"It was all an illusion created by strain, heat and thirst," the pilot's father decided —But was it?
W. E. JOHNS
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT OSMOND GALE,
acting adjutant of a Hurricane squadron, stood up as his commanding officer entered the office. With the C.O. was an elderly man, spare, grey, serious, dressed in a dark morning suit.
“Oh, Gale,” said the C.O., “this is Mr. Vasey. He is anxious to gather what facts he can about his son, Flying Officer Vasey, who disappeared in Libya recently. Presumably because you were serving in the same squadron at the time, and were in close touch with him, the Air Ministry has sent his father here. Be as helpful as you can. I’ll leave you together.”
“Very good, sir.”
The C.O. went out.
With what appeared to be some slight embarrassment Gale drew up a chair. “Sit down, sir,” he invited. “Will you have a cigarette?”
“Thanks, but I’ll smoke my pipe if you don’t mind.” The senior man’s eyes rested thoughtfully, almost appealingly, on the sun-tanned face of the flying officer. “This is the end of my trail,” he said, with a weary ghost of a smile. “I’m hoping you’ll be able to give me some definite information.” “But surely, sir, the Air Ministry—?”
“The Air Ministry has been most sympathetic, but apparently nothing, or very little, is known there. I realize they can’t tell me what they don’t know, but I feel that the circumstances of my son’s disappearance were—shall we say—unusual.”
“In air warfare many pilots and air crews must necessarily be reported missing*,” Gale pointed out.
“Of course, but usually such casualties occur over enemy country. Had Marcus fallen behind the enemy lines I should have raised no question, but I understand it was not so.”
Gale admitted that this was correct.
“Marcus often mentioned you in his letters,” resumed Mr. Vasey. “I gather you were his closest friend?” *
Gale’s eyes softened. “We were at Flying Training School together. We went East together and shared the same quarters on active service. War in any theatre draws men closer together, but only in the desert do they fully realize their dependence on each other. Between Marcus and me there developed a comradeship that was something more than friendship.” Gale drew meaningless hieroglyphs on his blotting pad. “I don’t think I cared much what happened after Marcus went west. I was hit shortly afterward and they sent me home.” Gale looked up suddenly and met the older man’s gaze squarely. “What made you suspect in the first place that there was something singular in the way Marcus disappeared?”
“I had a feeling something was going to happen.” Gale’s eyes opened a fraction wider. “Why?” “Because, suddenly, the tone of his letters changed. It was apparent to me that something had affected him tremendously. He was always a highly-strung lad and I know that in his heart he hated war, but of course he couldn’t stay out.
Before the war his emotional ego found relief in poetry.”
“He didn’t tell you anything—definite?”
“Only that he had met a woman in remarkable circumstances. Did you know that?”
Gale hesitated. “Yes.”
“Had she anythingto do with his disappearance?” Again Gale hesitated. “Yes.”
“Then you must know what happened to Marcus? Please tell me all you know.”
Gale drew a deep breath. “If I told you all I know it might kindle a hope never to be fulfilled.” “That sounds very mysterious.”
“The way Marcus disappeared was mysterious.” “Where is this woman?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ever see her?”
“Do you know anyone who did see her?”
There was a brief pause. “Is Marcus with her-now?”
“Yes, I think I can say that where she is, there, too, is Marcus.”
Gale spoke softly and slowly.
“Where did he meet her?”
Gale stirred uncomfortably.
“Come along, my boy; remember,
I’m his father,” persisted the older man anxiously. “What do you think?”
GALE stared with unseeing eyes through the window at a Hurricane gliding in. “I don’t know what to think, and that’s the truth,” he blurted helplessly.
“Suppose you tell me what you know, and leave me to judge?” suggested Vasey quietly.
“Yes,” whispered Gale, as though speaking to himself. “Yes, I could do that. I can do no more—and no less.” He leaned forward, resting his chin on his knuckles. “This final act was not the first time Marcus disappeared.” he announced.
Wonderment graved furrows in Vasey’s forehead.“Not the first time? I don’t understand.”
“I’m afraid there will be much you won’t understand—much that neither of us will ever understand,” returned Gale softly. “A month before Marcus disappeared officially he was lost for five days. I don’t know what happened because I wasn’t with him. I can only tell you what he told me. At the time, we were stationed at Siwa, not far from the ruins of Jupiter-Ammon, in the Libyan desert, south of Solium. Do you know anything of the history of that region?”
“Then, briefly, I shall have to tell you, because, absurd though it may seem, what happened to Marcus is, or was, linked up with the past. You may find it hard to believe, but the stage for the tragedy we are discussing was set about two thousand
five hundred years ago. Whatever conclusion you may come to regarding Marcus’ mental condition, that fact must remain, unalterable and unassailable.’ In the sixth century B.C., and for long after, the Temple of Jupiter-Ammon was a celebrated oracle. Alexander the Great went there to learn his fate; so did Hannibal, Croesus, and many others—including apparently, Marcus, although his was not a matter of choice. He happened to be sent there.
“Jupiter-Ammon, like most oracles, was tremendously wealthy. In 525 B.C., Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, dictator of Persia, anticipating Hitler, was in Egypt looking for plunder. While he was at Khargah Oasis in Upper Egypt he sent an army of sixty thousand men into the desert to
plunder Jupiter-Ammon. The army never arrived. It never returned. It was never seen again. So much we know. What became of it no man knows, but one of two things must have happened. Either it was swallowed up in a sandstorm or, getting off its course, at last found refuge in an unknown oasis.
“Whether such an oasis exists, or ever did exist, is problematical. The natives say it does. They call it Zenzura, and it is odd that such a belief should have persisted through the ages. To this day the Tuareg talk of a race of strange white men living in the heart of the Libyan sands. If you ask an Egyptian where is Zenzura he will point to the west. If you ask an Algerian Arab he will point to the east. In Cyrenaica he points to the south.”
Vasey interrupted. “But surely, if such an oasis existed, it would by this time have been seen from the air?”
“It—or an oasis—has been seen, twice. In 1925 a French pilot, flying a civil machine, was blown off his course by a haboob. He reported passing over an unmapped oasis—and died shortly afterward. About seven years ago Sir Robert Clayton flew across the plateau known as Gilf el Kebir in a deliberate attempt to find the Lost Oasis. He saw an unknown oasis—or at any rate, a fertile wadi— and the photograph he took shows distinctly white spots that are thought to be houses. He was making preparations to go back and land, when he died. I'm sorry to have to go into all this, but it is the
background into which Marcus disappeared, either literally or in his imagination.
“Now let us return to current events.
“When we were driving the Italians out of eastern Libya, the R.A.F. worked overtime. Marcus and I sometimes did as many as five patrols a day. It was a strain, and I think most fellows’ nerves suffered a bit—mine certainly did. It may have affected Marcus. Saharan flying at any time is hard work, physically and mentally. The heat hits you like a hammer. It sears your eyeballs, cracks your skin and frays your nerves. The thin air dances and trembles, and your aircraft rocks and wallows in the bumps. You fly under an arch of shimmering steel across which the sun burns its course. Below lies the earth, naked, hopeless, an abode of death; and the stillness is the stillness of death. The sand shines, reflecting the sky and distorting the dunes into grotesque shapes. A hollow becomes a lake, promising green fields—a devil’s trick to mislead the intruder. The desert is always there.
“At night, when the fighting of the day is forgotten, a man begins to see how temporal he is, and how puny are the things he prizes. He considers with amazement the mad frenzy of war with its fluid frontiers. For in the desert nothing changes. Everything bears the mark of eternity. We come; we go; the rest remains. After a while the immensity, the inevitability of it gets you down. Novelists may call this the Garden of Allah, but to an airman
it’s a tortured, sun-blasted, devil-haunted garden of hell.”
“You discussed these things with Marcus?”
“It would be more correct to say that he discussed them with me. They had a marked effect on him, as they must on any man with imagination.”
“He knew about the country’s historical associations?”
“Too much, perhaps. Every carved stone, every desert trail, meant something to him. He felt, as well as saw.”
“I begin to understand. Please continue.”
ONE DAY Marcus went out on a reconnaissance flight. He didn’t come back. Several pilots were sent up to look for him, including myself, but we found nothing. By the evening of the second day we had given him up. A man can’t live in such heat for more than twenty-four hours without water. The next day hope was officially abandoned, but, as is usual, a few more days were allowed to elapse before the name was posted as a casualty. On the fifth day following his disappearance Marcus was brought in by one of the desert patrol cars. He was raving in delirium. The crew had found him wandering in the dunes more than a hundred miles from the nearest water hole.”
“Then he must have lived for days without water, and you’ve just said that is impossible.”
“It is impossible.”
“Then how did he live?” “That’s a question I can’t answer. I can only tell you what he told me after he recovered.”
“Was he then quite normal?”
“He appeared to be perfectly normal. He said that a wind of unknown force blew him off his course. Apparently he didn’t realize for some time that he was drifting, but even then, as there are no landmarks in the shifting sands, he couldn’t check his drift. Naturally, he tried to find his way back to the base before his petrol petered out. He told me that his tank was getting low when, in a depression, he saw an oasis. It appeared so suddenly, and was so vivid, that he thought for a moment it was a mirage; then he realized that a vertical mirage of such clarity is something that just can’t happen.
“In the hope of finding out where he was he went down and landed. He got down without trouble and soon confirmed that the oasis was concrete, not a phantasma. There it was, green grass, waving palms, and a small lake of clear sparkling water in the middle. Set around it were rows of neat stone houses. But what astonished him most were the roses. Roses were everywhere.
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They appeared to have taken possession of the oasis, and the air was Iheavy with the perfume of them. Yet, strangely enough, there was no sign of human beings.
“Being thirsty, he was on his way to the lake when his attention was attracted to a tree of ripe pomegranates, the branches of which hung over the wall of what had obviously been a garden. He climbed the wall, and saw, beyond, an artist’s conception of the Garden of Eden—or the Moslem Paradise. There were grapes and pomegranates, dates, figs and flowers, especially roses. In the rentre a fountain bubbled and splashed over grey stones. It wasn’t bard to believe Marcus when he said that the scene created the tenuous, illusive atmosphere of a dream.
“He had thrown off his jacket and was drinking at the fountain when a voice spoke, a voice as softly melodious as the tinkle of ice in a glass— that’s how he described it. Looking
round he saw a girl watching him, a white girl. She was dressed in a white robe caught in round the middle by a girdle fastened with a silver buckle. She would, I gather, have been beautiful anywhere, but in such a setting she was breathtaking.
“Marcus told me he just stood and stared at her like a fool. He went to some pains to describe her to me in detail that would take too long to repeat, but her eyes were the pearly grey of a desert dawn and her hair was burnished sunshine. It was long, but dressed in classic style by beaded threads of lapis lazuli, so that tiny curls hung at the back. But we needn’t dwell on her appearance. We’ll take Marcus’ word for it that she was beautiful and let it go at that. As he moved nearer to her he was greeted again by the perfume of roses. No wonder he asked himself seriously if he were awake and in his right mind.
“He spoke to her in all the languages that he knew, including Latin and Greek, but she only shook her head and smiled. Pointing to herself she said, ‘Karia.’ That, evidently, was her name. Marcus pointed to himself and said, ‘Marcus,’ and these
two words were the limit of the conversation.
“Nowt, without reason, as he afterward realized, he had subconsciously formed the opinion that Karia was alone. So, no doubt, she would have been in ballet or opera; but it was not the case here. While they stood smiling into each other’s eyes for want of some other way of expressing what was passing in their minds, a man came out of the house, an old white-bearded man of such venerable aspect and dignified mien that Marcus was instantly reminded of Biblical pictures of Moses. He bowed. The old man bowed. And there they were. What could they do?
“Marcus admitted that for a time they talked, without having the least idea of what the other was saying; but toward evening the old man retired, and Marcus found himself alone with Karia. They stayed in the garden. The moon rose and Marcus became more and more convinced that the whole thing was a dream from which he must presently awaken. He assured me, and I believed him, that he hated the thought of waking.
WITH dawn came doubt as to its being a dream, and some degree of sanity. Naturally, he began to think of getting back to his base—I mean, it hadn’t occurred to him to spend the rest of his life on the oasis. He still had a little petrol left. But how was he to find his way when he had absolutely no idea of where he was? Turning the problem over in his mind he went for a stroll with Karia. He saw nobody else, from which he assumed that Karia and the old man had either arrived there by accident, as he had, or else they were the remnants of an old Phoenician colony.
“Near the lake, in one of the houses, Karia showed him stack upon stack of weapons, mostly lances and shields. They were all engraved with formal designs of Persian character. Then, in a flash, he understood. He had found the Lost Oasis, and these two people were the last survivors of the descendants of Cambyses’ illfated army. How else could Persian equipment have got there? Unfortunately he couldn’t speak Persian, ancient or modern, so there was no way of confirming this even if Karia knew, which was doubtful.
“They were walking back to the garden when, at a great height, he saw an eagle heading north. It gave him an idea. If the eagle was flying north it was pretty safe to suppose that something other than desert lay in that direction. At any rate, he decided to follow it. Much as he would have liked to stay longer, he was still a soldier, and duty called. So he bowed to the old man, said goodby to Karia, and took off. He told me that she wept bitterly when he left her, and the look of hopeless resignation on her face haunted him. He told her that he’d come back. She didn’t understand, of course, but he got some satisfaction out of making the promise.
“All this Marcus remembered
clearly. He remembered taking off. He remembered watching his petrol gauge drop to zero, with the eternal sands still rolling away to the horizon. He remembered his engine cutting out, and gliding down to land—but that’s all. The next thing he knew he was in his tent.”
Gale glanced up and met the eyes of his listener. “That’s the story as Marcus told it to me,” he said quietly. “Physically, he was soon fit again, hut he was a changed man. He seldom spoke to anyone except me, and then it was to talk of Karia. It was abundantly clear that if one can he in love with a shadow he was in love—no, it was more than that. It was a kind of sublime adoration. She might have been a goddess. He didn’t say her name in an ordinary voice, he breathed it. At night he would sit staring at the moon, or across the desert, always to the south.
“About a month later I woke one morning to find that he was already dressed. Dawn was just putting out the stars in readiness for the daily miracle of sunrise. I asked him what he was doing, reminding him that he was not on the early show. He said— I remember every word distinctly— ‘I’m going out on a test flight. I may be some time.’
“I stood outside the tent and watched him take off. Something told me which way he would go, and it was right. He swung slowdy round to the south. The last I saw of him was a spark of living fire as the rising sun caught his wings, far away over the southern horizon, still heading south.
“He never came back. When the endurance period of his fuel supply had passed search parties were sent out. They were maintained for three days. I could have told the C.O. that we should find nothing. I flew to the extreme southern limit of my ma-, chine’s performance; looking down from thirty thousand feet, all I could see were the big dunes marching in line abreast to the equator and beyond. Not a speck broke the surface of the sand. If Marcus went into that region it would be impossible for him to get back; and he must have gone or I should have seen his machine.”
GALE sat back in his chair.
“That’s all I can tell you, except that I did not include Marcus’ story in my official report on the operations. Far down in the burning heart of the Libyan desert, someone, some day, will find a heap of twisted metal —unless the sand claims it.”
Vasey sat for a long time staring at the floor. At length he broke the silence.
“I think it’s quite clear,” he said wearily. “It was all an illusion created by strain, heat and thirst. Of course, there was no woman. She was a figment of an overwrought imagination, predisposed by knowledge of the country’s historical associations.” Gale considered the smoldering end of his cigarette pensively. “It looks that way, I must admit.”
“Strain started the trouble, no doubt. Then came the flight when Marcus lost his way. What actually happened was, he ran out of petrol and crashed in the desert. A blow on the head, or heat, or thirst, or the combination of these things, affected his mind, and caused him to dream his wonderful dream. That could happen, don’t you think?”
“Undoubtedly. Men see strange things when the desert devils hand out an opiate. But imagination wouldn’t have kept him alive for five days without water.”
“I suppose not, but doubtless there is a simple explanation if we knew it.” Vasey stood up. “Now I must be going. Thank you for the information you have given me. It explains everything.”
“Almost,” murmured Gale. “Perhaps you would care to take this with you, sir? It really belongs to you. I was president of the court of adjustment; I found it under Marcus’ pillow, but I didn’t include it in the inventory of his kit because it might have called for explanations it was better to avoid.”
Gale opened a drawer and took out an envelope. Unsealing the flap he allowed what it contained to fall on the desk.
It was a lock of golden hair, tied with a beaded thread of lapis lazuli. From it came a faint perfume of roses.