Women's Hospital in Serbia, had been constantly in danger, living and moving among unimaginable horrors. Nevil, threatened with septic poisoning, had only been saved at the cost of his left forearm. Not till he was invalided out, near the close of 1916, had he realised—too late—that she was killing herself by inches, with work that alone could leaven anxiety—up to a point.
But it was the shock of Roy's imprisonment and the agony of suspense that finally stretched her nerve to breaking-point; so that the sudden onslaught of pneumonia had slain her in the space of a week. And Roy, knowing her too well, had guessed the truth, in spite of his father's gallant attempt to shield him from it.
His first letter from that bereft father had been little short of a revelation to the son, who had ventured to suppose he knew him: a rash supposition where any human being is concerned. There had been more than one such revelation in the scores of letters that at once uplifted and overwhelmed him, and increased tenfold his pride in being her son. But outshining all, and utterly unexpected, was a letter from herself, written in those last days, when the others still hoped, against hope, but she knew——
It had come, with his father's, in a small, gold-embroidered bag—scent and colour and exquisite needlework all eloquent of her: and with it came the other, her talisman since he was born. Reaching him while brain and body still reeled under the bewildering sense of loss, it had soothed his agony of pain and rebellion like the touch of her fingers on his forehead; had taken the sting from death and robbed the grave of victory....
* * * * *
To-night, in his loneliness, he drew the slim bag out of an inner pocket, and re-read with his eyes the words that were imprinted on his memory.
"ROY, SON OF MY HEART,—This is good-bye—but not altogether good-bye. Between you and me that word can never be spoken. So I am writing this, in my foolish weakness, to beg of you—by the love between us, too deep for words—not to let heart and courage be quite broken because of this big sorrow. You were brave in battle, my Prithvi Raj. Be still more brave for me. Remember I am Lilamani—Jewel of Delight. That I have tried to be in my life, for every one of you. That I wish to be always. So I ask you, my darling, not to make me a Jewel of Sorrow because I have passed into the Next Door House too soon. Though not seen, I will never for long be far from you. That is my faith; and you must share it; helping your dear father, because for him the way of belief is hard.
"Never forget those beautiful words of Fouquet in which you made dedication of your poems to me: 'How blessed is the son to whom it is allowed to gladden his mother's heart with the blossom and fruit of his life!' And you will still gladden it, Dilkusha. I will still share your work, though in different fashion than we hoped. Only keep your manhood pure and the windows of your spirit clear, so the Light can shine through. Then you will know if I speak truth, and you will not feel altogether alone.
"Oh, Roy, I could write and write till the pen drops. My heart is too full, but my hand is too feeble for more. Only this, when your time comes for marriage, I pray you will be to your wife all that your splendid father has been for me—king and lover and companion of body and spirit. Draw nearer than ever, you two, because of your so beautiful love for me—unseen now, but with you always. God bless you. I can write no more.
"Your devoted MOTHER."
The last lines wavered and ran together. In spite of her injunction, tears would come. Chill and unheeded, they slipped down his cheeks, while he folded his treasure, and put it away with the other, that went to his head, a little, as she had foreseen; though in the event, it had been overshadowed by her own, than which she could have left him no dearer legacy. In life she had been an angel of God. In death, she was still his angel of comfort and healing. She had bidden him share her belief; and he never had felt altogether alone. Sustained by that inner conviction, he had somehow adapted himself to the strangeness of a life empty of her physical presence. The human being, in a world of pain, like the insect in a world of danger, lives mainly by that same ceaseless, unconscious miracle of adaptation. Dearly though he craved a sight of his father and Christine, he had not asked for leave home. There were bad moments when he wondered if he could ever bring himself to face the ordeal. He sincerely hoped they understood. Their letters left an impression that it was so. Jeffers obviously did.
And Tara——? Her belated letter, from the wilds of Serbia, had revealed, in every line, that she understood only too well. For Tara, not long before, had passed through her own ordeal—the death, in a brilliant air fight, of her second brother Atholl, her devotee and hero from nursery days. So when Roy's turn came, her fulness of sympathy and understanding were outstretched like wings to shield him, if might be, from the worst, as she had known it.
For that once, she flung aside the veil of grown-up reserves and wrote straight from her eager passionate heart to the Bracelet-bound Brother, unseen for years, yet linked with her by an imperishable memory; and now linked closer still by a mutual grief.
The comfort to Roy of that spontaneous, Tara-like outpouring had been greater than she knew—than he could ever let her know. For the old intimacy had never been quite re-established between them since the day of his tactless juvenile proposal—for so he saw it now. They had only met that once, when he was home for Christmas. On the second occasion, they had missed. Throughout the War they had corresponded fitfully; but her letters, though affectionate and sisterly, lacked an unseizable something that affected the tone of his response. He had been rash enough, once, to presume on their special relation. But he was no longer a boy; and he had his pride.
He wondered sometimes how it would be if they met again. Would he fall in love with her? She was supreme. No one like her. But he knew now—as she had instinctively known then—that his conviction on that score did not amount to being in love. Conviction must be lit and warmed with the fire of passion. And you couldn't very well fall in love across six thousand miles of sea. Certainly none of the girls he had danced with and ridden with since his arrival in India had affected him that way. And for him marriage was an important consideration. Some day he supposed it would confront him as an urgent personal issue. But there was a tremendous lot to be done first; and girls were kittle cattle.
Unsuspected by him, the ultimate relation with his mother—while it quickened his need for woman's enveloping tenderness and sympathy—held his heart in leash by setting up a standard, to which the modern girl rarely aspired, much less attained.
And now she was gone, in some strange, enthralling way, she held him still. At rare intervals, she came again to him in dreams; or when he hovered on the verge of sleep. Dreams, or visions—they persisted as clearly in memory as any waking act; and unfailingly left a vivid after-sense of having been in touch with her very self. More and more conviction deepened in him that she still had joy in 'the blossom and fruit of his life'; that even in death she was nearer to him than many living mothers to their sons.
A strange experience: strangest of all, perhaps, the simplicity with which he came to accept it as part of the natural order of things. The intuitive brain is rarely analytical. Moreover, he had seen; he had felt; he knew. It is the invincible argument of the mystic. Against belief born of vivid, reiterate experience, the loquacity of logic, the formulae of pure intellect break like waves upon a rock—and with as little result. The intensity and persistence of Roy's experience simply left no room for insidious whispers of doubt; nor could he have tolerated such scepticism in others, natural though it might be, if one had not seen, nor felt, nor known.
So he neither wrote nor spoke of it to any one. He could scarce have kept it from Tara, the sister-child who had shared all his thoughts and dreams; but the grown-up Tara had become too remote in every sense for a confidence so intimate, so sacred. To his father he would fain have confided everything, remembering her last command; but Sir Nevil's later letters—though unfailingly sympathetic—were not calculated to evoke filial outpourings. For the time being, he seemed to have shut himself in with his grief. Perhaps he, of all others, had been least able to understand Roy's failure to press for short leave home. He had said very little on the subject. And Roy—with the instinct of sensitive natures to take their tone from others—had also said little: too little, perhaps. Least said may be soonest mended; but there are times when it may widen a rift to a gulf.
In the end, he had felt impelled at least to mention his dream experiences, and let it rest with his father whether he said any more.
And by return mail came a brief but poignant answer: "Thank you, my dearest Boy, for telling me what you did. It is a relief to know you have some sort of comfort—if only in dreams. You are fortunate to be so made. After all, for purposes of comfort and guidance, one's capacity to believe in such communion is the measure of its reality. As for me, I am still utterly, desolately alone. Perhaps some day she will reach me in spite of my little faith. People who resort to mediums and the automatic writing craze are beyond me: though the temptation I understand. You may remember a sentence of Maeterlinck——' We have to grope timidly and make sure of every footstep, as we cross the threshold. And even when the threshold is crossed, where shall certainty be found——? One cannot speak of these things—the solitude is too great.' That is my own feeling about it—at present."
The last had given Roy an impression that his solitude, however desolating, was a sort of sanctuary, not to be shared as yet, even with his son. And, in the face of such loneliness, it seemed almost cruel to enlarge on his own clear sense of intimate communion with her who had been unfailingly their Jewel of Delight.
So, by degrees—in the long months of separation from them all—his ethereal link with her had come to feel closer and more real than his link with those others, still in the flesh, yet strangely remote from his inner life.
To-night—after reading both letters—that sense of nearness seemed stronger than ever. Could it be that the magnetism of India was in the nature of an intimation from her that for the present his work lay here? By the hidden forces that mould men's lives, he had been drawn to the land of heart's desire; and at home, neither his family nor his country seemed to have any particular need of him. Whether or no India had need of him, he assuredly had need of her. And it was the very strength of that feeling which had given him pause.
But now, at last, he knew beyond cavil that, for all his mind—or was it his conscience?—might haver and split straws, he had been drawn to Rajputana, as irresistibly as if that vast desert region were the moon and he a wavelet on the tidal shore.
With a great sigh he rose, yawned cavernously and shivered. Better get to bed and to sleep:—a bed that didn't clank and jolt and batter your brains to a pulp. Things would look amazingly different in the morning.
[Footnote 4: Tripod table.]
[Footnote 5: Joy of my Heart.]
"Darkness and solitude shine for me: For life's fair outward part, are rife The silver noises: let them be. It is the very soul of life Listens for thee, listens for thee." —ALICE MEYNELL.
The depressingly bare, whitewashed bedroom owned a French bedstead, with brass rails;—a welcome 'find' in a dak bungalow, especially after three very broken nights in an Indian train. Tired to the point of stupefaction, Roy promised himself he would sleep the clock round; eat a three-decker Anglo-Indian breakfast, and thereafter be his own man again. In that faith he laid his head on the least lumpy portion of the pillow—and in less than five minutes found himself quite intolerably wide awake.
Though the bedstead neither repudiated him, nor took liberties with his person, ghostly clankings and vibrations still jarred his nerves and played devil's tunes in his brain. Though he kept his eyelids severely closed, sleep—the coveted anodyne—seemed to hover on the misty edge of things, always just out of reach. His body was over-tired, his brain abnormally alert. Each change of position, that was to be positively the last, lost its virtue in the space of three minutes, till the sheet—that was too narrow for the mattress—became ruckled into hills and valleys and made things worse than ever. Having started like this, he knew himself capable of keeping it up gaily till the small hours; and to-night, of all nights——!
Even through his closed eyelids, he was still aware that his verandah doorway framed a wide panel of moonlight—the almost incredible moonlight of India. He had flung it open as usual and rolled up the chick. A bedroom hermetically sealed made him feel suffocated, imprisoned; so he must, perforce, put up with the moon; and when the world was drowned in her radiance, sleep seemed almost a sin. But to-night, moon or no, he craved sleep as an opium-eater craves his magic pellets,—because he wanted to dream. It was many weeks since he last had sight of his mother. But surely she must be near him in his loneliness; aware, in some mysterious fashion, of the deep longing with which he longed for sight or sense of her, to assure him that—in spite of qualms and indecisions—he had chosen aright. Conviction grew that directly the veil of sleep fell he would see her. It magnified his insomnia from mere discomfort to a baffling inimical presence withholding him from her:—till utter weariness blotted out everything; and even as he hovered on the verge of sleep, she was there....
She was lying in her hammock under the beeches, in her apple-blossom sari, sunlight flickering through the leaves. And he saw his own figure moving towards her, without the least surprise, that he could see and hear himself as another being, while still remaining inside himself.
He heard his own voice say, low and fervently, "Beloved little Mother—I am here. Always in the battle I remembered Chitor. Now—turned out of the battle—I have come to Chitor."
Then he was on his knees beside her; and her fingers, light as thistledown, strayed over his hair, in the ghost of a caress that so unfailingly stilled his excitable spirit. Without actual words, by some miracle of interpenetration, she seemed to know all that was in his heart—the perplexities and indecisions; the magnetism of Home and the dread of it; the difficulty of making things clear to his father. And the magic of her touch charmed away all inner confusions, all headache and heartache. But when he rose impulsively, and would have taken her in his arms—she was gone; everything was gone; ... the hammock, the beeches, the sunbeams....
He was standing alone on a moonlit plain, blotched and streaked with shadows of dak-jungle and date-palm; and rising out of it abruptly—as he had seen it last night—loomed the black bulk of Chitor; the sacred, solitary ghost of a city, linked with his happiest days of childhood and his mother's heroic tales. The great rock was scarped and bastioned, every line of it. The walls, ruined in parts, showed ghostly shades of ruins beyond; and soaring high above all, Khumba Rana's nine-storied Tower of Victory lifted a giant finger to the unheeding heavens. Watching it, fascinated, trying in vain to make out details, he was startlingly beset by the strangest among many strange sensations that had visited his imaginative brain: nothing less than a revival of the long-ago dream-feeling, the strange sense of familiarity—he knew! Beyond all cavil, he knew every line of that looming shadow, every curve of the hills. He knew the exact position of the old bridge over the Gamberi river. From the spot where he stood, he could find his way unerringly to the Padal Pol—the fortified entrance to the road of Seven Gates;—the road that had witnessed, three times in three hundred years, that heroic alternative to surrender, the terrible rite of Johur:—the final down-rush of every male defender, wearing the saffron robe and coronet of him who embraces death as a bride; the awful slaughter at the lowest gate, where they fell, every man of them, before the victors entered in....
The horror and savage exaltation of it all stirred, so sensibly, in his veins that he caught himself dimly wondering—was it he, Roy Sinclair, who stood there remembering these things—or another...?
And before that crazy question could resolve itself—behold he was lying wide awake again in his ruckled bed, on the lumpy pillow, staring at the wide patch of moonlight framed by his open door.
Not morning yet, confound it all! But the tiredness and loneliness were clean gone. It was always so when she came to him thus. Tacitly, he knew it, and she knew it, for a visitation. There was no delusion of having got her back again; only the comforting assurance that she was near him still. There was also, on this occasion, a consuming curiosity and impatience not to be denied.
Switching on his electric torch, he consulted his watch. Nearly half-past four—why not ...? It was no distance to the lower gate, and only a mile of zigzag road up to the city.
Thought and action were almost simultaneous. He was out of bed, standing in the doorway. The moon's unclouded brilliance seemed to flood his brain; to clear it of cobwebs and dispel all desire of sleep. For he loved the veiled spirit of night as most men love the unveiled face of morning; and in no way, perhaps, was he more clearly of the East. In a land where the sun slays his thousands, the moon comes triumphantly to her own: and Roy decided, there and then, that in the glamour of her light he would take his first look at Chitor. Whether or no it really was his first look, he might possibly find out when he got there.
His train-basket provided him with a hurried cup of tea, biscuits and a providential hard-boiled egg. He had no qualms about rousing Bishun Singh to saddle Suraj, or disturbing the soldiery quartered at the gates. His grandfather had written of him to the Maharana of Udaipur—a cousin in the third degree: and he had leave to go in and out, during his stay, at what hour he pleased. He would remain on the rock till dawn; and from the ninth storey of Khumba Rana's Tower he would see the sun rise over Chitor....
Half an hour later, he was in the saddle trotting along the empty road; Terry, a scurrying shadow in his wake; Bishun Singh left to finish his night's rest. Eight before him loomed the magnet that had dragged him out of bed at this unearthly hour—the great rock-fortress, three miles long, less than a mile broad, aptly likened to a battleship ploughing through the disturbed sea of bush-grown hills at its base.
Riding quickly through new Chitor—a dirty little town, fast asleep—he reached the fortified gateway: was challenged by sleepy soldiery; gave his name and passed on—into another world; a world that grew increasingly familiar with every hundred yards of ascent.
At one point he halted abreast of two rough monuments, graves of the valiant pair who had fought and died, like Rajputs, in that last terrible onslaught when the hosts of Akbar entered in, over the bodies of eight thousand saffron-robed warriors, and made Chitor a place of desolation for ever. One—a mere boy of sixteen—was the only son of his house. Beside him, lance in hand, fought his widowed mother and girl wife; and in death they were not divided. The other, Jaimul of Bednore, was a far-away ancestor of his own mother. How often she had told him the tale—adding proudly that, while Rajasthan endured, the names of those two would shine clear in the firmament of time, as stars in the firmament of space.
Through gateway after gateway—under the lee of a twenty-foot wall, pierced for musketry,—he passed, a silent shadow. And gradually there stole over him afresh the confused wonder of his dream,—was it he himself who rode—or was it—that other, returning to the sacred city after long absence? For the moment he could hardly tell. But—what matter? The astonishing thrill of recognition was all....
Round about the seventh gateway clustered the semblance of a village; shrouded, slumbering forms strewn around in the open;—ghosts all. The only instant realities were himself and Suraj and Chitor, and the silence of the sleeping earth, watched over by unsleeping stars. Within, and about him, hovered a stirring consciousness of ancient, unchanging India; utterly impervious to mere birds of passage from the West; veiled, elusive, yet almost hideously real. So real, just then, to Roy, that—for a few amazing moments—he was unaware that he rode through a city forsaken by man. Ghosts of houses and temples slid by on either side of him, as he spurred Suraj to a canter and made unerringly for the main palace. There was news for the Rana—news of Akbar's army—that did not brook delay....
Not till Suraj stopped dead—there where the Palace had once stood in its glory—did he come to himself, as abruptly as when he waked in the French bedstead an hour ago.
Gone was the populous city through which he had ridden in fancy; gone the confusion of himself with that other self—how many centuries old? But the familiar look of the palace was no dream; nor the fact that he had instinctively made his way there at full speed. Bastioned and sharply domed, it stood before him in clear outline; but within sides it was hollow as a skull; a place of ghosts. Suddenly there came over him the old childish dread of dark, that he had never quite outgrown. But dread or no, explore it he must....
As his foot touched earth, a low hiss warned him he was trespassing, and clutching Terry's collar, he stood rigid, while the whip-like shadow of death writhed across a strip of moonlight—and disappeared. There was life,—of a sort, in Chitor. So Roy trod warily as he passed from room to room; dread of dark forgotten in the weird fascination of foreknowledge verified without fail.
Through riven walls and roofs, moonlight streamed: its spectral brightness intensifying every patch or streak of shadow. And there, where Kings and Princes had held audience—watched by their womenfolk through fretted screens—was neither roof nor walls; only a group of marble pillars, as it were assembled in ghostly conference. The stark silence and emptiness—not of yesterday, but of centuries—smote him with a personal pang. From end to end of the rock it brooded; a haunting presence,—tutelary goddess of Chitor. There is an emptiness of the open desert, of an untrodden snowfield that lifts the soul and sets it face to face with God; but the emptiness of a city forsaken is that of a body with the spark of life extinct:—'the silver cord loosed, the golden bowl broken, and the pitcher broken at the fountain ...'
Terry's sharp bark, a squawk and a scuffle of wings, made him start violently and jarred him all through. It seemed almost profane—as if one were in a cathedral. Calling the marauder to heel, he mounted and rode on toward the Tower of Victory. For the moon was dipping westward; and he must see that vast view bathed in moonlight. Then the dawn....
Once more deserting Suraj; he confronted Khumba's Tower; scatheless as the builder's hand left it four centuries ago. Massive and arrogant, it loomed above him; scarcely a foot of stone uncarven, so far as he could see—exploring the four-square base of it with the aid of the moon and his torch. Figures, in high relief, everywhere—animal, human and divine; a riot of impossible forms, impossibly intertwined; ghoulish in any aspect, and in moonlight hideously so:—bewildering, repellent, frankly obscene. But even while his cultured eye rejected it all, some infinitesimal fragment of himself knew there was symbolic meaning in that orgy of sculpture, could one but find the key.
Up and up, round and round the inner spiral staircase he climbed, in a creepsome darkness, invaded by moonbeams, hardly less creepsome, admitted through window-like openings set in every face of every storey. With each inrush of light, each flash of his torch, in deepest darkness, those thronging figures, weirdly distorted, sprang at him afresh, sending ignominious trickles down his spine. Walls, window slabs, door beams—the vast building was encrusted with them from base to summit; a nightmare of prancing, writhing, gesticulating unrest; only one still face repeated at intervals—the Great God holding the wheel of Law....
Never had Roy more keenly appreciated the company of Terry, who, in spite of a Celtic pedigree, was not enjoying this prolonged practical joke.
It was relief unspeakable to emerge at last, into full light and clean sweet morning air. For the ninth storey, under the dome, was arcaded on all four sides and refreshingly innocent of decoration. Not a posturing figure to be seen. Nothing but restful slabs of polished stone. There was meaning in this also—could one catch the trend of the builder's thought.
On a slab near an arcaded opening Roy sat gratefully down; while Terry, bored to extinction with the whole affair, curled himself up in a shadowed corner and went fast asleep. "Unfriendly little beast," thought Roy; and promptly forgot his existence.
For below him, in the silvery moonlight of morning, lay Chitor; her shattered arches and battlements, her temples and palaces dwarfed to mere footstools for the gods. And beyond, and again beyond, lay the naked strength and desolation of northern Rajputana—white with poppy-fields, velvet-dark with scrub, jagged with outcrops of volcanic rock; the gaunt warrior country, battered by centuries of struggle and slaughter; making calamity a whetstone for courage; saying, in effect, to friend and enemy, 'Take me or leave me. You cannot change me.'
The Border had fascinated Roy. The Himalayas had subjugated him. But this strong unlovely region of rock and sand, of horses and swords, of chivalry and cruelty and daring, irresistibly laid siege to his heart; gave him the authentic sense of being one with it all.
On a day, in that summer of blessed memory, his mother had almost promised him that, once again she would revisit India if only for the joy of making a pilgrimage with him to Chitor. And here he sat on the summit of Khumba Rana's Tower—alone. That was the way of life....
Gradually there stole over him a great weariness of body and spirit; pure reaction from the uplift of his strange adventure. His lids drooped heavily. In another moment he would have fallen sound asleep; but he saved himself, just in time. When he craved the thing, it eluded him; now, undesired, it assailed him. But it would never do. He might sleep for hours. And at the back of his mind lurked a clear conviction that he was waiting for more than the dawn....
To shake off drowsiness he rose, stretched himself, paced to and fro several times—and did not sit down again. Folding his arms, he leaned his shoulders against the stone embrasure; and stood so, a long while, absorbing—with every faculty of flesh and spirit—the stillness, the mystery, the pearl-grey light and bottomless gulfs of shadow; his mind emptied of articulate thought ... his soul poised motionless, as it were a bird on outspread wings....
Was it fantasy, this gradual intensifying of his uplifted mood, this breathless stir in the region of his heart, till some vital part of him seemed gradually withdrawn—up into the vastness and the silence...?
And suddenly, in every nerve, he knew—he was not alone. In the seeming emptiness of the place, something, some one hovered near him. Amazed, yet exultant, he held his breath; and an answering leap of the heart set him tingling from head to foot.
It was more than a vague 'sense of presence.' Fused in the central happiness that flooded him—as the moonlight flooded the desert—was an almost startling awareness; not the mere emotional effect of music or a poem; but sure knowledge that she was there with him in that upper room; her disembodied tenderness yearning towards him across a barrier of empty space that neither she nor he could traverse, for all their nearness, for all their longing....
If Lance himself had come audibly up those endless stairs and stood beside him, he could not have felt more certain of his presence than he felt, at this moment, of her companionship, her unspoken assurance that he had chosen aright. He felt himself, if possible, the less real of the two.
For that brief space, his world seemed empty of everything, every one, but they two—so irrevocably sundered, so mysteriously united.
Could he only have sight of her to complete the marvel of it! But although he kept his eyes on the spot whence the 'feel of her' seemed to come, not the shadow of a shade could he see; only—was it fancy?—a hint of brighter radiance than mere moonbeams—there, near the opposite archway?
He dared not move a finger lest he break the spell. Yet he could not restrain altogether the emotion that surged in him, that filled his ears with a soft roar as of breaking waves.
"God bless you, little Mother!" he murmured, barely above his breath—and waited; expecting he knew not what.
A ghost of a breeze passed close to him;—truly a ghost, for the night was dead still. Almost he could have sworn that if he put out a hand he would have touched her. But reverence withheld him, rather than fear.
And the next moment, the place was empty. He was alone....
He felt the emptiness as unmistakably as he had felt her presence. But the pang of her going was shot through with elation that at last his waking brain had knowledge of her—a knowledge that no man could wrest from him, even if she never so came again. He had done her bidding. He had kept his manhood pure and the windows of his soul clear—and, behold, the Light had shone through....
* * * *
Impossible to tell how long he stood there. In those few moments of intensified life, time was not. The ordinary sense of his surroundings faded. The inner sense of reality quickened in like measure; the reality of her presence, all the more felt, because it was unseen....
When he came clearly to himself again, the moon had vanished. Eastward, the sky was full of primrose light. It deepened and blazed; till, all in a moment, the sun leaped from the scabbard of the hills, keen and radiant as a drawn sword.
A full minute Roy stood there, eyes and brain blinded with brilliance. Then he knelt down and covered his face; and so remained, a long while, his whole being uplifted in a wordless ecstasy of thanksgiving.
"The snow upon my life-bloom sits And sheds a dreary blight;— Thy spirit o'er my spirit flits, And crimson comes for white." —ANON.
On an unclouded afternoon of October, Roy sat alone with Thea Leigh in a shady corner of the Residency garden, smoking and talking, feeling blissfully at ease in body, and very much at home in spirit. After the wrench of parting with Desmond, it was balm to be welcomed by the sister who shared his high courage and enthusiasm for life, and who was smiling at Roy now with the same hazel-grey eyes that both had gotten from their father. But Thea's hair—her crown of glory—belonged exclusively to herself. The colour of it reminded him, with a pang, of autumn beech leaves, in his own woods. It enhanced the vivid quality of her beauty, and added appreciably to his pleasure in watching her while she talked.
Roy had arrived that morning, in the mist-laden chill of dawn; had enjoyed a long talk with Colonel Leigh; had made the acquaintance of Vernon and Phyllis, aged six and four; also of Flossie Eden, a kind of adopted daughter, aged twenty; and, tiffin being over, had announced his intention of riding out to re-discover the rose-red wonderland of his childish dreams—the peacocks and elephants and crocodiles and temple bells. Thea, however, had counselled patience, threatening him with dire disillusion, if he went seeking his wonderland at that glaringly unpoetic time of day.
"An early cup of tea, and a ride afterwards," she prescribed, in her best autocratic manner. "Only sunset, or the first glimmer of dawn, can throw a spell over the municipal virtues and artistic backslidings of Jaipur! I speak with feeling; because I rushed forth untimely; and, in the full glare of afternoon sunshine, your rose-red city looked like nothing on earth but a fearful and wonderful collection of pink and white birthday cakes, set out for a giants' tea-party! It seemed almost a pity the giants had never come and eaten them up. Vinx said I was ribald. As a matter of fact, he was simply jealous of my brilliant metaphor! Look at him now—bored to death with me, because I'm telling the truth!"
Colonel Leigh—a tall pensive-looking man, who talked little and listened assiduously—met her challenge with the indulgent smile of a husband who can be at once amused and critical and devoted: an excellent conjunction in marriage.
"If you can stay Roy's impatience with your metaphors, I'll begin to have some respect for them!" said he.
And she was staying Roy's impatience now, with cigarettes and coffee and the tale of Aruna—'England-returned.' She had revealed little by letter; an uncharacteristic touch of caution derived from her husband, who questioned the wisdom of her bold incursion into the complexities and jarring elements of a semi-modern Hindu household. But Thea Leigh, daughter of Honor Desmond, was strongly imbued with the responsibility of the ruling race. She stoutly refused to preserve, in Jaipur, the correct official detachment of Anglo-India. More: she possessed a racial wisdom of the heart, not to be gainsaid; as who should know better than her husband, since it had saved him from himself. And now, having secured Roy for half an hour, she confided to him, unreservedly, all she could gather of the tragic tangle she was unravelling in her own effective fashion.
"Aruna's the dearest thing," she told him—as well he knew. "And I'm truly fond of her. But sometimes I feel helpless. They're so hard to come at—these gentle, inscrutable Hindu women. Talk of English reserve! However, I'm getting quite nimble at guessing and inferring; and I gather that your splendid old grandfather is rather pathetically helpless with that hive of hidden womenfolk and gurus. Also that the old lady—Mataji—is a bit of a tartar. Of course, having lost caste, makes the poor child's home position almost impossible. Yet she flatly refuses to go through their horrid rites of restitution. And Miss Hammond—our lady doctor at the hospital—backs her up."
"Well played, Miss Hammond!" quoth Roy; and remembering Aruna's cheerful letters (no word of complications), all his sympathy went out to her. Might not he—related, yet free of grandmotherly tyranny—somehow be able to help? Too cruel that from her happy time in England there should spring such tragic issues. And she was not a creature made for tragedy, but for laughter and love and 'man's delight.' Yet, in the Hindu nature of things, this very matter of marriage was the crux of her troubles.
To the Power behind the curtain it spelt disgrace, that the eldest grand-daughter—at the ripe age of twenty-two—should be neither wife nor mother. It would need a very advanced suitor to overlook that damning item. Doubtless a large dowry would be demanded by way of compensation; and, before all, caste must be restored. While Aruna remained obdurate, nothing could be definitely arranged; and her grandfather had not the heart to enforce his wife's insistent demands. But if the Indian woman's horizon be limited, her shrewdness and intuitive knowledge are often amazing; and this formidable old lady—skilled in the art of imposing her will on others—knew herself a match for her husband's evasions and Aruna's flat rebellion.
She reckoned, however, without the daughter of Sir Theo Desmond, who, at this point, took action—sudden and disconcerting.
"You see the child came regularly to my purdah parties," she explained to Roy, who was impatient no longer, only absorbed. "Sometimes I had her alone for reading and music; and it was heart-breaking to see her wilting away before my eyes. So, at last, in desperation, I broke loose—as Vinx politely puts it—and asked searching questions, regardless of etiquette. After all, the poor lamb has no mother. And I never disobey an impulse of the heart. I believe I was only in the nick of time. It seemed the old tartar and her widowed sister-in-law were in touch with a possible husband. So they had given the screw a fresh turn, assisted by the family guru. He had just honoured them with a special visit, expecting to find the lost sheep regenerate and eager for his blessing. Shocked at the tale of her obstinacy, he announced that, unless he heard otherwise within a week, he would put a nameless curse upon her; in which case her honourable grandmother would not allow the poor child to eat or sleep under her honourable roof."
Roy's hand closed sharply on the arm of his chair. "Confound the fellow! It's chiefly the mental effect they rely on. They're no fools; and even men like Grandfather—who can't possibly believe such rot—seem powerless to stand up against them. Does he know all this?"
"It's hard to tell. They're so guarded—even the most enlightened—in alluding to domestic matters. Without a shade of discourtesy, they simply keep one outside. Poor Aruna was terrified at having told me. Broke down utterly. But no idea of giving in. It's astonishing the grit one comes upon under their surface gentleness. She said she would starve or drown rather. I said she should do nothing of the kind; that I would speak to Sir Lakshman myself—oh, very diplomatically, of course! Afterwards, all in a rush, came my inspiration. Some sort of secretarial work for me would sound fairly plausible. (Did you know—I'm making a name, in a small way, over my zeal for Indian women?) On the strength of that, one could suggest a couple of rooms in the Residency; and she could still keep on at the hospital with Miss Hammond, giving me certain afternoons. It struck me as flawless—till I imparted it to Vinx and saw him tweak his left eyebrow. Of course he was convinced it 'wouldn't do'; Sir Lakshman ... my position ... and so on. I said I proposed to make it do—and the eyebrow twitched worse than ever. So I mildly reminded him that he had not held Aruna sobbing in his arms, and he didn't happen to be a mother! Which was unanswerable.—And, my dear Roy, I had a hectic week of it, manipulating Sir Lakshman and Aruna and the honourable grandmother—strictly unseen! I'm sure she's anti-English. I've got at all the other high-borns; but I can't get at her. However—with a bold front and a tactful tongue, I carried the day. So I hope the holy man will transfer his potent curse to me. Naturally, the moment I'd fixed things up, came Lance's letter about you. But I couldn't back out. And I suppose it's all right?"
"Well, of course." Roy was troubled with no doubts on that score. "What a family you are! I was hoping to pick up threads with Aruna."
"You shall. But you must be discreet. Jaipur isn't exactly Oxford. Brother and cousin are almost the same word with them; but still——"
"Is she at the hospital now?" Roy cut in irrelevantly. Her insistence on discretion—with Aruna, of all people—struck him as needless fussing and unlike Thea. And by now he was feeling more impatient to see Aruna than to see Jaipur.
"No. But she seemed shy of appearing at tiffin. So I said if she came out here afterwards, she would find you and me alone. She's looked happier and less fragile lately. Even Vinx admits the event has justified me. But of course it's simply an emergency plan—a transition——"
"To what?" Roy challenged her with surprising emphasis.
"That's my puzzle of puzzles. Perhaps you can help me solve it. Sometimes I wonder if she knows herself, what she wants out of life.... But perhaps I haven't the key to her waverings...."
At that moment, a slight unmistakable figure stepped from the shadow of the verandah down the shallow steps flanked with pots of begonia; moving with the effortless grace that Roy's heart knew too well. Dress and sari were carnation pink. Her golden shoes glittered at every step: and she pensively twirled a square Japanese parasol—almond blossoms and butterflies scattered abroad on silk of the frailest blue.
"Is their instinct for that sort of thing unconscious, I wonder?" murmured Thea. "You shall have half an hour with her, to pick up threads. Help me if you can, Roy. But—be discreet!"
Roy scarcely heard her. He had gone suddenly very still—his gaze riveted on Aruna. The Indian dress, the carriage of her veiled head, the leisured grace, so sharply smote him that tears pricked his eyelids; and, for one intoxicating moment he was wafted, in spirit, across the chasm of the War to that dear dream-world of youth, when all distances were blue and all the near prospect bright with the dew of the morning. Only under a mask-like stillness could he hide that startling uprush of emotion; and had Broome been watching him, he would have seen the subtle film of the East steal over his face.
Thea saw only his sudden abstraction and the whitened knuckles of his left hand. She also realised, with a faint prick of anxiety, that he had simply not heard her remark. Was it possible—could Roy be at the back of Aruna's waverings? Would his coming mean fresh complications? Too distracting to be responsible for anything of that kind....
Without a word, he had risen—and went quickly forward to meet her. Thea saw how, on his approach, all her studied composure fell away; and both, when they joined her, looked so happy, yet so plainly discomposed, that Thea felt ridiculously at a loss for just the right word with which to effect a casual retreat. Responsibility for Sir Lakshman's grand-daughter was no light matter: at least she had done well in warning Roy. These emerging Indian girls...!
It was a positive relief to see the prosaic figure of Floss Eden, in brief tennis skirts and shady hat, hurrying across the lawn, with her boyish stride; racquet swinging, her round face flushed with exercise.
"I say, Aunt Thea—you're wanted jut put," she announced briskly. "Verney's in one of his moods—and Mr Neill will soon be in one of his tempers, if he isn't forcibly removed. Instead of helping with the balls, he's been parading up and down the verandah; two tin pails, tied on to him with string, clattering behind—making a beast of a row. Shouting wasn't any earthly. So I rushed in and grabbed him. 'Verney—drop it! What are you doing?' I said sternly; and he looked up at me like a sainted cherub. 'Flop, don't hinder me. I'm walkin' froo the valley of the shadow, an' goodness an' mercy are following me all the days of my life.' That's the fruits of teaching the Bible to innocents!"
Thea's laugh ended in a sigh. "I warned Miss Mills. But the creature is getting out of hand. I suppose it means he ought to go home. Mr Neill," she explained to Roy, "is Vinx's shorthand secretary: volcanic, but indispensable to the Great Work! So I must fly off and obliterate my superfluous son."
Her eyes tried to impart the warning he had not heard. Useless. His attention was centred on Aruna.
"Wonderful—isn't she?" the girl murmured, looking after her. Then swiftly, half-shyly, she glanced up at him. "Still more wonderful that, at last, you have come, that I am here too—only through her. She told you?"
"Yes. A little. I want to hear more."
"Presently. I would rather push away sad things—now you are here. If there was only Dyan too—like Oxford days. And—oh, Roy, I was bad never writing ... about her. I did try. But so difficult.... And—you knew——?"
"Yes—I knew," he said in a repressed voice. On that subject he could not trust himself just yet. Every curve and fold of her sari, and the half-seen coils of her dark hair, every movement, every quaint turn of phrase, set his nerves vibrating with an ecstasy that was pain. For the moment, he wanted simply to be aware of her; to hug the dear illusion that the years between were a dream. And illusion was heightened by the trivial fact that her appearance was identical in every detail. Was it chance? Or had she treasured them all this time? Only she herself looked older. Though her face kept its pansy aspect, her cheek-bones were a shade too prominent; no veiled glow of health under her dusky skin. But her smile could still atone for all shortcomings.
"Let's sit down," he added after a strained silence. "And tell me—what's come to Dyan?"
She shook her head. "Oh—if we could know. Not much use, after all, trying to push away sadness!" She sank into her chair and looked up at him. "The more you push it away, the more it comes flowing in from everywhere. Everything so broken and confused from this terrible War. At the beginning how they said all would be made new; East and West firmly united. But here, at home, while the best were fighting, the worst were too busy with ugly whispers and untrue talk. Even holy men, behind the purdah...."
"As bad as that, is it?" asked Roy, distracted from his own sensations by the subject that lay nearest his heart. "And you think Dyan's in with that crew?"
"Yes, we are afraid.... A pity he came back from France too soon, because half his left arm must be cut off. Then—you heard—he went to Calcutta?"
"Yes, I wrote at the time. He didn't answer. I haven't heard since."
She nodded. Sudden tears filled her eyes. "Always now ... no answer. Like trying to speak with some one dead. So Grandfather fears he was not only studying art. You know how he is too quick to catch fire. And too easily, he might believe those men who spin words like spider's webs. Also he was very sore losing his arm, by some small stupid chance; and there was bitterness for that trouble ... of Tara...."
Roy started. "Lord—was it Tara?" Instantly there flashed a vision of the walled lane leading to New College; Dyan's embittered mood and bewildering change of front.... Looking back now, the thing seemed glaringly obvious; but, through the opalescent mist of his own dreams, he had seen Dyan in one relation only. Just as well perhaps. Even at this distance, the idea amazed and angered him. Tara! The arrogance of it...!
"You didn't know—never thought?... Poor Dyan!" One finger-tip furtively intercepted a tear that was stealing down the side of her nose.
"I am too silly just now," she apologised meekly. "To me, he only spoke of it long after, when coming wounded from France. Then I saw how the bitterness was still there, changing the noble thoughts of his heart. That is the trouble with Dyan. First—nothing good enough for England. But too fierce love may bring too fierce hate—if they poison his mind with cunning words dressed up in high talk of religion——"
"How long since you heard? Have you any address?" Roy dared not encourage her melting mood.
"Six months now." She stoically blinked back her tears. "Not any word. Not any address, since he left Calcutta. Last week, I wrote, addressing to the office of a paper there, because once he said that editor gave him work. I told him all the pain in my heart. If that letter finds him—some answer must come."
"Well, if it does, I promise you this much;—I'll unearth him—somehow, wherever he is——"
"Oh, Roy! I hoped—I knew——!" She clasped her hands to hide their tremor, and the look in her eyes came perilously near adoration.
Roy had spoken with the cool assurance of his father's race, and without a glimmering idea how his rash promise was going to be fulfilled. "I'll do my level utmost, anyhow," he added more soberly. "But there's you—your home complications——"
She turned her hands outward with the expressive gesture of her race. "That foolish sadness we can push away. What matter for anything—now? I rest—I breathe—I am here——!" Her smile shone out, sudden and brilliant. "Almost like England—this big green garden and children and sound of playing tennis. Let us be young again. Let us, for a small time, not remember that all outside is Jaipur and the desert—dusty and hot and cruel; and dark places full of secret and terrible things. Here we are safe. Here it is almost England!"
Her gallant appeal so moved him, and the lighter vein so charmingly became her, that Roy humoured her mood willingly enough....
When his tea arrived, she played hostess with an alluring mixture of shyness and happy importance, capping his lively sallies with the quick wit of old days. And when Suraj was announced—"Oh, please—may I see him?" she begged eagerly as a child.
Suraj graciously permitted his velvet nose to be stroked by alien fingers, light as rose petals. Then Roy sprang into the saddle; and Aruna stood watching him as he went—sais and dog trotting to heel—a graceful lonely figure, shadowed by her semi-transparent parasol.
At a bend in the drive, where a sentry sprang to attention, he turned for a parting salute. Her answering gesture might or might not have been intended for him. She at least knew all about the need for being discreet. For, on leaving the tea-table, they had passed from the dream of 'almost England' into the dusty actuality of Jaipur.
[Footnote 6: Instantly.]
"Broadly speaking, there are two blocks of people—East and West; people who interfere and people who don't interfere; ... East is a fatalist, West is an idealist, of a clumsy sort."—STACY AUMONIER.
A mile, or less, of tree-bordered road sloped gently from the Residency gate-posts to the walled City of Victory, backed by craggy, red-grey spurs of the Aravalli range, hidden almost in feathery heads of banyan, acacia, and neem—a dusty, well-ordered oasis, holding its own against the stealthy oncoming of the desert.
North and east ran the screen of low hills with their creeping lines of masonry; but from south and west the softly encroaching thing crept up to the city walls, in through the gates, powdering every twig and leaf and lattice with the fine white dust of death. Shadeless and colourless, to the limit of vision, it rose and fell in long billowing waves; as if some wizard, in the morning of the world, had smitten a living ocean to lifeless sand, where nothing flourished but the camel thorn and the ak plant and gaunt cactus bushes—their limbs petrified in weird gesticulation.
But on the road itself was a sufficiency of life and colour—parrokeets flashing from tree to tree, like emeralds made visible and vocable; village women swathed in red and yellow veils; prancing Rajput cavaliers, straight from the Middle Ages; ox-carts and camels—unlimited camels, with flapping lip and scornful eye; a sluggish stream of life, rising out of the landscape and flowing, from dawn to dusk, through the seven Gates of Jaipur. And there, on the low spurs, beyond the walls, he sighted the famous Tiger Fort, and the marble tomb of Jai Sing—he that built the rose-red City; challenging the desert, as Canute the sea; saying, in terms of stone and mortar, 'Here shall thy proud waves be stayed!' Nearing the fortified gateway, Roy noted how every inch of flat surface was silkily powdered, every opening silted with sand. Would it rest with desert or city, he wondered, the ultimate victory of the last word...?
Close against the ramparts, sand and dust were blown into a deep drift; or was it a deserted pile of rags——? Suddenly, with a sick sensation, he saw the rags heave and stir. Arms emerged—if you could call them arms—belonging to pinched, shadowy faces. And from that human dust-heap came a quavering wail, "Maharaj! Maharaj!"
"What is it, Bishun Singh?" he asked sharply of the sais, trotting at his stirrup.
"Only the famine, Hazur. Not a big trouble this year, they say. But from the villages these come crawling to the city, believing the Maharaj has plenty, and will give."
"Does he give?"
Bishun Singh's gesture seemed to deprecate undue curiosity. "The Maharaj is great, but the people are like flies. If their Karma is good, they find a few handfuls; if evil—they die."
Roy said no more. That simple statement was conclusive as a dropped stone. But, on reaching the gateway, he scattered a handful of loose corns.
Instantly a cry went up: "He gives money for food! Jai dea Maharaj!" Not merely arms, but entire skeletons emerged, seething, scrambling, with hands wasted to mere claws. A few of the boldest caught at Roy's stirrup; whereat Bishun Singh brushed them off, as if they were flies indeed.
Unresisting, they tottered and fell one against another, like ninepins: and Roy, hating the man, turned sharply away. But rebuke was futile. One could do nothing. It was that which galled him. One could only pass on; mentally brushing them aside—like Bishun Singh.
* * * * *
Spectres vanished, however, once he and Suraj were absorbed into the human kaleidoscope of the vast main street, paved with wide strips of hewn stone; one half of it sun-flooded; one half in shadow. The colour and movement; the vista of pink-washed houses speckled with white florets; the gay muslins, the small turbans and inimitable swagger of the Rajput-Sun-descended, re-awakened in him those gleams of ancestral memory that had so vividly beset him at Chitor. Sights and sounds and smells—the pungent mingling of spices and dust and animals—assailed his senses with a vague yet poignant familiarity: fruit and corn-shops with their pyramids of yellow and red and ochre, and the fat brown bunnia in the midst; shops bright with brass-work and Jaipur enamel; lattice windows, low-browed arches, glimpses into shadowed courts; flitting figures of veiled women; humbler women, unveiled, winnowing grain, or crowned with baskets of sacred cow-dung, stepping like queens....
And the animals——! Extinct, almost, in modern machine-ridden cities, here they visibly and audibly prevailed. For Asia lives intimately—if not always mercifully—with her animals; and Roy's catholic affection embraced them all. Horses first—a long way first. But bullocks had their charm: the graceful trotting zebus, horns painted red and green. And the ponderous swaying of elephants—sensitive creatures, nervous of their own bulk, resplendently caparisoned. And there—a flash of the jungle, among casual goats, fowls, and pariahs—went the royal cheetahs, led on slips; walking delicately, between scarlet peons, looking for all the world like amiable maiden ladies with blue-hooded caps tied under their chins. In the wake of their magnificence two distended donkeys, on parodies of legs, staggered under loads more distended still, plump dhobies perched callously on the cruppers. Above all, Roy's eye delighted in the jewelled sheen of peacocks, rivalling in sanctity the real lords of Jaipur—Shiva's sacred bulls. Some milk-white and onyx-eyed, some black and insolent, they sauntered among the open shop fronts, levying toll and obstructing traffic—assured, arrogant, immune....
And, at stated intervals, like wrong notes in a succession of harmonies, there sprang wrought-iron gas-lamps fitted with electric bulbs!
So riding, he came to the heart of the city—a vast open space, where the shops seemed brighter, the crowds gayer; and, by contrast, the human rag and bone heaps, beggars and cripples, more terrible to behold.
Here the first ray of actual recognition flashed through the haze of familiar sensations. For here architectural exuberance culminated in the vast bewildering facade of the Hall of the Winds and the Palace flaunting its royal standard—five colours blazoned on cloth of gold. But it was not these that held Roy's gaze. It was the group of Brahmin temples, elaborately carven, rose-red from plinth to summit, rising through flights of crows and iridescent pigeons; their monolithic forms clean cut against the dusty haze; their shallow steps flanked with marble elephants, splashed with orange-yellow robes of holy men and groups of brightly-veiled women.
At sight of them Roy instinctively drew rein;—and there, in the midst of the shifting, drifting crowd, he sat motionless, letting the vision sink deep into his mind, while Terry investigated a promising smell, and Bishun Singh, wholly incurious, gossiped with a potter, from whose wheel emerged an endless succession of chiraghs—primitive clay lamps, with a lip for the cotton wick. His neighbour, with equal zest, was creating very ill-shapen clay animals, birds and fishes.
"Look, Hazur—for the Dewali," Bishun Singh thrust upon Roy's attention the one matter of real moment, just then, to all right-minded Hindus. "Only two more weeks. So they are making lamps, without number, for houses and shops and the palace of the Maharaja. Very big tamasha, Hazur."
He enlarged volubly on the coming festival, to this Sahib, who took such unusual interest in the ways of India; while Roy sat silent, watching, remembering....
Nearly nineteen years ago he had seen the Dewali—Feast of Lights; had been driven, sitting on his mother's knee, through a fairy city outlined in tremulous points of flame, down to the shore of the Man Sagar Lake, where the lights quavered and ran together and the dead ruins came alive with them. All night they had seemed to flicker in his fanciful brain; and next morning-unable to think or talk of anything else—he had been moved to dictate his very first attempt at a poem....
Suddenly, sharply, there rose above the chatter of the crowd and the tireless clamour of crows, a scream of mingled rage and anguish that tore at his nerves and sent a chill down his spine.
Swinging round in the saddle, he saw a spectral figure of a woman—detached from a group of spectres, huddled ironically against bulging sacks of grain. One shrivelled arm was lifted in denunciation; the other pressed a shapeless bundle to her empty breasts. Obviously little more than a girl—yet with no trace of youth in her ravaged face—she stood erect, every bone visible, before the stall of a bangle-seller, fat and well liking, exuding rolls of flesh above his dhoti, and enjoying his savoury chupattis hot and hot; entirely impervious to unseemly ravings; entirely occupied in pursuing trickles of ghi with his agile tongue that none might be lost.
"That shameless one was begging a morsel of food," the toymaker explained conversationally. "Doubtless her stomach is empty. Wah! Wah! But she has no pice. And a man's food is his own...."
As he spoke a milk-white bull ambled by, plundering at will; his privileged nose adventuring near and nearer to the savoury smell. Promptly, with reverential eagerness, the man proffered half a fresh chupatti to the sacred intruder.
At that the starving girl-mother lunged forward with the yell of a hunted beast; lunged right across the path of a dapper young man in an English suit, green turban, and patent-leather shoes.
"Peace, she-devil! Make way," he cried; and catching her wrist—that looked as if it would snap at a touch—he flung her aside so roughly that she staggered and fell, the child beneath her emitting a feeble wail....
Since the days of his imprisonment, cruelty witnessed had a startling effect on Roy. Between the moment when he sprang from the saddle, in a blaze of fury, to the moment when he stood confronting the suave, Anglicised Indian—riding-crop in one hand, the other supporting the girl and her babe—his mind was a blank. The thing was done almost before the impulse reached his brain. He wondered if he had struck the fellow, whom he was now arraigning furiously in fluent Hindustani, and whose sullen, shifty face was reminding him of some one—somewhere....
"Have you no respect for suffering—or for women other than your own?" he demanded, scorn undisguised in his look and tone.
The man's answering shrug was frankly contemptuous. "All you English are mad," he said in the vernacular. "If she die not to-day, she will die to-morrow. And already there are too many to feed—"
"She will not die to-day or to-morrow," Roy retorted with Olympian assurance. "Courage, little mother,"—he addressed the girl—"you shall have food, you and the sonling."
As she raised herself, clutching at his arm, he became uncomfortably aware that her rags of clothing were probably verminous; that his chivalrous pity was tinged with repulsion. But pity prevailed. Supporting her to a neighbouring stall, he bought fruit, which she devoured like a wild thing. He begged a little milk in a lotah and gave her money for more. Half dazed, she dropped the money, emptied the small jar almost at a gulp, and flung herself at his feet, pressing her forehead on his dusty boot; covering him with confusion. Imperatively he bade her get up. No result. So he stooped to enforce his command....
She had fainted.
"Help, mother—quick!" he appealed to an elder woman who hovered near the stall, and responded, instinctively, to the note of command.
As she stooped over the girl he said in low rapid tones: "Listen! It is an order. Give warm food to her and the child. Take her to the Burra Sahib's compound. There she will be cared for. I will give word."
He slipped two rupees into her hand, adding: "Two more—when all is done according to order."
"Hai! Hai! The Sahib is a Son of Princes," murmured the favoured one, reflecting shrewdly that eight annas would suffice to feed those poor empty creatures; and gathering up her light burden she bore it away—to Roy's unfeigned relief.
Would Thea scold him—or uphold him, he wondered,—having committed himself. The whole thing had been so swift, so unreal, that he seemed half a world away from the green Residency garden, with its atmosphere of twentieth-century England, scrupulously, yet unconsciously, preserved in a setting of sixteenth-century India. And Roy had a strain of both in his composition.
Across the road Bishun Singh—tolerant of his Sahib's vagaries—was still chatting with the potter; a blare of discord in a minor key announced an approaching procession; and there, in talk with the bangle-seller, stood the cause of these strange doings; keeping a curious eye on the mad Englishman, but otherwise frankly unconcerned. Again there dawned on Roy the conviction that he had seen that face before. It was not in India. It was linked with the same sensations, in a milder form. It would come in a moment....
Behind the slight, foppish figure, the eye of his mind saw suddenly—not the sunlight and colour of Jaipur, but a stretch of grey-green sea, tawny cliffs, and sandy shore ... St Rupert's! Of course, unmistakable: the sullen mouth, the shifty eyes....
Instantly he went forward and said in English: "I say—excuse me—but is your name Chandranath?"
The man started and stiffened. "That is no matter to you."
"Perhaps not. Only ... you're very like a boy who was one term at St Rupert's School with me."
"Well, I was at St Rupert's. A beastly hole——"
He, too, spoke English, and scanned Roy's face with narrowed eyes. "Sinclair—is it? You tumbled down the cliff on to me—and that Desmond fellow——?"
"Yes, I did. Lucky for you," Roy answered, stiffening in his turn. But because of old days—because this unpromising specimen of manhood had incidentally brought him and Desmond together, he held out his hand. "'Fraid I lost my temper," he said casually, for form's sake. "But you put my blood up."
Chandranath's fingers lay limply in his grasp.
"Still so sensitive——? Then better to clear out of India. I only pushed that crazy girl aside. Englishmen knock and kick our people without slightest compunction. Perhaps you are a tourist—or new to this country?"
Words and manner set Roy's nerves on edge; but he had been imprudent enough for one day. "I've spent seven months on the Frontier in a cavalry Regiment," he said; "but I only came to Jaipur yesterday."
"Well, take my advice, Mr Sinclair, and leave these people alone. They don't want Englishmen making pretence of sentimental fuss over them. They like much better to be pushed—or even starved—by their own jat. You may not believe it. But I belong to them. So I know."
Roy, who also 'belonged' in a measure, very nearly said so—but again prudence prevailed. "I'm rash enough to disagree with you," he said placably. "The question of non-interference, of letting ill alone—because one's afraid or can't be bothered—isn't merely a race question; it's a root question of human character. Some men can't pass by on the other side. Right or wrong, it simply isn't arguable. It's a matter of the individual conscience—the heart——"
"Conscience and heart—if not drastically disciplined by the logically reasoning brain, propagate the majority of troubles that afflict mankind," quoth Chandranath in the manner of one familiar with platform oratory. "Are you stopping in Jaipur?"
"Yes. At the Residency. Mrs Leigh is Desmond's sister. Did you know?"
"That is curious. I did not know. Too much heart and conscience there also. Mrs Leigh is thrusting her fingers into complicated issues of which she is lamentably ignorant."
Roy, taken aback, nearly gave himself away—but not quite. "I gather she acted with Sir Lakshman Singh's approval," was all he said.
Chandranath shrugged. "Sir Lakshman is an able but deluded man. His dreams of social reform are obsolete. We of the new school adhere patriotically to social and religious ordinances of the Mother. All we agitate for is political independence." He unfurled the polysyllables, like a flag; sublimely unaware of having stated a contradiction in terms. "But your Sir Lakshman is of the old-fashioned school—English-mad."
"And your particular friends—are sane, eh?"
The apostle of Hindu revival pensively twirled an English button of his creditably-cut English coat.
"Yes. We are sane—thanks to more liberalising influences. Coloured dust cannot be thrown in our eyes by bureaucratic conjuring tricks, or imperialistic talk about prestige. To-day it is India's turn for prestige. 'Arya for the Aryans' is the slogan of the rising generation." He paused, blinked, and added with an ingratiating chuckle: "You will go running away with an impression that I am metamorphosed into red-hot revolutionary. No, thank you! I am intrinsically a man of peace!" With a flourish he jerked out a showy gold watch. "Ah—getting late! Very agreeable exchanging amenities with old schoolfellows. But I have an appointment in the Palace Gardens, at the time they feed the muggers. That is a sight you should see, Mr Sinclair—when the beasts are hungry and have not lately snapped up a washerwoman or an erring wife!"
"I'd rather be excused this evening, thanks," Roy answered, with a touch of brusqueness. "I confess it wouldn't appeal to my sense of humour—seeing crocodiles gorge, while women and children starve."
"That is what they call in a book I once read 'little ironies of life.' Good fortune, at least, for the muggers! Better start to sharpen your sense of humour, my friend. It is incomparable asset against the slings and arrows of outrageous contingencies." This time his chuckle had an undernote of malice; and Roy, considering him thoughtfully—from green turban to patent-leather shoes—felt an acute desire to take him by the scruff of his English coat and dust the Jaipur market-place with the remnant of him.
Aloud he said coolly: "Thanks for the prescription. Are you stopping here long?"
"Oh, I am meteoric visitant. Never very long anywhere. I come and go."
"Yes—many kinds of business—for the Mother." He flashed a direct look at Roy; the first since their encounter; fluttered a foppish hand—the little finger lifted to display a square uncut emerald—and went his way....
Roy, left standing alone in the leisurely crowd of men and animals—at once so alien and so familiar—returned to Bishun Singh and Suraj in a vaguely troubled frame of mind.
"Which way to the house of Sir Lakshman Singh?" he asked the maker of chiraghs, his foot in the stirrup.
Enlightened, he set off at a trot, down another vast street, all hazy in the level light that conjured the dusty air to gold. But contact with human anguish, naked and unashamed—as he had not seen it since the war—and that sudden queer encounter with Chandranath, had rubbed the bloom off delicate films of memory and artistic impressions. These were the drop-scene, merely: negligible, when Life took the stage. He had an exciting sense of having stepped straight into a crisis. Things were going to happen in Jaipur.
[Footnote 7: Victory to thee, Maharaj!]
[Footnote 8: Loin-cloth.]
[Footnote 9: Melted butter.]
"God has a few of us, whom He whispers in the ear; The rest may reason and welcome...." —BROWNING.
"Living still, and the more beautiful for our longing."
The house of Sir Lakshman Singh, C.S.I.—like many others in advancing India—was a house divided against itself. And the cleavage cut deep. The furnishing of the two rooms, in which he mainly lived, was not more sharply sundered from that of the Inside, than was the atmosphere of his large and vigorous mind from the twilight of ignorance and superstition that shrouded the mind and soul of his wife. More than fifty years ago—when young India ardently admired the West and all its works—he had dreamed of educating his spirited girl-bride, so that the way of companionship might gladden the way of marriage.
But too soon the spirited girl had hardened into the narrow, tyrannical woman; her conception of the wifely state limited to the traditional duties of motherhood and household service. Happily for Sir Lakshman, his unusual gifts had gained him wide recognition and high service in the State. He had schooled himself, long since, to forget his early dreams: and if marriage had failed, fatherhood had made royal amends. Above all, in Lilamani, daughter of flesh and spirit, he had found—had in a measure created—the intimate companionship he craved; a woman skilled in the fine art of loving—finest and least studied of all the arts that enrich and beautify human life. But the gods, it seemed, were jealous of a relation too nearly perfect for mortal man. So Rama, eldest son, and Lilamani, beloved daughter, had been taken, while the estranged wife was left. Remained the grandchildren, in whom centred all his hope and pride. So far as the dividing miles and years would permit, he had managed to keep in close touch with Roy. But the fact remained that England had first claim on Lilamani's children; and Rama's were tossed on the troubled waters of transition.
As for India herself—sacred Mother-land—her distraught soul seemed more and more at the mercy of the voluble, the half-baked, the disruptive, at home and abroad.
Himself, steeped in the threefold culture of his country—Vedantic, Islamic, and European—he came very near the prevailing ideal of composite Indian nationality. Yet was he not deceived. In seventy years of life, he had seen intellectual India pass through many phases, from ardent admiration of the West and all its works, to no less ardent denunciation. And in these days he saw too clearly how those same intellectuals—with catchwords, meaningless to nine-tenths of her people—were breaking down, stone by stone, their mighty safeguard of British administration. Useless to protest. Having ears, they heard not. Having eyes, they saw not. The spirit of destruction seemed abroad in all the earth. After Germany—Russia. Would it be India next? He knew her peoples well enough to fear. He also knew them well enough to hope. But of late, increasingly, fear had prevailed. His shrewd eye discerned, in every direction, fresh portents of disaster—a weakened executive, divided counsels, and violence that is the offspring of both. His own Maharaja, he thanked God, was of the old school, loyal and conservative: his face set like a flint against the sedition-monger in print or person. And as concessions multiplied and extremists waxed bolder, so the need for vigilance waxed in proportion....
But to-day his mind had room for one thought only—the advent of Roy; legacy of her, his vanished Jewel of Delight.
A message from the Residency had told of the boy's arrival, of his hope to announce himself in person that evening; and now, on a low divan, the old man sat awaiting him with a more profound emotion at his heart than the mere impatience of youth. But the impassive face under the flesh-pink turban betrayed no sign of disturbance within. The strongly-marked nose and eyebones might have been carved in old ivory. The snowy beard, parted in the middle, was swept up over his ears; and the eyes were veiled. An open book lay on his knee. But he was not reading. He was listening for the sound of hoofs, the sound of a voice....
The two had not met for five years: and in those years the boy had proved the warrior blood in his veins; had passed through the searching test of a bitter loss. Together, they could speak of her—gone from them; yet alive in their hearts for evermore. Seen or unseen, she was the link that kept them all united, the pivot on which their lives still turned. There had been none with whom he could talk of her since she went....
Over his writing-table hung the original Antibes portrait—life-size; Nevil's payment for the high privilege of painting her; a privilege how reluctantly accorded none but himself had ever known. And behold his reward: her ever-visible presence—the girl-child who had been altogether his own.
Hoofs at last—and the remembered voice; deeper, more commanding; the embroidered curtain pushed aside. Then—Roy himself, broader, browner; his father's smile in his eyes; and, permeating all, the spirit of his mother, clearly discernible to the man who had given it life.
He was on his feet now, an imposing figure, in loose white raiment and purple choga. In India, he wisely discarded English dress, deeming it as unsuitable to the country as English political machinery. Silent, he held out his arms and folded Roy in a close embrace: then—still silent—stood away and considered him afresh. Their mutual emotion affected them sensibly, like the presence of a third person, making them shy of each other, shy of themselves.
It was Sir Lakshman who spoke first. "Roy, son of my Heart's Delight, I have waited many years for this day. It was the hidden wish of her heart. And her spirit, though withdrawn, still works in our lives. It is only so with those who love greatly, without base mixture of jealousy or greed. They pass on—yet they remain; untouched by death, like the lotus, that blooms in the water, but opens beyond its reach."
Words and tone so stirred Roy that sudden tears filled his eyes. And through the mist of his grief, dawned a vision of his mother's face. Blurred and tremulous, it hovered before him with a startling illusion of life; then—he knew....
Without a word, he went over to the picture and stood before it, drowned fathoms deep....
A slight movement behind roused him; and with an effort he turned away. "I've not seen a big one since—since my last time at home," he said simply. "I've only two small ones out here."
The carven face was not impassive now. "After all, Dilkusha, what matter pictures when you have—herself?"
Roy started. "It's true. I have—herself. How could you know?"
Five minutes later, he was sitting beside his grandfather on the deep divan, telling him all.
Before setting out, he would not have believed it possible. But instinctively he knew himself in touch with a quality of love that matched his own; and the mere telling revived the marvel, the thrill of that strange and beautiful experience at Chitor....
Sir Lakshman had neither moved nor spoken throughout. Now their eyes met in a look of deep understanding.
"I am very proud you told me, Roy. It is not easy."
"No. I've not told any one else. I couldn't. But just now—something seemed to draw it all out of me. I suppose—something in you——"
"Or perhaps—herself! It almost seemed—she was here with us, while you talked."
"Perhaps—she is here still."
Their voices were lowered, as in the presence of sacred things. Never, till now, had Roy so keenly felt his individual link with this wonderful old man, whose blood ran in his veins.
"Grandfather," he asked after a pause, "I suppose it doesn't often happen—that sort of thing? I suppose most common-sense people would dismiss it all as—sheer delusion?"
The young simplicity of the question lit a smile in Sir Lakshman's eyes.
"Quite possible. All that is most beautiful in life, most real to saints and lovers, must seem delusion to those whose hearts and spirits are merely vassals to the body and the brain. But those who say of the soul, 'It is not,' have still to prove it is not to those who have felt and known. Also I grant—the other way about. But they speak in different languages. Kabir says, 'I disclose my soul in what is hidden.' And again, 'The bird is beyond seeking, yet it is most clearly visible.' For us, that is living truth. For those others, a mere tangle of words."
"I see." Roy's gaze was riveted on the picture above the writing-table. "You can't explain colours to the colour-blind. And I suppose experiences like mine only come to those for whom words like that are—living truth?"
"Yes—like yours. But there are other kinds; not always true. Because, in this so sacred matter, clever people, without scruple, have made capital out of the heart's natural longing; and the dividing line is dim where falsehood ends and truth begins. So it has all come into suspicion and contempt. Accept what is freely given, Roy. Do not be tempted to try and snatch more."
"No—no. I wouldn't if I could." A pause. "You believe it is time ... what I feel? That she is often—very near me?"
Sir Lakshman gravely inclined his head. "As I believe in Brahma, Lord of all."
And for both the silence that fell seemed pulsating with her unseen presence....
When they spoke again it was of mundane things. Roy vividly described his sensations, riding through the City; the culminating incident, and his recognition of the offender.
"The queerest thing, running into the beggar again like that! He looks as sulky and shifty as ever. That's how I knew."
"Sulky and shifty—and wearing English clothes?" Sir Lakshman's brows contracted sharply. "What name did you say?"
"Chandranath, we called him."
"And you don't know his whereabouts?"
"No, I'm sorry. I didn't suppose his whereabouts mattered a damn to any one."
The stern old Rajput smiled. It did his heart good to hear the familiar slang phrases again. "Whether it matters a damn—as you say—depends on whether he is the undesirable I have in mind. Quite young; but much influence, and a bad record. Mixed up with German agents, before the War, and the Ghadr party in California; arrested for seditious activity and deported: but of course, on appeal, allowed to return. Always the same tale. Always the same result. Worse mischief done. And India—the true India—must be grateful for these mercies! Sometimes I think the irony is too sharp between the true gifts given, unnoticed, by Englishmen working sincerely for the good of our people, and the false gifts proclaimed from the house-tops, filling loyal Indians with bewilderment and fear. I have had letters from scores of these, because I am known to believe that loyal allegiance to British government gives India the best chance for peaceful progress she is likely to have for many generations. And from every one comes the same cry, begging to be saved from this crazy nightmare of Home Rule, not understood and not desired except by those who invented it. But what appeal is possible to those who stop their ears? And all the time, by stealthy and open means, the poison of race-hatred is being poured into India's veins——"
"But, Grandfather—what about the War—and pulling together—and all that?"
Sir Lakshman's smile struck Roy as one of the saddest he had ever seen. "Four years ago, my dear Boy, we all had many radiant illusions. But this War has dragged on too long. It is too far away. For our Princes and warlike races it has had some reality. For the rest it means mostly news in the papers and rumours in bazaars, high prices, and trouble about food. No better soil for sowing evil seeds. And friends of Germany are still working in India—remember that! While the loyal were fighting, these were talking, plotting, hindering: and now they are waving, like a flag, the services of others, to gain their own ends, from which the loyal pray to be delivered! Could irony be more complete? Indian Princes can keep some cheek on these gentlemen. But it is not always easy. If this Chandranath should be the same man—he is here, no doubt, for Dewali. At sacred feasts they do most of their devil's work. Did you speak of connection with me?"