13. Shadow at Dawn
Morgan had left his hotel in Ranapura at four a.m. on a clear, moonless night. He was not too happy about the choice of time, but Professor Sarath, who had made all the arrangements, had promised him that it would be well worthwhile. “You won't understand anything about Sri Kanda,” he had said, “unless you have watched the dawn from the summit. And Buddy – er, the Maha Thero – won't receive visitors at any other time. He says it's a splendid way of discouraging the merely curious.” So Morgan had acquiesced with as much good grace as possible.
To make matters worse, the Taprobanean driver had persisted in carrying on a brisk though rather one-sided conversation, apparently designed to establish a complete profile of his passenger's personality. This was all done with such ingenuous good nature that it was impossible to take offence, but Morgan would have preferred silence.
He also wished, sometimes devoutly, that his driver would pay rather more attention to the countless hairpin bends round which they zipped in the near-darkness. Perhaps it was just as well that he could not see all the cliffs and chasms they were negotiating as the car climbed up through the foothill. This road was a triumph of nineteenth-century military engineering – the work of the last colonial power, built in the final campaign against the proud mountain folk of the interior. But it had never been converted to automatic operation, and there were times when Morgan wondered if he would survive the journey.
And then, suddenly, he forgot his fears and his annoyance at the loss of sleep.
“There it is!” said the driver proudly, as the car rounded the flank of a hill.
Sri Kanda itself was still completely invisible in a darkness which as yet bore no hint of the approaching dawn. Its presence was revealed by a thin ribbon of light, zig-zagging back and forth under the stars, hanging as if by magic in the sky. Morgan knew that he was merely seeing the lamps set two hundred years ago to guide pilgrims as they ascended the longest stairway in the world, but in its defiance of logic and gravity it appeared almost a prevision of his own dream. Ages before he was born, inspired by philosophers he could barely imagine, men had begun the work he hoped to finish. They had, quite literally, built the first crude steps on the road to the stars.
No longer feeling drowsy, Morgan watched as the band of light grew closer, and resolved itself into a necklace of innumerable, twinkling beads. Now the mountain was becoming visible, as a black triangle eclipsing half the sky. There was something sinister about its silent, brooding presence; Morgan could almost imagine that it was indeed the abode of gods who knew of his mission, and were gathering their strength against him.
These ominous thoughts were entirely forgotten when they arrived at the cable car terminus and Morgan discovered to his surprise – it was still only five a.m. – that at least a hundred people were milling around in the little waiting-room. He ordered a welcome hot coffee for himself and his garrulous driver – who, rather to his relief, showed no interest in making the ascent. “I've done it at least twenty times,” he said with perhaps exaggerated boredom. “I'm going to sleep in the car until you come down.”
Morgan purchased his ticket, did a quick calculation, and estimated that he would be in the third or fourth load of passengers. He was glad that he had taken Sarath's advice and slipped a thermocloak in his pocket; at a mere two-kilometre altitude, it was already quite cold. At the summit, three kilometres higher still, it must be freezing.
As he slowly shuffled forward in the rather subdued and sleepy line of visitors, Morgan noted with amusement that he was the only one not carrying a camera. Where were the genuine pilgrims, he wondered? Then he remembered; they would not be here. There was no easy way to heaven, or Nirvana, or whatever it was that the faithful sought. Merit was acquired solely by one's own efforts, not with the aid of machines. An interesting doctrine, and one containing much truth; but there were also times when only machines could do the job.
At last he got a seat in the car, and with a considerable creaking of cables they were on their way. Once again, Morgan felt that eerie sense of anticipation. The elevator he was planning would hoist loads more than ten thousand times as high as this primitive system, which probably dated right back to the twentieth century. And yet, when all was said and done, its basic principles were very much the same. Outside the swaying car was total darkness, except when a section of the illuminated stairway came into view. It was completely deserted, as if the countless millions who had toiled up the mountain during the last three thousand years had left no successor. But then Morgan realised that those making the ascent on foot would already be far above on their appointment with the dawn; they would have left the lower slopes of the mountain hours ago.
At the four-kilometre level the passengers had to change cars and walk a short distance to another cable-station, but the transfer involved little delay. Now Morgan was indeed glad of his cloak, and wrapped its metallised fabric closely round his body. There was frost underfoot, and already he was breathing deeply in the thin air. He was not at all surprised to see racks of oxygen cylinders in the small terminus, with instructions for their use prominently displayed.
And now at last, as they began the final ascent, there came the first intimation of the approaching day. The eastern stars still shone with undiminished glory – Venus most brilliantly of all – but a few thin, high clouds began to glow faintly with the coming dawn. Morgan looked anxiously at his watch, and wondered if he would be in time. He was relieved to see that daybreak was still thirty minutes away.
One of the passengers suddenly pointed to the immense stairway, sections of which were occasionally visible beneath them as it zigzagged back and forth up the mountain's now rapidly steepening slopes. It was no longer deserted; moving with dreamlike slowness, dozens of men and women were toiling painfully up the endless steps. Every minute more and more came into view; for how many hours, Morgan wondered, had they been climbing? Certainly all through the night, and perhaps much longer-for many of the pilgrims were quite elderly, and could hardly have managed the ascent in a single day. He was surprised to see that so many still believed.
A moment later, he saw the first monk – a tall, saffron-robed figure moving with a gait of metronome-like regularity, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and completely ignoring the car floating above his shaven head. He also appeared capable of ignoring the elements, for his right arm and shoulder were bare to the freezing wind.
The cable car was slowing down as it approached the terminus; presently it made a brief halt, disgorged its numbed passengers, and set off again on its long descent. Morgan joined the crowd of two or three hundred people huddling in a small amphitheatre cut in the western face of the mountain. They were all staring out into the darkness, though there was nothing to see but the ribbon of light winding down into the abyss. Some belated climbers on the last section of the stairway were making a final effort, as faith strove to overcome fatigue.
Morgan looked again at his watch; ten minutes to go. He had never before been among so many silent people; camera-touting tourists and devout pilgrims were united now in the same hope. The weather was perfect; soon they would all know if they had made this journey in vain.
There came a delicate tinkling of bells from the temple, still invisible in the darkness a hundred metres above their heads; and at the same instant all the lights along that unbelievable stairway were extinguished. Now they could see, as they stood with their backs towards the hidden sunrise, that the first faint gleam of day lay on the clouds far below; but the immense bulk of the mountain still delayed the approaching dawn.
Second by second the light was growing on either side of Sri Kanda, as the sun outflanked the last strongholds of the night. Then there came a low murmur of awe from the patiently waiting crowd.
One moment there was nothing. Then, suddenly, it was there, stretching half the width of Taprobane – a perfectly symmetrical, sharp-edged triangle of deepest blue. The mountain had not forgotten its worshippers; there lay its famous shadow across the sea of clouds, a symbol for each pilgrim to interpret as he wished.
It seemed almost solid in its rectilinear perfection, like some overturned pyramid rather than a mere phantom of light and shade. As the brightness grew around it, and the first direct rays of the sun struck past the flanks of the mountain, it appeared by contrast to grow even darker and denser; yet through the thin veil of cloud responsible for its brief existence, Morgan could dimly discern the lakes and hills and forests of the awakening land.
The apex of that misty triangle must be racing towards him at enormous speed, as the sun rose vertically behind the mountain, yet Morgan was conscious of no movement. Time seemed to have been suspended; this was one of the rare moments of his life when he gave no thought to the passing minutes. The shadow of eternity lay upon his soul, as did that of the mountain upon the clouds.
Now it was fading swiftly, the darkness draining from the sky like a stain dispersing in water. The ghostly, glimmering landscape below was hardening into reality; halfway to the horizon there was an explosion of light as the sun's rays struck upon some building's eastern windows. And even beyond that – unless his eyes had tricked him – Morgan could make out the faint, dark band of the encircling sea.
Another day had come to Taprobane.
Slowty, the visitors dispersed. Some returned to the cable-car terminus, while others, more energetic, headed for the stairway, in the mistaken belief that the descent was easier than the climb. Most of them would be thankful enough to catch the car again at the lower station; few indeed would make it all the way down.
Only Morgan continued upwards, followed by many curious glances, along the short flight of steps that led to the monastery and to the very summit of the mountain. By the time he had reached the smoothly-plastered outer wall – now beginning to glow softly in the first direct rays of the sun – he was very short of breath, and was glad to lean for a moment against the massive wooden door.
Someone must have been watching; before he could find a bell-push, or signal his presence in any way, the door swung silently open, and he was welcomed by a yellow-robed monk, who saluted him with clasped hands.
“Ayu bowan, Dr. Morgan. The Mahanayake Thero will be glad to see you.”