“I reckon some folks have to get used to worse places,” Barnard remarked towards the close of his first week at Shangri–La, and it was doubtless one of the many lessons to be drawn. By that time the party had settled themselves into something like a daily routine, and with Chang’s assistance the boredom was no more acute than on many a planned holiday. They had all become acclimatized to the atmosphere, finding it quite invigorating so long as heavy exertion was avoided. They had learned that the days were warm and the nights cold, that the lamasery was almost completely sheltered from winds, that avalanches on Karakal were most frequent about midday, that the valley grew a good brand of tobacco, that some foods and drinks were more pleasant than others, and that each one of themselves had personal tastes and peculiarities. They had, in fact, discovered as much about each other as four new pupils of a school from which everyone else was mysteriously absent. Chang was tireless in his efforts to make smooth the rough places. He conducted excursions, suggested occupations, recommended books, talked with his slow, careful fluency whenever there was an awkward pause at meals, and was on every occasion benign, courteous, and resourceful. The line of demarcation was so marked between information willingly supplied and politely declined that the latter ceased to stir resentment, except fitfully from Mallinson. Conway was content to take note of it, adding another fragment to his constantly accumulating data. Barnard even “jollied” the Chinese after the manner and traditions of a Middle West Rotary convention. “You know, Chang, this is a damned bad hotel. Don’t you have any newspapers sent here ever? I’d give all the books in your library for this morning’s Herald Tribune.” Chang’s replies were always serious, though it did not necessarily follow that he took every question seriously. “We have the files of The Times, Mr. Barnard, up to a few years ago. But only, I regret to say, the London Times.”
Conway was glad to find that the valley was not to be “out of bounds,” though the difficulties of the descent made unescorted visits impossible. In company with Chang they all spent a whole day inspecting the green floor that was so pleasantly visible from the cliff edge, and to Conway, at any rate, the trip was of absorbing interest. They traveled in bamboo sedan chairs, swinging perilously over precipices while their bearers in front and to the rear picked a way nonchalantly down the steep track. It was not a route for the squeamish, but when at last they reached the lower levels of forest and foothill the supreme good fortune of the lamasery was everywhere to be realized. For the valley was nothing less than an enclosed paradise of amazing fertility, in which the vertical difference of a few thousand feet spanned the whole gulf between temperate and tropical. Crops of unusual diversity grew in profusion and contiguity, with not an inch of ground untended. The whole cultivated area stretched for perhaps a dozen miles, varying in width from one to five, and though narrow, it had the luck to take sunlight at the hottest part of the day. The atmosphere, indeed, was pleasantly warm even out of the sun, though the little rivulets that watered the soil were ice-cold from the snows. Conway felt again, as he gazed up at the stupendous mountain wall, that there was a superb and exquisite peril in the scene; but for some chance-placed barrier, the whole valley would clearly have been a lake, nourished continually from the glacial heights around it. Instead of which, a few streams dribbled through to fill reservoirs and irrigate fields and plantations with a disciplined conscientiousness worthy of a sanitary engineer. The whole design was almost uncannily fortunate, so long as the structure of the frame remained unmoved by earthquake or landslide.
But even such vaguely future fears could only enhance the total loveliness of the present. Once again Conway was captivated, and by the same qualities of charm and ingenuity that had made his years in China happier than others. The vast encircling massif made perfect contrast with the tiny lawns and weedless gardens, the painted teahouses by the stream, and the frivolously toy-like houses. The inhabitants seemed to him a very successful blend of Chinese and Tibetan; they were cleaner and handsomer than the average of either race, and seemed to have suffered little from the inevitable inbreeding of such a small society. They smiled and laughed as they passed the chaired strangers, and had a friendly word for Chang; they were good-humored and mildly inquisitive, courteous and carefree, busy at innumerable jobs but not in any apparent hurry over them. Altogether Conway thought it one of the pleasantest communities he had ever seen, and even Miss Brinklow, who had been watching for symptoms of pagan degradation, had to admit that everything looked very well “on the surface.” She was relieved to find the natives “completely” clothed, even though the women did wear ankle-tight Chinese trousers; and her most imaginative scrutiny of a Buddhist temple revealed only a few items that could be regarded as somewhat doubtfully phallic. Chang explained that the temple had its own lamas, who were under loose control from Shangri–La, though not of the same order. There were also, it appeared, a Taoist and a Confucian temple further along the valley. “The jewel has facets,” said the Chinese, “and it is possible that many religions are moderately true.”
“I agree with that,” said Barnard heartily. “I never did believe in sectarian jealousies. Chang, you’re a philosopher, I must remember that remark of yours. ‘Many religions are moderately true.’ You fellows up on the mountain must be a lot of wise guys to have thought that out. You’re right, too, I’m dead certain of it.”
“But we,” responded Chang dreamily, “are only MODERATELY certain.”
Miss Brinklow could not be bothered with all that, which seemed to her a sign of mere laziness. In any case she was preoccupied with an idea of her own. “When I get back,” she said with tightening lips, “I shall ask my society to send a missionary here. And if they grumble at the expense, I shall just bully them until they agree.”
That, clearly, was a much healthier spirit, and even Mallinson, little as he sympathized with foreign missions, could not forbear his admiration. “They ought to send YOU,” he said. “That is, of course, if you’d like a place like this.”
“It’s hardly a question of LIKING it,” Miss Brinklow retorted. “One wouldn’t like it, naturally — how could one? It’s a matter of what one feels one ought to do.”
“I think,” said Conway, “if I were a missionary I’d choose this rather than quite a lot of other places.”
“In that case,” snapped Miss Brinklow, “there would be no merit in it, obviously.”
“But I wasn’t thinking of merit.”
“More’s the pity, then. There’s no good in doing a thing because you like doing it. Look at these people here!”
“They all seem very happy.”
“Exactly,” she answered with a touch of fierceness. She added: “Anyhow, I don’t see why I shouldn’t make a beginning by studying the language. Can you lend me a book about it, Mr. Chang?”
Chang was at his most mellifluous. “Most certainly, madam, with the greatest of pleasure. And, if I may say so, I think the idea an excellent one.”
When they ascended to Shangri–La that evening he treated the matter as one of immediate importance. Miss Brinklow was at first a little daunted by the massive volume compiled by an industrious nineteenth-century German (she had more probably imagined some slighter work of a “Brush up your Tibetan” type), but with help from the Chinese and encouragement from Conway she made a good beginning and was soon observed to be extracting grim satisfaction from her task.
Conway, too, found much to interest him, apart from the engrossing problem he had set himself. During the warm, sunlit days he made full use of the library and music room, and was confirmed in his impression that the lamas were of quite exceptional culture. Their taste in books was catholic, at any rate; Plato in Greek touched Omar in English; Nietzsche partnered Newton; Thomas More was there, and also Hannah More, Thomas Moore, George Moore, and even Old Moore. Altogether Conway estimated the number of volumes at between twenty and thirty thousand; and it was tempting to speculate upon the method of selection and acquisition. He sought also to discover how recently there had been additions, but he did not come across anything later than a cheap reprint of Im Western Nichts Neues. During a subsequent visit, however, Chang told him that there were other books published up to about the middle of 1930 which would doubtless be added to the shelves eventually; they had already arrived at the lamasery. “We keep ourselves fairly up-to-date, you see,” he commented.
“There are people who would hardly agree with you,” replied Conway with a smile. “Quite a lot of things have happened in the world since last year, you know.”
“Nothing of importance, my dear sir, that could not have been foreseen in 1920, or that will not be better understood in 1940.”
“You’re not interested, then, in the latest developments of the world crisis?”
“I shall be very deeply interested — in due course.”
“You know, Chang, I believe I’m beginning to understand you. You’re geared differently, that’s what it is. Time means less to you than it does to most people. If I were in London I wouldn’t always be eager to see the latest hour-old newspaper, and you at Shangri–La are no more eager to see a year-old one. Both attitudes seem to me quite sensible. By the way, how long is it since you last had visitors here?”
“That, Mr. Conway, I am unfortunately unable to say.”
It was the usual ending to a conversation, and one that Conway found less irritating than the opposite phenomenon from which he had suffered much in his time — the conversation which, try as he would, seemed never to end. He began to like Chang rather more as their meetings multiplied, though it still puzzled him that he met so few of the lamasery personnel; even assuming that the lamas themselves were unapproachable, were there not other postulants besides Chang?
There was, of course, the little Manchu. He saw her sometimes when he visited the music room; but she knew no English, and he was still unwilling to disclose his own Chinese. He could not quite determine whether she played merely for pleasure, or was in some way a student. Her playing, as indeed her whole behavior, was exquisitely formal, and her choice lay always among the more patterned compositions — those of Bach, Corelli, Scarlatti, and occasionally Mozart. She preferred the harpsichord to the piano, but when Conway went to the latter she would listen with grave and almost dutiful appreciation. It was impossible to know what was in her mind; it was difficult even to guess her age. He would have doubted her being over thirty or under thirteen; and yet, in a curious way, such manifest unlikelihoods could neither of them be ruled out as wholly impossible.
Mallinson, who sometimes came to listen to the music for want of anything better to do, found her a very baffling proposition. “I can’t think what she’s doing here,” he said to Conway more than once. “This lama business may be all right for an old fellow like Chang, but what’s the attraction in it for a girl? How long has she been here, I wonder?”
“I wonder too, but it’s one of those things we’re not likely to be told.”
“Do you suppose she likes being here?”
“I’m bound to say she doesn’t appear to DIS-like it.”
“She doesn’t appear to have feelings at all, for that matter. She’s like a little ivory doll more than a human being.”
“A charming thing to be like, anyhow.”
“As far as it goes.”
Conway smiled. “And it goes pretty far, Mallinson, when you come to think about it. After all, the ivory doll has manners, good taste in dress, attractive looks, a pretty touch on the harpsichord, and she doesn’t move about a room as if she were playing hockey. Western Europe, so far as I recollect it, contains an exceptionally large number of females who lack those virtues.”
“You’re an awful cynic about women, Conway.”
Conway was used to the charge. He had not actually had a great deal to do with the other sex, and during occasional leaves in Indian hill stations the reputation of cynic had been as easy to sustain as any other. In truth he had had several delightful friendships with women who would have been pleased to marry him if he had asked them — but he had not asked them. He had once got nearly as far as an announcement in the Morning Post, but the girl did not want to live in Pekin and he did not want to live at Tunbridge Wells, mutual reluctances which proved impossible to dislodge. So far as he had had experience of women at all, it had been tentative, intermittent, and somewhat inconclusive. But he was not, after all that, a cynic about them.
He said with a laugh: “I’m thirty-seven — you’re twenty-four. That’s all it amounts to.”
After a pause Mallinson asked suddenly: “Oh, by the way, how old should you say Chang is?”
“Anything,” replied Conway lightly, “between forty-nine and a hundred and forty-nine.”
Such information, however, was less trustworthy than much else that was available to the new arrivals. The fact that their curiosities were sometimes unsatisfied tended to obscure the really vast quantity of data which Chang was always willing to outpour. There were no secrecies, for instance, about the customs and habits of the valley population, and Conway, who was interested, had talks which might have been worked up into a quite serviceable degree thesis. He was particularly interested, as a student of affairs, in the way the valley population was governed; it appeared, on examination, to be a rather loose and elastic autocracy operated from the lamasery with a benevolence that was almost casual. It was certainly an established success, as every descent into that fertile paradise made more evident. Conway was puzzled as to the ultimate basis of law and order; there appeared to be neither soldiers nor police, yet surely some provision must be made for the incorrigible? Chang replied that crime was very rare, partly because only serious things were considered crimes, and partly because everyone enjoyed a sufficiency of everything he could reasonably desire. In the last resort the personal servants of the lamasery had power to expel an offender from the valley — though this, which was considered an extreme and dreadful punishment, had only very occasionally to be imposed. But the chief factor in the government of Blue Moon, Chang went on to say, was the inculcation of good manners, which made men feel that certain things were “not done,” and that they lost caste by doing them. “You English inculcate the same feeling,” said Chang, “in your public schools, but not, I fear, in regard to the same things. The inhabitants of our valley, for instance, feel that it is ‘not done’ to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another. The idea of enjoying what your English headmasters call the mimic warfare of the playing field would seem to them entirely barbarous — indeed, a sheerly wanton stimulation of all the lower instincts.”
Conway asked if there were never disputes about women.
“Only very rarely, because it would not be considered good manners to take a woman that another man wanted.”
“Supposing somebody wanted her so badly that he didn’t care a damn whether it was good manners or not?”
“Then, my dear sir, it would be good manners on the part of the other man to let him have her, and also on the part of the woman to be equally agreeable. You would be surprised, Conway, how the application of a little courtesy all round helps to smooth out these problems.”
Certainly during visits to the valley Conway found a spirit of goodwill and contentment that pleased him all the more because he knew that of all the arts, that of government has been brought least to perfection. When he made some complimentary remark, however, Chang responded: “Ah, but you see, we believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much.”
“Yet you don’t have any democratic machinery — voting, and so on?”
“Oh, no. Our people would be quite shocked by having to declare that one policy was completely right and another completely wrong.”
Conway smiled. He found the attitude a curiously sympathetic one.
Meanwhile, Miss Brinklow derived her own kind of satisfaction from a study of Tibetan; meanwhile, also, Mallinson fretted and groused, and Barnard persisted in an equanimity which seemed almost equally remarkable, whether it were real or simulated.
“To tell you the truth,” said Mallinson, “the fellow’s cheerfulness is just about getting on my nerves. I can understand him trying to keep a stiff lip, but that continual joking of his begins to upset me. He’ll be the life and soul of the party if we don’t watch him.”
Conway too had once or twice wondered at the ease with which the American had managed to settle down. He replied: “Isn’t it rather lucky for us he DOES take things so well?”
“Personally, I think it’s damned peculiar. What do you KNOW about him, Conway? I mean who he is, and so on.”
“Not much more than you do. I understood he came from Persia and was supposed to have been oil prospecting. It’s his way to take things easily — when the air evacuation was arranged I had quite a job to persuade him to join us at all. He only agreed when I told him that an American passport wouldn’t stop a bullet.”
“By the way, did you ever see his passport?”
“Probably I did, but I don’t remember. Why?”
Mallinson laughed. “I’m afraid you’ll think I haven’t exactly been minding my own business. Why should I, anyhow? Two months in this place ought to reveal all our secrets, if we have any. Mind you, it was a sheer accident, in the way it happened, and I haven’t let slip a word to anyone else, of course. I didn’t think I’d tell even you, but now we’ve got on to the subject I may as well.”
“Yes, of course, but I wish you’d let me know what you’re talking about.”
“Just this. Barnard was traveling on a forged passport and he isn’t Barnard at all.”
Conway raised his eyebrows with an interest that was very much less than concern. He liked Barnard, so far as the man stirred him to any emotion at all; but it was quite impossible for him to care intensely who he really was or wasn’t. He said: “Well, who do you think he is, then?”
“He’s Chalmers Bryant.”
“The deuce he is! What makes you think so?”
“He dropped a pocketbook this morning and Chang picked it up and gave it to me, thinking it was mine. I couldn’t help seeing it was stuffed with newspaper clippings — some of them fell out as I was handling the thing, and I don’t mind admitting that I looked at them. After all, newspaper clippings aren’t private, or shouldn’t be. They were all about Bryant and the search for him, and one of them had a photograph which was absolutely like Barnard except for a mustache.”
“Did you mention your discovery to Barnard himself?”
“No, I just handed him his property without any comment.”
“So the whole thing rests on your identification of a newspaper photograph?”
“Well, so far, yes.”
“I don’t think I’d care to convict anyone on that. Of course you might be right — I don’t say he couldn’t POSSIBLY be Bryant. If he were, it would account for a good deal of his contentment at being here — he could hardly have found a better place to hide.”
Mallinson seemed a trifle disappointed by this casual reception of news which he evidently thought highly sensational. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
Conway pondered a moment and then answered: “I haven’t much of an idea. Probably nothing at all. What can one do, in any case?”
“But dash it all, if the man IS Bryant —”
“My dear Mallinson, if the man were Nero it wouldn’t have to matter to us for the time being! Saint or crook, we’ve got to make what we can of each other’s company as long as we’re here, and I can’t see that we shall help matters by striking any attitudes. If I’d suspected who he was at Baskul, of course, I’d have tried to get in touch with Delhi about him — it would have been merely a public duty. But now I think I can claim to be OFF duty.”
“Don’t you think that’s rather a slack way of looking at it?”
“I don’t care if it’s slack so long as it’s sensible.”
“I suppose that means your advice to me is to forget what I’ve found out?”
“You probably can’t do that, but I certainly think we might both of us keep our own counsel about it. Not in consideration for Barnard or Bryant or whoever he is, but to save ourselves the deuce of an awkward situation when we get away.”
“You mean we ought to let him go?”
“Well, I’ll put it a bit differently and say we ought to give somebody else the pleasure of catching him. When you’ve lived quite sociably with a man for a few months, it seems a little out of place to call for the handcuffs.”
“I don’t think I agree. The man’s nothing but a large-scale thief — I know plenty of people who’ve lost their money through him.”
Conway shrugged his shoulders. He admired the simple black-and-white of Mallinson’s code; the public school ethic might be crude, but at least it was downright. If a man broke the law, it was everyone’s duty to hand him over to justice — always provided that it was the kind of law one was not allowed to break. And the law pertaining to checks and shares and balance sheets was decidedly that kind. Bryant had transgressed it, and though Conway had not taken much interest in the case, he had an impression that it was a fairly bad one of its kind. All he knew was that the failure of the giant Bryant group in New York had resulted in losses of about a hundred million dollars — a record crash, even in a world that exuded records. In some way or other (Conway was not a financial expert) Bryant had been monkeying on Wall Street, and the result had been a warrant for his arrest, his escape to Europe, and extradition orders against him in half a dozen countries.
Conway said finally: “Well, if you take my tip you’ll say nothing about it — not for his sake but for ours. Please yourself, of course, so long as you don’t forget the possibility that he mayn’t be the fellow at all.”
But he was, and the revelation came that evening after dinner. Chang had left them; Miss Brinklow had turned to her Tibetan grammar; the three male exiles faced each other over coffee and cigars. Conversation during the meal would have languished more than once but for the tact and affability of the Chinese; now, in his absence, a rather unhappy silence supervened. Barnard was for once without jokes. It was clear to Conway that it lay beyond Mallinson’s power to treat the American as if nothing had happened, and it was equally clear that Barnard was shrewdly aware that something HAD happened.
Suddenly the American threw away his cigar. “I guess you all know who I am,” he said.
Mallinson colored like a girl, but Conway replied in the same quiet key: “Yes, Mallinson and I think we do.”
“Darned careless of me to leave those clippings lying about.”
“We’re all apt to be careless at times.”
“Well, you’re mighty calm about it, that’s something.”
There was another silence, broken at length by Miss Brinklow’s shrill voice: “I’m sure I don’t know who you are, Mr. Barnard, though I must say I guessed all along you were traveling incognito.” They all looked at her enquiringly and she went on: “I remember when Mr. Conway said we should all have our names in the papers, you said it didn’t affect you. I thought then that Barnard probably wasn’t your real name.”
The culprit gave a slow smile as he lit himself another cigar. “Madam,” he said eventually, “you’re not only a smart detective, but you’ve hit on a really polite name for my present position, I’m traveling incognito. You’ve said it, and you’re dead right. As for you boys, I’m not sorry in a way that you’ve found me out. So long as none of you had an inkling, we could all have managed, but considering how we’re fixed it wouldn’t seem very neighborly to play the high hat with you now. You folks have been so darned nice to me that I don’t want to make a lot of trouble. It looks as if we were all going to be joined together for better or worse for some little time ahead, and it’s up to us to help one another out as far as we can. As for what happens afterwards, I reckon we can leave that to settle itself.”
All this appeared to Conway so eminently reasonable that he gazed at Barnard with considerably greater interest, and even — though it was perhaps odd at such a moment — a touch of genuine appreciation. It was curious to think of that heavy, fleshy, good-humored, rather paternal-looking man as the world’s hugest swindler. He looked far more the type that, with a little extra education, would have made a popular headmaster of a prep school. Behind his joviality there were signs of recent strains and worries, but that did not mean that the joviality was forced. He obviously was what he looked — a “good fellow” in the world’s sense, by nature a lamb and only by profession a shark.
Conway said: “Yes, that’s very much the best thing, I’m certain.”
Then Barnard laughed. It was as if he possessed even deeper reserves of good humor which he could only now draw upon. “Gosh, but it’s mighty queer,” he exclaimed, spreading himself in his chair. “The whole darned business, I mean. Right across Europe, and on through Turkey and Persia to that little one-horse burg! Police after me all the time, mind you — they nearly got me in Vienna! It’s pretty exciting at first, being chased, but it gets on your nerves after a bit. I got a good rest at Baskul, though — I thought I’d be safe in the midst of a revolution.”
“And so you were,” said Conway with a slight smile, “except from bullets.”
“Yeah, and that’s what bothered me at the finish. I can tell you it was a mighty hard choice — whether to stay in Baskul and get plugged, or accept a trip in your government’s aeroplane and find the bracelets waiting at the other end. I wasn’t exactly keen to do either.”
“I remember you weren’t.”
Barnard laughed again. “Well, that’s how it was, and you can figure it out for yourself that the change of plan which brought me here don’t worry me an awful lot. It’s a first-class mystery, but, speaking personally, there couldn’t have been a better one. It isn’t my way to grumble as long as I’m satisfied.”
Conway’s smile became more definitely cordial. “A very sensible attitude, though I think you rather overdid it. We were all beginning to wonder how you managed to be so contented.”
“Well, I WAS contented. This ain’t a bad place, when you get used to it. The air’s a bit snappy at first, but you can’t have everything. And it’s nice and quiet for a change. Every fall I go down to Palm Beach for a rest cure, but they don’t give you it, those places — you’re in the racket just the same. But here I guess I’m having just what the doctor ordered, and it certainly feels grand to me. I’m on a different diet, I can’t look at the tape, and my broker can’t get me on the telephone.”
“I daresay he wishes he could.”
“Sure. There’ll be a tidy-sized mess to clear up, and I know it.”
He said this with such simplicity that Conway could not help responding: “I’m not much of an authority on what people call high finance.”
It was a lead, and the American accepted it without the slightest reluctance. “High finance,” he said, “is mostly a lot of bunk.”
“So I’ve often suspected.”
“Look here, Conway, I’ll put it like this. A feller does what he’s been doing for years, and what lots of other fellers have been doing, and suddenly the market goes against him. He can’t help it, but he braces up and waits for the turn. But somehow the turn don’t come as it always used to, and when he’s lost ten million dollars or so he reads in some paper that a Swede professor thinks it’s the end of the world. Now I ask you, does that sort of thing help markets? Of course, it gives him a bit of a shock, but he still can’t help it. And there he is till the cops come — if he waits for ’em. I didn’t.”
“You claim it was all just a run of bad luck, then?”
“Well, I certainly had a large packet.”
“You also had other people’s money,” put in Mallinson sharply.
“Yeah, I did. And why? Because they all wanted something for nothing and hadn’t the brains to get it for themselves.”
“I don’t agree. It was because they trusted you and thought their money was safe.”
“Well, it wasn’t safe. It couldn’t be. There isn’t safety anywhere, and those who thought there was were like a lot of saps trying to hide under an umbrella in a typhoon.”
Conway said pacifyingly: “Well, we’ll all admit you couldn’t help the typhoon.”
“I couldn’t even pretend to help it — any more than you could help what happened after we left Baskul. The same thing struck me then as I watched you in the aeroplane keeping dead calm while Mallinson here had the fidgets. You knew you couldn’t do anything about it, and you weren’t caring two hoots. Just like I felt myself when the crash came.”
“That’s nonsense!” cried Mallinson. “Anyone can help swindling. It’s a matter of playing the game according to the rules.”
“Which is a darned difficult thing to do when the whole game’s going to pieces. Besides, there isn’t a soul in the world who knows what the rules are. All the professors of Harvard and Yale couldn’t tell you ’em.”
Mallinson replied rather scornfully: “I’m referring to a few quite simple rules of everyday conduct.”
“Then I guess your everyday conduct doesn’t include managing trust companies.”
Conway made haste to intervene. “We’d better not argue. I don’t object in the least to the comparison between your affairs and mine. No doubt we’ve all been flying blind lately, both literally and in other ways. But we’re here now, that’s the important thing, and I agree with you that we could easily have had more to grumble about. It’s curious, when you come to think about it, that out of four people picked up by chance and kidnaped a thousand miles, three should be able to find some consolation in the business. YOU want a rest cure and a hiding place; Miss Brinklow feels a call to evangelize the heathen Tibetan.”
“Who’s the third person you’re counting?” Mallinson interrupted.
“Not me, I hope?”
“I was including myself,” answered Conway. “And my own reason is perhaps the simplest of all — I just rather like being here.”
Indeed, a short time later, when he took what had come to be his usual solitary evening stroll along the terrace or beside the lotus pool, he felt an extraordinary sense of physical and mental settlement. It was perfectly true; he just rather liked being at Shangri–La. Its atmosphere soothed while its mystery stimulated, and the total sensation was agreeable. For some days now he had been reaching, gradually and tentatively, a curious conclusion about the lamasery and its inhabitants; his brain was still busy with it, though in a deeper sense he was unperturbed. He was like a mathematician with an abstruse problem — worrying over it, but worrying very calmly and impersonally.
As for Bryant, whom he decided he would still think of and address as Barnard, the question of his exploits and identity faded instantly into the background, save for a single phrase of his — “the whole game’s going to pieces.” Conway found himself remembering and echoing it with a wider significance than the American had probably intended; he felt it to be true of more than American banking and trust-company management. It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government House; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world, and Barnard’s cropper had only, perhaps, been better dramatized than his own. The whole game WAS doubtless going to pieces, but fortunately the players were not as a rule put on trial for the pieces they had failed to save. In that respect financiers were unlucky.
But here, at Shangri–La, all was in deep calm. In a moonless sky the stars were lit to the full, and a pale blue sheen lay upon the dome of Karakal. Conway realized then that if by some change of plan the porters from the outside world were to arrive immediately, he would not be completely overjoyed at being spared the interval of waiting. And neither would Barnard, he reflected with an inward smile. It was amusing, really; and then suddenly he knew that he still liked Barnard, or he wouldn’t have found it amusing. Somehow the loss of a hundred million dollars was too much to bar a man for; it would have been easier if he had only stolen one’s watch. And after all, how COULD anyone lose a hundred millions? Perhaps only in the sense in which a cabinet minister might airily announce that he had been “given India.”
And then again he thought of the time when he would leave Shangri–La with the returning porters. He pictured the long, arduous journey, and that eventual moment of arrival at some planter’s bungalow in Sikkim or Baltistan — a moment which ought, he felt, to be deliriously cheerful, but which would probably be slightly disappointing. Then the first hand shakings and self-introductions; the first drinks on clubhouse verandas; sun-bronzed faces staring at him in barely concealed incredulity. At Delhi, no doubt, interviews with the viceroy and the C.I.C., salaams of turbaned menials; endless reports to be prepared and sent off. Perhaps even a return to England and Whitehall; deck games on the P. & O.; the flaccid palm of an under secretary; newspaper interviews; hard, mocking, sex-thirsty voices of women —“And is it really true, Mr. Conway, that when you were in Tibet . . .?” There was no doubt of one thing; he would be able to dine out on his yarn for at least a season. But would he enjoy it? He recalled a sentence penned by Gordon during the last days at Khartoum —“I would sooner live like a dervish with the Mahdi than go out to dinner every night in London.” Conway’s aversion was less definite — a mere anticipation that to tell his story in the past tense would bore him a great deal as well as sadden him a little.
Abruptly, in the midst of his reflections, he was aware of Chang’s approach. “Sir,” began the Chinese, his slow whisper slightly quickening as he spoke, “I am proud to be the bearer of important news . . . .”
So the porters HAD come before their time, was Conway’s first thought; it was odd that he should have been thinking of it so recently. And he felt the pang that he was half-prepared for. “Well?” he queried.
Chang’s condition was as nearly that of excitement as seemed physically possible for him. “My dear sir, I congratulate you,” he continued. “And I am happy to think that I am in some measure responsible — it was after my own strong and repeated recommendations that the High Lama made his decision. He wishes to see you immediately.”
Conway’s glance was quizzical. “You’re being less coherent than usual, Chang. What has happened?”
“The High Lama has sent for you.”
“So I gather. But why all the fuss?”
“Because it is extraordinary and unprecedented — even I who urged it did not expect it to happen yet. A fortnight ago you had not arrived, and now you are about to be received by HIM! Never before has it occurred so soon!”
“I’m still rather fogged, you know. I’m to see your High Lama — I realize that all right. But is there anything else?”
“Is it not enough?”
Conway laughed. “Absolutely, I assure you — don’t imagine I’m being discourteous. As a matter of fact, something quite different was in my head at first. However, never mind about that now. Of course, I shall be both honored and delighted to meet the gentleman. When is the appointment?”
“Now. I have been sent to bring you to him.”
“Isn’t it rather late?”
“That is of no consequence. My dear sir, you will understand many things very soon. And may I add my own personal pleasure that this interval — always an awkward one — is now at an end. Believe me, it has been irksome to me to have to refuse you information on so many occasions — extremely irksome. I am joyful in the knowledge that such unpleasantness will never again be necessary.”
“You’re a queer fellow, Chang,” Conway responded. “But let’s be going, don’t bother to explain anymore. I’m perfectly ready and I appreciate your nice remarks. Lead the way.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56