Marching Sands/Chapter 2
That evening a few men were gathered in Van Schaick's private office at the building of the American Exploration Society. One was a celebrated anthropologist, another a historian who had come that day from Washington. A financier whose name figured in the newspapers was a third. And a European orientologist.
To these men, Van Schaick introduced Gray, explaining briefly what had passed in their interview.
"Captain Gray," he concluded, "wishes proof of what we know. If he can be convinced that the Wusun are to be found in the Gobi Desert, he is ready to undertake the trip."
For an hour the three scientists talked. Gray listened silently. They were followers of a calling strange to him, seekers after the threads of knowledge gleaned from the corners of the earth, zealots, men who would spend a year or a lifetime in running down a clew to a new species of human beings or animals. They were men who were gatherers of the treasures of the sciences, indifferent to the ordinary aspects of life, unsparing in their efforts. And he saw that they knew what they were talking about.
In the end of the Bronze Age, at the dawn of history, they explained, the Indo-Aryan race, their own race, swept eastward from Scandinavia and the north of Europe, over the mountain barrier of Asia and conquered the Central Asian peoples—the Mongolians—with their long swords.
This was barely known, and only guessed at by certain remnants of the Aryan language found in Northern India, and inscriptions dug up from the mountains of Turkestan.
They believed, these scientists, that before the great Han dynasty of China, an Indo-Aryan race known as the Sacæ had ruled Central Asia. The forefathers of the Europeans had ruled the Mongolians. The ancestors of thousands of Central Asians of to-day had been white men—tall men, with long skulls, and yellow hair, and great fighters.
The earliest annals of China mentioned the Huing-nu—light-eyed devils—who came down into the desert. The manuscripts of antiquity bore the name of the Wusun—the "Tall Ones." And the children of the Aryan conquerors had survived, fighting against the Mongolians for several hundred years.
"They survive to-day," said the historian earnestly. "Marco Polo, the first European to enter China, passed along the northern frontier of the Wusun land. He called their king Prester John and a Christian. You have heard of the myth of Prester John, sometimes called the monarch of Asia. And of the fabulous wealth of his kingdom, the massive cities. The myth states that Prester John was a captive in his own palace."
"You see," assented Van Schaick, "already the captivity of the Wusun had begun. The Mongolians have never tolerated other races within their borders. During the time of Genghis Khan and the Tartar conquerors, the survivors of the Aryans were thinned by the sword."
"Marco Polo," continued the historian, "came as near to the land of the Wusun as any other European. Three centuries later a Portuguese missionary, Benedict Goēs, passed through the desert near the city of the Wusun, and reported seeing some people who were fair of face, tall and light-eyed."
Van Schaick turned to his papers.
"In the last century," he said, "a curious thing happened to an English explorer, Ney Elias. I quote from his book. An old man called on me at Kwei-hwa-ching, at the eastern end of the Thian Shan Mountains, who said he was neither Chinaman, Mongol, nor Mohammedan, and lived on ground especially allotted by the emperor, and where there now exist several families of the same origin. He said that he had been a prince. At Kwei-hwa-ching I was very closely spied on and warned against asking too many questions."
Van Schaick peered over his spectacles at Gray.
"The Thian Shan Mountains are just north of this blind spot in the Gobi Desert where we think the Wusun are."
The historian broke in eagerly.
"Another clew—a generation ago the Russian explorer, Colonel Przewalski, tried to enter this blind spot from the south, and was fought off with much bloodshed by one of the guardian tribes."
Gray laughed frankly.
"I admit I'm surprised, gentlemen. Until now I thought you were playing some kind of a joke on me."
Van Schaick's thin face flushed, but he spoke calmly.
"It is only fair, sir, that you should have proof you are not being sent after a will-o'-the-wisp. A few days ago I talked with a missionary who had been invalided home from China. His name is Jacob Brent. He has been for twenty years head of the college of Chengtu, in Western China. He heard rumors of a captive tribe in the heart of the Gobi. And he saw one of the Wusun."
He paused to consult one of his papers methodically.
"Brent was told, by some Chinese coolies, of a tall race dwelling in a city in the Gobi, a race that was, they said, 'just like him.' And in one of his trips near the desert edge he saw a tall figure running toward him over the sand, staggering from weariness. Then several Chinese riders appeared from the sand dunes and headed off the fugitive. But not before Brent had seen that the man's face was partially white."
"Partially?" asked Gray quizzically.
"I am quoting literally. Yes, that was what Brent said. He was prevented by his native bearers from going into the Gobi to investigate. They believed the usual superstitions about the desert—evil spirits and so forth—and they warned Brent against a thing they called the pale sickness."
Gray looked up quietly. "You know what that is?"
"We do not know, and surmises are valueless." He shrugged. "You have an idea?"
"Hardly, yet—you say that Brent is ill. Could he be seen?"
"I fancy not. He is in a California sanitarium, broken down from overwork, the doctors informed me.
"I see." Gray scrutinized his companions. The same eagerness showed in each face, the craving for discovery which is greater than the lust of the gold prospector. They were hanging on his next words. "Gentlemen, do you realize that three great difficulties are to be met? Money—China—and a knowledge of science. By that I mean my own qualifications. I am an explorer, not a scientist——"
At this point Balch, the financier who had not spoken before, leaned forward.
"Three excellent points," he nodded. "I can answer them. We can supply you with funds, Captain Gray," he said decisively.
"And permission from the Chinese authorities?"
"We have passports signed, in blank, for an American hunter and naturalist to journey into the interior of China, to the Gobi Desert."
"You will not go alone," explained Van Schaick. "We realize that a scientist must accompany you."
We have the man," continued Balch, "an orientologist—speaks Persian and Turki—knows Central Asia like a book. Professor Arminius Delabar. He'll join you at Frisco." He stood up and held out his hand. "Gray, you're the man we want! I like your talk." He laughed boyishly, being young in heart, in spite of his years. "You're equal to the job—and you can shoot a mountain sheep or a bandit in the head at five hundred yards. Don't deny it—you've done it!"
"Maps?" asked Gray dryly.
"The best we could get. Chinese and Russian surveys of the Western Gobi," Balch explained briskly. "We want you to start right off. We know that our dearest foes, the British Asiatic Society, have wind of the Wusun. They are fitting out an expedition. It will have the edge on yours because—discounting the fact that the British know the field better—it'll start from India, which is nearer the Gobi."
"Then it's got to be a race?" Gray frowned.
"A race it is," nodded Batch, "and my money backs you and Delabar. So the sooner you can start the better. Van Schaick will go with you to Frisco and give you details, with maps and passports on the way. We'll pay you the salary of your rank in the army, with a fifty per cent bonus if you get to the Wusun. Now, what's your answer—yes or no?" He glanced at the officer sharply, realizing that if Gray doubted, he would not be the man for the expedition.
Gray smiled quizzically.
"I came to you to get a job," he said, "and here it is. I need the money. My answer is—yes. I'll do my best to deliver the goods."
"Gentlemen," Balch turned to his associates, "I congratulate you. Captain Gray may or may not get to the Wusun. But—unless I'm a worse judge of character than I think—he'll get to the place where the Wusun ought to be. He won't turn back."
Their visitor flushed at that. He was still young, being not yet thirty. He shook hands all around and left for his hotel, with Balch and Van Schaick to arrange railroad schedules, and the buying of an outfit.
This is a brief account of how Robert Gray came to depart on his mission to the Desert of Gobi, as reported in the files of the American Exploration Society for the summer of 1919.
It was not given to the press at the time, owing to the need of secrecy. Nor did the Exploration Society obtain authority from the United States Government for the expedition. Time was pressing, as they learned the British expedition was getting together at Burma. Later, Van Schaick agreed with Balch that this had been a mistake.
But by that time Gray was far beyond reach, in the foothills of the Celestial Mountains, in the Liu Sha, and had learned the meaning of the pale sickness.