Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

He who puts his hand into the fire knows what he may expect. Nor may the fire be blamed.

He who intrudes on a neighbor may receive what he does not expect. Nor may the neighbor be blamed.

The fire will not be harmed; but the neighbor may be. And every deed of every kind bears corresponding consequences to the doer. You may spend a thousand lives repaying wrong done to a neighbor.

Therefore, of the two indiscretions prefer thrusting your own hand into the fire.

But there is a Middle Way, which avoids all trespassing.

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

Chapter V

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE PASSAGE

Chutter Chand's usefulness had vanished. His brain did not function now that fear had the upper hand. He could think of nothing but the Hillman's knife and of the possibility that there might be more Hillmen, who would knock down the policeman at the door, storm the shop, loot everything and slay.

"I tell you, Ommonee, you have only lived in India twenty years. You do not know these people!"

He began hurriedly putting in order a mechanical system of wire and weights by which the snakes might be released in an emergency, all the while complaining bitterly against a government whose laws forbade the keeping of firearms by responsible, reputable, law-abiding citizens.

Ommony laughed and walked out with both fists in his pockets, preceded by Diana, who was a lady of one idea at a time, and that one next door to an obsession. She had "seen 'em home." Ergo, she should now show Ommony where "home" was, and he was quite satisfied to follow her. To have tracked Dawa Tsering the Hillman would simply have been [a] waste of time, for the man would soon see he was followed and would almost certainly play a great game of follow-my-leader all over town. Moreover, the very name of the Lama -- Tsiang Samdup -- had excited Ommony in the sort of way that news of an ancient tomb excites an archeologist.

It was well on toward evening -- that quarter-of-an-hour when the streets are most densely thronged and every one seems in a hurry to get home or to get something done before starting homeward. All cities are alike in that respect; there is a spate before the slack of supper-time and temple services.

The hound threaded her way patiently through the crowd and turned down a narrow thoroughfare past fruit and vegetable shops, where chafferers were arguing to cheapen produce at the day's end and all the races of the Punjab seemed to be mixed in tired confusion -- faded and ill-tempered because the evening breeze had not yet come, and walls were giving off the oven-heat they had stored up during the day.

There was no especial need to take precautions. Sufficient time had elapsed since the Lama and his young companion left the Chandni Chowk to convince them they had not been followed; and in any case, the most ill-advised thing Ommony could have done would have been to act secretively. A man attracts the least attention if he goes straight forward.

Those who noticed him at all admired, or feared, the dog, and she paid no attention even to the mongrels of her own genus, who snarled from a respectable distance or fled down alleyways. Diana turned at last down suffocating passages that led one into another between blind walls, where death might overtake a man without causing a stir a dozen yards away. But if you think of death in India, you die. To live, you must think of living, and be interested.

One of the passages opened at last into a square, whose walls were built of blocks that had been quarried from the ancient city; (for cities surrender themselves to posterity, even as human mothers do). The paving was of the same material, still bearing traces of the ancient carving, but rearranged at random so that the pattern was all gone. At the end of the courtyard was a stone building of three stories, whose upper windows overlooked it. (Those below had been bricked up.) There was an open door in the wall, that led into a long arched passage in which other doors to right and left were visible. Diana ran straight to the open door, and stopped.

Ommony began to feel now like a sailor on a lee shore, with rocks ahead and pirates to windward. It was growing dark, for one thing. At any moment the Hillman with the saw-edged knife and the haphazard notions about death might approach down the passage from the rear. Forward lay unknown territory, and a buttery smell that more than hinted at the presence of northerners, whose notions of hospitality might be less than none at all. He could be seen through the window-shutters, but could not see in through them. And he had in his pocket the lump of jade, that had lured men all the way from beyond Tilgaun into the hot plains that they hate. He wished he had left the jade somewhere.

It was the sound of a footstep some distance behind, that might be the Hillman's, which decided him. He strode forward and entered the door, his footsteps echoing under the arch. Diana followed, growling; she seemed to have a feeling they were being watched.

The passage presently turned to right and left in darkness, and Ommony, as he paused to consider, became acutely conscious that his trespass was not only rash, but impudent. He had no vestige of right to intrude himself into the quarters of strangers, nor had he the excuse that he did not know what he was doing. A tourist might commit such an impertinence and be forgiven on the ground of ignorance, but if he should be knifed for ill-manners he would not be entitled to the slightest sympathy. He decided at once to retrace his steps; and as he turned to face the dim light in the doorway a voice spoke to him in English suddenly, making his skin creep.

Diana barked savagely at a small iron grating in a door to one side of the passage, filling the arch with echoes. It took him several seconds to get the dog quiet. Then the voice again:

"Go away from here! Go away quickly!"

It sounded like a boy's voice -- young -- educated. It was not pitched high; there was no note of excitement -- hardly any emphasis. Diana barked again furiously, and there was no time for hesitation; either he was in danger or he was not; the hound said, Yes; the boy's voice implied it; curiosity said, Stay! Common sense said, Make for the open quickly! Intuition said, Jump! and intuition is a despot whom it is not wise to disobey.

He reached the courtyard neck and neck with Diana, who nearly knocked him over as she faced about savagely with every hair bristling, fangs bared, eyes aglare. He seized her by collar and tail and threw his weight backward to stop her from springing at the throat of a man in dingy gray, who paused in mid-stride, one hand behind him, in the doorway. There was another man behind him, dimly outlined in the gloom. Their faces, high-cheek-boned and fanatical -- almost Chinese -- were fiercely confident, and why they paused was not self-evident; for the man who held a hand behind his back was armed, and with something heavy, as the angle of his shoulder proved.

Diana saved that second. Her animal instinct was quicker than Ommony's eye, that read anticipation in the faces in front of him. She nearly knocked Ommony over again as she reversed the direction of effort, broke the collar-hold and sprang past him, burying her fangs in something (Ommony knew that gurgling, smothered growl). She had knocked him sidewise and he spun to regain his balance while a ten-pound tulwar split the whistling air where his back had been. He was just in time to seize the wrist that swung the weapon -- seize it with both hands and wrench it forward in the direction of effort. The saw-edged tulwar clattered on the paving-blocks, but the enemy did not fall, for Diana had him by the throat and was wrenching in the opposite direction. It was Dawa Tsering!

The Hillman's hands groped for the hound's forelegs; to wrench those apart was his only chance, unless Ommony could save him. A spring tiger-trap was more likely to let go than Diana with a throat-hold. Ommony took the only chance in sight; he yelled "Guard!" to Diana, and crashed his fist into the Hillman's jaw, knocking him flat on his back as Diana let up for a fraction of a second to see what the new danger might be. He seized her by the tail then and dragged her off before she could rush in to worry her fallen foe.

Her turn again! Struggling to free herself, she dragged Ommony in a half-circle, nearly pulling him off his feet as the man in the doorway lunged with a long old-fashioned sword. The third man seemed to prefer discretion, for he still lurked in the shadow, but the man with the sword came on, using both hands now and raising the sword above his head for a swipe that should finish the business.

There was nothing for it but to let Diana go. Ommony yelled "Guard!" again, and jumped for the saw-edged tulwar that had clattered away into the shadow. His foot struck it and he stooped for it as the swordsman swung. The blow missed. Diana seized the foe from behind and ripped away yards of his long cloak. Dawa Tsering struggled to his feet, more stunned by the blow on the back of his head when he fell than mangled by Diana's jaws; he staggered and seemed to have no sense of direction yet.

And now Ommony had the tulwar. He was no swordsman, but neither was his antagonist, who was furthermore worried by Diana from the rear.

"Guard, girl!" Ommony yelled at her, and discipline overcame instinct. She began to keep her distance, rushing in to scare the man and scooting out of reach when he turned to use his weapon. The third man possibly had no sword, for he still lurked in the doorway. Ommony ran, calling Diana, who came bounding after him, turning at every third stride or so to bark thunderous defiance.

The strange thing was that no crowd had come. The walls had echoed Diana's barks and Ommony's sharp yells to her, that must have sounded like the din of battle in the stone-walled silence. It was almost pitch-dark now, and there were no lights from the upper windows, although the glow of street-lights was already visible like an aura against the sky. The whole affair began to seem like a dream, and Ommony felt his hip pocket to make sure the jade was still there.

He paused in the throat of the narrow passage by which he had come, sent the hound in ahead of him, and turned to see if he was followed. He heard footsteps, and waited. In that narrow space, with Diana to guard his back, he felt he could protect himself with the tulwar against all-comers.

But it was only one man -- Dawa Tsering -- holding a cloth to his throat and walking unsteadily.

"Give me back my weapon, Ommonee!"

The words, spoken in Prakrit, were intelligible enough but gurgled, as if his throat was choked and hardly functioning. Diana tried to rush at him, but Ommony squeezed her to the wall and grabbed her collar.

"Down!" he ordered, and she crouched at his feet, growling.

"Aye, hold her! I have had enough of that incarnated devil. Give me my knife, Ommonee!"

"You call this butcher's ax a knife? You rascal, it's not a minute since you tried to kill me with it!"

"Aye, but that is nothing. I missed. If you were dead, you might complain. Give me the knife and be off!"

Ommony laughed. "You propose to have another crack at me, eh?"

"Not I! Those Lamas are a lousy gang! They told me I could come to no harm if I obeyed them and said my prayers! Their magic is useless. That she-devil of thine has torn my throat out! I doubt if I shall ever sing again. Give me the knife, and I will go back to the Hills. I wish I had never left Spiti!"

"I told you I am a friend," said Ommony, speering about in his mind for a clue as to how to carry on.

"Aye. I wish I had believed you. Give me the knife."

"Do you know your way around Delhi?"

"No. May devils befoul the city! That is, I know a little. I can find my way to the te-rain."

Ommony felt in his pocket, found an envelope, and penciled an address on it in bold printed characters.

"Midway between ten and eleven o'clock to-night, go out into the streets and get into the first gharri [carriage].

Give that to the driver. If the driver can't read it, show it to passersby until you find some one who can. Then drive straight to that address, and I will pay the gharriwallah [cab-driver]. If your throat needs doctoring, it shall have it.

"And my knife?"

"I will return it to you to-night, at that address."

"All right. I will come there."

"I suppose, if I had given you the knife back now, you would have killed me with it?"

"Maybe. But you are no fool, Ommonee! You had better go quickly, before those Lamas find some way of making trouble for you."

Ommony accepted that advice, although he did not believe that, if they really were Lamas, they would go out of their way to make trouble for any one outside their own country. It is one thing to attack an intruder; quite another thing to follow a man through the streets and murder him. He was glad he had hurt nobody. Dawa Tsering's hurt was plainly not serious. There is no satisfaction whatever in violence (if it can possibly be avoided) to a man of Ommony's temperament. He walked in a hurry along the narrow, winding passageways and found the street again, bought food for Diana, gave her the package to carry (for she was temperamentally dangerous in a crowd after having used her jaws in action, unless given something definite to do), and after fifteen minutes' search found a gharri, in which he drove to McGregor's office. McGregor was not there, so he pursued him to his bungalow, where he fed Diana and examined curios for fifteen minutes before deciding what to say.

McGregor understood that perfectly. He might not know Ommony as he knew files, the law of probabilities, and criminal statistics; he might, from deep experience, mistrust his own opinion; but he did know that when Ommony poked around in that way, picking up things and replacing them, it was wise to wait and not ask questions. He smoked and watched his servant putting studs into a clean dress-shirt.

"Have you one man you can absolutely bet on, who could take a package to Tilgaun and could be trusted not to monkey with it on the way, or lose it, or let it get stolen?" he asked at last.

"Number 17 -- Aaron Macauley, the Eurasian, is leaving for Simla on to-night's train. He would probably want to spend a day or two in Simla, but he could go on to Tilgaun after that. He's quite dependable."

"Yes. I'd trust Aaron Macauley. I want a small box, stout paper, string and sealing-wax."

McGregor produced them and watched Ommony wrap up the piece of jade and seal it with his own old-fashioned signet-ring. He addressed the package to Miss Hannah Sanburn at the Tilgaun Mission.

"Better tell Macauley it contains bank-notes," said Ommony. "That'll give him a sense of importance and keep him from being too curious. Tell him to ask Miss Sanburn to keep the package there for me until I come.

"All right. Now what's the theory?"

"Nothing much. I was attacked just now -- not serious. The man who got the worst of it will join us after dinner. I'll give you all the grizzly details then. Might possibly surprise you. See you again at Mrs. Cornock-Campbell's."

"Who is a fountain of surprises," said McGregor, smiling. "Meanwhile, how about protection? Do you want a body-guard?" It was not exactly clear why he was smiling.

"No," said Ommony, looking contemplatively at Diana, who appeared to have fallen asleep on a Bokhara rug, "I've got a more than usually good one, thanks. Observe."

He started on tiptoe for the door. Diana reached it several strides ahead of him and slipped out first, to sniff the wind and make sure that the shadows held no lurking enemy.

"If men were as faithful as dogs," he began. But McGregor laughed:

"They're not. Faith, very largely, is absence of intelligence. Intelligence has to be trained to be honest; it has no morals otherwise. Without a good Scots grounding in religion, the greater the intelligence the worse the crook."

"Oh, rot!" said Ommony, and walked out, leaving McGregor chuckling.

Chapter VI

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