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A Smile from the past and other stories

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TALE OF FAIR KASHMIR

The music floated clear and sweet over the water. Someone on a houseboat on the other side of the lake was playing a very old record on an almost equally ancient gramophone. Distance, however, had eliminated its harshness, and like an ageing woman seen by candle-light, only its charm remained.

“I’ll sing thee songs of Araby -

And tales of fair Kashmir…….”

So sang the unknown voice of someone, now almost certainly dead for many years. The words were still audible to Gina Selby, seated in a softly gliding shikara on the other side of the lake, and the significance of the song, coming just at that time, seemed to her to be almost too great to be just a coincidence. It was more as if the stage having been finally set and the actors in their appointed places, the curtain music was now being played, prior to the opening of the play.

For Gina was now in Kashmir, having only arrived two days before as the fulfilment of a life-long dream. And how clearly she could remember now the beginning of this very dream, as the music continued to float to her across the water and carry her back over the twenty intervening years. Once again, she was in the old family home, her grandmother frail and silver-haired seated at the grand piano, her slender, white fingers moving certainly over the keys. And her grandfather, soldierly and still erect, standing at her side, his melodious baritone voice singing the song just as he had done forty years previously, when the song had first become popular.

Gina could see herself now, a small, flaxen-haired girl, her eyes fixed on her grandfather’s face, and her imagination fired by the lilting words.

“Mummy – what is Kashmir like exactly?” she had asked her mother that night when she was being put to bed.

“Lovely!” her mother had replied with real feeling. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. But I can’t remember it so very clearly now – and I was only seven when I left. You had better get your grandfather to show you some of his photographs.”

So Gina was shown album after album of beautiful photographs, depicting fields of irises, snowy mountains and still waters – and her imagination once captured by the beauty of its scenery, she had been longing to visit Kashmir ever since.

And now it had actually happened at last! Her cousin Betty Hamilton, who had taken a job in a school in India some two years previously, had written inviting Gina to come and share her summer holidays on a houseboat in Kashmir! Gina had very little in common with her cousin, but the desire to visit the land of her dreams was too strong to allow her to refuse, so, a convenient legacy having brought her in enough money to pay for a holiday abroad, Gina had arrived in Bombay, and made her way on as fast as possible by plane.

Her meeting with Betty had soon shown her that it was unlikely that they would find any more common ground than in the past, for Betty was essentially an extrovert, and not blessed with over-much imagination, whilst Gina was a dreamer of dreams which she knew that she and Betty would never be able to share. She spent a few uneasy hours wondering whether she had made a mistake in coming to spend a holiday in the company of someone whose tastes were so obviously not her own.

Fate, however, had kindly taken a hand: Betty had run into a friend she had made on the voyage out two years before, and this afternoon they had gone off on a shopping expedition together. Gina was frankly not interested in shops, so excusing herself from their company, she had hired a shikara, and gone off on a voyage of exploration on her own.

The magic of Kashmir had captured her even before her arrival, but now as she lay back on the cushions of the gently gliding boat, she was not only keenly conscious of the fragrance of its subtle atmosphere, but an accountable feeling of excitement blended with her pleasure. She had only needed to hear the song, coming so strangely as it did like an old friend to meet her, to make her feel that it was now possible for anything to happen!

Calling to the boatman, Gina pointed in the direction of the sound.

“Go that way, please!” she said.

Photo3 p 47

“Atcha, memsahib,” the young Kashmiri swung round the prow of the boat, and Gina was soon gliding across the center of the lake. Another minute or two, however, and the gramophone record had come to an end, and another one did not replace it. It was impossible to say now from which of the houseboats the music had come, but Gina was not greatly concerned. Just moving slowly across the lake in the afternoon sunshine was enough pleasure in itself.

They had reached the opposite side when a picturesque waterway caught and held her fancy.

“Down there, please!” she pointed, and the boatman obeyed.

For some little way they journeyed on down a narrow canal in which the trees nearly met overhead. Then suddenly and without warning it widened, and after passing under an old stone bridge, they were now in a picturesque waterway, on either side of which lay quaint old wooden houses, and steep, narrow streets. Passing some very old stone steps, Gina suddenly felt an overpowering desire to get out and explore further on foot. Making the boatman turn back, she stepped out of the shikara onto the steps, and indicated that the man should wait.

Surprisingly enough, the usual crowd of children which had gathered around her wherever she went since her arrival, this time was absent, and she climbed, apparently unnoticed, up the steep stone steps, and made her way towards the entrance of one of the narrow gullies. Still stranger was the fact that she found she knew her way perfectly, and knew exactly where she was going.

Walking swiftly, she made her way down two narrow streets, until reaching a wooden door in an old stone wall, she pushed it open and entered. Within was a small mud courtyard. Crossing it, she opened the door on the other side, and mounted some wooden stairs. At the top she pulled aside a curtain, and entered a small heavily-shuttered room. An old woman, wrapped in a shawl, lay upon a pile of mats on the floor. She raised herself as Gina entered.

“I couldn’t get it,” she heard her own voice saying, and at the same time suddenly realised that she was not speaking English.

“Couldn’t get it – couldn’t get it!” the old woman on the floor muttered angrily.

“Your father promised the money long ago. We have been patient far too long. Do you imagine I shall allow my grandson to marry a penniless girl who can bring no more money than you have done into the family? There are plenty of others who have parents who are willing and anxious to pay. You had better get out now and have done with all this nonsense!”

Gina felt the quick tears spring to her eyes.

“No, no – please don’t make me go. You shall have all the money you want. Only give us time!”

“Time! We have waited too long already. No, no – you must go and if you are going, you had better go now!”

The old woman had risen, and Gina felt herself being violently propelled towards the door, but at the same moment, a young man entered. He was fair-skinned, with the dark chestnut shade of auburn hair so often found amongst Kashmiris.

“What is happening? What are you trying to do?” he asked angrily, addressing himself to the old woman.

“I am sending the girl back where she belongs. She is no good – she can bring us no money!” screamed the old hag viciously shaking Gina’s shoulders as she did so.

“Leave her alone! Take your hands off her – at once!”

“How dare you speak to me like that! Are you lacking in all shame to speak in such a way to the grandmother who brought you up?”

“You may have brought me up. I was a child then, but now I am a man – and I will not tolerate such treatment from anyone to my betrothed!”

“Your betrothed!” the old woman literally spat out the words. “Take her then if you want her, but don’t ever try to enter these doors again!”

“All right – if that is your wish!” The young man held out his hand to Gina. “Come!”

Before she had time to answer he was down the stairs, almost running, and pulling her swiftly after him. Once she tried to hold back and expostulate, but he quickly cut her short.

“You have nothing to fear with me!” he said reassuringly. “We can go to my Uncle. Only do not delay. My grandmother has got evil powers and can harm you – “

Still almost running, they reached the stone steps – and just as they did so Gina caught her foot and fell …………………..

When she opened her eyes there was an aching pain in her head and a feeling that she had been running. It was fully a minute before she took in her surroundings – and then she gasped and rubbed her eyes. She was lying back on the cushions of the shikara, and they were just approaching the old stone steps!

With a strange feeling that all this had happened before, she told the boatman to turn, but this time did not attempt to get out. Instead, she made it understood that she wished to return immediately to the houseboat which she and Betty shared. On getting back it was something of a relief to find that her cousin had not yet returned and she was able to go over in solitude the extraordinary events of the afternoon.

By the following day she was able to view the whole adventure from a matter-of-fact angle, and had succeeded in persuading herself that the astonishing events of the previous afternoon had been nothing more than an exceptionally vivid dream. Despite this conclusion, however, she found it impossible to resist a violent hankering to visit the place again.

Betty has arranged an appointment with the hairdresser that afternoon and was having her hair permed, which left Gina free to go wherever she willed. Hiring a fresh shikara she directed the boatman to take her straight to the lake.

Without much difficulty, she found the narrow canal of the afternoon before, and indicated that she wished to go down it. It did not take long to reach the old stone bridge. Gina felt her heart beating with excitement. In another minute she would be seeing again the setting of her strange adventure….

To her amazement, however, the scene had completely changed. Beyond the bridge lay nothing but a few ruined houses, an old stone wall, and a field of purple irises in which a young man sat painting. His back was towards her, but from his appearance she judged him to be either an Englishman or an American. As the shikara drew nearer he suddenly turned and saw her, and waved his hand in friendly fashion, as one traveler to another in a foreign country.

“Hullo!” he called. “I thought I was the only European around her! Isn’t this a marvelous spot?”

His voice was English, and Gina felt instantly that there was something very familiar about it – in fact about his whole appearance. He was dressed in a white bush shirt, khaki shorts and an old slough hat which had seen better days. The clothes, however, provided no clue, and she found herself searching her mind as to where they had met before.

“It’s a Heavenly place!” she called back, matching her tone to his. “How lucky you are to be able to paint it!”

He had risen to his feet now and was walking towards her.

“I say,” he said as the shikara drew nearer., “Are you in an awful hurry?” The thing is I’m badly needing a human figure somewhere near that well, and your dress is just the right color for it. Would it be a dreadful imposition if I asked you to spare a few minutes to pose for me?”

“Of course not,” she replied, “if it will be of any help. I’ve nothing else do to”

“Splendid!” cried the young man, helping her out of the shikara, and once again she wondered what it was about him that was so familiar. “My houseboat fellow has given me lashings of tea. You can stop and share it with me by way of a reward!”

“Thank you,” she smiled back at him.

“Its quite pleasant to find someone to talk to,” continued the artist cheerfully. “I’ve hardly spoken to a soul since I arrived. The old boy whose houseboat I’m on can only speak about two words of English, though I can’t think why, as the whole boat is stuffed full of English papers and books. He’s even got an ancient gramophone with some incredibly old records. I felt absolutely compelled to put on one of them yesterday, and you’ll never guess what it was! ‘I’ll sing you songs of Araby – ‘ “

” – and Tales of fair Kashmir!” Gina finished for him.

“Good Lord – so you know it too! How amazing!”

He laughed, and with a boyish gesture, snatched off his hat and threw it in the air. And Gina, seeing his dark chestnut-colored hair for the first time, suddenly knew where it was they had met before!

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