Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

A certain poet, who was no fool, bade men take the cash and let the credit go. I find this good advice, albeit difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it is easier than what most men attempt. They seek to take the cash and let the debit go, and that is utterly impossible; for as we sow, we reap.


Chapter VI


Ever since the Armistice, when military glory topped the rise and started on the down-grade of a cycle, there are still worse fates than being wealthy in your own right and the wife of a colonel commanding a Lancer regiment -- even if your children have to go to Europe to be schooled, and your husband is under canvas half the time. And there are much worse fates than dining with Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, anywhere, in any circumstances. To be in a position to invite yourself to dinner at her Delhi bungalow means that, whatever your occupation, you may view life now and then from the summit, looking downward. Viceroys come and go. Mrs. Cornock-Campbell usually educates their wives.

They say she knows everything -- even why the German Crown Prince once cut short a tour of India; and that, of course, means she is no longer in the bloom of youth, and never indiscreet, for you don't learn state secrets by being young and talkative.

Ommony is one of her pet cronies, though they rarely meet (which is the way things happen in India). He looks such a blunt old-fashioned bachelor in a dinner-jacket dating from away before the war, the contrast he creates with modern artificial cynicism is so satisfying, and he so utterly lacks pose or pretense, that he brings out all her vivacity (which is apt to be chilled when imitation people assume manners for the sake of meals).

The talk, for the hour while dinner lasted, was of anything in the world but Ringding Lamas and the Ahbor country. Ommony was probed for epigrams, coined in the depths of his forest, that should make John McGregor wince and laugh -- such statements as that "You can look for faults or virtue. Vultures prefer ullage. Suit yourself. A man sees his own vices and his own virtues reflected in his neighbor -- nothing else! Another's crimes are what you yourself would commit under equally strong pressure. His virtues are greater than your own, if only because they're less obvious. The most indecent exhibition in the world is virtue without her cloak on!" Not polite exactly, (particularly not to the chief of the Secret Service), but not tainted by circumlocution. And again: "They say the fact that people work entitles them to vote. Horses work harder than men! Soap-box nonsense! The only excuse for work is that you like it, and the only honest objection to loafing is that it's bad for you."

John McGregor, in the rare hours when he is not feeling the pulse of India's restless underworld, is an addict of the Wee Free Kirk with convictions regarding the devil.

"A personal devil?" said Ommony. "I wish there was one! Hell breeds more dangerous stuff than that! If I thought there was a devil, I'd vote for him. He'd clean up politics."

John McGregor, ganglion of India's crime statistics and acquainted with all evil at first hand, was shocked, to Mrs. Cornock-Campbell's huge delight.

"Now, John! What have you to say to that?" McGregor cracked a nut nervously and sipped at his Madeira.

"He could find a host of half-baked theorists to praise him for the blasphemy," he said deliberately, "but the ultimate appalling circumstance of being damned is a high price for applause."

Ommony laughed. "I'd rather be thought damned by a man I respect than be praised by damned fools," he retorted. "We three will meet beyond the border, Mac. I'm looking forward to it. I can't see anything unpleasant in death, except the morbid business of dying. 'May there be no moaning at the bar when I put out to sea.' It looks as if I might be the first of the three of us to take that trip."

So, by a roundabout route, the conversation drifted to its goal. Over her shoulder, at the piano, in the rose and ivory music-room after dinner Mrs. Cornock-Campbell tossed the question that brought secrets to the surface.

"John says you are going to the Ahbor country."

John McGregor's eyes glowed with anticipation, but he crossed his legs and lit a cigarette, throwing himself back into the shadow of an antique chair to hide the smile.

"Going to try," said Ommony. "My sister and Fred Terry disappeared up there twenty years ago. They left no trace."

"Are you sure?"

She went on playing from Chopin and Ommony did not notice the inflection of her voice; he was listening to the piano's overtones, vaguely displeased when she closed the piano without finishing the nocturne.

"I was at Tilgaun seven months ago," she said. "Colin" (that was her husband) "had to go to Burma, so I went to Darjiling. I heard of the Marmaduke Mission, and grew curious. I wrote, and Miss Sanburn kindly invited me to come and stay with her. The most delightful place. Please pass me a cigarette."

"Did Hannah mention me?" asked Ommony.

"Indeed she did. You seem to be her beau ideal; and funnily enough she said you, and the Lama Tsiang Samdup must have been twin brothers in a former incarnation! She told me you and he have never met each other, although you are co-trustees with her under Marmaduke's will. It sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan. I didn't see the Lama, but I did meet some one else who is quite as interesting."

McGregor crossed his legs and blew smoke at the ceiling.

"How well do you know Miss Sanburn?" asked Mrs. Cornock-Campbell at the end of a minute's silence. She was watching Diana, stretched out on the bearskin, hunting gloriously in a dream-Valhalla. If she saw Ommony's face it was through the corner of one eye.

"Oh, as well as a man can ever hope to know a very unusual woman," said Ommony.

"That doesn't go deep -- does it! I admit I suspected you at first. Then I remembered how long I have known you and -- well -- you're unorthodox, and you're a rebel, but -- I couldn't imagine you leaving a child nameless."

"What on earth do you mean?" asked Ommony.

"So I suspected Marmaduke -- naturally. But all sorts of dates and circumstances turned up quite casually, which eliminated him. I was at Tilgaun a whole month before I was quite sure that Miss Sanburn is not a mother. I was almost disappointed! She is such a dear -- I admire her so much -- that it would have given me a selfish satisfaction to know such an abysmal secret, and to keep it even on a deathbed! However, the child is not hers. She calls her an adopted daughter, though I doubt that there are any legal papers. The girl is white. She's about twenty. The strangest part is this: that the girl disappears at intervals."

"This is all news to me," said Ommony. "Mac said something, but --"

"It isn't news, you iconoclast! It's a most romantic mystery. The girl was there when I arrived. She wouldn't have been; but you know what a business it is to get to Tilgaun. I was supposed to wait for ponies and servants from the mission; they didn't come, and as there was a party of rajah's people going, I traveled with them. They were in a hurry, so I reached the mission quite a number of days before I was expected, and I met the girl on the far side of the rope bridge just before you reach Tilgaun -- you remember the place? There's a low steep cliff with only a narrow passage leading out of it. She was sitting there nursing a twisted ankle -- nothing serious -- but she couldn't get away without my seeing her; and of course it never entered my head to suspect that she would want to avoid me. She told me her name was Elsa."

"That was my sister's name," remarked Ommony who had an old-fashioned way of growing sentimental when that name cropped up among intimates.

"I lent her a spare pony and she rode up to the mission with me. Jolly -- she was the jolliest girl I have ever seen, all laughter and intelligence -- with strange sudden fits of demureness -- or perhaps that isn't the right word. Freeze isn't the right word either. She would suddenly lapse into silence and her face would grow absolutely calm -- not expressionless, but calm -- like a Chinese girl's. It was as if she were two distinct and separate women. But she's white. I watched her finger-nails."

"Might be Chinese," Ommony suggested. "They're given to laughter, and their finger-nails don't show the dark lunula when they're pressed. Hannah Sanburn receives all comers at the mission."

"I am certain she is English," Mrs. Cornock-Campbell answered. "But as far as I could judge she speaks Tibetan and several dialects perfectly. Her English hasn't a trace of Chi-chi accent. She has been wonderfully educated. She has art in every fiber of her being -- plays the piano fairly well -- mostly her own compositions, and you may believe me or not, they're fit to be played by a master. And she draws perfectly, from memory. That night at supper, and afterward, she talked incessantly and kept on illustrating what she meant by drawing on sheets of paper -- wonderful things -- not caricatures -- snap-shots of people and things she had seen. Wait; I've kept some of them. Let me show you."

She found a portfolio and laid it on Ommony's lap. He turned over sheet after sheet of pencil drawings that seemed to have caught motion in the act -- yaks, camels, oxen, Tibetan men and women taken in mid-smile, old monastery doorways, flowers -- done swiftly and with humor. There was a sureness of touch that men work lifetimes to achieve; and there was a quality that almost nobody in this age has achieved -- a sort of spirit of antiquity, as simple as it was indefinable in words. It was as if the artist knew that things are never what they seem, but was translating what she saw of things' origins into modern terms that could be understood. The drawings were of yesterday, clothed in the garments of to-day and looking forward to to-morrow.

"She seemed to see right through you," Mrs. Cornock-Campbell went on. "I don't believe the smartest man in the world could fool that girl. She has the something within that men instinctively recognize and don't try to take liberties with. She seemed equally familiar with Tibetan and European thought, as well as life, and to know all the country to the northward. I gathered she had been to Lhassa, which seems incredible, but she spoke of it as if she knew the very street-stones, and you'll see there are sketches of bits of Lhassa in that portfolio -- notice the portrait of the Dalai-Lama and the sketch of the southern gate.

"And all the while the girl talked Miss Sanburn seemed as proud and as uncomfortable as a martyr at the stake! When Elsa began to talk of Lhassa I thought Miss Sanburn would burst with anxiety; you could see she was on the perpetual point of cautioning her not to be indiscreet, but she restrained herself with a forced smile that made me simply love her. I know Miss Sanburn was in agonies of terror all the time.

"When Elsa had gone to bed -- that was long after midnight -- I asked Miss Sanburn what her surname was. She hesitated for about thirty seconds, looking at me --"

"I know how she looked," said Ommony. "Like a fighting-man with a heartache. That look has often puzzled me. What did she say?"

"She said: 'Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, it was not intended you should meet Elsa. She is my adopted daughter. There are reasons --.' And of course at that I interrupted. I assured her I don't pry into people's secrets. She asked me whether I would mind not discussing what little I already knew. She said: 'I'm sorry I can't explain, but it is important that Elsa's very existence should be known to as few people as possible, especially in India.' Of course, I promised, but she agreed to a reservation that I might mention having met the girl, if anything I could say should seem likely to quiet inquisitive people. And that was a good thing, because I had no sooner returned to Delhi than John McGregor came to dinner and asked me pointedly whether I had seen any mysterious young woman at Tilgaun. I think John intended to investigate her with his staff of experts in -- what is the right word, John?"

"Worm's-eye views," said McGregor. "Not all the king's horses nor all the king's men could have called me off, as you did with a smile and a glass of Madeira. Thus are governments corrupted."

"So you're the second individual to whom I have opened my lips about it," said Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, not exactly watching Ommony, but missing none of his expression, which was of dawning comprehension.

"I'm beginning to understand about a hundred things," he said musingly. "You'd think, though, Hannah would have told me."

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell smiled at John McGregor. "Didn't you know he'd say just that! Wake up, Cottswold! This isn't church! It's because you're her closest friend that you're the last person in the world she would tell. She's a woman!"

Then there were noises in the garden and Diana left off dreaming on the bearskin to growl like an earthquake.

"An acquaintance of mine," said Ommony. "If you can endure the smell, please let him in. Or we might try the veranda."

Diana had to be forcibly suppressed. The butler, a Goanese (which means that he had oddly assorted fears, as well as a mixed ancestry and cross-bred notions of convention, that were skin-deep and as hard as onyx) had to be rebuked for near-rebellion. And Dawa Tsering, with his neck swathed in weirdly-smelling cloth, had to be given a mat to sit on, lest he spoil the carpet. It needed that setting to make plain how innocent of cleanliness his clothes were; and his reek was of underground donkey-stables, with some sort of chemical added. (There were reasons, connected with possible eavesdroppers, why the deep veranda was unsuitable.)

"And the knife, Ommonee?" he asked, squatting cross-legged, admiring the room. "Is this thy house? Thou art a rich man! I think I will be thy servant for a while. Is the woman thy wife? It is not good to be a woman's servant. Besides, I am a poor hand at obedience. Nay, return me my knife and I will go."

"Not yet," said Ommony, studying by which roundabout route it might be easiest to elicit information. He decided on the sympathetic-personal. The man's neck had plainly received attention, but the subject served.

Shall I get a doctor for your neck?"

"Nay, Tsiang Samdup made magic and put leeches on it and some stuff that burned. Lo, I recover."

"You mean the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup? The Ringding Gelong Lama? He who was at Chutter Chand's this afternoon?"

Ommony knew quite well whom he meant, but he wanted to convey the information to the others without putting the Hillman on guard. By the look in the Hillman's eye, his mood was talkative -- boastful -- a reaction from the failure of the afternoon.

"Aye, the same."

"I should have thought his chela would have attended to that."

"Samding? Nay, they say that fellow is too sacred altogether. Not that I believe it; I could cut his throat and show them he dies gurgling and whistling like any other man! But the Lama looks after him like an old wife with a young husband and the boy mayn't soil his fingers. Rebuke thy dog, Ommonee -- she eyes me like a devil in the dark. So, that is better. Ohe -- I wish I had never come southward! Yet, I have seen this house of thine. It is a wonder. It will serve to speak of, when I go back to Spiti and tell tales around the fire."

Ommony translated for the others' benefit, and went on questioning.

"I suppose you will return to Tilgaun with the Lama and his chela?"

"May the stars and my karma forbid! I go under the belly of a te-rain, as I came. To Kalka I go; and thence by foot on the old road to Simla, where I know a man who will pay me to carry goods to the rajah of Spiti. That is a long journey and a difficult. I shall be well paid."

Again Ommony translated.

"Ask him how and where he learned that trick of riding under trains," said McGregor.

"Oh, as to that," said Dawa Tsering, "there are few things simpler. In my youth" (he spoke as if he were already ancient, instead of perhaps two- or three-and-twenty) "I desired a woman of Spiti whose husband was unwise. He should have gone on a journey oftener. And he should not have returned in such haste. I wearied of his homecomings, so I lay in wait and slew him. And the rajah of Spiti, who is a jealous man -- liking to attend to all the slaying in that country, which is nevertheless too much for one individual, even if he does have an army of fifty men -- fined me three hundred rupees [about one hundred dollars]. Where should I get such a fortune? Yet, unless I paid it, I should have to join his army and gather fuel, which is as scarce in Spiti as an honest woman. So I ran away. And after wandering about the Hills a month or two, enjoying this and that adventure, I reached Simla, where I met a man with whom I gambled, he offering to teach me a new game, not knowing we use dice in Spiti. And his dice were loaded. So I substituted mine. And when I had won from him more than he could pay, he offered to teach me his profession.

"Gambling?" asked Ommony.

"Nay. I never gamble. I take no chances. I do the gods a favor now and then, since it seems from all accounts they need it, but I never trust them. That fellow told me of the te-rains that run from Kalka southward, to and fro, and of the many rupees that the passengers leave in their pockets while they sleep. He supposed I would undertake the dangerous part and thereafter share the loot with him, and he showed me how to hide under a te-rain until nightfall and then -- but it was easy. And I found out after a while where he hid the half of our profits, which he claimed as his share after I had done all the climbing in and out of windows in the dark. So I took what he had hidden, and, what with my own savings, the total amounted to more than a thousand rupees. Then I returned to Spiti, and I buried the money in a certain place, and went to the rajah and lied to, him, saying I had earned the amount of the fine as a wood-cutter but that a certain one (who was always my enemy) had stolen the money from me on the very first night that I returned. So the rajah transferred my fine to that other man, who had to pay it, and then, of course, I had to leave Spiti again -- swiftly. That other man has many friends. But I will find a way to deal with him."

"When did you first meet the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup?" Ommony asked.

"Hah! I returned to the te-rains, being minded to make a fortune, but the gods played a scurvy trick on me. I was doing nicely; but on a certain night a fool of a policeman pounced on me at an istashun [railway station] just as I was crawling in under the wheels. He dragged me out by the leg, and it was not a proper time to kill him, since there were many witnesses. So I raised a lamentation, saying I would ride to Delhi to the bedside of a friend, and that I had no fare. And lo, the Lama Tsiang Samdup stepped out of the te-rain and paid my fare, praying that I would permit him thus to acquire merit. So I rode with him to Delhi, he questioning me all the night-long and I at my wits' end to invent sufficient lies wherewith to answer him. And in Delhi I being a stranger in the city, he set out with me to help me find my friend; and, there being no friend, we naturally did not find him, whereat the Lama wept. So it seemed to me he was a man who needed some one to look after him; moreover, he was certainly a very rich man. And I had not yet thought of a way of defeating my enemy in Spiti. Restrain thy she-dog, Ommonee; I like not the look in her eye."

Ommony put Diana outside with orders to guard the front door.

"How long ago did this happen?" he asked, forcing himself to look only vaguely interested as he resumed his seat.

"Oh, maybe a year ago -- or longer. The time passes. I agreed to serve the Lama for a while, although he wearied me with his everlasting lectures about merit, and the Wheel, and the gods know what else. Also he keeps low company -- actors and singers, and such folk. When he left me at Tilgaun on his way northward I was well content to rest from him a while. He gave me money, of which he has plenty although he is much too careful with it; and there were good-looking girls at the mission, which is a marvel of a place with a high wall. But I saw how to climb the wall. So it came about that there was trouble between me and Missish-Anbun -- she who is Abbess of the place -- a bold woman, who was not afraid to stand up to me and speak her mind. Lo, I showed her my knife and she laughed at it! I speak truth. So by the time the Lama came back from the North I was a by-word and a mockery among the people of Tilgaun, who are a despicable lot but prosperous, and full of a notion that Missish-Anbun is the cause of all good fortune. And she, of course, being a woman and unmarried (which is witchcraft) told tales to the Lama about me when he returned; whereat he (the old fool!) was distressed, saying he was answerable, in that he had left me there during his absence. He spoke much about the Wheel, and merit, and responsibility. And I, who can not help liking the old fool, although I laugh at him -- and at myself for eating rebuke from him -- was ashamed. Aye, I was ashamed. He made me promise to perform acts of repentance -- as he said, to offset my own sins -- but as I think, because he had a use for me.

"And now he had Sam-ding with him, the chela, whom all men in that part regard as a reincarnation of some ancient prodigy who has been dead so long that his bones must have dissolved into powder. (But the priests tell just such tales, and who can say they are not true?)

"And there was much excitement over a piece of green stone. It had disappeared from somewhere up North, although none mentioned the name of the place whence it had come, but I had heard something, and the rest I saw. There had come a man from Ahbor to the mission, dying of a belly-wound, and if my advice had been asked he would have been left to die outside the wall, because those Ahbors are devils. I have heard they eat corpses, which is a dog's business, and I know none dares to enter their country. But Missish-Anbun is mad, and she took him into the mission, where they stitched up the belly-wound and tried to make him live. But he died, and they found the stone in his clothing, and Missish-Anbun kept it. There was much talk about the stone, for the most part nonsense; some said this, and some said that, but it was clear enough that whoever really owned the stone had set inquiries going and a rumor had been spread that there was danger in possessing it.

"I had made up my mind to steal the stone from Missish-Anbun and discover how much it might be worth to a man of some skill in bargaining; for it seemed to me there could not be much danger to me as long as I had my knife. -- Where is my knife, Ommonee? Presently? Well, don't forget to return it to me. That knife and my future are one.

"As I was saying, I was about to steal the stone. But a girl in the mission -- one whose virtue I had satisfactory reason to suspect -- forestalled me. She took the stone and ran with it toward the house of Sirdar Sirohe Singh, who is a prince of devils, and a father of lice, and no good. (He had warned me to leave Tilgaun, and I had told him who his father was.)

"And there had come a rat of a man named Tin Lal to Tilgaun, too much given to asking questions. Him I was minded to slay, because that girl, whose virtue I say was not such as others seemed to think, no longer smiled at me when I sat in the sun near the mission gate, but took more notice of Tin Lal than was seemly. Night after night I had waited for her, and it came to my ears too late that there was a reason, that concerned me, for the smile in Tin Lal's impudent eye. I whetted the edge of my knife on a stone by the image of the Lord Buddha that is set into a niche in the mission wall.

"But the girl stole the stone and ran off with it, and Tin Lal waited for her at a narrow place where the path to the sirdar's house runs between a cliff on the one hand and a deep ravine on the other -- a place where the eagles nest and there is mist ascending from the waterfall below. He pushed her into the ravine and climbed down after her, taking the stone. And then he disappeared. And Sirdar Sirohe Singh, who is a dog -- whose liver is crawling lice -- whose heart is a dead fish, accused me of the deed. There was talk of bringing me before the rajah, and there was other talk of driving me away.

"Nevertheless, I had promised the Lama I would wait for him in Tilgaun. I was not minded that my time had come. Moreover, I am one who keeps promises. So I slew the loudest talkers -- very secretly, by night; and after that there was not so much insolence toward me when I passed up and down the village.

"Ohe -- but I was weary of Tilgaun! And when the Lama came he at first believed I had slain the girl and stolen the stone. But he is not entirely a fool in all respects, and the chela Samding has more brains than a grown man with a beard down to his belly. It was the chela who said that if I had in truth stolen the stone I would certainly have run away with it and not have stayed in Tilgaun like an eagle hatching eggs. And the Lama, having listened to a million lies and discovered the truth like a bird in the mist among them, told me I might earn much merit by following the trail of Tin Lal to the southward and recovering the stone. The Lama Tsiang Samdup said to me, 'Slay not, but obtain the stone from Tin Lal and I will pay thee more for it than any other dozen men would pay.' And he named a price -- a very great price, which set me to dreaming of the girls in Spiti, and of a valley where I am minded someday to build a house.

"So I, having furthermore a grudge of my own against Tin Lal, agreed, and I followed the rat Tin Lal to Delhi, where, as I have told you, I saw him, through the shop-window where the snake is, sell the stone to Chutter Chand, the jeweler.

"But the Lama and Samding had come to Delhi likewise, and to them I told what I had seen, having lost sight of Tin Lal in the crowd. And now give me back the knife, Ommonee, that I may hunt for Tin Lal. I have an extra grudge against him. Has he not robbed me of the price the Lama would have paid me for the stone? Ohe -- my honor and my anger and his end are one! Give me the knife, Ommonee."

The Hillman smiled winningly, as one who has talked his way into a hard man's heart. He held his hand out, leaning forward as he squatted on the mat.

"Tin Lal is in the jail," said Ommony.

"Oh, is that so? That makes it easy. I will wait outside the jail. They will not keep him in there for ever."

"What is that house, where you tried to kill me this afternoon?" Ommony asked.

"A place kept by Tibetans, where the Lama stays when in Delhi. That is where the actor people come to see him."

"Why did you attack me?"

"Why not? You had said, the Lama shall have the stone. Therefore it was clear to me that you must have it. Therefore, if I should take it from you I could sell it to the Lama. I am no fool!"

Ommony, with something like contentment in his eye, began to translate for the benefit of the others as much as he could remember of Dawa Tsering's tale, tossing occasional questions to the Hillman to get him to repeat some detail. It was the company the Lama kept that seemed to interest him most.

"If you like," said McGregor, when the tale was finished, "I'll have those Tibetans searched."

Ommony was about to refuse that offer, but his words were cut short by an uproar on the porch. Diana -- on guard and therefore unable to be tempted from her post -- was barking like a battery of six-pounders. He strode into the hall and listened -- heard retreating footsteps -- some one in no hurry pap-pad-padding firmly on soft-soled shoes toward the garden gate.

He opened the door. Diana glanced angrily at a long, narrow, white envelope that lay on the porch floor under the electric light, and resumed her furious salvoes at the gate.

"So-ho, old lady -- some one you knew brought a letter, eh? You weren't indignant till he threw it down and retreated. You never said a word while he was coming up the path." He wetted his finger and tested the hot night air. "Uh-huh -- wind's toward you -- recognized his smell -- that's clear enough. All right -- good dog -- on guard again."

He picked up the envelope and walked into the house.

"Did you tell the Lama where you were coming tonight?" he asked, standing over Dawa Tsering, looking down at him.

"Aye. I did. Why not? How should I know, Ommonee, that this was not a trap -- and I with no knife to hack my way out of it! Suppose that you had thrown me in the jail -- who should then have helped me unless the Lama knew? I am no fool."

"Did you tell him I said he shall have the green stone?"

"Nay! How often must I say I am no fool! Would he buy the stone from me, after I had told him you said he shall have it?"

"The letter! The letter!" exclaimed Mrs. Cornock-Campbell. "Are you made of iron, Cottswold? How can you hold a mysterious letter in your hand without dying to know what is in it? Give it to me! Let me open it, if you won't!"

Ommony passed it to her. John McGregor lit another cigarette.

Chapter VII


Chapter VII


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