BY THE WESTERN CHELA
The winds of a cheerless winter day had whirled and twirled snow-wreaths through the air until the world seemed wrapped in fleecy clouds.
The space above and below man's feet was all white, all glistening with crystal flakes that multiplied themselves in endless forms and nestled on the earth like a gossamer pall. It was winter, and winter in a climate inhospitable and bitter even in its best aspects; winter in the north, where the bleak blasts were far too many and the warmth of summer tarried not long. This day there seemed to have been united the disagreeableness of many snowstorms, and the leaden look of the early dawn had justified the predictions of the weather-wise that there was likelihood of a strong blow from the polar regions. It came duly, and thick and fast, the pretty down kissed the cold earth and sank out of sight in its absorbing embrace. At first this was the case, but by-and-by the old mother weary of a repetition of such visits, returned them no more, and the little messengers gathered together on her breast, closely packing themselves, until she was entirely hidden from view and there was no more of her brown self visible to man, The world was decked in snow and he sky seemed never to weary of sifting it through space, and covering with its purity all the dark spots and uncanny lines of the city streets and byways.
It was a day for meditation and dreams, a time for the restful to rest, the serene to find repose in their inner selves, safe from the interruptions of daily life without. For the contented, it was a day of peace and communion with better thoughts than could be invoked when the cares and the duties of the world interposed.
And it was the opportunity for the soul to assert itself, and speak in no uncertain tones through the thick walls of sense which entirely deadened its voice many days at a time.
In that vast city which the snow had claimed for its own, there was one soul which looked out through her slight casement upon the scenes of life, and rejoiced in the outward storm that gave such a prospect of inner calm. The tenement which enshrined that soul was slight indeed, and it trembled before the strength of the wind — as evidenced by the noise at the windows and about the entries. Gazing wistfully out upon the scene until giddiness caused the eyes to close and the heart to sigh in regret, thoughts of the hungry poor who were crowded in unwholesome habitations, of little children whose tender flesh was pinched and quivering, whose woes would be intensified by the presence of the visitant so beautiful to look upon, so hard to entertain unless greeted with warmth and cheer at the hearthstone, crowded the busy brain and caused the clasped hands to tighten in pain. Regrets which, worse than vain, are always weakening and distressing were not long harboured, for there was work for fingers and mind, and there were tasks unperformed awaiting attention. But whether it was the effects of the storm upon a highly strung nature or the sense of the helplessness that followed a realization of human suffering which could not be averted, the hands could not write, the brain refused to act and the passive mind lapsed into a reverie which seemed likely to deepen into slumber. It might have been a midday sleep, but it was not destined so to be. While yet the drooping eyelids hovered near together and the parted lips offered no impediment to the deep respiration of the half-reclining form, a mysterious something roused the dormant senses, and, as would a stroke of lightning, changed the recumbent position to one of upright, eager expectancy.
There was another presence in the room; of this there could be no doubt; but whose? and from whence had it come? and how? The closed door had not been moved, and there was no sound through all the chambers and halls, echoing the tread of feet or reverberating to the tones of human voice. Profound was the stillness, save for the soft "tick, tick" of snowflakes upon the windowpanes, and the shrill whistle of an occasion gust which swept itself through inviting crevices, or expended its force in a sudden dash around the corners of the streets. Within, the stillness, deep and almost mystic, was suddenly startled by the broken exclamation of the dreamer, thus strangely greeted with a vision so vivid to sense, but so dim to comprehension.
What a picture has presented itself! There stands in the space but a moment before vacant, the form of an eastern sage — graceful in bearing, benevolent of countenance, and earnest in the look he bends upon the wondering face before him. In one hand he carries a book-like parchment, and over his arm is thrown the white robe that falls on the opposite side almost if not quite to the floor. Long flowing hair mantles his shoulders, and on his feet are the sandals of the East. Perhaps it is the small staff of some brown wood he carries which emits so delicious and pungent an odour, for all the atmosphere is filled with fragrance and the senses are gratefully soothed.
Standing quite unconscious of having done aught to surprise any one, and gently speaking to his listener, he is the most delightful picture of repose one could well imagine. The yellow Tibetan bodice worn under his long drapery, shines through the fold above it, and the Himalayan fur that circles its edge glints with light as he slightly moves his position in the gentle excitement of speech. His manner, at once so dignified and polished, reassures his listener, who now thoroughly alive to the strangeness of the presence, is wholly at ease, and so astonished at the words falling from his lips that attention is held fixed lest one should be unheeded. The voice, so soft and low, was heard for the first time. There was about it a musical cadence which echoed the words as they came from his lips; it was as though they were spoken from afar and were repeated through space.
"Strange phantom, freak of fancy perhaps", was the thought he saw photographed on the brain of his listener, and instantly he pointed to the wall above him, when there appeared sentence in quaint script, which translated, reads thus: — "There is no charity in the West for the unknown doctrine".
"What is the unknown doctrine?" quickly queried the comprehending mind.
The stranger smiling, answered, "It is the essence of all doctrines, the inner truth of all religions — creedless, nameless, untaught by priests, because it is of the spirit and not to be found in temple or synagogue. It is the still small voice heard in the whirlwind and felt in the storm. You involuntarily appealed to me, something stronger than yourself, to care for the helpless and house the homeless. Your heart breathed its prayer; your soul registered it in the atmosphere about you; and the spirit was refreshed by so pure a breath wafted from the lower kingdom to the higher; from the body to the soul and thence to the region of spirits".
And continuing, he taught the mystery of man's being, his origin, his growth, his destiny, in the words of these pages. The teacher came again and often, and instructed the willing pupil from the writings of the ancient volume guarded so tenderly. He taught the laws of life in language so wise that the conviction of the highest truth filtered through the reverent mind so singularly chosen for instruction. The lessons were given from evening to evening with unchanging patience on the part of the strange preceptor; and with gentle suasion he instilled and developed the intuition to grasp the higher knowledge offered for acceptance. With varying success his work was accomplished. Weeks passed away while the mysterious master returned whenever opportunity offered, and explained things wise and deep, whereof the pupil hardly comprehended the sense. The routine matters of the day which absorb the best part of nearly every life, many times obtruded themselves, and there were delays and interruptions which sadly interfered with the weird instruction.
One day there was an end to all this. The master came no more. The doubt and misgivings, the unrest and illusions of the worldly mind, defeated his best endeavours, and he saw the futility of trying to train in wisdom nature divided against itself at every point.
But he did not forsake his charge; he sent a messenger, a youth from his own hand, who taught the mystic lore with careful purpose and kind intent, but the duty, it was easy to see, was not to him what it had been to his master.
The realization of this fact was often borne in upon the mind of the learner, and one day as if in answer to the thought, he directed attention to the opposite wall where, as by magic, there appeared upon the white surface in shining letters this aphorism: —
"The test of true apprenticeship is fidelity to another's interest".
Unselfish obedience to his master's wishes, in other words, was
the way to growth and development for him, and thus the riddle of his
presence against his personal wishes was solved. He smilingly
admitted the correctness of this conclusion and when he had gained
the further confidence of his charge, the youth solved many riddles,
the elucidation of which imperceptibly lifted the soul of the
instructed one and planted aspirations which were high and good.
A day came when his visits ceased, and nothing was left to compensate for the disappointment, save an assurance that, in a foreign land and distant, the master awaited his pupil's coming, and that there the lessons would be resumed and the writings completed.
Should a spectre be obeyed?
To tread the path the airy fingers pointed, was to dissolve ties not lightly to be severed, to ignore worldly considerations deemed of the utmost moment, and to surrender self-will to an extent which no one could understand without a betrayal of the whole matter. And what the world would say to such an avowal the pupil knew too well. True, that the powers, goodness, wisdom and sincerity of the Magi of the East and their messenger, were felt to the innermost fibres of the pupil's being; true, that all grateful was that heart, and earnest the mind; true, whatever else was false, that more beautiful and ennobling sentiments had never been enjoyed than those given by these mystic teachers.
Strange that hesitation, and fear, and moral cowardice should shadow a life so singularly brightened and developed! Strange, that so cruel a poison as doubt, should rankle in the soul of the neophyte.
Alas! how many trusting souls have been wrecked by the same sin. How many fair hopes and golden dreams have been engulfed in the black night it creates. What a desert waste of sunny heart-climes! What death in life; what disappointment and despair it is able to produce!
At first it came as an occasional mystery obtruding its stifling presence when other things engrossed the busy mind; and its existence was barely recognized, and then ignored. Repeatedly it returned until it came to be looked upon as an undesirable guest whose visit was ill-timed and unwarranted, but whose legitimate claims upon hospitality had been established on many another occasion. The guest who has once been cordially invited is ever a possible blessing or a threatening menace; a comer who is sure nevertheless, and who must be received however welcome's warmth has abated.
Doubt, cruel and cold, held court in the neophyte's castle, and only loyalty to the past was strong enough to resist its insidious advances and scorn implied insinuations.
Did the heart bleed? the pain of the wound was great; but greater far was the sense of unworthiness that succeeded any recollection of teacher or teachings; of glorious possibilities now blighted. For ever? So far as human judgment could decide — yes; so far as the clear sense of intuition could feel — no, a thousand times no!
But the ebb-tide of hope was setting in, the nightshade of despair stayed all day with the once enthusiastic pupil. The world and its absorptions lost much of their importance in eyes weary with unshed tears, and dulled by the intensity of suppressed emotions. And who could give comfort in such a crisis? Only he who had taken away with his presence that follow peace of mind which the world gives and which the world not often values highly. The struggle, silent at first, waxed bitter, and intenser grew the sense of loss of the calm-hour visitors, who had so entirely and so inexplicably abandoned the lonely worker.
The aching heart bowed itself prostrate before the storm within; the physical strength sank; the well springs of energy and endeavour seemed sapped at their fountain head; and beside its own dead-sea fruit, new doubts tortured the soul, sorrowing for sustenance, faint with hunger and famished for water.
Memory-loosing soul! Why has the promise of the sage been forgotten? Why in all this battle with self has the master's instruction been ignored? In a foreign clime you may find him who you have lost and rejoice again in the presence of those who have been sent by him. "Courage", whispered the heart, and whispering, wakened the fast dying aspirations of the spirit. But doubt was a guest in that mental mansion, and with the freedom of an old and familiar visitor it came at will and stayed uninterruptedly.
Winter passed, and Springtime came to gladden the earth with reminders of summer. The flowers struggle through the still, cold earth and the early birds sang hurried notes in the chilled morning air. The voice of rivulets was heard in their lonely beds and the faint notes of young lambs came from the covered folds on the hillsides. It was spring in the country and spring in the city; spring where the little schoolchildren sought the wood violets in sunny roadside nooks; and spring where the few trees, permitted to give sign of its presence, were decked with verdure.
In the city it is the saddest time of all the twelvemonth, for it is spring, and yet spring is not there in all its beauty and varied associations, in its vivifying life-giving attributes, or pleasing anticipations.
It was spring in young hearts and spring in hopeful ones; inspiring spring, full of promise and expectancy of joy un-enjoyed, and pleasure not tasted. And its subtle influence was abroad, magnetizing every twig and growing shrub, every hedge and every little water-covered plant. The renewal of Nature's strength was seen in all visible things and felt in the labyrinthine intricacies of human hearts. Some natures renew their strength with each returning spring; grow young with sight of the beginnings of life in the vegetable kingdom; and sad are they who know no such rejuvenations of heart, no such reincarnations of youthful feelings and inspirations.
One there was in the great city whose heart's door was closed to the sweet whisperings of spring, whose best self was still wrapped in its winter shadow; in the sanctuary of which no music echoed, no happiness penetrated. It was a continual winter to the poor student, who, giving hospitality to doubt, was driven to entertain despair, and with two such guests at home how could peace or beauty be found abroad. None knew the inward misery, none brought the argand lamp to replace the poor rush light which dimly lighted the path "shadowed with darkness and guarded by despair". And the "still small voice" whispered on, though the clogged mind heard but rarely, and the soul seemed wrapped in a long sleep.
Would it ever wake?
Would the harp once touched by the fingers of a master ever be wholly discordant again? Would the melody be silent in the Aeolian harp swaying unseen in low green boughs? Could the soul once alive to the secret of the inner temple, the Holy of Holies, forget its own divinity and become again the sordid thing it had been in its ignorance? Could the aspiring pupil who had once heard the master's voice be lost to its power and think no more of its tones? A bowed head is bending over the writings preserved as sacred treasurers; the weary heart is sobbing a wail of woe upon the evening air, a longing soul is struggling to emerge from its tenement to express itself once more, while the listening spirit, breathless with attention, hears the heart, and mind, and soul, unite in one mad passionate appeal for help. The cry went up shrill, and loud, and deep, and reverberated in the night-wind over the hills and far away.
The gathered strength had expended itself. The excitement of that moment was followed by a forced, unnatural calm, foreboding ill to the overstrung, exhausted frame.
Will rescue come?
The form is still, but is so because the agony is unendurable. Not death, but total darkness must follow, unless the madly reckless being is snatched from the fate impending.
Must oblivion end all? Is there no pitying power at hand to quiet the frenzied brain? to renew the feeble breath?
Hark! back again like the low soft sigh of a sleeping babe, when disturbed by its unconscious intensity of thought, that cry is echoed. Not with the piercing energy with which it was sent, is it returned, but with a murmuring sound that fell on the weary senses like a tone from bells rung on a high mountain, and heard in the distant valley below. Following it there came a note, clear and sweet, and wondrously like the voice silent so long, "Come".
The call could not be misunderstood.
The listener hears; springs up with head erect, lips glowing with heat, eyes flaming with light; and gathering strength in every fibre of the quivering, panting frame, sends it forth again in an exultant shout: —
"Master! I come! thy will be done!"