Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

It is the teaching of financiers and statesmen, and of them who make Laws, and of most religionists, that of all things a man should first seek safety -- for his own skin -- for his own money -- for his own soul. Yet I find this teaching strange; because of all the dangers in the universe, the greatest lies in self-preferment.

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

Chapter VII

"SARCASM? I WONDER IF THAT EVER PAYS."

The letter was written on the same long, ivory-colored paper as that which had reached McGregor's office in the silver tube, but this time it was not European hand writing; although the words were English. Some one more used to a brush, such as the Chinese use, and who regarded every pen-stroke as a work of art in true relation to the whole, had taken a quill pen and almost painted what he had to say, in terse strong sentences.

"To Cottswold Ommony, Esquire,

"At the house of his friend.

"May Destiny mete you full measure of mercy. The piece of jade is neither yours nor mine. By deeds in the valley of indecision a soul ascends or descends. You are one to whom reward is no inducement; to whom honor is no more than wealth a pleasing substitute for right doing. There is nothing done in this life that is not balanced by justice in the lives to come and the ultimate is peace. So do. And not by another's hand are deeds done; nor is the end accomplished without doing all that lies at the beginning. Thus the beginning is the end, and the end the beginning, as a circle having no beginning and no end, from which is no escape but by the Middle Way, which lies not yonder but at the feet of him who searches. Take the stone to Tilgaun, which is one stage of the journey to the place whence it came. From Tilgaun onward let those be responsible on whom the burden falls. There is danger in another's duty. Peace be with you. Peace give you peace that you may multiply it.

"Tsiang Samdup."

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell read the letter aloud. Not smiling, she passed it to Ommony and watched his face. He read it twice, frowning, and gave it to McGregor, who emitted his staccato, fox-bark laugh, which Diana heard and answered with one deep musical bay from the porch.

"That links him technically-tight," said McGregor, folding the letter with decisive finger-strokes and stowing it into his pocket. "Where did he learn to write such English? "

"Oxford," said Ommony. "He took D.D. and LL. D. Degrees, or so Marmaduke told me. We're not the only section of humanity that runs to Secret Service, Mac. We look for one thing, they for another. There isn't much they don't know about us, along the line that interests them.

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell looked incredulous.

"A Ringding Gelong Lama -- an English Doctor of Divinity? Wonders don't cease, do they! What could he gain by taking that degree? Amusement? Are they as subtle as all that?"

"Subtle, yes. Amusement, no," said Ommony, frowning darkly. "How spike the guns of the persistent missionary, unless they know how the guns are loaded? That's the gist of one of his letters to me. But damn the man! Why couldn't he meet me by appointment instead of writing this stuff? I've suspected him for some time of -- "

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell laughed. "He evidently knows you, Cottswold, better than you know him."

"Know him? I've never met him!" Ommony retorted. "I saw him to-day for the first time from behind a brass Buddha in Chutter Chand's shop. There've been lots of times when he ought to have met me, to talk over details in connection with the trusteeship, but it all had to be done by correspondence. He has set his signature to every paper I drew up, and he has agreed to every proposal I have made. Confound him! Why is he afraid of me? Why couldn't he come in, instead of leaving that fool letter on the door-step?"

"Wise letter!" (Mrs. Cornock-Campbell went back to the piano. None but Rimsky-Korsakof could describe her sensations.) "He evidently knows how to manage you. Do you ever bet, John? I will bet you five rupees I know what's next!"

John McGregor drew a five-rupee note from his pocket and laid it on the piano. Mrs. Cornock-Campbell began playing. Dawa Tsering, his head to one side like a bird's, watched her fingers, listening intently.

"There are devils inside the machine," he said after a while. "Give me my knife, Ommonee, and let me go. "

But Ommony, pacing the floor, both hands behind him, frowning, took no notice of any one. He was away off in a realm of conjecture of his own.

"Remember: I stand to lose five dibs!" McGregor remarked at the end of five minutes. "Suppose you put me out of agony. I'm Scots, you know!"

"Damn!" Ommony exclaimed. "Why can't he take me into his confidence? I hate to suspect a man. Pen and ink anywhere?"

"I lose," said Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, nodding toward a gilt-and-ivory writing desk against the wall. "Take back your five rupees, John. You'll find a five of mine being used as a book-mark in one of those volumes of Walter Pater on the shelf. Put something in its place."

McGregor paid himself. Ommony at the desk tore up sheet after sheet of paper, chuckled at last, and wrote a final draft. "There, that should do. That's obscure enough. That hoists him with his own petard. Why don't women ever have clean blotting-paper?"

He showed what he had written to McGregor, who read it aloud, Mrs. Cornock-Campbell playing very softly while she listened.

"To the holy Lama Tsiang Samdup,

in the place where he has chosen to secrete himself.

"I will take the Middle Way if I can find it, and I hope neither of us may get lost. I wish you all success.

"Cottswold Ommony."

"Sarcasm?" said Mrs. Cornock-Campbell. " I wonder if that ever pays?"

"We'll see!"

Ommony sealed up the envelope, on which he had written simply "Tsiang Samdup," and stood over Dawa Tsering.

"Take this letter to the Lama. Come back here with proof you have delivered it, and you shall have your knife."

"Send him in my dog-cart," McGregor advised. "My sais [coachman] is one of those rare birds who do as they're told. He doesn't talk or ask questions."

So Dawa Tsering was seen on to the back seat of the dog-cart, with a horse-blanket under him to keep grease off the cushion, and the conference was resumed. McGregor questioned Ommony narrowly concerning the events of the afternoon, and particularly as to the exact location of the courtyard where the attack had taken place.

"It doesn't look to me as if they meant to kill you," he said at last. "It seems to me they were hell-bent on merely driving you away. Um-tiddley-um-tum-tum -- we've made a mess of this -- we should have had that building watched. Katherine, I will bet these ten rupees that our friend from Spiti draws blank."

"Men are unintuitive creatures," Mrs. Cornock-Campbell answered. "No, John, I won't bet. The obvious thing was to take the Lama at his word and go straight to Tilgaun. I supposed Cottswold would see that, but he didn't -- did you? What is the objection?"

"This," said Ommony, pausing, looking obstinate, "he is either my friend, or he isn't. He has every reason to be frank with me. He has chosen the other line. All right."

"All wrong!" she answered, chuckling. "In that letter, in his own way, he invited you to trust him."

"I don't!" remarked Ommony, shutting his jaws with a snap that could be heard across the room.

He refused to explain himself. He was not quite sure he could have done that, but had no inclination to try. If he had opened his lips it would have been to invite McGregor to throw a plain-clothes cordon around that house at the end of the courtyard, search the place and expose its secrets.

Habitual self-control alone prevented that. Twenty years of living courteously in a conquered country, making full allowance for the feelings of those who must look to him for justice, had bred a restraint that ill-temper could not overthrow. But he did not dare to let himself speak just then. He preferred to be rude -- took up a book and began reading.

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell went on playing. John McGregor smoked in silence, pulling out the Lama's letter, reading it over and over, trying to discover hidden meanings. So more than an hour went by with hardly a word spoken, and it was long after midnight when the wheels of McGregor's returning dog-cart skidded on the loose gravel of the drive at the rear of the house and Diana awoke on the porch to tell the moon about it.

Dawa Tsering was admitted through the back door and shepherded in by the butler, who held his nose, but who was not otherwise so lacking in appreciation as to shut the door tight when he left the room. Ommony strode to the door, opened it wide, looked into the frightened eyes of the Goanese and watched him until he disappeared through a swinging door at the end of the passage.

"Now" he said, shutting the door tight behind him.

"The Lama is gone!" Dawa Tsering announced dramatically. "If I had had my knife I would have slain the impudent devil who gave me the news! Tripe out of the belly of a pig is his countenance! Eggs are his eyes! He is a ragyaba. (1) The son of evil pretended not to know me! When I offered him the letter for the Lama he growled that Tsiang Samdup and his chela had gone elsewhere. When I bade him let me in, that I might see for myself, he answered ignorantly."

"Ignorantly? How do you mean?"

"He struck me with a bucket, of which the contents were garbage unsuitable to a man of my distinction. So I crowned him with the bucket -- thus -- not gently -- and his head went through the bottom of the thing, so that, as it were, he wore a helmet full of smells and could no longer see. So then I smote him in the belly with my fist -- thus -- and with my foot -- thus -- as he fell. And then I came away. And there is the letter. Smell it. Behold the dirt on it, in proof I lie not. Now give me my knife, Ommonee."

Ommony went into the hall and produced the "knife" from behind the hat-rack. Dawa Tsering thumbed the edge of the blade lovingly before thrusting the weapon into its leather scabbard inside his shirt.

"Now I am a man again," he said devoutly. "They would better avoid me with their buckets full of filth!"

Ommony studied him in silence for a moment. "Did you ever have a bath?" he asked curiously.

"Aye. Tsiang Samdup and his chela made me take one whenever they happened to think fit. That is how I know they are not especially holy. There is something heretical about them that I do not understand."

"I am worse than they," said Ommony.

"No doubt. They have their good points."

"I have none! You must wash yourself as often as I tell you, and I shall give the order oftener than they did. From now on, you are my servant."

"But who says so?"

"I do."

"You desire me?"

"No, because I already have you. I can dispose of you as I see fit," said Ommony. "I can send you to the jail for killings and for train-robberies, and for trying to murder me this afternoon. Or I can bid you work out the score in other ways."

"That is true, more or less. Yes, there is something in what you say, Ommonee."

"It is not more or less true. It is quite true.

"How so? Have I not my knife? Would you like to fight me? I can slay that she-dog of thine as easily as I can lay thy bowels on the floor."

"No," said Ommony, "no honorable man could do that to his master. Are you not an honorable man?"

"None more so!"

"And I am your master, so that settles it."

Dawa Tsering looked puzzled; there was something in the reasoning that escaped him. But it is what men do not understand that binds them to others' chariot wheels.

"Well -- I do not wish to return to Spiti -- yet," he said reflectively. "But about the bath -- how often? Besides, it is contrary to my religion, now I come to think of it."

"Change your religion, then. Now no more argument. Which way has the Lama gone?"

"Oh, as to that -- I suppose I could discover that. How much will you pay me?"

"Thirty rupees a month, clean clothing, two blankets and your food."

"That is almost no pay at all," said Dawa Tsering. "To make a profit at that rate, I should have to eat so much that my belly would be at risk of bursting. There is discomfort in so much eating."

"They would give you enough to eat and no more, without money, in the jail," said Ommony, "and you would have to obey a Babu, and be shaved by a contractor, and make mats without reward. And if you were very well behaved, they would let you rake the head-jemadar's garden. Moreover, Tin Lal, who is also in the jail, would mock you at no risk to himself, since you would have no knife; and because he is clever and malignant he would constantly get you into trouble, laughing when you were punished. And since he is only in the jail for a short time, and you would be in for a long time, there would be no remedy. However, suit yourself."

"You are a hard man, Ommonee!"

"I am. I have warned you."

"Oh, well: I suppose it is better so. A soft knife is quickly dulled, and men are the same way. Yielding men are not dependable. Pay me a month's wages in advance, and to-morrow we will buy the blankets."

But beginnings are beginnings. A foundation not well laid destroys the whole edifice.

"From now on until I set you free, your desires are nothing," Ommony said sternly. "You consider my needs and my convenience. When I have time to consider yours, it will remain to be seen whether I forget or not. Go and wait on the porch. Try to make friends with the dog; she can teach you a lot you must learn in one way or another. If the dog permits you leisure for thought, try to imagine which way the Lama may have gone."

Dawa Tsering went out through the hall, too impressed by the novelty of the situation even to mutter to himself. Ommony went to the window and said two or three words to Diana, whose long tail beat responsively on the teak boards. Presently came the sound of Dawa Tsering's voice:

"O thou: my time has not come to be eaten.(2) Have wisdom!"

A low rumbling growl announced that Diana was considering the situation, keeping Ommony's command in mind.

"I have no doubt thou art a very evil devil!"

Again the growl, followed by a thump and the shuffling sound of Dawa Tsering squatting himself on the porch.

"So -- thus. We will see whether Ommonee knows what he is doing. Attack me, and die, thou mother of fangs and thunder! Then I will know it is not my karma to obey this Ommonee. Lie still, thou earthquake, and I will --"

His voice dropped to a murmur and died away. Thoughts too obscure for expression seemed to have riveted his whole attention. Ommony, peering through the shutter slats, could see him sitting almost within arm's reach of the dog, staring straight in front of him at the stars on the north horizon. He turned to Mrs. Cornock-Campbell:

"And now I'll go away and let you sleep. When we come to your house, Mac and I invariably forget manners and stay into the wee small hours --"

But at a sign from her he sat down again. She closed the piano and locked it. "Cottswold," she said, "tell me what you have in mind. You have said too much or too little."

"I have told all I know -- that is that I care to tell, even to you," Ommony answered. "I suppose, as a matter of fact, I'm a bit piqued. That Lama has had scores of opportunities to realize that I wouldn't betray confidences. I am told I'm notorious for refusing to tell the government what I know about individuals; and the Lama is perfectly aware of that. I've risked my job fifty times by insisting on holding my tongue. Am I right, Mac?"

"You are!" McGregor answered with a dry smile. "I remember, I once considered it my duty to advise threatening you with drastic penalties. I would have ordered you tortured, but for the cir-r-cumstance that that means of inducement is out of date. And besides, I had ma doots of its efficacy in your instance."

Ommony grinned. He preferred that praise to all the orders in the almanac. "So, damn the Lama!" he went on fervently. "He has kept aloof for twenty years. I'm satisfied there's something he's deliberately keeping from me. I've no notion what it is, but that piece of jade is probably connected with it. I'm going to track him -- tempt him -- force his hand."

"Are you sure you've no notion what he's keeping from you?" Mrs. Cornock-Campbell asked; and Ommony stared hard at her, while McGregor blew smoke at the ceiling.

"Perhaps I have a sort of notion -- yes," he answered slowly. "Sometimes I suspect he knows what took Fred Terry and my sister to the Ahbor country."

"And?"

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell studied him with dark blue eyes that seemed to search for something lacking in his mental make-up.

"He may know what became of them."

Mrs. Cornock-Campbell smiled and sighed. "Well -- we three will meet again before you go, I suppose?"

"No," said Ommony. "I expect to be gone before daybreak. I'll write when I get the chance. If we don't meet again this side of Yama's (3) Bar --"

"This is India -- it might happen," she answered. "Your friendship has been one of five things that have made my life in India worth while."

"Oh, nonsense," he said gruffly. The least trace of sentiment frightened him.

"I'm glad I've helped," she went on. "It's a privilege to have friends like you and John McGregor, who don't imagine they're in love when you share their confidences! Good night. I don't believe you're going to your doom. I think I'd know it if you were."

"Doom? There isn't any! There's only a reshuffling of the cards," said Ommony. "Good night."

FOOTNOTES:

1. Ragyabas are the lowest dregs of Tibetan society, who live on the outskirts of towns and dispose of the dead. When used, as in this case, as an adjective, the word has significance too horrible to be translated. The man was, of course, not a ragyaba. (return to text)

2. Referring of course, to the Tibetan custom of throwing out the dead to be devoured by dogs. (return to text)

3. Yama (pronounced yum) is the name of the god, in the Hindu pantheon, who judges the souls of the dead. (return to text)

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