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"Yes, and look on as at a play - sitting in the stalls, and applauding when we are pleased. No, I'm going to work there." "For God's sake, how? Let me come too."
"You can't. You're not in it. I am going to attach myself to the medical mission at Lahore and learn nursing, and then I shall go to my own people."
"Missionaries? You've nothing in common with them?"
"Nothing. But they teach what I want. Mr. Clifden, I shall not come this way again. If I remember - I'll write to you, and tell you what the real world is like."
She smiled, the absorbed little smile I knew and feared. I saw pleading was useless then. I would wait, and never lose sight of her and of hope.
"Vanna, before you go, give me your gift of sight. Interpret for me. Stay with me a little and make me see."
"What do you mean exactly?" she asked in her gentlest voice, half turning to me.
"Make one journey with me, as my sister, if you will do no more. Though I warn you that all the time I shall be trying to win my wife. But come with me once, and after that - if you will go, you must. Say yes."
Madness! But she hesitated - a hesitation full of hope, and looked at me with intent eyes.
"I will tell you frankly," she said at last, "that I know my knowledge of the East and kinship with it goes far beyond mere words. In my case the doors were not shut. I believe - I know that long ago this was my life. If I spoke for ever I could not make you understand how much I know and why. So I shall quite certainly go back to it. Nothing - you least of all, can hold me. But you are my friend - that is a true bond. And if you would wish me to give you two months before I go, I might do that if it would in any way help you. As your friend only - you clearly understand. You would not reproach me afterwards when I left you, as I should most certainly do?"
"I swear I would not. I swear I would protect you even from myself. I want you for ever, but if you will only give me two months - come! But have you thought that people will talk. It may injure you.
I'm not worth that, God knows. And you will take nothing I could give you in return."
She spoke very quietly.
"That does not trouble me. - It would only trouble me if you asked what I have not to give. For two months I would travel with you as a friend, if, like a friend, I paid my own expenses-"
I would have interrupted, but she brushed that firmly aside. "No, I must do as I say, and I am quite able to or I should not suggest it. I would go on no other terms. It would be hard if because we are man and woman I might not do one act of friendship for you before we part. For though I refuse your offer utterly, I appreciate it, and I would make what little return I can. It would be a sharp pain to me to distress you."
Her gentleness and calm, the magnitude of the offer she was making stunned me so that I could scarcely speak. There was such an extraordinary simplicity and generosity in her manner that it appeared to me more enthralling and bewildering than the most finished coquetry I had ever known. She gave me opportunities that the most ardent lover could in his wildest dream desire, and with the remoteness in her eyes and her still voice she deprived them of all hope. It kindled in me a flame that made my throat dry when I tried to speak.
"Vanna, is it a promise? You mean it?"
"If you wish it, yes. But I warn you I think it will not make it easier for you when the time is over.
"Why two months?"
"Partly because I can afford no more. No! I know what you would say. Partly because I can spare no more time. But I will give you that, if you wish, though, honestly, I had very much rather not. I think it unwise for you. I would protect you if I could - indeed I would!"
It was my turn to hesitate now. Every moment revealed to me some new sweetness, some charm that I saw would weave itself into the very fibre of my I had been! Was I not now a fool? Would it not being if the opportunity were given. Oh, fool that be better to let her go before she had become a part of my daily experience? I began to fear I was courting my own shipwreck. She read my thoughts clearly.
"Indeed you would be wise to decide against it. Release me from my promise. It was a mad scheme."
The superiority - or so I felt it - of her gentleness maddened me. It might have been I who needed protection, who was running the risk of misjudgment - not she, a lonely woman. She looked at me, waiting - trying to be wise for me, never for one instant thinking of herself. I felt utterly exiled from the real purpose of her life.
"I will never release you. I claim your promise. I hold to it."
"Very well then - I will write, and tell you where I shall be. Good-bye, and if you change your mind, as I hope you will, tell me."
She extended her hand cool as a snowflake, and was gone, walking swiftly up the road. Ah, let a man beware when his wishes fulfilled, rain down upon him!
To what had I committed myself? She knew her strength and had no fears. I could scarcely realize that she had liking enough for me to make the offer. That it meant no shade more than she had said I knew well. She was safe, but what was to be the result for me? I knew nothing - she was a beloved mystery.
"Strange she is and secret, Strange her eyes; her cheeks are cold as cold sea-shells."
Yet I would risk it, for I knew there was no hope if I let her go now, and if I saw her again, some glimmer might fall upon my dark.
Next day this reached me:- Dear Mr. Clifden,-
I am going to some Indian friends for a time. On the 15th of June I shall he at Srinagar in Kashmir. A friend has allowed me to take her little houseboat, the "Kedarnath." If you like this plan we will share the cost for two months. I warn you it is not luxurious, but I think you will like it. I shall do this whether you come or no, for I want a quiet time before I take up my nursing in Lahore. In thinking of all this will you remember that I am not a girl but a woman. I shall he twenty-nine my next birthday. Sincerely yours, VANNA LORING.
P.S. But I still think you would be wiser not to come. I hope to hear you will not.
I replied only this :- Dear Miss Loring,- I think I understand the position fully. I will be there. I thank you with all my heart. Gratefully yours, STEPHEN CLIFDEN.
Three days later I met Lady Meryon, and was swept in to tea. Her manner was distinctly more cordial as she mentioned casually that Vanna had left - she understood to take up missionary work - "which is odd," she added with a woman's acrimony, "for she had no more in common with missionaries than I have, and that is saying a good deal. Of course she speaks Hindustani perfectly, and could be useful, but I haven't grasped the point of it yet" I saw she counted on my knowing nothing of the real reason of Vanna's going and left it, of course, at that. The talk drifted away under my guidance. Vanna evidently puzzled her. She half feared, and wholly misunderstood her.
No message came to me, as time went by, and for the time she had vanished completely, but I held fast to her promise and lived on that only.
I take up my life where it ceased to be a mere suspense and became life once more.
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck