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Parmala dared not open her eyes--such wonderful dreams had come to her.
She dreamed that she was in a sunny place by a stream, safe at last from something terrible that had once haunted her. The nature of it was forgotten. It hovered only in the dim background of her dream, like an ugly thing passed swiftly on a journey and but partially seen.
Deer had wandered in and out. The soft-eyed creatures had peered into her face, and she had smiled, lazily, because she had liked lying there. And throughout she had had the feeling of being no longer alone. He had come to her after all. Though she could not see him, the dream had been full of his presence; and she had glowed with a sense of him, with the comfortable happiness of knowing him near.
Half awake now, she felt a vague discomfort. The terrible something which she had been allowed to forget had come out, as it were, from its background and had knocked at her door. There was a sense of loss, indefinable, yet very real. She was happy no longer. The sunlight had faded, the deer had gone; and, if she were to open her eyes, she knew, she knew she would be alone.
Then, with a cruel suddenness, she passed over the border-line of drowsing and knew indeed that she was lying on cold ground, alone.
Yet she clung to her straw. She would not open her eyes and face day. She kept them tight shut, as if to imprison whatever shred of the dream still lingered in them and make a world out of it.
But day was inexorable. It tugged at her eyelids. And when to the urging of day there was added a sudden sound of scampering feet, she gave in. She opened her eyes wide. Then she stared, scarcely believing.
How came it that she who had fallen asleep in a wilderness had awakened in a garden?
Sunlight!--golden on the grass, amber in the million dewdrops that glittered in the trees; a clear stream, rustling and chirruping at her very side; even the deer, whisking away up the glen--if this was not the scene of her dream it was so like it in essentials that she rubbed her eyes to make sure that she was indeed awake. But the picture remained, definite and real, like a steady fulfilment of all those airy promises of sleep--save one. And at the thought of that one unfulfilled promise she buried her face in her hands and wept.
At first she felt that she could not bear even to look upon the place. This, she believed, was the last mockery of that sardonic power which had called her out so blithely from her father’s house and had shown her happiness, only to snatch that happiness away. She persuaded herself that it would have been better for her if she had awakened in her own kennel, to the tune of Piri Ram’s snores and the hum of flies.
Yet, even as she told herself this, curiosity was urging her to look again. She could not for the life of her help having one peep through her fingers. It was such a very strange place to come upon in the jungle: hating it as she did, she could not help feeling that. And, of course, it was beautiful. Therein lay the mockery.
Nor, having once peeped, could she help won dering about what she saw. There was a ruined house, for instance, all a-tangle with blue flowers, where the butterflies were beginning to flutter out. Who had built it? How long ago? And why had he left it? Had he been too lonely?
She tried to picture that unknown man, digging those beds whose shapes now were blurred by the uneven grass; picking those bright little oranges and those purple plums; washing his face in that clear stream; worshiping his god under that huge and surely sacred banyan-tree; lighting his fire of an evening; singing his song. And all the time, almost in spite of her, the pictures would persist in forming themselves into one likeness. It was her beggar boy whose face peered out of the doorway; her beggar boy who worked and washed and knelt, who sat by his fire and warmed his hands and sang his song. Try as she might, she could fit no other figure into the scene. A garden run wild, just as he had run wild--how he belonged here!
The thought came and came again, uninvited, and she tried to push it away because it was painful; to insert some nondescript lay figure into the scene, for curiosity’s sake. But the image would not give her rest. And soon, as the idea grew upon her, she began to experience a melancholy fascination in framing these pictures.
So--again in spite of herself--she became bolder. She could not allow the occupant of her garden to grow lonely. He must have some one to keep him company; to stand in the doorway and welcome him, whenever he might come in; to fetch and carry for him; to keep up his fire and make his meals and soothe his sleep. But she could control this new figure no better than she could control the other. Throughout, persistently, it was herself.
At first she was content to linger in the background, busying herself about the house, doing any task that offered, so long as the task could be done in obscurity. But, as her thoughts ranged, this picture of herself became insistent. It would have matters so, and so only. It would roof the house, thus; and curtain the entrance, thus; light the fire, just there; bathe in this place, sit at evening in that. In fact, before ever she realized that she was doing it, she was mapping out a whole life together, as if--as if it were actually possible.
She knew that she was day-dreaming; that presently she must put such thoughts away from her and face the bitter reality of her loneliness; that she must get up and wander on, footsore and hungry, till something should put a merciful end to her misery. But, just for an hour, while the sun was kindly, while little birds were flitting mischievously from tree to tree, and butterflies dancing-just for an hour let her be allowed to hold to the dream and imagine him there! It was the favour that the child in her asked of the woman in her. “Let me dream,” she begged of herself. “I know that it is useless, that it will be all the worse for me when I have to wake. But let me dream all the same.”
And indeed--such was the magic of the morning, such the intensity of her yearning--it seemed to her that by thinking of him thus she really could draw him nearer. Surely, wherever he might be, one of her thoughts, if she begged hard enough, would reach him and cause him to turn in his path, setting his face for her! If a Brahman’s prayer, mumbled sleepily over a book by a temple door, could reach right up to a god beyond the snows, surely hers, sent out with such agony of yearning from the very heart, would span a lesser gulf and strike upon the ear of a man! Surely, if she could only pray earnestly enough...
Carried by the fancy, she had discovered deep springs, hidden sources of faith and power. For the time, she was no longer the pitiful drudge, at the mercy of the world, but the Hindu woman, product of a most secretive race, heiress of all the generations of day-dreamers and devotees and weavers of spells.
She rocked to and fro, as if inspired prophetically from without. She rose, like a sleepwalker or one rapt in a religious ecstasy, and dipped herself in the stream, scattering the bright water over her head and her breast. She picked up an armful of the scarlet dhak blossoms that lay scattered about. Then, with that inimitable dignity of gait that belongs only to her kind, she walked slowly up the glen till she came within the shadow of the great tree.
Once only she faltered, as if she were momentarily conscious of doing what was after all a foolish or a useless thing, but she put that thought behind her and held to her new purpose. Kneeling humbly before the tree, she made her offering, as women do all India over.
First, she strewed the scarlet petals--a handful here, a handful there, till the ground was gay. Then she chose out a hollow niche in the tree, where the wood had long perished and squirrels had made a deep passage, and dropped into it such simple ornaments as she wore--her glass bracelets, and the anklets that she wrenched from her feet. One by one they fell, tinkling, out of sight, out of reach.
But that did not satisfy her, for she frowned a little. Her offering was so small; the hole in the tree so cavernous. It seemed to gape for more, and she shook her head sadly, as if to say, “I know it is nothing, and I would willingly add to it. But alas! I have nothing to add.”
Then, suddenly, she remembered the bundle. She had placed it for safety in her bosom and had quite forgotten it till this moment, when she really needed it. Eagerly she pulled it out, and undid the knots with her shaking fingers. Then, when it lay open on the ground, though she had packed it herself and knew its contents by heart she could not restrain a gasp of admiration. The piled-up rupees; the massive bracelets; the turquoise, the cornelian, and the amber, vivid sparks of colour on a bed of shimmering silver--it would have aroused the wonder even of one accustomed to the handling of wealth. But to her it was miraculous, stupendous. A year’s alms in Kotahbagh temple, she knew, would not have yielded a tenth part of it. It was an offering to be made with trembling, since who could say what god might not come down to such a feast?
She had forgotten the joys that she had promised herself in the donning and the display of these sumptuous, glittering things; forgotten, too, their sordid history, the tears that must have fallen for them ere they passed into the usurer’s hands. She had one thought only--that here was a sacrifice meet for her need; doubly meet, since these very baubles had been the cause of her losing him whom now she sought so earnestly. Surely by restoring these, the tokens of her greed, she might hope to bring him back! With an impulsive, prodigal gesture she poured out her treasure into the hole, watching the bright stream till the last piece of silver had disappeared, with a faint musical tinkle, into the mysterious recesses of the ancient tree. Then, as if she almost anticipated some strange, monstrous manifestation of godhead--Shiva astride a tiger, or the inscrutable elephant, Ganesh, looming out of the thicket--she glanced quickly and fearfully round.
But she saw only the callous butterflies dancing their dance in the sun.
Wildly, then, she gathered up Piri Ram’s papers, and, all mingled as they were with the red petals and the leaves, stuffed them in.
They might have value: who knew? They might just turn the scale in her favour, since the great powers of the earth loved precious things. It would not do to leave one of them behind.
Then, as she stuck in the last mortgage deed, and sent it rustling down to join the rest and rot with the rotting core of the tree, she prayed in an agony, not to any of the frightening gods, as she had meant to do, but rather to him, that he might hear a whisper of her voice, and turn in his path, and come. Long she prayed, putting off that intolerable moment when--her offerings all made, her prayers all done--she must merely stand and wait; and when he might not come.
“Oh, hear me!” she whispered. “Come as thou didst come before, from out of the night, from I know not where. Thou knowest that I was greedy, that I left thee, to gather jewels and money and things of no true worth, and so lost the precious thing that I had: thee...thee. I turned to find thee, but thou wert gone. I have sought for thee in tears and misery, and have found thee not. Oh, I have been judged...
“But see: I am greedy no more. I have put them away from me, all of them, where they will never glitter, never betray, never delude the eyes. I have nothing in my hands now: they are as empty as were thine when thou didst warm them at our fire. See, I have nothing. I am a beggar, even as thou didst seem to be; poor, like thee; lonely, like thee...”
She faltered, empty, poured out like the silver and the precious stones. The intolerable moment had come. She could postpone it with no more prayers. Voiceless now as the stolid trees which had sheltered her agony, she must await her answer--the footfall, the cry, the sound of his coming.
The moment grew to minutes. It seemed as if the very garden were sharing her suspense, it was so still. And the great tree seemed to stoop and shroud her, shutting out the shy sound of the water and the flittings of wings, shedding silence.
It was too much, this strange calm. It made her think of death. Could that, after all, be the answer to her prayer?--death? Was he lying, as she had sometimes thought and had always feared, stricken or starved to death, in some forgotten corner of the endless woods where her voice could never, never reach him? Only too easily could she thus picture him, with limp arms, and head thrown back, and sightless eyes terribly staring at the sky, with that haunting question of theirs forever unanswered. So he would be lying till, one by one, the jackals would creep up, the vultures flutter down to peck and tear...
Oh, he was dead, dead! She had seen him. The cruel powers of the earth had given her vision, that she might see her answer for herself.
Once she moaned; then, began to drag herself away, step by step, like a shamed woman who has begged or given in vain, with her hands over her face. Stumbling, she sought the stream, with the vague thought that there she might lie down and make her last gift. As in a delirium she was muttering to herself, telling herself that it would not take long, this final offering. At first there might be buffeting, and she would be pushed this way and that like the unwieldy logs that the foresters float down. But soon the eager little currents would have their way, and carry her to the river, and thence to holy Gunga, where all had rest. She had even a fleeting sense of the great peace that awaited her in that broad bosom, and began to run toward the stream.
But she never reached it.
What she heard she never quite knew, it was such an indeterminate sound, and the bushes that clothed the side of the Ridge were so thick. A shower of pebbles might have made it, or a tiny avalanche of sand; she could not have said. She could only pause and look back, with a desperate hope, striving for a footing, in her hunted, miserable eyes.
Dared she hope? Or was it only the wind rising...or the birds scuffling up there? Foolish to think...to suppose that such a slight sound could mean anything. Things like that never happened, and people who built their hopes upon them were foolish, foolish people. Better not to hope again. It could only hurt. Better to go on to the stream.
So she fought her hopes. But she did not go on. Instead, she began to run back, for the strange sound was repeated a little lower down the cliff. Bushes were quivering, pebbles rattling down.
Now she was running in earnest, with a wildly beating heart, with expectant eyes, praying incoherently as she went. It seemed to her as she scrambled and tore herself among the thorns, in her wild rush to gain the spot, that nothing could fall from so high and reach the bottom alive; that that body--for body it was--bumping down the cliff, now stayed momentarily by rock or tree, now hurtling on in a cascade of earth and stones, could only fall dead at her feet unless her arms were there to prevent it. She must, she must get there first.
But the thorns would not let her. At every point they caught her garment, dragged her back. Creepers thick as ropes twined themselves about her knees, her arms, her neck. There was a wall of impenetrable thorn between her and that falling body which, somehow she felt sure, must be his,
He had heard her cry, had braved perilous places for her. She had called him to his death. Such were her thoughts as she fought her way through the prickly hedge which, at the very last, shut him off from her sight.
There was a last crash, just ahead. Then, as with a tremendous effort she burst through, silence. Silence while she stood, like one bound and fettered with trailing bramble ropes, and looked down on what lay at her feet. Then, with a little choking cry, she fell on her knees.
For she had been right. He had come.