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Friday, April 25, 2008


It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she play’d,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
—Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

It was late spring when Hilaire MacLeod came back to Devonshire from India,—pale, thin, and still somewhat shaky as a result of typhoid fever contracted while serving with the armed forces in the Orient,—and placed himself in my care. He had been able to shake most of the fever, the disorientations of time and place which had arisen from his sickness, for he could recognise them as such. However, there remained, as he told me, certain occurrences which persisted much more strongly, seeming to have a further existence than in his mind alone. For he had seen the shapes of a world with laws and patterns of its own, convincing and as firm and immutable as our own, yet different. But where they existed, or how, MacLeod was unable to say.

"Two dream-fragments keep teasing me, trying to break through," he explained. "One of a torrent of water falling from a great height with yet further to go where a camel-humped stone bridge,—quaint, Cathayan, yet sturdy, built with breadth,— spans it. Something lies beyond it for me, if I can only venture across.

‘The other dream is of a tree that spreads out as extensively as a banyan, a great umbrella of foliage, yet somehow a baneful thing. Its leaf seemed like the upas tree one sees in India and Malaya, so I guess that’s what it is. Two figures appear beneath it. And then the picture usually blurred and faded.

"One day, just before leaving the base hospital in India, the second dream came through clearly. I now saw the two figures beneath the tree quite plainly and close at hand, one tall, the other short. They were dressed in black, in tight jacket and trousers coming just below the knee.

Though in typical Burmese costume, they were not Burmese. Their skins were too white; whiter than any known race, occidental or oriental. A dead- white. Albinos? I wondered.

"In a moment, however, the strongest instincts told me otherwise. There was something about that tree wholly unlike the ordinary upas under which children and farm animals tumbled about unharmed throughout India and Malaya. That this was the rare upas tree that blighted all ordinary life that strayed beneath its shade bore in my mind the weight of proven fact. Surely, then, these were no ordinary mortals whom I was somehow observing, undetected, from a vantage-point unknown to myself or them; yet I was equally convinced that I was witnessing something that had a meaning, that existed outside my own mind, just as surely as pieces on a chess-board, the record of a Morse code, a geometrical axiom, all exist whether we understand their meaning or not.

"The two sombre, alien figures stood barefoot on the black earth beneath the tree, talking earnestly. The lean, angular one spoke; and I understood him:

"'It is long, Tibar, since I have drawn the soul and breath from a European.'"

"The other grunted monosyllabically, and bit on a carrot-like root.

"‘Yes, to have one staked to the ground yonder and draw forth the richness of mind and soul and breath from his empurpled lips is good, Tibar. But if they will not come as explorers, we must start them seeking, drawing them with our mental faculties.’

"Tibar threw down the top of the plant he had been chewing. The tall one drew a dozen seeds from his pocket—six bleached ones and six ebony.

"'Do you plant these that are as dark as the Gulf-dweller near that bamboo thicket. Yes. And I will find means to emplant six white ones in the snug, warm area betwixt the skull and brain of six Europeans. They should root well, Tibar ...'

"That was all, Dr. Rochester. A bizarre nightmare, cut off abruptly, with five degrees of fever to explain it. Yet I cannot shrug off these absurd simulacra as I can the grey donkeys, the misshapen bats and cats and owls, the crawfish and other creatures of delirium."

I reassured MacLeod by mentioning instances of obsessions and delusions which occurred to famous men, who had taken them in their stride. Usually, I explained, there are physical factors—in his case, fortunately, temporary ones—in the case of our fellow Devonian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, rheumatic fever, a breathing difficulty, an addiction to drugs, a propensity—

MacLeod broke in. "That’s the devil of it, doctor. Look. I was reading about Coleridge on the boat coming back. And that’s what I was puzzled about."

He rummaged in his jacket pocket and found a scrap of paper. "Coleridge was taken up with this matter of the poisonous upas tree. In his commonplace book he wrote, ‘Describe a Tartarean Forest of Upas Trees’ and later, ‘Upas Tree—a poem—or article. Mem.—’ followed by an illegible scrawl. Now when I dreamt this dream, I had not seen this passage and it makes me wonder—that is—well, Dr. Rochester, suppose that some idea, some force, had tried to get through to Coleridge, and now is trying to get through to me. Can I be catching sight of the world that Coleridge glimpsed? Will I somehow find the key he never found?

"In the dream-fragments there are sources of both hope and fear, just as in the rest of life. But to feel that something is lurking just outside consciousness is another matter, beyond hope and fear. It is a challenge, a provocation."

I sat back. The idea was too strong for me. I had read Coleridge, and thought then of his Kubla Khan, a marvelous fabric of poetic images. An unfinished thing, for here as elsewhere Coleridge had been led astray in his dreams; in dreams he could not finish, which dissolved when a chance visitor, a man from Porlock, came, leaving him bemused, hardly able to carry on in the world. The rubble of a tumbled air-castle, of a Khan’s pleasure-palace, had thundered down on his head, leaving him what? ——a sublime somnambulist.

A little later, when MacLeod turned to leave, he asked me if I felt it would be too much of a strain if he bicycled out to Ottery St. Mary, where Coleridge was born—a matter of ten or eleven miles from Exeter—on the next clear day. I thought of my own anxiety to see the countryside again after the first war, and replied that if he took it easy he could do it, but that he should not travel in the heat of the day, and if he became

tired, to leave his bicycle at a shop by the way and go on by bus. He agreed, and left. A fine young man, MacLeod, with a will to match his imagination. However, I’m afraid that willpower is no match for obsession, if that’s what I can call it. The matter certainly seemed deep-rooted, and I could not see it fit into the cast of MacLeod’s mind.

The evening of the, next day I had settled down to read when I heard a knock on the door. I went to the door in my housejacket. MacLeod was there, bareheaded, his dark hair tousled, his eyes flashing. He appeared nervous and stammered in framing his words.

"I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Rochester, but I have had an experience of which I must tell you before I rest tonight, for it hints at the nature of my mental disturbance. Yet the hint only leads damnably further and deeper, like a will-o’-the-wisp."

I bade him sit down, and offered him a cigarette.

"It was ten o’clock when I left Exeter for Ottery St. Mary, and quite warm. By eleven-thirty I reached the hill above the town, left my bicycle by the hedge-row, and climbed over so I could look down on the little town nestled in the valley. I sat in the shade of a cedar, and realized for the first time that I was quite hot from my exertions. Below me, by a smaller knoll, was the site of Coleridge’s home, which had burned eighty years ago. The foundation could be traced, however, though the brush was coming up where the ground’s irregularities deterred the cattle from grazing, and it was this growth that traced the house’s walls.

"Lying down to enjoy the tranquil scene most fully—the rooks swirling overhead and the lambs grazing below, I was soon asleep."

MacLeod hesitated, reluctant to trouble me of a dream, a little nervous play about his lips, to tell me and ease his mind. It had become, than a dream."

For in the dream he saw a palace of milk-white marble, rising to a central dome like the Taj Mahal, with a multitude of minarets and towers. Yet it was more lofty still, and was set over a natural scarp of black rock on the edge of a tumultuous river whose coursing cast up jets of water, and whose cataracts resounded turbulently in tones constantly rising and falling like the war-cry of a tribe of Tartar horsemen.

MacLeod found himself on horseback, following the road which was hewn from rock, across the camel-humped bridge, and sweeping up out of the gorge, curvihg gradually to the palace gates. In a moment he heard himself giving the password, and was admitted to the grounds. He flung the reins of his longmaned horse to an attendant, and ran up the flight of marble stairs ascending the height of the outer walls. He stood a moment in thought, slapping his leather gloves against his thigh and pulling his earlobe. For a moment he looked out upon the valley directly across the river, and back down the winding road that bridged the river before it at last dipped out of sight.
Then, with a headshake of wonderment he turned and strode into the vaulted doorway and down the vast corridors lit by sconces and braziers in which clear flames gave off a faint trace of cedar and other aromatic woods. The air was comfortably cool, and though the smooth, bare stone looked cold, it was not.

MacLeod pressed on into the palace, passing into rooms richly furnished with tapestries, scrolls, carved wood-screens, paintings, ivories and T’ang potteries. At last he called a servant, 'Prithee, fetch me ma." And the servant hastened off, lie turned to look at a courtyard in the lower half of which peacocks wandered among flower-beds, while in the upper terrace a fountain played.
A gasp behind him made him turn.

"Oh, sir. You dared. The princess—."

It was Ina, the Abyssinian handmaiden, her kerchiefed hand held in alarm before her lips. She siezed MacLeod by the sleeve, pulled him to a wall and thrust him into a narrow stairca!e behind a heavy tapestry, Barely lit by cunningly concealed slits in the masonry, the stairs ran up the wall, abruptly and deviously. He hastened to climb, with Ina behind him. Three times the stairs.turned, almost upon themselves. Then MacLeod waited a moment, until at a nod and thrust from ma, he slipped past the concealing carpet into a small chamber.

"Do you wait here, sir," said Ina, hurrying away.

He had only time to glance out a casement window at the walled-in garden that treasured up the wealth of the Indies and Cathay, when a soft step bade him turn.

"Prince of my hope, you have come."

His heart was a nightingale. His words were simple, overpowered with his love. She was in his arms. Then, feeling her tightening grip on his arms, he released her lips.

"Shan, beloved," she gasped, "you have come here but to die."

"I came here as I had to. I met your father’s courier just inside my province, for I was hunting with my hawks near the border when he came. I came straightway."

"Yes, but he called you but to kill you, beloved. Soon he will be back, and then, on the morrow my future husband will come. Maybe if I can change the guards he will not Learn that you have come yet. But—oh, listen!"

She stood, horror-stricken, her hand at her colorless cheek, as the faint sound of pipes, drums, and cymbals sounded against the river’s brawl.

"It is the Khan! Merciful gods, make him deaf to the tales of his guardsmen. mai Quick, my love, follow her." Reluctantly Shan left his leman and followed Ina through a maze of passages, fleetingly and furtively crossing and climbing yet further through a fantastic succession of chambers until at last the outermost minaret looking down on the road and the river were reached.

"Let {Original has typo "Le"} us pray that he does not hear of your coming," said Ina, "for ever since he threw his master-builder over the parapet into the AIph, he alone knows every stone and nook of this palace."

All Shan’s hopes now lay in getting down the only road, he guessed, brazenly if necessary, trying to run the gauntlet without meeting either the Khan or any of his henchmen set to watch for him and carry out his murder. At least the gods favored him with a day’s grace in arriving prematurely.

Restlessly Shan cast his eyes about the tower-room, with its casements facing four directions, its stone floor with a carpet in the center. Cautiously he looked out and down, and seeing nothing to concern him, gave himself over to his plans for the morrow, He paced the narrow confines, gradually erupting into spluttered curses and fretful gestures. He would choose his time when the gates had opened in the morning, he vowed, his right fist a restless mortar in the pestle of his left hand, and he would call for his horse and ride as if enjoying the new day until he had crossed the bridge. He would then mount a rocky bill he had observed through which the road had been hewn. There he could challenge the prospective bridegroom to personal combat, and if he refused, hurl down boulders on the party until he was shot full of arrows.

But now he must battle air, with windy ifs, with the demon of delay; here, waiting, his fists aching to splinter a jaw, their muscles corded to choke. Below, in the palace, there was no hue and cry. Rather, there was laughter, the sound of musical instruments, the clatter of flagons, a babble of voices, men drinking, brachets barking, hunting-leopards crying, the familiar sounds of the evening feast. The sun was sinking out of view, and the night-watch was being posted in the courtyard below. To himself Shan alternately cursed and implored his gods. Supposing he won, would the Khan recognize his prowess and provinces then with the hand of his daughter?

Ina, who all the while remained silently in a corner, drew from somewhere a dulcimer, and sitting cross-legged upon the floor, began to play upon it, weaving back and forth as with graceful movements she hit the wires with the light hammers, softly at first, singing in an undertone soft fragments of song. She sang and played as if to herself, so as not to approach too directly the objective of soothing Shan, lest he become even more irate. Then at last she sang more fully, realizing that down below no suspicion would be aroused should anyone hear her singing of her birthplace, of Mount Abora, weaving a symphony in memories of her distant homeland, of time-old yearnings, of the proud burden of striving, the eternal ballad-themes that come after the struggles, in the mood of recollection, which tranquillize - Though at first Shan tried to put this by as an attempt to soothe him, he soon saw that he could only risk his life and hazard his love if he were calm, and so reluctantly he slumped to the carpet, determined to be quiet and reserve his strength. So this song of ma’s homeland began to take form and enthrall him, drawing him at first to silent, motionless brooding, then to a lynn of dreams that moved with the sounds of the river in the darkness below, and of ma’s hands before him, storing courage and resolution so that on the morrow ...

MacLeod rubbed at the back of his neck, perplexedly.

"But there was no morrow. I lay again in the sloping field, blinking up at a stout, dumpy woman who prodded me with her walking-stick.

"‘Young man, what town is this?’

"1 was stricken dumb for a moment from the sudden shift from world to world, and only after a long moment spluttered that it was Ottery St. Mary.

"'Well. I suppose there’s nothing here of real interest'

"‘Doubtless you would find it so,’ I countered, though my heart was not yet in my remarks.
"‘Humph ‘ she sniffed, and walked off.

"And as she was leaving my anger mounted slowly until by the time she had reached the turn and started down the hill into Ottery St. Mary I was cursing her softly but vehemently, standing legs spread and hands on hips.

"At that moment I remembered how Coleridge, in writing Kubla Khan, had reached the same point that I had when someone had interrupted him, and the magic he had woven was left unfinished, the art of the weaving being gone. "I was still following the dumpy figure with my eyes when the thought came to me that Coleridge and I reached toward the same dream, clambering over the limitations of the media of our minds with different degrees of success, perhaps, but questing for the answer to the same riddle, and being stopped.

"Now a very strange thing happened, Dr. Rochester. The woman stopped by the cellar-hole of the Coleridge homestead, paused a moment, fumbling with her guidebook. Then she turned, apparently assured this was the place she wanted. She went to the stone steps, mounted, made a motion as if to knock on the door that was no longer there. In a moment, as if her strange ritual had evoked the desired response, she stepped across the overgrown granite threshold, and I lost sight of her for an instant behind a bit of brush. It was such a small scrap of a shrub that I could not believe it capable of hiding her, even momentarily. I waited for her to reappear. Though I never once took my eyes off that bush for over fifteen minutes, I sav no more of her, and it became increasingly absurd that that scant shrub could possibly have concealed her.

"I believe, Dr. Rochester, that if that woman really existed, it was for the sole purpose of breaking off my dream I" MacLeod stood up and paced to and fro in front of me as I strove to hit on the right question. Before his agitation could build on itself, I asked, "Well, what do you propose to do about this matter? If the woman is gone you must dismiss her as a fluke of your senses—or accept her as real and her disappearance as a fluke."

Then, before he could counter this, I went on, "You’ve been in the Orient. You must have noticed the attitude almost universal in Oriental philosophies that our senses and their physical experiences are of less importance than we Occidentals believe. It is all up to you. And I feel sure, MacLeod, that if you can think of this as a fleeting experience, as something to be thought of as you might a scrap of a tune, without trying to tease it into a symphony, or coax some absurd meaning into it, then you’ll be better off.

But MacLeod was paying scarcely any attention.

"Now if I were back in India again,—" he began, as if to himself. "Maybe I’d pick up the trail. Surely there must be some clues, some links, some points of contact."

After a bit he seemed to be more aware of my presence. I hardly remember what I said to him, being concerned because he was agreeing with me haphazardly, heedlessly, out of courtesy; so I finally advised him to go home and rest.

He started, but turned to stammer thanks to me. I waved them away with the back of my hand. So he Left.

That was the last time I saw Hilaire MacLeod. The next morning, however, a boy about twelve years old rang my bell. "Here’s a note for you, sir. Man asked me to give it to you."

"Dear Dr. Rochester, after leaving you I came out here, trying to settle my mind. Will this fantasy of Kubla Khan never resolve itself? I can’t live two lives, one a dreamy reality and the other a real dream. That’s what I’ve been doing, more and more, until I find myself believing, most curiously, that this one in which we meet has become the dream and the other the reality. Then again I ask ‘Can it be so?’ and am afraid. I don’t know, but I think I can solve the matter. And by the gods, I’ll try..."

The boy was still standing there when I looked up. "Where was the young man when he gave you this?"

"Ottery St. Mary. The old Coleridge place, sir."

"And what did he do after he asked you to deliver this note?"

"Turned and walked towards the doorstep of the Coleridge place, sir. It did seem a bit odd, sir, now that you speak of it."

There are a number of ways to get to the Orient from England, MacLeod’s parents realize. Indeed they have gone so far as to offer a substantial reward "for information concerning Hilaire MacLeod—last seen near Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, June 18, 1947."

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