Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

And this I know: that when the gods have use for us they blindfold us, because if we should see and comprehend the outcome we should grow so vain that not even the gods could preserve us from destruction.

Vanity, self-righteousness and sin, these three are one, whose complements are meekness, self-will and indifference.

Meekness is not modesty. Meekness is an insult to the Soul. But out of modesty comes wisdom, because in modesty the gods can find expression.

The wise gods do not corrupt modesty with wealth or fame, but its reward is in well-doing and in a satisfying inner vision.

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

Chapter XXV

THE COMPROMISE

Ommony stacked up the fire and resumed his seat in the leather armchair that Marmaduke had always used. Diana, belly to the blaze, barked and galloped in her sleep. Hannah Sanburn went on talking:

"Tsiang Samdup said last night that you have been with him two months. Do you know then what I mean when I say one can't argue with him! He just sat there on the hearthrug and -- it's difficult to explain -- he seemed to be listening for an inside message. It may sound idiotic, but I received the impression of a man waiting for his own soul to talk to him. He was perfectly silent. He hardly breathed. I felt absolutely sure he would find some way out of the difficulty. But the strange thing was, that the solution came from me. I suppose ten minutes passed without a word said, and I felt all the while as if my mind were being freed from weights that I had never known were there. Then suddenly I spoke because I couldn't help it; I saw what to do so clearly that I simply had to tell him.

"It wasn't hypnotism. It was just the contrary. It was as if he had dehypnotized me. I saw all the risks and scores of difficulties. And I saw absolutely clearly the necessity of doing just one thing. I told him I would take the child for six months out of every year and treat her as if she were my own. He might have her for the other six months. Every single wrinkle on his dear old face smiled separately when I said that. I had hardly said it when I began to wish I hadn't; but he held me to my word.

"He brought me the baby the following week, and she was here in this building all the while you were ranging the hills for some word of the Terrys. The hardest work I ever had to do was to keep silent when you returned here worn out and miserable about your sister's fate. But, if you had been let into the secret, you would have interfered -- wouldn't you? Am I right or wrong, Cottswold?"

"Of course. I would never have dreamed of letting my sister's child go back to the Ahbor Valley."

"Yet, if Tsiang Samdup hadn't taken her every year for half a year, the Ahbors would have killed him. And remember: I had bound myself in advance not to tell any one -- and particularly not to tell you. The Lama was only able to loan her to me for six months of every year by consenting to the Ahbors watching her all the time she was with me. Whenever she has been with me Ahbors have watched day and night. The excuse Tsiang Samdup gave to them was that unless she should be with me for long periods she would die and the Ahbors would find their valley invaded by white armies in consequence. They fear invasion of their valley more than anything else they can imagine. On the other hand, they regard the child as a gift from Heaven and the Old Lama as her rightful guardian.

"I don't quite understand the situation up there; the Ahbors don't accept Tsiang Samdup's teachings, they have a religion of their own; and he isn't one of them; he's a Tibetan. But they recognize him as a Lama, protect his monastery, and submit to his authority in certain ways. Perhaps I'm stupid; he has tried very hard to explain, and so has Elsa. Privately I called her Elsa, after her mother, of course. Tsiang Samdup gave her the Chinese name of San-fun-ho. The word is supposed to signify every possible human virtue."

"Who called her Samding?" Ommony asked bluntly.

Hannah Sanburn stared. "You know then? This isn't news? I remember now: Tsiang Samdup said last night: 'That of which a man is ignorant may well be kept from him, but that which he knows should be explained, lest he confuse it with what he does not know.'"

"I'm putting two and two together," Ommony answered. "I leaned over a monastery gallery in Darjiling. The chela was straight underneath me. A beam of sunlight showed a girl's breasts. Am I right? Are San-fun-ho, Samding the chela and my sister's child Elsa one and the same person?"

"Yes. I wonder you never recognized your sister's voice -- that almost baritone boyish resonance. You didn't?"

"Who are those other girls?"

"Companions for her! Don't rush me. Wait while I explain. Elsa developed into the most marvelous child I have ever known. It was partly Tsiang Samdup's influence; he gave up his whole life to training her; and he's wise -- I can never begin to tell you how wise he is. But it was partly due to her heredity. You see, she had your sister's spiritual qualities, and something of Jack Terry's gay indifference to all the usual human pros and cons -- the courage of both of them -- and something else added, entirely her own. I wish she were my child! Oh, how I wish it! And yet, d'you know, Cottswold, down in my heart I'm glad she isn't, simply because, if she were mine, she would have missed so much!"

Hannah Sanburn stared into the fire again, silent until Ommony grew restless.

"There's so much to tell!" she said at last. "I knew from the first, and Tsiang Samdup soon discovered that the odds would be all against her unless she could have white children of her own age for companions. When he came and spoke of that I tried to persuade him to let me send her to America; but at the very suggestion he looked so old and grieved and disappointed that I felt it would kill him to lose her. I suggested that he should go with her, but he said no, he had a duty to the Ahbors. I thought then he was afraid the Ahbors would torture him to death and burn his monastery if he should let her go; but he read my thoughts and assured me that consideration had no weight. I believed him. I believe he is perfectly indifferent to pain and death. He sat still for a long time, and then said:

" ' It is better not to begin, than to begin and not go through to a conclusion. Then we should only have deprived ourselves of opportunity. Now we should rob the child.'

"He asked me to obtain white children for companions for her. I refused, of course, at once to have anything to do with it. We quarreled bitterly -- or rather, I did. He sat quite still, and when I had finished scolding him he went away in silence. I did not see him again for several months, and he never told we how he obtained white children. I can't imagine how he did it without raising a scandal all over the world. I have been in agonies over it, for fear this mission would suffer. You know, if word once got around that we were importing white children into the Ahbor Valley, no proof of innocence would ever quiet the suspicion. Just think what a chance the Christian missionaries would have for destroying our good name! Can you imagine them sparing us?"

Ommony grinned and nodded. As trustees of a Buddhist mission to the Buddhists, he had tasted his share of that zealotry.

"He obtained the children through the agency of a Jew -- named Benjamin," he said. "They were all orphans. They were saved from God knows what. Go on."

"I have only seen the other children rarely. Now and then they would come here in twos and threes, and I used to question them, but they all seemed too happy to remember their past, and they only had the vaguest notions as to how they ever reached the Ahbor Valley. The general plan was for me to do my best with Elsa during the six months of the year she was with me, and for her to teach them. Tsiang Samdup said it would be good for her to have to teach them -- that she would learn more in that way than any other; and as usual he -- was entirely right.

"To help the other girls he made them pass their teaching on to Tibetan children. But he hasn't had quite the success with the others that he has had with Elsa; they hadn't her character to begin with. He never punishes. Have you any idea what patience it calls for to educate growing children without ever inflicting punishment of any kind -- what patience and skill?"

Ommony glanced at Diana. "It's the only way. I never punish," he said quietly. "Go on."

"My own share in Elsa's education has been very slight indeed," Hannah Sanburn went on. "I had to teach her Western conventions as to table manners and so on, and to explain to her what sort of subjects are taboo in what we call civilized society. I have taught her to wear frocks properly, have corrected her English pronunciation and have given her music lessons. I can't think of anything else. The real education has been all the other way; it is I who have learned -- oh, simply countless things -- by observing her. She never argues. You can't persuade her to tell more than a fraction of what she knows. She is afraid of nothing and of nobody. And she is as full of fun as the veriest young pagan that ever lived."

"Is she affectionate?" asked Ommony.

"Intensely. But not demonstrative. I should say she loves enormously, but without the slightest jealousy or passion. She has learned Tsiang Samdup's faculty of divining people's weakness, and of playing up to their strength instead of taking advantage of the weakness or letting it annoy her. The result, of course, is that she is instantly popular wherever she goes."

"How in the world have you kept these mission girls from talking about her?" asked Ommony.

"That was quite easy. They adore her. She is their special secret; and they quite understand that if they talk about her outside the mission she will stay away. Besides, the mission girls don't have much opportunity to talk with outsiders, and those to whom they do talk are superstitious people, who speak with bated breath of San-fun-ho of Ahbor. There have been much harder problems than that."

Hannah Sanburn stared into the fire again. It appeared there were painful memories.

"You see, there have been European visitors at times. Some of them came unannounced, and sometimes Elsa was here when they came. There were times when I could pass her off as a teacher, but sometimes she was discovered in boy's clothes, which made that impossible; and whether she was dressed as a boy or girl she aroused such intense curiosity that questions became pointed and very difficult to answer. I have dozens of letters, Cottswold, from friends in Massachusetts asking whether it is true, as they learn from missionary correspondents, that I have a child. Some ask why I kept my marriage secret. Some insinuate that they are too broad-minded to hold a lapse from virtue against me, as long as I don't come home and make it awkward for them. Others preach me a sermon on hypocrisy. Quite a number of my friends have dropped me altogether. I suppose the strict provisions of the penal code have kept people from libeling me in India, but that has not prevented them from writing scandal to their friends abroad.

"What was the idea of boy's clothes?"

"Education. Tsiang Samdup insists she must know everything he possibly can teach her. She has been to Lhassa, far into China, and down into India. He could not have taken her to some of those places unless she were disguised as his chela; a girl chela would have aroused all sorts of scandal and difficulties. Then again, he says all human life is drama and the only way to teach is by dramatic presentation; but who, he asks, can present a drama unless able to act all parts in it? He says we can only learn by teaching, and can only teach by learning; and he is right, Cottswold, he is absolutely right."

"Does he propose that she shall preach a crusade or something like that in India?" Ommony asked, frowning.

"He proposes she shall be an absolutely free agent, possessed of all knowledge necessary to freedom. That tour into India was only a part of her education."

"But I saw her as Samding receiving princes of the blood and being almost worshiped," Ommony objected.

"Education. Tsiang Samdup says she will be either flattered or hated wherever she goes. He says the hatred will strengthen her. He wants to be sure no flattery shall turn her head."

"And those other girls?"

"They are to go free also, as and when she goes. Tsiang Samdup is fabulously rich. He pays for everything in gold, although I don't know where he gets it. He has secret agents all over India -- sometimes I think they're all over the world. He says wherever Elsa goes, she and the other girls will be provided for and will find friends."

"Where does he propose to send them?" Ommony asked, a wave of rebellion sweeping over him. He was well schooled in self-control, but all the English in him rose against the notion of his sister's child being subject to an Oriental's whim. Education was one thing: heritage another.

Hannah Sanburn laughed. The expression of her face was firm, and yet peculiarly helpless.

"I am not to tell you that."

"Why in thunder not? You have told so much, that -- "

"If you were as used as I am, Cottswold, to trusting that grand old Lama, and always discovering afterward that his advice was good, you wouldn't press the point."

"My sister's child -- " he began angrily; but she interrupted him.

"Don't forget: Tsiang Samdup saved the mother from death at the hands of savages. It is thanks to him, and to nobody but him, that the baby was born alive."

Yes, but -- "

"Tsiang Samdup told me, and I believe him, that your sister put the new-born baby into his arms and begged him to care for it as if it were his own. She gave him the baby with her dying breath."

"What else could she do?" asked Ommony. "Poor girl, she was --"

"Yes. But she did it," said Hannah Sanburn. "Can you name one instance in which Tsiang Samdup has failed to keep trust to the limit of his power?"

There followed a long silence, broken only by the faint murmur of singing in a hall across the rear courtyard, the falling of burned wood on the hearth, and the muttered barking of Diana chasing something in her dreams. It endured until Diana awoke suddenly, sat up and growled. There came a man's voice from the front courtyard. Two or three minutes later there was a knock at the door and a toothless old Sikhimese watchman announced a visitor, mumbling so that Ommony did not catch the name. A moment later Sirdar Sirohe Singh strode into the room, greeted by thundering explosions from Diana, who presently recognized him and lay down again.

The sidar without speaking bowed profoundly, once to Hannah Sanburn, once to Ommony, then crossed the room and sat down cross-legged on the floor, with his back to a corner of the fireplace at Hannah Sanburn's right hand, where his own face was in shadow but he could see both hers and Ommony's. Diana went up and sniffed him but he took no notice of her.

"I have word," he said gruffly, at the end of three or four minutes' silence.

He seemed to expect comment.

"From whom? About what?"

The sirdar's amber eyes met Ommony's. "You remember? When we met the first time I said I was at your disposal to escort you to another place."

Ommony nodded.

"But I am not your superior." (The sirdar used a word that conveys more the relationship of a guru to his chela than can be expressed by one word in English; but at that, the significance was vague.) "Do you wish to come with me?"

In the West it would have been the part of wisdom to ask when, why, whither? Twenty and odd years of India had given Ommony an insight into arguments not current in the West, however. He did not even glance at Hannah Sanburn.

"Yes."

"I am ready."

The sirdar stood up. There was magic in the air. Diana sensed it; she was trembling. Hannah Sanburn rose and placed herself between the sirdar and the fire, so that he could not pass her easily.

"Do you accept responsibility?" she asked.

The sirdar nodded.

"Will he return here?"

"As to that I am ignorant. He will arrive there."

"You will escort him safely to the Lama?"

Again the sirdar nodded.

Hannah Sanburn moved and the sirdar strode past her toward the door. Ommony started to follow him, but turned, walked deliberately up to Hannah Sanburn and kissed her, hardly knowing why, except that he admired her and possibly might never see her again. She seemed to understand.

"Good-by," she said quietly. "If you reach the Ahbor Valley you'll be safe enough -- only do what he tells you." Then, divining his intention: "No, take the dog. I would like her, but you may need her. The Lama said so. Good-by."

It was cold outside. Ommony tied on Diana's sheepskin jacket, which was hanging, cleaned and dried, from a peg in the hall. Below in the courtyard the sirdar turned and said abruptly:

"To your own room first."

It was like being led out to be shot. In the gloom in the corner near Ommony's door a brown-robed Tibetan waited, carrying something on his arm; Ommony seized Diana's collar to keep her from flying at him. He and the sirdar followed Ommony into the room and waited while he lit the candles; then the sirdar struck a match and lit the overhead oil lamp.

"Where is Dawa Tsering?" Ommony asked suddenly.

The sirdar smiled, showing wonderfully even teeth that suggested not exactly cruelty, but the sort of familiarity with unavoidable unpleasantness that surgeons learn.

"He will come with us part of the way," he said in a dead-level tone of voice.

Ommony bridled at that. It touched his own sense of responsibility.

"The man is my servant. What do you propose to do to him?"

"I am not his master."

"You said 'part of the way.' What do you mean by that?"

"Wait and see," said the sirdar.

"No," Ommony answered. "I will lead no man into a trap. What do you intend?"

The sirdar spoke in undertones to the Tibetan, who tossed a bundle of garments on the bed and left the room.

"You might save time," the sirdar suggested, pointing to the bundle on the bed. His manner was polite, and more mysterious than commanding; he undid the bundle himself and spread out a Tibetan costume.

"How about you?" asked Ommony, beginning to undress.

"I go as I am."

Ommony put on the warm Tibetan clothes and examined himself in the mirror -- laughed -- remarked that he looked like a monk whose asceticism consisted in at least three meals a day. But he looked better when he pulled on a cloth cap and threw a dark shawl over it. The sirdar, walking around him, -- viewing him carefully from every angle, appeared satisfied.

Then Dawa Tsering came, unaccompanied by the Tibetan, standing burly and enormous in his yak-hair cloak, almost filling up the doorway.

"Thou!" he said, grinning as his eyes met Ommony's. "Say to Missish-Anbun she should return my knife to me. We go where there might be happenings."

"Where do you suppose we are going?" Ommony asked.

"To that old Lama's roost, I take it. Between you and me, Ommonee, I am glad to go anywhere, so be I get away from this place. My wife is in Tilgaun and has sent two of her husbands to catch me and bring me to her!"

The sirdar grinned, watching Ommony's face. "They practise polyandry in these hills," he remarked.

That was no news, although there was less of it around Tilgaun since the Marmaduke influence had begun to make itself felt.

"Seven husbands are enough for her," said Dawa Tsering. "I grew weary of planting her corn-fields and being beaten for my trouble. I am for Spiti, where a man can have as many wives as he can manage and they fear him! Let us be off before that she-wolf's husbands catch the two of us, thou!"

Ommony nodded. The sirdar put the lights out and led the way to the outer gate, Dawa Tsering following, complaining bitterly about his knife.

"I am ashamed, Ommonee -- I am ashamed to go back to Spiti without my belly-ripper! Where shall I find such another as that? Get it for me! I would pay its weight in gold for it -- if I had that much gold," he added sotto voce.

Once outside the gate, though, he was much too eager to be going to fret about anything else. The whites of his eyes showed alert in the darkness. There were two ponies; he held Ommony's, urging him to mount in haste, then ran behind, slapping the pony's rump, pursuing the sirdar's beast, that cantered with a Tibetan clinging to its tail. Diana circled around and around the party, barking.

"Thou! Command thy she-dog!" Dawa Tsering panted. "We go through the village -- she will awake my wife's husbands -- command her to be still, or we are lost!"

Chapter XXVI

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