Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
Men agree that prostitution is an evil, and they who know
more than I do have assured me this opinion is right. But
there are many forms of prostitution, and it may be that
among the least of them is that of women, bad though that is.
I have seen men sell their souls more inexcusably than women
sell their bodies -- and with more disastrous consequences --
to themselves and to the buyer.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP
It took five Minutes to convince Diana that she was henceforth responsible for Dawa Tsering, but once that fact had been absorbed she accepted the duty without complaint. There was no whimper from the hound when Ommony accepted Maitraya's invitation to go in search of the Lama. He and Maitraya, side-by-side in a tikka-gharri [a one-horse open cab] drove through the crowded streets, now and then passing Englishmen whom Ommony knew well. Members of the mercantile community, Moslems as well as Hindus, bowed to Maitraya from open shop-windows or from the thronged sidewalk as if he were a royal personage. Men who would not have let his clothing touch them, because of the resulting caste-defilement, were eager to have it known that they were on familiar terms with him; for a popular actor is idolized not only in the West.
"You see, they know me!" said Maitraya proudly. "Men whose names I can't remember pay me homage! Actors are respected more than kings and priests -- and justly so. They rule badly and teach nonsense. It is we, who interpret -- we who hold example up to them!"
The man's vanity delivered him tied and bound to Ommony's chariot wheels. There was nothing to do but flatter him, and he would tell all he knew, accepting the flatterer as guide, philosopher and friend appointed for his comfort by the glorious gods.
"I am surprised that a man of your attainments should condescend to employment by this Lama person," said Ommony. "Of course, if you are willing, so am I, but how did it come about?"
"You would never believe. He is a very strange Lama -- more unusual than rain in hot weather or the sun at midnight; but I have a gift for attracting unusual people. By Jinendra, Gupta Rao, I have never seen the like of him -- even in these days, when everything is upside down! He has a chela by the name of Samding, who has more genius in his little finger than any dozen statesmen have in their whole bodies. Not that it would do to tell him so -- I don't believe in flattering beginners -- they can't stand it. And he lacks experience. That Lama must be a very expert teacher. The first time I met him, he was one of a crowd who watched me act 'Charudatta' in The Toy Cart -- a part that I excel in. Afterward, he invited me to witness a performance in private by his chela, and I went with him to a mysterious place kept by some Tibetans at the end of a stone courtyard -- the sort of place where you would expect to be murdered for your shoe-leather -- a place that smelt of rancid butter and incense and donkey-stables. Whoof! I shudder now, to think of it! But the chela was marvelous. Calm -- you never saw such equipoise -- such balance of all the faculties! And a voice as if a god were speaking! The middle note, true as a bell, like a gong to begin with every time, rising and lowering from that with utter certainty -- half-tones -- quarter-tones -- passion, pathos, scorn, command, exhilaration -- laughter like a peal of bells -- wait until you have heard it, Gupta Rao! You will be as thrilled as I was. You will say I did not exaggerate. Perfect! If only success doesn't turn the boy's head!"
"What language?" asked Ommony.
"Prepare to be amazed! Ancient Sanskrit -- modern Urdu -- with equal fluency and equal grace! Distinct enunciation -- and a command of gesture that expresses everything, so that you know what he will say before he speaks! But that is not all. I tell you he is marvelous! He has the modern touch. He understands how to play an ancient part so that it means something to the uninitiated. I am already jealous of him! I tell you, when that boy has had the advantage of my instruction for a while, he will be great -- the greatest actor in the world!"
"What proposal did the Lama make?" asked Ommony.
"A crazy one. I told you the man is mad. He proposes to give free entertainments -- on tour -- at places selected by himself -- for an indefinite period. I am to provide a troupe of excellent actors, for whom I am to be responsible. There are to be three women among them, but the dancers will be provided by the Lama, as also the music, and Samding the chela is to play the leading female parts."
"I'm surprised he takes any women at all," said Ommony. "There's a prejudice against actresses. They're always a nuisance. Properly trained boys are better. If a man plays leading woman, the women will only make him look absurd by contrast."
"Well, that is his affair. I suggested that, but the Lama insisted. And mad though he undoubtedly is, he knows his own mind, and is shrewd in some respects. I lied to Benjamin when I said I had not asked for money in advance. I did my best to hold out for that -- naturally. But I suspect the Lama knows a lot about me, and he certainly knows Benjamin; he told me to go to Benjamin and to get what credit I may need from him. Do you see the idea? If he and Benjamin have a private understanding, that gives him an extra hold over me -- it makes me practically powerless to oppose him in anything, however ridiculous his demands may turn out to be. You see, I have to pay Benjamin's bill. However -- here we are."
And where they were was not the least surprising feature of the mystery. The tikka-gharri drew up at an arched gate in a high wall, over which trees leaned in well cared for profusion. There were cut flowers tucked into the carving on the arch, and blossoms strewn on the sidewalk. A dozen carriages, most of them with thoroughbred horses, waited in line near the gate, and the dazzling sun projected on the white wall shadows of thirty or forty men in turbans of every imaginable color, who seemed to have nothing to do but to lounge near the entrance. Some of them nodded at Maitraya; several salaamed to him; one or two were at pains to stare insolently.
In the gateway was a fat chuprassi with a lemon-colored silk scarf, and the whitest clothes that ever any man wore -- whiter than the wall, and starched stiff. He stood guard over about fifty pairs of slippers, most of which were expensive, and nearly all of which looked new. There was no question as to what kind of a house it was -- or rather, palace; and there was music tinkling in a courtyard, which confirmed the general impression.
"Vasantasena's birthday," said Maitraya. "They began to celebrate at dawn. But what does that matter? We are not rich fools who have to race to do the fashionable thing. Our presence honors her, however late we come. Have you a present ready? Lend me a piece of gold, will you?"
"Where should I get gold?" asked Ommony -- instantly aware that he was teetering on the edge of his first mistake. Maitraya cocked a wondering eye at him; it was quite clear that he knew all about a Bhat's resources, even if the Bhat himself, for unimaginable reasons, should choose to have forgotten them.
"I will improvise a poem in her honor," Ommony explained. "Women enjoy poems, and I am good at them. Give me a glimpse of her, and then see."
"Ah, but they like the poem gilded! Women are practical! Moreover, I am no poet," said Maitraya. "Now one gold piece from each of us --"
Ommony smiled. Without the beard he looked as obstinate as ever, but humorous lines were revealed at the corners of his mouth which the beard had hidden. He decided to put his disguise to a severe test now, while the consequences of detection might not be too disastrous.
"All right," he said, kicking off his slippers under the archway and accepting the chuprassi's salaam with a patronizing nod, as if the fellow were dirt beneath his sacred feet, "I will attend to it."
Beyond the arch there was a small, paved courtyard, around the walls of which were flowers growing in painted wooden troughs. There were several tradesmen squatting there with trays of jewelry in front of them, silver and even golden images of gods, and all sorts of valuable gifts that a visitor might buy to lavish on the lady who kept house within. The tradesmen were noisy, and sarcastic when not patronized. Maitraya bridled, his vanity not proof against insinuations that he probably had squandered all his fortune long ago on much less lovely women. But one hard stare from Ommony and the banter ceased.
"I will sing a song to Vasantasena about the jackals at her gate!" he said sternly; whereat one of them offered him money, and another tried to thrust a silver image of a god into his hands. But he brushed all those offers aside.
"Shall a Bhat-Brahman take gifts from such as you?" he demanded.
"Pranam! Pranam! Paunlagi!" they murmured, raising both hands to their foreheads; whereat he blessed them, as a Brahman is obliged to, with a curt phrase that means "Victory be unto you," and he and Maitraya passed on, through another arch, into a courtyard fifty feet square. There was a fountain in the midst, around which about a dozen well dressed Hindus were gossiping.
"I would have taken the fool's money," said Maitraya. "Are you not entitled to it?"
Ommony glanced at him contemptuously. "A tiger, if he wishes, may eat mice!" he answered. "A bear may eat frogs -- if he likes them! A pig eats all things!"
Maitraya looked chastened.
There came across the courtyard, swaggering toward them, an heir to an ancient throne, in rose-pink turban and silken breeches, with silver spurs nearly six inches long, and a little black mustache on his lazy face that looked as if it had been stuck on there with glue. He whacked his long boots with a rhino-hide riding whip and rolled a little in his gait, as if it were almost too much trouble to support his vice-exhausted frame. He was for passing without notice, but Ommony stood by the fountain and mocked him. He knew that youngster -- knew him well.
"Do they still wean young princes on camel's milk and whisky in Telingana?" he asked tartly. "I have heard tales of changelings. Return, O treasure of a midwife, and hear me sing a song; I know a good one!"
The gossipers around the fountain pricked their ears. The prince seemed to come out of a day-dream. "Ah! Oh! I kiss feet!" he exclaimed, and made as if to pass on. But Ommony was determined to try his hand to a conclusion.
"Those boots are not respectful. They offend me!" he sneered. "Are they cow-skin? They look like it!"
"Oh, damn!" remarked the prince in English. "Here, take this and confer a blessing," he went on in Urdu, diving into his pocket.
"Gold!" warned Ommony. "I declare you gave gold to the woman in there. All fees are payable in gold!"
"Gold? I have none. You must take this," said the prince and passed a handful of crumpled paper money. "Pranam."
"Victory be unto you," said Ommony, accepting it, and the prince made his escape, muttering under his breath at the insolence of Brahmans, and of Bhats in particular.
"But paper money is no good," Maitraya objected. "I have paper money," he added, lying for vanity's sake.
But Ommony was creeping into the Bhat-Brahman part.
"Why didn't you say so? Go and buy mohur (1) then from the sonar [a goldsmith] at the gate," he retorted.
"Nay, Gupta Rao, you said you would provide the presents. It is only fair. You owe me a consideration. And besides, now I come to think of it, I left most of my money at home."
Ommony thrust the paper money contemptuously into Maitraya's hands, smiling in a way that spared the actor no embarrassment.
"Go and buy mohurs at the gate," he said. "I wait here."
Maitraya returned presently with four gold coins and offered two of them.
"The sonar cheated me -- he cheated like a dog!" he grumbled, but Ommony shrugged his shoulders and waved the coins aside.
"Give them all to the woman. I have another way to make her smile," he said, looking important.
Maitraya approached humility as closely as professional pride would permit.
"It occurs to me I did not ask a blessing when we first met. I crave forgiveness. Your honor was so unusually free from false pride that I overlooked the fact you are a Brahman. Pranam."
Ommony murmured the conventional curt blessing, and dismissed the apology as if it were beneath notice. They passed into another courtyard on which awninged windows opened from three sides. In a corner a dozen musicians were raising Bedlam on stringed instruments, their tune suggestive of western jazz but tainted, too, like Hawaiian music, with a nauseating missionary lilt. Fashionable India, in the shape of thirty or forty younger sons of over-rich Hindus and a sprinkling of middle-aged roues, was amusing itself in a bower of roses and strong-smelling jasmine, while in a corner of the courtyard opposite the music three girls were dancing more modestly than the scene would have led a censor of morals to expect.
It was a gorgeous scene, for the sun beat down on a blaze of turbans and the awnings cast purple shadows that made it all seem unreal, like a vision of ancient history. Maitraya was greeted noisily by a dozen men; he bowed to them right and left, as if accepting applause as he entered a stage from the wings. The girls danced more vigorously, under the eyes of an expert now, whose approval might be of more than momentary value. Professional zeal took hold of the musicians; the tune grew louder and less careless.
"Beware! Vasantasena is in a Begum's fury!" some one shouted. "None can satisfy her. Prince Govinda of Telingana gave her a quart of gold mohurs, and she sent him away because he had dared to call on her in riding boots! I advise you to try her with two quarts of gold, and to crawl on your belly!"
A stone stair gave on to the courtyard, through a doorway guarded by two tall serving-men -- immaculate, proud images of stern propriety, turbaned and sashed with blazing silk. They looked incapable of smiling, or of anything except the jobs they held, but as gilt, as it were, on the surface of sin they were unsurpassable. Ommony's disguise and manner aroused no suspicion, although swift suspicion was what they drew wages for, and they would have thrown him out into the street if as much as a suggestion had crossed their minds that he might be a European. They scrutinized Maitraya and Ommony and passed them as autocratically as if they were Masters of Ceremony passing judgment on attendants at a royal levee.
But royal levees are easier for outsiders to attend than that one was, and royalty, even in India, is shabby nowadays because its power is at most a shadow of the past and its forms mean nothing more than a cheap desire by unimportant folk to strut in a reflected pseudo-glory. Kings and conquerors go down, but whoever thinks that the power of the Pompadours has waned knows very little of the world or human nature. Vasantasena wielded more influence, and could pull more hidden wires than any dozen maharajahs, and the court she kept, if rather less splendid than a royal one, was alive with the mysterious magnetism of actual personal power. It was almost tangible, and much more visible than if she had been surrounded by men in armor.
Up-stairs there was no attempt at glittering display, but art and Old-World luxury in every considered detail.
A hall, paneled in carved teak and hung with Rawalia woven curtains and a silver lamp on heavy silver chains, conveyed no suggestion of wickedness; a Christian bishop could have trodden the soft Persian rug (had he dared) and have imagined himself in the midst of sanctity. But as Ommony and Maitraya reached the stair-head the curtains facing them across the hall were parted, and a girl peeped through whom hardly a Wahabi ascetic would associate with thoughts of Paradise. She was much too paganly aware that life is laughter, and that men are amusing creatures, to be criticized by standard formula; and she looked like a mother o' pearl Undine faintly veiled in mist -- one of those fabled spirits who may receive a human soul, perhaps, someday, by marriage with a mortal -- when she slipped out through the curtains and stood more or less revealed. She was clothed, and from head to foot, but not in obscurity.
She greeted Maitraya with a smile of recognition that suggested no familiarity. She was friendly, but perfectly sure of herself, and as sure of his unimportance. Then she glanced at Ommony, observed the caste-mark on his forehead, and made him a little mock-salaam, covering her eyes with both hands and murmuring "Pranam."
"This is Gupta Rao sahib. The Joy of Asia will be pleased to see us both," said Maitraya, assuming his courtliest air; whereat the girl laughed at him.
"She is not so easily pleased," she answered, glancing at Maitraya's hand. There was not much that her dark eyes missed. He gave her one of the gold mohurs, and then she stared straight at Ommony. Maitraya nudged him, trying to slip a mohur into his hand; but if you are to act the part of a Bhat-Brahman it is as well not to begin by bribing any one who can be overawed.
"I have a song to sing!" said Ommony. "Shall I include you in it? Shall I add a verse concerning -- "
Swiftly she drew the curtain back and, laughing impudently over-shoulder at him, signed to him rather than to Maitraya to follow her down a short wide corridor to a door at the end that stood slightly ajar and through which came a murmur of voices. Through that she led without ceremony into a square room in which half a dozen men were seated on a long cushioned divan beneath a window at the farther end. They were wealthy, important-looking men, one or two of middle age. Girls, dressed as unobscurely as the one who had acted guide, were passing to and fro with cigarettes and sitting down between whiles on heaped cushions near the men's feet. In the center of the room a white-robed Hindu was making two costumed monkeys perform tricks, solemnly watched by the men in the window, who took scant notice of Ommony and Maitraya.
Vasantasena was not there. Her richly draped divan under a peacock-colored canopy at the end of the room facing the window was vacant, although two girls with jeweled fans lounged on cushions, one on either side of it, as if she were expected to come presently. The sharp cries of the man with the monkeys and the occasional giggle of a girl punctuated an underhum of murmured conversation from the men by the window. The atmosphere was loaded with dim incense and cigarette smoke, blown into spirals of bluish mist by a punkah that swung lazily, pulled by a cord through a hole in the wall. Ommony sat down cross-legged on a cushioned couch against the wall midway between the window and Vasantasena's divan, and Maitraya followed suit. Two girls, possessed of patronizing smiles, brought cigarettes and a little golden lamp to light them by.
It was sixty seconds before Ommony grew aware of the essential fact. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke through his nose before he dared to look a second time, for fear of betraying interest. Having satisfied himself that Maitraya was studying the girls with an air of professional judgment assumed for the perfectly evident purpose of disguising a middle-aged thrill; and that after one glance none of the men in the window was in the least interested in himself, Ommony let his eyes wander again toward the darkest corner of the room beyond Vasantasena's divan. There, on a mat on the floor, sat no other than the Ringding Gelong Lama, Tsiang Samdup, with his chela Samding beside him.
They sat still, like graven images. The Lama's face was such a mass of unmoving wrinkles that it looked like a carved pine-knot with the grain exposed. He was dressed in the same snuff-colored robe that he wore when Ommony first saw him in Chutter Chand's back room, and if he was not day-dreaming, oblivious to all surroundings, he gave a marvelous imitation of it.
The chela was equally motionless, but less in shadow and his eyes were missing no detail of the scene; they were keen and bright, expressing alert intelligence, and each time Ommony looked away he was aware that they were watching him with a curiosity no less intense than his own. But they refused to meet his. Whenever he looked straight at the chela, although he could not detect movement, he was sure the eyes were looking elsewhere.
He was also very nearly sure that Samding whispered to the Lama; the calm lips parted a trifle showing beautifully even white teeth, but the Lama made no acknowledgment.
"What is the Lama doing in this place?" he asked.
"I don't know," said Maitraya, "but he told me to meet him here. Many important plans are laid in this place. Ah! Here she comes!"
Maitraya was nervous, suffering from something akin to stage-fright, which consumes the oldest actors on occasion. It was clear enough that, though he had been in the place before it was rather as an entertainer than a guest, and he was not quite sure now how to behave himself. He tried to shelter himself behind Ommony -- to push him forward as every one rose to his feet (every one, that is, except the Lama and Samding, who appeared to be glued to the mat).
But Ommony was no man's fool, to rush in where Maitraya feared to tread. He wanted time for observation. He laughed aloud and swung Maitraya forward by the elbow, arousing a ripple of merriment from the women, as a door opened behind where the Lama was sitting and Vasantasena entered to a chorus of flattering comment from every one.
She was worth running risks to see; as gracious, modest to the eye and royal-looking as her attendant women were the opposite. Her dress was not diaphanous, and not extravagant; she wore no jewelry except a heavy gold chain reaching from her shoulders to her waist, long earrings of aquamarine, plain gold bangles on her wrists, and one heavy jeweled bracelet on her right ankle. From head to knees she was draped in a pale blue silk shawl that glittered with sequins.
By far her most remarkable feature was her eyes, that were as intelligent as Samding's, or almost; but her whole face was lit up with intelligence, though as for good looks in the commonplace acceptance of the term, there was none. She was too dynamic to be pretty; too imperious to arouse impertinent emotions. She was of the type that could have ruled a principality of Rajasthan, in the days before those hotbeds of feudalism went under in a cycle of decay.
She took her seat under the canopy, settled herself on one elbow among the cushions, with, one small henna-stained foot projecting over the edge of the divan, noticed Maitraya and suddenly smiled. That explained her. Her smile was the miracle of Asia -- the expression of the spirit of the East that so few casual observers catch -- a willingness to laugh -- a knowledge that the whole pageant of life is only maya [delusion] after all and not to be taken too seriously -- satisfaction that the sins of this life may be wiped out in the next, and the next, and that all inequalities adjust themselves ultimately. The true philosophy is sterner stuff than that; but it was impossible to see that smile of hers and not understand why men of the world paid her homage and tribute; she could see through any make-believe, and pardon any crime but impudence. One could see how she wielded more power than a thousand priests, and would very likely work less evil in the end, although fools were likely to go to swifter ruin in her company than elsewhere. She had force of character, and that is very bad for fools.
Maitraya bowed and stepped forward (for Ommony shoved him). The birthday tribute she had levied already that morning lay in a silver bowl on a little table to her right; Maitraya advanced to add his mite to it, bowed to her profoundly as he passed, and dropped his coins on top of the yellow heap, murmuring platitudes.
"Three mohurs!" exclaimed one of the fan-girls, and the men near the window laughed.
"Liar!" Maitraya cried indignantly. "I threw in five!"
"Three!" the girl repeated, laughing scornfully, whereat every other woman in the room except Vasantasena, who ignored the whole transaction, mocked him and he went and sat down on the floor near the Lama with his back against the wall, scowling as if poison and daggers were his only joy.
That left Ommony on his feet, wondering whether the Powers, that had treated him exceedingly well in all emergencies until that moment, would still stand by. It would not be correct to say his heart was in his mouth; it was pumping like a big ship's engines, humming in his ears, and if it had not suddenly occurred to him that this woman was possibly one of the Lama's agents for the traffic in white children he might have surrendered to nervousness. He forgot that she was too young to have had any hand in the incidents that Benjamin had told about -- remembered only that the Lama was there in her house, and that a Bhat-Brahman's tongue should be readier than nitroglycerine to go off and shake the pillars of any society.
"O Brighter than the stars! -- O Shadow of Parvarti! -- O Dew upon the Jasmine blossoms!" he began. "I bring a greater gift than gold."
He was surprised by the ringing arrogance of his own voice. Vasantasena smiled. No man that day had dared to come empty-handed, yet with his mouth so full of brave words. The company had bored her. Here was a man who held out promise of amusement.
"What is greater than gold?" she inquired in tones that came rolling from her throat like organ-music. And on the instant he challenged her.
"Reputation!" he answered. "Shall I sing thine? For thou and I are both from Rajasthan, O Moon of men's desire!"
She frowned and did not answer for a moment. It is quite in order to sing poems to a lady on her birthday, but it is not bad policy sometimes to know the words of the poem before giving a Bhat-Brahman leave to sing; what scandal they don't know they are almost always willing to invent.
"What is thy name?" she inquired, smiling again.
Her brows grew reminiscent, as if the name suggested vague connection with the past. She seemed not quite able to place it, but the men in the window scented a delicious piece of scandal and began calling for the song, and that naturally settled it; she was not going to be made foolish before a crowd.
"Did you not come with Maitraya?" she asked quietly. "Is your business not with Tsiang Samdup?"
"Subject to the Mirror of Heaven's smile," said Ommony, making an obeisance that verged on the brink of mockery.
She raised her voice, not very loud, but so that it vibrated with power:
"The noblemen who have honored me will find good entertainment in the inner courtyard. I will send down word as soon as I crave to rejoice in your lordships' smiles again!"
Without a murmur the guests got to their feet and bowed themselves out; if she had been an empress they could not have been more complacently obedient. They went with side-glances at Ommony and nods to one another, implying that a great deal went on at times in that room that they would give their ears to know, but on the whole they more resembled overgrown children turned out to,play than middle-aged, bearded courtiers given temporary leave of absence.
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