Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

Treason, as between men, is considered worse than theft; for even thieves despise it. He who betrays his country is considered fit for death. But I tell you: he who betrays his own soul has no longer any link with honesty, and there is nothing sure concerning him, except that he will go from bad to worse. And evil grows little by little; he who is faithless in small things will ultimately lose all honor. Therefore, strive eternally to keep faith, not telling secrets nor inquiring uninvited into those of others; for the Great Offense is grounded on an infinite variety of little ones -- exactly as Great Merit is the total of innumerable acts of self-control.


Chapter XVI


Each to his own heaven. Some men prefer golf. To Ommony, the seventh heaven of delight -- the apex of a heterodox career was reached that hour in a curtained howdah, lurching into unknown night. And the best of it was that he knew the future must hold even more thrilling mysteries. There was going to be no anticlimax.

He was uncomfortable, sweating so that his dripping cotton garments clung to him, breathing the smell of elephant and dog and Dawa Tsering (which is no boudoir mixture), possibly in deadly danger. And he was utterly contented, having no regret, no backward yearning.

The curtains that cut off the view could not limit imagination. He enjoyed a mental picture of the string of camels leading and the elephants mysteriously padding in the wake, beneath colored stars and a blue-black sky, between broken walls and shadowy trees, toward an obscure horizon. The dusty footfalls were as music. The mahout's occasional expletives were an open sesame to mystery beyond the reach of ordinary men -- and that, perhaps, explained nine-tenths of the delight. It is doing what the other fellows can not do, that satisfies; and so, through vanity, the gods make use of us. No millions, nor fame, nor offers of a sterilized and safety-infested Heaven could have tempted Ommony to forego that journey in the howdah, although there were not wanting opportunities to steal away.

Now and then there were halts, when muffled voices of unseen men on foot, who turned up out of the night, delivered terse commands that were barely audible and quite incomprehensible through the howdah curtains. Time and again he could have tumbled out of the howdah and lowered himself to the earth by the elephant's tail. But he preferred to act Jonah in a whale's belly, especially since the whale was willing.

He knew that with the dog's help he could have tracked the caravan to its destination and so have learned the details of the course it took. But he also guessed that none who saw it pass would answer questions; and at the other end there was the risk that he might find a blank wall, silence, and perhaps a knife's edge for inquisitive intruders. To play for safety -- to look for it -- to expect it, would be ridiculous. He must run all risks without a gesture of self-protection. He was glad he had not even a revolver with him, for a hidden weapon might betray him into rashness of the wrong kind. He made up his mind, if he were threatened, to rely solely on whatever wits the gods of emergency might sharpen for him at the moment.

Meanwhile, he felt reasonably sure of one thing: that the elephants were a rajah's property. The camels might possibly belong to some one else, but it was more likely they were also the same rajah's. There might be a rajah who would not ask questions, but who was linked in some chain of more or less esoteric brotherhood, akin perhaps to Masonry. If so, the procession would arouse no comment on the countryside, for it is no man's business and to no man's profit to inquire too closely into a rajah's private doings; he who does so may count with almost absolute precision on what the jury will subsequently call an accident. "I don't know, I didn't see" and "I forget" are difficult, exasperating pegs on which to hang a chain of evidence.

At the end of two hours' swaying Dawa Tsering's stomach, void of embarrassing content, began to recover. His sunny disposition followed suit.

"Loose me, Gupta Rao. I am sorry I bawled out thy other name. I will slay this fool who heard me. Then none will be the wiser, and thou and I are friends again."

"Do you hope ever to see Spiti?" Ommony inquired.

"By the wind that blows there, and the women who laugh there, surely! I have a treasure tucked away in Spiti -- earned on the te-rains. Loose me, Gupta Rao, or I call thee by thy other name again! I can shout louder, now my belly aches less."

"Shout, and let us see what happens," Ommony suggested.

The small boy's mind that had its kingdom in the Hillman's bulk considered that a moment.

"Nay," he said presently, "I think that an evil might happen. The luck is not good lately. Who would have thought a camel would kick me? The devils who live in the hills around Spiti owe me for many a good turn I did them. The devils of these parts seem very mischievous. I had better behave myself."

"How about a promise?" Ommony suggested.

"You mean, a promise between me and you? But I would have to keep it. That might be inconvenient."

"I would promise for my part to assist you to return to Spiti at the proper time."

"Oh, very well. Only I shall judge the proper time by when the devils have turned friendly. Loose me. I will behave myself."

Ommony undid the rope and the Tibetan, far from objecting, stuck a stump of candle on the bare wood of the howdah frame, lighted it, produced a pack of cards, and challenged Dawa Tsering to a game. They played interminably, both men cheating, both appealing to Ommony to settle constant arguments, although there was no money involved.

"My honor is at stake," Dawa Tsering grumbled after about a dozen furious disputes. "This ignorant Tibetan says I am a liar."

"So you are," said Ommony.

"That may be. But he has no right to give himself airs. He is the greater one. Look! He has five cards tucked under his knee, whereas I had but two!"

He shoved the Tibetan so that his knee moved and uncovered the missing cards, two of which slipped down between the howdah and the elephant's flank, thus putting an end to the game.

"But I have dice!" said Dawa Tsering; and from then until dawn they murdered time and peace with those things, while Diana, her tongue hanging out with the heat, panted and shifted restlessly, but Ommony snatched scraps of sleep, dimly aware that Dawa Tsering was losing more often than he won, growing more and more indignant with devils who refused to bring him luck.

"I will obey thee, Gupta Rao, until the luck changes," he said at last. "My dice are loaded, yet even so I can not win! Luck is funny stuff."

It was about ten minutes after dawn, the choicest hour in India, alive with cock-crow and the color-drenched solemnity of waking day, when the tired elephant came to a final halt in some sort of enclosure, and shuffled a slow measure to call the mahout's attention to sore feet. At a sharp word of command the beast lay down, like a hillside falling. Diana sprang out through the curtains and Ommony followed, yawning and sitting down on the elephant's forefoot to pretend to watch the mahout's ingenious ministrations to a corn, while he surveyed the scene from under lowered eyelids.

The other elephants, already offloaded, had shuffled away to a roofed enclosure at the far end of a compound, where great heaps of food awaited them and equally huge vats of water. The camels, still burdened, were lying down in picturesque confusion, carrying on a camel conversation, which consists in snarling at the world in general. Along one side of the compound was a row of mules, tied by the heel with their rumps toward the wall, squealing for breakfast, which was being brought by naked boys, and by a bhisti, who poured water into buckets from a goatskin bag. The opposite side of the compound was formed by a low two-storied building with a double-decked veranda supported on square wooden posts running the entire length. There were flies, much litter and a most amazing smell.

Over the roof of the building, where a long line of crows formed a mischievously interested audience, there appeared a jumble of other roofs that made no pretense to architecture. Small-town noises, such as a smithy bellows and the hammer-ring on iron, the patter of goats' feet and the heavier tread of cattle being driven forth to graze, arose on all sides. There was one minaret in sight, and one Hindu temple-roof ornate with carvings of deific passion. The compound gate was locked and there was a guard of two men standing by, not evidently armed, but obviously sullen and alert. There was no sign of the Lama, nor of any women.

After a minute or two Maitraya looked out from a door midway under the long balcony and greeted Ommony with the familiarity of boon companionship established by journeying together. It only needs one night of shared discomfort on the road to produce that feeling, or else its opposite. One either hates or likes one's fellow traveler; there is no middle ground on the dawn of the second day out.

"Do you know where we are!" Maitraya asked cheerfully.

Ommony did not know, but he was no such fool as to admit it. In his capacity of wiseacre he gave the mahout good advice regarding elephants' corns, about which he knew nothing; in his role of privileged extortioner he demanded arrack from a man who seemed to be the master of the stables, and established friendship with the elephant by giving the grateful beast two-thirds of a bottle-full of the atrocious stuff.

Meanwhile, Diana was exploring on her own account, alarming many mules, offending camels, and reducing elephants to a state of old-maidish nervousness, at which their mahouts yelled in chorus, offering to throw sticks, dung and missiles of all sorts, but daring no more than the threat. Diana, solemnly indifferent to abuse, and contemptuous of elephants since she had ridden on the back of one, snooted around in corners until she reached the end door under the balcony; and finding that open, she entered. There was an instant chorus of women's voices. Maitraya grinned.

"Gupta Rao," he said, "I have seen a many curiosities in my day, but those dancing girls surpass all! If they are Tibetans, Krishna! I will risk my life and go to Tibet! I saw them descend from the elephants, and Vishnu! Vishnu! I assure you my heart thumps! Such beauty! Such chastity redeemed by mirth! Such modesty of manner uncontaminated by humility! I foresee adventures, Gupta Rao! That divinity of yours who broke your pocketbook in Bikanir will have a dozen strong competitors! Krishna! I am impassioned! I am enflamed with love! If I can find a shrine of Hanuman, I will make gifts and a sacrifice this morning!"

Diana emerged, led out through the door by Samding, who held her collar; seeing Ommony, the chela signaled to him with a smile to call the dog.

"I hate that chela!" said Maitraya, grinning. "Did I not tell you I had an intuition to be jealous of him! Is it possible those twice-born creatures are the chela's wives?"

"Whom are you calling twice-born?" Ommony demanded, instantly assertive of a Brahman's rights.

"Pranam!" said Maitraya. "But wait until you have seen them!"

Impelled by a feeling that perhaps the luck might favor him, and partly in order to live up to his Bhat reputation, Ommony strolled toward the door whence Samding and the laughter had emerged. It was slightly ajar. But he had scarcely reached it when the Tibetan who had been fellow traveler during the night touched him on the shoulder, led him back to a door at the extreme opposite end, and almost violently shoved him into a room furnished with a clean wooden table and a bench. Food was on the table -- loads of it -- fruit, milk chupatties, honey, butter, boiled rice, and flowers enough to have graced a wedding feast. The Tibetan slammed the door, and Ommony heard him turn a key on the outside.

However, there were two doors to the room, and the window was not fastened. He went first to the window and made sure that Diana was within hail; she was watching Dawa Tsering gorge his breakfast from a bowl in the shade of the compound wall not fifteen feet away. Having satisfied himself on that score, he discovered that the inner door was not locked, so he attacked the food, that being an important consideration when you don't know what the next five minutes may bring forth. The locked outer door, and the guard on the compound gate were not exactly reassuring.

The Lama came in through the inner door just as Ommony finished eating. He was alone, no longer dressed in the warrior-like garb of the night before, and looking old again -- immensely old, because the morning light streamed through the slats of the window and showed all his wrinkles. The snuff-brown color of his robe was streaked with old-gold by the sunlight. In that moment one could believe he was a rather world-weary, very wise old saint; it was next to impossible not to believe it.

Yet there was humor in his eyes and a gaze unconquerable -- blue-gray -- very wide awake. His frame for the moment seemed shrunken, yet his height, though he stooped from shoulders that seemed almost too weary to support his head, was considerably more than Ommony's.

"Peace perfect you in all her ways!"

The blessing was solemn but the voice rang with assurance, as if he knew that his will to bless was infinitely overpowering.

"And to you, my father, peace," said Ommony. He had stood up when the Lama entered.

"And the food was enough? And good enough?" the Lama asked. "The journey not distressing?"

"Where are we?" Ommony retorted bluntly. But the Lama merely smiled until his wrinkles were all in movement, and the fearless old eyes shone with kindly humor:

"My son, he who knows where he is knows more than all the gods. He who knows what he is knows all things. Is it not enough that each moment we are where we should be? Is not the whole universe a mystery? How shall the part be more comprehensible than the whole, since it must partake of the quality of the whole?"

But Ommony did not propose to be put off by wise conundrums. His jaw came forward obstinately.

"I was locked in here," he said. "I have a right to know why."

"To keep out those whose ignorance might cause them to intrude," the Lama answered, exactly as if he were teaching school. "It is not good to place temptation in the path of the inquisitive."

Feeling as if stilts had been kicked from under him, Ommony tried again, more bluntly:

"You know who I am," he began, speaking English; but the Lama interrupted in Urdu:

"My son, if I knew that, I should be wiser than all those whose duty is to rule the stars! You have answered to the name of Gupta Rao."

"For God's sake," said Ommony, again in English, "why not tell me outright what your business is? I'll begin by being frank. I'm spying on you! I would like to believe you are above suspicion. I'm in doubt."

"My son," said the Lama, answering in Urdu, "no man is above suspicion. The sun and the moon cast their shadows, and therein the destroyers lurk. Doubt is the forerunner of decision. Shadows move. All revelation comes to him who waits."

That sounded like a promise. Ommony jumped at it.

"We have one interest in common -- Tilgaun. Why treat me as an enemy? Why not clear the air now by telling me the truth about yourself?"

"My son," said the Lama, in Urdu again, "no man can ever be told the truth, which either is in him, or it is not in him. If it is, he will see the truth. If it is not, he will see delusion and will confuse himself with surmise. He who looks for negation beholds it. He who looks for truth beholds negation also, but perceives the truth beyond. Wherein have I shown you enmity?"

For a moment there was silence. Ommony tried to think of another way of getting past the Lama's guard, but the old man's impersonal dignity was like armor.

"There are things you may see, but you must put your own interpretation on them," said the Lama. "One by one we attain to understanding. The wise ponder in silence, but the fools are noisy, and the noise precedes them to their doom."

That sounded like a threat, but his face was as kindly as ever, rippled again with quivering wrinkles, as a smile broke and vanished into the recesses of brown-ivory skin.

"Come!" he said; but instead of opening the door behind him he strode first to the window, threw the shutters back, glanced out and made a clucking noise. Diana jumped in, and Ommony wondered; she was trained to be wary of strangers, and was not given to obeying even her master's friends unless carefully charged with that duty by Ommony himself. She thrust her nose into the Lama's hand before she came and fussed over Ommony.

The Lama led the way into a narrow passage on to which many doors opened to right and left; it extended from end to end of the long building, its walls forming a double support for the heavy beams of the floor above. Two-thirds of the way along it he opened a door on the right and a chorus of women's voices burst through the opening. But there were no women to be seen yet, because the door opened on to a gallery; there was a lower story on that side of the building, and the gallery ran around two sides of a large room, screened from it by a breast-high balustrade. The Lama led the way to the farther end, where the gallery was twenty feet wide and Samding waited, standing beside a spread Tibetan prayer mat, marvelously dressed in ivory white and looking like a young god. However, god or no god, he had to alter the position of the mat by an inch or two before the Lama would sit down, after which he motioned to Ommony to be seated on the floor in the farther corner, where he could see through a slit in the wooden panel and look down on the floor below.

It was a surprising room to discover close to mule- and elephant-stables, but not so surprising as its occupants. The walls were hung with painted curtains, and the floor was strewn with cushions on which Indian women, many of them high-caste ladies, sat chattering with girls who resembled no caste or tribe that Ommony had ever seen anywhere. They were lively, full of laughter, young, but no more beautiful, as far as actual features went, than any gathering of normally good-looking women anywhere. Six or seven of them, if not Tibetans, were at any rate of part-Mongolian origin; but Ommony counted fourteen who fitted into no mental pigeon-hole of races he had seen and studied.

In more than one way those fourteen and the Tibetans were all alike. They were dressed in the same loose, almost Greek, white cotton robes; they all wore stockings, which the native Indian women in the room did not wear; and they used more or less the same gestures, were alert with the same vivacity. But there the resemblance ended.

The fourteen were fair-complexioned; one had golden hair that hung in long plaits -- she would have looked like a German Gretchen, if it had not been for the dress and something else -- something quite indefinable.

The whole proceedings, the whole scene was like a weird figment of imagination. There was nothing natural about it, simply because it was too natural. It was not India. There were Moslem as well as Hindu ladies in the room, betraying no self-consciousness and no objection to one another's presence; and there were actually low-caste women -- sudras (1) -- chatting with the rest apparently on equal footing. True, there was no food being passed around, but every other caste rule seemed to be forgotten or deliberately flouted; yet there was no sign of self-consciousness or strain.

They were talking Urdu, a few of them with difficulty, but it was next to impossible to catch the conversation from the gallery because there was so much of it -- so many chattering and laughing all at once.

The fourteen girls in white kept glancing up at the gallery apparently expecting some sort of signal, so Ommony had plenty of opportunity to scan their features. He did not doubt they were the smuggled children Benjamin had spoken of, only there were fourteen instead of seven. There were therefore other agents besides Benjamin. But the fact in no way simplified the mystery; rather it increased it. Their ages ranged at a guess from seventeen to twenty-three or twenty-four which, allowing for the years elapsed, tallied with Benjamin's description -- near enough; and they had grown to wholesome-looking womanhood. Not a trace of shyness. No awkwardness. No vulgarity. Not one symptom of forced manners or repression. The whole thing was incredible; yet there they were. And who had educated them? The Lama? That seemed more impossible than for a river to flow up-hill; he might have made priggish nuns of them, or downright Tibetans, but not that. It began to be evident that there was something worth investigating in the Ahbor country, or wherever else the Lama kept his secrets!

It was the Lama who at last cut short the flow of talk. Sitting still on the mat, where his head was not visible from below, he boomed a word in Tibetan, as commanding as the gong that brings sea-engines to a halt, and there was instant silence as in an aviary when the chattering birds are frightened. Whatever he might be, the old man knew what drama meant -- and discipline. He whispered to Samding, and the chela, opening a swinging door in the front of the gallery, walked down a carpeted flight of steps to the floor below.

He was received in silence. He took from his breast the broken piece of jade that Ommony had lost and that the Lama had recovered from the courtesan, and holding it in both hands on a level with his shoulders passed among them, pausing to let each woman in turn devour it with her eyes. Some of them appeared to fall into a state of superstitious rapture; others were curious; all were respectful almost to the point of worship. And the Lama watched them through a slit in the swinging gate as if all destiny depended on the outcome, every tendon in him rigid; the neck tendon stood out like a bow-string. Then suddenly, as if to calm himself, he took snuff and rubbed his nose violently with his thumb.

The chela said nothing, but the women were allowed to touch him and appeared to think the touch conferred a priceless boon. They laid a finger of the right hand on his shoulder as he passed, and one woman, a Moslem, who laid both hands on him and clung almost passionately, was quietly reproved for it by two of the girls in white.

"The game begins to look political," thought Ommony, watching the Lama clean a snuff-filled nostril with a meditative forefinger. "Vasantasena -- umm! Now these women -- I've always wondered why some genius didn't try to conquer India by winning the women first! They rule the country anyhow."

The Lama just then looked as calculating as a medieval cardinal, but despite that air of playing a deep game for tremendous stakes, there was now something almost Puck-like in his attitude. Ommony noticed for the first time that his ears did not lie close to his head, were large and slightly pointed at the top. Seen sidewise in the rather dim light there was a faint suggestion about him of one of those gargoyles that survey the street from a cathedral roof. He was even more interesting to watch than the proceedings on the floor below.

Suddenly the Lama spoke again. When he did that his leathery throat moved like a pelican's swallowing a big fish, and the noise that came out was hardly human -- startling -- so abrupt that it completely broke the sequence of all other sounds. It monopolized attention. In the ensuing silence he sat back, took snuff again, and seemed to lose all interest in the proceedings.

But to Ommony the interest increased. The girls in white threw black cloaks over their shoulders. The Hindu and Moslem women smothered themselves in the impenetrable veils without which it is pollution to face men-folk out-of-doors; and all of them, in groups of three or four, each little group in charge of one of the Lama's female family, who shielded their faces in masked hoods that formed part of the black cloaks, departed toward the street.

There was no doubt that they did go to the street; a door opened on to a vestibule, and sunlight shone through a street door at its farther end.

Samding returned up the steps and gave the piece of jade to the Lama, who stowed it somewhere in his bosom without glancing at it. Ommony watched the chela narrowly. Was he a European boy? There was something in the clean strong outline of his face and in the lithe athletic figure that might suggest that. But he was too abstract-looking -- altogether too impersonal and (the word was as vague as the impression Ommony was trying to fix in his mind) too fascinating. No European youngster could have looked as he did without stirring resentment in whoever watched. Samding aroused in the beholder only admiration and an itching curiosity.

Chapter XVII


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