As the man reached the lip of the hill, he immediately threw off his cloak, which made a dramatic thudding sound. This having been done, he smiled a huge smile. This smile was as much to posterity as to himself, and contained within it all the peace and satisfaction of a martyr or one deeply in thrall to god, or drink. His smile deepened as he turned to face his companion, a little way behind him.
– We’re here! This is the place! Can you believe it? After everything that’s happened? Thank goodness!
We’ve made it!
Oh, praise be!
The companion smiled a smile too and, because it seemed expected of him, made comment –
-Yes! … Praise be!
They both took off the wooden goggles so that they could see better than from between their boarded slits and stood silent for a time, taking in the enormity of their venture, both men feeling wholly aware of its historical significance. Through this silence, though, the cloak-less man had scarcely been able to contain his fervour, which periodically escaped his lips in quiet little exclamations of Hmm! and Ahh! and Praise be! As the two travellers stared into the bright, many-coloured glintings all around them, the man addressed his companion again.
-I mean, can you even conceive of just how improbable it is, us standing here? Can you conceive of the artifices wrought, the lack of expense spared, for us to have arrived at this moment? All those thousands of tests! The preparation of the thing? … Magnificent!
-Yes … it is truly magnificent and improbable.
The gaps in between this declaration of enthusiastic wonder had been a little over-long, and for the first time, the cloak-less man peered sideways at him, a little suspiciously.
-Well, it is inconceivably marvellous, is it not?
The other man looked nervous.
-Absolutely! Inconceivably so … It’s just –
-It’s … just that … I thought it would be, in some way … different.
The cloak-less man looked thoughtfully from the top of the hill, trying to understand.
-How else did you imagine it to be, indeed? Is it not the very embodiment of perfection? Just look at that light! That is a case in point in itself!
-Well, it is lovely, but it’s rather less green, and … and a little more brown than we were led to believe.
The man had to concede that it was, but did so only in the privacy of his own head.
They were quiet again, and their eyes were wide, and their satisfied smiles only slightly diminished.
-It is definitely an unknowable marvel. Its beauty is splendour itself. Though, … look at the sides … I mean, they don’t even meet in the middle, do they? In fact, the whole aspect, while marvellous, is not quite as spacious as the scholars and philosophers made out that it would be, is it?
-Look … maybe it is a bit brown and the sides aren’t perfect, but I fail to see how that detracts from the overall splendour. It could never have been exactly as it was described, could it? It’s just another part of the unknowable mystery of the thing. I am right, am I not?
-No no, you are right, quite right – I can see that. We are only men, after all. How could we be qualified to question so glorious and unknowable a thing? No, I’m sorry – I spoke too soon to let it sink in. Who am I to judge the worth of such a glorious thing for myself?
The travellers sat upon their packs, though rightly, their only rest was the magnificence of that which they witnessed and their only sustenance was that which they received from being close to the marvel, and there were many sighs of joy and ‘praise be’s and many cries of that sort, until the other traveller began rummaging around, searching for something in his pack.
-All this manificence is enough to make anyone hungry, wouldn’t you say?
The cloakless man wouldn’t say, too wrapped up in his dreaming trance to take any notice.
-Where is the food, by the way?
The second traveller looked hopefully at the man’s unopened pack.
-Oh … ? The cloakless man came some way out of his trance.
-I think it may have all been lost in the climb up here – yes – I had to throw it away – lighten the load enough to make our ascent. Anyway, how can you be thinking of food at a time like this, eh?
The second man started to become angry.
-What use is coming all the way up here if we’re going to starve on the way back down? Why did you not take into account so basic a thing?
The cloakless man looked up with an air of disdain and sanctimonious pride.
-The base has no place up here, sir. You should be fully aware that to fulfil base need in the presence of the awesome would be an insult.
With this, it started to rain, and the dark droplets sinking into their packs after a while became puddles. They looked at each other, but their smiles were only a bear hint upon their faces.
-It really isn’t everything they said it was, you know,
The other man said, as rain dripped off of his nose and the sky darkened. The cloakless man seemed about to object, but instead he said-
– … No, I think you might be right after all.
The rain worsened until everything became vague and blurred, and they could barely see the marvel through the water and the mists. Still they sat, but the downpour had finally managed to wash away the last remnants of their smiles, and suddenly their achievement seemed much smaller, their sacrifices and those of the others seemed somehow little things, now.
The other man’s stomach grumbled.
– What if …?
– What if what?
The cloakless man was hunched upon his pack, all his earlier fervour now vaporised with the rain, and he was shivering slightly. He looked lost.
-What if we just …
-Well … we could just … go. Couldn’t we?
-The cloakless man considered looking indignant, but something had given up in him that prevented this.
-Well … well, yes. I suppose we could.
The cloakless man looked hopeful when he next spoke.
-I mean, nobody would know if we didn’t stay. How would they find out? It would be our word against theirs even if they did, wouldn’t it?
– … That’s it, then. We’ll just leave and pretend that we stayed.
-Yes, I’d prefer that, I think.
So the two men raised themselves wearily off of their packs, shouldered them, turned from the marvel and trudged back down the hill – disappointed, but also a little relieved.