Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
The most important thing is Silence. In the Silence Wisdom speaks, and they whose hearts are open understand her. The brave man is at the mercy of cowards, and the honest man at the mercy of thieves, unless he keep silence. But if he keep silence he is safe, because, they will fail to understand him; and then he may do them good without their knowing it, which is a source of true humor and contentment.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.
"ALL THIS IN THE SPACE OF ONE
The girls took the seat in the window the men had vacated, and sprawled there like sirens on a rock. Even the fan-girls joined them. It was quite clear there was a secret in the air; the ostentatious way in which the girls kept up a low-voiced chatter to show they were not listening was proof enough of that. Vasantasena lay on the wide divan with a cushion beneath her breast and her chin on both hands, considering Ommony for several minutes before she spoke, presumably curious to know why he had come with Maitraya; possibly she thought the silence and the stare would break him down and make him offer an explanation, but he met her eyes with challenging indifference. Silence is the only safe answer to Silence.
"Tsiang Samdup," she said at last, "let the girls put your mat here in front of me."
But the Lama would not move. He shook his head. And Samding spoke:
"The holy Lama knows where it is best to sit. He is not to be moved for convenience."
The voice was no more astonishing than is anything else that sets a key-note. It was like the rhythm of a tuning-fork. It changed the key -- the very atmosphere, asserting fundamental fact, to which everything else must adjust itself or be out of harmony. Vasantasena raised her eyebrows, but yielded and changed her position so as to face the Lama, signing to Ommony to squat down on a cushion beside Maitraya; which was disappointing, because it prevented him from watching the Lama's face. He could see Samding's profile beyond Maitraya's only through the corner of his eye, but he marveled at that; it was as beautiful as a figure of the Buddha done in porcelain.
"If I am to let my piece of jade go," Vasantasena asked at last, "what reward have I?"
"None," said the Lama; and that was another fundamental statement, issuing in a voice like the gong that starts the engines. It left nothing whatever to argue about.
"Then why should I do it?" Vasantasena asked.
"Because you wish to do it, and the wish is wise," the Lama answered, as if he were replying to the question of a little child.
"How do you know I wish to do it?"
"How do you know you are alive?" the Lama retorted.
Vasantasena laughed. "I believe you know where you can sell it!" she said, in an obvious effort to lower the conversation to a plane on which she might have the advantage.
"I know you do not believe that," said the Lama.
Vasantasena sighed. "How do you learn such knowledge?" she asked. "You seem to know everything. I am not ignorant. A hundred men come here, and none of them can make a fool of me, but --"
"Perhaps you are not a fool," the Lama interrupted.
"No, I am not a fool. I can whisper a word here and a word there, and some of the evil that would have been done dies still-born -- and some of the good that might never have been born has birth. And as for me, what does it matter? And yet -- sometimes I think it does matter about me. And sometimes I think I will give all my money to the poor --"
"And rob them," said the Lama.
"Rob them of what?" She stared at him blankly.
"Of the moment. It is not wise to deprive them of the moment. At the moment of our utmost need, we learn."
"Yours is a heartless creed," she retorted, glancing at the money in the bowl beside her. "That money would feed a thousand people."
"Nothing is heartless," said the Lama. "It is better to eat consequences now than to put off the day of retribution. Better the sting of an insect now than a serpent's bite a year hence. Better an experience in this life than a thousand-fold the bitterness in lives to come."
"What says the Bhat to that?" she asked suddenly, glancing at Ommony, and Samding came out of his immobility to give one swift searching glance sidewise.
Privilege has its disadvantages. It is one of the obligations of a Bhat that when appealed to he must say something; and the quicker he says it, the better for his reputation.
"I am not your priest. You would like to quote me against him, but I am only interested in learning why I was brought here," Ommony answered.
Vasantasena sneered. "Just like a Bhat! You think of nothing but your own convenience. Well, I am glad there is none of your money in my birthday bowl. Rather I will give you some of it. Here -- help yourself."
"It is unclean money," said Ommony, falling back on the caste-rules that a Bhat may observe if he chooses, even if the other Brahmans refuse him recognition.
"Is that true?" she asked the Lama. "This is not all. I am rich. I have lakhs and lakhs."
"It is yours," the Lama answered. "It is your responsibility."
"Well," she said, "as I told you before, if you will take it all, you may have it. I am about to become Sanyasin (1). I think the piece of jade will help me more than all my money. I will keep the jade."
"I will not take your money," said the Lama. "Nor can you escape responsibility. There is a Middle Way, and the middle of it lies before you."
Vasantasena frowned, her chin on both hands, studying the Lama's face. His bright old eyes looked straight back at her out of a mass of wrinkles, but he did not move; if he smiled, there were too many wrinkles for any one to be quite sure of it.
"Well -- I will call the girls," she said at last. "I will test you. You must tell me from which of them I received the piece of jade."
She clapped her hands and the girls came hurrying from the far end of the room, standing in a line self-consciously. They were used to being admired, and it was quite in keeping with the probabilities that every one of them had been bought and sold at some early stage of her career, but there was novelty in this ordeal, and they did not seem to know what to make of it.
"That one," said Vasantasena, nodding at the nearest, "is much the most popular."
"She has no other merit," said the Lama, and the girl looked bewildered -- piqued.
"And that one at the other end is the cleverest. She has the quickest wit of all of them. She might have stolen it."
"If so she would have kept it," said the Lama, watching the girls' faces. "The fourth from this end. She is the one. Let the others go."
At a nod from Vasantasena, eight girls returned to the window-seat and one stood still. She was the same who had admitted Maitraya and Ommony, only now all her self-possession had departed; she seemed to fear the Lama as a cornered dove fears a snake. She was trembling.
"Why are you afraid?" the Lama asked, as gently as if he were talking to a woman he would woo; but the girl made a gesture to her mistress for protection from him.
"She is afraid because you have read rightly," said Vasantasena. "I, too, am afraid. Are you in league with gods or devils?"
"That is not well," said the Lama. "Whom have I harmed?"
"You are too wise," said Vasantasena."
"Macauley the Eurasian had the stone," the Lama went on in a booming voice. "A certain person gave it to him in a package yesterday, to take it to Simla and thence to Tilgaun. That would have been well. But Macauley the Eurasian was weak and dallied with a woman --"
"No Eurasian has ever been in my house!" Vasantasena interrupted, flaring.
"And the woman had a husband; and the husband was a Sudra (2) who was seeking education from a Brahman, so he gave the piece of jade to him. And the Brahman came hither, and boasted -- and took opium --"
"He brought the drug with him. I never gave any man opium!" Vasantasena interrupted.
"And she took the stone from him and brought it to you. All this in the space of one night," said the Lama.
"But how do you know?"
"I do know."
"How do you know it was this girl?"
"She is the only one who would have given it to you. Any of the others would have kept it."
Ommony managed to master his emotions somehow, but it was not easy, for here was proof of a system of spying that out-spied the Secret Service. How had the Lama learned that the stone had been entrusted to McGregor, to be given in turn to Macauley, to be taken to Tilgaun? Given that much information in the first place it might have been comparatively easy to trace the stone afterward, but -- McGregor had surely not talked. Macauley and McGregor's sais were the only possibilities.
Vasantasena groped under the cushions and brought out the piece of jade -- the same piece that had been in Ommony's possession; there was no mistaking its peculiar shape, or the deep-sea green translucence. The expression of Samding's face changed for a moment; he actually blinked and smiled, and the smile was as attractive as the marvel of the stone. Vasantasena noticed it.
"Give me your chela in exchange!" she said suddenly. "I could endure that chela! He is almost fit to be a god. He needs only passion to awaken him. I can not understand this stone, which makes me dizzy to look into it, and dark with fear of myself. The chela makes me feel there is a future. I can look into his eyes and know that all wisdom is attainable. I will teach him passion, and he shall teach me pure desire."
The Lama chuckled engagingly. His wrinkles multiplied and his smile was as full of amusement as a Chinese fisherman's. "Ask him," he said.
Vasantasena smiled at Samding -- that same smile that had explained the secret of her influence. It promised unrestraint, indulgence without limit, and thereafter forgiveness. She held up the stone in her right hand, ready to exchange.
"A bargain?" she asked eagerly.
"No" -- one monosyllable, abrupt and clear -- F natural exactly in the middle of the note. A golden gong could not have answered more finally or with less regard for consequences.
Vasantasena started as if stung. Her eyes flashed and her mood changed into savagery like a stirred snake's. The girl who was still standing before her shrank and half-smothered a scream. Maitraya ducked instantly with his face behind his hands. Vasantasena flung the stone at Samding straight and hard. It struck him in the breast, but if it hurt, he gave no sign. He covered the stone with both hands for a moment, as if caressing it, wiped it carefully on a corner of his robe, and passed it to the Lama, who secreted it in his bosom as matter-of-factly as if the entire proceeding were exactly what he had expected.
"Go!" Vasantasena ordered hoarsely. "Begone from here! Never darken my door again! Go, all of you -- you, and you -- what is a dog of an actor doing here? A Bhat! A Bhat -- a casteless Brahman! You defile my house! A gang of devil-worshipers! Girls -- call the men-servants and throw them out!"
But the Lama was quite unhurried. He got up from the mat and blessed Vasantasena sonorously in Tibetan, which she did not understand; it might have been a curse for all she knew. Samding rolled up the mat. Maitraya got behind the Lama for protection; and the girls hesitated to obey the order to use violence on any one as sacred as a Lama, or as dangerous as a Bhat. The Lama led the way out of the room with his skirts swinging majestically, and Ommony brought up the rear, aware that the danger was by no means over. He paused in the door and met Vasantasena's furious stare.
"Shall I summon the guests from below?" he inquired; for that was the one risk he wanted to avoid. If he proposed it, she might forbid. "They would like to hear me sing a song of this!" he added.
"Go!" she screamed. "I will have you stabbed! I will have you --"
"Shall I sing to them in the courtyard?" he asked; and as she choked, trying to force new threats out of her throat, he shut the door behind him and hurried to follow the Lama, dreading what mood might overtake her during the minute or two before they could reach the street.
But the Lama would not make haste, although Maitraya urged him in sibilant undertones. In the courtyard he chose to think the greetings called out to Maitraya were intended for himself and bowed, bestowing blessings right and left. Then solemnly and very slowly, as if walking were as mathematically exact a process as the precession of the equinox, he led the way into the outer courtyard, where he stood for a moment and studied the fountain as if it contained the answer to the riddle of the universe. The sound of running footsteps did not break his meditation, or upset the equanimity of Samding, but Maitraya, glancing over-shoulder, started for the gate, and Ommony, muttering "Oh, my God!" had to steel himself not to follow. The two enormous sashed and turbaned janitors who kept the stairway to Vasantasena's upper room came shouting from the inner court -- shouting to the man on guard at the outer gate; and Ommony's blood ran cold.
But they stopped shouting when they caught sight of the Lama -- stopped running -- stopped gesticulating. Very humbly they approached him, offering a present from Vasantasena -- gold in a silken bag, and a smaller bag of gold for Gupta Rao the Bhat, with a request that he should remember the donor kindly. They pressed the presents -- followed to the gate, imploring, swearing their mistress would take deep offense and think it an ill-omen if the gold were not accepted. When the Lama and Ommony persisted in refusing they tried to force both presents on Samding, and even followed to the street, where they snatched the flowers that were tucked into the carving of the arch and thrust them into the Lama's hands. Not until a strange, old-fashioned one-horse carriage with shuttered sides drew up at the gate and the Lama and Samding stepped into it, signing to Ommony and Maitraya to follow, was it possible to escape from the clamorous importunity; and even when the carriage drove away the voices followed after.
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