In the meanwhile, he said, it might help matters, if only as a tempo¬rary measure, for an acupuncture to be performed, which, however, would not be completely effective owing to the overcast sky. Instructing me to lie on my side on his couch, the doctor removed a short metal needle from a lacquered case, gazed at it affectionately, and telling me to cough, thrust it into the back of each thigh. After that I was given a dose of what tasted like Epsom salts, and the doctor, examining the eighteen pulses again, told me that I was feeling better; which, owing to the natural stimulus of the circumstance, I of course was.
In one respect, at least, I found that the doctor had fallen into line with Western usages. In Cambodia, at any rate, the fee for successful treatment – and no fee is charged unless the treatment is successful – is a length of calico, four betel leaves, an areca nut, four handfuls of cooked rice and a wax candle stuck in a slice of bamboo trunk. The doctor had commuted such payment in kind to a simple sum in Indo-Chinese piastres.
Next day, Monsieur Leveau mentioned that he had news of a military plane which had been parachuting supplies to a post somewhere in the north and which might stop at Luang Prabang on its way back to Vientiane. At the military headquarters they told me that it was not certain whether the plane would be stopping or not, but that if it did, it should arrive at about three in the afternoon. They had not been able to establish any radio contact with it. It was not thought that any attempt would be made to land after that hour because of the deepening haze and the fact that Luang Prabang was in a basin in the mountains, which made the take-off a difficult one.
I was beginning to feel an unreasoning horror at the prospect of a long enforced idleness in Luang Prabang and this news filled me with high hopes. But at three o’clock, there was no plane, and as nothing had been heard of it by four o’clock, all expectations were given up. The sun had now disappeared again, smothered in the thickening mist, and the town’s edges had gone soft in the flat, yellow light. One was imprisoned in air that felt like a tepid bath. Breathing was an effort.
At five o’clock a vibration crept over the sky, swelling presently into the waxing and waning of aero engines. Within a few minutes the plane was overhead, and seemed, always invisible, to be making a slow, spiral¬ling descent. Soon after, Dupont’s red jeep came tearing up through the mist. He said that the plane was coming in to land but that if it took off again, it would do so immediately. I threw my things into the jeep and waved goodbye to Leveau, who said that it was too late for the plane to leave that night, and that he would expect me to dinner. Dupont, an amateur of emergency, tore down to the river bank, hooting and gesticu¬lating for the ferry boat. By the time we were on the river we could see the plane overhead, only a few hundred feet up and when we reached the field, it had just landed; an ancient Junkers JU51, palsied with vibration as it lumbered up the runway, its three propellers slapping idly.
It was now a quarter to six and in just over an hour the sweltering mist would deepen into night. The droppermen wanted to stay, but the pilot was determined to go on to Vientiane, and with thunder rumbling like heavy traffic beyond the unseen rim of the mountains, we took off. The pilot had no idea of how things were in Vientiane, because the radio wasn’t working, and there was no time to circle to make height. Instead we were going to fly straight down the gorges of the Mekong, and as long, he mentioned, as we could see the river without being forced down so low as to be caught in down draughts, it should be all right. And so we went, charging into the heart of the mountains, which were usually veiled from us, but sometimes billowed out, grey and ugly, from the mist. There were crags and pinnacles that towered up and then suddenly sank down, leaning sickeningly away, as the pilot turned steeply from them; and once we passed quite near to a shrine perched on a rock jutting out of empty space. At last a dropperman, looking at his watch, said that we were through the mountains. Almost immediately, it seemed, the light went out. We were shrouded in the murk of a London railway terminus approach.
We landed at Vientiane at the beginnings of a tremendous thunder¬storm; the crashing overture to the rainy season. The lightning was a continuous coloured display; an idle manipulation of theatrical lighting effects, through which one saw as in a spotlight the prodigious concus¬sion of the rain that in a few days would clear the Laotian skies again – and wash away its roads.