王鸥 静谧光影间的华美盛宴

And once more in a barge on the Ganges. The atmosphere seemed faintly iridescent, like mother-of-pearl, the silence serenely lulled by the distant sound of a flute. The palaces and temples, reflected in the still water, looked in the distance like forts crowned with turrets of gold, and their little windows like loopholes. The broad stairs of the quays, where the priests' umbrellas glitter, assumed a spacious, unfamiliar dignity, the red colour shading paler towards the bottom, where it was washed off by the lapping Ganges, looking as though a fairy hanging of gauze were spread under the wavelets in honour of the Apsaras and the divinities of the river. A man in the fort always struck out the hours on a gong, very slowly, in the heat of the day. Twelve at noon was interminableone, two, three were so feeble as to be scarcely audible. And then when it was cooler and the tom-toms could be heard in the distance, the strokes had a queer dislocated rhythm, and sometimes even a stroke too many, smothered in a hurried roll.

The little palace of Nilam Bagh, panelled inside throughout with carved wood, looks like a jewel-casket dropped in a vast park of green shade and[Pg 85] broad lawns. Rawl Shri Bhaosinhji, Rajah of Bhawnagar, is very young, almost a child, and still very shy, dressed in the European fashion in a long grey overcoat, with a voluminous turban of turquoise-blue gauze.

A carriage with four horses, and servants in dark green livery thickly braided with silver, and gold turbans with three raised corners very like the cocked hats of the French Guards, were standing in the Court of Honour. The little princess took a seat between her father and me. To drive out she had put on an incredible necklace with bosses of diamonds and heavy emerald pendants. With her talismans round her neck in little gold boxes, with this necklace of light, and rings of precious stones in her ears, she looked like a too exquisite idol, motionless and silent. It was not till we were returning and the falling night hid her glittering jewels that she chirped a few words, and consented to give me her hand, and even sang a few crystal notes of a favourite song. A little princess of seven years who can already read and write, sew[Pg 69] and embroider, sing in time, and dance as lightly, I should fancy, as a butterfly with her tiny feet, that fidget in her gold slippers when she hears the musicthough, frightened lest the Rajah should make her dance before me, she denied it altogethera little princess, an only child, whom her father takes with him everywhere that she may see something of the world before she is eleven years old, for after that she will never leave her mother's zenana but to marry and be shut up in another harem.

At the last moment some porters, preceded by two sowars in uniform and holding pikes, bore a large palankin, hermetically closed, to the door of a first-class carriage, and softly set it down. The carriage was opened for a moment: I could see within a party of women-servants, shrouded in white muslin, who were preparing a couch. An old negress handed out to the porters a large sheet, which they held over the palankin, supporting it in such a way as to make a covered passage screening the carriage door. There was a little bustle under the sheetthe end was drawn in, and the sheet fell over the closed door. In the heart of Agra towards evening people were busy in the square of the Jumna Musjid stretching pieces of stuff over rather low poles to form a tent. Then in long file came the labourers from a famine-camp, with their sleep-walking gait, their glassy eyes, their teeth showing like those of a grinning skull. Rags in a thousand holes scarcely covered the horrors of their fleshless bodies.