XI. IN THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
"Do you know anything about josses?"
"Yes; idols, Japanese idols, - josses." "Something," I answered, "but not very much."
"Well, come, and look at my collection, won't you? I've been collecting josses for twenty years, and I've got some worth seeing. They're not for sale, though, - except to the British Museum."
I followed the curio dealer through the bric-a-brac of his shop, and across a paved yard into an unusually large go-down(1). Like all go-downs it was dark: I could barely discern a stairway sloping up through gloom. He paused at the foot.
"You'll be able to see better in a moment," he said. "I had this place built expressly for them; but now it is scarcely big enough. They're all in the second story. Go right up; only be careful, - the steps are bad."
I climbed, and reached a sort of gloaming, under a very high roof, and found myself face to face with the gods.
In the dusk of the great go-down the spectacle was more than weird: it was apparitional. Arhats and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the shapes of a mythology older than they, filled all the shadowy space; not ranked by hierarchies, as in a temple, but mingled without order, as in a silent panic. Out of the wilderness of multiple heads and broken aureoles and hands uplifted in menace or in prayer, - a shimmering confusion of dusty gold half lighted by cobwebbed air-holes in the heavy walls, - I could at first discern little; then, as the dimness cleared, I began to distinguish personalities. I saw Kwannon, of many forms; Jizo, of many names; Shaka, Yakushi, Amida, the Buddhas and their disciples. They were very old; and their art was not all of Japan, nor of any one place or time: there were shapes from Korea, China, India, - treasures brought over sea in the rich days of the early Buddhist missions. Some were seated upon lotos-flowers, the lotos-flowers of the Apparitional Birth. Some rode leopards, tigers, lions, or monsters mystical, - typifying lightning, typifying death. One, triple-headed and many-handed, sinister and splendid, seemed moving through the gloom on a throne of gold, uplifted by a phalanx of elephants. Fudo I saw, shrouded and shrined in fire, and Maya-Fujin, riding her celestial peacock; and strangely mingling with these Buddhist visions, as in the anachronism of a Limbo, armored effigies of Daimyo and images of the Chinese sages. There were huge forms of wrath, grasping thunderbolts, and rising to the roof: the Deva-kings, like impersonations of hurricane power; the Ni-O, guardians of long-vanished temple gates. Also there were forms voluptuously feminine: the light grace of the limbs folded within their lotos-cups, the suppleness of the fingers numbering the numbers of the Good Law, were ideals possibly inspired in some forgotten tune by the charm of an Indian dancing-girl. Shelved against the naked brickwork above, I could perceive multitudes of lesser shapes: demon figures with eyes that burned through the dark like the eyes of a black cat, and figures half man, half bird, winged and beaked like eagles, - the Tengu of Japanese fancy.
"Well?" queried the curio dealer, with a chuckle of satisfaction at my evident surprise.
"It is a very great collection," I responded.
He clapped his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed triumphantly in my ear, "Cost me fifty thousand dollars."
But the images themselves told me how much more was their cost to forgotten piety, notwithstanding the cheapness of artistic labor in the East. Also they told me of the dead millions whose pilgrim feet had worn hollow the steps leading to their shrines, of the buried mothers who used to suspend little baby-dresses before their altars, of the generations of children taught to murmur prayers to them, of the countless sorrows and hopes confided to them. Ghosts of the worship of centuries had followed them into exile; a thin, sweet odor of incense haunted the dusty place.
"What would you call that?" asked the voice of the curio dealer. "I've been told it's the best of the lot."
He pointed to a figure resting upon a triple golden lotos, - Avalokitesvara: she "who looketh down above the sound of prayer."... Storms and hate give way to her name. Fire is quenched by her name. Demons vanish at the sound of her name. By her name one may stand firm in the sky, like a sun.... The delicacy of the limbs, the tenderness of the smile, were dreams of the Indian paradise.
"It is a Kwannon," I made reply, "and very beautiful."
"Somebody will have to pay me a very beautiful price for it," he said, with a shrewd wink. "It cost me enough! As a rule, though, I get these things pretty cheap. There are few people who care to buy them, and they have to be sold privately, you know: that gives me an advantage. See that Jizo in the corner, - the big black fellow? What is it?"
"Emmei-Jizo," I answered, - "Jizo, the giver of long life. It must be very old."
"Well," he said, again taking me by the shoulder, "the man from whom I got that piece was put in prison for selling it to me."
Then he burst into a hearty laugh, - whether at the recollection of his own cleverness in the transaction, or at the unfortunate simplicity of the person who had sold the statue contrary to law, I could not decide.
"Afterwards," he resumed, "they wanted to get it back again, and offered me more, than I had given for it. But I held on. I don't know everything about josses, but I do know what they are worth. There isn't another idol like that in the whole country. The British Museum will be glad to get it."
"When do you intend to offer the collection to the British Museum?" I presumed to ask.