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XV. Nur Jan

"The singer only sang the Joy of Life,
For all too well, alas! the singer knew,
How hard the daily toil, how keen the strife,
How salt the falling tear, the joys how few."

"Nay, Saheb, I accept no money for my songs from you and your friend; for you have taken a kindly interest in me and my past history, and have shewn me the respect which my birth warrants, but which alas! my occupation hath made forfeit in the eyes of the world. But,--if you have found satisfaction in my singing, then write somewhat of me and of my Mimi to the paper, even as you did of Imtiazan, that thus your people--the people who know not the inner life of India may learn that I was not born amid the saringis and the bells, and that I, the singer, hide within my heart a life-long regret."

So she spake, seated on the clean white floor-cloth of the brightly-lighted "diwankhana," like some delicate flower cradled on a crystal lake. We had seen her once before at the house of an Indian friend, who had hospitably invited a company to witness her songs and dances; we had heard her chant the subtle melodies of Hindustan and even old English roundelays for the special delectation of the English guests; we had remarked her delicate hands, the great dark eyes, the dainty profile, the little ivory feet, and above all the gentle voice and courteous bearing; and we realized that Nur Jan had not been bred to this uncurtained life, but must once have known the care, affection and the gentle training of a patrician home.

By what caprice of evil fortune had she come to this, hiring out her voice and her nimble feet to enhance the pleasure of a chance entertainment, far from her own people and from her northern Indian home? What secret lay in the song of the frail maiden on the banks of the Jamna, in the earnest request she made to us not to mention the name of dead Royalty before her attendant-musicians? The mystery remained unsolved for that evening; and it was not till some weeks later that the chances of an official enquiry brought us face to face again. But this time the ill-starred dancing-skirt and bells had been locked away; and in their stead we saw the silken jacket, the spangled pale-blue sari, covered by a diaphanous black veil, like a thin cloud half-veiling the summer heavens, the necklace of pearls round the olive pillar of her throat, and above them the calm face and the wealth of dark hair that scorned all artificial adornment. There she sat in her own house, singing to two rich Arabs and a subordinate agent of one of the greatest rulers of Asia, while behind her Mimi, aged two years,--the legacy of a dead affection, crooned and tried to clap her small hands in rythm with her mother's song. And in the pauses of her singing, while the musicians tightened their bows and the silver "pan-box" was passed round to her Indian-guests, she lifted a little way, a very little way the curtain of the past.

"Yea, Saheb, you have rightly spoken. I come of a good family, and as a child I was sent to school in Calcutta and learned your English tongue. When I grew to girlhood I determined to study medicine and serve the women of my faith as a doctor. But barely had I commenced the preliminary lessons of compounding when the trouble came upon our house, and my sister and I were brought away from the old home to Bombay and bidden to find the wherewithal to support those to whom we owed respect and affection. Saheb, with us the word of near relations is law, and their support a sacred duty. What could we, gently-bred Mahomedan girls, do in a strange city? We had always liked singing and had taken lessons in our home; and it seemed that herein lay the only chance of supporting ourselves and others. Therefore, not without hesitation, not without tears, we bade adieu to the 'pardah' of our people and cast the pearls of our singing before the public. Thus has it been since that day. My sister by good-hap has married well and regained the shelter of the curtain: but I am still unwed and must sing until the end comes."

"How can I seek help of my grandsire? Have I not disgraced his name by adopting this life? And were I mean enough to ask his favour, would he not first insist that I become once more 'pardahnashin'? I cannot live again behind the screen, for too long have I been independent. The filly that has once run free cares not afterwards for the stall and bridle. It has been an evil mistake, Saheb, but one not of my making. I sometimes loathe the lights, the tinsel, the bells, aye even the old songs; for they remind me of what I might have been, but for another's fault, and, of what I am. You ask of Mimi's future? So long as I live, she never shall play a part in this work. Mated with a good man of mine own faith she will never know regret. That is my great wish, Saheb. The issue lies with Allah."

So the tale ran on with its accompaniment of song, its suggestion of regret. Once in the middle of a ballad a funeral passes in the street below. The mourner's chant sounds above the bourdon of the tom-tom, the wail of the saringis. "Hush, hush" cries Nur Jan, "let the dead pass in peace. It is not meet that the song of the dancing-girl should be heard upon the final journey." One more refrain, one more question on the mystery of her birth, and we ask permission to depart, offering at the same time some small token of our approval of her songs, to which she replies in the words that commence this chapter. We catch a last glimpse of her, bidding us good-bye in the gentle manner that tells its own tale, and of Mimi crooning to herself and trying to push a much-crumpled playing-card,--the Queen of Hearts,--into the cinglet of her small pyjamas.