Marching Sands/Chapter 18
Nightfall comes quickly after sunset on the Gobi plain. Waiting until the shadows concealed their movements, Gray and Delabar started toward the city of Sungan.
The moon was not yet up. By keeping within the bushes that grew thickly hereabouts, Delabar was able to escape observation from a chance passerby. The man was plainly frightened; but Gray allowed him no opportunity to bolt.
"You'll stay with me until I see Mary Hastings," he whispered warningly.
A plan was forming in the American's mind—a plan based on what Delabar had told him of the arrangement of the buildings of Sungan. The lepers, he knew, lived in the outer ruins, where he had seen them that afternoon. In the center of the Sungan plain, Delabar said, was a depression of considerable extent. Here were the temples and palaces, the towers of which he had seen.
This, the old city, was surrounded by a wall. Delabar said it was occupied by the priests. And in this place Mary Hastings might be found. It was a guess; but a guess was better than nothing.
When they came to the first stone heaps, Gray halted his guide.
"You told me once," he whispered, "that Sungan had a series of underground passages. Take me down into these."
"Through the lepers' dwellings?"
Gray nodded silently. Delabar was shivering— an old trick of his, when nervous.
"It is madness, Captain Gray!" he chattered. "You do not know——"
"I know what you told me. Likewise that you don't want me to get into these temples. Step out!"
Delabar glanced around in despair and led the way through the bushes. Once the American caught the gleam of a fire and saw a group of lepers squatting about a blaze in which they were toasting meat. At the edge of the firelight starved dogs crouched.
They came to an excavation in the ground, lined with stone. Delabar pointed to steps leading downward into darkness.
"An old well," he whispered. "It is dry, now. A passage runs from it to the inner buildings."
He seemed familiar with the way, and Gray followed closely. The steps wound down for some distance, the air becoming cooler. They halted on what seemed to be a stone platform.
"Here is the entrance to the passage," Delabar muttered. "It was used to carry water to the temple."
Gray put his hand on the man's shoulder and urged him forward, making sure at the same time that the other did not seize the opportunity to make his escape. He did not trust Delabar. He was convinced that the Buddhist had not made a clean breast of matters. For one thing, he was curious as to why the priests should take such elaborate precautions to guard the lepers. Elsewhere in China there were no such colonies as Sungan.
Why were armed guards stationed around Sungan? Why were the lepers barred from the inner walled city? Where was Wu Fang Chien? The answer to these questions lay in the temple toward which they were headed.
They went forward slowly. Complete silence reigned in the passage. Occasionally Gray stumbled over a loose stone. Then he heard for the first time the chant.
It came from a great distance. It was echoed by the stone corridor, swelling and dying as the gust of air quickened or failed. A deep-throated chant that seemed to have the cadence of a hymn.
"What is that?" he whispered.
"The sunset hymn," Delabar informed him.
Gray, who had forgotten the council of the priests—which must be nearby—wondered why the man shivered.
"Does this passage lead direct to the council?" he demanded.
"It leads to a cellar where two other corridors join it," he muttered. "The chant is carried by the echoes—the council is still far off." He moved forward. "Come."
This time he advanced quickly. The song diminished to a low murmur, confused by distance. Gray reflected that there must be many singers. If all the priests were at the council, the corridors might be clear. Wu Fang Chien would be with the Buddhists.
A glimmer of light showed ahead. It strengthened as they drew nearer. Delabar broke into a half trot, peering ahead. By the glow, Gray saw that the passage they were in was a vaulted corridor of sandstone carved in places with inscriptions which seemed to be very old.
The chant swelled louder as they reached the end of the passage. Before them was a square chamber resembling a vault. Two large candles stood in front of another exit. Gray thought he noticed a movement in the shadows behind the candles. His first glance showed him that the only other opening was a flight of stone steps, across from them.
He reached out to check Delabar. But the man slipped from his grasp and ran forward into the room. Gray swore under his breath and leaped after him.
"Aid!" screamed Delabar. "Aid, for a follower of Buddha! A white man has come into the passages——"
He flung himself on his knees before the candles, knocking his shaven head against the floor. Gray halted in his tracks, peering into the shadows behind the candles.
"Help me to seize the white man!" chattered the traitor. "I am a faithful servant of Buddha. I have come to give warning. The white man forced me to lead him."
One after another three Buddhist priests slipped from the shadows and stared at Delabar and Gray. The former was in a paroxysm of fear, his knees shaking, his hands plucking at his face. Gray, silently cursing the trick the other had played, watched the three priests. They had drawn long knives from their robes and paused by Delabar, as if waiting for orders.
The alarm had been given. Footsteps could be heard coming along the hall behind the candles. Gray was caught. In the brief silence he heard the deep-throated chant, echoing from a quarter he could not place.
Still the priests waited, the candlelight gleaming from their white eyeballs. Gray cast a calculating glance about the chamber. Two exits were available. The stairs, and the passage down which he had come. Which to take, he did not know. But he was not minded to be run down at the well in the dark.
A broad, bland face looked out from the corridor by the candles. He saw the silk robe and luminous, slant eyes of Wu Fang Chien.
"So Captain Gray has come to Sungan," the mandarin said calmly, in English. "I have been expecting him——"
"I did not bring him," chattered Delabar. "I gave the alarm——"
Terror was in his broken words. Wu Fang Chien scrutinized the kneeling figure and his eyes hardened.
"Who can trust the word of a mongrel?" he smiled, speaking in Chinese. "Slay the dog!"
Delabar screamed, and tried to struggle to his feet. Two of the Buddhists stepped to his side and buried their weapons in his body. The scream ended in a choking gasp. Again the priests struck him with reddened knives.
He sank to the floor, his arms moving weakly in a widening pool of his own blood. Wu Fang Chien had not ceased to smile.
Gray jerked out his automatic. He fired at the priests, the reports echoing thunderously in the confined space. Two of the Buddhists sank down upon the body of Delabar; the third wheeled wildly, coughing as he did so.
Gray laid the sights of his automatic coolly on Wu Fang Chien. The mandarin reached out swiftly. His wide sleeves swept against the candles, extinguishing them. Gray pressed the trigger and caught a glimpse of his foe's triumphant face by the flash that followed. Again he pulled the trigger.
A click was the only answer. The chamber of the weapon had been emptied. And Gray had no more cartridges. He threw the useless automatic at the spot where Wu Fang Chien had been and heard it strike against the stone.
He had no means of knowing if he had hit the mandarin with his last shot. He suspected that the trick of Wu Fang Chien had saved the latter's life. For a moment silence held the vault, a silence broken by the groans of the injured priests. The distant chant had ceased.
Gray turned and sought the stairs behind him. He had made up his mind to go forward, not back. He would not try to leave Sungan without Mary Hastings.
He had marked the position of the steps, and stumbled full upon them in the dark. Up the stairs he scrambled, feeling his way. What lay before him he did not know.
A light appeared behind him. He heard footsteps echo in the vault. The glow showed him that he was at the top of the stairs. Into a passage he ran. It resembled the one that led from the well.
By the sounds behind him he guessed that the priests were following him. Either Wu Fang Chien had decided that Gray had taken to the stairs, or the mandarin was sending parties down both exits.
The feel of the air as well as the continued coolness told Gray that he was still underground. He ran forward at a venture. The passage gave into another vaulted room in which a fire gleamed in a brazier. The place was empty, but skins scattered around the brazier showed that it had been occupied not long since.
Gray took the first opening that offered and ran on. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the Buddhists emerge into the room. He quickened his pace.
His pursuers had gained on him. Gray was picking his way blindly through the labyrinth of passages. He blundered into a wall heavily, felt his way around a corner and was blinded by a sudden glare of lights.
Gray found himself standing in a lofty hall in which a multitude of men were seated.
His first impression was that he had come into the council of the Buddhist priests. His second was one of sheer surprise.
The hall had evidently been a temple at one time. A stone gallery ran around it, supported by heavy pillars. The embrasures that had once served as windows were blocked with timbers, through which sand had sifted in and lay in heaps on the floor.
The temple was underground. Openings in the vaults of the ceiling let in a current of air which caused the candles around the walls to flicker. Directly in front of Gray was a daïs. Around this, on ebony benches, an array of men were seated.
The floor between him and the daïs was covered with seated forms. All were looking at him. On the platform was, not the figure of a god, but a massive chair of carved sandalwood. In this chair was seated an old man. A majestic form, clothed in a robe of lamb's wool which vied in whiteness with the beard that descended to the man's waist. Each sleeve of the robe was bound above the elbow by a broad circlet of gold. A chain of the same metal was about the man's throat.
What struck Gray was the splendid physique of the elder in the chair. A fine head topped broad shoulders. A pair of dark eyes peered at him under tufted brows. High cheek bones stood out prominently in the pale skin. The figure and face were suggestive of power; yet the fire in the eyes bespoke unrest, even melancholy. The man addressed Gray at once, in a full voice that echoed through the hall.
"Who comes," the voice said in broken Chinese, "to the assembly of the Wusun?"
Gray started. He glanced from the figure in the chair to the others. There were several hundred men in the room. All were dressed in sheepskin, and nankeen, with boots of horsehide or red morocco. The majority were bearded, but all showed the same light skin and well-shaped heads. They appeared spellbound at his coming.
Footsteps behind him told him that his pursuers were nearing the hall. Gray advanced through the seated throng to the foot of the daïs. They made way for him readily.
Mechanically Gray raised his hand in greeting to the man on the throne.
"A white man," he answered.
At that moment several of the Buddhist priests entered the hall. He saw Wu Fang Chien appear. At the sight there was a murmur from the throng.
Gray was still breathing heavily from his run. He stared at the majestic form on the daïs. The Wusun! That was the word the other had used. The word that Van Schaick had said came from the captive race itself.
He glanced at Wu Fang Chien. The Chinaman was different from these men—broader of face, with slant eyes and black hair. The eyes of the man in the chair were level, and his mustache and beard were full, even curling. He resembled the type of Mirai Khan, the Kirghiz, more than Wu Fang Chien.
So this was the secret of Sungan. Gray smiled grimly, thinking of how Delabar had tried to conceal the truth from him—how the Buddhist had chosen to betray him rather than run the risk of his seeing the Wusun. And this explained the guards. The Wusun were, actually, a captive race.
Gray was quick of wit, and this passed through his mind instantly. He noticed another thing. Wu Fang Chien had left the other priests at the entrance and was coming forward alone. The mandarin folded his arms in his sleeves and bowed gravely. For the first time he spoke the dialect of the West.
"Greetings, Bassalor Danek, Gur-Khan of the Wusun," he said gravely. "It was not my wish to disturb the assembly of the Wusun during the hour of the sunset prayer, in the festival of the new moon. I came in pursuit of an enemy—of one who has slain within the walls of Sungan. You know, O Gur-Khan, that it is forbidden to slay here. When I have taken this man, I will leave in peace."
Bassalor Danek stroked the arms of the chair gently and considered the mandarin.
"Within the space of twelve moons, O Wu Fang Chien, the foot of a Buddhist priest has not been set within the boundary of my people. Here, I am master, not you. That was agreed in the covenant of my fathers and their fathers before them. You have not forgotten the covenant?"
"I have not forgotten," returned the mandarin calmly. "It is to ask for the person of this murderer that I come now. When I have him, I will go."
"Whom has he slain?"
"Two of my men who watched at one of the passages."
"Have the Wusun asked that guards be placed in the passages?"
Wu Fang Chien scowled, then smiled blandly.
"We were waiting to seize this man—a foreign devil. An enemy of your people as well as mine."
Gray watched the two keenly. He had observed that many of the Wusun near Bassalor Danek were armed, after a fashion. They carried bows, and others had swords at their hips. The followers of Wu Fang Chien seemed ill at ease. Moreover, their presence in the hall appeared to anger the Wusun.
Thrust suddenly into a totally strange environment, Gray had only his wits to rely upon. He was unaware of the true situation of the Wusun, as of their character. But certain things were clear.
They were not overfond of Wu Fang Chien. And they were bolder in bearing than the Chinese. Bassalor Danek, who had the title of Gur-Khan, had spoken of a covenant which seemed to be more of a treaty between enemies than an agreement among friends.
On the other hand, Wu Fang Chien spoke with an assurance which suggested a knowledge of his own power, and a certainty that he held the upper hand of the situation.
The Wusun had risen to their feet and were pressing closer. They waited for their leader to speak. The Gur-Khan hesitated as if weighing the situation.
"This man," Wu Fang Chien pointed to Gray, "has come to Sungan with lies in his mouth. He has pulled a veil over his true purpose. And he is an enemy of Mongolia. You will do well to give him up."
Bassalor Danek turned his thoughtful gaze on Gray.
"You have heard what Wu Fang Chien has said," he observed. "You speak his tongue. Tell me why you have come through the walls of Sungan. In the lifetime of ten men no stranger has come to Sungan before this."
Gray's head lifted decisively.
"Wu Fang Chien," he responded slowly, "has said that I killed his men. Is this a crime in one man, when it is not such in another? Just a little while ago the soldiers of the Chinese surprised and destroyed a caravan of my people without warning and without cause."
"They had no right to come where they did," asserted the mandarin blandly.
"They were coming to Sungan."
Wu Fang Chien smiled and waved his brown hand, as if brushing aside the protest of a child.
"Foreign devils without a god. You were warned to keep away."
The white man's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"I came to find a woman of my people that you seized. She is here in Sungan."
Bassalor Danek looked up quickly. "When did she come to Sungan?"
"Several days ago. And Wu Fang Chien kept her. He planned to bring me here, in order to kill me." Gray met the gaze of the old man squarely. "This woman and I, Bassalor Khan, are descended from the same fathers as your race. We were coming to Sungan to seek you. And this man has tried to prevent that. A score of men have lost their lives because of it."
The mandarin would have spoken, but the Gur-Khan raised his hand.
"This is a matter, Wu Fang Chien," he said with dignity, "that cannot be decided in a wind's breath. I will keep this stranger. I will hear his story! At this time to-morrow, after sunset, come alone to the hall and I will announce my decision. Until then I will think."
Wu Fang Chien frowned, but accepted the verdict with the calmness that was the mark of his character.
"Remember, Bassalor Danek," he warned, "that these people are devils from the outer world. And remember the covenant which spares your people their lives. Sungan is in the hollow of the hand of Buddha. And Buddha is lord of Mongolia."
The Gur-Khan seemed not to hear him.
"Truly it is strange," he mused. "Twice in one moon strangers have come before me, with the same tale on their lips. This man, and the woman that my young men took from your priests because she had the face and form of one of our race. She, also, is in my dwelling."