The Spike or Victoria College Review October 1929
The great pagoda was everywhere visible in the dazzling sunlight above the green of the surrounding trees, and at night its dark form climbed up to the stars. It was difficult to comprehend how this hard and brilliant symbol should dominate a religion, which insisted so unwaveringly that everything which delighted the senses, even life itself, was a fleeting illusion." But the shadow of such a doom fell very lightly on the hearts of the people. Antony noticed, judging from their smiling face, the rich colours of their dresses, and the flowers that nestled so coyly in the blue-black hair of the women. This impression was heightened as he journeyed up the Irrawaddy, with a young Burmese student as guide and companion, to Mandalay and thence onward to the hills. After wandering for several days they reached a rest-house which they decided to make their headquarters." It stood at the head of a fertile valley, in whose jade-green depths were visible the clustering pagodas of a large village. In the distance were the mountains which stretched along the frontier. On certain days, by some trick of the weather, they seemed so near that he might almost step out on to their summits. Beyond were parallel ranges, more and more formidable, right into the interior of China.
As he lingered there, venturing at times down into the valley, where the luxuriance of the vegetation was ever fresh cause for surprise, Antony found that his need for action was growing less and less. In some mysterious way the secret of Buddhist passivity seemed to be in this increasing growth, which he saw, or rather felt, everywhere around him. With an inner calm as if upon the threshold of some ultimate self-recognition, in a state where all the shackles of existence would seem to have fallen from him. when even the bright faces of its women, and their dancing limbs, excited him no more, he had the sensation that he also was becoming a part of this budding growth and decay. This wealth of blossom, which in the past had always made him so acutely conscious of the wonder of life, and brought in due season the swift passionate image of Thelassine before his eyes, was now simply a phase of an ever enduring change. He and she also had become involved in this ceaseless sequence of births and re-births, like drops of water in a river, or the flickering notes in that streak of sunlight which slowly, inevitably, moved across the room.
All is vanity, all is illusion, all passes away! Yet his mind was not willing to surrender without a struggle the memory of her perfection, and with a faint sigh of egoism he recalled her vibrating reality. Even so. she appeared to him as the statue of a goddess; under the weight of her fantastic crown he noted the gracious poise of her head, and he could surmise the beauty of her body beneath the heavy folds of her jewelled robe. But she was become only the recollection of a passion in a world where everything was passionless; as far away as a lotus blossom in a valley beyond that ultimate range of mountains was to the fragile butterfly that had just settled on the open palm of his hand.page 6
His thoughts lazily followed its flight towards the sunshine, and he recollected how that morning he had sat on a cliff above a little stream watching the mad gyrations of the butterflies below him. All that insensate whirling was simply the search for the predestined mate, and after a passionate instant they drifted indefinitely apart and died. The male of the species, it was related, spent its whole brief existence in search of the female, seeking it out even in the face of a torrential gale.
The vision faded; the fierce heat of the tropic afternoon eddied round him. Stung to a strange acuteness, he began to distinguish its separate scents as they slowly defined themselves and wavered away into nothingness. One of them was in some remote way familiar, and wistfully pleading to an unknown power, he sought to re-invoke it. The rustle of the poplar trees sounded in his ears, a soft wind blew her hair across his face. Thelassine was standing before him in a flower-patterned dress, and he caught a swift glimpse of her firm white feet beneath it. The butterfly on the palm of his hand hovered over the blossoms of her robe, seeking the most perfect of them all.
A noise in the room stirred him gradually to consciousness; his heart was beating over wildly, and there was a mysterious pain in his hand. Looking up, he saw that Aung Zan was gazing at him curiously. He had wakened the Thakin very gently, he explained, for when we slept our soul came out of the body as a butterfly, and if we were rudely disturbed, the thread that bound it to us would snap and we should die. Antony smiled up at him. He looked charming in his new silk dress. In the bazaar this morning he had seen him talking vivaciously with two pretty girls. One of them especially had a bright sparkle in her eyes, Antony had noticed as he passed. What was the young devil suggesting? Thakin, let us imagine that a maiden has fallen in love with you, and confessed it to a friend. She is very pretty, Thakin. Look, she sends you cheroots she has rolled, Aung Zan continued, producing a little lacquer box. Yes, she was the one with the green dress. Her name is Ma Hla. To-morrow we shall go to the bazaar to buy her a present.
Everything happened no doubt exactly as Aung Zan had arranged, and a few clays later they set off together to a rendezvous with the two girls at a little pagoda, which stood at a small height above the village. When they had proceeded a short distance they met a Chinaman whom they stopped and engaged in conversation. Antony watched him as he held out his arm towards the mountains, indicating that his journey lay beyond them, and he remembered that a vision such as this he had seen once before in his life. This man had lived for twenty years in Mandalay, where he had made a tiny fortune; he was now returning to his native town in the north of China. The journey would take many months, but arrangements for money had been made with merchants in the towns through which he would pass. There was a maiden, the daughter of a friend of his youth; he had never seen her, but she was as beautiful as a lotus blossom, and she was going to be his bride.
They found the girls at the trysting-place and they listened with laugh page 7 ter and blushes to Aung Zan's voluble account of this recent encounter. They walked on together, and presently at a bend of the path they came to a tall tree which was a mass of yellow blossom. The padauk tree, when it flowers the third time, then come the rains, Aung Zan said with a smile, As he proceeded onwards with his companion, Antony looked down at the little figure by his side. How exquisite she was; the flower in her carefully coiled hair—the blossom of the Chinese language they called it—the green silken dress shot with gold, the soft white fluttering linen jacket, the slim fluent fingers that held the yellow umbrella!
Antony had fallen asleep in the shadow of the padauk tree, and drifted into the mazes of a dream which seemed longer than life itself. With Ma Hla as his companion, he wandered over the mountains, meeting on the way with incredible adventures, the memory of which lingered only after the manner of happenings from some earlier existence. But he recalled how, at the end of a summer day, they arrived at the Inn of Sainted Benevolence, where he had sat with two poets in a tiny pavilion drinking wine and writing verses. Each evening he would join them, and his life seemed to have become so simple and beautiful that he would tarry there forever. But finally Ma Hla persuaded him to depart. They came to a small village where dwelt he who was reputed to be the wisest man in all the world. Antony sat before him for many moons, listening to his wisdom, until at last Ma Hla enticed him away. But Antony, being overcome with a great weariness, rested at the Inn of the Seven Virtues. It was there that he set about the writing of a book in which he would offer to men the fruit of his wisdom. This task seemed to last many years, for he had the sensation of snows beyond recall; yet one autumn day they set off again along a road that led through the maple trees to a pine-clad hill. By the wayside was a man affixing gold leaf to the face of a Buddha; he also was an image maker, Antony explained, and he would discuss the secrets of their craft. But Ma Hla spoke to him sharply, saying that this was not the right kind of clay for his image-making. Having passed the night at the Inn of the Three Wise Sages, Antony, the next morning, sat fishing in a stream, for he would meditate upon this matter of the images and did not wish to be disturbed. But Ma Hla took the rod from him and beat him with it. It was now too late for that kind of thing, she cried shrilly. On the evening of that same day they came to the walls of a great city. Soldiers conducted them to the torture-house, where Ma Hla was strangled by two tall executioners.
They placed Antony in a litter and carried him swiftly through the streets to the shores of a lake, across which he was ferried in a barge to the palace of the King. He was led to a lofty room, where his body was washed and anointed by laughing maidens. This accomplished, they clad him in a garment of silk, placed him in a high red lacquer bed, and whispering and giggling fluttered away.
He was standing behind a curtain peering into the room where he had fallen asleep. In the light of the tall candle at the foot of his bed. he watched a maiden approach holding aloft a shallow bowl. As he watched, the bowl page 8 became a lotus flower, and a butterfly, fluttered from his mouth. He felt that if it reached the flower he would die. He was just on the point of calling out. when he felt a hand tugging at his sleeve. Turning he saw that it was an old man, who was earnestly beckoning to him to depart. He followed his guide through furtive corridors into a garden, thence by devious paths to the city wall. Dawn was breaking as the old man lowered him over the wall and let down a cage with a yellow bird. With this in his hand Antony stepped swiftly out over the fields. He felt a stinging sensation of vitality, and the sharp tension of youth was in his limbs. Shortly after the sun had risen, he came to a tree with yellow blossoms, beneath which he sat down to rest. When he awoke from his slumber, he found that the bird had disappeared from the cage, and in its place was a porcelain figure of an old man with a serene and placid countenance. It was the Chinese guardian of the dead, and even as he gazed upon it, petals fluttered down from the tree, more and more thickly, until it was buried beneath them.
Antony woke with a shiver. A cool wind was blowing, long dark clouds were rushing through the sky, the padauk blossoms were falling about him in showers. The monsoon had broken at last, and the rains were coming. Three days later they arrived at Mandalay. The wild chorus of the frogs rose above the noise of the torrential rain, as he vainly endeavoured to sleep that first night in the rest-house. He had to raise himself upon his elbow to think, his thoughts must be shrieks to become audible in the din. He laughed aloud when he considered how he had come this long journey to discover what he had dreamt beneath a tree, and the dream was simply that he had slept in its shadow and dreamt. Or was there some deep truth involved in the absurdity of the paradox? Could it be shown in the last analysis that a dream was less logical, less real, than the chaos we call life! How entertaining was the thought that Brahma had created the world without quite realising what he was doing out of amusement, and that one fine day it would dance itself to extinction! Now and then in the course of our lives, if we were lucky enough, we might see the truth, yet dare not tell anyone, for fear they might laugh us to scorn.
His reverie drifted to the Burmese play he had seen with Aung Zan that evening. He liked the way in which pretty actresses had made themselves up in full view of the audience, and he was amused by the antics of the master of ceremonies, who accompanied the action by a running commentary and a prediction of future happenings. It would be rather dull now for an hour, he said, but anyone who could be asleep then would be foolish. If only we might order our lives thus, at the nod of some really beneficient deity. These few years we would willingly suffer if we could only be sure that something sufficiently vital would happen to us afterwards.
Such matters Antony had been discussing with his hostess only that very afternoon at tea. and the conversation drifted to a remarkable book which she had just been reading. It was the story of a woman who had married a man, yet remained faithful in the spirit to her lover of long ago. Fantastic nonsense, her husband had said, as if there were not many more important things in life than that! Whereupon he showed Antony a long page 9 report, which had cost him nearly six months in the preparation, on the allowance of opium that was suitable for Chinese residents in Burma. The fellow had never dreamt in all his life, yet here he was reeking to regulate the dreams of others. The great thing was to translate one's dreams into enduring images, ruthlessly press out from them what was not one's own, fiercely blow away the dust of irrelevance. Hell, what a noise these frogs were making! Perhaps it was right after all that a man should go to his own land to get the material for his image-making. I am always ready to come into your thoughts when you wish, Antony—it was just as if a message from Thelassine had floated down to him from over the distant mountains. He started up as a vision of her face flashed out of the darkness. And carrying the memory of the rose of her smile as some treasure that he must bear unharmed through a hostile country, recalling that in its light the lotus flowers had grown dim, Antony continued on his wanderings.
—P. W. Robertson.