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THE HUNGRY STONES AND OTHER STORIES
By Rabindranath Tagore
Contents:
The Hungry Stones
The Victory
Once There Was A King
The Home-coming
My Lord, The Baby
The Kingdom Of Cards
The Devotee
Vision
The Babus Of Nayanjore
Living Or Dead?
"We Crown Thee King"
The Renunciation
The Cabuliwallah [The Fruitseller from Cabul]
Preface:
The stories contained in this volume were translated by several hands.
The version of The Victory is the author's own work. The seven stories
which follow were translated by Mr. C. F. Andrews, with the help of
the author's help. Assistance has also been given by the Rev. E.
J. Thompson, Panna Lal Basu, Prabhat Kumar Mukerjii, and the Sister
Nivedita.
THE HUNGRY STONES
My kinsman and myself were returning to Calcutta from our Puja trip when
we met the man in a train. From his dress and bearing we took him at
first for an up-country Mahomedan, but we were puzzled as we heard him
talk. He discoursed upon all subjects so confidently that you might
think the Disposer of All Things consulted him at all times in all that
He did. Hitherto we had been perfectly happy, as we did not know
that secret and unheard-of forces were at work, that the Russians had
advanced close to us, that the English had deep and secret policies,
that confusion among the native chiefs had come to a head. But our
newly-acquired friend said with a sly smile: "There happen more things
in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are reported in your newspapers." As
we had never stirred out of our homes before, the demeanour of the man
struck us dumb with wonder. Be the topic ever so trivial, he would quote
science, or comment on the Vedas, or repeat quatrains from some Persian
poet; and as we had no pretence to a knowledge of science or the Vedas
or Persian, our admiration for him went on increasing, and my kinsman,
a theosophist, was firmly convinced that our fellow-passenger must
have been supernaturally inspired by some strange "magnetism" or "occult
power," by an "astral body" or something of that kind. He listened
to the tritest saying that fell from the lips of our extraordinary
companion with devotional rapture, and secretly took down notes of his
conversation. I fancy that the extraordinary man saw this, and was a
little pleased with it.
When the train reached the junction, we assembled in the waiting room
for the connection. It was then 10 P.M., and as the train, we heard, was
likely to be very late, owing to something wrong in the lines, I spread
my bed on the table and was about to lie down for a comfortable doze,
when the extraordinary person deliberately set about spinning the
following yarn. Of course, I could get no sleep that night.
When, owing to a disagreement about some questions of administrative
policy, I threw up my post at Junagarh, and entered the service of
the Nizam of Hydria, they appointed me at once, as a strong young man,
collector of cotton duties at Barich.
Barich is a lovely place. The Susta "chatters over stony ways and
babbles on the pebbles," tripping, like a skilful dancing girl, in
through the woods below the lonely hills. A flight of 150 steps rises
from the river, and above that flight, on the river's brim and at the
foot of the hills, there stands a solitary marble palace. Around it
there is no habitation of man--the village and the cotton mart of Barich
being far off.
About 250 years ago the Emperor Mahmud Shah II. had built this lonely
palace for his pleasure and luxury. In his days jets of rose-water
spurted from its fountains, and on the cold marble floors of its
spray-cooled rooms young Persian damsels would sit, their hair
dishevelled before bathing, and, splashing their soft naked feet in the
clear water of the reservoirs, would sing, to the tune of the guitar,
the ghazals of their vineyards.
The fountains play no longer; the songs have ceased; no longer do
snow-white feet step gracefully on the snowy marble. It is but the vast
and solitary quarters of cess-collectors like us, men oppressed with
solitude and deprived of the society of women. Now, Karim Khan, the old
clerk of my office, warned me repeatedly not to take up my abode there.
"Pass the day there, if you like," said he, "but never stay the night."
I passed it off with a light laugh. The servants said that they would
work till dark and go away at night. I gave my ready assent. The house
had such a bad name that even thieves would not venture near it after
dark.
At first the solitude of the deserted palace weighed upon me like a
nightmare. I would stay out, and work hard as long as possible, then
return home at night jaded and tired, go to bed and fall asleep.
Before a week had passed, the place began to exert a weird fascination
upon me. It is difficult to describe or to induce people to believe;
but I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and
imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric
juice.
Perhaps the process had begun as soon as I set my foot in the house, but
I distinctly remember the day on which I first was conscious of it.
It was the beginning of summer, and the market being dull I had no work
to do. A little before sunset I was sitting in an arm-chair near the
water's edge below the steps. The Susta had shrunk and sunk low; a broad
patch of sand on the other side glowed with the hues of evening; on
this side the pebbles at the bottom of the clear shallow waters were
glistening. There was not a breath of wind anywhere, and the still air
was laden with an oppressive scent from the spicy shrubs growing on the
hills close by.
As the sun sank behind the hill-tops a long dark curtain fell upon the
stage of day, and the intervening hills cut short the time in which
light and shade mingle at sunset. I thought of going out for a ride,
and was about to get up when I heard a footfall on the steps behind. I
looked back, but there was no one.
As I sat down again, thinking it to be an illusion, I heard many
footfalls, as if a large number of persons were rushing down the steps.
A strange thrill of delight, slightly tinged with fear, passed through
my frame, and though there was not a figure before my eyes, methought I
saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta
in that summer evening. Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or
in the palace, to break the silence, but I distinctly heard the maidens'
gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a
hundred cascades, as they ran past me, in quick playful pursuit of
each other, towards the river, without noticing me at all. As they were
invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them. The river was
perfectly calm, but I felt that its still, shallow, and clear waters
were stirred suddenly by the splash of many an arm jingling with
bracelets, that the girls laughed and dashed and spattered water at one
another, that the feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in
showers of pearl.
I felt a thrill at my heart--I cannot say whether the excitement was due
to fear or delight or curiosity. I had a strong desire to see them more
clearly, but naught was visible before me; I thought I could catch all
that they said if I only strained my ears; but however hard I strained
them, I heard nothing but the chirping of the cicadas in the woods. It
seemed as if a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I
would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through, though the
assembly on the other side was completely enveloped in darkness.
The oppressive closeness of the evening was broken by a sudden gust of
wind, and the still surface of the Suista rippled and curled like the
hair of a nymph, and from the woods wrapt in the evening gloom there
came forth a simultaneous murmur, as though they were awakening from
a black dream. Call it reality or dream, the momentary glimpse of that
invisible mirage reflected from a far-off world, 250 years old, vanished
in a flash. The mystic forms that brushed past me with their quick
unbodied steps, and loud, voiceless laughter, and threw themselves into
the river, did not go back wringing their dripping robes as they went.
Like fragrance wafted away by the wind they were dispersed by a single
breath of the spring.
Then I was filled with a lively fear that it was the Muse that had taken
advantage of my solitude and possessed me--the witch had evidently come
to ruin a poor devil like myself making a living by collecting cotton
duties. I decided to have a good dinner--it is the empty stomach that
all sorts of incurable diseases find an easy prey. I sent for my cook
and gave orders for a rich, sumptuous moghlai dinner, redolent of spices
and ghi.
Next morning the whole affair appeared a queer fantasy. With a light
heart I put on a sola hat like the sahebs, and drove out to my work. I
was to have written my quarterly report that day, and expected to return
late; but before it was dark I was strangely drawn to my house--by what
I could not say--I felt they were all waiting, and that I should delay
no longer. Leaving my report unfinished I rose, put on my sola hat, and
startling the dark, shady, desolate path with the rattle of my carriage,
I reached the vast silent palace standing on the gloomy skirts of the
hills.
On the first floor the stairs led to a very spacious hall, its roof
stretching wide over ornamental arches resting on three rows of massive
pillars, and groaning day and night under the weight of its own intense
solitude. The day had just closed, and the lamps had not yet been
lighted. As I pushed the door open a great bustle seemed to follow
within, as if a throng of people had broken up in confusion, and rushed
out through the doors and windows and corridors and verandas and rooms,
to make its hurried escape.
As I saw no one I stood bewildered, my hair on end in a kind of ecstatic
delight, and a faint scent of attar and unguents almost effected by age
lingered in my nostrils. Standing in the darkness of that vast desolate
hall between the rows of those ancient pillars, I could hear the gurgle
of fountains plashing on the marble floor, a strange tune on the guitar,
the jingle of ornaments and the tinkle of anklets, the clang of bells
tolling the hours, the distant note of nahabat, the din of the crystal
pendants of chandeliers shaken by the breeze, the song of bulbuls from
the cages in the corridors, the cackle of storks in the gardens, all
creating round me a strange unearthly music.
Then I came under such a spell that this intangible, inaccessible,
unearthly vision appeared to be the only reality in the world--and all
else a mere dream. That I, that is to say, Srijut So-and-so, the eldest
son of So-and-so of blessed memory, should be drawing a monthly salary
of Rs. 450 by the discharge of my duties as collector of cotton duties,
and driving in my dog-cart to my office every day in a short coat and
soia hat, appeared to me to be such an astonishingly ludicrous illusion
that I burst into a horse-laugh, as I stood in the gloom of that vast
silent hall.
At that moment my servant entered with a lighted kerosene lamp in his
hand. I do not know whether he thought me mad, but it came back to me
at once that I was in very deed Srijut So-and-so, son of So-and-so of
blessed memory, and that, while our poets, great and small, alone could
say whether inside of or outside the earth there was a region where
unseen fountains perpetually played and fairy guitars, struck by
invisible fingers, sent forth an eternal harmony, this at any rate was
certain, that I collected duties at the cotton market at Banch, and
earned thereby Rs. 450 per mensem as my salary. I laughed in great glee
at my curious illusion, as I sat over the newspaper at my camp-table,
lighted by the kerosene lamp.
After I had finished my paper and eaten my moghlai dinner, I put out
the lamp, and lay down on my bed in a small side-room. Through the
open window a radiant star, high above the Avalli hills skirted by the
darkness of their woods, was gazing intently from millions and
millions of miles away in the sky at Mr. Collector lying on a humble
camp-bedstead. I wondered and felt amused at the idea, and do not knew
when I fell asleep or how long I slept; but I suddenly awoke with a
start, though I heard no sound and saw no intruder--only the steady
bright star on the hilltop had set, and the dim light of the new moon
was stealthily entering the room through the open window, as if ashamed
of its intrusion.
I saw nobody, but felt as if some one was gently pushing me. As I awoke
she said not a word, but beckoned me with her five fingers bedecked with
rings to follow her cautiously. I got up noiselessly, and, though not a
soul save myself was there in the countless apartments of that deserted
palace with its slumbering sounds and waiting echoes, I feared at every
step lest any one should wake up. Most of the rooms of the palace were
always kept closed, and I had never entered them.
I followed breathless and with silent steps my invisible guide--I
cannot now say where. What endless dark and narrow passages, what long
corridors, what silent and solemn audience-chambers and close secret
cells I crossed!
Though I could not see my fair guide, her form was not invisible to my
mind's eye,--an Arab girl, her arms, hard and smooth as marble, visible
through her loose sleeves, a thin veil falling on her face from the
fringe of her cap, and a curved dagger at her waist! Methought that one
of the thousand and one Arabian Nights had been wafted to me from the
world of romance, and that at the dead of night I was wending my way
through the dark narrow alleys of slumbering Bagdad to a trysting-place
fraught with peril.
At last my fair guide stopped abruptly before a deep blue screen, and
seemed to point to something below. There was nothing there, but a
sudden dread froze the blood in my heart-methought I saw there on the
floor at the foot of the screen a terrible negro eunuch dressed in rich
brocade, sitting and dozing with outstretched legs, with a naked sword
on his lap. My fair guide lightly tripped over his legs and held up
a fringe of the screen. I could catch a glimpse of a part of the room
spread with a Persian carpet--some one was sitting inside on a bed--I
could not see her, but only caught a glimpse of two exquisite feet
in gold-embroidered slippers, hanging out from loose saffron-coloured
paijamas and placed idly on the orange-coloured velvet carpet. On one
side there was a bluish crystal tray on which a few apples, pears,
oranges, and bunches of grapes in plenty, two small cups and a
gold-tinted decanter were evidently waiting the guest. A fragrant
intoxicating vapour, issuing from a strange sort of incense that burned
within, almost overpowered my senses.
As with trembling heart I made an attempt to step across the
outstretched legs of the eunuch, he woke up suddenly with a start, and
the sword fell from his lap with a sharp clang on the marble floor.
A terrific scream made me jump, and I saw I was sitting on that
camp-bedstead of mine sweating heavily; and the crescent moon looked
pale in the morning light like a weary sleepless patient at dawn; and
our crazy Meher Ali was crying out, as is his daily custom, "Stand back!
Stand back!!" while he went along the lonely road.
Such was the abrupt close of one of my Arabian Nights; but there were
yet a thousand nights left.
Then followed a great discord between my days and nights. During the day
I would go to my work worn and tired, cursing the bewitching night and
her empty dreams, but as night came my daily life with its bonds and
shackles of work would appear a petty, false, ludicrous vanity.
After nightfall I was caught and overwhelmed in the snare of a strange
intoxication, I would then be transformed into some unknown personage of
a bygone age, playing my part in unwritten history; and my short English
coat and tight breeches did not suit me in the least. With a red velvet
cap on my head, loose paijamas, an embroidered vest, a long flowing silk
gown, and coloured handkerchiefs scented with attar, I would complete
my elaborate toilet, sit on a high-cushioned chair, and replace my
cigarette with a many-coiled narghileh filled with rose-water, as if in
eager expectation of a strange meeting with the beloved one.
I have no power to describe the marvellous incidents that unfolded
themselves, as the gloom of the night deepened. I felt as if in the
curious apartments of that vast edifice the fragments of a beautiful
story, which I could follow for some distance, but of which I could
never see the end, flew about in a sudden gust of the vernal breeze.
And all the same I would wander from room to room in pursuit of them the
whole night long.
Amid the eddy of these dream-fragments, amid the smell of henna and
the twanging of the guitar, amid the waves of air charged with fragrant
spray, I would catch like a flash of lightning the momentary glimpse of
a fair damsel. She it was who had saffron-coloured paijamas, white ruddy
soft feet in gold-embroidered slippers with curved toes, a close-fitting
bodice wrought with gold, a red cap, from which a golden frill fell on
her snowy brow and cheeks.
She had maddened me. In pursuit of her I wandered from room to room,
from path to path among the bewildering maze of alleys in the enchanted
dreamland of the nether world of sleep.
Sometimes in the evening, while arraying myself carefully as a prince of
the blood-royal before a large mirror, with a candle burning on either
side, I would see a sudden reflection of the Persian beauty by the side
of my own. A swift turn of her neck, a quick eager glance of intense
passion and pain glowing in her large dark eyes, just a suspicion of
speech on her dainty red lips, her figure, fair and slim crowned with
youth like a blossoming creeper, quickly uplifted in her graceful
tilting gait, a dazzling flash of pain and craving and ecstasy, a smile
and a glance and a blaze of jewels and silk, and she melted away. A wild
glist of wind, laden with all the fragrance of hills and woods, would
put out my light, and I would fling aside my dress and lie down on my
bed, my eyes closed and my body thrilling with delight, and there around
me in the breeze, amid all the perfume of the woods and hills, floated
through the silent gloom many a caress and many a kiss and many a tender
touch of hands, and gentle murmurs in my ears, and fragrant breaths on
my brow; or a sweetly-perfumed kerchief was wafted again and again on
my cheeks. Then slowly a mysterious serpent would twist her stupefying
coils about me; and heaving a heavy sigh, I would lapse into
insensibility, and then into a profound slumber.
One evening I decided to go out on my horse--I do not know who implored
me to stay-but I would listen to no entreaties that day. My English hat
and coat were resting on a rack, and I was about to take them down when
a sudden whirlwind, crested with the sands of the Susta and the dead
leaves of the Avalli hills, caught them up, and whirled them round
and round, while a loud peal of merry laughter rose higher and higher,
striking all the chords of mirth till it died away in the land of
sunset.
I could not go out for my ride, and the next day I gave up my queer
English coat and hat for good.
That day again at dead of night I heard the stifled heart-breaking
sobs of some one--as if below the bed, below the floor, below the stony
foundation of that gigantic palace, from the depths of a dark damp
grave, a voice piteously cried and implored me: "Oh, rescue me! Break
through these doors of hard illusion, deathlike slumber and fruitless
dreams, place by your side on the saddle, press me to your heart, and,
riding through hills and woods and across the river, take me to the warm
radiance of your sunny rooms above!"
Who am I? Oh, how can I rescue thee? What drowning beauty, what
incarnate passion shall I drag to the shore from this wild eddy of
dreams? O lovely ethereal apparition! Where didst thou flourish and
when? By what cool spring, under the shade of what date-groves, wast
thou born--in the lap of what homeless wanderer in the desert? What
Bedouin snatched thee from thy mother's arms, an opening bud plucked
from a wild creeper, placed thee on a horse swift as lightning, crossed
the burning sands, and took thee to the slave-market of what royal city?
And there, what officer of the Badshah, seeing the glory of thy bashful
blossoming youth, paid for thee in gold, placed thee in a golden
palanquin, and offered thee as a present for the seraglio of his master?
And O, the history of that place! The music of the sareng, the jingle of
anklets, the occasional flash of daggers and the glowing wine of Shiraz
poison, and the piercing flashing glance! What infinite grandeur, what
endless servitude!
The slave-girls to thy right and left waved the chamar as diamonds
flashed from their bracelets; the Badshah, the king of kings, fell
on his knees at thy snowy feet in bejewelled shoes, and outside the
terrible Abyssinian eunuch, looking like a messenger of death, but
clothed like an angel, stood with a naked sword in his hand! Then, O,
thou flower of the desert, swept away by the blood-stained dazzling
ocean of grandeur, with its foam of jealousy, its rocks and shoals of
intrigue, on what shore of cruel death wast thou cast, or in what other
land more splendid and more cruel?
Suddenly at this moment that crazy Meher Ali screamed out: "Stand back!
Stand back!! All is false! All is false!!" I opened my eyes and saw that
it was already light. My chaprasi came and handed me my letters, and the
cook waited with a salam for my orders.
I said; "No, I can stay here no longer." That very day I packed up, and
moved to my office. Old Karim Khan smiled a little as he saw me. I felt
nettled, but said nothing, and fell to my work.
As evening approached I grew absent-minded; I felt as if I had an
appointment to keep; and the work of examining the cotton accounts
seemed wholly useless; even the Nizamat of the Nizam did not appear to
be of much worth. Whatever belonged to the present, whatever was moving
and acting and working for bread seemed trivial, meaningless, and
contemptible.
I threw my pen down, closed my ledgers, got into my dog-cart, and drove
away. I noticed that it stopped of itself at the gate of the marble
palace just at the hour of twilight. With quick steps I climbed the
stairs, and entered the room.
A heavy silence was reigning within. The dark rooms were looking sullen
as if they had taken offence. My heart was full of contrition, but
there was no one to whom I could lay it bare, or of whom I could ask
forgiveness. I wandered about the dark rooms with a vacant mind. I
wished I had a guitar to which I could sing to the unknown: "O fire,
the poor moth that made a vain effort to fly away has come back to thee!
Forgive it but this once, burn its wings and consume it in thy flame!"
Suddenly two tear-drops fell from overhead on my brow. Dark masses of
clouds overcast the top of the Avalli hills that day. The gloomy woods
and the sooty waters of the Susta were waiting in terrible suspense and
in an ominous calm. Suddenly land, water, and sky shivered, and a wild
tempest-blast rushed howling through the distant pathless woods, showing
its lightning-teeth like a raving maniac who had broken his chains.
The desolate halls of the palace banged their doors, and moaned in the
bitterness of anguish.
The servants were all in the office, and there was no one to light the
lamps. The night was cloudy and moonless. In the dense gloom within I
could distinctly feel that a woman was lying on her face on the carpet
below the bed--clasping and tearing her long dishevelled hair with
desperate fingers. Blood was tricking down her fair brow, and she was
now laughing a hard, harsh, mirthless laugh, now bursting into violent
wringing sobs, now rending her bodice and striking at her bare bosom,
as the wind roared in through the open window, and the rain poured in
torrents and soaked her through and through.
All night there was no cessation of the storm or of the passionate cry.
I wandered from room to room in the dark, with unavailing sorrow. Whom
could I console when no one was by? Whose was this intense agony of
sorrow? Whence arose this inconsolable grief?
And the mad man cried out: "Stand back! Stand back!! All is false! All
is false!!"
I saw that the day had dawned, and Meher Ali was going round and round
the palace with his usual cry in that dreadful weather. Suddenly it
came to me that perhaps he also had once lived in that house, and that,
though he had gone mad, he came there every day, and went round and
round, fascinated by the weird spell cast by the marble demon.
Despite the storm and rain I ran to him and asked: "Ho, Meher Ali, what
is false?"
The man answered nothing, but pushing me aside went round and round
with his frantic cry, like a bird flying fascinated about the jaws of a
snake, and made a desperate effort to warn himself by repeating: "Stand
back! Stand back!! All is false! All is false!!"
I ran like a mad man through the pelting rain to my office, and asked
Karim Khan: "Tell me the meaning of all this!"
What I gathered from that old man was this: That at one time countless
unrequited passions and unsatisfied longings and lurid flames of wild
blazing pleasure raged within that palace, and that the curse of all
the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and
hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who
might chance to approach. Not one of those who lived there for three
consecutive nights could escape these cruel jaws, save Meher Ali, who
had escaped at the cost of his reason.
I asked: "Is there no means whatever of my release?" The old man said:
"There is only one means, and that is very difficult. I will tell you
what it is, but first you must hear the history of a young Persian girl
who once lived in that pleasure-dome. A stranger or a more bitterly
heart-rending tragedy was never enacted on this earth."
Just at this moment the coolies announced that the train was coming.
So soon? We hurriedly packed up our luggage, as the tram steamed in. An
English gentleman, apparently just aroused from slumber, was looking out
of a first-class carriage endeavouring to read the name of the station.
As soon as he caught sight of our fellow-passenger, he cried, "Hallo,"
and took him into his own compartment. As we got into a second-class
carriage, we had no chance of finding out who the man was nor what was
the end of his story.
I said; "The man evidently took us for fools and imposed upon us out of
fun. The story is pure fabrication from start to finish." The discussion
that followed ended in a lifelong rupture between my theosophist kinsman
and myself.
THE VICTORY
She was the Princess Ajita. And the court poet of King Narayan had never
seen her. On the day he recited a new poem to the king he would raise
his voice just to that pitch which could be heard by unseen hearers in
the screened balcony high above the hall. He sent up his song towards
the star-land out of his reach, where, circled with light, the planet
who ruled his destiny shone unknown and out of ken.
He would espy some shadow moving behind the veil. A tinkling sound would
come to his car from afar, and would set him dreaming of the ankles
whose tiny golden bells sang at each step. Ah, the rosy red tender feet
that walked the dust of the earth like God's mercy on the fallen! The
poet had placed them on the altar of his heart, where he wove his songs
to the tune of those golden bells. Doubt never arose in his mind as to
whose shadow it was that moved behind the screen, and whose anklets they
were that sang to the time of his beating heart.
Manjari, the maid of the princess, passed by the poet's house on her way
to the river, and she never missed a day to have a few words with him on
the sly. When she found the road deserted, and the shadow of dusk on
the land, she would boldly enter his room, and sit at the corner of
his carpet. There was a suspicion of an added care in the choice of the
colour of her veil, in the setting of the flower in her hair.
People smiled and whispered at this, and they were not to blame. For
Shekhar the poet never took the trouble to hide the fact that these
meetings were a pure joy to him.
The meaning of her name was the spray of flowers. One must confess that
for an ordinary mortal it was sufficient in its sweetness. But Shekhar
made his own addition to this name, and called her the Spray of Spring
Flowers. And ordinary mortals shook their heads and said, Ah, me!
In the spring songs that the poet sang the praise of the spray of spring
flowers was conspicuously reiterated; and the king winked and smiled at
him when he heard it, and the poet smiled in answer.
The king would put him the question; "Is it the business of the bee
merely to hum in the court of the spring?"
The poet would answer; "No, but also to sip the honey of the spray of
spring flowers."
And they all laughed in the king's hall. And it was rumoured that the
Princess Akita also laughed at her maid's accepting the poet's name for
her, and Manjari felt glad in her heart.
Thus truth and falsehood mingle in life--and to what God builds man adds
his own decoration.
Only those were pure truths which were sung by the poet. The theme was
Krishna, the lover god, and Radha, the beloved, the Eternal Man and the
Eternal Woman, the sorrow that comes from the beginning of time, and the
joy without end. The truth of these songs was tested in his inmost heart
by everybody from the beggar to the king himself. The poet's songs were
on the lips of all. At the merest glimmer of the moon and the faintest
whisper of the summer breeze his songs would break forth in the land
from windows and courtyards, from sailing-boats, from shadows of the
wayside trees, in numberless voices.
Thus passed the days happily. The poet recited, the king listened, the
hearers applauded, Manjari passed and repassed by the poet's room on her
way to the river--the shadow flitted behind the screened balcony, and
the tiny golden bells tinkled from afar.
Just then set forth from his home in the south a poet on his path of
conquest. He came to King Narayan, in the kingdom of Amarapur. He stood
before the throne, and uttered a verse in praise of the king. He had
challenged all the court poets on his way, and his career of victory had
been unbroken.
The king received him with honour, and said: "Poet, I offer you
welcome."
Pundarik, the poet, proudly replied: "Sire, I ask for war."
Shekhar, the court poet of the king did not know how the battle of the
muse was to be waged. He had no sleep at night. The mighty figure of the
famous Pundarik, his sharp nose curved like a scimitar, and his proud
head tilted on one side, haunted the poet's vision in the dark.
With a trembling heart Shekhar entered the arena in the morning. The
theatre was filled with the crowd.
The poet greeted his rival with a smile and a bow. Pundarik returned it
with a slight toss of his head, and turned his face towards his circle
of adoring followers with a meaning smile. Shekhar cast his glance
towards the screened balcony high above, and saluted his lady in his
mind, saying! "If I am the winner at the combat to-day, my lady, thy
victorious name shall be glorified."
The trumpet sounded. The great crowd stood up, shouting victory to the
king. The king, dressed in an ample robe of white, slowly came into the
hall like a floating cloud of autumn, and sat on his throne.
Pundarik stood up, and the vast hall became still. With his head raised
high and chest expanded, he began in his thundering voice to recite the
praise of King Narayan. His words burst upon the walls of the hall
like breakers of the sea, and seemed to rattle against the ribs of the
listening crowd. The skill with which he gave varied meanings to the
name Narayan, and wove each letter of it through the web of his verses
in all mariner of combinations, took away the breath of his amazed
hearers.
For some minutes after he took his seat his voice continued to vibrate
among the numberless pillars of the king's court and in thousands of
speechless hearts. The learned professors who had come from distant
lands raised their right hands, and cried, Bravo!
The king threw a glance on Shekhar's face, and Shekhar in answer raised
for a moment his eyes full of pain towards his master, and then stood
up like a stricken deer at bay. His face was pale, his bashfulness was
almost that of a woman, his slight youthful figure, delicate in its
outline, seemed like a tensely strung vina ready to break out in music
at the least touch.
His head was bent, his voice was low, when he began. The first few
verses were almost inaudible. Then he slowly raised his head, and his
clear sweet voice rose into the sky like a quivering flame of fire. He
began with the ancient legend of the kingly line lost in the haze of
the past, and brought it down through its long course of heroism and
matchless generosity to the present age. He fixed his gaze on the king's
face, and all the vast and unexpressed love of the people for the royal
house rose like incense in his song, and enwreathed the throne on all
sides. These were his last words when, trembling, he took his seat: "My
master, I may be beaten in play of words, but not in my love for thee."
Tears filled the eyes of the hearers, and the stone walls shook with
cries of victory.
Mocking this popular outburst of feeling, with an august shake of
his head and a contemptuous sneer, Pundarik stood up, and flung this
question to the assembly; "What is there superior to words?" In a moment
the hall lapsed into silence again.
Then with a marvellous display of learning, he proved that the Word was
in the beginning, that the Word was God. He piled up quotations from
scriptures, and built a high altar for the Word to be seated above all
that there is in heaven and in earth. He repeated that question in his
mighty voice: "What is there superior to words?"
Proudly he looked around him. None dared to accept his challenge, and
he slowly took his seat like a lion who had just made a full meal of
its victim. The pandits shouted, Bravo! The king remained silent with
wonder, and the poet Shekhar felt himself of no account by the side of
this stupendous learning. The assembly broke up for that day.
Next day Shekhar began his song. It was of that day when the pipings of
love's flute startled for the first time the hushed air of the Vrinda
forest. The shepherd women did not know who was the player or whence
came the music. Sometimes it seemed to come from the heart of the south
wind, and sometimes from the straying clouds of the hilltops. It came
with a message of tryst from the land of the sunrise, and it floated
from the verge of sunset with its sigh of sorrow. The stars seemed to
be the stops of the instrument that flooded the dreams of the night
with melody. The music seemed to burst all at once from all sides,
from fields and groves, from the shady lanes and lonely roads, from the
melting blue of the sky, from the shimmering green of the grass. They
neither knew its meaning nor could they find words to give utterance
to the desire of their hearts. Tears filled their eyes, and their life
seemed to long for a death that would be its consummation.
Shekhar forgot his audience, forgot the trial of his strength with a
rival. He stood alone amid his thoughts that rustled and quivered round
him like leaves in a summer breeze, and sang the Song of the Flute. He
had in his mind the vision of an image that had taken its shape from a
shadow, and the echo of a faint tinkling sound of a distant footstep.
He took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an
indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud
him. As this feeling died away Pundarik stood up before the throne
and challenged his rival to define who was this Lover and who was the
Beloved. He arrogantly looked around him, he smiled at his followers
and then put the question again: "Who is Krishna, the lover, and who is
Radha, the beloved?"
Then he began to analyse the roots of those names,--and various
interpretations of their meanings. He brought before the bewildered
audience all the intricacies of the different schools of metaphysics
with consummate skill. Each letter of those names he divided from its
fellow, and then pursued them with a relentless logic till they fell to
the dust in confusion, to be caught up again and restored to a meaning
never before imagined by the subtlest of word-mongers.
The pandits were in ecstasy; they applauded vociferously; and the crowd
followed them, deluded into the certainty that they had witnessed, that
day, the last shred of the curtains of Truth torn to pieces before their
eyes by a prodigy of intellect. The performance of his tremendous feat
so delighted them that they forgot to ask themselves if there was any
truth behind it after all.
The king's mind was overwhelmed with wonder. The atmosphere was
completely cleared of all illusion of music, and the vision of the world
around seemed to be changed from its freshness of tender green to the
solidity of a high road levelled and made hard with crushed stones.
To the people assembled their own poet appeared a mere boy in comparison
with this giant, who walked with such case, knocking down difficulties
at each step in the world of words and thoughts. It became evident
to them for the first time that the poems Shekhar wrote were absurdly
simple, and it must be a mere accident that they did not write them
themselves. They were neither new, nor difficult, nor instructive, nor
necessary.
The king tried to goad his poet with keen glances, silently inciting him
to make a final effort. But Shekhar took no notice, and remained fixed
to his seat.
The king in anger came down from his throne--took off his pearl chain
and put it on Pundarik's head. Everybody in the hall cheered. From the
upper balcony came a slight sound of the movements of rustling robes and
waist-chains hung with golden bells. Shekhar rose from his seat and left
the hall.
It was a dark night of waning moon. The poet Shekhar took down his MSS.
from his shelves and heaped them on the floor. Some of them contained
his earliest writings, which he had almost forgotten. He turned over the
pages, reading passages here and there. They all seemed to him poor and
trivial--mere words and childish rhymes!
One by one he tore his books to fragments, and threw them into a vessel
containing fire, and said: "To thee, to thee, O my beauty, my fire! Thou
hast been burning in my heart all these futile years. If my life were
a piece of gold it would come out of its trial brighter, but it is a
trodden turf of grass, and nothing remains of it but this handful of
ashes."
The night wore on. Shekhar opened wide his windows. He spread upon
his bed the white flowers that he loved, the jasmines, tuberoses and
chrysanthemums, and brought into his bedroom all the lamps he had in
his house and lighted them. Then mixing with honey the juice of some
poisonous root he drank it and lay down on his bed.
Golden anklets tinkled in the passage outside the door, and a subtle
perfume came into the room with the breeze.
The poet, with his eyes shut, said; "My lady, have you taken pity upon
your servant at last and come to see him?"
The answer came in a sweet voice "My poet, I have come."
Shekhar opened his eyes--and saw before his bed the figure of a woman.
His sight was dim and blurred. And it seemed to him that the image made
of a shadow that he had ever kept throned in the secret shrine of his
heart had come into the outer world in his last moment to gaze upon his
face.
The woman said; "I am the Princess Ajita."
The poet with a great effort sat up on his bed.
The princess whispered into his car: "The king has not done you justice.
It was you who won at the combat, my poet, and I have come to crown you
with the crown of victory."
She took the garland of flowers from her own neck, and put it on his
hair, and the poet fell down upon his bed stricken by death.
ONCE THERE WAS A KING
"Once upon a time there was a king."
When we were children there was no need to know who the king in the
fairy story was. It didn't matter whether he was called Shiladitya or
Shaliban, whether he lived at Kashi or Kanauj. The thing that made a
seven-year-old boy's heart go thump, thump with delight was this one
sovereign truth; this reality of all realities: "Once there was a king."
But the readers of this modern age are far more exact and exacting.
When they hear such an opening to a story, they are at once critical and
suspicious. They apply the searchlight of science to its legendary haze
and ask: "Which king?"
The story-tellers have become more precise in their turn. They are no
longer content with the old indefinite, "There was a king," but assume
instead a look of profound learning, and begin: "Once there was a king
named Ajatasatru,"
The modern reader's curiosity, however, is not so easily satisfied. He
blinks at the author through his scientific spectacles, and asks again:
"Which Ajatasatru?"
"Every schoolboy knows," the author proceeds, "that there were three
Ajatasatrus. The first was born in the twentieth century B.C., and died
at the tender age of two years and eight months, I deeply regret that it
is impossible to find, from any trustworthy source, a detailed account
of his reign. The second Ajatasatru is better known to historians. If
you refer to the new Encyclopedia of History...."
By this time the modern reader's suspicions are dissolved. He feels he
may safely trust his author. He says to himself: "Now we shall have a
story that is both improving and instructive."
Ah! how we all love to be deluded! We have a secret dread of being
thought ignorant. And we end by being ignorant after all, only we have
done it in a long and roundabout way.
There is an English proverb; "Ask me no questions, and I will tell you
no lies." The boy of seven who is listening to a fairy story understands
that perfectly well; he withholds his questions, while the story is
being told. So the pure and beautiful falsehood of it all remains naked
and innocent as a babe; transparent as truth itself; limpid as afresh
bubbling spring. But the ponderous and learned lie of our moderns has
to keep its true character draped and veiled. And if there is discovered
anywhere the least little peep-hole of deception, the reader turns away
with a prudish disgust, and the author is discredited.
When we were young, we understood all sweet things; and we could detect
the sweets of a fairy story by an unerring science of our own. We never
cared for such useless things as knowledge. We only cared for truth. And
our unsophisticated little hearts knew well where the Crystal Palace of
Truth lay and how to reach it. But to-day we are expected to write pages
of facts, while the truth is simply this:
"There was a king."
I remember vividly that evening in Calcutta when the fairy story began.
The rain and the storm had been incessant. The whole of the city was
flooded. The water was knee-deep in our lane. I had a straining hope,
which was almost a certainty, that my tutor would be prevented from
coming that evening. I sat on the stool in the far corner of the veranda
looking down the lane, with a heart beating faster and faster. Every
minute I kept my eye on the rain, and when it began to grow less
I prayed with all my might; "Please, God, send some more rain till
half-past seven is over." For I was quite ready to believe that there
was no other need for rain except to protect one helpless boy one
evening in one corner of Calcutta from the deadly clutches of his tutor.
If not in answer to my prayer, at any rate according to some grosser law
of physical nature, the rain did not give up.
But, alas! nor did my teacher.
Exactly to the minute, in the bend of the lane, I saw his approaching
umbrella. The great bubble of hope burst in my breast, and my heart
collapsed. Truly, if there is a punishment to fit the crime after death,
then my tutor will be born again as me, and I shall be born as my tutor.
As soon as I saw his umbrella I ran as hard as I could to my mother's
room. My mother and my grandmother were sitting opposite one another
playing cards by the light of a lamp. I ran into the room, and flung
myself on the bed beside my mother, and said:
"Mother dear, the tutor has come, and I have such a bad headache;
couldn't I have no lessons today?"
I hope no child of immature age will be allowed to read this story,
and I sincerely trust it will not be used in text-books or primers for
schools. For what I did was dreadfully bad, and I received no punishment
whatever. On the contrary, my wickedness was crowned with success.
My mother said to me: "All right," and turning to the servant added:
"Tell the tutor that he can go back home."
It was perfectly plain that she didn't think my illness very serious, as
she went on with her game as before, and took no further notice. And I
also, burying my head in the pillow, laughed to my heart's content. We
perfectly understood one another, my mother and I.
But every one must know how hard it is for a boy of seven years old to
keep up the illusion of illness for a long time. After about a minute I
got hold of Grandmother, and said: "Grannie, do tell me a story."
I had to ask this many times. Grannie and Mother went on playing cards,
and took no notice. At last Mother said to me: "Child, don't bother.
Wait till we've finished our game." But I persisted: "Grannie, do tell
me a story." I told Mother she could finish her game to-morrow, but she
must let Grannie tell me a story there and then.
At last Mother threw down the cards and said: "You had better do what
he wants. I can't manage him." Perhaps she had it in her mind that she
would have no tiresome tutor on the morrow, while I should be obliged to
be back to those stupid lessons.
As soon as ever Mother had given way, I rushed at Grannie. I got hold
of her hand, and, dancing with delight, dragged her inside my mosquito
curtain on to the bed. I clutched hold of the bolster with both hands
in my excitement, and jumped up and down with joy, and when I had got a
little quieter, said: "Now, Grannie, let' s have the story!"
Grannie went on: "And the king had a queen." That was good to begin
with. He had only one.
It is usual for kings in fairy stories to be extravagant in queens. And
whenever we hear that there are two queens, our hearts begin to sink.
One is sure to be unhappy. But in Grannie's story that danger was past.
He had only one queen.
We next hear that the king had not got any son. At the age of seven I
didn't think there was any need to bother if a man had had no son. He
might only have been in the way. Nor are we greatly excited when we hear
that the king has gone away into the forest to practise austerities in
order to get a son. There was only one thing that would have made me go
into the forest, and that was to get away from my tutor!
But the king left behind with his queen a small girl, who grew up into a
beautiful princess.
Twelve years pass away, and the king goes on practising austerities, and
never thinks all this while of his beautiful daughter. The princess has
reached the full bloom of her youth. The age of marriage has passed, but
the king does not return. And the queen pines away with grief and cries:
"Is my golden daughter destined to die unmarried? Ah me! What a fate is
mine."
Then the queen sent men to the king to entreat him earnestly to come
back for a single night and take one meal in the palace. And the king
consented.
The queen cooked with her own hand, and with the greatest care,
sixty-four dishes, and made a seat for him of sandal-wood, and arranged
the food in plates of gold and cups of silver. The princess stood behind
with the peacock-tail fan in her hand. The king, after twelve years'
absence, came into the house, and the princess waved the fan, lighting
up all the room with her beauty. The king looked in his daughter's face,
and forgot to take his food.
At last he asked his queen: "Pray, who is this girl whose beauty shines
as the gold image of the goddess? Whose daughter is she?"
The queen beat her forehead, and cried: "Ah, how evil is my fate! Do
you not know your own daughter?"
The king was struck with amazement. He said at last; "My tiny daughter
has grown to be a woman."
"What else?" the queen said with a sigh. "Do you not know that twelve
years have passed by?"
"But why did you not give her in marriage?" asked the king.
"You were away," the queen said. "And how could I find her a suitable
husband?"
The king became vehement with excitement. "The first man I see
to-morrow," he said, "when I come out of the palace shall marry her."
The princess went on waving her fan of peacock feathers, and the king
finished his meal.
The next morning, as the king came out of his palace, he saw the son of
a Brahman gathering sticks in the forest outside the palace gates. His
age was about seven or eight.
The king said: "I will marry my daughter to him."
Who can interfere with a king's command? At once the boy was called, and
the marriage garlands were exchanged between him and the princess.
At this point I came up close to my wise Grannie and asked her eagerly:
"What then?"
In the bottom of my heart there was a devout wish to substitute myself
for that fortunate wood-gatherer of seven years old. The night was
resonant with the patter of rain. The earthen lamp by my bedside was
burning low. My grandmother's voice droned on as she told the story. And
all these things served to create in a corner of my credulous heart the
belief that I had been gathering sticks in the dawn of some indefinite
time in the kingdom of some unknown king, and in a moment garlands had
been exchanged between me and the princess, beautiful as the Goddess of
Grace. She had a gold band on her hair and gold earrings in her ears.
She bad a necklace and bracelets of gold, and a golden waist-chain round
her waist, and a pair of golden anklets tinkled above her feet.
If my grandmother were an author how many explanations she would have to
offer for this little story! First of all, every one would ask why
the king remained twelve years in the forest? Secondly, why should the
king's daughter remain unmarried all that while? This would be regarded
as absurd.
Even if she could have got so far without a quarrel, still there would
have been a great hue and cry about the marriage itself. First, it never
happened. Secondly, how could there be a marriage between a princess of
the Warrior Caste and a boy of the priestly Brahman Caste? Her readers
would have imagined at once that the writer was preaching against our
social customs in an underhand way. And they would write letters to the
papers.
So I pray with all my heart that my grandmother may be born a
grandmother again, and not through some cursed fate take birth as her
luckless grandson.
So with a throb of joy and delight, I asked Grannie: "What then?"
Grannie went on: Then the princess took her little husband away in
great distress, and built a large palace with seven wings, and began to
cherish her husband with great care.
I jumped up and down in my bed and clutched at the bolster more tightly
than ever and said: "What then?"
Grannie continued: The little boy went to school and learnt many lessons
from his teachers, and as he grew up his class-fellows began to ask him:
"Who is that beautiful lady who lives with you in the palace with the
seven wings?" The Brahman's son was eager to know who she was. He could
only remember how one day he had been gathering sticks, and a great
disturbance arose. But all that was so long ago, that he had no clear
recollection.
Four or five years passed in this way. His companions always asked him:
"Who is that beautiful lady in the palace with the seven wings?" And the
Brahman's son would come back from school and sadly tell the princess:
"My school companions always ask me who is that beautiful lady in the
palace with the seven wings, and I can give them no reply. Tell me, oh,
tell me, who you are!"
The princess said: "Let it pass to-day. I will tell you some other
day." And every day the Brahman's son would ask; "Who are you?" and the
princess would reply: "Let it pass to-day. I will tell you some other
day." In this manner four or five more years passed away.
At last the Brahman's son became very impatient, and said: "If you do
not tell me to-day who you are, O beautiful lady, I will leave this
palace with the seven wings." Then the princess said: "I will certainly
tell you to-morrow."
Next day the Brahman's son, as soon as he came home from school, said:
"Now, tell me who you are." The princess said: "To-night I will tell you
after supper, when you are in bed."
The Brahman's son said: "Very well "; and he began to count the hours
in expectation of the night. And the princess, on her side, spread white
flowers over the golden bed, and lighted a gold lamp with fragrant oil,
and adorned her hair, and dressed herself in a beautiful robe of blue,
and began to count the hours in expectation of the night.
That evening when her husband, the Brahman's son, had finished his
meal, too excited almost to eat, and had gone to the golden bed in the
bed-chamber strewn with flowers, he said to himself: "To-night I shall
surely know who this beautiful lady is in the palace with the seven
wings."
The princess took for her the food that was left over by her husband,
and slowly entered the bed-chamber. She had to answer that night the
question, which was the beautiful lady who lived in the palace with
the seven wings. And as she went up to the bed to tell him she found a
serpent had crept out of the flowers and had bitten the Brahman's son.
Her boy-husband was lying on the bed of flowers, with face pale in
death.
My heart suddenly ceased to throb, and I asked with choking voice: "What
then?"
Grannie said; "Then..."
But what is the use of going on any further with the story? It would
only lead on to what was more and more impossible. The boy of seven
did not know that, if there were some "What then?" after death, no
grandmother of a grandmother could tell us all about it.
But the child's faith never admits defeat, and it would snatch at the
mantle of death itself to turn him back. It would be outrageous for him
to think that such a story of one teacherless evening could so suddenly
come to a stop. Therefore the grandmother had to call back her story
from the ever-shut chamber of the great End, but she does it so simply:
it is merely by floating the dead body on a banana stem on the river,
and having some incantations read by a magician. But in that rainy night
and in the dim light of a lamp death loses all its horror in the mind of
the boy, and seems nothing more than a deep slumber of a single night.
When the story ends the tired eyelids are weighed down with sleep. Thus
it is that we send the little body of the child floating on the back of
sleep over the still water of time, and then in the morning read a few
verses of incantation to restore him to the world of life and light.
THE HOME-COMING
Phatik Chakravorti was ringleader among the boys of the village. A new
mischief got into his head. There was a heavy log lying on the mud-flat
of the river waiting to be shaped into a mast for a boat. He decided
that they should all work together to shift the log by main force from
its place and roll it away. The owner of the log would be angry and
surprised, and they would all enjoy the fun. Every one seconded the
proposal, and it was carried unanimously.
But just as the fun was about to begin, Makhan, Phatik's younger
brother, sauntered up, and sat down on the log in front of them all
without a word. The boys were puzzled for a moment. He was pushed,
rather timidly, by one of the boys and told to get up but he remained
quite unconcerned. He appeared like a young philosopher meditating on
the futility of games. Phatik was furious. "Makhan," he cried, "if you
don't get down this minute I'll thrash you!"
Makhan only moved to a more comfortable position.
Now, if Phatik was to keep his regal dignity before the public, it was
clear he ought to carry out his threat. But his courage failed him
at the crisis. His fertile brain, however, rapidly seized upon a new
manoeuvre which would discomfit his brother and afford his followers an
added amusement. He gave the word of command to roll the log and Makhan
over together. Makhan heard the order, and made it a point of honour
to stick on. But he overlooked the fact, like those who attempt earthly
fame in other matters, that there was peril in it.
The boys began to heave at the log with all their might, calling out,
"One, two, three, go," At the word "go" the log went; and with it went
Makhan's philosophy, glory and all.
All the other boys shouted themselves hoarse with delight. But Phatik
was a little frightened. He knew what was coming. And, sure enough,
Makhan rose from Mother Earth blind as Fate and screaming like the
Furies. He rushed at Phatik and scratched his face and beat him and
kicked him, and then went crying home. The first act of the drama was
over.
Phatik wiped his face, and sat down on the edge of a sunken barge on the
river bank, and began to chew a piece of grass. A boat came up to the
landing, and a middle-aged man, with grey hair and dark moustache,
stepped on shore. He saw the boy sitting there doing nothing, and asked
him where the Chakravortis lived. Phatik went on chewing the grass,
and said: "Over there," but it was quite impossible to tell where he
pointed. The stranger asked him again. He swung his legs to and fro on
the side of the barge, and said; "Go and find out," and continued to
chew the grass as before.
But now a servant came down from the house, and told Phatik his mother
wanted him. Phatik refused to move. But the servant was the master on
this occasion. He took Phatik up roughly, and carried him, kicking and
struggling in impotent rage.
When Phatik came into the house, his mother saw him. She called out
angrily: "So you have been hitting Makhan again?"
Phatik answered indignantly: "No, I haven't; who told you that?"
His mother shouted: "Don't tell lies! You have."
Phatik said suddenly: "I tell you, I haven't. You ask Makhan!" But
Makhan thought it best to stick to his previous statement. He said:
"Yes, mother. Phatik did hit me."
Phatik's patience was already exhausted. He could not hear this
injustice. He rushed at Makban, and hammered him with blows: "Take that"
he cried, "and that, and that, for telling lies."
His mother took Makhan's side in a moment, and pulled Phatik away,
beating him with her hands. When Phatik pushed her aside, she shouted
out: "What I you little villain! would you hit your own mother?"
It was just at this critical juncture that the grey-haired stranger
arrived. He asked what was the matter. Phatik looked sheepish and
ashamed.
But when his mother stepped back and looked at the stranger, her anger
was changed to surprise. For she recognised her brother, and cried:
"Why, Dada! Where have you come from?" As she said these words, she
bowed to the ground and touched his feet. Her brother had gone away soon
after she had married, and he had started business in Bombay. His sister
had lost her husband while he was In Bombay. Bishamber had now come back
to Calcutta, and had at once made enquiries about his sister. He had
then hastened to see her as soon as he found out where she was.
The next few days were full of rejoicing. The brother asked after the
education of the two boys. He was told by his sister that Phatik was a
perpetual nuisance. He was lazy, disobedient, and wild. But Makhan was
as good as gold, as quiet as a lamb, and very fond of reading, Bishamber
kindly offered to take Phatik off his sister's hands, and educate him
with his own children in Calcutta. The widowed mother readily agreed.
When his uncle asked Phatik If he would like to go to Calcutta with him,
his joy knew no bounds, and he said; "Oh, yes, uncle!" In a way that
made it quite clear that he meant it.
It was an immense relief to the mother to get rid of Phatik. She had
a prejudice against the boy, and no love was lost between the two
brothers. She was in daily fear that he would either drown Makhan some
day in the river, or break his head in a fight, or run him into some
danger or other. At the same time she was somewhat distressed to see
Phatik's extreme eagerness to get away.
Phatik, as soon as all was settled, kept asking his uncle every minute
when they were to start. He was on pins and needles all day long with
excitement, and lay awake most of the night. He bequeathed to Makhan,
in perpetuity, his fishing-rod, his big kite and his marbles. Indeed, at
this time of departure his generosity towards Makhan was unbounded.
When they reached Calcutta, Phatik made the acquaintance of his aunt
for the first time. She was by no means pleased with this unnecessary
addition to her family. She found her own three boys quite enough
to manage without taking any one else. And to bring a village lad of
fourteen into their midst was terribly upsetting. Bishamber should
really have thought twice before committing such an indiscretion.
In this world of human affairs there is no worse nuisance than a boy
at the age of fourteen. He is neither ornamental, nor useful. It is
impossible to shower affection on him as on a little boy; and he is
always getting in the way. If he talks with a childish lisp he is called
a baby, and if he answers in a grown-up way he is called impertinent.
In fact any talk at all from him is resented. Then he is at the
unattractive, growing age. He grows out of his clothes with indecent
haste; his voice grows hoarse and breaks and quavers; his face grows
suddenly angular and unsightly. It is easy to excuse the shortcomings of
early childhood, but it is hard to tolerate even unavoidable lapses in a
boy of fourteen. The lad himself becomes painfully self-conscious. When
he talks with elderly people he is either unduly forward, or else so
unduly shy that he appears ashamed of his very existence.
Yet it is at this very age when in his heart of hearts a young lad most
craves for recognition and love; and he becomes the devoted slave of any
one who shows him consideration. But none dare openly love him, for that
would be regarded as undue indulgence, and therefore bad for the boy.
So, what with scolding and chiding, he becomes very much like a stray
dog that has lost his master.
For a boy of fourteen his own home is the only Paradise. To live in a
strange house with strange people is little short of torture, while the
height of bliss is to receive the kind looks of women, and never to be
slighted by them.
It was anguish to Phatik to be the unwelcome guest in his aunt's house,
despised by this elderly woman, and slighted, on every occasion. If she
ever asked him to do anything for her, he would be so overjoyed that he
would overdo it; and then she would tell him not to be so stupid, but to
get on with his lessons.
The cramped atmosphere of neglect in his aunt's house oppressed Phatik
so much that he felt that he could hardly breathe. He wanted to go out
into the open country and fill his lungs and breathe freely. But there
was no open country to go to. Surrounded on all sides by Calcutta houses
and walls, he would dream night after night of his village home, and
long to be back there. He remembered the glorious meadow where he used
to fly his kite all day long; the broad river-banks where he would wander
about the livelong day singing and shouting for joy; the narrow brook
where he could go and dive and swim at any time he liked. He thought of
his band of boy companions over whom he was despot; and, above all, the
memory of that tyrant mother of his, who had such a prejudice against
him, occupied him day and night. A kind of physical love like that of
animals; a longing to be in the presence of the one who is loved; an
inexpressible wistfulness during absence; a silent cry of the inmost
heart for the mother, like the lowing of a calf in the twilight;-this
love, which was almost an animal instinct, agitated the shy, nervous,
lean, uncouth and ugly boy. No one could understand it, but it preyed
upon his mind continually.
There was no more backward boy in the whole school than Phatik. He gaped
and remained silent when the teacher asked him a question, and like an
overladen ass patiently suffered all the blows that came down on his
back. When other boys were out at play, he stood wistfully by the window
and gazed at the roofs of the distant houses. And if by chance he espied
children playing on the open terrace of any roof, his heart would ache
with longing.
One day he summoned up all his courage, and asked his uncle: "Uncle,
when can I go home?"
His uncle answered; "Wait till the holidays come." But the holidays would
not come till November, and there was a long time still to wait.
One day Phatik lost his lesson-book. Even with the help of books he
had found it very difficult indeed to prepare his lesson. Now it was
impossible. Day after day the teacher would cane him unmercifully.
His condition became so abjectly miserable that even his cousins were
ashamed to own him. They began to jeer and insult him more than the
other boys. He went to his aunt at last, and told her that he had lost
his book.
His aunt pursed her lips in contempt, and said: "You great clumsy,
country lout. How can I afford, with all my family, to buy you new books
five times a month?"
That night, on his way back from school, Phatik had a bad headache with
a fit of shivering. He felt he was going to have an attack of malarial
fever. His one great fear was that he would be a nuisance to his aunt.
The next morning Phatik was nowhere to be seen. All searches in the
neighbourhood proved futile. The rain had been pouring in torrents all
night, and those who went out in search of the boy got drenched through
to the skin. At last Bisbamber asked help from the police.
At the end of the day a police van stopped at the door before the house.
It was still raining and the streets were all flooded. Two constables
brought out Phatik in their arms and placed him before Bishamber. He was
wet through from head to foot, muddy all over, his face and eyes flushed
red with fever, and his limbs all trembling. Bishamber carried him in
his arms, and took him into the inner apartments. When his wife saw him,
she exclaimed; "What a heap of trouble this boy has given us. Hadn't you
better send him home?"
Phatik heard her words, and sobbed out loud: "Uncle, I was just going
home; but they dragged me back again."
The fever rose very high, and all that night the boy was delirious.
Bishamber brought in a doctor. Phatik opened his eyes flushed with
fever, and looked up to the ceiling, and said vacantly: "Uncle, have the
holidays come yet? May I go home?"
Bishamber wiped the tears from his own eyes, and took Phatik's lean
and burning hands in his own, and sat by him through the night. The boy
began again to mutter. At last his voice became excited: "Mother," he
cried, "don't beat me like that! Mother! I am telling the truth!"
The next day Phatik became conscious for a short time. He turned his
eyes about the room, as if expecting some one to come. At last, with an
air of disappointment, his head sank back on the pillow. He turned his
face to the wall with a deep sigh.
Bishamber knew his thoughts, and, bending down his head, whispered:
"Phatik, I have sent for your mother." The day went by. The doctor said
in a troubled voice that the boy's condition was very critical.
Phatik began to cry out; "By the mark!--three fathoms. By the mark--four
fathoms. By the mark-." He had heard the sailor on the river-steamer
calling out the mark on the plumb-line. Now he was himself plumbing an
unfathomable sea.
Later in the day Phatik's mother burst into the room like a whirlwind,
and began to toss from side to side and moan and cry in a loud voice.
Bishamber tried to calm her agitation, but she flung herself on the bed,
and cried: "Phatik, my darling, my darling."
Phatik stopped his restless movements for a moment. His hands ceased
beating up and down. He said: "Eh?"
The mother cried again: "Phatik, my darling, my darling."
Phatik very slowly turned his head and, without seeing anybody, said:
"Mother, the holidays have come."
MY LORD, THE BABY
I
Raicharan was twelve years old when he came as a servant to his master's
house. He belonged to the same caste as his master, and was given his
master's little son to nurse. As time went on the boy left Raicharan's
arms to go to school. From school he went on to college, and after
college he entered the judicial service. Always, until he married,
Raicharan was his sole attendant.
But, when a mistress came into the house, Raicharan found two masters
instead of one. All his former influence passed to the new mistress.
This was compensated for by a fresh arrival. Anukul had a son born to
him, and Raicharan by his unsparing attentions soon got a complete
hold over the child. He used to toss him up in his arms, call to him in
absurd baby language, put his face close to the baby's and draw it away
again with a grin.
Presently the child was able to crawl and cross the doorway. When
Raicharan went to catch him, he would scream with mischievous laughter
and make for safety. Raicharan was amazed at the profound skill and
exact judgment the baby showed when pursued. He would say to his
mistress with a look of awe and mystery: "Your son will be a judge some
day."
New wonders came in their turn. When the baby began to toddle, that was
to Raicharan an epoch in human history. When he called his father Ba-ba
and his mother Ma-ma and Raicharan Chan-na, then Raicharan's ecstasy
knew no bounds. He went out to tell the news to all the world.
After a while Raicharan was asked to show his ingenuity in other ways.
He had, for instance, to play the part of a horse, holding the reins
between his teeth and prancing with his feet. He had also to wrestle
with his little charge, and if he could not, by a wrestler's trick, fall
on his back defeated at the end, a great outcry was certain.
About this time Anukul was transferred to a district on the banks of the
Padma. On his way through Calcutta he bought his son a little go-cart.
He bought him also a yellow satin waistcoat, a gold-laced cap, and some
gold bracelets and anklets. Raicharan was wont to take these out, and
put them on his little charge with ceremonial pride, whenever they went
for a walk.
Then came the rainy season, and day after day the rain poured down in
torrents. The hungry river, like an enormous serpent, swallowed down
terraces, villages, cornfields, and covered with its flood the tall
grasses and wild casuarinas on the sand-banks. From time to time there
was a deep thud, as the river-banks crumbled. The unceasing roar of
the rain current could be beard from far away. Masses of foam, carried
swiftly past, proved to the eye the swiftness of the stream.
One afternoon the rain cleared. It was cloudy, but cool and bright.
Raicharan's little despot did not want to stay in on such a fine
afternoon. His lordship climbed into the go-cart. Raicharan, between the
shafts, dragged him slowly along till he reached the rice-fields on the
banks of the river. There was no one in the fields, and no boat on the
stream. Across the water, on the farther side, the clouds were rifted in
the west. The silent ceremonial of the setting sun was revealed in all
its glowing splendour. In the midst of that stillness the child, all of
a sudden, pointed with his finger in front of him and cried: "Chan-nal
Pitty fow."
Close by on a mud-flat stood a large Kadamba tree in full flower. My
lord, the baby, looked at it with greedy eyes, and Raicharan knew his
meaning. Only a short time before he had made, out of these very
flower balls, a small go-cart; and the child had been so entirely happy
dragging it about with a string, that for the whole day Raicharan was
not made to put on the reins at all. He was promoted from a horse into a
groom.
But Raicharan had no wish that evening to go splashing knee-deep through
the mud to reach the flowers. So he quickly pointed his finger in the
opposite direction, calling out: "Oh, look, baby, look! Look at the
bird." And with all sorts of curious noises he pushed the go-cart
rapidly away from the tree.
But a child, destined to be a judge, cannot be put off so easily. And
besides, there was at the time nothing to attract his eyes. And you
cannot keep up for ever the pretence of an imaginary bird.
The little Master's mind was made up, and Raicharan was at his wits'
end. "Very well, baby," he said at last, "you sit still in the cart, and
I'll go and get you the pretty flower. Only mind you don't go near the
water."
As he said this, he made his legs bare to the knee, and waded through
the oozing mud towards the tree.
The moment Raicharan had gone, his little Master went off at racing
speed to the forbidden water. The baby saw the river rushing by,
splashing and gurgling as it went. It seemed as though the disobedient
wavelets themselves were running away from some greater Raicharan with
the laughter of a thousand children. At the sight of their mischief,
the heart of the human child grew excited and restless. He got down
stealthily from the go-cart and toddled off towards the river. On his
way he picked up a small stick, and leant over the bank of the stream
pretending to fish. The mischievous fairies of the river with their
mysterious voices seemed inviting him into their play-house.
Raicharan had plucked a handful of flowers from the tree, and was
carrying them back in the end of his cloth, with his face wreathed in
smiles. But when he reached the go-cart, there was no one there. He
looked on all sides and there was no one there. He looked back at the
cart and there was no one there.
In that first terrible moment his blood froze within him. Before his
eyes the whole universe swam round like a dark mist. From the depth
of his broken heart he gave one piercing cry; "Master, Master, little
Master."
But no voice answered "Chan-na." No child laughed mischievously back; no
scream of baby delight welcomed his return. Only the river ran on, with
its splashing, gurgling noise as before,--as though it knew nothing at
all, and had no time to attend to such a tiny human event as the death
of a child.
As the evening passed by Raicharan's mistress became very anxious. She
sent men out on all sides to search. They went with lanterns in their
hands, and reached at last the banks of the Padma. There they found
Raicharan rushing up and down the fields, like a stormy wind, shouting
the cry of despair: "Master, Master, little Master!"
When they got Raicharan home at last, he fell prostrate at his
mistress's feet. They shook him, and questioned him, and asked him
repeatedly where he had left the child; but all he could say was, that
he knew nothing.
Though every one held the opinion that the Padma had swallowed the
child, there was a lurking doubt left in the mind. For a band of gipsies
had been noticed outside the village that afternoon, and some suspicion
rested on them. The mother went so far in her wild grief as to think
it possible that Raicharan himself had stolen the child. She called him
aside with piteous entreaty and said: "Raicharan, give me back my baby.
Oh! give me back my child. Take from me any money you ask, but give me
back my child!"
Raicharan only beat his forehead in reply. His mistress ordered him out
of the house.
Artukul tried to reason his wife out of this wholly unjust suspicion:
"Why on earth," he said, "should he commit such a crime as that?"
The mother only replied: "The baby had gold ornaments on his body. Who
knows?"
It was impossible to reason with her after that.
II
Raicharan went back to his own village. Up to this time he had had no
son, and there was no hope that any child would now be born to him. But
it came about before the end of a year that his wife gave birth to a son
and died.
All overwhelming resentment at first grew up in Raicharan's heart at the
sight of this new baby. At the back of his mind was resentful suspicion
that it had come as a usurper in place of the little Master. He also
thought it would be a grave offence to be happy with a son of his own
after what had happened to his master's little child. Indeed, if it had
not been for a widowed sister, who mothered the new baby, it would not
have lived long.
But a change gradually came over Raicharan's mind. A wonderful thing
happened. This new baby in turn began to crawl about, and cross the
doorway with mischief in its face. It also showed an amusing cleverness
in making its escape to safety. Its voice, its sounds of laughter and
tears, its gestures, were those of the little Master. On some days,
when Raicharan listened to its crying, his heart suddenly began thumping
wildly against his ribs, and it seemed to him that his former little
Master was crying somewhere in the unknown land of death because he had
lost his Chan-na.
Phailna (for that was the name Raicharan's sister gave to the new baby)
soon began to talk. It learnt to say Ba-ba and Ma-ma with a baby accent.
When Raicharan heard those familiar sounds the mystery suddenly became
clear. The little Master could not cast off the spell of his Chan-na,
and therefore he had been reborn in his own house.
The arguments in favour of this were, to Raicharan, altogether beyond
dispute:
(i.) The new baby was born soon after his little master's death.
(ii.) His wife could never have accumulated such merit as to give birth
to a son in middle age.
(iii.) The new baby walked with a toddle and called out Ba-ba and Ma-ma.
There was no sign lacking which marked out the future judge.
Then suddenly Raicharan remembered that terrible accusation of the
mother. "Ah," he said to himself with amazement, "the mother's heart was
right. She knew I had stolen her child." When once he had come to this
conclusion, he was filled with remorse for his past neglect. He now gave
himself over, body and soul, to the new baby, and became its devoted
attendant. He began to bring it up, as if it were the son of a rich man.
He bought a go-cart, a yellow satin waistcoat, and a gold-embroidered
cap. He melted down the ornaments of his dead wife, and made gold
bangles and anklets. He refused to let the little child play with any
one of the neighbourhood, and became himself its sole companion day and
night. As the baby grew up to boyhood, he was so petted and spoilt
and clad in such finery that the village children would call him "Your
Lordship," and jeer at him; and older people regarded Raicharan as
unaccountably crazy about the child.
At last the time came for the boy to go to school. Raicharan sold his
small piece of land, and went to Calcutta. There he got employment with
great difficulty as a servant, and sent Phailna to school. He spared no
pains to give him the best education, the best clothes, the best food.
Meanwhile he lived himself on a mere handful of rice, and would say in
secret: "Ah! my little Master, my dear little Master, you loved me so
much that you came back to my house. You shall never suffer from any
neglect of mine."
Twelve years passed away in this manner. The boy was able to read and
write well. He was bright and healthy and good-looking. He paid a great
deal of attention to his personal appearance, and was specially careful
in parting his hair. He was inclined to extravagance and finery, and
spent money freely. He could never quite look on Raicharan as a father,
because, though fatherly in affection, he had the manner of a servant.
A further fault was this, that Raicharan kept secret from every one that
himself was the father of the child.
The students of the hostel, where Phailna was a boarder, were greatly
amused by Raicharan's country manners, and I have to confess that behind
his father's back Phailna joined in their fun. But, in the bottom of
their hearts, all the students loved the innocent and tender-hearted old
man, and Phailna was very fond of him also. But, as I have said before,
he loved him with a kind of condescension.
Raicharan grew older and older, and his employer was continually finding
fault with him for his incompetent work. He had been starving himself
for the boy's sake. So he had grown physically weak, and no longer up to
his work. He would forget things, and his mind became dull and stupid.
But his employer expected a full servant's work out of him, and would
not brook excuses. The money that Raicharan had brought with him from
the sale of his land was exhausted. The boy was continually grumbling
about his clothes, and asking for more money.
Raicharan made up his mind. He gave up the situation where he was
working as a servant, and left some money with Phailna and said: "I have
some business to do at home in my village, and shall be back soon."
He went off at once to Baraset where Anukul was magistrate. Anukul's
wife was still broken down with grief. She had had no other child.
One day Anukul was resting after a long and weary day in court. His wife
was buying, at an exorbitant price, a herb from a mendicant quack, which
was said to ensure the birth of a child. A voice of greeting was
heard in the courtyard. Anukul went out to see who was there. It was
Raicharan. Anukul's heart was softened when he saw his old servant. He
asked him many questions, and offered to take him back into service.
Raicharan smiled faintly, and said in reply; "I want to make obeisance
to my mistress."
Anukul went with Raicharan into the house, where the mistress did not
receive him as warmly as his old master. Raicharan took no notice of
this, but folded his hands, and said: "It was not the Padma that stole
your baby. It was I."
Anukul exclaimed: "Great God! Eh! What! Where is he?" Raicharan replied:
"He is with me, I will bring him the day after to-morrow."
It was Sunday. There was no magistrate's court sitting. Both husband and
wife were looking expectantly along the road, waiting from early morning
for Raicharan's appearance. At ten o'clock he came, leading Phailna by
the hand.
Anukul's wife, without a question, took the boy into her lap, and was
wild with excitement, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping, touching
him, kissing his hair and his forehead, and gazing into his face with
hungry, eager eyes. The boy was very good-looking and dressed like a
gentleman's son. The heart of Anukul brimmed over with a sudden rush of
affection.
Nevertheless the magistrate in him asked: "Have you any proofs?"
Raicharan said: "How could there be any proof of such a deed? God alone
knows that I stole your boy, and no one else in the world."
When Anukul saw how eagerly his wife was clinging to the boy, he
realised the futility of asking for proofs. It would be wiser to
believe. And then--where could an old man like Raicharan get such a boy
from? And why should his faithful servant deceive him for nothing?
"But," he added severely, "Raicharan, you must not stay here."
"Where shall I go, Master?" said Raicharan, in a choking voice, folding
his hands; "I am old. Who will take in an old man as a servant?"
The mistress said: "Let him stay. My child will be pleased. I forgive
him."
But Anukul's magisterial conscience would not allow him. "No," he said,
"he cannot be forgiven for what he has done."
Raicharan bowed to the ground, and clasped Anukul's feet. "Master," he
cried, "let me stay. It was not I who did it. It was God."
Anukul's conscience was worse stricken than ever, when Raicharan tried
to put the blame on God's shoulders.
"No," he said, "I could not allow it. I cannot trust you any more. You
have done an act of treachery."
Raicharan rose to his feet and said: "It was not I who did it."
"Who was it then?" asked Anukul.
Raicharan replied: "It was my fate."
But no educated man could take this for an excuse. Anukul remained
obdurate.
When Phailna saw that he was the wealthy magistrate's son, and not
Raicharan's, he was angry at first, thinking that he had been cheated
all this time of his birthright. But seeing Raicharan in distress, he
generously said to his father: "Father, forgive him. Even if you don't
let him live with us, let him have a small monthly pension."
After hearing this, Raicharan did not utter another word. He looked
for the last time on the face of his son; he made obeisance to his
old master and mistress. Then he went out, and was mingled with the
numberless people of the world.
At the end of the month Anukul sent him some money to his village. But
the money came back. There was no one there of the name of Raicharan.
THE KINGDOM OF CARDS
I
Once upon a time there was a lonely island in a distant sea where lived
the Kings and Queens, the Aces and the Knaves, in the Kingdom of Cards.
The Tens and Nines, with the Twos and Threes, and all the other members,
had long ago settled there also. But these were not twice-born people,
like the famous Court Cards.
The Ace, the King, and the Knave were the three highest castes. The
fourth Caste was made up of a mixture of the lower Cards. The Twos and
Threes were lowest of all. These inferior Cards were never allowed to
sit in the same row with the great Court Cards.
Wonderful indeed were the regulations and rules of that island kingdom.
The particular rank of each individual had been settled from time
immemorial. Every one had his own appointed work, and never did anything
else. An unseen hand appeared to be directing them wherever they
went,--according to the Rules.
No one in the Kingdom of Cards had any occasion to think: no one had any
need to come to any decision: no one was ever required to debate any
new subject. The citizens all moved along in a listless groove without
speech. When they fell, they made no noise. They lay down on their
backs, and gazed upward at the sky with each prim feature firmly fixed
for ever.
There was a remarkable stillness in the Kingdom of Cards. Satisfaction
and contentment were complete in all their rounded wholeness. There
was never any uproar or violence. There was never any excitement or
enthusiasm.
The great ocean, crooning its lullaby with one unceasing melody, lapped
the island to sleep with a thousand soft touches of its wave's white
hands. The vast sky, like the outspread azure wings of the brooding
mother-bird, nestled the island round with its downy plume. For on the
distant horizon a deep blue line betokened another shore. But no sound
of quarrel or strife could reach the Island of Cards, to break its calm
repose.
II
In that far-off foreign land across the sea, there lived a young Prince
whose mother was a sorrowing queen. This queen had fallen from favour,
and was living with her only son on the seashore. The Prince passed his
childhood alone and forlorn, sitting by his forlorn mother, weaving the
net of his big desires. He longed to go in search of the Flying Horse,
the Jewel in the Cobra's hood, the Rose of Heaven, the Magic Roads, or
to find where the Princess Beauty was sleeping in the Ogre's castle over
the thirteen rivers and across the seven seas.
From the Son of the Merchant at school the young Prince learnt the
stories of foreign kingdoms. From the Son of the Kotwal he learnt the
adventures of the Two Genii of the Lamp. And when the rain came beating
down, and the clouds covered the sky, he would sit on the threshold
facing the sea, and say to his sorrowing mother: "Tell me, mother, a
story of some very far-off land."
And his mother would tell him an endless tale she had heard in her
childhood of a wonderful country beyond the sea where dwelt the Princess
Beauty. And the heart of the young Prince would become sick with
longing, as he sat on the threshold, looking out on the ocean, listening
to his mother's wonderful story, while the rain outside came beating
down and the grey clouds covered the sky.
One day the Son of the Merchant came to the Prince, and said boldly:
"Comrade, my studies are over. I am now setting out on my travels to
seek my fortunes on the sea. I have come to bid you good-bye."
The Prince said; "I will go with you."
And the Son of Kotwal said also: "Comrades, trusty and true, you will
not leave me behind. I also will be your companion."
Then the young Prince said to his sorrowing mother; "Mother, I am now
setting out on my travels to seek my fortune. When I come back once
more, I shall surely have found some way to remove all your sorrow."
So the Three Companions set out on their travels together. In the
harbour were anchored the twelve ships of the merchant, and the Three
Companions got on board. The south wind was blowing, and the twelve
ships sailed away, as fast as the desires which rose in the Prince's
breast.
At the Conch Shell Island they filled one ship with conchs. At the
Sandal Wood Island they filled a second ship with sandal-wood, and at
the Coral Island they filled a third ship with coral.
Four years passed away, and they filled four more ships, one with ivory,
one with musk, one with cloves, and one with nutmegs.
But when these ships were all loaded a terrible tempest arose. The ships
were all of them sunk, with their cloves and nutmeg, and musk and
ivory, and coral and sandal-wood and conchs. But the ship with the Three
Companions struck on an island reef, buried them safe ashore, and itself
broke in pieces.
This was the famous Island of Cards, where lived the Ace and King
and Queen and Knave, with the Nines and Tens and all the other
Members--according to the Rules.
III
Up till now there had been nothing to disturb that island stillness. No
new thing had ever happened. No discussion had ever been held.
And then, of a sudden, the Three Companions appeared, thrown up by
the sea,--and the Great Debate began. There were three main points of
dispute.
First, to what caste should these unclassed strangers belong? Should
they rank with the Court Cards? Or were they merely lower-caste people,
to be ranked with the Nines and Tens? No precedent could be quoted to
decide this weighty question.
Secondly, what was their clan? Had they the fairer hue and bright
complexion of the Hearts, or was theirs the darker complexion of the
Clubs? Over this question there were interminable disputes. The whole
marriage system of the island, with its intricate regulations, would
depend on its nice adjustment.
Thirdly, what food should they take? With whom should they live and
sleep? And should their heads be placed south-west, north-west, or only
north-east? In all the Kingdom of Cards a series of problems so vital
and critical had never been debated before.
But the Three Companions grew desperately hungry. They had to get
food in some way or other. So while this debate went on, with its
interminable silence and pauses, and while the Aces called their own
meeting, and formed themselves into a Committee, to find some obsolete
dealing with the question, the Three Companions themselves were eating
all they could find, and drinking out of every vessel, and breaking all
regulations.
Even the Twos and Threes were shocked at this outrageous behaviour. The
Threes said; "Brother Twos, these people are openly shameless!" And
the Twos said: "Brother Threes, they are evidently of lower caste than
ourselves!" After their meal was over, the Three Companions went for a
stroll in the city.
When they saw the ponderous people moving in their dismal processions
with prim and solemn faces, then the Prince turned to the Son of the
Merchant and the Son of the Kotwal, and threw back his head, and gave
one stupendous laugh.
Down Royal Street and across Ace Square and along the Knave Embankment
ran the quiver of this strange, unheard-of laughter, the laughter that,
amazed at itself, expired in the vast vacuum of silence.
The Son of the Kotwal and the Son of the Merchant were chilled through
to the bone by the ghost-like stillness around them. They turned to the
Prince, and said: "Comrade, let us away. Let us not stop for a moment in
this awful land of ghosts."
But the Prince said: "Comrades, these people resemble men, so I am going
to find out, by shaking them upside down and outside in, whether they
have a single drop of warm living blood left in their veins."
IV
The days passed one by one, and the placid existence of the Island went
on almost without a ripple. The Three Companions obeyed no rules nor
regulations. They never did anything correctly either in sitting or
standing or turning themselves round or lying on their back. On the
contrary, wherever they saw these things going on precisely and exactly
according to the Rules, they gave way to inordinate laughter. They
remained unimpressed altogether by the eternal gravity of those eternal
regulations.
One day the great Court Cards came to the Son of the Kotwal and the Son
of the Merchant and the Prince.
"Why," they asked slowly, "are you not moving according to the Rules?"
The Three Companions answered: "Because that is our Ichcha (wish)."
The great Court Cards with hollow, cavernous voices, as if slowly
awakening from an age-long dream, said together: "Ich-cha! And pray who
is Ich-cha?"
They could not understand who Ichcha was then, but the whole island
was to understand it by-and-by. The first glimmer of light passed the
threshold of their minds when they found out, through watching the
actions of the Prince, that they might move in a straight line in an
opposite direction from the one in which they had always gone before.
Then they made another startling discovery, that there was another side
to the Cards which they had never yet noticed with attention. This was
the beginning of the change.
Now that the change had begun, the Three Companions were able to
initiate them more and more deeply into the mysteries of Ichcha. The
Cards gradually became aware that life was not bound by regulations.
They began to feel a secret satisfaction in the kingly power of choosing
for themselves.
But with this first impact of Ichcha the whole pack of cards began to
totter slowly, and then tumble down to the ground. The scene was like
that of some huge python awaking from a long sleep, as it slowly unfolds
its numberless coils with a quiver that runs through its whole frame.
V
Hitherto the Queens of Spades and Clubs and Diamonds and Hearts had
remained behind curtains with eyes that gazed vacantly into space, or
else remained fixed upon the ground.
And now, all of a sudden, on an afternoon in spring the Queen of Hearts
from the balcony raised her dark eyebrows for a moment, and cast a
single glance upon the Prince from the corner of her eye.
"Great God," cried the Prince, "I thought they were all painted images.
But I am wrong. They are women after all."
Then the young Prince called to his side his two Companions, and said
in a meditative voice; "My comrades! There is a charm about these ladies
that I never noticed before. When I saw that glance of the Queen's dark,
luminous eyes, brightening with new emotion, it seemed to me like the
first faint streak of dawn in a newly created world."
The two Companions smiled a knowing smile, and said: "Is that really so,
Prince?"
And the poor Queen of Hearts from that day went from bad to worse.
She began to forget all rules in a truly scandalous manner. If, for
instance, her place in the row was beside the Knave, she suddenly found
herself quite accidentally standing beside the Prince instead. At this,
the Knave, with motionless face and solemn voice, would say: "Queen, you
have made a mistake."
And the poor Queen of Hearts' red cheeks would get redder than ever. But
the Prince would come gallantly to her rescue and say: "No! There is no
mistake. From to-day I am going to be Knave!"
Now it came to pass that, while every one was trying to correct the
improprieties of the guilty Queen of Hearts, they began to make mistakes
themselves. The Aces found themselves elbowed out by the Kings. The
Kings got muddled up with the Knaves. The Nines and Tens assumed airs as
though they belonged to the Great Court Cards. The Twos and Threes were
found secretly taking the places specially resented for the Fours and
Fives. Confusion had never been so confounded before.
Many spring seasons had come and gone in that Island of Cards. The
Kokil, the bird of Spring, had sung its song year after year. But it had
never stirred the blood as it stirred it now. In days gone by the sea
had sung its tireless melody. But, then, it had proclaimed only the
inflexible monotony of the Rule. And suddenly its waves were telling,
through all their flashing light and luminous shade and myriad voices,
the deepest yearnings of the heart of love!
VI
Where are vanished now their prim, round, regular, complacent features?
Here is a face full of love-sick longing. Here is a heart heating wild
with regrets. Here is a mind racked sore with doubts. Music and sighing,
and smiles and tears, are filling the air. Life is throbbing; hearts are
breaking; passions are kindling.
Every one is now thinking of his own appearance, and comparing himself
with others. The Ace of Clubs is musing to himself, that the King of
Spades may be just passably good-looking. "But," says he, "when I walk
down the street you have only to see how people's eyes turn towards me."
The King of Spades is saying; "Why on earth is that Ace of Clubs always
straining his neck and strutting about like a peacock? He imagines all
the Queens are dying of love for him, while the real fact is--" Here he
pauses, and examines his face in the glass.
But the Queens were the worst of all. They began to spend all their time
in dressing themselves up to the Nines. And the Nines would become their
hopeless and abject slaves. But their cutting remarks about one another
were more shocking still.
So the young men would sit listless on the leaves under the trees,
lolling with outstretched limbs in the forest shade. And the young
maidens, dressed in pale-blue robes, would come walking accidentally to
the same shade of the same forest by the same trees, and turn their eyes
as though they saw no one there, and look as though they came out to see
nothing at all. And then one young man more forward than the rest in
a fit of madness would dare to go near to a maiden in blue. But, as he
drew near, speech would forsake him. He would stand there tongue-tied
and foolish, and the favourable moment would pass.
The Kokil birds were singing in the boughs overhead. The mischievous
South wind was blowing; it disarrayed the hair, it whispered in the
ear, and stirred the music in the blood. The leaves of the trees were
murmuring with rustling delight. And the ceaseless sound of the ocean
made all the mute longings of the heart of man and maid surge backwards
and forwards on the full springtide of love.
The Three Companions had brought into the dried-up channels of the
Kingdom of Cards the full flood-tide of a new life.
VII
And, though the tide was full, there-was a pause as though the rising
waters would not break into foam but remain suspended for ever. There
were no outspoken words, only a cautious going forward one step and
receding two. All seemed busy heaping up their unfulfilled desires
like castles in the air, or fortresses of sand. They were pale and
speechless, their eyes were burning, their lips trembling with unspoken
secrets.
The Prince saw what was wrong. He summoned every one on the Island and
said: "Bring hither the flutes and the cymbals, the pipes and drums.
Let all be played together, and raise loud shouts of rejoicing. For the
Queen of Hearts this very night is going to choose her Mate!"
So the Tens and Nines began to blow on their flutes and pipes; the
Eights and Sevens played on their sackbuts and viols; and even the Twos
and Threes began to beat madly on their drums.
When this tumultous gust of music came, it swept away at one blast all
those sighings and mopings. And then what a torrent of laughter and
words poured forth! There were daring proposals and locking refusals,
and gossip and chatter, and jests and merriment. It was like the swaying
and shaking, and rustling and soughing, in a summer gale, of a million
leaves and branches in the depth of the primeval forest.
But the Queen of Hearts, in a rose-red robe, sat silent in the shadow
of her secret bower, and listened to the great uproarious sound of music
and mirth, that came floating towards her. She shut her eyes, and dreamt
her dream of lore. And when she opened them she found the Prince seated
on the ground before her gazing up at her face. And she covered her eyes
with both hands, and shrank back quivering with an inward tumult of joy.
And the Prince passed the whole day alone, walking by the side of the
surging sea. He carried in his mind that startled look, that shrinking
gesture of the Queen, and his heart beat high with hope.
That night the serried, gaily-dressed ranks of young men and maidens
waited with smiling faces at the Palace Gates. The Palace Hall was
lighted with fairy lamps and festooned with the flowers of spring.
Slowly the Queen of Hearts entered, and the whole assembly rose to greet
her. With a jasmine garland in her hand, she stood before the Prince
with downcast eyes. In her lowly bashfulness she could hardly raise the
garland to the neck of the Mate she had chosen. But the Prince bowed his
head, and the garland slipped to its place. The assembly of youths and
maidens had waited her choice with eager, expectant hush. And when
the choice was made, the whole vast concourse rocked and swayed with a
tumult of wild delight. And the sound of their shouts was heard in every
part of the island, and by ships far out at sea. Never had such a shout
been raised in the Kingdom of Cards before.
And they carried the Prince and his Bride, and seated them on the
throne, and crowned them then and there in the Ancient Island of Cards.
And the sorrowing Mother Queen, on the 'far-off island shore on the
other side of the sea, came sailing to her son's new kingdom in a ship
adorned with gold.
And the citizens are no longer regulated according to the Rules, but are
good or bad, or both, according to their Ichcha.
THE DEVOTEE
At a time, when my unpopularity with a part of my readers had reached
the nadir of its glory, and my name had become the central orb of the
journals, to be attended through space with a perpetual rotation of
revilement, I felt the necessity to retire to some quiet place and
endeavour to forget my own existence.
I have a house in the country some miles away from Calcutta, where I
can remain unknown and unmolested. The villagers there have not, as yet,
come to any conclusion about me. They know I am no mere holiday-maker or
pleasure-seeker; for I never outrage the silence of the village nights
with the riotous noises of the city. Nor do they regard me as ascetic,
because the little acquaintance they have of me carries the savour of
comfort about it. I am not, to them, a traveller; for, though I am a
vagabond by nature, my wandering through the village fields is aimless.
They are hardly even quite certain whether I am married or single; for
they have never seen me with my children. So, not being able to classify
me in any animal or vegetable kingdom that they know, they have long
since given me up and left me stolidly alone.
But quite lately I have come to know that there is one person in the
village who is deeply interested in me. Our acquaintance began on a
sultry afternoon in July. There had been rain all the morning, and the
air was still wet and heavy with mist, like eyelids when weeping is
over.
I sat lazily watching a dappled cow grazing on the high bank of the
river. The afternoon sun was playing on her glossy hide. The simple
beauty of this dress of light made me wonder idly at man's deliberate
waste of money in setting up tailors' shops to deprive his own skin of
its natural clothing.
While I was thus watching and lazily musing, a woman of middle age came
and prostrated herself before me, touching the ground with her forehead.
She carried in her robe some bunches of flowers, one of which she
offered to me with folded hands. She said to me, as she offered it:
"This is an offering to my God."
She went away. I was so taken aback as she uttered these words, that
I could hardly catch a glimpse of her before she was gone. The whole
incident was entirely simple, but it left a deep impression on my mind;
and as I turned back once more to look at the cattle in the field,
the zest of life in the cow, who was munching the lush grass with deep
breaths, while she whisked off the flies, appeared to me fraught with
mystery. My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full
of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is
God's own life. Then, plucking a tender shoot from the mango tree, I
fed the cow with it from my own hand, and as I did this I had the
satisfaction of having pleased my God.
The next year when I returned to the village it was February. The cold
season still lingered on. The morning sun came into my room, and I was
grateful for its warmth. I was writing, when the servant came to tell me
that a devotee, of the Vishnu cult, wanted to see me. I told him, in
an absent way, to bring her upstairs, and went on with my writing. The
Devotee came in, and bowed to me, touching my feet. I found that she was
the same woman whom I had met, for a brief moment, a year ago.
I was able now to examine her more closely. She was past that age when
one asks the question whether a woman is beautiful or not. Her stature
was above the ordinary height, and she was strongly built; but her body
was slightly bent owing to her constant attitude of veneration. Her
manner had nothing shrinking about it. The most remarkable of her
features were her two eyes. They seemed to have a penetrating power
which could make distance near.
With those two large eyes of hers, she seemed to push me as she entered.
"What is this?" she asked. "Why have you brought me here before your
throne, my God? I used to see you among the trees; and that was much
better. That was the true place to meet you."
She must have seen me walking in the garden without my seeing her. For
the last few clays, however, I had suffered from a cold, and had been
prevented from going out. I had, perforce, to stay indoors and pay my
homage to the evening sky from my terrace. After a silent pause the
Devotee said to me: "O my God, give me some words of good."
I was quite unprepared for this abrupt request, and answered her on the
spur of the moment: "Good words I neither give nor receive. I simply
open my eyes and keep silence, and then I can at once both hear and see,
even when no sound is uttered. Now, while I am looking at you, it is as
good as listening to your voice."
The Devotee became quite excited as I spoke, and exclaimed: "God speaks
to me, not only with His mouth, but with His whole body."
I said to her: "When I am silent I can listen with my whole body. I have
come away from Calcutta here to listen to that sound."
The Devotee said: "Yes, I know that, and therefore I have come here to
sit by you."
Before taking her leave, she again bowed to me, and touched my feet.
I could see that she was distressed, because my feet were covered. She
wished them to be bare.
Early next morning I came out, and sat on my terrace on the roof. Beyond
the line of trees southward I could see the open country chill and
desolate. I could watch the sun rising over the sugar-cane in the East,
beyond the clump of trees at the side of the village. Out of the deep
shadow of those dark trees the village road suddenly appeared. It
stretched forward, winding its way to some distant villages on the
horizon, till it was lost in the grey of the mist.
That morning it was difficult to say whether the sun had risen or not. A
white fog was still clinging to the tops of the trees. I saw the Devotee
walking through the blurred dawn, like a mist-wraith of the morning
twilight. She was singing her chant to God, and sounding her cymbals.
The thick haze lifted at last; and the sun, like the kindly grandsire of
the village, took his seat amid all the work that was going on in home
and field.
When I had just settled down at my writing-table, to appease the hungry
appetite of my editor in Calcutta, there came a sound of footsteps on
the stair, and the Devotee, humming a tune to herself, entered, and
bowed before me. I lifted my head from my papers.
She said to me: "My God, yesterday I took as sacred food what was left
over from your meal."
I was startled, and asked her how she could do that.
"Oh," she said, "I waited at your door in the evening, while you were at
dinner, and took some food from your plate when it was carried out."
This was a surprise to me, for every one in the village knew that I had
been to Europe, and had eaten with Europeans. I was a vegetarian, no
doubt, but the sanctity of my cook would not bear investigation, and the
orthodox regarded my food as polluted.
The Devotee, noticing my sign of surprise, said: "My God, why should I
come to you at all, if I could not take your food?"
I asked her what her own caste people would say. She told me she had
already spread the news far and wide all over the village. The caste
people had shaken their heads, but agreed that she must go her own way.
I found out that the Devotee came from a good family in the country, and
that her mother was well to-do, and desired to keep her daughter. But
she preferred to be a mendicant. I asked her how she made her living.
She told me that her followers had given her a piece of land, and that
she begged her food from door to door. She said to me: "The food which I
get by begging is divine."
After I had thought over what she said, I understood her meaning. When
we get our food precariously as alms, we remember God the giver. But
when we receive our food regularly at home, as a matter of course, we
are apt to regard it as ours by right.
I had a great desire to ask her about her husband. But as she never
mentioned him even indirectly, I did not question her.
I found out very soon that the Devotee had no respect at all for that
part of the village where the people of the higher castes lived.
"They never give," she said, "a single farthing to God's service; and
yet they have the largest share of God's glebe. But the poor worship and
starve."
I asked her why she did not go and live among these godless people,
and help them towards a better life. "That," I said with some unction,
"would be the highest form of divine worship."
I had heard sermons of this kind from time to time, and I am rather fond
of copying them myself for the public benefit, when the chance comes.
But the Devotee was not at all impressed. She raised her big round eyes,
and looked straight into mine, and said:
"You mean to say that because God is with the sinners, therefore when
you do them any service you do it to God? Is that so?"
"Yes," I replied, "that is my meaning."
"Of course," she answered almost impatiently, "of course, God is with
them: otherwise, how could they go on living at all? But what is that to
me? My God is not there. My God cannot be worshipped among them; because
I do not find Him there. I seek Him where I can find Him."
As she spoke, she made obeisance to me. What she meant to say was really
this. A mere doctrine of God's omnipresence does not help us. That God
is all-pervading,--this truth may be a mere intangible abstraction, and
therefore unreal to ourselves. Where I can see Him, there is His reality
in my soul.
I need not explain that all the while she showered her devotion on me
she did it to me not as an individual. I was simply a vehicle of her
divine worship. It was not for me either to receive it or to refuse it:
for it was not mine, but God's.
When the Devotee came again, she found me once more engaged with my
books and papers.
"What have you been doing," she said, with evident vexation, "that my
God should make you undertake such drudgery? Whenever I come, I find you
reading and writing."
"God keeps his useless people busy," I answered; "otherwise they would
be bound to get into mischief. They have to do all the least necessary
things in life. It keeps them out of trouble."
The Devotee told me that she could not bear the encumbrances, with
which, day by day, I was surrounded. If she wanted to see me, she was
not allowed by the servants to come straight upstairs. If she wanted
to touch my feet in worship, there were my socks always in the way. And
when she wanted to have a simple talk with me, she found my mind lost in
a wilderness of letters.
This time, before she left me, she folded her hands, and said: "My God!
I felt your feet in my breast this morning. Oh, how cool! And they were
bare, not covered. I held them upon my head for a long time in worship.
That filled my very being. Then, after that, pray what was the use of my
coming to you yourself? Why did I come? My Lord, tell me truly,--wasn't
it a mere infatuation?"
There were some flowers in my vase on the table. While she was there,
the gardener brought some new flowers to put in their place. The Devotee
saw him changing them.
"Is that all?" she exclaimed. "Have you done with the flowers? Then give
them to me."
She held the flowers tenderly in the cup of her hands, and began to gaze
at them with bent head. After a few moments' silence she raised her head
again, and said to me: "You never look at these flowers; therefore they
become stale to you. If you would only look into them, then your reading
and writing would go to the winds."
She tied the flowers together in the end of her robe, and placed them,
in an attitude of worship, on the top of her head, saying reverently:
"Let me carry my God with me."
While she did this, I felt that flowers in our rooms do not receive
their due meed of loving care at our hands. When we stick them in vases,
they are more like a row of naughty schoolboys standing on a form to be
punished.
The Devotee came again the same evening, and sat by my feet on the
terrace of the roof.
"I gave away those flowers," she said, "as I went from house to house
this morning, singing God's name. Beni, the head man of our village,
laughed at me for my devotion, and said: 'Why do you waste all
this devotion on Him? Don't you know He is reviled up and down the
countryside?' Is that true, my God? Is it true that they are hard upon
you?"
For a moment I shrank into myself. It was a shock to find that the
stains of printers' ink could reach so far.
The Devotee went on: "Beni imagined that he could blow out the flame
of my devotion at one breath! But this is no mere tiny flame: it is a
burning fire. Why do they abuse you, my God?"
I said: "Because I deserved it. I suppose in my greed I was loitering
about to steal people's hearts in secret."
The Devotee said: "Now you see for yourself how little their hearts are
worth. They are full of poison, and this will cure you of your greed."
"When a man," I answered, "has greed in his heart, he is always on
the verge of being beaten. The greed itself supplies his enemies with
poison."
"Our merciful God," she replied, "beats us with His own hand, and drives
away all the poison. He who endures God's beating to the end is saved."
II.
That evening the Devotee told me the story of her life. The stars of
evening rose and set behind the trees, as she went on to the end of her
tale.
"My husband is very simple. Some people think that he is a simpleton;
but I know that those who understand simply, understand truly. In
business and household management he was able to hold his own. Because
his needs were small, and his wants few, he could manage carefully
on what we had. He would never meddle in other matters, nor try to
understand them.
"Both my husband's parents died before we had been married long, and we
were left alone. But my husband always needed some one to be over him. I
am ashamed to confess that he had a sort of reverence for me, and looked
upon me as his superior. But I am sure that he could understand things
better than I, though I had greater powers of talking.
"Of all the people in the world he held his Guru Thakur (spiritual
master) in the highest veneration. Indeed it was not veneration merely
but love; and such love as his is rare.
"Guru Thakur was younger than my husband. Oh! how beautiful he was!
"My husband had played games with him when he was a boy; and from that
time forward he had dedicated his heart and soul to this friend of his
early days. Thakur knew how simple my husband was, and used to tease him
mercilessly.
"He and his comrades would play jokes upon him for their own amusement;
but he would bear them all with longsuffering.
"When I married into this family, Guru Thakur was studying at Benares.
My husband used to pay all his expenses. I was eighteen years old when
he returned home to our village.
"At the age of fifteen I had my child. I was so young I did not know
how to take care of him. I was fond of gossip, and liked to be with my
village friends for hours together. I used to get quite cross with
my boy when I was compelled to stay at home and nurse him. Alas! my
child-God came into my life, but His playthings were not ready for Him.
He came to the mother's heart, but the mother's heart lagged behind. He
left me in anger; and ever since I have been searching for Him up and
down the world.
"The boy was the joy of his father's life. My careless neglect used to
pain my husband. But his was a mute soul. He has never been able to give
expression to his pain.
"The wonderful thing was this, that in spite of my neglect the child
used to love me more than any one else. He seemed to have the dread that
I would one day go away and leave him. So even when I was with him, he
would watch me with a restless look in his eyes. He had me very little
to himself, and therefore his desire to be with me was always painfully
eager. When I went each day to the river, he used to fret and stretch
out his little arms to be taken with me. But the bathing ghal was my
place for meeting my friends, and I did not care to burden myself with
the child.
"It was an early morning in August. Fold after fold of grey clouds had
wrapped the mid-day round with a wet clinging robe. I asked the maid to
take care of the boy, while I went down to the river. The child cried
after me as I went away.
"There was no one there at the bathing ghat when I arrived. As a
swimmer, I was the best among all the village women. The river was
quite full with the rains. I swam out into the middle of the stream some
distance from the shore.
"Then I heard a cry from the bank, 'Mother!' I turned my head and saw
my boy coming down the steps, calling me as he came. I shouted to him
to stop, but he went on, laughing and calling. My feet and hands became
cramped with fear. I shut my eyes, afraid to see. When I opened
them, there, at the slippery stairs, my boy's ripple of laughter had
disappeared for ever.
"I got back to the shore. I raised him from the water. I took him in my
arms, my boy, my darling, who had begged so often in vain for me to
take him. I took him now, but he no more looked in my eyes and called
'Mother.'
"My child-God had come. I had ever neglected Him. I had ever made Him
cry. And now all that neglect began to beat against my own heart, blow
upon blow, blow upon blow. When my boy was with me, I had left him
alone. I had refused to take him with me. And now, when he is dead, his
memory clings to me and never leaves me.
"God alone knows all that my husband suffered. If he had only punished
me for my sin, it would have been better for us both. But he knew only
how to endure in silence, not how to speak.
"When I was almost mad with grief, Guru Thakur came back. In earlier
days, the relation between him and my husband had been that of boyish
friendship. Now, my husband's reverence for his sanctity and learning
was unbounded. He could hardly speak in his presence, his awe of him was
so great.
"My husband asked his Guru to try to give me some consolation. Guru
Thakur began to read and explain to me the scriptures. But I do not
think they had much effect on my mind. All their value for me lay in the
voice that uttered them. God makes the draught of divine life deepest
in the heart for man to drink, through the human voice. He has no better
vessel in His hand than that; and He Himself drinks His divine draught
out of the same vessel.
"My husband's love and veneration for his Guru filled our house, as
incense fills a temple shrine. I showed that veneration, and had peace.
I saw my God in the form of that Guru. He used to come to take his meal
at our house every morning. The first thought that would come to my mind
on waking from sleep was that of his food as a sacred gift from God.
When I prepared the things for his meal, my fingers would sing for joy.
"When my husband saw my devotion to his Guru, his respect for me greatly
increased. He noticed his Guru's eager desire to explain the scriptures
to me. He used to think that he could never expect to earn any regard
from his Guru himself, on account of his stupidity; but his wife had
made up for it.
"Thus another five years went by happily, and my whole life would have
passed like that; but beneath the surface some stealing was going on
somewhere in secret. I could not detect it; but it was detected by the
God of my heart. Then came a day when, in a moment our whole life was
turned upside down.
"It was a morning in midsummer. I was returning home from bathing, my
clothes all wet, down a shady lane. At the bend of the road, under the
mango tree, I met my Guru Thakur. He had his towel on his shoulder and
was repeating some Sanskrit verses as he was going to take his bath.
With my wet clothes clinging all about me I was ashamed to meet him. I
tried to pass by quickly, and avoid being seen. He called me by my name.
"I stopped, lowering my eyes, shrinking into myself. He fixed his gaze
upon me, and said: 'How beautiful is your body!'
"All the universe of birds seemed to break into song in the branches
overhead. All the bushes in the lane seemed ablaze with flowers. It
was as though the earth and sky and everything had become a riot of
intoxicating joy.
"I cannot tell how I got home. I only remember that I rushed into the
room where we worship God. But the room seemed empty. Only before my
eyes those same gold spangles of light were dancing which had quivered
in front of me in that shady lane on my way back from the river.
"Guru Thakur came to take his food that day, and asked my husband where
I had gone. He searched for me, but could not find me anywhere.
"Ah! I have not the same earth now any longer. The same sunlight is not
mine. I called on my God in my dismay, and He kept His face turned away
from me.
"The day passed, I know not how. That night I had to meet my husband.
But the night is dark and silent. It is the time when my husband's mind
comes out shining, like stars at twilight. I had heard him speak things
in the dark, and I had been surprised to find how deeply he understood.
"Sometimes I am late in the evening in going to rest on account of
household work. My husband waits for me, seated on the floor, without
going to bed. Our talk at such times had often begun with something
about our Guru.
"That night, when it was past midnight, I came to my room, and found my
husband sleeping on the floor. Without disturbing him I lay down on the
ground at his feet, my head towards him. Once he stretched his feet,
while sleeping, and struck me on the breast. That was his last bequest.
"Next morning, when my husband woke up from his sleep, I was already
sitting by him. Outside the window, over the thick foliage of the
jack-fruit tree, appeared the first pale red of the dawn at the fringe
of the night. It was so early that the crows had not yet begun to call.
"I bowed, and touched my husband's feet with my forehead. He sat up,
starting as if waking from a dream, and looked at my face in amazement.
I said:
"'I have made up my mind. I must leave the world. I cannot belong to
you any longer. I must leave your home.'
"Perhaps my husband thought that he was still dreaming. He said not a
word.
"'Ah! do hear me!' I pleaded with infinite pain. 'Do hear me and
understand! You must marry another wife. I must take my leave.'
"My husband said: 'What is all this wild, mad talk? Who advises you to
leave the world?'
"I said: 'My Guru Thakur.'
"My husband looked bewildered. 'Guru Thakur!' he cried. 'When did he
give you this advice?'
"'In the morning,' I answered, 'yesterday, when I met him on my way back
from the river.'
"His voice trembled a little. He turned, and looked in my face, and
asked me: 'Why did he give you such a behest?'
"'I do not know,' I answered. 'Ask him! He will tell you himself, if he
can.'
"My husband said: 'It is possible to leave the world, even when
continuing to live in it. You need not leave my home. I will speak to my
Guru about it.'
"'Your Guru,' I said, 'may accept your petition; but my heart will
never give its consent. I must leave your home. From henceforth, the
world is no more to me.'
"My husband remained silent, and we sat there on the floor in the dark.
When it was light, he said to me: 'Let us both come to him.'
"I folded my hands and said: 'I shall never meet him again.'
"He looked into my face. I lowered my eyes. He said no more. I knew
that, somehow, he had seen into my mind, and understood what was there.
In this world of mine, there were only two who loved me best--my boy
and my husband. That love was my God, and therefore it could brook no
falsehood. One of these two left me, and I left the other. Now I must
have truth, and truth alone."
She touched the ground at my feet, rose and bowed to me, and departed.
VISION
I
When I was a very young wife, I gave birth to a dead child, and came
near to death myself. I recovered strength very slowly, and my eyesight
became weaker and weaker.
My husband at this time was studying medicine. He was not altogether
sorry to have a chance of testing his medical knowledge on me. So he
began to treat my eyes himself.
My elder brother was reading for his law examination. One day he came to
see me, and was alarmed at my condition.
"What are you doing?" he said to my husband. "You are ruining Kumo's
eyes. You ought to consult a good doctor at once."
My husband said irritably: "Why! what can a good doctor do more than I
am doing? The case is quite a simple one, and the remedies are all well
known."
Dada answered with scorn: "I suppose you think there is no difference
between you and a Professor in your own Medical College."
My husband replied angrily: "If you ever get married, and there is a
dispute about your wife's property, you won't take my advice about Law.
Why, then, do you now come advising me about Medicine?"
While they were quarrelling, I was saying to myself that it was always
the poor grass that suffered most when two kings went to war. Here was a
dispute going on between these two, and I had to bear the brunt of it.
It also seemed to me very unfair that, when my family had given me in
marriage, they should interfere afterwards. After all, my pleasure and
pain are my husband's concern, not theirs.
From that day forward, merely over this trifling matter of my eyes, the
bond between my husband and Dada was strained.
To my surprise one afternoon, while my husband was away, Dada brought
a doctor in to see me. He examined my eyes very carefully, and looked
grave. He said that further neglect would be dangerous. He wrote out a
prescription, and Dada for the medicine at once. When the strange doctor
had gone, I implored my Dada not to interfere. I was sure that only evil
would come from the stealthy visits of a doctor.
I was surprised at myself for plucking up courage speak to my brother
like that. I had always hitherto been afraid of him. I am sure also that
Dada was surprised at my boldness. He kept silence for a while, and then
said to me: "Very well, Kumo. I won't call in the doctor any more. But
when the medicine comes you must take it."
Dada then went away. The medicine came from chemist. I took it--bottles,
powders, prescriptions and all--and threw it down the well!
My husband had been irritated by Dada's interference, and he began to
treat my eyes with greater diligence than ever. He tried all sorts of
remedies. I bandaged my eyes as he told me, I wore his coloured glasses,
I put in his drops, I took all his powders. I even drank the cod-liver
oil he gave me, though my gorge rose against it.
Each time he came back from the hospital, he would ask me anxiously how
I felt; and I would answer: "Oh! much better." Indeed I became an expert
in self-delusion. When I found that the water in my eyes was still
increasing, I would console myself with the thought that it was a good
thing to get rid of so much bad fluid; and, when the flow of water in my
eyes decreased, I was elated at my husband's skill.
But after a while the agony became unbearable. My eyesight faded away,
and I had continual headaches day and night. I saw how much alarmed
my husband was getting. I gathered from his manner that he was casting
about for a pretext to call in a doctor. So I hinted that it might be as
well to call one in.
That he was greatly relieved, I could see. He called in an English
doctor that very day. I do not know what talk they had together, but I
gathered that the Sahib had spoken very sharply to my husband.
He remained silent for some time after the doctor had gone. I took
his hands in mine, and said: "What an ill-mannered brute that was! Why
didn't you call in an Indian doctor? That would have been much better.
Do you think that man knows better than you do about my eyes?"
My husband was very silent for a moment, and then said with a broken
voice: "Kumo, your eyes must be operated on."
I pretended to be vexed with him for concealing the fact from me so
long.
"Here you have known this all the time," said I, "and yet you have said
nothing about it! Do you think I am such a baby as to be afraid of an
operation?"
At that he regained his good spirits: "There are very few men," said
he, "who are heroic enough to look forward to an operation without
shrinking."
I laughed at him: "Yes, that is so. Men are heroic only before their
wives!"
He looked at me gravely, and said: "You are perfectly right. We men are
dreadfully vain."
I laughed away his seriousness: "Are you sure you can beat us women even
in vanity?"
When Dada came, I took him aside: "Dada, that treatment your doctor
recommended would have done me a world of good; only unfortunately.
I mistook the mixture for the lotion. And since the day I made the
mistake, my eyes have grown steadily worse; and now an operation is
needed."
Dada said to me: "You were under your husband's treatment, and that is
why I gave up coming to visit you."
"No," I answered. "In reality, I was secretly treating myself in
accordance with your doctor's directions."
Oh! what lies we women have to tell! When we are mothers, we tell lies
to pacify our children; and when we are wives, we tell lies to pacify
the fathers of our children. We are never free from this necessity.
My deception had the effect of bringing about a better feeling between
my husband and Dada. Dada blamed himself for asking me to keep a secret
from my husband: and my husband regretted that he had not taken my
brother's advice at the first.
At last, with the consent of both, an English doctor came, and operated
on my left eye. That eye, however, was too weak to bear the strain;
and the last flickering glimmer of light went out. Then the other eye
gradually lost itself in darkness.
One day my husband came to my bedside. "I cannot brazen it out before
you any longer," said he, "Kumo, it is I who have ruined your eyes."
I felt that his voice was choking with tears, and so I took up his right
hand in both of mine and said: "Why! you did exactly what was right. You
have dealt only with that which was your very own. Just imagine, if some
strange doctor had come and taken away my eyesight. What consolation
should I have had then? But now I can feel that all has happened for the
best; and my great comfort is to know that it is at your hands I have
lost my eyes. When Ramchandra found one lotus too few with which to
worship God, he offered both his eyes in place of the lotus. And I hate
dedicated my eyes to my God. From now, whenever you see something that
is a joy to you, then you must describe it to me; and I will feed upon
your words as a sacred gift left over from your vision."
I do not mean, of course, that I said all this there and then, for it is
impossible to speak these things an the spur of the moment. But I used
to think over words like these for days and days together. And when I
was very depressed, or if at any time the light of my devotion became
dim, and I pitied my evil fate, then I made my mind utter these
sentences, one by one, as a child repeats a story that is told. And so I
could breathe once more the serener air of peace and love.
At the very time of our talk together, I said enough to show my husband
what was in my heart.
"Kumo," he said to me, "the mischief I have done by my folly can never
be made good. But I can do one thing. I can ever remain by your side,
and try to make up for your want of vision as much as is in my power."
"No," said I. "That will never do. I shall not ask you to turn your
house into an hospital for the blind. There is only one thing to be
done, you must marry again."
As I tried to explain to him that this was necessary, my voice broke
a little. I coughed, and tried to hide my emotion, but he burst out
saying:
"Kumo, I know I am a fool, and a braggart, and all that, but I am not a
villain! If ever I marry again, I swear to you--I swear to you the most
solemn oath by my family god, Gopinath--may that most hated of all sins,
the sin of parricide, fall on my head!"
Ah! I should never, never have allowed him to swear that dreadful
oath. But tears were choking my voice, and I could not say a word for
insufferable joy. I hid my blind face in my pillows, and sobbed, and
sobbed again. At last, when the first flood of my tears was over, I drew
his head down to my breast.
"Ah!" said I, "why did you take such a terrible oath? Do you think
I asked you to marry again for your own sordid pleasure? No! I was
thinking of myself, for she could perform those services which were mine
to give you when I had my sight."
"Services!" said he, "services! Those can be done by servants. Do you
think I am mad enough to bring a slave into my house, and bid her share
the throne with this my Goddess?"
As he said the word "Goddess," he held up my face in his hands, and
placed a kiss between my brows. At that moment the third eye of divine
wisdom was opened, where he kissed me, and verily I had a consecration.
I said in my own mind: "It is well. I am no longer able to serve him in
the lower world of household cares. But I shall rise to a higher
region. I shall bring down blessings from above. No more lies! No more
deceptions for me! All the littlenesses and hypocrisies of my former
life shall be banished for ever!"
That day, the whole day through, I felt a conflict going on within me.
The joy of the thought, that after this solemn oath it was impossible
for my husband to marry again, fixed its roots deep in my heart, and
I could not tear them out. But the new Goddess, who had taken her new
throne in me, said: "The time might come when it would be good for
your husband to break his oath and marry again." But the woman, who was
within me, said: "That may be; but all the same an oath is an oath, and
there is no way out." The Goddess, who was within me, answered: "That is
no reason why you should exult over it." But the woman, who was within
me, replied: "What you say is quite true, no doubt; all the same he has
taken his oath." And the same story went on again and again. At last
the Goddess frowned in silence, and the darkness of a horrible fear came
down upon me.
My repentant husband would not let the servants do my work; he must do
it all himself. At first it gave me unbounded delight to be dependent
on him thus for every little thing. It was a means of keeping him by
my side, and my desire to have him with me had become intense since my
blindness. That share of his presence, which my eyes had lost, my other
senses craved. When he was absent from my side, I would feel as if I
were hanging in mid-air, and had lost my hold of all things tangible.
Formerly, when my husband came back late from the hospital, I used
to open my window and gaze at the road. That road was the link which
connected his world with mine. Now when I had lost that link through my
blindness, all my body would go out to seek him. The bridge that united
us had given way, and there was now this unsurpassable chasm. When he
left my side the gulf seemed to yawn wide open. I could only wait for
the time when he should cross back again from his own shore to mine.
But such intense longing and such utter dependence can never be good.
A wife is a burden enough to a man, in all conscience, and to add to it
the burden of this blindness was to make his life unbearable. I vowed
that I would suffer alone, and never wrap my husband round in the folds
of my all-pervading darkness.
Within an incredibly short space of time I managed to train myself to
do all my household duties by the help of touch and sound and smell. In
fact I soon found that I could get on with greater skill than before.
For sight often distracts rather than helps us. And so it came to pass
that, when these roving eyes of mine could do their work no longer,
all the other senses took up their several duties with quietude and
completeness.
When I had gained experience by constant practice, I would not let my
husband do any more household duties for me. He complained bitterly at
first that I was depriving him of his penance.
This did not convince me. Whatever he might say, I could feel that he
had a real sense of relief when these household duties were over. To
serve daily a wife who is blind can never make up the life of a man.
II
My husband at last had finished his medical course. He went away from
Calcutta to a small town to practise as a doctor. There in the country I
felt with joy, through all my blindness, that I was restored to the arms
of my mother. I had left my village birthplace for Calcutta when I was
eight years old. Since then ten years had passed away, and in the great
city the memory of my village home had grown dim. As long as I had
eyesight, Calcutta with its busy life screened from view the memory of
my early days. But when I lost my eyesight I knew for the first time
that Calcutta allured only the eyes: it could not fill the mind. And
now, in my blindness, the scenes of my childhood shone out once more,
like stars that appear one by one in the evening sky at the end of the
day.
It was the beginning of November when we left Calcutta for Harsingpur.
The place was new to me, but the scents and sounds of the countryside
pressed round and embraced me. The morning breeze coming fresh from
the newly ploughed land, the sweet and tender smell of the flowering
mustard, the shepherd-boy's flute sounding in the distance, even the
creaking noise of the bullock-cart, as it groaned over the broken
village road, filled my world with delight. The memory of my past life,
with all its ineffable fragrance and sound, became a living present to
me, and my blind eyes could not tell me I was wrong. I went back, and
lived over again my childhood. Only one thing was absent: my mother was
not with me.
I could see my home with the large peepul trees growing along the edge
of the village pool. I could picture in my mind's eye my old grandmother
seated on the ground with her thin wisps of hair untied, warming her
back in the sun as she made the little round lentil balls to be dried
and used for cooking. But somehow I could not recall the songs she used
to croon to herself in her weak and quavering voice. In the evening,
whenever I heard the lowing of cattle, I could almost watch the figure
of my mother going round the sheds with lighted lamp in her hand. The
smell of the wet fodder and the pungent smoke of the straw fire would
enter into my very heart. And in the distance I seemed to hear the
clanging of the temple bell wafted up by the breeze from the river bank.
Calcutta, with all its turmoil and gossip, curdles the heart. There,
all the beautiful duties of life lose their freshness and innocence. I
remember one day, when a friend of mine came in, and said to me: "Kumo,
why don't you feel angry? If I had been treated like you by my husband,
I would never look upon his face again."
She tried to make me indignant, because he had been so long calling in a
doctor.
"My blindness," said I, "was itself a sufficient evil. Why should I make
it worse by allowing hatred to grow up against my husband?"
My friend shook her head in great contempt, when she heard such
old-fashioned talk from the lips of a mere chit of a girl. She went away
in disdain. But whatever might be my answer at the time, such words as
these left their poison; and the venom was never wholly got out of the
soul, when once they had been uttered.
So you see Calcutta, with its never-ending gossip, does harden the
heart. But when I came back to the country all my earlier hopes and
faiths, all that I held true in life during childhood, became fresh and
bright once more. God came to me, and filled my heart and my world. I
bowed to Him, and said:
"It is well that Thou has taken away my eyes. Thou art with me."
Ah! But I said more than was right. It was a presumption to say: "Thou
art with me." All we can say is this: "I must be true to Thee." Even
when nothing is left for us, still we have to go on living.
III
We passed a few happy months together. My husband gained some reputation
in his profession as a doctor. And money came with it.
But there is a mischief in money. I cannot point to any one event; but,
because the blind have keener perceptions than other people, I could
discern the change which came over my husband along with the increase of
wealth.
He had a keen sense of justice when he was younger, and had often told
me of his great desire to help the poor when once he obtained a practice
of his own. He had a noble contempt far those in his profession who
would not feel the pulse of a poor patient before collecting his fee.
But now I noticed a difference. He had become strangely hard. Once when
a poor woman came, and begged him, out of charity, to save the life of
her only child, he bluntly refused. And when I implored him myself to
help her, he did his work perfunctorily.
While we were less rich my husband disliked sharp practice in money
matters. He was scrupulously honourable in such things. But since he
had got a large account at the bank he was often closeted for hours with
some scamp of a landlord's agent, for purposes which clearly boded no
good.
Where has he drifted? What has become of this husband of mine,--the
husband I knew before I was blind; the husband who kissed me that day
between my brows, and enshrined me on the throne of a Goddess? Those
whom a sudden gust of passion brings down to the dust can rise up again
with a new strong impulse of goodness. But those who, day by day, become
dried up in the very fibre of their moral being; those who by some outer
parasitic growth choke the inner life by slow degrees,--such wench one
day a deadness which knows no healing.
The separation caused by blindness is the merest physical trifle. But,
ah! it suffocates me to find that he is no longer with me, where he
stood with me in that hour when we both knew that I was blind. That is a
separation indeed!
I, with my love fresh and my faith unbroken, have kept to the shelter of
my heart's inner shrine. But my husband has left the cool shade of those
things that are ageless and unfading. He is fast disappearing into the
barren, waterless waste in his mad thirst for gold.
Sometimes the suspicion comes to me that things not so bad as they seem:
that perhaps I exaggerate because I am blind. It may be that, if my
eyesight were unimpaired, I should have accepted world as I found it.
This, at any rate, was the light in which my husband looked at all my
moods and fancies.
One day an old Musalman came to the house. He asked my husband to visit
his little grand-daughter. I could hear the old man say: "Baba, I am
a poor man; but come with me, and Allah will do you good." My husband
answered coldly: "What Allah will do won't help matters; I want to know
what you can do for me."
When I heard it, I wondered in my mind why God had not made me deaf as
well as blind. The old man heaved a deep sigh, and departed. I sent
my maid to fetch him to my room. I met him at the door of the inner
apartment, and put some money into his hand.
"Please take this from me," said I, "for your little grand-daughter, and
get a trustworthy doctor to look after her. And-pray for my husband."
But the whole of that day I could take no food at all. In the afternoon,
when my husband got up from sleep, he asked me: "Why do you look so
pale?"
I was about to say, as I used to do in the past: "Oh! It's nothing ";
but those days of deception were over, and I spoke to him plainly.
"I have been hesitating," I said, "for days together to tell you
something. It has been hard to think out what exactly it was I wanted to
say. Even now I may not be able to explain what I had in my mind. But I
am sure you know what has happened. Our lives have drifted apart."
My husband laughed in a forced manner, and said: "Change is the law of
nature."
I said to him: "I know that. But there are some things that are
eternal."
Then he became serious.
"There are many women," said he, "who have a real cause for sorrow.
There are some whose husbands do not earn money. There are others whose
husbands do not love them. But you are making yourself wretched about
nothing at all."
Then it became clear to me that my very blindness had conferred on me
the power of seeing a world which is beyond all change. Yes! It is true.
I am not like other women. And my husband will never understand me.
IV
Our two lives went on with their dull routine for some time. Then there
was a break in the monotony. An aunt of my husband came to pay us a
visit.
The first thing she blurted out after our first greeting was this:
"Well, Krum, it's a great pity you have become blind; but why do you
impose your own affliction on your husband? You must get him to another
wife."
There was an awkward pause. If my husband had only said something in
jest, or laughed in her face, all would have been over. But he stammered
and hesitated, and said at last in a nervous, stupid way: "Do you really
think so? Really, Aunt, you shouldn't talk like that."
His aunt appealed to me. "Was I wrong, Kumo?"
I laughed a hollow laugh.
"Had not you better," said I, "consult some one more competent to
decide? The pickpocket never asks permission from the man whose pocket
he is going to pick."
"You are quite right," she replied blandly. "Abinash, my dear, let us
have our little conference in private. What do you say to that?"
After a few days my husband asked her, in my presence, if she knew of
any girl of a decent family who could come and help me in my household
work. He knew quite well that I needed no help. I kept silence.
"Oh! there are heaps of them," replied his aunt. "My cousin has a
daughter who is just of the marriageable age, and as nice a girl as
you could wish. Her people would be only too glad to secure you as a
husband."
Again there came from him that forced, hesitating laugh, and he said:
"But I never mentioned marriage."
"How could you expect," asked his aunt, "a girl of decent family to come
and live in your house without marriage?"
He had to admit that this was reasonable, and remained nervously silent.
I stood alone within the closed doors of my blindness after he had gone,
and called upon my God and prayed: "O God, save my husband."
When I was coming out of the household shrine from my morning worship a
few days later, his aunt took hold of both my hands warmly.
"Kumo, here is the girl," said she, "we were speaking about the other
day. Her name is Hemangini. She will be delighted to meet you. Hemo,
come here and be introduced to your sister."
My husband entered the room at the same moment. He feigned surprise when
he saw the strange girl, and was about to retire. But his aunt said:
"Abinash, my dear, what are you running away for? There is no need to
do that. Here is my cousin's daughter, Hemangini, come to see you. Hemo,
make your bow to him."
As if taken quite by surprise, he began to ply his aunt with questions
about the when and why and how of the new arrival.
I saw the hollowness of the whole thing, and took Hemangini by the hand
and led her to my own room. I gently stroked her face and arms and hair,
and found that she was about fifteen years old, and very beautiful.
As I felt her face, she suddenly burst out laughing and said: "Why! what
are you doing? Are you hypnotising me?"
That sweet ringing laughter of hers swept away in a moment all the dark
clouds that stood between us. I threw my right arm about her neck.
"Dear one," said I, "I am trying to see you." And again I stroked her
soft face with my left hand.
"Trying to see me?" she said, with a new burst of laughter. "Am I like
a vegetable marrow, grown in your garden, that you want to feel me all
round to see how soft I am?"
I suddenly bethought me that she did not know I had lost my sight.
"Sister, I am blind," said I.
She was silent. I could feel her big young eyes, full of curiosity,
peering into my face. I knew they were full of pity. Then she grew
thoughtful and puzzled, and said, after a short pause:
"Oh! I see now. That was the reason your husband invited his aunt to
come and stay here."
"No!" I replied, "you are quite mistaken. He did not ask her to come.
She came of her own accord."
Hemangini went off into a peal of laughter. "That's just like my aunt,"
said she. "Oh I wasn't it nice of her to come without any invitation?
But now she's come, you won't get her to move for some time, I can
assure you!"
Then she paused, and looked puzzled.
"But why did father send me?" she asked. "Can you tell me that?"
The aunt had come into the room while we were talking. Hemangini said to
her: "When are you thinking of going back, Aunt?"
The aunt looked very much upset.
"What a question to ask!" said she, "I've never seen such a restless
body as you. We've only just come, and you ask when we're going back!"
"It is all very well for you," Hemangini said, "for this house belongs
to your near relations. But what about me? I tell you plainly I can't
stop here." And then she held my hand and said: "What do you think,
dear?"
I drew her to my heart, but said nothing. The aunt was in a great
difficulty. She felt the situation was getting beyond her control; so
she proposed that she and her niece should go out together to bathe.
"No! we two will go together," said Hemangini, clinging to me. The aunt
gave in, fearing opposition if she tried to drag her away.
Going down to the river Hemangini asked me: "Why don't you have
children?"
I was startled by her question, and answered: "How can I tell? My God
has not given me any. That is the reason."
"No! That's not the reason," said Hemangini quickly. "You must have
committed some sin. Look at my aunt. She is childless. It must be
because her heart has some wickedness. But what wickedness is in your
heart?"
The words hurt me. I have no solution to offer for the problem of evil.
I sighed deeply, and said in the silence of my soul: "My God! Thou
knowest the reason."
"Gracious goodness," cried Hemangini, "what are you sighing for? No one
ever takes me seriously."
And her laughter pealed across the river.
V
I found out after this that there were constant interruptions in my
husband's professional duties. He refused all calls from a distance, and
would hurry away from his patients, even when they were close at hand.
Formerly it was only during the mid-day meals and at night-time that he
could come into the inner apartment. But now, with unnecessary anxiety
for his aunt's comfort, he began to visit her at all hours of the day. I
knew at once that he had come to her room, when I heard her shouting for
Hemangini to bring in a glass of water. At first the girl would do what
she was told; but later on she refused altogether.
Then the aunt would call, in an endearing voice: "Hemo! Hemo!
Hemangini." But the girl would cling to me with an impulse of pity. A
sense of dread and sadness would keep her silent. Sometimes she would
shrink towards me like a hunted thing, who scarcely knew what was
coming.
About this time my brother came down from Calcutta to visit me. I knew
how keen his powers of observation were, and what a hard judge he was.
I feared my husband would be put on his defence, and have to stand his
trial before him. So I endeavoured to hide the true situation behind a
mask of noisy cheerfulness. But I am afraid I overdid the part: it was
unnatural for me.
My husband began to fidget openly, and asked how long my brother was
going to stay. At last his impatience became little short of insulting,
and my brother had no help for it but to leave. Before going he placed
his hand on my head, and kept it there for some time. I noticed that his
hand shook, and a tear fell from his eyes, as he silently gave me his
blessing.
I well remember that it was an evening in April, and a market-day.
People who had come into the town were going back home from market.
There was the feeling of an impending storm in the air; the smell of the
wet earth and the moisture in the wind were all-pervading. I never keep
a lighted lamp in my bedroom, when I am alone, lest my clothes should
catch fire, or some accident happen. I sat on the floor in my dark room,
and called upon the God of my blind world.
"O my Lord," I cried, "Thy face is hidden. I cannot see. I am blind. I
hold tight this broken rudder of a heart till my hands bleed. The waves
have become too strong for me. How long wilt thou try me, my God, how
long?"
I kept my head prone upon the bedstead and began to sob. As I did so,
I felt the bedstead move a little. The next moment Hemangini was by my
side. She clung to my neck, and wiped my tears away silently. I do not
know why she had been waiting that evening in the inner room, or why she
had been lying alone there in the dusk. She asked me no question. She
said no word. She simply placed her cool hand on my forehead, and kissed
me, and departed.
The next morning Hemangini said to her aunt in my presence: "If you want
to stay on, you can. But I don't. I'm going away home with our family
servant."
The aunt said there was no need for her to go alone, for she was going
away also. Then smilingly and mincingly she brought out, from a plush
case, a ring set with pearls.
"Look, Hemo," said she, "what a beautiful ring my Abinash brought for
you."
Hemangini snatched the ring from her hand.
"Look, Aunt," she answered quickly, "just see how splendidly I aim." And
she flung the ring into the tank outside the window.
The aunt, overwhelmed with alarm, vexation, and surprise, bristled like
a hedgehog. She turned to me, and held me by the hand.
"Kumo," she repeated again and again, "don't say a word about this
childish freak to Abinash. He would be fearfully vexed."
I assured her that she need not fear. Not a word would reach him about
it from my lips.
The next day before starting for home Hemangini embraced me, and said:
"Dearest, keep me in mind; do not forget me."
I stroked her face over and over with my fingers, and said: "Sister, the
blind have long memories."
I drew her head towards me, and kissed her hair and her forehead. My
world suddenly became grey. All the beauty and laughter and tender
youth, which had nestled so close to me, vanished when Hemangini
departed. I went groping about with arms outstretched, seeking to find
out what was left in my deserted world.
My husband came in later. He affected a great relief now that they were
gone, but it was exaggerated and empty. He pretended that his aunt's
visit had kept him away from work.
Hitherto there had been only the one barrier of blindness between me
and my husband. Now another barrier was added,--this deliberate silence
about Hemangini. He feigned utter indifference, but I knew he was having
letters about her.
It was early in May. My maid entered my room one morning, and asked
me: "What is all this preparation going on at the landing on the river?
Where is Master going?"
I knew there was something impending, but I said to the maid: "I can't
say."
The maid did not dare to ask me any more questions. She sighed, and went
away.
Late that night my husband came to me.
"I have to visit a patient in the country," said he. "I shall have to
start very early to-morrow morning, and I may have to be away for two or
three days."
I got up from my bed. I stood before him, and cried aloud: "Why are you
telling me lies?"
My husband stammered out: "What--what lies have I told you?"
I said: "You are going to get married."
He remained silent. For some moments there was no sound in the room.
Then I broke the silence:
"Answer me," I cried. "Say, yes."
He answered, "Yes," like a feeble echo.
I shouted out with a loud voice: "No! I shall never allow you. I shall
save you from this great disaster, this dreadful sin. If I fail in this,
then why am I your wife, and why did I ever worship my God?"
The room remained still as a stone. I dropped on the floor, and clung to
my husband's knees.
"What have I done?" I asked. "Where have I been lacking? Tell me truly.
Why do you want another wife?"
My husband said slowly: "I will tell you the truth. I am afraid of
you. Your blindness has enclosed you in its fortress, and I have now no
entrance. To me you are no longer a woman. You are awful as my God. I
cannot live my every day life with you. I want a woman--just an ordinary
woman--whom I can be free to chide and coax and pet and scold."
Oh, tear open my heart and see! What am I else but that,--just an
ordinary woman? I am the same girl that I was when I was newly wed, a
girl with all her need to believe, to confide, to worship.
I do not recollect exactly the words that I uttered. I only remember
that I said: "If I be a true wife, then, may God be my witness, you
shall never do this wicked deed, you shall never break your oath. Before
you commit such sacrilege, either I shall become a widow, or Hemangini
shall die."
Then I fell down on the floor in a swoon. When I came to myself, it was
still dark. The birds were silent. My husband had gone.
All that day I sat at my worship in the sanctuary at the household
shrine. In the evening a fierce storm, with thunder and lightning and
rain, swept down upon the house and shook it. As I crouched before the
shrine, I did not ask my God to save my husband from the storm, though
he must have been at that time in peril on the river. I prayed that
whatever might happen to me, my husband might be saved from this great
sin.
Night passed. The whole of the next day I kept my seat at worship. When
it was evening there was the noise of shaking and beating at the door.
When the door was broken open, they found me lying unconscious on the
ground, and carried me to my room.
When I came to myself at last, I heard some one whispering in my ear:
"Sister."
I found that I was lying in my room with my head on Hemangini's lap.
When my head moved, I heard her dress rustle. It was the sound of bridal
silk.