TALES OF DESTINY
By EDMUND MITCHELL
LONDON CONSTABLE AND COMPANY LTD 1913
COPYRIGHT, 1912 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY EDMUND MITCHELL
Chap. I. The Maid of Jhalnagor. Told by the Rajput Chief 5
II. The Hollow Column. Told by the Tax-Collector 19
III. What the Stars ordained. Told by the Astrologer 35
IV. The Spirit Wail. Told by the Merchant 60
V. The Blue Diamonds. Told by the Fakir 101
VI. The Tiger of the Pathans. Told by the Afghan General 128
VII. Her Mother Love. Told by the Physician 146
VIII. The Sacred Pickaxe, Told by the Magistrate 170
TALES OF DESTINY
Just without one of the massive bastioned gates of the city of Fathpur-Sikri there stood in the year 1580 a caravanserai that afforded accommodation for man and beast. Here would alight travellers drawn by the calls of homage, by business, or by curiosity to the famous Town of Victory, built, as the inscription over the gateway told, by "His Majesty, King of Kings, Heaven of the Court, Shadow of God, Jalal-ad-din Mohammed Akbar Padishah."
At the time of our story Akbar was at the zenith of his glory. He had moved his court from Agra, the capital of his predecessors on the throne of the Moguls, after having raised for himself, on the spot where the birth of a son had been promised him by a hermit saint, this superb new city of Fathpur-Sikri, seven miles in circumference, walled and guarded by strong forts at its seven gateways. Emperor and nobles had vied with each other in erecting palaces of stately design and exquisite finish of adornment. A beautiful mosque commemorated the good deeds of the saint, and provided a place of prayer for those of the Moslem faith. In the palace of the Emperor was a magnificent audience hall, with marble columns and stone-carved galleries, in the centre of which stood the throne of gold sprinkled with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, surrounded by a silver railing, and covered by a canopy of rich crimson brocade. In this audience hall the great and good Akbar was wont to receive not only his subjects, rich and poor, the former assembled to pay their court, the latter to lay their grievances before the Imperial judge; but he also extended welcome to strangers from afar. On the question of religion his mind was at this period in a state of change, for he had broken from the strict faith of the Moslem, had publicly announced that there was good in all beliefs, had overthrown ceremonial rules, whether of Islam or of Hinduism, and had proclaimed all things lawful except excess. His thoughts thus drifting toward a new religion, a divine faith that would bring into one fold the votaries of all religions, he was glad at his court to give audience to learned doctors from distant lands as well as from every part of India. All were welcome—Brahmins and Buddhists, Moslem schoolmen, Hindu fanatics, pantheists, the worshippers of fire, the Jews whose prophets are Abraham and Moses, even Christian padres from far-off Europe. It was Akbar's delight to listen to their expositions and discussions, and to the defence of their varied dogmas.
Thus did the fame of the king for tolerance, benevolence and wisdom become noised abroad far and wide, so that visitors flocked in ever-increasing numbers to the beautiful city. At our caravanserai without the gate there would often, in the cool of an evening, be gathered together on the shaded veranda a group of travellers representing diverse races and classes. Some of the town-dwellers, too, would be there, resting and refreshing themselves after their walk to the city walls, while from the near-by camp of the Rajputs, who formed a portion of the royal bodyguard, there would oftentimes stroll over a few men-at-arms.
On such occasions it would generally happen that the debates recently listened to in the Imperial Hall of Assembly would be subjected to comment. And from discussion of this kind the conversation would quite frequently change to story-telling, dear to the hearts of all natives of Hindustan, and by no means to be despised, for in a good story there may be implanted the kernel of a sound philosophy.
On a summer night in the year named eight men were assembled on the veranda of the caravanserai. The full moon had just risen above a tope of tamarind trees, and its silvern radiance revealed every detail of the scene. A Rajput chief occupied the place of central prominence, cushions arranged for his convenience, on one of which rested his scimitar, the emblem of his soldierly profession. Not far from him, in a half-reclining posture, was a general of the Afghans, also of the bodyguard of the Emperor. A hakeem, or physician, and an astrologer, both in the Moslem style of dress, were seated close together, legs crossed beneath them; while a little apart were two Hindus, as the caste marks on their foreheads showed, a tax-collector from the country and a kotwal, or city magistrate. Just above the steps leading on to the veranda, surrounded by his bales of merchandise, sat a merchant from Bombay, a big and stalwart man, attired in spotless white raiment, on his head a voluminous muslin turban. In striking contrast, squatting on the ground below the steps, at his feet a wooden begging bowl, was a fakir, or religious ascetic, a loin cloth his sole covering, his face bedaubed with ashes, his lean chin resting on his upraised knees while he listened to the dialogue and watched each speaker's face with eyes of keen alertness.
There had been some desultory conversation, which finally resulted in the Rajput chief being begged to relate in detail an experience at which he had previously hinted. The first story led to another story, and the third to yet another, and so on, until each member of the company had contributed to the general entertainment. And these are the tales that were told by the travellers on the veranda of the caravanserai outside the walls of Fathpur-Sikri that moonlight night in the days of the mighty Akbar:
I. THE MAID OF JHALNAGOR
TOLD BY THE RAJPUT CHIEF
Well, since you would have it so, listen to the story of Rukpur Singh, hereditary chief of Jhalnagor, mansabdar of five hundred men, captain of the bodyguard of Akbar the Great, King of Kings, Lord of the Earth.
"This day in the Hall of Assembly, in the presence of the great Padishah himself, we have listened to the arguments of men of diverse faiths. It is well. As Akbar, the Most High, himself has said, all religions are good; each man has the god or gods of his fathers; let there be no obstacle placed against worshipping the divine power in any manner that seemeth fit. That is both wisdom and justice. That is why I, a Hindu, a Rajput, one of the twice born, can serve my lord, the Moslem Emperor Akbar, with loyalty of heart and of sword that no man may question."
At these words the captain of the bodyguard touched the jewelled hilt of his scimitar lying on the cushion by his side. He glanced around, as if to see whether anyone present dared to question the fidelity he had professed. But there was neither movement nor remark among his listeners, and with a disdainful little smile of self-complacency he resumed.
"During to-day's discussion, in the spirit of tolerance that Akbar teaches to all of us, we Rajputs have had to harken to severe upbraiding. We are accused of inhumanity because in our homes a female child may be done away with at birth, lawfully and without dishonour. Be it so; the fact itself I shall not dispute. Nor shall I defend the practice except to point out that a woman more or less in the world does not matter, that the babe suffers no pain and knows no ill, that had she lived it might have been to a life of widowhood—if courage were wanting to choose the suttee—and therefore to long days of shame and sorrow.
"Furthermore, has it to be remembered that the marriage of one of our daughters costs much money. According to the rules of our caste and the customs of our race, the ceremony must be worthy of the parents and of the position they occupy; all of the district must be feasted, and let the expense be grievous as it may it must be borne. To some who are rich the money thus spent is of no account. But to others who are poor yet proud—and all Rajputs are proud—a wedding that is seemly for a daughter of the house may mean poverty and ruin for the father and brothers during twenty years to follow. In certain circumstances this misfortune cannot be thought of. The honour of the race, the very safety of a whole clan, may depend on rigid economy as a provision against danger. So it may be both right and wise for an infant daughter to be put painlessly to her death. Such was the doctrine my father taught me, and his name is blessed."
The speaker dropped his eyes, folded his hands across his breast, and for a full minute remained in silent meditation. When at last he looked up again, there had come over the usually stern and haughty face a wonderful glow of kindliness, and his voice took a softer modulation.
"However, know this, my friends, that in my zenana at Jhalnagor there are little girls—three, and more will be welcome should the divine Krishna send them. Three little daughters have I, all born of my wife Lakmibai, the jewel of Jhalnagor. With sons also am I blessed—two brave little boys, of whom I may well be proud. But I love them not more than my daughters, nor would I change any one daughter for a son. This do I say out of the truth of my heart, and in no wise because fortune has been kind to me and mine, and has given us such prosperity that there is a fit dower for each daughter without my treasury knowing the loss.
"So when the learned mullah from Stamboul denounced infanticide, I was one with him in sympathy, for my inclination is to cherish with love and care every female child the gods send.
"Now would you hear how a Rajput came to this manner of thinking? My story is that of a little maid. Listen. It happened just five years gone by.
* * * * *
"Under the firm and just rule of our master Akbar there has been peace for many years in our part of the world. Except when, as now, I come to Fathpur-Sikri for my yearly month of service in providing part of the Emperor's bodyguard, I live quietly among my own people. The soil around our villages is tilled, our shopkeepers buy and sell, we worship in our temples, and we are happy, for no enemy comes to disturb the peace of our beautiful little valley of Jhalnagor embosomed among the hills.
"One day it befell that I had gone on a hunting trip with a party of my friends. In the early dawn we had descended from the fort on the hill top which is my home and the rallying-place for my clan—a small clan, numbering but a few thousands, but nobly born as any tribe in Rajputana, brave and of honour unsullied, men who have never yet given a daughter to the harem of a Moslem."
The features of the Rajput flashed with pride. His brother-at-arms, the Afghan, met the defiant look, and said, with a quiet smile:
"There are many Rajput women wed to Moslem lords."
"Yes, but not Rajput women of Jhalnagor. They would have died first—many of them did so prefer to die when the Moslem host first swept over our land. In the hour of defeat, against overwhelming numbers, within the citadel of Jhalnagor the women of my race, refusing to accept dishonour, bared their bosoms to the spears of those they loved, husbands, brothers, and fathers, and so they died."
With hands outstretched and eyes upraised in rapt pride and reverence for the deeds of his ancestors, again the Rajput fell into momentary silence.
"The story of the little maid." It was the voice of the physician recalling the narrator to his task.
"Yes, the story of the little maid," resumed the Rajput. "As I have said, we had gone to the hunt one morning—a party of twelve, riding on three elephants. For we were in pursuit of a tiger, a destroyer of men, which the villagers had marked down in a patch of jungle by the river side. Of the hunt I need say nothing; we killed the tiger, and, with the huge, striped body slung across the neck of my elephant, we were returning home. It was toward evening, for we had rested in the forest during the heat of the day.
"We were just entering the narrow gorge that leads to the fort on the hill, when, right on the pathway before me, I saw the prone figure of a child. Almost my elephant's feet were upon it before the sage brute himself stopped and trumpeted a warning to us in the howdah, for, the tiger's body occupying the place where the mahout was wont to ride, the latter was walking, and he, too, had not noticed the tiny bundle of bright yellow clothing lying on the road.
"Glancing down, I beheld a little girl with her forehead touching the dust. At my calling she arose, and spread her hands across her breast.
"'Listen, O chief, to my warning, listen, O my lord,' she called out in a shrill tone of supplication. Already had I observed that her face was one of great beauty, although that of just a little child, but six or seven years old.
"The other two elephants had halted behind mine, and some of the party had descended. But at the approach of these men the maid shrank away, and, keeping her eyes fixed in my direction, she continued to address me:
"'Listen to my words, O chief, and be saved from death.'
"In another moment I had sprung to the ground. As I advanced the child ran toward me, absolutely fearless. Taking her in my arms, I sat me down by the roadside. Close to my breast she nestled, and, with sobs and tears now, told me her story.
"A robber band was in the nullah—less than a mile further along—full a hundred strong, fierce men and murderers. For they had already slain the father and the mother of the little maid, humble woodcutters. I had known them well; they were poor, but of mine own people, and instantly in my heart I vowed that I would be avenged.
"The little girl, Brenda her name, as she told me in her childish way of confidence, had hidden in the brushwood all day, trembling and afraid. But at last she divined that the men had come to slay me, for as the afternoon advanced they disposed themselves among bushes and behind trees, also in the hut of her dead parents. And even now were the assassins in waiting for me, for the girl had seen our party ride forth in the early morning, and she knew that I had not yet returned.
"When, with wonderful intuition for a child so tender in years, the thought came to her mind that I was to be assailed, she stole down the gorge, moving cautiously through the undergrowth, and awaited at the spot we found her to give me warning.
"The child had described to me the leader of the gang, and I had immediately recognized Gunesh Tanti, accursed son of a pig, a robber from across the desert of Sindh, who had more than once ravaged peaceful villages of Rajputana. He would know that I had treasure in the fort, and of an instant I could read his wily plan. Moving through the country, he had doubtless heard a day or two before of this projected expedition of mine for the killing of the man-eating tiger. So he had designed to slay me on my homeward way, and, the deed accomplished, would rely on gaining access to the citadel by loading his ruffians into the howdahs of my elephants. Once over the drawbridge and within the portcullised gateway, his murderous scheme might have been easy, for my score of men-at-arms on duty would have been taken by surprise and so at a disadvantage.
"But knowing now the danger, I laughed in my beard, for Gunesh Tanti, this human tiger and slayer of innocent men, just as had been the tiger now slung across the back of my elephant, was fairly delivered into my hand. He who had come to trap me was himself entrapped. And thanks all to this little maid of the glen! At the thought, I patted her soft cheek with my hand, and in response she smiled up into my eyes with wondrous trust and winsomeness.
"Our party, as I have said, numbered twelve, this without counting the three mahouts, lithe and active men, and brave as any one of us. The neck of the gorge was narrow, and for a hundred yards on either side there were steep precipices down which rocks could be tumbled on fleeing men. By a goat path over the hillside the fort could be reached by one sure of foot and knowing the way. Such a lad was of our party, a cousin of my own, who could race with the deer.
"In a few minutes he had girded his loins and was on his mission, disappearing over the crest of the almost perpendicular crag up which he had clambered. He was to warn the garrison, turn out every man and boy fully armed, and bid them to sweep down on the ambushed robbers. The mothers and the maidens would hold the fort. No other garrison, when once on the alert, was needed for such an enemy."
Again the Rajput smiled proudly, but the silence of intent listening was unbroken, and he continued:
"The firing of a matchlock was to be our signal that my men held the upper end of the pass, and were descending on our enemies. Meanwhile, my immediate followers prepared the rocks above the narrow neck of the defile and got them ready for instant rolling down. To this last task four of our number were deputed. The others abided with me. Our plan was to block the narrow passage by ranging the elephants abreast of each other, and, so that the animals themselves might not be stampeded by the unexpected din of battle, we chained their forelegs, first each animal separately, and then the middle one to his comrades on either side.
"At last all our preparations were completed, the huge beasts in line, my companions mounted into the howdahs. I alone remained on foot, I and the little woodcutters' daughter, standing by my side, holding trustfully to my hand, and no longer weeping.
"'You must come with me, my almond-sweet,' I said, as I raised the child in my arms, and passed her up into the howdah of my own elephant, the central one. Then I myself clambered aloft. The tiger's corpse had been flung to the ground, and our three mahouts sat in their proper places, iron goads in hand, ready to perform their task of keeping the elephants under control.
"At last, after a tense period of waiting, the welcome report of the matchlock reverberated from among the hills.
"The fight does not really concern my story," said the Rajput, grimly. "It is sufficient to say that Gunesh Tanti and all his band perished to a man—some slain by the swords of my horsemen charging down the pass, some crushed by the falling rocks, some of the last survivors, who flung themselves desperately against our living barrier, dying on our handpikes or being trampled under foot by the elephants. Not one of more than five score men lived to carry back the tale of death to the robber haunts whence they had come.
"On our side some lives were lost, seven in all; but this is the penalty that brave men have to pay in the doing of righteous deeds. Their memory is honoured.
"As for the little maid, I had nested her in the best-protected corner of the howdah, and in the thick of the fray, when a shower of arrows had fallen upon us, I had covered her tiny form with my shield. But during the final hand-to-hand fight, when all was din and turmoil with the shouting of the men and the angry trumpeting of the elephants, I had not paid her any special heed. From her lips came no sound to attract my attention—no cry of fear, nor wailing murmur.
"But at the end I looked for the little child, lifting the shield that had partly guarded her. She met my gaze with a smile. But straightway I noticed that an arrow, descending almost perpendicularly, had pierced her soft little arm, and transfixed it to her side. Yet had she not cried out, nor even now, when I was tending her, did she whimper.
"I drew forth the arrow, breaking it in twain, so as to let the shaft pass through the arm. Although blood flowed freely, I saw at a glance that the wound in the body was a mere puncture, and also that on the limb only a piercing of the flesh. Therefore was her hurt not serious, although of a certainty painful, and terrifying too for a child so young. But even now not one word of complaining did she utter. She kept her sweet smile on me. Brave little maid!
"Tearing a length of cambric from my turban, I had bound both arm and tender breast, and readjusted the sari of yellow-dyed cotton that formed her simple garment. And now she reposed, happy and contented, in my arms. I remained in the howdah, while my companions cut off the heads of the robbers, and loaded these trophies of victory on one of the other elephants, so that a triumphal pile might be made in the courtyard of the citadel. Then, with the tiger replaced on the neck of my own elephant, we moved for home, a group of fifty horsemen now forming our escort. The headless bodies of our enemies were left as fitting spoil for the jackals and the vultures, the latter of whom, scenting the carrion, were already beginning to drop down, it might seem, from the blue vault of heaven.
"By the time we gained the fortress the dusk was gathering. Across the drawbridge, promptly lowered at the sound of our joyful shouting, I saw my wife standing beside the big carronade that commanded the roadway up the hill. The smoking match was in her hand, but at sight of me she stooped and smothered in the dust the spark that would have dealt out death to the robbers had they ever gained a near approach. Descending from my elephant, I greeted her and thanked her for the courage of herself and all the other women, our loved ones.
"Then my friends above handed down gently into my arms the form of the little maid. At sight of my wife's sweet and kindly countenance the eyes of the child were lighted with joyousness. But with a quick motion wife drew her veil completely over her features. Ere this was done, however, I had caught a strange look in her face—a look of mingled surprise and terror. At the same moment her old attendant and confidant, Rakaya, flung herself at my feet, and began to babble for my forgiveness.
"'What means this?' I asked, glancing in profound amazement from the woman's prostrate form up into my wife's eyes. There again I read the strangely troubled expression. Puzzled, yet restraining my curiosity before the others gathered around, I placed the wounded child in my wife's arms, and, with a gesture to signify that she and Rakaya were to follow, I led the way to the women's quarters.
"Once within the zenana, I told my story briefly: how the little damsel of the glen had saved me from certain death, and then, through danger and through pain, had been brave as the noblest-born Rajput maid could be. After this recital, I commended the child to my wife's affections, bidding her love the orphan as she would a daughter.
"Then was the lovely countenance of my wife, the jewel of Jhalnagor, suffused with great joy. Hugging the child to her motherly bosom, she exclaimed:
"'Oh, my lord, I have a confession to make, but now you will forgive me. Do you remember our first-born babe?'
"My brow darkened. I felt the hot flush of shame on my cheeks. For our first-born had been a girl, and I—disappointed and aggrieved, because I was then strongly under the influence of my father's teachings, proud of my family's position and wealth, and fearful to be impoverished in the future—had given the word that the babe must die. This in spite of my wife's pitiful tears and pleadings. And it was not the memory of the deed itself that made me now ashamed, but the memory of those tears and of how I had repelled her. Through the intervening years I had tried never to think of this painful episode, and, with two little boys playing at my knee, had well nigh forgotten the first child that had come. Mention of the dead and buried past now made me resentful.
"'Why do you speak thus?' I asked, angrily.
"'Because, my lord,' exclaimed my wife, dropping on her knees at my feet, yet with the little child still pressed to her breast, and drawing me down to her with her free hand, so that we were all three close together, 'because, oh, my lord, in our arms now this very moment is our first-born, our daughter. We spared her, Rakaya and I; we bribed Runjit, who is now dead, and to whom you gave the terrible orders, and Rakaya smuggled the babe safe away to the cottage of the woodcutters. Since then I have managed to see her sometimes by stealth, and have loved her; but I have never dared to clothe her in any but humble garments—no silks, no bangles, no jewels of any kind—lest suspicion should be aroused.'
"'Oh, great master, forgive your humble slave,' moaned the old crone, Rakaya, grovelling in a corner of the room.
"But to my wife only I paid heed. 'Can this be?' I murmured, surprised and deeply moved.
"'She is our very own, our little girl.' And back into my arms she placed the child, whose tresses I straightway fell to fondling, as her sweet, trustful eyes looked up into mine, beaming with love as if she had indeed long before divined in her heart that I was her father and her natural protector.
"'And, oh, my dear lord,' continued my wife, her eyes brimming with tears, 'thou knowest now it was to save thee that, in the mysterious workings of fate, this little child was saved.'"
The Rajput paused in his story, bending his head to hide the emotion that caused his lips to tremble. "A month later," he went on, softly, "a little sister was born to Brenda, and only last year a third daughter came to our home. And all, as I have said, are well beloved."
The speaker's face was now upraised. The soldierly sternness had gone out of it: it shone only with paternal pride and love as he added:
"To-day Brenda, our first-born, is the light of my home, and a year hence she will be married to the Rajah of Jodhpur, to make the heart of that great and noble prince of the Rajputs happy for ever-more."
And so ended the Rajput's tale.
* * * * *
There was silence for a time, broken at last by the voice of the ash-besprinkled devotee:
"Allahu akbar! God is great! Over many things he gives his servants power."
II. THE HOLLOW COLUMN
TOLD BY THE TAX-COLLECTOR
"Every man's fate is fore-ordained," said the tax-collector, reflectively stroking his beard. "Although we may not understand it at the moment each particular event that happens is simply a means prepared for some destined end that may be many years remote in time. Vishnu the Preserver saved the life of the little maid of Jhalnagor so that her father's life might later on be saved. But none can read the future, so that we are all blindly doing the things of to-day without knowing their real bearing on the things of a far-away to-morrow. And one man can make or mar the happiness of another man, even though their lives be separated by hundreds of leagues in space or hundreds of years in time."
"In your mind doubtless is some tale to illustrate the truth of what you teach," remarked the astrologer, with a shrewd uplifting of his eyebrows. "The stars can help us to read the future, as I can prove to you by a story of actual experience. But before I proceed to my narrative, pray, friend, let us hear from you."
"Gladly," assented the tax-collector. "The story of this noble Rajput has brought to memory an incident in my own life many years ago, likewise serving to show that the gods prepare long years ahead for the working out of each particular man's destiny. Listen:
* * * * *
"As a youth I was a keeper of accounts in the service of a rich zemindar, whose estate lay in the Country of the Five Rivers. He was a usurer as well as a landowner, as had been his fathers before him for many generations. So in his castle was an accumulation of great stores of wealth—gold and silver and precious stones, cloth of gold, silks, brocades, and muslins, ivory and amber, camphor, spices, dye stuffs, and other merchandise of divers kinds."
The Afghan general stirred, and the scabbard of his sword rattled on the floor as, raising himself from his elbow that rested on a cushion, he sat up and assumed an attitude of keen attention.
"Where is this place?" he asked, a wolfish gleam in his eyes, and his lips curved to a smile that revealed, under the black, curled moustache, the white gleam of sharp-pointed teeth.
The story-teller also smiled, knowingly, and raised a deprecatory hand.
"Nay, friend, this zemindar, my first master, was not fated to be relieved of his treasure, as my story will tell, even though a skilful plot had been laid for his spoliation. Which is the very point of my tale, although I may seem to come to it by a roundabout way of telling."
The Afghan sank back on his cushion, but his gaze remained riveted on his narrator's face.
"One day I was seated in my home, casting up my books of account, for I had only that morning completed the taking of taxes from the crops of the rayats, the tenants of my lord. All of a sudden a white-robed figure entered the doorway and threw himself prostrate before me. When at last the face was raised I recognized the dhobi of the village that nestled under the hill on which was perched the castle of the zemindar.
"'O thou washer of clothes,' I asked, 'what is thy plaint?'
"'Protector of the poor,' replied my visitor, 'behold my bandaged feet, beaten with rods until they are swollen and torn.'
"I looked, as requested, and saw the blood-stains soaked through the wrappings of linen.
"'Thou art an honest and a peaceful man, Bhagwan. Why this cruel punishment?'
"'I know not, indeed. But I have come to thee, because I have endured the wrong at the hands of thy master.'
"'Tell me thy story.'
"'As you have said, O my protector,' began the dhobi, assuming a sitting posture and spreading the folds of his loose-flowing cotton garment over his bandaged feet, 'I am an honest man. And it is for that very reason I have suffered. Yesterday, among the apparel I received from the home of the zemindar to be made clean and white was the bodice of a woman, and tied in one corner of this piece of raiment was a ring set with bright red stones that gleamed as if they were aflame. Straightway I returned to the palace of the zemindar, and, entering the audience chamber where, as is his wont at that particular hour each day, he was seated receiving the complaints of the oppressed, did my humble obeisance, and then placed in his hand the jewel I had discovered. He asked me where I had found it, and when I replied truthfully, his eyes flashed with anger, and his voice thundered at me in rebuke. Although I had done no wrong, but rather a virtuous deed, I implored for pardon. But in vain. My mind grew confused, and the next thing I remember was the sharp cut of bamboo rods upon the soles of my feet. I was in a small vaulted chamber, bound to a wooden bench, surrounded by the zemindar's soldiers, and powerless except to scream out in the agony of each blow. Thirty strokes were counted, and then I was flung out of the gates of the castle, to limp my way home.'
"Tears of self-pity were in the dhobi's eyes as he recounted his tale of woe. Even then I was reflecting on the real cause of the zemindar's wrath. The jewel had been discovered in the folds of a garment worn by one of the women in his zenana, and his quick access of anger showed that the gift had come from some other hand than his. Savage jealousy, therefore, had prompted the act of injustice inflicted upon the unfortunate washerman. I knew my master so well his sullen moods, his outbursts of passion, that already I could arrive at this conclusion with certainty.
"'Proceed,' I said, indifferently, for it is well that a man should keep his own counsel in such delicate affairs. 'What is my concern with your misfortune?'
"'Harken, O dispenser of bounties! Last night when I lay nursing my wounds, I remembered that the ring which had proved the cause of my misery had been wrapped in a fragment of paper whereon were some strange marks and lines as in the books of learned men. This I had flung away, at that time deeming only the ring to be of any consequence. But the thought came to me in the night that perhaps the paper might tell something about the ring. So all this day have I searched among the bushes by the stream where I beat the clothes on stones and wash them. And behold, I have found that for which I have been seeking.'
"Hereupon the dhobi loosened the loin cloth beneath his upper garment, and extracted from its folds a tiny roll of paper. This he presented to me, with a bow of deference to my superior understanding of such things.
"'This time I have come to you,' he said, 'a man of learning and of justice, not like unto the cruel zemindar. Does the paper tell why I should have suffered such shame and pain at his hands?'
"I had unrolled the scroll, the folds of which showed that it had served as a wrapping for the ring. The writing was in neat Persian characters, and I had no difficulty in deciphering it, for the four lines that met my eyes had been recited to me only a few days before by the very man who claimed to be their author.
"Now did my very heart tremble with agitation. But to the dhobi I appeared cold as the waters of the snows that melt on the mountains.
"'This writing would only add to your troubles,' I said. 'Here, let me destroy it.' And, turning to the red ashes burning in a brazier near at hand, I dexterously substituted a fragment of paper, on which I had been figuring my accounts, for the paper received, from the dhobi, placing the former on the glowing charcoal embers and bestowing the latter in the security of my girdle. A curl of white smoke, a puff of flame, and the work of destruction was, to all appearance, completed.
"'In view of your misfortune, my friend,' I resumed, 'I bestow upon you in the name of my master ten maunds of dal, which will be sent to your home on the morrow.'
"The recipient of this unexpected bounty prostrated himself before me.
"'O prince of justice, no longer do my wounds pain me. The bellies of my children will be filled for many long days to come.'
"'Then go thy way, rejoicing in thy heart even though limping on thy feet. And remember that silence is golden. Say not one word more to anyone about the ring or the paper, your punishment or the reward that has now redressed the wrong. Go in peace.'
"And the dhobi, after profuse expressions of gratitude, hobbled from my presence.
"Alone with my thoughts, I felt sorely troubled. The writer of the verses of ardent poetry written on the paper brought to me by the washerman was my cherished friend, a youth from far-away Bokhara, Abdul by name. This young man had come to our country only a year or so before, bringing several beautiful Arab horses for sale. These the zemindar had purchased, and had retained Abdul in his service, for the youth was skilled in the management of horses, and in the rearing of young stock.
"Abdul and myself were much of an age, and my regulation of expenditures in the stables had brought us constantly together. So a close friendship had resulted, valued greatly on my side, for I had soon come to know that Abdul was a man of refinement and learning such as I had never before encountered in any man of so humble a calling. And despite the fact that he was a Moslem and I a Hindu, he had chosen me as his intimate friend, his only confidant. Thus had it come about that at times he had read to me of an evening songs of his own composing, and even on occasion had sung them to the accompaniment of a small harp, the strings of which he touched with wondrous skill and sensibility.
"Now did I know that this dear friend of mine had endangered not only his well-being but his life, by sending into the zenana of our master, the zemindar, a love token and a love message for one of the women dwelling there.
"Thus ran the fateful lines, written after the style of the famous Persian poet, Omar the Tent-Maker, which I now read again on the paper withdrawn from my girdle:
This ring, O idol mine, tells one is here To bring thee joy, to kiss away the tear. Keep in thy heart the ruby fire of love; The hour of thy deliverance is near.
"And, after reading, I felt thankful that the message had not fallen into the hands of the zemindar, else had the intriguer's identity been quickly determined and his fate as quickly sealed.
"Yet the lines breathed the spirit of honourable love, and my heart was stirred to aid my friend in his daring enterprise.
"Patiently during the afternoon I waited, cogitating the while, and counting the chances. At last about an hour before sunset Abdul came to me with his usual gay smile and happy greeting.
"He read trouble in my look, for straightway he asked of me:
"'What is wrong? What matters have gone amiss?'
"I motioned him to sit by my side, and then without more ado told him of the evil turn that had befallen the dhobi, and showed him the quatrain of verses.
"'These you wrote?' I questioned.
"'With my own hand,' he answered, gravely, but without excess of fear.
"'And the ring with the flaming red gems?'
"'Was her mother's own ring. Zuleika would know it in an instant.'
"'Zuleika—who is she?'
"'Listen, my brother, for fate points that to thee should I give my fullest confidence. Zuleika is a maid of the Turkmans, betrothed to me. But a year ago, when gathering flowers in our valley, she was stolen by roving freebooters. And, true to my love, I have followed her here, to the home of the zemindar, your master, who purchased her from the marauders.'
"'How came you to know that she was here?'
"'Never mind. I am a man of resource and observation, and I tracked the maid. Moreover, gold opens the gates of confidence, and of this I have goodly store.' As he spoke, he touched a pouch that hung from his girdle, 'For I am not, as I may have seemed to you, a mere dealer in horses, but the son of a great chief in my own land.'
"He had drawn himself up proudly, and I bowed my head, in homage as well as in acquiescence. For the news did not surprise me, and in a friend of such noble bearing and high attainments I was well content to recognize an overlord.
"More did he tell me—about a grass-cutter in the stables who had ridden with the robbers, and knew where the captive had been disposed; and about a dancing girl who had carried the ring into the zenana, and brought forth Zuleika's answer in return, telling that she was well, that she was destined as the bride of the zemindar's eldest son, but that she would resist all advances until rescued by her lover, the pearl of her heart, now thrice dear because he had followed her so faithfully and so far.
"Abdul, fearful of danger to Zuleika because of the discovery of the ring, was for instant action—the hiring of bravoes, and a bold attack on the zemindar's person, taking him unawares, carrying him off and holding him to ransom, deliverance of the captive maid of the Turkmans being the price of his freedom.
"But I had more subtle counsel to offer. For by foreordaining of Providence there rested in my breast certain knowledge, the real use of which was only now being revealed.
"'Harken to me, Abdul,' I said, 'and I shall show you a way out of your difficulties—a way, too, that will lead to the attainment of your heart's desire. Send out to-night relays of horses along the northern road, and reserve for your own use the fleetest and strongest steed in the zemindar's stables. To-morrow morning early the dancing girl will carry a message to Zuleika, bidding her to watch and wait for you near the door in the women's quarters that leads to the treasure room of the zemindar.'
"'Of a surety you jest at me,' interposed Abdul. 'How can I gain access either to zenana or to treasure chamber?'
"'All will presently be made clear. At the appointed place Zuleika must await your coming, to-morrow during the hour of the zemindar's public audience. Him shall I engage in business matters while you carry off your beloved. In this you cannot fail, for God, the Lord of the Universe, pitying and helping you, has long years ago prepared the precise means for the accomplishment of your purpose.'
"'Still do you speak in riddles, friend.'
"Nay; listen, Abdul, and though you, a follower of Mohammed, may think of me as an idol-worshipping Hindu, you will yet see that the same supreme spirit rules both our destinies, making me the instrument of your happiness, because of certain knowledge which I possess. There is a secret which my father entrusted to me before he died, bidding me to guard it jealously until occasion for its application might arise. And behold now the appointed hour has come.'
"'You know the council chamber of our lord, the zemindar, with its three-and-thirty columns of white marble. These are massive, seeming to have been hewn out of single pieces of rock—base, pillar, and capital all in one, each column in its entirety a single piece of quarried stone. But learn that this is not so, for these monoliths are in reality artificially made, having been fashioned by clever workers from the Coromandel country, who brought with them here supplies of a certain hard white stone, which they first roasted to a great heat, and then ground to the fineness of flour, finally compounding this material with other things, and constructing therefrom the columns of marble you now behold.'
"'Indeed have I marvelled at their size,' commented Abdul, 'and wondered how such mighty blocks of hewn stone could have been obtained or set in place.'
"'Well, you learn now that they were not quarried but moulded. This work was done in the time of my father, when he was treasurer in the service of the zemindar, then a young man. Now, know that the architect of the zemindar's palace was a dishonest knave, for he contrived that one of the three-and-thirty columns of marble should be hollow, and fitted inside with steps or holding places of iron, so that a lissom man might ascend and gain access to the treasure chamber above. This he confided to my father, seeking to gain him as a confederate in systematically robbing their master. But my father had a heart of gold and a hand of steel, for he slew the would-be thief after disdainfully rejecting his base proposal. Yet did he keep locked up in his own breast exclusively, knowledge of the hollow marble column, and of the sliding sections that gave access to it both above and below. For knowledge is power, he argued, and no man should squander such power any more than he would squander wealth. The destined time would come for the use of the knowledge, and it was in this faith that, just before he died, he confided the secret to me, his successor in the office of treasurer.
"'And with me unto this day the secret has remained. But now at last the workings of fate are disclosed. How old art thou, Abdul?'
"'Four-and-twenty summers,' he replied.
"'Well, a full score years before you were born God so contrived that there should be a means for you to rescue the pearl of your heart, and escape, both of you, back to your own country. Go now and arrange the relays of horses, as I have directed, and when to-morrow's sun has risen, send by the hand of the dancing girl the message to your betrothed within the zenana, bidding her to be prepared. An hour before the zemindar's noontide council I will meet you, and, conducting you to the vaults below the assembly hall with its three-and-thirty columns of marble, will show you that particular column which, by the touching of a hidden spring, will open a passage way whereby you can climb to the zemindar's treasury. The door of that chamber you can open on the inside, simply by pushing back the wooden bolt which serves as a lock and answers only to a key on the other side. Let the maid be waiting there at the appointed time for your coming. Now go, brother of my soul, and make your preparations. Then sleep, for sleep is the best surety of success when wakefulness and courage come to be required.'
"Next day shortly after the hour of noon, the zemindar was seated in council. He was a big stout man, having waxed fat with age and prosperity. His beard descended to his waist like the moss on an old tree, and, above, his moon-like face surveyed complacently the circle of courtiers, soldiers, and retainers. Petitions had been presented, judgments had been spoken, and affairs of the day had been discussed, and we, the few close counsellors who tarried, were only awaiting the raised hand that would have bidden us go our several ways.
"'Where is Abdul?' of a sudden asked the zemindar, casting a glance of inquiry around.
"'He has been smitten with a fever, my lord,' I answered, taking upon my shoulders the burden of excuse, and telling no falsehood, for surely love is the fiercest burning fever of all.
"'Ah, ha!' muttered the zemindar, in a guttural note of disappointment. And there and then I saw him toying with a ruby ring, not worn upon one of his fingers, but held lightly between his two hands.
"'Does anyone here know aught of this bauble?' he added, raising the gem aloft.
"There were glances of inquiry from all around, then bows and gestures and murmurs of disavowal. I alone remained irresponsive, for at that very moment every fibre of my being was strained to nervous rigidity. My senses were preternaturally at work. The marble column against which I was leaning with seeming carelessness, vibrated under my hand. Within its circular depths I could see Abdul descending stealthily and slowly, his one free arm pressing a silken bundle to his breast. Even to my nostrils there was wafted the fragrance of attar of roses, and with the exhalations of perfume came a gentle sigh of timidity almost at my very ear.
"I was moistening my parched lips with my tongue, when I awoke from my momentary trance. The zemindar's eyes were blazing down at me.
"'Villain, this ring is yours!' he cried, struggling to his feet.
"'Not mine, my lord,' I protested, flinging myself at full length before him.
"But at that very moment there rang forth the sharp tattoo of a horse's hoofs on the paved courtyard without, followed by the sharp challenge of a sentry, the bang of a matchlock, and then a very babel of excited yelling.
"Every one in the audience hall swept outside, even the zemindar, his dignity all forgotten. Left alone, with swift consciousness of the suspicion that had fastened itself upon me, and of my powerlessness to deny connivance with the escape of my friend, I gathered myself up and fled by a side passage to a ghat on the river. Here I had a boat prepared for just the emergency that had happened, and because of this happy foresight I am enabled to-day, after more than two score of years, to tell the tale."
* * * * *
"And the zemindar?" asked the Afghan soldier.
"Dead long since."
"The hollow marble column?" pressed the interlocutor.
"Its secret remained unrevealed," replied the tax-collector. "Trusty friends told me later that the flight of Abdul on a fiery stallion, with a female figure clinging to him on the saddle behind, ever remained a mystery. So the youth had had the presence of mind to close the sliding panels above and below."
"He escaped? He lived?" queried the Rajput.
"Assuredly," came the quiet reply. "I have never seen nor heard from Abdul from that day to this. But as destiny had provided, long years before the actual event, a means for the accomplishment of his happiness, I have ever rested content in the belief that all was well with him—that all is well with him even yet perhaps—with him and his beloved in the valley of far-away Bokhara."
"I should like to find that hollow column," muttered the Afghan.
"As I have said, the column was contrived for love and not for rapine, my friend. Should the white stone from Coromandel that can be cunningly wrought into marble ever cross your fate, be on your guard lest the omen mean, not the gaining of a fortune, but the making of a tomb."
The Afghan smiled, half disdainfully, half uneasily, and silence reigned for a spell.
III. WHAT THE STARS ORDAINED
TOLD BY THE ASTROLOGER
"And now, master star-gazer, your proffered story," said the tax-collector, bestirring the company from its meditative mood.
"As I have promised," responded the astrologer, "I shall recount an experience that shows how the stars, if read aright, can tell us the influences for good or for evil that weigh upon a man and inevitably determine his destiny at the critical moments of his life. What is written is written, and it is impossible to strive against fate."
"Nay," objected the Rajput, "that is a teaching of helplessness to which I cannot subscribe—the pitiful excuse of the coward who folds his hands in the hour of danger, or of the self-indulgent weakling who yields to seductive temptation because his heart inclines to seize the pleasure of the moment even when his conscience counsels otherwise. I hold that man is the master of his own fate. Most assuredly have I been the master of mine," he added with a proud smile, his fingers closing significantly on the handle of a dagger at his belt.
"Be it so," answered the astrologer. "But as Allah knows everything that is to happen, so must it happen."
"Which does not forbid the exercise of my own free will," argued the Rajput. "The Supreme Being, the presiding power of creation, call him Allah if you will, understanding my heart as he understands all things, knows beforehand what choice of action I shall make at the moment of an emergency. But that still leaves me responsible for the deed which I elect to do. Such is my understanding of destiny. It gives fore-knowledge to God, but leaves free will to man."
"From all of which I do not dissent," rejoined the astrologer. "It is only the ignorant or the base that makes kismet the excuse for helplessness or for wrongdoing. But as the stars under which a man is born influence that man's acts, then does the reading of the stars guide us as to what the future has in store."
"I know little about your stars," replied the Rajput. "But let us have the story," he added, crossing his hands on his knees in an attitude of expectancy. The astrologer, saluting his audience generally with a bow of acquiescence, thus began:
* * * * *
"By your courtesy let me first explain, as necessary to the understanding of the tale which is to follow, that I am from Persia, from the city of Teheran, where for many generations my ancestors were profound students of astrology, some of them famous men because of their skilful divinations, with reputations that reached even to Stamboul. For thither in my early boyhood to the court of the Sultan of the Osmanlis was my father summoned, and him I never beheld again. It was from my aged grandfather that I learned my first lessons in astrology—about the twelve houses, the ruling star of each day, the coming and the going of the planets, their conjunctions and oppositions, and the influences they exercise on men's lives. I learned with avidity, and was an apt pupil, for at fifteen I had begun the practice of my profession, casting horoscopes and reading the nocturnal heavens with constant care, understanding also the flight of birds and the cries of wild beasts of the jungle.
"Yet at that time was my mind assailed with grievous doubts. I often caught myself wondering whether the stars did really rule the fates of men. And with this inward questioning a restless spirit grew upon me. I longed to see more of the world—to enlarge the sphere of my observations. Just then I chanced to hear some gossip in the bazaars about a great expedition that was getting ready at Kabul to descend upon Hindustan. The hunger of adventure seized me, and was not to be denied. Despite the tears and implorings of my family, I set forth on foot for Afghanistan, a stripling; in my hand the staff I used in my divinations, in the bag slung at my side a single change of raiment. Money I had none, but my ability to read the stars I knew well would earn me a livelihood wherever I might wander.
"With my adventures during the next two years this story has no concern. It is enough to say that, after many vicissitudes of fortune, I found myself installed as astrologer in the court of a Moslem prince, sovereign over an extensive region in Kashmir.
"My lord was a man of noble heart and of high mental gifts. He ruled over his people not by fear of the sword, but by absolute justice, which he himself personally administered, every day holding audience so that grievances, even those of the most poor, might be heard and wrongs redressed. And his royal duties were shared by his wife, who, although she might sit behind the screen of the women's quarters, none the less shared in the counsels of state, and contributed words of wisdom in the direction of affairs.
"Never in my experience have I encountered such mutual love, trust, and devotion as subsisted between this pair. For no other woman in the world had Mirza Shah thought or regard or desire—I call him Mirza Shah, but that was not his real name. For reasons that will presently appear, I refrain from disclosing the identity of places and persons connected with my story.
"Well, it was my privilege from the outset to be on relations of close intimacy with my master. He used to come through the palace gardens to the shrub-embowered tower which I occupied, and from the roof of which I nightly contemplated the heavens. For long hours he would abide with me, learning something of the stars while enjoying the cool of the night air after the heat and fatigues of the day. And many times of an afternoon the sultana, veiled, would come with her lord, and together they would seek to gain from me knowledge of the heavenly bodies and of divination. Some things I told to them, but others I withheld, which is just and right, for skill in astrology is hereditary, descending from father to son, and new minds are unprepared for such teachings, so that too much knowledge conveyed to outsiders may become a source of disturbance to themselves and perchance of danger and hurt to their fellow men. Thus, following the rules laid down for me by my grandfather, always, even when closely pressed with questions, did I exercise a discreet reserve.
"Gradually the friendship accorded to me by my lord and his lady waxed stronger, and I found myself being admitted to some of their innermost thoughts. Thus did I come to learn the passionate longing of the wife to become a mother: for six years had she waited, but no child had blessed her love for her husband. As for Mirza Shah, just so soon as the subject was mentioned I could see the cloud of melancholy rest on his brow. And when, as time went on, sadness seemed to settle upon him continuously, I knew full well that this disappointment in his wedded life had at last taken complete possession of his mind, to the exclusion of all other matters.
"And from the sultana's manner I could see the trepidation that filled her heart—the dread that her childlessness might in the end rob her of her husband's love. It was not given to me to look upon her face—to get more than a glimpse of her eyes as they shot an occasional glance at me through the parted folds of her veil. But in these glances I had read the prayers of entreaty that I should use all the spells of my art in her favour, so as to obtain for her from God the gift of a son.
"Well, after a time an unexpected thing happened. Mirza Shah was absent from his home—gone on a full week's journey, engaged in the settling of some dispute on the confines of his territory. To me there came one afternoon the sultana, attended by one of her women—the most trusted one, I knew, for both were from the same country, near to Amritsar, where the famous rugs are woven. So much I had learned, and this further I also knew, that by birth the sultana was a Hindu, although on being wed to her lord as a little girl, she had of course embraced the true faith of Islam, in so far as it matters for a woman to have any religion at all.
"It was the female attendant who spoke to me, her mistress listening in silence. But the questions came so readily that it was clear the lesson had been well rehearsed by the twain.
"'Astrologer,' she began, 'can you swear on the Koran that the stars speak truth?'
"'That I can swear,' I replied, with due dignity and respect for myself and my profession.
"'Can the stars bring about the wishes of man or of woman?'
"'Nay, that I do not declare. They rule the lives of men and women only in so far as their movements forecast the future. If we can read the stars aright, we may gain foreknowledge of events destined to happen. For what is written in the scroll of fate cannot be changed. From kismet there is no escape."
"'Then tell me this, O astrologer, from your stars: is my noble lady here ever going to have a child, a son?'
"'That question I cannot answer. Unless I have the horoscope of her highness, cast by skilled hands at the time of her birth, I cannot tell which planet rules her destiny.'
"'Alas, we knew not these things among my people down in Amritsar,' I heard my lady murmur.
"'Bah!' exclaimed the serving woman contemptuously. She had flung open her veil, unashamed as are women of her station that I, not her brother or her husband, should gaze upon her face. It was a pleasant enough face of a woman of five-and-twenty years of age; yet, methought, as I looked into it now, that there was unseemly boldness in her eye and even something of wanton abandonment in her manner.
"'Bah! If your stars cannot get us what we wish, what good are they? Better pray at a Hindu shrine to Krishna, god of love revels, than waste time in consulting a Moslem astrologer. That is what I have said all along, dear lady'; and with undoubtedly great affection the woman folded to her breast her now sobbing mistress.
"I turned away, as was proper, and busied myself with a chart of the heavens over which I had been poring when my visitors had arrived. On again raising my eyes, I found that I was alone.
"This incident I had well nigh forgotten, and near a year had elapsed. For some months I had not seen the sultana; she remained in the strict seclusion of the harem. Her highness was unwell, most people said. But I knew the truth; Mirza Shah himself had told it to me, his face beaming with pride and pleasure. At last his dearest hopes were to be realized; the sultana was about to become a mother.
"Meanwhile I was on the alert to cast the horoscope of the child the very hour it should arrive. My preparations had been all made for some time past. Now was I only studying the stars night by night, so that I should be the better prepared to read them correctly.
"At last, almost at the midnight hour, came a messenger running to the tower with the news that a child had been born—a son, Allah be praised. Then I set me instantly to my task, and it was with deep thankfulness I saw that the conjunction of the planets and stars was highly favourable. I carefully recorded the exact position of each heavenly body, and had already read from my rough chart strength and valour for the boy that had just been born, beauty of figure, good endowments of mind, when once again I lifted my eyes to the heavens. But to my horror and dismay at that very instant a streak of fire shot from west to east across the first house, straight toward the planet there ruling, where it disappeared. Just the fraction of a second had passed in the passing of that fiery star. But I knew what it meant, for my grandfather had instructed me in this matter. The child into whose horoscope had come this dread intruder was destined, if he lived beyond infancy, to slay his own father. And with the heaviness of lead this foreknowledge of destiny settled on my soul.
"My head had sunk dejectedly on my breast, when I started up at the touch of a hand on my shoulder, and the greeting of a joyous voice—that of Mirza Shah.
"'A son, Syed Ali, a son. Joy, joy, joy! And now, what do the stars say?'
"Was it cowardice, was it pity, was it sympathy for him in his long deferred happiness, that prompted me to act as I did? Even at this day I myself cannot answer the question. Perhaps it was just unthinkingly on the spur of the moment that I did what I did. Without a word I thrust into Mirza Shah's hand the roughly completed horoscope. There was no note in it of the flaming star that at the last had marred the favourable showing.
"Mirza Shah, under my instructions, had become skilled enough to interpret the general significance of such a diagram with its accompanying symbols.
"'Ah, my friend,' he exclaimed in fervent delight, 'this is indeed excellent. He will be clever and brave and handsome, everything that a father could wish. Get ready the emblazoned scroll at once. Now I shall go. There are others to whom to tell the glad news, and to your mistress even now shall I try to whisper the splendid omens the stars have traced for us here.'
"He tapped the rough chart with a forefinger, then handed it back to me, and was gone.
"Let my story hasten on, just as the years hastened on. The boy grew up to be a comely lad, much in my companionship, for he came to me to learn to read and write Persian and Arabic. But although I loved him well, never any single day did he come into my sight but my heart was smitten with self reproach. Why had I, by suppressing the truth, allowed this child to live even for an hour beyond the hour of his birth? The foreordained murderer of his good and noble father!—to my eyes the decree of fate was branded on the very brow of the boy.
"Yet did I console myself and justify myself. At times I even dared to indulge a doubting mood as to the certainty of the celestial writing of fate. Could a bright, open-faced child like this one seated at my knee, book in hand, ever come to commit the most abominable of human crimes—to slay his own dearly loving father?
"'Impossible!' I would murmur to myself, and would thus resolutely shut the gates of my heart to the whispering of conscience.
"But in any case it was now too late to speak. The boy was endeared to his father and to his mother, the idol of both their lives. Mirza Shah would have gladly died, well I knew, for his son. Why then should I interfere? Kismet! Let destiny take its course. Even I, in withholding the truth, had been an instrument in the hand of fate. And had it not been written that I should so act? Who, indeed, but Allah can change the course of events?
"By such arguments I became reconciled to abide with peace of mind the workings of destiny. And so years rolled on.
"When Prince Hasan, as the lad had been named, had attained the age of seventeen, it befell that the Emperor Humayun, son of Baber, made a progress through the Kashmir Valley, receiving homage from his feudatories, among whom was Mirza Shah. And the magnificent retinue of the mighty Mogul so impressed our young prince, that he must needs beg the privilege of joining the imperial bodyguard. This request was readily granted, for Humayun was trying to gather around him the best young blood in Hindustan, Rajput as well as Moslem, so that each race alike might be keen in the defence and proud of the glory of the great Mogul Empire.
"Thus it came about that Prince Hasan, superbly mounted and dressed in a suit of fine chain armour beneath his upper silken garments, rode forth from the valley where he had been reared, accompanied by the tearful blessings of his father and mother.
"A year passed, and then Mirza Shah himself, summoned by special messenger, departed on a visit to the Court at Agra. When two months later he returned, never did I know such a change to have been wrought in so brief a time on any man. He was grey and haggard; his eyes were sunken. And to me he came almost first of all in the palace, to consult the stars.
"And for my better guidance he told me some things. Prince Hasan had fallen into ways of dissipation and habits of drunkenness—most accursed of vices—in the city of Agra. It was in the hope of reclaiming him that an old friend had called Mirza Shah to the capital. But at the meeting of father and son, instead of repentance on the part of the misguided youth, there had been defiance and revilement, and at last, as the father confessed to me, with the tremor of shame in his voice, an insulting blow in the face. This was too much to endure. Mirza Shah had disowned his son. He declared he was henceforth childless, for, perhaps as I have told you, there had been no other babe born all these years to the sultana.
"Even now did I conceal my guilty knowledge, though well I knew that the inexorable scroll of destiny was beginning to unfold itself. In fact, I was afraid to speak, for Mirza Shah had challenged me straightway to show a flaw in the happy horoscope I had drawn. And flaw in the emblazoned scroll there was none that I could lay finger on; only in my secret heart was the one sinister line traced—surely traced, as I remorsefully reflected.
"For months thereafter Mirza Shah kept away from me—I knew that his faith in the stars or in my skill to interpret them aright had been shaken. But I held my place and kept to the even tenor of my ways, for I had resolved that, if ever Prince Hasan should return home, then assuredly would I be on hand to warn Mirza Shah, so that, the crisis approaching, steps might at least be tried to avert the blow of destiny. Of this I was determined, even though death itself would come to me as the penalty of my long silence.
"But all of a sudden the storm of impending events broke. One day there came to Kashmir the intelligence that Prince Hasan, incensed at his father's just rebukes, was marching against him with a mighty host gathered together from the forces of his companions in revelry. Preparations for defence on our side were at once made, the armed men gathered in from the surrounding villages, and carronades mounted on the walls and at the gateway of the citadel, which hung on sloping ground, with a precipitous mountain guarding it in the rear.
"Too true proved to be the news. One morning the army of Prince Hasan came into view ascending the valley, and before nightfall the semi-circle of ground beneath the walls of the citadel, at a distance of four or five hundred yards, was occupied by the hosts of our enemy. Among these were both horsemen and foot soldiers, also full two score of great elephants dragging a train of siege guns.
"Now at last were the seals of silence broken from my lips. Without further delay I must tell everything to Mirza Shah. Just as the sun was setting I intercepted him when making a round of the walls, and begged of him to come with me to my tower.
"'Later,' he said, sternly, as he passed on to complete his plans for repelling the assault expected at daybreak on the morrow.
"The night was far advanced when at last my lord came to me, and, to my surprise, clinging to his arm, was his wife, the sultana. I placed cushions for her close to one of the casements, where she had been wont to sit on the occasions of her visits in days gone by. Without a word she sank into the place thus assigned to her.
"But Mirza Shah strode into the centre of the little circular room, and took his stand right under the lamp that illuminated it.
"'Now what have you to say, thou false astrologer?' he demanded, without word of prelude.
"Then did I take my courage in both hands, and told him everything—that the stars had in truth revealed to me that the son was destined to be his father's slayer, and that in my foolish desire to give the parents immediate joy I had suppressed the incident of the flaming star.
"As my narrative reached the end I watched the changes in the face of Mirza Shah. I had expected anger-righteous anger against my own self, but in place of this there came over his handsome countenance a serene look of happiness.
"'I thank you, Syed Ali,' he said, 'for the service you have done me. Had you told me eighteen years ago what you tell me to-night, then for a certainty would the guilt of murder be now upon my soul. To-day I am indeed in sore sorrow, but, Allah be praised, there is not my own child's blood upon my hands.'
"As he spoke he spread out his palms, as if in testimony of their stainlessness.
"But at that moment a great burst of lamentation came from beneath the sultana's veil, and, in a shrill tone of agony, she began to reproach herself.
"'It is I who am the cause of all this misery,' she wailed.
"Instantly Mirza Shah bent down and silenced her, then gathered her, almost like a bundle, into his arms.
"'I shall return straightway,' he cried to me, as he disappeared down the narrow stairway.
"Two full hours passed, however, before Mirza Shah came back. His face was white as marble—every feature seemed set, as the sculptor's chisel fixes each line of the carved stone. He spoke to me quite abruptly:
"'Syed Ali, ask no questions, but do my bidding immediately. Yours will be a dangerous task, but it is right that you, who have so long concealed the truth from me, should be called upon to take the risk. The successful accomplishment of your mission is the only reparation I require.'
"'Most gladly will I die for you, Mirza Shah,' I murmured, kissing the hem of his robe.
"'I know it,' he answered, 'and that is why I trust implicitly in you, relying both on your courage and on your discretion. Take this ring,' he went on, handing me a finger ring set with a large turquoise, 'and hide it among your garments. Use your best wits to evade the enemy's outposts. Follow the mountain path. You will get a horse from Abdulla Beg at the head of the gorge. Then ride night and day for Talakabad. There you will go to the house of a man named Gholab Khan, overlooking the town. You will hand to him the finger ring I have just given you. And this you will say: 'Mirza Shah is dead. You are to come to the person who has sent this ring.'
"'But my lord lives—Allah be praised! he will yet live many a long day.'
"'I like not deceit, Syed Ali, but when deceit has been used, then must deceit reply. Carry to Gholab Khan the ring and the exact words I have spoken: "Mirza Shah is dead. You are to come with me to the person who has sent this ring. Hasten." Gholab Khan will without delay respond to this summons. And here will I await your return,' added my lord grimly, 'for your stars have told me beyond all peradventure that I can hold this citadel until Gholab Khan arrives. Now go. Here is the key for the postern in the wall.'
"I had already tied the ring into a fold of my inner garment, and, taking only my staff, I set forth straightway.
"This is not a story about myself, but about Mirza Shah and his family," said the astrologer, with a glance around his circle of auditors, whose fixed attention showed the keen interest with which they were awaiting the unfolding of the destiny proclaimed by the stars. "So once again will I pass over my adventures. The end of them all was that, ere the passing of a full week, I was back in my little tower, and with me was Gholab Khan. It was night, for we had evaded the besiegers' watchfulness under cover of the darkness by taking the same mountain defile by which I had travelled forth on my expedition, and gaining entrance to the citadel by the private gateway the key of which had been entrusted to me.
"I lighted the lamp in the tower, and then turned to Gholab Khan. He was a petty chieftain of the mountains, a handsome man of middle age, resolute-looking and daring. In a few words I bade him wait awhile. Then I stole forth to apprize Mirza Shah that my mission was achieved.
"My lord had given orders to his attendants that he was to be immediately aroused, so soon as I returned, whatever the hour of the night might be. In a moment he strode forth from his sleeping chamber all ready dressed. I started back with affright, for in his hand was a naked sword.
"'Fear not, Syed Ali,' he said to me. 'Where is this Gholab Khan?'
"'In my tower,' I answered.
"'Good,' he replied. 'Come.' And at the word his bodyguard, all with drawn blades, closed around their master.
"About fifty paces from the tower he halted his men, and we two advanced alone.
"I entered the building first. Close behind me, up the winding stairway, pressed Mirza Shah, and I had but crossed the threshold of the room when he thrust me aside.
"'Surrender!' he cried, the point of his sword at Gholab Khan's neck before the latter could utter one word or make any movement in self-defence.
"'Bind his hands,' went on my lord, his enemy pinned helplessly against the wall. Gholab Khan dared not move, but his bulging eyes mutely protested.
"I did as I was told, using a turban cloth gathered from a peg on the wall. Of my own accord I tied ankles as well as wrists. Then Mirza Shah dropped his sword.
"'Now leave us,' he said to me. 'I wish some words with this man. Remain on guard below. Permit no one to intrude.'
"Some time passed. At the base of the stairway I could hear the voices from above, but could distinguish no words. Then came a call from Mirza Shah, bidding me to ascend.
"'Syed Ali,' he said, on my entry into the room, 'this man, Gholab Khan, has to-night had the choice between two alternatives, either to die here now at my hands, or to set forth at dawn and fight in single combat the leader of my beleaguering enemies. He has chosen the latter—the wise course.'
"'The only course,' interpolated Gholab Khan, with a shoulder shrug of protest. The fellow had recovered his equanimity, and, knowing him as I did from our few days of travel in company, I reflected that in mortal combat he would be likely to give good account of himself. But there was no time to indulge in surmises. Mirza Shah still claimed my attention.
"'My men will guard our guest here,' he continued. 'Food will be served to him.'
"'And some wine, please,' growled Gholab Khan.
"'Wine, too, then, if you will,' assented Mirza Shah, contemptuously, for he never by any chance used the fermented juice of the grape forbidden by the Prophet, and now rendered doubly hateful to him by reason of his son's excesses. 'At dawn weapons will be brought to you, and six horses from among which you can make your choice. Meanwhile the challenge will have gone forth. And once again, in the presence of this witness, I pledge my word that if you return successful from the combat, Gholab Khan, having killed your man, then will you be free to return unscathed to your home at Talakabad, and with a lac of rupees for your pains.'
"'Bismillah! I would fight any day and with any man for such a prize,' cried Gholab Khan, his face all aglow, showing that, despite the kidnapping trick played upon him, he was now well pleased.
"'That is good,' said Mirza Shah, coldly.
"Then he blew a shrill whistle, which straightway brought the guard running to the tower.
"But my narrative must hasten. With the first morning light a messenger, his mission announced by the blare of trumpets, went forth from the citadel, daring Prince Hasan to single combat with a champion fighting on behalf of Mirza Shah. There came back, as we expected, an exultant acceptance of the challenge.
"The sun had mounted only spear-high when Gholab Khan, armed with lance and sword, rode out through the gates of the citadel. For his reception the whole host of our enemies had been drawn up, and in the middle of the curved line was the massed troop of some forty elephants, their howdahs crowded with spectators eager to witness the joust at arms.
"From my observation tower Mirza Shah and I watched the scene. Although my mind was clouded with all manner of uncertainties, yet in my heart was a faint flutter of hope. Would this mountain fighter break the spell of the stars, and actually kill Prince Hasan, before the latter could accomplish the portended crime of dealing death to his father? I was torn by distracted arguments; at one moment I believed firmly as ever in the stars, at the next my trust was in the lance of the burly freebooter I had brought down with me from the mountains.
"With bated breath I watched the combat—first the riding at full tilt; the thud of the galloping horses we could hear at this distance. But both lances were successfully parried, and a moment later the combatants had leaped with one impulse from horseback, and were rushing upon each other with swords. We saw the mirror-like flash of the blades in the morning sun.
"Then next I beheld one figure go down, and, while I was yet wondering which of the twain had fallen, a mighty shout of triumph from the beleaguering army told me, alas! that it was our champion who had been worsted. And now a dissevered head raised high on sword-point by Prince Hasan told the bloody tale with final certainty. Gholab Khan was not only down but dead. At this display of the gruesome trophy of victory there were further frantic yells of delight from the assembled hosts across the valley. The sack of our citadel and town seemed now assured to them.
"I just glanced at Mirza Shah. To my surprise his face wore a look of perfect calm, and, on meeting my eyes, there came a gleam of triumph into his.
"'The stars were right,' he exclaimed, in a low, tense voice. 'Praise be to Allah! All is well. A base bibber of wine shall never rule over my people and destroy their happiness, for now that he has fulfilled his destiny Allah will assuredly deliver him into my hands.'
"I was perplexed. So far from Prince Hasan's destiny having been fulfilled, it appeared to me that the dread tragedy foretold by the stars was inexorably drawing nearer and nearer—the death of Mirza Shah at the hands of his unworthy son, a bibber of wine, as he had contemptuously called him.
"While this thought was passing through my mind, all of a sudden there arose another mighty tumult, this time from our side—a shout of astonishment, followed by cries of delight. But the roar of voices was quickly drowned by the thunder of mighty hoofs and the excited trumpeting of elephants. Turning round, I saw at a glance what had happened. The elephants, frightened by the first wild huzzas of victory, had stampeded, and were madly careering in a solid body across the plain.
"Prince Hasan, as he held aloft the severed head of his adversary, saw the oncoming danger. He made a dart for his horse, but the animal, terrified by the noise and confusion, leaped forward, and was gone up the valley like the wind.
"The youth made no attempt to run. It would have been useless. Yes, be it admitted, he died like a man. Ere the elephants were upon him, he had folded his arms across his breast, calmly prepared to meet his doom. In another instant he was whirled through the air, like a straw caught up by a tornado; then the living, irresistible billow swept over him.
"My eyes were still glued in frozen horror to the scene. The screaming of the frightened troop of elephants had receded into the distance. Out on the open, through a haze of dust, I saw the blot of coloured raiment that showed where the body of Prince Hasan lay. And for the moment there was naught but pity in my heart for the youth who had played by my side, and gathered knowledge, if not wisdom, from my lips.
"But a hand was laid on my shoulder, and, turning round, I looked into the face of Mirza Shah. It was lighted by a smile of stern satisfaction.
"'Syed Ali, as you have ever declared, even though I have detected that your faith at times has wavered, the stars cannot speak falsely. He died, that dog out there, but not until he had slain his own father.'
"'His own father!' I stammered. The truth began to break in upon my dazed brain.
"'Yes. It is right that you at least should have the explanation, if for no other reason than to confirm your trust in the stars. Beguiled to wrong by the arguments of a serving woman, the sultana had a son. It is a shameful story, yet do I know that she begot the child out of pure love for me. Hasan was no son of mine. Enough! I have spoken. You can guess the rest.'
"Mirza Shah paused. I could but drop my eyes and remain silent, for I dared to make no comment.
"After a brief pause he resumed:
"'In the end she confessed everything to me, that night when you revealed to us the full truth of what the stars had foretold. As for me, I helped the stars to run their courses: that is why I sent for Gholab Khan. Now, you who know my secret, travel away far from here. Respect the confidence I have given you. There is a bag of gold for you in my treasurer's charge. We part friends, Syed Ali. Fate, working through you, its blind instrument, spared the child so that my shame might be fully atoned. Now go, for I, too, must be up and doing. One timely sally now from the citadel, and yonder disordered host will be swept back whence it came.'
"The result was as Mirza Shah had predicted. The beleaguering army fled at the first onslaught, leaving many hundreds of dead on the field to keep the mangled corpse of their leader company.
"So, you see, my friends," commented the astrologer, concluding his tale, "as Mirza Shah most truly said, the stars cannot speak falsely. Never again have I doubted. The destiny read by me in the heavens that night when the sultana's babe was born was fulfilled in every detail."
"And the faithless wife?" asked the Rajput. "What became of her?"
"Nay, do not presume to judge her," protested the astrologer. "Judgment is for Allah. When Mirza Shah returned from his victorious charge, it was to find his sultana dead on the roof of the women's quarters. She had seen her son—yes, her son, her own flesh and blood, although not her husband's—pounded to death under the elephants' feet. So the unhappy mother had pierced her breast with a dagger, and, by her side, similarly self-slain, lay the serving woman who had miscounselled her to wrongdoing, yet, as I could quite well comprehend, from motives of sincere affection, to safeguard for her her husband's love and to give her the joy of motherhood for which she craved.
"Mirza Shah lived and ruled well for five-and-twenty years longer. He remained to the end a childless man: Allah had decreed it so. But he ever revered the wife who had loved him so well, for she had sinned because of her very love for him, nor had she persisted in her sin. Mirza Shah built to her memory a splendid mosque, and these are the words engraved on her tomb beneath the central dome, showing how her virtues were esteemed and her one act of wrong was forgotten:
"'Before my tomb, O stranger, stay thy way, Reflect on fate's inexorable decree; But yestere'en I was as thou to-day, What I am now to-morrow thou wilt be. Right good the grave for those whom good deeds bless, Gentle the rest of them who tried to spread Around their lives the balm of gentleness. Trustful in God repose the worthy dead. For such as they the living need not weep— Their death is only faith-abiding sleep.'
"By her side now lies her husband, at rest and in peace, for only death brings true rest and peace. And even now, after many years, I am on my way to pay a pilgrimage to the tombs of that truly noble man and his good—aye, his worthy—spouse, for, as I have said, let no man take upon himself to judge her. Allah alone can search the hearts of men."
IV. THE SPIRIT WAIL
TOLD BY THE MERCHANT
"Allah alone can search the hearts of men," said the hakeem, slowly and reflectively repeating the words with which the astrologer had closed his tale. He was a man of venerable appearance, with flowing, white beard that descended to his waist. And yet, although his face was furrowed with the lines of old age, his eyes were wonderfully youthful in their contemplative calm.
"No truer words have been spoken to-night," he continued. "Yet must we further reflect that, while a man cannot sit in judgment upon his fellows, he can assuredly judge himself, which goes to show that within the breast of every man there dwells the very spirit of God, the power to search his own heart, whether in condemnation or for approval. Life is a problem, and it requires a full lifetime to solve it. Only as we grow older do we come to know our own souls—our strength and our weakness, the measure of our true nobility of character and likewise the measure of our inherent meanness, the temptations not merely from without but from within that assail us, our power to conquer these or our miserable yielding at times, with no one, perhaps, even guessing at our degradation except the divine spark of conscience that inexorably turns a searching ray on every thought and on every motive for action."
"So you would argue that man is God?" queried the Rajput.
"Not so, but that the soul of man is of the essence of God, the proof of which is this very power of searching out our own hearts and sitting in judgment on our own failings: for the judgment seat belongs to Allah alone."
"A subtle philosophy which I do not presume fully to understand," interposed the merchant from Bombay.
During the night's entertainment he had shown himself to be a man of few words, yet an attentive listener. He was of middle age, of a mild dignity of mien, and of robust physique, as befitted one accustomed to long journeys through regions infested with robbers or with beasts of prey.
"But in my practical experience of life," he proceeded, "I have come to realize that, while I may know myself, no other man can I know. Therefore, if it be right to be sparing of condemnation for another, it is also wise to be chary of undue commendation. The world too often acclaims a deed as noble when the real motive prompting it is utterly ignoble."
"A true philosopher, despite your bales of merchandise," murmured the hakeem, with a smiling nod of approval for the sentiments expressed.
"Well, I suppose that every one who travels becomes a philosopher, more or less," assented the trader. "Change of scene and of companionship stimulates new ideas. Now will I relate an actual experience which aptly illustrates that, in our dealings with those around us, we never really penetrate their minds. Man knows himself; he knows no one else—friend or intimate, the child of his heart or the very wife of his bosom."
"It is more easy to discover a white crow," muttered the fakir, "than know what a woman has in her heart."
The merchant paid no heed to the interruption. He went on:
"Each of us is an inscrutable mystery to the other. Each soul is veiled to every other soul, and is naked to itself alone."
"O prince of philosophers in pedlar's disguise!" murmured the hakeem.
"If our souls sat naked for the common gaze," commented the Rajput, "if we could all read each other's hearts, then indeed would life be an abomination—an utter misery, with the twin devils of shame and disgust seated at our elbows all the time."
"Most true," concurred the trader. "For too much knowledge of another's inmost thoughts brings only disillusionment and regret, as my tale will show. The story takes us among humble people, but human nature is the same everywhere—the same in the hut of the rayat as in the palace of the rajah.
* * * * *
"Once in every two years it is my custom to travel from Bombay to Benares, and invariably I break the journey at a certain village some six or seven days from my final destination. Here dwells an old friend and caste brother, formerly, like myself, a merchant in the Bombay bazaar where silken stuffs are sold, but retired now to his own country with modest savings sufficient for the rest of his days. Baji Lal, as he is named, is all the closer to me because his wife Devaka is a sister of my own wife, and the two are always eager to have news of each other's welfare.
"At the house of this friend I rest for a day or two, enjoying his companionship, the reminiscences of old times, and the gossip of the hour. So, on my long and fatiguing journeyings, I have always looked forward to these meetings with pleasurable anticipation and remembered them with tranquil satisfaction.
"But on the occasion of one of my periodical visits judge of my surprise when I was received in silence and with apathy that made no pretence at disguise. Devaka did not rise from her cushions on the floor to bid me welcome, and her husband, similarly irresponsive, returned my customary cordial greeting with nothing better than a look of wearied dejection.
"Disturbed, I made inquiry:
"'Baji Lal, my friend, what is the matter? Are you ailing?'
"But he only shook his head, and turned away.
"To Devaka I then appealed.
"'What is the meaning of this?' I asked. 'Sadness and silence where everything used to be joy.'
"She drew aside the sari that had concealed her face, and I was shocked at its grief-stricken aspect. Her trembling lips parted to answer me, but her husband checked her with a sharp word, such as I had never heard him use to her before. Her eyes filled with tears, and I could see the big drops rolling down her cheeks as she silently replaced the sari over her head, and, bending low, rocked herself to and fro.
"For the moment I imagined that I had intruded on some scene of domestic unhappiness which would be dissipated in an hour. So, hiding my embarrassment, I turned to the door, intimating that I would seek some other lodging for the night, and return on the morrow, when I hoped my friends would be in fitter mood to receive me.
"At last Baji Lal spoke, raising his face but still remaining seated on the divan we were wont in former times to share.
"'Go thy way, Chunda Das,' he said. 'The sword of fate has descended upon this house. Come not again to a place accursed.'
"Then did I realize that the trouble was serious.
"'But, my friend and brother,' I protested, 'I cannot depart and leave you thus. Let me at least understand what calamity has befallen you, so that I may help toward its repair.'
"'Nothing can be done, so nothing need be said,' he answered, in a tone and with a look of dignified resignation to the will of God. 'If you must have the story of our misfortune, you have only to ask the first of our neighbours you encounter.'
"And he, too, covered his face with his garment, leaving me no choice but to withdraw without further attempt at this manifestly inopportune time to probe the mystery.
"If I was to be of service to my friends, however, knowledge of what had befallen was the first essential. So I took the road that would lead me to the great pipul tree in the village square, close to the tank and to the temple, where all day long there was coming and going, and where therefore I would be most likely to glean the information I desired. By a happy chance I found reclining under the pipul tree the village barber, a loquacious fellow, who counted it as part of his business to know the last detail about other people's affairs.
"After greetings, and a few remarks about the weather and the crops and the season's epidemics, I carefully broached the real purpose of my interview, for a prudent man will never divulge his thoughts to another until he knows that other's thoughts.
"'I have just come from the house of Baji Lal,' I said, in a seemingly casual way.
"The barber's face instantly lost the smile it had worn.
"'How did you find him?' he asked.
"'Strangely altered,' I replied.
"'And so does every one,' he concurred.
"'Why so?' I ventured.
"The barber looked at me squarely, and then said:
"'You and he were very good friends, Chunda Das.'
"'Yes, and are still, so far as I am concerned,' I answered.
"'I thought so. Well, I am his friend likewise. Many years I have known him and his wife, Devaka. Both are good, kind people, always willing to help their neighbours, and ready to give their last bowl of rice to a vagrant beggar. Perhaps you can assist me to clear away the shadows that have fallen around them and obscured the sunshine of their home. Let me tell you the story. A few months ago a stranger came to this village. He was on his way to Fathpur-Sikri, to witness the glories of the court of the mighty Akbar. But on the road he had fallen ill, and, arriving here, was too sick to proceed. I am ashamed to say that none of us were willing to take him in, for sickness goes from one person to another. So we have to be careful, especially in my calling, where I come into such close contact with so many.