Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

He who is wise is careful not to seem too virtuous, lest they who dislike virtue should exert unceasing energy to demonstrate that he is viler than themselves. True virtue suffers from advertisement.

-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.

Chapter XIX

A MESSAGE FROM MISS SANBURN

A tumult in the street announced that Ommony's ruse had only gained a moment's respite. The night was alive with curiosity; a voice that bellowed like a fog-horn asked who the actors were -- when they would perform again -- whether San-fun-ho was a Mahatma -- if so, which of all the pantheon he favored. Another voice shouted for San-fun-ho to come out and speak.

However, it appeared the Lama had foreseen all that. The bleating sheep gave notice that the barrier was down and the crowd swarmed into the alley. But a string of elephants to all appearance loaded filed down the alley from the compound and the crowd had to retreat; those elephants paraded through the town streets, drawing the crowd after them, and there were no spectators when the gate at the opposite end of the compound opened and the Lama's long procession -- camels, elephants and this time mules as well -- swayed toward open country.

The same Tibetan shared a howdah with Ommony, Dawa Tsering and Diana, and was just as uncommunicative as before. They crossed a railway line; an engine whistled and they had to cling to the howdah when the elephant climbed an embankment and descended on the far side; and once there was hollow thunder underfoot as the procession crossed a long bridge. The pace was much more leisurely than on the first night, and there were fewer interruptions; but twice out of the darkness, once in the gloom of overhanging trees, and once where the crimson glow of a bonfire shone through the howdah curtains, muttered orders came from men on foot and the direction changed.

About two hours before dawn a halt was called in what appeared to be some kind of royal park; there was a wall all around it and there were peculiar walled subdivisions, but nothing to show who the owner might be. The elephants, camels and mules returned by the way they had come, leaving the baggage heaped in a clearing between trees. Somebody shouted a long series of incomprehensible commands, repeating it all three times, and Ommony was hurried away to a tent in a triangular space with a stone wall on either hand and trees in front. There was a good bed in the tent, and a generous meal all ready on a linen-covered table.

When Ommony had finished eating Samding emerged out of the darkness like a ghost and stood framed in the tent opening, looking like a cameo against the sky.

"Tsiang Samdup sends a blessing," he said calmly. "He requests that you will not leave this enclosure. Kindly do not go beyond the trees."

He disappeared again. It was not until he had gone that it occurred to Ommony the language he had used was English. Speaking, thinking in two languages concurrently, occasionally listening to a third, one does not identify them without an effort. For a minute or two Ommony sat still, trying to recall the chela's voice, intonation and accent; it seemed to him that if the words had not been perfectly pronounced he would have noticed instantly that the chela was talking English, not Urdu. He recalled the exact words one by one. "Blessing," "enclosure" and "the" were key-words that would inevitably have betrayed a foreign accent had there been one; as far as he could remember all three words had been stressed exactly as a well educated Englishman would use them; he was sure there had been no accent on the vowel in "the" -- a shibboleth that everlastingly betrays the Asian born.

"I'll swear that youngster is European," he muttered -- and then laughed at himself. No European -- certainly no English youth ever had it in him to seem so saintly and at the same time to be so inoffensive. There would have been an almost irresistible impulse to kick any western youth who dared to look as virtuous as that. One did not want to kick Samding.

Ommony turned Diana loose to roam wherever she pleased; no inhibition had been laid on her. He hoped natural canine curiosity might lead her to make new acquaintances who in some way would help to throw light on the mystery; for as he threw himself on the bed to sleep the whole thing seemed a deeper mystery than ever. Was it propaganda intended to foist Samding on the country as a new mahatma? A political mahatma, who should bring on revolution? If so, why the sudden flight? What could be the advantage of creating intense enthusiasm and then running away from it?

He was awakened late in the morning by a man who removed the dishes and spread a fresh meal on the linen-covered table. The man was some one he had not seen before, as silent as an oiled automaton. Diana was coiled up asleep on her sacking. Dawa Tsering, smelling hot food, awoke with a start to devour it, and it was he who first noticed the silence.

"Gupta Rao, we are --"

He left his bowl of food and ran to the trees that screened the end of the enclosure, peered between them, and came hurrying back with a grin on his face.

"It is true. They have gone and left us!"

Ommony's obstinate jaw came forward with a jerk. An insult from the Lama's lips could not have produced a tenth of the effect.

"Damn him after all!" he muttered. "I admitted I was spying. If he'd simply asked me to clear out, I'd have gone and waited for him at Tilgaun. I'll be blowed, though, if I'll let up now. I'll trace him if I have to -- "

He sat down on the bed, glancing in the dog's direction, wondering how much she had seen in the night and wishing she could really talk. She was curled up fast asleep, but his eye detected something on her collar. He called her, and removed a piece of paper that had been wired to the brass ring; it was twisted and soiled, but the writing on the inside was perfectly legible, English, and done in heavy quill pen strokes that he believed were the Lama's, although there was no signature.

"There is a time for silence and a time for speech; a time for seeing and a time for covering the eyes. This is the time for silence and not seeing. Obey him who will attend you."

But the man in attendance had vanished. The only living creatures in sight outside the tent were crows on the top of the near-by wall and kites wheeling lazily overhead. There was almost perfect silence -- no roofs -- no smoke -- nothing to suggest that there were human beings within ten miles.

"I will explore," said Dawa Tsering. "That old Lama is a great one at writing letters that mean nothing. Maybe I shall find that fellow who brought the breakfast. If I beat him he may interest me with some news."

Ommony sat still and read the note again. The Lama might be simply inducing him to waste time instead of starting in pursuit; but there were several other possibilities, not the least that the Lama's route might be leading somewhere where it would be dangerous for a foreigner to go disguised. There are individuals, in India as elsewhere, who would dare to ask the devil or even a Bhat-Brahman for his identification papers.

Another not unreasonable theory was that the Lama might be willing to be spied on at just such times as his actions were not mischievous, but would prefer to keep the spy at a distance when events of true importance were under way.

At any rate, the wording of the note might be held to imply a diplomatic threat that disobedience would terminate all communication. And on the other hand, he supposed the Lama -- a remarkably good judge of human nature -- knew that he, Ommony, would not permit himself to be dropped into the discard quite so easily as that.

If it was a trick, there would be more to it than merely leaving him behind; the best course was to sit still and await developments.

He awaited them for fifteen minutes, and then Dawa Tsering came, but not as a free agent. He was being led by the ear, although his huge "knife" was in his right hand and there seemed to be nothing to prevent plunging it into his custodian's stomach. Diana growled a challenge and ran forward to sniff quarrelsomely at the legs of the stranger, who ignored her as if she were not there; after a few sniffs she seemed to recognize him and returned to the tent, where she lay down close to Ommony and watched. She had ceased growling. The hair on her neck was no longer on end.

The stranger appeared to be a Sikh, but was possibly a Rajput. He was more than six feet tall, wore his black beard parted and brushed upward, looked extremely handsome in a gray silk turban whose end fell down over his shoulder, and was dressed in almost military looking khaki-jacket and trousers, with a gray silk cummerbund around his waist. He strode with consummate dignity that appeared to be natural, not assumed.

He let go Dawa Tsering's ear when he came within three strides of the tent, and took no further notice whatever of the Hillman, who stood a couple of paces away and thumbed the edge of his weapon, making grimaces that were nearly as inhuman as the grin on the devil-mask he had worn on the stage. There was nothing to show there had been a struggle; both men's clothes were in order; neither man was breathing hard. The stranger's dark brown eyes looked steadily into the gloom within the tent and he presently saluted after a fashion of his own, quite unmilitary, something like the ancient Roman, raising his right hand, palm outward.

"Mr. Ommony?" he asked, in English.

"No!" roared Dawa Tsering. "Gupta Rao, thou ignorant idiot! A Bhat-Brahman from Bikanir -- a man who has a devil in him, who can teach thee manners!"

"Yes, I'm Ommony."

There was something in the voice and in the eyes that warned Ommony there was nothing to be gained by evasion. He stood up and returned the salute, also in his own way, adding to the gesture of his right hand an almost unnoticeable finger movement. The other man smiled.

"I am Sirdar Sirohe Singh, of Tilgaun."

Ommony laughed sharply, the way a deep-sea captain coughs sarcastic comment when a pilot has missed the tide. Here was the Secret Service after all! It was Sirdar Sirohe Singh who had sent the written report of the missing piece of jade to McGregor.

"Come in," he said abruptly, and made room on the bed for the sirdar to sit down. He did not try to pretend to be glad to see him, but the sirdar's next words altered the whole aspect of affairs.

"I do hope my letter to Number One did no harm," he began, stretching out long legs in front of him and speaking at the tent wall. His English was almost perfect, but guttural and a trifle aspirated. "I was in a difficult position. As a member of the Secret Service I was obliged to report. As the Lama's friend I felt -- naturally -- other obligations. It was not until I learned that you were assigned to investigate that I ceased to worry."

"Who told you?" asked Ommony.

"Oh, I heard it. News travels, you know. No, I have not been in Delhi. " (He had answered Ommony's thought; the question was unspoken.) "I arrived last night from the north. The Lama asked me to submit myself to your disposal."

"Does this place belong to you?" asked Ommony, examining the calm strong profile against the light. He had heard that the sirdar was a wealthy landowner.

"No. The Lama has the temporary use of it."

"It was kind of you to -- how did you express it? -- submit yourself to my disposal. What I most need is information," said Ommony.

"Ah. That is elusive stuff."

"Not if you keep after it. Tell me what you know about the Lama."

The sirdar turned his head quickly and looked straight at Ommony.

"Did you receive a note from him?" he asked. "It was tied to the dog's collar."

Ommony looked into the baffling dark eyes and could read nothing there except that the sirdar knew much more than he proposed to tell. He was also conscious of dislike, and knew that it was mutual.

"Just to what extent are you at my disposal?" he asked bluntly.

"I am to convey you to another place. Of course, that is, at the proper time and if you wish to go; not otherwise."

"Will the Lama be there?"

"Possibly."

"Tell me what you know of Samding."

"Did you read the note?" asked the sirdar, again meeting Ommony's stare. "I have a message for you from Miss Sanburn at the Tilgaun Mission. She entertained me the night I left Tilgaun. I admitted to her it was possible I might meet you somewhere. She asked me to convey affectionate regards and to say that she would appreciate notice of exactly when she may expect you."

Ommony turned that over in his mind for half a minute. He could imagine no legitimate reason why Hannah Sanburn should ask for notice in advance. As a trustee it was his duty to pay surprise visits. Mrs. Cornock-Campbell's story of a girl named Elsa of whose very existence he had never previously heard, was a perfectly good reason for paying his next visit unannounced.

"When will you be seeing Miss Sanburn again?" he asked.

"Oh, quite soon."

"Will it be necessary to admit to her that you have seen me?"

"Just as you like."

"Please don't admit it then."

The sirdar nodded; he seemed to regard the message as quite unimportant. Ommony followed the train of thought, however, and tried to catch him off guard with a quest ion asked casually, as if he were merely making conversation:

"Have you seen Miss Sanburn's friend Elsa lately?" But the sirdar was not to be caught. It was impossible to tell whether or not he knew any girl of that name.

"Elsa?" he said.

"I see you don't know her," said Ommony, unconvinced but judging it would be useless to pursue the subject. He did not see how a man who lived on the outskirts of such a small place as Tilgaun could very well be ignorant of the existence of Hannah Sanburn's remarkable protege, more especially since he was a trained and trusted member of the Secret Service, whose duty it would be to report any unusual circumstance. He did not doubt that the sirdar had been retained in the Secret Service roster as much to keep an eye on the Mission as for any other reason.

"When are we to leave this place?" he asked.

"To-night. The Lama asked me to suggest to you the wisdom of not leaving the tent until I come for you -- after the evening meal."

"Very well," said Ommony, standing up to cut short the interview. There was no sense in talking to a man who was determined to say nothing. "I'll be here when you come."

The sirdar bowed with dignity and strode away. The moment he was out of earshot Ommony called Dawa Tsering into the tent.

"Is my trunk in sight?" he demanded.

"Nay, everything is gone. My yak-hair cloak is gone, and my good blankets. Those Tibetans --"

That looked as if the Lama intended to await them somewhere. Ommony interrupted with another question:

"How did that sirdar manage you so easily?"

Dawa Tsering looked sulky. "I will lay him belly-upward one of these days!"

"How did you come to let him lead you by the ear then?"

"Huh! He lives at Tilgaun."

"What of it?"

"He is the friend of Missish-Anbun at the Mission."

"What of that?"

"He is also the friend of the Rajah of Tilgaun; and of the monks in the hills around Tilgaun; and of all the rascals who make Tilgaun a byword all the way from Lhassa to Darjiling. He has a servant with him, who would have seen, and would have told tales, if I had done more than draw my knife; and I tell you, Ommonee, that dog of a sirdar's influence reaches all the way to Spiti. I don't want too many enemies; I have enough of them in Spiti as it is."

"Why did you draw your knife?"

"Because I saw him, and he saw me, and I said to him, 'Thou! We are not in Tilgaun. Have a care; the kites in this part are just as hungry as those that live farther to the north!'

"And to that he said, 'Maybe. But the kites must say prayers to Garudi (1), it is not I who must feed them.' And at that he took me by the ear and led me hither. He is altogether too despotic."

"I'm afraid you'll be a poor friend to rely on in a tight place," said Ommony, smiling.

"I? I am a terror in a tight place! That is just what I am good at. But I like first to be sure it is a tight place, and that the luck is reasonable. Lately I have had bad luck. But wait and see!"

He sat down to sharpen his knife with a small imported hone that he had stolen somewhere, humming to himself a song about the feuds of Spiti, where

"A white mist rolls into a valley and sleeps,

O-ayee-O-ayee-O-ah!

There's a knife in the mist, and a young widow weeps,

O-ayee-O-ayee-O-ah!"

Ommony lay on the bed in the tent and forced himself to accept the situation calmly. There was no use in racking his brains; the mystery now had become still more involved by the fact that Sirdar Sirohe Singh was a member of the Secret Service, who considered himself obligated to report unusual incidents to McGregor and yet did not hesitate to lend a hand in obscuring the very trail he had requested McGregor to investigate; who instantly returned the secret identification signal, and yet refused to give information; who had been ordered by McGregor to remain in Tilgaun and observe events, and yet did not mind showing himself within two days' march of Delhi (nearly a thousand miles from Tilgaun) to a fellow member of the Secret Service, who he had no reason to suppose would not report him!

The mystery increased again when night fell. The same dumb, nondescript servant who had brought breakfast came with supper and hovered twenty yards away, signaling with a white cloth when Ommony had finished eating. Promptly in answer to the signal the sirdar stepped out from the trees with a lantern and called for Gupta Rao in a loud voice, retreating as Ommony advanced toward him until, on the far side of the belt of trees, Ommony was aware of shadowy forms of men -- horses, at least a dozen of them in a long line, with gaps between -- great shadowy carriages that filled the gaps as he drew nearer -- and at last, smiling as placidly as if the new moon that shone like a sliver of pure gold over his shoulder were a halo he had just discarded, the Lama himself.

Samding was in attendance, moving about among the horses, patting them; Ommony noticed him ease a bearing rein. The Lama nodded to Ommony, stepped into the foremost carriage followed by Samding, and drove away at a gallop, the carriage swaying like a big gun going into action. Sirdar Sirohe Singh pushed Ommony into the next carriage (which had only four horses, whereas the Lama's had six) allowed Diana just sufficient time to jump in behind him, and slammed the door, almost shutting it on the dog's tail. A whip cracked instantly and the carriage started rocking and bumping in the Lama's wake. A moment later a third and a fourth carriage followed.

Within was almost total darkness. There were two windows made of slats, forming part of the doors; Ommony tried them both, but the slides were nailed in position. He opened a door and swung himself out on the footboard to get a view of the following carriages, which he could just discern through the gloom and the cloud of dust, their drivers swaying on the high box-seats and shouting as they plied the whip. There was no way of guessing whether Dawa Tsering had been left behind or not. He climbed back into the carriage, holding the door open, but could not see much except dust, darkness and occasional shadowy tree-trunks.

The pace was furious. The flight was evidently prearranged, and managed perfectly. Horses were changed every ten miles or so, but whenever that happened men came to either side of Ommony's carriage and held the doors shut, riding on the footboards afterward until the place where the change was made was out of sight. The route, except at intervals, did not lie along macadamed roads; once they lurched into a dry stream-bed and followed that for a mile or two, the wheels sinking in sand. But that, too, had been foreseen; men were waiting there, who ran alongside and seized the wheels whenever they sunk too deep, toiling as silently and smartly as a gun crew.

It was almost dawn when they rumbled over the paved streets of a fair-sized town, but there was nothing to show what town it was. At last squared stones rang underfoot, a great gate slammed, and a Tibetan opened the carriage door. Ommony found himself in a courtyard in front of what looked like a temple door, only there seemed to be no temple at the back of it -- nothing but a wall and a dense thicket of trees on ground that sloped up-hill for more than a mile.

The Tibetan, taking him by the elbow, led him up steps through the entrance and down again into a cavern that was lighted with little imported kerosene lamps set in niches in the hewn rock walls. There was a maze of passages to right and left, and one wide tunnel that wound snake-wise until it opened into a vault, part natural and part very ancient masonry, that would have held five thousand people.

The Tibetan led him across that great crypt, down a passage at the far end, through a short tunnel into a shaft about fifty feet square at the base. Its sides sloped inward so as to be utterly unclimbable and seventy or eighty feet overhead was a patch of sky not more than twenty feet across.

In the midst, exactly under the square patch of daylight was a tank, brim-full of clean water. On every side of the enclosure there were square openings half-concealed by curtains made of matting. Ommony was led through one of those into a cave about twenty feet long, very plainly but quite comfortably furnished, and there the Tibetan left him without a word.

There was no restraint placed on him; he went and sat down in the opening, watching the dawn gradually fill the place with light until the clouds shone clearly reflected in the shallow tank.

After a while the Lama entered, followed by Samding and several Tibetans, or men who looked like Tibetans; they crossed to the far side and disappeared through one of the curtained openings. Not long after that great quantities of food -- enough for twenty or thirty people -- were brought in earthenware bowls; enough for two men was set down beside Ommony and the remainder was carried through the opening through which the Lama had disappeared.

Ommony was left entirely to himself. After a while he sent Diana to explore, but though she disappeared through the Lama's entrance and stayed within for more than half an hour, nothing came of it; she returned and lay down be side him with her head on her paws, as if she had no information to convey.

So he proceeded to explore on his own account, commencing by merely walking around the tank. Nothing happened, so he peered into one opening that had no mat in front of it, walked in and found a cave almost exactly like his own, leading nowhere. He stayed in there a minute or two examining a very ancient carving on the wall, that bore no resemblance to any monument he had ever seen and yet was vaguely familiar; he could not guess its significance; it was extremely simple, almost formless, and yet suggestive of an infinite variety of forms; he tried to memorize it, for future reference, and then remembered that the glyph, with which the letter to McGregor in a woman's handwriting had been signed, was almost if not quite the same shape.

He was on his way out when Samding met him in the door, his brown turban and cloak outlined in gold by the daylight at his back. More than ever the chela seemed like some one from another world, and as usual he spoke without preliminary, in a voice no man could quarrel with:

"Tsiang Samdup desires you should not ask questions." The words were English, beautifully spoken. "If anything is lacking for your comfort you are to command me."

Ommony laughed. "All right. I command you. Explain what all this means!"

Samding's face became lit with sudden laughter -- not aggravating -- friendly -- wise - humorous.

"Tsiang Samdup says, knowledge comes from within, not from without," he answered. "As a man thinks, so are his surroundings. Tsiang Samdup says, the eyes of curiosity see only what is not so, and it is not only a man's lips that ask questions; the eyes and the taste and the touch are all inquisitive, seeking to learn from without what shall deny the truth within. He who would see the dawn must wait for it; and even so, if he is blind, it win be darkness to him."

"Where did you learn English?" Ommony demanded.

"From within," said the chela. "All knowledge comes from within."

Ommony laughed back at him. "All right. Tell me from within where Dawa Tsering is."

"He shall tell you himself," said the chela.

He stepped back and pointed to Ommony's cave. There sat Dawa Tsering in the doorway, scratching his back against the rock. The chela walked away, stroking Diana's head, who followed him as far as the entrance to the Lama's cave.

"Where have you been?" asked Ommony, going over and standing in front of the Hillman.

"Nowhere. I rode in the carriage behind you, with a lot of Tibetans. They are fools, and I won their money playing dice. Thinking to follow the luck, when I reached this place I discovered where those girls are -- all in a big cave together -- may it fall in and destroy them! They were too many, and they made a mock of me. But wait until I get them one at a time! I am not one to be mocked by women, Gupta Rao!"

Chapter XX

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