Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

In this sense we are our brothers' keepers: that if we injure them we are responsible. Therefore, our duty is, so vigilantly to control ourselves that we may injure none; and for this there is no substitute; all other duties take a lower place and are dependent on it.

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

Chapter XXVIII

THE LAMA'S HOME

When Ommony recovered consciousness it was some time before he was sure he was not dreaming. There was no sense of stability. The universe appeared to sway beneath him, and the sky, when he opened his eyes at last, swung like a compass-card. He closed his eyes, heard voices, and presently discovered he was in a stretcher being borne on men's heads. When he opened his eyes again the first thing he saw was Diana looking down at him from a rock. She barked when he moved his hand.

It was a very rough stretcher made of poles and hide. His feet were loosely tied to it and a rope was passed over his breast, but he could get his hands under the rope, and its purpose was explained when the stretcher became tilted at an acute angle and he rode for a while with his feet pointed at the sky. On either hand were sloping limestone cliffs and he was being carried up a dry water-course between them.

He felt no impulse to ask questions, but was curious about his own condition. He recalled rather vividly a time, ten years ago, when he was carried to an operating room. When the stretcher returned to the horizontal and he cautiously tested each muscle, he discovered that his leg-sinews were so stiff that he could hardly bear to move them. Then he remembered; every step of the climb up that titanic stairway came back to him like a nightmare.

He craned his neck looking for the sirdar, but failed to discover him. He could not see the stretcher-bearers, but there were eight Ahbors walking behind, ready to relieve them -- hairy, savage-looking men, possessed of that air of deliberate indifference that usually hides extreme fanaticism; their eyes were large, like those of deer, and the hair came close up to their cheek-bones. They all had weapons; two were armed with bow and arrows; but no two weapons were alike, and no two were dressed exactly alike.

Presently the path began to follow the edge of a cliff five or six thousand feet above a river -- undoubtedly from its size the Brahmaputra -- that galloped and plunged among rocks in the bed of a valley on the left hand. Incredible, enormous mountains leaned against the sky in every direction, suggesting barrenness and storms, but the valley lay golden and green in the sunlight, patched with the vivid green of corn-fields, dotted with grazing cattle and with the dark-brown roofs of villages. It looked like an exceedingly rich valley, and well populated.

After a mile or two of gorgeous vistas the track turned to the right and passed between miles of tumbled ruins, whose limestone blocks, weighing tons apiece, had turned to every imaginable hue of green, gray, brown and yellow. Blue and red flowers were growing in the crevices, and trees had forced themselves between tremendous paving stones that now lay tilted with their edges to the sky. Ommony untied the rope across his breast and sat up to observe the ruins, laying both hands on his thighs to ease their aching; and presently he gasped -- forgot the agony.

The track passed between two monolithic columns more enormous than the grandest ones at Thebes, and emerged on the rim of a natural amphitheater, whose terraced sides descended for about two thousand feet to where a torrent of green and white water rushed from a cave mouth and plunged into a fissure in the limestone opposite. The air was full of the noise of water and the song of birds, intoxicating with the scent of flowers and vivid with their color.

Every terrace was a wilderness of flowers and shade trees, strewn with bowlders that broke up the regularity, and connected one with another by paths and bridges of natural limestone where streams gushed from the fern-draped rock and fell in cascades to the torrent in the midst. There was an atmosphere of sunlit peace.

Above the topmost terrace, occupying about a third of the circumference, were buildings in the Chinese style; the roofs were carved with dragons and the rear walls appeared to be built into the cliff, which rose for a thousand feet to a sheer wall of crags, whose jagged edges pierced the sky.

There were no human beings in evidence, but smoke was rising from several of the buildings, which all had an air of being lived in. The track, which was paved now with limestone tags, led under an arch in the midst of the largest building. The arch turned out to be the opening of a tunnel, twenty feet high at lowest and as many wide, that pierced the mountain for more than a hundred yards, making two sharp turns where it crossed caverns and followed natural fissures in the limestone before it emerged on the edge of a sheer ravine, overlooking another valley that appeared to approach the gorge of the Brahmaputra at an angle of nearly forty-five.

Away in the distance, like a roaring curtain, emerald green and diamond white, blown in the wind, the Tsangpo River, half a mile wide, tumbled down a precipice between two outflung spurs that looked like the legs of a seated giant. The falls were leagues away, and yet their roar came down-wind like the thunder of creation. Below them, incalculably far below the summit, the rising spray formed a dazzling rainbow; and where, below the falls, the Tsang-po became the Brahmaputra, there were rock-staked rapids more than two miles wide that threw columns of white water fifty feet in air, so that the rocks looked like leviathans at war.

The path led up the side of the ravine, curved around a projecting shoulder, and entered another tunnel, which emerged at the end of fifty yards into a natural cavern. There the bearers set the stretcher down and two of them offered to help Ommony up a long flight of steps hewn from the limestone rock. However, he managed to walk unaided and Diana followed him through a great gap in the wall into what was evidently the basement of a building.

There he was met by a brown-robed monk -- not an Ahbor, a Tibetan -- who smiled but made no remark and led him up winding stairways between thick masonry walls to a gallery that overhung the valley from a height which made the senses reel. It was the upper of two galleries that ran along the face of a building backed against a cliff; doors and small windows opened all the way along it, but the Tibetan led around the far corner, where the wooden planking came to an end at a stone platform and there was one solitary door admitting to a room about thirty feet by twenty, that had a window facing the tremendous Tsango-po Falls.

It was in all respects a comfortable room, with a fireplace at one end and a bright fire burning. On either side of the fireplace there were shelves stacked with European books in several languages. The stone floor was covered with a heavy Chinese rug. There was no glass in the window, but there were heavy shutters to exclude wind and rain, as well as silken Chinese curtains.

The monk went away and returned presently with a pitcher of milk and some peculiar cakes that tasted as if made from a mixture of flour and nut-meat, raised with butter. He signed to Ommony to eat and, when he had finished, took the pitcher and plate away again.

Ommony warmed his legs at the fire, rubbed them to reduce the stiffness, and chose a book at random -- Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; it was well thumbed. He sat down in a chair before the fire to read, regarding the book as no more incomprehensible than his own predicament and likely to keep his mind off profitless conjecture. He was too tired to think about his own problem -- too sore in every muscle to consider sleep. One fact was clear: he had been admitted to the Ahbor Valley, and there must be some reason for it. For the time being, that was enough -- that, and the comforting sense that all motion had ceased and he could sit still within four walls that shut off the stunning hugeness of the scenery. He had no geographical curiosity -- was not qualified in any event to make a map that would be of any real value, and was not sure it would be courteous to try to do it. People who don't invade other people's countries have a right to their own privacy. Besides, he was quite sure he could never retrace the way into the valley, and doubtful whether he could find a way out of it, except down that thundering river. He was absolutely at the Lama's mercy, and entirely sure the Lama was a man of superb benevolence, if nothing else.

Finding he could not make head or tail of Kant in the original German (he spent ten minutes trying to find the subject of one verb) he laid the book down and began to wonder whether this was the place in which his sister and Jack Terry had died. Time vanished. Thought took him back to the days when he had sent for his sister Elsa, then seventeen, to come to India and keep house for him. He frowned, blaming himself for having been the cause of all she suffered. They had had so much in common, and he had understood so well her craving for knowledge that is not in any of the text-books, that he had tacitly encouraged her to make acquaintances which his better judgment should have warned him to keep out of her reach. He wondered just to what extent a man is justified in guiding or obstructing a younger sister's explorations into unknown realms of thought -- knew that he himself would resent any leading-rein -- knew, nevertheless, that he felt guilty of having neglected to protect his sister until protection and precaution were too late. He had done his best then, but --

"Dammit, are we or aren't we free agents?" he asked aloud, staring at the fire; and then he heard Diana's tail beating the Chinese rug. It sounded as if the dog were laughing at him! He turned his head sharply -- and saw the Lama standing in the doorway.

"We are free -- to become agents of whatever power we wish," said the Lama, smiling. "Don't get up, my son. I know how thighs ache after a climb up the stairs of the Temple of Stars. The sirdar does not know the other entrance to the valley."

"Where is he?" asked Ommony, staring. He was not particularly interested in the sirdar. A suggestion as to who and what the Lama might be, had occurred to him suddenly. He was sparring for time to follow up that thought.

"He returned," said the Lama, sitting on a chair before the fire, betraying an inclination to tuck his legs up under him but resisting it. "The Ahbors would have killed him if he passed beyond the opening. They would have killed you -- if it were not for Diana the dog. My son, you wonder why I left you in Darjiling? There were seven reasons; of which the first is that I have no right to lead you out of your environment; and the second, that you have the right to make your own decision. The third reason was that these Ahbors guard their valley very strictly; it is their valley; they also have their rights. The fourth reason was, that an excuse must be presented to the Ahbors for admitting you. The fifth, that I alone could do that. The sixth, that I must make the excuse in advance of your coming, since they would not listen unless given time to consider the matter. And the seventh reason was, that it was fitting you should learn why this has been kept from you for twenty years, before you learn as much of the secret as I can show you. Behind each of those seven reasons are seven more beyond your comprehension. You spoke with Miss Sanburn?" Ommony nodded. Suspicion was approaching certainty. He wondered that the thought had not occurred to him long before.

"Where is the chela -- Samding -- Elsa Terry -- my niece?" he asked. There is no foretelling which emotion will come uppermost. He felt a bit humiliated. It annoyed him to think he had lived for two months in almost constant association with his sister's child and had never guessed it; annoyed him more to think that the Lama should not have trusted him from the beginning; most of all that he had not guessed the Lama's identity. He felt almost sure that he had guessed right at last. Nothing but a western dread of seeming foolish restrained him from guessing aloud.

But the Lama read his thoughts, and answered the unspoken question first in his own way, his bright old eyes twinkling amid the wrinkles.

"Those who are trustworthy, my son, eventually prove it -- always, and it is only they to whom secrets should be told. It is not enough that a man shall say, 'Lo, I am this, or I am that.' Nor is it enough that other men shall say the same of him. Some men are trustworthy in some respects, and not in others. He who trusts, and is betrayed, is answerable to his own soul. -- Do you think it would have been fair to trust you with the secret of my chela?" he asked suddenly.

Ommony side-stepped the question by asking another:

"Why do you call her San-fun-ho?"

"It is her name. It was I who gave it to her. She accepted it, when she was old enough to understand its meaning. Do you know Chinese? The word means 'Possessor of the three qualities,' but its inner meanings are many: righteousness, virtuous action, purity, benevolence, moral conduct, ingenuousness, knowledge, endurance, music -- and all the qualities that lie behind those terms."

"You think she has all of them?" Ommony asked. His voice held a hint of sarcasm. He intended that it should.

"My son, we all have them," said the Lama. "But she is the first ordinary mortal I have known, who could express them "

Ommony pricked his ears at the word "ordinary."

"You know -- you have seen the Masters?" he demanded.

The Lama blinked, but otherwise ignored the question, exactly as every one Ommony had asked, who was likely to know, always had avoided it. There is a legend about mysterious "Mahatmas,"(1) whom all the East believes in, but whom none from the West has ever met (and talked much about afterward).

"No man ever had such a chela," said the Lama, changing the subject and betraying the first hint of personal emotion Ommony had ever noticed in him.

"Are you one of the Masters?" Ommony demanded, sitting bolt upright, studying the old man's face.

But the Lama laughed, his wrinkles dancing with amusement.

"My son, that is a childish question," he said after a moment. "If a man were to tell you he is one of the Masters, he would be a liar and a boaster; because it must be evident to any one who thinks, that the more a man knows, the more surely he knows there are greater ones than himself. He is a Master, whose teaching you accept. But if he should tell you there is none superior to himself, it would be wise to look for another Master!"

But Ommony felt more sure than ever. He knew that Pythagoras, for instance, and Appolonius, and scores of others had gone to India for their teaching. For twenty years he had kept ears and eyes alert for a clue that might lead him to one of the preservers of the ancient wisdom, who are said to mingle with the crowd unrecognized and to choose to whom they will impart their secrets. He had met self-styled Gurus by the dozen -- a perfect host of more or less obvious charlatans -- some self-deceived dabblers in the occult, whose motives might be more or less respectable -- but never a one, unless this man, whose speech and conduct had appeared to him consistent with his idea of what a real Mahatma might be.

"Hannah Sanburn told me," he said slowly, "that there are individuals to whom you go for advice. Did she tell the truth?"

"She received that truth from my lips," said the Lama, nodding.

"Are they the Masters?"

"The Masters are only discoverable to those, who in former lives have earned the right to discover them," the Lama answered. "There is a Higher Law that governs these things. It is the Law of Evolution. We evolve from one state to another, life after life, being born into such surroundings as provide us with the proper opportunity. It was not by accident, my son, that San-fun-ho was brought into the Ahbor Valley to be born."

"Do the Masters live here?"

"No," said the Lama, smiling again.

"Then what is the particular advantage of the Ahbor Valley?"

"My son, I do not rule the Universe! It was not my province to arrange the stars! There is no place, no circumstance that does not have particular advantages. The Ahbor Valley is more suitable to some than to others, but I am not the one who selects those who shall come here."

"Who does?"

"There is a law that governs it, just as there is a law that rules the stars, and a law that obliges one to be born rich and another poor. When did cause begin? And when shall effect cease? Can you answer that?"

"At any rate, you were the cause of my coming here," said Ommony.

"Nay, my son! No more than I was the cause of your coming into the world. If I should have caused you to come here, I should be responsible for all the consequences; and I do not know what those might be. I have permitted you to come here. I have removed some difficulties. "

"Why?"

"Because I sought to remove other difficulties from the path of some one else, and it seemed to me possible that you might be the one who can assist. Remember: it was not I who caused you to resign your position under the Indian Government; not I who appointed you a Trustee at Tilgaun; nor I who invited you to disguise yourself as a Bhat-Brahman. Have I ever given you advice on any of those matters?"

"No," Ommony admitted. "But you have corresponded with me ever since Marmaduke died, and if your letters weren't educative, what were they?"

"Evocative!" the Lama answered. "Shall I show you the copies of all the letters I have written to you? I believe you will not find one word in them that might evoke from you anything except your higher nature, nor one word that you could twist into inducement to do this, or to do that. I have taught you nothing. You have tried to understand my letters, and have found a guiding force within yourself. I am not your guide."

"Well then -- why the interest in me?" Ommony retorted.

"My son, you are immensely interesting. You were forced on my attention. I have my work to do, and I have nearly finished it."

The old man paused, and suddenly he seemed so old and tired that all his previous exertions -- night-long rides on camel-back, two months of journeying in the heat of the Indian plains, patient control of a dramatic company, and (not least) the return across the mountains to his home -- appeared incredible. For a moment sadness seemed to overwhelm him. Then he smiled, and as if his will shone through the cloud and warmed the worn-out flesh, he threw off fifty years.

"For what purpose are we in the world?" he asked. "The purpose lies in front of each of us. It is never more than one step in advance, and whither it leads, who knows? It is the best that we can do at any moment that is required of us. A tree should grow. Water should run. A shoemaker should make shoes. A musician should make music. A teller of tales should tell them. Eyes are to see with. Ears are for hearing. Each man's own environment is his own universe, and he the master or the victim of it in exactly the degree by which he governs or is governed by himself. Could you have patience with me, if I should tell a little -- just a little of my own experience?"

"Good God!" said Ommony. "I'd rather hear it than find a fortune! Ears are to hear with!" he added, grinning, settling himself back into the chair to listen.

"Some men listen to the wrong sound," said the Lama. "It is good to listen carefully, and to speak only after much thought. I will not tell more than is required to make a certain matter clear. Thereafter, you must use your own judgment, my son."

Chapter XIX

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