Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

My son, the wise, are few; for Wisdom very seldom pleases, so that they are few who seek her. Wisdom will compel whoever entertains her to avoid all selfishness and to escape from praise. But Wisdom seeks them who are worthy, discovering some here and there, unstupified and uncorrupted by the slime of cant, with whom thereafter it is a privilege to other men to tread the self-same earth, whether or not they know it.

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

Chapter XXIV

HANNAH SANBURN

There is a narrow bridge, swung high above a noisy stream, that forms the only practicable gate to Tilgaun. On the Tilgaun side is a high mound that resembles a look-out post, with a big prayer-flag on top that might be the defiant emblem of an army. The track leads below that mound, across a hollow, and climbs again toward the mission, more than a mile away.

As Ommony rode across the bridge behind the leading Tibetan he was aware of faces peering from the top of the mound beside the prayer-flag. When he was midway over the bridge the faces disappeared. When he reached the foot of the mound there were six Bhutani mission girls standing in a row on the rim of the hollow.

They wore the Marmaduke Mission costume, which is made from one piece of daffodil-yellow fabric woven on the mission looms. Their hair was decked with flowers, and they were laughing, that being a part of old Marmaduke's legacy, he having had a notion that to laugh with good reason, is two-thirds of an education. The other third is harder to acquire, but comes much easier because of laughter; or so said Marmaduke, who had considered many pigs, that perished.

They were not so poised and self-reliant as the Lama's dancing girls, but they looked marvelously better than the common run of Hill women, and as different from ordinary mission converts as a live trout is from a dead sardine. At a glance it was obvious that nobody had told them they were heathen in their blindness; somebody had shown them how to revel in the sunshine and to wonder at the wine-light of gloaming. It was conceivable that they had studied nature's mirth instead of watching frogs dissected with a scalpel, and had learned to be amused with each existing minute rather than to meditate on metaphysical conundrums.

But they had their heritage nevertheless. Their eyes were on Dawa Tsering. It was just as well that there were six of them together.

Dawa Tsering, gasconading on pony-back with his feet within nine inches of the ground, called two of them by name, inquired about a third who was not there, and asked whether they had forgotten him.

"I know a good way to remind you who I am!" he boasted, and got off the pony to act the satyr among wood-nymphs. Ommony checked him curtly. He protested:

"I tell you, Ommonee, the gods make free with women and the devils do the same! It is ridiculous to pretend we are better than gods and devils. What are women for, do you suppose?"

It was so that they discovered who Ommony was. In that Bhat-Brahman costume covered by a sheepskin coat and without his beard they had not recognized him. All six looked at him sharply, hesitated, glanced at the sky, accepted that as an excuse, and ran, gathering up the yellow robes and showing copper-colored legs, their long hair streaming in the wind behind them.

"Why are they afraid of you?" asked Dawa Tsering. "Are you such a terror among women as all that?"

"It was the rain," said Ommony. But he knew better. The girls were giggling.

The sky had clouded over suddenly, and in a moment, on a blast of icy wind, the rain came down in sheets that cut off the view of the mission buildings. The ponies turned their rumps to it and stood, heads down, tails blown tight under. Diana whimpered and took refuge under the end of the bridge, where Ommony joined her; there was no hope of getting the ponies to move until the storm passed. It turned to hail and swept the bridge like concentrated musketry, lightning and terrific, volleying thunderclaps heightening the illusion.

Twenty minutes later, when the sky cleared as suddenly as it had clouded and the setting sun shone on drifts of melting hail, Ommony saw the drenched girls leave the shelter of a rock and scamper for the mission gate. He did not doubt for one fraction of a moment that they had been sent by Hannah Sanburn to the bridge-end to keep a look-out for him. Discontented -- it was aggravating to be treated as a potential enemy -- he rode on prepared to see the Lama hurrying away ahead of him.

However, Hannah Sanburn met him in the gate and laughed at his disguise. He judged she was relieved, not annoyed to see him. There was all the old friendliness expressed on her New England face. Boston, Massachusetts -- Commonwealth Avenue or Tremont Street -- stood out all over her, even after twenty years of Tilgaun. She was dressed in tailored serge with a camel-hair overcoat turned up to her ears. A wealth of chestnut hair, beginning to turn gray, showed under a plain deerstalker hat. She had not lost one trace of her New England manner -- not a vestige of her pride. No weakness, but a firm and comprehending kindness dwelt on the almost manly forehead, at the corners of her mouth and in the grand gray eyes.

"All alone?" asked Ommony, dismounting, shaking hands. He liked her laughter; it was wholesome, even if she did look quizzically at his jaw and chin that she had never seen before without the modifying beard.

"Yes, Cottswold. You're a day late. Tsiang Samdup left this morning."

"Why?" he asked bluntly.

She did not answer but looked straight at Dawa Tsering, nodded, smiled at his sheepish grin, and walked straight up to him.

"Give me your knife," she said quietly, and took it from him almost before he guessed what she intended. He made no effort to prevent, but sat still on his pony, looking foolish. "You shall have that back if you behave yourself, not otherwise. If you look twice at one of the mission girls I will order the blacksmith to break your knife in two. You understand me?"

She made friends with Diana next, saying hardly a word but lifting her by the forelegs to see whether the feet were injured by the long march. The hound accepted her authority as promptly as Dawa Tsering did.

Stroking Diana's head with one shapely, rather freckled hand, ordering the Tibetans to lead the ponies to the stable, she led the way into the stone-paved courtyard. Cloistered buildings of worn gray stone formed three sides of it, and in the midst there was an oval mass of flowers, damaged by the hail but gorgeous in the last rays of the setting sun.

There was a room reserved for Ommony's exclusive use, in a corner facing that front courtyard, and though he had never used it oftener than once in three years it had always been kept ready for him. Another room, used less seldom, was reserved for Tsiang Samdup in the corner opposite.

"Mr. McGregor sent your clothes by messenger. You'll find them all unpacked and cared for -- lots of hot water -- I'm sorry you can't grow a beard in fifteen minutes! Come to my room when you're ready. I'll take the dog."

Ommony shut himself into the room to smoke and think. He dreaded the coming interview more and more, the longer he postponed it -- realized that what he most detested, in a world full of discordances, was to have to account for his actions to any one else. "Marriage might be all right," he muttered, "if women would govern themselves and concede men the same privilege."

He let an hour slip by before he presented himself in Hannah Sanburn's private room -- a long room over an archway leading to an inner cloister, bow-windowed on both sides, paneled in teak, with a blazing fire at one end. The crimson curtains had been drawn; the shaded oil lamps cast a warm glow over everything; a square table had been spread near the fire and Hannah Sanburn was making toast, stepping back and forward cautiously across Diana, who had made herself thoroughly at home on the hearthrug. Old Montagu's portrait, life-size, head and shoulders, smiled at the scene from the end-wall, the flickering firelight making his shrewd, peculiarly boyish features seem almost ready to step out of the frame and talk.

It was more difficult than ever to put her to the question in that atmosphere. She had changed into a semi-evening dress, that aged her a little but added an old-worldly charm. It would be difficult to imagine a hostess whom one would less like to offend, and the arrival of bacon and eggs on a silver tray carried by a seventeen-year-old Bhutani girl provided welcome excuse for delay.

Hannah Sanburn seemed entirely unembarrassed and, if she noticed Ommony's air of having something on his mind, she concealed the fact perfectly, talking about the events of the mission in a matter-of-fact voice, relating difficulties she had overcome, outlining plans for the future, avoiding anything that might lead to personal issues.

"I don't know how much good we're doing -- sometimes I think scarcely any," she said at last. "We rear and educate these girls. The best ones, of course, stay on for a while as teachers. But they all get married sooner or later and lapse into the old ways. It will be a century at least before this school begins to make much visible impression."

Ommony stared at the fire. "Thank goodness, we'll be dead then, with something different to fret about," he grumbled, angry with the destiny that he felt compelled him to probe a gentlewoman's secrets. She noticed the tone of his voice -- could not very well ignore it.

"What is troubling you, Cottswold? I supposed you were the most contented man on earth. Have you lost your interest in your forest?"

"I've resigned from the forestry." He stared at her, and broke the ice suddenly, doing the very thing he was determined, not to, blurting a blunt question without tact or even a preliminary warning. "Who is this girl Elsa, who is never at the mission when I'm here, but who has been to Lhassa, talks English and Tibetan, and can draw like Michael Angelo!"

He jerked his jaw forward to conceal the contempt that he felt for himself for having blundered in so clumsily, all the while watching her face but detecting no nervousness. To his surprise and relief she laughed and leaned her head against the high chair-back, looking at him humorously from under lowered eyelids, as she might have listened to a lame excuse from some one in the school.

"Poor Cottswold! How you must have felt uncomfortable! -- you're so faithful to your friends. No, Elsa is not my daughter. I have never had that experience. If she were my daughter I know quite well I would have said so long ago. I can imagine myself being proud of her, even -- even in those circumstances."

"I confess I'm mightily relieved," said Ommony, grinning uncomfortably. "Not, of course, that I'd have -- "

"No, I know you wouldn't," she interrupted. "You are the last person on earth I would hide that kind of secret from."

"Why any kind of secret, Hannah? Am I not to be trusted!"

"Not in this instance. You're the one man who couldn't be told." Then, after a dramatic pause: "Elsa is your niece."

"Niece?" he said, and shut his teeth with a snap. That one word solved the whole long riddle.

"Her name is Elsa Terry."

He did not speak. He leaned forward, staring at her under knitted brows, his eyes as eloquent as the silence that lasted while the Bhutani girl came in and removed the supper table. Even after the girl had gone, for two or three minutes the only sounds were the solemn ticking of a big clock on the mantelpiece, the cracking of a pine-knot in the fire, and a murmur of song from a building fifty yards away.

"You and almost everybody else have always believed Jack Terry and your sister Elsa vanished twenty years ago without trace," she said at last. "They didn't."

"Didn't they go to the Ahbor country?"

"Yes."

"You mean they're alive and you've known it all these years?"

"They have been dead nearly twenty years. I learned about it soon afterward. You know now why they went up there?"

"I've no new information. Jack Terry was as mad as a March hare -- "

"I think not," Hannah Sanburn answered, her gray eyes staring at the fire. "Jack Terry was the most unselfish man I ever heard of. He adored your sister. She was a spiritual, other-worldly little woman, and that beast Kananda Pal --"

"I blame Jenkins," said Ommony, grinding his teeth. "Kananda Pal was born into a black-art family and knew no better. Jenkins --"

"Never mind him now. Jack Terry did his best. Your sister Elsa used to have lapses; she would cry for days on end and write letters to Mr. Jenkins begging him to give back the mind he had stolen from her. No, she wasn't mad; it was obsession. I did my best, but I hadn't much experience in those days and she was difficult to understand; the phases of the moon seemed to have something to do with it; Jack Terry and I were agreed about that. You've met Sirdar Sirohe Singh of Tilgaun!"

Ommony nodded.

"He has always been a friend. He appears to be a mystic. He knows things that other people don't know, and hardly ever talks of them. Jack Terry learned from him -- Jack set his arm, or a collar-bone, I forget which -- anyway he told Jack about the Crystal Jade of Ahbor."

Ommony's lips moved in the suggestion of a whistle and Diana opened one eye.

"All the people hereabouts seem to have heard of the jade," Hannah Sanburn went on, "but the sirdar seems to be the only one who really knows anything about it. All I know is that I have had a piece of it in my hands in this house. It nearly drove me frantic to look into it, so I locked it away in that cupboard over there. It was stolen by a girl I should never have trusted, and I'm nearly but not quite sure it was the sirdar who bribed her to steal it from me. She was murdered, apparently while on the way to the sirdar's house a few miles from here. Tsiang Samdup was here last night and showed me the piece of jade; he said he had recovered it in Delhi."

"What else did he say?" asked Ommony, but she ignored the question, continuing to stare into the fire, as if she could see in it pictures of twenty years ago.

"Jack Terry told me," she went on presently, "that he believed the Crystal Jade of Ahbor had magic properties. You know how he believed in magic, and how he always insisted that magic is merely science that hasn't been recognized yet by the schools. He said mineral springs can heal the body, so there was no reason why there shouldn't be a stone somewhere, possessed of properties that can heal the mind in certain conditions. I didn't agree with him. It seemed to me utter nonsense, although -- I'm less inclined than I was then to say things can't be simply because we have been taught the contrary. I have held a piece of the Jade of Ahbor in my hands and -- well, I don't know, and that's all about it."

She paused again, perfectly still. Ommony got up, heaped wood on the fire, and sat down again. The cracking pine-knots and the ascending sparks broke her reverie.

"It was no use talking to Jack Terry," she continued, "and your sister would have gone to the North Pole with him, or anywhere else, if he had as much as proposed it. The two set off like Launcelot and Elaine into the unknown. You know, the very heart of the Ahbor Valley isn't more than fifty miles from here, although they say nobody has ever gone there and returned alive. Jack Terry -- you remember how he always laughed at the impossible -- said they would probably be gone not more than three or four weeks. They took scarcely any supplies with them -- just a tent and bedding -- half a dozen ponies -- two servants. The servants deserted the third night out and were killed by Bhutani robbers."

"Yes," said Ommony. "That was all I could ever find out, and that cost a month's investigation."

"I knew the whole story two or three weeks before you got permission to leave your forest and come to investigate; I wasn't allowed to tell."

"Weren't allowed. Who in thunder --"

"Tsiang Samdup came down from the Ahbor Valley and in this room, sitting on that hearthrug where the dog lies now, told me the story. I remember how he began -- his exact words:

" 'My daughter, there is danger in another's duty. There is also duty in another's danger. There is merit in considered speech, but strength consists in silence. Truth, that may be told to one, may lead to evil if repeated. I am minded to speak to your ears only.'

"Offhand I told him I would of course respect his confidence, but he sat still for about half an hour before he spoke again. Then he took at least half an hour to commit me to a pledge of secrecy that I could not possibly break without losing my own self-respect. I discovered before he was through that he had been quite right to do that, but I confess there were moments that evening when it looked as if he had trapped me into something against which every moral fiber in me rebelled instinctively. For an hour I hated him. And there have been times -- many times since -- when it has been extremely difficult to keep the promise. However, I have kept it. It was only yesterday that he gave me leave to tell you as much as I know."

"He might have confided in me in the first place," said Ommony, but Hannah Sanburn shook her head.

"I did suggest that to him. I urged it. But he made me see that he was quite right not to. It would have placed you in an impossible position. What had happened was this: the Terrys did succeed in entering the Ahbor Valley. They seemed to have undergone frightful hardships, and nobody knows how they found the way, but they did. They were hunted like animals, and when Tsiang Samdup rescued them Jack Terry was dying from wounds, hunger and exposure; he had managed somehow to find enough food for his wife, and he had persuaded her to eat, and to let him go without."

"Are you sure of your information?" Ommony asked. "That doesn't sound like Elsa."

"There was a baby coming."

"Oh, my God!"

"Tsiang Samdup took them to his monastery, which is somewhere in the Ahbor Valley. The only way he was able to protect them from the Ahbors, who have never allowed strangers in the Valley and vow they never will, was by prophesying that the baby shortly to be born would be a reincarnation of an ancient Chinese saint, named San-fun-ho. There was no hope of saving Jack Terry, but Tsiang Samdup hoped to save the mother's life. However, she died giving birth to the child, and Jack Terry followed her the same night."

"Did they leave anything in writing?"

"I have letters I'll show you presently, written and signed by both of them, in which they speak of the Lama Tsiang Samdup as having risked his own life to save theirs. Jack Terry wrote that he was dying of wounds and exposure. The Lama gave me both letters after he had told the story. But I would have believed him without that. I have always believed every word that Tsiang Samdup said, even while I hated him for having pledged me to silence."

"Go ahead. I mistrusted him not long ago -- and changed my mind."

"Tsiang Samdup is not to be doubted, Cottswold. He lied to Ahbors, but that was to save life. It was an inspiration -- the only way out of it -- to tell those savages that the unborn baby was to be a reincarnation of a Chinese saint. I admire him for the lie. Imagine, if you can, old Tsiang Samdup -- for he was old even then -- rearing and weaning that baby in a monastery in the midst of savages. The Terrys' death seems to have made it easier in one way: the natives saw them buried, which satisfied their law against admitting strangers, and Tsiang Samdup prevented them from digging up the bodies to throw them in the river, by casting a halo of sainthood over them on the ground that they had brought a saint into the world. You know how all this country to the north of us believes implicitly in reincarnations of saints -- the Tashi Lama is supposed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor; and so on. Do you see how Tsiang Samdup became more and more committed!"

There was a long silence. Ommony poked the fire restlessly. A native teacher came in, offered a report for signature, and went out. Hannah Sanburn went on with her story:

"He had promised those savages a baby saint. He had produced the baby. Now he had to educate the saint, and its being a girl made it all the more difficult. But it seems there are people to whom Tsiang Samdup can go for advice. I don't know who they are, or where they are; he mentions them rarely, and very guardedly; I think he has referred to them twice, or perhaps three times during all the years I have known him, and then only for the purpose of suggesting that he isn't exactly a free agent. The conclusion I drew from his guarded hints was, that he acts, and is responsible for what he does, but that he would lose the privilege of conference with these unknown individuals if he should allow personal considerations to govern him. At that, I'm only guessing. He said nothing definite."

"The Masters!" said Ommony, nodding. "I'll bet you he knows some of the Masters!" But if Hannah Sanburn knew who they were she gave no sign. She went on talking:

"It seems that the Ahbors trust him implicitly within certain limits. They would kill him and burn his monastery if they caught him practising the least deception; and they watched that baby day and night. The wife of an Ahbor chieftain became the wet-nurse, and the child throve, but it very soon dawned on Tsiang Samdup that however carefully he might educate her -- (you knew he had an Oxford education?) -- she would grow up like a half-breed, unless he could have skilful assistance from some one of her own race. So he consulted these mysterious authorities, and 'they,' whoever they are, told him that a way would open up if he should take me into confidence.

"As I told you, he first bound me to secrecy. He didn't make me swear, but he gave me a lecture on keeping faith, that was as radical as the Sermon on the Mount, and he tested me every inch of the way to make sure I agreed with him. I have used that sermon over and over again in teaching the teachers of this school.

"When he had me so tied up in my own explanations of what keeping faith really means, that there wasn't any possible way out for me, he told me the story I have just told you, and made me an astonishing proposal. I have sometimes wished I had accepted it."

Hannah Sanburn paused for a long time, staring at the fire.

"He offered," she said at last, "to find some one else for my position here; to smuggle me into the Ahbor Valley; and to teach me more knowledge than Solomon knew -- if I would give unqualified consent, and would agree to stay up there and help him educate that baby."

"And -- ?"

"And I refused," she said quietly. "Won't you put some more wood on the fire?"

Chapter XXV

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