Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy


O ye who look to enter in through Discipline to Bliss,

Ye shall not stray from out the way, if ye remember this:

Ye shall not waste a weary hour, nor hope for Hope in vain,

If ye persist with will until self-righteousness is slain.

If through the mist of mortal eyes, deluded, ye discern

That ye are holier than these, ye have the whole to learn!

If ye are tied with tangled pride because ye learn the Law,

Know then, your purest thoughts deny the Truth ye never saw!

If ye resent in discontent the searchlight of reproof,

Preferring praise, ye waste your days at sin's not Soul's behoof!

Each gain for self denies the Self that knows the self is vain.

Who crowns accomplishment with pride must build the whole again!

But if, at each ascending step, more clearly ye perceive

That he must kill the lower will, who would the world relieve

And they are last who would be first, their effort thrown away;

Be patient then and persevere. Ye tread the Middle Way!

Chapter XVII


The moment the last woman had vanished from the room the Lama let Samding help him to his feet and clucked, snapping his fingers to Diana. She glanced at Ommony, he nodded, immensely curious, and promptly she trotted to the Lama's side as matter-of-factly as if she had known him all her life.

The Lama and the chela went down to the room below, taking Diana with them. The chela spread out the mat, rearranged it in accordance with the Lama's instructions, and the two sat down on it facing the balcony, conversing in low tones, evidently waiting for something preordained to happen. Diana sniffed around the room, inspecting cushions curiously, but they took no apparent notice of her. After a minute or two she sat down and looked bored. Instantly the Lama called to Ommony:

"Can you cause the dog to open her mouth, from where you are, without speaking?"

Ommony stood up, his head and shoulders visible above the rail, and seeing him Diana pricked an ear. The trick was simple enough; ever since she was a puppy she had always dropped her jaw when he held up a finger at her; by education, for his own amusement, he had simply encouraged and fixed a habit. Her mouth opened, closed and opened wide again.

Samding laughed delightedly, but the Lama very seriously beckoned to Diana to come nearer and she obeyed at a nod from Ommony. She wanted to sit on the mat, but the Lama would not allow that; he pushed her away and she squatted down facing the balcony, watching Ommony, awaiting orders.

"Now again!" said the Lama.

Ommony raised his finger. The ear went up, the mouth opened and stayed open until the finger was lowered.

The Lama was as pleased as a child with a toy. Diana would have been satisfied to go through all her tricks, but a Tibetan entered through the door the women had used. The Lama froze into immobility and Samding followed suit.

There entered a man whom Ommony knew from his photographs -- Prabhu Singh -- the almost middle-aged but younger son of a reigning rajah. He knew him well by reputation -- had admired him in the abstract because he was notorious for independence and for fair, intelligent, outspoken and constructive criticism of foreign rule. He was said to be an intimate of Gandhi and was, in consequence, about as much appreciated by the ruling powers as a hornet at a tea-party.

He was tall, lean, lithe, big-eyed under a plain silk turban and extremely simply dressed in tussore stuff that showed every line of his athletic figure -- not very dark-skinned -- clean-shaven except for a black mustache. He wore no jewelry, strode barefooted with manly dignity to a point midway between the Lama and the door, bowed low, and stood still. Diana went up and sniffed him. He showed surprise, but laid his hand on the dog's head and rubbed her ear.

"Peace be with you. Peace perfect you in all her ways," the Lama boomed.

"And to you, my father, peace," he answered. "Was it well done? Was anything lacking for your comfort? Have my servants failed in anything Were there enough elephants?"

"It is all good," said the Lama.

"And the mission succeeded?"

"The first part."

The Lama's hand went into his bosom and produced the piece of jade. Prabhu Singh approached to the edge of the mat, received the jade into his hands, and stepped back to examine it, holding it to the light from a window. He did not appear to have any superstitious reverence for it, but handled it as if it were a work of art, rare and valuable.

"I am glad," he said simply after about two minutes, handing it back to the Lama, who returned it to his bosom. The chela's eyes were missing nothing.

"San-fun-ho! " said the Lama suddenly; and the chela stood up on the mat. Was the stage-name his real one? The mystery increased.

Prabhu Singh's attitude underwent an instant change. He became embarrassed. He bowed three times with much more reverence than he had shown the Lama, and when the chela smiled the lineal descendant of a hundred kings was as nervous as a small boy being introduced to a bishop. Samding said something to him that Ommony could not catch, and the murmured answer seemed to be no more than a conventional formula of politeness. The chela was as perfectly at ease as if he had been receiving the homage of princes all his life.

Prabhu Singh bowed again three times and retreated backward, stumbling against Diana and recovering his balance awkwardly. He appeared almost physically frightened; yet he was famous on polo fields from end to end of India, and was notorious for speaking his mind bluntly to viceroys at real risk of personal liberty. His back to the door at last, he made his escape with better grace, recovering presence of mind and remembering to salute the Lama.

The moment the door shut the Lama turned on Samding and rebuked him in Tibetan; Ommony could only catch occasional sentences; but it seemed that the Lama was angry because Samding had not put the visitor at ease.

"That is only vanity -- self-approval. Worshipers are mockers . . . turned your head . . . I would rather see you pelted with stones . . . better for you and for them . . . break the shell of the egg before the chicken hatches . . . schlappkapp! (whatever that meant) . . . dirt under your feet will some day cover your grave . . . all these years and yet you know so little . . . if you are going to fail you had better not begin . . . presumption . . . "

It was a wonder of a discourse. Samding listened, standing for a while, then sat down cross-legged -- off the mat -- facing the Lama -- head bowed humbly -- not once moving until Diana came and sniffed his neck to find out what the matter was.

That stopped the Lama's flow of speech. He glanced up at the gallery and called to Ommony in an absolutely normal tone of voice, as if he had entirely forgotten the whole incident of Prabhu Singh's visit and the rebuke and all connected with it.

"Now again, my son. Make the dog do the acting again."

Samding resumed his position on the mat at the Lama's right hand; he, too, seemed to dismiss the lecture as if it had never taken place; and Ommony, directing from the gallery, made Diana open and shut her mouth. The Lama insisted on her doing it again and again and at last he and Samding chuckled together over it as if it were the greatest joke that ever happened.

Still chuckling, they got up and left the room by the door leading to the street, taking the mat with them and locking the door as they went out. No explanation; not a word to Ommony as to what was expected of him; not even a backward glance at the gallery to suggest that they had him in mind. Ommony sat still for a while; then, whistling Diana, he made his way to the gallery door, found that open, and proceeded to explore; but he found all the other doors along the passage locked, except the one at the end that opened into the room assigned to himself.

He looked through the window into the compound, where there were all kinds of noise and confusion. Four men were trying to throw a mule and several other mules had broken loose; an elephant was lying on its back near a water-butt while two mahouts scrubbed its belly; and two bull camels were fighting with everything except their tails while twenty onlookers heaped humorous advice on rather bored-looking experts who were watching for a chance to rope the brutes by the leg and separate them.

And in the midst of all that riot, with the sun pouring down on them and crows and sparrows hopping about among them, Maitraya and his troupe sat on boxes, repeating their lines to one another.

It appeared that the devil's part already had been written. Maitraya held a small scroll in addition to his own, and was trying to teach the lines to Dawa Tsering, who was disposed to believe he could play the devil better if left to his own resources.

"I tell you, a devil is devilish!" he shouted. "A devil is like one of those bull camels -- you never know what he'll do next! Or like a mule -- you have to look out for his teeth and heels! This devil of yours is like a pretty gentleman. Here, let me show you how to act the devil!"

But Maitraya stuck to it, patiently correcting the Hillman's mispronunciation of the Urdu words. Catching sight of Ommony through the window, he called to him to come out and take part in the rehearsal; but the door was still locked, and though he could have climbed through the window easily enough Ommony hardly liked to confess that he was locked in, not knowing what effect that news might have on Maitraya. After a moment's hesitation he excused himself on religious grounds:

"I must recite the mantras."

Even Maitraya, possessed by the almost absolute of religious cynicism, respected that Brahman's privilege, so Ommony was left to his own meditations, which were mixed, amused and mystified in turn.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door behind him. The chela came in. He had changed his clothes again and was in the same snuff-colored robe in which Ommony first saw him in Chutter Chand's back room. His face was an enigma -- a mask with a marvelous smile on it; but the eyes, to Ommony, suggested excitement; or, it might have been, extremely keen amusement; at any rate, some strong emotion was shining through the self-controlled exterior. The remarkable thing was, that the youngster's calm did not suggest fanatical asceticism or conceit. He seemed human, curious and not unfriendly.

Diana's tail thumped on the floor. Flies buzzed in and out through the window. There was nothing in the situation to cause nervousness, and yet Ommony confessed to himself that he felt an inclination to shudder; the sort of inclination that forewarns a man of something that his eyes can not see. He spoke first, purposely in English, hoping to catch the chela off-guard:

"Maitraya has suggested that those young women who are with the party are your wives. That seems improbable. Tell me the truth about it."

If eyes mean anything, the chela understood; he was laughing. No muscle of his face moved. He pretended to assume that the words were some form of greeting, and answered in kind, in Tibetan, then broke into Urdu:

"Tsiang Samdup sends a blessing. He is unwilling that you should speak of what occurred this morning."

"You mean, of the performance of the dog?" asked Ommony.

But the chela appeared to be an expert in dealing with stupidity. "Of anything that occurred." Ommony chose another angle of assault:

"Whatever the holy Lama wishes. Kindly tell him so. As long as I am his guest, I will be silent. Wait!"

The chela had started to go, but Ommony stepped between him and the door and stood with his back to it.

"Don't be alarmed."

But the chela had only retreated a pace or two. Excepting that, he seemed hardly more than curious to know what would happen next. It was Ommony who felt uncomfortable. "I want you to tell me," he said, "whether it was Tsiang Samdup or some one else who educated you and those young women."

The chela, still standing erect, did not answer.

"Come on, tell me. There must be some one else besides the Lama."

"Is that why you stand between me and the door?" the chela asked. The voice was ironic -- amused. Ommony tried emphasis:

"I won't let you go until you answer a few questions. Tell me -- "

But the chela had already gone. He had crossed the room in three strides, laid a hand on the window-ledge, and vaulted through, tucking his legs up neatly under his chin and landing almost noiselessly on the veranda. He contrived the whole swift maneuver without a moment's loss of dignity, and walked away unruffled, not glancing behind him.

Ommony strode to the window feeling cheap, wishing he had gone about things differently; he supposed it would take an interminable time now to establish himself in the chela's confidence; he had possibly totally ruined his chance of doing that. The chela was sure to go straight to the Lama and tell him.

But there stood the Lama, in the midst of the group of actors, with Samding already beside him; and apparently Samding was talking about the play to Maitraya; the Lama seemed to be encouraging Dawa Tsering to rehearse his lines. They did not glance in Ommony's direction. But a minute or two later a Tibetan came and unlocked the door, and when Ommony stepped out under the veranda the Lama turned and beckoned to him.

However, the Lama had nothing to say. He led the entire troupe at once toward the elephant stalls, down a gangway between two of the big beasts, whom he saluted in passing as if they were human beings, and through a gate at the rear into an alley fifty yards long. The alley seemed to have been used as a sheep-corral the preceding night; there were some loose boards that probably served to enclose it. Across its end ran a street, in which a dozen or more nondescript humans lounged in front of back doors. It was a back street; all the houses faced the other way, their rears were an irregular jumble of yards and walls, with empty kerosene cans, rubbish heaps and faded cotton purdahs (1) much in evidence.

The Lama led straight across the street into a doorway, and down a long passage that admitted to the wings of a fair-sized theater, almost modern in some of its details.

Some one had been busy, for the stage was set. A hideous back-drop had been almost concealed by branches up-ended, that gave a very good suggestion of a clump of trees; and in front of those, in mid-stage, was a wickerwork affair covered with cotton cloth that had been painted to look like the stone-work of an old well; a beam with a rope thrown over it, supported on two uprights completed the illusion well enough. The flies had been very simply painted to resemble house corners at the end of a street, and the whole scene suggested the extreme fringe of a village, with the audience looking out through it toward the open country.

For a wonder, there was electric light, although none too much, and the switchboard was a mystery, painted red and labeled in English "Keep away!"

At the rear of the theater and along both sides was a balcony for women, screened off with narrow wooden slats that left openings about four inches square. The orchestra "pit" was a platform, three feet lower than the stage, in full view of the audience. The musicians were already squatting there --Tibetans to a man; four were armed with radongs (2); four more had tomtoms; the remaining dozen were provided with stringed instruments. The radongs blew a fog-horn blare to greet the Lama as he stepped on to the stage.

In the opposite wing, no longer in white or in stockings, protected by three stalwart Tibetans, who lounged in the flies, were the women of mystery. They were in costume, which so orientalized them that Ommony almost doubted recognition. Memory plays strange tricks; his took him back to the day when he and Benjamin had played a part at Chota Pegu and the nautch girls had been wild with inquisitive mischief -- ready to betray the chief-priest at a nod. These girls now, in gauzy draperies, less naked, but as subtle in their motions, so resembled those nautch girls at first glance that he was not sure they were the same he had seen in the room among the Hindu ladies until he noticed that they laughed and chattered on a comparatively low note instead of a high-pitched dissonance.

The Lama clapped his hands and sat down inside the well, where he could see out through holes in the painted cloth. Then he told Ommony to make Diana sit down almost exactly in front of the well, and the rehearsal began at once, as if preordained from the beginning of time, the girls in their Indian costume mingling with the stage crowd, and so well versed in their part that they pushed the other actors into place, needing no direction by the Lama.

Ommony had plenty of chance to observe some of them closely, for three had been told to engage the saddhu in mock-conversation during parts of the first act. One -- the Gretchen-girl -- put an offering into his begging-bowl. But though he missed his cue twice through trying to engage her in real whispered conversation, he failed; she was as evasive as abstract thought -- as apparently engaging and as actually distant as a day-dream. She turned every advance he made into an excuse of by-play for the imaginary audience's benefit, and all Ommony accomplished was to draw the Lama's irony from behind the well:

"Some saddhus hide lascivious hearts under robes of sanctity, but you are supposed to be one who has truly forsaken the pursuit of women, Gupta Rao!"

When the laugh that followed that rebuke had died down Ommony was still not sure of the Gretchen-girl's real nationality. He had tried her with English, French, German and two or three Indian languages, watching her face, but detecting no expression that suggested she had understood him. As for the others, one might be a Jewess; but there are many well-bred women, for instance in Rajputana, and in Persia, who are fair-skinned and who resemble Jewesses in profile. Even fair hair was no proof of their origin; most eastern women, but by no means all, have dark hair.

The only really convincing evidence that they were Europeans was their behavior, and even that was offset by the fact that some of them were certainly Tibetans, whose manner was equally unembarrassed in the presence of men, yet equally free from familiarity. The difference from their behavior and that of Maitraya's actresses grew more and more noticeable as the professionals became aware of an atmosphere to which they were utter strangers. They tried at first to imitate it; then grew resentful and sneered; resorting at last to low jests in loud whispers and attempts to scandalize by bold advances to the men until at last the Lama stood up in the well like a priest in a pulpit and beckoned those three women to come and stand in front of him.

"I could show you your secret hearts," he said, in a kind voice that was much more withering than scorn, "and ye would die in horror at the sight. It is not good to slay, not even with the rays of truth. So I show you instead what ye may become." Mildly, patiently, a little wearily, as if he had done the same thing very often, he included all his own mysterious family in a gesture that conveyed diffidence and hesitation. "Life after life ye shall struggle with yourselves before ye shall come as these. And these are nothing -- nothing to what ye may become. The road is long, and there are difficulties; but ye must face it. Take advantage of the moment, for it is easier to imitate than to find the way alone. Ye can not undo the past, nor can all the gods, nor He who rules the gods, undo it. But now, this moment and the next one, and the next, for ever, ye yourselves by thought and act create the very hair's-breadths of your destiny. -- Now let us begin again, from the beginning."

They began again so meekened and subdued that for a while the first act suffered. But that was overcome by Diana, who produced such peals of laughter that the Lama had difficulty in restoring order and had to reprimand the musicians for thrusting their heads above the level of the stage to watch. At a signal from Ommony standing near the wings, Diana's mouth opened and the Lama from inside the well croaked words that sounded, even on the stage, as if the dog were speaking them.

When the shoemaker said "Ah, if I were king!" Diana's mouth opened wide and the retort came from behind her:

"It might be better to be a dog like me and not worry so much!"

The illusion was perfect because everybody on the stage looked at the dog as if expecting her to speak; and the best of it was that Diana cocked an ear, put her head to one side, and was immensely interested.

In answer to the saddhu's, "How long will ye store up wrath against the day of reckoning?" there was put into Diana's mouth:

"For myself I bury bones, but jackals come in the night and make away with them!"

When the king asked, "Is this your gratitude" and the saddhu replied, "To whom? For what?" Diana's retort was:

"The saddhu is like the vermin on my back; he helps himself but isn't grateful. And when he is scratched he just goes to another place!"

Diana was easy to manage, and Ommony's signals, made with his right hand, were invisible from the front of the theater on his left. But Dawa Tsering was a hard problem; he was supposed to be one of those wandering clown-fakirs who amuse and terrify village gatherings by alternately acting like idiots and pretending they are in communication with the underworld of demons and lost souls. He could neither remember his lines nor keep his head, but blundered in at the wrong cues and then laughed self-consciously. Ommony advised the Lama to dispense with him altogether.

"Nay," said the Lama. "All things are good in the proper place. There is a part he can play."

Whereat he ordered the stage set for the second act, which was a simple business. The flies reversed suggested a palace interior. Curtains at the rear concealed the greenery. The well was replaced by a carpeted dais with a large throne on top of it, inside which the Lama could conceal himself quite easily. A few heaps of cushions and settees were carried on the stage and while the change was being made the orchestra rehearsed amazing music.

Tomtoms, radongs and stringed instruments thundered, howled and jingled like a storm in the Himalayas with the voices of a thousand disembodied spirits carrying on an argument in the teeth of wind and rain. It was stunning -- weird -- a sort of cataclysmic din foreboding marvelous events, but music, nevertheless, in every quarter-note of its disturbing harmonies.

Chapter XVIII


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