The old man had been of late so abstracted from the daily affairs of the world, and so absorbed in his own special studies, that it was difficult to engage his attention upon any ordinary, mundane topic. Curious to know what it was that had drawn him so far out of himself, I opened the gate softly, and walking quietly round the laurel bushes, found him sitting, to my astonishment, with none other than the very man who was occupying my thoughts, Ram Singh, the Buddhist.
The two were sitting upon a garden bench, and the Oriental appeared to be laying down some weighty proposition, checking every point upon his long, quivering, brown fingers, while my father, with his hands thrown abroad and his face awry, was loud in protestation and in argument.
So absorbed were they in their controversy, that I stood within a hand-touch of them for a minute or more before they became conscious of my presence.
On observing me the priest sprang to his feet and greeted me with the same lofty courtesy and dignified grace which had so impressed me the day before.
“I promised myself yesterday,” he said, “the pleasure of calling upon your father. You see I have kept my word. I have even been daring enough to question his views upon some points in connection with the Sanscrit and Hindoo tongues, with the result that we have been arguing for an hour or more without either of us convincing the other. Without pretending to as deep a theoretical knowledge as that which has made the name of James Hunter West a household word among Oriental scholars, I happen to have given considerable attention to this one point, and indeed I am in a position to say that I know his views to be unsound. I assure you, sir, that up to the year 700, or even later, Sanscrit was the ordinary language of the great bulk of the inhabitants of India.”
“And I assure you, sir,” said my father warmly, “that it was dead and forgotten at that date, save by the learned, who used it as a vehicle for scientific and religious works—just as Latin was used in the Middle Ages long after it had ceased to be spoken by any European nation.”
“If you consult the puranas you will find,” said Ram Singh, “that this theory, though commonly received, is entirely untenable.”
“And if you will consult the Ramayana, and more particularly the canonical books on Buddhist discipline,” cried my father, “you will find that the theory is unassailable.”
“But look at the Kullavagga,” said our visitor earnestly.
“And look at King Asoka,” shouted my father triumphantly. “When, in the year 300 before the Christian era—before, mind you—he ordered the laws of Buddha to be engraved upon the rocks, what language did he employ, eh? Was it Sanscrit?—no! And why was it not Sanscrit? Because the lower orders of his subjects would not have been able to understand a word of it. Ha, ha! That was the reason. How are you going to get round King Asoka’s edicts, eh?”
“He carved them in the various dialects,” Ram Singh answered. “But energy is too precious a thing to be wasted in mere wind in this style. The sun has passed its meridian, and I must return to my companions.”
“I am sorry that you have not brought them to see us,” said my father courteously. He was, I could see, uneasy lest in the eagerness of debate he had overstepped the bounds of hospitality.
“They do not mix with the world,” Ram Singh answered, rising to his feet. “They are of a higher grade than I, and more sensitive to contaminating influences. They are immersed in a six months’ meditation upon the mystery of the third incarnation, which has lasted with few intermissions from the time that we left the Himalayas. I shall not see you again, Mr. Hunter West, and I therefore bid you farewell. Your old age will be a happy one, as it deserves to be, and your Eastern studies will have a lasting effect upon the knowledge and literature of your own country. Farewell!”
“And am I also to see no more of you?” I asked.
“Unless you will walk with me along the sea-shore,” he answered. “But you have already been out this morning, and may be tired. I ask too much of you.”
“Nay, I should be delighted to come,” I responded from my heart, and we set off together, accompanied for some little distance by my father, who would gladly, I could see, have reopened the Sanscrit controversy, had not his stock of breath been too limited to allow of his talking and walking at the same time.
“He is a learned man,” Ram Singh remarked, after we had left him behind, “but, like many another, he is intolerant towards opinions which differ from his own. He will know better some day.”
I made no answer to this observation, and we trudged along for a time in silence, keeping well down to the water’s edge, where the sands afforded a good foothold.
The sand dunes which lined the coast formed a continuous ridge upon our left, cutting us off entirely from all human observation, while on the right the broad Channel stretched away with hardly a sail to break its silvery uniformity. The Buddhist priest and I were absolutely alone with Nature.
I could not help reflecting that if he were really the dangerous man that the mate affected to consider him, or that might be inferred from the words of General Heatherstone, I had placed myself completely in his power.
Yet such was the majestic benignity of the man’s aspect, and the unruffled serenity of his deep, dark eyes, that I could afford in his presence to let fear and suspicion blow past me as lightly as the breeze which whistled round us. His face might be stern, and even terrible, but I felt that he could never be unjust.
As I glanced from time to time at his noble profile and the sweep of his jet-black beard, his rough-spun tweed travelling suit struck me with an almost painful sense of incongruity, and I re-clothed him in my imagination with the grand, sweeping Oriental costume which is the fitting and proper frame for such a picture—the only garb which does not detract from the dignity and grace of the wearer.
The place to which he led me was a small fisher cottage which had been deserted some years before by its tenant, but still stood gaunt and bare, with the thatch partly blown away and the windows and doors in sad disrepair. This dwelling, which the poorest Scotch beggar would have shrunk from, was the one which these singular men had preferred to the proffered hospitality of the laird’s house. A small garden, now a mass of tangled brambles, stood round it, and through this my acquaintance picked his way to the ruined door. He glanced into the house and then waved his hand for me to follow him.
“You have now an opportunity,” he said, in a subdued, reverential voice, “of seeing a spectacle which few Europeans have had the privilege of beholding. Inside that cottage you will find two Yogis—men who are only one remove from the highest plane of adeptship. They are both wrapped in an ecstatic trance, otherwise I should not venture to obtrude your presence upon them. Their astral bodies have departed from them, to be present at the feast of lamps in the holy Lamasery of Rudok in Tibet. Tread lightly lest by stimulating their corporeal functions you recall them before their devotions are completed.”
Walking slowly and on tiptoe, I picked my way through the weed-grown garden, and peered through the open doorway.
There was no furniture in the dreary interior, nor anything to cover the uneven floor save a litter of fresh straw in a corner.
Among this straw two men were crouching, the one small and wizened, the other large-boned and gaunt, with their legs crossed in Oriental fashion and their heads sunk upon their breasts. Neither of them looked up, or took the smallest notice of our presence.
They were so still and silent that they might have been two bronze statues but for the slow and measured rhythm of their breathing. Their faces, however, had a peculiar, ashen-grey colour, very different from the healthy brown of my companion’s, and I observed, on, stooping my head, that only the whites of their eyes were visible, the balls being turned upwards beneath the lids.