Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
The ways of the gods are natural, the ways of men unnatural, and there is nothing supernatural, except this: that if a man does a useless thing, none reproves him; if he does a harmful thing, few seek to restrain him; but if he seeks to imitate the gods and to encourage others, all those in authority accuse him of corruption. So it is more dangerous to teach truth than to enter a powder magazine with a lighted torch.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.
THE SECOND ACT
Although the first act was no more than a prologue, the second was long, constituting almost the entire play, followed by a short third act which was not much more than epilogue. For more than half an hour Ommony studied his part in silence, and the more he studied it the more its grim irony appealed to him. The saddhu typified intolerant self-righteousness and the beautifully written lines were jeremiads of abortive sanctity. Whatever else the Lama, or whoever wrote the play, might be, he was witty and aware of all the arguments of the accusers of mankind.
It appeared that, having refused to look at the magic jade while the mantra was being chanted, the saddhu alone went through the second act unchanged. The king, who had looked although warned not to look, became turned for a day and a night into an increditably wise man (which was just what he wanted to be) but surrounded by the sweetmeat seller, shoemaker and so on, transformed into members of his court, whose ignorance exasperated him to the verge of insanity. The soldier had become a general, who prated about patriotic duty. The camel-driver was a minister of commerce, who believed that the poor were getting their exact deserts and would be ruined by paternalism. The village headman was a nobleman with vast estates, who rack-rented his tenants and insisted that he did it by divine right. The farmers had become a minister of finance and his assistant, who conspired to bring about a better state of things by wringing the last realizable rupee from the merchant classes. The goatherd, strange to say, became a courtier pure and simple, who had no ambition but to make love to every woman who came within his range. The sweetmeat seller was a chancellor whose duty was to invent laws, and the shoemaker was a judge who had to apply them.
San-fun-ho, it seemed, had also looked into the magic jade, and had become a goddess, with her name unchanged, who came and went, heaping Puck-like irony on every one, king included, and engaging in acid exchanges of wit with the saddhu, who had much the worst of it.
The women with the water-jars had all become court favorites, who lolled on divans and complained of their tedious, unprofitable fate, inclining rather to the saddhu's view of things but unwilling to give up sinecures for austerity (which they declared had gone out of fashion long ago) and cynically skeptical of the morals of the dancing women, who entered early in the second act to entertain the court. The long and the short of it was, that nobody was any happier for being changed, and least of all the king, who had only implored the Powers to make him fabulously wise, and who found his wisdom sterile because foolish people could not understand it.
The second act was supposed to take place at night, after a long day's experience of the results of the sudden change of character, and at the close they all departed to the well, to greet the dawn and welcome a return to their former condition.
The third act found them at the well-side, changed again, and San-fun-ho, once more a Chinese woman, took them to task for having failed to see the future seeded in themselves, depending for fruition solely on their own use of each passing moment. Because the saddhu had to interject remarks, the whole of San-fun-ho's last speech was written on Ommony's scroll, and as he read he chuckled at the saddhu's vanquishment. He loved to see cant and pseudo-righteousness exploded. He could imagine the saddhu, typifying all he most loathed, slinking off-stage, brow-beaten, ashamed -- and just as bent as ever on attaining Heaven by the exercise of tyranny, self-torture and contempt of fun.
Then San-fun-ho's last lines -- a mantra -- sung to Manjusri, Lord and Teacher, "free from the two-fold mental gloom," as redolent and ringing with immortal hope as sunshine through the rain.
He was reading that when the gong sounded -- a reverberating, clanging thing of brass whose din drowned thought and drove the wasps in squadrons through the window-slats. And that brought another problem that invited very serious attention. As a Brahman -- even a Bhat-Brahman, who is not supposed to be above committing scores of acts the orthodox would reckon unclean -- he might not eat in company with actors, nor even in the Lama's company, nor in any room in which non-Brahmans were. He began to exercise his wits to find a way out of the difficulty -- only to find that the Lama had foreseen it and had provided the solution.
Long-robed servants entered from the courtyard bearing bowls of hot food for the actors, but none for Ommony or Dawa Tsering or the dog. Instead, a tall Tibetan came, announcing that a meal cooked by a Brahman would be served in a ritually clean room, if his honor would condescend to be shown the way to it.
The room turned out to be a small one at the far corner of the cloister, and no more ritually clean than eggs are square, nor had the meal been cooked by a Brahman; but the actors were none the wiser. Dawa Tsering's food was heaped in a bowl on a mat outside the door, and he, having no caste prejudices, squatted down to gorge himself, with a wary eye on Diana. Ommony relieved his mind:
"She eats only at night. She won't touch food unless I give permission."
Dawa Tsering promptly tried to tempt the dog, but she turned up her nose at the offer, and the Hillman grinned.
"I think you have more than one devil in you, Gupta Rao! However, maybe they are not bad devils!" He nodded to himself; down in the recesses of his mind there was an evolution going on, that was best left to take its own course.
Ommony left him and the dog outside and shut himself into the small square room. There was only one door; one window. He was safe from observation. There was a plain but well-cooked meal of rice and vegetables laid out on a low wooden bench with a stool beside it, and a pitcher of milk that smelt as fresh as if it had come from a model dairy; also a mattress in a corner, on which to rest when the meal was finished -- good monastic fare and greater ease than is to be had in many an expensive hostelry.
He finished the meal and sprawled on the mattress, confessing to himself that in spite of the Lama's having avoided him for twenty years, in spite of the evidence of an astonishingly perfect spy-system that had enabled the Lama so infallibly to trace and recover the jade, and even in spite of Benjamin's confession, it was next to impossible to believe the old Lama was a miscreant. Because of the story of traffic in white children, reason argued that the Lama was a fiend. Intuition, which ignores deduction, told him otherwise; and memory began to reassert itself.
There was, for instance, twenty years of correspondence from the Lama, mostly in English, with reference to the business of the Tilgaun Mission; not one word of it was less than altruistic, practical and sane; there had never been a hint of compromise -- with even those conventional lapses from stern principle that most institutions find themselves compelled to make. In fact, he admitted to himself that the Lama's letters, more than anything else during his life in India, had helped him to see straight and to govern himself uprightly.
And now this play. And Samding. Could a man who made victims of children so educate a chela as that one evidently had been educated? Youth takes on the faint of its surroundings. Samding had the calm self-possession of one who knew the inherent barrenness of evil and therefore could not be tempted by it.
And would a man, who permitted himself to outrage humanity by hypnotizing children, write such a play as this one, or approve of it, or stage it at his own expense? The play was not only ingeniously moral, it was radically sound and aimed equally at mockery of wrong ideals and the presentation of a manly view of life. A saint might have written it, and a reckless "angel" might finance it, but a, criminal or a man with personal ambitions, hardly.
Then again, there was the mystery of the Lama's treatment of himself. How much had Benjamin told? The old Jew had sent the trunk, so there had been plenty of chance to send a message with it. Benjamin might have brought the trunk in person. Anyhow, the Lama now unquestionably knew who the Bhat-Brahman was; and he was evidently willing for the present not only to submit to espionage but to protect the spy!
It might be, of course, that the Lama had views of his own as to what constitutes crime. He had radical views, and was not averse to voicing them before strangers. But if his conception of morality included smuggling children into the unknown Hill country, how was it that he was so careful for the Tilgaun Mission and so insistent on safeguards against mental contamination?
Above all, why was he so careful to avoid an interview? What did he propose to gain by pretending not to see through the Brahman disguise? True, he had spoken English once or twice, but he had made no comment when the Bhat-Brahman pretended not to understand him. Was he simply amusing himself? If so, two could play at that game! For the present Ommony had to let the problem go unsolved, but he dismissed the very notion of not solving it and he determined to get at least as much amusement out of the process as ever the Lama should enjoy.
He had about reached that conclusion, and was contemplating a siesta, when the same attendant who had brought him to the room came to announce that "the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup" was expecting him in the great hall. When he reached the hall rehearsal of the second act was already under way; Maitraya was getting off a speech he had already memorized, strutting, declaiming, trying to impress the Lama and the troupe with his eloquent stage personality. The Lama took no notice as Ommony entered with the dog and Dawa Tsering, but told Maitraya to repeat the lines. Maitraya, rather nettled, gave a different rendering, more pompous, louder and accompanied by gestures more emphatic than the first. The troupe applauded, since Maitraya plainly expected it, but the Lama broke into a smile that disturbed his wrinkles as if they had been stirred with a spoon.
"My son," he said quietly, "the whistle does not pull the train." Maitraya's jaw dropped. "Samding, show him how I like to have those lines read."
Samding spoke the lines from memory, not moving his body at all, and the amazing thing was that while he spoke one forgot he was a chela and almost actually saw a king standing where he was sitting -- a king who was bored to distraction and trying to explain kindly to stupid people why their arguments were all wrong. One felt immensely sorry for the king, and saw the hopelessness of his attempt. But all that was between the lines, and in the wonderful inflection of the voice.
"And now, my son, try once more," said the Lama. "Imagine the audience is on the stage, and speak to them as you would like a king to speak to you; not as you yourself would speak if you were king, but as a king should speak to unwise people."
Maitraya swallowed pride, tried again, and so surprised himself with his second effort that he tried a third time without invitation; and the third rendering was almost good. The man had imitative talent.
The whole of the afternoon was given up to the reading and re-reading of the second act, and Dawa Tsering slept -- and snored -- throughout the entire performance. Several times the Lama obliged Ommony to repeat his lines, without once calling him by name, and once he made Samding repeat them for him, the chela doing so from memory, apparently knowing the whole play by heart. The Lama was as exacting with Ommony as with Maitraya and the rest. Once he said:
"My son, you know the saddhu is a false philosopher. You like to see him ridiculed by San-fun-ho. And that shows wisdom. There is merit in appreciation. But it is not good to forget that you are the saddhu. Those who listen must not be aware that you expect to be worsted in argument. Now speak the lines again."
Ommony complied, and did his best, for he was enjoying the game hugely; and that put Maitraya in a somewhat similar frame of mind; Maitraya imitated anything, including mental attitudes, and the rest of the troupe took example from him. When the East sets forth to play a part in earnest, it becomes audience as well as actor, and accepts the drama for reality. Even the Lama was pleased. He praised them after a fashion of his own.
"Because you are doing well, it would not be good to believe you can not do better. Even the sun and stars are constantly improving. Let vanity not slay humility, which is the spirit reaching upward."
Then, as if that perhaps were too great praise, which might deceive them, he picked out an actor here and there for comforting rebuke:
"You must remember that to play the part of a stupid character requires intelligence. You will grow more intelligent as you endeavor. Now let us begin again at the beginning, trying to forget how stupid we have consented to be hitherto. Let us consent to be intelligent."
He did not once betray impatience. When he needed an example he commanded Samding, and the chela spoke at once from memory, occasionally descending to the floor to act as well as speak the lines. Once the chela acted the same part in the same way twice in succession, and then he came in for reprimand:
"Samding, no two atoms in all nature are alike. No day is twice repeated. No second breath is like the first. Do that a third time. Do it differently."
Tyrant, however, was no right name for the Lama. There was no sense of oppression, even at the end of a long afternoon, when every faculty, Samding's apparently included, ached from exercise. Samding worked harder than them all together, because all through the second act, in the role of a goddess, he had to come and go and speak the all-important lines on which the action hinged. But when darkness came, and tall monk-like Tibetans, armed with tapers, lit the hanging lights and set candles in the wall-sconces, the chela was as self-possessed and full of life as ever, which he hardly would have been if he had felt imposed on.
At last the Lama dismissed the troupe to the far end of the hall, where they sprawled wearily on the floor and awaited supper. Not moving from the mat, he beckoned Ommony and Dawa Tsering to come and squat on the floor in front of him, not on the platform. They had to look up.
"Now for the show-down! Good!" thought Ommony, stroking Diana's head as she crouched on the floor beside him. But the Lama spoke to Dawa Tsering, using the northern dialect:
"Why did you say to Samding that I owe you two months' pay?" he asked, not offended, curious.
"Oh, I had to say something. I had to have an excuse for seeing you. I had a letter to deliver."
The Lama nodded, but his voice became a half-note sterner: "Why did you use violence to Samding?"
"I am a violent man, and the chela offended me."
"What offense did the chela commit?"
"Oh, he looked too satisfied. He was a fool to stir the devil in me. Also I was disgusted."
"Because he did not look afraid. And I knew he was afraid -- of me! Therefore he was a liar. Therefore I smote him with the letter, and hustled him a time or two. He was afraid to hit back. Let him hit me now, if he is not afraid to!"
The Lama meditated for a moment -- seemed to fall asleep -- and then to come out of a dream as if emerging from another universe.
"There is a certain merit in you," he said quietly. "Are you now the servant of this Brahman?"
"I am keeper of the dog. I pick the fleas from her. She is a very wise and unusual devil."
Dawa Tsering glanced at Ommony, who rather hoped he would say something to the Lama about the Bhat-disguise and thus bring that subject to a head; but he was disappointed. Nothing was farther from Dawa Tsering's intention, he was thoroughly enjoying what he thought was a perfect imposition on the Lama.
"This Gupta Rao," he went on, "is a devil even greater than the dog. I like him. He and I are friends."
"Well," said the Lama, "that seems to be excellent, because friends must stand together. There is a devil needed in this play of mine, and you shall act the devil. You will like that. But remember: there must be no offense to Samding, or to any one. You and Gupta Rao are together, being, as you say, friends. If I should need to dismiss you, because of wrong-doing, I will dismiss him also. Therefore his safety -- do you hear me? -- his safety will depend on you, and you must behave accordingly."
The word safety was plainly intended for Ommony's ears and the chela glanced at him, but the Lama's eyes did not move. After a slight pause he continued:
"You and the dog will both receive instruction." Then at last he looked at Ommony: "Will the dog open her mouth when she is told?" he asked.
Ommony ordered Diana to sit upright. He did not need to speak. At a sign from him she opened her mouth wide and yawned.
"That is good," said the Lama. "That will do. Peace dwell with you, my son. Samding!"
The chela helped him to his feet, rolled up the mat, and followed him to the door exactly as on the first occasion, leaving Ommony and Dawa Tsering looking at each other until the Hillman threw his shoulders back and laughed.
"Now you see why I have served him all these months! I, who have a devil in me! I, who mean to slay a man in Spiti! I, who hate a long-faced monk as an ape hates the river!" Then another thought occurred to him. "You must pay me more money, Gupta Rao, else I will offend the old Bag of Wisdom and he will discharge the two of us!"
But instead of answering Ommony got up and found his way to the little room reserved for him. Through the slats of the window he could hear Dawa Tsering, squatting beside Diana, taking her into confidence:
"It would be amusing, thou, to betray this Ommonee and see what happens. But I am afraid that what would happen might be serious. I think I had better say nothing, because what may happen then will probably be amusing. Thou, I think a person who can teach thee such obedience might be a bad enemy and a good friend!"
Tibetans brought the evening meal, with a huge bowl of rice and a bone for Diana, but Diana refused to touch the food although the man set the bowl down in front of her and Dawa Tsering urged. It was not until Ommony gave her permission that she fell to greedily.
"Thou, Gupta Rao, put no such spell upon me!" Dawa Tsering urged solemnly. "I am used to eating when my belly yearns for it!"
Ommony finished his meal and decided to find out whether or not he was under any personal restraint. He crossed the courtyard and approached the double gate through which the carriage had entered that morning. There was a Tibetan standing near, who bowed, saw his intention, and opened the gate civilly to let him through! Diana followed, but he sent her back, making her jump the gate, which she managed at the third attempt, and he could hear the Tibetan on the far side laughing good-humoredly. He knocked on the gate from outside and the Tibetan opened it. Plainly there was no restriction on his movements; so he whistled Diana and started strolling down the alley, considering Benjamin and wondering whether the old Jew had lied about the smuggled children -- and if so, why! What did Benjamin stand to gain by telling such a tale if it were not true? "The more you know of India the less you know!" he muttered.
It was Diana who transferred his thoughts to another angle of the problem. She had paused at the end of the alley and was signaling in the way she used to in jungle lanes when she detected a human who had no ostensible right to be there.
Ommony stood still, which obliged her to glance around at him for orders. He signed to her to come to heel and then walked very quietly to the end of the alley, where the corner of a high wall intensified the gathering darkness. No lamps were yet lighted, although there was one fixed on an iron upright at the angle of the masonry above him; it was almost pitch-dark where he sat down, with his back against the wall, giving no orders to Diana, simply watching her.
The hair on the scruff of her neck began to rise; she could hear voices, and so could he presently. He pulled her closer against the wall where she crouched obediently, trembling because she added his alertness to her own. She was quite invisible in the depth of the shadow; Ommony was between her and the road into which the alley opened; but he knew his own figure could be seen, something like a wayside idol, by any one with sharp eyes who should pass close to the corner.
There were two men approaching very slowly, deep in conversation. One wore spurs. Unexplainably (without delving into such science as Chutter Chand expounds in his room behind the jewelry store) Ommony received an impression that they had been pacing to and fro for a considerable time. They came to a halt around the corner within three steps of where he sat, and when he held his breath he could hear their words distinctly:
"You see, Chalmers, if we raid the place without being sure of our ground, all we'll do is make trouble for ourselves and serve them notice to cover their tracks. We must have evidence that'll make conviction certain, or they'll hold us up as another horrid example of official tyranny."
"I tell you, sir, I know the women are in here."
"But do you know they are the women? We can't interfere with religion. We'd be in a fine mess if we haled a bevy of legitimate nautch-girls into court. We've got to have proof."
"Pardon me, sir. Lamaism doesn't run to nautch-girls. These people are Tibetans. They've no proper business in Delhi, and absolutely no excuse for lugging unexplainable women around the country. The Lama was seen to enter Vasantasena's place, and I myself saw him come out and drive off with his chela and two other people. I had him followed, and I know he drove in here. He hasn't come out since. You know what kind of a place Vasantasena keeps."
"Yes, but we also know every member of her household. And she's another individual it's deadly dangerous to monkey with unless we're certain of our facts."
"We've got circumstantial evidence enough to hang a rajah, sir."
"Circumstantial won't do, Chalmers. I spoke with McGregor about it to-day; he assured me there isn't a thing on the Lama in the Secret archives. He admits there's slavery on the Assam border (1), and that slaves are sold into Nepaul and Tibet. But that doesn't justify us in raiding this place, warrant or no warrant. We'd be inviting a riot. The way things are at the moment, Moslems and Hindus 'ud get together and make common cause even with Christians if they thought they could jump on us by doing it -- and slit one another's throats afterward! They'd call it another Amritsar. I'll tell you what you may do if you like: surround this place and shadow every one who leaves it. That way we may get evidence."
There was silence while some one suppressed ill-temper. Then a voice:
"Very well, sir."
A piece of mortar from the top of the wall fell to the ground beside Ommony. He glanced up. It was growing very dark, but he thought he saw the shadow of a man's head, vague against the colored gloom of an overhanging tree. The men who were talking moved on, toward the alley-mouth -- passed it -- turned, and started back again.
"Hullo!" said one of them, the taller, he with the spurs. "Do you notice the audience? Wait! Don't go down there -- that's a nasty, damned dark alley -- might be an accident. -- Good evening!" he said, coming to a stand six feet away from Ommony. "I hope we haven't disturbed your meditations."
Ommony's hand closed on Diana's muzzle. She crowded herself closer against the wall.
"I say, I hope we haven't disturbed your meditations!"
Ommony did not move.
"Maybe he doesn't know English, sir."
"Dammit, I can't see his caste-mark. He looks like a Hindu. Haven't a flash-light, have you!"
The younger of the two men struck a match; its yellow glare showed Ommony in high relief, but darkened the shadow behind him.
"By gad, sir, that's the Brahman who came out of Vasantasena's with the Lama!"
The last thing Ommony wanted was police recognition; with the best will in the world the police may bungle any intricate investigation, through over-zeal, and because they must depend on underqualified subordinates. He was satisfied to learn that McGregor had kept his promise not to unleash the Secret Service on the trail; disturbed to learn the police on the other hand were busy. During thirty seconds, until the match went out, he cultivated the insolent stare to which Brahmans treat "unclean" intruders.
"Brahman and a Lama keeping company! That's strange."
"I'd call it suspicious, if you asked me, sir! What's he doing here? He's not even sitting on a mat. That corner's ritually unclean -- fouled by dogs and God knows what else."
"I'll try him in the vernacular. -- I'm curious to know why you are sitting here," said the man with spurs. "Is there anything wrong? Are you ill? Can I help you in any way?"
"Leave me to my meditation!" Ommony answered in a surly tone of voice.
"Why meditate just here, O twice-born? This is a bad place -- dangerous -- thieves, you know. Don't you think you'd better move on?"
Ommony was in doubt whether or not to answer, but he was afraid Diana might betray her presence unless he could get rid of the inquisitors. He made up an answer on the spur of the moment and growled it indignantly:
"A year ago my son died on this very spot, slain by a bullet from a soldier's rifle. Therefore I choose this place to meditate. I abase myself in dirt before the gods who visited that evil on me."
"Damned unlikely story, sir, if you asked me!"
"Everything in this damned country is unlikely! Have him watched. You'd better stand at that corner, and if he moves off, have one of the men follow him. I'll go back and send you twenty or thirty men to surround the place. -- Good night, O twice-born! Meditate in peace!"
Ommony listened until their footsteps died away in the near distance. Then, taking very great care that Diana should understand she was still stalking danger, not defying it, he crept on tiptoe to the gate at the other end of the alley and drummed on it with his knuckles.
There was no answer. He tried the gate, but it was fastened on the inside. So he made Diana jump it, and in less than a minute after that Dawa Tsering came and undid the bars.
"O thou, Gupta Rao, there are happenings!" he said, showing white teeth that gleamed in the dark.
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