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The Heart Sutra

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I was sitting in the Club at half-past-ten, settling up after a hand of whist, when I caught sight of Strickland at a little table in the corner, with a half-full decanter of whiskey at his knee. Now, there are men who take up that post every evening, as if the Colonel had posted them for sentry-duty at the mouth of the bottle. But Strickland is not one of them. He is solemn, and has no conversation, and people call him stupid— who do not know him. When a man like that drinks alone in a corner, it is not nerves or a guilty conscience. It is black Sorrow that is on him, and very probably someone is dead.

I went across to Strickland, and he shoved the decanter at me.

“Sit,” he said, “Sit down and drink to a better man than yourself.”

I sat, and I drank. Strickland’s stories, when he cares to tell them, are not to be missed. In the old days, before he married, he used to dress like a fakir and go up and down the frontier from Darjiling to Peshawar. He could speak the vernacular like his mother tongue, and he set up as court-poet once to the Nawab of Bahawalpore, and wrote an ode that would have earned him a ruby the size of a pigeon’s egg, if— but that is another story.

“I have let Miss Dawson kill herself,” said Strickland. “And Miss Dawson has killed O’Hara, and if men could bargain with fate, O’Hara would have lived forever.”

I saw that Strickland wanted to talk, and said nothing.

“There is no harm in having ideas,” said he. “And there is no harm in having money. But Miss Dawson had both, and that is a bad business. She wanted to go to China— China by way of Kashgar, she said, as if she meant to call in at the Post Office on her way to the grocer’s.”

“China!” I said.

“She was one of those girls who knows things,” said Strickland bitterly. “Sanskrit, and Arabic, and a half-hundred Chinese letters, and a first at Girton College. She had never been out from Home before. Possibly she could have been trusted to buy cabbages in the bazaar, if you could spare ten rupees to spend on them.”

“Now,” he went on, “There are very interesting things to see in Kashgar, and I have heard that Tun-Huang library, in Kansu Province, is a second Alexandria. But Miss Dawsons do not go to see such things. First there is Peshawar, and that is no place for an English Miss. After Peshawar come the Hills, and an English man is not safe there, if he is not careful. And after the Hills come the Desert, and that is no place for anybody.”

“How did O’Hara come into it?”

Strickland tipped the decanter again.

“That was MY doing,” he said. “And may Eblis requite me of it. I had a few errands that might be done in that quarter, and O’Hara was the man to do them. Oh, he was a man, if you needed one! He could talk like anyone, and look like anyone, and climb like a langur, and shoot like a Pathan. And so I thought— Here is Miss Dawson on a fool’s errand, and here is Mr. O’Hara, who is no fool, but would be better off looking like one. And why not let one guide the other?”

“And so?”

“Do you know the saying they have here, that a clever man’s folly is worth double a fool’s? They are both dead; I had it by letter this morning, and I have been sitting here since this afternoon. Here’s to O’Hara; here’s to Miss Dawson; here’s to Eblis!”

Strickland raised his glass. I took it away from him— he was not fit for much resistance— and bundled him into an ekka and saw him home. Black Sorrow is all very well in the evening, but in the morning comes Work, and it is not good to pass too quickly from one to the other.

It was a queer tale, and I would have liked to get to the bottom of it. But Strickland, as I have said, does not talk— not when he is feeling himself. And his friends, being his friends, do not pry. So I heard no more of it. There were other affairs to think of. McLaren’s wife ran off with a lieutenant in the --th dragoons. McLaren stalked up and down the Mall for an afternoon with a revolver, swearing he would kill him, and then shot Sedgewick, of the White Hussars, for consolation, and under the theory that one cavalryman is much like another. I have known a good many cavalrymen, and I believe it, but it is not good law, and McLaren went to the gallows; that took up about a month. After that there was something else. Simla is always diverting.

It was nearly two years later that I found myself in Calcutta on business. It was a tedious affair with lawyers in it on both sides; it does not come into this story. I had stopped in at the telegraph office to send a wire. In front of me was a woman who was telling the clerk, very slowly and distinctly, the name of Strickland at Simla. She stood straight as a drill-sergeant, and her eyes had that look in them that says: “We have seen the Hills, and seek evermore the dark blue edges of things.” The man with her was young and very handsome, though he looked thin and strained, as if he was getting over fever. I asked him how the two of them knew Strickland of the police.

“I think it must be another Strickland you mean. My name is Kennedy,” said he, “and the lady is my sister.”

“Your name is O’Hara,” I said, “and the lady is Miss Dawson, and both of you are dead— so Strickland tells it.”

“I fear you are mistaken,” said the man, but his face moved, ever so slightly, and his hand wandered lightly in the direction of his waistcoat pocket.

“Let’s go discuss it in private,” I said. “And when we’ve talked it over, you can stab me if you please.”

We went to the Navy Club, and after a few minutes of conversation, O’Hara (for it was he) took his hand from his waistcoat pocket, and Miss Dawson (for it was she) began to tell the story.

“We went through Peshawar, and hired camels and carriers and so forth, and then we went into the Hills. That is hard country,” she said, and rubbed her hands. I noticed that her left little finger was missing, quite neatly, at the joint. She followed my eyes.

“That was my fault,” she said. “Experience is the best teacher, but he charges one dear.”

“Then we went on to Kashgar, and when the bearers turned back, we hired new ones— they are Chinese Turks in those parts, but they know the Koran and we got by in Arabic. After that was the desert, with wells every four days, and a city every month: rock desert, like an enormous ash-heap, with a few thorn-trees for scale.”

“It was at Tun-Huang that the real fun started,” put in O’Hara. “We had been hearing all up and down the road that there was a party of Russians in the country with us— that is the way of the desert road, rumors go up and down it like telegrams. But they were always three or four days ahead of us, till we came to the monasteries and found them there. They were antiquarians, or so they said.”

“Kozlov was, whatever else he may have been up to,” said Miss Dawson. “But the other two were something else. They tried to hide it by talking Russian, but I heard Zaitsev speaking to a native one day, under a statue of Amitabha; he was asking what country he was king of, and whether his soldiers had good rifles.”

O’Hara chuckled.

“We should have let them be cheated,” he said. “They deserved it.”

“Kozlov didn’t,” said Miss Dawson, “And anyway I didn’t think. It was at one of the smaller monasteries; we were buying up some manuscripts, and the Russians were bidding against us. They spent money like water— I suppose it was the Tsar’s. There was a rather good copy of the Heart Sutra which I dearly wanted for the British Museum. You know, I suppose, how hard it is to make a name for oneself. And this trip was my one chance, for I don’t have the money to come out here again. The learned societies don’t back failures— or women. But ‘all things are full of emptiness’,” she quoted with a laugh.

“The pity of it was, I’d seen it before. Stein’s expedition had a torn-out scrap of the Heart Sutra, and he printed it in his book— his book, that I had carried through a thousand miles of wilderness. It was the same page, down to a clumsy crookedness in one of the strokes. I hated that crookedness, as one learns to hate a fellow-traveler on the steamer who can’t be gotten rid of until the journey ends. But there was no chance I was mistaken.”

“I should have let them buy it, but I didn’t. I told Kozlov it was a forgery, said so in French, quite plainly. The other two didn’t say anything, just looked the Turks up and down for a second, and I thought they hadn’t understood me. Then Zaitsev pulled out a revolver and shot one of them in the throat, calm as if he were throwing skittles on the green on Sunday morning, and I ran off and hid in the baggage.”

“Hid next to the rifles,” O’Hara said. “And hit your man, too. But it was the most awful tamasha. I lost my head and ran for one of the caves. Zaitsev killed another of the forgers, and then someone shot him in the head and the Russians bolted like rabbits.”

He spoke so plausibly that I nearly believed him.

“After that I decided we had better die for a while. Zaitsev was about my height, and my build, and it was a lucky turn he’d been shot in the head; his own mother couldn’t have made out his face from what was left of it. I swapped my kit with his”— he went through the grisly particulars with no particular emphasis— “and I broke the saddle-girths on Miss Dawson’s mule and ran it off toward the desert; there was no woman’s body, you understand, so she must have tried to get away and fallen off somewhere and died of thirst.”

They had come back through China. O’Hara had not thought the road across the desert a healthy one, with so many eyes watching it. They walked through Kansu peddling a string of broken-down horses, O’Hara in a Turk’s robes and Miss Dawson as his sister, with a veil over her face. At Chungking they had sold the horses for passage on a Yangtze riverboat. Somewhere along the river, O’Hara had become a monk with a shaven head and Miss Dawson a leper, hiding her blue eyes under a white silk mask. From there they had gotten down to Shanghai and gone on board the BI steamer.

“And we alone are escaped to tell thee,” Miss Dawson concluded, “With no scrolls, and no maps, and no pictures. And I shall go Home, and marry, and try not to be troublesome.”

“Just is the Wheel of Things,” said O’Hara, but he said it with sympathy. “You had better go and see about your trunks for the voyage; I’ll be along in a moment to say goodbye.”

“There are things I haven’t told her— still,” he said.
“I had guessed as much,” I said.

“Had you? Well, here’s one of them.” He reached into his coat again and pulled out a thin metal tube, from which he drew a parchment scroll. He spread it upon the table. It was written over with Chinese characters, and in the center was Sakyamuni, seated among his disciples. Spirits and demons of the three thousand worlds attended him; lions sat calmly at his feet.

“See here, how he raises his hand to brush away the Six Senses? And here the half-smile that means Enlightenment?”
“It is master’s work,” I said.
“Master’s? A saint’s work, more like! A kingdom’s wealth would buy it— if saints wanted such things.”
“What did you pay for it?”
“Me? Nothing— A man’s life. The forgers had it, as a model for their copies. I don’t think they knew what it was.”
“And you mean to give it to her?”
“So I should, and so I always meant. But I wonder, if I asked her instead—”

He was a young man, and very handsome.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “She will never be quite happy except as a scholar; one does not harness a polo pony to an ox-cart.”
“I’ve heard the same before,” said O’Hara.
“And was it true then?”
“It was. Ah, but a friend’s words make for weeping, a foe’s for laughter.”

I recognized the border-proverb and nodded.

“Take the scroll, then, and give it to her, and wish her a safe voyage home.”
“Can’t you tell her yourself?”
“Oh,” he said airily, “I don’t care to. I have business to get on with; I fancy Strickland will want my news, and one or two others— and there are men who think themselves safe, between here and the Border, who will wish me deader than I am before the week is out.”

“Stay,” I said, for even O’Hara could not quite carry off such a lie— no man can, till he has seen his thirtieth year, and I placed him about twenty-five.

“The Wheel turns,” he said, and grinned. “And the wants of men and women weigh very lightly upon it. The scroll could teach you as much, if you could read it— but I learned the same lessons in another school, and that was a long time ago.”