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CHAPTER XII
A MESSAGE FROM THE CENTURIES

In his snug quarters Gray slept well for the first time in many nights, feeling the reaction from the constant watchfulness he and Mirai Khan had been forced to exercise. When he turned out in the morning the sun was well up, and the men were breaking camp under the direction of Ram Singh who greeted him coldly.

When he inquired for Miss Hastings he found that she had gone on to join her uncle, on a camel with a single attendant. He was forced to ride with the caravan, after sending Mirai Khan back for the animals. Ram Singh proved an uncommunicative companion and Gray was glad when the flat roofs of the town showed over the sand ridges in the late afternoon.

The caravan halted at the edge of the town, where the Englishman had prepared his encampment. The place was a lonely settlement, populated by stolid Dungans and a few Chinese who ministered to the wants of merchants passing from Liangchowfu to Kashgar and the cities of Turkestan. Gray failed to see either the girl or her uncle and learned that they had gone to pay a visit of ceremony to the amban—the governor—of Ansichow.

He went to seek out Mirai Khan. The meeting with the Hastings had put him in a delicate situation. In spite of his own plight, he determined to confess his mission to the Englishman, having decided that was the only fair thing to do. He could not accept aid from the people who were bound to be his rivals in the quest for the Wusun.

He reflected ruefully that Van Schaick had urged him to reach the spot in the Gobi before the expedition from India. Van Schaick and Balch were counting on him to do that—not knowing that Delabar had been working against him.

As it stood, both parties had gained the town on the Gobi edge at the same time. But the Hastings possessed an ample outfit, well chosen for the purpose and ready to go ahead on the instant. Gray had only Mirai Khan and two mules. He would need to hire camels, and bearers, to stock up with what provisions were available, and to obtain a guide.

This would take time, and much of his small store of money. Moreover, if he made clear his purpose to Sir Lionel, it was probable the Englishman would start at once, thus gaining four or five days on him. Gray knew by experience the uselessness of trying to hurry Chinese through a transaction. And he was not sure if Mirai Khan would go into the desert.

The Kirghiz had served him faithfully, to the best of his ability so far. But Mirai Khan had said that the tribesmen shunned this part of the desert. Then there was the amban. It was more than possible that Wu Fang Chien had sent word to Ansichow to head off Gray.

It was a difficult situation, and Gray was pondering it moodily when he came upon Mirai Khan in the bazaar street of the town. The Kirghiz, who seemed to be excited over something, beckoned him into one of the stalls, after glancing up and down the street cautiously.

"Hearken, Excellency," he whispered. "Here I have found a man who knows what will interest you. He has been much into the desert and has dug up writings and valuable things which he will sell—at a good price. His name is Muhammed Bai."

Gray glanced into the stall, and saw a bent figure kneeling on the rugs. It was an old Turkoman, wearing spectacles and a stained turban. Muhammed Bai salaamed and motioned his visitor to be seated. Gray scanned him with some interest. It was quite possible the man had some valuable information. Mirai Khan had a way of finding out things readily.

"Will the Excellency rest at ease," chattered the Turkoman, peering at him benevolently, "while his servant shows him certain priceless treasures which he has dug from the sand among the ruins. Mirai Khan has said the Excellency seeks the ruins."

"You have been there?" Gray asked cautiously. He knew the penchant of the Central Asian for exaggeration.

"Without doubt. Far, far to the west I have been. To the ruins in the sand. Other Excellencies have asked concerning them from time to time but none have been there except myself, Muhammed Bai."

"What are the ruins like?"

The merchant waved a thin hand eloquently. "Towers of stone, great and high, standing forth like guide posts. My father knew of them. One of the sultans of his tribe dug for treasure there. He found gold. Aye, he told me the place. I, also, went and dug. Look——"

With the gesture of a connoisseur displaying a masterpiece, the Turkoman drew some objects from under a silk rug. Gray stared at them. They were odd bits of wrought silver and enamel ware, stained with age. These Muhammed Bai spread before him.

"They came from the ruins. The Excellency is undoubtedly a man of wisdom. I need not tell him how old these things are. There is no telling their value. But I will sell the lot for a very few taels—a ten taels."

The American fingered the fragments curiously. They meant nothing to him. They might be the relics of an ancient civilization. Muhammed Bai watched him keenly, and pushed a piece of parchment under his eyes.

"Here is a greater treasure. The Excellency will see the worth of this at a glance. Other foreign merchants have asked to buy this. But I told them that a high price must be paid. Who would sell a sacred object to a dog? See, the strange writing——"

Gray held up the parchment to the light. It was a small sheet, much soiled. It was covered with a fine writing in characters unknown to him. He wished that Delabar might be here to tell him its meaning. If it had come from that section of the Gobi, it was possible that it shed some light on the Wusun.

"Mirai Khan, who is my friend, said that the Excellency sought tidings of the ancient people. Here is such a scroll as may not be found elsehere. Perhaps it is priceless. I know not."

"Can you read it?"

"Can a servant such as I read ancient wisdom?" Muhammed Bai elevated his hands eloquently. "But I will sell——"

He looked up as a shadow fell across the stall. Gray saw that Mary Hastings was standing in the entrance. Beside her was a tall man, well dressed. He rose.

"This is my uncle, Major Hastings, Captain Gray," she smiled. "We heard that you were in the bazaar. Are you buying curios to take back with your trophies?"

Sir Lionel returned the American's bow politely, glancing from Muhammed Bai to him curiously. Then his eye fell on the parchment. He leaned forward and uttered a sharp exclamation of interest.

"Whence came this?" he asked Muhammed Bai, in the dialect of Western Shensi.

The Turkoman peered up at him from tufted brows, looking like an aged, gray hen guarding one of its brood. "From the desert yonder. I, Muhammed Bai——"

"What language is the writing?"

"How should I know, Excellency?"

"It would be hard to tell." Sir Lionel frowned thoughtfully. "The characters on the parchment are certainly not the cuneiform of Behistun; equally, they are no dialect of the older Kashgaria, or Chinese. These two languages are the only ones we would expect to find here, except possibly——"

He broke off, glancing curiously at Gray.

"Have you a claim to this manuscript, sir? Are you planning to purchase it?"

Gray hesitated, feeling the cool gaze of the girl on him. Should he buy the parchment it would be useless to him, as he could not interpret the writing. On the other hand, if he let Sir Lionel have it, the parchment might prove an aid to the English expedition. This, naturally, he was bound to prevent.

"I will buy it," he concluded, and added quickly, "as a curio."

"To add to your big game trophies?" asked Mary Hastings calmly.

While he tried to think of an answer, Sir Lionel handed him the parchment.

"It might serve as a curio, Captain Gray. But, in all fairness, I must warn you. The writing is a counterfeit, cleverly done. You see, it is my life's business to know the ancient languages of Central Asia. This is adapted from some inscription which Muhammed Bai has doubtless seen. The parchment is skillfully colored to appear aged. But the black ink is freshly laid on."

Gray smiled grimly, while the Turkoman stared at the white men, endeavoring to guess what they were saying.

"And these bits of silver?" The American motioned to the relics that lay on the rug.

"Are worthless, except—as curios. Being a hunter, Captain Gray, I presume the authenticity of the objects will not affect your desire to purchase them."

Sir Lionel spoke dryly, and the girl scrutinized him with frank amusement.

"My uncle has heard of Muhammed Bai," she volunteered. "He is an old impostor who makes a living selling false manuscripts to travelers in Khotan and Kashgar. Perhaps he had heard we were coming to Ansichow. I rather think your precious Kirghiz is in league with Muhammed Bai."

Mirai Khan caught the drift of what she said—having a slight knowledge of English, and retired discreetly to the bazaar alley. Gray reflected on the curious ethics of Central Asia which permitted a servant to take money from his master by trickery, while he still served him faithfully. It was one of the riddles of Asian ethics—which he had encountered before. He knew that the girl was probably right.

He tossed down the money for the parchment and pocketed it, as he had said that he would buy it. Sir Lionel checked him, as he rose.

"That manuscript is—interesting," he observed thoughtfully. "Because Muhammed Bai must have had a model to copy this writing from. The characters resemble Sanscrit slightly, but they suggest Tokharian, with which this man can not be acquainted." He turned on the blinking merchant sharply. "Tell me, writer of false missives," he said in Turki, "from what did you copy these letters?"

There was something eager and threatening in the face of the tall Englishman that choked off Muhammed Bai's denial.

"It is as I said, Excellency. The writings were found in the desert."

"Where?"

"A week's ride from here, to the west."

"Near Sungan—eh? How did you find them?"

The Turkoman was sullenly silent. Sir Lionel dropped a coin on the rug. It was gold.

"Ah, the Excellency is generous as a prince of the royal household!" cried Muhammed Bai. "It was on a stone—a boundary stone at the place I said—that I found the writings. See, here is the stone."

He scrambled to his feet, bowing, and hastened to the rear of the stall. He cast off some rugs from the top of a pile, disclosing a piece of brown sandstone some three feet high and a foot in thickness. On the surface of the stone Gray saw characters engraved, characters that were strange to him.

But not to Sir Lionel. The Englishman dropped to his knees with an exclamation, whipping out his eyeglasses. He ran his finger over the writing on the sandstone.

"A form of Sanscrit!" he cried. "By Jove—three centuries old, at least. Four, I should judge. And here is the character corresponding to the Chinese word Wusun, the 'Tall Ones.' Remarkable! This evidently was one of the boundary marks of the Wusun land."

He peered at the inscription intently, forgetting the American in his enthusiasm.

"Hm—it was erected by one of the khans of the Tall People. By a slave of the Chinese Emperor. It speaks of the captive race of the Wusun. Plainly they were even then under the kang of the Chinese priests. 'In the city of Sungan are the captive people … greatly fallen since the age when they were conquerors … they cling to their hearths and towers … in the sand. There they will always be——'"

He broke off his reading and glanced up at Gray. "Splendid! I must take a rubbing of this."

He ordered Muhammed Bai to bring charcoal and a clean sheet of paper. The charcoal he rubbed over the stone. Then he pressed the paper firmly against it, beating the sheet with his fists until the outline of the inscription was imprinted on the paper. This he surveyed triumphantly.

"Excellent! Captain Gray, I am indebted for your"—he smiled—"involuntary assistance. Will you dine with us? Mary will be glad of company, I am sure. I must place this where it will be safe."

He hurried off, followed by the girl and Gray. Neither spoke during the walk to the outskirts of Ansichow. The American was regretting the bad fortune that had concealed the truth of his mission from the Hastings. He was in the position of a culprit obtaining valuable information from his rivals, without intending to do so. This information he was in duty bound tn use to his own advantage.

He had determined to set matters right by revealing to his host his purpose in seeking the Gobi. And the dinner would afford him an opportunity to do so.


The camp of the Hastings was located in a garden which surrounded a spring near the caravanserai of Ansichow. Sir Lionel, disliking the filth of the caravanserai which bore evidence of much use by not over-fastidious Chinese travelers, had pitched his tents in the garden, making his own dak bungalow, as he called it.

It was late evening, and the table had been set under the fly of the main tent, used by the girl. It was the quiet hour of evening prayer. Sheep boys were driving their flocks homeward for the night along the road a short distance away. There was a slight breeze—enough to clear the air of the ever-present dust—which barely shook the sides of the tent. Two Indian servants laid an appetizing meal before their masters.

Sir Lionel, elated by his discovery, talked of the city of Sungan. Once or twice he checked himself, as if he feared he was saying too much. But his eagerness was not to be restrained.

"The stone proves the existence of Sungan, and gives us a rough idea of its location. Judging from the inscription, the Wusun have clung to their heritage. I think we shall find some survivors in Sungan.

"I thought you said the inscription was a form of Sanscrit," objected Gray. "And the Wusun are Chinese——"

"Ah, that is just the point." Sir Lionel reared his blond head, like a setter at scent of game. "Sanscrit is an Aryan language. The white race buried here in the Gobi called themselves the Tall People. Wusun is the Chinese translation of that term. Their own written tongue is probably the dialect we saw on the boundary stone, which is Aryan. A clear chain of proof, Captain Gray."

"But," the American objected honestly, "my follower, Mirai Khan, has hunted the borderland of the Gobi and he says positively no city is to be seen. The stone is four centuries or more old——"

"Mirai Khan," said the girl quickly, "can not see under the sand, can he? He seems to be bent chiefly on stealing horses."

Sir Lionel, however, was not to be turned from the discussion which filled his mind. "You forget the sand that Mary mentions. Captain Gray," he retorted warmly. "This is, literally, a sea of sand. And the waves are rising. We are sure that certain towns in the foothills of the Thian Shan have been buried by these waves. You see, the prevailing winds here are from the east. They drive the sand dunes before them. I have noted that the dunes march westward——"

"Before you go on, Sir Lionel——" protested the American, remembering his intention to make a clean breast of things.

"Not a word, sir. Not another word. Be quiet, Mary"—as the girl started to speak—"I will not be contradicted. It is a scientific fact that the sands march. During the kara burans or black wind-storms they will progress many feet a day. Sungan was built on the great caravan route from China to Samarcand and Persia, many centuries ago. Marco Polo followed this route when he visited the court of Kubla Khan."

"But," Gray broke in, "I want——"

"I say, it is a fact, sir. Prove the contrary. You can't!" Sir Lionel glared at him hostilely. "I am right. Without doubt, I am correct. Sungan has been buried by the marching sands. Only the towers remain."

Gray thought of the tale Delabar had mentioned—of the sand that came down on the city of the Gobi, as retribution for some sin against the religions of Asia. Also, Mirai Khan had said no city was to be seen. And Brent had claimed to see some isolated towers.

"These towers," he started to explain what was in his mind.

"Are the summits of the palaces of Sungan, sir. In them I shall find the white race of Asia, the captive people of the Wusun."

"But, Uncle," protested the girl, "the stone was erected four hundred years ago. If the Chinese had wanted to, they might have killed off the remaining Wusun since that time."

"The ancient Chinese annals," observed Sir Lionel tolerantly, "state that the Wusun, the 'Tall Ones,' were formidable fighters. The Sacæ or Scythians from whom they are descended were one of the conquering races of the world. It is this heritage of strength which has preserved the remnant of the Wusun—for us to find."

Gray faced the Englishman across the table. Sir Lionel had changed to a neat suit of clean duck for the meal. Mary was fastidiously dressed in white, a light shawl over her slender shoulders. He felt keenly his own untidy attire. Moreover, the girl seemed bent on making fun of him.

"Captain Gray is a hunter, you know, Uncle," she remarked, glancing coolly at the uncomfortable American. "Really, your talk about the Wusun must bore him. He has come to shoot antelope. Or is it wild camels, Captain Gray?"

Gray met her glance steadily. He saw that she was heart and soul with Sir Lionel in the latter's quest, and guessed that his own confession must terminate any possibility of friendship between them.

"Neither," he said gravely. "I have meant to tell you before this. But at first I was so surprised at finding——"

"That we guarded our ponies, Captain Gray?" The girl's eyes twinkled and she bit her lip.

"A white woman instead of a Chinaman—I didn't confess, as I should have done."

"But Mirai Khan confessed."

Gray flushed. "I was sent to the desert, Sir Lionel, to find the Wusun. I am employed by the American Exploration Society. And I am going to do my best to get to Sungan—ahead of you, if possible."

The effect of his words was curious. The girl studied him silently. Sir Lionel stroked his blond mustache, plainly ill at ease. Neither seemed surprised.

"So you see," Gray made the statement as blunt as possible, "I am your rival. I meant to tell you before. Naturally, it is my duty to use the information you have given me. But I want to make my position clear before we go any further."

Sir Lionel's first words were not what Gray expected.

"You are not a scientist, sir?"

"I am not. Professor Delabar, who was to have come with me, was forced to turn back at Liangchowfu."

"Then you are alone? Without a caravan?"

"For the present. I'm going to do my best to outfit at Ansichow and get ahead of you, Sir Lionel." Gray rose. "I suppose I'm not exactly welcome here, after what I've told you——"

The Englishman waved his brown hand tolerantly.

"I like your frankness, Captain Gray. Pray be seated. We are rivals, not enemies, you know. But"—the zeal of the enthusiast shone from his mild eyes—"I shall never permit you to reach Sungan ahead of me. I have studied the Wusun for years. I persuaded the British Asiatic Society to send me here. It is the crowning venture of my life, sir."

The girl looked up proudly.

"Indeed, that is true, Captain Gray. My uncle has spent our money on the trip. His reputation is at stake. Because few of the directors of the Asiatic Society believe the Wusun are to be found——"

"They are mistaken, Mary," Sir Lionel assured her. "I know that I am right. The fact that Captain Gray was sent here is proof of it. I shall reach Sungan—the first white man to penetrate the forbidden region of the Gobi. The boundary stone has indicated our course, and I will not yield the right of way to Captain Gray, or any one. Any one, I repeat, sir!"

He struck the table forcibly and rose, mastering his emotion in a moment.

"I pray, sir," he said with the fine courtesy of the English gentleman, "if we are to be rivals, you will not deny us the pleasure of your company while we are at Ansichow. After that, you know, it is each man for himself. Now, I will go to read over my rubbing——"

He bowed stiffly and walked into the adjoining tent. Gray found that the girl was watching him curiously.

"So Delabar went back," she said musingly. "I wondered why he was not with you when you came to my yurt after Ram Singh——"

She colored slightly. Gray noticed how the fading sunlight glinted on her copper hair, and set off the fine lines of her slender figure. A thorough-bred, he thought—like her uncle.

"Ram Singh did exactly right," he admitted. "But how——"

"Did I expect Delabar?" She hesitated. "Well, I have a confession, too, Captain Gray. I knew all along—or rather suspected—what you were. At Calcutta Sir Lionel received this letter."

She felt in her belt and drew out a square of folded paper. This she handed silently to Gray.

 

Captain Gray, an American army officer, and Professor Delabar are on their way to the Gobi. It will be useless for you to attempt the expedition, as they will be there before you. Do not waste your time by going into China.


This was the letter. It was written in a neat hand and unsigned.

"Did the envelope have a postmark?" he asked.

"Yes, San Francisco."

He handed it back to her. The writing he recognized as Delabar's. The Syrian, then, had tried to prevent the Hastings from setting out. As he had done his best to keep Gray from reaching the Gobi. Why?