Messenger Chapter 06

Chapter Six. Escape

By the end of April I’d spent about three months learning a few Tibetan phrases that might or might not prove useful in the event—long enough to realize that to go beyond these phrases to fluency could require not months but years.

I’d carefully adopted the wearing of a monk’s robe, not merely for the sake of fitting in visually but also to save wear on my flight suit.

Oxygen was going to be a problem, obviously, since I had no way to refill my mask. The monastery puts some sort of drug into newcomers’ food, to lessen the effect of high altitude on bodies born in lower places. My careful, inconspicuous searches never turned up the drug’s storage place. Not so surprising, perhaps, since I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I’d have to do without it, and hope the residual effect of whatever was still in my system when I left would carry me past the worst.

I had abstracted two canteens I’d found in the tiny, chock‑full storage room. They were old. The canvas around the metal canteens had rotted. I improvised a sling out of some rope. I made another sling to support the food I’d carry in one of the bags woven and brought up from the valley. The food itself, like the water, I wouldn’t be able to stock until almost the last moment.

About fire, I debated for some time. On the one hand, I didn’t intend sending smoke signals for the benefit of either the communists or the monastery. The barren mountainside provided nothing to burn anyway, and before I’d walked very far, I would certainly begrudge every ounce of extra weight. On the other hand, merely getting across the border wouldn’t automatically mean safety. Conceivably I might at some point need to light a fire to signal rescuers, or to save myself from freezing, or even to cook a meal. And the little spark‑making mechanism weighed only a few ounces. I decided to take it.

Food, water, shelter. Should I carry something to use as a tent or poncho? I had long since given the monastery my parachute, figuring they’d be glad to use the silk for something. What could I replace it with? This boiled down strictly to a question of weight. I’d be uncomfortable in only my flight suit, but could I survive? If so, I’d be better off suffering cold than carrying extra weight. I decided to carry a blanket (hand‑woven, like most fabrics in the monastery, by the people in the valley below) and abandon it when its weight got to be too much. I figured that it would probably be worth its weight the first two or three nights, and that if I felt strong enough after that I could keep carrying it, and otherwise I could drop it and try to get across to safety before I ran out of energy.

What I really needed was a stimulant, and after several days spent wishing that coffee grew in the valley, I realized that the obvious solution was to carry super‑concentrated tea in my canteen instead of water. I’d just have to find a time when I could brew it unsuspected.

What else would I need? My first‑aid stuff? Reluctantly I weeded it down to my pocket knife and a single roll of gauze and part of a roll of adhesive tape. I left the unguents and iodine. Taking my chances with infection seemed preferable to carrying the extra weight. If I could just get across the border (constant refrain, that!) I could get any medical treatment I might need. For exposure and exhaustion, probably, and maybe frostbite. Not for gunshot wounds, I hoped.

I needed a map, however crude. Hours of poring over the maps in the library convinced me that I knew where we were. Shangri‑la was nowhere marked on any of them, but I knew more or less where to start looking. I traced out a route over the mountains that looked at least possible, if hardly easy.

I exercised daily, trying to stay in shape. That was about all I could do.

But how was I going to get out of the building, down to the valley, back up the other trail from the valley to the altiplano outside, and past the guards? I’d figured out the supplies; now I had to figure out the operation.

2

First came reconnaissance, of course. Since I’d read the book, for me to ask to see Miss Brinklow was perfectly natural. At least, I hoped it would seem so. And to see her was to go to the valley.

Mr. Conway not only raised no objections, he offered to accompany me and introduce me. So, one morning in May, he and I and two natives roped ourselves together and hiked down the trail I’d climbed half a year before. It was as narrow as I’d remembered, and as steep. I’d need a moonlit night and a lot of very careful stepping. Even at that, there was one spot I couldn’t quite see trying alone. But—I’d just have to. When we got to the bottom, Mr. Conway asked me what I thought of the ride.

“I felt like a fly on the wall, but the scenery was almost worth it,” I said. A moonlit night and no ice on the trail.

He nodded, and said a few words of appreciation to the natives, who broke into wide smiles and chattered back before disappearing off behind some huts. The difference in climate was amazing. Up at the lamasery, it had been warm with the midday sun, but down here, perhaps two miles lower than that exposed shelf, it was unbelievably hot and humid.

Mr. Conway looked around, and I did too, for a different reason. We stood among circular huts made from thatching, but no one was in evidence.

“Maybe she has not yet left the fields,” Mr. Conway said. “This yurt is her schoolhouse, where she teaches English and Tibetan writing to some of the children.”

“What did you call it?”

“A yurt. It’s Mongolian in origin, I believe, but it has been so long employed in Tibet that we might nearly call it indigenous. There she is.”

I don’t know quite what I’d expected. A shrill, skinny harridan, maybe. Someone looking to be in her eighties, with a prim, stern mouth of constant disapproval. Ice‑blue eyes, probably.

Not at all. The woman who came striding up to us might have been in her early sixties; she was neither skinny nor shrill, but robust with what I can only call a solid British earthiness. Her face was tanned and lined and she seemed the type of woman who spends much time gardening and running households. Her eyes—brown eyes—were warm in the way you sometimes see in sentimental retired schoolteachers. Instantly I summed her up in one word: self‑sufficient.

She greeted Mr. Conway warmly, and he made the introductions.

“And whatever brought you here, Mr. Chiari?”

“Actually, ma’am, it wasn’t my idea,” I said. “My airplane fell out of the sky and I sort of came down with it.”

Not a hilarious opening line, but I caught a twinkle in her eye. “A very good idea, to be sure, considering the alternatives. But what brought you over Shangri‑la?”

Well, she was about as direct as advertised, if not quite so humorless. “I was sort of scouting, ma’am.” (What was this “ma’am” stuff? But she made me feel entirely like a schoolboy.)

For a few minutes we talked of the chance—I thought it chance, then—that had brought me here, while in the back of my mind I rehearsed the long climb down.

3

The inside of the small round building Mr. Conway called a yurt was surprisingly comfortable and well‑lighted. The open doorway seemed to diffuse the light against the walls somehow, resulting in an indirect and subdued illumination I found soothing. I said, by way of breaking the silence, “Where are the children?”

“They are in the fields, working beside their parents,” she said. “They come for instructions only for about an hour in midday and again in the early evening. You will excuse me if I make my preparations while we talk.”

“Miss Brinklow puts in a full day with the others,” Mr. Conway said, “and teaches the children as well.”

“I taught their parents and their grandparents before them,” she said. “And if I did not, no one would.” Parents and grandparents before them. I recalled that Lost Horizon had said that for some reason the drug and the exercises did not prolong the lives of the natives as it did for outsiders.

She moved not rapidly but decisively and efficiently, bringing out chalks and slates and a few books from a box on the floor. She also brought out mats for the children to sit on. “I am able to teach them but little, I fear, Mr. Chiari,” she said as she arranged things. “I haven’t proper facilities and haven’t the proper support from the parents. I consider myself fortunate if I can impart the rudiments of reading and writing in their own language. And religious instruction, of course.”

“She’s far too modest, George. Four of her pupils—four pupils of a previous generation, that is,—live in the lamasery. One is the master of four languages.”

She did not look particularly pleased. “You know I count none of the four as successes, Hugh,” she said.

“I know,” he said gently, “but still they are religious, and they did profit greatly from their instruction at your hands.”

“Profit?” Her voice was suddenly harsh. I noticed for the first time something of sadness in those steadfast, kindly eyes. “I should hardly say profit. And you know the apposite scriptural passage.”

Mr. Conway saw that I was at a loss. In a neutral tone of voice he said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

Miss Brinklow looked directly at me and said, “I am quite aware that my activities here are something of a jest at the lamasery, but of course I cannot allow that knowledge to interfere with God’s work.”

Mr. Conway’s eyebrows rose slightly. I wondered why she would tell me something she had not told him in all these years. Or was he merely surprised that she would come out with it before a stranger?

I couldn’t decide on an appropriate response. I stumbled in with, “Oh, ma’am, I’m sure they appreciate the things you do here.” I received a look that was the distilled essence of a lifetime of persistence in the face of realism.

“Mr. Chiari, plainly you have never been a missionary. You would have learned, quite early on, that missionaries customarily meet tolerance slightly tinged with concealed contempt. At best, we are regarded as idealistic but impractical; at worst, as hypocrites, acting as conscious agents of whatever force the observer fears or dislikes. Chiefly we are considered harmless nuisances, slightly mad but able to circulate in society without restraint or supervision.” She said it all in the impersonally casual voice of a professor of sociology or anthropology. I heard no trace of bitterness or resentment.

She finished arranging her materials. “I have little doubt that the members of the lamasery will be surprised to know that I am as aware as they of the apparent fruitlessness of my efforts these last years.” Thirty years! “I may be stupid, but I am able to count, and I should need to be considerably more stupid than they think me, not to realize that I have made exactly 14 converts in all this time, of whom not one has turned totally to Christ rather than remain half‑pagan. I am fully aware of the meagerness of the harvest for the effort expended. Like Father Perrault long ago, I have succeeded in producing only semi‑Christians, converts retaining their Buddhism beneath a new veneer of Christianity.” She viewed the two of us steadily, without anger or defiance, merely stating the facts.

“But think of the obstacles you have had to overcome,” Mr. Conway said. “One person attempting to convert an entire society. It would be a little much to expect to single‑handedly overcome all that inertia, surely?”

She looked at him levelly. “I would remind you that the apostles went singly from place to place with this same message, which went against the basic beliefs of those societies. Yet they did totally overcome that inertia, as you term it. They did transform those societies. As yet I see but little success, but, praise God, success and failure are not in my hands. I am but an agent, and when God’s good time has come, success will come through His efforts, not mine. My part is but to persevere. We are told to be patient in tribulation, as well as to rejoice in hope. I pray that I shall be given the strength to do both until I see victory. The one thing that saddens me is that the lamasery on the hill, half‑filled with men like yourself, Christians in name, will not support my efforts. Instead, you pursue some pantheistic dream which compromises Christ’s message in a vain attempt to win favor with all.”

As she spoke, about 15 children came respectfully into the hut, bowed to us, took up chalk and slate and mat, and seated themselves quietly. Mr. Conway acknowledged their bows with a nod of his head, and I followed suit, though far from sure that their bows had been addressed also to me.

“Hugh,” she said, “I love you and your associates as brothers, but I sometimes find it difficult to understand or forgive your hostility to God’s work.”

More children came in and made their bows, and again we responded to them. To Miss Brinklow, Mr. Conway made no response. Perhaps he would have if I hadn’t been there.

“You are both welcome to stay to watch for as long as you wish. I shall not be offended when you leave.” With that, she turned her full attention to the children, speaking to them in their own language. We stayed for a few minutes to watch her teach. She ran a tight ship, but the kids seemed happy to be there and eager to work. I saw neither fear nor boredom on their faces, and neither impatience nor boredom on hers. After a while, Mr. Conway and I left, as quietly as possible.

Outside, he suggested that we visit one of the fields, and we walked there in silence. No one was in sight, and for a while we stood feasting on the sight of the green fields, leaning against the side of a boulder.

“The customs here are essentially those of any tropical country,” he told me. “For the hours of the sun’s greatest heat, the people stay inside, eating and napping. The children in Miss Brinklow’s class are an exception.”

“They grow a lot down here, don’t they?”

“And a good thing for us they do, or we’d be on short commons.”

“I can’t believe it’s so hot,” I said. We sat a moment in silence. “She’s never said any of that before, has she?”

“No.”

After a moment more, I said, half to myself, “She’s really something.”

Mr. Conway caught the note of self‑protection, and said immediately, “People like Miss Brinklow are the easiest in the world to mock. All the single‑minded absorption in a cause, and that total unconcern for appearance. But I trust you will see something admirable there, as well.”

“Oh, sure. But her cause is a little too narrow for me, I’m afraid.”

“No doubt, but the fact that she does have a definite cause is something to respect. Or rather, the fact that she has given to that cause not merely words, or money, but her life, and has done so quite cheerfully.”

“She put her money where her mouth is.”

“Precisely.”

“But I still can’t buy it. It’s too narrow. Did you notice her calling them `pagans’ instead of Buddhists?”

“I noticed.”

More silence. Trying to be facetious, I said, “And are you and your friends hostile to God’s work?” He made no answer. After a moment, he pushed himself away from the rock and suggested that we go to the village, where I could meet some of his friends among the natives. He said they’d be glad of a diversion during their midday break, and when it was time for them to return to their fields, we could gather up our guides and return to the lamasery.

After a few steps, he said, “I am not hostile to Miss Brinklow’s efforts. I am, perhaps, a bit hostile to her intent. It would be different if she intended to bring religion to an unreligious people, but she intends to convert people who are already quite religious — people steeped in religion — and merely change the form and other externals.”

“I’ll bet she wouldn’t see it that way.”

“Indeed not. She would think the difference between Christianity and other religions the difference between the genuine and the counterfeit. But I cannot see the good in converting Buddhists into Christians, particularly as it tends to isolate the converts, to some extent, from the rest of their society.”

“Is that why you wanted me to meet her? To see that kind of attitude first‑hand?”

“I merely thought you should meet her for yourself. She is remarkable: sincere, hard‑working, intelligent. She does much good. Those qualities forgive much.”

I listened with half my mind, the other half still imagining a long solitary climb down a shelf lit only by the moon, using a trail we’d just traversed safely only by roping four men together.

I didn’t like that one place on the trail. I looked it over carefully as we made our way back up to the monastery, trying to devise a way to get by it. I thought of anchoring a rope on the uphill side: If I slipped and fell, perhaps the rope would hold, giving me a chance to climb back up and try again. But it looked like a pretty desperate chance. And I couldn’t see anything obvious to anchor the rope to. But I didn’t have much choice.

Well, then, suppose I got down to the valley in one piece. How would I get up and over onto the altiplano beyond? Mr. Conway would know the way, he’d done it. But obviously I couldn’t ask him. And Lo‑tsen wasn’t there to ask, either.

4

There came the night of June 5, 1963. Two days before full moon. Enough light, I hoped, to get me safely down the trail. Enough to help me to find the trail up to the altiplano. Enough to get me (with luck) past the guards and up higher into the wilderness of rock where I hoped to hide out, resting, until the following night. I was counting on their vigilance being directed outward rather than inward, but I’d decided that if it came to confrontation I’d try to duck and run rather than let myself be retaken, for certainly after a failed escape attempt I’d never again be given so little supervision. So I reasoned.

I spent the day—and most of the day before—resting, doing as little as possible, sleeping late and going to bed early and napping in between, trying to store up energy the way a battery takes a charge. I shared a last common meal with the others and helped clean up afterward. I surprised myself with the strength of my regrets and my longing to at least say goodbye. And I sat on my bed in my little room—so familiar, where once so strange—and wondered if I could leave a note apologizing for my ingratitude. Finally did, burying it inside a book of Yeats’ poetry. Sooner or later they’d find it, and then they’d know. Here, if anywhere, how long it took them to find it would not matter.

Then I changed into my flight suit and boots and lay down for what seemed endless hours for the building to subside into silence.

5

Finally I made my move. Gathering up my bedroll and canteens and food sack, I went through the doorway into the darkened hall. I knew that there was never an hour when it was safe to assume that everyone was asleep, so I went straight to the nearest outside door. My timing was good: The moon had just risen and I could see the ground, milky and ill‑defined but visible. In less than a minute I was making my way along the trail leading down to the valley, placing my feet carefully as much to minimize the sound of my boots on gravel—which sounded appallingly loud in the still night—as to prevent the stumble and sprained ankle that would bring my escape to a sudden end.

No point in making too big a thing of my escape. I made it safely down to the valley, after a hair‑raising passage across the one place I’d worried about. Well before I got to the valley floor, I took my arms out of my flight suit, letting its top half hang down from my waist. I wanted to be very careful not to let the valley’s heat start a sweat that would freeze when I got up to the altiplano. Traversing the space between the two trails took about fifteen minutes of stealthy reconnaissance, looking both for the trail and for any possible hidden guards. But I saw nobody, and it wasn’t too long before I had climbed high enough to need to zip up my flight suit again.

When I got to the top of the trail, I figured the danger of detection was greatest, and for the first and last time in my life I wished that I had had infantry training. I moved literally by inches, in short, quick, well‑spaced movements, remembering that motion, more than any combination of color or shape, will attract attention.

I succeeded. I climbed well beyond the level where I knew the guards were posted, and—still carefully—continued for several hours, moving toward the west. When the sun came up and I knew it was safe to sleep (I wasn’t likely to freeze in mid‑day) I took off my canteen and food bag, wrapped myself in my blanket, and burrowed into unconsciousness.

6

And awoke, at about midday, to find Mr. Conway sitting not ten feet away, calmly watching as I came to.

Embarrassing situation!

I nodded, and he returned the nod. I sat up, to even the playing field somewhat.

He held up the canteen from which he had been drinking. One of mine. Perhaps the noise is what woke me up. “I’ve had a bit of a wait, so I helped myself to some of your tea. A bit strong, but you’d find it bracing, perhaps, if cold.”

Well, why not? I picked up the other canteen and took a long drink, my first.

Mr. Conway wouldn’t have come alone, and the fact that he’d gotten here so soon told me that I’d been missed, spotted and followed much sooner than I’d expected. In any case if he could track me so could others. Which is what he was silently demonstrating. I knew I was at the end of my rope.

I’d been willing to risk exposing Shangri‑la, callous though that may seem, but now I could escape only by preventing Mr. Conway from stopping me. Even if he was alone, what was I supposed to do? Knock him down?

A voice deep within cried out that to give in and go back was to betray Marianne—to betray myself. But there were things I could not do even to win my freedom, and knocking Mr. Conway down was one of them. I resigned myself to going back. Mr. Conway and I talked, on our way back down and up, and I have always valued that long day’s talk, for of all those who live at Shangri‑la, he was the one who had done more or less exactly what I had done.

Because I returned with him that day, I am now 43 years old chronologically, but physically I look and feel 26. I am still not even quite into my prime of life. And Marianne, at 41 (assuming she is still in the world) is a middle‑aged woman, probably a mother. Perhaps a grandmother. And I lost her irretrievably, 17 years ago. Already half her best years—maybe more—are lost to me, lived without me. If I left here this very moment, it would be too late. Life kept us from each other, and there was never a thing we could do about it.

7

Mr. Barnard took his cigar from his lips, blew out a mouthful of smoke, and looked over at me. “You maybe can’t believe it,” he said casually, “but I know how it feels. Happens to everybody, just about, one way or another. The thing is to get through the worst of it.”

I didn’t move my eyes from the mountain across the valley, its snow incandescent‑white in the noon sun. When he said no more, I nodded, equally casually. After a moment I tapped the ash from my cigar onto the courtyard ground.

Finally I had to return his glance. I nodded again, still casual.

“Trouble is, you think I’m too old to remember what it feels like, being young. But it ain’t something you ever forget.”

“I suppose.”

“How long did you say you been going together?”

I shifted position in my chair. “A while. I met her just before Christmas, 1957.”

Casually, very casually. “Met her in college, did you say?”

“Yeah. My senior year.”

“Long time, for you. A fifth of your life.”

I said nothing. We sat and smoked our cigars and looked out at the mountain.

8

When God closes the door, he opens a window. That’s what my mother used to say. Substitute Mr. Conway for God (or consider him to be acting for God, in loco parentis), and that’s about what happened. Mr. Conway didn’t threaten, or reproach, or warn, or request, or advise—then or since. Instead, he opened another door and stepped aside, so that I might enter or not, as I was able.

 

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