Emilio salgari banner

OM - The Secret of Ahbor Valley

Chapter 1: “Cottswold Ommony Is No Man’s Fool.”

Tides in the ocean of stars and the infinite rhythm of space;
Cycles on cycles of aeons adrone on an infinite beach;
Pause and recession and flow, and each atom of dust in its place
In the pulse of eternal becoming; no error, no breach
But the calm and the sweep and the swing of the leisurely, measureless roll
Of the absolute cause, the unthwarted effect—and no haste,
And no discord, and nothing untimed in a calculus ruling the whole;
Unfolding; evolving; accretion; attrition; no waste.

Planet on planet a course that it keeps, and each swallow its flight;
Comet’s ellipse and grace-note of the sudden firefly glow;
Jewels of Perseid splendour sprayed on summer’s purple night;
Blossom adrift on the breath of spring; the whirl of snow;
Grit on the grinding beaches; spume of the storm-ridden wave
Hurled on the north wind’s ice-born blast to blend with the tropic rain;
Hail and the hissing of torrents; song where sapphire ripples lave
The crest of thousand-fathom reefs upbuilt beneath the main,

Silt of the ceaseless rivers from the mountain summits worn,
Rolled along gorge and meadow till the salt, inflowing tide
Heaps it in shoals at harbour-mouth for continents unborn;
Earth where the naked rocks were reared; pine where the birches died;
Season on season proceeding, and birth in the shadow of death;
Dawning of luminous day in the dying of night; and a Plan
In no whit, in no particle changing; each phase of becoming a breath
Of the infinite Karma of all things; its goal, evolution of MAN.

IF YOU WANT VIEWS ABOUT the world’s news, read what Cottswold Ommony calls the views papers; there is plenty in them that thoroughly zealous people believe. But remember the wise old ambassador’s word of caution to his new subordinate—“And above all, no zeal!” If you want raw facts devoid of any zeal whatever try the cafes and the clubs; but you must sort the facts and correlate them for yourself, and whether or not that process shall leave you capable of thought of any kind must depend entirely on your own ability. Thereafter, though you may never again believe a newspaper, you will understand them and if you are reasonably human sympathize.

There used to be a cafe, in Vienna, where a man might learn enough in fifty minutes to convince him that Europe was riding carelessly to ruin; but that was before 1914 when the riders, using rein and spur at last, rode straight for it.

There is still a club in Delhi, where you may pick up odds and ends of information from over the Pamirs, from Nepal, from Samarkand, Turkestan, Arabia and the Caucasus, all mixed up with fragments from the olla podrida of races known collectively as India. And having pieced them all together you may go mad there, as comfortably as in Colney Hatch, but with this advantage that nobody will interfere with you, provided you pay your bills on the first of the month and refrain from sitting on two newspapers while you read a third.

It is a good club, of the die-hard kind; fairly comfortable, famous for its curry. It has done more to establish empire, and to breed ill-will, than any other dozen institutions. Its members do not boast, but are proud of the fact that no Indian, not even a Maharajah, has ever set foot over its threshold; yet they are hospitable, if a man knows how to procure the proper introduction (no women are admitted on any pretense), and by keeping quiet in a long-armed chair you may receive an education. You may learn, for instance, who is and who is not important, and precisely why. You may come to understand how the old guard, everywhere, inevitably must die in the last ditch. And, if you have it in you, you will admire the old guard, without trying to pretend that you agree with them.

But above all, you may study the naked shape of modern history as she is never written—history in the bathroom, so to speak. And once in a while, you may piece together a dozen assorted facts into a true story that is worth more than all the printed histories and all the guide-books added together. (Not that the club members realize it. They are usually bored, and almost always thinking about income-tax and indigestion, coupled with why in thunder so-and-so was fool enough to bid no trumps and trust to his partner to hold the necessary ace.)

When Ommony turned up at the club after three years in a forest he produced a refreshing ripple on a calm that had grown monotonous. For a week there had been nothing to discuss but politics, in which there is no news nowadays, but only repetition of complaint. But Cottswold Ommony, the last of the old-time foresters (and one of the few remaining men in India whom the new democracy has not reduced to a sort of scapegoat rubber-stamp), stirred memories and conjecture.

“His turn for the guillotine! He has done too damned well for twenty years, not to have his head cut off. I’ll bet you some babu politician gets his job!”

“You’ll have to make that bet with Ommony, if he’s mad enough. Didn’t you hear poor Willoughby was killed? That leaves Jenkins at the head of Ommony’s department, and they’ve hated each other since Jenkins turned down Ommony’s younger sister and Ommony told him what he thought about it. Not that the girl wasn’t fortunate in a way. She married Terry later on and died. Who’d not rather die than have to live with Jenkins. Willoughby always considered Ommony to be a reincarnation of Solon or Socrates, plus Aristides crossed on Hypatia. Willoughby—”

But everybody knew the ins and outs of that news. A fat babu in a dirty pink turban that would have scared any self-respecting horse, driving a second-hand Ford, with one eye on the Punjabi “constabeel” at the street crossing, bumped into and broke the wheel of Willoughby’s dogcart, setting any number of sequences in motion. The horse bolted, tipped out Willoughby, who was killed under a tram-car, and crashed into Amramchudder Son and Company’s open store-front, where blood from the horse’s shoulder spoiled two bales of imported silk. A lawsuit to recover ten times the value of the silk was commenced against Willoughby’s estate that afternoon. (Mrs. Willoughby had to borrow money from friends to carry on with.)

The babu put on full speed, naturally, and tried to escape down a side- street, of which there are as many, and as narrow ones in Delhi as in any city of its size. He ran over a Bengali (which nobody except the Bengali minded very much), knocked down two Sikhs (which was important, because they were on their way to a religious ceremony; righteous indignation is very bad stuff when spilled in the street), and finally jammed the Ford between a bullock-cart and a lamp-post, where the pride of Detroit collapsed into scrap.

The owner of the bullock-cart, a Jat with a wart on his nose, which his mother-in-law had always insisted would bring bad luck (she said so at the trial later on, and brought three witnesses to prove it), was carrying, for an extortionate price, a native of a far-northern state, who had recently arrived by train without a ticket, and who knew how to be prompt and violent. The man from Spiti (which is the name of the northern state) descended from his perch at the rear of the cart, picked up a spoke that the collision had broken away, and hit the babu with it exactly once between the eyes. The babu died neatly without saying anything; and a hot crowd of nine nationalities, that was glad to see anybody die with politics the way they had been for a year or two, applauded.

The man from Spiti vanished. The “constabeel” arrested the owner of the bullock-cart, who turned his face skyward and screamed “Ayee-ee-ee!” once, which was duly noted in a memorandum book for use as evidence against him. Seventeen onlookers, being questioned, all gave false names and addresses, but swore that the Jat with the wart had attacked the babu; and a wakil (which is a person entitled to practice law), who knew all about the Jat’s recent inheritance from his uncle, offered legal services that were accepted on the spot. Presently, in the jail, a jemadar and two “constabeels” put the Jat through a hideously painful third degree, which left no marks on him but did induce him to part with money, most of which was spent on a debauch that ended in the jemadar being reduced to the ranks since the wakil objected on principle to sharing the loot of the Jat with any one and therefore righteously exposed the jemadar’s abominable drunkenness.

Meanwhile, the native papers took the matter up and proved to nine points of decimals that the incident was wholly due to British arrogance and the neglect of public duty by an “overpaid alien hegemony,” demonstrating among other things that the British are a race “whose crass materialism is an insult to the spiritual soul of India, and whose playing fields of Eton are an ash-bed from which arise swarms of Phoenixes to suck the life-blood of conquered peoples.” (Excellent journalese conceived on the historic principle that if you make sufficient smell you are sure to annoy somebody, and he who is annoyed will make mistakes, which you may then gleefully expose.)

The Sikhs who had been knocked down by the Ford accused the “obsequious servants of alien tyranny”—meaning the police—of having tried to prevent them from attending their religious ceremony; the fact being that the police had taken them to the hospital in an ambulance. The entire Sikh community in consequence refused to pay taxes, which set up another sequence of cause and effect, culminating in a yell of “Bande Materam!” as three or four thousand second-year students, who were not Sikhs, rushed foaming at the mouth into the Chandni Chowk (which is a business thoroughfare) with the intention of looting the silversmiths and putting the whole city to the torch. A fire-engine dispersed them; but the stream of water from the hose ruined the contents of Chanda Pal’s drug-store.

Chanda Pal called in an actuary who possessed a compound geometrical imagination, and sent in a bill to the government that is still unpaid; and, having failed to collect immediately, he wrote to a friend who was an undergraduate at Oxford, with the result that a Member of Parliament for one of the Welsh constituencies asked at Question Time whether it was true that the Viceroy of India in person had high-handedly confiscated without compensation all the drugs in the Punjab; and if so, why!

The answer from the Treasury Bench was “No, sir;” but the foreign correspondents omitted to mention that, so the French, Scandinavian and United States newspapers had it in headlines that “British in India inaugurate new reign of terror. Goods confiscated. Revolution threatened.” A bishop in South Africa preached a sermon on the subject; thirty-seven members of the I.W.W., who were serving a term in San Quentin, went on a sympathetic hunger strike and were locked up in the dungeon; and a Congressman from somewhere in the Middle West wrote a speech that filled five pages of the Record. Stocks fell several points. Jenkins stepped into Willoughby’s official shoes.

However, clocks continued ticking. Roosters crowed. The sun appeared on schedule time. And Willoughby’s funeral was marked by dignified simplicity.

Except that he hugely regretted his friend Willoughby, Cottswold Ommony cared for none of these things. He sat near the electric fan in a corner of the club smoking room, aware that he was being discussed, but also quite sure that he did not mind it. He had been discussed, on and off, ever since he came to India. He looked quite unlike Hypatia, whatever Willoughby may have thought of his character.

“Willoughby overrated him,” said somebody. “You can’t tell me Ommony or any other man is such a mixture of marvels as Willoughby made out. Besides, he’s a bachelor. Socrates wasn’t.”

“Oh, Ommony’s human. But—well—you know what he’s done in that forest. It was raw, red wilderness when he was sent there. Now you can stand on a rock and see ninety miles of trees whichever way you care to look. Besides, dogs love him. Did you see that great dog of his outside? You can’t fool that kind of dog, you know. They say he knows the tigers personally, and can talk the jungle-bat; there was only one other man who ever learned that language, and he committed suicide!”

“All the same—he’s not the only man who’s done good work—and I’ve heard stories. Do any of you remember Terry—Jack Terry, the M.D., who married Ommony’s young sister? One of those delightful madmen who are really so sane that the rest of us can’t understand ‘em. Had weird theories about obstetrics. Nearly got foul of his profession by preaching that music was an absolute necessity at child-birth. Wanted the government to train symphony orchestras to play the overture to Leonora while the birth takes place. Perfectly mad; but a corking good surgeon. Always dead broke, from handing out his pay to beggars—broke, that is, until he met Marmaduke. Remember Marmaduke?”

“Dead too, isn’t he? Wasn’t he the American who endowed a mission somewhere in the Hills?”

“Yes, at Tilgaun. Marmaduke was another—ab-so-lutely mad—and as gentle as sunrise. Quiet man, who swore like a trooper at the mention of religion. Made his money in Chicago, slaughtering hogs—or so I heard. Wrote a book on astrology, that only ran to one edition. I sold my copy for ten times what I paid for it. I tell you, Marmaduke was madder than Gandhi. They say he left America to keep the elders of the church he belonged to from having him locked up in an asylum. The mission he founded at Tilgaun caused no end of a stir at the time. Surely you remember that? There were letters to the Times, and an archbishop raised a shindy in the House of Lords. Marmaduke’s theory was that, as he couldn’t understand Christianity, it was safe to premise that people whose religion was a mixture of degraded Buddhism and devil-worship couldn’t understand it either. So he founded a Buddhist mission, to teach ‘em their own religion. No, he wasn’t a Buddhist. I don’t know what his religion was. I only know he was a decent fellow, fabulously rich, and ab-so-lutely mad. He persuaded Jack Terry to chuck the service and become the mission medico—teach hygiene to men from Spiti and Bhutan—like teaching drought to the Atlantic! Jack Terry married Ommony’s sister about a week before leaving for Tilgaun, and none of us ever saw them alive again.”

“Now I remember. There was a nine days’ scandal, or a mystery, or something.”

“You bet there was! Terry and his wife vanished. Marmaduke was carpeted, but couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, and he died before they could make things hot for him. Then they gave Ommony long leave and sent him up to Tilgaun to investigate—that was—by gad! that was twenty years ago—Good lord! how time flies. Ommony discovered nothing; or, if he did discover anything, he said nothing—he’s a great hand at doing that, by all accounts. But it leaked out that Marmaduke had appointed Ommony a trustee under his will. There was another trustee—a red-headed American woman—at least I heard she’s red-headed; maybe, she isn’t—named Hannah Sanburn, who has been running the mission ever since. She was not much more than a girl at the time, I remember. And the third trustee was a Tibetan. Nobody had ever heard of him, and I’ve never met a man who saw him; but I’m told he’s a Ringding Gelong Lama; and I’ve also heard that Ommony has never seen him. The whole thing’s a mystery.”

“It doesn’t seem particularly discreditable to Ommony. What are you hinting at?”

“Nothing. Only Ommony has influence. You’ve noticed, I dare say, he always gets what he goes after. If you asked me, there’s an even chance he may ‘get’ Jenkins, if he cares to.”

“That’s notorious. Whoever goes after Ommony’s scalp gets left at the post. What’s the secret?”

“I don’t know. Nobody seems to. There’s Marmaduke’s money, of course. Ommony handles some of it. I don’t suggest fraud, or any rot like that; but money’s strange stuff; control of it gives a man power. Ommony’s influence is out of all proportion to his job. And I’ve heard—mind you, I don’t know how true it is—that he’s hand-and-glove with every political fugitive from the North who has sneaked down South to let the clouds roll by during the last twenty years. They even said Ommony was on the inside of the Moplah business. You know the Moplahs didn’t burn his bungalow, they say he simply asked them not to—can you beat that—and it’s a fact that he stayed in his forest all through that rebellion.”

Ommony was restless over in his corner. His obstinate jaw was only half- concealed by a close-clipped, greying beard, and there was grim humour on his lips. Having done more than any living man to pull the sting out of the Moplah rebellion, hints to the contrary hardly amused him. He was angry—obviously angry. However, one man claimed casual acquaintance and dropped into the next chair.

“Expecting to stay long in Delhi?”

“I don’t know. I hope not.”

“Care to sell me that wolf-hound?”

Ommony’s reserve broke down; he had to talk to somebody:

“That dog? Sell her? She’s the sum total of twenty-years’ effort. She’s all I’ve done.”

The inquisitor leaned back, partly to hide his own face, partly to see Ommony’s in a more distinct light; he suspected sunstroke, or the after-effects of malaria. But Ommony, having emerged from his reserve, continued:

“I don’t suppose I’m different from anybody else—at least not from any other reasonably decent fellow—made a lot of mistakes, of course—done a lot of things I wish I hadn’t—been a bally ass on suitable occasion but I’ve worked—damned hard. India has had all the best of me and—damn her!—I haven’t grudged it. Don’t regret it, either. I’d do it again. But there’s nothing to show for it all—”

“Except a forest. They tell me—”

“A forest, half-grown, that corrupt politicians will play ducks and drakes with; a couple of thousand villagers who are now being taught by those same politicians that everything they’ve learned from me is no good; a ruined constitution—and that dog. That’s all I can show for twenty years’ work—and like some others, I’ve had my heart in it. I think I know how a missionary feels when his flock walks out on him. I’m a failure—we’re all failures. The world is going to pieces under our hands. What I have taught that dog is all I can really claim by way of accomplishment.”

That particular inquisitor lost enthusiasm. He did not like madmen. He withdrew and considered Ommony in a corner, behind a newspaper, sotto voce. Another not so casual acquaintance dropped into the vacant chair, and was greeted with a nod.

“You’ve been absent so long you ought to see things with a fresh eye, Ommony. D’you think India’s breaking up?”

“I’ve thought so for twenty years.”

“How long before we have to clear out?”

“The sooner the better.”

“For us?”

“I mean for India!”

“I should have thought you would be the last man to say that. You’ve done your bit. They tell me you’ve changed a desert into a splendid forest. D’you want to see it all cut down, the lumber wasted and—”

Ommony pulled out his watch and tapped his finger on the dial.

“I had it cleaned and repaired recently,” he remarked. The man charged me a fair price, but after I had paid the bill he didn’t have the impudence to keep the watch for fear I might ruin it again. India has a perfect right to go to hell her own way. Surgery and hygiene are good, but I don’t believe in being governed by the medical profession. Cleaning up corrupted countries is good; but to stay on after we’ve been asked to quit is bad manners. And they’re worse than breaking all ten commandments. Besides, we don’t know much—or we’d have done much better.”

“You think India is ripe for self-government?”

“When things are ripe, they fall or decay on the tree,” said Ommony. “There’s a time to stand aside and let ’em grow. There’s such a thing as too much nursing.”

“Then you’re willing to chuck your forest job?”

“I have chucked it.”

“Oh! Resigned? Going to draw your pension?”

“No. Pension wouldn’t be due for two years yet, and I don’t need it. India has had the use of me for twenty-three years at a fair price. I’d be satisfied, if she was. But she isn’t. And I’m proud, so I’ll be damned if I’ll accept a pension.”

Ommony was left alone again. That news of his resignation was too good to be kept, even for a minute. Within five minutes it was all over the club, and men were speculating as to the real reason, since nobody ever gives anyone credit (and wisely, perhaps) for the motives that he makes public.

“Jenkins has succeeded Willoughby. Ommony knows jolly well that Jenkins has it in for him. He’s pulling out ahead of the landslide—that’s what.”

“I don’t believe it. Ommony has guts and influence enough to bust ten Jenkinses. There’s more than that in it. There never was a man like Ommony for keeping secrets up his sleeve. You know he’s in the Secret Service?”

“That’s easy to say, but who said so?”

“Believe it or not—I’ll bet. I’ll bet he stays in India. I’ll bet he dies in harness. I’ll bet any money in reason he goes straight from here to McGregor’s office. More than that—I’ll bet McGregor sent for him, and that he didn’t resign from the Forestry without talking it over with McGregor first. He’s deep, is Cottswold Ommony—deep. He’s no man’s fool. There’s no man alive but McGregor who knows what Ommony will do next. Anybody want to bet about it?”

The remainder of the conversation at the club that noon rippled off into widening rings of reminiscence, all set up by Ommony’s arrival on the scene, and mostly interesting, but to stay and listen would have been to be side-tracked, which is the inevitable fate of gossips. There was a story in the wind that, if the club had known it, would have set all Delhi by the ears.