Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

The man who knows he is ignorant is at no disadvantage if he permits a wise man to do the thinking; because the wise man knows that neither advantage to one or disadvantage to another comes at all within the scope of wisdom, and he will govern himself accordingly. But he who seeks to outwit wisdom adds to ignorance presumption; and that is a combination that the gods do not love.

-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.

Chapter XII

"ALL THINGS END -- EVEN CARRIAGE RIDES."

The heat inside the carriage was stifling. No breeze came through the slats that formed the sides, but they had the advantage that one could see out, and sufficient light streamed through to show the Lama's face distinctly at close quarters. The Lama sat perched on the rear seat with Samding beside him, both of them cross-legged like Buddhas, but the front seat was as narrow as a knife-board, and in the space between there was hardly room for Ommony's and Maitraya's legs. Faces were so close that the utmost exercise of polite manners could hardly have prevented staring, and Ommony took full advantage of it.

But the Lama seemed unconscious of being looked at, making no effort to avoid Ommony's eyes, although Samding kept his face averted and stared between the slats at the crowd on the sidewalks. The Lama's eyes were motionless, fixed on vacancy somewhere through Ommony's head and beyond it; they were blue eyes, not brown as might have been expected -- blue aging into gray -- the color of the northern sky on windy afternoons.

The horse clop-clopped along the paved street leisurely, the clink of a loose shoe adding a tantalizing punctuation to the rhythm, and a huge blow-fly buzzed disgustingly until it settled at last on the Lama's nose.

"That is not the right place," he remarked then in excellent English, and with a surprisingly deft motion of his right hand slapped the fly out through the slats. He smiled at Ommony, who pretended not to understand him; for the most important thing at the moment, seemed to be to discover whether or not the Lama had guessed his identity and, if not, to preserve the secret as long as possible. From a pouch at his waist that Benjamin had thoughtfully provided he produced pan [a preparation of betel-nut] and began to chew it -- an offensive habit that he hated, but one that every Brahman practises. The Lama spoke again, this time in Urdu:

"Flies," he said, in a voice as if he were teaching school, "are like evil thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. Kill them, and others come. They must be kept out, and their source looked for and destroyed."

"It is news to me," said Ommony, in his best Bhat-Brahman tone of voice, "that people from Tibet know the laws of sanitation. Now I have studied them, for I lean to the modern view of things. Flies breed in dunghills and rotten meat, from larvae that devour the solids therein contained."

"Even as sin breeds in a man's mind from curiosity that devours virtue," said the Lama. He did not smile, but there was an inflection in his voice that suggested he had thought of smiling. Ommony improvised a perfectly good Brahman answer:

"Without curiosity progress would cease," he asserted, well knowing that was untrue but bent on proving he was some one he was not. The Lama knew Cottswold Ommony for a thoughtful man (for twenty years' correspondence must have demonstrated that) and, if not profound, at least acquainted with profundity; and it is men's expressions of opinion more often than mechanical mistakes that betray disguises, so he didactically urged an opinion that he did not entertain.

"Without curiosity, nine-tenths of sin would cease. The other tenth would be destroyed by knowledge," the Lama replied. Whereat he took snuff in huge quantities from a wonderful old silver box.

"Where are we going?" asked Ommony suddenly.

"I have disposed of curiosity." The Lama dismissed the question with one firm horizontal movement of his right hand.

"I have a servant, to whom I must send a message," Ommony objected.

"The chela may take it."

Ommony glanced at Samding and the calm eyes met his without wavering; yet he did not have the Lama's trick of seeming to look through a person. Perhaps youth had something to do with that. His gaze betrayed interest in an object, whereas the Lama's looked behind, beyond, as if he could see causes.

Ommony sat still, grateful for the silence, thinking furiously. He had witnessed proof that the Lama commanded a spy-system perfectly capable of discovering even the secret moves of McGregor. The odds were therefore ten to one that he knew exactly who was sitting in the carriage facing him. Samding had read the name Ommony on Diana's collar in Chutter Chand's shop. The letter from the Lama had been delivered to Mrs. Cornock-Campbell's house. Benjamin was the Lama's secret agent, as well as more or less openly his man of business. Viewed in all its bearings, it would be almost a miracle if the Lama did not at least suspect the real identity of the Bhat-Brahman who sat chewing betel-nut in front of him.

And the Lama now had the piece of jade for which ostensibly he had come all the way to Delhi. Moreover, he had known where it was, at least for several hours. Then why did he continue to submit to being spied on? Why had he not, for instance, stepped into the carriage and driven away, leaving Ommony on the sidewalk outside Vasantasena's? That would have been perfectly easy. Or he could have denounced Ommony in Vasantasena's presence, with consequences at the hands of the assembled guests that would have been at least drastic, and perhaps deadly. If the Lama really did know who was sitting in the carriage with him, the mystery was increased rather than clarified.

And now there was the problem of Dawa Tsering and the dog. Ommony wished for the moment he had made some other arrangement -- until he realized the futility of making any effort to conceal what the Lama almost certainly already knew. He might have left the dog with McGregor, and have had Dawa Tsering confined in jail, but he would have lost two important allies by doing it. A man with a "knife" and a dog with a terrific set of teeth might turn out to be as good as guardian angels.

On the other hand, the Lama might be planning to disappear along the mysterious "Middle Way" that baffles all detection. If so, the dog and Dawa Tsering might be exceedingly useful in tracing him. If the offer to send Samding with a message were not a trick, it would at least acquaint the dog with Samding's smell; and it might be that the Lama was ignorant about a trained dog's hunting ability.

Finally, as the carriage dawdled through the sun-baked, thronging streets, Ommony reached the conclusion that he had been guided by intuition when he gave orders to Dawa Tsering. A man who has lived in a forest for the greater part of twenty years, and has studied native life and nature in the raw as methodically as Ommony had done, achieves a faith in intuition that persists in the face of much that is called evidence. He decided to carry on, at least one step farther, trusting again to intuition that assured him he was not in serious danger and wondering whether the Lama was not quite as puzzled as himself. He glanced at the Lama's face, hoping to detect a trace of worry.

But the Lama was asleep. He was sleeping as serenely as a child, with his head drooped forward and his shoulders leaning back into the corner. Samding made a signal not to waken him.

The carriage dawdled on. The Lama stirred, glanced through the slats to find out where they were, and dozed away again. The streets grew narrower, and then broadened into unpaved roads that wandered between high walls and shuttered windows, in a part of Delhi that Ommony only knew by hearsay and from books. It was shabbily exclusive -- drab -- with plaster peeling from old-fashioned houses and an air of detachment from excitement in all forms. Here and there a Moslem minaret uprose above surrounding flat roofs, and trees peeped over the wall of a crowded cemetery. They were going northward, toward where the ruins of really ancient Delhi shelter thieves and jackals in impenetrable scrub and mounds of debris; a district where anything might happen and no official be a word the wiser.

Suddenly the carriage checked and turned between high walls into an alley with a gate at the farther end. The driver cried aloud with a voice like a prophet of despair announcing the end of all things; the double gate swung wide, not more than a yard in advance of the horse's nose; paved stories rang underfoot; the gates slammed shut; and the Lama came to life, opening first one eye, then the other.

"All things end -- even carriage-rides," he said in English, looking hard at Ommony. But Ommony was still of the opinion it was better to pretend he did not understand that language.

Somebody opened the carriage door from outside -- a Tibetan, all smiles and benedictions, robed like a medieval monk -- who chattered so fast in a northern dialect that Ommony could not make head or tail of it. Samding cut short the flow of speech by pushing past him, followed by Maitraya. Ommony got out next, his eyes blinded for the moment by sunlight off the white stone walls of a courtyard; and before he could take in the scene the carriage containing the Lama moved on again and disappeared through a gate under an arch in a barrack-like building; the gate was pulled shut after it by some one on the inside.

It was a foursquare courtyard, dazzling white, paved with ancient stones, surrounded on three sides by a cloister supported on wooden posts on to which tall narrow doors opened at unequal intervals. There was no attempt at ornament, but the place had a sort of stern dignity and looked as if it might originally have been a khan for northern travelers. The windows on the walls above the cloister roof were all shuttered with slatted blinds, and there were no human beings in evidence except Samding, Maitraya and the Tibetan who had opened the carriage door; but there were sounds of many voices coming from the shuttered window of a room that opened on the cloister.

Samding stood still, facing Ommony, silent, presumably waiting for the message he was to take. Ommony spoke to him in Urdu:

"Is this our destination? Or do we go elsewhere from here?"

"Here -- until to-morrow or the next day," said the quiet voice.

"Do you know your way about Delhi? Can you find your way to Benjamin, the Jew's, in the Chandni Chowk? Will you take this handkerchief of mine and go to Benjamin's, where you will find a very big dog. Show the handkerchief to the dog, and let her smell it. She will follow you to this place."

Samding smiled engagingly, but incomprehensibly; the smile seemed to portend something.

"Speak louder," he suggested, as if he were deaf and had not heard the message.

Ommony raised his voice almost to a shout; he was irritated by the enigmatic smile. His words, as he repeated what he had said, echoed under the cloister -- and were answered by a deep-throated bay he could have recognized from among the chorus of a dog-pound. A door in the cloister that stood ajar flew wide, and Diana came bounding out like a crazy thing, yelping and squealing delight to see her master, almost knocking him down and smelling him all over from head to foot to make sure it was really he inside the unaccustomed garments. And a moment later Dawa Tsering strode out through the same door, knife and all, blinking at the sunlight, looking half-ashamed.

Ommony quieted Diana, stared sharply at Dawa Tsering, and turned to question Samding. The chela was gone. He just caught sight of his back as he vanished through a door under the cloister, twenty feet away. He questioned the Tibetan, using Prakrit, but the man appeared not to understand him. Dawa Tsering strolled closer, grinning, trying to appear self-confident.

"O Gupta Rao," he began. But Ommony turned his back.

"Do you know where we are?" he asked Maitraya.

"Certainly. This is where my troupe was to assemble. Let us hope they are all here and that the Jew has delivered the costumes."

"O you, Gupta Rao," Dawa Tsering insisted, laying a heavy hand on Ommony's shoulder from behind to call attention to himself, "listen to me: that dog of yours is certainly a devil, and the Jew is a worse devil, and that man there --" (he pointed at the Tibetan) "-- is the father of them both! You had not left the Jew's store longer than a man would need to scratch himself, when that fellow entered and talked with the Jew. I also talked with the Jew; I bade him supply me with garments according to your command, and two pairs of blankets and a good, heavy yak-hair cloak; and there were certain other things I saw that I became aware I needed. But the Jew said that this fellow had brought word that you had changed your mind regarding me, and that I was to go elsewhere with him. I gave him the lie. I told him who was father of them both, and what their end would be, and they said many things. So I helped myself to a yak-hair cloak, a good one, and lo, I have it with me; and I also picked out one pair of blankets of a sort such as are not to be had in Spiti; and with those and the cloak and some trifles I encumbered myself, so that neither hand was free.

"And while I was looking to see what else was important to a man of your standing and my needs, lo' the Jew took the socks you had left behind and gave them to this rascal; and the son of unforgiveable offenses showed them to the dog, who forthwith followed him, notwithstanding that I called her many names. He led her out of the shop, and I after him with both arms full, and the Jew after me because of the blankets and what not else. And lo, there was a cart outside having four wheels and sides like the shutters of a te-rain only not made to slide up and down. And the door was at the rear. And thereinto he led the dog, she following the socks, and I after both of them to bring the dog back. And lo, no sooner was I within the cart -- not more than my head and shoulders were within it -- than two men like this one, only bigger, seized me and wrapped me in my own blankets and bound me fast, taking my knife.

"So they brought me to this place, where they dragged me into that room yonder and released me, returning my knife to me and saying such was your order. And if they had not returned my knife I would have fought them; but as they did return it, and said it was your order, and as the dog appeared satisfied, because they threw the socks to her to guard, it seemed to me there might be something in it after all. Did you give such an order? Or shall I slay these men?"

"Have you been here before?" asked Ommony.

"Oh, yes, two or three times. This is not a bad place, and there is lots to eat, well buttered, with plenty of onions. This is a place where they think the Lama Tsiang Samdup is of more importance than a bellyfull. But they eat notwithstanding -- thrice daily -- and much. But tell me: did you give such an order -- to have me brought here?"

Ommony had a flash of inspiration. "The man mistook the order, " he answered. (Maitraya was listening; he did not want to take Maitraya into confidence.) "I will tell you later what I intend to do about it. Meanwhile, keep silence, keep close to the dog, and keep an eye on me."

But Maitraya was growing more than curious, although he did not understand the Prakrit dialect that Dawa Tsering used.

"What is a Bhat-Brahman doing with such a servant?" he asked, stroking his chin, cocking his head to one side like a parrot that sees sugar.

Ommony fell back on the excuse that Benjamin invented:

"You were told. He attends to my little affairs of the heart. Isn't the real puzzle, what is he doing with such a master? Why are we standing here? The sun overpowers me."

Maitraya led the way toward the room whence the voices emerged and the Tibetan, seeing they knew where to go, took himself off in the opposite direction. Excepting Dawa Tsering, there were no armed men in evidence; the double gate that opened on the alley was barred, but there was no padlock on the bars, and no guard; it looked as if escape, if once determined on, would be simple enough. If the place was a prison, its system for detaining prisoners was extremely artfully concealed; there did not appear to be even the sort of passive vigilance employed in monasteries.

Maitraya crossed the cloister, opened a door near the window whence the voices came, kicked it so that it swung inward with a bang against the wall, and made an effective stage-entry into a dim enormous room. There was a long row of slippers on the threshold, and he kicked those aside to make room for his own with a leg-gesture that was quite good histrionics.

Six men, three women and two boys, who had been sitting with their backs against a wall, stood up to greet him. They were a rather sorry-looking group, dowdy and travel-worn, without an expensive garment or a really clean turban among them; but that was another form of histrionics; there were bundles on the floor containing finery they did not choose to show yet, lest the sight of it might prevent their paymaster, for his own pride's sake, from fitting them out with new, clean clothing. Maitraya looked disgusted. He knew that ancient method of extortion and assessed it for what it was worth.

"Such a rabble! Such a band of mendicants!" he exclaimed. "I am ashamed to present you to his honor the learned Brahman Gupta Rao, who will play leading parts in our company! He will think it is a company of street-sweepers!"

They bowed to Ommony, murmuring "Pranam," and he blessed them perfunctorily. It was more important at the moment to examine the room carefully than to make friends with outcaste actors, who pretend to themselves that they despise a Brahman, but actually fear one like the devil if he takes, and keeps, the upper hand.

The room was about thirty-five feet broad by ninety feet long, extremely high and beamed and cross-beamed with adze-trimmed timbers as heavy as the deck-beams of a sailing ship. There was a faint suggestion of a smell of grain and gunny-bags. Along one end, to the right of the door, was a platform, not more than four feet high nor eight feet deep, with a door in the wall at the end of it farthest from the courtyard; on the platform was a clean Tibetan prayer mat.

The walls were bare, of stone reenforced by heavy timbers, and the only furniture or ornaments consisted of heavy brass chandeliers suspended on brass chains from the ceiling and brass sconces fastened to the timbers of the walls. The place was fairly clean, except for wasp's nests and grease on the floor and walls where the illuminating medium had dripped. There were no prayer-wheels, images of gods, or anything to suggest a religious atmosphere, which nevertheless prevailed, perhaps because of the austerity.

Ommony decided to try the platform; as a Bhat-Brahman he had perfect authority for being impudent, and as a man of ordinary good sense he was justified in taking Dawa Tsering with him, to keep that individual out of mischief; so he beckoned to the dog and Dawa Tsering, climbed to the platform by means of some pegs stuck there for the purpose, and checked an exclamation of surprise.

The trunk full of clothes that he had ordered from Benjamin stood unopened in the far dark corner of the platform, where almost no light penetrated. It was strapped, locked, sealed with a leaden disk, and the key hung down from the handle.

He determined then and there to waste no further effort on conjecture. The Lama knew who he was. Benjamin was the informer. Probably on one of the occasions when Benjamin went shuffling along the passage by the staircase in front of his store he had sent a message to the Lama. Luck must favor him now or not, as the Powers who measure out the luck should see fit. He sat down cross-legged in deep shadow on top of the trunk, which creaked under his weight, signed to Dawa Tsering to be seated upon the floor, watched Diana curl herself in patient boredom in the shadow beside him, leaned into the corner, listened to the chattering of the actors and to Maitraya's pompous scolding, and presently fell asleep. Not having slept at all the previous night, he judged it was ridiculous to stay awake and worry. Opportunity is meant for wise men's seizing.



Chapter XIII

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