INDIA the wonderful—India the home of Buddha and the land of mystery and misery. The country of glorious traditions and unsatisfied desires! What ambitions have not been dreamed, what visions not conjured in your cause! Assyrian and Greek, Mongol and Parsee, Portuguese rover, Dutch trader, Russian diplomat and English merchant prince—all have sought thee and thy wealth, all have fought and striven, chicaned and murdered, sneaked and schemed—for thy gold and dominion over thy people.
And the result? A land teeming with beings abject and low; a land where Paradise might have been nestling amongst the giant hills of the North, now laid waste and desolated of its ancient splendors—a land of dreams, but a land of unfulfilled desires. The country of caste and the grave of unborn ambitions; the country of dirt and superstition; the cradle of plagues and epidemics and famines; the land of the noblest palaces and temples, as well as of the meanest hovels which serve as dwellings for its sad-eyed patient inhabitants.
And over all rises and sets the sun of the tropics, over all shine the moon of Gautama and the stars of Zoroaster. Over all there rest the curses of disease, dirt and ignorance, the ready tools of greed and lust
of power, the outcome of lack of coherence and the terrible rule of classes.
This cradle of humanity is still a couch of prodigious productiveness—and to our eternal shame be it confessed—these all-enduring, passive, gazelle-like creatures are really white—white like we are, of the same color as are the gay crowds of Hyde Park, or the Boulevards of Paris, Rome or Vienna, New York or Boston! And older as race and nearer to Eden than any of these. They pray to Brahma and many-armed Shiva, to Buddha and Mohammed, to the sun and fire of Zoroaster—and even to the cobra of the jungle; but forlorn and without hope as they seemingly are, they are still human beings.
Along the dusty highway leading from Madras to Pondisherry, well inland and therefore removed from the life-giving breezes of the Coromandel coast and the Bay of Bengal, under a straggling group of ficus, a native dwelling on low stilts raises its squalid roof above the yellow grime of its surroundings.
From the distant hills resounds the shrill blast of the locomotive; every once in a while the contour of gently rolling land permits a glimpse of a curious looking behatted smokestack, copied after the model of early Pacific days, belching soot and smoke, and pulling noisily amidst groans and creaks their little dingy cars. Along the highway the ungainly telegraph poles with their odd crosspieces copied after the favorite gallows-construction of remote rural England, bear witness to the encroaching hand of western civilization on the land. Even India is now but another source of supply for trade and commerce.
Near this native structure, in the shade of a clump of hybiscus and a few doleful fig trees, some saddle-horses and donkeys are tethered; sprawling in the deep weed-like grass and scrubby undergrowth a number
of natives with swathed limbs and streaky, greasy turbans are contemplating with expressionless mien the cloudless sky in which float and soar buzzards and vultures upon seeming motionless wings. At some distance from this group and seated on a well-filled saddle-bag, a European is smoking a cigarette, as if unaware of the proximity of his humbler companions.
The stilted building itself, containing two compartments separated by a narrow hallway, is made accessible from the tangle of weeds and caked mud by a crude ladder-like few steps of filth-covered boards.
Even the bounty of the tropics and wealth of vegetation in this favored clime have not succeeded in hiding the unattractive nakedness of the mean dwelling. Straggling, unkempt brush and creepers but emphasize the wild condition of its near surroundings. Rough weathered beams, decaying boards, cracked dirty bamboo and sunbaked grayish clay afford the only protection against burning sun, heating wind and drifting rain.
In the larger of the two compartments, which hardly justify the appellation of rooms, two men are seated upon a low, rough-hewn bench. In the middle of the space an irregular heap of straw, covered with a torn and unclean sheet of unbleached muslin, serves as a couch upon which a man is lying prostrate—pale and evidently very ill.
One of the two seated men, a dark-skinned, bright-eyed native, heavily bearded and dressed in garments denoting a position of high standing, rises from the bench to kneel before the prostrate form. He holds the unresisting wrist in his capable brown hand and feels carefully with long prehensile fingers the pulse of the invalid.
The eyes of the sick man are covered by silky lashes; the features are calm and resigned; the nostrils expand
and contract while the native physician, machine-like, listens and counts. Then the hand he holds is laid gently down on the coverlet and slowly rising he beckons to the other figure in the room to follow as he moves towards the door.
This other figure, until now silent and rigid in its vigil on the bench, sends a look of deep concern and pity upon the recumbent young man, and follows his companion into the adjoining space, where both retire to the wall farthest removed from the sick youth.
“There is no hope for your young friend, my lord. The ague has weakened his frame, the drug and excess have sapped his strength. He will die before the setting of the sun. I shall give him a draught that will ease his pain and hold the spirit to the last. Help I cannot; he is beyond the power of man.”
His companion, a tall, lean man of fine features, and even in his begrimed linens and dusty pith helmet a man of importance, gave the speaker a searching look and then bowed his head in evident grief.
“Doctor Saklava, I know you to be a physician of great judgment and equal skill. The governor vouches for you and I am more than grateful to have had your aid so promptly. If you say there is no hope, I must cease to indulge in any. But oh—if only something could be done!” Then in a calmer voice he continued: “The boy is young, his constitution strong, and after all youth clings to life! Is there truly no hope? It means so much to me!” The Parsee remained motionless and silent. The other went on:
“When I asked the governor for help he dispatched his chief surgeon at the same time he sent for you; Major Murdock might arrive at any moment. Will you not await him, pray, while I go in to the boy? How soon do you think will he awaken to consciousness?”
“In less than half an hour, my lord. And I think his mind will be clearer; indeed he may be perfectly rational. But his heart is very weak and his vitality low. The next attack of fever, which I beg to assure you cannot be prevented, will be his last, I fear. His temperature is now as high as any man can bear and live; his pulse is galloping and his lungs are under the maximum tension. I shall join your man in the grove and will await Major Murdock’s arrival. I presume he will bring a nurse and a cot?”
“The governor had arranged with the hospital at Mahabalibar. Would we could have found the boy a day sooner!”
“My lord, the seed of death is in man when the seed of life is planted. Any time during the past week your friend’s chances would have been no better. This district of ours is not the place for passionate youth from foreign lands, nor is it the country where indulgence can be committed with impunity. Our sun is cruel, our climate is deadly. He who cares not for his life here—is lost. Grieve not, my lord; fate has overtaken your young friend, but he will pass out free from pain and unconscious of the end that is inevitable. Until later, my lord.”
While the deeply salaaming physician retired, his tall companion returned with careful, noiseless step to the sick-room and seated himself facing the sufferer.
His elbows on his knees and his face buried in his palms, he contemplated the white and almost lifeless features of the dying youth. The regular, finely moulded face was fair like a woman’s, the proud, bold nose, high faultless brow and beautiful, wavy, chestnut hair, arched lips and delicate chin betokened a distinguished and even noble ancestry. Two spots of crimson showed on the cheeks, almost the only signs of life, and imparted an appearance of extreme youthfulness
and innocence; the lips were red and bright, the closed eyelids clear and smooth. Must the boy die?
This silent musing brought a flood of memories to the motionless watcher. His eyes grew clouded, tears gathered in them. The boy slept on insensible to the bitter grief he was causing, unconscious of everything, peaceful and still.
A shadow fell across the doorway. Brushing his eyes the man rose quickly and cautiously passed out to greet the new arrival. It was Major Murdock, the surgeon, a severe-looking, stout man in undress uniform. A few whispered words, a handshake and the two physicians followed the tall man into the sick-room.
Dr. Murdock examined the sleeper’s face carefully, thoroughly investigated chest, heart-beat, pulse and temperature. His examination over he, in a low voice, requested the others to join him in the primitive porch.
“Your Excellency, I can but confirm the diagnosis and prediction of Dr. Saklava; your friend cannot be saved. He lives but under the influence of the narcotic that the doctor gave him, the only drug we know which will hold life until the next fit of this awful fever consumes it finally. Dr. Saklava has more experience in enteric fevers than anyone in this province; he is both competent and skillful in the knowledge and treatment of all native diseases. You could not have had a better physician. Your friend will pass away with the next attack. He will regain consciousness and there can be no harm in speaking to him. But after his fever returns he will be delirious—and in his weakened state neither drug nor cold bath nor nurse can avail. Do you wish me to watch with you beside your young friend, Count Rondell?”
“No, Major, I think I will remain alone with him and save him the shock of seeing too many strange
faces upon his awakening. He doesn’t know of my presence, if you remember. Will you gentlemen kindly remain within hearing?”
“Certainly, my lord; when you want us, pray call.”
The Parsee doctor deposited a cup and bottle upon the bench, and after giving some whispered instructions to the man who had been addressed as “Count,” he followed the surgeon out of the dwelling. The tall man resumed his post of observation.
The oppressive quiet of the chamber was broken after a long interval by a sigh followed by the sound of a slight cough. Count Rondell leaned forward eagerly. The invalid had moved, an arm had been thrown up and the hand was feeling for the throat. Gradually the eyes opened and the sick man gazed stupidly upward at the dingy mud-plastered bamboo lace work of the ceiling, and then slowly and almost devoid of intelligence swept the foreground and rested curiously upon the watcher. Count Rondell half rose as he intently observed the change, and wondered vaguely whether he should speak or await the actions of the sufferer.
The void expression of the eyes, now free of fever, slowly yielded to one of recognition and then of shame. A heightened color mantled the brow of the sick youth and an elusive twitch upon the poor lips as they spoke: “How are you, Count? So you have caught me at last?”
The old man flushed, sank to his knee and with both arms extended, leaned over the invalid.
“God greet you, Your Highness! I am more than happy to have found you!”
His voice broke and he grasped the nerveless hands of the youth before him with deep emotion, whispering huskily, “My Prince—my boy!”
Tears gathered into the now softened eyes of the
sick youth. The deep feeling shown by the man kneeling at his pallet touched him keenly.
“Do not grieve, dear Count! I am not worth it. Why should you weep for me? Why should you still extend your love and care for one so useless as I?”
“My Prince, I beseech you, do not speak thus of yourself! Let us forget what has passed and look forward to what is to come. I am glad to have found you, so glad to be with you. Now, all will be, must be, well!”
“No—no, my dearest friend and guardian. No—there is nothing to look forward to. I feel that the end has come. I know I shall never again see my loved ones, my land, my king. I knew it when they brought me here. Ill as I was, I was not unconscious. How long have I been lying here? Raise my head so that I may look at you well—and, pray, be seated!”
The Count gently adjusted the head and sat down.
For some moments not a word was spoken, then the young man broke the stillness:
“Dear General, I have given you and all the world a great deal of trouble, have I not? It will be all over and done with soon—pray, don’t grieve, don’t worry. What difference will it make to the world or to our Roumelia if I go and another succeeds to the throne? It could only be a worthier man whoever he may be! Why should you waste a thought on one who has been foolish as I have been? Why waste time on the dreamy fool who bartered a throne, the love and respect of a people, your friendship, Count, for the smiles of a false woman, a wanton? Have I not shown myself a coward? A man who after his first failure turned tail and ran off like a sulking boy? A good riddance I call it! Better to know the truth now than burden a hopeful land with so worthless a ruler. Do not weep; truly, I am not worth it!”
Count Rondell, his cheeks wet with the tears that were freely coursing down his now deathly pale face, extended his hands imploringly. With a great effort he recovered his calmness, and vehemently exclaimed, “I beg of you, my Prince, do not let us harp on actions which must have been beyond your control. Let us rather speak of your welfare and your health. May I ask you to look at it in this light, your Highness?”
“Very well, my good teacher; let it be as you will. What do you wish me to say or tell?”
“Your Highness, I trust and confidently believe we shall get you well and out of this deadly place very soon. But you may shortly relapse into a fever and with it into unconsciousness. I beg of your Highness to state now what you wish to have attended to. I ask for your commands! But first take this draught the physician has left for you.”
Indifferently at first, but after a sip or two, with grateful expression in his features, the invalid partook of the drink.
“Ah, that is good, General! I was very thirsty without realizing it. Well, there is really not much to tell and surely nothing to command. I am here alone, with no obligations towards anyone. As it possibly may be my last chance, you may want to hear how I came to this place?”
“I beg of your Highness not to tell more than you wish. Of course I shall be glad to know your reasons for choosing this dangerous country”—then once more breaking down, he murmured: “Why did you, my boy, why did you?”
The sick man lightly pressed the older man’s arm, letting his hand rest upon the sleeve. Count Rondell mutely gazed upon the suffering youth, and saw that the boy before him knew the price he was to pay for
his folly, knew it all—and it seemed as if he wanted to pay it. Through his mind there flitted thoughts of the futility of man’s plans when God willed otherwise. With this bitter reflection there came the grief of the thought of the death of this young life that had had no chance for fulfillment.
“Count, the woman who made me forget my duty, who caused me to quarrel with you and his Majesty—the woman for whose sake I was willing to give up honor, glory and a throne—she was nothing but a wanton. I shall be brief. Returning one day to our villa in Mentone, rather earlier than usual, I found her with Monsieur Goddard, her late business manager as I thought, in very intimate seclusion. I asked for explanations—she laughed! The man had the best, the only right in the world to be intimate with her—he was her lawful husband—the only man she ever really loved and always had loved. What cared she for a romantic boy—a fool! He was the man who had introduced me to her, who had aided my wooing—and who had conspired with her to gull me! During the months I was whispering words of love and endearment to the woman I was craving to make my wife, she and he were in a conspiracy to ruin me. All they wanted was my money.
“Humiliated and desperate, I grew reckless. How well you knew it, my friend! How you pleaded with me when first this great passion took hold of me! Would I had listened to you and obeyed your wise counsel; but it was too late. The poison of this ignoble passion, which I mistook for the holy fire of love, had entered my heart, had clouded my brain!
“After this discovery—I felt I had broken with everything in life. As I sinned—I became reckless.”
The sick boy sank back, breathing hard and gazed absently into space. His friend rose to soothe his
agitation, but was arrested by an imperious motion of the feeble hand.
“Let me conclude, General. After this blow—I chose to show that I cared not for one woman’s treachery—and tried to prove this by publicly making love to other women. And when one morning my valet reported your arrival in the town, I felt that I dared not see you, that I must flee! That day I joined the troupe of ‘Le Ballet Occidental,’ which was to leave for Naples. I joined the company as the admirer of Mademoiselle Genée, and I followed this troupe to Alexandria and Cairo, thence to Bombay and Calcutta—and finally to Madras.
“On the way to the French settlement at Pondisherry I became very ill and they thought it best to take me off the train and put me in charge of the hospital. And the first night I could bear it no longer—they wouldn’t give me morphine to ease my pain—and I ran away—and—here I am. During all these latter weeks I always felt and sometimes knew that you, my dear Count, were near me—but fate was against you, my would-be saviour—against you and with me—the lost one—and so here I am!”
The last words came almost in a whisper. The Count sat still, his forehead damp with cold perspiration. The young man had spoken like a judge pronouncing his own doom!
He could not move, he could not speak. His lips were parched, his mind numb. He gazed at the ashen face of the boy, at the crimson lips of the smiling, bonny face—God, what should he do?
“And now, General, the last stage has been reached,” said the youth recovering his voice. “All there is left to do is for me to ask your forgiveness, the pardon of his Majesty, my uncle, for all the unhappiness caused by me. You have in the vaults of the Credit
Lyonnaise at Nice my formal renunciation of all claims to the succession and all family rights. There never was a marriage between Madelain and me—the proofs are with the Austrian Legation at Rome. Madelain was paid and all my dancer and actor friends are settled with. Come, General, be brave, be strong! Forget me—and if you can—forgive me. You in your wisdom will find a way to alter the succession, perhaps my little sister can secure the dynasty. Come, be cheerful, and do not grieve. It is but a worthless life that is about to pass out—I have lived my life—and lost. May God forgive me!”
The hand clutching the arm of the General fell back. The Count, in his agitation, mumbled terms of love and endearment as he eased the sick boy upon the mean couch—but the youth had swooned. Quivering and faint he hastened to the porch and summoned the physicians.
They came quickly, the Parsee first, who bent over the prostrate form. A light touch upon the sick youth’s chest and brow and Doctor Saklava announced the fit of fever had returned. He begged the Count to retire to the adjoining room or outdoors. Nothing could be done; he would watch and render all the help needed.
With the sinking of that day’s sun, in the meager light of a battered lantern, and attended by the doctors and servants, General Rondell knelt by the couch of straw and closed forever the eyes of the boy who was to have been his king—but who had willed it otherwise. The falling darkness found a sad cavalcade slowly riding back to Madras, carrying all that remained of one of the world’s chosen. And the tall, sorrow-stricken man rode on alone behind and found no balm for his broken heart in his thoughts.