=1 "Silver Sources"

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Silver Sources

by Millicent Janet Gilder


Father Peel was going to Mussoorie for the annual Retreat in the hills, the hills being the Himalayas. And he always went third class by train.

He had been sitting up all night on a hard wooden bench with slats just far enough apart to be penitentially uncomfortable. Added to this it was the month of May and consequently very hot, and he had been closely wedged in between a tall Sikh and the window for several hours. Accordingly, early the next morning when interrupted in a doze by some one stumbling over his feet during a halt, he woke feeling almost cross.

“Thy pardon, Protector of the Poor! It is too dark to see plainly and my eyes are old.”

“It matters not, stranger, my feet and my sleep alike were out of place.”

Father Peel drew in his heavy pigskin boots made in the Lucknow bazaar by Lachman, the one-eyed cobbler. And the little old man with scanty loin cloth and the large bundle who had tripped over his feet made an obeisance. Then, still murmuring apologies, he pressed himself into the well-crowded seat opposite, and gradually sunk into it as if disappearing into a bog, or quicksand.

“What place is this?” Father Peel asked the question of his immediate and very close neighbour, the tall Sikh.

“It is Hardwar where the sacred Ganges flows out of the place called The Cow's Mouth.”

“Hardwar! Then it ought to be about four o'clock in the morning. I must have slept an hour or more.”

Through the open window near him Father Peel could see on the station platform an intricate surge of human creatures rushing towards every third class carriage. But the train was full and places few, so that the lessening crowds were now turned back from the doors like a tide rejected by some desired but resisting shore.

“And these many?” said Father Peel, indicating with his hand the agitated, unabsorbed remnant of people still on the platform. “Have all these been visiting the silver sources of the sacred Ganges?”

“Most of them are pilgrims, but many are just passing to and from even like myself.”

This time the speaker was the stout cloth merchant from Lahore who sat exactly opposite to the priest on the equally hard, segmented bench. Father Peel closed his eyes. Perhaps he could doze again. He would not reach Dehra Dun before eight that morning, so there were still a few hours before any real effort would be required of him.

But somehow he felt intensely awake. The clamour and pressure of the scene wrought with insistence upon his spirit. All the many times each year that he made the trip it was always the same. That same eternal question, “Is there room for me in here?” And the suffocating nearness of human bodies! He never got used to it. It made him feel bruised, stifled, resentful. If only there were some way of separating himself from the surroundings! Perhaps by shutting his eyes he could achieve quietness and peace.

“May I be generously pardoned for asking whether there is room for me here?”

The rich timbre of the voice no less than the beautiful Urdu spoken broke into Father Peel's disjointed consciousness. He opened his eyes. A tall man dressed in the saffron robes of the ascetic in India was standing there.

Through the open door he looked into the narrow and closely-packed third class compartment. He addressed himself to everybody, to no one in particular. Father Peel was so arrested by the dignity and charm of the man that he took no part in the chorus of voices that emphatically shouted in response, “Alas, Brother! There is no room for you in here. Indeed, there is scarcely room for us.”

The stranger in no way showed resentment, if he felt any. He withdrew his eyes from the farther depths of the compartment which he had been regarding, and looking directly at Father Peel, said in perfect English, “And you, do you also say there is no room for me?”

Under the quiet, regretful look Father Peel found himself stammering. “I'm afraid we are terribly crowded. There doesn't seem to be room for another single person.”

“I am sorry,” said the stranger gently. And Father Peel noticed that he removed his hand which was fine and slender from the open door as one who reluctantly departs. Then he added slowly and sorrowfully, “There is still no room for me.”

Something in the tone no less than the words bit into the heart of Father Peel. Swiftly he swung himself on to the station platform still crowded with vendors and others.

Just ahead he could discern the saffron robes of the man he sought. He dived into the throng after him. He must catch him, ask him what he meant. Who was he?

Several times he found his advance interrupted. As often he lost sight of him. Then again he caught a glimpse of him making his way without apparent effort towards the iron gates leading outside from the station. Now he saw him reach the barriers. He was waiting his turn to pass through. A sense of urgency made Father Peel feel he must hurry.

Eagerly he dodged under the arm of a fat money lender, or bania, carrying several bundles. In doing so he failed to see the child holding the merchant's hand and he collided with him. And when he looked around after comforting the boy and compensating the father, he could not see the man in the saffron robes anywhere.

“Did the man in saffron robes just pass through the gates?”

The ticket collector at the barriers looked at Father Peel with surprise.

“Of whom do you speak? No one dressed as you describe has gone through while I've been here.”

“But I saw him standing here a moment ago. He was waiting to go out.”

The ticket collector shrugged his shoulders.

“I'm sorry. He did not pass me. He must still be on the station platform.”

Father Peel was oddly disappointed. There was not much time now before the train left. He looked up and down the diminishing crowds. He saw one tall man. The Station Master! He might know. Why not ask him?

The Station Master was a kindly man. Many years of waiting for and dispatching trains had bred in him a gentle tolerance for all sorts of men and questions. As Father Peel came up to him he said courteously, “Can I be of any service to you?”

“Thank you,” replied Father Peel, “I am trying to find someone who was here a moment ago. Have you seen a tall man in saffron robes?”

“No, I haven't seen any one of that description today. Was he a friend?”

The question somehow disturbed Father Peel. “I thought he was not.”

Some of Father Peel's deep disappointment crept into his words. He spoke slowly as if thinking aloud, and he kept his eyes on the iron gates of the barriers. The Station Master regarded him for a moment in a puzzled way, then moved off.

Suddenly the guard's whistle sounded. Doors banged shut. And Father Peel had to run for it. He barely reached his seat as the train pulled out from the iron roof of the station with resounding puffs and snorts.

But Father Peel was distinctly unhappy. Sleep was gone. Only a great heaviness remained. The incident with the stranger had disturbed his priestly quiet. From the pocket of his soutane he drew his Book of Hours, but the familiar comfort of the words was vaguely lacking.

He leaned out from the window and looked towards the north where a faint blue stain on the advancing horizon gradually defined itself into the brooding magnificence of the Himalayas. The air grew cooler, the scene more lovely as they climbed through the Siwaliks, those footstools of the lofty ranges where the dense green of the jungle creeps to the very edge of the railway lines. Yet in the heart of Father Peel there remained like a bruise a regretful uneasiness which he could not forget.

A week later Father Peel returned by this same way after the Retreat at the Seminary of St. Joseph in Mussoorie. All the way down he said to himself, “I shall be on the lookout at Hardwar. He may come again. The chances are he may not, but this time I shall be ready.”

It was late afternoon when the train drew into the station at Hardwar. It seemed to Father Peel as if the identical crowds he had encountered on his way up to the hills had remained where he had left them.

There was the same rush on the third class carriages; the same ineffectual running to and fro in search of places, while the familiar faces of the Station Master and the ticket collector completed the illusion.

With his arms on the ledge of his window Father Peel leaned far out, searching the moving throngs on the station platform for a glimpse of the man he sought.

He saw tall men from the North and dark men from the South; heavily purdahed women accompanied by escorts, and simple country folk whose helplessness was manifested by their complete inability to procure the thing they desired. And the thought flashed, “There should be some one to help them!”

He saw also vendors of cunning workmanship in ebony and ivory, hawkers of sweetmeats and fruits, milk and tea, each carrying his tray suspended from his neck and shoulders. All of these passed by his window and challenged him with their wares. But amid all the tumult of travel and mart there was no sight of the form ad vesture of the stranger in the saffron robes.

The moments of the halting hurried along. Father Peel realized that it was almost time for the waiting train to start. The Station Master emerged from the door of the office with the ‘line clear’ in his hands. In the distance the guard could be seen with his green flag unfurled. Doors were being banged shut.

“Protector of the Poor, let thy servant in!”

An old woman with hair in untidy straggles round her face, carrying a small naked boy on her hip, stood below the window where Father Peel sat. And as he turned to look into her face she touched his hand softly, saying, “I am too old and useless to help myself. And the child is too young.”

“Come, mother. Quickly then. The train is about to leave.” And Father Peel leaned down and pushed the door further open and helped her in. For at the sight of her bent frailty, so ill-nourished and helpless, a sudden rush of tenderness had filled his heart.

He took the boy from her arms and she climbed in, throwing at his feet the various bundles and the brass drinking vessel she had been holding. Then with a groan and murmured blessings on him she retrieved her possessions together with the boy. And the last space in the compartment was now filled.

It was at that instant Father Peel saw the tall stranger in the saffron robes. The afternoon sunlight gleamed warmly behind him. Father Peel knew him at once. There was the same gentle dignity in his face, the same quiet grace. He stood with his had on the door as if waiting to enter just as he had done before. And with his coming Father Peel felt a great harmony fill his soul.

He rose from his seat.

The stranger smiled at him and his eyes were beautiful and tender. And Father Peel noticed that the light had deepened to a kind of resplendent glory behind his gracious form. Words fell away from him. He wanted to say, “There is room for you.” Instead, he stood looking, awed, reverent, at the radiant beauty, the transcendent majesty that compelled him.

“May the gods reward you! May your house be forever blessed!” The old woman that Father Peel had helped into the carriage was still speaking her thanks. The train was moving quickly. It had cleared the station.

Father Peel looked down. The silver cross he had worn upon his breast was lying in his hand. It glowed and shone in the afternoon light with a jewelled brilliance.

“What happened to the Holy One in saffron robes?” he asked his fellow travellers.

“Of whom do you speak?”

“Of him who came but now to our door just after the old woman climbed in.”

And they all answered alike, “We saw no one. All we saw was the old woman here whom you helped in with the child. And then as the train started the talisman about your neck fell into your hands.”

Father Peel looked from one to the other of the faces of the men and women with him. He saw there kindliness and sympathy, but no understanding of his question. And suddenly a shining happiness came to him.