Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy


When that caressing light forgets the hills

That change their hue in its evolving grace;

When, harmony of swaying reeds and tills,

The breeze, forgets her music and the face

Of Nature smiles no longer in the pond,

Divinity revealed! When morning peeps

Above earth's rim, and no bird notes respond;

When half a world in mellow moonlight sleeps

And no peace pours along the silver'd air;

When dew brings no wet wonder of delight

On jeweled spider-web and scented lair

Of drone and hue and honey; when the night

No longer shadows the retreating day,

Nor purple dawn pursues the graying dark;

And no child laughs; and no wind bears away

The bursting glory of the meadow-lark;

Then -- then it may be -- never until then

May death be dreadful or assurance wane,

That we shall die a while, to waken when

New morning summons us to earth again.

Chapter XXVII


Smoke came from the hut, through a hole in the roof, giving the sharp air a delicious tang, all mixed with the aroma of fallen leaves and pine trunks. Over beyond the hut spray splashed from the waterfall -- rose-colored diamonds against moss-green. The air was full of bird-music, that the ear caught after it was once used to the ponderous roar of water.

A man who was undoubtedly an Ahbor -- black hair low down on his forehead, high up on his cheeks -- Mongolian cheek-bones -- glittering, dark, bold eyes -- hairy legs showing beneath a leather-colored smock -- waist girdled with a leather belt, from which a kukri like a Gurkha's hung in a wooden scabbard -- peered from the hut door. He stared at the sirdar in silence, curiously, as at some one he must tolerate; it was the half-shy, half-impudent stare of a yokel at a wealthy man from town.

He took the ponies and was very careful of them, unsaddling, leading them to drink, dragging out a sack and spilling grain in the hollow of a rock, feeling their legs and rubbing them down with a piece of bark while they munched contentedly.

The sirdar led the way into the hut, but laid a finger on his lips for silence. The reason for silence was not evident; there was nobody else in there. The place was clean, but almost bare of furniture; there was a hearth of rough stones in the midst, a rough table, and a bunk in one corner, littered with blue trade-blankets. There was no bench -- no chairs or stools -- but there were wooden platters on the table, with big silver spoons beside them, and on the hearth imported cereal was cooking in an earthen vessel set in a brass one containing water. There was honey in a white china bowl, and a big glass pitcher full of milk, which looked as if it had stood there overnight; the layer of cream was more than an inch thick. There were two cups, without handles, made of alabaster.

In silence, as if it were a ritual, the sirdar served the meal and they ate it standing. Then he walked out and sat on a rock that overhung the waterfall. He was not cross-legged in the usual Indian attitude of meditation; his long booted and spurred legs were out in front of him, the way a white man sits, and he leaned an elbow on one knee, his chin on his right fist; motionless in that attitude he stared at the bewildering view until he seemed almost physically to become a part of it.

Ommony watched him from the hut door, now and then losing sight of his form in the spray as he wondered what sort of thinking it might be that could so absorb the man, and as he watched, wondering, his own inclination was to take his shoes off; he felt a pagan reverence possess him, as if that dew -- wet, emerald and brown immensity, with the thundering river below and the blue sky for a roof, were a temple of Mother Nature, in which it were impertinence to speak, imposture to assert a personality.

Diana was watching fish in a pool above the waterfall; the aborigine from Ahbor was using his kukri to fashion a wooden implement with which to comb the ponies' manes and tails; the birds were hopping on tree and rock about their ordinary business, and an eagle circled overhead as if he had been doing the same thing for centuries. But there began to be a sensation of having stepped into another world.

Things assumed strange and strangely beautiful proportions. The whole of the past became a vaguely remembered dream, in which the Lama, Samding and Hannah Sanburn stood out as the only important realities. The present moment was eternity, and wholly satisfying. Every motion of a glistening leaf, each bird-note, every gesture of the nodding grass, each drop of spray was, of and in itself, in every detail perfect. Something breathed -- he did not know what, or want to inquire -- he was part of what breathed; and a universe, of which he was also a part, responded with infinite rhythm of color, form, sound, movement, ebb and flow, life and death, cause and effect, all one, yet infinitely individual, enwrapped in peace and wrought of magic, of which Beauty was the living, all-conceiving light.

The enchantment ceased as gradually as it had begun. He felt his mind struggling to hold it -- knew that he had seen Truth naked -- knew that nothing would ever satisfy him until he should regain that vision -- and was aware of the sirdar walking toward him, normal, matter-of-fact, abrupt, spurs clinking as his heels struck rock.

"Are you ready?" asked the sirdar.

Ommony whistled and Diana followed them along a fern-hung ledge. There was opal air beneath them; crags and tree-tops peered out of slow-moving mist that the sun was beginning to tempt upward. Presently, leaping from rock to rock, until they could hear the river laughing and shouting, sending echoes crashing through a forest that had looked like moss from higher up, they descended breathless, downward, and for ever downward, leaping wild water that gushed between worn bowlders, swinging by tree-roots around outleaning cliffs, Diana crouching as she hugged the wall along a six-inch ledge, crossing a yelling cataract by a fallen tree-trunk, whose ax-marks were the only sign that the trail was ever used before. They came at last to a bank with a cliff behind it, still more than a thousand feet above the Brahmaputra, whose thunder volleyed as if a battle were being fought for right of way through a rock- and tree-staked gorge defended by all the underworld.

Ommony threw himself down, panting, his clothes sodden with sweat and his head in a whirl from the violent exertion and the change in altitude. Every sinew in his legs was trembling separately, and his heart thumped like a steam-injector. Diana lay still at his feet. The sirdar appeared calm and not particularly out of breath; he sat down on a rock near by with an air of concentrated attention.

Presently Ommony began to feel the chill of damp earth under him. He got to his feet to look for a better place closer to the cliff, and stood for a moment craning upward trying to gauge with his eye the distance they had come from the lip of the ravine that showed at one point sharp as a pencil-line against the sky. He realized he could never find the way back if life depended on it, and guessed there must be another way than that into the Ahbor Valley, or how could men and animals find egress? He turned to speak, leaning one hand against the cliff.

"This way" said the sirdar's voice on his left hand; and before he could turn he felt himself shoved violently.

His head still singing from the strain of the descent, a vertigo still swimming through his brain, he was sure, but only dimly, that he had been pushed, then pulled through a narrow fissure in the shadowy corner of a projecting spur. He had scarcely noticed the opening -- had not observed that the lower portion of the spur was split away, like the base of a flying buttress, from the wall itself. Within, the opening turned and turned again, a man's breadth wide each shoulder against the wall, a zigzag passage driven (there were tool marks) into a granite mountain; and when he turned to look, there was nothing to see but the outline of the sirdar's head against dim light behind him.

Diana forced her way between his legs and ran ahead to explore; he could hear her hollow barking -- "All's well so far -- marvelous! mysterious! exciting!" and then the sirdar shoved him forward, saying not one word. He could not see, but felt the whirring of bats, and knew by the sound that he had stepped into a cavern. The sirdar groped and found an oil lantern with a bail. Lighting it, and swinging it until the shadows leaped like giant goblins and enormous bats streamed in panic toward the open air, he led the way to a low tunnel at the rear through which it was just possible to walk by bending nearly double.

At the end of fifty yards of that uncomfortable going, there was vastness, black as pitch, and such empty silence that the ear-drums ached. The lantern light shone into nothing and was swallowed -- ceased, except where it struck the natural, dark-granite wall and the end of the hewn tunnel. They were standing on a platform ten feet wide, from which hewn steps descended for ever and ever for all the brain could guess. The roof was utterly invisible; the space beneath it was alive with whirling bats. The air was breathable but stuffy. Sweat began to stream from every pore.

"What next?" asked Ommony.

"What next -- ot nex -- ot nex -- ot nex -- ot nex!" the echoes answered, dying away in a grumble at last somewhere in the bowels of the world.

He did not care to speak again. He tried to suppress thought, lest the echoes should learn that and multiply and mock it in the solemn hugeness of the underworld. Diana was afraid now -- crouched against his legs and howled when the sirdar started down the smooth stone steps, that looked dark-green in the lantern light.

The howl let loose the hounds of Pandemonium. A phantom pack gave tongue in full cry down the valley of hell -- pounced on their quarry leagues away -- worried it -- and vanished into silence. The sirdar laughed, and the laugh went after them, until a thousand devils seemed to mock the ghost the hounds had slain. Diana was seized with panic and had to be dragged by the collar. Ommony did not dare to speak to her for fear of the echoes. He tried whispering once, but only once; it turned into a hiss that made Diana tremble in abject misery.

The echo of their feet was bad enough. Each downward step was repeated until the darkness became full of a din like the clapping of unseen hands; the clink of the sirdar's spurs was multiplied into the jingle and clank of ghostly squadrons, and the whirring of unseen bat-wings grew into the snort of the war-horses charging line on line. It was easy enough to imagine lance and pennon, and the dead from a thousand battle-fields repeating history.

Ommony began trying to count the steps, but lost the reckoning at the sixth or seventh turn; the stairway zigzagged to and fro across the face of a wall that seemed from its smooth, yet irregular feel to have been hewn by giants from the virgin rock. And when they did at last reach bottom there appeared by the swinging lantern light to be a causeway running right and left, gray-white and firm with a million years' accumulation of the bats' excreta.

The sirdar hesitated -- took the right-hand way, and led with a swinging stride that it took all of Ommony's strength to follow. There was hardly any echo now, because the bat-dirt underfoot consumed the sound (and filled the air, too, with acrid dust), but there began to be a weird, very far-away rumbling, at first not more than a peculiar, irregular pulsation of the silence, gradually increasing until it sounded as if all the echoes in the world were hiding in the cellar of a mountain, crowding one another to find room.

A roof became vaguely visible at last. They were entering a tunnel, whose floor sloped downward. It appeared to have been originally a natural fissure in the base of a granite mountain; Titans had hewn and enlarged it, leaving buttresses six feet square of natural rock, that curved overhead until they met to support the roof. They were spaced about twenty feet apart, and every gap between was occupied by an enormous image, hewn out of the wall, resembling nothing in the world that Ommony had ever seen. Vaguely, but only vaguely, they suggested temple images of ancient Egypt. No two were alike. Due to the moving shadows, they appeared to change position as the lantern passed them, and the weird sounds that filled the tunnel suggested conversation in the language of another world.

The only remark the sirdar made of any kind was midway down the tunnel, more than a quarter of a mile from the point where its roof had first become dimly visible. He paused for a moment, seemed to hesitate whether or not to speak, then pointed upward.

"We are under the Brahmaputra."

His voice sounded muffled. The noise of the tremendous river galloping and plunging overhead absorbed all other sounds.

"How thick is the roof ?" Ommony asked. But he did not know how to pitch his voice; the words died on his lips; his own ears could not hear them.

In one place there was water; it appeared to be an artificial drain; there was a trickling, sucking sound where it disappeared through a hole in the wall into obscurity. The floor for twenty yards was built of very heavy timber spiked on to transverse beams laid in slots in the rock wall; the slots were very ancient and the timbers not a generation old, marked here and there with the print of ponies' hoofs -- which seemed to Ommony to prove one point at any rate: there must be another way out from the Ahbor Valley than that goat-path down the side of the ravine. No pony, laden or unladen, could negotiate the trail by which he and the sirdar had come.

Once they had crossed the wooden bridge the track began to rise, but the sirdar continued leading at the same speed, neither heat nor stuffiness impeding him. He swung the lantern in his right hand with an air of indifference, as if he had long ago ceased wondering at the titan labors of the men who hewed the tunnel. There was no air of haste about him; his natural speed appeared to be more than four miles an hour, just as his natural mood was silent, and his natural condition fearless, unsurprised, indifferent to circumstance.

The air began to improve at last, as they emerged into a cavern into which one shaft of sunlight shone through an opening so high overhead that its milky-whiteness, spreading and dispersing, formed a layer, below which the gloom grew solid. The sensation was of being in a grotto under water and looking upward through a cave-mouth toward the surface of the sea. One almost expected to see fish swimming across the zone of light.

The sirdar allowed Ommony to rest at last. He sat on a rock that resembled an altar, set the lantern on another, and motioned to Ommony to be seated on a third. There were seven stones, exactly similar in shape and size, arranged so as to suggest the constellation of the Pleiades(1); the seventh, which might be Merope, was surrounded by a circle of masonry, perhaps to suggest that that one is invisible to the naked eye. About and among the big stones there were hundreds of smaller ones, all of the same shape but of different sizes, arranged in no evident pattern, but nevertheless sunk into place in hollows cut deliberately in the rock floor. It looked as if whoever set them there knew a great deal more about the stars than any naked eye reveals.

As Ommony grew gradually used to the dim light the shapes of enormous carvings revealed themselves on walls so high that imagination reeled in the effort to measure them. The shape of the cavern was that of the inside of a hollow tree-trunk, broad at the base, narrowing toward the top until it vanished in impenetrable gloom somewhere above the shaft of light. The walls were all irregular, almost exactly resembling in rough outline the interior of a hollow tree; and wherever there was space a figure had been carved, half-human, ponderous, as contemplative as the Sphinx.

Wherever the eye rested long enough a figure would develop in the gloom, until the darkness appeared full of awful faces that had been there, pondering immensity, since time began.

As well as Ommony could judge, they were in the core of a hollow granite mountain. He turned to question the sirdar, but as he moved a sound like a distant trumpet blast came from above and, glancing upward, he saw a speck that might be a human being, moving on the lip of the opening through which the shaft of light came. Diana howled at the sound, but the howl was lost in the enormous space; there were no echoes.

The sirdar made no comment, but got to his feet at once and holding up the lantern examined Ommony's face for a moment intently. His expression was of exercising judgment, but he said nothing, did not even nod. His amber eyes looked hardly human in the dimness, and glowed with a reddish light behind them -- leonine, but, curiously passionless. Swinging the lantern again, he turned and led the way toward a projection outflung like a buttress from the nearest wall.

There began then an ascent that almost conquered physical endurance. Steps, whose treads, hewn from the rock, were eighteen inches high, followed the outline of the ragged walls and circled the whole huge cavern three times toward the opening through which the light poured in. There were places, but not many of them, where the way ran almost level along a ledge for fifty feet or so, and thigh muscles had a chance to rest from the agony of climbing. The only other resting places were the crowns of smooth gigantic heads that gazed for ever into vastness. There was no rail, no balustrade; the steps were nowhere more than three feet wide, with nothing on their outer edge but darkness and a terrifying certainty of what would happen if a foot slipped or if vertigo prevailed. Diana, thrusting herself between the wall and Ommony, pressed herself against him for the sake of human company, adding to the terror of the long ascents where no huge head projected to afford a sense of something solid between the wall and the abyss.

The sirdar seemed tireless. Ommony ached in every sinew of his being. Blood sang in his ears and eyes.

Thirst began to torture him. A stitch like a knife-jab gnawed under his ribs. Repeatedly he had to lie face downward on a level place, pressing both hands tightly on the stone while the whole cavern and all the silent heads seemed to whirl and whirl around him. Then Diana licked the back of his neck, and the sirdar waited twenty or thirty yards higher up, swinging the lantern as if its constant rhythmic movement were in some way necessary. He never spoke once, made no sound other than his footsteps and the clink of spurs, all the way up; but now and then he stood on the crown of a head overhanging the cavern and swung the lantern in wider sweeps, as if he were signaling to some one.

The shaft of light faded and almost disappeared before they reached the opening. Ommony was in no condition then to reckon up the hours or to guess at the height he had climbed. Not more than barely conscious, he collapsed on a smooth platform that sloped dangerously outward, his fingers trying to grip the rock and his feet continuing to climb. He felt the sirdar (or somebody) seize him by the arm-pits, heard Diana growl, and the next he knew he was lying face-upward with cool water on his lips, a cool breeze on his face, and a star-lit sky overhead. He felt Diana nosing at his hair, and knew nothing after that for several hours.

Chapter XXVIII


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