‘We will go in the cool of the evening, chela,’ said the lama. ’That doctor, learned in physic and courtesy, affirms that the people among these lower hills are devout, generous, and much in need of a teacher. In a very short time — so says the hakim — we come to cool air and the smell of pines.’
‘Ye go to the Hills? And by Kulu road? Oh, thrice happy!’ shrilled the old lady. ’But that I am a little pressed with the care of the homestead I would take palanquin ... but that would be shameless, and my reputation would be cracked. Ho! Ho! I know the road — every march of the road I know. Ye will find charity throughout — it is not denied to the well-looking. I will give orders for provision. A servant to set you forth upon your journey? No ... Then I will at least cook ye good food.’
‘What a woman is the Sahiba!’ said the white-bearded Oorya, when a tumult rose by the kitchen quarters. ’She has never forgotten a friend: she has never forgotten an enemy in all her years. And her cookery — wah!’ He rubbed his slim stomach.
There were cakes, there were sweetmeats, there was cold fowl stewed to rags with rice and prunes — enough to burden Kim like a mule.
‘I am old and useless,’ she said. ’None now love me — and none respect — but there are few to compare with me when I call on the Gods and squat to my cooking-pots. Come again, O people of good will. Holy One and disciple, come again. The room is always prepared; the welcome is always ready ... See the women do not follow thy chela too openly. I know the women of Kulu. Take heed, chela, lest he run away when he smells his Hills again ... Hai! Do not tilt the rice-bag upside down ... Bless the household, Holy One, and forgive thy servant her stupidities.’
She wiped her red old eyes on a corner of her veil, and clucked throatily.
‘Women talk,’ said the lama at last, ’but that is a woman’s infirmity. I gave her a charm. She is upon the Wheel and wholly given over to the shows of this life, but none the less, chela, she is virtuous, kindly, hospitable — of a whole and zealous heart. Who shall say she does not acquire merit?’
‘Not I, Holy One,’ said Kim, reslinging the bountiful provision on his shoulders. ’In my mind — behind my eyes — I have tried to picture such an one altogether freed from the Wheel — desiring nothing, causing nothing — a nun, as it were.’
‘And, O imp?’ The lama almost laughed aloud.
‘I cannot make the picture.’
’Nor I. But there are many, many millions of lives before her. She will get wisdom a little, it may be, in each one.’
‘And will she forget how to make stews with saffron upon that road?’