The Ninth Buddha

by Daniel Easterman

By the same author

The Last Assassin

The Seventh Sanctuary


Copyright © Daniel Easterman 1988 All rights reserved. 



‘..  . twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle..  ..”

W. B Yeats, The Second Coming’


Hexham, England, December 1920 Snow had fallen in the night, a stark white emblem of another world, purity lost and stranded in the depths of our humanity.

Above Causey Hill, a white, bloated fog hung like a freezing shroud.  The long, low lights of Advent huddled in the cold and gloom, extinguishing their flames in preparation for the mystery that was to come.  In halls and cottages, the fires of Christmas were emblazoned with frost and rimmed with soot.  In village squares, in the ancient gathering darkness, ice formed on newly erected monuments to ten million dead.

Night and the expectation of night to come, the great untrammelled dark barking and whispering beneath the eaves all winter long, the dull onslaught of mystery in the hard, silent heart of an unredeemed and unforgiving world.  God and the expectation of God to come.  The Lord of light and darkness would return as he had always done, born into the freezing flesh of the dying year.

The Prince of Peace would come into a world freshly awakened from a nightmare of slaughter in which whole armies of innocents had died, a world at whose bloodletting even Herod might have blanched.  It was harder now than it had ever been.

In the soft, candled interior of St.  Mary’s, evening mass was reaching its climax.  In view of the bad weather, it had been decided to hold a second mass that day, for those who had not been able to attend in the morning.  The ancient liturgy unfolded its mysteries among the shadows.  At the altar, the violet-coloured vestments of the priest enhanced the darkness as his voice enhanced the silence.

Holding the chalice in his left hand, the priest made the sign of the cross with his right.

Benedixit, deditque discipuhs suis, dicens: Accipite, et bibite ex co omnes.

He raised the chalice, blood mixed with water, wine

Hie est emm Cahx Sangmms met .. . for this is the chalice of my blood...

Christopher Wylam sat in the last row of worshippers, rising with them and sitting again, intoning the responses, telling his beads, inhaling the wafted incense.  His son William sat beside him, tiny fingers echoing his father’s, speaking what he knew of the responses.  William was ten, but he carried himself like an older child, as though he already knew a little of what life held in store for him.

His father was something of an enigma to the boy.  Until fourteen months ago, Christopher had been little more than a name to the boy.  William still remembered the photographs in his mother’s room at Carfax, the house just outside Hexham where they lived with Aunt Harriet and his three cousins, Roger, Charles and Annabel.  He had never been able to relate the man in those faded prints to the shadowy figure he had last seen at the age of three, waving sadly to him and his mother as their crowded train pulled slowly out of Delhi Station.

But he remembered almost nothing of Delhi now, only little things, like snatches of dreams: an old ayah bending over him and singing softly into the throbbing night, a toy elephant on wheels that he had pulled along behind him on a length of string, great white mosquito nets suspended in the hot air above his cot.

Christopher had returned to William’s world only to shatter it, a stranger in strange garb, claiming him for his own.  The boy remembered his mother’s feverish excitement as the hour of Christopher’s return drew closer the dangerously flushed cheeks, the sunken eyes bright with thoughts of his homecoming.  He himself had hoped for a soldier coming home from the war at last, wearing a uniform and bright medals that would catch the sun.

“Bye, Baby Bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting,” his mother had sung in the nights to him when he was small, exorcizing the fatherless dark.

“Gone to fetch a rabbit-skin to wrap a Baby Bunting in.”  But he had been met at the gate by a quiet man in civilian dress, a man who had no tales of heroism to tell and no medals for his son to polish.

William’s disappointment had been keen.  His cousins had not helped:

their father, William’s Uncle Adam, had been killed at the

Somme three years before.  His photographs, draped in black crepe, took pride of place on the high mantelpieces at Carfax; his medals lay on velvet in a glass case in the hall; and a tablet to his memory stood just left of the altar at St.  Mary’s.

Roger and Charles made William’s life a misery.  They mocked his father, who, they said, had never been a soldier at all; or, if he had, must have sat at a desk in India throughout the war a sort of conchie, really.  Once, they had left a white feather on William’s bed, bearing a little hand-made label: “For your father’.

All this might have been hard enough for a boy of nine to bear.

But his father’s return coincided with the beginning of his mother’s last struggle against the illness that had been consuming her for the past eighteen months.

“The decline’, people said when they thought William was not listening, and he could tell from the way they averted their eyes that they expected the worst.  She had kept going for the past six months in anticipation of Christopher’s return.  He had seen it in her eyes each time he visited her in her cold bedroom: a violent craving that exalted and exhausted her.

Two months after Christopher’s arrival, just before Christmas, when everyone seemed to be preparing for festivity, for new birth in an old world, his mother died in her sleep.

Though he knew it to be unjust, William blamed his father for her death.  And Christopher himself earned a measure of guilt about with him that only served to reinforce his son’s unspoken accusation.  The truth was that he felt awkward with the boy and unable to come to terms with his wife’s death.  Explanations were beyond him.  In the hard winter that followed, he would walk for hours across cold, infertile fields, seeking to resolve his guilt or at least pacify it for a while.  He kept a painful distance between himself and the boy.

Spring had thawed the fields and laid the first flowers on Elizabeth’s grave, but it had done nothing to bring father and son closer.  It was decided that William should go to Winchester that autumn.  And then, abruptly, all that had changed.  One day, while Christopher was in Hexham with his sister Harriet, William went unobserved to his father’s room and opened his desk.  What was he looking for?  He himself could not have answered that.  In a sense, he was looking for his father. And in a sense he found him.

Inside a drawer in the top right-hand corner, he found a small

red box among a pile of papers.  On the lid was the royal crest, and inside lay a medal in the shape of a cross.  William recognized it at once: the Victoria Cross.  He had seen a reproduction of it in a magazine during the war.  In an envelope next to the box was a letter from Buckingham Palace, in which Major Christopher Wylam was commended in the highest terms for ‘exceptional bravery in service to his King and Country’.

For days William was torn between excitement at his discovery and guilt about the means by which he had come by it.  On the Sunday, after church, he confessed to his father: by now he needed an explanation more than he feared any possible punishment.  And that afternoon, for the first time, they talked in Christopher’s study until the fire died down and turned to ashes.

Christopher told the boy that there was more to war than pitched battles or tanks or aeroplanes; that the war he had fought in India had been lonely and diseased and treacherous; and that what he now told William must remain an inviolate secret between them.

From that day, they had begun to draw close, each sharing the other’s grief at last, as far as possible.  It was agreed that William ought to stay at least another year at Carfax, after which they would decide whether he should go away to school at all.  When summer came, there were roses on Elizabeth’s grave.

They had reached the Paternoster.  The priest recited the familiar prayer aloud, his lips moving with rich and

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