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TO THE TRUE AUTHOR,
THE INSPIRER OF THIS WORK,
IT IS DEDICATED.
The ensuing pages contain a story which has been told in all ages and among every people. It is the tragedy of the Soul. Attracted by Desire, the ruling element in the lower nature of Man, it stoops to sin; brought to itself by suffering, it turns for help to the redeeming Spirit within; and in the final sacrifice achieves its apotheosis and sheds a blessing on mankind.
Behold I stood alone, one among many, an isolated individual in the midst of a united crowd. And I was alone, because, among all the men my brethren who knew, I alone was the man who both knew and taught. I taught the believers at the gate, and was driven to do this by the power that dwelleth in the sanctuary. I had no escape, for in that deep darkness of the most sacred shrine, I beheld the light of the inner life, and was driven to reveal it, and by it was I upheld and made strong. For indeed, although I died, it took ten priests of the temple to accomplish my death, and even then they but ignorantly thought themselves powerful.
Ere my beard had become a soft down upon my chin I entered the gates of the temple to begin my noviciate in the order of the priesthood.
My parents were shepherds outside the city. I had never but once entered within the city walls until the day my mother took me to the gate of the temple. It was a feast day in the city, and my mother, a frugal and industrious woman, thus fulfilled two purposes by her journey. She took me to my destination, and then she departed to enjoy a brief holiday amid the sights and scenes of the city.
I was enthralled by the crowds and noises of the streets. I think my nature was always one that strove to yield itself to the great whole of which it was such a small part—and by yielding itself, to draw back into it the sustenance of life.
But out of the bustling throng we soon turned. We entered upon a broad, green plain upon the further side of which ran our sacred, beloved river. How plainly I behold that scene still! On the banks of the water I saw the sculptured roofs and glittering ornaments of the temple and its surrounding buildings shining in the clear morning air. I had no fear, for I had no definite expectations. But I wondered much whether life within those gates was as beautiful a thing as it seemed to me it must be.
At the gate stood a black-robed novice speaking to a woman from the city, who carried flasks of water which she urgently prayed one of the priests to bless. She would then have for sale a precious burden—a thing paid dearly for by the superstitious populace.
I peeped through the gate as we stood waiting for our turn of speech, and beheld a sight that struck me with awe. That awe lasted a long time, even when I had entered into almost hourly familiarity with the figure which so impressed me.
It was one of the white-robed priests, pacing slowly down the broad avenue towards the gate. I had never seen one of those white-robed priests before, save on the single occasion when I had before visited the city. I then had seen several upon the sacred boat in the midst of a river procession.
But now this figure was near me, approaching me—I held my breath.
The air was indeed very still, but those stately white garments looked, as the priest moved beneath the shadow of the avenue, as if no earthly breeze could stir them. His step had the same equable character. He moved, but it seemed scarcely as though he walked in the fashion that other and impetuous mortals walk. His eyes were bent on the ground, so that I could not see them; and, indeed, I dreaded the raising of those drooping lids. His complexion was fair, and his hair of a dull gold color. His beard was long and full, but it had the same strangely immovable, almost carven look, to my fancy. I could not imagine it blown aside. It seemed as though cut in gold, and made firm for eternity. The whole man impressed me thus—as a being altogether removed from the ordinary life of man.
The novice looked around, his notice attracted probably by my intense gaze, for no sound reached my ears from the priest’s footfall. “Ah!” he said, “here is the holy priest Agmahd, I will ask him.”
Closing the gate behind him, he drew back, and we saw him speak to the priest, who bowed his head slightly. The man returned, and taking the water flasks from the woman carried them to the priest, who laid his hand for a second upon them.
She took them again with profuse thanks, and then we were asked our business.
I was soon left alone with the black-robed novice. I was not sorry though considerably awed. I had never cared much for my old task of tending my father’s sheep, and of course I was already filled with the idea that I was about to become something different from the common herd of men. This idea will carry poor human nature through severer trials even than that of leaving one’s home forever and entering finally upon a new and untried course of life.
The gate swung to behind me, and the black-robed man locked it with a great key that hung to his waist. But the action gave me no sense of imprisonment,—only a consciousness of seclusion and separateness. Who could associate imprisonment with a scene such as that which lay before me?
The temple doors were facing the gate, at the other end of a broad and beautiful avenue. It was not a natural avenue formed by trees planted in the ground, and luxuriating in a growth of their own choosing. It was formed by great tubs of stone, in which were planted shrubs of enormous size, but evidently trimmed and guided most carefully into the strange shapes they formed. Between each shrub was a square block of stone, upon which was a carven figure. Those figures nearest the gate I saw to be sphinxes and great animals with human heads but afterwards I did not dare raise my eyes to gaze curiously upon them; for I saw again approaching us, in the course of his regular walk to and fro, the golden-bearded priest Agmahd.
Walking on by the side of my guide, I kept my eyes upon the ground. When he paused I paused, and found that my eyes fell upon the hem of the priest’s white robe. That hem was delicately embroidered with golden characters: it was enough to absorb my attention and fill me with wonder for a while.
“A new novice?” I heard a very quiet and sweet voice say. “Well, take him into the school; he is but a youth yet. Look up, boy; do not fear.”
I looked up, thus encouraged, and encountered the gaze of the priest. His eyes, I saw, even then in my embarrassment, were of changing color—blue and gray. But, soft-hued though they were, they did not give me the encouragement which I had heard in his voice. They were calm indeed: full of knowledge: but they made me tremble.
He dismissed us with a movement of his hand, and pursued his even walk down the grand avenue; while I, more disposed to tremble than I had been before, followed silently my silent guide. We entered the great central doorway of the temple, the sides of which were formed of immense blocks of uncut stone. I suppose a fit of something like fear must have come upon me, after the inquisition of the holy priest’s eyes; for I regarded these blocks of stone with a vague sense of terror.
Within I saw that from the central doorway, a passage proceeded in a long direct line with the avenue through the building. But that was not our way. We turned aside and entered upon a network of smaller corridors, and passed through some small bare rooms upon our way.
We entered at last a large and beautiful room. I say beautiful, though it was entirely bare and unfurnished, save for a table at one corner. But its proportions were so grand, and its structure so elegant, that even my eye, unaccustomed to discern architectural beauties, was strangely impressed, with a sense of satisfaction.
At the table in the corner sat two other youths, copying or drawing, I could not quite see what. At all events I saw they were very busy, and I wondered that they scarcely raised their heads to observe our entrance. But, advancing, I perceived that behind one of the great stone projections of the wall, there sat an aged white-robed priest, looking at a book which lay upon his knee.
He did not notice us until my guide stood deferentially bowing right in front of him.
“A new pupil?” he said, and looked keenly at me out of his dim, bleared-looking eyes. “What can he do?”
“Not much I fancy,” said my guide, speaking of me in an easy tone of contempt. “He has been but a shepherd lad.”
“A shepherd lad,” echoed the old priest; “he will be no use here, then. He had best work in the garden. Have you ever learned to draw or copy writing?” he asked, turning upon me.
I had been taught these things as far as might be, but such accomplishments were rare, except in the priestly schools and among the small cultivated classes outside the priesthood.
The old priest looked at my hands, and turned back to his book.
“He must learn some time,” he said; “but I am too full of work now to teach him. I want more to help me in my work; but with these sacred writings that have to be closed now, I cannot stay to instruct the ignorant. Take him to the garden for a while at least, and I will see about him by-and-by.”
My guide turned away and walked out of the room. With a last look around, at its beautiful appearance, I followed him.
I followed him down a long, long passage, which was cool and refreshing in its darkness. At the end was a gate instead of a door, and here my guide rang a loud bell.
We waited in silence after the bell had rung. No one came, and presently my guide rang the bell again. But I was in no hurry. With my face pressed against the bars of the gate, I looked forth into a world so logical, that I thought to myself, “It will be no ill to me if the blear-eyed priest does not want to take me from the garden yet a while!”
It had been a dusty hot walk from our home to the city, and there the paved streets had seemed to my country-bred feet infinitely wearisome. Within the gates of the temple I had as yet only passed down the grand avenue, where everything filled me so deeply, with awe, that I scarce dared look upon it. But here was a world of delicate and refreshing glory. Never had I seen a garden like this. There was greenness, deep greenness; there was a sound of water, the murmuring of gentle water under control, ready to do service for man and refresh in the midst of the burning heat which called the magnificence of color and grand development of form into the garden.
A third time the bell rang—and then I saw, coming from among the great green leaves, a black-robed figure. How strangely out of place did the black dress look here! and I thought with consternation that I should also be clothed in those garments before long, and should wander among the voluptuous beauties of this magical place like a strayed creature from a sphere of darkness.
The figure approached, brushing, with its coarse . . ., like the delicate foliage. I gazed with a sudden awakening of interest upon the face of the man who drew near, and into whose charge I supposed I was to be committed. And well I might; for it was a face to awake interest in any human breast.
“What is it?” asked the man querulously, as he looked at us through the gate. “I sent fruit and to spare into the kitchen this morning. And I can give you no more flowers to-day; all I have to pluck will be wanted for the procession to-morrow.”
“I am not wanting your fruit or your flowers,” said my guide, who seemed fond of adopting a lofty tone. “I have brought you a new pupil, that’s all.”
He unlocked the gate, motioned me to pass through, and shutting it behind me, walked away down the long corridor (which now, looking back from the garden seemed so dark) without another word.
“A new pupil for me! And what am I to teach you, child of the country?” I gazed upon the strange man in silence. How could I tell what he was to teach me?
“Is it the mysteries of the growth of the plants you are to learn?—or the mysteries of the growth of sin and deceit? Nay, child, look not so upon me, but ponder my words and you will by-and-by understand them. Now, come with me, and fear not.”
He took my hand and led me under the tall-leaved plants towards the sound of water. How exquisite it seemed to my ears, that soft, bright, musical rhythm!
“Here is the home of our Lady the Lotus,” said the man. “Sit down here and look upon her beauty while I work; for I have much to do that you cannot help me in.”
Nothing loth, indeed, was I to sink upon the green grass and only look—look in amazement—in wonder—in awe!
That water—that delicate-voiced water—lived only to feed the queen of flowers. I said to myself, thou art indeed the Queen of all flowers imaginable.
THE WHITE LOTUS.
And as I gazed dreamingly in my youthful enthusiasm upon this white bloom which seemed to me, with its soft, gold-dusted heart, the very emblem of pure, romantic love—as I gazed the flower seemed to change in shape—to expand—to rise towards me. And lo, drinking at the stream of sweet sounding water, stooping to take its refreshing drops upon her lips, I beheld a woman of fair skin with hair like the dust of gold. Amazed, I looked and strove to move towards her, but ere I could make any effort my whole consciousness left me, and, I suppose, I must have swooned away. For, indeed, the next that I can recall I lay upon the grass, with the sense of cool water upon my face, and opening my eyes, I beheld the black-robed, strange faced gardener leaning over me.
“Was the heat too much for thee?” he asked, his brow knit in perplexity. “Thou lookest a strong lad to faint for the heat, and that, moreover, in a cool place like this.”
“Where is she?” was my only reply, as I attempted to rise upon my elbow and look towards the lily bed.
“What!” cried the man his whole countenance changing, and assuming a look of sweetness that I should never have supposed could appear upon a face so naturally unbeautiful. “Hast thou seen her? But no—I am hasty in supposing it. What have you seen boy?—do not hesitate to tell me.”
The gentleness of his expression helped my scattered and startled senses to collect themselves. I told him what I had seen and, as I spoke, I looked towards the lily bed, hoping, indeed, that the fair woman might again stoop to slake her thirst at the streamlet.
The manner of my strange teacher gradually changed as I spoke to him. When I ceased describing the beautiful woman with the enthusiasm of a boy who has never seen any but his own dusky-skinned race, he fell upon his knees beside me.
“Thou hast seen her!” he said in a voice of deep excitement. “All hail! for thou art destined to be a teacher among us—a help to the people—thou art a seer!”
Bewildered by his words, I only looked upon him in silence. After a moment I grew terrified, for I began to think he must be mad. I looked around, wondering whether I could return to the temple and escape from him. But even as I debated within myself whether to venture upon this, he rose and turned upon me with the singular sweet smile, which appeared to cover and hide the ugliness of his strongly marked features.
“Come with me,” he said; and I rose and followed him. We passed through the garden which was so full of attractions for my wandering eyes that I loitered on my path behind him. Ah, such sweet flowers; such rich purples and deep-hearted crimson. Difficult I found it not to pause and inhale the sweetness of each fair-faced blossom, though still they seemed to me, in my so recent adoration of its beauty, to but reflect the supreme exquisiteness of the white lotus flower.
We went towards a gate in the temple: a different one from that by which I had entered the garden. As we approached it, there issued forth two priests clad in the same white linen robes as I had seen worn by the golden-bearded priest Agmahd. These men were dark; and though they moved with a similar stateliness and equilibrium, as though indeed, they were the most firmly rooted growth of the earth, yet to my eyes they lacked a something which the priest Agmahd possessed—a certain perfection of calm and assuredness. They were younger than he, I soon saw; perhaps therein lay the difference. My dark-visaged teacher drew them aside, leaving me to stand in the pleasant shadow of the deep-arched doorway. He spoke to them excitedly, though evidently with reverence; while they, listening with quick interest, glanced ever and anon towards me.
Presently they came to me, and the black-robed man turned and moved over the grass, as though returning on the way we had come together. The white-clad priests, advancing under the doorway, spoke together in low whispers. When they reached me they motioned me to follow them, and I did so: passing through cool, high-roofed corridors and gazing idly, as was always a foolish habit of mine, upon everything I passed; while they, still whispering together as they preceded me, would now and then cast looks upon me, the meaning of which I could not understand.
Presently they turned out of the corridors, and entered into a large room similar to the one I had already seen where the old priest was instructing his copyists. This was divided by an embroidered curtain which fell in majestic folds from the lofty roof to the ground. I always loved beautiful things, and I noticed how, as it touched the ground, it stood firm with the stiffness of the rich gold work upon it.
One of the priests advanced, and drawing back one side of the curtain a little, I heard him say —
“My lord, may I enter?”