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CHAPTER XIX
CONCERNING A CITY

Contrary to general belief, a man does not sleep heavily after two days and nights of wakefulness. Gray had been without sleep for that time, but he was alert, although very tired. Continuous activity of the nervous system is not stilled at once. As soon as Wu Fang Chien left the hall of the Wusun, the American had asked to be permitted to see Mary Hastings.

His request was refused by Bassalor Danek. The woman, said the Gur-Khan, was under his protection and could not be seen until daylight. Gray was forced to acquiesce in this. He felt that Mary would be safe in the hands of the elder, who seemed to enjoy complete authority in the gathering. This belief proved to be correct.

The knowledge that the girl was near him and reasonably protected from harm brought a flood of relief, and eased the tension which had gripped him for the past forty hours. He was exhilarated by the first good news in many hours.

As a consequence, he now became acutely hungry. Bassalor Danek directed that he be taken from the hall and fed. Two of the younger men with the bows conducted him through a new series of corridors, up several flights of winding steps and into a small, stone compartment which, judging by the fresh air that came through the embrasures, was above the level of the sand.

Here they supplied him with goat's milk, a kind of cheese made from curdled mare's milk and some dried meat which was palatable. Gray fell asleep quickly on a pile of camel skins, while the men—Bassalor Danek had referred to them as tumani[1]—watched curiously.

Gray awakened with the first light that came into the embrasures. He found that he was very stiff, and somewhat chilled. At his first movement the tumani were up. One of them, a broad-shouldered youth who said his name was Garluk, spoke broken Chinese, of a dialect almost unknown to Gray.

He explained that they were in one of the towers of the temple which projected well above the sand. Gray, for the first time, had a fair view of Sungan from the embrasures.

It was a clear day. The sky to the east was crimson over the brown plain of the Gobi. The sun shot level shafts of light against the ruins. Gray saw the wall of the old city—the abode of the Wusun. Later in the day he wrote down some notes of what he observed on the reverse side of the maps he carried. They were roughly as follows:

The old city had been built in an oasis, apparently four or five centuries ago. Willows, poplars and tamarisks lined narrow canals which had been constructed through the ruins from the wells. By walling these canals with stone, the Wusun had kept them intact from the encroaching sand. There was even grass near the canals, and several flocks of sheep. The trees afforded shade—although the sun is never unendurable in the Gobi, owing to the altitude.

The buildings of the city had been more than half enveloped by the moving sand which was swept into the walled area—so Garluk said—with each kara buran. Owing perhaps to the protection of the wall, the sand ridges around the inner city were higher than the ground within. So it was difficult to obtain a good view of the city from the surrounding country.

Gray reflected that this must be why the Kirghiz had reported seeing only the summits of some towers; also, why he himself had taken the foliage that he made out through his glasses for bushes.

The buildings of Sungan were ancient, and fashioned of solid sandstone so that although partially covered with sand, their interiors—after the embrasures had been sealed—were reasonably comfortable and warm dwellings. Delabar had been correct in quoting the legend that there were extensive vaults and cellars in Sungan. The underground passages communicated from vault to vault—a system that was most useful in this region where the black sand-storms occur every day in the spring, early summer and throughout the winter.

"Mighty good dugouts, these," thought Gray. "The Wusun have certainly dug themselves in on their ancestral hearths. Wonder how they manage for food?"

He asked Garluk this question. The Wusun responded that he and certain of his companions—the tumani—were allowed to go out on the plain through the lines of lepers and hunt the wild camels and gazelles of the plain. Also, the Buddhists maintained several shepherd settlements near the River Tarim, a journey of three or four days to the west.

Some citrons, melons and date trees grew by the canals of Sungan. At times a caravan would come to Sungan from China bringing other food.

Through his glasses Gray made out the figures of lepers outside the wall. Garluk explained that these were "the evil fate of the Wusun." They were put there to keep the Wusun within the wall. For centuries he and his people had been pent up. They were diminishing in numbers, due to the captivity. Occasionally some adventurous man would escape through the lepers and the Chinese soldiers, cross the desert to Khotan or Kashgar. These never returned. Death was the penalty for trying to escape.

Gray scanned the ruins through his glasses. Women were cooking and washing near the canals. Men appeared from the underground chambers and went patiently about the business of the day. They seemed an orderly throng, and Gray guessed that Bassalor Danek ruled his captive people firmly. Which was well.

He noticed pigeons in the trees. It was not an ugly scene. But on every side stretched the barren Gobi, encroaching on and enveloping the stronghold of the Wusun, the "Tall Men." The same resignation and patience that he had noted in the eyes of Bassalor Danek were stamped in the faces of Garluk and his companions. They were olive faces, stolid and expressionless. Gray had seen the same traits in some Southern Siberian tribes, isolated from their fellows, and in the Eskimos.

Among the notes, he afterwards jotted down some references for Van Schaick—on the chance that he would be able to get the data into the hands of his employers. Gray had a rigid sense of duty. His observations were fragmentary, for he lacked the extended knowledge of racial history and characteristics that Delabar was to have supplied.

In spite of their confined life, the "Tall Ones" were above the stature of the average Mongol. Their foreheads did not slope back from the eyes as much as in the Tartar of the steppe, and the eyes themselves were larger, especially among the young women, who were often attractive in face.

Language: the Wusun had all the hard gutturals, and the forcible "t" and "k" of the Mongol tongue; but their words were syllabic—even poetically expressive. Many myths appeared in their songs—references to Genghis Khan, as the "Mighty Man-slayer" and to Prester John, by his native name—Awang Khan of the Keraits.

Intelligence: on a par with that of the middle-class Chinese, superior to that of the Kirghiz and Dungans of the steppe. Their characteristics were kindly and hospitable; their ideas simple, owing to the narrow range of objects within their vision. Of history and the progress of the world, they were totally ignorant, being kept so in accordance with the favorite practice of the Buddhists.

Arms and implements: limited to the bow, and the iron sword with tempered point. They had seen firearms in the possession of the Chinese guards, but were not allowed to own them. For cultivation, they dragged a rude, wooden harrow by hand, and used a sharply pointed hoe of iron, utensils, such as copper pots purchased from the As to cooking—this was done with rudimentary makeshift ovens in the sand, and spits over an open fire.

As to religion, Gray was destined to make a curious discovery, as surprising as it was unexpected, but one which was beyond his limited knowledge to explain.

Such were the Wusun, as Gray saw them.

Garluk broke in on his thoughts with a guttural exclamation.

"How can you see so far," he demanded, "when we can not see?"

Gray smiled and was about to hand the Wusun his glasses when he checked himself. The binoculars might prove useful later, he thought. As it happened, they did.

Meanwhile, Gray's mind had reverted to the thought that was last with him when he had gone to sleep the night before and was first to come to him with awakening. He had neither washed nor eaten, but he would not delay.

"Take me to the white woman," he ordered.

Still staring at him in bewilderment, the two hunters led him down the stairs, through a postern door, and out on the sand. After a brief word with some older Wusun who were squatted by the tower, Garluk struck off through the ruins, waving back the throngs that came to gaze at Gray.

The American noticed that there were few children. Some of the women carried water jars. They were not veiled. They wore a loose robe of clean cotton—he learned that they worked their own looms, of ancient pattern—bound by a silk girdle, and covered by a flowing khalat. All were barefoot.

Gray was conducted to a doorway outside which a tumani stood, sword in hand. After a brief conference with his guides, the guard permitted them to enter. Throughout his stay in Sungan, Gray was watched, quietly, but effectively.

His heart was beating fiercely by now, and he wanted to cry out the name of the girl. He walked down into semi-darkness. A smell of musk and dried rose leaves pervaded the place. A woman rose from the floor and disappeared into the shadows. Presently Garluk drew aside a curtain. Gray entered what seemed to be a sleeping chamber and found Mary Hastings standing before him.

"Captain Gray!" she cried softly, reaching out both hands. "Last night they told me you were here. Oh, I'm so glad!"

He gripped the slim hands tightly, afraid to say what came into his mind at sight of the girl. She was thinner and there were circles under the fine eyes that fastened on him eagerly.

He could see her clearly by the glow from a crimson lamp that hung overhead. The room was comfortably fitted with rugs and cushions. A jar of water and some dates stood near them.

"How did you get here?" she echoed. "Where is Sir Lionel?" A shadow passed over her expressive face. "I saw the attack on the caravan. Did he——"

"Sir Lionel made his way back to me," said Gray, his voice gruff and tense. "He was the only survivor of the caravan."

"Then he is dead," she responded slowly. "Or he would have come with you." She bit her lip, bending her head, so that Gray should not see the tears in her eyes. "Oh, I have feared it. The Buddhist priests said that their guards would find and kill him. An old man of the Wusun who speaks Turki repeated it to me."

Gray was glad that Mary was prepared, in a measure, for the death of her uncle. He had found the sight of her distress hard to bear. He turned away.

"Yes. Sir Lionel died—bravely."

She released his hands, and fumbled with a torn, little square of linen that had once been a handkerchief.

"Oh!"

Fearing that she would break down and weep, Gray would have left the room, but she checked him with a gesture. She looked up quietly, although the tears were still glistening on her eyelids.

"Please, Captain Gray! I've been so—lonely. You won't go away, just for a while?"

For a while? He would have remained at her side until dragged away, if she wished it so. He saw that she had changed. Some of the life and vivacity had been driven from her delicate face, leaving a wistful tenderness.

He himself showed little sign of the hardships of the last two days, except a firmer set to the wide mouth, and deeper lines about the eyes. He was unshaven, as he had been for some time, and the clothing on his rugged figure was rather more than usually the worse for wear.

The girl noticed a new light in his eyes—somber, even dogged. There was something savage in the determination of the hard face, born—although she did not know it—of his knowledge that the life and safety of Mary Hastings was now his undivided responsibility.

  1. Possibly derived from the Tatar word tumani, a squadron of warriors, hunters.