'If an all-good and all-powerful God created the world, why did He create evil? The monks said, so that man by conquering the wickedness in him, by resisting temptation, by accepting pain and sorrow and misfortune as the trials sent by God to purify him, might at long last be made worthy to receive His grace. It seemed to me like sending a fellow with a message to some place and just to make it harder for him you constructed a maze that he had to get through, then dug a moat that he had to swim, and finally built a wall that he had to scale. I wasn't prepared to believe in an all-wise God who hadn't common sense. I didn't see why you shouldn't believe in a God who hadn't created the world, but had to make the best of the bad job he'd found, a being enormously better, wise, and greater than man, who strove with the evil he hadn't made and who you hoped might in the end overcome it. But on the other hand, I didn't see why you should.
'Those good fathers had no answers that satisfied either my head or my heart to the questions that perplexed me. My place was not with them. When I went to say good-bye to Father Ensheim he didn't ask me whether I had profited by the experience in the way he had been so sure I would. He looked at me with inexpressible kindness.
'"I'm afraid I've been a disappointment to you, Father," I said.
'"No," he answered. "You are a deeply religious man who doesn't believe in God. God will seek you out. You'll come back. Whether here or elsewhere only God can tell."
'I settled down in Paris for the rest of the winter. I knew nothing of science, and I thought the time had come when I must acquire at least a nodding acquaintance with it. I read a lot. I don't know that I learnt much except that my ignorance was abysmal. But I knew that before. When the spring came I went to the country and stayed at a little inn on a river near one of those beautiful old French towns where life doesn't seem to have moved for two hundred years.'
I guessed that this was the summer Larry had spent with Suzanne Rouvier, but I did not interrupt him.
'After that I went to Spain. I wanted to see Velasquez and El Greco. I wondered if art could point out the way to me that religion hadn't. I wandered about a bit and then came to Seville. I liked it and thought I'd spend the winter there.'
I had myself been to Seville when I was twenty-three and I, too, had liked it. I liked its white, tortuous streets, its cathedral, and the wide-spreading plain of the Guadalquivir; but I liked also those Andalusian girls with their grace and their gaiety, with their dark shining eyes, the carnation in their hair stressing its blackness and by the contrast itself more vivid; I liked the rich colour of their skins and the inviting sensuality of their lips. Then indeed to be young was very heaven. When Larry went there he was only a little older than I had been and I could not but ask myself whether it was possible that he had remained indifferent to the lure of those enchanting creatures. He answered my unspoken question.
'I ran across a French painter I'd known in Paris, a fellow called Auguste Cottet, who'd kept Suzanne Rouvier at one time. He'd come to Seville to paint and was living with a'girl he'd picked up there. He asked me to go with them one evening to Eretania to listen to a flamenco singer and they brought along with them a friend of hers. She was the prettiest little thing you ever saw. She was only eighteen. She'd got into trouble with a boy and had had to leave her native village because she was going to have a baby. The boy was doing his military service. After she had the baby she put it out to nurse and got a job in the tobacco factory. I took her home with me. She was very gay and very sweet, and after a few days I asked her if she'd like to come and live with me. She said she would, so we took a couple of rooms in a casa de huespedes, a bedroom and a sitting-room. I told her she could leave her job, but she didn't want to, and that suited me because it left me my days to myself. We had the run of the kitchen, so she used to make my breakfast for me before she went to work and then at midday she'd come back and cook the lunch and in the evening we'd dine at a restaurant and go to a movie or to some place to dance. She looked upon me as a lunatic because I had a rubber bath and insisted on having a cold sponge every morning. The baby was farmed out in a village a few miles from Seville and we used to go and see it on Sundays. She made no secret of the fact that she was living with me to make enough money to furnish the lodging in a tenement they were going to take when her boy friend was through with his military service. She was a dear little thing and I'm sure she's made her Paco a good wife. She was cheerful, good-tempered, and affectionate. She looked upon what you delicately call sexual congress as a natural function of the body like any other. She took pleasure in it and she was happy to give pleasure. She was of course a little animal, but a very nice, attractive, domesticated animal.
'Then one evening she told me that she'd had a letter from Paco in Spanish Morocco, where he was doing his service, to say that he was to be released and would arrive in Cadiz in a couple of days. She packed her belongings next morning and slipped her money in her stocking and I took her to the station. She gave me a hearty kiss as I put her into the railway carriage, but she was too excited at the thought of seeing her lover again to have a thought for me and I'm sure that before the train was out of the station she'd forgotten my existence.
'I stayed on in Seville and in the fall I set out on the journey that landed me in India.'
It was getting late. The crowd had thinned out and only a few tables were occupied. The people who had been sitting there because they had nothing else to do had gone home. Those who had been to a play or a picture and had come to have a drink or a bite to eat had left. Now and then latecomers straggled in. I saw a tall man, evidently an Englishman, come in with a young rough. He had the long, washed-out face with thinning wavy hair of the
British intellectual and evidently suffered from the delusion common to many that when you are abroad no one you know at home can possibly recognize you. The young rough greedily ate a great plate of sandwiches while his companion watched him with amused benevolence. What an appetite! I saw one man whom I knew by sight because he went to the same barber's at Nice. He was stout, elderly, and grey-haired, with a puffy red face and heavy pouches under his eyes. He was a Middle Western banker who had left his native city after the crash rather than face an investigation. I do not know whether he had committed any crime; if he had, he was perhaps too small fry to put the authorities to the trouble of getting him extradited. He had a pompous manner and the false heartiness of a cheap politician, but his eyes were frightened and unhappy. He was never quite drunk and never quite sober. He was always with some harlot who was obviously getting all she could out of him, and he was now with two painted middle-aged women who treated him with a mockery they didn't trouble to conceal while he, only half understanding what they said, giggled fatuously. The gay life! I wondered if he wouldn't have done better to stay at home and take his medicine. One day his women would have squeezed him dry and then there would be nothing left for him but the river or an overdose of veronal.
Between two and three there was a slight increase of custom and I supposed that the night clubs were closing their doors. A bunch of young Americans strolled in, very drunk and noisy, but they didn't stay long. Not far from us two fat, sombre women, tightly fitted into mannish clothes, sat side by side, drinking whiskies and sodas in gloomy silence. A party in evening dress put in an appearance, what they call in French gens du monde, who had evidently been doing the rounds and now wanted a spot of supper to finish up with. They came and went. My curiosity had been excited by a little man, quietly dressed, who had been sitting there for an hour or more with a glass of beer in front of him reading the paper. He had a neat black beard and wore pince-nez. At last a woman came in and joined him. He gave her a nod devoid of friendliness and I conjectured that he was annoyed because she had kept him waiting. She was young, rather shabby, but heavily painted, and looked very tired. Presently I noticed her take something out of her bag and hand it to him. Money. He looked at it and his face darkened. He addressed her in words I could not hear, but from her manner I guessed they were abusive, and she seemed to be making excuses. Suddenly he leant over and gave her a resounding smack on the cheek. She gave a cry and began to sob. The manager, drawn by the disturbance, came up to see what was the matter. It looked as if he were telling them to get out if they couldn't behave. The girl turned on him and shrilly, so that one heard every word, told him in foul language to mind his own business.
'If he slapped my face it's because I deserved it,' she cried.
Women! I had always thought that to live on a woman's immoral earnings you must be a strapping flashy fellow with sex appeal, ready with your knife or your gun; it was astonishing that such a puny creature, who might have been a lawyer's clerk from his appearance, could get a footing in such an overcrowded profession.
The waiter who had served us was going off duty and to get his tip presented the bill. We paid and ordered coffee.
'Well?' I said.
I felt that Larry was in the mood to talk and I knew that I was in the mood to listen.
'Aren't I boring you?'
'Well, we got to Bombay. The ship was stopping there for three days to give the tourists a chance to see the sights and make excursions. On the third day I got the afternoon off and went ashore. I walked about for a while, looking at the crowd: what a conglomeration! Chinese, Mohammedans, Hindus, Tamils as black as your hat; and those great humped bullocks with their long horns that draw the carts! Then I went to Elephanta to see the caves. An Indian had joined us at Alexandria for the passage to Bombay and the tourists were rather sniffy about him. He was a fat little man with a brown round face and he wore a thick tweed suit of black and green check and a clerical collar. I was having a breath of air on deck one night and he came up and spoke to me. I didn't want to talk to anyone just then, I wanted to be alone; he asked me a lot of questions and I'm afraid I was rather short with him. Anyhow I told him I was a student working my passage back to America.
'"You should stop off in India," he said. "The East has more to teach the West than the West conceives."
'"Oh yes?" I said.
'"At any rate," he went on, "be sure you go and see the caves at Elephanta. You'll never regret it.'" Larry interrupted himself to ask me a question. 'Have you ever been to India?'
'Well, I was looking at the colossal image with its three heads which is the great sight at Elephanta and wondering what it was all about when I heard someone behind me say: "I see you've taken my advice." I turned round and it took me a minute to realize who it was that had spoken to me. It was the little man in the heavy check suit and the clerical collar, but now he was wearing a long saffron robe, the robe, I knew later, of the Ramakrishna Swamis; and instead of the funny, spluttering little guy he'd been before, he was dignified and rather splendid. We both stared at the colossal bust.
'"Brahma, the Creator," he said. "Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer. The three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality."
'"I'm afraid I don't quite understand," I said.
'"I'm not surprised," he answered, with a little smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he were gently mocking me. "A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?"
'He joined the palms of his hands together and with just the indication of a bow strolled on. I stayed looking at those three mysterious heads. Perhaps because I was in a receptive mood, I was strangely stirred. You know how sometimes you try to recall a name; it's on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't get it: that was the feeling I had then. When I came out of the caves I sat for a long while on the steps and looked at the sea. All I knew about Brahminism were those verses of Emerson's and I tried to remember them. It exasperated me that I couldn't and when I went back to Bombay I went into a bookshop to see if I could find a volume of poetry that had them in. They're in the Oxford Book of English Verse. D'you remember them?
'They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
'I had supper in a native eating-house and then, as I didn't have to be on board till ten, I went and walked on the Maidan and looked at the sea. I thought I'd never seen so many stars in the sky. The cool was delicious after the heat of the day. I found a public garden and sat on a bench. It was very dark there and silent white figures flitted to and fro. That wonderful day, with the brilliant sunshine, the coloured, noisy crowds, the smell of the East, acrid and aromatic, enchanted me; and like an object, a splash of colour that a painter puts in to pull his composition together, those three enormous heads of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva gave a mysterious significance to it all. My heart began to beat like mad, because I'd suddenly become aware of an intense conviction that India had something to give me that I had to have. It seemed to me that a chance was offered to me and I must take it there and then or it would never be offered me again. I made up my mind quickly. I decided not to go back to the ship. I'd left nothing there but a few things in a grip. I walked slowly back to the native quarter and looked about for a hotel. I found one after a while and took a room. I had the clothes I stood up in, some loose cash, my passport, and my letter of credit. I felt so free, I laughed out loud.
'The ship was sailing at eleven and just to be on the safe side 1 stayed in my room till then. I went down to the quay and watched her pull out. After that I went to the Ramakrishna Mission and routed out the Swami who'd spoken to me at Elephanta. I didn't know his name, but I explained that I wanted to see the Swami who'd just arrived from Alexandria. I told him I'd decided to stay in India and asked him what I ought to see. We had a long talk and at last he said he was going to Benares that night and asked me if I'd like to go with him. I jumped at it. We went third-class. The carriage was full of people eating and drinking and talking and the heat was terrific. I didn't get a wink of sleep and next morning I was pretty tired, but the Swami was as fresh as a daisy. I asked him how come and he said: "By meditation on the formless one; I found rest in the Absolute." I didn't know what to think, but I could see with my own eyes that he was as alert and wide awake as though he'd had a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed.
'When at last we got to Benares a young man of my own age came to meet my companion and the Swami asked him to find me a room. His name was Mahendra and he was a teacher at the university. He was a nice, kindly, intelligent fellow and he seemed to take as great a fancy to me as I took to him. That evening he took me out in a boat on the Ganges; it was a thrill for me, very beautiful with the city crowding down to the water's edge, and awe-inspiring; but next morning he had something better to show me, he fetched me at my hotel before dawnand^took me out on the river again. I saw something I could never have believed possible, I saw thousands upon thousands of people come down to take their lustral bath and pray. I saw one tall gaunt fellow, with a mass of tangled hair and a great ragged beard, with nothing but a jockstrap to cover his nakedness, stand with his long arms outstretched, his head up, and in a loud voice pray to the rising sun. I can't tell you what an impression it made on me. I spent six months in Benares and I went over and over again on the Ganges at dawn to see that strange sight. I never got over the wonder of it. Those people believed not halfheartedly, not with reservation or uneasy doubt, but with every fibre of their being.
'Everyone was very kind to me. When they discovered I hadn't come to shoot tigers or to buy or sell anything, but only to learn, they did everything to help me. They were pleased that I should wish to learn Hindustani, and found teachers for me. They lent me books. They were never tired of answering my questions. Do you know anything about Hinduism?'
'Very little,' I answered.
'I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?'
'And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?'
'I think they'd say that such is the nature of the Absolute. You see, they believe that the purpose of creation is to serve as a stage for the punishment or reward of the deeds of the soul's earlier existences.'
'Which presupposes belief in the transmigration of souls.'
'It's a belief held by two thirds of the human race.'
'The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.'
'No, but at least it makes it worthy of consideration. Christianity absorbed so much of Neo-Platonism, it might very easily have absorbed that too, and in point of fact there was an early Christian sect that believed in it, but it was declared heretical. Except for that Christians would believe in it as confidently as they believe in the resurrection of Christ.'
'Am I right in thinking that it means that the soul passes from body to body in an endless course of experience occasioned by the merit or demerit of previous works?'
'I think so.'
'But you see, I'm not only my spirit but my body, and who can decide how much I, my individual self, am conditioned by the accident of my body? Would Byron have been Byron but for his club foot, or Dostoyevsky Dostoyevsky without his epilepsy?'
'The Indians wouldn't speak of an accident. They would answer that it's your actions in previous lives that have determined your soul to inhabit an imperfect body.' Larry drummed idly on the table and, lost in thought, gazed into space. Then, with a faint smile on his lips and a reflective look in his eyes, he went on. 'Has it occurred to you that transmigration is at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world? If the evils we suffer are the result of sins committed in our past lives we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive towards virtue our future lives will be less afflicted. But it's easy enough to bear our own evils, all we need for that is a little manliness; what's intolerable is the evil, often so unmerited in appearance, that befalls others. If you can persuade yourself that it is the inevitable result of the past you may pity, you may do what you can to alleviate, and you should, but you have no cause to be indignant.'
'But why didn't God create a world free form suffering and misery at the beginning when there was neither merit nor demerit in the individual to determine his actions?'
'The Hindus would say that there was no beginning. The individual soul, co-existent with the universe, has existed from all eternity and owes its nature to some prior existence.'
'And does the belief in the transmigration of souls have a practical effect on the lives of those who believe it? After all, that is the test.'
'I think it has. I can tell you of one man I knew personally on whose life it certainly had a very practical effect. The first two or three years I was in India I lived mostly in native hotels, but now and then someone asked me to stay with him and once or twice I lived in grandeur as the guest of a maharajah. Through one of my friends in Benares I got an invitation to stay in one of the smaller northern states. The capital was lovely: a rose-red city half as old as time. I was recommended to the Minister of Finance. He'd had a European education and had been to Oxford. When you talked to him you got the impression of a progressive, intelligent, and enlightened man; and he had the reputation of being an extremely efficient minister and a clever, astute politician. He wore European clothes and was very natty in appearance. He was rather a nice-looking fellow, a little on the stout side as Indians tend to become in middle age, with a close-cropped, neat moustache. He often asked me to go to his house. He had a large garden and we'd sit under the shade of great trees and talk. He had a wife and two grown-up children. You'd have taken him for just the ordinary, rather commonplace Anglicized Indian and I was staggered when I found out that in a year, when he reached the age of fifty, he was going to resign his profitable position, dispose of his property to his wife and children, and go out into the world as a wandering mendicant. But the most surprising part was that his friends, and the maharajah, accepted it as a settled thing and looked upon it not as an extraordinary proceeding but as a natural one.
'One day I said to him: "You, who are so liberal, who know the world, who've read so much, science, philosophy, literature - do you in your heart of hearts believe in reincarnation?"
'His whole face changed. It became the face of a visionary.
'"My dear friend," he said, "if I didn't believe in it life would have no meaning for me.'"
'And do you believe in it, Larry?' I asked.
'That's a very difficult question to answer. I don't think it's possible for us Occidentals to believe in it as implicitly as these Orientals do. It's in their blood and bones. With us it can only be an opinion. I neither believe in it nor disbelieve in it.'
He paused for a moment and with his face resting on his hand looked down at the table. Then he leant back.
'1 should like to tell you of a very strange experience I had once. I was practising meditation one night in my little room at the Ashrama as my Indian friends had taught me to do. I had lit a candle and was concentrating my attention on its flame, and after a time, through the flame, but quite clearly, I saw a long line of figures one behind the other. The foremost was an elderly lady in a lace cap with grey ringlets that hung down over her ears. She wore a tight black bodice and a black silk flounced skirt-the sort of clothes, I think, they wore in the seventies-and she was standing full face to me in a gracious, diffident attitude, her arms hanging straight down her sides with the palms towards me. The expression on her lined face was kindly, sweet, and mild. Immediately behind her, but sideways so that I saw his profile, with a great hooked nose and thick lips, was a tall gaunt Jew in a yellow gabardine with a yellow skullcap on his thick dark hair. He had the studious look of a scholar and an air of grim and at the same time passionate austerity. Behind him, but facing me and as distinct as though there were no one between us, was a young man with a cheerful ruddy countenance, whom you couldn't have taken for anything but an Englishman of the sixteenth century. He stood firmly on his feet, his legs a little apart, and he had a bold, reckless, wanton look. He was dressed all in red, grandly as though it were a court dress, with broad-toed velvet shoes on his feet and a flat velvet cap on his head. Behind those three there was an endless chain of figures, like a queue outside a movie house, but they were dim and I couldn't see what they looked like. I was only aware of their vague shapes and of the movement that passed through them like wheat waving in a summer breeze. In a little while, I don't know whether it was in a minute, or five, or ten, they faded slowly into the darkness of the night and there was nothing but the steady flame of the candle.'
Larry gave a little smile.
'Of course it may be that I'd fallen into a doze and dreamt. It may be that my concentration on that feeble flame had induced a sort of hypnotic condition in me and that those three figures that I saw as distinctly as I see you were recollections of pictures preserved in my subconscious. But it may be that they were myself in past lives. It may be that I was not so very long ago an old lady in New England and before that a Levantine Jew and somewhere back, soon after Sebastian Cabot had sailed from Bristol, a gallant at the Court of Henry Prince of Wales.'
'What eventually happened to your friend of the rose-red city?'
'Two years later I was down south at a place called Madura. One night in the temple someone touched me on the arm. I looked round and saw a bearded man with long black hair, dressed in nothing but a loincloth, with the staff and the begging-bowl of the holy man. It was not till he spoke that I recognized him. It was my friend. I was so astounded that I didn't know what to say. He asked me what I'd been doing and I told him; he asked me where I was going and I said to Travancore; he told me to go and see Shri Ganesha. "He will give you what you're looking for," he said. I asked him to tell me about him, but he smiled and said I'd find out all that was necessary for me to know when I saw him. I'd got over my surprise by then and asked him what he was doing in Madura. He said he was making a pilgrimage on foot to the holy places of India. I asked him how he ate and how he slept. He told me that when anyone offered him shelter he slept on the veranda, but otherwise under a tree or in the precincts of a temple; and as for food, if people offered him a meal he ate it and if they didn't he went without. I looked at him: "You've lost weight," I said. He laughed and answered that he felt all the better for it. Then he said good-bye to me - it was funny to hear that guy in a loincloth say, "Well, so long, old chap" - and stepped into that part of the temple where I couldn't follow him.
'I stayed in Madura for some time. I think it's the only temple in India in which the white man can walk about freely so long as he doesn't enter the holy of holies. At nightfall it was packed with people. Men, women, and children. The men, stripped to the waist, wore dhoties, and their foreheads, and often their chests and arms, were thickly smeared with the white ash of burnt cow dung. You saw them making obeisance at one shrine or another and sometimes lying full length on the ground, face downwards, in the ritual attitude of prostration. They prayed and recited litanies. They called to one another, quarreled with one another, heatedly argued with one another. There was an ungodly row, and yet in some mysterious way God seemed to be near and living.
'You pass through long halls, the roof supported by sculptured columns, and at the foot of each column a religious mendicant is seated; each has in front of him a bowl for offerings or a small mat on which the faithful now and again throw a copper coin. Some are clad; some are almost naked. Some look at you vacantly as you pass; some are reading, silently or aloud, and appear unconscious of the streaming throng. I looked for my friend among them; I never saw him again. I suppose he proceeded on the journey to his goal.'
'And what was that?'
'Liberation from the bondage of rebirth. According to the Vedantists the self, which they call the atman and we call the soul, is distinct from the body and its senses, distinct from the mind and its intelligence; it is not part of the Absolute, for the Absolute, being infinite, can have no parts, but the Absolute itself. It is uncreated; it has existed from eternity and when at last it has cast off the seven veils of ignorance will return to the infinitude from which it came. It is like a drop of water that has arisen from the sea and in a shower has fallen into a puddle, then drifts into a brook, finds its way into a stream, after that into a river, passing through mountain gorges and wide plains, winding this way and that, obstructed by rocks and fallen trees, till at last it reaches the boundless sea from which it rose.'
'But that poor little drop of water, when it has once more become one with the sea, has surely lost its individuality.'
'You want to taste sugar, you don't want to become sugar. What is individuality but the expression of our egoism? Until the soul has shed the last trace of that it cannot become one with the Absolute.'
'You talk very familiarly of the Absolute, Larry, and it's an imposing word. What does it actually signify to you?'
'Reality. You can't say what it is; you can only say what it isn't. It's inexpressible. The Indians call it Brahman. It's nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and depend upon it. It's not a person, it's not a thing, it's not a cause. It has no qualities. It transcends permanence and change; whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.'