Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley by Talbot Mundy

When the actor, having thrown aside the costume and the wig, departs -- is he a villain? Shall we take, stones and murder him because for our amusement he enacted villainy? If he should act death in the play because decency demands that, do we therefore burn him afterward and curse his memory? And is his wife a widow? And is life not like the play? The gods who watch the drama know, that somebody must play the villain's part, and somebody the pauper's. They reward men for the acting. He who acts a poor part well receives for his reward a more important part when his turn shall come to be born again into the world. He, therefore, who is wise plays pauper, king or villain with the gods in mind.

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

Chapter IX

"GUPTA RAO"

Dawn came and no Dawa Tsering. Pale light through cobwebbed windows drove the dark into corners and consumed it, until the devil-mask on the wall over Ommony's head grinned like a living thing and the street noises began, announcing that Delhi was awake. Diana stirred and sniffed, mistrusting her surroundings, but patient so long as Ommony was satisfied to be there. Benjamin shuffled away to the stairs. The daughter came, fussily, fatly hospitable, with chota hazri [early breakfast] on the brass Benares tray -- fruit, tea, biscuits, and a smile that would have won the confidence of Pharaoh, Ruler of the Nile.

But Ommony's heart had turned harder than Pharaoh's ever did. He could hardly force himself to be civil. He drank the tea and ate the fruit because he needed it, unconscious now of any ritual of friendship in the act, answering polite inquiries with blunt monosyllables, his mind and memory working furiously, independently of any efforts at conversation. His face was a mask, and a dull one at that, with no smile on it. The iron in him had absolute charge.

He was not by any means the sort of man who flatters himself.

"You damned, deluded fool!" he muttered pitilessly, and Diana opened one eye wide, awaiting action.

He blamed himself, as mercilessly as he always had been merciful to others, for having acted as the Lama Tsiang Samdup's foil for twenty years. Above all things he despised a smug fool, and he called himself just that. He should have suspected the Lama long ago. He should have seen through Benjamin. He had believed his trusteeship of the Tilgaun Mission was a clean and selfless contribution to the world's need. Why hadn't he resigned then from his government job long ago to devote his whole career to the trust he had undertaken? If he had done that, he knew no Lama could have hoodwinked him. No little girls would have been smuggled then into the unknown by way of Tilgaun.

The self-accusation case-hardened him. He set his teeth, and almost physically reached out for the weapons of alertness, patience, persistence, cunning, with which he might redeem the situation. For redeem it he surely would, or else perish in the attempt. Exposure too soon would do no good. He needed full proof. And he cared less to punish the offenders than to rescue the children who had been carried off, and to make anything of the sort impossible in future, wondering, as he considered that, what any one would be able to do for girls in their predicament. The early years are the most impressionable; their characters would have been undermined. And then a worse thought; was Benjamin the only agent? There might be a regular market for European girls in that unknown corner of the earth, with secret agents supplying it from a dozen sources. If so, he felt and accepted his full share of responsibility. Who else could share it with him? Only Hannah Sanburn. She, too, had shielded the Lama and, if ignorant of what was going on, might at least have suspected.

And thoughts of Hannah Sanburn did not give comfort. He remembered now a dozen incidents that should have made him suspect her years ago. That look in her eyes, for instance, and her nervousness whenever he had urged her to bring about a meeting between the Lama and himself. He recalled now how carefully she had always shepherded him through the mission, under pretext of observing the proprieties; she had never given him a chance to talk alone with any of the mission girls, and like a fool he had believed she did that to prevent the very suggestion of scandal from finding an excuse. He had admired her for it. But there was that room (or was it two rooms) near her own quarters that she had always kept locked, and that he had not cared to ask to inspect, because she said she kept her personal belongings in there.

And now this story, told by Mrs. Cornock-Campbell, a witness as trustworthy as daybreak, of a white girl named Elsa, who spoke English and Tibetan, who had been to Lhassa, and who could draw -- for he had seen the drawings -- as masterfully as Michael Angelo. And Hannah Sanburn's plea for secrecy. And the fact that McGregor had had suspicions.

Marmaduke might not have been the father of this strange girl, but that did not preclude the possibility of Hannah Sanburn being the mother. It seemed likely -- more than likely -- that the Lama possessed knowledge which enabled him to blackmail Hannah Sanburn; it was easy enough to understand how that well-bred New England woman would fight to preserve her good name, and how, if the Lama had once tempted her into one false position, she could be terrified from bad to worse. There is more deliberate blackmail in the world than most of its indirect victims suspect.

Nevertheless, Ommony wondered that Hannah Sanburn should not have confided in himself. She might have known he would have shielded her and helped her to redeem the situation. She had had dozens of proofs of his friendship. He smiled rather grimly as he thought to what lengths he would have gone to shield and befriend Hannah Sanburn -- and yet more grimly -- cynically -- as it dawned on him to what lengths he might now have to go. Friendship is friendship -- unto death if need be.

Benjamin returned; and an hour's thought had had its effect on him too. His assistants came, and he chased them out on hurriedly invented errands, barring the shop door behind them.

"I have sent for Maitraya," he announced, stroking his beard, watching Ommony sidewise. He seemed to be not quite sure that Ommony might not have changed his mind with daylight.

"All right. Hunt me out a costume."

Ommony stepped off the pile of blankets and began to strip himself. Benjamin's swift fingers sought and plucked along the shelves, selecting this and that until a little heap of clothing lay ready on a table, Ommony saying nothing but observing almost savagely, like a caged man watching his meal prepared.

"There, that is perfect," said Benjamin at last. "A dude -- a dandy, such as actors are -- aping the high caste too educated to submit to inferiority -- a little of this, a little of that -- fashionable -- tolerated -- half-philosopher, half-mountebank --"

Stark-naked, Ommony confronted him, and Benjamin betrayed the naked fear that has nothing to do with physical consequences. Ommony looked straight into his eyes and analyzed it, as he had done fifteen years ago when he protected Benjamin against accusers.

"All right, Benjamin. I'll trust you this once more. But no flinching. See it through."

He dressed himself, Benjamin watching alertly for the least mistake, but that was an art in which no man in the world could give Ommony instruction; he knew costumes as some enthusiasts know postage stamps, and he bound on the cream-colored silk turban without a glance in the mirror that Benjamin held for him.

"I'll need an old trunk now, and three or four changes," he said abruptly. "No, cow-hide won't do -- no, there's glue in that imported thing -- observe caste prejudices, even if I'm supposed to have none -- basketwork's the stuff. That's it. Throw me in a trousseau."

He began to pace the floor, adjusting himself to the costume, finding it not difficult; his natural, sturdy gait learned in forest lanes with a gun under his arm, suggested independence and alertness without a hint of drill, which is the secret of self-assurance; add good manners to that and an intimate knowledge; there is not much acting needed.

He looked stout and a bit important in the flowing cotton clothes. The short beard gave him dignity. His skin, weathered by twenty years of outdoor life, needed no darkening. Even his legs, and his bare feet thrust into red morocco slippers had the ivory color that belongs to most of the higher castes; and an actor must be of Brahman or Kshattryia origin if he hopes to be admitted anywhere within the pale from which the lower castes are utterly excluded. His profession makes him technically unclean, but that is rather an advantage than a handicap.

"And the name? The honored name?" asked Benjamin admiringly.

"Gupta Rao. I'm a Bhat-Brahman of Rajputana." Benjamin sat down and laughed with his head to one side, nursing a knee.

"Oh, you Ommony! A Jew you should have been! Hey-yey-clever! Now who would have thought of that but you! Yah-tchah! Bhat-Brahman -- of whom even rajahs are afraid! Gossiping tongue! The privilege to slander! Yah-keh-keh-kek! You are a clever one! Not even a Brahman will challenge you, for fear you will make him a laughing-stock! Keh-hah-hah-hey-hey-hey! Ah, but wait, wait! We forgot the pan. You must have a pouch to carry betel-nut. And the caste-mark -- keep still while I paint the caste-mark."

And then at last came Dawa Tsering, not pleased with himself but trying to appear pleased, adjusting his eyes to the dimness as Benjamin let him in by the back door.

"Where is Ommonee?"

He stared about him, brushed past Ommony contemptuously, and at last saw the cast-off dinner jacket and white shirt. He broke into the jargon-Hindustani that serves for lingua franca in that land of a hundred tongues, chattering as he hurried along the passage past the stairs and back again:

"Where is he? Is he hiding? Has he gone?" Then, shouting at last in something near panic: " Oh -- Ommonee!"

He stared at Diana, but she gave him no information. She lay curled up on the floor, apparently asleep. Benjamin looked non-committal -- busy considering something else.

"Where is he -- thou?" the Hillman demanded, coming to a stand in front of Ommony and fingering the handle of his knife. The light was dim just there where the saddles were piled in a ten-foot heap.

"Would you know his voice?" asked Ommony.

"Aye, in a crowd!"

"Would you know his walk?"

"None better! Seen from behind, when he is thinking, he rolls thus, like a bear. But who art thou? Where is he?"

Ommony turned his back, walked to the heap of blankets by the wall, and sat down.

"Would you know him sitting?" he asked casually; and suddenly it occurred to Dawa Tsering that he was being questioned in his own tongue.

"Thou!" he exclaimed. "Well, may the devils destroy the place! Art thou then a magician?" He sniffed three times. "Not even the smell is the same! Was it the Jew who worked the magic? Art thou truly Ommonee?"

"No, I'm changed. I'm Gupta Rao. If you ever call me Ommony again without my permission, I will bring to pass a change in your affairs that you will remember Do you understand?"

"Gupta Rao -- huh? A change -- eh? Hmn! And that is not a bad idea. Change me, thou! There are many garments in this place -- buy me some of them. That Lama played a dirty trick on me. He has vanished. I found his chela Samding, and I told him the Lama owes me two months' pay; and I said 'Where is the Lama?' But Samding, standing by a covered bullock-cart (but the cart was empty, for I looked) laughed at me and said nothing. I would have killed him if I had not thought of that letter, which you said the Lama must receive. So I slapped Samding's face with the letter, and threw it on the ground in front of him, and bade him pick it up and find the Lama or take the consequences. And he said, with that mild voice of his, that I had become very reckless all at once, so I hustled him a time or two, hoping to make him strike me, that I might with justice strike him back. But he has no fight in him. He picked up the letter, holding it thus, because there was dirt on it and he hates to soil his hands. And he said to me, 'The Lama has no further use for you!' Do you hear that, thou -- what is thy new name? -- Gupta Rao? Did you ever hear the like of it for impudence? You wonder, I suppose, why I didn't smite Samding there and then, so that the Lama would have no further use for him. Trust me, I would have done; but two great devils of Tibetans came out of a doorway and seized me from behind. Lo, before I could draw my knife they had hurled me into a party of Sikh soldiers who were passing, so that I broke up their formation, they blaming me for it, which is just like Sikhs. And it isn't wise to argue with too many Sikhs, so I ran. Now -- what is thy name again? Gupta Rao? Well -- it would now be fitting to disguise me, so that I may come on that Lama and his chela and the whole brood of them unawares. Then let us see what one man can do to half-a-dozen!"

Ommony got up and began to pace the floor again. It would be difficult to disguise Dawa Tsering, even if that were advisable, for the man had a swagger that was as much a part of him as his huge frame, and a simplicity that underlay and would inevitably shine through all cunning. Yet the man would be useful, since he knew more than a little about the Lama's goings and comings; and, once in the Hills, where a man without an armed friend has a short life and a sad one as a rule, he would be almost indispensable.

He had not made up his mind what to do when one of Benjamin's assistants hammered on the shop door and announced Maitraya. Dawa Tsering sat down beside Diana, who seemed to have decided he was tolerable, and Maitraya entered stagily, as if he thought he were a god, or wished other people to believe him one. He was not a very big man, but he had a trick of filling up the doorway and pausing there before he strode into the room to seize by instinct the most conspicuous position and command all eyes.

His face was rather wrinkled, but he was richly clothed in new Tussore silk, with a gorgeous golden cummerbund [sash], and his gallant bearing tried to give the lie to fifty years. There were marks on his handsome face that suggested debauch, but might have been due to former hardship; his manner on the whole was one of dignity and conscious worthiness. One could tell at a glance what were his views on the actor's art and on the position that actors should hold in the community; in another land he would have pestered the politicians for a knighthood. A pair of gorgeous black eyes, that he knew how to use with effect, glowed under a heavy lock of black hair that he had carefully arranged to fall in apparent carelessness beneath his turban.

"You wished to see me, Benjamin?"

His voice was tragic, his language Urdu, his diction refined to the verge of pedantry. Benjamin signed to him to be seated on a heap of blankets, but he declined the invitation like Caesar refusing a throne (except that Caesar could not have done it with such super-modesty).

"May all the glorious gods, and above all friendly, fortunate Ganesha, have worked on you and made you change your mind, O stubborn Benjamin! Father of money-bags! Provider of finery for entertaining fools! Patient, but too cautious Benjamin! May all the gods melt butter on you for your former trust in me, Maitraya, -- and may they also melt your heart! I need you, Benjamin. I have a bargain with that Lama struck and bound.

The man is crazy, and a traitor to all his gods, but he knows a little. God knows they will tear him between wild asses for debauching his religion, when he gets back to Tibet! Believe me or not, Benjamin -- although I hope my word rings unsuspicious in your ears -- he leans toward modern views! Can you imagine that -- in a Ringding Lama from Tibet? He proposes just what I have always preached -- to modernize the ancient plays, retaining their charm and morality, but making them comprehensible. The man is mad -- mad as an American -- but genuinely gifted with imagination. It will make me famous, Benjamin."

"Does he offer to pay you?" Benjamin asked dryly.

"Richly! Princely! Like a maharajah -- with the difference -- aha! -- that he will settle regularly, instead of forcing me to borrow from his special money-lenders (as the rajahs do) while I await his slow convenience. I tell you, Benjamin, the Lord Ganesha surely smiled on me in the hour of this Lama's birth!"

"Did you ask for money in advance?" asked Benjamin.

"Not I, Benjamin. What do you mistake me for -- a parasite? A beggar? A man without dignity? A hanger-on of some courtesan? Nay, nay! I remembered my blessed friend Benjamin, who likes to do business at a reasonable profit, and who will be glad to advance me a little more, in order that I may pay what I already owe. Are we not good friends, Benjamin? Have I ever defrauded you or told you a word of untruth?"

"A man's word and his deed should be one," Benjamin answered. "I hold your hundis [promissory notes] that you have not paid. There is interest due on them."

"True, Benjamin, true. I have been unfortunate. Who could have foretold smallpox, the death of three actors, and the burning of a theater? But another might have repudiated, Benjamin. Another might have told you to hunt for your money where the smallpox and the fire are born! Kali (1) can care for her own! Did I repudiate? Did I not come and tell you I will pay in time?"

"The worst is, you are not the only one," said Benjamin. "I have another here, who is heavily in my debt, although a famous actor, more famous than you, and a much finer artist. This is Gupta Rao sahib, of Bikanir."

"I never heard of him," said Maitraya, looking slightly scandalized although prepared to condescend.

"He is a very great actor," said Benjamin. Whereat Ommony bowed with becoming gravity, and Maitraya took his measure, up and down.

"Does he act in that beard?" he inquired.

"I have lately been acting the part of an Englishman," said Ommony; and his Urdu was as perfect and pedantic as Maitraya's.

"An Englishman? There are few who can do that with conviction." Maitraya stepped back a pace. "You don't look like an Englishman. No wonder you grew a beard. That is the only way you could have carried off the part at all without looking foolish. It takes a man of my proportions to play an Englishman properly. I have been told that I excel at it. I played once before the officers of a cavalry regiment at Poona, and they assured me they believed I was an English gentleman until I stepped down off the stage. Watch this."

Maitraya inserted an imaginary monocle and gave an outrageous caricature of a stock Englishman as portrayed in comic papers on the European continent.

"God-dam fine weather, eh? Not bad, eh? What?"

"I see you are a genius," said Ommony. "I could not do it nearly so well as that."

"No, I dare say not. The actor's is an art that calls for technique. However, I dare say you are good in conventional parts," said Maitraya, mollified.

"I have seen him and I am a good judge of such matters," said Benjamin. "What I have to say to you, Maitraya, is that I am anxious about the money which you and Gupta Rao owe me."

Benjamin put on his extra-calculating air, that Jews use to make their customers believe there is something as yet undecided -- an alternative course, less profitable to the customer. It is the oldest trick in the world -- much older than Moses. Maitraya showed furtive alarm.

"My son-in-law is away on a long journey. It is costing too much. I need the money," Benjamin went on. "I will not advance you more -- no, not a rupee more --"

"Unless?" said Maitraya. He was watching the old Jew's face, flattering himself that he could read behind the mask and swallowing the bait as simply as a hungry fish.

"Unless you take Gupta Rao with you --"

"I could give him small parts," said Maitraya, cautiously yet with a gorgeous magnanimity.

"As leading actor," Benjamin went on, "on a leading actor's salary, so that he may have a chance to pay me what he owes."

"But I must first see him act," Maitraya objected. "I promised the Lama a company of actors second to none, and --"

"And on this new hundi both your names must go," said Benjamin, "so that you are both responsible, and I can take a lien on Gupta Rao's salary if I so wish."

That stipulation started a long-winded argument, in which Ommony joined sufficiently to add confusion to it and support Benjamin by pretending to support Maitraya. Benjamin's investment in costumes, theatrical properties and cash might be considerable, and there was no reason why the shrewd old merchant should not protect himself. At the end of an hour of expostulation, imprecation, gesticulation and general pandemonium Benjamin had his way, vowing he had never made a more unprofitable bargain in his life, and Maitraya was convinced that Gupta Rao had at least a rich vocabulary. Moreover, as fellow victims of necessity, with their names on a joint promissory note, they had an excuse for friendship, of which Ommony took full advantage.

"Being of Brahman origin, of course I have access to inner circles, and enjoy privileges that are denied to you; and if I were an ordinary Brahman I would not join forces with you. But we Bhats consider ourselves above caste, and when we find an outcaste of merit and distinction, such as you evidently are, we believe it no dishonor to befriend him. You will find it a great advantage to have me in your company, and for many reasons."

Maitraya was readily convinced of that. A Bhat enjoys more privileges than any scald did in the Viking days, for there is none who dares to call him in question and nowadays, at least in Northern India, there is no authority that can discipline him. An orthodox Brahman is very easily kept within bounds, and it is next to impossible for a man of lower caste to pose as a Brahman successfully because at the first suggestion of suspicion he would be questioned narrowly and be required to give substantial proofs; if the proofs were not forthcoming the Brahmans would simply close their ranks against him. But who shall challenge the College of Heralds on points of etiquette?

The very Pundits themselves, who are the fountainheads of orthodoxy, are at the mercy of the Bhats. A Pundit who should challenge a Bhat's veracity or privilege would lay himself open to such scurrilous attack, in song and jest and innuendo, as he could never stand against. He would be in the position of a public man in Europe or America who should dare to defy the newspapers. The only limits to a Bhat's audacity are imposed by his own intelligence and his own gift of invective. He may act, sing, dance in public and be undefiled; he may accept gifts whose very shadow no orthodox Brahman would dare to let fall on his door-step; and that source of strength is the secret of his weakness at the same time, since, like the Press that accepts paid advertising, he has to be careful whose corns he crushes.

Maitraya, finding himself linked with this Gupta Rao by a contract, which Benjamin would certainly enforce, began at once to take good care to establish cordial relations. He was even deferent in his remarks about the beard.

"Beautiful it is, and manly -- good to see, Gupta Rao, but -- for certain parts and certain purposes -- will it not be inconvenient?"

Ommony conceded that point. He withdrew to a little dark room and removed the beard by candle-light, using a razor belonging to one of Benjamin's assistants and, since the skin was paler where the hair had been, rubbing on a little dark stain afterward. While that was going on, Maitraya was regaled by Benjamin with accounts of Gupta Rao's audacity and influence.

"Then why is he not rich?" Maitraya asked. "These Bhats are notorious for luxury. Everybody gives them presents, to keep their tongues from wagging."

"That is just it," Benjamin explained. "Too much luxury! Too many gifts! It spoils them. This one is a gambler and a patron of the courtesans, who favor him exceedingly. Tshay-yay-yay! What a weakness is the love of women! But he is on his good behavior at present because, says he, a Bikaniri broke his heart. But the truth is, she only emptied his pockets."

"And that great dog?" Maitraya asked. "To whom does that belong?"

Benjamin stroked his beard and hesitated. But Ommony had heard every word of the conversation through the thin partition.

"And that great savage beside the dog -- that Northerner -- who is he?" asked Maitraya.

Ommony emerged, having reached a conclusion at last as to what should be done with Dawa Tsering and Diana.

"I must count on your honor's sympathy and good will," he said, smiling at Maitraya rather sheepishly. "That hound is the agent of Hanuman (2). The man from Spiti is a simpleton, whose service is to keep the hound in good health and to assist with occasional amorous errands. Our friend Benjamin has not told all the truth. Whose heart is broken while he can communicate with his beloved?"

Maitraya smiled. He had acted in too many plays, in which the plot consisted of intrigue between man and woman, not to accept that sort of story at face-value. Life, to him, was either drama or else mere drudgery. Ommony excused himself, to go and talk with Dawa Tsering.

"Now this dog is used to a dog-boy," he said sternly. "Moreover, she will do as I say, and if you are kind to her, she will be tolerant of you."

Diana smelt Ommony over inquisitively. The strange clothes puzzled her but, having nosed them thoroughly, she lay down again and waited.

"She is an incarnation of a devil," said Dawa Tsering. "I am sure of it."

"Quite right. But she is a very friendly devil to her friends. I am going to tell her to look after you; and she will do it. And I order you to look after her. Keep the fleas off her. Attend to it that she is clean and comfortable. "

"What then?"

"The Jew shall provide you with new clothing, after you have cleaned yourself. When I go presently, with that man Maitraya, you are to remain here, and you will see that the dog will remain with you willingly. At the proper time you are to come and find me."

"But how, Ommonee? How shall I find you?"

"Don't call me Ommony! Remember that. My name is Gupta Rao."

"That makes you even more difficult to find!"

"You are going to learn what the dog can do. When I send a messenger, the dog will follow him, but you are to remain here, do you understand? You are not to move away on any condition. When it suits my convenience the dog will return to this place alone and will bring you to wherever I may happen to be. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't understand, but I will wait and see," said Dawa Tsering. "I think you would make a good thief on the te-rains, Om -- I mean, Gupta Rao!"

Chapter X

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