"No. But he seemed to know about Aruna: said you were English mad."
Sir Lakshman frowned. "English mad! That is their jargon. Too narrow to understand how I can deeply love both countries, while remaining as jealous for all true rights of my Motherland as any hot-head who swallows their fairy-tale of a Golden Age, and England as Raksha—destroying demon! By help of such inventions, they have deluded many fine young men, like my poor Dyan, who should be already married and working to all my place. Such was my hope in sending him to Oxford. And now—see the result ..."
On that topic he could not yet trust himself; and Roy, leaning forward impulsively, laid a hand on his knee.
"Grandfather, I have promised Aruna—and I promise you—that somehow, I will get hold of him; and bring him back to his senses."
Sir Lakshman covered the hand with his own. "True son of Lilamani! But I fear he may have joined some secret society; and India is a large haystack in which to seek one human needle!"
"But Aruna has written again. She is convinced he will answer."
Sir Lakshman sighed. "Poor Aruna! I am not sure if I was altogether wise letting her go to the Residency. But I am deeply grateful to Mrs Leigh. India needs many more such English women. By making friends with high-born Indian women, it is hardly too much to say they might, together, mend more than half the blunders made by men on both sides."
Thus, skilfully, he steered clear of Aruna's problem that was linked with matters too intimately painful for discussion with a grandson, however dear.
So absorbed was Roy in the delight of reunion, that not till he rose to go did he take in the details of the lofty room. Everywhere Indian workmanship was in evidence. The pictures were old Rajput paintings; fine examples of Vaishnava art—pure Hindu, in its mingling of restraint and exuberance, of tenderness and fury; its hallowing of all life and idealising of all love. Only the writing-table and swivel-chair were frankly of the West, and certain shelves full of English books and reviews.
"I like your room," Roy announced after leisurely inspection. "But I don't seem to remember——"
"You would be a miracle if you did! The room you saw had plush curtains, gilt mirrors and gilt furniture; in fact, the correct 'English-fashion' guest-room of the educated Indian gentleman. But of late years I have seen how greatly we were mistaken, making imitation England to honour our English friends. Some frankly told me how they were disappointed to find in our houses only caricatures of middle-class England or France. Such rooms are silent barriers to friendship: proclaiming that East may go to the West but West cannot come to the East."
"In a way that's true, isn't it?"
"Yes—in a way. This room, of course, is not like my inner apartments. It is like myself, however; cultivated—but still Indian. It is my way of preaching true Swadeshi:—Be your own self, even with English guests. But so far I have few followers. Some are too foolishly fond of their mirrors and chandeliers and gramophones. Some will not believe such trifles can affect friendliness. Yet—strange, but true—too much Anglicising of India instead of drawing us nearer, seems rather to widen the gulf."
Roy nodded. "I've heard that. Yet most of us are so keen to be friends. Queer, perverse things—human beings, aren't they?"
"And for that reason, more interesting than all the wonders of Earth!" Setting both hands on Roy's shoulders he looked deeply into his eyes. "Come and see me often, Dilkusha. It lifts my tired heart to have this very human being so near me again."
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, Roy was riding homeward through a changed city; streets and hills and sky wrapped in the mystery of encroaching dusk.
South and west the sky flamed, like the heart of a fire opal, through a veil fine as gauze—dust no longer; but the aura of Jaipur. Seen afar, through the coloured gloom, familiar shapes took on strange outlines; moved and swayed, mysteriously detached, in a sea of shadows, scattered, here and there, by flames of little dinner fires along the pavements. The brilliant shifting crowd of two hours ago seemed to have sunk into the earth. For there is no night life in the streets of Jaipur. Travellers had passed on and out. Merchants had stowed away their muslins and embroideries, their vessels of brass and copper and priceless enamels. Only the starving lay in huddled heaps as before—ominously still; while above them vultures and eagles circled, expectant, ink-black against the immense radiance beyond. Grey, deepening to black, were flat roofs, cornices, minarets and massed foliage, and the flitting shadows, with lifted tails, that careered along the house-tops; or perched on some jutting angle, skinny elbows crooked, absorbed in the pursuit of fleas. For sunset is the monkey's hour, and the eerie jibbering of these imps of darkness struck a bizarre note in the hush that shrouded the city.
Roy knew, now, why Thea had stayed his impatience; and he blessed her sympathetic understanding. But just then—steeped in India at her most magical hour—it was hard to believe in the Residency household; in English dinner-tables and English detachment from the mediaeval medley of splendour and squalor, of courage and cruelty and dumb endurance, of arts and crafts and all the paraphernalia of enlightened knowledge that was Jaipur. It seemed more like a week than a few hours since he had turned in the saddle to salute Aruna and ridden out into another world:—her world, which was also in a measure his own....
On and on he rode, at a foot's pace, followed by his twin shadows; past the temples of Maha Deo, still rosy where they faced the west, still rumbling and throbbing with muffled music; past wayside shrines, mere alcoves for grotesque images—Shiva, Lord of Death, or Ganesh the Elephant God—each with his scented garlands and his nickering chiragh; past shadowy groups round the dinner fires, cooking their evening meal: on and out through the double fortified gateways into the deserted road, his whole being drenched in the silence and the deepening dusk.
Here, outside the city, emptiness loomed almost like a presence. Only the trees were alive; each with its colony of peacocks and parrots and birds of prey noisily settling to rest. The peacocks' unearthly cry, and the far, ghostly laugh of jackals—authentic voice of India at sundown—sent a chill down Roy's spine. For he, who had scarcely known fear on the battlefield, was ignominiously at the mercy of imagination and the eerie spirit of the hour.
At a flick of the reins, Suraj broke into a smart canter, willingly enough. What were sunsets or local devils to him compared with stables and gram?
And as they sped on, as trees on either side slid by like stealthy ghosts, the sunset splendour died, only to rise again in a volcanic afterglow, on which trunks and twigs and battlemented hills were printed in daguerreotype; and desert voices were drowned in the clamour of cicadas, grinding their knives in foolish ecstasy; and, at last, he swerved between the friendly gate-posts of the Residency—the richer for a spiritual adventure that could neither be imparted, nor repeated, nor forgotten while he lived.
[Footnote 10: Joy of my heart.]
"The deepest thing in our nature is this dumb region of the heart, where we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and our fears."—WILLIAM JAMES.
Not least among the joys of Aruna's return to the freer life of the Residency was her very own verandah balcony. Here, secure from intrusion, she could devote the first and last hours of her day to meditation or prayer. Oxford studies had confused a little, but not killed, the faith of her fathers. The real trouble was that too often, nowadays, that exigent heart of hers would intrude upon her sacred devotions, transforming them into day-dreams, haloed with a hope the more frankly formulated because she was of the East.
For Thea had guessed aright. Roy was the key to her waverings, her refusals, her eager acceptance of the emergency plan:—welcome in itself; still more welcome because it permitted her simply to await his coming.
They had been very wonderful, those five years in England; in spite of anxieties and disappointed hopes. But when Dyan departed and Mesopotamia engulfed Roy, India had won the day.
How unforgettable that exalted moment of decision, one drenched and dismal winter evening; the sudden craving for sights and sounds and smells of her own land. How slow the swiftest steamer to the speed of her racing thoughts! How bitter, beyond belief, the—how first faint chill of disappointment; the pang of realising reluctantly—that, within herself, she belonged whole-heartedly to neither world.
She had returned qualified for medical work, by experience in a College hospital at Oxford; yet hampered by innate shrinking from the sick and maimed, who had been too much with her in those years of war. Not less innate was the urge of her whole being to fulfil her womanhood through marriage rather than through work. And in the light of that discovery, she saw her dilemma plain. Either she must hope to marry an Englishman and break with India, like Aunt Lilamani; or accept, at the hands of the matchmaker, an enlightened bridegroom, unseen, unknown, whose family would overlook—at a price—her advanced age and English adventures.
Against the last, all that England and Oxford had given her rose up in revolt ... But the discarded, subconscious Aruna was centuries older than the half-fledged being who hovered on the rim of the nest, distrustful of her untried wings and the pathless sky. That Aruna had, for ally, the spirit of the ages; more formidable, if less assertive, than the transient spirit of the age. And the fledgling Aruna knew perfectly well that the Englishman of her alternative was, confessedly—Roy. His mother being Indian, she innocently supposed there would be no trouble of prejudice; no stupid talk of the gulf that she and Dyan had set out to bridge. The fact that Dyan had failed only made her the more anxious to succeed....
Soon after arriving, she had taken up hospital work in the women's ward, because Miss Hammond was kind; and her educated self had need of occupation. Her other self—deeply loving her grandfather—had urged her to try and live at home,—so far as her unregenerate state would permit.
As out-of-caste, she had been exempt from kitchen work; debarred from touching any food except the portion set aside for her meals, that were eaten apart in Sir Lakshman's room—her haven of refuge. In the Inside, she was at the mercy of women's tongues and the petty tyranny of Mataji; antagonistic as ever; sharpened and narrowed with age, even as her grandfather had mellowed and grown beautiful, with the unearthly beauty of the old, whose spirit shines visibly through the attenuated veil of flesh. Aruna, watching him, with clearer understanding, marvelled how he had preserved his serenity of soul through a lifetime of Mataji's dominion.
And the other women—relations in various degrees—took their tone from her, if only for the sake of peace:—the widowed sister-in-law, suavely satirical; a great-aunt, whose tongue clacked like a rice-husker; two cousins, correctly betrothed to unseen bridegrooms, entitled to look askance at the abandoned one, who was neither wife nor mother; and two children of a poor relation—embryo women, who echoed the jeers of their elders at her English friends, her obstinacy in the matter of caste and the inevitable husband. Hai! hai! At her age, what did she fear? Had the English bewitched her with lies? Thus Peru, aged nine, jocosely proceeding to enlighten her; egged on by giggles and high-pitched laughter from the prospective brides. For in the zenana reticence is not, even before children. Aruna herself had heard such talk; but for years her early knowledge had lain dormant; while fastidiousness had been engendered by English studies and contact with English youth. Useless to answer. It simply meant tears or losing her temper; in which case, Mataji would retaliate by doctoring her food with red pepper to sweeten her tongue.
Meanwhile, sharpened pressure in the matter of caste rites and rumours of an actually maturing husband, had brought her very near the end of her tether. Again Thea was right. Her brave impulse of the heart had only been just in time. And hard upon that unbelievable good fortune followed the news that Roy was coming.
Tremulously at first, then with quickening confidence, her happy nature rose like a sea-bird out of troubled waters, on the wings of a secret hope....
* * * * *
And now he was here, under this friendly roof that sheltered her from the tender mercies of her own kind. There were almost daily meetings, however brief, and the after-glow of them when past; all the well-remembered tricks of speech and manner; and the twinkle of fun in his eyes. Lapped in an ecstasy of content, hope scarcely stirred a wing. Enough that he was there——
Great was her joy when Mrs Leigh—after scolding him in the kindest way over the girl mother and two more starving children, picked up afterwards—had given her leave to take special charge of them and lodged them with the dhobi's wife. This also brought her nearer to Roy. And what could she ask more?
But with the approach of the Dewali, thoughts of the future came flocking like birds at sundown. Because, on Dewali night, all tried their luck in some fashion; and Mai Lakshmi's answer failed not. The men tossed coin or dice. The maidens, at sunset, when the little wind of evening stirred the waters, carried each her chiragh—lamp of her life—and set it afloat on tank or stream, praying Mai Lakshmi to guide it safe across. If the prayer was heard, omens were favourable. If the lamp should sink, or be shattered, omens were evil. And the centuries-old Aruna—still at the mercy of dastur—had secretly bought her little chiragh; secretly resolved to try her fate on the night of nights. If the answer were unfavourable—and courage failed her—there was always one way of escape. The water that put out her lamp would as carelessly put out the flame of her life—in a little moment—without pain....
A small shiver convulsed her—kneeling there in her balcony; her bare arms resting on the balustrade. The new Aruna shrank from thought of death. She craved the fulness of life and love—kisses and rapture and the clinging arms of little children....
For, as she knelt in the moonlight, nominally she was invoking Mai Lakshmi; actually she was dreaming of Roy; chiding herself for the foolishness that had kept her from appearing at dinner; hoping he might wonder, and perhaps think of her a little—wishing her there. And all the while, perhaps he was simply not noticing—not caring one little bit——!
Stung by the thought, she clenched her hands and lifted her bowed head. Then she started—and caught her breath——
Could it be he, down there among the shadows—wandering, dreaming, thinking of her, or making poems? She knew most of his slim volume by heart.
More likely, he was framing bold plans to find Dyan—now the answer to her letter had come. It was a strange unsatisfying answer; full of affection, but too full of windy phrases that she was shrewd enough to recognise as mere echoes from those others, who had ensnared him in a web of words.
"Fear not for me, sister of my heart," he wrote. "Rejoice because I am dedicated to service of the Mother, that she may be released from political bondage and shine again in her ancient glory—no longer exploited by foreigners, who imagine that with bricks and stones they can lock up Veda—eternal truth! The gods have spoken. It is time. Kali rises in the East, with her necklet of skulls—Giants of evil she has slain. It is she who speaks through the voice of the patriot: 'Do not wall up your vision, like frogs in a well.... Rise above the Penal Code to the rarefied atmosphere of the Gita and consider the actions of heroic men.'
"You ask if I still love Roy? Why not? He is of our own blood and a very fine fellow. But I don't write now because he would not understand my fervour of soul. So don't you take all his opinions for gospel; like my grandfather's, they are well meant, but obsolete. If only you had courage, Aruna-ji, to accept the enlightened husband, who might not keep you in strict purdah, then we could work together for liberation of the Mother. Sing Bande Mataram, forty thousand brothers! That is our battle-cry. And one of those is your own fond brother—Dyan Singh."
Aruna had read and re-read that bewildering effusion till tears fell and blotted the words. Could this be the same Dyan who had known and loved England even as she did? His eloquence somehow failed to carry conviction. To her, the soul of new India seemed like a book, full of contradictions, written in many strange languages, hard to read. But behind that tangle of words beat the heart of Dyan—the brother who was her all.
Still no address was given. But Roy had declared the Delhi postmark sufficient clue. Directly Dewali was over, he would go. And, by every right impulse, she ought to be more glad than sad. But the heart, like the tongue, can no man tame. And sometimes his eagerness to go hurt her a little. Was he thinking of Delhi down there—or of her——?
The shadow had turned and was moving towards her. There was a white splash of shirt-front, the glow of a cigarette.
Suddenly his pace quickened. He had seen her. Next moment he was standing under her balcony. His low-pitched voice came distinctly to her ears.
"Good evening—Juliet! Quit your dreaming. Come and be sociable down here."
Delicious tremors ran through her. Much too bold, going down in the dark. But how to resist?
"I think—better not," she faltered, incipient surrender in her tone. "You see—not coming down to dinner ... Mrs Leigh ..."
"Bother Mrs Leigh. I've got a ripping inspiration about Delhi—— Hurry up. I'll be by the steps."
Then he had been thinking of Delhi. But he wanted her now; and the note of command extinguished hesitation. Slipping on a cloak, she reached the verandah without meeting a soul. He put out a hand. Purely on impulse she gave him her left one; and he conducted her down the steps with mock ceremony, as if leading her out to tread a measure to unheard strains of the viola and spinet.
Happiness ran like wine in her veins: and catching his mood she swept him a curtsey, English fashion.
"Fit for the Queen's Drawing-room!" he applauded; and she smiled up at him under her straight lashes. "Why didn't you appear at dinner? Is it a whim—hiding your light under a bushel? Or do you get headaches and heartaches working in the ward, and feel out of tune with our frivol?"
The solicitude in his tone was worth many headaches and heartaches to hear again. But with him she could not pretend.
"No—not that!" she said, treading the grass beside him, as if it were a moonlit cloud. "Only sometimes ... I am foolish—not inclined for so many faces; and all the lights and the talk."
He nodded. "I know the feeling. The same strain in us, I suppose. But, look here, about Dyan. It suddenly struck me I'd have ten times better chance if I went as an Indian. I can talk the language to admiration. What d'you think?"
She caught her breath. A vision of him so transformed seemed to bring him surprisingly nearer. "How exciting! How bold!"
"Yes—but not impossible. And no end of a lark. If I could lodge with some one who knew, I believe I could pull it through. Grandfather might arrange that. It would give me a chance to get in among Dyan's set and hear things. Don't breathe a word to any one. I must talk it all over with Grandfather."
"Oh! I would love to see you turned into a Rajput," she breathed.
"You shall see me. I'll come and make my salaams and ask your blessing on my venture."
"And I will make prasad for your journey!" Her unveiled eyes met his frankly now. "A portion for Dyan too. It may speak to his heart clearer than words."
"Prasad? What's that?"
"Food prepared and consecrated by touch of mother or sister or—or nearest woman relation. And by absence of those others ... it is ... my privilege——"
"My privilege. I would not forgo it for a kingdom," Roy interposed, such patent sincerity in the reverend quiet of his tone that she was speechless....
For less than half an hour they strolled on that moon-enchanted lawn. Nothing was said by either that the rest might not have heard. Yet it was a transfigured Aruna who approached the verandah, where Thea stood awaiting them; having come out to look for Roy and found the clue to his prolonged meditations.
"What have you been plotting, you two?" she asked lightly when they reached her. To Roy her eyes said: "D'you call this being discreet?" To Aruna her lips said: "Graceless one! I thought you were purdah nashin this evening!"
"So she was," Roy answered for her. "I'm the culprit. I insisted. Some details about my Delhi trip, I wanted to talk over."
Thea wrinkled her forehead. "Roy—you mustn't. It's a crazy plan——"
"Pardon me—an inspired plan!" He drew himself up half an inch the better to look down on her. "Nothing on earth can put me off it—except Grandfather. And I know he'll back me up."
"In that case, I won't waste valuable verbal ammunition on you! Come along in—We're going to have music."
But as Roy moved forward, Aruna drew back. "Please—I would rather go to bed now. And—please, forgive, little Mother," she murmured caressingly. For this great-hearted English woman seemed mother indeed to her now.
For answer, Thea took her by the shoulders and kissed her on both cheeks. "Not guilty this time, piari. But don't do it again!"
Roy's hand closed hard on hers, but he said not a word. And she was glad.
Alone again on her balcony, gladness rioted through all her being. Yet—nothing had really happened. Nothing had been said. Only—everything felt different inside. Of such are life's supreme moments. They come without flourish of trumpets; touch the heart or the lips with fire, and pass on....
While undressing, an impulse seized her to break her chiragh and treasure the pieces—in memory of to-night. Why trouble Mai Lakshmi with a question already half answered? But, lost in happy thoughts—inwoven with delicate threads of sound from Thea's violin—she forgot all about it, till the warmth of her cheek nestled against the cool pillow. Too lazy and comfortable to stir, she told her foolish heart that to-morrow morning would do quite as well.
But the light of morning dimmed, a little, her mood of exalted assurance. Habit and superstition prevailed over that so arrogant impulse, and the mystic chiragh of destiny was saved—for another fate.
[Footnote 11: Hail, Mother.]
[Footnote 12: Darling.]
"The forces that fashion, the hands that mould, Are the winds fire-laden, the sky, the rain;—
* * * * *
They are gods no more, but their spells remain." —SIR ALFRED LYALL.
Dewali night at last; and all Jaipur astir in the streets at sundown awaiting the given moment that never quite loses its quality of miracle....
For weeks every potter's wheel had been whirling, double tides, turning out clay chiraghs by the thousand, that none might fail of honouring Mai Lakshmi—a compound of Minerva and Ceres,—worshipped in the living gold of fire and the dead gold of minted coin.
And all day long there ebbed and flowed through the temple doors a rainbow-coloured stream of worshippers; while the dust-laden air vibrated with jangle of metal bells, wail of conches and raucous clamour of crows. Within doors, the rattle of dice rivalled the jangle of bells. Young or old, none failed to consult those mysterious arbiters on this auspicious day. Houses, shops, and balconies had been swept and plastered with fresh cow dung, in honour of Vishnu's bride; and gayest among festal shop-fronts was the dazzling array of toys. For the Feast of Lights is also a feast of toys in bewildering variety; in sugar, in paper, in burnt clay; tinselled, or gorgeously painted with colours such as never were on ox or elephant, fish or bird.
What matter? To the uncritical Eastern eye, colour is all.
And, as the day wore on, colour, and yet more colour, was spilled abroad in the wide main streets that are an arresting feature of Jaipur. Men, women, and children, in gala turbans and gala draperies, laughing and talking at full pitch of their lungs; gala elephants sheathed in cloth of gold, their trunks and foreheads patterned in divers colours; scarlet outriders clearing a pathway through the maze of turbans that bobbed to and fro like a bed of parrot-tulips in a wind. Crimson, agate, and apricot, copper and flame colour, greens and yellows; every conceivable harmony and discord; nothing to rival it anywhere, Sir Lakshman told Roy; save perhaps in Gwalior or Mandalay.
Roy had spent most of the morning in the city, lunching with his grandfather and imbibing large draughts of colour from an airy minaret on the roof top. Then home to the Residency for tea, only to insist on carrying them all back in the car—Thea, Aruna, Flossie, and the children, who must have their share of strange sweets and toys, if only 'for luck,' the watchword of Dewali.
As for Aruna—to-day everything in the world seemed to hang on the frail thread of those two words. And what of to-night...?
All had been arranged in conjunction with Roy. His insistence on the cousinly privilege of protecting her had arisen from a private confession that she shrank from joining the orthodox group of maidens who would go forth at sundown, to try their fate. She was other than they were; out of purdah; out of caste; a being apart. And for most of them it was little more than a 'game of play.' For her—but that she kept to herself—this symbolical act of faith, this childish appeal for a sign, was a matter of life and death. So—to her chosen angle of the tank, she would go alone; and there—unwatched, save by Dewali lights of earth and heaven—she would confide her lamp to the waters and the breeze that rippled them in the first hour of darkness.
But Roy would not hear of her wandering alone in a Dewali crowd. In Dyan's absence, he claimed the right to accompany her, to be somewhere within hail. Having shed the Eastern protection of purdah, she must accept the Western protection of escort. And straightway there sprang an inspiration: he would wear his Indian dress, ready and waiting in every detail, at Sir Lakshman's house. From there, he could set out unnoticed on the Delhi adventure—which his grandfather happily approved, with what profound heart-searchings and heart-stirrings Roy did not even dimly guess.
At sundown the Residency party would drive through the city and finish up at the gardens, before going on to dine at the Palace. That would be Aruna's moment for slipping away. Roy—having slipped away in advance—would rejoin her at a given spot. And then——?
The rest was a tremulous blur of hopes and fears and the thrill of his presence, conjured into one of her own people....
* * * * *
Sundown at last; and the drive, in her exalted mood, was an ecstasy no possible after-pain or disappointment could dim. As the flaming tint of sunset faded and shafts of amethyst struck upward into the blue, buildings grew shadowy; immense vistas seemed to melt into the landscape, shrouded in a veil of desert dust.
Then—the first flickering points of fire—primrose-pale, in the half light; deepening to orange, as night rolled up out of the East, and the little blown flames seemed to flit along of their own volition, so skilled and swift were the invisible hands at work.
From roof to roof, from balcony to balcony they ran: till vanished Jaipur emerged from her shroud, a city transfigured: cupolas, arches, balconies, and temples, palace of the Maharaja and lofty Hall of the Winds—every detail faultlessly traced on darkness, in delicate, tremulous lines of fire. Only here and there illusion was shattered by garish globes of electric light, dimming the mellow radiance of thousands on thousands of modest chiraghs.
Aruna had seen many Dewali nights in her time; but never at a moment so charged with conflicting emotions. Silent, absorbed, she sat by Thea in the barouche; Roy and Vernon opposite; Phyllis on her mother's knee; the others in the car on ahead—including a tourist of note—outriders before and behind, clearing a pathway through the press. Vernon, jigging on his feet, was lost in wonder. Roy, like Aruna, said little. Only Thea kept up a low ripple of talk with her babe....
By now, not only the city was alight, but the enclosing hills, where bonfires laughed in flame. Jewelled coronets twinkled on bastions of the Tiger Fort. Threads of fire traced every curve and line of Jai Singh's tomb. And on either side of the carriage, the crowd swayed and hummed; laughing, jesting, boasting; intoxicated with the spirit of festival, that found an echo in Aruna's heart and rioted in her veins. To-night she felt merged in India, Eastern to the core; capable, almost, of wondering—could she put it away from her, even at the bidding of Roy——?
On they drove, away from crowded pavements, towards the Man Sagar Lake, where ruined temples and palaces dreamed and gleamed, knee deep in the darkling water; where jackals prowled and cranes nested and muggers dozed unheeding. At a point of vantage above the Lake, they halted and sat there awhile in darkness—a group of silent shadows. Words did not meet the case. Even Vernon ceased his jigging and baby Phyllis uttered no sound: for she had fallen asleep.
Aruna, resting an elbow on the side of the carriage, sat lost in a dream....
Suddenly, electrically, she was aware of contact with Roy's coat-sleeve. He had leaned forward to catch a particular effect, and was probably not aware of his trespassing arm; for he did not shift it till he had gazed his fill. Then with a long sigh, he leaned back again. But Aruna's dream was shattered by sensations too startingly real to be ignored....
Once, driving back, as they passed under an electric globe, she caught his eyes on her face, and they exchanged a smile. Did he know——? Did he ever feel—like that?
Near Sir Lakshman's house they stopped again and Roy leaned towards her.
"I'll be quick as lightning—don't stir till I come," he said—and vanished.
* * * * *
Some fifteen minutes later, she stood alone in the jewelled darkness, awaiting him; her own flickering jewel held between her hands. She had brought it with her, complete; matches and a tiny bottle of oil, stowed in a cardboard box. Mrs Leigh—angel of goodness—had lit the wick with her own hand—'for luck.' How Roy had made her so completely their ally, she had no idea. But who could resist him,—after all? Waiting alone, her courage ebbed a little; but he came quick as lightning, arrayed in a choga of some dark material and the larger turban of the North;—so changed, she scarcely knew him till he saluted and, with a gesture, bade her go forward.
Through the dark archway, under a block of zenana buildings they passed: and there lay before them the great tank patterned with quivering threads of light. Her chosen corner was an unfrequented spot. A little farther on, shadowy figures moved and talked.
"You see," she explained under her breath, as though they were conspirators, "if the wind is kind, it will cut across there making the mystical triangle; symbol of perfect knowledge—new birth. I am only afraid it is getting a little too strong. And if anything should hinder it from crossing, then—there is no answer. Suspense—all the time. But—we will hope. Now, please, I must be alone. In the shadow of this building, few will notice me. Afterwards, I will call softly. But don't—go too far."
"Trust me. And—see here, Aruna, don't make too much of it—either way. Mai Lakshmi's not Queen of all the Immortals——"
"Oh, hush! She is bride of Vishnu!"
Roy's smile was half amused, half tender. "Well! I hope she plays up—royally."
And with a formal salute, he left her.
Alone, crouching near the water's edge, she held out her cockle-shell with its blown wisp of light.
"Oh Lamp of my life, flame of my heart," she addressed it, just above her breath, "sail safely through the wavelets and answer truly what fate awaits me now? Will Mai Lakshmi grant the blessing I crave?"
With a gentle push, she set it afloat; then, kneeling close against the building, deep in shadow, she covered her face and prayed, childish incoherent prayers, for some solution of her difficult problem that would be best, alike, for her and Roy.
But curiosity was claimant. She must see.... She must know....
Springing up, she stood near the coping, one hand on a low abutment, all her conscious being centred on the adventuring flame that swayed and curtsied at the caprice of the wind. The effect of her concentration was almost hypnotic: as if her soul, deserting her still body, flickered away there on the water; as if every threat of wind or wavelet struck at her very life....
Footsteps passed, and voices; but the sounds scarcely reached her brain. The wind freshened sharply; and the impact of two ripples almost capsized her chiragh. It dipped—it vanished....
With a low sound of dismay she craned forward; lost her balance, and would have fallen headlong ... but that masculine fingers closed on her arm and pulled her backward—just in time.
"Roy!" she breathed, without turning her eyes from the water—for the precious flame had reappeared. "Look, there it is—safe...!"
"But what of you, little sister, had not I stayed to watch the fate of your Dewali lamp?"
The words were spoken in the vernacular—and not in the voice of Roy. Startled, she drew back and faced a man of less than middle height, bare-headed, wearing the orange-pink draperies of an ascetic. In the half dark she could just discern the colour and the necklace of carved beads that hung almost to his waist.
"I am most grateful, guru-ji," she murmured demurely, also in the vernacular; and stood so—shaken a little by her fright: unreasonably disappointed that it was not Roy; relieved, that the providential intruder chanced to be a holy man. "Will you not speed my brave little lamp with your blessing?"
His smile arrested and puzzled her; and his face, more clearly seen, lacked the unmistakable stamp of the ascetic.
"You are not less brave yourself, sister," he said, "venturing thus boldly and alone...."
The implication annoyed her; but anxious not to be misjudged, she answered truthfully: "I am not as those others, guru-ji. I am—England-returned; still out of purdah ... out of caste."
He levelled his eyes at her with awakened interest; then: "Frankness for frankness is fair exchange, sister. I am no guru; but like yourself, England-returned; caste restored, however. Dedicated to service of the Mother——"
It was her turn to start and scrutinise him—discreetly. "Yet you make pretence of holiness——?"
"In the interests of the Mother," he interposed, answering the note of reproach, "I need to mix freely among her sons—and daughters. These clothes are passports to all, and, wearing them in her service is no dishonour. But for my harmless disguise, I might not have ventured near enough to save you from making a feast for the muggers—just for this superstition of Dewali—not cured by all the wisdom of Oxford.—Was it Oxford?"
"Is it possible——?" He drew nearer. His eyes dwelt on her frankly, almost boldly.
"Am I addressing the accomplished daughter of Ram Singh Bahadur——?"
At that she pulled her sari forward, turning away from him. His look and tone repelled her, frightened her; yet she could not call for Roy, who was playing his part too scrupulously well.
"Go——! Leave me!" she commanded desperately, louder than she had spoken yet. "I am not ungrateful. But—making pujah—I wish to be alone——"
His chuckling laugh sent a shiver through her.
"Why these airs of the zenana with one enlightened—like yourself...?"
He broke off and retreated abruptly. For a shadowy figure had sauntered into view.
Aruna sprang towards it—zenana airs forgotten. "Oh, Roy——!"
"Did you call, Aruna?" he asked. "Thought I heard you. This fellow bothering you——? I'll settle him——" Turning, he said politely: "My cousin is here, under my escort, to make pujah, guru-ji. She wishes to be alone."
"Your cousin, except for my timely intrusion, would by this time be permanently secure from interruption—in the belly of a mugger," retorted the supposed ascetic—in English.
Roy started and stared. The voice was unmistakable.
"Chandranath! Masquerading as a saint? You are no guru."
"And you are no Rajput. You also appear to be masquerading—as a lover, perhaps? Quite useless trying to fool me, Sinclair, with play-acting—about cousins. In my capacity of guru I feel compelled to warn this accomplished young lady that her fine cavalier is only a sham Rajput of British extraction...."
"Sham—curse you! I'm a genuine Seesodia—on one side——" The instant he had spoken, he saw his folly.
An oath and a threatening forward move, impelled the speaker to an undignified step backward. Roy cooled a little at that. The fellow was beneath contempt.
"I am of highest caste, English and Indian. I admit no slur in the conjunction; and I take no insults from any man...." He made another forward move, purely for the pleasure of seeing Chandranath jerk backward. "If my cousin was in danger, we are grateful to you. But I told you, she wishes to be alone. So I must ask you to move on elsewhere."
"Oh, as to that ... I have no violent predilection for your society."
And, as he sauntered off, with an elaborate air of pleasing no one but himself, Roy kept pace alongside—"For all the world," he thought, "like Terry edging off an intruder. Too polite to go for him; but quite prepared if need be!"
When they had turned the corner of the building, Chandranath fired a parting shot. "I infer you came here fancying you can marry her, because diluted blood of Seesodias runs in your veins. But here in India, you will find forces too powerful militating against it."
But Roy was not to be goaded again into letting slip his self-control. "The men of my stock, British and Rajput, are not in the habit of discussing their womenfolk with strangers," said he—and flattered himself he had very neatly secured the last word.
* * * * *
As for Aruna—left alone—she leaned again on the low abutment, but the hypnotic spell was broken: only acute anxiety remained. For the lamp of her life had made scant progress; and now she was aware of a disturbance in the water, little ominous whirlpools not caused by wind. Presently there emerged a long shadow, like a black expanse of rock:—unmistakably a mugger. And in that moment she felt exquisitely grateful to the hand that had seized her in the nick of time. The next—she wrung her own together with a low, shivering cry.
For as the brute rose into fuller view, her chiragh rose with it—and so remained; stranded high and dry somewhere near the horny shoulder; tilted sideways, she judged from the slope of the flame; the oil, its life-blood, trickling away. And as the mugger moved leisurely on, in the wrong direction, breaking up the gold network of reflections, she had her answer—or no answer. The lamp was neither wrecked nor shattered; but it would never, now, reach the farther shore. Mai Lakshmi's face was turned away in simple indifference, from the plea of a mere waverer between two worlds, who ventured to set her lamp on the waters, not so much in faith as in a mute gesture of despair....
She came very near despair, as she crouched sobbing there in the shadow—not entirely for the fate of her lamp, but in simple reaction from the mingled excitements and emotions of the evening ...
It was only a few minutes—though it seemed an age—before she felt Roy's hand on her shoulder and heard his voice, troubled and tender beneath its surface note of command.
"Aruna—what the—get up. Don't cry like that—you mustn't...."
She obeyed instinctively; and stood there, like a chidden child, battling with her sobs.
"Where's the thing? What's happened?" he asked, seeming to disregard her effort at control.
"There—over there. Look ... the mugger!"
"Mugger?" He sighted it. "Well, I'm—the thieving brute!" Humour lurked in his voice—more tonic than sympathy; yet in a sense, more upsetting. Her tragedy had its vein of the ludicrous; and at his hint of it, tears trembled into laughter; laughter into tears. The impact unsteadied her afresh; and she covered her face again shaken with sobs.
"Aruna—my dear—you mustn't, I tell you...." More tenderness now than command.
She held her breath—pain shot through with sudden ecstasy. For in speaking he had laid an arm round her shoulder; just supporting her with a firm gentle grasp that sent tingling shocks along all her sensitised nerves.
"Listen, Aruna—and don't cry," he said, low and urgently. "No answer always leaves room for hope. And you shall have your Dyan, I promise you. I won't come back without him. I can't say fairer than that. So now——" his hand closed on her shoulder. "Give over—breaking your poor heart!"
Comforted a little, she uncovered her face. "I will try. Only to-night—I would rather—not the Palace dinner, the fireworks. I would rather go home with Miss Mills and the children...."
"And cry your eyes out all alone. And spoil the whole evening—for us both. No, you don't. Remember—you are Rajputni: not to be hag-ridden by a mere chiragh and a thieving mugger. No more tears and terrors. Look me in the face—and promise."
As usual, he was irresistible. What matter Mai Lakshmi's indifference—since he cared so much? "Faithfully—I promise, Roy," she said; and, for proof of courage, looked straight into his eyes—that seemed mysteriously to hold and draw her into depths beyond depths.
For one incredible moment, his face moved a little nearer to hers—paused, as if irresolute, and withdrew.
So brief was the instant, so slight the movement, that she almost doubted her senses. But her inmost being knew—and ached, without shyness or shame, for the kiss withheld....
"You've the grit—I knew it," Roy said at last, in the level voice that had puzzled her earlier in the evening: and his hand slid from her shoulder. "Come now—we've been too long. Thea will be wondering...."
He turned; and she moved beside him, walking in a dream.
"Did you say much, before I came?" he asked, after a pause, "to that fellow—Chandranath?"
"I spoke a little—thinking him a guru——" She paused. The name woke a chord of memory. "Chandranath," she repeated, "that is the name they said——"
"Who?" Roy asked sharply, coming out of his own dream.
"Mataji and the widowed Aunt——"
"What do they know of him?"
"How can I tell? I think it was—through our guru, he made offer of marriage—for me; wishing for an educated wife. I was wondering—could it be the same——?"
"Well, look here," he rounded on her, suddenly imperious. "If it is—you can tell them I won't have it. Grandfather would be furious. He ought to know—and Dyan. Your menfolk don't seem to get a look in."
"Not much—with marrying arrangements. That is for women and priests. But—for now, I am safe, with Mrs Leigh——"
"And you'll stay safe—as far as he's concerned. You see, I know the fellow. He's the man I slanged in the City that day. Besides—at school——"
He unfolded the tale of St Rupert's; and she listened, amazed.
"So don't worry over that," he commanded, in his kind elder-brotherly tone. "As for your poor little chiragh, for goodness' sake don't let it get on your nerves."
She sighed—knowing it would; yet longing to be worthy of him. It seemed he understood, for his hand closed lightly on her arm.
"That won't do at all! If you feel quavery inside, try holding your head an inch higher. Gesture's half the battle of life."
"Is it? I never thought——" she murmured, puzzled, but impressed. And after that, things somehow seemed easier than she had thought possible over there, by the tank.
Secure, under Thea's wing, she drove to the Palace, where they were royally entertained by an unseen host, who could not join them at table without imperilling his soul. Later on, he appeared—grey-bearded, courtly and extensively jewelled—supported by Sir Lakshman, the prince, and a few privileged notables; whereupon they all migrated to the Palace roof for the grand display of fireworks—fitting climax to the Feast of Lights.
Throughout the evening Roy was seldom absent from Aruna's side. They said little, but his presence wrapped her round with a sense of companionship more intimate than she had yet felt even in their happiest times together. While rocket after rocket soared and curved and blossomed in mid-heaven, her gaze reverted persistently to the outline of a man's head and shoulders silhouetted against the sky....
Still later on, when he bade her good-night in the Residency drawing-room, she moved away carrying her head like a crowned queen. It certainly made her feel a few degrees braver than when she had crouched in the shadows praying vain prayers—shedding vain tears....
If only one could keep it up——!
[Footnote 13: Holy man.]
[Footnote 14: Prayer.]
[Footnote 15: Crocodile.]
"Thou dost beset the path to every shrine;
* * * * *
And if I turn from but one sin, I turn Unto a smile of thine." —ALICE MEYNELL.
For Roy himself, no less than Aruna, the passing of those golden October weeks had been an experience as beautiful as it was unique. The very beauty and bewilderment of it had blinded him, at first, to the underlying danger for himself and her. Bewilderment sprang from an eerie sense—vivid to the verge of illusion—that his mother was with him again in the person of Aruna:—a fancy enhanced by the fact that his entire knowledge of Indian womanhood—the turns of thought and phrase, the charm, at once sensuous and spiritual—was linked indissolubly with her. And the perilous charm had penetrated insidiously deeper than he knew. By the time he realised what was happening, the spell was upon him; his will held captive in silken meshes he had not the heart to snap.
As often as not, in that early stage, he craved sight and sound of her simply because she wore a sari and carried her head and moved her hands just so; because her mere presence stirred him with a thrill that blended exquisite pleasure, exquisite pain. There were times he would contrive to be alone in the room with her; not talking; not even looking at her—because her face disturbed the illusion; simply letting the feel of her presence ease that inner ache—subdued, not stilled—for the mother who had remained more vitally one with him than nine mothers in ten are able, or willing, to remain with their grown-up sons.
Thea Leigh, watching unobtrusively, had caught a glimpse of the strange dual influence at work in him. She had occasionally seen him with his mother; and had gleaned some idea of their unique relation; partly from Lance, partly from her intimate link with her own Theo, half a world away; nearly eighteen now, and eager to join up before all was over. So her troubled scrutiny was tempered with a measure of understanding. Roy had always attracted her. And now, unmothered—the wound not yet healed—she metaphorically gathered him to her heart; would have done so physically without hesitation; but that Vincent had his dear and foolish qualms about her promiscuous capacity for affection. But Aruna was her ewe lamb of the moment; and not even Roy must be allowed to make things harder for her than they were already....
So, after scouting the Delhi idea as preposterous, she suddenly perceived there might be virtue in it—for Aruna. Possibly it would glorify him in her eyes; but it would remove the fatal charm of his presence; give her a chance to pull up before things had gone too far. Whereat, being Thea, she spun round unashamedly, to Roy's secret amusement and relief. All the Desmond in her rose to the adventure of it. A risk, of course; but there must be no question of failure; and success would justify all. She was entirely at his service; discussed details by the hour; put him 'on to Vinx' for coaching in the general situation—underground sedition; reformers, true and false; telling arguments for the reclaiming of Dyan Singh.
To crown all—between genuine relief and genuine affection—she impulsively kissed him on departure under Vincent's very eyes.
"Just only to give you my blessing!" she explained, laughing and blushing like a girl at her own audacity. "Words are the stupidest clumsy things. I'm sure life would be happier and less complicated if we only had the sense to kiss more and talk less——!"
This—in the presence of Aruna and her husband and her six-year-old son!
Roy, deeply moved and a little overcome, nodded assent, while Vincent took her by the arms and gently removed her from further temptation.
"Where you'd be, Madam, if talking was rationed——!"
"I'd take it out in kissing—Sir!" she retorted unabashed; while Aruna glanced a little wistfully at Roy, who was fondling Terry and talking nonsense to Vernon. For the boy adored him and was on the brink of tears.
But if he seemed unheeding, he was by no means unaware. He was fighting his own battle in his own way; incidentally, he hoped, helping the girl to fight hers. For he had shaken himself almost free of his delicious yet disturbing illusion, only to be confronted by a more profoundly disturbing reality. Loyal to his promise, tacitly given, he had simply not connected her with the idea of marriage. The queer thrill of her presence was for him quite another affair. Not until that night of wandering in the moonlight had it struck him, with a faint shock, that she might be mistaking his friendliness for—something more. That contact with her had come at a critical moment for himself, was a detail he failed to realise. Beyond the sudden bewildering sensations that prompted his headlong proposal to Tara, he had not felt seriously perturbed by girl or woman; and, in the past four years, life had been filled to overflowing with other things——
That he should love Aruna, deeply and dearly, seemed as simple and natural, as loving Tara. But to fall in love was a risk he had no right to run, either for himself or her. Yet the risk had been run before he awoke to the fact. And the events and emotions of Dewali night had drawn them irresistibly, dangerously close together. For the racial ferment had been strong in him, as in her. And the darkness, the subtle influence of his Indian dress—her tears—her danger! How could any man, frankly loving her, not be carried a little out of himself? That overmastering impulse to kiss her had startlingly revealed the true forces at work.
After all that, what could he do, but sharply apply the curb and remove himself—for a time—in the devout hope that 'things' had not gone too far? He had not the assurance to suppose she was already in love with him; but patently the possibility was there.
So—like Thea—he had come to see the Delhi inspiration in a new and surprising light. Setting forth in search of Dyan, he was, in effect, running away from himself—and Aruna, no less. If not actually in love, he very soon would be—did he dare to let himself go.
And why not—why not? The old unreasoning rebellion stirred in him afresh. His mother being gone, temptation tugged the harder. Home, without the Indian element, was almost unthinkable. If only he could take back Aruna! But for him there could be no 'if.' He had tacitly given his word—to her. And in any case there was his father—the Sinclair heritage—So all his fine dreams of helping Aruna amounted to this—that it was he who might be driven, in the end, to hurt her more than any of them. Life that looked such a straight-ahead business for most people, seemed to bristle with pitfalls and obstacles for him; all on account of the double heritage that was at once his pride, his inspiration, and his stone of stumbling.
* * * * *
Endless wakeful hours of the night journey were peopled with thoughts and visions of Aruna—her pansy face and velvet-soft eyes, now flashing delicate raillery, now lifted in troubled appeal. A rainbow creature—that was the charm of her. Not beautiful—he thanked his stars; since his weakness for beauty amounted to a snare, but attractive—perilously so. For, in her case, the very element that drew him was the barrier that held them apart. The irony of it!
Was she lying awake too, poor child—missing him a little? Would she marry an Indian—ever? Would she turn her back on India—even for him? Unanswerable questions hemmed her in. Could she even answer them herself? Too well he understood how the scales of her nature hung balanced between conflicting influences. As he was, racially, so was she, spiritually, a divided being; yet, in spite of waverings, Rajputni at the core, with all that word implies to those who know. If she lacked his mother's high sustained courage, her flashes of spirit shone out the brighter for her lapses into womanly weakness—as in that poignant moment by the tank, which had so nearly upset his own equilibrium. Vividly recalling that moment, it hurt him to realise that weeks might pass before he could see her again. No denying he wanted her; felt lost without her. The coveted Delhi adventure seemed suddenly a very lonely affair; not even a clear inner sense of his mother's presence to bear him company. No dreams lately; no faint mystical intimation of her nearness, since the wonderful hour with his grandfather. Only in the form of that strange and lovely illusion had she seemed vitally near him since he left Chitor.
Graceless ingratitude—that 'only.' For now, looking back, he clearly saw how the beauty and bewilderment of that early phase—so mysteriously blending Aruna with herself—had held his emotions in cheek, lifted them, purified them; had saved him, for all he knew, from surrender to an overwhelming passion that might conceivably have swept everything before it. Pure fantasy—perhaps. But he felt no inclination to argue out the unarguable. He preferred simply unquestioningly to believe that, under God, he owed his salvation to her. And after all—take it spiritually or psychologically—that was in effect the truth....
Towards morning, utter weariness lulled him into a troubled sleep—not for long. He awoke, chilled and heavy-eyed, to find the unheeded loveliness of a lemon-yellow dawn stealing over the blank immensity of earth and sky.
In a moment he was up, stretching cramped limbs, thanking goodness for a carriage to himself, leaning out and drinking huge draughts of crisp clean air, fragrant with the ghost of a whiff of wood smoke—the inimitable air of a Punjab autumn morning.
"The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things....
The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."—ST JAMES iii 5-8.
Roy spent ten days in Delhi—lodging with one Krishna Lal, a jewel merchant of high standing, well known to Sir Lakshman—and never a word or a sight of Dyan Singh. The need for constant precautions hampered him not a little; but if the needle he sought was in this particular haystack, he would find it yet.
Meanwhile, at every turn he was imbibing first impressions, a sufficiently enthralling occupation—in Delhi, of all places on earth: Delhi, mistress of many victors; very woman, in that she yields to conquer; and after centuries of romance and tragedy, remains, in essence, unconquered still. The old saying, 'Who holds Delhi, holds India,' has its dark counterpart in the unwritten belief that no alien ruler, enthroned at Delhi, shall endure. Hence the dismay of many loyal Indians when the British Government deserted Calcutta for the Queen of the North. And here, already, were her endless, secretive byways rivalling Calcutta suburbs as hornet-nests of sedition and intrigue.
Roy was to grow painfully familiar with these before his search ended. But the city's pandemonium of composite noises and composite smells was offset by the splendid remnants of Imperial Delhi:—the Pearl Mosque, a dream in marble, dazzling against the blue: inlaid columns of the Dewan-i-Khas—every leaf wrought in jade or malachite, every petal a precious stone; swelling domes and rose-pink minarets of the Jumna Musjid rising superbly from a network of narrow streets and shabby toppling houses. For, in India, the sordid and stately rub shoulders with sublime disregard for effect. In the cool aloofness of tombs and temples, or among crumbling fragments of them on the plain, or away beyond the battered Kashmir Gate—ground sacred to heroic memories—he could wander at will for hours, isolated in body and spirit, yet strangely content....
And there was yet a third Delhi, hard by these two; yet curiously aloof: official, Anglo-Indian Delhi, of bungalows and clubs and painfully new Government buildings. Little scope here for imaginative excursions, but much scope for thought in the queer sensation, that beset him, of seeing his father's people, as it were, through his mother's eyes.
New as he was to Anglo-Indian life, these glimpses from the outskirts were sufficiently illuminating. Once he was present in the crowd at a big Gymkhana; and more than once he strolled through the Club gardens where social Delhi pursued tennis-balls and shuttle-cocks—gravely, as if life hung on the issue; or gaily, with gusts of laughter and chaff, often noisier than need be. And he saw them all, now, from a new angle of vision. Discreetly aloof, he observed, in passing, the complete free-and-easiness of the modern maiden with her modern cavalier; personalities flying; likewise legs and arms; a banter-wrangle interlude over a tennis-racquet; flight and pursuit of the offending maiden, punctuated with shrieks, culminating in collapse and undignified surrender: while a pair of club peons—also discreetly aloof—exchanged remarks whose import would have enraged the unsuspecting pair. Roy knew very well they never gave the matter a thought. They were simply 'rotting' in the approved style of to-day. But, seen from the Eastern standpoint, the trivial incident troubled him. It recalled a chance remark of his grandfather's: "With only a little more decorum and seriousness in their way of life out here, they could do far more to promote good understanding socially between us all, than by making premature 'reforms' or tilting at barriers arising from opposite kinds of civilisation."
Here was matter for the novel—or novels—to be born of his errantry:—the 'fruit of his life' that she had so longed to bold in her hands. Were she only at Home now, what letters-without-end he would be pouring out to her! What letters he could have poured out to Aruna—did conscience permit.
He allowed himself two, in the course of ten days; and the spirit moved him, after long abstention, to indulge in a rambling screed to Tara telling of his quest; revealing more than he quite realised of the inner stress he was trying to ignore. The quest, he emphasised, was a private affair, confided to her only, because he knew she would understand. It hurt more than he cared to admit to feel how completely his father would not understand his present turmoil of heart and brain....
Isolated thus, with his hidden thwarted emotion, there resulted a literary blossoming, the most spontaneous and satisfying since his slow struggle up from the depths. Alone at night, and in the clear keen dawns, he wrote and wrote and wrote, as a thirsty man drinks after a desert march:—poems chiefly; sketches and impressions; his dearest theme the troubled spirit of India,—or was it the spirit of Aruna?—poised between crescent light and deepening shadow, looking for sane clear guidance—and finding none. A prose sketch, in this vein, stood out from the rest; a fragment of his soul, too intimately self-revealing for the general gaze: no uncommon dilemma for an artist, precisely when his work is most intrinsically true. Had he followed the natural urge of his heart, he would have sent it to Aruna. As it was, he decided to treasure it a little longer for himself alone.
* * * * *
Meantime Dyan—half forgotten—suddenly emerged. It was at a meeting—exclusively religious and philosophical; but the police had wind of it; and a friendly inspector mentioned it to Krishna Lal. The chief speaker would be a Swami of impeccable sanctity. "But if you have a sensitive palate, you will doubtless detect a spice of political powder under the jam of religion!" quoth Krishna Lal, who was a man of humour and no friend of sedition.
"Thanks for the hint," said Roy—and groaned in spirit. Meetings, at best, were the abomination of desolation; and his soul was sick of the Indian variety. For the 'silent East' is never happier than when it is talking at immense length; denouncing, inaugurating, promoting; and a prolonged dose of it stirred in Roy a positive craving for men who shot remarks at each other in 'straight-flung words and true.' But no stone must be left unturned. So he went;—guided by the friendly policeman, who knew him for a Sahib bent on some personal quest.
Their search ended in a windowless inner room; packed to suffocation; heavy with attar of rose, kerosene, and human bodies; and Roy as usual clung to a doorway that offered occasional respite.
The Swami was already in full flow:—a wraith of a man in a salmon-coloured garment; his eyes, deep in their sockets, gleaming like black diamonds. And he was holding his audience spellbound:—Hindus of every calling; students in abundance; a sprinkling of Sikhs and Dogras from the lines. Some form of hypnotism,—was it? Perhaps. Even Roy could not listen unmoved, when the spirit shook the frail creature like a gust of wind and the hollow chest-notes vibrated with appeal or command. Such men—and India is full of them—are spiritual dynamos. Who can calculate their effect on an emotional race? And they no longer confine their influence to things spiritual. They, too, have caught the modern disease of politics for the million. And the supreme appeal is to youth—plastic and impressionable, aflame with fervours of the blood that can be conjured, by heady words, into fervours infinitely more dangerous to themselves and their country.
In an atmosphere dense with spilled kerosene, with over-breathed air and over-charged emotion, that appeal rang out like a trumpet blast.
"It is to youth the divine message has come in all ages; the call to martyrdom and dedication. 'Suffer little children to come unto me,' said the inspired Founder of Christianity. So also I say in this time of revival, suffer the young to fling themselves into the arms of the Mother. My sons, she cries, go back to the Vedas. You will find all wisdom there. Reject this alien gift—however finely gilded—of a civilisation inferior to your own. Hindu Rishis were old in wisdom when these were still unclothed savages coloured with blue paint. Shall the sacred Motherland be inoculated with Western poison? It is for the young to decide—to act. Nerve your arms with valour. Bring offerings acceptable, to the shrine of Kali Mai. Does she demand a sheep? A buffalo? A cocoanut? Ask yourselves. The answer is written in your hearts——"
His emaciated arms shot up and outward in a gesture the more impressive because it was maintained. For a prolonged moment the holy one seemed to hover above his audience—as it were an eagle poised on outspread wings....
Roy came to himself with a start. His friend the policeman had plucked his sleeve; and they retreated a step or two through the open door.
"The Sahib heard?" queried Man Singh in cautious undertone.
"There's hearing—and hearing," said Roy, aware of some cryptic message given and understood. "I take it they all know what he's driving at."
"True talk. They know. But he has not said. Therefore he goes in safety when he should be picking oakum in the jail khana. They are cunning as serpents these holy ones."
"They have the gift of tongues," said Roy. "May one ask what is Mai Kali's special taste in sacrifices?"
The Sikh gave him an odd look. "The blood of white goats—meaning Sahibs, Hazur."—Roy's 'click' was Oriental to a nicety.—"'A white goat for Kali' is an old Bengali catchword. Hark how their tongues wag. But there is still another—much esteemed by the student-log; one who can skilfully flavour a pillau of learned talk, as the Swami can flavour a pillau of religion. Where he comes, there will be trouble afterwards, and arrests. But no Siri Chandranath. He is off making trouble elsewhere."
"Chandranath—here?" Roy's heart gave a jerk, half excitement, half apprehension.
"Your Honour has heard the man?"
"No. I'm glad of the chance."
As they entered, the second speaker stepped on to the platform....
True talk, indeed! There stood the boy who had whimpered under Scab Major's bullying, in the dark coat and turban of the educated Indian; his back half turned, in confidential talk with a friend, who had set a carafe and tumbler ready to hand. The light of a wall lamp shone full on his friend's face—clean-cut, handsome, unmistakable....
Dyan! Dyan—and Chandranath! It was the conjunction that confounded Roy and tinged elation with dismay. He could hardly contain himself till Dyan joined the audience; standing a little apart; not taking a seat. Something in his face reminded Roy of the strained fervour in his letter to Aruna. Carefully careless, he edged his way through the outer fringe of the audience, and volunteered a remark or two in Hindustani.
"A full meeting, brother. Your friend speaks well?"
Dyan turned with a start. "Where are you from, that you have not heard him?" He scrutinised Roy's appearance. "A hill man——?"
Roy edged nearer and spoke in English under his breath. "Dyan—look at me. Don't make a scene. I am Roy—from Jaipur."
In spite of the warning, Dyan drew back sharply. "What are you here for—spying?"
"No. Hoping to find you. Because—I care; and Aruna cares——"
"Better to care less and understand more," Dyan muttered brusquely. "No time for talk now. Listen. You may learn a few things Oxford could not teach."
The implied sneer enraged Roy; but listen he must, perforce: and in the space of half an hour he learnt a good deal about Chandranath and the mentality of his type.
To the outer ear, he was propounding the popular modern doctrine of 'Yoga by action.' To the inner ear he was extolling passion and rebellion in terms of a creed that enjoins detachment from both; inciting to political murder, under sanction of the divine dictum, 'Who kills the body kills naught ... Thy concern is with action alone, never with results.' And his heady flights of rhetoric, like those of the Swami, were frankly aimed at the scores of half-fledged youths who hung upon his utterance.
"What are the first words of the young child? What are the first words in your own hearts?" he cried, indicating that organ with a dramatic forefinger. "I want! It is the passionate cry of youth. By indomitably uttering it, he can dislodge mountains into the sea. And in India to-day there exist mountains necessary to be hurled into the sea!" His significant pause was not lost on his hearers—or on Roy. "'Many-branched and endless are the thoughts of the irresolute.' But to him who cries ardently, 'I want,' there is no impediment, except paucity of courage to snatch the seductive object. Deaf to the anaemic whisper of compunction, remembering that sin taints only the weak, he will be translated to that dizzy eminence, where right and wrong, truth and untruth, become as pigmies, hardly discerned by the naked eye. There dwells Kali—the shameless and pitiless; and believing our country that deity incarnate, her needs must be our gods. 'Her image make we in temple after temple—Bande Mataram?'" The invocation was flung back to him in a ragged shout. Here and there a student leapt to his feet brandishing a clenched fist. "Compose your laudable intoxication, brothers. I do not say, 'Be violent.' There is a necromancy of the spirit more potent than weapons of the flesh:—the delusion of irresistible suggestion that will conquer even truth itself...."
Abstraction piled on abstraction; perversion on perversion; and that deluded crowd plainly swallowing it all as gospel truth——! To Roy the whole exhibition was purely disgustful; as if the man had emptied a dust-bin under his aristocratic nose. Once or twice he glanced covertly at Dyan, standing beside him; at the strained intentness of his face, the nervous clenched hand. Was this the same Dyan who had ridden and argued and read 'Greats' with him only four years ago—this hypnotised being who seemed to have forgotten his existence——?
Thank God! At last it was over! But while applause hummed and fluttered, there sprang on to the platform, unannounced, a wiry keen-faced man, with the parted beard of a Sikh.
"Brothers—I demand a hearing!" he cried aloud; "I who was formerly hater of the British, preaching all manner of violence—I have been three years detained in Germany; and I come back now, with my eyes open, to say all over India—cease your fool's talk about self-government and tossing mountains into the sea! Cease making yourselves drunk with words and waving your Vedic flags and stand by the British—your true friends——"
At that, cries and counter-cries drowned his voice. Books were hurled; no other weapon being handy; and Roy noted, with amused contempt, that Chandranath hastily disappeared from view.
The Sikh laughed in the face of their opposition. Dexterously catching a book, he hurled it back; and once more made his strong voice heard above the clamour. "Fools—and sheep! You may stop your ears now. In the end I will make you hear——"
Shouted down again, he vanished through a side exit; and, in the turmoil that followed, Roy's hand closed securely on Dyan's arm. Throughout the stormy interlude, he had stood rigidly still: a pained, puzzled frown contracting his brows. Yet it was plain he would have slipped away without a word, but for Roy's detaining grasp.
"You don't go running off—now I've found you," said he good-humouredly. "I've things to say. Come along to my place and hear them."
Dyan jerked his imprisoned arm. "Very sorry. I have—important duties."
"To-morrow night then? I'm lodging with Krishna Lal. And—look here, don't mention me to your friend the philosopher! I know more about him than you might suppose. If you still care a damn for me—and the others, do what I ask—and keep your mouth shut——"
Dyan's frown was hostile; but his voice was low and troubled. "For God's sake leave me alone, Roy. Of course—I care. But that kind of caring is carnal weakness. We, who are dedicated, must rise above such weakness, above pity and slave-morality, giving all to the Mother——"
"Dyan—have you forgotten—my mother?" Roy pressed his advantage in the same low tone.
"No. Impossible. She was Devi—Goddess; loveliest and kindest——"
"Well, in her name, I ask you—come to-morrow evening and have a talk."
Dyan was silent; then, for the first time, he looked Roy straight in the eyes. "In her name—I will come. Now let me go."
Roy let him go. He had achieved little enough. But for a start it was not so bad.
[Footnote 16: An Indian dish.]
"When we have fallen through storey after storey of our vanity and aspiration, it is then that we begin to measure the stature of our friends."—R.L.S.
Next evening Dyan arrived. He stayed for an hour, and did most of the talking. But his unnatural volubility suggested disturbance deep down.
Only once Roy had a glimpse of the true Dyan, when he presented Aruna's 'prasad,' consecrated by her touch. In silence Dyan set it on the table; and reverently touched, with his finger-tips, first the small parcel, then his own forehead.
"Aruna—sister," he said on an under breath. But he would not be drawn into talking of her, of his grandfather, or of home affairs: and his abrupt departure left Roy with a maddening sense of frustration.
He lay awake half the night; and reached certain conclusions that atoned for a violent headache next morning. First and best—Dyan was not a genuine convert. All this ferment and froth did not spell reasoned conviction. He was simply ensnared; his finer nature warped by the 'delusion of irresistible suggestion,' deadlier than any weapon of War. His fanatical loyalty savoured of obsession. So much the better. An obsession could be pricked like an air-ball with the right weapon at the right moment. That, as Roy saw it, was his task:—in effect, a ghostly duel between himself and Chandranath for the soul of Dyan Singh; and the fate of Aruna virtually hung on the issue.
Should he succeed, Chandranath would doubtless guess at his share in Dyan's defection; and few men care about courting the enmity of the unscrupulous. That is the secret power behind the forces of anarchy, above all in India, where social and spiritual boycott can virtually slay a man without shedding of blood. For himself, Roy decided the game was worth the candle. The question remained—how far that natural shrinking might affect Dyan? And again—how much did he know of Chandranath's designs on Aruna?
Roy decided to spring the truth on him next time—and note the effect. Dyan had said he would come again one evening; and—sooner than Roy expected—he came. Again he was abnormally voluble, as if holding his cousin at arm's length by italicising his own fanatical fervour, till Roy's impatience subsided into weariness and he palpably stifled a yawn.
Dyan, detecting him, stopped dead, with a pained, puzzled look that went to Roy's heart. For he loved the real Dyan, even while he was bored to extinction with the semi-religious verbiage that poured from him like water from a jug.
"Awfully sorry," he apologised frankly. "But I've been over-dosed with that sort of stuff lately; and I'm damned if I can swallow it like you do. Yet I'm dead keen for India to have the best, all round, that she's capable of digesting—yet. So's Grandfather. You can't deny it."
Dyan frowned irritably. "Grandfather's prejudiced and old-fashioned."
"He's longer-sighted than most of your voluble friends. He doesn't rhapsodise. He knows.—But I'm not old-fashioned. Nor is Aruna."
"No, poor child; only England-infatuated. She is unwise not taking this chance of an educated husband——"
"And such a husband!" Roy struck in so sharply that Dyan stared open-mouthed.
"How the devil can you know?"
"And how the devil can you not know," countered Roy, "when it's your precious paragon—Chandranath."
He scored his point clean and true. "Chandranath!" Dyan echoed blankly, staring into the fire.
Roy said nothing; simply let the fact sink in. Then, having dealt the blow, he proffered a crumb of consolation, "Perhaps he prefers to keep quiet till he's pulled it off. But I warn you, if he persists, I shall put every feasible spoke in his wheel."
Dyan faced him squarely. "You seem very intimate with our affairs. Who told you this?"
"You are also very intimate—with her."
"As she has lost her brother, her natural protector, I do what I can—to make up."
Dyan winced and stole a look at him. "Why not make up for still greater lack—and marry her yourself?"
It was he who hit the mark this time. Roy's blood tingled; but voice and eyes were under control.
"I've only been there a few weeks. The question has not arisen."
"Your true meaning is—it could not arise. They were glad enough for her service in England; but whatever her service, or her loving, she must not marry an Englishman, even with the blood of India in his veins. That is our reward—both——"
It was the fierce bitter Dyan of that long ago afternoon in New College Lane. But Roy was too angry on his own account to heed. He rose abruptly.
"I'll trouble you not to talk like that."
Dyan rose also, confronting him. "I must say what is in mind—or go. Better accept the fact—it is useless to meet."
"I refuse to accept the fact."
"But—there it is. I only make you angry. And you imply evil of the man—I admire."
He so plainly boggled over the words that Roy struck without hesitation.
"Dyan, tell me straight—do you admire him? Would you have Aruna marry him?"
"N—no. Impossible. There is—another kind of wife," he blurted out, averting his eyes; but before Roy could speak, he had pulled himself together. "However—I mustn't stay talking. Good-night."
Roy's anger—fierce but transient, always—had faded. "There are some ties you can't break, Dyan, even with your Bande Mataram. Come again soon."
Impossible to resist the friendly tone. "But," he asked, "how long are you hanging about Delhi like this?"
"As long as I choose."
"To see something of you, old chap. It seems the only way—unless I can persuade you to chuck all this poisonous vapouring, and come back to Jaipur with me. Aruna's waiting—breaking her heart—longing to see you...."
He knew he was rushing his fences; but the mood was on; the chance too good to lose.
Dyan's eyes lightened a moment. Then he shook his head. "I am too much involved."
"You will come, though, in the end," Roy said quietly. "I can wait. Sunday, is it? And we'll bar politics—as we did in the good days. Don't you want to hear of them all at Home?"
"Sometimes—yes. But perhaps—better not. You are a fine fellow, Roy—even to quarrel with. Good-night." They shook hands warmly.
On the threshold, Dyan turned, hesitated; then—in a hurried murmur—asked: "Where is she—what's she doing now ... Tara?"
He was obviously unaware of having used her name: and Roy, though startled, gave no sign.
"She's still in Serbia. She's been simply splendid. Head over ears in it all from the start."—He paused—"Shall I tell her—when I write ... about you?"
Dyan shrugged his shoulders. "Waste of ink and paper. It would not interest her."
"It would. I know Tara. What you are doing now would hurt her—keenly."
"Tcha!" The sharp sound expressed sheer unbelief. It also expressed pain. "Good-night," he added, for the third time; and went out—leaving Roy electrified; a-tingle with the hope of success at last.
Tara was not forgotten; though Dyan had been trying to pretend she was—even to himself. Ten chances to one, she was still at the core everything; even his present incongruous activities....
Roy paced the room; his imagination alight; his own recoil from the conjunction, overborne by immediate concern for Dyan. Unable to forget her—who could?—he had thrust the pain of remembering into the dark background of his mind; and there it remained—a hard knot of soreness and bitterness—as Aruna had said. And all that bottled-up bitterness had been vented against England—an unconscious symbol of Tara, desired yet withheld; while the intensity of his thwarted passion sought and found an outlet in fervent adoration of his country visualised as woman.
Right or wrong—that was how Roy saw it. And the argument seemed psychologically sound. Cruel to be kind, he must touch the point of pain; draw the hidden thing into the open; and so reawaken the old Dyan, who could arraign the new one far more effectually than could Roy himself or another. Seized with his idea, he indulged in a more hopeful letter to Aruna; and had scarcely patience to wait for Sunday.
* * * * *
In leisurely course it arrived—that last Sunday of the Great War. The Chandni Chowk was a-bubble with strange and stirring rumours; but the day waned and the evening waned—and no Dyan appeared.
On Monday morning—still no word: but news, so tremendous, flashed half across the world, that Dyan and his mysterious defection flickered like a match at midday.
The War was over—virtually over. From the Vosges to the sea, not the crack of a rifle nor the moan of a shell; only an abrupt, dramatic silence—the end! Belief in the utter cessation of all that wonderful and terrible activity, penetrated slowly. And as it penetrated Roy realised, with something like dismay, that the right and natural sense of elation simply was not. He actually felt depressed. Shrink as he might from the jar of conflict, the sure instinct of a soldier race warned him that hell holds no fury and earth no danger like a ruthless enemy not decisively smitten. The psychology of it was beyond him—shrouded in mystery.
Not till long afterwards did he know how many, in England and Prance, had shared his bewildered feeling; how British soldiers in Belgium had cried like children, had raged almost to the point of mutiny. But one thing he knew—steeped as he was in the sub-strata of Eastern thought and feeling. India would never understand. Visible, spectacular victory, alone could impress the East: and such an impression might have counteracted many mistakes that had gone before....
Tuesday brought no Dyan; only a scrawled note: "Sorry—too much business. Can't come just now." If one could take that at its face value——! But it might mean anything. Had Chandranath found out—and had Dyan not the moral courage to go his own way?
He knew by now where his cousin lodged; but had never been there. It was in one of the oldest parts of the city; alive with political intrigue. If Roy's nationality were suspected, 'things' might happen, and it was clearly unfair on his father to run needless risks. But this was different. 'Things' might be happening to Dyan.
So, after nearly a week of maddening suspense, he resolved—with all due caution—to take his chance.
* * * * *
A silvery twilight was ebbing from the sky when he plunged into a maze of narrow streets and by-lanes where the stream of Eastern life flows along immemorial channels scarcely stirred by surface eddies of 'advance.'
Threading his way through the crowd, he found the street and the landmark he sought: a doorway, adorned with a faded wreath of marigolds, indication of some holy presence within; and just beyond it, a low-browed arch, almost a tunnel. It passed under balconied houses toppling perilously forward; and as Roy entered it, a figure darkened the other end. He could only distinguish the long dark coat and turbaned head: but there flashed instant conviction—Chandranath!
Alert, rather than alarmed, he hurried forward, hugging the opposite wall. At the darkest point they crossed. Roy felt the other pause, scrutinise him—and pass on. The relief of it! And the ignominy of suddenly feeling the old childish terror, when you had turned your back on a dark room. It was all he could do not to break into a run....
In the open court, set round with tottering houses, a sacred neem tree made a vast patch of shadow. Near it, a rickety staircase led up to Dyan's roof room. Roy, mounting cautiously, knocked at the highest door.
"Are you there? It's Roy," he called softly.
A pause:—then the door flew open and Dyan stood before him, in loose white garments; no turban; a farouche look in his eyes.
"My God—Roy! Crazy of you! I never thought——"
"Well, I got sick of waiting. I suppose I can come in?" Roy's impatience was the measure of his relief.
Dyan moved back a pace, and, as Roy stepped on to the roof, he carefully closed the door.
"Think—if you had come three minutes earlier! He only left me just now—Chandranath."
"And passed me in the archway," added Roy with his touch of bravado. "I've as much right to be in Delhi—and to vary my costume—as your mysteriously potent friend. It's a free country."
"It is fast becoming—not so free." Dyan lowered his voice, as if afraid he might be overheard. "And you don't consider the trouble it might make—for me."
"How about the trouble you've been making for me? What's wrong?"
Dyan passed a nervous hand across his eyes and forehead. "Come in. It's getting cold out here," he said, in a repressed voice. Roy followed him across the roof top, with its low parapet and vault of darkening sky, up three steps, into an arcaded room, where a log fire burned in the open hearth. Shabby, unrelated bits of furniture gave the place a comfortless air. On a corner table strewn with leaflets and pamphlets ("Poisoned arrows, up to date!" thought Roy), a typewriter reared its hooded head. The sight struck a shaft of pain through him. Aruna's Dyan—son of kings and warriors—turning his one skilful hand to such base uses!
"What's wrong?" he repeated with emphasis. "I want a straight answer, Dyan. I've risked something to get it."