Chapter 2: Kanchenjunga

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

By the time I aroused Kenvon, Harker and Lacrosse in the shack I found next to the hangar and got open the front gates, there was no sign of the murdering dacoit or his knife. A rear, unbolted door, showed us how he left. The ooze of blood from Craig’s mortal wound showed us what he had done. Jim Craig was dead.

There was nothing to be done but notify the police. Harker did this via the phone in the shack. I stayed on at the hangar and gave my story to the Indian officials who presently turned up in a flivver.

They were amazed that dacoitry dared to show its head in the face of the British government – but there was nothing they could do about it. The attack upon me equally bewildered them. It was suggested that I might have been mistaken – for my breath was heavy laden. But they could not deny the fact of poor Jim Craig’s stark body.

I was driven back to the Nepal Bar in the flivver. Cheery good nights echoed under the starlight and I went up to my bed.

Sleep did not come easily, and I tossed, worried and wondering. Some weird deviltry had touched me. Craig’s having had that three-headed thing, Kenvon’s obvious loss of it, the attack on me, and the murder, all of it had a significance that was beyond my humble fathomings. My locked door gave me no sense of security.

Lord knows what time it was went I finally dozed off. Nightmares rather than sleep were my lot. That big-headed dacoit haunted me. “She of the Three Heads” dazzled me with her unholy light. I could see that knife handle sticking out of Jim’s breast – dacoits surrounded me, took to ramming in my door —

Someone was pounding on my door.

“Who’s there?” I shouted, running to my bag and fishing out my old service automatic.

“It’s I – Kenvon. Open up, please.”

I bade him wait a moment while I slipped into a dressing gown and pocketed the gun.

Kenvon was pale and drawn. He shook my hand and pinched his condor nose, watching me thoughtfully.

“Wasn’t that bad about poor Jim! I don’t get it at all. First a burglary, then a murder in the hangar.”

I said that I was just as puzzled. He met my searching gaze and sat me down on the bed beside him.

“It is very urgent that I make the flight I planned, at dawn,” he said, clipping his words sharply. He was a man used to giving orders. “Craig was to have been my pilot. Will you take his place, McRory?”

I told him that other business held me in Darjeeling. Word about the missing De Haviland and its occupant, Harvey Jesperson, the New York, diamond buyer, was awaited. The company was sending a search plane up from Bombay. Jesperson was three kinds of a fool – but an important personage to boot.

“I can arrange things,” he said. “We’ll only be gone a day. I must have an experienced pilot. And I’ll deposit ten thousand dollars to your credit in any New York bank you care to name.”

Now I ask you – who am I to think twice about earning ten thousand dollars for a day’s flying? The searchers mightn’t report for another day or two. The plane from Bombay mightn’t get to Darjeeling before evening or the following morning. This was the biggest money ever thrust upon me in all my thirty-two years of bread winning.

“Sure I’ll take the job!” I said. “What time do you start?”

“I’ll send over for you at five o’clock.”

With that he bade me good night a third time and departed.

Kenvon’s coming had relieved my fears somehow and, when I put my head to the pillow again, I slept the sleep of the conscienceless.

The first rosy tints of the dawn found me clambering over my monoplane, the weird-looking Junkers G-38, huge and of a one-hundred-and-ten-foot wing spread, without a tail and with the face of a square-eyed bat.

“Hell,” I muttered to myself while I inspected the control board for the last time, “if ever there was a wild-goose chase, I’m on it!”

Perhaps Jim Craig was luckier dead than faced with what I had before me. Kenvon was taking this tailless ship on a junket five miles above the earth – to what end? The advancement of science and aviation or the mere indulgence of a millionaire’s whim?

Of all the fool ideas, this was the prize winner – wanting to penetrate a cave in the southeastern face of the towering Kanchenjunga, the next highest peak to Everest, that “King of the Himalayas”. Kenvon assured me in hurried snatches of conversation that he wanted to wrest fame and glory from the Dyhrenfurth Expedition by not only dropping the flag on the summit but by going the very heart of of Kanchenjunga, that skyscraping majesty of rock and glacier, which like Everest, had flung puny man from its sides, keeping its glorious cloud-caressed pinnacle inviolate.

The hugeness of this four-motor Junkers gave a small sense of security that wavered only when I lifted my eyes above the jungle wall to the dimly veiled peaks of Helu and Timbila in the north. I knew these G-38s – but would this one stand those titanic gales that had been sharpening Kanchenjunga’s icy breast for dozens of centuries?

“Well, McRory,” I mused, “if Kenvon, Lacrosse, and Harker aren’t worrying about their necks, why should you? You’ve got but one neck to give for adventure and you might as well offer it up willingly – considering the ten thousand bucks you stand to win. The Germans didn’t break it in 1918, nor did the Riffians nor the Nicaraguans nor the Mexicans – nor Clancy’s safety-pin busses in his flying circus out of Omaha.

But somehow monkeying around a little known mountain peak between Nepal and Tibet at an altitude of twenty-nine thousand feet was still another matter. Men of old believed that mountains grew angry like humans when their sanctity was violated. I’m superstitious – but of Irish extraction – and I couldn’t help bu think of the innumerable live high crests had claimed.

I worried about the tonnage of the petrol, the elaborate lighting system on the black wings, the powerful searchlight, the store of foodstuffs and firearms. We were only going for a day – and provisioned for a month’s stay. Was Kenvon keeping something from me?

Grant Harker, a pleasant-faced geologist from Harvard whose job it was to size up Kanchenjunga’s age-old clothing in notes and photographic plates, climbed into the plane through the trap door.

“Well, McRory, my boy,” he beamed, “I guess we’re about ready to push off.”

“How’s your neck?”

“Like Barkis, it’s willin’,” he laughed. “My insurance and Kenvon’s bonus cover this flight, so the wife and kiddies back home have nothing to worry about, except me.”

Through the ports I could see the mechanics going over my black bird inch by inch, testing the four wheels, the stays to the wings, the guides, the propellor blades, the struts. Their eyes missed not a detail of this G-38 and the three of them fondled the Diesels tenderly.

Kenvon of the condor nose came out of the hangar followed by dozens of well-wishers, Indian officials, newspaper correspondents and camera men. His aristocratic figure was clad in an all leather flying outfit and a padded helmet dangled from his arm. I, in a tweed golf suit, leather riding boots and a heavy fleece-lined wind breaker, envied him his swank.

Sam Lacrosse, cartographer and professor of natural history at Princeton – a gangling fellow – brought up Kenvon’s wake. It was up to him to spot the flora and fauna of Kanchenjunga from the air and write the New York papers all about it.

On reaching the trapdoor, Kenvon turned and began addressing the assembled crowd, tanned faces still full of sleep in India’s early light. “Folks, I’m off in ten minutes. The wind is just right, the pilot tells me – and it promises to be a blooming day in May. We’ve only got about fifty miles to go, as the crow flies, to reach the beautiful but cruel Kanchenjunga. We’ll climb five miles toward God’s ceiling to reach our objective – Kanchenjunga’s brow and the Door of Surrilana.”

The Door of Surrilana! That name was news to me. I took it he meant the cave he hoped to enter, if I was willing to risk it.

“First,” he went on, “we’ll circle the pinnacle at an altitude of about twenty-eight thousand one hundred and fifty feet and drop Old Glory upon it. What a surprise that will be for Professor Dyhrenfurth’s party, if they ever reach the summit and behold our flag there! They passed through the Jongri and the Kang-La Passes and are making the ascent already, having left early in April. Yet in one day I will do what they are attempting to do in months.”

Dyhrenfurth, I had heard, was trekking it with a party of internationally renowned Alpine climbers and an army of Sherpa-Nepalese, Tibetan and Lepcha porters. His way lay through the Sikkim to the glaciers where footwork was more feasible.

Out of the torrid jungles they would climb into arctic barrenness into a world of rock and ice – treacherous, relentless ice that had already taken a toll of six lives and repelled several other expeditions.

“After studying the summit,” Kenvon was saying, “I will descend some eight thousand feet to seek the entrance to a vast chain of inner caverns about which I alone have information. That the Himalayas are honeycombed with caverns is the theory of the Royal Geographic Society in London. Elaborate tests have been conducted in planetaria demonstrating the hollow condition of the world’s greatest range.

“I will make this flight without landing. If we are forced to such an extremity I am amply prepared to make a fight back to civilization on foot – having sufficient stores and arms to get through ice, rock and the jungles of the Sikkim.” He stretched out his arms to his listeners.

“And now, gentlemen, au revoir till this evening.”

Harker and I had to climb out of the plane, and with Kenvon and Lacrosse, pose for the cameraman before its black beauty – that the world a week later might behold our intrepid faces over the breakfast table in rotogravure sections and tabloids. Flash lights popped, as Indian officials made a short speech bidding us Godspeed and we all climbed up through the trap.

Kenvon seated himself beside me and adjusted his brand-new helmet. I pulled a pair of old automobile goggles over my head and was glad they were smoked. The sun on the ice would be dazzling.

“All set, McRory?” Kenvon asked with a smile. “I am.”

“All set,” I reported. “I’ve been over this bus and it’s shipshape.”

The mechanics were at the side cranks behind the propellors.

“Switch off, sir.”

“Switch off,” I said. How like the old days behind the lines in France before going over to strafe! Curt efficiency! Keyed up nerves!

“Contact, sir.”


There was a sputtering in the motors and then they belched forth a terrible roar, flaying the tall grass with a steady, cyclonic wind. While I warmed these, the B motors were started and at the end of five minutes, I signaled through an open port for gangway.

The Junkers swung over the field, lumbering with its heavy load of fuel and human beings. Faster – faster – faster, till the fuselage was horizontal with the floor of the field. We neared the edge of the jungle wall. Would she go up – over that wall?

I drew the stick back and slowly my black bird raised herself from mother earth, skimming the treetops of the forests. We met the May sun coming out from behind the hills in China. It was warm and bright and its light threw Helu and Timbila into a relief of silver glitter. “A good omen!” Kenvon shouted. “The sun is up with me!”

Phallukla’s grubby head shot past us in the west.

We hung over the Rathong Valley and the Great Rangit River, the early course of Dyhernfurth’s party. Fascinated by this glimpse of verdant Nepal beneath my feet, I made no effort to climb.

“I say,” Harker yelled to Kenvon, “now tell us about this map of yours.”

I saw Kenvon draw a leather wallet from his inner pocket and take from it a grimy, torn piece of parchment. On it was traced a crude topography of the Sikkim and Kanchenjunga. A cross marked on face of the mountain wall on its southeastern face.

“This was found by Professor Cartavan,” Kenvon explained, “in the Nepalese jungle in 1914. The map was in a chamois skin case. How it got there is a matter of conjecture, but it was drawn, undoubtedly, by one who had crawled up Kanchenjunga’s sides. In one corner in a barely legible handwriting is a description of a cavern accessible through the Door of Surrilana, a cavern described as vaster than the plains of Kansas.”

The map was in Kenvon’s lap close beside me. I could not help but see a portion of the writing and the name “Zorimi” stood out boldly. I asked what it meant.

“I don’t know,” Kenvon said. “I’d like to find out.”

This map annoyed me. Were we going on a wild-goose chase because of a mysterious map found in the jungle? Why, I had kidded poor Jim Craig only the night before about “the old map story”! All through the East beggars and derelicts are ever willing to sell you a map giving the whereabouts of buried treasure and the like. They concoct the topography themselves – and are hundreds of miles away when you reach your futile goal, if you are fool enough to believe in such maps.

I looked up into my mirror at Harker and Lacrosse behind me. Their tanned faces had paled. They, too, had become horribly skeptical of Kenvon’s source of information concerning what lay beyond the Door of Surrilana.

“You should have confided this to us before,” Harker snapped. “Surely you don’t believe in that map, Kenvon?”

“It’s a hoax!” Lacrosse cried. “Right now we vote to eliminate flying into any caves!”

“I see to reason why Cartavan should hoax me,” Kenvon said impetuously. “He is a man of repute. I paid well for this chart.”

My heart wanted to take a seat in my mouth. The millionaire had been hoaxed by an impecunious professor whose cleverly faked map had inflamed Kenvon’s adventurous imagination. Shades of Rider Haggard and King Solomon’s mines. I was dealing with a nut!

While they argued, I worked with my stick. The black bird glided by Long Jong and the Jongri Pass. The altimeter registered thirteen thousand one hundred forty feet – the height of Long Jong’s snowy crest. I turned on the electric heaters to warm up the cabin.

Kabru rushed at us through the mists the sun was dispelling. The Junkers went up – twenty – twenty-one – to twenty-four thousand feet – four miles above sea level. The blood teemed in my ears and a weakness assailed the pit of my stomach which I placated with effort. I could see that Lacrosse was bleeding through the nose. We expected that in such a rarified altitude.

The black bird slid between Kabru and The Dome and before us a still higher wall flung itself heavenward, its rock a sheen of icy whiteness, blinding me temporarily with a celestial glare that vied with the purity of the blue vault above us.

“There she is!” I cried, pointing through my port, “Dead ahead!”

“Kanchenjunga!” Kenvon screamed ecstatically. “Never before has man seen such a marvelous sight! I am the first to see her from the heavens!”

Breathless, with throbbing heads, we four were held spellbound by this world in the skies. Earth was now denied us by a fleecy sea of rippling, cream-white clouds.

“I wonder if heaven is as swell a sight?” Harker sighed.

“I wish I could paint it!” Lacrosse said. Thrusting Kenvon aside, he swung his camera close to the forward port and took several shots of Kanchenjunga’s majestic bosom.

One eye on the mountain, one on the altimeter, I climbed. Twenty-five thousand. Twenty-six! We were over the Talung Saddle. Shrieking winds flung their mighty breaths into our bird’s face and buffeted the Junkers as though it were a bobbing cork on a mill race.

We pitched – slid dangerously. I feared for our lack of tail as we dropped a thousand feet. Face with an imminent crash against Kanchenjunga’s thighs, the Junkers bucked and rolled and pitched like a tramp in a November sea on the north Atlantic.

The Talung glacier, spotless white, grinned with cruel, jagged and glimmering teeth, grinned up at us through a rift in the white foam.

I climbed as best I could – twenty-seven thousand – twenty-eight. We were flush with Kanchenjunga’s crown of icy cathedral spires – twenty-eight five hundred – I prayed the altimeter wouldn’t bust. In the distance was Everest’s higher coronet, lofty, proud, merciless.

“Go over it!”

Kenvon shrieked like one possessed. “Go over it, I say! I’m a conqueror – conquering a great mountain. I’ll subdue Everest another day!”

Nuts, that’s what he was, I told myself. Twenty-nine thousand feet – my head swam – nausea gripped me and I fought to hold the stick in my frozen hands. Consciousness tried to leave me. My nose and ears were wet with running blood. The frigidity was intensely painful – the electric heaters were impotent against this chill that only Titans could withstand.

Kanchenjunga passed beneath us – beneath the first mortal men. We were speechless, not from fear or illness, but from sheer ecstasy. Beauty and conquest alone kept our blood from freezing.

I guided the plane through the gales above the Zemu Glacier. We circled Siniolchum, seven thousand feet below, a mere speck beneath our frost-bitten feet.  We were five miles over God’s terra firma.

“Now go back – to the highest peak in Kanchenjunga!” Kenvon gasped by way of command.

He busied himself with the weighted flag, the American colors fastened to a heavy balled spike. Lacrosse took picture after picture, his fingers bleeding when their cold skin touched the hard camera. Harker made copious notes with a trembling hand. Myself, I was content to drink in a beauty that only challenged that of Ireland’s lakes in the springtime, and simultaneously, to curse the arctic weather.

We dropped to twenty-eight thousand two hundred feet, fifty feet above the highest pinnacle. Kenvon opened the trapdoor and the icy blasts surging into the cabin, swept us into a loop-the-loop. Only the gods who watch over me, guided my hand to righting my black bird. The millionaire was prepared for this moment, I later learned, by days of practice in launching the weighted flag on the Darjeeling flying field.

“Ready! Slower!” His voice was insanely shrill.

The longest finger of Kanchenjuna tore at us, ripping its way through the azure blue of the heavens. Kenvon, calculating the velocity of the plane and the distance to the glacier below, dropped his flag.

We watched the flag – its red-and-white stripes and the field of stars on blue – as it shot into the snow, resplendent in the morning sunlight. It struck at the base of the finger, quivered then standing upright, unfurled its colors to the mountain wind.

Kenvon muttered about the surprise that flag would be for Dyhrenfurth if he ever reached the summit. I doubted whether the flag would last the day. It would be in shreds before another sun saw it, so fierce were the gales.

The right B motor missed, spluttered and went dead.

I was startled but not frightened. We weren’t in danger – but to a man who was brought up on tales of leprechauns and banshees, it was an ill omen. Was Kanchenjunga reaching out for us – now that we boasted of her conquest? Would she, though we were clear of its surface, still destroy us?

Continuing to circle in front of the southern face of the mountain, I diminished our altitude gradually to twenty-one thousand feet. Kenvon seemed please with these maneuvers. We were below the high wind belt, enjoying a well-earned respite.

“You’re seeking Surrilana,” he said to me and nodded with approval.

But my mind was made up. I alone knew how to handle this Junkers. The lives of all of us were in my hands. And I meant to return to Darjeeling when the others tired of feasting their eyes on Kanchenjunga’s beauties. Kenvon had nothing to say about it – even if I was burning up his money in petrol!

We cruised east and west. The millionaire studied his grimy map and scrutinized the mountain’s face with narrowed eyes, breathing hard, eagerly. When I went far to the east, he cried out and jammed a finger into the port.

I saw it, though at first I thought it was only a broad fissure in the glacial wall. But it was the Door of Surrilana, a black yawning maw. It was tremendous in size, at least three hundred feet high and five hundred feet wide. A plane could make an entry easily – if there was room to turn about inside.

“Well, there it is!” Lacrosse said, fear giving way to skepticism in his attitude. “You can come back another day, without me, Kenvon, and explore your caverns to your heart’s desire!”

“That goes for me, too,” Harker agreed. “You can’t drag me into a hole in the earth, because you’ve been hoaxed by a phony map.”

Kenvon shook his head determinedly. “I want to go in now.”

“You can go back to Darjeeling now and drop me and Harker,” Lacrosse snapped. “I said it’s thumbs down on this part of the trip as far as I’m concerned. Harker is with me.”

“We’re going in, McRory,” Kenvon said, ignoring the protests of the other two. “Switch on the searchlight and the bulbs on the wings to light our way. I haven’t come this far to be disappointed, my friends. It is tempting ill luck to turn back – considering our victory over Kanchenjunga.”

There was nothing I could say without starting an argument. Instead of replying, I moved my black bird away from the Door of Surrilana. I wasn’t afraid to attempt the entry. But who knew what lay beyond! Stalagmites and stalactites, stone fingers and teeth to tear our wings? A sudden turn in the channel – if there was any – and a crash? Possibly no room in which to turn and make a safe exit. We would then be bottled up with inevitable death.

Kenvon watched at his port, waiting for me to bring the Junkers about. This maneuver did not take place.

“Where are you going, McRory?” the millionaire demanded of me.

“To Darjeeling.”

“The hell you are!” Kenvon blazed. I shall never forget the gleam in his eyes, fanatic, mad. “I say you’re going through the Door! I’m the master of this plane!”

“But I’m the pilot,” I explained calmly enough. “It’s a foolhardy attempt, considering your information. I put no stock in your map. There may be all you say inside and then again there mayn’t. Lacrosse and Harker want to go back. Their lives are in my hands, and I won’t jeopardize them against their wishes.”

In my mirror, I saw the geologist and the naturalist flash me a look of gratitude. But Kenvon was implacable. His soaring over Kanchenjunga had made him drunk with power – and the passion of further conquests – Kanchenjunga’s heart.

“I say we’re going in – and now!” Kenvon said in a lower and less ugly tone.

“I’m running this ship,” I said. “We’re going back to Darjeeling. You can hunt another pilot there. Get one from Bombay. The world is full of fools.”

I felt something blunt jabbed into my side. Looking down, I saw the black glint of an automatic – in Kenvon’s hand. The man’s frozen finger curled over the trigger.

“We’ll die together, here and now,” he screamed at me, “if you refuse to obey my orders! Choose! Take your risk on going through the Door – or dropping here! To hell what the other cowards want! I say we’re going into Kanchenjunga!

To Be Continued!