During that third week of May the situation in Baskul had become much worse and, on the 20th, air force machines arrived by arrangement from Peshawar to evacuate the white residents. These numbered about eighty, and most were safely transported across the mountains in troop carriers. A few miscellaneous aircraft were also employed, among them being a cabin machine lent by the maharajah of Chandrapur. In this, about 10 a.m., four passengers embarked: Miss Roberta Brinklow, of the Eastern Mission; Henry D. Barnard, an American; Hugh Conway, H.M. Consul; and Captain Charles Mallinson, H.M. Vice Consul.
These names are as they appeared later in Indian and British newspapers.
Conway was thirty-seven. He had been at Baskul for two years, in a job which now, in the light of events, could be regarded as a persistent backing of the wrong horse. A stage of his life was finished; in a few weeks’ time, or perhaps after a few months’ leave in England, he would be sent somewhere else. Tokyo or Teheran, Manila or Muscat; people in his profession never knew what was coming. He had been ten years in the Consular Service, long enough to assess his own chances as shrewdly as he was apt to do those of others. He knew that the plums were not for him; but it was genuinely consoling, and not merely sour grapes, to reflect that he had no taste for plums. He preferred the less formal and more picturesque jobs that were on offer, and as these were often not good ones, it had doubtless seemed to others that he was playing his cards rather badly. Actually, he felt he had played them rather well; he had had a varied and moderately enjoyable decade.
He was tall, deeply bronzed, with brown short-cropped hair and slate-blue eyes. He was inclined to look severe and brooding until he laughed, and then (but it happened not so very often) he looked boyish. There was a slight nervous twitch near the left eye which was usually noticeable when he worked too hard or drank too much, and as he had been packing and destroying documents throughout the whole of the day and night preceding the evacuation, the twitch was very conspicuous when he climbed into the aeroplane. He was tired out, and overwhelmingly glad that he had contrived to be sent in the maharajah’s luxurious airliner instead of in one of the crowded troop carriers. He spread himself indulgently in the basket seat as the plane soared aloft. He was the sort of man who, being used to major hardships, expected minor comforts by way of compensation. Cheerfully he might endure the rigors of the road to Samarkand, but from London to Paris he would spend his last tenner on the Golden Arrow.
It was after the flight had lasted more than an hour that Mallinson said he thought the pilot wasn’t keeping a straight course. Mallinson sat immediately in front. He was a youngster in his middle twenties, pink-cheeked, intelligent without being intellectual, beset with public school limitations, but also with their excellences. Failure to pass an examination was the chief cause of his being sent to Baskul, where Conway had had six months of his company and had grown to like him.
But Conway did not want to make the effort that an aeroplane conversation demands. He opened his eyes drowsily and replied that whatever the course taken, the pilot presumably knew best.
Half an hour later, when weariness and the drone of the engine had lulled him nearly to sleep, Mallinson disturbed him again. “I say, Conway, I thought Fenner was piloting us?”
“Well, isn’t he?”
“The chap turned his head just now and I’ll swear it wasn’t he.”
“It’s hard to tell, through that glass panel.”
“I’d know Fenner’s face anywhere.”
“Well, then, it must be someone else. I don’t see that it matters.”
“But Fenner told me definitely that he was taking this machine.”
“They must have changed their minds and given him one of the others.”
“Well, who is this man, then?”
“My dear boy, how should I know? You don’t suppose I’ve memorized the face of every flight lieutenant in the air force, do you?”
“I know a good many of them, anyway, but I don’t recognize this fellow.”
“Then he must belong to the minority whom you don’t know.” Conway smiled and added: “When we arrive in Peshawar very soon you can make his acquaintance and ask him all about himself.”
“At this rate we shan’t get to Peshawar at all. The man’s right off his course. And I’m not surprised, either—flying so damned high he can’t see where he is.”
Conway was not bothering. He was used to air travel, and took things for granted. Besides, there was nothing particular he was eager to do when he got to Peshawar, and no one particular he was eager to see; so it was a matter of complete indifference to him whether the journey took four hours or six. He was unmarried; there would be no tender greetings on arrival. He had friends, and a few of them would probably take him to the club and stand him drinks; it was a pleasant prospect, but not one to sigh for in anticipation.
Nor did he sigh retrospectively, when he viewed the equally pleasant, but not wholly satisfying vista of the past decade. Changeable, fair intervals, becoming rather unsettled; it had been his own meteorological summary during that time, as well as the world’s. He thought of Baskul, Pekin, Macao, and other places—he had moved about pretty often. Remotest of all was Oxford, where he had had a couple of years of donhood after the war, lecturing on Oriental history, breathing dust in sunny libraries, cruising down the High on a push bicycle. The vision attracted, but did not stir him; there was a sense in which he felt that he was still a part of all that he might have been.
A familiar gastric lurch informed him that the plane was beginning to descend. He felt tempted to rag Mallinson about his fidgets, and would perhaps have done so had not the youth risen abruptly, bumping his head against the roof and waking Barnard, the American, who had been dozing in his seat at the other side of the narrow gangway. “My God!” Mallinson cried, peering through the window. “Look down there!”
Conway looked. The view was certainly not what he had expected, if, indeed, he had expected anything. Instead of the trim, geometrically laid-out cantonments and the larger oblongs of the hangars, nothing was visible but an opaque mist veiling an immense, sun-brown desolation. The plane, though descending rapidly, was still at a height unusual for ordinary flying. Long, corrugated mountain ridges could be picked out, perhaps a mile or so closer than the cloudier smudge of the valleys. It was typical frontier scenery, though Conway had never viewed it before from such an altitude. It was also, which struck him as odd, nowhere that he could imagine near Peshawar. “I don’t recognize this part of the world,” he commented. Then, more privately, for he did not wish to alarm the others, he added into Mallinson’s ear: “Looks as if you’re right. The man’s lost his way.”
The plane was swooping down at a tremendous speed, and as it did so, the air grew hotter; the scorched earth below was like an oven with the door suddenly opened. One mountaintop after another lifted itself above the horizon in craggy silhouette; now the flight was along a curving valley, the base of which was strewn with rocks and the debris of dried-up watercourses. It looked like a floor littered with nutshells. The plane bumped and tossed in air pockets as uncomfortably as a rowboat in a swell. All four passengers had to hold onto their seats.
“Looks like he wants to land!” shouted the American hoarsely.
“He can’t!” Mallinson retorted. “He’d be simply mad if he tried to! He’ll crash and then—”
But the pilot did land. A small cleared space opened by the side of a gully, and with considerable skill the machine was jolted and heaved to a standstill. What happened after that, however, was more puzzling and less reassuring. A swarm of bearded and turbaned tribesmen came forward from all directions, surrounding the machine and effectively preventing anyone from getting out of it except the pilot. The latter clambered to earth and held excited colloquy with them, during which proceeding it became clear that, so far from being Fenner, he was not an Englishman at all, and possibly not even a European. Meanwhile cans of gasoline were fetched from a dump close by, and emptied into the exceptionally capacious tanks. Grins and disregarding silence met the shouts of the four imprisoned passengers, while the slightest attempt to alight provoked a menacing movement from a score of rifles. Conway, who knew a little Pushtu, harangued the tribesmen as well as he could in that language, but without effect; while the pilot’s sole retort to any remarks addressed to him in any language was a significant flourish of his revolver. Midday sunlight, blazing on the roof of the cabin, grilled the air inside till the occupants were almost fainting with the heat and with the exertion of their protests. They were quite powerless; it had been a condition of the evacuation that they should carry no arms.
When the tanks were at last screwed up, a gasoline can filled with tepid water was handed through one of the cabin windows. No questions were answered, though it did not appear that the men were personally hostile. After a further parley the pilot climbed back into the cockpit, a Pathan clumsily swung the propeller, and the flight was resumed. The takeoff, in that confined space and with the extra gasoline load, was even more skillful than the landing. The plane rose high into the hazy vapors; then turned east, as if setting a course. It was mid-afternoon.
A most extraordinary and bewildering business! As the cooler air refreshed them, the passengers could hardly believe that it had really happened; it was an outrage to which none could recall any parallel, or suggest any precedent, in all the turbulent records of the frontier. It would have been incredible, indeed, had they not been victims of it themselves. It was quite natural that high indignation should follow incredulity, and anxious speculation only when indignation had worn itself out. Mallinson then developed the theory which, in the absence of any other, they found easiest to accept. They were being kidnaped for ransom. The trick was by no means new in itself, though this particular technique must be regarded as original. It was a little more comforting to feel that they were not making entirely virgin history; after all, there had been kidnapings before, and a good many of them had ended up all right. The tribesmen kept you in some lair in the mountains till the government paid up and you were released. You were treated quite decently, and as the money that had to be paid wasn’t your own, the whole business was only unpleasant while it lasted. Afterwards, of course, the Air people sent a bombing squadron, and you were left with one good story to tell for the rest of your life. Mallinson enunciated the proposition a shade nervously; but Barnard, the American, chose to be heavily facetious. “Well, gentlemen, I daresay this is a cute idea on somebody’s part, but I can’t exactly see that your air force has covered itself with glory. You Britishers make jokes about the holdups in Chicago and all that, but I don’t recollect any instance of a gunman running off with one of Uncle Sam’s aeroplanes. And I should like to know, by the way, what this fellow did with the real pilot. Sandbagged him, I bet.” He yawned. He was a large, fleshy man, with a hard-bitten face in which good-humored wrinkles were not quite offset by pessimistic pouches. Nobody in Baskul had known much about him except that he had arrived from Persia, where it was presumed he had something to do with oil.
Conway meanwhile was busying himself with a very practical task. He had collected every scrap of paper that they all had, and was composing messages in various native languages to be dropped to earth at intervals. It was a slender chance, in such sparsely populated country, but worth taking.
The fourth occupant, Miss Brinklow, sat tight-lipped and straight-backed, with few comments and no complaints. She was a small, rather leathery woman, with an air of having been compelled to attend a party at which there were goings-on that she could not wholly approve.
Conway had talked less than the two other men, for translating SOS messages into dialects was a mental exercise requiring concentration. He had, however, answered questions when asked, and had agreed, tentatively, with Mallinson’s kidnapping theory. He had also agreed, to some extent, with Barnard’s strictures on the air force. “Though one can see, of course, how it may have happened. With the place in commotion as it was, one man in flying kit would look very much like another. No one would think of doubting the bona fides of any man in the proper clothes who looked as if he knew his job. And this fellow MUST have known it—the signals, and so forth. Pretty obvious, too, that he knows how to fly … still, I agree with you that it’s the sort of thing that someone ought to get into hot water about. And somebody will, you may be sure, though I suspect he won’t deserve it.”
“Well, sir,” responded Barnard, “I certainly do admire the way you manage to see both sides of the question. It’s the right spirit to have, no doubt, even when you’re being taken for a ride.”
Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronizing things without being offensive. He smiled tolerantly, but did not continue the conversation. His tiredness was of a kind that no amount of possible peril could stave off. Towards late afternoon, when Barnard and Mallinson, who had been arguing, appealed to him on some point, it appeared that he had fallen asleep.
“Dead beat,” Mallinson commented. “And I don’t wonder at it, after these last few weeks.”
“You’re his friend?” queried Barnard.
“I’ve worked with him at the Consulate. I happen to know that he hasn’t been in bed for the last four nights. As a matter of fact, we’re damned lucky in having him with us in a tight corner like this. Apart from knowing the languages, he’s got a sort of way with him in dealing with people. If anyone can get us out of the mess, he’ll do it. He’s pretty cool about most things.”
“Well, let him have his sleep, then,” agreed Barnard.
Miss Brinklow made one of her rare remarks. “I think he LOOKS like a very brave man,” she said.
Conway was far less certain that he WAS a very brave man. He had closed his eyes in sheer physical fatigue, but without actually sleeping. He could hear and feel every movement of the plane, and he heard also, with mixed feelings, Mallinson’s eulogy of himself. It was then that he had his doubts, recognizing a tight sensation in his stomach which was his own bodily reaction to a disquieting mental survey. He was not, as he knew well from experience, one of those persons who love danger for its own sake. There was an aspect of it which he sometimes enjoyed, an excitement, a purgative effect upon sluggish emotions, but he was far from fond of risking his life. Twelve years earlier he had grown to hate the perils of trench warfare in France, and had several times avoided death by declining to attempt valorous impossibilities. Even his D.S.O. had been won, not so much by physical courage, as by a certain hardly developed technique of endurance. And since the war, whenever there had been danger ahead, he had faced it with increasing lack of relish unless it promised extravagant dividends in thrills.
He still kept his eyes closed. He was touched, and a little dismayed, by what he had heard Mallinson say. It was his fate in life to have his equanimity always mistaken for pluck, whereas it was actually something much more dispassionate and much less virile. They were all in a damnably awkward situation, it seemed to him, and so far from being full of bravery about it, he felt chiefly an enormous distaste for whatever trouble might be in store. There was Miss Brinklow, for instance. He foresaw that in certain circumstances he would have to act on the supposition that because she was a woman she mattered far more than the rest of them put together, and he shrank from a situation in which such disproportionate behavior might be unavoidable.
Nevertheless, when he showed signs of wakefulness, it was to Miss Brinklow that he spoke first. He realized that she was neither young nor pretty—negative virtues, but immensely helpful ones in such difficulties as those in which they might soon find themselves. He was also rather sorry for her, because he suspected that neither Mallinson nor the American liked missionaries, especially female ones. He himself was unprejudiced, but he was afraid she would find his open mind a less familiar and therefore an even more disconcerting phenomenon. “We seem to be in a queer fix,” he said, leaning forward to her ear, “but I’m glad you’re taking it calmly. I don’t really think anything dreadful is going to happen to us.”
“I’m certain it won’t if you can prevent it,” she answered; which did not console him.
“You must let me know if there is anything we can do to make you more comfortable.”
Barnard caught the word. “Comfortable?” he echoed raucously. “Why, of course we’re comfortable. We’re just enjoying the trip. Pity we haven’t a pack of cards—we could play a rubber of bridge.”
Conway welcomed the spirit of the remark, though he disliked bridge. “I don’t suppose Miss Brinklow plays,” he said, smiling.
But the missionary turned round briskly to retort: “Indeed I do, and I could never see any harm in cards at all. There’s nothing against them in the Bible.”
They all laughed, and seemed obliged to her for providing an excuse. At any rate, Conway thought, she wasn’t hysterical.
All afternoon the plane had soared through the thin mists of the upper atmosphere, far too high to give clear sight of what lay beneath. Sometimes, at longish intervals, the veil was torn for a moment, to display the jagged outline of a peak, or the glint of some unknown stream. The direction could be determined roughly from the sun; it was still east, with occasional twists to the north; but where it had led depended on the speed of travel, which Conway could not judge with any accuracy. It seemed likely, though, that the flight must already have exhausted a good deal of the gasoline; though that again depended on uncertain factors. Conway had no technical knowledge of aircraft, but he was sure that the pilot, whoever he might be, was altogether an expert. That halt in the rock-strewn valley had demonstrated it, and also other incidents since. And Conway could not repress a feeling that was always his in the presence of any superb and indisputable competence. He was so used to being appealed to for help that mere awareness of someone who would neither ask nor need it was slightly tranquilizing, even amidst the greater perplexities of the future. But he did not expect his companions to share such a tenuous emotion. He recognized that they were likely to have far more personal reasons for anxiety than he had himself. Mallinson, for instance, was engaged to a girl in England; Barnard might be married; Miss Brinklow had her work, vocation, or however she might regard it. Mallinson, incidentally, was by far the least composed; as the hours passed he showed himself increasingly excitable—apt, also, to resent to Conway’s face the very coolness which he had praised behind his back. Once, above the roar of the engine, a sharp storm of argument arose. “Look here,” Mallinson shouted angrily, “are we bound to sit here twiddling our thumbs while this maniac does everything he damn well wants? What’s to prevent us from smashing that panel and having it out with him?”
“Nothing at all,” replied Conway, “except that he’s armed and we’re not, and that in any case, none of us would know how to bring the machine to earth afterwards.”
“It can’t be very hard, surely. I daresay you could do it.”
“My dear Mallinson, why is it always ME you expect to perform these miracles?”
“Well, anyway, this business is getting hellishly on my nerves. Can’t we MAKE the fellow come down?”
“How do you suggest it should be done?”
Mallinson was becoming more and more agitated. “Well, he’s THERE, isn’t he? About six feet away from us, and we’re three men to one! Have we got to stare at his damned back all the time? At least we might force him to tell us what the game is.”
“Very well, we’ll see.” Conway took a few paces forward to the partition between the cabin and the pilot’s cockpit, which was situated in front and somewhat above. There was a pane of glass, about six inches square and made to slide open, through which the pilot, by turning his head and stooping slightly, could communicate with his passengers. Conway tapped on this with his knuckles. The response was almost comically as he had expected. The glass panel slid sideways and the barrel of a revolver obtruded. Not a word; just that. Conway retreated without arguing the point, and the panel slid back again.
Mallinson, who had watched the incident, was only partly satisfied. “I don’t suppose he’d have dared to shoot,” he commented. “It’s probably bluff.”
“Quite,” agreed Conway, “but I’d rather leave you to make sure.”
“Well, I do feel we ought to put up some sort of a fight before giving in tamely like this.”
Conway was sympathetic. He recognized the convention, with all its associations of red-coated soldiers and school history books, that Englishmen fear nothing, never surrender, and are never defeated. He said: “Putting up a fight without a decent chance of winning is a poor game, and I’m not that sort of hero.”
“Good for you, sir,” interposed Barnard heartily. “When somebody’s got you by the short hairs you may as well give in pleasantly and admit it. For my part I’m going to enjoy life while it lasts and have a cigar. I hope you don’t think a little bit of extra danger matters to us?”
“Not so far as I’m concerned, but it might bother Miss Brinklow.”
Barnard was quick to make amends. “Pardon me, madam, but do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all,” she answered graciously. “I don’t do so myself, but I just love the smell of a cigar.”
Conway felt that of all the women who could possibly have made such a remark, she was easily the most typical. Anyhow, Mallinson’s excitement had calmed a little, and to show friendliness he offered him a cigarette, though he did not light one himself. “I know how you feel,” he said gently. “It’s a bad outlook, and it’s all the worse, in some ways, because there isn’t much we can do about it.”
“And all the better, too, in other ways,” he could not help adding to himself. For he was still immensely fatigued. There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all. Both were included in his job, and he made the best of them, but he was always ready to give way to anyone else who could function as well or better. It was partly this, no doubt, that had made his success in the Service less striking than it might have been. He was not ambitious enough to shove his way past others, or to make an important parade of doing nothing when there was really nothing doing. His dispatches were sometimes laconic to the point of curtness, and his calm in emergencies, though admired, was often suspected of being too sincere. Authority likes to feel that a man is imposing some effort on himself, and that his apparent nonchalance is only a cloak to disguise an outfit of well-bred emotions. With Conway the dark suspicion had sometimes been current that he really was as unruffled as he looked, and that whatever happened, he did not give a damn. But this, too, like the laziness, was an imperfect interpretation. What most observers failed to perceive in him was something quite bafflingly simple—a love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone.
Now, since he was so inclined and there was nothing else to do, he leaned back in the basket chair and went definitely to sleep. When he woke he noticed that the others, despite their various anxieties, had likewise succumbed. Miss Brinklow was sitting bolt upright with her eyes closed, like some rather dingy and outmoded idol; Mallinson had lolled forward in his place with his chin in the palm of a hand. The American was even snoring. Very sensible of them all, Conway thought; there was no point in wearying themselves with shouting. But immediately he was aware of certain physical sensations in himself, slight dizziness and heart-thumping and a tendency to inhale sharply and with effort. He remembered similar symptoms once before—in the Swiss Alps.
Then he turned to the window and gazed out. The surrounding sky had cleared completely, and in the light of late afternoon there came to him a vision which, for the instant, snatched the remaining breath out of his lungs. Far away, at the very limit of distance, lay range upon range of snow peaks, festooned with glaciers, and floating, in appearance, upon vast levels of cloud. They compassed the whole arc of the circle, merging towards the west in a horizon that was fierce, almost garish in coloring, like an impressionist backdrop done by some half-mad genius. And meanwhile, the plane, on that stupendous stage, was droning over an abyss in the face of a sheer white wall that seemed part of the sky itself until the sun caught it. Then, like a dozen piled-up Jungfraus seen from Mürren, it flamed into superb and dazzling incandescence.
Conway was not apt to be easily impressed, and as a rule he did not care for “views,” especially the more famous ones for which thoughtful municipalities provide garden seats. Once, on being taken to Tiger Hill, near Darjeeling, to watch the sunrise upon Everest, he had found the highest mountain in the world a definite disappointment. But this fearsome spectacle beyond the window-pane was of different caliber; it had no air of posing to be admired. There was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice cliffs, and a certain sublime impertinence in approaching them thus. He pondered, envisioning maps, calculating distances, estimating times and speeds. Then he became aware that Mallinson had wakened also. He touched the youth on the arm.