Chapter Four. Realities
“It’s me, all right. The name Bryant that he says is my right name ain’t the right one, but if you knew where to look, you’d find the old news stories about me quick enough. Not that it matters: The statutes of limitations don’t run any 30 years, and anyway it wouldn’t be so easy, extraditing me out of here.”
“But except for the names, the rest of the story is true?”
“Oh, more or less. Like Huck Finn says, he stretched it here and there, but mostly he told the truth.”
Mr. Barnard and I were standing, in parkas, by the frost‑covered windows of his greenhouse room, which the morning sun had turned into a splendid wilderness of illuminated traceries. Mr. Barnard had said he thought I’d like seeing the designs. I was a little surprised that he’d notice such things. I think, now, that he wanted to get my first impression of the book in surroundings as unfamiliar to me as possible in our limited world.
He turned to face me. “I take it you found stuff you think don’t jibe. Like what?”
“Well, specifically,” I said, forcing myself to bluntness, “the hijacking. Hilton lays out a sequence that just couldn’t be real.”
“Hilton says your hijacker landed the maharajah’s plane somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and a bunch of tribesmen came out and held everybody inside, refueled the plane with gasoline and then you took off again.”
“You don’t believe it?”
“Of course not. Think what it would mean. Even if the hijacker knew in advance exactly the day he was going to be able to steal a plane, he’d have had to let these tribesmen know he was coming. Now how was he supposed to do that? And if he didn’t, are we supposed to believe that he had that tribe just sitting there — for years, I suppose? — carrying cans of gasoline, waiting for him to drop down on them? It’s too complicated. I don’t believe it.”
“And there ain’t any reason you should,” Mr. Barnard said calmly. “That’s one of the things Hilton made up. He got the story from a friend, you know, who got it from Conway, just like it says in the book. I expect when Hilton came to write it all out, he found pieces here and there that he hadn’t thought to ask about, and he filled them in the best he could. My guess is, he didn’t know how that machine could fly so far, so he put in the bit about refueling to make the story sound more likely. And, the fact is, all the time we were cooped up in that crate, we were wondering how the devil he kept it up so long. We didn’t find out right after we came down, because we were a lot more interested in getting warm and getting fed, let me tell you! But a couple months after Conway broke out of here, I took a little jaunt out to the plateau to do some salvaging and look things over. In those days, it wasn’t so important to cover up the traces of our visitors, you can imagine. Anyway, I got a big surprise: It turns out we had near another hundred gallons in the tanks.
“You know, Hilton gives the impression we ran out of gas just at about the time we got to that ledge. On a thousand‑mile ride, that would be cutting it pretty close. But that’s what we thought then, because we kept waiting for the motor to stop and we couldn’t see any other reason for the pilot to be landing us in the middle of the mountains.”
“You were lucky it didn’t blow when you hit.”
“That’s what I thought, too. It gave me a funny feeling. But it looks like the guy turned off the gas lines before we got down.”
“Sure, that’s s.o.p. When I brought mine in, I did the same. But you were still lucky. And I was too.”
“Well, you can call it luck, I suppose. Anyway, it turned out the thing was fixed with extra gas tanks, something like Lindbergh’s plane, I reckon. The maharajah liked doing things first‑class, and he didn’t like stopping unless he wanted to stop. What else is on your mind?”
“The girl, of course.”
“What girl?” He knew, of course. Had to. But asked me anyway. Interesting.
“Lo‑tsen. The Chinese girl Mallinson fell in love with.”
Mr. Barnard looked hard at me. “What about her?”
“Hilton says Conway fell in love with her first (platonically, I gather) and was told she was a Manchu princess, born in the 1860s — which put her at least in her sixties even though she looked like she was in her twenties.”
Mr. Barnard said nothing, waiting.
“Then he said Mallinson fell in love with her, and not in a platonic way.”
“And that the girl . . . .”
Again he waited for me.
“He says the girl fell in love with Mallinson, too and — demonstrated it. Let him make love to her.” Obviously I was going to get no help with this. I was talking to a wall, a suddenly granite presence conceding nothing, offering nothing. “He says that Lo‑tsen made it possible for Mallinson to contact the porters, and that she got over the pass to join them, and that Mallinson then tried to join her but couldn’t get across by himself. He says Mallinson wanted Conway to come with him—needed him, if only for his mountain‑climbing skills—and finally persuaded him only by admitting that he’d made love to Lo‑tsen and knew, for sure, that she wasn’t any 60 years old. Just a girl, he said. And if you believe Hilton, Conway was sort of balanced between believing and disbelieving what the high lama had told him. When he found out from Mallinson that Lo‑tsen was young, he jumped to the conclusion that the lama’s story was a fabrication. So he helped Mallinson to escape.”
“And broke out with him.”
“Right. And realized, somewhere along the way, that Lo‑tsen really was in her 60s. She started getting old as soon as they’d been out of range of the valley’s atmosphere for a couple of weeks—just as the lama had told him would happen. So then he realized he was fleeing from the truth.”
“That’s a good way of putting it.”
“Is it? Well, it doesn’t make sense.”
“No? Why not?”
“This delicate little Chinese girl got over the pass that a man in his vigorous 20s couldn’t? And she—knowing she was in her 60s—agreed to go with him, knowing she was going toward instant aging and sure death? Come on! And these are just the obvious things. It just doesn’t ring true. Which makes me wonder about the rest of the story. Not that I wouldn’t anyway.”
Mr. Barnard’s face relaxed into approval—even, I thought, into admiration. “You got your thinking cap on, George, I’ll give you that. But it happened, all the same.”
“Mallinson making love to her, thinking she was in her 20s?”
“That’s what he’s supposed to have told Conway, but I don’t know, I never asked. Hilton could have made that up for his own purposes.”
“Do you think he’d do that?”
Mr. Barnard shrugged, a little cynically. “You know how it is: If you’re going to sell to Hollywood, you got to have sex appeal. I’m surprised he didn’t turn Miss Brinklow into a chorus girl.”
“So she’s real, too?”
“She’s real. You’re liable to run into her sometime, if you’re interested.”
“Sure I’m interested. Have I seen her at supper?”
“Uh‑uh. She don’t spend all that much time up here. She’s down in the valley, telling people what to believe and how to live, like always. You’ll get your chance to be reformed by her, I assure you.”
“I see.” But I didn’t, and I was still thinking about the little Chinese princess. It would be easier to believe that Lo‑tsen herself was an invention of novelist Hilton. “Mr. Barnard, tell me this. You’re saying that the stuff about aging wasn’t made up?”
“Unreasonable, ain’t it?”
“It sure is.”
He grinned his surprisingly youthful grin. “I agree with you. But how old would you say I am?”
“Well, you look about 50.”
“Work it out yourself. You don’t entirely have to take my word for it. I been here 31 years, you got to admit. And you know how old Conway is, and you know I’m older. As a matter of fact, I was born August second, 1882—which made me 80 years old three months ago.”
“You realize,” I said, “that you’re talking science‑fiction stuff.”
(A conversational detour, that. He’d never heard of science fiction. He’d never heard of Hugo Gernsback. He had, at least, heard of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but he’d never connected the two.)
“Anyway,” I said, “immortality is an old science‑fiction staple.”
Mr. Barnard held up a cautionary hand. “Now, don’t get carried away, here. I never said immortality. All I said was that we have got some drug that grows in the valley. Only in the valley, far as we know. Between that and some yoga exercises that Father Perrault developed, it’ll stretch out your life.”
“And it can only be done here.”
“As far as we know. There’s something about this area, we don’t know what. The drug don’t have the same effect somewhere else. Nobody’s ever figured out why not, not even Father Perrault.”
“And you say he lived 250 years.”
“That’s what the book says, and that’s what the monks say. I know it’s a lot to swallow, but looking at my own experience, I don’t see that you got a whole lot of choice. Of course 250 years is still a far piece from immortality.”
Did I believe him? Well, no, not at first. Or perhaps I should say that I fell into the state of mind we use when we’re told something so strange, so unbelievable, that it is beyond the bounds of what could reasonably be expected of even a very audacious liar. I treated it like a good sci‑fi tale, pursuing the implications even while withholding intellectual consent. After all, how reasonable was it that Mr. Barnard should be 30 years older than he looked? How was I to prove it one way or another?
On the other hand, if the monks did have the secret of holding the aging process at bay (as Mr. Barnard put it), it would make it a whole lot easier to explain how so many Westerners could have come to the monastery before World War II. They’d have had lots of time to do so. It was in 1809 that the Austrian soldier, Henschell, set up the monastery’s carefully concealed links with the outside world. Lot of years between 1809 and 1962.
Yet how could it be true? For one thing—
“Mr. Barnard, tell me this. Conway was told the same story, and found the idea very attractive. But as soon as Mallinson told him the girl was truly young, rather than miraculously well‑preserved, he jumped to the conclusion that the high lama’s story was a pack of lies. Why would he do something that drastic just on Mallinson’s say‑so?”
“C’mon,” Mr. Barnard said. “It’s cold in here.”
“Aren’t you going to answer my question?”
“Not me. Come ask him yourself.”
The question didn’t cause Mr. Conway to retreat into mere civility, or lose himself in reminiscence, or politely inform me that it was none of my business. Instead, quite simply and directly, he answered.
“I had been balanced on a pin‑point, with Mallinson and the world I had known pulling me one way and the lama and Shangri‑la and my own inclinations pulling the other. When Mallinson suddenly upset the balance I’d thought I’d achieved, I left. My leaving was as surprising to me as to anyone.”
He took pity on my perplexity. “James Hilton’s estimate of my mental state in 1931 is too generous. To him—or to my friend Kallen, whom he called Rutherford—my `passionless’ state seemed a philosophical attitude. The acquisition of wisdom, if you will. But the truth is simply that I was emotionally exhausted. At the critical moment, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that what I longed for might be true. I suppose one might say I left because of the war.”
We were seated in the refectory, the large room where we eat our common meals, deserted at this time of day. He and I and Mr. Barnard were seated at one of the long tables. The table had nothing on it but our hands and forearms and the book I had carried with me. The dark polished wood beneath my hands felt waxed. The mid‑morning sun glowed against the wood of the high walls and lighted the purple wall‑hangings. The emptiness of the room (which I usually saw only when it was filled with dozens of monks at table) emphasized the height of the ceiling.
Mr. Conway looked to be in his early 40s. His skin (like Sunnie’s, I thought, absurdly) was unlined. His eyes were clear and youthful. His movements were direct, economical and vigorous, and unlike Mr. Barnard’s did not betray any of the instinctive caution of a man past his prime. If Mr. Barnard was comfortably ensconced in those long middle years between youth and age, Mr. Conway was still in his vigorous early manhood. On a tennis court, I thought, Mr. Barnard (if he bothered to play at all) would have to restrict himself to playing those more or less his own age. Mr. Conway would hold his own even against youngsters, countering their stamina with experience and craft. He was nearly 70 years old when I summed him up with this initial impression.
Mr. Conway said, “My friends tell me you were something of a student of history.”
“Well, I majored in history. Mostly modern history — Europe and America since Waterloo.”
“Then perhaps you will be able to grasp the effect of the war on my generation. Henry and I were raised in a world of certainties, most particularly including the certainty of inevitable progress. We English, in particular, believed in our imperial destiny, our civilizing task. The war put paid to all that.”
“Maybe for you English. Not for everybody.”
Mr. Conway turned his gaze on Mr. Barnard. “Not for America. But you didn’t get the full benefit of the experience. You received a taste, no more.”
Mr. Barnard grunted. “A taste was plenty.”
“Yes. But we’d had our taste by Christmas, 1914. Summer of 1915 — the Dardanelles — to be generous. And after that taste, we went on killing and being killed, living constantly with fear and misery, for years. Ypres, Verdun, Paeschendaele, the Somme—” He turned back to me. “Your doughboys fought splendidly, and they did get their taste of trench warfare, but only a taste. In 1918, you know, the war on the Western Front reverted to open‑field maneuvering, for the first time since the winter of 1914. So you were spared the long agony of four years’ stalemate.” He paused. “I wonder if you can see even a shadow of it. Henry, I don’t think you yourself see it, even with your advantage of having lived through the aftermath.”
“Probably I can’t. Nothing touches experience.”
“No. And sometimes vicarious experience is quite enough, as you said just now.” Mr. Conway’s tone of voice was suddenly, unexpectedly, sardonic. It could have been Mr. Barnard speaking.
Now as it happened, I knew something about the pre‑World War I world that got destroyed. I’d read about it in texts, and, better, in novels, an underrated way to get to understand the thought and emotion of an age. And once I’d heard my father and my Uncle Warren (my mother’s brother) talk of their experience in that war. This was when I was very young, in the period between World War II and Korea, when nobody much wanted to hear stories from an earlier crusade to save democracy. On that night, sitting in the dark on our front porch on a long summer evening while their children and nephews and nieces were playing elsewhere, not knowing I was nearby, listening intently, they retold their stories to each other. Some they wouldn’t have knowingly told in my presence. Some I absorbed but didn’t understand until reading and life provided context.
Not that they’d seen combat. Uncle Warren spent 14 months working at keeping the French railroads functioning between our sector of the front and the docks of the city of La Pallice. Dad, a kid of 18, didn’t even disembark in France until three weeks before the Armistice. But in their service in France and during occupation duty on the Rhine in 1919, they had accumulated second‑hand tales of combat and first‑hand tales of demoralization.
So, when Mr. Conway spoke to us of the everyday horrors of his 38 months of trench warfare, I could fill in some of the blanks he left. He spoke of the mud and filth and insects—and I could mentally supply the rats that proliferated and fattened on human corpses buried and unburied. When he spoke of horse cavalry charging machine-gun nests, or described line after line of unprotected infantry going over the top in the wake of an artillery barrage, I could fill in the details he thought to spare me. The coils of barbed wire to be cut through. The interlocking fields of machine‑gun fire. The yellow clouds of poison gas drifting across fields. The long snake‑tongue of the flame‑throwers. . . . And I could supply the hellish uproar, the acrid stink of exploded nitroglycerine, the frantic leaps from shell‑hole to shell‑hole, the laying down of box barrages to isolate sectors of enemy trenches long enough for raiding parties to go across after prisoners. . . .
And I knew of the endless offensives, planned in meticulous detail by headquarters‑bound officers, expending millions of artillery shells and hundreds of thousands of young lives in order to accomplish precisely nothing. Not “nothing much,” but nothing. A few hundred yards of enemy line that became an indefensible salient that had to be evacuated in a few days’ time. Failure after failure after unbelievably costly failure, year after year, while a generation of Germans, Frenchmen and Britons, and their imperial subjects, broke their youth on each other’s fortifications and armaments, until even the lucky ones who survived were prematurely aged.
“Can you imagine, George, what life was like for us?”
I could, I thought.
“We lived like that from 1915 to the Spring of 1918 — and 1918 we endured in the shadow of what seemed certain defeat, almost to the end. By then we were almost beyond caring. And once we had absorbed the fact that we had lived through the end, we seemed to have no emotion left. We were apathetic. Spent. Sullen, the civilians called us, some of them. Those who had kept themselves farthest from harm, generally. None of us was sane after that. None of us was whole. Some appeared undamaged, and many of us carried on, if only for appearance’s sake. Out of inertia, one might say, functioning because we were expected to function. Expected it ourselves. But nothing seemed capable of rousing us. Then without warning some trivial occasion—a chance remark, perhaps—might send someone into a tearing rage. We were neither sane nor whole, and how we would act under renewed stress was utterly beyond predicting—least of all by ourselves. As I learned on Mallinson’s last night here.”
“Is that what they meant when they said in the book that you were `blown up in the war’? Were you shell‑shocked?”
“I did spend time in hospital once after a shell landed rather too close, but that was nothing unusual. We couldn’t be replaced and couldn’t be relieved. So we would be wounded and patched up and sent back, and then often enough wounded again and patched up yet again. England was straining every nerve merely to hold the line. My friends later used my having been in hospital as an excuse to see me as a war casualty; not as a slacker.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was among the class that had been reared and educated and trained to govern the empire. As a decorated veteran, I was expected to seek my place. But after the war, I found myself unable to believe in that life. I could force myself to act the expected part, but could not force myself to feel it. My friends charitably chose to ascribe the difference in me to my having been `blown up.’” He made a gesture like emptying a handful of sand. “Not that I cared, particularly.”
For a long moment none of us said anything. The mid‑morning winter sunlight was pouring in through the windows high on the refectory walls, but images of the war lay between us like a shadow on the table.
“I guess your experience made Father Perrault’s vision that much more real to you,” I said, feeling the remark’s inanity even as I uttered it. But Mr. Conway did not make the sharp or ironic retort it warranted. He merely said mildly that it is easier to believe in the end of the world when once you’ve seen it happen.
From that remark to talk of the bomb was a very short step: hardly a step at all.
Hardly a step at all, for of course the final war is the entire point of Father Perrault’s institution. Lying on what he thought was his deathbed, long ago in 1789, the old man had entered a trance. Like so many who have been brought to close to the door of no return—like Carl Jung in 1944, for instance—he returned with a message. Like Jung’s, his was a vision of great man‑made destruction. In that year of the French revolution, he saw in his mind’s eye (to use that greatly oversimplified metaphor) men raging “exultant in the art of homicide,” trampling civilizations like rare flowers, laying waste all but the most remote and unsuspected pockets. It was just such a remote and unsuspected pocket that he and his friends and co‑workers set out to make of Shangri‑la. “We may not hope for mercy,” he told Mr. Conway in 1931, “but we may faintly hope for neglect.”
How much the old man’s original vision encompassed, we cannot know. Perhaps, with time, he embellished. But it was clear to him by 1931, a full decade and more before the invention of the atomic bomb began to make his vision technically feasible.
“Inevitable?” Mr. Conway echoed my question. “I don’t know that anything on earth is inevitable. I prefer to talk of possibilities, and of a balancing of tendencies. I am not the sort of fatalist who believe we follow a pre‑written script.”
“`Accidents happen,’” I said, quoting my father.
“Do they?” His smile was warm, perhaps slightly self‑mocking. “I’d not care to place that bet, either. I’d say, rather, that the script is written as we act our roles. Not the same thing, quite, is it?”
“But he wants to know, do you think it’s going to happen.”
Mr. Conway’s smile at Mr. Barnard’s typically blunt statement was entirely different from the one I’d received. Yet precisely how, I couldn’t tell. His words, actions, expressions, contained more fine nuances that those of anyone I’d ever met. This smile combined compassion, irony and something almost beyond humanity: It had a quality of the laughter of the gods, laughing that they might not cry at the folly of mankind.
“You know the record, Henry. How would you judge?”
“That’s all you’re going to say about it?”
“Henry, we have time.”
Neither man was looking at me. It suddenly struck me that this was not by chance, and not without significance.
Meanwhile, my life continued to flow, apparently unchanged, in the channels it had found since November. I continued to have pleasant conversations, sometimes surprising, sometimes disturbing, with various people. I worked with Mr. Barnard in his shop. I read in the library. I did my share of the chores that all but the ill and elderly monks shared in: cooking, doing dishes, laundry, tending fires. Sunnie worked at teaching me to draw. Others taught me other things. Mr. Conway and I spent long pleasant hours discussing — savoring — English and Irish poetry. In all these activities, I kept an eye out for what I could learn about the monastery. I was looking for clues, and of course had no way to know in advance where they might be found. I knew they were hiding something. If possible, I wanted to find out what it was, before I came to leave. It might make a difference.
Mr. Barnard and I were sitting on a bench on one of the patios, wrapped in parkas, companionably smoking cigars from some kind of pseudo‑tobacco grown in the valley below and wrapped by him, sometimes with my assistance. There was no moon that night—or rather, it was the night of the new moon. Even after several months, the brilliance of the nighttime sky here was still new enough to me that I reveled in it. I’d never seen the Milky Way as a luminous white band across the sky. I’d never seen so many stars, nor seen them in their different colors and intensities. For the first time, I seemed to see that some were farther from us than others.
After a few minutes I realized, with some surprise, that neither the piercing cold nor the silence left me uncomfortable. It was as though hidden depths of muscle within were beginning to untense. I realized that I’d miss this place. No other place (no place I’d ever been, anyway) offered this kind of conversation or company. I realized that, if not for Marianne, I could get used to living this way. But then, I wasn’t living as a monk, and hadn’t any very clear idea of what their day comprised. Which raised an interesting point.
“You know,” I said (and, looking back on it, it seems that every time I was hesitant to bring up something, I started off with the words “You know”) “Mr. Conway didn’t make the place sound much like a monastery. Or Hilton didn’t, anyway. The place came out sounding more like a cross between a hotel and a library.”
“Yeah, it did, but don’t forget, when Conway talked to his friend, he’d only seen the inside of the place for a few months. He didn’t know that much about what the place is all about. All he knew is what Chang and the high lama told him. And they were careful not to tell him too much, you’ll notice. Just as well they didn’t, seeing how Conway took off with Mallinson. I suppose that old man knew something about Conway that Conway didn’t know about himself.”
Did he? I couldn’t help wondering how. I pursued what I thought was a different thread. “From what you say, it’s obvious that the lama didn’t tell Mr. Conway as much as he might have. That says to me that there’s something about what you’re doing here that you’d just as soon not see in print in the outside world. I wonder what it is.”
I had the clear impression (though I’d be hard‑pressed to say how it was conveyed) of a man trying hard not to show that he was startled. Trying almost successfully.
“The other day, when I asked you how this place had survived all these years, you said it was timing,” I said, trying to come at him out of the blue. “What did you mean by that?”
Mr. Barnard said nothing for so long that I wondered if he was going to ignore the question. But after a few minutes, he took his cigar out of his mouth, looked away up at the stars overhead, and began, in some detail, to tell me only a carefully selected part of the story.
“As far as I’m concerned, what you call World War II began when the Japs and China had their first armed incident and the Japs got away with it, just about the time I got here. One thing led to another, and it didn’t take us long to see what was happening.”
“Herrick and me. He was their big man on world affairs.” (Herrick was Lawrence Herrick, a British school teacher who arrived in the ’80s, I don’t know how.) “I hadn’t been here long before Herrick and me started meeting pretty regular, talking about world news and what it meant. Don’t forget, I was the guy with the latest first‑hand experience. Say what you want, there’s a difference between just hearing about things and actually being there. Herrick’s never seen a car, for instance. So even if I hadn’t known a thing about what made the world go ’round, they would have needed my point of view. But as it happened, I’d always kept up with things. When you’re playing the commodities exchange, you like to keep an eye peeled for what things are going to look like a few months down the pike.
“But Herrick taught me a thing or two about following things. Where I would try to figure out which way things would jump five, six months from now, he looks at six months as being so close we might as well count it as part of right now. He looks for how things are going to turn 10, 15 years from now, and you’d be surprised how much you can see, once you get the hang of it. It’s a little like checking the weather, only you look wider and deeper.”
All true enough, and all carefully phrased to allow for different interpretations on different levels. But at the time I didn’t pick up on that: I was on a different scent. “You’re going to tell me that he foresaw World War II in 1931.”
Mr. Barnard grunted and puffed on his cigar. “Hell, that wouldn’t have been any trick. Herrick tells me somebody predicted the next war as soon as he heard the terms of the Versailles Treaty. And I remember some French officer getting in trouble in the mid‑’20s because he gave some lecture and instead of calling it the Great War, he called it World War I. He nearly got drummed out of the army, as I remember it. Seems to me they ought to have made him a general. Anyway, every few months we’d get a shipment by way of the porters, and part of every load was always books and some newspapers and magazines. That’s how Herrick and me kept up.”
“Hilton didn’t say much about how that worked, either, I notice.”
Mr. Barnard shrugged. “The details were beside the point, weren’t they? And anyway, he didn’t know all that much about it.”
“But you do.”
Another shrug, as he accepted the prompting. “The system was that booksellers all over the world were keeping an eye out for certain kinds of books, and would send them to a certain mailing address in Hong Kong, where they’d be packed up and sent to Shanghai, and then to Peking, and then Chunking and out here. Middlemen all through the process, of course, which jacked up the price, but also made sure that nobody knew too much about the whole operation.”
He waved the subject away. “Like I say, the pattern was clear before very long. Herrick had me read stuff and we’d talk about what it meant, and he’d give me the background he knew and I’d throw in whatever I knew, and that way we each one learned something. I guess I was getting my college diploma a little late in life.” Suddenly he grinned at me. “And I sure had to teach that man everything in the world about trust companies and stocks and options and business in general. He had the theory, some of it, but lord would he have got eat up alive in the real thing! Anyhow, between us we could see what things were leading to. We didn’t see it all, of course, not by a darn sight. You never can, it’s too big. Maybe that’s how the lord keeps surprises in store for us, so we don’t get bored. But anyhow, when we saw Japan fixing to carve up China, we knew.”
“Knew it had to wind up as a world war?”
“It was darned logical, if you started from the right place—and the right place was Japan. Once you looked at their history, it was plenty clear. You got to understand, Japan had spent the 1800s watching Europe gobble up everything that couldn’t defend itself, which was near everything. So the Japs learned the rules and made themselves into a military power, and beat the living daylights out of the Chinese in 1895 and the Russians in 1905. Plus they got in on the winning side in the World War, and got the Shantung peninsula—that’s in China, you know—from Germany in the peace treaty. As far as they’re concerned, this was just for openers. They were feeling their oats. But then they hear that the English and the Americans are changing the rules, and from now on all boundaries are permanent and anybody that starts a war is the bad guy.”
“Sure,” I said. “Everybody was sick of war by 1918.”
Mr. Barnard chewed on his cigar, smiling sardonically. “Yeah, and they’d also picked up pretty near everything lying around loose—the winners had—so what’d they need any more wars for? Anyway, the Japs see that Europe’s through, and so they think there ain’t any reason they can’t play the game themselves a little. In fact, without England and France and Germany to worry about, they figure to have the game practically to themselves. Well, they have this big earthquake in I think ‘23 that flattens Tokyo and that slows ‘em down quite a bit, but in ‘31 they come back stronger than ever. The world depression is on by then, and it’s taking all our attention, so when the Japs take a couple of nibbles and nobody’s got the ambition to stop ‘em, and they take a little more and nobody does anything, they start moving faster, and in half a dozen years, you got China and Japan in a full‑scale war, and China getting just clobbered. And by then you got Hitler in Germany and it’s clear enough that he’s doing the same as Japan: He’s pushing as hard as he can and he’s not finding anybody pushing back.”
He took a long drag on his cigar and blew the smoke out vigorously into the night air. “To make a long story short, Herrick and me saw that things were going from worse to terrible, as the fellow said, and so we decided to close down the supply pipeline. It was just too risky, leaving a clue that big. Japan was keeping China plenty busy at the moment, but we didn’t want somebody putting two and two together in ten, fifteen years and suddenly showing up knocking on our door.”
I said I didn’t see how they could shut down the carrier network without leaving a trace.
“Like I said, timing. If we’d waited till ‘49, or ‘45, or even ‘41, there would have been loose ends, no question about it. You take a backward country like China was then, fighting for its life and getting pasted regular, losing its seaboard cities and railroads and all: How are you going to bring in stuff from overseas, and get it together in one place, and ship it all the way across China, and pay for it—in gold!—and not have everybody in the army and the government taking their cut along the way, figuring you had got to be smuggling something? That’s a lot of loose ends, and it only takes one wide‑awake guy to put it all together. Sooner or later he gets to your porters and you’re finished.”
“So you closed it down.”
“So we closed it down, is right. We ain’t had a shipment in here since October, I think it was, 1937.” He finished his cigar and threw the butt away into the surrounding darkness over the wall. “Those last shipments, we went in heavy for tools and things, since we were going to be on our own. That’s when I put that shop together. Let me tell you, packing to go someplace is nothing compared to packing to stay someplace and trying to be sure you got everything you are ever going to need.”
“I can imagine,” I said. I thought I was in hot pursuit, not knowing I’d missed the trail. “But if your last shipment here was 1937, how have you kept up with the things that have happened since then? It’s obvious that you do.”
Mr. Barnard shrugged. “The radio. That’s all we have. We’ve been hearing about television for near 20 years, now, but of course we don’t have any way to make one, or get one.”
“Radio? It seems to me the book said—”
“Yeah, I know, Chang told me they couldn’t get radio up here. That’s how much he knew about radio. There ain’t a shortwave station in the world we don’t get at one time or another. Of course, he was just passing on what somebody else had told him. Or maybe that was their way of weaning us from the outside world, I never thought about that. Remind me to show you the crystal set we started with: 40 years old and as good as new.”
I didn’t have the wit or the background to see through his radio diversion. (Of course, we do have radios, three of them, ordered, along with wood‑fired electric generators, in the half‑dozen years between Mr. Barnard’s arrival and their final shipment. If you want to throw somebody off the scent, be sure the decoy looks realistic. Mixed metaphor, but the point comes through, I hope.) Still, something about his explanation didn’t sit right, and I couldn’t tell what.
“Somehow,” I said, coming to the end of my own cigar, “hearing about you having radio makes the place seen even smaller to me. Doesn’t it ever give you claustrophobia, being stuck here?”
“Not particularly. They got me quoted in the book as saying, 30 years ago, that it’s all a matter of whether you’d rather be in here or out there, and I haven’t changed my mind one bit. Oh, sometimes it gets a little irritating, hearing about things on the radio and not being able to figure out what they’re talking about, but mostly the news ain’t been good enough, these last years, to make me want to go anywhere. And besides, I been here long enough that it would be sure death to go outside, even let alone the Chinese.”