Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
To him who truly seeks the Middle Way, the Middle Way will open, One step forward is enough.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.
THE ROLL-CALL BY NIGHT
Within the courtyard there was not confusion but a silent flitting to and fro as purposeful and devoid of collision as the evening flight of bats. Tall, specter-like figures, on the run, were carrying out loads and arranging them in a long row under the cloister. There was no sign of the Lama, nor of Maitraya, and only one dim light was burning -- a guttering candle set in a sconce under one of the arches.
"They go!" said Dawa Tsering. "They go!" He was excited -- thrilled by the atmosphere of mystery. "There was a fellow on the wall, along there at the corner of the garden, where the tree is. He came running; and another summoned the Lama; and there was an order given. May devils eat me if they weren't quick! They are like ants when the hill is damaged!"
Ommony approached the cloister where the candlelight threw dancing shadow, and the first thing he recognized was his own trunk, with the bags and bundles of the other actors laid alongside it, in a line with scores of other loads all roped in worn canvas covers. There was every indication of orderly but swift and sudden flight; and only one reasonable deduction possible. Dawa Tsering voiced it:
"Women-trouble! Trouble-women! It is the same thing! They bring a man to ruin in the end!"
Ommony sat down on the trunk, and suddenly jumped up again. A woman's voice cried out of darkness from an upper story.
"Did you hear that!"
"So screams a woman when the knife goes in!" said Dawa Tsering pleasantly. He was having an entirely satisfying time. "Look to thyself! There is room to hide dead men in this place, and none the wiser!"
But Ommony was not quite sure the woman's cry did not hold a suggestion of laughter.
A Tibetan unlocked the door of the great hall in which the rehearsals had taken place, and Maitraya emerged in a tantrum.
"Krishna! This is too much!" he snorted. "Is that you, Gupta Rao? What do you think of it? To lock us in like criminals! To take our luggage -- by the Many-armed Immaculate -- what is happening?"
The other actors trailed out after him, the women last, peering over the shoulders of the men in front. One of them was half-hysterical and, seeing nothing else to be afraid of, screamed at the dog. Ommony retreated into darkness. Dawa Tsering followed him, immensely free as to the shoulders, like an old-time mercenary fighting-man who foresaw trouble of the sort that was his meat and drink.
"Have you a weapon, Gupta Rao? If you asked me, I should say you would need one presently!"
Ommony dragged the Hillman down beside him and the three -- he, Dawa Tsering and the dog -- sat with their backs against the wall in impenetrable shadow, out of which they could watch what was passing in the ghosty candlelight.
"How many women has the Lama with him?" asked Ommony.
"Oh, lots! I never counted. There were one or two I had my eye on, but the crafty old Ringding looks after them more carefully than an Afghan watches a harem. He and the chela are the only ones who can get within talking distance. Never mind. We will have our opportunity now, unless I am much mistaken."
"Why didn't you tell me about these women before?" asked Ommony.
"Oh, I thought you knew everything. Besides, you are probably a gay fellow yourself. I don't like interference. If you and I should love the same one --"
The Lama stepped into the circle of candlelight, entirely unexcited, and as usual Samding was with him. Samding counted all the loads twice over.
"Wait until I get my yak-hair cloak and the other things," said Dawa Tsering, and disappeared.
The Lama said one word and Samding promptly commenced a roll-call, from memory, in a clear commanding voice, beginning with a string of northern names, following with Maitraya and all his actors, Ommony's almost last. It was as thrilling as a roll-call on a battle-field.
"And the dog?"
Ommony whispered to Diana and she bayed once. Everybody laughed, including the Lama, who stood so upright that he could have passed for a young man until Samding came and stood beside him, when the contrast exposed the trickery of darkness.
The Lama spoke in low tones to a Tibetan, who repeated the order to others, and in a moment all the loads were on men's heads. There was a prodigious number of them; men had arrived like ghosts, apparently from nowhere, and the discipline was perfect. Not a man spoke. There was no sound except for a grunt now and then and the rutching of heavily loaded bare feet on the paving stones; and not a woman yet in evidence except Maitraya's actresses, who seemed too frightened to make a fuss, or too interested to be frightened; it was hard to tell which.
If there was another order given Ommony did not hear it. The procession started across the courtyard, in through the stable-door into which the Lama's carriage had vanished when they first drove in that morning; some one opened the door from inside. The Lama stood in the courtyard watching, Samding beside him counting, and they two entered last, a dozen paces behind Ommony; and the moment they entered the echoing arch the door slammed shut at their backs.
One candle on an iron bracket showed the shadowy outlines of three carriages on the right, and three horses in stalls beyond that. The place seemed clean, with plenty of fresh air, and the stable-smell was not overpowering.
"Have you been here before?" asked Ommony.
"Not I," said Dawa Tsering. "Maybe it is here he keeps the women! This is one of those places the police dare not look into lest men accuse them of committing sacrilege. In my next incarnation I will study to be a priest, because then I can laugh at the police instead of being inconvenienced by them."
Diana trotted right and left into the shadows, sniffing, interested but not suspicious. It was she, three or four yards ahead who presently gave warning of danger in the form of steps descending into absolute obscurity. The candle-light did not penetrate to that point and it was impossible to see whether there was a door to conceal the steps when not in use. The voices of three women added to Maitraya's complaining of darkness and danger, answered by cavernous rumbling as some one reassured them, proved that the steps did not go very deep, but there was nothing else to judge by, until, twenty paces beyond the foot of the steps, the tunnel turned and another solitary candle burning at a corner in the distance showed the long procession shuffling toward it.
There were no rats, no dirt, and it was not particularly damp. The tunnel, which was floored and lined with heavy masonry, was roofed in places by the natural rock, but there were spaces beamed with heavy timber and other spaces filled with what looked like fairly modern concrete. The floor and walls seemed very ancient, but the roof had undoubtedly been repaired more than once within the century. The level could not have been more than thirty or forty feet underground, and there was a distinct draught of cool air passing through.
It was not until he came within a dozen paces of the candle that Ommony's ears, growing accustomed to the echoing shuffle of about two hundred feet, detected that not all that noise came from in front. He looked back, and saw shadowy, black-draped figures behind the Lama and Samding. It was impossible to guess how many, since he looked with the light behind him, into darkness, and when he passed the candle the tunnel turned again rather sharply to the right. He stood still at the corner, looking backward, but the Lama boomed to him to go on -- boomed so cheerfully and confidently that it would have been churlish to refuse.
"Do you suppose those are women behind us?" he asked.
"I know they are," said Dawa Tsering. "For a jest, O Gupta Rao, send thy she-dog to them. There will be a happening!"
There was more in that notion than its propounder guessed. Ommony snapped his fingers for attention, and spoke to Diana as loud as he could without letting the Lama hear:
"Friends! Go and make friends!"
He waved his hand toward the rear. Diana turned and darted past the Lama, who tried to intercept her; failing, he made a curt exclamation whose meaning Ommony could not catch.
"What did he say?" he asked.
"It means to be silent because they are not afraid," said Dawa Tsering.
And whoever they were, they were not afraid, which was sufficient cause in itself for much hard thinking. Diana was as high at the shoulder as a Great Dane; as shaggy and lean and active as a monster from the folklore legends. As an apparition suddenly emerging out of darkness with her eyes aglare in candle-light she was enough to have thrown old hunters into panic. But instead there was nothing but laughter, much snapping of fingers and enticing noises made between the lips; and the laughter was as merry and appealing as the sudden view-hallo of children when a circus-clown kisses a pig. The Lama had to boom a second time for silence, although why he called for silence after that ringing revelation was not exactly clear; surely there was no risk, down there in the tunnel, of the noise being heard by the police. And another thing: his voice was not alarmed, not even anxious or offended; it more resembled that of an engineer who orders steam turned off, or of a clerk convening court quite matter-of-fact, with hardly the suggestion of command in it.
Ommony let Diana stay behind there making friends. He chuckled to himself. There were few but he who knew the possibilities of that dog. Having once established in her mind that certain individuals were friends, he would have no particular difficulty in using her to penetrate any screen the Lama might contrive. There was no further need to risk an issue with the Lama by appearing overcurious; he could wait for opportunity and let Diana open up communications.
Meanwhile, it would not have helped him in the least to be inquisitive just then. The tunnel turned again and grew pitch-dark -- became a stream of echoing noise in which a man could only feel his way by touching the man next to him or elbowing the wall, letting himself flow forward as it were in the general movement, which some forgotten sense reported to the brain.
Then dim light, far ahead, and at last a glimpse of sky, framing half a dozen stars, that made the tunnel seem even darker and a backward glimpse impossible -- Diana came sniffing for Ommony and shoved her nose into his hand. Then she suddenly bayed at the sight of the sky in front and raced away to investigate.
Ommony did his best to memorize the details, of the tunnel opening, but failed. There were steps, but not many of them. Then he found himself in a courtyard about thirty yards square, with stars overhead and the shadowy columned entrance of a place that looked in the dark like a temple behind him. He was aware that a stone floor had come sliding forward to conceal the flight of steps; a man had shouted to him to hurry lest he be caught in the gap, and he had seen that the sliding stone was two feet thick. There was no sign of the Lama, or of Samding, or the women.
There were camels in the courtyard; he knew that by the smell before he saw them kneeling in two uneven rows. Diana, who hated camels, came to heel, growling to herself in undertones, and Dawa Tsering laughed aloud.
"I smell travel and the road that runs north!" he said triumphantly. "The devil may have these hot plains! Wait while I pick us two good camels -- wait here!"
He disappeared and within the minute there were sounds of hot dispute -- three voices. A camel rose like an apparition from another world, and snarled as if this world were not satisfying. A heavy thump -- a louder oath -- and Dawa Tsering limped back.
"In the belly! Kicked me in the belly!" he gasped, unable to stand upright but with enough wind left in him for agonied speech. "I would have hamstrung the brute, but -- those Tibetan -- devils -- eh, but it hurts! -- they pushed me toward his hoof again and -- yow! let me sit so -- stand beside me -- yah-h, I have a bellyache!"
The courtyard was alive with movement, but there was hardly a spoken word. The camels moaned and gurgled, as they always do when loads are being heaped on them, and now and then some one called out for an extra package to balance an animal's burden; but on the whole there was even less noise than when Bedouins strike tents and vanish. After a while, as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, Ommony could make out men who certainly were not Tibetans; they wore turbans and were more like Bikaniri camel-men. Then, huge and shadowy against the sky, there loomed seven elephants with curtained howdahs, making no noise, effortless, coming through an open gate like phantoms in a dream.
Next there came from behind Ommony, a man in a turban and long cloak, followed by a younger man whose stride seemed familiar, who wore a scimitar at his waist and the dress of a chieftain. Diana knew them instantly and wagged her tail. They were the Lama and Samding, changed almost out of recognition! Ommony followed them wondering at the Lama's strength of gait that he seemed to have acquired along with the change of costume; but they were presently surrounded by Tibetans, who seemed to be receiving whispered instructions. Unable to get close enough to hear what was being said, Ommony turned his attention to the elephants, and noticed that they bore the trappings of a rajah, although he did not know which rajah. He asked one of the mahouts, who told him gruffly to mind his own business.
He walked up close to one of the camel-men, but it was too dark just there under the wall to see his features.
"Whose man are you!" he asked.
"Mine own man!" the fellow answered in a plucked, flat harp-string tone of voice. "Have a care! This camel bites!"
Ommony jumped in the nick of time to avoid the vicious teeth. Diana flew at the camel; the heavily loaded brute struggled to its feet, tried to kick four ways at once, and bolted. Ommony grabbed Diana. Nine or ten men chased the camel into a corner, managed it amazingly with forked sticks and compelled it to kneel. It was plainly enough a desert outfit, used to meeting all emergencies without fuss.
Then the shadowy elephants moved in single file across the yard and halted, swaying, at a door beside the one that Ommony had come through; he could see the top of a ladder laid against the first one from the far side, but could not see who mounted it. A moment later, however, he caught sight of the Lama and Samding, the Lama walking like a warrior, skirted, pantalooned, seeming to have thrown off thirty years; they climbed on to the last of the elephants, and moved off first, the others following.
After that there was confusion for about a minute; several more elephants came through the gate, colliding with the loaded ones, and for reasons that were doubtless logical to them, the camels all got up at once and stampeded into the jam. But a little, low-muttered swearing, some sharp cries and a lot of stick-work straightened that out. The camels were herded out into the open behind the elephants; the second lot of elephants came in, and a Tibetan seized Ommony's arm.
Not a word. No explanation. Two other men seized Dawa Tsering, taking no chances with him, pouncing on him from behind and shoving him along toward the same elephant to which the first man led Ommony. Maitraya's voice was raised in protest somewhere in the dark and a woman cried out hysterically, but none answered either of them. The whole party of actors was hauled into curtained howdahs like so much baggage. Diana jumped -- Ommony caught her by the scruff of the neck, hauled her in after him, and found himself in a howdah with Dawa Tsering and one Tibetan, who leaned forward, touched Dawa Tsering on the shoulder and shook a finger at him meaningly. For answer the Hillman made a gesture toward his knife.
But they were off, swaying like insects on an earthquake, before that argument could ripen into happenings, and in less than two minutes the Hillman was seasick, hanging on and moaning that he could smell death.
"That camel kicked my belly into ruins! Peace! I will get down! I have had enough of this!"
But the Tibetan leaned forward and lashed him very neatly to the howdah with a rope.
"Cut me loose, Gupta Rao -- or I call thee Ommonee!"
"Nay," lied Ommony, "it was my order."
"Thou? Oh, very well! OMMONEE!" he yelled. Then again between spasms of vomiting, "OMMONEE! OMMONEE!"
It did not seem to matter. The Tibetan took no notice of it. Such a cry by night, smothered by howdah curtains, was not likely to mean much to chance passers-by. Perhaps Maitraya could hear it on the elephant ahead, but he would not know what it meant. Ommony let his name be yelled until the Hillman wore himself out, hoping the Tibetan would be too disturbed by it to notice anything else. He had his finger through a small hole in the curtain and was tearing it for a better view.
He did contrive to snatch one hurried glimpse before the Tibetan saw what he was doing; but it was dark, there was no moon, and all he saw was a broken wall with trees beside it -- nothing that would help him identify the route. The Tibetan touched him on the arm and shook a warning finger, then climbed over to Ommony's side of the howdah and tied up the hole carefully with thread torn from a piece of sacking. He did not seem in the least afraid of the dog, nor did she object to him. On the principle that good dogs know what their masters think subconsciously about a stranger, Ommony decided the Tibetan was quite friendly.
And the process of self-adjustment to mysterious conditions consists rather in keeping adventitious friends than in losing them. It seemed much more important to disarm suspicion and to create a friendly atmosphere than to find out which direction they were taking.
As a matter of fact, Ommony did not much care where he was going. He guessed he was on the "Middle Way," and that, if true, was the all-important fact. Details of the route, he knew, might change from hour to hour; the key to it was probably a string of individuals extended all across the country, bound together by a secret interest in common. He decided not to try to memorize the route, but to look out for and identify those men.
However, he made one casual attempt to draw the Tibetan, in the hope of further disarming suspicion by appearing naturally, frankly curious.
"Where are we going!" he asked in Prakrit.
"Wherever the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup wishes," the man answered, almost to himself, as if he were repeating prayers. After which there was long, swaying, hot silence, broken only by the groans of Dawa Tsering and the soft, exactly regular footfalls of the elephant.
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