Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
If a vain man should value your virtue, beware! For he will steal it in the name of God, and he will sell your reputation in the market-place.
-- FROM THE BOOK OF THE SAYING OF TSIANG SAMDUP.
There was no more rain that day, but mist that wrapped Darjiling in a dripping shroud. Beads like perspiration gathered and trickled down interior walls, and there were no fires; the monks led the austere life that includes indifference to such minor afflictions as ague, and through indifference they seemed to have become immune. But Ommony suffered.
A monk brought him a long sheepskin coat, and in that he paraded the corridors to keep his blood circulating. He begged more sheepskins and set Dawa Tsering to work making a coat for Diana, because animals used to the plains die of pneumonia in those altitudes more readily than human beings. He tried to decide whether or not to go into Darjiling and buy European clothes, while he leaned over a parapet to watch strong-legged Sikhim women looming out of the mist loaded like camels with huge piles of cord-wood for the monastery kitchen, until that bored him.
He was feverish with impatience. At noon he made up his mind to go and ask the Lama's advice about disguise, supposing he could find him. But as he left the cell to hunt for the Lama a monk came with the midday meal and stood by to watch him eat -- a cheery old monk, who laughed when questioned and talked about everything under the sun except what Ommony wanted to know, spinning his prayer-wheel furiously as if to immunize himself against heretical contagion.
And when the monk had shuffled away with the empty platters and Ommony set forth again to hunt for the Lama, Maitraya met him midway along the first draughty corridor -- Maitraya smothered in a sheepskin coat like Ommony's and blowing great clouds of breath in front of him.
"I am paid, O Gupta Rao! I have a draft on Benjamin and money for the railway fares to Delhi -- enough for first-class fares for all of us and liberal provision for the way. Would that there were more men like Tsiang Samdup! May the generous gods bless him! No argument, Gupta Rao; no deductions; no delay; a bag of money, an order on Benjamin, and such courteously worded thanks as Vishnu never received from a mother just delivered of a son! I feel as if my whole body had been drenched in thanks from inside outward! Are you on your way to your cell?"
"I am on my way to find the Lama. Where is he?"
"Gone! Didn't you know that? He left an hour ago, he and all the women and Samding, on little Tibetan ponies. There was no ceremony. They rode away like ghosts into the mist."
Maitraya took Ommony's arm in rank defiance of caste decorum.
"Come along, Gupta Rao. I know you are no Brahman. You are possibly a Kshattriya like me, but what the devil has caste to do with our profession! Whatever you are, you have the approval of me, Maitraya! You are a great actor. You are a man after mine own heart -- a little conceited possibly -- a trifle grumpy on occasion -- but we all have faults. I know a first-rate actor, when I see him! I forgive the little insignificances. I respect the strength of character -- the genius! Come, let us go along to your cell; I have a proposal for you."
Ommony led him to the cell and sat down on the truckle bed. Maitraya would not sit; he threw an attitude and paced the floor, striving to create an atmosphere of tremendous drama, that somehow refused to materialize between those dripping walls. He shuddered at the cold when he should have gestured like a Mogul chieftain, and coughed, which rather spoiled the grandeur of his voice.
"Gupta Rao -- let us accept our destiny! If two men, mutually worthy of respect, were ever brought together for immortal purposes, those two are we! Consider! Have we not a task in common? Have we not a great ideal to espouse together? Is it not our duty to inspire the stage of Hind (1)? Have we not a ripe field waiting for us? Should we not revisit all the scenes of our success and stage such plays as shall uplift the drama of this land of Hind for ever? Think of those audiences, Gupta Rao! Think of the profits! Charge no more than one-half rupee admission, and we make our fortunes!"
Ommony cast about for an excuse for refusing, that should not turn a friend into an enemy.
"Who do you propose should write the plays?" he asked.
"We have a play! Ye Rulers of the Upper Spheres -- a play, I tell you! I have memorized the whole of it! Let the Jew finance us, Gupta Rao! Let us go to Benjamin and use our joint persuasion to wheedle a decent contract out of him. I offer you a one-third interest! Commercialism -- pah! The Jew is a commercialist, so we must feed him with rupees. The Lama, on the other hand, is ignorant of money's value; he fails to see that it is good for the audience to pay a fair price for its education. As for us, let us take the middle way between two crass extremes. And if in the process we make a fortune, that will be no more than what is due to us. Have you heard that Christian adage, that the laborer is worthy of his hire?"
"I seem to have heard another one about stealing," said Ommony dryly. "The play is the Lama's."
"Bah! It isn't copyright. He should have taken elementary precautions. Besides, he has no right to keep for his own use an idea that has universal application. The play is religious; who can copyright religion?"
"Did you think of obtaining the Lama's permission?" asked Ommony.
"No, I confess, I never thought of that. But it's too late now; he's gone. Let us go to Benjamin. The Jew will see the point of not letting a good profitable play lie idle for the sake of a bit of squeamishness. Come along. Let Benjamin convince you."
Ommony jumped at that solution. He knew Benjamin.
"All right," he said. "You make the proposal to him. If Benjamin agrees, I will then consider it. And don't forget, you'll need a genius to act the part of San-fun-ho!"
"Aha!" exclaimed Maitraya. "Genius! I can act that part much better than the chela did! Not that he was bad, mind you -- not that he was bad. I will play San-fun-ho, and you the king. Together we will create dramatic history!"
"First create confidence in Benjamin! I'll answer yes or no -- when you have persuaded him," said Ommony.
He got rid of Maitraya, with difficulty. No argument availed until it dawned on Maitraya that he could pocket the cost of transportation by leaving Ommony behind; then he permitted himself to be led along the corridor and lost in the maze of passages and stairways.
Ommony went in search of the Abbot, and found a monk at last who did not shake his head and grin when spoken to, but led up an outside stairway to a grimly austere cell just under the roof, where the Abbot sat cross-legged on a stone platform at one end, meditating. He opened his eyes and gazed at Ommony for several minutes before a smile at last spread over his Mongolian face and he passed one lean hand down the length of his scrawny gray beard. He appeared to be well pleased with the result of his inspection.
"The spirit of restlessness is difficult to overcome," he said at last. "It is sometimes wise to yield to it. There are many lives. Not all knowledge can be acquired at once. In what way can I help, my son?"
Ommony thought of asking a dozen questions, but discerned that the gentle courtesy concealed an iron aptitude for silence. He came straight to the point.
"I beg forgiveness for intrusion. I return thanks for food and lodging. Did the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup make a statement of his wishes with regard to me?"
The Abbot's face became wreathed in smiles again. He nodded.
"Where do you wish to go, my son? To Tilgaun? When?"
The Abbot struck a gong that hung on the wall beside him; before its overtones had died a young monk appeared in the doorway and received swiftly spoken singsong orders in a language Ommony did not understand. The monk gave guttural assent, and waited in the door for Ommony to go with him, but there was two or three minutes' delay while the Abbot amused himself by playing with Diana almost childishly, laughing at her new sheepskin coat and using his staff to measure her height at the shoulder and her length from the tip of her nose to the end of her tail. Ommony made Diana sit up and salute him, whereat he blessed the dog solemnly. Finally he gave seven turns to a prayer-wheel fixed in an iron bracket within comfortable reach, nodded to the monk, and smiled farewell at Ommony, dismissing him with a blessing that sounded like the first bars of an anthem to eternal peace.
Followed laughter, bustling, friendliness, and no delay. They speeded the departing guest. A dozen monks made themselves agreeable; two of them carried out Ommony's trunk into the courtyard; some led out little sturdy Tibetan ponies and held them while others lashed the loads in place with the unhurried speed of old campaigners. There was ample supply of provisions, including grain for the ponies, and when Ommony suggested paying for it all they laughed. They seemed amused at the idea that any guest of theirs should pay for anything.
However, he noticed that two sturdy-looking Tibetans who were certainly not monks, had been told off to accompany him; they were listening to instructions from the young monk who had received the Abbot's incomprehensible orders; standing at a little distance apart, they kept nodding as the instructions were repeated again and again.
There were in all eight ponies and the party was on the way, filing through the wide gate with one Tibetan leading and the other Tibetan bringing up the rear, within thirty minutes. Dawa Tsering burst into song as he rode under the arch behind Ommony and they were all swallowed in a drifting bank of cloud that even hid the monastery wall as they turned sharp to the right and followed the track that ran beside it. The sturdy little ponies put their best foot forward as they always do when they are headed northward.
The ninety miles to Tilgaun meant four days of strenuous going, for the miles are reckoned as the crow flies, whereas men and their mounts must climb and descend over the shoulders of hills heaped on one another by the gods to keep away intruders. The trail wound down through phantom deodars and dipped into a fleecy white fog that condensed in dew on everything warm that it touched, descending seven thousand feet into the Rungeet Valley before they crossed a long bridge and commenced to climb again.
Most of the time it was like sitting on an earthquake; there was nothing to do but cling tightly and watch the pony's ears in the mist as the nimble legs slid, struggled and recovered. There was no chance for anything but single file among the rocks and rhododendrons; even Diana had to trot behind the pony to escape being trodden on. It was not the surfaced highroad they were taking, but presumably a short-cut, which the Tibetan guide appeared to know as intimately as a mole knows tunnels.
They climbed nine thousand feet and slept in a windy hut above the clouds, where the Tibetans cooked greasy supper and sang plaintive songs in which Dawa Tsering joined. There was no sign of the Lama's party, nor any answer to Ommony's questions as to how far ahead the Lama might be; nor was there any indication that the Lama's party had crossed that pass ahead of them. But at dawn, when Ommony wanted to make an early start the Tibetans had scores of excuses that ended with blunt refusal. They were not impudent or surly; they smiled as cheerfully as Chinese statues and simply did not load the ponies.
"If I slew them, as they deserve, there would be none to do the work," said Dawa Tsering. "Why not offer them money, thou? Never fear -- I will win it back from them at dice!"
Ommony offered money, but the Tibetans only showed their teeth in wider grins than ever. There was nothing to do but wait until they were pleased to move, and they did not do that until the sun was over the highest ridges by a full hour and a wind had blown new banks of mist into the ravines. Then suddenly, as if they had received a message through the ether, they began to pack the ponies and were off in no time without a word of explanation.
The hills lay in parallel waves that must be crossed diagonally, as a boat offers its shoulder to a rising sea. To the northward the huge range of the Himalayas made itself felt but was invisible; there was a sense of impending immensity, increased by the curtain of cloud that drifted between earth and Heaven. Wherever passes gaped between the shoulders of the mountains, dense white clouds flowed down along them, looking like incredibly swift glaciers. Half of the time the rump of the pony ahead was just discernible through the mist, but once in a while some trick of wind would reveal enormous vistas that a man could hardly contemplate and keep his balance. But the ponies were content to climb hour after interminable hour, and Dawa Tsering sang about the wind-swept hills of Spiti as they rose and descended through every imaginable plane of vegetation, from steamy bottoms where dense jungle stifled them, up through bamboo and rhododendron to where oaks and maples flourished -- up beyond those to the fir-line -- up again until the firs gave out and raw wind rolled the clouds around them straight from Kanchenjunga -- then down again into the suffocating tropics, where woodticks fell on them and a man's hands were kept constantly busy picking leeches off the ponies and Diana had to be gone over carefully three times within the hour.
They crossed rock-cluttered torrents over bamboo bridges that swayed and danced under the weight of one pony at a time, and bivouacked again at midnight in the clouds, where icy wind shrieked through the chinks of a deserted herdsman's hut; then descended two hours after dawn into a steaming cauldron where black water quarreled on its way through aromatic jungle.
Never a sign of the Lama's party, although they passed stone chortens (2) every mile or so, and cairns built by pilgrims, to which every passer by had stuck little prayer-flags to flutter the eternal formula "Om mani padme hum." There were messages on bits of paper from one pilgrim to another, weighted down with stones near some of the chortens, but none that the Lama had left.
And there were unaccountable delays. At times the two Tibetans seemed to think they had come too fast and, after a whispered consultation, unloaded the ponies whether they appeared to need a rest or not. The ponies rolled on sky-hung moss-banks within a dozen feet of the edge of an abyss, and the Tibetans chewed oily seed by the handful, offering Ommony some, and pointing out good places to sit down when he showed impatience. Dawa Tsering flicked at the edge of his knife with a suggestive thumb-nail, but they laughed at that, too, showing him a tough tree, dwarfed by the wind, that he could cut down if he needed exercise. In their own good time they started off again without excuse or argument, usually singing hymns to pacify the spirits of the mountains.
As he drew near Tilgaun Ommony's thought dwelt more on Hannah Sanburn than on the Lama and Samding. Aware now that for twenty years she had kept a secret from him, in spite of mutual respect and confidence that in every other way he could think of had been almost absolute, he wondered how to tackle her about it. He did not care to know even a part of her secret without letting her know that he knew it.
There had been times when he had seriously thought of asking Hannah Sanburn to become his wife; other times, when the thought that he could hardly live at the mission without marrying her had been all that kept him from resigning his forestry job and spending the remainder of his life in active duty as a trustee at Tilgaun. He was too confirmed a bachelor not to flinch from matrimony when he reasoned out all the pros and cons, but in the back of his head there was a conviction that Hannah Sanburn would not refuse, if he should ask her. But he also had known, any time these past ten years, that he never would ask her to marry him unless -- he wondered what the reservation was; he had never quite defined it.
Hunted through his mind and pinned at last into a corner, up there thirteen thousand feet above sea-level with a view of Kanchenjunga to adjust mere human problems to their right proportion, he realized that he would marry Hannah Sanburn -- gladly enough -- at any time if by doing so he could solve a difficulty from which she could not otherwise escape.
He was almost convinced that there was a page in Hannah Sanburn's life which needed very careful protecting; something which called for limitless generosity. He had no use for generosity that hedged itself within conventional limits. He liked his freedom and the habit of consulting no one's inclinations but his own in private matters, that becomes almost second nature in an independent man of forty-five, but he knew he could forego all that and be a reasonably companionable married man, if his interpretation of the law of friendship should impose that course on him. To Cottswold Ommony friendship was the highest law; no conceivable claims could outweight it; Hannah Sanburn was his friend; there was nothing to argue about. But he hoped -- without much confidence, but he hoped that she was not in the predicament he guessed her to be in; suspecting that, since she had kept him in the dark for twenty years, she could quite easily have fooled Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, who notoriously believed the best of every one.
He rather dreaded meeting her -- very much dreaded the inevitable interview; and although he fretted to overtake the Lama he was much more patient with delay than he might otherwise have been, leaving untried a good many methods with which he might have persuaded the Tibetans to hurry. He salved his conscience by grumbling aloud to them and sotto voce to Dawa Tsering, but there was not much energy in his complaints.
At last, toward the end of the fourth day out, they topped a fifteen-thousand-foot rise and looked over a sheer ravine, where eagles perched, toward Tilgaun that nestled in a valley with a Lamaist monastery perched on a crag three thousand feet above it. The mission buildings glowed warm in the westering sun -- one instance where a rich man's money had been spent on art as well as altruism, with good manners and respect for other men's historical associations, such as missionaries commonly dispense with. The graceful contour of the buildings and the color of the carved stone matched the panorama. There was no assertiveness, no challenge. The Tibetan roof-lines paid acknowledgment to older art on crag and cliff around them. Without beauty there is no beatitude. Old Marmaduke, who tortured thirty million dollars from protesting pigs, had somehow learned that; so the mission buildings were a monument to beauty, not to his ambition or his zeal.
Ommony was thrilled by the sight, as always on his rare visits. All the way down the winding track, that looked so short and actually was a half-day's journey, he recalled the days when Marmaduke had hurled Chicago business methods into battle with obstruction, subtly raised against him by foes that were easy enough to identify but undiscoverable when it came to issues. Rajahs, all the missionaries, all the Indian priesthood, politicians and the press had joined in opposing the project, occasionally praising, always preventing.
Even the banks, that levied toll on Marmaduke's long purse, had invented difficulties. There were strikes of labor-gangs (imported in the teeth of government obstruction) because money for the pay-roll did not arrive punctually. There had been personal attacks on Marmaduke -- three bullets, and a dose of ground glass in his food, in addition to assaults on his reputation. Missionaries had declared (and perhaps believed) that he was a satyr who sought to corrupt young innocents. Consignments of supplies, machinery and what-not else had failed to reach the destination, or had arrived so smashed as to be useless. Marmaduke had grinned, continued grinning, and had won, dying with his boots on six months after Hannah Sanburn was installed in charge, hoping, as they laid him on a stretcher, that the pigs he had slain for sausage-meat might have most of the credit; since it was they who made the mission possible.
His will, in which he appointed a Tibetan Lama chief trustee, had been a nine days' wonder, partly because of its novelty, but mostly because that masterly provision introduced an international element, which made it next to impossible for politicians to undo the work. Tibet as a military power can not be taken seriously: but it is noteworthy that not even "big business" has succeeded in controlling its government or in penetrating its frontiers. The backing of the Dalai Lama is worth more, in some contingencies, than a billion dollars and a million armed men. (There is a European parallel.)
And the Tashi Lama is to the Dalai Lama as is the differential calculus to the simple rule of three, only if anything rather more so.
Talbot Mundy Pages
Search this site
More spiritual authors
Talbut Mundy books