And school foundations in the act
Of holiday, three files compact,
Shall learn to view thee as a fact
Connected with that zealous tract
‘Rome, Babylon, and Nineveh.’
IT would have been presumption and weariness deliberately to have described Benares. No man, except he who writes a guide-book, ‘does’ the Strand or Westminster Abbey. The foreigner — French or American — tells London what to think of herself, as the visitor tells the Anglo-Indian what to think of India. Our neighbour over the way always knows so much more about us than we ourselves. The Bride interpreted Benares as fresh youth and radiant beauty can interpret a city grey and worn with years. Providence had been very good to her, and she repaid Providence by dressing herself to the best advantage — which, if the French speak truth, is all that a fair woman can do toward religion. Generations of untroubled ease and,well-being must have builded the dainty figure and rare face, and the untamable arrogance of wealth looked out of the calm eyes. ‘India,’ said The Bride philosophically, ‘is an incident only in our trip. We are going on to Australia and China, and then Home by San Francisco and New York. We shall be at Home again before the season is quite ended.’ And she patted her bracelets, smiling softly to herself over some thought that had little enough to do with Benares or India — whichever was the ‘incident.’ She went into the city of Benares. Benares of the Buddhists and the Hindus — of Durga of the Thousand Names — of two Thousand Temples, and twice two thousand stenches. Her high heels rang delicately upon the stone pavement of the gullies, and her brow, unmarked as that of a little child, was troubled by the stenches. ‘Why does Benares smell so?’ demanded The Bride pathetically. ‘Must we do it, if it smells like this?’ The Bridegroom was high-coloured, fair-whiskered, and insistent, as an Englishman should be. ‘Of course we must. It would never do to go home without having seen Benares. Where is a guide?’ The streets were alive with them, and the couple chose him who spoke English most fluently. ‘Would you like to see where the Hindus are burnt?’ said he. They would, though The Bride shuddered as she spoke, for she feared that it would be very horrible. A ray of gracious sunlight touched her hair as she turned, walking cautiously in the middle of the narrow way, into the maze of the byways of Benares.
The sunlight ceased after a few paces, and the horrors of the Holy City gathered round her. Neglected rainbow-hued sewage sprawled across the path, and a bull, rotten with some hideous disease that distorted his head out of all bestial likeness, pushed through the filth. The Bride picked her way carefully, giving the bull the wall. A lean dog, dying of mange, growled and yelped among her starveling puppies on a threshold that led into the darkness of some unclean temple. The Bride stooped and patted the beast on the head. ‘I think she’s something like Bessie,’ said The Bride, and once again her thoughts wandered far beyond Benares. The lanes grew narrower and the symbols of a brutal cult more numerous. Hanuman, red, shameless, and smeared with oil, leaped and leered upon. the walls above stolid, black stone bulls, knee-deep in yellow flowers. The bells clamoured from unseen temples, and half-naked men with evil eyes rushed out of dark places and besought her for money, saying that they were priests — padris, like the padris of her own faith. One young man — who knows in what Mission school he had picked up his speech? — told her this in English, and The Bride laughed merrily, shaking her head. ‘These men speak English,’ she called back to her husband. ‘Isn’t it funny!’
But the mirth went out of her face when a turn in the lane brought her suddenly above the burning-ghât, where a man was piling logs on some Thing that lay wrapped in white cloth, near the water of the Ganges. ‘We can’t see well from this place,’ said the Bridegroom stolidly. ‘Let us get a little closer.’ They moved forward through deep grey dust — white sand of the river and black dust of man blended — till they commanded a full view of the steeply sloping bank and the Thing under the logs. A man was laboriously starting a fire at the river end of the pile; stepping wide now and again to avoid the hot embers of a dying blaze actually on the edge of the water. The Bride’s face blanched, and she looked appealingly to her husband, but he had only eyes for the newly lit flame. Slowly, very slowly, a white dog crept on his belly down the bank, toward a heap of ashes among which the water was hissing. A plunge, followed by a yelp of pain, told that he had reached food, and that the food was too hot for him. With a deftness that marked long training, he raked the capture from the ashes on to the dust and slobbered, nosing it tentatively. As it cooled, he settled, with noises of animal delight, to his meal and worried and growled and tore. ‘Will!’ said The Bride faintly. The Bridegroom was watching the newly lit pyre and could not attend. A log slipped sideways, and through the chink showed the face of the man below, smiling the dull thick smile of death, which is such a smile as a very drunken man wears when he has found in his wide-swimming brain a joke of exquisite savour. The dead man grinned up to the sun and the fair face of The Bride. The flames sputtered and caught and spread. A man waded out knee-deep into the water, which was covered with greasy black embers and an oily scum. He chased the bobbing driftwood with a basket, that it might be saved for another occasion, and threw each take on a mound of such economies or on the back of the unheeding dog deep in the enjoyment of his hot dinner.
Slowly, very slowly, as the flames crackled, the Smiling Dead Man lifted one knee through the light logs. He had just been smitten with the idea of rising from his last couch and confounding the spectators. It was easy to see he was tasting the notion of this novel, this stupendous practical joke, and would presently, always smiling, rise up, and up, and up, and . . .
The fire-shrivelled knee gave way, and with its collapse little flames ran forward and whistled and whispered and fluttered from heel to head. ‘Come away, Will,’ said The Bride, ‘come away! It is too horrible. I’m sorry that I saw it.’ They left together, she with her arm in her husband’s for a sign to all the world that, though Death be inevitable and awful, Love is still the greater, and in its sweet selfishness can set at naught even the horrors of a burning-ghât.
‘I never thought what it meant before,’ said The Bride, releasing her husband’s arm as she recovered herself; ‘I see now.’ ‘See what?’ ‘Don’t you know?’ said The Bride, ‘what Edwin Arnold says:—
For all the tears of all the eyes
Have room in Gunga’s bed,
And all the sorrow is gone to-morrow
When the white flames have fed.
I see now. I think it is very, very horrible.’ Then to the guide, suddenly, with a deep compassion, ‘And will you be — will you be burnt in that way, too?’ ‘Yes, your Ladyship,’ said the guide cheerfully, ‘we are all burnt that way.’ ‘Poor wretch!’ said The Bride to herself. ‘Now show us some more temples.’ A second time they dived into Benares City, but it was at least five long minutes before The Bride recovered those buoyant spirits which were hers by right of Youth and Love and Happiness. A very pale and sober little face peered into the filth of the Temple of the Cow, where the odour of Holiness and Humanity are highest. Fearful and wonderful old women, crippled in hands and feet, body and back, crawled round her; some even touching the hem of her dress. And at this she shuddered, for the hands were very foul. The walls dripped filth, the pavement sweated filth, and the contagion of uncleanliness walked among the worshippers. There might have been beauty in the Temple of the Cow; there certainly was horror enough and to spare; but The Bride was conscious only of the filth of the place. She turned to the wisest and best man in the world, asking indignantly, ‘Why don’t these horrid people clean the place out?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said The Bridegroom; ‘I suppose their religion forbids it.’ Once more they set out on their journey through the city of monstrous creeds — she in front, the pure white hem of her petticoat raised indignantly clear of the mire, and her eyes full of alarm and watchfulness. Closed galleries crossed the narrow way, and the light of day fainted and grew sick ere it could climb down into the abominations of the gullies. A litter of gorgeous red and gold barred the passage to the Golden Temple. ‘It is the Maharani of Hazaribagh,’ said the guide, ‘she coming to pray for a child.’ ‘Ah!’ said The Bride, and turning quickly to her husband, said, ‘I wish mother were with us.’ The Bridegroom made no answer. Perhaps he was beginning to repent of dragging a young English girl through the iniquities of Benares. He announced his intention of returning to his hotel, and The Bride dutifully followed. At every turn lewd gods grinned and mouthed at her, the still air was clogged with thick odours and the reek of rotten marigold flowers, and disease stood blind and naked before the sun. ‘Let us get away quickly,’ said The Bride; and they escaped to the main street, having honestly accomplished nearly two-thirds of what was written in the little red guide-book. An instinct inherited from a century of cleanly English housewives made The Bride pause before getting into the carriage, and, addressing the seething crowd generally, murmur, ‘Oh you horrid people! Shouldn’t I like to wash you.’
Yet Benares — which name must certainly be derived from be, without, and nares, nostrils — is not entirely a Sacred Midden. Very early in the morning, almost before the light had given promise of the day, a boat put out from a ghât and rowed upstream till it stayed in front of the ruined magnificence of Scindia’s Ghât — a range of ruined wall and drunken bastion. The Bride and Bridegroom had risen early to catch their last glimpse of the city. There was no one abroad at that hour, and, except for three or four stone-laden boats rolling down from Mirzapur, they were alone upon the river. In the silence a voice thundered far above their heads: ‘I bear witness that there is no God but God.’ It was the mullah, proclaiming the Oneness of God in the city of the Million Manifestations. The call rang across the sleeping city and far over the river, and be sure that the mullah abated nothing of the defiance of his cry for that he looked down upon a sea of temples and smelt the incense of a hundred Hindu shrines. The Bride could make neither head nor tail of the business. ‘What is he making that noise for, Will?’ she asked. ‘Worshipping Vishnu,’ was the ready reply; for at the outset of his venture into matrimony a young husband is at the least infallible. The Bride snuggled down under her wraps, keeping her delicate, chill-pinked little nose toward the city. Day broke over Benares, and The Bride stood up and applauded with both her hands. It was finer, she said, than any transformation scene; and so in her gratitude she applauded the earth, the sun, and the everlasting sky. The river turned to a silver flood and the ruled lines of the ghâts to red gold. ‘How can I describe this to mother?’ she cried, as the wonder grew, and timeless Benares roused to a fresh day. The Bride nestled down in the boat and gazed round-eyed. As water spurts through a leaky dam, as ants pour out from the invaded nest, so the people of Benares poured down the ghâts to the river. Wherever The Bride’s eye rested, it saw men and women stepping downwards, always downwards, by rotten wall, worn step, tufted bastion, riven water-gate, and stark, bare, dusty bank, to the water. The hundred priests drifted down to their stations under the large mat-umbrellas that all pictures of Benares represent so faithfully. The Bride’s face lighted. with joy. She had found a simile. ‘Will! Do you recollect that pantomime we went to ages and ages ago — before we were engaged — at Brighton? Doesn’t it remind you of the scene of the Fairy Mushrooms — just before they all got up and danced, you know? Isn’t it splendid?’ She leaned forward, her chin in her hand, and watched long and intently; and Nature, who is without doubt a Frenchwoman, so keen is her love for effect, arranged that the shell-like pink of The Bride’s cheek should be turned against a dull red house, in the windows of which sat women in blood-red clothes, letting down crimson turban cloths for the morning breeze to riot with. From the burning-ghât rose lazily a welt of thick blue smoke, and an eddy of the air blew a wreath across the river. The Bride coughed. ‘Will,’ she said, ‘promise me when I die you won’t have me cremated — if cremation is the fashion then.’ And ‘Will’ promised lightly, as a man promises who is looking for long years.
The life of the city went forward. The Bride heard, though she did not understand, the marriage song, and the chant of prayers, and the wail of the mourners. She looked long and steadfastly at the beating heart of Benares and at the Dead for whom no day had dawned. The place was hers to watch and enjoy if she pleased. Her enjoyment was tempered with some thought of regret; for her eyebrows contracted and she thought. Then the trouble was apparent. ‘Will!’ she said softly, ‘they don’t seem to think much of us, do they?’ Did she expect, then, that the whole city would make obeisance to young Love, robed and crowned in a grey tweed travelling dress and velvet toque?
The boat drifted downstream, and an hour or so later the Dufferin Bridge bore away The Bride and Bridegroom on their travels, in which India was to be ‘only an incident.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56