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"Now you must see the boat. The Kedarnath is not a Dreadnought, but she is broad and very comfortable. And we have many chaperons. They all live in the bows, and exist simply to protect the Sahiblog from all discomfort, and very well they do it. That is Ahmad Khan by the kitchen. He cooks for us. Salama owns the boat, and steers her and engages the men to tow us when we move. And when I arrived he aired a little English and said piously; The Lord help me to give you no trouble, and the Lord help you!" That is his wife sitting on the bank. She speaks little but Kashmiri, but I know a little of that. Look at the hundred rat-tail plaits of her hair, lengthened with wool, and see her silver and turquoise jewelry. She wears much of the family fortune and is quite a walking bank. Salama, Ahmad Khan and I talk by the hour. Ahmad comes from Fyzabad. Look at Salama's boy - I call him the Orange Imp. Did you ever see anything so beautiful?"
I looked in sheer delight, and grasped my camera. Sitting near us was a lovely little Kashmiri boy of about eight, in a faded orange coat, and a turban exactly like his father's. His curled black eyelashes were so long that they made a soft gloom over the upper part of the little golden face. The perfect bow of the scarlet lips, the long eyes, the shy smile, suggested an Indian Eros. He sat dipping his feet in the water with little pigeon-like cries of content.
"He paddles at the bow of our little shikara boat with a paddle exactly like a water-lily leaf. Do you like our friends? I love them already, and know all their affairs. And now for the boat."
"One moment - If we are friends on a great adventure, I must call you Vanna, and you me Stephen."
"Yes, I suppose that is part of it," she said, smiling. "Come, Stephen."
It was like music, but a cold music that chilled me. She should have hesitated, should have flushed - it was I who trembled. So I followed her across the broad plank into our new home.
"This is our sitting-room. Look, how charming!"
It was better than charming; it was home indeed. Windows at each side opening down almost to the water, a little table for meals that lived mostly on the bank, with a grey pot of iris in the middle. Another table for writing, photography, and all the little pursuits of travel. A bookshelf with some well - worn friends. Two long cushioned chairs. Two for meals, and a Bokhara rug, soft and pleasant for the feet. The interior was plain unpainted wood, but set so that the grain showed like satin in the rippling lights from the water.
That is the inventory of the place I have loved best in the world, but what eloquence can describe what it gave me, what its memory gives me to this day? And I have no eloquence - what I felt leaves me dumb.
"It is perfect," was all I said as she waved her hand proudly. "It is home."
"And if you had come alone to Kashmir you would have had a great rich boat with electric light and a butler. You would never have seen the people except at meal - times. I think you will like this better. Well, this is your tiny bedroom, and your bathroom, and beyond the sitting - room are mine. Do you like it all?"
But I could say no more. The charm of her own personality had touched everything and left its fragrance like a flower - breath in the air. I was beggared of thanks, but my whole soul was gratitude. We dined on the bank that evening, the lamp burning steadily in the still air and throwing broken reflections in the water, while the moon looked in upon them through the leaves. I felt extraordinarily young and happy.
The quiet of her voice was soft as the little lap of water against the bows of the boat, and Kahdra, the Orange Imp, was singing a little wordless song to himself as he washed the plates beside us. It was a simple meal, and Vanna, abstemious as a hermit never ate anything but rice and fruit, but I could remember no meal in all my days of luxury where I had eaten with such zest.
"It looks very grand to have so many to wait upon us, doesn't it? But this is one of the cheapest countries in the world though the old timers mourn over present expenses. You will laugh when I show you your share of the cost."
"The wealth of the world could not buy this," I said, and was silent.
"But you must listen to my plans. We must do a little camping the last three weeks before we part. Up in the mountains. Are they not marvellous? They stand like a rampart round us, but not cold and terrible, but "Like as the hills stand round about Jerusalem" - they are guardian presences. And running up into them, high -very high, are the valleys and hills where we shall camp. Tomorrow we shall row through Srinagar, by the old Maharaja's palace."
And so began a life of sheer enchantment. We knew no one. The visitors in Kashmir change nearly every season, and no one cared-no one asked anything of us, and as for our shipmates, a willing affectionate service was their gift, and no more. Looking back, I know in what a wonder-world I was privileged to live. Vanna could talk with them all. She did not move apart, a condescending or indifferent foreigner. Kahdra would come to her knee and prattle to her of the great snake that lived up on Mahadeo to devour erring boys who omitted their prayers at proper Moslem intervals. She would sit with the baby in her lap while the mother busied herself in the sunny bows with the mysterious dishes that smelt so savory to a hungry man. The cuts, the bruises of the neighbourhood all came to Vanna for treatment.
"I am graduating as a nurse," she would say laughing as she bent over the lean arm of some weirdly wrinkled old lady, bandaging and soothing at the same moment. Her reward would be some bit of folk-lore, some quaintness of gratitude that I noted down in the little book I kept for remembrance - that I do not need, for every word is in my heart.
We rowed down through the city next day - Salama rowing, and little Kahdra lazily paddling at the bow - a wonderful city, with its narrow ways begrimed with the dirt of ages, and its balconied houses looking as if disease and sin had soaked into them and given them a vicious tottering beauty, horrible and yet lovely too. We saw the swarming life of the bazaar, the white turbans coming and going, diversified by the rose and yellow Hindu turbans, and the caste-marks, orange and red, on the dark brows.
I saw two women - girls - painted and tired like Jezebel, looking out of one window carved and old, and the grey burnished doves flying about it. They leaned indolently, like all the old, old wickedness of the East that yet is ever young - "Flowers of Delight," with smooth black hair braided with gold and blossoms, and covered with pale rose veils, and gold embossed disks swinging like lamps beside the olive cheeks, the great eyes artificially lengthened and darkened with soorma, and the curves of the full lips emphasized with vermilion. They looked down on us with apathy, a dull weariness that held all the old evil of the wicked humming city.
It had taken shape in those indolent bodies and heavy eyes that could flash into life as a snake wakes into fierce darting energy when the time comes to spring - direct inheritrixes from Lilith, in the fittest setting in the world - the almost exhausted vice of an Oriental city as old as time.
"And look-below here," said Vanna, pointing to one of the ghauts - long rugged steps running down to the river.
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The Ninth Vibration and Other Stories -by- L. Adams Beck