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Once I missed her, while I stooped to examine some scroll-work, and following, found her before one of the few images of the Buddha that the rapacious Museum had spared - a singularly beautiful bas-relief, the hand raised to enforce the truth the calm lips were speaking, the drapery falling in stately folds to the bare feet. As I came up, she had an air as if she had just ceased from movement, and I had a distinct feeling that she had knelt before it - I saw the look of worship! The thing troubled me like a dream, haunting, impossible, but real.
"How beautiful!" I said in spite of myself, as she pointed to the image. "In this utter solitude it seems the very spirit of the place."
"He was. He is," said Vanna.
"Explain to me. I don't understand. I know so little of him. What is the subject?"
She hesitated; then chose her words as if for a beginner;- "It is the Blessed One preaching to the Tree-Spirits. See how eagerly they lean from the boughs to listen. This other relief represents him in the state of mystic vision. Here he is drowned in peace. See how it overflows from the closed eyes; the closed lips. The air is filled with his quiet."
"What is he dreaming?"
"Not dreaming - seeing. Peace. He sits at the point where time and infinity meet. To attain that vision was the aim of the monks who lived here."
"Did they attain?" I found myself speaking as if she could certainly answer.
"A few. There was one, Vasettha, the Brahman, a young man who had renounced all his possessions and riches, and seated here before this image of the Blessed One, he fell often into the mystic state. He had a strange vision at one time of the future of India, which will surely be fulfilled. He did not forget it in his rebirths. He remembers-"
She broke off suddenly and said with forced indifference, - "He would sit here often looking out over the mountains; the monks sat at his feet to hear. He became abbot while still young. But his story is a sad one."
"I entreat you to tell me."
She looked away over the mountains. "While he was abbot here,- still a young man,- a famous Chinese Pilgrim came down through Kashmir to visit the Holy Places in India. The abbot went forward with him to Peshawar, that he might make him welcome. And there came a dancer to Peshawar, named Lilavanti, most beautiful! I dare not tell you her beauty. I tremble now to think-"
Again she paused, and again the faint creeping sense of mystery invaded me.
"The abbot saw her and he loved her. He was young still, you remember. She was a woman of the Hindu faith and hated Buddhism. It swept him down into the lower worlds of storm and desire. He fled with Lilavanti and never returned here. So in his rebirth he fell-"
She stopped dead; her face pale as death.
"How do you know? Where have you read it? If I could only find what you find and know what you know! The East is like an open book to you. Tell me the rest."
"How should I know any more?" she said hurriedly. "We must be going back. You should study the plans of this place at Peshawar. They were very learned monks who lived here. It is famous for learning."
The life had gone out of her words-out of the ruins. There was no more to be said.
We clambered down the hill in the hot sunshine, speaking only of the view, the strange shrubs and flowers, and, once, the swift gliding of a snake, and found Mrs. Delany blissfully asleep in the most padded corner of the car. The spirit of the East vanished in her comfortable presence, and luncheon seemed the only matter of moment.
"I wonder, my dears," she said, "if you would be very disappointed and think me very dense if I proposed our giving up the Malakhand Fort? The driver has been giving me in very poor English such an account of the dangers of that awful road up the hill that I feel no Fort would repay me for its terrors. Do say what you feel, Miss Loring. Mr. Clifden can lunch with the officers at Nowshera and come any time. I know I am an atrocity."
There could be only one answer, though Vanna and I knew perfectly well the crafty design of the driver to spare himself work. Mrs. Delany remained brightly awake for the run home, and favored us with many remarkable views on India and its shortcomings, Vanna, who had a sincere liking for her, laughing with delight at her description of a visit of condolence with Lady Meryon to the five widows of one of the hill Rajas.
But I own I was pre-occupied. I knew those moments at the monastery had given me a glimpse into the wonderland of her soul that made me long for more. It was rapidly becoming clear to me that unless my intentions developed on very different lines I must flee Peshawar. For love is born of sympathy, and sympathy was strengthening daily, but for love I had no courage yet.
I feared it as men fear the unknown. I despised myself - but I feared. I will confess my egregious folly and vanity - I had no doubt as to her reception of my offer if I should make it, but possessed by a colossal selfishness, I thought only of myself, and from that point of view could not decide how I stood to lose or gain. In my wildest accesses of vanity I did not suppose Vanna loved me, but I felt she liked me, and I believe the advantages I had to offer would be overwhelming to a woman in her position. So, tossed on the waves of indecision, I inclined to flight.
That night I resolutely began my packing, and wrote a note of farewell to Lady Meryon. The next morning I furiously undid it, and destroyed the note. And that afternoon I took the shortest way to the sun-set road to lounge about and wait for Vanna and Winifred. She never came, and I was as unreasonably angry as if I had deserved the blessing of her presence.
Next day I could see that she tried gently hut clearly to discourage our meeting and for three days I never saw her at all. Yet I knew that in her solitary life our talks counted for a pleasure, and when we met again I thought I saw a new softness in the lovely hazel deeps of her eyes.
On the day when things became clear to me, I was walking towards the Meryons' gates when I met her coming alone along the sunset road, in the late gold of the afternoon. She looked pale and a little wearied, and I remembered I wished I did not know every change of her face as I did. It was a symptom that alarmed my selfishness - it galled me with the sense that I was no longer my own despot.
"So you have been up the Khyber Pass," she said as I fell into step at her side. "Tell me - was it as wonderful as you expected?"
"No, no, -you tell me! It will give me what I missed. Begin at the beginning. Tell me what I saw."
I could not miss the delight of her words, and she laughed, knowing my whim.
"Oh, that Pass! -the wonder of those old roads that have borne the traffic and romance of the world for ages. Do you think there is anything in the world so fascinating as they are? But did you go on Tuesday or Friday?"
For these are the only days in the week when the Khyber can be safely entered. The British then turn out the Khyber Rifles and man every crag, and the loaded caravans move like a tide, and go up and down the narrow road on their occasions.
Naturally mere sightseers are not welcomed, for much business must be got through in that urgent forty eight hours in which life is not risked in entering.
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck