Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

This much I know: that it is easy to cause offense and easy to give pleasure, but difficult to ignore all considerations except justice, and much more difficult to judge rightly whoever, ignoring both offense and pleasure, leaves the outcome of his actions to the Higher Law. Therefore, judge yourself alone, for that is difficult enough; and, depend on it, the Higher Law will judge you also.


Chapter XX


Dawa Tsering would say no more about his adventure among the women, but it was plain enough that he had been made ridiculous. He was fortunate not to have been caught and manhandled; he realized it.

"If it had not been for some Tibetans," he grumbled, and then lapsed into moody silence, sharpening his knife on the edge of the entrance to Ommony's cave.

They were left entirely alone, watching birds that moved like specks on the infinite blue through the opening overhead, until night fell and the gloom within the shaft grew solid. Sound died with the light, and one lantern that a man set over the entrance to the Lama's cave made hardly any difference.

They brought food again, with some bones for the dog, and a candle to stick on the floor of the cave; but nothing else happened until the Lama's sonorous voice called through the darkness and Ommony followed him down the tunnel into the vast cavern he had crossed that morning. It was already thronged with people seated on mats or on the bare floor, who filled the place with whispers; a shuffling of feet like the sound of wind and running water came from the entrance, where hundreds more were coming down the long tunnel.

Such light as there was, came from little smoky lamps set on ledges in the rock walls. A bell rang when the Lama appeared and the orchestra, almost invisible in shadow, burst into tune such as Stravinsky never dreamed of, filling the cavern with din that made the hair rise -- restless yearning noise, accentuated by the hoarse radongs.

Across one end of the cavern a strong stage had been erected and a very rough curtain. The Lama led the way behind it, where the stage was already set and the makeup man was busy with the last of the actors. Tibetans pounced on Ommony and dressed him for his part by candlelight, but in the improvised wings, where the girls waited, whispering and laughing, there were batteries of acetylene lights all ready to be turned on, in charge of a man who looked like a Parsee. Where the footlights should have been there were mirrors arranged to throw the light back in the actors' faces. Everything was make-shift; yet everything appeared to have been done by men who knew precisely what was wanted and who had worked without confusion to provide it.

Just before the play began the Lama went before the curtain and the music ceased. There was no light where he stood; to the audience he must have resembled a shadow dimly outlined on the dark cloth.

He told a story interspersed with proverbs, and the only sound from the enormous audience was in the pauses, when they caught their breath. The moment his make-up was complete Ommony stood at the edge of the curtain, where he could hear and look out at the thousands of eyes, on which the faint light from the lamps shone like starlight on still water.

". . . So they spoke to the god who had come among them. And the god said, 'Ye have a government; what more do ye want?' Whereto they answered. 'But the government is bad, nor is it of our choosing.' And the god said, 'Is the weather of your choosing?' And they said, 'Nay.' Whereat the god laughed pleasantly, for he was one who knew the cause and the effect of things. 'As for the weather,' he said, 'ye make the most of that. When it is hot ye wear lighter garments; and when it is cold ye light fires. When it rains ye stay indoors, and when it is dry ye sally forth. If a man complains about the weather, ye say he is a malcontent who should know that all sorts of weather are of benefit to some folk, and that all communities in turn receive their share of heat and cold and drought and moisture. Is that not so?' the god asked; and they answered, 'Yea.'

"So the god asked them another question. 'If ye so adapt yourselves to what ye say is not of your contriving, how is it that ye say the government can not be borne? Can ye say that the rain and the snow and the heat are good, but the government is not good?' And the god laughed loud at them saying, 'Out of mischief and destruction no improvement comes. Like comes from like. Improvement is the product of improvement, not of violence. Ye have the government ye earn, exactly as the earth receives the weather it deserves. For the weather, which comes and goes, came and went before your time. Indeed, and also there were governments before your time. The weather has altered the hills and the plains. The governments altered your fathers and will alter you, and your sons after you.'

"Thus said the god. And they answered, 'Aye. But what if we alter the government?' And the god said, 'Ye can change the name by which ye call it, and ye can slay those in authority, putting worse fools in their place, but change its nature ye can not, ye being men, who are only midway between one life and another. But as the hills are changed, some giving birth to forests, some being worn down by the wind and rain, the weather becomes modified accordingly. And it is even so with you. As ye, each seeking in his own heart for more understanding, purge and modify yourselves, your government will change as surely as the sun shall rise to-morrow morning -- for the better, if ye deserve it -- for the worse if ye give way to passion and abuse of one another. For a government,' said the god, 'is nothing but a mirror of your minds -- tyrannical for tyrants -- hypocritical for hypocrites -- corrupt for those who are indifferent -- extravagant and wasteful for the selfish -- strong and honorable only toward honest men.' And having spoken to them thus, the god departed, some remembering his words and some forgetting them. To those who remembered, life thereafter was not so difficult, because of hope that brought tolerance so that they minded each his own business, which is enough for any man to do. But to those who forgot, there was trouble and confusion, which each created for himself, but for which each blamed the government, which therefore persecuted him. Because a government is only the reflection of men's minds. May peace, which is the fruit of wisdom, perfect you in all your ways."

The radongs roared, drowning the last echo of the sonorous benediction. The orchestra crashed into the overture. The Lama stepped behind the curtain with a glance to right and left to make sure every one was in his place, sat down behind the well and signaled for the play to begin.

As before, Dawa Tsering danced on first, but in no other respect was the play quite the same as on the previous night. The Lama's signals, made at unexpected moments, changed things as if he were making music with the actors for his instrument. Sotto voce he prompted, and no one on the stage dared to slacken his attention for a moment for fear of missing a changed cue. He seemed to know how to adapt and modify the play to fit the different environment and, in keeping with the solemn gloom of the huge cavern, he subtly stressed the mystery. The acetylene lights threw a weird, cameo-like paleness over everything; the Lama made the most of that, instead of struggling to overcome it.

Toward the end of the last act the audience was spellbound, for the moment too interested to applaud; and the Lama took advantage of that, too. He hurried in front of the curtain and stood with both hands raised, the messenger of climax.

"Peace!" he boomed. "Peace is born within the womb of silence! Go in silence. Break not the thread of peace! Ye have conceived it! Bring it forth!"

The orchestra played softly, blending sounds as gentle as falling rain with the burble of streams and the distant boom of waterfalls. There were bird notes, and the sighing of wind through trees -- half-melancholy, yet majestic rhythm with an undernote of triumph brought out by the muffled drums.

"And if they would not talk for a day or two, they might perhaps remember!" said the Lama, pausing as he walked past Ommony, who was being stripped of his saddhu's costume. "There is virtue in silence."

"Listen, O Captain of Conundrums!" said Ommony, trying to speak with emphasized respect but failing, because a Tibetan was rubbing his face with a towel to remove grease-paint. "I can see I was too hasty to suspect you of wrong-doing. I capitulate. From now on, I'm your friend for all I'm worth." It was the most emotional speech he had made in twenty years, but emotion gripped him; he could not help himself.

The Lama smiled, his wrinkles multiplying the shrewd kindness of the bright old eyes.

"For all you are worth? If you knew, my son, how much that is, you might be less extravagant. Jump not from one emotion to another, lest you lose self-mastery!" He passed on, beckoning to Samding.

There was the same swift, exactly detailed rush to pack up and depart; the same apparent flight for no apparent motive -- this time in covered bullock-carts that creaked through dimly lighted streets, until they came to a pitched camp on the outskirts of town, where camels and horses waited. Thereafter, cloaked beyond recognition, everybody except the Lama rode horseback, he sitting on a camel at the head of the procession looking like an old enormous vampire, his head drooped forward on his breast.

The girls rode surrounded by hooded men, who let no other men except Samding come near them. Ommony tried to draw abreast to see whether they sat their horses skilfully or not, but two Tibetans rode him off and, saying nothing, held his rein until the girls had a lead of a hundred yards. After that they kept two horses' lengths ahead of him, and even drove Diana back when Ommony sent her forward just to see what would happen.

There was only a thin new moon, and the road ran for most of the distance between huge peepul trees that rendered the whole caravan invisible. Two hours after midnight they reached a village, where a change was made back to bullock-carts, which conveyed them to a town that they entered shortly after daylight and now, for the first time, no precautions were taken to prevent Ommony from learning where he was. The Lama had taken him at his word.

Ommony laughed as he recognized the inevitable effect of that. He would almost have preferred continued mistrust. He must now regard himself as the Lama's guest. Intensely curious still, immensely interested, as much puzzled as ever, but satisfied that the Lama was, as he expressed it to himself, "a pukka sportsman," he had to make up his mind to learn nothing that he might be called on to explain (for instance to McGregor) later on.

"I hate this business of condemning a man on mere suspicion. The old boy's entitled to the benefit of doubt. From me, from now, he gets it. I'm ashamed of having doubted him. Damn! I hate feeling ashamed!"

Obstinacy has its good side. Having made up his mind that the Lama was entitled to respect, Ommony could no more have helped respecting and protecting him than he would have dreamed of not protecting, for instance, Benjamin in the old days when Benjamin was a fugitive from rank injustice.

He began deliberately to shut his eyes to information. The advice of the Chinese prince-poet, not to watch your neighbor too closely when he is in your melon patch, about defined his attitude. And it is surprising how much a man can avoid seeing, if he is determined not to expose another's secrets.

He laughed at himself. He could not resist the impulse to continue in the Lama's company, although it was likely enough that sooner or later his presence in disguise might endanger the lives of the entire troupe. He was perfectly aware that he had received no definite proof of the Lama's honesty, pretty nearly sure that his own change of attitude was due to the same psychology that had won the applause of the crowd, and finally excused himself (with a laugh at his own speciousness) on the ground that he and Dawa Tsering and the dog were indispensable.

But when he had been shown into a small room at the rear of a temple enclosure, that seemed to have been deserted by its Hindu owners and, by some mysterious means, reserved for the Lama's use, the Lama came to him, accompanied as usual by Samding, and after looking at him for a moment seemed to read his mind, and promptly blew the argument to pieces.

"My son, I do not need you, or the dog or Dawa Tsering. All three are good, but I am not the molder of your destiny. Is there another way you would prefer to take?"

"I'll go with you," said Ommony, "if you'll accept my word that I'm not spying on you."

The Lama looked amused. His wrinkles moved as if he had tucked away a smile in their recesses.

"My son, to spy is one thing; to absorb enlightenment is something else. A man might spy for all eternity and learn nothing but confusion. For what purpose did you spy on me in the beginning?"

Ommony jumped into that opening. Here was frankness at last!

"I think you know without my telling. I began with the sole intention of finding my way into the Ahbor Valley to look for traces of my sister and her husband, who vanished in that direction twenty years ago. The piece of jade fell into my hands, and you know how that led to my meeting you. Then I heard a story about little European girls smuggled into the Ahbor Valley. I have seen these girls you have in your company. Explain them. Clear up the mystery."

The Lama seemed to hesitate. "I could talk to you about the stars," he said presently. "Yet if you should meditate about them, and observe, you would learn more than I could tell you. My son, have you meditated on the subject of your sister?"

"On and off for twenty years," said Ommony.

"And you now pursue the course your meditation has discovered? It appears to me that is the proper thing to do."

"You mean, if I follow you I'll find out?"

"I am no fortune-teller. Electricity, my son, was in the world from the beginning. How many million men observed its effects before one discovered it? Gold was in the world from the beginning. How many men pass where it lies hidden, until one digs and finds it? Wisdom was in the universe from the beginning, but only those whose minds are open to it can deduce the truth from what they see."

"Do you know what became of her?" Ommony asked abruptly. The tone of his voice was belligerent, but the Lama ignored that. He answered with a sort of masked look on his face as if he himself were still pondering the outcome:

"If I were to tell you all I know, you would inevitably draw a wrong conclusion. There are pitfalls on the way to knowledge. Suspicion and pride are the worst; but a desire to learn too quickly is a grave impediment."

During about three breaths he seemed to be considering whether to say more or not; but he leaned an arm on Samding's shoulder and walked out of the room without speaking again.

Chapter XXI


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