In the heart of an extensive park, where wide lawns are planted with gigantic baobabs and clumps of bamboo and tamarind, stands an important-looking building, hideously modern in a mixture of heterogeneous styles and materials, of a crude yellow colour, and much too new. There is no attempt at unity of effect. A central dome crowns the edifice and a square tower rises by the side of it. Some portions, like pavilions, low and small, carry ornaments disproportioned to their size; while others, containing vast halls, have minute windows pierced[Pg 52] in their walls, hardly larger than loopholes, but framed in elaborate sculpture and lost in the great mass of stone. Arcades of light and slender columns, connected by lace-like pierced work of alarming fragility, enclose little courts full of tree-ferns and waving palms spreading over large pools of water. The walls are covered with niches, balconies, pilasters, and balustrades carved in the Indian style, the same subjects constantly repeated.
The Rajah being absent we were allowed to see everything. On the upper floor is the Ranee's dressing-room. All round the large room were glass wardrobes, in which could be seen bodices in the latest Paris fashion, and ugly enough; and then a perfect rainbow of tender opaline hues: light silks as fine as cobwebs, shawls of every dye in Cashmere wool with woven patterns, and[Pg 53] gauze of that delicate rose-colour and of the yellow that looks like gold with the light shining through, which are only to be seen in India—royal fabrics, dream-colours, carefully laid up in sandal-wood and stored behind glass and thick curtains, which were dropped over them as soon as we had looked. And crowding every table and bracket were the most childish things—screens, cups and boxes in imitation bronze, set with false stones—the playthings of a little barbarian. A coloured photograph stood on the toilet-table between brushes and pomatum-pots; it represented the mistress of this abode, a slender doll without brains, her eyes fixed on vacancy.
A plain of dried mud, dull grey, with scarcely a tinge of yellow in places; all round the horizon softly undulating hills which looked transparent, here a tender blue, there delicately pink, in flower-like hues. One of them, rising above all the eastern chain, might be a fortress, its towers alone left standing amid the general wreck. To the west the highest summits were lost in the blue of the sky, identically the same, but that the peaks were faintly outlined with a delicate line of snow.Next morning—so far, so high on the horizon! I saw a pink spot; then, as day broke, the rose colour spread—broader, lower, turned paler, then to white, and the Himalayas lay before me in blinding glory of size and light. Kinchinjunga, at a measureless distance, looked in the clear air as if it were quite close; and round the sovereign giant other giants rent their wrappings of cloud, an amphitheatre of peaks of dazzling whiteness lost against the sky, and almost insensibly fading away behind the vapour that rolled up from the abysses, grew[Pg 148] thicker, and settled into a compact mass over the lost summits, hiding the nearer heights and shrouding Darjeeling in opaque white fog.
And under an arcade priests were hanging the shrine with wreaths of pink and yellow flowers, in preparation for its nocturnal progress, while an old woman, all alone, was bathing in the tank, with much splashing and noise of waters.[Pg 228]
At the railway station a woman, who would accept no gratuity, strewed flowers on the cushions of my carriage, and put garlands along the grooves of the open windows—bunches of ebony flowers, of Indian cork-flowers, lilies, and China roses on the point of dropping, only hanging to the calyx by the tip of the petals.All the sick were sudras, Hindoos of the lowest caste. All the rest, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisiyas, would rather die at home, uncared for, than endure the promiscuous mixture of caste at the hospital, and contact with their inferiors. Even the sudras are but few. There is an all-pervading dread of a hospital, fostered by Indian bone-setters and sorcerers, stronger even than the fear of the pestilence; the people hide themselves to die, like[Pg 33] wounded animals, and their relations will not speak of an illness for fear of seeing anybody belonging to them taken to the hospital.
On the bank of the river, where there are no more steps, only beaten earth, in a little raised pit a pile of wood was slowly dying out. A man with[Pg 166] a cane raked back the sticks as they fell and rolled away. A squatting crowd were waiting till their relation was altogether consumed to cast his ashes on the sacred waters.In the case of a Brahmin it is the judge who hurries to the threshold, and affects to touch the priest's feet.
More and yet more temples, seen through the mist of weariness, the nightmare of grimacing idols, the heavy vapour of the incense burnt in every chapel, and of the flowers brought by the pilgrims. A dark red pagoda, lighted by a mysterious blue gleam falling intermittently from somewhere in the roof, enshrined a white marble god, whose glittering gems seemed to rise and fall behind the cloud of perfume that floated about him.
In one vast hall were ancient weapons, swords and pistols, enriched with precious stones; suits of armour damascened with gold, guns with silver stocks set with pearls, and a whole battery of field-pieces to be carried on camels' backs and spit out[Pg 237] tiny balls—enormously, absurdly long, still perched on their saddle-shaped carriages. And in a window bay two toy cannon made of gold and silver, with which Dhuleep Singh used to play as a child before he lost his realm.
All the men carry fighting quails in little cages made of a net stretched over a wooden tray and cone-shaped at top. Towards evening, in the shade of the houses, at the street corners, in the courtyards—everywhere, there is a group betting on the chances of a fight. The birds taken out of the cages at first turn slowly round each other, their beaks close together. Then a spring, a flutter of wings and flying feathers; the quails strike and peck, aiming at the head, and then suddenly they seem quite indifferent and turn round and round again, picking up grain from the ground. When a[Pg 284] bird is killed at the end of a battle, its eyes blinded and its breast torn open, it is considered a fine, a noble spectacle, and amateurs will talk of it for a long time. As a rule, after a few rounds one of the birds tries to get away. Then its owner pricks its neck with a knife, and the gasping creature dies slowly in the dust, the blood oozing drop by drop.Cymbals and kettle-drums formed the orchestra, reinforced by the shrill cries and strident laughter of the spectators.
Past a magnificent railway station, and through a manufacturing district of tall furnaces, we came to the quiet country and the Ganges, bordered with gardens, where creepers in flower hang over the muddy stream stained with iridescent grease and soot.Two old women had a quarrel, and all the neighbourhood came out to look on.There was not a sound, not a bird, excepting on the fringe of the forest. As we penetrated further there soon was no undergrowth even on the dry soil, between the ever closer array of trees; the creepers hung very low, tangled with clinging parasites; and between the stilt-like and twining roots and the drooping boughs, the path, now impracticable, suddenly ended in face of the total silence and black shade that exhaled a strong smell of pepper, while not a leaf stirred.详情
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