Part of Conway was always an onlooker, however active might be the rest. Just now, while waiting for the strangers to come nearer, he refused to be fussed into deciding what he might or mightn’t do in any number of possible contingencies. And this was not bravery, or coolness, or any especially sublime confidence in his own power to make decisions on the spur of the moment. It was, if the worst view be taken, a form of indolence, an unwillingness to interrupt his mere spectator’s interest in what was happening.
As the figures moved down the valley they revealed themselves to be a party of a dozen or more, carrying with them a hooded chair. In this, a little later, could be discerned a person robed in blue. Conway could not imagine where they were all going, but it certainly seemed providential, as Miss Brinklow had said, that such a detachment should chance to be passing just there and then. As soon as he was within hailing distance he left his own party and walked ahead, though not hurriedly, for he knew that Orientals enjoy the ritual of meeting and like to take their time over it. Halting when a few yards off, he bowed with due courtesy. Much to his surprise the robed figure stepped from the chair, came forward with dignified deliberation, and held out his hand. Conway responded, and observed an old or elderly Chinese, gray-haired, clean-shaven, and rather pallidly decorative in a silk embroidered gown. He in his turn appeared to be submitting Conway to the same kind of reckoning. Then, in precise and perhaps too accurate English, he said: “I am from the lamasery of Shangri-La.”
Conway bowed again, and after a suitable pause began to explain briefly the circumstances that had brought him and his three companions to such an unfrequented part of the world. At the end of the recital the Chinese made a gesture of understanding. “It is indeed remarkable,” he said, and gazed reflectively at the damaged aeroplane. Then he added: “My name is Chang, if you would be so good as to present me to your friends.”
Conway managed to smile urbanely. He was rather taken with this latest phenomenon, a Chinese who spoke perfect English and observed the social formalities of Bond Street amidst the wilds of Tibet. He turned to the others, who had by this time caught up and were regarding the encounter with varying degrees of astonishment. “Miss Brinklow … Mr. Barnard, who is an American … Mr. Mallinson … and my own name is Conway. We are all glad to see you, though the meeting is almost as puzzling as the fact of our being here at all. Indeed, we were just about to make our way to your lamasery, so it is doubly fortunate. If you could give us directions for the journey—”
“There is no need for that. I shall be delighted to act as your guide.”
“But I could not think of putting you to such trouble. It is exceedingly kind of you, but if the distance is not far—”
“It is not far, but it is not easy, either. I shall esteem it an honor to accompany you and your friends.”
“I must insist.”
Conway thought that the argument, in its context of place and circumstance, was in some danger of becoming ludicrous. “Very well,” he responded. “I’m sure we are all most obliged.”
Mallinson, who had been somberly enduring these pleasantries, now interposed with something of the shrill acerbity of the barrack square. “Our stay won’t be long,” he announced curtly. “We shall pay for anything we have, and we should like to hire some of your men to help us on our journey back. We want to return to civilization as soon as possible.”
“And are you so very certain that you are away from it?”
The query, delivered with much suavity, only stung the youth to further sharpness. “I’m quite sure I’m far away from where I want to be, and so are we all. We shall be grateful for temporary shelter, but we shall be more grateful still if you’ll provide means for us to return. How long do you suppose the journey to India will take?”
“I really could not say at all.”
“Well, I hope we’re not going to have any trouble about it. I’ve had some experience of hiring native porters, and we shall expect you to use your influence to get us a square deal.”
Conway felt that most of all this was rather needlessly truculent, and he was just about to intervene when the reply came, still with immense dignity: “I can only assure you, Mr. Mallinson, that you will be honorably treated and that ultimately you will have no regrets.”
“ULTIMATELY!” Mallinson exclaimed, pouncing on the word, but there was greater ease in avoiding a scene since wine and fruit were now on offer, having been unpacked by the marching party, stocky Tibetans in sheepskins, fur hats, and yak-skin boots. The wine had a pleasant flavor, not unlike a good hock, while the fruit included mangoes, perfectly ripened and almost painfully delicious after so many hours of fasting. Mallinson ate and drank with incurious relish; but Conway, relieved of immediate worries and reluctant to cherish distant ones, was wondering how mangoes could be cultivated at such an altitude. He was also interested in the mountain beyond the valley; it was a sensational peak, by any standards, and he was surprised that some traveler had not made much of it in the kind of book that a journey in Tibet invariably elicits. He climbed it in mind as he gazed, choosing a route by col and couloir until an exclamation from Mallinson drew his attention back to earth; he looked round then and saw the Chinese had been earnestly regarding him. “You were contemplating the mountain, Mr. Conway?” came the enquiry.
“Yes. It’s a fine sight. It has a name, I suppose?”
“It is called Karakal.”
“I don’t think I ever heard of it. Is it very high?”
“Over twenty-eight thousand feet.”
“Indeed? I didn’t realize there would be anything on that scale outside the Himalayas. Has it been properly surveyed? Whose are the measurements?”
“Whose would you expect, my dear sir? Is there anything incompatible between monasticism and trigonometry?”
Conway savored the phrase and replied: “Oh, not at all—not at all.” Then he laughed politely. He thought it a poorish joke, but one perhaps worth making the most of. Soon after that the journey to Shangri-La was begun.
All morning the climb proceeded, slowly and by easy gradients; but at such height the physical effort was considerable, and none had energy to spare for talk. The Chinese traveled luxuriously in his chair, which might have seemed unchivalrous had it not been absurd to picture Miss Brinklow in such a regal setting. Conway, whom the rarefied air troubled less than the rest, was at pains to catch the occasional chatter of the chair-bearers. He knew a very little Tibetan, just enough to gather that the men were glad to be returning to the lamasery. He could not, even had he wished, have continued to converse with their leader, since the latter, with eyes closed and face half-hidden behind curtains, appeared to have the knack of instant and well-timed sleep.
Meanwhile the sun was warm; hunger and thirst had been appeased, if not satisfied; and the air, clean as from another planet, was more precious with every intake. One had to breathe consciously and deliberately, which, though disconcerting at first, induced after a time an almost ecstatic tranquillity of mind. The whole body moved in a single rhythm of breathing, walking, and thinking; the lungs, no longer discrete and automatic, were disciplined to harmony with mind and limb. Conway, in whom a mystical strain ran in curious consort with skepticism, found himself not unhappily puzzled over the sensation. Once or twice he spoke a cheerful word to Mallinson, but the youth was laboring under the strain of the ascent. Barnard also gasped asthmatically, while Miss Brinklow was engaged in some grim pulmonary warfare which for some reason she made efforts to conceal. “We’re nearly at the top,” Conway said encouragingly.
“I once ran for a train and felt just like this,” she answered.
So also, Conway reflected, there were people who considered cider was just like champagne. It was a matter of palate.
He was surprised to find that beyond his puzzlement he had few misgivings, and none at all on his own behalf. There were moments in life when one opened wide one’s soul just as one might open wide one’s purse if an evening’s entertainment were proving unexpectedly costly but also unexpectedly novel. Conway, on that breathless morning in sight of Karakal, made just such a willing, relieved, yet not excited response to the offer of new experience. After ten years in various parts of Asia he had attained to a somewhat fastidious valuation of places and happenings; and this he was bound to admit promised unusually.
About a couple of miles along the valley the ascent grew steeper, but by this time the sun was overclouded and a silvery mist obscured the view. Thunder and avalanches resounded from the snowfields above; the air took chill, and then, with the sudden changefulness of mountain regions, became bitterly cold. A flurry of wind and sleet drove up, drenching the party and adding immeasurably to their discomfort; even Conway felt at one moment that it would be impossible to go much further. But shortly afterwards it seemed that the summit of the ridge had been reached, for the chair-bearers halted to readjust their burden. The condition of Barnard and Mallinson, who were both suffering severely, led to continued delay; but the Tibetans were clearly anxious to press on, and made signs that the rest of the journey would be less fatiguing.
After these assurances it was disappointing to see them uncoiling ropes. “Do they mean to hang us already?” Barnard managed to exclaim, with desperate facetiousness; but the guides soon showed that their less sinister intention was merely to link the party together in ordinary mountaineering fashion. When they observed that Conway was familiar with rope craft, they became much more respectful and allowed him to dispose the party in his own way. He put himself next to Mallinson, with Tibetans ahead and to the rear, and with Barnard and Miss Brinklow and more Tibetans further back still. He was prompt to notice that the men, during their leader’s continuing sleep, were inclined to let him deputize. He felt a familiar quickening of authority; if there were to be any difficult business he would give what he knew was his to give—confidence and command. He had been a first-class mountaineer in his time, and was still, no doubt, pretty good. “You’ve got to look after Barnard,” he told Miss Brinklow, half jocularly, half meaning it; and she answered with the coyness of an eagle: “I’ll do my best, but you know, I’ve never been roped before.”
But the next stage, though occasionally exciting, was less arduous than he had been prepared for, and a relief from the lung-bursting strain of the ascent. The track consisted of a traverse cut along the flank of a rock wall whose height above them the mist obscured. Perhaps mercifully it also obscured the abyss on the other side, though Conway, who had a good eye for heights, would have liked to see where he was. The path was scarcely more than two feet wide in places, and the manner in which the bearers maneuvered the chair at such points drew his admiration almost as strongly as did the nerves of the occupant who could manage to sleep through it all. The Tibetans were reliable enough, but they seemed happier when the path widened and became slightly downhill. Then they began to sing amongst themselves, lilting barbaric tunes that Conway could imagine orchestrated by Massenet for some Tibetan ballet. The rain ceased and the air grew warmer. “Well, it’s quite certain we could never have found our way here by ourselves,” said Conway intending to be cheerful, but Mallinson did not find the remark very comforting. He was, in fact, acutely terrified, and in more danger of showing it now that the worst was over. “Should we be missing much?” he retorted bitterly. The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?”
Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The war was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”
“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”
“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”
“I suppose you realize the appalling job we shall have to get back by the way we’ve come. We’ve been slithering along the face of a perpendicular mountain for the last hour—I’ve been taking notice.”
“So have I.”
“Have you?” Mallinson coughed excitedly. “I daresay I’m being a nuisance, but I can’t help it. I’m suspicious about all this. I feel we’re doing far too much what these fellows want us to. They’re getting us into a corner.”
“Even if they are, the only alternative was to stay out of it and perish.”
“I know that’s logical, but it doesn’t seem to help. I’m afraid I don’t find it as easy as you do to accept the situation. I can’t forget that two days ago we were in the consulate at Baskul. To think of all that has happened since is a bit overwhelming to me. I’m sorry. I’m overwrought. It makes me realize how lucky I was to miss the war; I suppose I should have got hysterical about things. The whole world seems to have gone completely mad all round me. I must be pretty wild myself to be talking to you like this.”
Conway shook his head. “My dear boy, not at all. You’re twenty-four years old, and you’re somewhere about two and a half miles up in the air: those are reasons enough for anything you may happen to feel at the moment. I think you’ve come through a trying ordeal extraordinarily well, better than I should at your age.”
“But don’t YOU feel the madness of it all? The way we flew over those mountains and that awful waiting in the wind and the pilot dying and then meeting these fellows, doesn’t it all seem nightmarish and incredible when you look back on it?”
“It does, of course.”
“Then I wish I knew how you manage to keep so cool about everything.”
“Do you really wish that? I’ll tell you if you like, though you’ll perhaps think me cynical. It’s because so much else that I can look back on seems nightmarish too. This isn’t the only mad part of the world, Mallinson. After all, if you MUST think of Baskul, do you remember just before we left how the revolutionaries were torturing their captives to get information? An ordinary washing mangle, quite effective, of course, but I don’t think I ever saw anything more comically dreadful. And do you recollect the last message that came through before we were cut off? It was a circular from a Manchester textile firm asking if we knew of any trade openings in Baskul for the sale of corsets! Isn’t that mad enough for you? Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another. And as for the war, if you’d been in it you’d have done the same as I did, learned how to funk with a stiff lip.”
They were still conversing when a sharp but brief ascent robbed them of breath, inducing in a few paces all their earlier strain. Presently the ground leveled, and they stepped out of the mist into clear, sunny air. Ahead, and only a short distance away, lay the lamasery of Shangri-La.
To Conway, seeing it first, it might have been a vision fluttering out of that solitary rhythm in which lack of oxygen had encompassed all his faculties. It was, indeed, a strange and half-incredible sight. A group of colored pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite. An austere emotion carried the eye upward from milk-blue roofs to the gray rock bastion above, tremendous as the Wetterhorn above Grindelwald. Beyond that, in a dazzling pyramid, soared the snow slopes of Karakal. It might well be, Conway thought, the most terrifying mountainscape in the world, and he imagined the immense stress of snow and glacier against which the rock functioned as a gigantic retaining wall. Someday, perhaps, the whole mountain would split, and a half of Karakal’s icy splendor come toppling into the valley. He wondered if the slightness of the risk combined with its fearfulness might even be found agreeably stimulating.
Hardly less an enticement was the downward prospect, for the mountain wall continued to drop, nearly perpendicularly, into a cleft that could only have been the result of some cataclysm in the far past. The floor of the valley, hazily distant, welcomed the eye with greenness; sheltered from winds, and surveyed rather than dominated by the lamasery, it looked to Conway a delightfully favored place, though if it were inhabited its community must be completely isolated by the lofty and sheerly unscalable ranges on the further side. Only to the lamasery did there appear to be any climbable egress at all. Conway experienced, as he gazed, a slight tightening of apprehension; Mallinson’s misgivings were not, perhaps, to be wholly disregarded. But the feeling was only momentary, and soon merged in the deeper sensation, half-mystical, half-visual, of having reached at last some place that was an end, a finality.
He never exactly remembered how he and the others arrived at the lamasery, or with what formalities they were received, unroped, and ushered into the precincts. That thin air had a dream-like texture, matching the porcelain-blue of the sky; with every breath and every glance he took in a deep anesthetizing tranquillity that made him impervious alike to Mallinson’s uneasiness, Barnard’s witticisms, and Miss Brinklow’s portrayal of a lady well prepared for the worst. He vaguely recollected surprise at finding the interior spacious, well warmed, and quite clean; but there was no time to do more than notice these qualities, for the Chinese had left his hooded chair and was already leading the way through various antechambers. He was quite affable now. “I must apologize,” he said, “for leaving you to yourselves on the way, but the truth is, journeys of that kind don’t suit me, and I have to take care of myself. I trust you were not too fatigued?”
“We managed,” replied Conway with a wry smile.
“Excellent. And now, if you will come with me, I will show you to your apartments. No doubt you would like baths. Our accommodation is simple, but I hope adequate.”
At this point Barnard, who was still affected by shortness of breath, gave vent to an asthmatic chuckle. “Well,” he gasped, “I can’t say I like your climate yet—the air seems to stick on my chest a bit—but you’ve certainly got a darned fine view out of your front windows. Do we all have to line up for the bathroom, or is this an American hotel?”
“I think you will find everything quite satisfactory, Mr. Barnard.”
Miss Brinklow nodded primly. “I should hope so, indeed.”
“And afterwards,” continued the Chinese, “I should be greatly honored if you will all join me at dinner.”
Conway replied courteously. Only Mallinson had given no sign of his attitude in the face of these unlooked-for amenities. Like Barnard, he had been suffering from the altitude, but now, with an effort, he found breath to exclaim: “And afterwards, also, if you don’t mind, we’ll make our plans for getting away. The sooner the better, so far as I’m concerned.”