Marching Sands/Chapter 7
THE DOOR IS GUARDED
A subdued glow appeared above Gray's head, as the narrow stairs twisted. The glow grew stronger, and he caught the buzz of voices. Cautiously he climbed to the head of the steps and peered into the chamber from which came the light.
He saw a peculiar room. It was empty of all furniture except a teakwood chair. The light came through a large aperture in the floor. An ebony railing, gilded and inlaid, ran around this square of light. The voices grew louder.
It was clear to Gray that they were in some kind of gallery above the room where the assembly was—for the voices seemed to be rising through the floor.
He walked to the chair—and stopped abruptly.
The opening in the floor was directly above the temple proper. Gray and Delabar could see the shrine, with the usual bronze figure of the almond-eyed god, the burning tapers and the incense bowls.
On the floor by the shrine the gathering of priests squatted. They were facing, not the image of Buddha, but a chair which stood on a daïs at one side. On this chair an imposing mandarin was seated with the red button and silk robe of officialdom.
"Wu Fang Chien!" whispered Delabar.
Gray nodded. It was their friend of Honanfu, with his thin beard, placid face and spectacles.
"What are they doing?" asked Gray softly.
The murmur of voices persisted. For some time Delabar listened. Then he pointed out a man in beggar's dress kneeling beside the mandarin's chair.
"It is some kind of trial," he said doubtfully. "The priest by Wu Fang Chien is an ascetic—what they call a fakir in India. But he is not the criminal."
They moved nearer the opening, being secure from observation from below. Gray wrinkled his nose at the mingled scent of incense and Mongolian sweat that floated up through the opening.
"Wu Fang Chien is saying that he has come to Liangchowfu to sit in judgment on the evildoers who are enemies of the god," interpreted Delabar. "He has called the priests to witness the proceedings.
Gray looked at Delabar curiously. He had caught a word or two of the talk.
"Does he name the offenders?" he asked.
"No. He says the priesthood has been informed that two men plan to desecrate a holy place. He has come to catch them red-handed."
Wu Fang Chien, Gray reflected, could not know they were in the gallery of the temple, by the seat reserved for a distinguished student, or the emperor. The mandarin must have discovered their mission, as Delabar feared. He peered over the rail.
Directly underneath three priests were stripped to the waist. They held a bronze bowl of considerable size.
As Gray watched, a silence fell on the room below.
"They are going to try divination," whispered Delabar, and Gray saw that his face was strained. "The divination of the ivory sticks and the bowl. That is a custom of the sorcerers of the interior. The priests believe in it implicitly. I have seen some wonderful things——"
He broke off as the ascetic prostrated himself before Wu Fang Chien, holding out a sandalwood box. Gray saw the mandarin lean forward and draw what looked like a short white stick from the box.
"That is to determine the distance the criminals are from the temple," explained Delabar. "It is a very short stick—representing perhaps a li or one-third of a mile."
"That would include the inn," was Gray's comment. "Hello, the bowl boys are coming into action."
The three priests were turning slowly on their feet, supporting the bronze bowl above their heads. They moved in a kind of dance, and as they revolved, came nearer to the shrine—then retreated. Delabar watched intently.
"They will keep up the dance for twenty-four hours," he said, "without stopping. Meanwhile the other priests will watch, without taking food or drink. It induces a kind of hypnotism. They believe that at the end of the twenty-four hours, the god will enter the bowl."
Gray nodded. Wu Fang Chien had sat back and was eyeing the dance complacently.
"When this happens," Delabar went on, "the priests will leave the temple, holding the bowl in front of them. They will be followed by the towns-people who do not doubt that the god will conduct them to the criminals."
"I guess we're nominated for the guilty parties."
Gray surveyed the scene curiously, the revolving trio of brown bodies, the silent mandarin and the watching priests. He followed idly the smoke fumes that eddied up from the shrine of the bronze god. Wu Fang Chien, he mused, had decided that it was time to strike. And the mandarin was going about it with the patience of the Mongol, sure of his victim, and his own power.
Wu Fang Chien had warned them. They had not heeded the warning. The attack in Honanfu had been a prelude—possibly to get Gray's weapons away from him. It had failed, but Wu Fang Chien had formed another plan. Why else had he come to Liangchowfu?
Watching the whirling priests, Gray guessed at the plan. In twenty-four hours the sorcery of the bowl would come to a head. The three priests would bear it to the inn—in a state of semi-hypnotism themselves, and followed by a fanatical crowd. They would confront Gray and Delabar. They would search the belongings of the white men, and find the maps of Sungan—the maps that had been seen by the intruder at the Honanfu inn. After that——
Delabar gripped his companion's arm. "Someone is coming," he whispered.
Gray listened, and heard a faint sound of footsteps. It came from the stairs—the soft pad-pad of slippered feet ascending the steps. Gray shot a quick glance into the temple below. The scene had not changed, except that the priest in the tattered robe was no longer at Wu Fang Chien's side.
"We are caught," muttered the scientist. "There is no other door."
Gray was aware of this. The only openings in the chamber where they stood were the door and the aperture in the floor. The pad-pad came nearer, but more slowly. He was reasonably sure that they had not been seen. It was abominably bad luck that some one should visit the gallery just then.
"We left the temple door open," Delabar whispered, staring at the dark stairs behind them. "One of the priests observed it and came——"
"Steady," Gray cautioned him. He drew the trembling Syrian back into the shadows at one side of the door. Here they were in semi-obscurity. Stepping quietly to arm's reach of the head of the stairs, Gray waited.
He heard the steps approach, then become silent as if the intruder was looking into the room.
A moment passed while Gray silently cursed the heavy breathing of Delabar who seemed possessed by uncontrollable excitement. Then a shaven head appeared in the doorway, followed by a naked shoulder. A pair of slant, evil eyes flickered around the gallery, failing to notice the two white men in the shadow.
Gray's hand went out and closed on the throat of the priest. His grip tightened, choking off a smothered gasp. The man fell heavily to his knees.
The floor echoed dully at the impact. Gray realized that it must have been heard by those in the temple below. Snatching up the frail priest by throat and leg, he lifted him easily and started down the stairs headlong.
"This way, Professor," he called. "Better hurry."
Concealment being useless now, they plunged down the steps. By the time the lower floor was reached, Gray's grip had stilled the struggles of the man—whom he recognized as the ascetic.
The sound of running feet came to him as he waited for Delabar to come up. The professor shot through the temple door like a frightened rabbit.
Gray tossed the unconscious priest on the door-sill, and pushed the heavy portal nearly shut, wedging the man's body in the opening. Then he trotted after Delabar through the garden.
"Let's hope you're right about the penalty for opening the door there," he laughed. "That priest will have his hands full explaining how he happens to be lying on the emperor's threshold—when he comes to. Probably he'll say that devils picked him up."
Looking back at the edge of the temple garden, Gray saw a crowd with lanterns standing inside the door, over the form of the priest. They were some distance away by now. Following the circuit of the city wall, Gray succeeded in gaining the alleys back of the inn without being observed.
Once safely in their room, Delabar threw himself on the bed, panting. Gray took up his rifle and laid it across his knees, placing his chair so that he could command both door and window.
He did not want to sleep. And he feared to trust Delabar to watch. Throughout the remaining hours until daylight whitened the paper of the window, he sat in his chair. But nothing further happened. The festivities in the streets had ended and the inn itself was quiet, unusually so.
Daylight showed Delabar lying on the bed, smoking innumerable cigarettes. The scientist had maintained a moody silence since their arrival at the inn. The sound of excited voices floated in from the courtyard. Vehicles could be heard passing along the street. But the ordinary pandemonium of a Chinese hostelry at breakfast time was subdued.
Gray tossed his rifle on the bed, yawned and stretched his powerful frame. He was hungry, and said so. He brushed the dirt from his shoes, changed to a clean shirt, looked in the pail for water. Finding none, he picked up the pail, strode to the door and flung it open.
On the threshold, his back against the doorpost, was sitting a Buddhist priest. It was an aged man, his face wrinkled and eyes inflamed. His right shoulder and his breast were bared. In one hand he clasped a long knife. His eyes peered up at the white man vindictively.
Gray recognized the ascetic of the temple. He could see the dark marks where his hands had squeezed the scrawny throat.
He reached for his automatic with his free hand. The priest did not stir. The man was squatting on his heels, fairly over the threshold; the knife rested on one knee. How long he had been there, Gray did not know.
Priest and white man stared at each other intently. Gray frowned. Plainly the man at the door did not mean well; but why did the fellow remain seated, holding the knife passively? He noted fleetingly that the main room of the inn was vacant.
"Don't move!" Delabar's voice came to him, shrill with anxiety. "Don't take a step. Shut the door and come back here."
"Why?" Gray asked curiously. "I want to go out for water, and I'm blessed if this chap is going to keep me in——"
"It's death to move!"
"No, the priest will die." Delabar clutched his companion's arm. "You don't understand. The priest is here on a mission. If you step through the door, he will stab himself with the knife. And if he commits suicide at our door, we'll have the whole of Liangchowfu down on us."
Gray pocketed the automatic with a laugh. "I don't see why we are to blame if this yellow monkey sticks himself with his own knife."
Delabar crossed to the door and closed it on the watching Buddhist.
"You know very little of China, my friend," he said gloomily. "One of the favorite methods of revenge is to hire a priest to sit at a man's door, like this. Then, if any one leaves the house, the priest commits suicide. That fixes—or the Chinese believe it fixes—a crime on the man in the house. It's a habit of the Chinese to kill themselves in order to obtain vengeance on an enemy."
Gray whistled. "I've heard something of the kind. But, look here, I could grab that fellow before he can hurt himself."
"It would be useless. As soon as he was free, he'd commit suicide, and the blame would fall on us. By now, all the Chinese in the town know that this priest is here. If he should die, it would be a signal for a general attack on us."
Meditatively, Gray seated himself on the bucket and considered the situation.
"You know the working of the yellow mind, Professor," he observed. "Do you suppose this fellow has marked us out as the guilty parties who manhandled him in the temple and left him in the sacred door?"
"It's more likely that Wu Fang Chien guessed we were the intruders. We were probably watched more closely than you knew. Then, according to the temple law, this priest is guilty of sacrilege in crossing the emperor's door. So Wu Fang Chien has ordered him to guard our door, to wipe out his own sin, and incriminate us at the same time."
Gray grinned cheerfully.
"The working of the Mongol mind is a revelation, Delabar. I guess you're right. This is Wu Fang Chien's way of keeping us quiet in here while the boys with the bowl get their magic primed. Also, it will help to make the townspeople hostile to us."
Slowly, Wu Fang Chien's plan was maturing. Gray saw the snare of the Mongol mandarin closing around them. It was a queer, fantastic snare. In the United States the situation would have been laughable. Here, it was deadly.
Wu Fang Chien had made his preparations carefully. The temple festival had stirred up the Buddhists; the arrival of the bronze bowl, borne by the priests, would implicate the two white men; the discovery of the maps of the forbidden district of the Gobi would do the rest.
Gray could destroy the maps. But then he would have no guide to the course to be followed, if they should escape from Liangchowfu. He was not yet willing to destroy all prospect of success.
He sought out the maps, in one of their packs, and pocketed them.
"Does this hocus-pocus of the bowl in the temple always take twenty-four hours?" he asked Delabar.
"Well, Wu Fang won't want to break the rules of the game—not when he has the cards so well in hand. Professor, we have fourteen hours to think up a line of action. We have food enough here to make a square meal or two. Also wine—as a present to the city mandarins—that will keep us from becoming too thirsty."
Delabar shrugged his bent shoulders. He looked ill. His hand was trembling, and it was clear to Gray that the man was on the verge of a breakdown.
"What can we do?" the Syrian asked plaintively. "Except to destroy the maps, which would incriminate us."
"We won't do that."
There comes a time when fatigue undermines weak vitality. Delabar complained, begged, cursed. But Gray refused to burn the papers which meant the success or failure of their expedition.
"You're sick, Delabar," he said firmly. "You seem to forget we're here on a mission. Now, pay attention a minute. I've been getting ready, after a fashion, for a move on Wu Fang's part. I've paid our coolies four times what was owing them, and promised 'em double that if they stick by us. I think they may do it. If so, we stand a good chance of getting clear with our necessary stores—emergency rations, medicines, a few cooking utensils and blankets. But we can't start anything until it's dark. Sleep if you can. If you can't—don't worry."
He cast a curious glance at the scientist—a glance of mixed good-natured contempt and anxiety.
"This guardian of the gate trick works both ways," he concluded. "If we can't get out, no one will want to get in."
He took a few, sparing swallows of the strong wine, a mouthful of bread and rice and tilted his chair back against the wall. The room was hot and close, and he soon dropped off into a nap. Delabar did not sleep.
Gray, from habit, dozed lightly. He was conscious of the sounds that went on in the street. Several times he wakened, only to drop off again, seeing that all was as it should be. Once or twice he heard Delabar go to the door and peer out to see if the priest was still at his post. Evidently he was, for the Syrian maintained his brooding quiet.
As time wore on, Gray thought he heard Delabar laughing. He assured himself that he must have been mistaken. Yet the echo of the laugh persisted, harsh, and bitter. Delabar must have been laughing.
The officer wondered drowsily what had been the cause of the other's mirth—and sat up with a jerk. He caught at the hand that was stealing under his coat, and found himself looking into Delabar's flushed face, not a foot from his own. The scientist drew back, with a chuckle. There was no mistaking the chuckle this time.
Gray felt at his coat pocket and assured himself the maps were still there.
"So you lost your nerve, eh, Professor?" he said, not unkindly—and broke off with a stare. "What the devil——?"
Delabar staggered away from him, and fell on the bed, rocking with mirth. He caught his head in his hands and burst into the laugh that Gray had heard before. Then he lay back full length, waving his hands idiotically.
Gray swore softly. He noticed the wine bottles on the table, and caught them up. He assured himself grimly that one was empty and another nearly so. He himself had taken only a swallow of the liquor.
Delabar had drunk up approximately two quarts of strong wine. And Gray knew that the man was not accustomed to it.
The scientist was drunk, blindly, hopelessly drunk.
The room was dark. A candle, probably lighted by Delabar on some whim, guttered on the floor. Outside the room, the inn was very still.
Gray regretted that his sleep had enabled Delabar to drink up the liquor. But the harm was done. His companion was helpless as a child. He looked at his watch. It was after eight As nearly as he could remember, the proceedings at the temple had started about ten o'clock. Not quite two hours of quiet remained to them.
Delabar sat up and regarded him with owl-like wisdom.
"Drink, my friend," he mumbled, "you are a strong man, and it will be hard for you to die if you are not drunk. You were a fool to come here. You are a child before the ancient wisdom of China. The secrets of the Mongols have been before your God had eyes to see the earth. Why did you pry into them?"
A laugh followed this, and Delabar made a futile grab at one of the bottles.
"You think I am afraid of Wu Fang Chien?" the mumble went on. "No, I am not afraid of him. He is only a servant of the slave of Buddha, who is Fate. We can not go where Fate forbids—forbids us."
Gray surveyed him, frowning.
"Look outside the door," chuckled Delabar. "Look—I stepped outside the door, my friend. And I saw——"
Waiting for no more, Gray crossed to the door and opened it. At his feet lay the priest. The slant eyes stared up at him. The knife was fixed in the man's throat, and a dark circle had gathered on the floor behind his head.