Marching Sands/Chapter 11
When Gray returned to the yurt, he found the table set with silver and china containing a substantial amount of curried rice, mutton and tea. This reminded him that he was ravenous, since he had not eaten for twenty-four hours. He did not notice that the girl's hair appeared adjusted more to a nicety, or that she had exchanged the shawl for the jacket of her dress.
"You like your tea strong?" she asked politely.
In spite of his hunger, Gray felt awkward as he ate sparingly of the food under her cool gaze. She was non-committally attentive to his wants. He wished that she would say something more or that Ram Singh would cease glaring at the back of his neck like a hawk ready to pounce on its prey.
The food, however, refreshed him. His curiosity concerning his hostess grew. He had seen no other white man in the camp. It was hardly possible that the Englishwoman had come alone to the Gobi. Whither was she bound? And why did she reside in a Kirghiz yurt when the caravan was outfitted with European luxuries?
When the natives had removed the plates, he took out his pipe from force of habit, and felt for matches. Then he reflected that he should not smoke in the woman's tent.
He would have liked to thank her for her hospitality, to assure her of his regret for the tactics of Mirai. Khan, to ask her some of the questions that were in his mind. Especially, if she were really alone in the desert. But while he fumbled for words, she spoke quickly.
"I've never taken a prisoner before, Captain Gray. A white man, that is. I believe the correct thing to do is to question you. That fits in most nicely, because I am unusually curious by nature."
He had pulled out a match which he struck absently, then extinguished it. She noted the action silently.
"You are an army officer?"
"In the reserve. Acting independently, now, of course."
"Acting?" She smiled lightly and held out something to him. "So you are a big game hunter? I did not know this was good country for that sort of thing."
"It isn't," he acknowledged bluntly. "That is—not in the ordinary sense. But I have already some trophies bagged. Mirai Khan is my guide——"
"Please do smoke," she said, and he saw that what she offered him was a box of matches. One of the servants struck a light.
"I am quite used to it. My uncle, Sir Lionel, smokes much worse tobacco than yours."
Gray considered her over his pipe.
"Would you mind telling me," he asked gravely, "Miss Niece of Sir Lionel, what you are going to do with me? I'm fairly your prisoner. Your patrol under Ram Singh captured me within your lines."
The girl nodded thoughtfully. Gray wondered if he had caught a glint of laughter in the demure eyes. He decided he was mistaken.
"You are an officer, Captain Gray. You know all prisoners are questioned closely. I still have two more questions, before I decide your case. Are you really alone? And where are you bound?"
"I am," stated Gray methodically. "Ansichow."
"Really? I am going there. I should introduce you, as my prisoner, to Sir Lionel, but he is tired out and asleep, leaving me with Ram Singh."
"Who is an excellent guardian, Miss Niece——"
"Mary Hastings," said the girl quickly. "I have no reason to conceal my name." Gray thought she emphasized the I. "My uncle, Sir Lionel Hastings, is head of the British Asiatic Society in India. He is bound for the Gobi."
Gray stared at her. The British Asiatic Society! Then this must be the expedition in search of the Wusun. Van Schaick had said that it was starting from India.
"I begged Sir Lionel to take me," continued Mary Hastings calmly, "and he finds me very useful. I record his observations, you know, keep the journal of the expedition, and draw the maps. That gives him time for more important work."
"But the desert——" Gray broke off.
"The desert is no place for a woman. I suppose that is what you meant. But I am not an ordinary woman, I warn you, Captain Gray. Sir Lionel is my only relative, and we have traveled together for years. He did say that he anticipated some opposition from the Chinese authorities. But I refused to be left behind." The rounded chin lifted stubbornly. "This is the most important work my uncle has undertaken, and he is always visited with fever about this time of year."
Gray was secretly envious of Sir Lionel. What an ally this girl would make! Yet, in their present positions, she was apt to be his most ardent foe. He glanced up, measuring her, and met her look. For a long moment the slate-green eyes of the man searched hers. They reminded him of the surface of water, sometimes quiet to an infinite depth and then tumultuous.
For a discerning man, Gray was at a sad loss to fathom Mary Hastings.
"To avoid attention from the Chinese," she continued, looking down, "we came up from Burma, along the Tibetan border. Rather a boring trip. But by going around the main towns at the Yang-tze headwaters, and by using these serviceable native huts—which can be taken down and put up quickly—we escape questioning."
So that was the explanation of the clumsy yurts.
"You were not quite so fortunate, Captain Gray? Curious, that, isn't it—when you are only a big game hunter?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to make a clean breast of it, and say that he, also, was seeking Sungan. But it seemed absurd to confess to her that the sole member of the American expedition had been found among the camels of the Hastings caravan. Perhaps he was unconsciously influenced by his desire to be on friendly terms—even such as at present with Mary Hastings.
Every moment of their talk was a keen pleasure to him—more so than he was aware. He reflected how lucky it was that he had run into the other expedition. It was not altogether strange, since they had both started at the same time, and Ansichow was the mutual hopping-off place into the Gobi.
"Will you tell me," he evaded, "how you came to call me Captain Gray before you saw my papers?"
Mary Hastings smiled pleasantly.
"It was an excellent guess, wasn't it? But now I'm quite through my questions." She paused, her brow wrinkled in portentous thought. "I think I shall not burden myself with a prisoner. You are quite free, Captain Gray. You and Mirai Khan. Doubtless you wish to return to your caravan."
Gray thought of the two waiting mules and the rain-soaked blanket that constituted his outfit, and laughingly mentioned it to her.
"You are very kind," he said, rising.
"Captain Gray," she said impulsively, "it's raining again. If you would care to spend the night with us, I am sure Ram Singh can spare you a cot and blanket. Mirai Khan can fetch your outfit in the morning, and you can go on with us to Ansichow. It's only a day's trek."
Gray hesitated, then accepted her offer thankfully.
"You will find your rifle on your cot. Ram Singh cleaned it himself. It needed it. He said it was a 30-30 model, but then you are probably using it for big game because you are accustomed to it." She held out her hand with a quizzical smile. Gray took it in his firm clasp, awkwardly, and released her fingers quickly, lest he should hold them too long. She nodded.
"Good night, Captain Gray."
Not until he was without the tent did he reflect that he had admitted that he was bound for Ansichow. And Ansichow meant the Gobi.
For a space after his departure Mary Hastings remained in her tent. She had dismissed the native servant. She was thinking, and it seemed to please her. But thought, with the girl, required companionship and conversation.
Abruptly she left her chair and stepped through the door of the tent. It was still drizzling without; still, there was a break in the heavy clouds to the west. Mary noted this, and skipped to the entrance of the yurt nearest her.
"It's me, Uncle Singh," she called, not quite grammatically. "Can I come in?"
"Of course," a kindly voice answered at once. "Anything wrong?"
A man sat up on the cot, snapping on an electric torch by the head of the bed and glancing at a small clock. He was a tall, spare individual, with the frame of an athlete, polo shoulders, and the high brow of a scholar.
He was well past middle age, yellow-brown as to face, deep hollows under the cheek bones, his scanty hair matching his face, except where it was streaked with white.
The girl installed herself snugly on the foot of the bed, sitting cross-legged.
"You've been sleeping heavily, Sher Singh," she observed reproachfully, giving the man his native surname, "and that means you aren't well. I have news." She paused triumphantly, then bubbled spontaneously into speech.
"Such news. Aie. Captain Robert Gray is here, in Ram Singh's tent. He is alone, with a servant. He is a big man, not ill-looking, but awkward—very. He stands so much on his dignity. Really, it was quite ridiculous"—she laughed agreeably—"and I was very nicely entertained. He was brought in by the Sikhs, after trying to steal our ponies——"
"Lifting our horses!" Sir Lionel sat bolt upright and flushed. "Why, the scoundrel——"
"I mean his servant was. Captain Gray was innocent, but I was not inclined to let him off easily——"
Mary's conception of important news did not satisfy the explorer's desire for facts. A peculiarly jealous expression crept into the man's open face.
"Has he a well-equipped caravan?"
"Two mules, a gun and a blanket."
"How extraordinary!" Sir Lionel stared at his niece. "No camels?"
"Not one." Mary yawned, and, with a glance at the clock, began to unbind her heavy hair. It was very late. Her fingers worked dexterously, while Sir Lionel weighed her words. Unlike his niece, he was an individual of slow mental process, perhaps too much schooled by routine.
"Mary! How did you—ah—behave to Captain Gray?"
"I took him prisoner." The girl smiled mischievously. "He was so humiliated, Uncle Singh."
"I hope," observed Sir Lionel severely, "you warned him of our identity."
"Rather. But he implied he was after big game."
Sir Lionel reached to the light stand and secured a cigarette, which he lit. His eyes hardened purposefully.
"I'll trek for Ansichow, at once. I must buy up all the available camels. If you will retire to your lent, and send my syce——"
"Indeed, no." She frowned worriedly. "You haven't had your sleep yet."
Sir Lionel caught her hand in his.
"No, Mary. You must be aware what this expedition means to me. I must be first in Ansichow, and into the Gobi. Failure is not to be thought of. Dear girl, I have thrown my reputation into the dice bowl——"
"I know." She patted his hand lightly, and her eyes were serious. "Only I wish you would let me help a little more." She shook free the coils of her bronze hair and placed a small hand firmly over his lips. "I know what you want to say—that you are being ever so kind and indulging to let me come at all. As if I could be left at Simla when you went on your biggest hunt, Uncle Singh. Well," she sighed, "if you must go buy camels, you will. But"—she brightened—"please leave the wandering American to me. I saw him first."
Sir Lionel removed the hand that restricted his speech, and frowned portentously. Mary beamed, twining her hair into twin plaits.
"Mary!" he said gravely, "please do not annoy Captain—ah—Gray. We must be perfectly fair with him, you know."
"Of course," she assured him virtuously. "Haven't I been? He may not think so when he learns how you've gone camel buying when I offered him sleeping quarters. He'll forever fear the Greeks bearing gifts——"
"Oolu ka butcha!" (Child of an owl!)
"But he shouldn't try to deceive me, should he, Uncle? I fancy he'll have a rather wretched time of it. He seems somewhat out of his environment here."
She nodded decisively.
"It's his own fault altogether for coming where he has no business to be and wanting to deprive my Sher Singh of what you worked a lifetime for."
"Merely his duty, Mary."
"But he shall not hinder you in yours."
She fell silent, no longer smiling. There was a great tenderness in the glance she cast at the gaunt Englishman. Sir Lionel was her hero, and, lacking father and mother, all the warmth of the girl's affection had been bestowed on the explorer.
She said good-night softly and slipped from the tent. That night she slept lightly, and was afoot with the first streak of crimson in the east.