It was typical of Conway that he let the others waken for themselves, and made small response to their exclamations of astonishment; yet later, when Barnard sought his opinion, gave it with something of the detached fluency of a university professor elucidating a problem. He thought it likely, he said, that they were still in India; they had been flying east for several hours, too high to see much, but probably the course had been along some river valley, one stretching roughly east and west. “I wish I hadn’t to rely on memory, but my impression is that the valley of the upper Indus fits in well enough. That would have brought us by now to a very spectacular part of the world, and, as you see, so it has.”
“You know where we are, then?” Barnard interrupted.
“Well, no—I’ve never been anywhere near here before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that mountain is Nanga Parbat, the one Mummery lost his life on. In structure and general layout it seems in accord with all I’ve heard about it.”
“You are a mountaineer yourself?”
“In my younger days I was keen. Only the usual Swiss climbs, of course.”
Mallinson intervened peevishly: “There’d be more point in discussing where we’re going to. I wish to God somebody could tell us.”
“Well, it looks to me as if we’re heading for that range yonder,” said Barnard. “Don’t you think so, Conway? You’ll excuse me calling you that, but if we’re all going to have a little adventure together, it’s a pity to stand on ceremony.”
Conway thought it very natural that anyone should call him by his own name, and found Barnard’s apologies for so doing a trifle needless. “Oh, certainly,” he agreed, and added: “I think that range must be the Karakorams. There are several passes if our man intends to cross them.”
“Our man?” exclaimed Mallinson. “You mean our maniac! I reckon it’s time we dropped the kidnaping theory. We’re far past the frontier country by now, there aren’t any tribes living around here. The only explanation I can think of is that the fellow’s a raving lunatic. Would anybody except a lunatic fly into this sort of country?”
“I know that nobody except a damn fine airman COULD,” retorted Barnard. “I never was great at geography, but I understand that these are reputed to be the highest mountains in the world, and if that’s so, it’ll be a pretty first-class performance to cross them.”
“And also the will of God,” put in Miss Brinklow unexpectedly.
Conway did not offer his opinion. The will of God or the lunacy of man—it seemed to him that you could take your choice, if you wanted a good enough reason for most things. Or, alternatively (and he thought of it as he contemplated the small orderliness of the cabin against the window background of such frantic natural scenery), the will of man and the lunacy of God. It must be satisfying to be quite certain which way to look at it. Then, while he watched and pondered, a strange transformation took place. The light turned to bluish over the whole mountain, with the lower slopes darkening to violet. Something deeper than his usual aloofness rose in him—not quite excitement, still less fear, but a sharp intensity of expectation. He said: “You’re quite right, Barnard, this affair grows more and more remarkable.”
“Remarkable or not, I don’t feel inclined to propose a vote of thanks about it,” Mallinson persisted. “We didn’t ask to be brought here, and heaven knows what we shall do when we get THERE, wherever THERE is. And I don’t see that it’s any less of an outrage because the fellow happens to be a stunt flyer. Even if he is, he can be just as much a lunatic. I once heard of a pilot going mad in midair. This fellow must have been mad from the beginning. That’s my theory, Conway.”
Conway was silent. He found it irksome to be continually shouting above the roar of the machine, and after all, there was little point in arguing possibilities. But when Mallinson pressed for an opinion, he said: “Very well-organized lunacy, you know. Don’t forget the landing for gasoline, and also that this was the only machine that could climb to such a height.”
“That doesn’t prove he isn’t mad. He may have been mad enough to plan everything.”
“Yes, of course, that’s possible.”
“Well, then, we’ve got to decide on a plan of action. What are we going to do when he comes to earth? If he doesn’t crash and kill us all, that is. What are we going to do? Rush forward and congratulate him on his marvelous flight, I suppose.”
“Not on your life,” answered Barnard. “I’ll leave you to do all the rushing forward.”
Again Conway was loth to prolong the argument, especially since the American, with his levelheaded banter, seemed quite capable of handling it himself. Already Conway found himself reflecting that the party might have been far less fortunately constituted. Only Mallinson was inclined to be cantankerous, and that might partly be due to the altitude. Rarefied air had different effects on people; Conway, for instance, derived from it a combination of mental clarity and physical apathy that was not unpleasant. Indeed, he breathed the clear cold air in little spasms of content. The whole situation, no doubt, was appalling, but he had no power at the moment to resent anything that proceeded so purposefully and with such captivating interest.
And there came over him, too, as he stared at that superb mountain, a glow of satisfaction that there were such places still left on earth, distant, inaccessible, as yet unhumanized. The icy rampart of the Karakorams was now more striking than ever against the northern sky, which had become mouse-colored and sinister; the peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity. Those few thousand feet by which they fell short of the known giants might save them eternally from the climbing expedition; they offered a less tempting lure to the record-breaker. Conway was the antithesis of such a type; he was inclined to see vulgarity in the Western ideal of superlatives, and “the utmost for the highest” seemed to him a less reasonable and perhaps more commonplace proposition than “the much for the high.” He did not, in fact, care for excessive striving, and he was bored by mere exploits.
While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky. The air grew cold and a wind sprang up, tossing the machine uncomfortably. These new distresses lowered the spirits of the passengers; it had not been reckoned that the flight could go on after dusk, and now the last hope lay in the exhaustion of gasoline. That, however, was bound to come soon. Mallinson began to argue about it, and Conway, with some reluctance, for he really did not know, gave as his estimate that the utmost distance might be anything up to a thousand miles, of which they must already have covered most. “Well, where would that bring us?” queried the youth miserably.
“It’s not easy to judge, but probably some part of Tibet. If these are the Karakorams, Tibet lies beyond. One of the crests, by the way, must be K2, which is generally counted the second highest mountain in the world.”
“Next on the list after Everest,” commented Barnard. “Gee, this is some scenery.”
“And from a climber’s point of view much stiffer than Everest. The Duke of Abruzzi gave it up as an absolutely impossible peak.”
“OH, GOD!” muttered Mallinson testily, but Barnard laughed. “I guess you must be the official guide on this trip, Conway, and I’ll admit that if I only had a flash of café cognac I wouldn’t care if it’s Tibet or Tennessee.”
“But what are we going to do about it?” urged Mallinson again. “Why are we here? What can be the point of it all? I don’t see how you can make jokes about it.”
“Well, it’s as good as making a scene about it, young fellow. Besides, if the man IS off his nut, as you’ve suggested, there probably ISN’T any point.”
“He MUST be mad. I can’t think of any other explanation. Can you, Conway?”
Conway shook his head.
Miss Brinklow turned round as she might have done during the interval of a play. “As you haven’t asked my opinion, perhaps I oughtn’t to give it,” she began, with shrill modesty, “but I should like to say that I agree with Mr. Mallinson. I’m sure the poor man can’t be quite right in his head. The pilot, I mean, of course. There would be no excuse for him, anyhow, if he were NOT mad.” She added, shouting confidentially above the din: “And do you know, this is my first trip by air! My very first! Nothing would ever induce me to do it before, though a friend of mine tried her very best to persuade me to fly from London to Paris.”
“And now you’re flying from India to Tibet instead,” said Barnard. “That’s the way things happen.”
She went on: “I once knew a missionary who had been to Tibet. He said the Tibetans were very odd people. They believe we are descended from monkeys.”
“Real smart of ‘em.”
“Oh, dear, no, I don’t mean in the modern way. They’ve had the belief for hundreds of years, it’s only one of their superstitions. Of course I’m against all of it myself, and I think Darwin was far worse than any Tibetan. I take my stand on the Bible.”
“Fundamentalist, I suppose?”
But Miss Brinklow did not appear to understand the term. “I used to belong to the L.M.S.,” she shrieked, “but I disagreed with them about infant baptism.”
Conway continued to feel that this was a rather comic remark long after it had occurred to him that the initials were those of the London Missionary Society. Still picturing the inconveniences of holding a theological argument at Euston Station, he began to think that there was something slightly fascinating about Miss Brinklow. He even wondered if he could offer her any article of his clothing for the night, but decided at length that her constitution was probably wirier than his. So he huddled up, closed his eyes, and went quite easily and peacefully to sleep.
And the flight proceeded.
Suddenly they were all wakened by a lurch of the machine. Conway’s head struck the window, dazing him for the moment; a returning lurch sent him floundering between the two tiers of seats. It was much colder. The first thing he did, automatically, was to glance at his watch; it showed half-past one, he must have been asleep for some time. His ears were full of a loud, flapping sound, which he took to be imaginary until he realized that the engine had been shut off and that the plane was rushing against a gale. Then he stared through the window and could see the earth quite close, vague and snail-gray, scampering underneath. “He’s going to land!” Mallinson shouted; and Barnard, who had also been flung out of his seat, responded with a saturnine: “If he’s lucky.” Miss Brinklow, whom the entire commotion seemed to have disturbed least of all, was adjusting her hat as calmly as if Dover Harbor were just in sight.
Presently the plane touched ground. But it was a bad landing this time—”Oh, my God, damned bad, DAMNED bad!” Mallinson groaned as he clutched at his seat during ten seconds of crashing and swaying. Something was heard to strain and snap, and one of the tires exploded. “That’s done it,” he added in tones of anguished pessimism. “A broken tailskid, we’ll have to stay where we are now, that’s certain.”
Conway, never talkative at times of crisis, stretched his stiffened legs and felt his head where it had banged against the window. A bruise, nothing much. He must do something to help these people. But he was the last of the four to stand up when the plane came to rest. “Steady,” he called out as Mallinson wrenched open the door of the cabin and prepared to make the jump to earth; and eerily, in the comparative silence, the youth’s answer came: “No need to be steady—this looks like the end of the world—there’s not a soul about, anyhow.”
A moment later, chilled and shivering, they were all aware that this was so. With no sound in their ears save the fierce gusts of wind and their own crunching footsteps, they felt themselves at the mercy of something dour and savagely melancholy—a mood in which both earth and air were saturated. The moon looked to have disappeared behind clouds, and starlight illumined a tremendous emptiness heaving with wind. Without thought or knowledge, one could have guessed that this bleak world was mountain-high, and that the mountains rising from it were mountains on top of mountains. A range of them gleamed on a far horizon like a row of dogteeth.
Mallinson, feverishly active, was already making for the cockpit. “I’m not scared of the fellow on land, whoever he is,” he cried. “I’m going to tackle him right away. …”
The others watched apprehensively, hypnotized by the spectacle of such energy. Conway sprang after him, but too late to prevent the investigation. After a few seconds, however, the youth dropped down again, gripping his arm and muttering in a hoarse, sobered staccato: “I say, Conway, it’s queer. … I think the fellow’s ill or dead or something … I can’t get a word out of him. Come up and look. … I took his revolver, at any rate.”
“Better give it to me,” said Conway, and though still rather dazed by the recent blow on his head, he nerved himself for action. Of all times and places and situations on earth, this seemed to him to combine the most hideous discomforts. He hoisted himself stiffly into a position from which he could see, not very well, into the enclosed cockpit. There was a strong smell of gasoline, so he did not risk striking a match. He could just discern the pilot, huddled forward, his head sprawling over the controls. He shook him, unfastened his helmet, and loosened the clothes round his neck. A moment later he turned round to report: “Yes, there’s something happened to him. We must get him out.” But an observer might have added that something had happened to Conway as well. His voice was sharper, more incisive; no longer did he seem to be hovering on the brink of some profound doubtfulness. The time, the place, the cold, his fatigue, were now of less account; there was a job that simply had to be done, and the more conventional part of him was uppermost and preparing to do it.
With Barnard and Mallinson assisting, the pilot was extracted from his seat and lifted to the ground. He was unconscious, not dead. Conway had no particular medical knowledge, but, as to most men who have lived in outlandish places, the phenomena of illness were mostly familiar. “Possibly a heart attack brought on by the high altitude,” he diagnosed, stooping over the unknown man. “We can do very little for him out here—there’s no shelter from this infernal wind. Better get him inside the cabin, and ourselves too. We haven’t an idea where we are, and it’s hopeless to make a move until daylight.”
The verdict and the suggestion were both accepted without dispute. Even Mallinson concurred. They carried the man into the cabin and laid him full length along the gangway between the seats. The interior was no warmer than outside, but offered a screen to the flurries of wind. It was the wind, before much time had passed, that became the central preoccupation of them all—the leitmotif, as it were, of the whole mournful night. It was not an ordinary wind. It was not merely a strong wind or a cold wind. It was somehow a frenzy that lived all around them, a master stamping and ranting over his own domain. It tilted the loaded machine and shook it viciously, and when Conway glanced through the windows it seemed as if the wind were whirling splinters of light out of the stars.
The stranger lay inert, while Conway, with difficulty in the dimness and confined space, made what examination he could by the light of matches. But it did not reveal much. “His heart’s faint,” he said at last, and then Miss Brinklow, after groping in her handbag, created a small sensation. “I wonder if this would be any use to the poor man,” she proffered condescendingly. “I never touch a drop myself, but I always carry it with me in case of accidents. And this IS a sort of accident, isn’t it?”
“I should say it was,” replied Conway with grimness. He unscrewed the bottle, smelt it, and poured some of the brandy into the man’s mouth. “Just the stuff for him. Thanks.” After an interval the slightest movement of eyelids was visible. Mallinson suddenly became hysterical. “I can’t help it,” he cried, laughing wildly. “We all look such a lot of damn fools striking matches over a corpse. … And he isn’t much of a beauty, is he? Chink, I should say, if he’s anything at all.”
“Possibly.” Conway’s voice was level and rather severe. “But he’s not a corpse yet. With a bit of luck we may bring him round.”
“Luck? It’ll be his luck, not ours.”
“Don’t be too sure. And shut up for the time being, anyhow.”
There was enough of the schoolboy still in Mallinson to make him respond to the curt command of a senior, though he was obviously in poor control of himself. Conway, though sorry for him, was more concerned with the immediate problem of the pilot, since he, alone of them all, might be able to give some explanation of their plight. Conway had no desire to discuss the matter further in a merely speculative way; there had been enough of that during the journey. He was uneasy now beyond his continuing mental curiosity, for he was aware that the whole situation had ceased to be excitingly perilous and was threatening to become a trial of endurance ending in catastrophe. Keeping vigil throughout that gale-tormented night, he faced facts nonetheless frankly because he did not trouble to enunciate them to the others. He guessed that the flight had progressed far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun. In that event they would by now have reached the loftiest and least hospitable part of the earth’s surface, the Tibetan plateau, two miles high even in its lowest valleys, a vast, uninhabited, and largely unexplored region of windswept upland. Somewhere they were, in that forlorn country, marooned in far less comfort than on most desert islands. Then abruptly, as if to answer his curiosity by increasing it, a rather awe-inspiring change took place. The moon, which he had thought to be hidden by clouds, swung over the lip of some shadowy eminence and, whilst still not showing itself directly, unveiled the darkness ahead. Conway could see the outline of a long valley, with rounded, sad-looking low hills on either side jet-black against the deep electric blue of the night sky. But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly, for there, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it, and impossible to classify as to size, height or nearness. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all. Then, while he gazed, a tiny puff clouded the edge of the pyramid, giving life to the vision before the faint rumble of the avalanche confirmed it.
He had an impulse to rouse the others to share the spectacle, but decided after consideration that its effect might not be tranquilizing. Nor was it so, from a commonsense viewpoint; such virgin splendors merely emphasized the facts of isolation and danger. There was quite a probability that the nearest human settlement was hundreds of miles away. And they had no food; they were unarmed except for one revolver; the aeroplane was damaged and almost fuel-less, even if anyone had known how to fly. They had no clothes suited to the terrific chills and winds; Mallinson’s motoring coat and his own ulster were quite inadequate, and even Miss Brinklow, woolied and mufflered as for a polar expedition (ridiculous, he had thought, on first beholding her), could not be feeling happy. They were all, too, except himself, affected by the altitude. Even Barnard had sunk into melancholy under the strain. Mallinson was muttering to himself; it was clear what would happen to him if these hardships went on for long. In face of such distressful prospects Conway found himself quite unable to restrain an admiring glance at Miss Brinklow. She was not, he reflected, a normal person, no woman who taught Afghans to sing hymns could be considered so. But she was, after every calamity, still normally abnormal, and he was deeply obliged to her for it. “I hope you’re not feeling too bad?” he said sympathetically, when he caught her eye.
“The soldiers during the war had to suffer worse things than this,” she replied.
The comparison did not seem to Conway a very valuable one. In point of fact, he had never spent a night in the trenches quite so thoroughly unpleasant, though doubtless many others had. He had concentrated his attention on the pilot, now breathing fitfully and sometimes slightly stirring. Probably Mallinson was right in guessing the man Chinese. He had the typical Mongol nose and cheekbones, despite his successful impersonation of a British flight lieutenant. Mallinson had called him ugly, but Conway, who had lived in China, thought him a fairly passable specimen, though now, in the burnished circle of match flame, his pallid skin and gaping mouth were not pretty.
The night dragged on, as if each minute were something heavy and tangible that had to be pushed to make way for the next. Moonlight faded after a time, and with it that distant specter of the mountain; then the triple mischiefs of darkness, cold, and wind increased until dawn. As though at its signal, the wind dropped, leaving the world in compassionate quietude. Framed in the pale triangle ahead, the mountain showed again, gray at first, then silver, then pink as the earliest sun rays caught the summit. In the lessening gloom the valley itself took shape, revealing a floor of rock and shingle sloping upwards. It was not a friendly picture, but to Conway, as he surveyed, there came a queer perception of fineness in it, of something that had no romantic appeal at all, but a steely, almost an intellectual quality. The white pyramid in the distance compelled the mind’s assent as passionlessly as a Euclidean theorem, and when at last the sun rose into a sky of deep delphinium blue, he felt only a little less than comfortable again.
As the air grew warmer the others wakened, and he suggested carrying the pilot into the open, where the sharp dry air and the sunlight might help to revive him. This was done, and they began a second and pleasanter vigil. Eventually the man opened his eyes and began to speak convulsively. His four passengers stooped over him, listening intently to sounds that were meaningless except to Conway, who occasionally made answers. After some time the man became weaker, talked with increasing difficulty, and finally died. That was about mid-morning.
Conway then turned to his companions. “I’m sorry to say he told me very little—little, I mean, compared with what we should like to know. Merely that we are in Tibet, which is obvious. He didn’t give any coherent account of why he had brought us here, but he seemed to know the locality. He spoke a kind of Chinese that I don’t understand very well, but I think he said something about a lamasery near here, along the valley, I gathered, where we could get food and shelter. Shangri-La, he called it. La is Tibetan for mountain pass. He was most emphatic that we should go there.”
“Which doesn’t seem to me any reason at all why we should,” said Mallinson. “After all, he was probably off his head. Wasn’t he?”
“You know as much about that as I do. But if we don’t go to this place, where else are we to go?”
“Anywhere you like, I don’t care. All I’m certain of is that this Shangri-La, if it’s in that direction, must be a few extra miles from civilization. I should feel happier if we were lessening the distance, not increasing it. Damnation, man, aren’t you going to get us back?”
Conway replied patiently: “I don’t think you properly understand the position, Mallinson. We’re in a part of the world that no one knows very much about, except that it’s difficult and dangerous even for a fully equipped expedition. Considering that hundreds of miles of this sort of country probably surround us on all sides, the notion of walking back to Peshawar doesn’t strike me as very hopeful.”
“I don’t think I could possibly manage it,” said Miss Brinklow seriously.
Barnard nodded. “It looks as if we’re darned lucky, then, if this lamasery IS just around the corner.”
“Comparatively lucky, maybe,” agreed Conway. “After all, we’ve no food, and as you can see for yourselves, the country isn’t the kind it would be easy to live on. In a few hours we shall all be famished. And then tonight, if we were to stay here, we should have to face the wind and the cold again. It’s not a pleasant prospect. Our only chance, it seems to me, is to find some other human beings, and where else should we begin looking for them except where we’ve been told they exist?”
“And what if it’s a trap?” asked Mallinson, but Barnard supplied an answer. “A nice warm trap,” he said, “with a piece of cheese in it, would suit me down to the ground.”
They laughed, except Mallinson, who looked distraught and nerve-racked. Finally Conway went on: “I take it, then, that we’re all more or less agreed? There’s an obvious way along the valley; it doesn’t look too steep, though we shall have to take it slowly. In any case, we could do nothing here. We couldn’t even bury this man without dynamite. Besides, the lamasery people may be able to supply us with porters for the journey back. We shall need them. I suggest we start at once, so that if we don’t locate the place by late afternoon we shall have time to return for another night in the cabin.”
“And supposing we DO locate it?” queried Mallinson, still intransigeant. “Have we any guarantee that we shan’t be murdered?”
“None at all. But I think it is a less, and perhaps also a preferable risk to being starved or frozen to death.” He added, feeling that such chilly logic might not be entirely suited for the occasion: “As a matter of fact, murder is the very last thing one would expect in a Buddhist monastery. It would be rather less likely than being killed in an English cathedral.”
“Like Saint Thomas of Canterbury,” said Miss Brinklow, nodding an emphatic agreement, but completely spoiling his point. Mallinson shrugged his shoulders and responded with melancholy irritation: “Very well, then, we’ll be off to Shangri-La. Wherever and whatever it is, we’ll try it. But let’s hope it’s not half-way up that mountain.”
The remark served to fix their glances on the glittering cone towards which the valley pointed. Sheerly magnificent it looked in the full light of day; and then their gaze turned to a stare, for they could see, far away and approaching them down the slope, the figures of men. “Providence!” whispered Miss Brinklow.