Marching Sands/Chapter 20
"Poor Uncle Lionel," she said sadly, "he never knew that—the Wusun were here, as he had thought they would be."
"He will have full credit for his achievement when you and I get back home, out of Sungan, Miss Hastings."
She looked at him, dumbly grateful. Gone was all the petulance, the spirit of mockery now. But her native heritage of resolution had not forsaken her.
"Thank you for that, Captain Gray. I—I was foolish in disregarding your warning. I was unjust—because I wanted Uncle Singh to be first in Sungan." She sighed, then tried to smile. "Will you sit down? On a cushion. Perhaps you haven't breakfasted yet. I have only light refreshments to offer——"
A fresh miracle was taking place before Gray's eyes. He did not know the courage of the English girls whose men protectors live always in the unsettled places that are the outskirts of civilization.
His nearness to the girl stirred him. Her pluck acted as a spur to his own spirits. In spite of himself, his gaze wandered hungrily to the straying, bronze hair, and the fresh, troubled face.
Unconsciously, she reached up and deftly adjusted a vagrant bit of hair. He wanted to pat her on the back and tell her she was splendid. But he feared his own awkwardness. Mary Hastings seemed to him to be a fragile, precious charge that had come into his life.
He drew a quick breath. "I am hungry," he lied.
She busied herself at once, setting out dates and some cakes. While he ate, she barely nibbled at the food.
"Now," he began cheerfully, having planned what he was to say, "I'm indebted to you for breakfast. And I'm going to question you."
He realized that he must take her mind from the death of her uncle.
"How have our new allies, the Wusun, been treating you, Miss Hastings?"
"Very nicely, really. But not the priests. They took all my belongings except a little gold cross under my jacket. You see, the priests came with the—the lepers who attacked us."
"And the Buddhists seized me, not the poor, sick men. They carried me off after gagging me so I couldn't call out."
"Wu Fang's orders."
"They took me down into some kind of a tunnel and kept me there until the shooting had ceased. They were escorting me along the passages when we met a party of Wusun, armed with bows. They talked to the priests, then they seemed to become angry, and the Buddhists gave me up. I don't know why the Wusun wanted me."
Glancing at the beautiful girl, Gray thought that the reason was not hard to guess. He did not then understand, however, the full significance that the woman held for the Wusun.
"Perhaps they recognized you as a white woman—one of their own kind," he hazarded.
She shook her head dubiously.
"I thought the Wusun did not know any other white people existed, Captain Gray. One of them—I heard them call him Gela, the Kha Khan—was a young man, as big as you, and not bad looking. He was angriest of all—with the priests, that is, not with me."
"Gela led me to the council hall of the 'Tall Ones,'" she continued, looking at him in some surprise, for the frown had not escaped her. "There I found old Bassalor Danek. I could not speak their language, but Uncle Singh taught me quite a bit of the northern Turki. Bassalor Danek was really a fine old chap, but I like Timur better."
"Timur?" he asked. "One of the tumani!"
"I don't see why you don't like them. They helped me. No, Timur seems to be a kind of councilor. He's white haired, and limps. But he speaks broken Turki, which I understand. So—I have been well treated, except that they will not let me out of this building, which belongs to Bassalor Danek."
"What did the Turki-speaking fellow have to say for himself?"
"He asked my name. Of course he could not pronounce it, so he christened me something that sounds like Kha Rakcha. I think Kha—it's a Kirghiz word, too—means 'white' in their tongue."
"Rakcha is western Chinese for some kind of spirit," assented Gray, interested. "So they've named you the White Spirit—or, in another sense, the White Woman-Queen. Your coming seems to have been an event in the affairs of the Wusun——"
"That is what Timur said." She nodded brightly. "He is one of the elders of the kurultai—council. I hope I made a good impression on him. He seemed to be friendly."
"I think," pondered Gray seriously, "that you have made a better impression than you think. That helps a lot, because——" he was about to say that his own standing with the Wusun was none too good, thanks to Wu Fang Chien's enmity, but broke off. He did not want to alarm her. "Because they've let me come to see you," he amended awkwardly.
The girl's vigilant wits were not to be hoodwinked.
"That's not what you meant to say, Captain Gray," she reproached him.
"It's true—" he was more successful this time—"that your coming probably earned me a respite."
When is a woman deceived by a man's clumsy assurance? Or when does she fail to understand when something is kept back?
"Captain Gray, you know something you won't tell me! Did the Wusun threaten you?"
"No. They shielded me——"
"Then you were in danger. I thought so. Now what did you mean by—respite?"
Instead, Gray told her how he had found his way into Sungan, omitting the details of the fighting, or his own achievement. Mary considered him gravely, chin on hand.
"I prayed that you would follow our caravan," she said. "I wished for you when every one was fighting so. Somehow, I was sure that you would reach Sungan. You see, you made me feel you were the kind of man who went where he wanted to go."
Gray looked up, and she shook her head reproachfully.
"You're just like Uncle Singh. You won't tell if there's any danger. Will not the Wusun protect us from the priests?" She stretched out a slim hand appealingly. "There's just the two of us left. Shouldn't you be quite frank with me? Now tell me what you meant by 'respite'!"
He cordially regretted his unfortunate choice of the word. Perforce, he told her of Wu Fang Chien, and the dispute in the council.
"So you see our case comes up for trial to-night," he concluded. "It's a question of the Gur-Khan's authority against the power of Wu Fang Chien. I'm rooting for old Bassalor Danek. I think he'll treat us well. For one thing, because he's curious about us. In a way, we're his guests. I hope he checkmates Wu, because—to be frank—we're better off in Sungan than with the Buddhists."
This time she was satisfied.
"Of course," she nodded. "Wu Fang Chien would not let us go free easily. He would have to answer, then, for the attack on the caravan. To answer to the British embassy."
Gray reflected that they were the only survivors of the fight and that the Chinese could not afford to permit them to escape.
"I'll appear to argue for immunity—our immunity—to-night," he smiled.
"Are you a lawyer, Captain Gray?" The girl tried to enter into the spirit of his remark. "Have we a good case?"
"Chiefly our wits," he admitted. "And perhaps the tie the Wusun may feel for us as a kindred race."
"Splendid!" She clapped her hands. "I think you're a first-rate attorney."
Gray recalled the majestic face of Bassalor Danek, and the anger of the Wusun at the entrance of Wu Fang Chien.
"They made some kind of a covenant, didn't they, with the Chinese Emperor?"
"Timur said it was an agreement by which the Wusun were to keep their city inviolate, and not to leave its boundaries. Even the invading sands have not dislodged them. Timur described them as numerous as the trees of the Thian Shan, the Celestial Mountains, at first. Now only a few survive. The Chinese have posted lepers around them."
Gray nodded. Slowly the history of the Wusun was piecing itself out. A race descended from invaders from Europe before the dawn of history, they had allied themselves with the might of Genghis Khan and earned the enmity of the Chinese. Since then, with the slow persistence of the Chinese, they had been confined and diminished in number.
"You remember the legend of Prester John—in the middle ages," continued the girl eagerly. "Marco Polo tells about a powerful prince in mid-Asia who was a Christian. I have been thinking about it. Isn't the word Kerait the Mongol for Christian? Do you suppose the first Wusun were Christians?"
"They don't seem to have any especial religion, Miss Hastings—except a kind of morning and evening prayer."
"I've heard them chant the hymn. Timur says it was their ancestors'." The girl sighed. "To think that we should have found the Wusun, after all. If only my uncle——" She broke off sadly.
A step sounded outside the room and Garluk thrust his shaggy head through the curtain.
"I come from the Gur-Khan," he announced. "The Man-Who-Kills-Swiftly must come before Bassalor Khan."
"They are paging me," said Gray lightly, in answer to her questioning look. "I've got to play lawyer. But I have an experiment to try. Don't worry."
He rose, and she looked up at him pleadingly.
"Come back, as soon as you can," she whispered. "I—it's so lonely here. I was miserable until Timur told me they had heard shooting during yesterday's sunset chant. I guessed it was you——"
"My automatic," explained Gray with a grin. "I missed Wu Fang Chien, which is too bad." He was talking cheerily, at random, anxious to hearten the girl. She winced at mention of the fighting.
"I'll be back to report what is going on."
"If anything should happen to you——"
"I seem to be accident-proof, so far." He smiled lightly, masking his real feelings. "And there's a plan——"
"Come," said Garluk. "Bassalor Khan waits at his shrine."
"I'll have a better dinner to offer you," Mary smiled back. "Don't forget!"
"I'll make a note of it—Mary."
Gray stepped outside the curtain. In spite of his promise, he could not return to the girl's room.
He found Bassalor Danek waiting in a chamber under the temple, to which he was conducted by the impatient Garluk. The Gur-Khan was seated on a silk carpet beside an old man with a face like a satyr, whom Gray guessed to be Timur. They looked up silently at his approach. The tumani withdrew.
At a sign from Bassalor Danek, Gray seated himself before the two. They regarded him gravely.
He waited for them to speak.
"Wu Fang Chien," began the Gur-Khan at length, "will come to the hall to hear my word at sunset. His ill-will might bring the dark cloud of trouble upon my people. If I give you up, he will thank me and bring us good grain and tea from China in the next caravan."
He paused as if for an answer. But Gray was silent, wishing to hear what more the two had to say.
"Yet, O One-Who-Kills-Swiftly," put in Timur mildly, "you are of the race of the Kha Rakcha and she has found favor in our hearts. You say you came here to seek her. That is well. But we must not bring trouble upon our people. They have little food. There is none to place before the shrine of our race."
He glanced over his shoulder at a closed curtain. Here one of the Wusun stood guard. Gray guessed that this was their shrine. He was curious for a glimpse of it.
"What is the will of the Gur-Khan?" he asked quietly.
Bassalor Danek glanced at him keenly.
"I have not made ready my answer, O Man-from-the-Outside. Wu Fang Chien cried that you had come unbidden to meddle with what does not concern you. The Kha Rakcha is very beautiful, and the light from her face will be an ornament to our shrine. You have said that you came to seek us. But that cannot be. For no word of us has passed the outer guards. Even the wandering Kirghiz that we see at a distance do not know us."
Gray had been waiting for a lead to follow. Now he saw his chance and summoned his small stock of poetical Chinese to match the oratory of Bassalor Danek.
"Hearken, O Gur-Khan," he said, and paused, knowing the value of meditation when dealing with an oriental. Inwardly, he prayed for success in his venture, knowing that the fate of the girl depended greatly on what he said.
"It is true," he resumed, "that I was sent to seek the Wusun. Beyond the desert and beyond the border of Mongolia live a people whose fathers a very long time ago were the same as your fathers. They have means of seeing across great distances. They have the Eyes-of-Long-Sight. With these eyes they saw the Wusun in captivity, and they sent me with a message. This message I shall deliver when it is time."
Timur shook his gray head shrewdly.
"Can a fish see what is on the land? A gazelle has keen eyes; but a gazelle cannot see across the desert, much less can a man. What you have said is not true."
"It is true. Not only can my people see beyond any distance, but they can hear. Behold, here is proof."
While the two watched curiously, Gray pulled his maps from his shirt and spread them on the floor before him. Bassalor Danek glanced from the paper to him expectantly.
"Here is what we saw, with our Eyes-of-Long-Sight. See, here is the last village of China, Ansichow, and the desert. Here, by this mark, is where we knew Sungan to be. And beyond it is the River Tarim, as you know, and the Celestial Mountains. By this paper I found my way here."
Bassalor Danek fingered the map curiously. Then he shook his head.
"This is a paper, like to those of the priests of Buddha. It is a kind of magic. With magic, much is possible. But these are signs upon paper. They are not mountains and rivers."
Gray sighed, confronted with the native incredulity of a map. The Wusun, despite their natural intelligence, were bound by the stultifying influence of generations of isolation. In fact, their state of civilization was that of the dark ages. It was as if Gray and Mary Hastings had wandered into a stronghold of the Goths.
Still, he felt he had made a slight impression. He drew the field glasses from their case.
"I have been given a token," he explained slowly, making sure that the two understood his broken Chinese. "It is a small talisman of the Eyes-of-Long-Sight. With it, you can see what is far, as clearly as if it lay in your hand."
Timur stroked his beard and smiled.
"It may not be. Even with magic, it may not be."
"Look then." Gray lifted the glasses and focussed them on the guard who stood by the shrine curtain. "With this you can bring the man's face as near as mine."
He handed the glasses to Bassalor Danek who turned them over curiously in his hand. Obeying Gray's direction, he leveled them on the guard. The man stirred uneasily, evidently believing that some kind of magic was being practiced upon him. Bassalor Danek gave a loud exclamation and the glasses fell to his knees. He peered from them to the man at the curtain and muttered in his beard.
"I saw the face within arm's reach of my own," he cried. "Truly, it is as this man has promised!"
"Nay," Timur objected. "The one by the shrine did not move, for I watched. It may not be."
Nevertheless, his hand trembled as he lifted the glasses to his feeble eyes. Gray helped him to focus them. He, also, gave an exclamation.
For a while the two Wusun experimented with the binoculars, scrutinizing the walls, the floor and the rugs with increasing amazement. Gray kept a straight face. The glasses were powerful, with excellent lenses. The Wusun had never seen or heard of anything of the kind.
"This is but a token," he reminded them gravely, "of the Eyes-of-Long-Sight that my people have. If this talisman can bring near to you what is afar, do you doubt that we could know what is beyond the desert? Is not the coming of the White Spirit proof that we knew?"
This was a weighty matter and Bassalor Danek and Timur conferred upon it, putting down the glasses reluctantly.
"I know not," hazarded Timur. Gray saw that his double question had confused them. To remedy his error he turned to Bassalor Danek.
"Keep these small Eyes-of-Long-Sight," he said. "I give them to you."
Despite his accustomed calm, the chieftain of the Wusun gave an involuntary exclamation of pleasure. Gray pressed his advantage.
"Further proof I will give, O Bassalor Danek. Draw the curtains of the shrine that I may see the god of the Wusun. Then I will show you that my people beyond the desert knew of the god."
He reasoned swiftly that the Wusun, if Timur's account of their history had been correct, must have in their shrine some emblem of the Tatar deity—the god Natagai which Mirai Khan had described to him—or possibly some Mohammedan symbol. He rather guessed the former, since the Wusun had been isolated before the Moslem wave swept over Central Asia.
"It is not a god, O Man-from-the-Outside," demurred Timur. "It is a talisman of our fathers. Once, the Wusun had priests. In the time of Kubla Khan. Now, all that we remember is the hymn at sunset and sunrise. Almost we have forgotten the words. We have kept the talisman because once our priests, who were also warriors, cherished it."
Gray nodded, believing now that it was an image of Natagai, the Tatar war deity.
"It is said," continued Timur meditatively, "that the talisman was fashioned by a chieftain of our people. I have heard a tale from the elders that this khan lived when the Wusun were in another land, before they crossed the mountains on the roof of the world. Draw the curtain!"
At the command the guard drew back the heavy folds of brocade. Gray saw a stone altar, covered with a clean cloth of white silk. On the cloth stood a cross.