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The Painting and the Wheel

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I was sailing the last leg of my trip to Bombay – delighting in all the comforts of those new P&O steamers – when I met my strange companion. The late evening stood golden over turquoise in the shades of the Indian ocean, that which is as alike to England’s cold seas as the elephant is to the Shetland horse, and those of us who smoked, smoked on the deck, content to join our billows to the descending mist, when he noted a certain way in which my tobacco-box was worked, gilt and crusted with turquoise, and the inscription therein . “A fine trinket for a white man,” he said, laughing: a well-made, hawk-eyed young officer, such as they craft in Devon and Sandhurst, before sending them to test the stiffness of their upper lips in India. They come there knowing that they know all there is to be known, until their first fever native or first native woman; but this young man had held court all day on deck with a hundred merry-minded stories, those fine sort of larks which are too great to swallow and too delightful to resist.

When I came up, his crowd sated and drifting, he profess some small interest in antiques and in their forgery, smartly making no comment about which my tobacco-box exemplified, and we fell to talking of strange native customs and arts, boring every smoker within the billows; which is twice the crime, as smoking on ship-deck was made to bring men to feel common cause. At length he made a jest at me in the vernacular, from which of course I could not rightly stand down, and within moments every puffing mouth was gone from around us in crinkles of upset. No man sailing out with the P&O steamers to India wants to hear native-talk before their feet touch the mud.

Being left alone, we talked comfortably in Hindustani, my companion explaining that he had spent so long in India the language came to him as easily as his mother’s tongue. “Aye, and my father’s relatives – for in Ireland he has plenty! – seem almost stranger in their habits than the natives. These journeys to me are always a confusion. But needs must, for I traveled to honour a friend – a very great honour.”

“What friend? And what honour?”

“He had been made a member of the Royal Society. Thou wilt have heard, I think, for it is not common honour for one of his race.”

“Not the Hindu?” said I with a look of amazement. “What is the name – Mookerjee?”

“The very one, who, when I first came to this land, tutored me in languages. Now he is FRS.” This in English, with a sing-song native lilt and a great deal of laughter. “How shall I live up to the name! For I fear I respected him little, as my teacher. But I was a boy, and boys are all devils. At least I come up from Lahore with him, and can see that his return is safer than his outward journey. For you know, in Lahore he almost lost that which won him his letters.”

Now of this treasure I had heard. Even were all London not afire with the news, it was the talk of our fellow passengers, from learned Parisians whose speech made sense one word of five, to Turkish dealers in arts who would cleave a diamond with discerning gazes. “The papers have said it is a painted image. The Wheel of Life, that of the Buddhist teaching.”

“The papers do not know the half; but the Society knows. This painting was made by a lama of Tibet, an abbot and great man in his country. Those who have seen have at first not believed. But the curator at the Museum of Lahore has sent a signed statement, that he knows not only the image, but the hand that painted it. Even in India there are few treasures greater. But in Lahore it was almost lost – stolen.”

“Tell!” said I, baited past caring that the young man so clearly enjoyed my enthrallment.

At once he flicked his hand, as though to make light, as a young officer would do of a splendid tale when the listener is hooked like the luckless fish. “I tell only as my friend tells me, and he has it second hand also. For the matter began, you see, when he took a sickness of the belly in Lahore City. The wife of an officer of his acquaintance sent him a parcel of cream cakes, and how will a white woman know to choose a messenger whose hands are clean…? But little else could come when a Babu eats a trayful of English cake. I went to seek a doctor for him, and with me gone and he insensate, the painting was stolen. The rest we know from the police. The thief made full confession… ah! Wait ‘til I tell all. It will come clear.

“It is not long before the thief knows that the scent is upon him, for Hurree Chunder Mookerjee has many a friend in Lahore City, and one such sees him in flight from our lodging. All day he cannot shake the tail. A train will take him from the city swiftly, but how to be protected, in the press and bustle of the te-rain – this he considers, when he sees in the station a policeman patrolling – a District Superintendent of the Indian Police, no less, all a-strut in his spurs, fumbling through the simplest obscenities of Urdu.

“And it comes into his mind – now there is the native thinking – it comes into his mind that no one is easier to trick than the police-Sahibs. Else what is the use of the police?  And having this thought in his mind, he throws himself at the mercies of the law. He is only a poor man, running an errand for his master, who sells the fancies of the Orient to Sahibs – trifles of no value but to the youngest and most foolish of Sahibs, who show them as trophies of adventures they appropriate from their betters. Ask a white policeman to tell between trifle and treasure in India! But well would he know the type of bazaar zealot, who chases a man to dash out his brains because he takes such a trifle for a holy thing of a heathen creed.

"And the thief does well to spot a policeman who thinks little of heathen creeds, and less of their zealots; but what misfortune, to fall on such an eager young policeman who sees great merit in protecting a poor man from such as these. Of course, the poor man mustn’t leave his sight, for his own safety; and he must have a full statement, and a formal complaint must be lodged, and aie – a hundred thousand papers! But worst of all the policeman will have the trifle for which all this commotion is raised. The Government will compensate.

"At this is the thief like the buffalo that stepped into the yoke. Here is a lesser man is caught and – done. But not a man who is suckled in Lahore City, who knows all the roads of vice upon her roofs, such a man as this our villain. Only look away a moment, as one Sahib of the police greets another outside the gate of the station. And already he is congratulating himself, in the rush of the Motee bazaar, that never was born such wisdom and swiftness who would follow his flight – except these friends of the deplorable Bengali who persist at his heels, may – may they be damned for ever!”

“These are not his words, surely,” said I to the storyteller, smiling.

“Nay; but European lips would take a pox to repeat the words themselves. Now see he is in flight to such places as are his sanctuary, among painted women. Who but women for such shameless shelter? At the Gate of the Harpies, where no business lives that is not loaded with intrigue, he rests a while in some security. In the dead of night he dozes even, dreaming upon a swift escape, and rich reward for black deeds, when in strides a man – a red-bearded Pathan of a most terrible aspect. Splendid he is, in the embroidered waistcoat that flows amply, the russia-leather slippers and turban-cloth fringed in gold, and every girl fawns at his feet, but he only roars, tiger-like, and flings about the fine silks and the gilded hookahs, and tears at poor pillows who have never done harm to a man who did not deserve it. He shouts that money has been taken that was not owed, and he will carve it out of the very belly it fattened, if need be.

“’And Allah He knows, this sword is but a feather to the torments awaiting the woman who steals from a kinsman of Mahbub Ali!’ Is his cry, and in his hand he has the paper with the very thumb-print, scarred and known. Mahbub Ali, he is old, but no woman in the Gate of Harpies would soon forget these days when he was a romping stallion. It is one thing to hinder the way of a Pathan in rage – all women who have lived in the Gate a week have the trick of it – but to anger Mahbub Ali’s kinfolk is another.

“’His image – his very image!’ they shrill, and every bowl is overturned, ever bag is opened, all at the feet of this kinsman. For this no thief has a taste, and least of all this our thief, who would rather his neck be trampled underfoot than his treasure, his breast be opened than his bag. Flee he does, but it is ugly business: a tall window and a woman’s veil, and a hundred chattering tongues in one street of Lahore alone. Hai mai! How he rues his pride upon the roofs!

“The morning rises, and the thief is spent – faint – white man and native both failing to give him protection. Now he cannot have the train, and cannot have the city, and there is naught but to go to the Serai – the Kashmiri Serai where a hundred castes and creeds meet and trade and rob the very marrow of each other – and perhaps hide among that rabble, and find whither to make the Road. No sooner is he among the arches, when – who knows the minds of the Gods! Here is a marvel – among them he sees no less than a Red Lama of Bhotiyal, which is Tibet. Knowest thou? There with his yellow habit and his rosary, his snuff-gourd and his pencase, his eyes upon the Way. In every aspect, such a man like as made the stolen painting.

“Seeing this the thief is filled with dread, like to a stone sinking in the belly. Who can blame? Such men are not common in Lahore, to be found by chance. Moreover here comes the lama, amid all the press of the Serai, and puts his hand thus – comes to bless, but pausing – and says ‘I see that thou art burdened. A heavy burden.’

“‘Heavy, Holy One,’ says the thief, his bones – so he tells to the police – all afloat within him.

"‘And the sight of one who is apart from the world drives thee to reflection – upon this world that is illusion, and upon sin?'

"‘Yes – yes.’ (And here, as I imagine it, he falls to his knees to touch the blessed feet that follow his thoughts so well.)

"‘A glad thing – a blessing. Do not be afraid. Now have I acquired merit in setting thy feet upon the Way which thou have lost. Now hear,’ and he drones a Chinese quotation, which the thief cannot repeat, but which melts him like ghee in the hand. ‘All wealth is burden. All lust is an iron upon the soul. There is no freedom but freedom from sin. Just is the Wheel!’

“At the last, the gates of the thief’s soul are opened, and he sees Freedom: and weeping at the lama’s feet he hands him the bag, painting and all. Thus freed from material burden he goes to the police, and is next unburdened thoroughly by confession and great weeping, ‘til they – in complete confusion – bring him before my friend the Babu. And there alights for him, indeed, the justice of the Wheel; for Hurree Chunder Mookerjee in great fright goes to his baggage, but there within finds nothing displaced. The culprit goes free, there being no crime.”

“But how came the painting back to its owner?”

“Ah! On that I cannot speculate,” said my companion, straight-faced. “For as thou art told, all this time I am away searching for a doctor. But I think,” he added in English, “ I think that there are mysteries to lamas that even you do not know, Colonel.”

Now that is a cheeky thing for a young officer to say to a superior, even smoking together upon a boat. But I laughed. “A fine tale indeed!” I said, repacking my pipe to light it. In the small flame I saw the young face all grinning, though the audience was only one man; but that was well, that man being I. “A fine game played, O’Hara, by Jove – though all this playing, for a poor thief?”

“What other games does a pony-polo know?” laughed Kimball O’Hara, who in the books is J31, and of whose playing all of India would hush to hear. “Besides, it is well that all men learn not to steal from my friend, even if he is a Babu who should mind his cream cakes.”

“It is true,” said I on reflection. “Such a thing would have been well done for the sake of the Government – but it is better, yet, for the sake of a friend.”

“And am I not Friend of All the World? Perhaps they do not know such things in England. But in Hind among my people, they know. And thou knowest, Colonel-Sahib, and will not send me again to the land of my father’s countless chattering kinsmen, where the food has no flavour, and the weather – pah!”

“Perhaps I shall not, thou imp,” I answered, again laughing. “For I would rather have no friend in thy land but thee.”