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I really meant what I said. I knew she was a harp that any breeze would sweep into music. I divined that temperament in her and proposed to use it for my own ends. She had and I had not, the power to be a part of all she saw, to feel kindred blood running in her own veins. To the average European the native life of India is scarcely interesting, so far is it removed from all comprehension. To me it was interesting, but I could not tell why. I stood outside and had not the fairy gold to pay for my entrance. Here at all events she could buy her way where I could not. Without cruelty, which honestly was not my besetting sin - especially where women were concerned, the egoist in me felt I would use her, would extract the last drop of the enchantment of her knowledge before I went on my way. What more natural than that Vanna or any other woman should minister to my thirst for information? Men are like that. I pretend to be no better than the rest. She pleased my fastidiousness - that fastidiousness which is the only austerity in men not otherwise austere.
"Interpret?" she said, looking at me with clear hazel eyes; "how could I? You were in the native city yesterday. What did you miss?"
"Everything! I saw masses of colour, light, movement. Brilliantly picturesque people. Children like Asiatic angels. Magnificently scowling ruffians in sheepskin coats. In fact, a movie staged for my benefit. I was afraid they would ring down the curtain before I had had enough. It had no meaning. When I got back to my diggings I tried to put down what I had just seen, and I swear there's more inspiration in the guide-book."
"Did you go alone?"
"Yes, I certainly would not go sight-seeing with the Meryon crowd. Tell me what you felt when you saw it first."
"I went with Sir John's uncle. He was a great traveler. The colour struck me dumb. It flames - it sings. Think of the grey pinched life in the West! I saw a grave dark potter turning his wheel, while his little girl stood by, glad at our pleasure, her head veiled like a miniature woman, tiny baggy trousers, and a silver nose-stud, like a star, in one delicate nostril. In her thin arms she held a heavy baby in a gilt cap, like a monkey. And the wheel turned and whirled until it seemed to be spinning dreams, thick as motes in the sun. The clay rose in smooth spirals under his hand, and the wheel sang, 'Shall the vessel reprove him who made one to honour and one to dishonour?' And I saw the potter thumping his wet clay, and the clay, plastic as dream-stuff, shaped swift as light, and the three Fates stood at his shoul- der. Dreams, dreams, and all in the spinning of the wheel, and the rich shadows of the old broken courtyard where he sat. And the wheel stopped and the thread broke, and the little new shapes he had made stood all about him, and he was only a potter in Peshawar."
Her voice was like a song. She had utterly forgotten my existence. I did not dislike it at the moment, for I wanted to hear more, and the impersonal is the rarest gift a woman can give a man.
"Did you buy anything?"
"He gave me a gift - a flawed jar of turquoise blue, faint turquoise green round the lip. He saw I understood. And then I bought a little gold cap and a wooden box of jade-green Kabul grapes. About a rupee, all told. But it was Eastern merchandise, and I was trading from Balsora and Baghdad, and Eleazar's camels were swaying down from Damascus along the Khyber Pass, and coming in at the great Darwazah, and friends' eyes met me everywhere. I am profoundly happy here."
The sinking sun lit an almost ecstatic face.
I envied her more deeply than I had ever envied any one. She had the secret of immortal youth, and I felt old as I looked at her. One might be eighty and share that passionate impersonal joy. Age could not wither nor custom stale the infinite variety of her world's joys. She had a child's dewy youth in her eyes.
There are great sunsets at Peshawar, flaming over the plain, dying in melancholy splendour over the dangerous hills. They too were hers, in a sense in which they could never be mine. But what a companion! To my astonishment a wild thought of marriage flashed across me, to be instantly rebuffed with a shrug. Marriage - that one's wife might talk poetry to one about the East! Absurd! But what was it these people felt and I could not feel? Almost, shut up in the prison of self, I knew what Vanna had felt in her village - a maddening desire to escape, to be a part of the loveliness that lay beyond me. So might a man love a king's daughter in her hopeless heights.
"It may be very beautiful on the surface," I said morosely; "but there's a lot of misery below - hateful, they tell me."
"Of course. We shall get to work one day. But look at the sunset. It opens like a mysterious flower. I must take Winifred home now."
"One moment," I pleaded; "I can only see it through your eyes. I feel it while you speak, and then the good minute goes."
"And so must I. Come, Winifred. Look, there's an owl; not like the owls in the summer dark in England-
"Lovely are the curves of the white owl sweeping, Wavy in the dark, lit by one low star."
Suddenly she turned again and looked at me half wistfully.
"It is good to talk to you. You want to know. You are so near it all. I wish I could help you; I am so exquisitely happy myself."
My writing was at a standstill. It seemed the groping of a blind man in a radiant world. Once perhaps I had felt that life was good in itself - when the guns came thundering toward the Vimy Ridge in a mad gallop of horses, and men shouting and swearing and frantically urging them on. Then, riding for more than life, I had tasted life for an instant. Not before or since. But this woman had the secret.
Lady Meryon, with her escort of girls and subalterns, came daintily past the hotel compound, and startled me from my brooding with her pretty silvery voice.
"Dreaming, Mr. Clifden? It isn't at all wholesome to dream in the East. Come and dine with us tomorrow. A tiny dance afterwards, you know; or bridge for those who like it."
I had not the faintest notion whether governesses dined with the family or came in afterward with the coffee; but it was a sporting chance, and I took it.
Then Sir John came up and joined us.
"You can't well dance tomorrow, Kitty," he said to his wife. "There's been an outpost affair in the Swat Hills, and young Fitzgerald has been shot. Come to dinner of course, Clifden. Glad to see you. But no dancing, I think."
Kitty Meryon's mouth drooped like a pouting child's. Was it for the lost dance, or the lost soldier lying out on the hills in the dying sunset. Who could tell? In either case it was pretty enough for the illustrated papers.
"How sad! Such a dear boy. We shall miss him at tennis." Then brightly; "Well, we'll have to put the dance off for a week, but come tomorrow anyhow."
Next evening I went into Lady Meryon's flower-scented drawing-room. The electric fans were fluttering and the evening air was cool. Five or six pretty girls and as many men made up the party - Kitty Meryon the prettiest of them all, fashionably undressed in faint pink and crystal, with a charming smile in readiness, all her gay little flags flying in the rich man's honour. I am no vainer than other men, but I saw that. Whatever her charm might be it was none for me. What could I say to interest her who lived in her foolish little world as one shut in a bright bubble? And she had said the wrong word about young Fitzgerald - I wanted Vanna, with her deep seeing eyes, to say the right one and adjust those cruel values.
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck