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DARJEELING
Beyond Siliguri, where we left the main line, a little toy railway, going very slowly, jostles the travellers across rice plantations and woods of giant trees, under whose shade tree-ferns expand on the banks of the streams. By the side of the water springs are hung prayers written on strips of rice-paper that flutter in the wind from the shrubs and bamboos, mingling with the blossoms of rhododendron and funkia, spots of bright colour showing against the forest of mighty cedars and sycamores and gloomy palms. Clinging to the highest branches, orchids like birds are to be seen, and from bush to bush hang bright green threads covered with white stars, tangled into hanks and hooked on to every thorn. The vegetation of banyans, ph?nix, and other tropical plants gradually becomes mixed with oak, box, and plane trees, and then disappears altogether as we get higher; and presently, as we pass through a belt of great dark firs, the shrubs, the mosses, and even the flowers are those of Europe. Higher up, the mountain side is mapped out into lines and squares, green and russet, looking from a distance[Pg 146] like ribbed velvet; these are the tea plantations. The horizon grows broader, spreading away and out of sight towards the vision-like mountains forming the outposts of the Himalayas; up to the very verge of the eternal snows they are cultivated in the same rib-like strips, all tea plantations; and amid the shrubs are the little factories where the precious leaves are dried, and villages of little homesteads lost among the greenery, or peeping through the opalescent haze, intensely blue under the pure, cold sky and crude sunshine. The natives here wear skins with the fur inside; the leather outside is patterned with red or blue cloth. Men and women alike go about in felt boots, which give them an unsteady and straddling gait.

Above Darjeeling—a modern and fashionable health-resort, a town of villas, for the most part with corrugated iron roofs—hangs a dense mist, cutting off the horizon at a distance of a few miles; and through the dull substance of this fleece, at an impossible height, there was a reflection—a mirage, an illusion, a brighter gleam, a bluer shadow, which might be the top of a mountain; but so high up, so far away, and above all so transient, that it failed to fix itself on the memory, blotted out at once by the pallid wall that shut[Pg 147] in the scene. But at sunset one thickness of the haze melted away, unveiling, leagues on leagues away, a chain of giant mountains, not yet the snowy peaks, but bright-hued cliffs on which gold and purple mingled in symphonies before dying into violet, turning to blue in the moonlight; and the mists fell once more—a shroud at our feet, an abyss of shadows, in which the tea-planters' lamps twinkled through the darkness.

In the sleeping town of Darjeeling a bell and drum were sounding to announce the Tibetan Christmas. The Brahmin paradise remained invisible and mysterious behind a clear sky studded with stars.

Next morning—so far, so high on the horizon! I saw a pink spot; then, as day broke, the rose colour spread—broader, lower, turned paler, then to white, and the Himalayas lay before me in blinding glory of size and light. Kinchinjunga, at a measureless distance, looked in the clear air as if it were quite close; and round the sovereign giant other giants rent their wrappings of cloud, an amphitheatre of peaks of dazzling whiteness lost against the sky, and almost insensibly fading away behind the vapour that rolled up from the abysses, grew[Pg 148] thicker, and settled into a compact mass over the lost summits, hiding the nearer heights and shrouding Darjeeling in opaque white fog.

Round a temple, with iron roofs ending in copper balls at the top, a crowd was watching, some seated on steps cut in the soil and some squatting on the hillside, here almost perpendicular. By the temple long white streamers, fluttering from bamboo poles, were covered with painted prayers. A Lama was enthroned in an armchair under an arbour of pine-branches; he wore a yellow robe, and above a face like a cat's he had a sort of brass hat surmounted by a coral knob; his little beard was quite white, and he turned his praying machine with a steady, dull movement, perfectly stolid. Two women stood by his side fanning him, dressed in close-fitting aprons of dark cloth bordered with a brighter shade, and opening over pale pink satin petticoats, on their heads crowns of flowers of every hue.

Four women and two men wearing masks stretched in a broad grimace—one of the men in a red satin robe edged with leopard-skin, while the other had a squalid white shirt, intentionally soiled, over all his clothes—then began to dance round the priest, stopping presently to spin very fast on one[Pg 149] spot, and the girls' skirts floated gracefully in heavy folds, showing their under-skirts of bright satin embroidered with silver and gold. One of these women, who were not satisfied with painting their faces, by way of adornment, on the nose and cheeks with blackened pig's blood, took off her mask, showing her whole face smeared with it. She and the man in the dirty shirt played a number of mountebank's tricks to the great delectation of the spectators, and she finished amid thunders of applause by seating herself on the Lama's knee and stroking his beard.

Cymbals and kettle-drums formed the orchestra, reinforced by the shrill cries and strident laughter of the spectators.

Whenever there was a pause in the dance the performers, to amuse themselves, sang a scale, always the same, beginning on a very high note, or sometimes taken up from the lowest bass pitch, and marking time with their stamping feet.

Far up the hill, and for a long time, the clanging brass and sharp cries followed me on my way all through the afternoon, and I could picture the dancing women, the Lama under his gleaming brass hat, turning his praying-wheel beneath his bower of branches and papers fluttering in the wind; and[Pg 150] not till dark did the whole party break up and go back to Darjeeling; the poorer women, on foot, all a little tipsy, danced a descending scale that ended occasionally in the ditch; the richer ladies, in thin dark satin robes with wide sleeves all embroidered in silk and gold, and their hair falling in plaits from beneath a fillet of red wood studded with large glass beads, fitting tightly to the head, rode astride on queer little horses, mostly of a dirty yellow colour, that carried them at a brisk amble. Their husbands, extremely attentive, escorted the dames, some of whom gave noisy evidence of the degree of intoxication they had reached. The least blessed had but one husband, or perhaps two; but the more fortunate had a following of as many as six eager attendants, whom they tormented with incessant scolding.

Off at four in the morning, led by a Mongol guide with a broad expressionless yellow face. My steed was a perfect little devil of a horse of a light coffee colour.

I rode to Tiger Hill. Overhead hung a dense mist, like a roof of shadow, perfectly still, wrapping us in damp and frightfully cold vapour. After two hours' ride in the darkness we reached our [Pg 151]destination. Suddenly the cloud fell like a curtain pulled down, the sky appeared, and then the earth at our feet became visible in the starlight. Some vestiges of a temple could be discerned among the grass—the foundations of enormous halls, and still standing in solitude, the brick chimneys in which the devout were wont to burn their prayers, written on rice-paper. Far away, in the transparent air, above a wall of grey cloud—the dull, dingy grey of dirty cotton-wool—a speck showed as a beacon of lilac light, of the hue and form of a cyclamen flower; this turned to rose, to brick-red, to warm gold colour, fading into silver; and then, against the blue sky, showed immaculately white. This was Gaurisankar—Mount Everest—the top of the world, appallingly high, inconceivably vast, though lost in the distance, and seen from a hillock three thousand metres above the sea.

After the giant a whole chain of lavender and rose-coloured peaks turning to blue came into sight in the marvellously clear atmosphere; then the sun rose below us, in the throbbing tide of heat the mountains seemed to come closer to us, but immediately the mist gathered about Gaurisankar. "The Apsaras wearing impenetrable veils, that mortals may not gaze too long on the throne of the gods,"[Pg 152] said my sa?s, who had fallen on his face since the first appearance of the snow-crowned colossus, with hands upraised towards the paradise of Indra.

For another minute the sublime ice-peak remained visible through the gauzy whiteness, and then a cloud rising from beyond the range descended on the heights and gradually enfolded the whole chain.

As we returned, vistas of unreal definiteness showed us endless valleys lost in the distance, and vast spaces cultivated in green and russet stripes—the tea plantations that spread below the now vanished splendour of the snows. At a turning in the road stands a cross, erected there in memory of an epidemic of suicide that broke out among the soldiers of the English fort—a small structure of stone with an iron roof that faces the heaven-scaling range.

Towards noon the mass of Kinchinjunga again lifted its head above the clouds, now white with a dust of rosy gold or violet on the snow in the shadows; and again, as the clouds swept across, of every changing tint of steel and copper, pearl and sunshine, till, following on the ardent glory of sunset, a purple and living fire, like a flame within the very substance of the ice-fields, all died into[Pg 153] mysterious blueness under the broad pure light of the moon.

All the day long a solid blue mass melting into rain hid the mountains and darkened the nearer view; and our return journey was made between two grey walls, through which the trees, which sometimes met in an arch overhead, were but dimly visible.

At the railway station thousands of people had collected to take leave of a great turbaned moollah from Mecca, dressed in yellow silk. Long after we had left Darjeeling the faithful ran by the side of the carriage to kiss his hand, on which blazed an enormous diamond cut in a cone; and all along the road, when the train going downhill went too fast for anyone to keep up with it, Moslem natives bowed and prostrated themselves in the road, shouting words of Godspeed to the holy man. And at one stopping-place a little carpet was spread, on which he took off his shoes and prayed—hurried through his last prostrations by the whistle of the locomotive.

At night, when the fog had at last cleared off, a column of fire was piled up on the engine; it shone[Pg 154] on the smooth trunks of the "flame of the forest," which looked like the pillars of a cathedral, on the sparkling water-springs all hung about with prayer-strips, on the veronica shrubs covered with flowers and as tall as trees, and the sheaves of bamboo and fern; or it lighted up the hanging screen of creepers, the impenetrable jungle growth that shut in the silence of the sleeping forest.



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