Seven years have elapsed.
The same scene.
Curtain discovers mah phru seated on a high verandah. A clearance has been made in the surrounding trees to give a full view of the road beyond. She is watching, always watching. With her are two beautiful little boys.
“To-day, perhaps,” she murmurs. “Perhaps to-morrow; but without fail—one day.”
“Look!” she cries. “At last my lord returns!”
Coming up the jungle road, in view of the audience, are a bevy of horsemen.
mah phru, wondering, descends to greet them. Enter u. rai gyan thoo. He is dressed all in white, which is Burmese mourning. mah phru sinks back—she fears the worst. The old man reassures her. He tells her that meng beng has sent for his sons—that the Queen is dead, and there is no heir.
“Queen? What Queen?” demands mah phru.
“The Queen of Burmah.”
So mah phru learns for the first time that her lover is the ruler of the country, supreme master of and dictator to everyone.
Weeping, but not daring to disobey, she summons the children to her; then, sinking on her knees, entreats in moving and pathetic words to be permitted to go with them, in the lowest most menial capacity. u. rai gyan thoo refuses. There is no place for her in the greatness of the world yonder. “Even Kings forget,” he says. “It is the command of the supreme Lord of the Earth and of the Sky that she remain where she is.”
Then he orders his followers to make the necessary arrangements for the safe journey of their future king and his brother.
The children stand passive in their gay dress, but are bewildered and afraid.
mah phru has risen to her feet. She appears as if turned to bronze—a model of restraint and dignity, blent with colour and beauty and infinite grace.
the curtain descends slowly
The same night.
The home of the Chinese Wizard, hip loong, by the river—a place fitted with Chinese things: Dragons of gold with eyes of jade gleaming from out dim corners, Buddhas of gigantic size fashioned of priceless metals with heads that move, swinging banners with fringes of many-coloured stones, lanterns with glass slides on which are painted grotesque figures. The air is full of the scent of joss sticks. The Wizard reclines on a divan, inhaling opium slowly, clothed with the subdued gorgeousness of China—blue and tomato-red predominate. He has the appearance of a wrinkled walnut. His forehead is a lattice-work of wrinkles. His pigtail, braided with red, is twisted round his head. His hands are as claws. The effect is weird, unearthly.
Enter mah phru.
The Wizard silently motions her to some piled-up cushions at a little distance. He listens to what she tells him. He appears unmoved, at a recital apparently full of tragedy. Only the eyes of the dragons move, and the heads of the Buddhas go slowly like pendulums. When she has finished speaking, hip loong makes reply.
“This is how passion always ends. I have lived for a thousand years; and on this planet it is ever the same.”
mah phru is not listening.
“How can I go to my children?” she demands, once again.
“I can turn you into a bird,” the Wizard says. “You can fly to the palace and walk and watch ever on that terrace in the rose gardens above the sea.”
“What bird?” she asks, trembling.
“You shall have the form of the white paddy bird, because, though a woman and foolish as women ever are, you are very pure ivory. O! daughter of man and of love.”
To this mah phru dissents. She paces the long room.
“Transform me into a peacock; they are more beautiful.”
The Wizard, leaning on his elbow, smiles, and the smile is a revelation of a mocking comprehension.
“So be it.” He bows his head.
The lights fade one by one.
The Gardens of the Palace of the King.
Time: late afternoon.
Colonnades of roses stretch away on every side. Fountains play, throwing a shower on water-lilies of monstrous size. Peacocks walk with stately tread across the green turf. Only one, larger and more beautiful than the rest, is perched alone, with drooping head and folded tail, on the broad-pillared terrace that overhangs the sea. The scene is aglow with light and colour, yet holds a shadowed silence.
Enter some courtiers, who converse in perturbed fashion as they go towards the Palace.
Enter moung pho mhin and u. rai gyan thoo, accompanied by the Court Physicians and Astrologers.
“The King cannot live beyond the night,” the Physicians say. The sudden, mysterious illness that has attacked him defies their skill.
The Astrologers declare that the stars in their courses fight against his recovery; unless a miracle should happen, the new day will see him dead.
The Ministers regard each other in consternation; then walk the terrace with bent heads.
The peacock on the wall spreads its tail and utters a melancholy cry of poignant pain.
The listeners start in superstitious horror.
The peacock folds its tail and resumes its meditations.
“That bird is not as other birds,” one astrologer declares. “I have watched it for years past—it is ever alone—the others all avoid it. I think it has a soul.”
“You mistake,” replies his colleague; “it is but an evil Nat. ((Fairy.)) Observe its eyes: they are not those of a bird; they are those of a spirit in prison.”
They pass on in the wake of the ministers.
The peacock closes its eyes.
Enter the two young princes, accompanied by two great Pegu hounds. They converse in subdued tones, strolling slowly. They are followed by pages of honour, carrying grain, which the young men proceed to distribute amongst the birds as they rapidly approach them. The peacock on the wall never stirs; she watches the young men always. Then the elder one comes with a handful of food and proffers it, but the peacock does not eat.
“I shall never understand you, Queen of the Kingdom of Birds,” he says, and strokes her feathers. At his touch the plumage scintillates with a brighter, a more exquisite sheen.
He murmurs to the bird in soft tones and mythical words. He tells it that the fear of everyone is that the King is mortally stricken, for he lies yonder in most strange and evil agony; that the hearts of himself and his brother are numb with the sorrow that knows no language. The bird listens eagerly. And if the King should go, he, the speaker, will reign in his stead. The prospect fills him with fear. He desires, as also his brother, if the King must die, to return to dwell in the forest with the mother who he knows awaits them there.
The peacock spreads its wings as if for flight, then crouches down once more, and over it watches the young prince.
The sun envelops them both in a sudden shaft of rose and purple and gold. A servant descends and comes across the grass. He shikoes profoundly to the two young men, lifting up his hands in the deepest reverence of Burmah.
“The Lord of the Earth and the Sky desires his sons; he nears the Great Unknown.”
The retreat of hip loong, the Wizard.
Time: the same night.
The curtain discovers mah phru, who has returned to human form, and the Wizard together.
He tells her that he has restored her to her former state only because she has implored him to do so; that her life is measured by hours as a consequence of such insensate folly in breaking the vow of five years back.
“But the King will live,” she murmurs.
“The King will live. He will find happiness with someone fairer than you. That is well. Your life for his. It is the price.”
“The price is nothing. Have I not looked on my heart’s beloved one for five years—looked on his face—heard his voice—trembled with joy at his footsteps? Have I not waited and watched? Have I not gazed on my sons and seen their royal bearing, and known their touch?”
“You are, then, content?”
“You are a Wizard—you can read that I am.”
“It is not I that am a Wizard—it is Love. That is the only Wizard this world knows.”
The bed-chamber of the King—vast and shadowy. On heaped-up cushions and covers of yellow and blue, under a pearl-sewn creamy velvet baldaquin, embroidered with peacocks, lies meng beng, mortally stricken; his face bears the ashen pallor that only dark skins know. The ministers, the servants, the courtiers, the countless motley gathering of an Eastern Court are scattered in anxious groups, watching, waiting, murmuring. Only the space near the couch is clear. Without, the dawn breaks over the sea, and, stealing through the opening, makes the great chamber flush till it looks like porphyry.
The tolling of a deep gong and the voices of a myriad birds invade the throbbing silence of the Palace.
“He passes,” murmur the physicians. Everyone’s gaze turns to the dying man.
“Yet his star is in the ascendant,” say the astrologers. The risen sun touches him with its light like a caress. He opens his eyes. His sons advance. They raise him high on his cushions and give a restorative. The end has come. Suddenly he rallies slightly.
The doors at the far end are rudely opened. A woman, young and lovely, advances, thrusting roughly aside the many hands stretched out to bar her path.
She reaches the King.
“I bring you life, Star of my Soul,” she cries, “I bring you life,” and so saying, falls dead at his feet.
The Courtiers rush forward.
The King rises.
He stands erect.
The sun lies like a golden benediction over all.
The whole world of birds sing.
the curtain falls