Marching Sands/Chapter 3
Gray had meant what he said about his new job. Van Schaick pleaded for haste, but the army officer knew from experience the danger of omitting some important item from his outfit, and went ahead with characteristic thoroughness.
He assembled his personal kit in New York, with the rifles, medicines and ammunition that he needed. Also a good pair of field glasses and the maps that Van Schaick furnished. Batch made him a present of twenty pounds of fine smoking tobacco which was gratefully received.
"I'll need another man with me," Gray told Van Schaick, who was on edge to be off. "Delabar'll be all right in his way, but we'll want a white man who can shoot and work. I know the man for the job—McCann, once my orderly, now in the reserve."
"Get him, by all means," agreed the scientist
"He's in Texas, out of a job. A wire'll bring him to Frisco in time to meet us. Well, I'm about ready to check out."
They left that night on the western express.
Gray was not sorry to leave the city. Like all voyagers, he felt the oppression of the narrow streets, the monotony of always going home to the same place to sleep. Wanderlust had gripped him again at thought of the venture into another continent.
He took his mission seriously. On the maps that Van Schaick and Balch had given him they had pointed out a spot beyond the known travel routes, a good deal more than a thousand miles into the interior of China. To this spot Gray was going. He had his orders and he would carry them out.
Van Schaick talked much on the train. He explained how much the mission meant to the Exploration Society. It would give them world-wide fame. And it would add enormously to the knowledge of humankind. Gray, he said, would travel near the path of Marco Polo; he would tear the veil of secrecy from the hidden corner of the Gobi Desert. It would be a victory of science over the ancient soul of Mongolia.
It would shake the foundation of the great jade image of Buddha, of the many-armed Kali, of Bon the devil-god, and the ancient Vishnu. It would strengthen the hold of the Bible on the Mongolian world.
If only, said Van Schaick wistfully, Gray could find the Wusun ahead of the expedition of the British Asiatic Society, the triumph would be complete.
Gray listened silently. It was fortunate, in the light of what followed, that his imagination was not easily stirred.
He looked curiously at the man who was to be his partner in the expedition. Van Schaick introduced them at the platform of the San Francisco terminal.
Professor Arminius Delabar was a short, slender man, of wiry build and a nervous manner that reminded Gray of a bird. He had near-sighted, bloodshot eyes encased behind tinted glasses, and a dark face with well-kept beard. He was half Syrian by birth, American by choice, and a denizen of the academies and byways of the world. Also, he spoke at least four languages fluently.
The army man's respect for his future companion went up several notches when he found that Delabar had already arranged competently for the purchase and shipment of their stores.
"You see," he explained in his room at the hotel to Gray, "the fewer things we must buy in Shanghai the better. Our plan is to attract as little attention as possible. Our passport describes us as hunter and naturalist. Foreigners are a common sight in China as far into the interior as Liangchowfu. Once we are past there and on the interior plains, it will be hard to follow us—if we have attracted no attention. Do you speak any Chinese dialects?"
It was an abrupt question, in Delabar's high voice. The Syrian spoke English with only the trace of an accent.
"A little," admitted Gray. "I was born in Shensi, but I don't remember anything except a baby white camel—a playmate. Mandarin Chinese is Greek to me."
Some time afterward he learned that Delabar had taken this as a casual boast—not knowing Gray's habit of understating his qualifications. Fortune plays queer tricks sometimes and Gray's answer was to loom large in the coming events.
Fortune, or as Gray put it, the luck of the road, threw two obstacles in their way at Frisco. Van Schaick had telegraphed ahead to the sanitarium where the missionary Brent was being treated: He hoped to arrange an interview between Brent and Gray.
Brent was dying. No one could visit him. Also, McCann, the soldier who was to accompany them, did not show up at the hotel,—although he had wired his officer at Chicago that he would be in Frisco before the appointed time.
Gray would have liked to wait for the man. He knew McCann would be useful—a crack shot, a good servant, and an expert at handling men—but Delabar had already booked their passage on the next Pacific Mail steamer.
"Van Schaick can wait here," Delabar assured Gray, "meet McCann, and send him on by the boat following. He will join you at Shanghai."
"Very well," assented Gray, who was checking up the list of stores Delabar had bought. "That will do nicely. I see that you've thought of all the necessary things, Professor. We can pick up a reserve supply of canned foodstuffs at Shanghai, or Hankow." He glanced at Van Schaick. "There's one thing more to be settled. It's important. Who is in command of this party? The Professor or I? If he's to be the boss, all right—I'll carry on with that understanding."
Van Schaick hesitated. But Delabar spoke up quickly.
"The expedition is in your hands, Captain Gray. I freely yield you the responsibility."
Gray was still watching Van Schaick. "Is that understood? It's a good thing to clear up before we start."
"Certainly," assented the scientist. "Now we'll discuss the best route——"
Van Schaick stood at the pier-head the next day when the steamer cast off her moorings, and waved good-by to the two. Gray left him behind with some regret. A good man, Van Schaick, an American from first to last, and a slave to science.
During the monotonous run across the Pacific when the sea and the sky seemed unchanged from day to day, Delabar talked incessantly about their trip. Gray, who preferred to spend the time doing and saying nothing, listened quietly.
The officer was well content to lie back in his deck chair, hands clasped behind his curly head, and stare out into space. This was his habit, when off duty. It satisfied him to the soul to do nothing but watch the thin line where the gray-blue of the Pacific melted into the pale blue of the sky, and feel the sun's heat on his face. It made him appear lazy. Which he was not.
The energetic professor fancied that Gray paid little attention to his stream of information about the great Gobi Desert. In that, he did the other an injustice. Gray heeded and weighed Delabar's words. Ingrained in him from army life and a solitary existence marked by few friendships was the need of reticence, and watchfulness. Nor was his inclination to idle on the voyage mere habit. Unconsciously, he was storing up vital strength in his strongly knit frame—strength which he had called on in the past, and which he would need again.
"You don't seem to appreciate, my young friend," remarked the professor once, irritably, "that it is inner Asia we are invading. Also, we are going a thousand miles beyond your American gunboats."
"The days of the Ih-hwo-Ch'uan are past."
Delabar shrugged his shoulders, surprised at his companion's pertinent remark. "True. China is a republic and progressive, perhaps. But the Mongolian soul does not change overnight. Moreover, there are the priests—Buddhists and Taoists. Fear and superstition rule the mass of the Dragon Kingdom, my friend, and it is these priests who will be our enemies."
Gray had spoken truly when he said he remembered nothing of China, except a white camel, but, subconsciously, many things were familiar to the soldier.
"At the border of the Gobi Desert, where we believe the Wusun to be," continued the scientist warmly, as Gray was silent, "a center of Buddhism existed in the Middle Ages. The three sects of Buddhist priests—Black, Yellow and Red—are united in the effort to preserve their power. They preach the advent of the Gautama in the next few years. Also, that the ancient Gautama ruled the spiritual world before the coming of Christianity.
"So you can see," he pointed out, "that the discovery of a white race—a race that did not acknowledge Buddha—in the heart of China would be a blow to their doctrine. It would contradict their book of prophecy."
Gray nodded, puffing at his pipe. Presently, he stirred himself to speak.
"Rather suspect you're right, Professor. You know the religious dope. And the religions of Asia are not good things to monkey with. But, look here." He drew a map from his pocket and spread it out on his knee. "Here's the spot where Van Schaick located the Wusun—our long-lost but not forgotten cousins. Well and good. Only that spot, which you and your friends call the 'blind spot' of Asia, happens to be in the middle of the far Gobi Desert. How do you figure people existed there for several centuries?"
Delabar hesitated, glancing up at the moving tracery of smoke that rose from the funnel, against the clouds. They were on the boat deck.
"The Ming annals mention a city in that place, some two thousand years ago. A thousand years later we know there were many palaces at this end of the Thian Shan—the Celestial Mountains. Remember that the caravan routes from China to Samarcand, India and Persia are very old, and that they—or one of the most important of them—ran past this blind spot."
"Marco Polo trailed along there, didn't he?"
"Yes. We know the great city of the Gobi was called Sungan. The Ming annals describe it as having 'massive gates, walls and bastions, besides underground passages, vaulted and arched.'"
"European travelers don't report this city."
"Because they never saw it, my friend. Brent, who was at the edge of the Gobi near there, states that he saw towers in the sand. And the Mohammedan annals of Central Asia have a curious tale."
"Let's have it," said Gray, settling himself comfortably in his chair.
"It was in the sixteenth century," explained Delabar, who seemed to have the myths of Asia at his tongue's end. "A religious legend. A certain holy man, follower of the prophet, was robbed and beaten in a city near where we believe Sungan to be. After his injury by the people of the city—he was a mullah—he climbed into a minaret to call the hour of evening prayer."
Delabar's voice softened as he spoke, sliding into more musical articulation.
"As he cried the hour, this holy man felt something falling like snow on his face. Only it was not snow. The sky and the city darkened. He could not see the roofs of the buildings. He went down and tried the door. It was blocked. Then this man saw that it was sand falling over the city. The sand covered the whole town, leaving only the minaret, which was high. The people who had done him the injury were buried—became white bones under the sand."
"That story figures in the Bible," assented Gray, "only not the same. You don't consider the myth important, do you?"
"The priests of Asia do," said the professor seriously. "And I have seen the memoirs of Central Asian kingdoms which mention that treasure was dug for and found in ruins in the sands." He glanced at his companion curiously. "You do not seem to be worried, Captain Gray, at entering the forbidden shrine of the Mongols."
Having been born thereabouts, the idea amused Gray.
"Are you?" Gray laughed. "The Yellow Peril is dead."
"So is Dr. Brent."
"You don't connect the two?"
"I don't attempt to analyze the connection, Captain Gray. Remember in China we are dealing with men who think backward, around-about, and every way except our own. Then there are the priests. All I know is that Dr. Brent entered on forbidden ground, fell sick, and had to leave China. Do you know what he died of?"
Delabar was silent a moment ; then he smiled. "I have imagination—too much, perhaps. But then I have lived behind the threshold of Asia for half my life."
"I suspect it's a good thing for me you have," Gray admitted frankly.
Before they left their chairs that afternoon a steward brought the officer a message from the wireless cabin.
Van Schaick had sent it, before the steamer passed the radio limit. Gray read it, frowned, and turned to Delabar.
"This is rather bad luck, Professor," he said. "McCann, the fellow I counted on, is not coming. He was taken sick with grippe in Los Angeles on his way to Frisco. It looks as if you and I would have to go it alone."