They reached the balconied room where they had meals, Mallinson still clutching his arm and half-dragging him along. “Come on, Conway, we’ve till dawn to pack what we can and get away. Great news, man—I wonder what old Barnard and Miss Brinklow will think in the morning when they find us gone … Still, it’s their own choice to stay, and we’ll probably get on far better without them … The porters are about five miles beyond the pass—they came yesterday with loads of books and things … tomorrow they begin the journey back … It just shows how these fellows here intended to let us down—they never told us—we should have been stranded here for God knows how much longer … I say, what’s the matter? Are you ill?”
Conway had sunk into a chair, and was leaning forward with elbows on the table. He passed his hand across his eyes. “Ill? No. I don’t think so. Just—rather—tired.”
“Probably the storm. Where were you all the while? I’d been waiting for you for hours.”
“I—I was visiting the High Lama.”
“Oh, HIM! Well, THAT’S for the last time, anyhow, thank God.”
“Yes, Mallinson, for the last time.”
Something in Conway’s voice, and still more in his succeeding silence, roused the youth to irascibility. “Well, I wish you wouldn’t sound so deuced leisurely about it—we’ve got to get a considerable move on, you know.”
Conway stiffened for the effort of emerging into keener consciousness.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Partly to test his nerve and the reality of his sensations he lit a cigarette. He found that both hands and lips were unsteady. “I’m afraid I don’t quite follow … you say the porters …”
“Yes, the porters, man—do pull yourself together.”
“You’re thinking of going out to them?”
“THINKING of it? I’m damn well certain—they’re only just over the ridge. And we’ve got to start immediately.”
“Yes, yes—why not?”
Conway made a second attempt to transfer himself from one world into the other. He said at length, having partly succeeded: “I suppose you realize that it mayn’t be quite as simple as it sounds?”
Mallinson was lacing a pair of knee-high Tibetan mountain boots as he answered jerkily: “I realize everything, but it’s something we’ve got to do, and we shall do it, with luck, if we don’t delay.”
“I don’t see how—”
“Oh, Lord, Conway, must you fight shy of everything? Haven’t you any guts left in you at all?”
The appeal, half-passionate and half-derisive, helped Conway to collect himself. “Whether I have or haven’t isn’t the point, but if you want me to explain myself, I will. It’s a question of a few rather important details. Suppose you DO get beyond the pass and find the porters there, how do you know they’ll take you with them? What inducement can you offer? Hasn’t it struck you that they mayn’t be quite so willing as you’d like them to be? You can’t just present yourself and demand to be escorted. It all needs arrangements, negotiations beforehand—”
“Or anything else to cause a delay,” exclaimed Mallinson bitterly. “God, what a fellow you are! Fortunately I haven’t you to rely on for arranging things. Because they HAVE been arranged—the porters have been paid in advance, and they’ve agreed to take us. And here are clothes and equipment for the journey, all ready. So your last excuse disappears. Come on, let’s DO something.”
“But—I don’t understand. …”
“I don’t suppose you do, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Who’s been making all these plans?”
Mallinson answered brusquely: “Lo-Tsen, if you’re really keen to know. She’s with the porters now. She’s waiting.”
“Yes. She’s coming with us. I assume you’ve no objection?”
At the mention of Lo-Tsen the two worlds touched and fused suddenly in Conway’s mind. He cried sharply, almost contemptuously: “That’s nonsense. It’s impossible.”
Mallinson was equally on edge. “Why is it impossible?”
“Because … well, it is. There are all sorts of reasons. Take my word for it; it won’t do. It’s incredible enough that she should be out there now—I’m astonished at what you say has happened—but the idea of her going any further is just preposterous.”
“I don’t see that it’s preposterous at all. It’s as natural for her to want to leave here as for me.”
“But she doesn’t want to leave. That’s where you make the mistake.”
Mallinson smiled tensely. “You think you know a good deal more about her than I do, I daresay,” he remarked. “But perhaps you don’t, for all that.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are other ways of getting to understand people without learning heaps of languages.”
“For heaven’s sake, what ARE you driving at?” Then Conway added more quietly: “This is absurd. We mustn’t wrangle. Tell me, Mallinson, what’s it all about? I still don’t understand.”
“Then why are you making such an almighty fuss?”
“Tell me the truth, PLEASE tell me the truth.”
“Well, it’s simple enough. A kid of her age shut up here with a lot of queer old men—naturally she’ll get away if she’s given a chance. She hasn’t had one up to now.”
“Don’t you think you may be imagining her position in the light of your own? As I’ve always told you, she’s perfectly happy.”
“Then why did she say she’d come?”
“She said that? How could she? She doesn’t speak English.”
“I asked her—in Tibetan—Miss Brinklow worked out the words. It wasn’t a very fluent conversation, but it was quite enough to—to lead to an understanding.” Mallinson flushed a little. “Damn it, Conway, don’t stare at me like that—anyone would think I’d been poaching on YOUR preserves.”
Conway answered: “No one would think so at all, I hope, but the remark tells me more than you were perhaps intending me to know. I can only say that I’m very sorry.”
“And why the devil should you be?”
Conway let the cigarette fall from his fingers. He felt tired, bothered, and full of deep conflicting tenderness that he would rather not have had aroused. He said gently: “I wish we weren’t always at such cross-purposes. Lo-Tsen is very charming, I know, but why should we quarrel about it?”
“CHARMING?” Mallinson echoed the word with scorn. “She’s a good bit more than that. You mustn’t think everybody’s as cold-blooded about these things as you are yourself. Admiring her as if she were an exhibit in a museum may be your idea of what she deserves, but mine’s more practical, and when I see someone I like in a rotten position I try and DO something.”
“But surely there’s such a thing as being too impetuous? Where do you think she’ll go to if she does leave?”
“I suppose she must have friends in China or somewhere. Anyhow, she’ll be better off than here.”
“How can you possibly be so sure of that?”
“Well, I’ll see that she’s looked after myself, if nobody else will. After all, if you’re rescuing people from something quite hellish, you don’t usually stop to enquire if they’ve anywhere else to go to.”
“And you think Shangri-La is hellish?”
“Definitely, I do. There’s something dark and evil about it. The whole business has been like that, from the beginning—the way we were brought here, without reason at all, by some madman—and the way we’ve been detained since, on one excuse or another. But the most frightful thing of all—to me—is the effect it’s had on you.”
“Yes, on you. You’ve just mooned about as if nothing mattered and you were content to stay here forever. Why, you even admitted you liked the place. … Conway, what HAS happened to you? Can’t you manage to be your real self again? We got on so well together at Baskul—you were absolutely different in those days.”
“My DEAR boy!”
Conway reached his hand towards Mallinson’s, and the answering grip was hot and eagerly affectionate. Mallinson went on: “I don’t suppose you realize it, but I’ve been terribly alone these last few weeks. Nobody seemed to be caring a damn about the only thing that was really important—Barnard and Miss Brinklow had reasons of a kind, but it was pretty awful when I found YOU against me.”
“You keep on saying that, but it doesn’t help.”
Conway replied on sudden impulse: “Then let me help, if I can, by telling you something. When you’ve heard it, you’ll understand, I hope, a great deal of what now seems very curious and difficult. At any rate, you’ll realize why Lo-Tsen can’t possibly go back with you.”
“I don’t think anything would make me see that. And do cut it as short as you can, because we really haven’t time to spare.”
Conway then gave, as briefly as he could, the whole story of Shangri-La, as told him by the High Lama, and as amplified by the conversation both with the latter and with Chang. It was the last thing he had ever intended to do, but he felt that in the circumstances it was justified and even necessary; it was true enough that Mallinson WAS his problem, to solve as he thought fit. He narrated rapidly and easily, and in doing so came again under the spell of that strange, timeless world; its beauty overwhelmed him as he spoke of it, and more than once he felt himself reading from a page of memory, so clearly had ideas and phrases impressed themselves. Only one thing he withheld—and that to spare himself an emotion he could not yet grapple with—the fact of the High Lama’s death that night and of his own succession.
When he approached the end he felt comforted; he was glad to have got it over, and it was the only solution, after all. He looked up calmly when he had finished, confident that he had done well.
But Mallinson merely tapped his fingers on the tabletop and said, after a long wait: “I really don’t know what to say, Conway … except that you must be completely mad. …”
There followed a long silence, during which the two men stared at each other in far different moods—Conway withdrawn and disappointed, Mallinson in hot, fidgeting discomfort. “So you think I’m mad?” said Conway at length.
Mallinson broke into a nervous laugh. “Well, I should damn well say so, after a tale like that. I mean … well, really … such utter nonsense … it seems to me rather beyond arguing about.”
Conway looked and sounded immensely astonished. “You think it’s nonsense?”
“Well … how else can I look at it? I’m sorry, Conway—it’s a pretty strong statement—but I don’t see how any sane person could be in any doubt about it.”
“So you still hold that we were brought here by blind accident—by some lunatic who made careful plans to run off with an aeroplane and fly it a thousand miles just for the fun of the thing?”
Conway offered a cigarette, and the other took it. The pause was one for which they both seemed grateful. Mallinson answered eventually: “Look here, it’s no good arguing the thing point by point. As a matter of fact, your theory that the people here sent someone vaguely into the world to decoy strangers, and that this fellow deliberately learned flying and bided his time until it happened that a suitable machine was due to leave Baskul with four passengers … well, I won’t say that it’s literally impossible, though it does seem to me ridiculously farfetched. If it stood by itself, it might just be worth considering, but when you tack it on to all sorts of other things that are ABSOLUTELY impossible—all this about the lamas being hundreds of years old, and having discovered a sort of elixir of youth, or whatever you’d call it … well, it just makes me wonder what kind of microbe has bitten you, that’s all.”
Conway smiled. “Yes, I daresay you find it hard to believe. Perhaps I did myself at first—I scarcely remember. Of course it IS an extraordinary story, but I should think your own eyes have had enough evidence that this is an extraordinary place. Think of all that we’ve actually seen, both of us—a lost valley in the midst of unexplored mountains, a monastery with a library of European books—”
“Oh, yes, and a central heating plant, and modern plumbing, and afternoon tea, and everything else—it’s all very marvelous, I know.”
“Well, then, what do you make of it?”
“Damn little, I admit. It’s a complete mystery. But that’s no reason for accepting tales that are physically impossible. Believing in hot baths because you’ve had them is different from believing in people hundreds of years old just because they’ve told you they are.” He laughed again, still uneasily. “Look here, Conway, it’s got on your nerves, this place, and I really don’t wonder at it. Pack up your things and let’s quit. We’ll finish this argument a month or two hence after a jolly little dinner at Maiden’s.”
Conway answered quietly: “I’ve no desire to go back to that life at all.”
“The life you’re thinking of … dinners … dances … polo … and all that. …”
“But I never said anything about dances and polo! Anyhow, what’s wrong with them? D’you mean that you’re not coming with me? You’re going to stay here like the other two? Then at least you shan’t stop me from clearing out of it!” Mallinson threw down his cigarette and sprang towards the door with eyes blazing. “You’re off your head!” he cried wildly. “You’re mad, Conway, that’s what’s the matter with you! I know you’re always calm, and I’m always excited, but I’m sane, at any rate, and you’re not! They warned me about it before I joined you at Baskul, and I thought they were wrong, but now I can see they weren’t—”
“What did they warn you of?”
“They said you’d been blown up in the war, and you’d been queer at times ever since. I’m not reproaching you—I know it was nothing you could help—and heaven knows I hate talking like this. … Oh, I’ll go. It’s all frightful and sickening, but I must go. I gave my word.”
“Yes, if you want to know.”
Conway got up and held out his hand. “Good-by, Mallinson.”
“For the last time, you’re not coming?”
They shook hands, and Mallinson left.
Conway sat alone in the lantern light. It seemed to him, in a phrase engraved on memory, that all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, that the two worlds were finally beyond reconciliation, and that one of them hung, as always, by a thread. After he had pondered for some time he looked at his watch; it was ten minutes to three.
He was still at the table, smoking the last of his cigarettes, when Mallinson returned. The youth entered with some commotion, and on seeing him, stood back in the shadows as if to gather his wits. He was silent, and Conway began, after waiting a moment: “Hullo, what’s happened? Why are you back?”
The complete naturalness of the question fetched Mallinson forward; he pulled off his heavy sheepskins and sat down. His face was ashen and his whole body trembled. “I hadn’t the nerve,” he cried, half-sobbing. “That place where we were all roped—you remember? I got as far as that … I couldn’t manage it. I’ve no head for heights, and in moonlight it looked fearful. Silly, isn’t it?” He broke down completely and was hysterical until Conway pacified him. Then he added: “They needn’t worry, these fellows here—nobody will ever threaten them by land. But, my God, I’d give a good deal to fly over with a load of bombs!”
“Why would you like to do that, Mallinson?”
“Because the place wants smashing up, whatever it is. It’s unhealthy and unclean—and for that matter, if your impossible yarn were true, it would be more hateful still! A lot of wizened old men crouching here like spiders for anyone who comes near … it’s filthy … who’d want to live to an age like that, anyhow? And as for your precious High Lama, if he’s half as old as you say he is, it’s time someone put him out of his misery. … Oh, why WON’T you come away with me, Conway? I hate imploring you for my own sake, but damn it all, I’m young and we’ve been pretty good friends together—does my whole life mean nothing to you compared with the lies of these awful creatures? And Lo-Tsen, too—SHE’S young—doesn’t SHE count at all?”
“Lo-Tsen is not young,” said Conway.
Mallinson looked up and began to titter hysterically. “Oh, no, not young—not young at all, of course. She looks about seventeen, but I suppose you’ll tell me she’s really a well-preserved ninety.”
“Mallinson, she came here in 1884.”
“You’re raving, man!”
“Her beauty, Mallinson, like all other beauty in the world, lies at the mercy of those who do not know how to value it. It is a fragile thing that can only live where fragile things are loved. Take it away from this valley and you will see it fade like an echo.”
Mallinson laughed harshly, as if his own thoughts gave him confidence. “I’m not afraid of that. It’s here that she’s only an echo, if she’s one anywhere at all.” He added after a pause: “Not that this sort of talk gets us anywhere. We’d better cut out all the poetic stuff and come down to realities. Conway, I want to help you—it’s all the sheerest nonsense, I know, but I’ll argue it out if it’ll do you any good. I’ll pretend it’s something possible that you’ve told me, and that it really does need examining. Now tell me, seriously, what evidence have you for this story of yours?”
Conway was silent.
“Merely that someone spun you a fantastic rigmarole. Even from a thoroughly reliable person whom you’d known all your life, you wouldn’t accept that sort of thing without proof. And what proofs have you in this case? None at all, so far as I can see. Has Lo-Tsen ever told you her history?”
“Then why believe it from someone else? And all this longevity business—can you point to a single outside fact in support of it?”
Conway thought a moment and then mentioned the unknown Chopin works that Briac had played.
“Well, that’s a matter that means nothing to me—I’m not a musician. But even if they’re genuine, isn’t it possible that he could have got hold of them in some way without his story being true?”
“Quite possible, no doubt.”
“And then this method that you say exists—of preserving youth and so on. What is it? You say it’s a sort of drug—well, I want to know WHAT drug? Have you ever seen it or tried it? Did anyone ever give you any positive facts about the thing at all?”
“Not in detail, I admit.”
“And you never asked for details? It didn’t strike you that such a story needed any confirmation at all? You just swallowed it whole?” Pressing his advantage, he continued: “How much do you actually know of this place, apart from what you’ve been told? You’ve seen a few old men—that’s all it amounts to. Apart from that, we can only say that the place is well fitted up, and seems to be run on rather highbrow lines. How and why it came into existence we’ve no idea, and why they want to keep us here, if they do, is equally a mystery, but surely all that’s hardly an excuse for believing any old legend that comes along! After all, man, you’re a critical sort of person—you’d hesitate to believe all you were told even in an English monastery—I really can’t see why you should jump at everything just because you’re in Tibet!”
Conway nodded. Even in the midst of far keener perceptions he could not restrain approval of a point well made. “That’s an acute remark, Mallinson. I suppose the truth is that when it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive.”
“Well, I’m dashed if I can see anything attractive about living till you’re half-dead. Give me a short life and a gay one, for choice. And this stuff about a future war—it all sounds pretty thin to me. How does anyone know when the next war’s going to be or what it’ll be like? Weren’t all the prophets wrong about the last war?” He added, when Conway did not reply: “Anyhow, I don’t believe in saying things are inevitable. And even if they were, there’s no need to get into a funk about them. Heaven knows I’d most likely be scared stiff if I had to fight in a war, but I’d rather face up to it than bury myself here.”
Conway smiled. “Mallinson, you have a superb knack of misunderstanding me. When we were at Baskul you thought I was a hero—now you take me for a coward. In point of fact, I’m neither—though of course it doesn’t matter. When you get back to India you can tell people, if you like, that I decided to stay in a Tibetan monastery because I was afraid there’d be another war. It isn’t my reason at all, but I’ve no doubt it’ll be believed by the people who already think me mad.”
Mallinson answered rather sadly: “It’s silly, you know, to talk like that. Whatever happens, I’d never say a word against you. You can count on that. I don’t understand you—I admit that—but—but—I wish I did. Oh, I wish I did. Conway, can’t I possibly help you? Isn’t there anything I can say or do?”
There was a long silence after that, which Conway broke at last by saying: “There’s just a question I’d like to ask—if you’ll forgive me for being terribly personal.”
“Are you in love with Lo-Tsen?”
The youth’s pallor changed quickly to a flush. “I daresay I am. I know you’ll say it’s absurd and unthinkable, and probably it is, but I can’t help my feelings.”
“I don’t think it’s absurd at all.”
The argument seemed to have sailed into a harbor after many buffetings, and Conway added: “I can’t help MY feelings either. You and that girl happen to be the two people in the world I care most about … though you may think it odd of me.” Abruptly he got up and paced the room. “We’ve said all we CAN say, haven’t we?”
“Yes, I suppose we have.” But Mallinson went on, in a sudden rush of eagerness. “Oh, what stupid nonsense it all is—about her not being young! And foul and horrible nonsense, too. Conway, you CAN’T believe it! It’s just too ridiculous. How can it really mean anything?”
“How can you really know that she’s young?”
Mallinson half-turned away, his face lit with a grave shyness. “Because I DO know. … Perhaps you’ll think less of me for it … but I DO know. I’m afraid you never properly understood her, Conway. She was cold on the surface, but that was the result of living here—it had frozen all the warmth. But the warmth was there.”
“To be unfrozen?”
“Yes … that would be one way of putting it.”
“And she’s YOUNG, Mallinson—you are so SURE of that?”
Mallinson answered softly: “God, yes—she’s just a girl. I was terribly sorry for her, and we were both attracted, I suppose. I don’t see that it’s anything to be ashamed of. In fact in a place like this I should think it’s about the decentest thing that’s ever happened. …”
Conway went to the balcony and gazed at the dazzling plume of Karakal; the moon was riding high in a waveless ocean. It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality; that the whole world’s future, weighed in the balance against youth and love, would be light as air. And he knew, too, that his mind dwelt in a world of its own, Shangri-La in microcosm, and that this world also was in peril. For even as he nerved himself, he saw the corridors of his imagination twist and strain under impact; the pavilions were toppling; all was about to be in ruins. He was only partly unhappy, but he was infinitely and rather sadly perplexed. He did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and now mad again.
When he turned, there was a difference in him; his voice was keener, almost brusque, and his face twitched a little; he looked much more the Conway who had been a hero at Baskul. Clenched for action, he faced Mallinson with a sudden new alertness. “Do you think you could manage that tricky bit with a rope if I were with you?” he asked.
Mallinson sprang forward. “CONWAY!” he cried chokingly. “You mean you’ll COME? You’ve made up your mind at last?”
They left as soon as Conway had prepared himself for the journey. It was surprisingly simple to leave—a departure rather than an escape; there were no incidents as they crossed the bars of moonlight and shadow in the courtyards. One might have thought there was no one there at all, Conway reflected; and immediately the idea of such emptiness became an emptiness in himself; while all the time, though he hardly heard him, Mallinson was chattering about the journey. How strange that their long argument should have ended thus in action, that this secret sanctuary should be forsaken by one who had found in it such happiness! For indeed, less than an hour later, they halted breathlessly at a curve of the track and saw the last of Shangri-La. Deep below them the valley of Blue Moon was like a cloud, and to Conway the scattered roofs had a look of floating after him through the haze. Now, at that moment, it was farewell. Mallinson, whom the steep ascent had kept silent for a time, gasped out: “Good man, we’re doing fine—carry on!”
Conway smiled, but did not reply; he was already preparing the rope for the knife-edge traverse. It was true, as the youth had said, that he had made up his mind; but it was only what was left of his mind. That small and active fragment now dominated; the rest comprised an absence hardly to be endured. He was a wanderer between two worlds and must ever wander; but for the present, in a deepening inward void, all he felt was that he liked Mallinson and must help him; he was doomed, like millions, to flee from wisdom and be a hero.
Mallinson was nervous at the precipice, but Conway got him over in traditional mountaineering fashion, and when the trial was past, they leaned together over Mallinson’s cigarettes. “Conway, I must say it’s damned good of you. … Perhaps you guess how I feel. … I can’t tell you how glad I am. …”
“I wouldn’t try, then, if I were you.”
After a long pause, and before they resumed the journey, Mallinson added: “But I AM glad—not only for my own sake, but for yours as well. … It’s fine that you can realize now that all that stuff was sheer nonsense … it’s just wonderful to see you your real self again. …”
“Not at all,” responded Conway, with a wryness that was for his own private comforting.
Towards dawn they crossed the divide, unchallenged by sentinels, even if there were any; though it occurred to Conway that the route, in the true spirit, might only be moderately well watched. Presently they reached the plateau, picked clean as a bone by roaring winds, and after a gradual descent the encampment of porters came in sight. Then all was as Mallinson had foretold; they found the men ready for them, sturdy fellows in furs and sheepskins, crouching under the gale and eager to begin the journey to Tatsien-Fu—eleven hundred miles eastward on the China border.
“He’s coming with us!” Mallinson cried excitedly when they met Lo-Tsen. He forgot that she knew no English; but Conway translated.
It seemed to him that the little Manchu had never looked so radiant. She gave him a most charming smile, but her eyes were all for the boy.