Authors: James Hilton
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
, 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
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 none the less 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 wind-swept 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 common sense view-point; 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 any one 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.
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
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
locate it?” queried Mallinson, still intransigent. “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.
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.”