Our sister sayeth such and such,|
And we must bow to her behests;
Our sister toileth overmuch,
Our little maid that hath no breasts.
A field untilled, a web unwove,
We love her, but we laugh the while;
Wind of the South, arise and blow,
Alas! we vex her with our mirth,
Our sister sayeth such and such,
From Libretto of Naulahka.
‘HAS the miss sahib any orders?’ asked Dhunpat Rai, with Oriental calmness, as Kate turned toward the woman of the desert, staying herself against her massive shoulder.
Kate simply shook her head with closed lips.
‘It is very sad,’ said Dhunpat Rai thoughtfully, as though the matter were one in which he had no interest; ‘but it is on account of religious bigotry and intolerance which is prevalent mania in these parts. Once—twice before I have seen the same thing. About powders, sometimes; and once they said that the graduated glasses were holy vessels, and zinc ointment was cow-fat. But I have never seen all the hospital disembark simultaneously. I do not think they will come back; but my appointment is State appointment,’ he said, with a bland smile, ‘and so I shall draw my offeeshal income as before.’
Kate stared at him. ‘Do you mean that they will never come back?’ she asked falteringly.
‘Oh yes—in time—one or two; two or three of the men when they are hurt by tigers, or have ophthalmia; but the women—no. Their husbands will never allow. Ask that woman!’
Kate bent a piteous look of inquiry upon the woman of the desert, who, stooping down, took up a little sand, let it trickle through her fingers, brushed her palms together, and shook her head. Kate watched these movements despairingly.
‘You see it is all up—no good,’ said Dhunpat Rai, not unkindly, but unable to conceal a certain expression of satisfaction in a defeat which the wise had already predicted. ‘And now what will your honour do? Shall I lock up dispensary, or will you audit drug accounts now?’
Kate waved him off feebly. ‘No, no! Not now. I must think. I must have time. I will send you word. Come, dear one,’ she added in the vernacular to the woman of the desert, and hand in hand they went out from the hospital together.
The sturdy Rajput woman caught her up like a child when they were outside, and set her upon her horse, and tramped doggedly alongside, as they, set off together toward the house of the missionary.
‘And whither wilt thou go?’ asked Kate, in the woman’s own tongue.
‘I was the first of them all,’ answered the patient being at her side; ‘it is fitting therefore that I should be the last. Where thou guest I will go—and afterward what will fall will fall.’
Kate leaned down and took the woman’s hand in hers with a grateful pressure.
At the missionary’s gate she had to call up her courage not to break down. She had told Mrs. Estes so much of her hopes for the future, had dwelt so lovingly on all that she meant to teach these helpless creatures, had so constantly conferred with her about the help she had fancied herself to be daily bringing to them, that to own that her work had fallen to this ruin was unspeakably bitter. The thought of Tarvin she fought back. It went too deep.
But, fortunately, Mrs. Estes seemed not to be at home, and a messenger from the Queen Mother awaited Kate to demand her presence at the palace with the Maharaj Kunwar.
The woman of the desert laid a restraining hand on her arm, but Kate shook it off.
‘No, no, no! I must go. I must do something,’ she exclaimed almost fiercely, ‘since there is still some one who will let me. I must have work. It is my only refuge, kind one. Go you on to the palace.’
The woman yielded silently, and trudged on up the dusty road, while Kate sped into the house and to the room where the young Prince lay.
‘Lalji,’ she said, bending over him, ‘do you feel well enough to be lifted into the carriage and taken over to see your mother?’
‘I would rather see my father,’ responded the boy from the sofa, to which he had been transferred as a reward for the improvement he had made since yesterday. ‘I wish to speak to my father upon a most important thing.’
‘But your mother hasn’t seen you for so long, dear.’
‘Very well; I will go.’
‘Then I will tell them to get the carriage ready.’
Kate turned to leave the room.
‘No, please; I will have my own. Who is without there?’
‘Heaven-born, it is I,’ answered the deep voice of a trooper.
‘Achcha! Ride swiftly, and tell them to send down my barouche and escort. If it is not here in ten minutes, tell Saroop Singh that I will cut his pay and blacken his face before all my men. This day I go abroad again.’
‘May the mercy of God be upon the heavenborn for ten thousand years,’ responded the voice from without, as the trooper heaved himself into the saddle and clattered away.
By the time that the Prince was ready, a lumbering equipage, stuffed with many cushions, waited at the door. Kate and Mrs. Estes half-helped and half-carried the child into it, though he strove to stand on his feet in the verandah and acknowledge the salute of his escort as befitted a man.
‘Ahi! I am very weak,’ he said, with a little laugh, as they drove to the palace. ‘Certainly it seems to myself that I shall never get well in Rhatore.’
Kate put her arm about him and drew him closer to her.
‘Kate,’ he continued, ‘if I ask anything of my father, will you say that that thing is good for me?’
Kate, whose thoughts were still bitter and far away, patted his shoulder vaguely as she lifted her tear-stained eyes toward the red height on which the palace stood. ‘How can I tell, Lalji?’ She smiled down into his upturned face.
‘But it is a most wise thing.’
‘Is it?’ asked she fondly.
‘Yes; I have thought it out by myself. I am myself a Raj Kumar, and I would go to the Raj Kumar College, where they train the sons of princes to become kings. That is only at Ajmir; but I must go and learn, and fight, and ride with the other princes of Rajputana, and then I shall be altogether a man. I am going to the Raj Kumar College at Ajmir, that I may learn about the world. But you shall see how it is wise. The world looks very big since I have been ill. Kate, how big is the world which you have seen across the Black Water? Where is Tarvin Sahib? I have wished to see him too. Is Tarvin Sahib angry with me or with you?’
He plied her with a hundred questions till they halted before one of the gates in the flank of the palace that led to his mother’s wing. The woman of the desert rose from the ground beside it, and held out her arms.
‘I heard the message come,’ she said to Kate, ‘and I knew what was required. Give me the child to carry in. Nay, my Prince, there is no cause for fear. I am of good blood.’
‘Women of good blood walk veiled, and do not speak in the streets,’ said the child doubtfully.
‘One law for thee and thine, and another for me and mine,’ the woman answered, with a laugh. ‘We who earn our bread by toil cannot go veiled, but our fathers lived before us for many hundred years, even as did thine, heaven-born. Come then, the white fairy cannot carry thee so tenderly as I can.’
She put her arms about him, and held him to her breast as, easily as though he had been a three year-old child. He leaned back luxuriously, and waved a wasted hand; the grim gate grated on its hinges as it swung back, and they entered together—the woman, the child, and the girl.
There was no lavish display of ornament in that part of the palace. The gaudy tilework on the walls had flaked and crumbled away in many places, the shutters lacked paint and hung awry, and there was litter and refuse in the courtyard behind the gates. A queen who has lost the King’s favour loses much else as well in material comforts.
A door opened and a voice called. The three plunged into half darkness, and traversed a long, upward-sloping passage, floored with shining white stucco as smooth as marble, which communicated with the Queen’s apartments. The Maharaj Kunwar’s mother lived by preference in one long, low room that faced to the north-east, that she might press her face against the marble tracery and dream of her home across the sands, eight hundred miles away, among the Kulu hills. The hum of the crowded palace could not be heard there, and the footsteps of her few waiting-women alone broke the silence.
The woman of the desert, with the Prince hugged more closely to her breast, moved through the labyrinth of empty rooms, narrow staircases, and roofed courtyards with the air of a caged panther. Kate and the Prince were familiar with the dark and the tortuousness, the silence and the sullen mystery. To the one it was part and parcel of the horrors amid which she had elected to move; to the other it was his daily life.
At last. the journey ended. Kate lifted a heavy curtain, as the Prince called for his mother; and the Queen, rising from a pile of white cushions by the window, cried passionately—
‘Is it well with the child?’
The Prince struggled to the floor from the woman’s arms, and the Queen hung sobbing over him, calling him a thousand endearing names, and fondling him from head to foot. The child’s reserve melted—he had striven for a moment to carry himself as a man of the Rajput race: that is to say, as one shocked beyond expression at any public display of emotion—and he laughed and wept in his mother’s arms. The woman of the ‘desert drew her hand across her eyes, muttering to herself, and Kate turned to look out of the window.
‘How shall I give you thanks?’ said the Queen at last. ‘Oh, my son—my little son—child of my heart, the gods and she have made thee well again. But who is that yonder?’
Her eyes fell for the first time on the woman of the desert, where the latter stood by the doorway draped in dull-red.
‘She carried me here from the carriage,’ said the Prince, ‘saying that she was a Rajput of good blood.’
‘I am of Chohan blood—a Rajput and a mother of Rajputs,’ said the woman simply, still standing. ‘The white fairy worked a miracle upon my man. He was sick in the head and did not know me. It is true that he died, but before the passing of the breath he knew me and called me by my name.’
‘And she carried thee!’ said the Queen, with a shiver, drawing the Prince closer to her, for, like all Indian women, she counted the touch and glance of a widow things of evil omen.
The woman fell at the Queen’s feet. ‘Forgive me, forgive me,’ she cried. ‘I had borne three little ones, and the gods took them all and my man at the last. It was good—it was so good—to hold a child in my arms again. Thou canst forgive,’ she wailed; ‘thou art so rich in thy son, and I am only a widow.’
‘And I a widow in life,’ said the Queen, under her breath. ‘Of a truth, I should forgive. Rise thou.’
The woman lay still where she had fallen, clutching at the Queen’s naked feet.
‘Rise, then, my sister,’ the Queen whispered.
‘We of the fields,’ murmured the woman of the desert, ‘we do not know how to speak to the great people. If my words are rough, does the Queen forgive me?’
‘Indeed I forgive. Thy speech is softer than that of the hill-women of Kulu, but some of the words are new.’
‘I am of the desert—a herder of camels, a milker of goats. What should I know of the speech of courts? Let the white fairy speak for me.’
Kate listened with an alien ear. Now that she had discharged her duty, her freed mind went back to Tarvin’s danger and the shame and overthrow of an hour ago. She saw the women in her hospital slipping away one by one, her work unravelled, and all hope of good brought to wreck; and she saw Tarvin dying atrocious deaths, and, as she felt, by her hand.
‘What is it?’ she asked wearily, as the woman plucked at her skirt. Then to the Queen, ‘This is a woman who alone of all those whom I tried to benefit remained at my side to-day, Queen.’
‘There has been a talk in the palace,’ said the Queen, her arm round the Prince’s neck, ‘a talk that trouble had come to your hospital, sahiba.’
‘There is no hospital now,’ Kate answered grimly.
‘You promised to take me there, Kate, some day,’ the Prince said in English.
‘The women were fools,’ said the woman of the desert quietly, from her place on the ground. ‘A mad priest told them a lie—that there was a charm among the drugs——’
‘Deliver us from all evil spirits and exorcisms,’ the Queen murmured.
‘A charm among her drugs that she handles with her own hands, and so forsooth, sahiba, they must run out shrieking that their children will be misborn apes and their chicken-souls given to the devils. Aho! They will know in a week, not one or two, but many, whither their souls go for they will die—the corn and the corn in the ear together.’
Kate shivered. She knew too well that the woman spoke the truth.
‘But the drugs!’ began the Queen. ‘Who knows what powers there may be in the drugs?’ she laughed nervously, glancing at Kate.
‘Dekko! Look at her,’ said the woman, with quiet scorn. ‘She is a girl and naught else. What could she do to the Gates of Life?’
‘She has made my son whole, therefore she is my sister,’ said the Queen.
‘She caused my man to speak to me before the death hour; therefore I am her servant as well as thine, sahiba,’ said the other.
The Prince looked up in his mother’s face curiously. ‘She calls thee “thou,”’ he said, as though the woman did not exist. ‘That is not seemly between a villager and a queen, thee and thou!’
‘We be both women, little son. Stay still in my arms. Oh, it is good to feel thee here again, worthless one.’
‘The heaven-born looks as frail as dried maize,’ said the woman quickly.
‘A dried monkey, rather,’ returned the Queen, dropping her lips on the child’s head. Both mothers spoke aloud and with emphasis, that the gods, jealous of human happiness, might hear and take for truth the disparagement that veils deepest love.
‘Aho, my little monkey is dead,’ said the Prince, moving restlessly. ‘I need another one. Let me go into the palace and find another monkey.’
‘He must not wander into the palace from this chamber,’ said the Queen passionately, turning to Kate. ‘Thou art all too weak, beloved. O miss sahib, he must not go.’ She knew by experience that it was fruitless to cross her son’s will.
‘It is my order,’ said the Prince, without turning his head. ‘I will go.’
‘Stay with us, beloved,’ said Kate. She was wondering whether the hospital could be dragged together again, after three months, and whether it was possible she might have overrated the danger to Nick.
‘I go,’ said the Prince, breaking from his mother’s arms. ‘I am tired of this talk.’
‘Does the Queen give leave?’ asked the woman of the desert under her breath. The Queen nodded, and the Prince found himself caught between two brown arms, against whose strength it was impossible to struggle.
‘Let me go, widow!‘he shouted furiously.
‘It is not good for a Rajput to make light of a mother of Rajputs, my king,’ was the unmoved answer. ‘If the young calf does not obey the cow, he. learns obedience from the yoke. The heaven-born is not strong. He will fall among those passages and stairs. He will stay here. When the rage has left his body he will be weaker than before. Even now’—the large bright eyes bent themselves on the face of the child—‘even now,’ the calm voice continued, ‘the rage is going. One moment more, heaven-born, and thou wilt be a prince no longer, but only a little, little child, such as I have borne. Ahi, such as I shall never bear again.’
With the last words the Prince’s head nodded forward on her shoulder. The gust of passion had spent itself, leaving him, as she had foreseen, weak to sleep.
‘Shame—oh, shame!’ he muttered thickly. ‘Indeed I do not wish to go. Let me sleep.’
She began to pat him on the shoulder, till the Queen put forward hungry arms, and took back her own again, and laying the child on a cushion at her side, spread the skirt of her long muslin robe over him, and looked long at her treasure. The woman crouched down on the floor. Kate sat on a cushion, and listened to the ticking of the cheap American clock in a niche in the wall. The voice of a woman singing a song came muffled and faint through many walls. The dry wind of noon sighed through the fretted screens of the window, and she could hear the horses of the escort swishing their tails and champing their bits in the courtyard a hundred feet below. She listened, thinking ever of Tarvin in growing terror. The Queen leaned over her son more closely, her eyes humid with mother love.
‘He is asleep,’ she said at last. ‘What was the talk about his monkey, miss sahib?’
‘It died,’ Kate said, and spurred herself to the lie. ‘I think it had eaten bad fruit in the garden.’
‘In the garden?’ said the Queen quickly.
‘Yes, in the garden.’
The woman of the desert turned her eyes from one woman to the other. These were matters too high for her, and she began timidly to rub the Queen’s feet.
‘Monkeys often die,’ she observed. ‘I have seen as it were a pestilence among the monkey folk over there at Banswarra.’
‘In what fashion did it die?’ insisted the Queen.
‘I—I do not know,’ Kate stammered, and there was another long silence as the hot afternoon wore on.
‘Miss Kate, what do you think about my son?’ whispered the Queen. ‘Is he well, or is he not well?’
‘He is not very well. In time he will grow stronger, but it would be better if he could go away for a while.’
The Queen bowed her head quietly. ‘I have thought of that also many times sitting here alone; and it was the tearing out of my own heart from my breast. Yes, it would be well if he were to go away. But’—she stretched out her hands despairingly towards the sunshine—‘what do I know of the world where he will go, and how can I be sure that he will be safe? Here—even here’ . . . She checked herself suddenly. ‘Since you have come, Miss Kate, my heart has known a little comfort, but I do not know when you will go away again.’
‘I cannot guard the child against every evil,’ Kate replied, covering her face with her hands; ‘but send him away from this place as swiftly as may be. In God’s name let him go away.’
‘Such hai! Such hai! It is the truth, the truth!’ The Queen turned from Kate to the woman at her feet.
‘Thou hast borne three?‘she said.
‘Yea, three, and one other that never drew breath. They were all men-children,’ said the woman of the desert.
‘And the gods took them?’
‘Of smallpox one, and fever the two others.’
‘Art thou certain that it was the gods?’
‘I was with them always till the end.’
‘Thy man, then, was all thine own?’
‘We were only two, he and I. Among our villages the men are poor, and one wife suffices.’
‘Arre! They are rich among the villages. Listen now. If a co-wife had sought the lives of those three of thine——’
‘I would have killed her. What else?’ The woman’s nostrils dilated and her hand went swiftly to her bosom.
‘And if in place of three there had been one only, the delight of thy eyes, and thou hadst known that thou shouldst never bear another, and the co-wife working in darkness had sought for that life? What then?’
‘I would have slain her—but with no easy death. At her man’s side and in his arms I would have slain her. If she died before my vengeance arrived I would seek for her in hell.’
‘Thou canst go out in the sunshine and walk in the streets and no man turns his head,’ said the Queen bitterly. ‘Thy hands are free and thy face is uncovered. What if thou wert a slave among slaves, a stranger among stranger people, and’—the voice dropped—‘dispossessed of the favour of thy lord?’
The woman, stooping, kissed the pale feet under her hands.
‘Then I would not wear myself with strife, but, remembering that a man-child may grow into a king, would send that child away beyond the power of the co-wife.’
‘Is it so easy to cut away the hand?’ said the Queen, sobbing.
‘Better the hand than the heart, sahiba. Who could guard such a child in this place?’
The Queen pointed to Kate. ‘She came from far off, and she has once already brought him back from death.’
‘Her drugs are good and her skill is great, but—thou knowest she is but a maiden, who has known neither gain nor loss. It may be that I am luckless, and that my eyes are evil—thus did not my man say last autumn—but it may be. Yet I know the pain at the breast and the yearning over the child new-born—as thou hast known it.’
‘As I have known it.’
‘My house is empty and I am a widow and childless, and never again shall a man call me to wed.’
‘As I am—as I am.’
‘Nay, the little one is left, whatever else may go; and the little one must be well guarded. If there is any jealousy against the child it were not well to keep him in this hotbed. Let him go out.’
‘But whither? Miss Kate, dost thou know? The world is all dark to us who sit behind the curtain.’
‘I know that the child of his own motion desires to go to the Princes’ School in Ajmir. He has told me that much,’ said Kate, who had lost no word of the conversation from her place on the cushion, bowed forward with her chin supported in her hands. ‘It will be only for a year or two.’
The Queen laughed a little through her tears. ‘Only a year or two, Miss Kate. Dost thou know how long is one night when he is not here?’
‘And he can return at call; but no cry will bring back mine own. Only a year or two. The world is dark also to those who do not sit behind the curtain, sahiba. It is no fault of hers. How should she know?’ said the woman of the desert under her breath to the Queen.
Against her will, Kate began to feel annoyed at this persistent exclusion of herself from the talk, and the assumption that she, with her own great trouble upon her, whose work was pre-eminently to deal with sorrow, must have no place in this double grief.
‘How should I not know?’ said Kate impetuously. ‘Do I not know pain? Is it not my life?’
‘Not yet,’ said the Queen quietly. ‘Neither pain nor joy. Miss Kate, thou art very-wise, and I am only a woman who has never stirred beyond the palace walls. But I am wiser than thou, for I know that which thou dost not know, though thou hast given back my son to me, and to this woman her husband’s speech. How shall I repay thee all I owe?’
‘Let her hear truth,’ said the woman under her breath. ‘We be all three women here, sahiba—dead leaf, flowering tree, and the blossom unopened.’
The Queen caught Kate’s hands and gently pulled her forward till her head fell on the Queen’s knees. Wearied with the emotions of the morning, unutterably tired in body and spirit, the girl had no desire to lift it. The small hands put her hair back from her forehead, and the full dark eyes, worn with much weeping, looked into her own. The woman of the desert flung an arm round her waist.
‘Listen, my sister,’ began the Queen, with an infinite tenderness. ‘There is a proverb among my own people, in the mountains of the north, that a rat found a piece of turmeric, and opened a druggist’s shop. Even so with the pain that thou dost know and heal, beloved. Thou art not angry? Nay, thou must not take offence. Forget that thou art white, and I black, and remember only that we three be sisters. Little sister, with us women ’tis thus, and no other way. From all, except such as have borne a child, the world is hid. I make my prayers trembling to such and such a god, who thou sayest is black stone, and I tremble at the gusts of the night because I believe that the devils ride by my windows at such hours; and I sit here in the dark knitting wool and preparing sweetmeats that come back untasted from my lord’s table. And thou coming from ten thousand leagues away, very wise and fearing nothing, hast taught me, oh, ten thousand things. Yet thou art the child, and I am still the mother, and what I know thou canst not know, and the wells of my happiness thou canst not fathom, nor the bitter waters of my sorrow till thou hast tasted happiness and grief alike. I have told thee of the child—all and more than all, thou sayest? Little sister, I have told thee less than the beginning of my love for him, because I knew that thou couldst not understand. I have told thee my sorrows—all and more than all, thou sayest, when I laid my head against thy breast? How could I tell thee all? Thou art a maiden, and the heart in thy bosom, beneath my heart, betrayed in its very beat that it did not understand. Nay, that woman there, coming from without, knows more of me than thou? And they taught thee in a school, thou hast told me, all manner of healing, and there is no disease in life that thou dost not understand? Little sister, how couldst thou understand life that hast never given it? Hast thou ever felt the tug of the child at the breast? Nay, what need to blush? Hast thou? I know thou hast not. Though I heard thy speech for the first time, and looking from the window saw thee walking, I should know. And the others—my sisters in the world—know also. But they do not all speak to thee as I do. When the life quickens under the breast, they, waking in the night, hear all the earth walking to that measure. Why should they tell thee? To-day the hospital has broken from under thee. Is it not so? And the women went out one by one? And what didst thou say to them?’
The woman of the desert, answering for her, spoke. ‘She said, “Come back, and I will make ye well.”’
‘And by what oath did she affirm her words?’
‘There was no oath,’ said the woman of the desert; ‘she stood in the gate and called.’
‘And upon what should a maiden call to bring wavering women back again? The toil that she has borne for their sake? They cannot see it. But of the pains that a woman has shared with them, a woman knows. There was no child in thy arms. The mother look was not in thy eyes. By what magic, then, wouldst thou speak to women? There was a charm among the drugs, they said, and their children would be misshapen. What didst thou know of the springs of life and death to teach them otherwise? It is written in the books of thy school, I know, that such things cannot be. But we women do not read books. It is not from them that we learn of life. How should such an one prevail, unless the gods help her—and the gods are very far away. Thou hast given thy life to the helping of women. Little sister, when wilt thou also be a woman?’
The voice ceased. Kate’s head was buried deep in the Queen’s lap. She let it lie there without stirring.
‘Ay!’ said the woman of the desert. ‘The mark of coverture has been taken from my head, my glass bangles, are broken on my arm, and I am unlucky to meet when a man sets forth on a journey. Till I die I must be alone, earning my bread alone, and thinking of the dead. But though I knew that it was to come again, at the end of one year instead of ten, I would still thank the gods that have given me love and a child. Will the miss sahib take this in payment for all she did for my man? “A wandering priest, a childless woman, and a stone in the water are of one blood.” So says the talk of our people. What will the miss sahib do now? The Queen has spoken the truth. The gods and thy own wisdom, which is past the wisdom of a maid, have helped thee so far, as I, who was with thee always, have seen.. The gods have warned thee that their help is at an end. What remains? Is this work for such as thou? Is it not as the Queen says? She, sitting here alone, and seeing nothing, has seen that which I, moving with thee among the sick day by day, have seen and known. Little sister, is it not so?’
Kate lifted her head slowly from the Queen’s knee, and rose.
‘Take the child, and let us go,’ she said hoarsely.
The merciful darkness of the room hid her face.
‘Nay,’ said the Queen, ‘this woman shall take him. Go thou back alone.’