Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

He who would reform the world must first reform himself; and that, if he do it honestly, will keep him so employed that he will have no time to criticize his neighbor. Nevertheless, his neighbor will be benefited -- even as a man without a candle, who at last discerns another's light.


Chapter XVIII


Work. Ommony had been a worker all his days, but had never known the real meaning of the word until that afternoon. The Lama, as placid as a temple idol, as exacting as fate, as tireless as time itself, kept everybody occupied. There was no return to the place across the street where the beasts of burden rested; the only pause between rehearsals was at noon, when food was brought in baskets and all except Ommony munched greasy chupatties in the wings; for him there was special food provided, brought by an ostensible Brahman and served behind a screen.

A Tibetan make-up man, a master craftsman, spread the tools of his trade on the stage behind the well and took every one in hand in turn under the Lama's critical supervision. Even Diana had to be touched up; daubs of paint were smeared around her eyes to make them look huge and supernatural, and her ordinary gauntness was enhanced by dark streaks that made her ribs appear to stand out prominently.

Trunks full of costumes were dumped in the wings by methodical, matter-of-fact Tibetans, who seemed to have gone through the same performance scores of times and to know exactly what to do, and when, and how. They dressed the protesting actors more or less by main force, ignoring Maitraya's protests, pulling, adjusting, stitching, until every costume hung exactly as the Lama said it should. They provided Dawa Tsering with a devil-mask and a suit of dragon-scales -- then showed him himself in a mirror, which entirely solved that problem; he liked himself so well in the disguise that he could have acted Hamlet in it. But all he was required to do was to laugh like a fiend at intervals, and to dance on and off stage whenever the Lama signaled from behind the well. He was supposed to be the spirit of the underworld who mocked men's efforts.

There was no supper; nobody remembered it. Rehearsals continued until they had to lower the curtain because the audience began to straggle in and squat on the matted floor in groups, munching betel-nut. The orchestra tuned up at once. Three quarters of an hour before the curtain was supposed to rise the house was crowded to suffocation. Stunned by the music, which crashed and blared arresting heraldry of doom or something like it (and nothing fascinates as much as doom foretrumpeted) the audience forgot to talk. When the curtain went up slowly as if raised by the last resounding boom of the radongs there was utter silence, in which the thrill behind the women's gallery grating could almost be felt in the wings.

And at the very last minute, before the king walked on, the Lama, from behind the well, signaled to Dawa Tsering to laugh like a ghoul and dance across the stage. It was inspiration. In a country that believes implicitly in devils, that following the cataclysmic music produced the perfect state of mind in which to watch the play; when Maitraya walked on he was heard with almost agonied attention. There was not a gasp from the audience until it was Diana's turn to speak, when the Lama croaked her line so comically that even the actors laughed; and, presumably because the gods who guard coincidence approved, she put her head to one side and cocked an ear at the audience.

It brought the house down. It was so exactly timed to break suspense, the marvel that a dog should speak was so astonishing, that an earthquake after that could hardly have called the crowd's attention to itself. Every spoken word and every move was watched as if earth's destiny depended on the actors' lips, and Diana's three short speeches were received as if some god in the form of an animal were on the stage. When she had spoken about vermin the Lama tickled her with a straw and she scratched herself; and shrill laughter from behind the women's grille gave evidence that not a gesture of her left hind-foot was missed. When the curtain came down at the end of the prologue the applause out-thundered the orchestra.

"It succeeds!" announced Maitraya, strutting across the stage in the way of the scene-shifters. "I told you so! I said it would! Trust me to know. Acting -- good acting -- technique can accomplish anything!"

The Lama recognized familiar symptoms and was prompt. He gathered all the actors close around him in the wings and what he said was aimed straight at Maitraya, although he appeared to be watching Dawa Tsering through the corner of his eye:

"That which is not excellent is not good. There shall be no second act, unless I can be sure of more attention to my signals. I am disappointed. If we can do no better before such an audience as this, what could we hope to do in the large cities!"

Dawa Tsering nearly burst the devil-mask with indignation.

"Thou!" he exploded. "Go back to thy monastery! I will entertain these princes and princesses! Hah! This is the greatest success there ever was!"

"You will not be needed," said the Lama, and at a sign from him, as if they had known from the first what to expect, three Tibetans seized Dawa Tsering and led him away to a small room at the rear where his roars of protest were inaudible.

That was all that was needed. Even the vainglorious Maitraya, forced himself into a careful frame of mind, and the second act began as the first had done, with everybody striving to deliver each line as the Lama wished it.

Quite early in the second act the girls came on to dance and entertain the king's court. They were preceded by mysterious music, quiet and rhythmic, pulsing with a tomtom under-throb that made the audience breathe in time to it and sway unconsciously.

They floated on to the stage, barefooted, swinging so perfectly in unison that each seemed to reflect the other. Lowered lights produced a filmy, other-world effect. What little sound they made was swallowed by the pulsing subdued music, until one radong boomed an arresting note and they began to sing, never changing the dance step, weaving in and out and around and around as reflections mirrored in the water weave interminably. Song, step and dimness were all in harmony. There was one mysterious, monotonous refrain that held a hint of laughter, and yet such sadness as is felt when the wild-fowl cry across treeless wastes under a rainy sky.

And there was no more than just enough of it to make the audience feel that it had not had enough -- no encore, although the stifling theater became a pandemonium of acclamation and the king's next speech had to be twice repeated from the throne (the Lama, underneath the throne, insisted on it, lest the audience should miss one word of the thought-laden lines).

Diana had only one line in the second act. When the king, worried and perplexed by the ignorant disputing of his courtiers, exclaimed, "Oh, who is wise enough to tell these idiots what to do?" Diana walked up to the throne, turned at a signal from Ommony to face the audience, and from under the throne the Lama croaked:

"A wise dog chooses its own master and obeys him. It saves lots of trouble!"

Then she walked off, swaying her long tail contentedly as if she had solved the riddle of the Sphinx. Because of the heat, that made the grease-paint on the actors' faces run, her tongue lolled out and she seemed to be grinning in response to the applause as she vanished into the wings.

About midway through the second act Dawa Tsering was set free from durance vile and allowed to resume his ghoulishness, now somewhat chastened by conviction that after all he was not indispensable. There was nothing prearranged about his entrances, whenever a line fell flat or the action seemed to drag a little the Lama signaled for the devil to dance on and arouse laughter. He was particularly useful when Maitraya remembered he was an actor instead of acting the part of a king; the devil was immediately summoned then to take the conceit out of him by burlesque antics.

There was nothing in the play an audience could misinterpret, for it mirrored their own melancholy to them and their own confusion, while Samding in the Chinese robes of San-fun-ho laughed at it triumphantly, his golden voice repeating lines that suggested, hinted, vaguely alluded to a way out of all the difficulties that he knew all about, even if nobody else did. All through the second act Samding's lines were mockingly destructive, as one actor after another, from king to saddhu, tortured imagination with his own ideas of how to make the world convenient to live in. Between them they proposed almost every solution that has ever passed current in the realm of politics, and the saddhu seasoned the stew with peppery religious nostrums; but when, before the curtain fell, they all decided they were better off as shoemakers and goatherds Samding still mocked them. Nevertheless, there was a hint in his last line of a solution if they chose to look for it:

"Ye mortals, there is no success in jealousy. There is no comfort in complaint. Ye win no excellence by finding fault."

The applause made the curtain swing and sway but it did not drown the orchestra for quite so long as after the first act. It changed into a buzz of conversation, syncopated, rising from a low note to a higher one in choppy sound-waves of expectancy; and when the curtain rose on the scene by the well at dawn there was silence in which the mouse-note creaking of a door moved by a draught of hot air sounded like whipcracks.

The rising sun would hardly have passed muster with a western audience. It was a thing of gilded wood, on which the strongest electric light available was focused from the wings, but to the eastern mind, long versed in symbolism, it was intelligible, and the fact that mystic signs were painted on its face enhanced its effect. There was no need to tell any one that San-fun-ho had used the magic jade at dawn to restore every one to his original condition. There they all were, grouped before the well, with the dancing girls costumed as members of a village crowd and some Tibetans in the background helping to swell the number.

The whole of that last act belonged to San-fun-ho, who stood before the well with the magic jade in his right hand and, with the rising sun behind him, revealed the mystery of hope and courage. The jade gleamed like a living thing whose light came from within. His voice was like a peal of magic bells rung by the gods who keep the secrets of the dawn. His face was lit with reassuring laughter. His manner was as one who had experienced all emotions and had conquered fear.

It was a long speech; its delivery required ten minutes, but the audience received it as the East receives a benediction always, straining breathlessly to catch the subtleties of meaning, preferring allegories and a proverb now and then to meat and drink.

" . . . Does dawn die? Nay, it passes on. It lives for ever. Dawn is dawn, and never changes. Discontent is discontent; its fruits are of the elements of discontent -- all bitter -- none can sweeten them. Who wallows in the mire of jealousy, and blames another for the want he feels, may load his bins aburst with golden goods, but he shall know more smarting jealousy, and ache with gnawing wants he never guessed.

"But hope -- is hope not sweet? And is the fruit of sweetness bitter? Nay. I tell you, Hope is a creative force whose limitless dimensions lie within the boundary of each existing minute. Irresistible, Hope's magic is accomplished now. It comprehends no lapse of time. Nay! Instant are its dawn, its noon and its accomplishment! Hope, if it is true hope, fills the mind, affording malice and deceitful dread no room. Hope lives in action. All the elements of hope are deeds done now!

"Deeds -- the very echoes are the fruit of deeds! One stone laid on another in Hope's name is greater service to the gods than all the pomp of conquest and the noise of prayer! A deed -- who measures it? Who knows the limits of a mended wheel or reckons up the leagues it shall lay underfoot? -- what burdens it shall bear? -- whose destiny it shall await and serve? A new-born Krishna may descend into the world and ride on it to glories such as earth has never known!

"O people, ye have overpraised calamity! Too much ye have considered night; and not enough have ye observed the dawn! Your hope has died because ye starved it like a pot-bound plant within the shell of envy, in the drought of greed! Too truly ye have longed to gain and to possess; too little ye have hoped to add one gift to each gift-laden moment as it comes!

"Lay one stone on another, and give thanks! Add one deed to another and sing praises to the lords of tide and time who measure the ant's labors and record kings' idleness! Sing! Your very song shall vibrate in the universe when ye return to earth a thousand lives from now!"

The orchestra stole its way into his last half-dozen sentences and, as he finished, burst into the splendid opening bars of a hymn that was already ancient when the Hills were young. Conquering, it sounded, rising, overturning, splendid with the bloom of life and Hope that knows it is immortal.

And how those girls, and the trained Tibetan chorus massed behind them, sang! They swept the audience along with them into a surging spate of sound whose melody was like the rolling wonder of long rivers.

The curtain came down amid such deafening applause that not even the radongs could blare above the thunder of it and the Lama had to shout like a mountaineer to make himself heard behind the scenes. Ommony had seen no messenger arrive, no consultation held, but the word the Lama shouted rang with a strange note of anxiety, and though the audience was yelling for more song, and to see the dog again, the stage and the wings took on the aspect of a stricken camp -- all haste, all running to and fro, but strangely no confusion.

Ommony was seized and stripped of his saddhu's costume -- left to dress himself in Brahman clothes as best he might, while Maitraya fought against a similar indignity with as much effect as if he were a scarecrow struggling with a Himalayan wind. The other actors threw their costumes off before the wardrobe men could get to them; and before they could pull on their ordinary clothes the framework of the well and every detail of stage furniture had vanished. The girls had disappeared almost before the echo of the Lama's warning cry had ceased, and within five minutes from the time the curtain came down Ommony found himself alone in the wings with Diana and Dawa Tsering, who wanted to stay there and brag of his performance.

"I have made up my mind I will be an actor, Gupta Rao! I am good at it! Did you hear how they laughed when I showed myself? That play would have failed but for me! Ha-hah! The Lama knew it, too! He had to tell his lousy Tibetans to let me out of that room back there, so that I might come and save the day!"

Ommony did not waste time to disillusion him, but even so they were nearly caught by a tide of men who tried to surge in through the stage door, sweating, laughing, shouting questions, wanting to know when the next performance would take place, wanting to see the dog and to hear her talk again, demanding to be shown the Chinese actor and to know whether he was really Chinese -- above all, when would the next performance be?

Ommony had to shove his way through the midst of them, holding Diana by the collar and hustling Dawa Tsering, who wanted to stop and wallow in flattery. Not even loud commands to keep their unclean fingers off a "twice-born" served to keep the crowd from getting in the way; and they would have followed across the street to the elephant stable if Ommony had not thought of telling them that the dog must be fed before she could possibly go to the temple of Siva and speak a couple of mantras from the street near the temple porch. (It was quite safe to mention the temple of Siva; there is always one where there are Hindus.) They stampeded toward the temple to take up good positions, and only a few small boys saw Ommony, Dawa Tsering and the dog go into the elephant compound by way of the alley, which was full of sheep through which they had to thread their way.

The pitch-dark compound was in quiet confusion. There were camels being loaded, and the elephants were all in line beside the balcony, from whose upper deck the girls, already masked in black, were stepping down like goblins into the curtained howdahs. Ommony found the Lama, Samding beside him, standing near the last elephant of the line; and as he drew near, some one whose outline suggested Prabhu Singh returned thanks for the Lama's blessing and disappeared into the darkness.

"Why the hurry?" Ommony demanded. "They came crowding to the door to insist on another performance. Why not stay and give it!"

"My son," the Lama answered, with the slightest trace of tartness in his voice, "no course is good unless there are seven reasons for it, even as no week is whole that has not seven days. You may ride on that elephant -- that third one. May peace ride with you."

Chapter XIX


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