Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

Sooner or later we must learn all knowledge. It is therefore necessary to begin. And for a beginning much may be learned from this: that men in pain and men in anger are diverted from either sensation by a song -- and very readily.

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

Chapter XXI

THE LAY OF ALHA

Thereafter life for two months was a dream of many colors, through which the Lama led without explaining any of it. At times Ommony abandoned hope of ever learning what the Lama's purpose was; at other times he dimly discerned it or thought he did, midway between the rocks of politics and the shoals of some new creed. And whether he guessed at the truth, or believed he never would know it, he reveled in the swiftly moving, nigh incredible procession of events.

No day was like another. No two receptions were alike in any town they came to. They put on the play in ramshackle sheds at country fairs with the din of sideshows all around them, in pretentious theaters built of corrugated iron, in temple courtyards, in more than one palace garden, -- once in an empty railway godown [warehouse] from which a greatly daring Eurasian clerk had removed stored merchandise, -- in a crypt under a pagoda (and there was a riot that time, because some Brahmans said the place had been rendered unclean by the actors, and Ommony came within a hair's breadth of exposure) -- in the open, under trees, where roads led to seven villages and a crowd of at least three thousand people gathered silent in the bonfire light that shone between enormous trees. Once they played in an empty tank, from whose bottom an acre of sticky mud, two inches thick, had to be cleaned out before the crowd could squat there; once in a cave so stuffy that Maitraya's women fainted.

They traveled by elephant, camel, horse, mule, cart, in litters, for fifty miles by train, and once, for a day and a night, in barges along an irrigation ditch, concealed under hurdles on which vegetables were heaped to look like full boat-loads. They went alternately like hunted animals, and like a circus trying to attract attention.

There were places where the Lama seemed to go in fear of the police; other places where he ignored them as if non-existent. He always seemed to know in advance what to expect, and whether it was wise to move by daylight. Most of the traveling was done by night, but there were some places where crowds gave them an ovation as they passed through streets at noon.

Once, when a man who looked like a rajah's son arrived breathless on a foaming horse and talked with the Lama under a wayside baobab, the party separated into four detachments, and Ommony lay hidden for a whole day under the blistering iron roof of an abandoned shed. There was never any explanation given. None of the apparently chance-met providers of food and transportation asked questions or gave Ommony any information.

Sometimes the Lama himself did not seem to know the right direction. On those occasions he would call a halt by the roadside and wait there until some mysterious individual arrived. Sooner or later some one always came. Once they waited for a whole day within sight of a fenced village. But they never lacked for food, or for the best the country could provide in the way of accommodation.

In one large town of the Central Provinces, in which three thousand people packed an assembly hall, there were police officers on chairs near the stage, who made notes ostentatiously. The Lama's speech before the curtain on that occasion was rather longer than usual and Ommony, watching the policemen, recognized the insanity that impels men to interfere with what they can not understand. That night he slipped off the stage before San-fun-ho's last speech was finished, hurried into his Bhat-Brahman clothes, and was standing close to the police officers when the crowd began to leave the theater. There was one man with whom he had dined in the club at Delhi, another who was notorious for drastic enforcement of the "Seditious Practices" Act, and a third whom he did not know. They were all three very hot under the collar. Said one:

"A damned nasty seditious play -- obviously propaganda to prevent enlistment. They've chosen this place because recruiting's going on here for the army. It's anarchistic."

"Oh, decidedly. Part of Gandhi's non-cooperation tactics."

"Financed in America, I'll bet you. That's where all the propaganda money comes from."

"Anyhow, we've a clear case. Seditious utterances -- uncensored play -- no permit. Step lively and bring the squad, Williams; we'll lock 'em all up for the night and find out who they are."

But an obstinate Bhat-Brahman stood in Mr. Williams' way and spoke in English, curtly:

"No, you don't! I'm detailed to this investigation by McGregor! I won't have police interference! Keep your constables out of sight!"

"Who are you?" asked the senior officer, pushing himself forward.

"Never you mind."

"Show me your credentials."

"At your risk! Come with me to the telegraph office if you like and watch me get you transferred to the salt mines! You'll enjoy a patrol up there -- you'll get one newspaper a month!"

"At least tell me your name."

"My number is 903," said Ommony. His number on the Secret Service roster was not 903; but one does not squander truth too lavishly on men who will surely repeat it. He was not anxious that McGregor should have an inkling of his whereabouts. The mere mention of a number was enough; the policemen walked out, abusive of the Secret Service, conscious that the "Bhat-Brahman" was grinning mischievously at their backs.

The Lama saw, but said nothing. That night he directed the departure more leisurely than usual, as if satisfied that Ommony had made him safe from the police; but from that time on he kept himself more than ever aloof, and during two whole months of wandering Ommony did not succeed in having two hundred words with him.

However, the Lama and chela reciprocated in due time. They reached a town in the Central Provinces where not even certified and pedigreed Bhats would have been welcome, and an uncertified one who traveled in doubtful company was in danger of his life. A committee of "twice-born" demanded his presence for investigation in a temple crypt, and Ommony's retort discourteous, to the effect that he recognized no superiors, aroused such anger that the self-appointed judges of sanctity resorted to the oldest tactics in the world.

Those who hate the Brahmans the most are most amenable to skilful irritation by them and most careful to insist after the event that Brahmans had nothing to do with it; so it is just where the Brahmans are most detested that they are most difficult to bring to book; and a mob can gather in India more swiftly than a typhoon at sea.

It was a hot, flat, treeless city, as unlovely as the commercialism, that had swept over it these latter years, was cruel. The streets ran more nearly at right angles than is the rule in India, and the temples faced the streets with an air of having been built by one and the same contractor, he a cheap one. The quarters the Lama's party occupied consisted of a hideously ugly modern theater that backed on a cellular stack of ill-built living-rooms, the whole surrounded by four streets, three of which were as narrow as village lanes.

That night the packed audience was restless, and whenever the saddhu spoke his lines there were noisy interruptions, cat-calls, jeers. Some one threw a rotten orange that missed Ommony but put Diana in a frenzy, and for minutes at a time it looked as if the curtain would have to be rung down before the close; but the Lama's quiet voice from behind the well and from under the throne kept up a steady flow of reassurance inaudible beyond the footlights: "Patience! Forbearance! There is strength in calmness. Proceed! Proceed! You are a king, Maitraya; you are not affected by ungentleness! Proceed!"

But even San-fun-ho's long speech was received with irritation; some one in authority had told the crowd it was a trick to destroy their sacred religion. The chela's voice rang through the theater and overcame the murmurings, but the hymn to Manjusri that followed was drowned in a babeling tumult as half of the audience poured in panic out of one door while a mob stormed another, breaking it down and surging in with a roar that shook the theater.

The stage-hands stripped the actors faster than usual and herded them out through the back door to the living-rooms. They tried to make Ommony go too, but he fought them off when they seized him by the arms; he had hard work to keep Diana from using her teeth to protect him while he hurried into his Bhat-Brahman clothes, wondering what solution the Lama would discover for this predicament. "I'll bet the old sportsman won't surrender me to the mob!" he muttered. "If I live through this, I'll know exactly what to think of him ! If he's a -- " But there was no word for what he might be. The crowd was yelling, "The Bhat! The Bhat! The spy! The impostor. Bring out the unclean ape who poses as a twice-born!" Two scared-looking "constabeels" who had appeared from somewhere, standing at either corner of the stage with their backs to the curtain, were valiantly preventing the mob from swarming behind the scenes. The Lama seemed to have disappeared, and Ommony felt a sudden, sickening sensation that the old man and his chela were only fair-weather intriguers after all.

But suddenly the mob grew quiet -- seemed to hold its breath. The Lama's voice, not very loud, but unmistakable and pitched like a mountaineer's to carry against wind and through all other sounds, was holding their attention from behind the footlights.

Then Samding passed across the stage and slipped in front of the curtain; he had changed into that ivory-white costume in which he had received Prabhu Singh, and was smiling as if the prospect of a battle royal pleased him. Ommony went to the edge of the curtain to watch, holding Diana's collar, ready to loose her in defense of the Lama in case of need.

"Bring out the Bhat!" yelled some one. There was a chorus of supporting shouts, but that was the last of the noise. The mob grew still again, spell-bound by curiosity.

Samding took the center of the stage and the Lama squatted down beside him, eyes half-closed, apparently in meditation. The chela spoke, and his voice held a note of appeal that aimed straight at the heart of simplicity.

"O people, if ye have been wronged, it is we ourselves who first should put the matter right. Ye, being pious, unoffending people, will afford us that privilege. We ask no trial. That is unnecessary. Which among you are the individuals who have suffered at our hands! Unwittingly, it may be we have done you harm. You will agree it is the injured one to whom redress is due. Let the injured stand forth. Let him, who of his own body or possessions has suffered harm at our hands, step forth and name his own terms of settlement."

He dared to pause for thirty seconds, while the mob glared, each expecting some one else to hurl an accusation. But the original instigators of violence are careful to keep out of reach when the trouble begins, and there was no spokesman ready with a definite accusation -- nothing but a disgusting smell of sweat, a sea of eyes, and a hissing of indrawn breath. The Lama whispered, not moving his head, and the chela continued:

"It is possible the injured are not here. Let some one bring the men for whose injury we are in any way responsible!"

There was another pause, during which the Lama got up and walked meditatively toward the edge of the curtain, where he came face to face with Ommony.

"My son, can you act the Bhat as well as you can the saddhu?" he inquired. "Otherwise escape while there is opportunity! Be wise. There is no wisdom in attempting, what you can not do."

"Yes, I can act the Bhat," said Ommony. His jaws were set, he had been a last-ditch fighter all his life. Of all things in the world, he most loved standing by his friends with all resources and every faculty in an extremity.

The Lama returned to the chela's side, whispered and squatted down. The chela went on speaking:

"It may be ye have been misguided. There are always unwise men who seek to stir up indignation for their own obscure advantage. Are there any Brahmans in your midst?"

There was only one possible answer to that question. No "twice-born" would risk personal defilement by mingling with such a mob of "untouchables." A laugh with a suggestion of a sneer in it rippled across the sea of upturned faces.

"It would seem then that the Brahmans have sent you to pass judgment on a Bhat who is one of their own fraternity," said the chela calmly. "It appears they trust you to conduct the investigation for them. That is a very high compliment from Brahmans, isn't it? If they are willing to accept your judgment on such an important point, who are we that we should not abide by it? The Bhat shall give you his own account of himself. Henceforth ye may say to the Brahmans that they are no longer the sole judges of their own cause."

There was a laugh -- a laugh of sheer delight that grew into a good-tempered roar. There was doubtless not a member of the mob who had not suffered scores of times from the blight of Brahman insolence. The Brahman's claim to be a caste apart and an unindictable offense for ever soothes his own self-righteousness but does not exactly make him popular.

"I pray you to be seated," said the chela; and after a few moments' hesitation the mob sat down on the floor, first in dozens, then in droves.

There was no more danger, provided Ommony could play his own part; but if he should make one mistake the situation would be worse than ever. He beckoned one of the musicians, who was guarding the door at the rear of the stage, signed to him to bring his instrument, stepped out in front of the curtain and sat down beside the Lama. Hostile silence broke into a sea of grins and chuckles when Diana, still in her grease-paint, followed and squatted on his left hand between him and the musician. The musician was deathly scared, but unfroze and tuned his instrument when the Lama looked at him. Ommony surveyed the crowd with the best imitation of insolence his strained nerves could muster, taking his time, absorbing the feel of the Lama's calmness. He needed it; he sensed that the old man's courage was a dozen times as great as his.

"And now, my son," the Lama whispered, "we are face to face with opportunity."

That was a brave man's view of danger! Ommony laughed, cleared his throat and thrust his lips out impudently:

"People who don't know enough to ask a blessing, may expect to get -- what?" he demanded tartly.

"Pranam," said two or three voices, and the murmur caught on. It was not unanimous, but it sufficed to put him in countenance. He blessed them with an air of doing it because he had to, not for any other reason.

"Now," he said in the nasal, impromptu, doggerel singsong of the minstrel, "I could sing for you a ballad of your own abominable shortcomings, and it would serve you right; but it would not make your souls white, and it would take all night. It would give me much delight, but it would put you all to flight, and I'm compassionate. Or I could sing you a few measures about the Brahmans of this place, who are a lousy lot, but if I sang of their disgrace, not a one would show his face again among you. You need the Brahmans to keep you from thinking too much of yourselves! They're bad, but you're worse; you're the sinners and they're the curse. Take that thought home and think about it! -- Is there anybody here," he asked with his head to one side, "who would like me to sing about him personally? No? You're not anxious? Don't be backward. Don't think it's too difficult. Stand up and tell me your name, and I'll tell you all about you and your father and your uncles and your son, and what mischief you were up to this day fortnight. Nobody curious? Oh, very well. Then I'll sing you the Lay of Alha."

India will listen to that song hours without end. It is a saga of Rajput chivalry, and men who know no chivalry nor ever were in Rajputana love to hear it better than the chink of money or the bray of the all-conquering gramophone. Since the white man first imposed himself on India there have not been half a dozen who have learned that lay by heart from end to end, not three who could have sung it, none but Ommony who could have skipped long, tedious parts so artfully and have introduced in place of them extempore allusions to modern politics and local news. He outdid any Bhat they had ever heard, because he did not dare to count, as Bhats do, on the song's traditional popularity and so to slur through it anyhow. He had to win the audience. But what obsessed him most was a desire to win the Lama's praise; the harder he tried, the more he admired the Lama, sitting as calm as a Buddha beside him.

Regarded as music his effort was not marvelous. As a feat of wit and memory it was next thing to a miracle. His voice, not more than fair-to-middling good and partly trained, survived to the end because he pitched it through his nose, relieving the strain on his throat, and his manner grew more and more confident as he realized that memory was not playing tricks and he could recall every line of the long epic. He sang them into a merry frame of mind; he sang them thrilled, compassionate, intrigued, excited, sentimental, bellicose and proud in turn. He had them humming the refrain with him. He had them swaying in time to the tune as they sat, their laughing, upturned faces glistening with sweat. He had them throwing money to him before the lay was half sung; and it was then that the Lama whispered:

"Enough, my son. Forget not to put skill in the conclusion."

Ommony stopped singing, and gagged at the crowd, with his tongue between his teeth, pretending that his voice had given out.

"Did any Brahman in this city ever do as much for you?" he croaked, and they roared applause.

"I am a Bhat, and I can bless or I can curse more efficaciously than any thousand Brahmans in the province! Watch!"

He turned to Diana and made her sit up on her haunches.

"What do you think of the Brahmans of this city?" he demanded, and Diana growled like an earthquake.

"What do you think of these people in front of you?"

She barked and got down on all four feet to wag her tail at them.

"There! There you are! Even a dog knows you are well-meaning folk who have been fooled by rascally Brahmans, who mouth mantras and do unclean things when none is looking! Get out of here, all of you, before I curse you! Go while I am in a good temper -- before I put a blight on you! Hurry!"

They yelled for more song, but it was after midnight and the Lama had other plans. He hustled Ommony off the stage, himself remaining at the corner of the curtain for a minute to make sure of the crowd's mood. Ommony heard the chink of money as he rewarded the two "constabeels." Then, as placid as Ommony had ever seen him, but a little stooped and tired, he led the way to the stage door, saying over his shoulder to Samding:

"Did you study that lesson? Have you learned it?" Ommony did not catch the chela's answer. He felt the floor jerk underfoot and stepped off a trap-door. It moved, and a hand came through, then the outline of a face that appeared to be listening. He bent down to lift the heavy trap and Dawa Tsering climbed out on hands and knees, sweating profusely and rubbing dust out of his eyes.

"Yow, there are rats in that place, Gupta Rao -- big ones, and it is dark! Go down and look if you don't believe me."

"What were you doing down there?" Ommony inquired.

"I? Down there? Oh, I was looking to see if there was a passage by which that mob could reach you from the rear. Yes, I was! Don't laugh at me, or I will call you by your right name! Why didn't you turn me loose with my knife to drive the mob forth, instead of singing to them like a nurse to a lot of children? I could have cleaned the place of that rabble in two minutes. You should have left it to me!"

"Did you kill any rats?" asked Samding, grinning mischievously. He was holding the door open, waiting for them.

"Thou! I will kill thee, at any rate!"

The Hillman rushed at the chela, but Ommony tripped him. Samding slipped through the door and let it slam.

"There, did you see that?" Dawa Tsering grumbled, picking himself up. "That chela uses the black arts! He threw me to the floor with one wink of his eye. Did you see? He is no good! He is a bad one! Now I am never tempted to slay the Lama, which is why I endure his objectionable righteousness; but that chela -- I never see him but I want to squeeze his throat with my two thumbs, thus, until his eyes pop out!"

Chapter XXII

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