Marching Sands/Chapter 4
The news of McCann's loss, so important to the officer, Delabar passed over with a shrug. Gray wondered briefly why a man obviously inclined to nervousness should ignore the fact that they were without the services of a trustworthy attendant. Later, he came to realize that the scientist considered that McCann's presence would have been no aid to him, that rifles and men who knew how to use them would play no part in meeting the hostile forces surrounding the territory of the Wusun.
From that moment he began to watch Delabar. It was clear to him that the professor was uneasy, decidedly so. And that the man was in the grip of a rising excitement.
It manifested itself when the steamer stopped at a Japanese port Gray would have liked to visit Kyoto, to see again the little brown people of the island kingdom, to get a glimpse of the gray castle of Oksaka, and perhaps of peerless, snow-crowned Fujiyama.
But Delabar insisted on remaining aboard the steamer until they left for China. The nearing gateway of Asia had a powerful effect on him. Gray noticed—as it was unusual in a man of mildly studious habits—that the scientist smoked quantities of strong Russian cigarettes. Indeed, the air of their cabin was heavy with the fumes.
"We must not make ourselves conspicuous," Delabar urged repeatedly.
At Shanghai they passed quickly through the hands of the customs officials. Their preparations progressed smoothly; the baggage was put on board a waiting Hankow steamer, and Delabar added to their stores a sufficient quantity of provisions to round out their outfit. In spite of this, Delabar fidgeted until they were safely in their stateroom on the river steamer, and passing up the broad, brown current of the Yang-tze-kiang—which, by the way, is not called the Yang-tze-kiang by the Chinese.
Gray made no comment on his companion's misgivings. He saw no cause for alarm. There were a dozen other travelers on the river boat, sales agents of three nations, a railroad engineer or two, a family of missionaries, several tourists who stared blandly at the great tidal stretch of the river, and commented loudly on the comforts of the palatial vessel. Evidently they had expected to go up to Hankow in a junk. They pointed out the chocolate colored sails of the passing junks with their half-naked coolies and dirty decks.
For days the single screw of the Hankow boat churned the muddy waste, and the smoke spread, fanwise, over its wake.
The Yang-tze was not new to Gray. He was glad he was going into the interior. The fecund cities of the coast, with their monotonous, crowded streets, narrow and overhung with painted signs held no attraction for him. The panorama of Mongolian faces, pallid and seamed, furtive and merry was not what he had come to China to see. In the interior, beyond the forest crowned mountains, and the vast plains, was the expanse of the desert. Until they reached this, the trip was no more than a necessary evil.
Not so—as Gray noted—did it affect Delabar. The first meeting with the blue-clad throngs in Shanghai, the first glimpse of the pagoda-temples with their shaven priests had both exhilarated and depressed the scientist.
"Each stage of the journey," he confided to Gray, "drops us back a century in civilization."
"No harm done," grunted the officer, who had determined to put a check on Delabar's active imagination. "As long as we get ahead. That's the deuce of this country. We have to go zig-zag. There's no such thing as a straight line being the shortest distance between two points in the land of the Dragon."
Delabar frowned, surprised by these unexpected displays of latent knowledge. Then smiled, waving a thin hand at the yellow current of the river.
"There is a reason for that—as always, in China. Evil spirits, they believe, can not move out of a straight line. So we find screens put just inside the gates of temples—to ward off the evil influences."
"Look at that," Gray touched the other's arm. A steward stood near them at the stern. No one else was in that part of the deck, and after glancing around cautiously the man dropped over the side some white objects—what they were, Gray could not see. "I heard that some fishermen had been drowned near here a few days ago. That Chink—for all his European dress—is dropping overside portions of bread as food and peace offering to the spirits of the drowned."
"Yes" nodded Delabar, "the lower orders of Chinamen believe the drowned have power to pull the living after them to death. Centuries of missionary endeavor have not altered their superstitions. And, look—that does not prevent those starved beggars in the junk there from retrieving the bread in the water. Ugh!"
He thrust his hands into his pockets and tramped off up the deck, while Gray gazed after him curiously, and then turned to watch the junk. The coolies were waving at the steward who was watching them impassively. Seeing Gray, the man hurried about his duties. For a moment the officer hesitated, seeing that the junkmen were staring, not at the bread in their hands, but at the ship. Then he smiled and walked on.
In spite of Delabar's misgivings, the journey went smoothly. The banks of the river closed in on them, scattered mud villages appeared in the shore rushes. Half naked boys waved at the "fire junk" from the backs of water buffaloes, and the smoke of Hankow loomed on the horizon. From Hankow, the Peking-Hankow railway took them comfortably to Honanfu, after a two-day stage by cart.
Here they waited for their luggage to catch up with them, in a fairly clean and modern hotel. They avoided the other Europeans in the city. Gray knew that they were beyond the usual circuit of American tourists, and wished to travel as quietly as possible.
"We're in luck," he observed to Delabar, who had just come in. "In a month, if all goes well, we'll be in Liangchowfu, the 'Western Gate' to the steppe country. What's the matter?"
Delabar held out a long sheet of rice paper with a curious expression.
"An invitation to dine with one of the officials of Honan, Captain Gray—with the vice-governor. He asks us to bring our passports."
"Hm," the officer replaced the maps he had been overhauling in their case, and thrust the missive on top of them. He tossed the case into an open valise. "A sort of polite invitation to show our cards—to explain who we are, eh? Well, let's accept with pleasure. We've got to play the game according to the rules. Nothing queer about this invite. Chinese officials are hospitable enough. All they want is a present or two."
He produced from the valise a clock with chimes and a silver-plated pocket flashlight and scrutinized them mildly.
"This ought to do the trick. We'll put on our best clothes. And remember, I'm a big-game enthusiast."
Delabar was moody that afternoon, and watched Gray's cheerful preparations for the dinner without interest. The army man stowed away their more valuable possessions, carefully hanging the rifle which he had been carrying in its case over his shoulder under the frame of the bed.
"A trick I learned in Mindanao," he explained. "These towns are chuck full of thieves, and this rifle is valuable to me. The oriental second-story man has yet to discover that American army men hang their rifles under the frame of their cots. Now for the vice-governor, what's his name? Wu Fang Chien?"
Wu Fang Chien was most affable. He sent two sedan chairs for the Americans and received them at his door with marked politeness, shaking his hands in his wide sleeves agreeably when Delabar introduced Gray. He spoke English better than the professor spoke Chinese, and inquired solicitously after their health and their purpose in visiting his country.
He was a tall mandarin, wearing the usual iron rimmed spectacles, and dressed in his robe of ceremony.
During the long dinner of the usual thirty courses, Delabar talked with the mandarin, while Gray contented himself with a few customary compliments. But Wu Fang Chien watched Gray steadily, from bland, faded eyes.
"I have not known an American hunter to come so far into China," he observed to the officer. "My humble and insufficient home is honored by the presence of an enthusiast. What game you expect to find?"
"Stags, antelope, and some of the splendid mountain sheep of Shensi," replied Gray calmly. Wu Fang Chien's fan paused, at the precision of the answer.
"Then you are going far. Do your passports permit?"
"They give us a free hand. We will follow the game trails."
As far as Liangchowfu?"
"Beyond that is another province." The mandarin tapped his well-kept fingers thoughtfully on the table. "I would not advise you, Captain Gray, to go beyond Liangchowfu. As you know, my unhappy country has transpired a double change of government and the outlaw tribes of the interior have become unruly during the last rebellion." He fumbled only slightly for words.
"We are prepared to take some risks."
Wu Fang Chien bowed politely.
"It might be dangerous—to go beyond Liangchowfu. Your country and mine are most friendly, Captain Gray. I esteem your welfare as my own. My sorrow would greaten if injury happen to you."
"Your kindness does honor to your heart."
"I suggest," Wu Fang Chien looked mildly at the uneasy Delabar, "that you have me visé your passports so that you may travel safely this side of Liangchowfu. Then I will give you a military escort who will be protection against any outlaws you meet on the road. In this way I will feel that I am doing my full duty to my honored guests."
"The offer is worthy," said Gray, who realized that the sense of duty of a town official was a serious thing, but did not wish an escort, "of one whose hospitality is a pleasure to his guests."
Wu Fang Chien shook hands with himself. "But we have little money to pay an escort——"
"I will attend to that."
"Unfortunately, an escort of soldiers would spoil my chances at big game. We shall pick up some native hunters."
Wu Fang Chien bowed, with a faint flicker of green eyes.
"It shall be as you wish, Captain Gray. But I am distressed at the thought you may suffer harm. The last American who went beyond the Western Gate, died."
Gray frowned. He had not known that one of his countrymen had penetrated so far into the interior.
"Without doubt," pursued the mandarin, stroking his fan gently across his face, "you have a good supply of rifles. I have heard much of these excellent weapons of your country. Would you oblige me showing them to me before you leave Honan?"
"I should be glad to do so," said Gray, "if they were not packed in our luggage which will not be here before we set out. But I have two small presents——"
The gift of the clock and electric light turned the thread of conversation and seemed to satisfy Wu Fang Chien, who bowed them out with the utmost courtesy to the waiting sedan chairs. Then, as the bearers picked up the poles, he drew a small and exquisite vase from under his robe and pressed it upon Gray as a token, he said, to keep fresh the memory of their visit.
At their room in the hotel Gray showed the vase to Delabar. It was a valuable object, of enamel wrought on gold leaves, and inscribed with some Chinese characters.
"What do you make of our worthy Wu Fang—
hullo!" he broke off. Delabar had seized the vase and taken off the top.
"It is what the Chinese call a message jar," explained the scientist, feeling within the vase. He removed a slim roll of silk, wound about an ebony stick. On the silk four Chinese characters were delicately painted.
"What do they mean?" asked Gray, looking over his shoulder.
The Syrian glanced at him appraisingly, under knitted brows. His companion's face was expressionless, save for a slight tinge of curiosity. Delabar judged that the soldier knew nothing of written Chinese, which was the truth.
"Anything or nothing, my friend. It reads like a proverb. The oriental soul takes pleasure in maxims. Yet everything they do or say has a meaning—very often a double meaning."
"Such as Wu Fang's table talk," smiled Gray, "Granted. Is this any particular dialect?"
"Written Chinese is much the same everywhere. Just as the Arabic numerals throughout Europe." He scanned the silk attentively, and his lips parted. "The first ideograph combines the attribute or adjective 'clever' or 'shrewd' with the indicator 'man.' A shrewd man—hua jen."
"Perhaps Wu Fang: perhaps you. Go on."
"The second character is very ancient, almost a picture-drawing of warning streamers. It is an emphatic 'do not!'"
"Then it's you—and me."
"The third character is prefixed by mu, a tree, and signifies a wooden board, or a wall. The fourth means 'the West.'"
"A riddle, but not so hard to guess," grinned Gray, taking up his maps from the table and filling his pipe preparatory to work. "A wise guy doesn't climb the western wall."
"You forget," pointed out Delabar sharply, "the negative. It is the strongest kind of a warning. Do not, if you are wise, approach the western wall. My friend, this is a plain warning—even a threat. To-day Wu Fang Chien hinted we should not go to Liangchowfu. Now he threatens——"
"I gathered as much." Gray took the slip of fine silk and scanned it quizzically. "Delabar, do you know the ideograph for 'to make' or 'build?'"
The scientist nodded.
"Then write it, where it seems to fit in here."
Delabar did so, with a glance at his companion. Whereupon the soldier folded the missive and replaced it in the jar. He clapped his hands loudly. Almost at once a boy appeared in the door.
To him Gray handed the vase with instructions to carry it to His Excellency, the official Wu Fang Chien. He reënforced his order with a piece of silver cash. To the curious scientist he explained briefly.
"Wu Fang is a scholar. He will read our reply as: A wise man will not build a wall in the west. It will give him food for thought, and it may keep His Excellency's men from overhauling our belongings a second time during our absence."
Delabar started. "May?"
"Yes. Remember I left that message of Wu's on top of these maps. I find it underneath them. The maps are all here. We locked our door, carefully. Some one has evidently given our papers the once over and forgotten to replace them in the order he found them. I say it may have been at Wu's orders. I think it probably was."
"Why?" Delabar licked his thin lips nervously.
"Because nothing has been taken. A Chinese official has the right to be curious about strangers in his district. Likewise, his men wouldn't have much trouble in entering the room—with the landlord's assistance. The ordinary run of thieves would have taken something valuable—my field glasses, for instance."
Delabar strode nervously the length of the room and peered from the shutters.
"Captain Gray!" he swung around, "do you know there are maps of the Gobi, of Sungan, in your case. The person who broke into our room must have seen them."
"I reckon so."
"Then Wu Fang Chien may know we are going to the Gobi! I have not forgotten what he said about the last American hunter. What hunter has been as far as the Gobi? None. So——"
"You think he meant——"
Gray shook his head slowly. "Far fetched, Delabar," he meditated. "You're putting two and two together to make ten. All we know is that Wu has sent us a polite motto. No use in worrying ourselves."
But it was clear to him that Delabar was worried, and more. Gray had been observing his companion closely. Now for the first time he read covert fear in the professor's thin face.
Fear, Gray reflected to himself, was hard to deal with, in a man of weak vitality and high-strung nerves. He felt that Delabar was alarmed needlessly; that he dreaded what lay before them.
For that reason he regretted the event of that night which gave shape to Delabar's apprehensions. At the scientist's urging, they did not leave the room before turning in. Gray adjusted Delabar's walking stick against the door, placing a string of Chinese money on the head of the stick, and balancing the combination so a movement of the door would send the coins crashing to the floor.
"Just in case our second-story men pay us another visit," he explained. "Now that we know they can open the door, we'll act accordingly."