Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

We should ascend out of perversity, even as we ascend a mountain that we do not know, with the aid of guides who do know. None who sets forth on an unknown voyage stipulates that the pilot must agree with him as to the course, since manifestly that would be absurd; the pilot is presumed to know; the piloted does not know. None who climbs a mountain bargains that the guide shall keep to this or that direction; it is the business of the guide to lead. And yet, men hire guides for the Spiritual Journey, of which they know less than they know of land and sea, and stipulate that the guide shall lead them thus and so, according to their own imaginings; and instead of obeying him, they desert and denounce him should he lead them otherwise. I find this of the essence of perversity.

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

Chapter IV

"I AM ONE WHO STRIVES TO TREAD THE MIDDLE WAY"

The two Tibetans entered, the older man leading, and squatted on a mat which the younger man spread on the floor. Their manner suggested that they had accepted an invitation, instead of having gained admission by persistence; but Ommony, watching every movement in the mirror, noticed that the older man laid his hand on the seat of the chair he himself had just occupied -- which, being old, he might have done to help himself down on the mat, but, being active, he almost certainly did for another reason.

Chutter Chand sat at his desk magisterially, wiping at the gold-rimmed spectacles again, waiting for the visitors to speak first. But they were not to be tempted into that indiscretion. They sat still and were bland, while Diana came and deliberately sniffed them over. The hound seemed interested; she lay down where she could watch them both, her jowl on her paws, one ear up, and her tail moving slightly from side to side clearing a fan-shaped pattern in the dust.

The old man was a miracle of wrinkles. He resembled one of those Chinese statuettes in ivory, yellowed by time, that suggest that life is much too comical a business to be taken seriously -- much too serious a business to be cumbered with pride and possessions. He was a living paradox in a long, snuff-colored robe, the ends of which he arranged over his lap, leaving the hairy strong legs of a mountaineer uncovered. He helped himself to an enormous quantity of snuff from an old Chinese silver box, that he presently stowed away in a fold of his garment. The pungent stuff appeared to have no effect on him, although Diana, catching a whiff of it, sneezed violently and Chutter Chand followed suit.

The young man was another ivory enigma, absolutely smooth in contrast to the elder's wrinkles, and much paler. He, too, wore snuff-colored clothes. His head was wrapped in a turban of gorgeously embroidered brown silk, in contrast to the other's monkish simplicity, and the cloth of which his cloak was made seemed to be of lighter and better material than the older man's. He was remarkably good-looking -- straight-featured and calm -- placid, not apparently from self-contentment but from assurance that life holds a definite purpose and that he was being led along the narrow road. There was an air of good temper and wisdom about him, no apparent pride nor any mean humility. His eyes were blue-gray, his hands small, strong and artistic. His feet, too, were small but evidently used to walking. He was in every dimension smaller than the older man, unless mind is a dimension; they appeared to be equals in mental aroma, and they exuded that in the mysterious way of a painting by Goya y Lucientes.

"Well, what do you want?" Chutter Chand asked at last in English. It was a ridiculous language, on the face of it, to use to a Tibetan; but the older man had been using English in the outer shop, and Chutter Chand knew no Prakrit dialect.

The answer, in English devoid of any noticeable accent, was given by the older man in a voice as full of humor as his wrinkled face.

"The piece of jade," he said, unblinking, ending on a rising note that suggested there was nothing to explain, nothing to argue about, nothing to do but be reasonable. He snapped his fingers, and Diana, normally a most suspicious dog, came close to him. He ran his fingers through her hair and she laid her huge jowl on his knee. Chutter Chand crossed and uncrossed his legs restlessly.

"I haven't it," said the jeweler. "Besides -- er -- ah -- you would have to tell me your -- that is -- er -- you would have to establish first by what right you make such a demand. You understand me?"

"I have made no demand," the old man answered, smiling. His voice was sweetly reasonable; his bright old eyes twinkled. "You have asked what I want. I have told you."

"Tell me who you are," said Chutter Chand.

"My son, I am a Lama. I am one who strives to tread the Middle Way."

"Where from?"

"From desire into peace!"

"I mean, what place do you come from?"

"From the same place that the piece of jade came from, my son. From the place to which he who desires merit will return it."

"Is the jade yours?" asked Chutter Chand.

"Is the air mine? Are the stars mine?" the Lama answered, smiling as if the idea of possessing anything were a joke made by an inquiring child.

"Well; what right have you to the piece of jade?" Chutter Chand snapped back at him. He let the irritation through without intending it and smiled directly afterward in an attempt to undo the impression. But if the Lama had noticed the acerbity, he made no sign.

"None, any more than you have," came the answer in the same mild voice. "None has any right to it. I have a duty to return it to whence it came -- and a duty to you, to preserve you from impertinence, if that may be. It is not good, Chutter Chand, to meddle with knowledge before the time appointed for its understanding. He who would tread the Middle Way is patient, keeping both feet on the ground and his head no higher than humility will let it reach. Be wise -- O man of intellectual desires! Destruction is in rashness."

His fingers touched Diana's collar and twisted it around until the small brass plate, on which Ommony's name was engraved, came uppermost; but his eyes continued to look straight at Chutter Chand. It was the younger man, squatting in silence beside him, his head and body motionless, whose bright eyes took in every detail of the room, not omitting to notice the movement of the Lama's hand. Except for the eyes, his face continued perfectly expressionless.

"Well -- er -- ah -- before I answer definitely, I would like you to tell me about the jade," said Chutter Chand. "You will find me reasonable. I am not a sacriligeous person. Er -- ah -- can you -- not establish to my satisfaction that -- ah -- I would be doing rightly to -- er -- let us say, to entrust the piece of jade to you?"

"I think you know that already," said the Lama, in a voice of mild reproof, as if he were speaking to a child of whom he was rather fond. "What does your heart say, my son? It is the heart that answers wisely, if desire has been subdued. I have come a very long way --"

"Desiring the piece of jade!" sneered Chutter Chand -- regretting the sneer instantly -- driving finger-nails into the palm of his hand with impatience of himself.

"True," said the Lama. "Desire is not easy to destroy. Yet I do not desire it for myself. And for you I desire peace -- and merit. May the Lord live in your heart and guide you in the Middle Way."

The jeweler moved restlessly. The atmosphere was getting on his nerves. There was an indefinable feeling of being in the presence of superiority, which is irritating to a man of intellect.

"You mean, there will be no peace for me unless I give up the piece of jade to you?" he asked tartly.

"I think that is so," said the Lama gently.

"Well; it is not in my possession."

"But you know who has it," said the Lama, looking straight at him.

The jeweler did not answer, and the Lama's eyes beamed with intelligence. The young Tibetan moved at last and whispered in his ear. The Lama nodded almost imperceptibly, turning the dog's collar around again with leisurely fingers, whose touch seemed magically satisfying to Diana.

He looked then once, sharply, at the big brass Buddha, let his eyes rest again on the jeweler's, and went on speaking.

"What a man can not do is no weight against him. It may be the hand of Destiny, preventing him from a mistake. The deeds a man does are the fruits that are weighed in the balance and from which the seeds of future lives are saved. Peace be with you. Peace refresh you. Peace give you peace that you may multiply it, Chutter Chand."

The Lama arose and the younger man rolled up the mat. Diana jumped to her feet. Chutter Chand made an attempt to get out of his chair with dignity; but the Lama seemed to have monopolized in his own person all the dignity there was in sight, which was embarrassing.

"Er -- ah -- I appreciate the blessing. Er -- ah -- are you going? But you haven't told me what I asked about the jade -- ah -- would you care to come again? -- Perhaps --"

The Lama smiled, stroked Diana's head, bowed, so that his long skirts swung like a bronze bell and one almost expected a resonant boom to follow, and led the way out, followed by the younger man, who smiled once so suddenly and brightly that Chutter Chand's nervous irritation vanished. But it returned the moment they had gone. He jumped at the noise Ommony made pushing the brass Buddha away from the wall.

"Damn them both!" he exploded. "Sahib, I hate to be mystified! I detest to be patronized! I feel I made myself contemptible! I could not think! I could not make my brain invent the questions that I should have asked!"

"You did pretty well," said Ommony. "See 'em home, girl!"

Diana's tail went between her legs, but she did not hesitate; she trotted out of the shop -- stood still a moment on the sidewalk -- sniffed -- vanished.

"Sahib, they will send some one to loot this shop of mine! Ommonee --"

" Tut-tut! Those two didn't overlook one detail. The young one read my name on Diana's collar and whispered it to the Lama. The Lama knew I was behind the Buddha. He suspected something when he felt the chair-seat and found it warm."

"Worse and worse!" said Chutter Chand despondently. "To incur the enmity of such people is more dangerous than to tamper with my snakes!"

Chutter Chand, his brain full of western and eastern science, his suit from London and his turban from Lahore, yearned to the West for protection from eastern mystery. Ommony, all English, steeped in the Orient for twenty years, had thrown his thought eastward and was reckoning like lightning in terms of Indian thought.

"They didn't suspect my presence until after they came in here. -- Shut up, Chutter Chand! Listen to me! -- They'll have brought a man to watch outside the shop and follow any one who follows them. They can't have cautioned him about the dog, because they didn't know about the dog, and they would never suspect a dog of having enough intelligence. Their man will be still out there watching the shop-door. -- Wait here!"

He ran into the outer shop, hid behind one of the curtains at the door, and stood facing the mirror that gave him a view of the "constabeel's" back and of fifty yards of crowded street, including the sidewalk opposite. The "constabeel" appeared to be intently watching somebody, and in less than a minute Ommony picked out the individual -- tall, good-looking, boy-faced Hillman in a costume that suggested Bhutan or Sikkim -- shapeless trousers and a long robe over them, with a sort of jacket on top of that. He was trying to look innocent, which is the surest way of attracting attention; and he was so intent on watching the shop-door that passersby continually bunted into him -- whereat he seemed to find it hard to keep his temper. Ommony watched him for a minute or two, and then spoke to the policeman through the curtain.

The policeman nearly gave the game away by turning his head to listen, but spat and scratched himself to cover the mistake. Ommony repeated his instructions carefully and the policeman strolled down-street. Ommony emerged and walked slowly in the opposite direction; over the way, the Hillman began at once to follow him, suiting his pace to Ommony's. Ommony crossed the street; so did the policeman. Ommony turned and walked toward the Hillman; the policeman followed suit, approaching from the rear. Ommony came to a halt exactly in front of the Hillman, feeling dwarfed by the man's big-boned stature and aware of the handle of a long knife just emerging through a slit in a robe that reeked strongly of ghee. The policeman, nervously fingering his club, halted to the Hillman's rear, six feet away. Passers-by began to detect food for curiosity; there were searching glances and a palpable hesitation; there would have been a crowd in sixty seconds.

"Come with me," said Ommony, in Prakrit.

"Why?" asked the Hillman, staring at him, wide-eyed with surprise at being spoken to in his own tongue.

"Because if you do, no harm will come to you; and if you don't you'll go to jail."

The Hillman's hand crept instinctively toward his knife, and the policeman made ready to swing for the back of his head with a hard-wood club.

"Are you a fool, that you don't know a friend when you meet one?" asked Ommony.

"I have met enemies, and women, and one or two whom I called master, and many whom I have mastered -- but never a friend yet!" the Hillman answered. "Who art thou?"

"Come with me and learn," said Ommony.

The Hillman hesitated, but the crowd was distinctly beginning to gather now -- a little way off, not sure yet but alert for the first hint of happenings. It grew clear to the Hillman that escape might not be easy.

"I fear no man!" he said, turning his head and recognizing the policeman, who was hardly two-thirds his size. He spat eloquently for the policeman's benefit, missing him neatly by about the thickness of a knife-blade. "Whither?" he asked then, looking straight into Ommony's eyes.

Ommony led the way across the street into Chutter Chand's shop, where he halted to let the Hillman go in first.

"Nay, lead on!" said the Hillman, stepping aside.

"No. For you have a weapon and I have none. Moreover, I have said I am a friend, and I prefer to be a living friend rather than a dead one! Go in first," laughed Ommony.

The Hillman laughed back. There was none of the solemnity about him that enshrouds the men from the Northwest frontier. Eastward along the Himalayas, where the smell of sweat leaves off and the smell of rancid butter begins, laughter becomes part of life and not an insult or indignity. He swaggered into the shop with no more argument and at a nod from Ommony walked straight through to the office at the rear.

"Krishna!" exclaimed Chutter Chand. He jumped for a corner, seized a two-handed Samurai sword, drew it from the scabbard, and laid it on the desk. "I will let my snakes loose!" he almost screamed, in Hindustanee.

But the Hillman sat down on the floor, on the exact spot where the Lama had been, and Ommony sat down in the chair facing him, motioning to Chutter Chand to resume the other chair and be sensible.

"But this is the ruffian who came and threatened me!" said Chutter Chand. "That knife of his is saw-edged! Take it from him, Ommonee!"

The Hillman appeared to know no English, but seemed to have made up his mind about Ommony. Friendship he might not believe in, but he could recognize good faith. He watched Ommony's face as a child follows a motion picture.

"What is your name?" asked Ommony.

"Dawa Tsering."

"Where are you from?"

"Spiti."

"Oh, my God!" exclaimed Chutter Chand. "Does he say he is from Spiti? They are all devils who come from that country! It is there they practise polyandry, and their dead are eaten by dogs! He is unclean!"

"Who is that Lama who was in here just now?" Ommony went on.

"Tsiang Samdup."

Chutter Chand did not catch that name; or, if he did, the name meant nothing to him. Ommony, on the other hand, had to use all his power of will to suppress excitement, and even so he could not quite control himself. The Hillman noticed the change of expression.

"Aye," he said, "Tsiang Samdup is a great one."

"Who is the other who was with him -- the young one?"

"His chela [disciple]."

"What name?"

"Samding. Some call him San-fun-ho."

"And what have you to do with them?"

Instead of answering, the Hillman retorted with a question.

"What is thy name? Say it again. Ommonee? That sounds like a name with magic in it. Om mani padme hum! Who gave thee that name? Eh? Thy father had it? Who was he? How is it a man should take his father's name? Is the spirit of the father not offended? Thou art a strange one, Ommonee."

"Why did you come in here some days ago and threaten Chutter Chand? " asked Ommony.

"Why not!" said the Hillman. "Did I not ride under a te-rain, like a leech on the belly of a horse, more hours and miles than an eagle knows of? Did I not eat dust and nothing else? Did I not follow that rat Tin Lal to this place? Did I not -- pretending to admire the cobra in the window -- see him with my own eyes sell the green stone to this little lover-of-snakes? I said too much. I did too little. I should have slain them both! But I feared, because I am a stranger in the city and there were many people. Moreover, I had already slain a man -- a Hindu, who drove an iron car and broke the wheel of the cart I rode in. I slew him with a spoke from the broken wheel. And it seemed to me that if I should slay another man too soon thereafter, it might fare ill with me, since the gods grow weary of protecting a man too often. So I returned four days later, thinking the gods might have forgotten the previous affair. They owe me many favors. I have treated the gods handsomely. And when this little rat of a jeweler swore he no longer had the stone, I threatened him. I would have slain him if I thought he really had it, but it seemed to me he told the truth. And he promised to get the stone back from some one to whom he had entrusted it. And I, vowing I would sever him in halves unless he should keep faith, went and told Tsiang Samdup, who came here accordingly, I following to protect the old man. I suppose Tsiang Samdup now has the stone. Is that so?"

"He shall have it," said Ommony.

"I think thou art not a liar," said the Hillman, looking straight into Ommony's eyes. "Now, I am a liar. If I should have said that to thee, it would only be a fool who would believe me, and a fool is nothing to be patient with. But I am not a fool, and I believe thee or I would plunge this knife into thy liver! Who taught thee to speak my language?"

Ommony saw fit not to answer that. "Is it not enough for thee that I can speak it? Where can I find the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup?"

"Oh, as to that, he is not particularly holy -- although others seem to think he is; but I am from Spiti, where we study devils and consider nonsense all this talk about purity and self-abnegation and Nirvana. Who wants to go to Nirvana? What a miserable place -- just nothing! Besides, I know better. I have studied these things. It is very simple. Knife a man in the bowels, as the Goorkhas do with a kukri, or as I do as a rule, and he goes to hell for a while; he has a chance; by and by he comes to life again. Cut his throat, however, and he dwells between earth and heaven; he will come and haunt thee, having nothing else to do, and that is very bad. Hit him here --" (he laid a finger on his forehead, just above the nose) -- "and he is dead. That should only be done to men who are very bad indeed. And that is the whole secret of religion."

Ommony looked serious. "I would like to talk to you about religion --"

"Oh, I could teach you the whole of it in a very short time."

"-- but meanwhile, I would like to know where the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup is staying."

"I don't know," said the Hillman.

"You are lying," said Ommony. "Is that not so?"

"Of course. Did you think I would tell you the truth?"

"No. That hardly occurred to me. Well --"

Diana came in, waving her long tail slowly. She flopped on the floor beside Ommony and there was silence for about a minute while the Hillman stared at her and she returned the gaze with interest. Finally her lip curled, showing a prodigious yellow fang and Ommony laid a hand on her head to silence a thunderous growl.

"That is an incarnation of a devil!" said the Hillman.

"In my country we keep dogs as big as her to eat corpses. Devils, as a rule, are very evil, but I think that one --" (he nodded at the dog) "-- is worse than others. Well -- I go. Say, to that fool at the door that he should not offend me with his little stick, for it may be he desires to live. I am glad I met thee, Ommonee."

He waved his hand, smiled like a Chinese cherub, and walked out, ignoring Chutter Chand as utterly as if he had never seen him: and at the door he smiled at the policeman as the sun smiles on manure. The policeman did his best, but could not keep himself from grinning back.

Chapter V

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