Sure death outside, for them. But not for me. And I had the strongest reason of all to risk it, a reason they could no longer understand except abstractly, intellectually. None of them had a ceaseless longing gnawing at them, for the simple reason that anyone they’d left behind was long dead, or much aged. Their very longevity separated them from the rest of the world, even more effectively than the surrounding mountains. I didn’t want to be separated that way from Marianne. It wasn’t heroism that made me determined to return: Death or capture seemed easier than living on without her.
As I read these words I have just written, they seem to me impossibly romantic and naive. They seem to idealize her (and me, of course) just like the “little reading” romances Thoreau mocks so devastatingly: “the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth. . . .” But I’m not setting myself up as Romeo, nor her as Juliet, and I don’t have much experience in love. I can’t compare intensities. All I know is that I was one person before meeting her, and another afterward. She said it was the same for her. By our third date, which was two days after the first, it was as if a dentist had suddenly stopped drilling. Or perhaps I should say it was as if I’d been born with a radio blaring ceaseless static into my ear, and suddenly it had been turned off. In her presence I found peace, and completion. Someone had removed the filters from my eyes, and I was seeing the world in vivid color for the first time
It was early in February, 1963, before I decided I needed to know for sure.
By this time, Mr. Barnard and I had fallen into a routine of meeting early in the morning, in the kitchen, for a little breakfast and conversation. Because of the monks’ routine, which he and I did not keep, we had the place to ourselves, and could sit for an hour or so over tea and bread and butter and fruit, bringing to life the memories within us as we gave each other glimpses of the different worlds we’d come from.
What my life had been like; what he’d been doing at the same age. What it was like to be born in Southern New Jersey in the 1930s, as opposed to southwestern Ohio in the 1880s.
From me, the feel of a single‑engine jet at takeoff: the sudden kick in the pants, the sense of hanging on for the ride rather than coaxing it off the ground, the short, sharp transition to a 45‑degree climb. From him, a ride in a Ford Tri‑motor: the drone of the engines, the vibration, the slow, dogged climb, the sense of endless time passing.
From me, television and radar and earth satellites like Telstar, and the interstate highway system and nuclear submarines cruising entirely around the world while submerged. From him, crystal sets and long‑distance electrical transmission and the Stanley Steamer and Eddie Rickenbacker and Barney Oldfield.
From me, the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Hungarian revolution; Hiroshima; D‑Day; Pearl Harbor; the TVA. (Sitting in Shangri‑la, he had missed the entire Roosevelt administration.) From him, Winston Churchill’s views, delivered in 1929 at a luncheon on the West Coast, on the successful conclusion of the world crisis; tales of Charles Insull’s electric‑utility holding companies; sharp practices on Wall Street in 1925; lingering effects of mustard gas on a friend he’d visited at a soldier’s home after the war; the impact of World War I shipping needs on the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area.
From him, from me, many words on politics and technology and the effects of the passage of time. And from that volume of words—a volume that came not in a torrent but in a long, comfortable meander according to our moods—came an understanding between us. Partly, I suppose, it was that even in this different world we were countrymen, with a sense of shared experience that had, perhaps, all the greater impact because we were otherwise so different. (Or were we? I sometimes wondered.) At any rate, when it came time to put uncertainty to an end, I went naturally to him, rather than to Mr. Conway or to Sunnie. And he confirmed what I knew.
“You got it figured right, George,” he said slowly, chewing meditatively on a fig. “Winter and Spring don’t have all that much to do with your staying. It just seemed easier to break it to you gently that way. If you figure I lied to you, I can understand it, though I didn’t, exactly. But we did set out to mislead you, so it comes to about the same thing.”
I’d only asked Mr. Barnard for confirmation of what I already knew. So why, on hearing the truth, did I feel numb, dazed?
Mr. Barnard was apparently giving great attention to pouring us more tea. I could practically see him measuring the atmospheric pressure. “George,” he said slowly, handing me my cup, “I know it’s rough on you. But think what our situation is. As long as the Chinese don’t have any idea we’re sitting here behind the lines, probably we are safe enough. Right this minute they are plenty busy in Chamdo, east of Lhasa, and I doubt they got attention to spare over here. But if they ever get wind that there’s folks hiding out from them here, they’re bound to start looking, and sooner or later they got to find us. We got 50 old men and six old women and a few hundred more, all ages, down in the valley. You know we can’t go anywhere. The only chance we got is to lay low and hope for the best. We can’t be dropping ’em clues like some American flyer caught trying to sneak out to freedom. Hell, we might as well have left your airplane lying out where they could stumble on it.”
I was visualizing the empty landscape I’d come down in a few weeks earlier. “Mr. Barnard, what makes you think they’d ever spot me? If they didn’t see me fly in, and didn’t see me come down, and didn’t see the plane on the ground between the time I crashed it and your people got it buried, what makes you so sure they’ll see one man on foot?”
He grunted. “Maybe they won’t. But maybe they will. There’s only so many places to cross the mountains, and it’s easier to guard the borders than you maybe think. Particularly in winter. I wasn’t telling you the whole truth, but I wasn’t flat lying, either. It’s a whole lot more risky than you know, and you’d be pretty liable to bring ’em in on us.”
I sat there in the kitchen and closed my eyes, slowly massaging my face with one hand, trying to convey a sudden weariness, a disorientation. “It’s a hard concept to get used to,” I muttered, “being stuck here forever.” I hoped my voice was right. Almost before my thought had fully formed, I instinctively hid my eyes from him in the most natural way I could think up.
“Sure it is,” he said, “but you can see how things are.”
I sighed, opened my eyes, reached for my tea. Mr. Barnard was still watching me intently. I knew I’d have to watch my step. I wanted to express weariness and frustration, which were real enough, and also resignation, which wasn’t there at all.
It occurred to me I wouldn’t likely give up so soon. I said, “But if I was real careful, how do we know I couldn’t get through safely?”
“We don’t know,” he said shortly. “But we feel like we don’t care to find out.”
What would be a likely response? I waited a few seconds. “If you’d all help me, I’d have a better chance.” I waited for him to shake his head. “As it is, it makes me feel a little like I’m in jail.”
“Well, I reckon that’s natural enough. But that ain’t the way it is. You’re safe enough here; this place is the only thing that’s keeping you out of jail. If you can remember that, it’ll maybe be some easier to take.”
Probably I’d say something about what I was losing. “It’s funny to think that my family will never know what happened to me.”
He was nodding sympathetically, making the right gestures and sounds, but I had the feeling that he was still watching me so closely that he was practically looking right through me. “It’s a hard thing, George, no two ways about it, and I’m as sorry as I can be. If there was any choice, we’d help you on your way. And if we thought you had a half‑decent chance to get clean away, maybe we’d let you risk it. But we just plain can’t.”
I thought it safe to continue to argue. “What if I promised not to mention Shangri‑la? You saved my life. I’d protect you.”
“George, I believe you. I know you’d try. But you couldn’t do it. No doubt you’d hold out a good while, but you couldn’t do it forever. Nobody could. And once they made you tell, everybody here would be dead.”
I couldn’t fault his logic. Certainly the record of GI prisoners of war in Korea wasn’t encouraging. But I wasn’t about to get caught.
“I do know how you feel, you know. Happened to me, remember? One day you have got your life stretching out ahead of you, and the next day, it’s all knocked into a cocked hat. Course, my situation was a little different. It wouldn’t surprise me if you were thinking that if you’re stuck here for the rest of your life, maybe a short life would be better than a long one.”
I certainly wasn’t about to respond to that. When I didn’t, he said, “Now, when I came here, they strung us along for quite a while about how we would get out in a few months, then always something would come up and it would be another few months, and so on. It was near two years before they’d tell me I wasn’t going anywhere, though I’d about figured it out by then anyway. The idea didn’t bother me any by that time. But I expect it’s a different thing to know right off for sure. It don’t give you time to get your balance. Maybe if it wasn’t so obvious you can’t go anywhere, I’d have tried to string you along the same way they did me.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. I’d rather have the truth.”
“Well, that’s what I figured. You had to know on your own that you aren’t going anywhere any time soon. But like I say, if the place makes you feel cooped up, maybe you won’t like the idea of spending a couple hundred more years here.”
I shrugged. “I can’t absorb it yet. It’s too new.”
“Sure. Well, take your time.” He laughed. “You’ve got plenty of it.”
So I was stuck here? Not unless I agreed to be. Much as I liked the company, I couldn’t see staying for the rest of my life. Granted, there’d be some risk, but I was pretty sure I’d make it. I’d have to make it. Half the world away, Marianne was working as a children’s librarian and going to Sunday concerts with David Feulner, who she thought was [sweet] nice. How long was I supposed to let that go on?
But I’d have to get back without help. And the first step on the road back was to conceal my intentions. The second step I took one afternoon at tea with Mr. Barnard and Sunnie.
“Yeah, sure. In fact, that’s maybe one of the best ways you could spend your time. I’m no scholar myself, but plenty of folks here are.”
“I think it a very sensible idea. You did tell us, did you not, that you were at university before entering military service?”
I nodded, reaching for another of the little tea‑cakes I had become so fond of.
“How fortunate. You possess the intellectual ability, it is obvious. You have obtained the necessary scholastic training. And here you will find resources unmatched the world over.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said politely. I was thinking of the unmeasured miles of shelving in the world’s libraries, wedged solid with books, manuscripts, private papers, documents. . . .
As usual, Sunnie listened not to my words but to my feelings. Or rather, to put it more precisely, she read my words and facial expressions and tone of voice (and other things, as I eventually learned) and responded to me rather than to the smoke‑screen I hid behind. She said, “To be sure, the books in our library are but a tiny sample of the world’s total. But the same may be said of the people living here. What are we, one might ask, against such numbers?”
“It’s quality that counts, is what she means. Nine times out of ten, quality beats numbers. Any good businessman knows that. You can’t read every book in the world, no more than you can meet every person in the world. The only thing you do get time to do, when you get right down to it, is deal with some of the ones closest to you.”
“Precisely. That is why it is so awfully important to surround oneself with the best available.”
“And George,” Mr. Barnard said chuckling, “don’t go asking how we can tell what’s best. It’s a good question, but save it for another time, okay?” (I had to smile as well. Like Sunnie, Mr. Barnard seemed to know what I was thinking almost before I did, so well had they come to know me in a few short weeks.) “What is it you were thinking of studying?”
I leaned back in my chair, shrugged, and reached to pour myself some more tea. “I really haven’t given it that much thought, it just occurred to me that maybe . . .” I paused, fearing to seem ungrateful.
“If you made yourself something to do, the time wouldn’t pass so slow.”
“Well, yes. I did all right in languages in school: I wonder if it would be too ambitious for me to try to learn Tibetan.”
I was afraid they’d immediately see what I had in mind, but apparently they didn’t. Their delight didn’t change to suspicion—at least, not obviously—and they didn’t drop casual suggestions that I try something easier. And so I acquired a tutor and a daily hour‑and‑a‑half morning routine, and felt like I had moved slightly closer to getting away.
Evenings I spent reading, burning the midnight oil waiting for the end of winter (for I did accept Mr. Barnard’s statements about the dangers of snow) to clear the way.
What did I read? Whatever held my interest. I used books as some might have used drink, to dull the pain. Unacknowledged pain. Unacknowledged even though I would find myself in a sitting position—a book in my lap, the lamp on a table beside me flickering quietly—and realize that I had been far away. Daydreaming, I thought then. I’d describe it differently now.
Other times I would find myself staring through the page, or looking off to the far end of the library room, and my mind, or rather my heart, would be too full for words.
In those earlier days, I had constantly in mind the thought of Marianne, living half the world away from me, undoubtedly thinking me dead. The passage of every day seemed interminable, and the end of each day seemed to bring Spring no closer.
Those days, fortunately, included more than books and brooding thoughts. There were mildly interesting chores to be done, and Tibetan to study, and quiet, inconspicuous reconnaissance to be made as I took inventory of the resources available for my escape. And there were my fellow passengers on this extended stationary cruise: Mr. Barnard and Sunnie most particularly, though not exclusively. They offered me long, unhurried conversations such as I had never known, even with Marianne. Not prolonged into tedium. Not compressed and distorted by the pressure of time. Like Shangri‑la itself, in the midst of ice and rock, the conversations, the relationships, were comfortable and even, in a way, luxurious.
The only flaw was self‑inflicted. Rather than let the conversation take its own course, I often tried (carefully, indirectly) to steer it into directions that might be profitable. In this way I sometimes half‑ruined what I already realized I could never recapture once I left Shangri‑la’s tranquil space. But, with half my mind always on the requirements of escape, I tried to use what I could find.
Thus one day I asked Mr. Barnard what he and Miss Brinklow had thought, back in ’31, when they’d awakened to find Mr. Conway and Mallinson gone. I had waited for what seemed an appropriate moment, trying hard not to seem to be steering the conversation with any particular end in mind.
“I didn’t spend any time missing Mallinson, that’s for sure. You can imagine that him and me didn’t get along any too good. Of course, he was just a kid, but he reminded me of a bull terrier I had once: always yapping at any little thing, just to stay in practice. And he didn’t have any use for me. As far as he was concerned, I was a crook and it was a darned shame somebody hadn’t locked me up.”
“And Mr. Conway?”
“Conway was a different story. Conway and me hit it off right away. He did his job and didn’t make a fuss about how good he was at it. And he followed the rules when they made sense, and when they didn’t—which was about half the time, it seemed to me—he sort of looked the other way instead of going by the book and doing something stupid just because it was the official thing to do. You take when Mallinson told him who I was. Conway told him, `so what?’ Scotland Yard probably would have told him to clap the bracelets on me right there and then, and bring me in like they say the mounties always do, and Mallinson would have been official enough and self‑righteous enough to try it. Conway had more sense.”
“And besides, he liked you.”
“Yeah, he did, but the point is, even if Mallinson liked me he would have wanted to arrest me, and even if Conway didn’t like me, he would have seen that it wasn’t practical to do anything just then. When you come right down to it, that was the difference between those two. Conway was practical. Still is. He knew what the world was like. Mallinson was just a kid, and everything was black and white to him.”
Mallinson in 1931 was no older than I was in 1962. I wondered if Mr. Barnard was forgetting that. “He sounds like quite an idealist,” I said.
He laughed. “Oh yeah. Now, I don’t knock idealism. It gives youngsters a solid place to stand until they learn the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be. But it can get on your nerves after a while, especially when the idealist has you pegged as the devil himself. I missed Conway when he left, sure enough. But I could do without Mallinson without any trouble.” He added, “Of course, you got to remember, he was just a kid, with his girlfriend in England and his big ideas about the future he was going to make for himself. And now he has been dead 30 years and more.”
This time, for sure, he could not have forgotten. Yet I was sure it was not malicious cruelty, so what was he up to?
He appeared to stir restlessly. “God, how talking brings it all back! You’re the first person to come in from outside in all that time, and there ain’t much reason for the rest of us to rehash all that.”
“So what happened? How did you find out?”
“That was some stir, believe me. Probably nobody had ever busted out of this place before.”
“Did they go after him?”
“I don’t know. They weren’t telling me anything then, and later I never thought to ask. I doubt it, against that many people, porters and all. All I know is that Miss Brinklow and me came down to breakfast and the other two weren’t there. We figured Conway had been up late again, talking to the head man, and I didn’t worry much about Mallinson. The longer he slept, the better, as far as I was concerned. After breakfast, we fiddled around doing this and that and still we didn’t see them, but I never thought much about it until they didn’t show up for lunch either. Back then, while we were still new here, they fed us the way we were used to, three meals a day starting about eight, so there was still supper to look forward to. But they didn’t show up then either.”
“And neither of you suspected that anything was wrong?”
“We didn’t have any reason to. These people around here don’t exactly go around yelling and screaming. You can’t always tell if anybody’s around. And people here mind their own business more’n any place I ever saw. You don’t go barging around seeing who’s up and doing, like at some Chicago convention.”
“So how did you finally find out?”
Mr. Barnard appeared to retreat into the past, for the first time since I’d met him. “Chang came in to have supper with us, and as soon as I saw his face, I knew something had happened. Usually, when you’re looking for clues from that old boy, you can learn about as much by looking at the wall, but not tonight. He’s upset. He’s making little movements with his hands, and his mouth is drawn up all tight. I figure this is one night I could play poker with Chang. He don’t even give us more’n a couple lines of his usual social talk before he suddenly says he supposes we have missed Conway and Mallinson, and we say we have, and he says, `It appears that they have departed.’
“Miss Brinklow says, `Departed!’ like it was a personal insult. Me, I’m surprised how bad it makes me feel. I guess that’s the first time I realize how much I liked Conway. I say, `They must have left in a big hurry, not even saying goodbye,’ and Chang looks over at me and says `Yes, in a big hurry, Mr. Barnard.’ And by the way he says it, I can see he’s holding himself on a tight rein.
“`I would have liked to see them off,’ I say. `It ain’t every day you get carried off a thousand miles with somebody. I wish somebody had said something.’ Chang, he looks at me and says he does too, and I say, `You mean you didn’t know either?’
“He says nobody did. `One other may have been told,’ he says, and later I figure out he’s talking about the head lama, because Conway had been up late talking to him, and for all Chang knew, Conway’s departure had something to do with their last conversation. But at the time, I was on a different trail. I think it over a minute and I put the question to him. `Chang,’ I say, `let me get this straight. They went off with those porters you were talking about?’ He nods his head, not a big nod, just a little one. `They came a thousand miles to get here? All the way from China?’ `Far more than a thousand miles,’ he says. `And they got to go back the same way?’ He nods his head again, maybe an inch. I say, `Now, Chang, tell me this. A guy travels a month or two on the road and finally gets someplace, he isn’t going to turn right around and go back, without any rest, I don’t care how much food he needs or how little shelter he has. Chang, how long were those porters here?‘”
Mr. Barnard’s eyes were piercing through me. Absorbed in his memories, he had become every bit the steely man of business. I figured that I was seeing the look Chang had seen that night.
“Chang, he fiddles with his sleeve, and then he looks me in the eye and says they had been there for three days. I say, `You never told us that. Not four days ago, not three days ago, not two days ago. You never intended to tell us at all, did you?’ He don’t admit it, but he don’t say anything different, either. Miss Brinklow says, in her best schoolmarm voice, `Really sir, I find your conduct reprehensible. I am quite disposed to remain here, and I believe that Mr. Barnard is of the same mind, at least for the moment, but you cannot have been unaware that Mr. Mallinson, in particular, was anxious to rejoin his family and colleagues.’”
Mr. Barnard’s face relaxed. He grinned, glancing at me. “Chang gives a tired smile and says that indeed he was aware of it. Mallinson never gave him a rest, you know, all the time he was here. `And yet you intended,’ she says, all indignant, `to detain him here against his will?’ Chang don’t answer.
“The bit about Conway still bothers me. I say, `Listen, Chang, I don’t get the feeling that Conway was all that hot on leaving. Mallinson couldn’t wait, sure, but I thought Conway was happy enough.’ And that’s when I get my next surprise. Chang has tears in his eyes! It takes him two tries to say he had thought so too. And then he says we have got to excuse him, the day has been a strain for everybody, the high lama has died. Later I figure that Chang is blaming himself for the lama dying, thinking maybe Conway and him had disagreed or something and the lama’d had a stroke. At least I suppose that’s it: I never felt just like asking him. But it was Chang’s idea in the first place that Conway should see the lama, and you can see he might feel responsible.
“Of course, we don’t know any of that right then, so we just tell Chang we’re sorry to hear it, and Chang says the lama died peacefully at an advanced age, and he leaves and that’s the last time we hear about it for a long time. It was quite a night.”
He paused, and I was afraid he would stop. He hadn’t told me anything useful, but I didn’t feel like I could safely prompt him in a particular direction. Besides, I was curious. “So what happened? Who took over? Had the lama told anybody about his plans for Conway?”
Mr. Barnard put up a hand, a traffic cop holding up a line of cars. “Back then, you understand, I didn’t know a thing that had gone on between the lama and Conway. All I knew was that they talked together a lot. Mallinson used to pester him about it every so often, as you can imagine, but Conway wouldn’t say much about it. It was only later that I found out what had happened.”
He paused. I said, “And?”
“It turns out the high lama had talked to others about his plans, but what he had in mind wasn’t exactly putting Conway in charge of the whole place. He figured to make Conway more like an Executive Director, running the day‑to‑day affairs, but answering to a chairman of the board, one of the monks who would become the new high lama.”
“That makes sense,” I said. (And so it did, although as it turned out it wasn’t true, or wasn’t exactly true, or was true only if you looked at it in a peculiar way.) “I thought it was strange that Conway was going to become the man in charge when he had only been there a couple of months.”
“Sure. Who’s going to give a stranger control of the whole works, just on the strength of a good first impression? The guy that told the story to Hilton just didn’t get it right.”
What I wanted was something about the track to the outside, or about the guards. But Mr. Barnard never came close, and I was afraid to pump him about it.
Where I had formed the habit of lunch with Mr. Barnard, followed by long leisurely conversation, I now developed an equally pleasant habit of afternoon teas with Sunnie, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Some days we would talk, and I would find myself able to say something—though not all, of course—of what I felt. Other days, we would page through books of prints, and she would talk to me of art and artists, about which she was quite knowledgeable. Still other days, she would bring out her charcoals, and I would sit and watch her draw, or she would attempt to teach me the rudiments.
Evenings I spent alone. That is, I spent them with Marianne, and occasionally with friends or family. And so the winter days slowly passed.
Mr. Conway and I were sitting outside one brilliant starlit Spring night, and our conversation turned philosophic.
“Self‑development has been out of style for a good while,” he said in response to something I’d said. “Modern man puts his faith in other things.”
“Politics. Ideology. Technology, science. You know the things as well as I. And the more apparent the symptoms of rot, the stronger grows the cry for more of the same. Change political leaders. Change ideologies. Invest more in new technologies. Make greater effort to amass wealth. Work harder to redistribute wealth fairly.”
“Work harder at diplomacy,” I said, referring to his past.
He nodded, acknowledging it. “Try this, try that. All aimed outward, when the remedy lies within. . . . The result isn’t far to seek. As Henry said long ago, the whole game is coming to pieces.”
“That was in Lost Horizon,” I said. “I well remember it. It made me stop, right in the middle of the book, and had me pacing up and down my room.”
. . . 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. . . .]
“Rang true, did it?”
“Did it ever! And I couldn’t get over the fact that you’d seen it in the ’30s. Even now, 30 years later, it wasn’t obvious to me until I read what you’d said. I’d never put the pieces together, but all my life I’d been watching Western civilization losing control of the world’s future.”
“The process was underway well before you were born.”
“Well, suddenly that’s what I realized. I started to wonder where it was all going to end.”
“And what did you conclude?”
I grinned at him. “I concluded that I ought to put those kinds of thoughts on the shelf and finish the book.”
In the starlight I could see Mr. Conway’s smile answer mine. “It is tempting, always, to conclude that the world is going to hell,” he said, “but Henry would observe that it seems never to get there.”
“Maybe not, but you grew up in a world at peace, which is more than I ever did.” An old memory stirred. “When I was in college, I sometimes used to go to the library and look at microfilms of old newspapers, just to see what old events looked like when they were news. One day, I looked up The New York Times for August something, 1914. The fourth or fifth, I suppose. The headline said: `Great War of Eight Nations.’ Somehow that headline stuck with me. It snapped me back to a mentality that expected wars to be fought between only two states, not between huge alliances. It took an effort of imagination, Mr. Conway: I’d grown up being used to the idea of wars involving dozens of countries and hundreds of millions of people. The headline reminded me that it hadn’t always been that way.”
“I do see,” Mr. Conway said.
“Living through the change was what was so terrible for your generation, wasn’t it? And why you couldn’t believe in much afterwards?”
“After the 1914‑18 war,” Mr. Conway said slowly, “the only ones with something to believe in were the fascists and the communists, each with their panaceas. Not much to choose from, I’m afraid. As the poet said, `The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’”
“Yeats,” I said.
“Yeats. He isn’t still alive, I suppose?”
“Oh, no, he died a long time ago. Before the war.”
“Before the—? Oh, yes, of course, the second war. I suppose `the war’ will always mean 1914‑18 to my generation. A matter of perspective, is it not? Now I think of it, I believe Yeats would have to be well over the century mark to be alive today. That would be asking a great deal.”
“Unless he had made it here.”
“Yes. What a stimulating addition to the company he would have made!”
Mr. Barnard came out into the night, saw us, and seated himself with us, sure of his welcome. He lit up a cigar and silently passed me another.
“Were your ears burning, Henry? We were only now discussing your prophecy.”
“What prophecy was that?”
“That the world was going to pieces.”
Mr. Barnard grunted. “Well, it don’t rightly count as prophecy. More like journalism. It was all there for anybody to see. And besides, as I remember it, I was mainly talking about the market.”
“Still, it’s the breaking up of old forms.”
“With the difference,” I said, “that when the two of you talked about it, people couldn’t destroy the world, and now we can. And it looks like we might.”
Mr. Conway nodded. “What a civilization wants, it ultimately gets.”
“I know where this lecture’s going,” Mr. Barnard said quietly. “I’ve sat in on this one before. Conway says people get war because they hate the way they live.”
Mutually contradictory desires didn’t cancel each other out, Mr. Conway said; they destroyed each other. And he used, as evidence, the outbreak of World War I. “I know how it happened,” he said. “The question is: Why did it happen? For every external reason, there exists an internal reason. When you know the one, you know something about the other.”
I remembered the description of Mr. Conway’s final interview with the high lama, in which the old man had predicted a civilization‑destroying world war. “There will be no safety by arms,” he had told Mr. Conway, “no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are trampled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hour.” I quoted them the lama’s words.
“I tell you,” Mr. Barnard said decisively, “if he’d said that to me back then, I’d have said we were going through hard times, but there’s always hard times somewhere, and things would finally straighten out like they always do. I’d have said the world would settle down again as soon as—oh, as soon as we got rid of the bears in the market, or the labor organizers, or prohibition, or something. But I’d have been dead wrong. I could see that the financial game was going to pieces, but I couldn’t see that everything was cracking up, like he said. Like you said, Conway.”
“What amazed me,” I said, “was that the book was so modern. The lama saw so much so soon. Before Hitler, before the A‑bomb, before guided missiles and all.”
“It’s the best proof the story’s true. George. You could go through poking holes in it, like about refuelling the plane and Miss Brinklow translating Mallinson’s propositions to Lo‑tsen, but you couldn’t argue with that old man’s vision. It hit too close to home.”
So it did. When Mr. Conway first heard of that vision, he could look back at the bombings and dogfights of World War I. But they were just nothing, as the book remarked, next to what the Japanese did to Chinese cities. And mankind progressed rapidly after that from Guernica and London and Coventry to Dresden and Tokyo and Hiroshima. By the time I read the account, shortly after the world had narrowly avoided going to war over Cuba, there could be no way of missing his point.
The old lama had envisioned Shangri‑la as a lifeboat, preserving some of the world’s knowledge and culture from the global destruction to come:
“We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. . . .”
“And then?” [Mr. Conway had asked]
“Then, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”
May inherit the earth. What’s left of it. On the night I first read that passage, I lay for a long time looking up at the shadows flickering on my ceiling. If they were truly counting on obscurity and the enemy’s neglect to keep them safe, we were doomed, however many years it took to destroy us. The lama’s words to Mr. Conway were meant to convey hope. But how reliable is concealment by geographical remoteness in an age of reconnaissance aircraft like my poor U‑2? And when they succeeded in putting up the network of spy satellites they were talking about, where could anybody hide?
“Well now,” Mr. Barnard said when I put it to them, “it ain’t like we got a whole lot of choice in the matter. They find us or they don’t. They have their war or they don’t. All we can do is our best, and that’s it. I think you will find, by the time you get to be my age, that there’s darn few things that can be helped by worrying about ’em. All you’ll do is poison your time, and there ain’t any sense to it.”
I thought: Easier for you to say than me; your life is mostly behind you—but then I reflected that, in Shangri‑la’s time‑scale, we were both comparative youngsters. And then I was reminded of the lama’s speech on how brief and breathless a man’s life‑span was. I had read his words that same night, lying on my bed, wrapped in a blanket against the night cold. I had let the book drop onto my chest, and I lay there for a while staring into space, watching the oil lamp throw wildly flickering patterns on the walls and smoke‑stained ceiling. “How true,” I’d thought. “And how intolerable.”
Even as a teenager, I’d been appalled at how short and frantic our lives are. Everything I did was set against the background of a ticking clock saying: “Run, run, run, before it is too late.” Lying there with the book on my chest, I fully realized for the first time how very much hurrying had filled my life to date. “I miss my poet,” Marianne had said.
“Mr. Barnard,” I asked, “did you ever have any regrets about not going back to the world?”
He shook his head decisively. “You know my story. There wasn’t any way out for me, those first few years. And then later, after the second war, I figured the world was way too different for me to figure out all over again, and anyway, out there I’d be too old.” For a moment he was silent, meditative, smoking his cigar. Then he let out a long puff. “I remember what stuck with me, when they told me about us living so long here. I reckon it sounds silly. I thought: Now maybe I’ll get a chance to see how it all comes out.”
He glanced at Mr. Conway and at me. “You know, I was just past 50 when I came here, and you might say I got to 50 the hard way, thinking that a man’s years are threescore and ten, like the good book says, and I’d already used up most of them. And where was I? No money left, my name was mud, police all over the world looking for me: I tell you, it gives you a different view of things. Makes you stop and wonder where you got off the track. There was your whole life ahead of you and you were going to make it come to something—and then there you are, 50, your work ruined and nothing to look forward to but hiding out or going to jail. And the grave in 20 years or so regardless.
“The years I’d lived through hadn’t been all gravy, by a long shot, but still, think of the things we’d seen happen. Electricity was still pretty new when I was a kid, and then there was the gramophone, and the telephone, and the radio, and airplanes—. It looked like old mankind had finally figured itself out, and we had a golden age coming. Sure, there had been the war, but those things happen. By 1930 we were pretty sure—most of us, anyway—that it wouldn’t happen again. We figured we got through that, we could get through anything. And besides, the war didn’t really touch America, all it did was gear us up. Things were really beginning to happen, and it just seemed a darn shame to have to die and miss it all. That’s the first thing hooked me on the old man’s dream: I wanted to see how things came out.
“When Conway told me the high lama had found a way to keep us all alive, I felt like I had discovered a million dollars. Better than that, in fact, because I already had discovered a million dollars. The gold reef, you know. And having to stay here didn’t make me lose any sleep. I’d already decided I liked it here. And all of a sudden, I wasn’t looking at 20 years, or 30, but 200, if the old man was telling the truth. It made me feel like a kid again.”
Mr. Conway’s smile was in his voice. “Tastes differ. When I was told, I recall telling the old lama that I’d often thought life pointless, and I wondered if a long life would be any less so.”
“I remember that,” I said. “That’s when he told you of his vision of a final war, and Shangri‑la’s mission as cultural lifeboat. That wasn’t enough to make you stay.”
“No, I went off with Mallinson. But I’m afraid I wasn’t thinking very clearly at that point.”
“I guess the vision looked more compelling after you found yourself outside?”
Mr. Conway paused, reflecting. “To be honest, George, I don’t believe I thought much about it. I had strong reasons to return, but they had little to do with the fate of the world. I was never very ambitious in that way. I was more accustomed to taking my life as it came.”
The lama, I remembered, had asked Mr. Conway how it was that despite his gifts he had so little ambition. Mr. Conway had replied that success in his field hadn’t seemed worth the effort. The lama had said Mr. Conway’s soul was not in his work.
“Neither my soul nor heart nor more than half my energies,” Mr. Conway had replied. “I’m naturally rather lazy.”
And the lama had smiled. “Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue,” he had told Mr. Conway.
Which summed up Shangri‑la very nicely. Mr. Barnard would call it the motto of the firm.