Marching Sands/Chapter 17
THE YELLOW ROBE
The man on the sand was silent, staring up at Gray in blank amazement. It was Delabar, thinner and more careworn than before. Shaven, all the lines of his face stood out, giving him the appearance of a skull over which yellow skin was stretched taut—a skull set with two smoldering, haggard eyes.
"Speak up, man," growled Gray. "And remember what I said about giving the alarm. I don't know if this costume is a masquerade or not, but—I can't afford to take chances this time."
Delabar did not meet his gaze. He lay back on the sand, fingers plucking at his thin lips.
"I can't speak," he responded hoarsely.
"You can. And you will. You'll tell me what I want to know—this time. You lied to me before. Now you'll deal a straight hand. This is not an idle threat. I must have information."
Delabar glanced at him fleetingly. Then looked around. No one was in sight, as they lay in a pocket in the sand.
"What do you want to know?"
"A whole lot. First—how did you get here? I thought all white men were barred."
"Wu Fang Chien," said Delabar moodily. "He caught me the day after I left you. He shot the coolie and had me brought here."
"What's the meaning of that?" Gray nodded contemptuously at the yellow robe.
"Wu Fang Chien punished me. He forced me to join the Buddhist priests who act as guards of Sungan. He did not want me to escape from China. Here, I was safe under his men."
"Hm. He trusts you enough to post you as one of the sentries."
"With another man. The other left to attend a council of the priests. My watch is over at sunset. In two hours."
Gray scanned his erstwhile companion from narrowed eyes. He decided the man was telling the truth, so far.
"Will these Buddhist dogs come to relieve you at sunset, Delabar?"
"No. The priests do not watch after nightfall.
"Some of the lepers we—Wu Fang Chien can trust make the rounds."
"Is Wu Fang Chien in control here—governor of Sungan?"
Delabar licked his lips nervously. Perspiration showed on his bare forehead. "Yes. That is, the mandarin is responsible to the Chinese authorities. He has orders to keep all intruders from Sungan—on account of the lepers."
Gray smiled without merriment.
"You say the priests stand guard. Are they armed?"
"No. Not with guns. Any one who tries to escape from here is followed and brought back by the outer guards—if he doesn't die in the desert."
"I see." Gray gripped the shoulder of the man on the sand. "Did you hear me say I wanted the truth, not lies? Well, you may have been telling me the letter of the truth. But not the whole. Once you said 'we' instead of Wu Fang Chien. Likewise, I know enough of Chinese methods to be sure Wu wouldn't punish a white man by elevating him to the caste of priest. You're holding something back, Delabar. What is your real relation to Wu?"
Delabar was silent for a long time. Staring overhead, his eyes marked and followed the movements of a wheeling vulture. His thin fingers plucked ceaselessly at the yellow robe.
"Wu Fang Chien," he said at length, "is my master. He is the emissary of the Buddhists in China. He has the power of life and death over those who break the laws of Buddha. I am one of his servants."
Delabar raised himself on one elbow.
"A decade ago, in India, I became a Buddhist, Captain Gray. Remember, I am a Syrian born. I spent most of my youth in Bokhara, and in Kashgar, where I came under the influence of the philosophers of the yellow robe. I acknowledged the tenets of the Buddha; I bowed before the teachings of the ancient Kashiapmadunga and the wisdom that is like a lamp in the night—that burned before your Christ. And I gave up my life to 'the world of golden effulgence.'"
A note of tensity crept into his eager words. The dark eyes reflected a deeper fire.
"Earthly lusts I forswore, for the celestial life that is born by ceaseless meditation, and contemplation of the Maha-yana. I was ordained in the first orders of the priesthood. That was the time when foreign missionaries began to enter China in force, in spite of the Boxer uprising and the revolt of the Tai-pings. The heads of the priesthood wanted information about this foreign faith, and the peoples of Europe. They wanted to know why the white men sought to disturb the ancient soul of China."
Gray whistled softly, as Delabar's character became clear.
"I was sent to Europe. At first I kept in touch with the priesthood through Wu Fang Chien. Then came the overthrow of the Manchus, and the republic in China. But you can not cast down the religion of eight hundred million souls by a coup d'état. The priesthood still holds its power. And it is still inviolate from the touch of the foreigner."
Gray knew that this was true. The scattered foreigners who had entered the coast cities of China, and the missionaries who claimed a few converts in the middle kingdom were only a handful in the great mass of the Mongolians. In the interior, and throughout Central Asia and India, as in Japan, the shrines of Buddha, of Vishnu, and the temple of the Dalai Lama were undisturbed. And here, not on the coast, was the heart of Mongolia. Delabar continued, almost triumphantly.
"Word was sent to me from Wu Fang Chien—who had heard the news from a Chinese servant of the American Museum of Natural History—that an expedition was being fitted out to explore Central Mongolia. I was ordered to volunteer to accompany it."
"And you did your best to wreck the expedition," assented Gray.
"I liked you, Captain Gray. I tried to persuade you to turn back. At Liangchowfu it was too late. When you escaped from Wu Fang Chien there, he held me responsible for the failure. The priesthood never trusted me fully."
"In my religion," said Gray grimly, "there is a saying that a man can not serve two masters and save his own soul."
"The priesthood," he muttered, "will not forgive failure. Wu Fang Chien is watching me. You can do nothing here. Go back, before we are seen together. Sungan is nothing but a leper colony. You were a fool to think otherwise."
"And the Wusun?"
"Lepers! They are the only ones here except the priests."
Gray's eyes hardened.
"A lie, Delabar. Why should Wu Fang Chien kill a dozen men to keep the English caravan and myself from Sungan?" He caught and held Delabar's startled gaze. "Where is Mary Hastings?"
"I—who is she?"
"You know, Delabar. The girl who came with the caravan. She was taken prisoner. Where is she?"
"I don't know."
Gray touched his automatic significantly.
"I want to know," he said quietly. "And you can tell me. It is more important than my life or your miserable existence. Where is Mary Hastings?"
Delabar cowered before the deadly purpose in the white man's eyes.
"I don't know, Captain Gray. Wu Fang Chien ordered that when the caravan was attacked, she should be brought to him. Not killed, but taken to him. Some of the priests seized her and took her to one of the inner courts of the city. At the time, Wu Fang Chien was directing the attack on the caravan. I have not seen her since."
"Where is this inner court?"
"You are a fool. You could not possibly get into the ruins without being seen. Wu Fang Chien would be glad to see you. I heard him say if the girl was spared, you would come here after her. He knew all that happened at Ansichow——"
"Then she is alive!" Gray's pulses leaped. "So my friend Wu is keeping the girl as bait for my coming. A clever man, Wu Fang Chien. But how did he know Sir Lionel had told me what happened at Sungan?"
"The Englishman was followed, back to where he met you. If he had been killed in the fighting here, I think Wu Fang Chien planned to send me to bring you here——"
"Yes, he is clever." Gray studied the matter with knitted brows. "So Wu wants to kill me off, now that I have come this far—as he did the men of the caravan? Look here! Does he know I'm near Sungan? Were you put here as—bait?"
"No," Delabar shook his head. "The men who were sent to attack you—the Chinese soldiers hired by Wu Fang Chien—lost track of you. Wu Fang Chien does not know where you are—yet. If he should find you here talking to me, it would be my death. I—I have learned too much of the fate of the Hastings. Oh, they were fools. Why should your people want to pry into what is hidden from them? Go back! You can do nothing for the girl."
Gray stared at the Buddhist curiously.
"You haven't learned much decency from your religion, Delabar. So the outer guards failed to make good, eh? By the way, how is it that they leave camel tracks in the sand?"
"They wear camels' hoofs instead of shoes. Hoofs cut from dead wild camels that the Chinese hunters kill for our food—for the lepers. It helps them to walk on the sand, and mystifies the wandering Kirghiz. Why do you want to throw your life away——?"
"I don't." Gray sat down and produced some of his flour cakes. "I want to get out of Sungan with a whole skin, and with Mary Hastings." He munched the cakes calmly, washing down the mouthfuls with water from his canteen. "And I'm going to get into the inner courts of Sungan. You're going to guide me. If we're discovered, remember you'll be the first man to die. Now, Delabar, I want a good description of Sungan, its general plan, and the habits of your Buddhist friends."