Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

THE MAGIC INCANTATION OF SAN-FUN-HO

Lords of evolving night and day!

Ye spirits of the spaceless dreams!

O Souls of the reflected hills

Embosomed in pellucid streams!

Magicians of the morning haze

Who weave anew the virgin veil

That dews the blush of waking days

With innocence! Ye Rishis (1), hail!

I charge that whosoe'er may view

This talisman, shall greet the dawn

Degreed, arrayed and ranked anew,

As he may wish to have been born!

Prevail desire! A day and night

Prevail ambition! Till they see

They can not set the world aright

By being what they crave to be!

Be, time and space, and all save Karma (2) stilled!

Grant that each secret wish may be fulfilled!

Chapter XIII

SAN-FUN-HO

How long Ommony slept he did not know, but probably for at least an hour. At first his doze was broken by the sound of the actors' voices, but after a while they may have slept too for lack of better entertainment; the buzz of conversation ceased and he was left to the pursuit of unquiet dreams, in which the Lama plotted and disputed with Vasantasena for possession of Samding in a place in which there was a fountain brim-full of golden mohurs.

He awoke quietly after a while, that being habit, and noticed that Diana's tail was thumping a friendly salute on the platform floor. The next thing he saw was the Lama sitting motionless on the prayer mat, with Samding as usual beside him. Below them, on the floor of the room, stood Maitraya looking upward. The gabble of angry argument that he caught between sleeping and waking made no clear impression on his brain. The first words he heard distinctly were the Lama's, speaking Urdu:

"My son, you are convinced of a delusion. That is not good. You believe you are answerable for results, whereas you are not even connected with the cause. You have but to obey. It is I who am burdened with the tribulation of deciding how this matter shall be managed, since I conceived it. From you there is required good will and whatever talent you possess for your profession."

The voice was kind, but it did not allay Maitraya's wrath. He scolded back.

"I am famous! I am known wherever we will go. Men will mock me! Am I to be a common mountebank! Vishnu! Vishnu! Why engage me, if you won't listen when I tell you the proper way to do a thing, and what the public will accept and what it will not accept?"

The Lama listened patiently, not changing his expression, which was bland and gently whimsical.

"All ways are proper in their proper place. Men will usually take what they receive for nothing," he answered after a pause. "As for your dissatisfaction, you may go, my son. You may go to Benjamin, and he shall pay you one week's money."

"I have a contract!" Maitraya retorted, posturing like Ajax defying lightning.

"That is true," said the Lama gently. "There would be merit in observing the terms of it."

Maitraya smote his breast, disheveled his turban desperately and turned to throw an appealing gesture to the troupe. But they were a hungry-looking lot, more interested in being fed and paid than in Maitraya's artistic anxieties. The Lama looked kind and spoke gently. In silence, with eye-movements, they took the Lama's side of the dispute.

"Prostitutes!" exclaimed Maitraya in a frenzy. "You will make apes of yourselves for the sake of two months' wage! Oh, very well. I will out-ape you! I will be a worse ape than the one who ate the fruit out of the Buddha's begging bowl! Behold me -- Maitraya, the prostitute! I will be infamous, to fill your miserable bellies!" Then, facing the Lama again with a gesture of heartbroken anguish: "But this that you ask is impossible! It is not done -- never! My genius might overcome a difficulty, but how can these fools do what they have never learned?"

"How does the wolf-cub know where to look for milk?" the Lama answered, and all laughed, except Maitraya, who tried to rearrange his turban. A woman finished the business for him, grinning in his face as boldly as if there were the slats of a zenana window in between.

"Do you observe that woman?" Dawn Tsering whispered to Ommony. "Now if she were in Spiti there would be knife-work within the day. She lacks awareness of what might be!"

Aware that he, too, lacked that most desirable of assets at the moment, Ommony frowned for silence. There was just a chance that he might pick up a clue to a part of the mystery if he should attract no attention to himself. Maitraya -- supposing he knew anything -- was in a frame of mind to explode a secret at any moment. He was blowing up again.

"Krishna! By the many eyes of Krishna, I swear to you that some of them cannot read!" he shouted, strutting to and fro and pausing to throw both arms upward in a gesture of despair.

"Krishna is a comprehensive Power to swear by," said the Lama mildly. "How many cannot read?"

Two women confessed to disability; the third boasted her attainment proudly.

"Not so insuperable!" said the Lama. "That one woman shall read for the three. Thus the two will learn. Give their parts to them. They have almost nothing to say in the first act."

Samding picked up a dozen wooden cylinders with paper scrolls wrapped around them and bundled the lot into Maitraya's hands.

"We must cast them," said Maitraya. "The cast is all-important. Who shall play which part? It is essential to decide that to begin with."

"No," said the Lama, "the essential thing is that every one shall understand the play. Give the women's parts to that woman. Distribute the others at random."

Maitraya, with a shrug, chose the biggest scroll for himself and distributed the others. Samding beckoned to Dawa Tsering, who got up leisurely as if in doubt whether obedience was not infra dig. now that he had changed masters. Samding gave him a scroll, which he carried to Ommony, but neither Samding nor the Lama gave a glance in Ommony's direction.

The scroll was written in Urdu in a fine and beautifully even hand, heavily corrected here and there by some one who had used a quill pen. It looked as if Samding might have written and the Lama, perhaps, revised. There was no title at the head, but the part was marked "The Saddhu," and the cues were carefully included. To get light enough to read by Ommony sat at the edge of the platform with his face toward the Lama, and presently began to chuckle. There were lines he liked, loaded with irony.

There followed a long silence while Maitraya glanced over his own fat part and consulted stage directions in the margin; it was he who first broke silence:

"O ye critical and all-observing gods!" he exclaimed. "This is modernism, is it? Who will listen to a play that only has one king in it, and no queen, and no courtiers -- but a shoe-maker, and a goat-herd, and a seller of sweetmeats, and three low-caste-women with water-jars, and only one soldier -- he not a general but a sepoy, if you please! -- and a wandering saddhu [holy man], and no vizier to support the king, but a tax-gatherer and a camel-driver, and a village headman, and two farmers -- and for heroine -- what kind of a heroine is this? A Chinese woman! And what a name! San-fun-ho! Bah! Who will listen to the end of such a play?"

"I will be the first to listen," said the Lama dryly. "Let us begin reading."

"And not even a marriage at the end!" Maitraya growled disgustedly. "None marries the king -- not even the Chinese woman and her pigtail! No gods, --- one goddess! Not even a Brahman! How do you like that, Gupta Rao? Not as much as one Brahman to give the play dignity! What part have you? The saddhu's? Let us hope it is a better part than mine. Listen to this: I am a king. I enter right, one sepoy following. (O Vishnu! Thy sharp beams burn! A king, and one sepoy for escort!) The sweetmeat seller enters left. Back of the stage the Chinese woman is beside a well under a peepul-tree, talking with three women who carry water-jars -- and may the gods explain how a Chinese woman comes to be there! I address the sweetmeat seller. Listen:

" 'Thou, who sellest evanescent joy -- and possibly enduring bellyache -- to little ones, what hast thou to offer to me, who am in need of many things?' What do you think of that for a speech for a king to make his entry with?"

"To which, what says the sweetmeat seller?" asked the Lama. "Who has the sweetmeat seller's part? Read on."

They sat down in a semicircle on the floor, Maitraya standing in the midst of them, and one of the men read matter-of-factly:

" 'Mightiest of kings, thy servant is a poor man, needing money to pay the municipal tax. May all the gods instruct me how to answer? Who am I that I should offer anything to the owner of all these leagues of forest and flowing stream and royal cities? An alms, O image of the sun?'"

"If he were a real king, and this a real play," Maitraya exclaimed, consulting the directions, "he would order that sweetmeat seller into jail for impudence! But what does he do? He looks sad, gives the fellow an alms, and turns to face the women at the well. How can he do that? I tell you, he must face the audience. Are they interested in his back? And this is what he says:

" 'Bearers of refreshment! Ye who walk so straight beneath the water-jars! Ye who laugh and tell a city's gossip! Ye who bring new men into the world! What have ye to offer me, whose heart is heavy? Lo, I bring forth sorrow amid many midwives. Wherewith shall I suckle it?' -- It is just at this point that the audience begins to walk out!" said Maitraya.

"A woman speaks. What says the woman?" boomed the Lama; and the woman who could read held her scroll to the light, speaking sidewise, jerking her head at the Lama, as if he were the king:

" 'O Maharajah, thy servants are but women, who must toil the day long; and the water-jars are heavy! If we bring no man into the world, we are unfortunate; but if we do, we must suckle him, and cook, and keep a house clean, and go to the well thrice daily notwithstanding. Lo, the young one robs us of our strength and increases our labor. We are women. Who are we to offer comfort to a king?' "

"Enter the saddhu," read Maitraya. "He leans on a staff and salutes the king with quiet dignity --"

"The saddhu shall have a dog with him," the Lama interrupted. "Samding," (he glanced sidewise at the chela) "there is merit in the dog. Consider well what part the dog may play."

The chela nodded. He and the Lama seemed to take it quite for granted that the dog and her master were obedient members of the troupe.

"Whoever heard of a dog in a play?" Maitraya grumbled. "Krishna! But the very gods will laugh at us! Read, Gupta Rao. What says the saddhu?"

" 'O King, thou art truly to be pitied more than all of these. Mine -- the path I take -- is the only way from misery to happiness. Alone of all these, I can give advice. Forswear the pomp and glory of a kingdom -- ' "

"Pomp -- and one sepoy!" Maitraya exploded.

"Silence!" commanded the Lama, in a voice that astonished everybody. His face was as mild as ever. Ommony continued:

" '-- Discard the scepter. Let the reins of despotism fall, and follow me. I mortify the flesh. I eat no more than keeps the body servant to the soul. No house, no revenues are mine, no other goods than this chance-given staff to lean on and a ragged robe. None robs me; I have no wealth to steal. None troubles me, for who could gain by it? I sleep under the skies, or crawl into a cave and share it with the beasts; for they and I, even as thou and I, O King, are brothers.' "

"Now the king speaks," said Maitraya. "Listen to this! -- 'Brothers? Yes; but some one has to beat the ox. And who shall rule the kingdom, if the ass and the jackal and the pigeon and the kite are reckoned equals with the king? Answer me that, O Saddhu.' "

" 'Rule?' " read Ommony. " 'Are the gods not equal to the task? What is this world but a passage to the next -- a place wherein to let the storms of Karma pass and store up holiness? Beware, O King!' "

"The saddhu passes on, turns and stands meditating," Maitraya read, consulting his scroll. "A shoemaker approaches. What says the shoemaker?"

"He salutes the king," said the Lama, "and walks up to the soldier. Now, let the shoemaker speak."

A voice piped up from the floor: " 'Thou with the long sword, pay me or kill me!' "

"He turns to the king," the Lama interrupted, "read on."

" '-- O mighty king, O heaven-born companion of the gods! This sepoy owes me for a pair of shoes. Nor will he pay. Nor have I any remedy, since all fear him and none will give evidence against him. I am poor, O prince of valor. May the gods answer if there is any justice in the world! As I am an honest laborer, there is none!' "

"To which the king answers," said Maitraya, " 'True. And if you were king, what would you do about it?' "

The shoemaker: " 'Ah! If I were king!' "

"Now," said the Lama, "a crowd collects. They enter left and right, the tax-gatherer, the goatherd, the farmers, the camel-driver and the village headman. They all make complaints to the king."

"A crowd of seven people!" sneered Maitraya.

"There are dancing women also," said the Lama. "They are not wanted to dance until later; therefore they may take part in the crowd in various disguises. They have nothing to say. Read on."

Maitraya read: " 'The crowd salutes the king, and the saddhu watches scornfully; the saddhu speaks.' Read on, Gupta Rao."

" 'So many men and women, so many fools! Waves crying to an empty boat to guide them! O ye men and women, children of delusion and blind slaves of appetite, how long will ye store up wrath against the hour of reckoning?' "

"Now the shoemaker," said the Lama.

" 'Tell us how to collect our debts, thou Saddhu! Tell us how to feed our young ones! To that we will listen!' "

"Now the tax-collector."

" 'Tell me how to get the tax-money from men who declare they have nothing! Tell me how to conduct a government without a revenue! Tell me what will happen if I fail, O mouther of mantras! (3)' "

"The king," said the Lama, and Maitraya spoke with the scroll behind him, to prove how swiftly he could memorize.

" 'Peace, all of you! Ye little know how fortunate ye are to have a king whose only will is that the realm shall ooze contenting justice. Day and night my meditation is to spread contentment through the land. Is this your gratitude?' "

The Saddhu: " 'To whom? For what?' " Ommony's voice charged the line with sarcasm that made the Lama glance at him.

"A farmer," said Maitraya.

" 'The locusts spread through the land, and there is no ooze of dew, nor any rain. The crops have failed; and nevertheless, the tax-gatherer! He fails not with his visits! Meditate a little on the tax-gatherer, O King.' "

The Saddhu: " 'Aye, meditate!' "

"A camel-driver," said Maitraya.

" 'O King, they wait beside the mother-camel for the unborn calf. They take from us in taxes at the frontier more than the freight is worth. We fetch and carry, but the profit of the labor goeth to the rich. Our very tents are worn until the women can no longer patch them."

The Saddhu: " 'Live in eaves, O brother of the wind!' "

"The shoemaker," said Maitraya.

" 'And the owner of goats charges twice as much as formerly for goatskins!' "

"The goatherd."

" 'Maybe. But he pays me less than half of what is right for herding them!' "

"The soldier."

" 'Listen, all of you! Behold your king -- a great king and a good one! Know ye not the nature of a king? Lo, ye should rally to him and support him! A realm is ruled by force of discipline, wherein is strength; and to the strong all things are possible! Rally to your king and bid him lead you to a war on foreigners, who nibble at our wealth like rats and give us no return.' "

"A woman," said the Lama.

" 'Tell us first, whose sons shall fight this war!

"Another woman."

" 'And who shall console the widows!' "

The Saddhu: " 'The widows of the conquered nation will console them. They will naturally see the justice of the war!' "

"The soldier," said Maitraya. "He shakes his sword at the Saddhu."

" 'Peace, idiot! They will invade us, unless we first attack them. Then in which cave will you hide? If I had my way, I would send you in the front rank to the war to show us whether your sanctity isn't really cowardice after all!' "

"All laugh at the saddhu," said the Lama. "Now the king." And Maitraya postured splendidly.

" 'Ye men and women, know ye not that I have neither will nor power to make war unless ye brew the war within you as a snake brews venom in its mouth?' "

The Saddhu: " 'Yet a snake slays vermin!' "

Maitraya read on: " 'Peace, Saddhu! There is merit everywhere. Am I not king? And how shall I please all, who so unfairly disagree? Ye see these lines that mark my worried brow; ye see this head that bends beneath the burden of your care; and ye upbraid me with more tribulations? What if I should wreak impatience on you all? Am I alone in travail? Is none among you, man or woman, who can offer me a counsel of perfection?' "

"I!" It was Samding's voice, resonant and splendid yet peculiarly unassertive. It was as if the tone included listeners in its embrace. All eyes turned to Samding instantly, but he sat motionless.

"The crowd divides down the midst," said the Lama. "San-fun-ho steps forward from beside the well beneath the peepul-tree. She speaks."

" 'O King!' " The chela's voice was not unlike a woman's, although its strength suggested it might ripen soon into a royal baritone. " 'I come from a far land where wisdom dwells and all the problems that can vex were worked to a solution in the birth of time. Well said, O King, that there is merit everywhere! Well said, ye men and women, that ye have no words nor wealth to offer to your king. Nor could he understand, nor could he listen, since the ears of kings are deaf to common murmurings, even as your ears are deaf to royal overtones. But lo! I bring a talisman -- a stone enchanted by the all-wise gods -- whose virtue is to change from dawn to dawn the rank, condition, raiment and degree of all who look on it! Avert thine eyes, O King! I would not change thy rank, not even while a day and night shall pass. Look, Saddhu -- soldier -- goatherd -- women -- all of you!' "

"She holds up the stone," said the Lama, "and they stare at it in superstitious awe. They show astonishment and reverence. Then San-fun-ho intones a mantra."

The chela began to chant in a voice that filled the huge room with golden sound, as solemn, lonely and as drenched with music as a requiem to a cathedral roof. Without an effort Ommony imagined stained-glass windows and an organ-loft. Maitraya bowed his head, and even the other actors, outcaste and irreverent, held their breath. It sounded like magic. All India believes implicitly in magic. The words were Sanskrit, and probably only Ommony, Samding and the Lama understood them; but the ancient, sacred, unintelligible language only added to the mystery and made the spell more real.

None, not even Maitraya, moved or breathed until the chanting ceased. The Lama glanced at Ommony, who was so thrilled by the chela's voice as to have forgotten for the moment that he held the saddhu's scroll. He looked at it and read aloud in solemn tones:

" 'I did not look! I turned mine eyes away!' "

The king: " 'I looked!' " Maitraya put a world of meaning into that line.

"And that," said the Lama, "ends the first act."

"Too short! Much too short!" exclaimed Maitraya.

"Too long," said the Lama. "I may have to cut one of your speeches. Now there would be merit in the learning of your parts until the gong sounds for dinner. After dinner we will take the second act. Peace dwell with you. Samding!"

The chela helped him to his feet, rolled up the mat, and followed him out through the door at the end of the platform, where neither of them paused; some one on the far side of the door opened it as they drew near, pulled back a curtain, admitted them, slammed the door after them, and locked it noisily.

For a moment after that there was no sound. All stared at one another. Ommony felt snubbed. He had intended to force an interview with the Lama at the end of the rehearsal, but the calm old prelate seemed to have foreseen that move!

"What do you think of it, Gupta Rao?" asked Maitraya.

"Crafty!" answered Ommony, still thinking of the Lama. "I mean, full of craft -- I mean, it is a good play; it will succeed."

"Perhaps -- if he neglects to charge admission!" said Maitraya. (But he seemed tempted to share Ommony's opinion.) "If he would let me give him the benefit of my experience, it might be made into a real play," he added. "And the chela? What do you think of the chela?"

"I know!" said Ommony. "He will make all the rest of us, except the dog, look and sound like wooden dummies!"

"There again!" said Maitraya. "The dog! Before you know it he will order the chela to write a part for that knife-swinging savage of yours from Spiti!"

"I wouldn't be surprised. By Vishnu's brow, I wouldn't be surprised at anything!" said Ommony, and cut off further conversation by returning to the trunk and squatting on it with his back to the light, to study the scroll of the saddhu -- or rather, to pretend to study it. He was too full of thoughts of the Lama and the chela, and of his own good fortune in having stumbled into their company, to study anything else.

"The Lama knows I'm Cottswold Ommony. He knows I know who he is. Is he using his own method of showing me what he knows I want to see? Or is he keeping an eye on me while he attends to his own secrets? Or am I trapped? Or being tested?"

He had heard of the extraordinary tests to which Lamas put disciples before entrusting them with knowledge.

"But I have never offered to be his disciple!" he reflected. And then he remembered that Lamas always choose their disciples, and that thought made him chuckle. It is notorious they do not choose them for what would pass for erudition according to most standards.

"I'd better see how stupid I can be," he decided. "I chose Diana without asking her leave," he remembered. "She likes it all right. Maybe --"

But the thought of becoming an ascetic Lamaist was too much like burlesque to entertain, and he dismissed it -- puzzled more than ever.

Chapter XIV

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