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"Tuesday. But make a picture for me."
"Well, you gave your word not to photograph or sketch - as if one wanted to when every bit of it is stamped on one's brain! And you went up to Jumrood Fort at the entrance. Did they tell you it is an old Sikh Fort and has been on duty in that turbulent place for five hundred years And did you see the machine guns in the court? And every one armed - even the boys with belts of cartridges? Then you went up the narrow winding track between the mountains, and you said to yourself, 'This is the road of pure romance. It goes up to silken Samarkhand, and I can ride to Bokhara of the beautiful women and to all the dreams. Am I alive and is it real?' You felt that?"
"All. Every bit. Go on!"
She smiled with pleasure.
"And you saw the little forts on the crags and the men on guard all along the bills, rifles ready! You could hear the guns rattle as they saluted. Do you know that up there men plough with rifles loaded beside them? They have to be men indeed."
"Do you mean to imply that we are not men?"
"Different men at least. This is life in a Border ballad. Such a life as you knew in France but beautiful in a wild - hawk sort of way. Don't the Khyber Rifles bewilder you? They are drawn from these very Hill tribes, and will shoot their own fathers and brothers in the way of duty as comfortably as if they were jackals. Once there was a scrap here and one of the tribesmen sniped our men unbearably. What do you suppose happened? A Khyber Rifle came to the Colonel and said, 'Let me put an end to him, Colonel Sahib. I know exactly where he sits. He is my grandfather.' And he did it!"
"The bond of bread and salt?"
"Yes, and discipline. I'm sometimes half frightened of discipline. It moulds a man like wax. Even God doesn't do that. Well - then you had the traders - wild shaggy men in sheepskin and women in massive jewelry of silver and turquoise,-great earrings, heavy bracelets loading their arms, wild, fierce, handsome. And the camels - thousands of them, some going up, some coming down, a mass of human and animal life. Above you, moving figures against the keen blue sky, or deep below you in the ravines.
"The camels were swaying along with huge bales of goods, and dark beautiful women in wicker cages perched on them. Silks and carpets from Bokhara, and blue - eyed Persian cats, and bluer Persian turquoises. Wonderful! And the dust, gilded by the sunshine, makes a vaporous golden atmosphere for it all."
"What was the most wonderful thing you saw there?"
"The most beautiful, I think, was a man - a splendid dark ruffian lounging along. He wanted to show off, and his swagger was perfect. Long black onyx eyes and a tumble of black curls, and teeth like almonds. But what do you think he carried on his wrist - a hawk with fierce yellow eyes, ringed and chained. Hawking is a favourite sport in the hills. Oh, why doesn't some great painter come and paint it all before they take to trains and cars? I long to see it all again, but I never shall."
"Why not," said I. "Surely Sir John can get you up there any day?"
"Not now. The fighting makes it difficult. But it isn't that. I am leaving."
"Leaving?" My heart gave a leap. "Why? Where?"
"Leaving Lady Meryon."
"Why - for Heaven's sake?"
"I had rather not tell you."
"But I must know."
"I shall ask Lady Meryon."
"I forbid you."
And then the unexpected happened, and an unbearable impulse swept me into folly - or was it wisdom?
"Listen to me. I would not have said it yet, but this settles it. I want you to marry me. I want it atrociously!"
It was a strange word. What I felt for her at that moment was difficult to describe. I endured it like a pain that could only be assuaged by her presence, but I endured it angrily. We were walking on the sunset road - very deserted and quiet at the time. The place was propitious if nothing else was.
She looked at me in transparent astonishment;
"Mr. Clifden, are you dreaming? You can't mean what you say."
"Why can't I? I do. I want you. You have the key of all I care for. I think of the world without you and find it tasteless."
"Surely you have all the world can give? What do you want more?"
"The power to enjoy it - to understand it. You have got that - I haven't. I want you always with me to interpret, like a guide to a blind fellow. I am no better."
"Say like a dog, at once!" she interrupted. "At least you are frank enough to put it on that ground. You have not said you love me. You could not say it."
"I don't know whether I do or not. I know nothing about love. I want you. Indescribably. Perhaps that is love - is it? I never wanted any one before. I have tried to get away and I can't."
I was brutally frank, you see. She compelled my very thoughts.
"Why have you tried?"
"Because every man likes freedom. But I like you better." "I can tell you the reason," she said in her gentle unwavering voice. "I am Lady Meryon's governess, and an undesirable. You have felt that?"
"Don't make me out such a snob. No - yes. You force me into honesty. I did feel it at first like the miserable fool I am, but I could kick myself when I think of that now. It is utterly forgotten. Take me and make me what you will, and forgive me. Only tell me your secret of joy. How is it you understand everything alive or dead? I want to live - to see, to know."
It was a rhapsody like a boy's. Yet at the moment I was not even ashamed of it, so sharp was my need.
"I think," she said, slowly, looking straight before her, "that I had better be quite frank. I don't love you. I don't know what love means in the Western sense. It has a very different meaning for me. Your voice comes to me from an immense distance when you speak in that way. You want me - but never with a thought of what I might want. Is that love? I like you very deeply as a friend, but we are of different races. There is a gulf."
"A gulf? You are English."
"By birth, yes. In mind, no. And there are things that go deeper, that you could not understand. So I refuse quite definitely, and our ways part here, for in a few days I go. I shall not see you again, but I wish to say good-bye."
The bitterest chagrin was working in my soul. I felt as if all were deserting me-a sickening feeling of loneliness. I did not know the man who was in me, and was a stranger to myself.
"I entreat you to tell me why, and where."
"Since you have made me this offer, I will tell you why. Lady Meryon objected to my friendship with you, and objected in a way which-"
She stopped, flushing palely. I caught her hand.
"That settles it!-that she should have dared! I'll go up this minute and tell her we are engaged. Vanna-Vanna !"
For she disengaged her hand, quietly but firmly.
"On no account. How can I make it more plain to you? I should have gone soon in any case. My place is in the native city - that is the life I want. I have work there, I knew it before I came out. My sympathies are all with them. They know what life is - why even the beggars, poorer than poor, are perfectly happy, basking in the great generous sun. Oh, the splendour and riot of life and colour! That's my life - I sicken of this."
"But I'll give it to you. Marry me, and we will travel till you're tired of it."
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck