Marching Sands/Chapter 6
Near Kia-yu-kwan, the western gate of the Great Wall, the twin pagodas of Liangchowfu rise from the plain.
In former centuries Liangchowfu was the border town, a citadel of defense against the outer barbarians of the northern steppe and Central Asia. It is a walled city, standing squarely athwart the highway from China proper to the interior. Beyond Liangchowfu are the highlands of Central Asia.
In exactly a month after leaving Honanfu, as Gray had promised, the wagons bearing the two Americans passed through the town gate.
Gray, dusty and travel-stained to his waist, but alert and erect of carriage, walked before the two carts. He showed no ill effects from the hard stage of the journey they had just completed.
Delabar lay behind the leather curtain of one of the wagons. His spirits had suffered from the past month. The monotonous road, with its ceaseless mud villages had depressed him. The groups of natives squatting in the sun before their huts, in the never-ending search for vermin, and the throngs of staring children that sought for horse dung in the roads to use for fuel, had wrought on his sensitive nerves.
They had not seen a white man during the journey. Gray had written to Van Schaick before they left Honanfu, but they expected no mail until they should return to Shanghai.
"If we reach the coast again," Delabar had said moodily.
The better air of the hill country through which they passed had not improved his spirits, as it had Gray's. The sight of the forest clad peaks, with their hidden pagodas, from the eaves of which the wind bells sent their tinkle down the breeze, held no interest for the scientist.
Glimpses of brown, spectacled workmen who peered at them from the rice fields, or the vision of a tattered junk sail, passing down an estuary in the purple quiet of evening, when the dull yellow of the fields and the green of the hills were blended in a soft haze did not cause Delabar to lift his eyes.
China, vast and changeless, had taken the two Americans to itself. And Gray knew that Delabar was afraid. He had suspected as much in Honanfu. Now he was certain. Delabar had taken to smoking incessantly, and made no attempt to exercise as Gray did. He brooded in the wagon.
The calm of the army officer seemed to anger Delabar. Often when two men are alone for a long stretch of time they get on each other's nerves. But Delabar's trouble went deeper than this. His fears had preyed on him during the month. He had taken to watching the dusty highway behind them. He slept badly.
Yet they had not been molested. They were not watched, as far as Gray could observe. They had heard no more from Wu Fang Chien.
The streets of Liangchowfu were crowded. It was some kind of a feast day. Gray noted that there were numbers of priests who stared at them impassively as he led the mule teams to an inn on the further side of the town, near the western wall, and persuaded the proprietor to clear the pigs and children from one of the guest chambers.
"We were fools to come this far," muttered Delabar, throwing himself down on a bamboo bench. "Did you notice the crowds in the streets we passed?"
"It's a feast, or bazaar day, I expect," observed Gray quietly, removing his mud caked shoes and stretching his big frame on the clay bench that did duty as a bed.
"No." Delabar shook his head "Gray, I tell you, we are fools. The Chinese of Liangchowfu knew we were coming. Those priests were Buddhist followers. They are here for a purpose."
"They seem harmless enough."
"Did you ever know a Mongol to warn you, before he struck? No, my friend. We are in a nice trap here, within the walls. We are the only Europeans in the place. Every move we make will be watched. Do you think we can get through the walls without the Chinese knowing it?"
"No," admitted Gray. "But we had to come here for food and a new relay of mules."
"We will never leave Liangchowfu—to the west. But we can still go back."
"We can, but we won't"
Gray turned on the bed where he sat and tentatively scratched a clear space on the glazed paper which formed the one—closed—window of the room. Ventilation is unknown in China.
He found that he could look out in the street. The inn was built around three sides of a courtyard, and their room was at the end of one wing. He saw a steady throng of passersby—pockmarked beggars, flaccid faced coolies trundling women along in wheelbarrows, an astrologer who had taken up his stand in the middle of the street with the two tame sparrows which formed his stock-in-trade, and a few swaggering, sheepskin clad Kirghiz from the steppe.
As each individual passed the inn, Gray noticed that he shot a quick glance at it from slant eyes. An impressive palanquin came down the street. A fat porter in a silk tunic with a staff walked before the bearers. Coming abreast the astrologer, the man with the staff struck him contemptuously aside.
As this happened, Gray saw the curtain of the palanquin lifted, and the outline of a face peering at the inn.
"We seem to be the sight of the city," he told Delabar, drawing on his shoes. "The rubberneck bus has just passed. Look here, Professor! No good in moping around here. You go out and rustle the food we need. I'll inspect our baggage in the stable."
When Delabar had departed on his mission, Gray left the inn leisurely. He wandered after the scientist, glancing curiously at a crowd which had gathered in what was evidently the center square of the town, being surrounded by an array of booths.
The crowd was too great for him to see what the attraction was, but he elbowed his way through without ceremony. Sure that something unusual must be in progress, he was surprised to see only a nondescript Chinese soldier in a jacket that had once been blue with a rusty sword belted to him. Beside the soldier was an old man with a wrinkled, brown face from which glinted a pair of keen eyes.
By his sheepskin coat, bandaged legs and soiled yak-skin boots Gray identified the elder of the two as a Kirghiz mountaineer. Both men were squatting on their haunches, the Kirghiz smoking a pipe.
"What is happening?" Gray asked a bystander, pointing to the two in the cleared space.
Readily, the accents of the border dialect came to his tongue. The other understood.
"It will happen soon," he explained. "That is Mirai Khan, the hunter, who is smoking the pipe. When he is finished the Manchu soldier will cut off his head."
Gray whistled softly. The crowd was staring at him now, intent on a new sight. Even Mirai Khan was watching him idly, apparently unconcerned about his coming demise.
"Why is he smoking the pipe?" Gray asked.
"Because he wants to. The soldier is letting him do it because Mirai Khan has promised to tell him where his long musket is, before he dies."
"Why must he die?"
The man beside him coughed and spat apathetically. "I do not know. It was ordered. Perhaps he stole the value of ten taels."
Gray knew enough of the peculiar law of China to understand that a theft of something valued at more than a certain sum was punishable by death. The sight of the tranquil Kirghiz stirred his interest.
"Ask the soldier what is the offense," he persisted, exhibiting a coin at which the Chinaman stared eagerly.
Mirai Khan, Gray was informed, had been convicted of stealing a horse worth thirteen taels. The Kirghiz had claimed that the horse was his own, taken from him by the Liangchowfu officials who happened to be in need of beasts of burden. The case had been referred to the authorities at Honanfu, and no less a personage than Wu Fang Chien had ruled that since the hunter had denied the charge he had given the lie to the court. Wherefore, he must certainly be beheaded.
Gray sympathized with Mirai Khan. He had seen enough of Wu Fang Chien to guess that the Kirghiz' case had not received much consideration. Something in the mountaineer's shrewd face attracted Gray. He pushed into the cleared space.
"Tell the Manchu," he said sharply to the Chinaman whom he had drawn with him, "that I know Wu Fang Chien. Tell him that I will pay the amount of the theft, if he will release the prisoner."
"It may not be," objected the other indifferently.
"Do as I say," commanded Gray sharply.
The soldier, apparently tired of waiting, had risen and drawn his weapon. He bent over the Kirghiz who remained kneeling. The sight quickened Gray's pulse—in spite of the danger he knew he ran from interfering with the Chinese authorities.
"Quick," he added. His companion whispered to the soldier who glanced at the American in surprise and hesitated.
Gray counted out thirteen taels—about ten dollars—and added five more. "I have talked with Wu Fang Chien," he explained, "and I will buy this man's life. If the value of the horse is paid, the crime will be no more."
The blue-coated Manchu said something, evidently an objection.
"He says," interpreted the Chinaman, who was eyeing the money greedily, "that thirteen taels will not wipe out the insult to the judge."
"Five more will," Gray responded. "He can keep them if he likes. And here's a tael for you."
The volunteer interpreter clasped the coin in a claw-like hand. Gray thrust the rest of the money upon the hesitating executioner, and seized Mirai Khan by the arm.
Nodding to the Kirghiz, he led him through the crowd, which was muttering uneasily. He turned down an alley.
"Can you get out of Liangchowfu without being seen?" the American asked his new purchase. He was more confident now of the tribal speech.
Mirai Khan understood. Later, Gray came to know that the man was very keen witted. Also, he had a polyglot tongue.
"Aye, Excellency." Mirai Khan fell on his knees and pressed his forehead to his rescuer's shoes. "There is a hole in the western wall behind the temple where the caravan men water their oxen and camels."
"Go, then, and quickly."
"I will get me a horse," promised Mirai Khan, "and the Chinese pigs will not see me go."
Gray thought to himself that Mirai Khan might be more of a horse thief than he professed to be.
"The Excellency saved my life," muttered the Kirghiz, glancing around craftily. "It was written that I should die this day, and he kept me from the sight of the angel of death. But thirteen taels is a great deal of wealth. It would be well if I found my gun, and slew the soldier. Then the Expediency would have his thirteen taels again. Where is he to be found?"
"At the inn by the western wall. But never mind the Manchu. Save your own skin."
Gray strode off down the alley, for men were coming after them. In the rear of an unsavory hut, the Kirghiz plucked his sleeve.
"Aye, it shall so be, Excellency," he whispered. "Has the honorable master any tobacco?"
Impatiently Gray sifted some tobacco from his pouch into the hunter's scarred hand. Mirai Khan then asked for matches.
"I will not forget," he said importantly. "You will see Mirai Khan again. I swear it. And I will tell you something. Wu Fang Chien is in Liangchowfu."
With that the man shambled off down an alley, looking for all the world like a shaggy dog with unusually long legs. Gray stared after him with a smile. Then he turned back toward the inn.
That night there was a feast in Liangchowfu. The sound of the temple drums reached to the inn. Lanterns appeared on the house fronts across the street. Throngs of priests passed by in ceremonialprocession, bearing lights. In the inn courtyard a group of musicians took their stand, producing a hideous mockery of a tune on cymbals and one-stringed fiddles. But the main room of the inn, where the eating tables were set with bowls and chop-sticks, was deserted except for a wandering rooster.
"I'm going out to see the show," asserted Gray, who was weary of inaction.
"What!" The Syrian stared at him, fingering his beard restlessly. "With Wu Fang Chien in the town!"
"Certainly. There's nothing to be done here. I may be able to pick up information which will be useful—if we are in danger."
Delabar tossed his cigarette away and shrugged his shoulders.
"We are marked men, my young friend. I saw this afternoon that a guard has been posted at the town gates. Those musicians yonder are spies. The master of the inn is in the stable, with our men."
"Then we'll shake our escort for a while." Gray's smile faded. "Look here, Professor. I'm alive to the pickle we're in. We've got to get out of this place. And I want to have a look at that hole in the wall Mirai Khan told me about. For one thing—to see if horses can get through it."
Delabar accompanied him out of the courtyard, into the street. Gray noted grimly that the musicians ceased playing with their departure. He beckoned Delabar to follow and turned down the alley he had visited that afternoon. Looking over his shoulder he saw a dark form slip into the entrance of the alley.
"Double time, Professor," whispered Gray. Grasping the other by the arm he trotted through the piles of refuse that littered the rear of the houses, turning sharply several times until he was satisfied they were no longer followed. As a landmark, he had the dark bulk of the pagoda which formed the roof of the temple.
Toward this he made his way, dodging back into the shadows when he sighted a group of Chinese. He was now following the course of the wall, which took him into a garden, evidently a part of the temple grounds.
He saw nothing of the opening Mirai Khan had mentioned. But a murmur of voices from the shuttered windows of the edifice stirred his interest.
"It is a meeting of the Buddhists," whispered Delabar. "I heard the temple messengers crying the summons in the street this afternoon."
Gray made his way close to the building. It was a lofty structure of carved wood. The windows were small and high overhead. Gray scanned them speculatively.
"We weren't invited to the reunion, Professor," he meditated, "but I'd give something for a look inside. Judging by what you've told me, these Buddhist fellows are our particular enemies. And it's rather a coincidence they held a lodge meeting to-night."
He felt along the wall for a space. They were sheltered from view from the street by the garden trees.
"Hullo," he whispered, "here's luck. A door. Looks like a stage entrance, with some kind of carving over it."
Delabar pushed forward and peered at the inscription. The reflected light of the illumination in the street enabled him to see fairly well.
"This is the gate of ceremony of the temple," he observed. "It is one of the doors built for a special occasion—only to be used by a scholar of the town who has won the highest honors of the Hanlin academy, or by the emperor himself—when there was one."
Gray pushed at the door. It was not fastened, but being in disuse, gave in slowly, with a creak of iron hinges. Delabar checked him.
"You know nothing of Chinese customs," he hissed warningly. "It is forbidden for any one to enter. The penalty——"
"Beheading, I suppose," broke in Gray impatiently. "Come along, Delabar. This is a special occasion, and, by Jove—you're a distinguished scholar."
He drew the other inside with him. They stood in a black passage filled with an odor of combined must and incense. Gray took his pocket flashlight from his coat and flickered its beam in front of them. He could feel Delabar shivering. Wondering at the state of the scientist's nerves, he made out an opening before them in which steps appeared.
They seemed to be in a deserted part of the temple. Gray wanted very much to see what was going on—and what was at the head of the stairs. He ascended as quietly as possible, followed by the Syrian who was muttering to himself.