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Chapter 15

Prologue


In a chilly dawn, high among the mountains to the north of Berar, two Britons were wandering with an Indian attendant. They came like spectres, in curling wreaths of mist that magnified their stature; and daylight cowed each with the first glimpse of his comrade's face, yellow with hunger and glassy-eyed with lack of sleep. They were, in fact, hopelessly lost. They had spent the night huddled together on a narrow ledge, listening hour by hour to the sound of water tumbling over unknown precipices; and now they moved with painful cramped limbs, yet listlessly, being past hope to escape or to see another dawn.

The elder Briton was a Scotsman, aged fifty or thereabouts, a clerk of the H.E.I.C.; the younger an Englishman barely turned twenty, an officer in the same company's service. They hailed from Surat, and had arrived in Berar on a trade mission with an escort of fifty men, of whom their present attendant, Bhagwan Dass, was the solitary survivor; and this came of believing that a "protection" from the Nizam would carry them anywhere in the Nizam's supposed dominions, whereas the de facto rulers of Berar were certain Mahratta chieftains who collected its taxes and who had politely forwarded the mission into the fastnesses of the mountains. There, at the ripe moment, the massacre had taken place, Mr. Menzies and young Prior escaping on their hill-ponies, with Bhagwan Dass clutching at Prior's stirrup-leather. The massacre having been timed a little before nightfall, darkness helped them to get clear away; but Menzies, by over-riding his little mare, flung her, an hour later, with a broken fetlock, and Prior's pony being all but dead-beat, they abandoned the poor brutes on the mountain-side, took to their feet and stumbled on until the setting of the young moon. With the first light of dawn they had roused themselves to start anew, lingering out the agony: for the slopes below swarmed with enemies in chase, and even if a village lurked in these heights the inhabitants would give no help, being afraid of their Mahratta masters.

They had crossed a gully through which a mountain runlet descended, unrolling a ribbon of green mossy herbage on its way, and slipping out of sight over the edge of a precipice of two hundred feet or so. Beyond this the eye saw nothing but clouds of mist heaving and smoking to the very lip of the fall. Young Prior halted for a moment on the farther slope to take breath, and precisely at that moment something happened which he lived to relate a hundred times and always with wonder. For as his eye fell on these clouds of mist, a beam of light came travelling swiftly down the mountain and pierced them, turning them to a fierce blood-red; next, almost with an audible rush, the sun leapt into view over the eastern spurs: and while he stared down upon the vapours writhing and bleeding under this lance-thrust of dawn--while they shook themselves loose and trailed away in wreaths of crimson and gold and violet, and deep in the chasms between them shone the plain with its tilled fields and villages--a cry from Bhagwan Dass fetched him round sharply, and he beheld, a few yards above him on the slope, a man.

The man sat, naked to the waist, at the entrance of a low cave or opening in the hillside. He seemed to be of great age, with a calm and almost unwrinkled face and gray locks falling to his shoulders, around which hung a rosary of black beads, very highly polished and flashing against the sun. From the waist down he was wrapped in a bright yellow shawl, and beside him lay a crutch and a wooden bowl heaped with rice and conserves.

Before the two Britons could master their dismay, Bhagwan Dass had run towards the cave and was imploring the holy man to give them shelter and hiding. For a while he listened merely, and his first response was to lift the bowl and invite them with a gesture to stay their hunger. Famished though they were, they hesitated, and reading the reason in their eyes, he spoke for the first time.

"It will not harm you," said he in Hindustani: "and the villagers below bring me more than I can eat."

From the moment of setting eyes on him--Prior used to declare--a blessed sense of protection fell upon the party; a feeling that in the hour of extreme need God had suddenly put out a shield, under the shadow of which they might rest in perfect confidence. And indeed, though they knew the mountain to be swarming with their enemies, they entered the cave and slept all that day like children. Whether or no meanwhile their enemies drew near they never discovered: but Prior, awaking towards nightfall, saw the hermit still seated at the entrance as they had found him, and lay for a while listening to the click of his rosary as he told bead after bead.

He must, however, have held some communication with the unseen village in the valley: for three bowls of milk and rice stood ready for them. They supped, forbearing--upon Bhagwan Dass's advice--to question him, though eager to know if he had a mind to help them further, and how he might contrive it. Until moonrise he gave no sign at all; then rising gravely, crutch and bowl in hand, stepped a pace or two beyond the entrance and whistled twice--as they supposed for a guide. But the only guides that answered were two small mountain foxes--a vixen and her half-grown cub--that came bounding around an angle of the rock and fawned about his feet while he caressed them and spoke to them softly in a tongue which none of the party understood. And so they all set out, turning their faces westward and keeping to the upper ridges; the foxes trotting always a few paces ahead and showing the way.

All that night they walked as in a dream, and came at daybreak to a ledge with a shrine upon it, and in the shrine a stone figure of a goddess, and below the ledge--perhaps half a mile below it--a village clinging dizzily to the mountain-side.--There was no food in the shrine, only a few withered wreaths of marigolds: but the holy man must have spoken to his foxes, for at dawn a priest came toiling up the slope with a filled bowl so ample that his two arms scarcely embraced it. The priest set down the food, took the hermit's blessing and departed in silence: and this was the only human creature they saw on their journey. Not for all their solicitation would the hermit join them in eating: and at this they marvelled most of all: for he had walked far and moderately fast, yet seemed to feel less fatigue than any of them. That night, as soon as the moon rose, he started afresh with the same long easy stride, and the foxes led the way as before.

The dawn rose, but this time he gave no signal for halting: and the cool of morning was almost ended when he led them out through the last broken crests of the ridge and, pointing to a broad plain at their feet, told them that henceforward they might fare in safety. A broad road traversed the plain, and beside it, some ten to twelve miles from the base of the foothills, twinkled the white walls of a rest-house.

"There," said he, pointing, "either to-day or to-morrow will pass the trader Afzul Khan: and if indeed ye come from Surat--"

His mild eyes, as he pointed, were turned upon Menzies, who broke out in amazement: "For certain Afzul Khan is known to us, as debtor should be to creditor. But how knowest thou either that he passes this way or that we come from Surat?"

"It is enough that I know."

"Either come with us then," Menzies pressed him, "and at the rest-house Afzul Khan shall fill thy bowl with gold-dust; or remain here, and I will send him."

"Why should he do aught so witless?"

Menzies laughed awkwardly. "Though money be useless to thee, holy man, I dare say thy villagers might be the gladder for it."

The hermit shook his head.

"Anyhow," broke in Prior, addressing Menzies in English, "we must do something for him, if only in justice to some folks who will be glad enough to see us back alive."

"My friend here," Menzies interpreted, "has parents living, and is their only son. For me, I have a wife and three children. For their sakes, therefore--"

But the hermit put up a hand. "Something I did for their sakes, giving you back to the chains they will hang upon you. It was weakness in me, and no cause for thanks." He turned his begging bowl so that it shone in the sun: an ant clung to it, crawling on its polished side. "If ye have sons, I may live belike to see them pass my way."

"That is not likely."

"Who knows?" The old man's eyes rested on Bhagwan Dass. "Unlikelier things have befallen me while I sat yonder. See--" he turned the bowl in his hand and nodded towards the ant running hither and thither upon it. "What happens to him that would not likewise happen if he stood still?"

"There is food at the rest-house," Menzies persisted; "but I take it you can find food on your way back, even though since starting we have seen none pass your lips: and that is two days."

"It will be yet two days before I feast again: for I drink not save of the spring by which you found me, and I eat no food the taste of which I cannot wash from me in its water."

Menzies and Prior eyed one another. "Cracked as an old bell!" said the younger man in English, and laughed.

"Is it a vow?" Menzies asked.

"It is a vow."

"But tell me," put in Prior, "does the water of your spring differ from that of a thousand others on these hills?"

"The younger sahib," answered the hermit, "understands not the meaning of a vow; which a man makes to his own hurt, perhaps, or to the hurt of another, or it may even be quite foolishly; but thereby he stablishes his life, while the days of other men go by in a flux of business. As for the water of my hillside," he went on with a sharp change of voice and speaking, to their amazement, in English, "have not your countrymen, O sahibs, their particular springs? Churchman and Dissenter, Presbyterian and Baptist--count they not every Jordan above Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus?"

He turned and walked swiftly from them, mounting the slope with swift loose strides. But while they stared, Bhagwan Dass broke from them and ran in pursuit.

"Not without thy blessing! O Annesley sahib, go not before thou hast blessed me!"

Two days later, at sunset, a child watching a little below the hermit's spring saw him limp back to it and drink and seat himself again at the entrance of the cave; and pelted down to the village with the news. And the hill-people, who had supposed him gone for ever, swarmed up and about the cave to assure themselves.

"Alas!" said the holy man, gazing out upon the twilight when at length all had departed, leaving him in peace. "Cannot a man be anywhere alone with God? And yet," he added, "I was something wistful for their love."


Arthur Quiller-Couch