Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy
Oh, I went where the Gods are, and I have seen the Dawn
Where Beauty and the Muses and the Seven Reasons dwell,
And I saw Hope accoutered with a lantern and a horn
Whose clarion and rays reach the inner rings of hell.
Oh, I was in the storehouse of the jewels of the dew
And the laughter of the motion of the windblown grass,
The mystery of morning and its music, and the hue
Of the petals of the roses when the rain-clouds pass.
And so I know who Hope is and why she never sleeps,
And seven of the secrets that are jewels on her breast;
I stood within the silence of the Garden that she keeps,
Where flowers fill the footprints that her sandals pressed;
And I know the springs of laughter, for I trod the Middle
Where sympathies are sign-posts and the merry Gods the
I have been where Hope is Ruler and evolving realms
I know the Secret Nearness where the Ancient Wisdom
AHBOR VALLEY GATE.
They cantered down the village street and over an echoing plank-bridge beneath which starlit water growled over a gravel bed. Only a rare light or two shone through the chinks of shuttered windows. Village dogs yelped at Diana's heels, but fled when she turned on them. The sirdar never glanced backward but rode like a shadow, bolt-upright, vanishing, vanishing, for ever vanishing into the darkness, yet never more than half a dozen ponies' lengths ahead. The sound of his pony's feet was all that made a human being of him; otherwise he was a specter.
The track rose sharply after they crossed the bridge and the ponies slowed to a walk, the sirdar maintaining the lead. Dawa Tsering, utterly winded, sat down on a rock, swaying his body back and forward to ease the stitch in his side. Ommony drew rein to wait for him, peering over a cliff-side into hollow darkness filled with the booming of water among rocks two hundred feet below. The sirdar shouted from around a bend a little higher up the trail, and stones fell into the track as if his voice had loosed an avalanche.
A dark figure shrouded in black cloth slid down following the stones and, before Ommony could move, had jumped to his rein. A young woman's face peered up at him, flashing white teeth, but the smile vanished instantly.
"Dawa Tsering," she muttered, and then began talking so fast that Ommony could hardly understand her. Dawa Tsering was in danger; that seemed clear enough. Also, she, her own self, wanted him, desired him desperately. She had a baby wrapped in a shawl slung over her shoulder and had laid another bundle on the ground.
Ommony pointed down the track, and as he moved his arm two men leaped out of a shadow and rushed up-hill at Dawa Tsering. Diana flew at them and they backed away. They had weapons, but appeared afraid to use them. Dawa Tsering ran uphill toward Ommony, feeling for the knife that was not there, and Ommony whistled to Diana. The two men followed her cautiously, advancing step by step as she retreated, snarling. From the opposite direction around the bend, the sirdar came cantering back down-hill, sending stones scattering over the cliff-side. The girl flung herself at Dawa Tsering, seizing him around the neck and pouring out a stream of words, half-intelligible, choked with anger, grief, laughter, command, and emotions unknown to those who have not loved and do not still love an adventurer from Spiti.
"Sooner than expected!" the sirdar grunted, drawing rein.
The sirdar seemed pleased, and to have changed his mind about being in a hurry. He sat bolt-upright on his pony and waited in silence for something to happen; but the Tibetan behind him drew a long knife and showed it to the two men who were standing in the attitude of wrestlers. Dawa Tsering seemed to want to run, but the woman clung to him. Diana growled thunderously but awaited orders.
"Who are these men?" asked Ommony.
"My wife's husbands!" Dawa Tsering shook the girl off and stepped between Ommony and the sirdar. It appeared he meant to slip away, but the sirdar's pony made a sudden half-turn, and there was nothing left for him but to stand or jump over the cliff. "Protect me, Ommonee! I have been a friend to you. That dog hasn't a flea on her. Moreover, Missish-Anbun has my knife."
"Who is this young woman?" Ommony demanded.
The sirdar answered. The two husbands were about to speak, but waited, open-mouthed. The woman was watching the sirdar as if destiny hung on the movement of his lips.
"She is his. It is his child. Choose!" he commanded, shoving Dawa Tsering, making him turn to face him. "Go with her to Spiti, or go with them to Ladak and the wife of many husbands. Which?"
"But how do I know it is my child?" Dawa Tsering grumbled.
The sirdar's face was in darkness from the shadow of the overhanging cliff. He did not laugh, but his smile was almost audible. "She knows. You may learn from her. Choose quickly!"
"Is it a man child?" Dawa Tsering asked; and the woman burst into excited speech, beginning to unwrap the bundle that swung at her back.
"Well, that is different," said Dawa Tsering. "If it is a man child -- there is need of men in Spiti. Very well, I will take the woman."
"To Spiti!" the sirdar commanded. "Understand: I will write to the Rajah of Spiti. You will stay in Spiti and obey him. If you ever again cross the boundaries of Spiti without a letter from your rajah giving permission and stating the reason for it, you will deal with me!"
"Oh, well!" said Dawa Tsering, shrugging his broad shoulders. "Must I go now?"
"Now!" said the sirdar.
"Good-by, Ommonee. Now you must pick your own fleas off the dog. I will be sorry for you when I think of you without a servant, but I am too well born to be any man's servant for long, and this woman is a good one. I will sing songs of you in Spiti after you are dead. I think you will die soon. Look out for that sirdar; he is a tricky fellow."
He kicked the bundle the woman had dropped, as a signal for her to pick it up and follow him. In another moment he had vanished, clambering by a goat-track up the cliff, humming cheerfully through his nose each time he paused to let the laden woman overtake him.
The sirdar faced the discontented husbands, lifting his right hand for silence.
"Go back to that woman in Ladak, (1) and to her say this from me," he ordered. "That it may be I will come to Ladak. If I come, and when I come, it will be well for her if I have no reason to concern myself about her. Turn neither to the right nor to the left, nor delay on the road to Ladak, but hasten and tell her my message. And when she has beaten you, tell her a second time, and add this: that if again she sends men across the boundaries of Ladak, she shall lose them! Go!"
They went, retreating backward down-hill toward Tilgaun, whence another track led over a seventeen-thousand foot pass toward their polyandrous neighborhood. The Tibetan followed them, presumably to see the order was obeyed. The sirdar turned and rode up-hill in silence, keeping the middle of the track so that Ommony had no room to draw alongside. On the left a cliff fell sheer into the darkness; on the right it rose until it seemed to disappear among the stars.
Ommony rode with his woolen clothes wrapped closely against the penetrating wind that moaned from over the ravine on his left-hand. Mystified by the sirdar's confidently used authority, that could not possibly have been vested in him by the British or by any other government (for it seemed to extend into several states), his sensations began to be mixed and bewildering.
Suggestions of fear are assertive on a dark night, riding into the unknown, without a weapon; and the sirdar's mysterious silence was not reassuring. Hannah Sanburn had said he was "always a friend"; but a woman all alone in charge of a mission, surrounded by potential danger, would be likely to overestimate the friendship of any one who was not openly hostile.
It occurred, and kept on recurring, however hard he tried to dismiss the thought, that, with the exception of Hannah Sanburn, he alone knew the secret about Elsa Terry -- he and probably that sirdar just ahead of him; and the sirdar might be one of those dark fanatics whom jealousy makes murderers. What if the sirdar were leading him now to his death in the unknown?
For what purpose had Elsa been educated? Why had she been taken into India on that weird dramatic venture? Why had she been to Lhassa, the "forbidden city?" Who were the men to whom Hannah Sanburn said the Lama went for advice? Mahatmas? Masters? Or something else? What was their purpose? The Lama might easily be a saint and yet their tool -- an unworldly old altruist in the hands of men who had designs on India; as pliable in their hands as the girl appeared to be pliable in his. That journey into India might have been a trial venture to discover how far the girl's trained personality could be counted on to turn men's (and women's) heads. Gandhi in jail, all India was ripe and waiting for a new political mahatma.
Why, if not to spy on Ommony, had the Lama tolerated Dawa Tsering in his company? Dawa Tsering's suspiciously prompt obedience to the sirdar rather looked as if the whole thing had been prearranged. In fact, it certainly was prearranged; the sirdar had admitted he expected something of the sort. And Ommony remembered now that back in Delhi Dawa Tsering had been remarkably complaisant about transferring allegiance from the Lama to himself.
Then -- the Ahbor Valley. Was it likely that the sirdar could be leading him into that forbidden country for any other purpose than to make sure of his death or possibly to keep him prisoner up there? No white man, no government agent, not even one trained Nepalese spy who had penetrated the Ahbor Valley had ever returned alive. The only one who ever did return had floated, dead and mangled, down the Brahmaputra River. Thirty-five miles -- not a yard more -- from the boundary of Sikhim; perhaps thirty miles from where they were that minute, the Upper Ahbor Valley was as unknown as the mountains of the moon. Why should he suppose that he was to be specially favored with permission to go in there and return alive?
But there was no turning back now -- nothing, of course, to prevent but nothing further from intention. Afraid, yes. Faint-hearted, no. The two emotions are as the poles apart. Fear acted as a spur to obstinacy, the unknown as a lure that beckoned more compellingly than safety; habitually, since his school-days, personal safety had been Ommony's last, least consideration. He told himself it was the cold wind that made the goose-flesh rise, and all that night, shivering, he forced himself to believe that was the truth, following the sirdar's pony along trails like a winding devil's stairway that led alternately toward the sky and down again into a roaring underworld.
It was pitch-dark, but the deepest darkness lay ahead, where the enormous range of the Himalayas was a wall of silence ridged with faint silver where the starlight shone on everlasting snow. Darkness may be a substance for all that anybody knows about it; it lay thick and somber, swallowing the sounds -- sudden, crashing sounds, that volleyed and were gone. A tree fell into a watercourse. A rock went cannoning from crag to crag and plunged into an abyss. Silence; and then a howl along the wind as a night-prowler scented the ponies.
Bats -- unimaginable thousands of them, black, and less black than the night -- until the air was all alive with movement and the squeak and smell. Chasms into which the ponies' hoofs struck stones that seemed to fall for ever, soundless. Dawn at last, touching untrodden peaks with crimson -- gleaming gold, and stealing lemon-colored down the pillars of the sky, to awaken ghosts of shadows in the black ravines. Tree-tops, waist-deep in an opal mist, an eagle -- seven thousand feet below the track -- circling above those like a fleck of blown dirt. A roar ascending full of crashing tumult; and at last a flash of silver on the waves of Brahmaputra, a mile and a half below, plunging toward Bengal through the rock-staked jaws of Ahbor Valley Gate.
Downward then, by a trail that seemed to swing between earth and sky, the ponies sliding half the time with their rumps against the rock or picking their way cautiously with six-inch strides along the edge of chasms, over which the riders peered into fathomless shadow that the sunlight had not reached. Down to the eagle-level, and the treeline, where the wet scent of morning on moss and golden gravel made the ponies snort and they had to be unsaddled and allowed to roll.
Not a word from the sirdar, although he stroked Diana's head when she approached him, and laughed at the ponies' antics. On again downward, and a hut at last, built of tree-trunks, perched on a ledge of rock above a waterfall, on the rim of a tree-hung bowl through which the Brahmaputra plunged.
1. Spiti and Ladak are Hill States separated by huge ranges, and their customs are as different as their climate and geography, although their actual distance apart is not great. (return to text)
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