“Extraordinary,” Chang said, when he heard that Conway had seen the High Lama again. And from one so reluctant to employ superlatives, the word was significant. It had never happened before, he emphasized, since the routine of the lamasery became established; never had the High Lama desired a second meeting until the five years’ probation had effected a purge of all the exile’s likely emotions. “Because, you see, it is a great strain on him to talk to the average newcomer. The mere presence of human passions is an unwelcome and, at his age, an almost unendurable unpleasantness. Not that I doubt his entire wisdom in the matter. It teaches us, I believe, a lesson of great value — that even the fixed rules of our community are only moderately fixed. But it is extraordinary, all the same.”
To Conway, of course, it was no more extraordinary than anything else, and after he had visited the High Lama on a third and fourth occasion, he began to feel that it was not very extraordinary at all. There seemed, indeed, something almost preordained in the ease with which their two minds approached each other; it was as if in Conway all secret tensions were relaxed, giving him, when he came away, a sumptuous tranquillity. At times he had the sensation of being completely bewitched by the mastery of that central intelligence, and then, over the little pale blue tea bowls, the celebration would contract into a liveliness so gentle and miniature that he had an impression of a theorem dissolving limpidly into a sonnet.
Their talks ranged far and fearlessly; entire philosophies were unfolded; the long avenues of history surrendered themselves for inspection and were given new plausibility. To Conway it was an entrancing experience, but he did not suspend the critical attitude, and once, when he had argued a point, the High Lama replied: “My son, you are young in years, but I perceive that your wisdom has the ripeness of age. Surely some unusual thing has happened to you?”
Conway smiled. “No more unusual than has happened to many others of my generation.”
“I have never met your like before.”
Conway answered after an interval: “There’s not a great deal of mystery about it. That part of me which seems old to you was worn out by intense and premature experience. My years from nineteen to twenty-two were a supreme education, no doubt, but rather exhausting.”
“You were very unhappy at the war?”
“Not particularly so. I was excited and suicidal and scared and reckless and sometimes in a tearing rage — like a few million others, in fact. I got mad drunk and killed and lechered in great style. It was the self-abuse of all one’s emotions, and one came through it, if one did at all, with a sense of almighty boredom and fretfulness. That’s what made the years afterwards so difficult. Don’t think I’m posing myself too tragically — I’ve had pretty fair luck since, on the whole. But it’s been rather like being in a school where there’s a bad headmaster — plenty of fun to be got if you feel like it, but nerve-racking off and on, and not really very satisfactory. I think I found that out rather more than most people.”
“And your education thus continued?”
Conway gave a shrug. “Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom, if you care to alter the proverb.”
“That also, my son, is the doctrine of Shangri–La.”
“I know. It makes me feel quite at home.”
He had spoken no less than the truth. As the days and weeks passed he began to feel an ache of contentment uniting mind and body; like Perrault and Henschell and the others, he was falling under the spell. Blue Moon had taken him, and there was no escape. The mountains gleamed around in a hedge of inaccessible purity, from which his eyes fell dazzled to the green depths of the valley; the whole picture was incomparable, and when he heard the harpsichord’s silver monotony across the lotus pool, he felt that it threaded the perfect pattern of sight and sound.
He was, and he knew it, very quietly in love with the little Manchu. His love demanded nothing, not even reply; it was a tribute of the mind, to which his senses added only a flavor. She stood for him as a symbol of all that was delicate and fragile; her stylized courtesies and the touch of her fingers on the keyboard yielded a completely satisfying intimacy. Sometimes he would address her in a way that might, if she cared, have led to less formal conversation; but her replies never broke through the exquisite privacy of her thoughts, and in a sense he did not wish them to. He had suddenly come to realize a single facet of the promised jewel; he had Time, Time for everything that he wished to happen, such Time that desire itself was quenched in the certainty of fulfillment. A year, a decade hence, there would still be Time. The vision grew on him, and he was happy with it.
Then, at intervals, he stepped into the other life to encounter Mallinson’s impatience, Barnard’s heartiness, and Miss Brinklow’s robust intention. He felt he would be glad when they all knew as much as he; and, like Chang, he could imagine that neither the American nor the missionary would prove difficult cases. He was even amused when Barnard once said: “You know, Conway, I’m not sure that this wouldn’t be a nice little place to settle down in. I thought at first I’d miss the newspapers and the movies, but I guess one can get used to anything.”
“I guess one can,” agreed Conway.
He learned afterwards that Chang had taken Barnard down to the valley, at his own request, to enjoy everything in the way of a “night out” that the resources of the locality could provide. Mallinson, when he heard of this, was rather scornful. “Getting tight, I suppose,” he remarked to Conway, and to Barnard himself he commented: “Of course it’s none of my business, but you’ll want to keep yourself pretty fit for the journey, you know. The porters are due in a fortnight’s time, and from what I gather, the return trip won’t be exactly a joy ride.”
Barnard nodded equably. “I never figgered it would,” he answered. “And as for keeping fit, I guess I’m fitter than I’ve been for years. I get exercise daily, I don’t have any worries, and the speakeasies down in the valley don’t let you go too far. Moderation, y’know — the motto of the firm.”
“Yes, I’ve no doubt you’ve been managing to have a moderately good time,” said Mallinson acidly.
“Certainly I have. This establishment caters for all tastes — some people like little Chink gels who play the pi-anno, isn’t that so? You can’t blame anybody for what they fancy.”
Conway was not at all put out, but Mallinson flushed like a schoolboy. “You can send them to jail, though, when they fancy other people’s property,” he snapped, stung to fury that set a raw edge to his wits.
“Sure, if you can catch ’em.” The American grinned affably. “And that leads me to something I may as well tell you folks right away, now we’re on the subject. I’ve decided to give those porters a miss. They come here pretty regular, and I’ll wait for the next trip, or maybe the next but one. That is, if the monks’ll take my word that I’m still good for my hotel expenses.”
“You mean you’re not coming with us?”
“That’s it. I’ve decided to stop over for a while. It’s all very fine for you — you’ll have the band playing when YOU get home, but all the welcome I’ll get is from a row of cops. And the more I think about it, the more it don’t seem good enough.”
“In other words, you’re just afraid to face the music?”
“Well, I never did like music, anyhow.”
Mallinson said with cold scorn: “I suppose it’s your own affair. Nobody can prevent you from stopping here all your life if you feel inclined.” Nevertheless he looked round with a flash of appeal. “It’s not what everybody would choose to do, but ideas differ. What do you say, Conway?”
“I agree. Ideas DO differ.”
Mallinson turned to Miss Brinklow, who suddenly put down her book and remarked: “As a matter of fact, I think I shall stay too.”
“WHAT?” they all cried together.
She continued, with a bright smile that seemed more an attachment to her face than an illumination of it: “You see, I’ve been thinking over the way things happened to bring us all here, and there’s only one conclusion I can come to. There’s a mysterious power working behind the scenes. Don’t you think so, Mr. Conway?”
Conway might have found it hard to reply, but Miss Brinklow went on in a gathering hurry: “Who am I to question the dictates of Providence? I was sent here for a purpose, and I shall stay.”
“Do you mean you’re hoping to start a mission here?” Mallinson asked.
“Not only hoping, but fully intending. I know just how to deal with these people — I shall get my own way, never fear. There’s no real grit in any of them.”
“And you intend to introduce some?”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Mallinson. I’m strongly opposed to that idea of moderation that we hear so much about. You can call it broad-mindedness if you like, but in my opinion it leads to the worst kind of laxity. The whole trouble with the people here is their so-called broad-mindedness, and I intend to fight it with all my powers.”
“And they’re so broad-minded that they’re going to let you?” said Conway, smiling.
“Or else she’s so strong-minded that they can’t stop her,” put in Barnard. He added with a chuckle: “It’s just what I said — this establishment caters for all tastes.”
“Possibly, if you happen to LIKE prison,” Mallinson snapped.
“Well, there’s two ways of looking even at that. My goodness, if you think of all the folks in the world who’d give all they’ve got to be out of the racket and in a place like this, only they can’t get out! Are WE in the prison or are THEY?”
“A comforting speculation for a monkey in a cage,” retorted Mallinson; he was still furious.
Afterwards he spoke to Conway alone. “That man still gets on my nerves,” he said, pacing the courtyard. “I’m not sorry we shan’t have him with us when we go back. You may think me touchy, but being chipped about that Chinese girl didn’t appeal to my sense of humor.”
Conway took Mallinson’s arm. It was becoming increasingly clear to him that he was very fond of the youth, and that their recent weeks in company had deepened the feeling, despite jarring moods. He answered: “I rather took it that I was being ragged about her, not you.”
“No, I think he intended it for me. He knows I’m interested in her. I am, Conway. I can’t make out why she’s here, and whether she really likes being here. My God, if I spoke her language as you do, I’d soon have it out with her.”
“I wonder if you would. She doesn’t say a great deal to anyone, you know.”
“It puzzles me that you don’t badger her with all sorts of questions.”
“I don’t know that I care for badgering people.”
He wished he could have said more, and then suddenly the sense of pity and irony floated over him in a filmy haze; this youth, so eager and ardent, would take things very hardly. “I shouldn’t worry about Lo–Tsen if I were you,” he added. “She’s happy enough.”
The decision of Barnard and Miss Brinklow to remain behind seemed to Conway all to the good, though it threw Mallinson and himself into an apparently opposite camp for the time being. It was an extraordinary situation, and he had no definite plans for tackling it.
Fortunately there was no apparent need to tackle it at all. Until the two months were past, nothing much could happen; and afterwards there would be a crisis no less acute for his having tried to prepare himself for it. For this and other reasons he was disinclined to worry over the inevitable, though he did once say: “You know, Chang, I’m bothered about young Mallinson. I’m afraid he’ll take things very badly when he finds out.”
Chang nodded with some sympathy. “Yes, it will not be easy to persuade him of his good fortune. But the difficulty is, after all, only a temporary one. In twenty years from now our friend will be quite reconciled.”
Conway felt that this was looking at the matter almost too philosophically. “I’m wondering,” he said, “just how the truth’s going to be broached to him. He’s counting the days to the arrival of the porters, and if they don’t come —”
“But they WILL come.”
“Oh? I rather imagined that all your talk about them was just a pleasant fable to let us down lightly.”
“By no means. Although we have no bigotry on the point, it is our custom at Shangri–La to be moderately truthful, and I can assure you that my statements about the porters were almost correct. At any rate, we are expecting the men at or about the time I said.”
“Then you’ll find it hard to stop Mallinson from joining them.”
“But we should never attempt to do so. He will merely discover — no doubt by personal experiment — that the porters are reluctantly unable to take anyone back with them.”
“I see. So that’s the method? And what do you expect to happen afterwards?”
“Then, my dear sir, after a period of disappointment, he will — since he is young and optimistic — begin to hope that the next convoy of porters, due in nine or ten months’ time will prove more amenable to his suggestions. And this is a hope which, if we are wise, we shall not at first discourage.”
Conway said sharply: “I’m not so sure that he’ll do that at all. I should think he’s far more likely to try an escape on his own.”
“ESCAPE? Is that REALLY the word that should be used? After all, the pass is open to anyone at any time. We have no jailers, save those that Nature herself has provided.”
Conway smiled. “Well, you must admit that she’s done her job pretty well. But I don’t suppose you rely on her in every case, all the same. What about the various exploring parties that have arrived here? Was the pass always equally open to THEM when they wanted to get away?”
It was Chang’s turn now to smile. “Special circumstances, my dear sir, have sometimes required special consideration.”
“Excellent. So you only allow people the chance of escape when you know they’d be fools to take it? Even so, I expect some of them do.”
“Well, it has happened very occasionally, but as a rule the absentees are glad to return after the experience of a single night on the plateau.”
“Without shelter and proper clothing? If so, I can quite understand that your mild methods are as effective as stern ones. But what about the less usual cases that don’t return?”
“You have yourself answered the question,” replied Chang. “They do not return.” But he made haste to add: “I can assure you, however, that there are few indeed who have been so unfortunate, and I trust your friend will not be rash enough to increase the number.”
Conway did not find these responses entirely reassuring, and Mallinson’s future remained a preoccupation. He wished it were possible for the youth to return by consent, and this would not be unprecedented, for there was the recent case of Talu, the airman. Chang admitted that the authorities were fully empowered to do anything that they considered wise. “But SHOULD we be wise, my dear sir, in trusting our future entirely to your friend’s feeling of gratitude?”
Conway felt that the question was pertinent, for Mallinson’s attitude left little doubt as to what he would do as soon as he reached India. It was his favorite theme, and he had often enlarged upon it.
But all that, of course, was in the mundane world that was gradually being pushed out of his mind by the rich, pervasive world of Shangri–La. Except when he thought about Mallinson, he was extraordinarily content; the slowly revealed fabric of this new environment continued to astonish him by its intricate suitability to his own needs and tastes.
Once he said to Chang: “By the way, how do you people here fit love into your scheme of things? I suppose it does sometimes happen that those who come here develop attachments?”
“Quite often,” replied Chang with a broad smile. “The lamas, of course, are immune, and so are most of us when we reach the riper years, but until then we are as other men, except that I think we can claim to behave more reasonably. And this gives me the opportunity, Mr. Conway, of assuring you that the hospitality of Shangri–La is of a comprehensive kind. Your friend Mr. Barnard has already availed himself of it.”
Conway returned the smile. “Thanks,” he answered dryly. “I’ve no doubt he has, but my own inclinations are not — at the moment — so assertive. It was the emotional more than the physical aspect that I was curious about.”
“You find it easy to separate the two? Is it possible that you are falling in love with Lo–Tsen?”
Conway was somewhat taken aback, though he hoped he did not show it. “What makes you ask that?”
“Because, my dear sir, it would be quite suitable if you were to do so — always, of course, in moderation. Lo–Tsen would not respond with any degree of passion — that is more than you could expect — but the experience would be very delightful, I assure you. And I speak with some authority, for I was in love with her myself when I was much younger.”
“Were you indeed? And did she respond then?”
“Only by the most charming appreciation of the compliment I paid her, and by a friendship which has grown more precious with the years.”
“In other words, she didn’t respond?”
“If you prefer it so.” Chang added, a little sententiously: “It has always been her way to spare her lovers the moment of satiety that goes with all absolute attainment.”
Conway laughed. “That’s all very well in your case, and perhaps mine too — but what about the attitude of a hot-blooded young fellow like Mallinson?”
“My dear sir, it would be the best possible thing that could happen! Not for the first time, I assure you, would Lo–Tsen comfort the sorrowful exile when he learns that there is to be no return.”
“Yes, though you must not misunderstand my use of the term. Lo–Tsen gives no caresses, except such as touch the stricken heart from her very presence. What does your Shakespeare say of Cleopatra? —‘She makes hungry where she most satisfies.’ A popular type, doubtless, among the passion-driven races, but such a woman, I assure you, would be altogether out of place at Shangri–La. Lo–Tsen, if I might amend the quotation, REMOVES hunger where she LEAST satisfies. It is a more delicate and lasting accomplishment.”
“And one, I assume, which she has much skill in performing?”
“Oh, decidedly — we have had many examples of it. It is her way to calm the throb of desire to a murmur that is no less pleasant when left unanswered.”
“In that sense, then, you could regard her as a part of the training equipment of the establishment?”
“YOU could regard her as that, if you wished,” replied Chang with deprecating blandness. “But it would be more graceful, and just as true, to liken her to the rainbow reflected in a glass bowl or to the dewdrops on the blossoms of the fruit tree.”
“I entirely agree with you, Chang. That would be MUCH more graceful.” Conway enjoyed the measured yet agile repartees which his good-humored ragging of the Chinese very often elicited.
But the next time he was alone with the little Manchu he felt that Chang’s remarks had had a great deal of shrewdness in them. There was a fragrance about her that communicated itself to his own emotions, kindling the embers to a glow that did not burn, but merely warmed. And suddenly then he realized that Shangri–La and Lo–Tsen were quite perfect, and that he did not wish for more than to stir a faint and eventual response in all that stillness. For years his passions had been like a nerve that the world jarred on; now at last the aching was soothed, and he could yield himself to love that was neither a torment nor a bore. As he passed by the lotus pool at night he sometimes pictured her in his arms, but the sense of time washed over the vision, calming him to an infinite and tender reluctance.
He did not think he had ever been so happy, even in the years of his life before the great barrier of the war. He liked the serene world that Shangri–La offered him, pacified rather than dominated by its single tremendous idea. He liked the prevalent mood in which feelings were sheathed in thoughts, and thoughts softened into felicity by their transference into language. Conway, whom experience had taught that rudeness is by no means a guarantee of good faith, was even less inclined to regard a well-turned phrase as a proof of insincerity. He liked the mannered, leisurely atmosphere in which talk was an accomplishment, not a mere habit. And he liked to realize that the idlest things could now be freed from the curse of time-wasting, and the frailest dreams receive the welcome of the mind. Shangri–La was always tranquil, yet always a hive of unpursuing occupations; the lamas lived as if indeed they had time on their hands, but time that was scarcely a featherweight. Conway met no more of them, but he came gradually to realize the extent and variety of their employments; besides their knowledge of languages, some, it appeared, took to the full seas of learning in a manner that would have yielded big surprises to the Western world. Many were engaged in writing manuscript books of various kinds; one (Chang said) had made valuable researches into pure mathematics; another was coordinating Gibbon and Spengler into a vast thesis on the history of European civilization. But this kind of thing was not for them all, nor for any of them always; there were many tideless channels in which they dived in mere waywardness, retrieving, like Briac, fragments of old tunes, or like the English excurate, a new theory about Wuthering Heights. And there were even fainter impracticalities than these. Once, when Conway made some remark in this connection, the High Lama replied with a story of a Chinese artist in the third century B.C. who, having spent many years in carving dragons, birds, and horses upon a cherrystone, offered his finished work to a royal prince. The prince could see nothing in it at first except a mere stone, but the artist bade him “have a wall built, and make a window in it, and observe the stone through the window in the glory of the dawn.” The prince did so, and then perceived that the stone was indeed very beautiful. “Is not that a charming story, my dear Conway, and do you not think it teaches a very valuable lesson?”
Conway agreed; he found it pleasant to realize that the serene purpose of Shangri–La could embrace an infinitude of odd and apparently trivial employments, for he had always had a taste for such things himself. In fact, when he regarded his past, he saw it strewn with images of tasks too vagrant or too taxing ever to have been accomplished; but now they were all possible, even in a mood of idleness. It was delightful to contemplate, and he was not disposed to sneer when Barnard confided in him that he too envisaged an interesting future at Shangri–La.
It seemed that Barnard’s excursions to the valley, which had been growing more frequent of late, were not entirely devoted to drink and women. “You see, Conway, I’m telling you this because you’re different from Mallinson — he’s got his knife into me, as probably you’ve gathered. But I feel you’ll be better at understanding the position. It’s a funny thing — you British officials are so darned stiff and starchy at first, but you’re the sort a fellow can put his trust in, when all’s said and done.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” replied Conway, smiling. “And anyhow, Mallinson’s just as much a British official as I am.”
“Yes, but he’s a mere boy. He don’t look at things reasonably. You and me are men of the world — we take things as we find them. This joint here, for instance — we still can’t understand all the ins and outs of it, and why we’ve been landed here, but then, isn’t that the usual way of things? Do we know why we’re in the world at all, for that matter?”
“Perhaps some of us don’t, but what’s all this leading up to?”
Barnard dropped his voice to a rather husky whisper. “Gold, my lad,” he answered with a certain ecstasy. “Just that, and nothing less. There’s tons of it — literally — in the valley. I was a mining engineer in my young days and I haven’t forgotten what a reef looks like. Believe me, it’s as rich as the Rand, and ten times easier to get at. I guess you thought I was on the loose whenever I went down there in my little armchair. Not a bit of it. I knew what I was doing. I’d figgered it out all along, you know, that these guys here couldn’t get all their stuff sent in from outside without paying mighty high for it, and what else could they pay with except gold or silver or diamonds or something? Only logic, after all. And when I began to scout round, it didn’t take me long to discover the whole bag of tricks.”
“You found it out on your own?” asked Conway.
“Well, I won’t say that, but I made my guess, and then I put the matter to Chang — straight, mind you, as man to man. And believe me, Conway, that Chink’s not as bad a fellow as we might have thought.”
“Personally, I never thought him a bad fellow at all.”
“Of course, I know you always took to him, so you won’t be surprised at the way we got on together. We certainly did hit it famously. He showed me all over the workings, and it may interest you to know that I’ve got the full permission of the authorities to prospect in the valley as much as I like and make a comprehensive report. What d’you think of that, my lad? They seemed quite glad to have the services of an expert, especially when I said I could probably give ’em tips on how to increase output.”
“I can see you’re going to be altogether at home here,” said Conway.
“Well, I must say I’ve found a job, and that’s something. And you never know how a thing’ll turn out in the end. Maybe the folks at home won’t be so keen to jail me when they know I can show ’em the way to a new gold mine. The only difficulty is — would they take my word about it?”
“They might. It’s extraordinary what people WILL believe.”
Barnard nodded with enthusiasm. “Glad you get the point, Conway. And that’s where you and I can make a deal. We’ll go fifty-fifty in everything of course. All you’ve gotter do is to put your name to my report — British Consul, you know, and all that. It’ll carry weight.”
Conway laughed. “We’ll have to see about it. Make your report first.”
It amused him to contemplate a possibility so unlikely to happen, and at the same time he was glad that Barnard had found something that yielded such immediate comfort.
So also was the High Lama, whom Conway began to see more and more frequently. He often visited him in the late evening and stayed for many hours, long after the servants had taken away the last bowls of tea and had been dismissed for the night. The High Lama never failed to ask him about the progress and welfare of his three companions, and once he enquired particularly as to the kind of careers that their arrival at Shangri–La had so inevitably interrupted.
Conway answered reflectively: “Mallinson might have done quite well in his own line — he’s energetic and has ambitions. The two others —” He shrugged his shoulders. “As a matter of fact, it happens to suit them both to stay here — for a while, at any rate.”
He noticed a flicker of light at the curtained window; there had been mutterings of thunder as he crossed the courtyard on his way to the now familiar room. No sound could be heard, and the heavy tapestries subdued the lightning into mere sparks of pallor.
“Yes,” came the reply, “we have done our best to make both of them feel at home. Miss Brinklow wishes to convert us, and Mr. Barnard would also like to convert us — into a limited liability company. Harmless projects — they will pass the time quite pleasantly for them. But your young friend, to whom neither gold nor religion can offer solace, how about HIM?”
“Yes, he’s going to be the problem.”
“I am afraid he is going to be YOUR problem.”
There was no immediate answer, for the tea bowls were introduced at that moment, and with their appearance the High Lama rallied a faint and desiccated hospitality. “Karakal sends us storms at this time of the year,” he remarked, feathering the conversation according to ritual. “The people of Blue Moon believe they are caused by demons raging in the great space beyond the pass. The ‘outside,’ they call it — perhaps you are aware that in their patois the word is used for the entire rest of the world. Of course they know nothing of such countries as France or England or even India — they imagine the dread altiplano stretching, as it almost does, illimitably. To them, so snug at their warm and windless levels, it appears unthinkable that anyone inside the valley should ever wish to leave it; indeed, they picture all unfortunate ‘outsiders’ as passionately desiring to enter. It is just a question of viewpoint, is it not?”
Conway was reminded of Barnard’s somewhat similar remarks, and quoted them. “How very sensible!” was the High Lama’s comment. “And he is our first American, too — we are truly fortunate.”
Conway found it piquant to reflect that the lamasery’s fortune was to have acquired a man for whom the police of a dozen countries were actively searching; and he would have liked to share the piquancy but for feeling that Barnard had better be left to tell his own story in due course. He said: “Doubtless he’s quite right, and there are many people in the world nowadays who would be glad enough to be here.”
“TOO many, my dear Conway. We are a single lifeboat riding the seas in a gale; we can take a few chance survivors, but if all the shipwrecked were to reach us and clamber aboard we should go down ourselves. . . . But let us not think of it just now. I hear that you have been associating with our excellent Briac. A delightful fellow countryman of mine, though I do not share his opinion that Chopin is the greatest of all composers. For myself, as you know, I prefer Mozart . . . .”
Not till the tea bowls were removed and the servant had been finally dismissed did Conway venture to recall the unanswered question. “We were discussing Mallinson, and you said he was going to be MY problem. Why mine, particularly?”
Then the High Lama replied very simply: “Because, my son, I am going to die.”
It seemed an extraordinary statement, and for a time Conway was speechless after it. Eventually the High Lama continued: “You are surprised? But surely, my friend, we are all mortal — even at Shangri–La. And it is possible that I may still have a few moments left to me — or even, for that matter, a few years. All I announce is the simple truth that already I see the end. It is charming of you to appear so concerned, and I will not pretend that there is not a touch of wistfulness, even at my age, in contemplating death. Fortunately little is left of me that can die physically, and as for the rest, all our religions display a pleasant unanimity of optimism. I am quite content, but I must accustom myself to a strange sensation during the hours that remain — I must realize that I have time for only one thing more. Can you imagine what that is?”
Conway was silent.
“It concerns you, my son.”
“You do me a great honor.”
“I have in mind to do much more than that.”
Conway bowed slightly, but did not speak, and the High Lama, after waiting awhile, resumed: “You know, perhaps, that the frequency of these talks has been unusual here. But it is our tradition, if I may permit myself the paradox, that we are never slaves to tradition. We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom, and by our clairvoyance of the future. And thus it is that I am encouraged to do this final thing.”
Conway was still silent.
“I place in your hands, my son, the heritage and destiny of Shangri–La.”
At last the tension broke, and Conway felt beyond it the power of a bland and benign persuasion; the echoes swam into silence, till all that was left was his own heartbeat, pounding like a gong. And then, intercepting the rhythm, came the words:
“I have waited for you, my son, for quite a long time. I have sat in this room and seen the faces of newcomers, I have looked into their eyes and heard their voices, and always in hope that someday I might find you. My colleagues have grown old and wise, but you who are still young in years are as wise already. My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without — it will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.”
Again Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim: “The storm . . . this storm you talked of . . . .”
“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hour. Do you say I am mistaken?”
Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came once before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”
“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark — they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri–La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should, he may not consider us worth a bomb.”
“And you think all this will come in my time?”
“I believe that you will live through the storm. And after, through the long age of desolation, you may still live, growing older and wiser and more patient. You will conserve the fragrance of our history and add to it the touch of your own mind. You will welcome the stranger, and teach him the rule of age and wisdom; and one of these strangers, it may be, will succeed you when you are yourself very old. Beyond that, my vision weakens, but I see, at a great distance, a new world stirring in the ruins, stirring clumsily but in hopefulness, seeking its lost and legendary treasures. And they will all be here, my son, hidden behind the mountains in the valley of Blue Moon, preserved as by miracle for a new Renaissance . . . .”
The speaking finished, and Conway saw the face before him full of a remote and drenching beauty; then the glow faded and there was nothing left but a mask, dark-shadowed, and crumbling like old wood. It was quite motionless, and the eyes were closed. He watched for a while, and presently, as part of a dream, it came to him that the High Lama was dead.
It seemed necessary to rivet the situation to some kind of actuality, lest it become too strange to be believed in; and with instinctive mechanism of hand and eye, Conway glanced at his wristwatch. It was a quarter-past midnight. Suddenly, when he crossed the room to the door, it occurred to him that he did not in the least know how or whence to summon help. The Tibetans, he knew, had all been sent away for the night, and he had no idea where to find Chang or anyone else. He stood uncertainly on the threshold of the dark corridor; through a window he could see that the sky was clear, though the mountains still blazed in lightning like a silver fresco. And then, in the midst of the still-encompassing dream, he felt himself master of Shangri–La. These were his beloved things, all around him, the things of that inner mind in which he lived increasingly, away from the fret of the world. His eyes strayed into the shadows and were caught by golden pinpoints sparkling in rich, undulating lacquers; and the scent of tuberose, so faint that it expired on the very brink of sensation, lured him from room to room. At last he stumbled into the courtyards and by the fringe of the pool; a full moon sailed behind Karakal. It was twenty minutes to two.
Later, he was aware that Mallinson was near him, holding his arm and leading him away in a great hurry. He did not gather what it was all about, but he could hear that the boy was chattering excitedly.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51