Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
The secret of the charm of the lotus is that none can say wherein its beauty lies; for some say this, and some say that, but all agree that it is beautiful. And so indeed it is with woman. Her influence is mystery; her power is concealment. For that which men have uncovered and explained, whether rightly or wrongly, they despise. But that which they discern, although its underlying essence is concealed from them, they wonder at and worship.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYINGS OF TSIANG SAMDUP.
The standing miracle was the Lama's skill in having his own way and in keeping his own secrets without any discoverable method. His way seemed more alertly excellent, his secrets more obscure, from day to day. For instance: those mysterious young women. Not for one minute during two months and eleven days did Ommony or Dawa Tsering find an opportunity to speak with them alone, not though Diana grew dangerously fat on sticky sweetmeats that they gave her, she construing orders to go and make friends with them into permission to accept food.
The only key that seemed to fit the mystery was that the girls had been too well trained to be tricked into indiscretion. Tyranny could never have accomplished it. Once, Ommony picked up an amethyst earring, dropped in a corridor: he wrapped it in paper on which he scribbled a humorous verse, tucked it into Diana's collar, and sent her nosing around in the girls' quarters. The dog returned after an hour or so with a caricature of himself drawn on the paper in charcoal, extremely clever but not flattering. On another occasion he sent Diana with a note asking for the words of the song that the girls chanted on the stage; he saw the Lama read that note on the stage the same night and, after a quiet glance at him, deliberately tear it up. The following morning he received the words of the song in the Lama's heavy handwriting. He was acutely aware that the girls discussed him with a great deal of amusement, but he could never get them to exchange glances or make any response to his overtures.
Dawa Tsering made a dozen attempts to invade the women's quarters. Several times he was caught by the Tibetans and disposed of cavalierly, usually simply chucked into the nearest heap of garbage. Three times he managed to get into a room in which the girls were, but he would never tell afterward what had happened to him; once he emerged so angry that Ommony really believed for an hour or two that he might murder some one, and took his knife away, but returned it at the Lama's instigation.
"It is not always wise to prohibit," said the Lama. "His imagination needs an outlet. Give him his toy."
It was a baffling conundrum why the Lama should go to such pains to present his play in more than sixty towns and villages, and always escape immediately afterward. It was not always the police; he treated the occasional difficulties they presented pretty much as a circus director regards bad weather. He appeared to be much more afraid of the results of his own success, and to run away from that as from a conflagration. Offers of money, prayers, nothing could persuade him to repeat a performance anywhere. The greater a crowd's importunity, the swifter his flight.
By the time they reached Darjiling Ommony was convinced of two things: that the "Middle Way" is undiscoverable to outsiders, being opened, closed and changed in detail by unknown individuals, obeyed implicitly, who do their own selecting; and that the Lama was himself in receipt of orders from a secret hierarchy.
The latter was almost certainly true. A Ringding Gelong Lama does not rank as high in the Lamaistic scale as a cardinal does in the Roman Catholic Church. Even supposing Tsiang Samdup, as was rumored, was an outlaw who had been turned out of Tibet for schism, that would make it even more unlikely that he could command an extensive spy system and mysterious service along the "Middle Way" without some long established hierarchy to support him.
And if he were an outlawed heretic, why was it that in Darjiling he went straight to a Tibetan monastery, that opened its doors to the whole party? They arrived at dawn, having ridden all night on mule-back up a winding path that crossed and recrossed the circling railway track, ascending through clouds that wrapped them in wet silence, until dawn shone suddenly through pine trees and the monastery roof glistened a thousand yards ahead of them.
The roar of radongs came down the chilly wind, announcing they were seen. A procession of brown-robed monks filed out to meet them, each monk spinning a prayer-wheel and grinning as he mumbled the everlasting "Om Mani Padme Hum" (1) that by repetition bars the door of the various worlds of delusion and permits pure meditation. It seemed to give no offense that Tsiang Samdup and his chela had no prayer-wheels. Maitraya and his actors were as welcome as the rest. Ommony was greeted with child-like grins from oily, slant-eyed Mongolian faces that betrayed no suggestion of suspicion. The dog was chuckled at. Maitraya's actresses were greeted no more and no less cordially than the rest.
But the chela's reception was peculiar. The Abbot blessed him solemnly, then stared at him for a long time. From the others there was an air of deference; a peculiar form of treating him as a mere chela, with an attitude of deep respect underlying it and not nearly concealed. They exchanged glances and nodded, formed a group around him, regarding him with curiosity, and with something akin to awe. The chela appeared more disposed to be friendly than distant, but kept a deliberate course midway between the two extremes, watched all the while intently by the Lama, who finally leaned on his shoulder and almost hustled him in through the gate.
Once within the monastery wall Ommony was led away to a cell high up under a gabled roof, where a smiling old monk brought breakfast, laughing and snapping his fingers at Diana, not in the least afraid of her, but dumb when asked questions. He knew Ommony was no Brahman -- laughed at the caste-mark -- touched his own forehead comically -- and went out spinning a prayer-wheel that he kept tucked into his girdle whenever both hands were occupied; he seemed anxious to make up for lost time.
The unglazed window provided a far view of Kanchenjunga, twenty-eight thousand feet above sea level -- twenty-one thousand feet higher than the monastery roof -- a lonely, lordly monarch of the silences upreared above untrodden peaks that circled the whole horizon to the north. Six thousand feet below, the Rungeet River boiled through an unseen valley. For a moment all the boundaries of Sikhim glittered in every imaginable hue of green, and between and beyond colossal snow-clad ranges the eye could scan the barren frontiers of Tibet. Then, as swiftly as eyes could sweep the vast horizon, mist of a million hues of pearly gray, phantom-formed, changing its shapes as if the gods were visioning new universes in the cloud, rolled and descended, stunning imagination with the hugeness that could wrap that scene and hide it as if it never had been.
Then rain -- cold dinning rain that drummed on roof and rock, and splashed in cataracts to mingle with the spate of the Rungeet River crowding through a mountain gap toward the rice-green, steamy lushness of Bengal; rain that swallowed all the universe in sound, that beat the wind into subjection and descended straight, as if the Lords of Deluge would whelm the world at last for ever. Rain, and a smell of washed earth. Rain pulsing with the rhythm of a monastery bell, like the cry of a bronze age, drowning.
That bell seemed to clamor an emergency and Ommony hurried along cold stone corridors until he found his way into a gallery from which he could peer down into a dim hall through swimming layers of incense smoke. Silken banners, ancient but unfaded, hung all about him; images of the Gautama Buddha and disciples were carved on shadowy walls; the gloom was rich with color-alive with quiet breathing. He could see the heads of monks in rows, but could distinguish no one for a while because the heads were bowed and most of the light was lost in baffling shadows.
At one end was an altar, gilded and most marvelously carved, backed by an image of Chenresi. All the altar furniture was golden, and the monastery's pride -- the book named Zab-choes-zhi-khro-gongs-pa-rang-groel-las-bar-dohi-thoes-grol-chen-mo (2) -- lay in the midst on a golden plate before Chenresi's image.
Dim music began and a chant, long grown familiar -- that hymn to Manjusri that had thrilled so many audiences -- and at last through the layering incense Ommony could make out the forms of the Lama and Samding. The chela was holding the fragment of jade in both hands and was walking solemnly toward the altar, where the Abbot and the Lama waited to receive him.
The drumming of the rain on roof-tiles ceased. One shaft of sunlight, beaming through a narrow window, shone on the jade as the chela laid it on the altar, making it glow with green internal fire. The radongs roared. The hymn changed to a chant of triumph, swelling in grand chords that shook the roof-beams. But Ommony hardly heard it. Something else, as the chela, almost exactly underneath him, moved into the beam of sunlight, held his whole attention.
"Well, I'll be blowed!" he muttered. He rubbed his eyes, made sure they were not lying to him by glancing at the image of Chenresi and at the rows of monks' heads, then stared again. "May I be damned, if -- "
He looked at Diana, crouching in the gallery beside him, her head full of information that lacked only power of speech.
"I suppose if you could talk, Di, you'd lose your other gifts," he muttered. Then he whistled softly to himself.
Not for a fortune and a hundred years of life would he let up now! Let the Ahbor country be as savage as the fringe of Dante's hell, as inaccessible as Heaven, and as far away as righteousness, he would go there, if he must die for it!
"Di, old lady, this is the grandest scent you ever laid nose on! Mum's the word. I'll take a feather out of your cap!"
The service no longer interested him. He did not wait to see what they did with the piece of jade -- no longer cared a rap about it. He was almost drunk with new excitement and a mystery compared to which the jade was mere mechanics -- a mystery half-unraveled that set his brain galloping in wild conjecture, so wild that he kicked himself and laughed.
"Maybe I'm mad. They say India gets us all sooner or later." But he knew he was not mad. He knew he had strength enough and sense enough to hold his tongue and to keep on the trail with every sharpened faculty he had. He was itching now to get to Tilgaun, partly because that was midway to the Ahbor country, but for another reason that made him laugh because he knew he held a secret key that would unlock more secrets.
He returned along draughty corridors to the cell that was full of white mist pouring through the unglazed window, and sat down to consider whether he should keep up the Bhat-Brahman role or let his beard grow and resume the garb of an unimaginative Englishman.
He had not made up his mind when a rap came on the door and the Lama blew in on a gust of rising wind, his long robe fluttering clear of the strong brown legs. The chela followed him and slammed the door, unrolled a prayer-mat and presently sat down on it beside the Lama. Ommony fought hard to suppress the triumph in his eyes as he stood, and then sat down on the truckle bed in obedience to the Lama's gesture.
"It is cold," said the Lama. "You must have a sheepskin coat, my son. We mountaineers are too prone to forget that others suffer from what we consider comfort. Samding, see that Gupta Rao is provided."
He did not glance at the chela. His eyes were on Ommony's.
"And what have you learned, my son!" he asked presently.
"Very little," said Ommony. "I have learned that all my power of observation isn't much more than a beetle's."
"But that is a great deal to have learned," the Lama answered. Then, without a pause: "And you are not yet satisfied?"
"On the contrary. I hold you to your promise to let me pursue whatever course my meditation opens up."
"My son, I am not the appointed keeper of such permits!"
"You can make things difficult or make them easy for me. Which are you going to do?" asked Ommony; and it seemed to him that the chela was smiling behind that marvelously molded face.
"What is it you wish to learn most?" asked the Lama; and Ommony, after one hard look at the chela, closed his eyes to think. It would be useless to tell anything but raw truth; he had a feeling that the Lama could detect the slightest taint of falsehood; yet he was determined not to confess to what he now knew, because in all likelihood that would shut all doors against him. "A little knowledge" is usually doubly dangerous, if the other fellow knows you know it.
"I wish to demonstrate that I was really right to decide to trust you," he said at last.
"But you know that," said the Lama. "Your heart tells you you were right. A man's heart does not lie to him; it is the brain that lies, imagining all kinds of vanities."
Ommony took thought again. He sensed that he was on trial, not for his life but for something more important -- leave to go ahead and find out for himself the whole solution of the mystery. He had to find an answer that should not be false, that should not betray the knowledge he already had, and that should nevertheless appeal to the Lama's sense of fitness. Superficiality would receive a superficial answer. Deep was asking deep for a disclosure of ultimate motive.
"My job in the forest is gone. I want to find work worth doing," he said at last.
"And do you think I can show you that?" asked the Lama, looking straight at him. One moment he looked very old, the next not more than middle-aged. It was as if he hovered between this world and another, in which were visions that he could bring back with him to earth. Ommony threw evasion to the winds.
"I want to learn your secret!"
"Ah! But to obey? Not me, but to obey your own heart, if I help you to see what none of your race has ever yet seen?"
"I'll do what I believe is right," said Ommony, and the Lama nodded, glancing sharply at Samding, as if to see whether the chela confirmed his opinion. The chela smiled inscrutably.
"You should go to Tilgaun," said the Lama, "where you might have gone in the beginning. If you wish, you may follow me to Tilgaun, and await what comes of it."
He had a way of ending a discussion as abruptly as he had begun it, his mind almost visibly closing, vaguely suggestive of the way a tortoise draws in its head. One realized it would not be the slightest use to speak another word to him on the subject. The chela got up and helped him to his feet, rolled up the mat and followed him out of the room almost mechanically, but turned in the doorway suddenly and looked back. It was dark there, for the door was set in a stone arch six feet deep and there was no window at the end of the draughty corridor. But Ommony could almost have sworn the chela laughed silently. There was a momentary glimpse of white teeth and a movement of the head that certainly suggested it.
"It beats the deuce!" he reflected. "That chela knows now that I know she's a girl, although I can't imagine how she knows it; and that means that the Lama knows I know it -- for they haven't a secret apart. And the strangest part is that they don't seem to give a damn -- either of 'em!"
1. Om, of the heavenly world; Ma, of the world of spirits; Ni, of the human world; Pod, of the animal world; me, of the world of ghosts; hum, of the spaces of hell. (return to text)
2. This has been translated to mean: "The great liberation by hearing on the astral plane from the profound doctrine of the divine thoughts of the peaceful and wrathful deities emancipating the self." Mr. Evans Wentz translates it "The book of the Dead," but this is a very free and decidedly doubtful rendering of the manuscript's shorter title: "Pardo Todol." (return to text)
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