THE HUNTING OF THE RATS
TWO miles from the junction of the Y-arms at the upper end of the valley of whirling sands the party halted at mid-afternoon. Here, sheltered by a long rock-ledge jutting into the valley, was their last cover. Between them and the temple lay open sand, which Kilgore dared not cross until darkness came to shield them from sight.
With his two companions Severn stretched out on the rocky ledge and trained the glasses upon the Darkan temple. Off to the left diverged the left aim of the Y, a narrowing continuation of the sandy valley. The right arm was hidden from their sight. In between lay a craggy wall of red granite running into the high hills behind. A long green niche in this wall showed the position the temple.
“It's a grassy spot watered by springs,” explained Kilgore. “They keep racing dromedaries and a few horses and sheep there—you'll pick up the wall in a minute. Found it, have you? It's walled, of course. Look to the right end of the green spot for the temple—a low tope. The valley has been filled with sand since it was built, so that the dome is now almost below the level of the sands. Those rocky knuckles out in front have kept the sand from encroaching. In ancient times the temple had a view of the whole valley; now they can barely see this two-mile strip of sand—unless they have watchers posted on the hillside behind. They're too lazy for that, I fancy. They trust to the Mongolian watchman at the Southern end, the chap we attended to at dawn.”
Severn had picked up the temple, a mass of granite melting into the hill behind. It appeared deserted; but moving specks in the led pasture indicated habitation.
In the scene was nothing startling. Everything was prosaic, drab, stark mountains and yellow sand, and this abode of man was repellent in its primitive ugliness. Only when one turned to view the marching pillars of whirling sand did the impression come of strangely sinister forces at work. Only when one looked to the far green peaks of the higher Khangais was this impression strengthened by the memory that somewhere hereabouts had been the throne of Prester John, whence the Mongol blast had gone forth to burn half the world.
The three returned, joined the Sikhs again, and at sunset the evening meal was made ready; it was a good meal, finishing up the last of the rations. The horses, on their last legs for lack of fodder, were given the last of the water.
“It's a case of root hog or die!” exclaimed Day cheerfully. “Everything we lack is over yonder behind a wall—and we have to get it. So we'll probably get it.”
“Exactly.” Kilgore produced a cherished English cigaret and lighted it. “Luxuries tomorrow—if we win! Those chaps bring in all sorts of stuff from the outside world. Two to one we find a phonograph in the main temple hall! If they were not a lazy outfit, and if they had put their brains to work, they could have made this place the center of a Mongol horde which might sweep Asia! Tell you what, this place has an influence that's felt as far south as Tibet; but these brutes lacked initiative. The mysterious Esrun——”
Kilgore checked himself and fell into silence. Now, as on one or two previous occasions, Severn was conscious of things left unsaid—hints at unguessed influence behind this expedition. The British ruled in Tibet. These Sikhs were ex-Indian army men. Kilgore's invention of the machine gun had been given to China. Was this one of the numberless outflung protecting arms of the British Empire—not in any sense official, yet none the less with far-reaching political effect—which had been carried into distant places by adventurous men since the days of the East India Company? Severn could find no answer, except in his own imagination. The speculation was interesting, but unsatisfying.
“You're going to wait for some word from Fandi Singh?” he asked.
“No.” Kilgore shook his head. The man was perfectly poised as always, yet he was inwardly aflame with a nervous excitement. “We have enough men here to win or lose—and if we fail to surprize the ten priests, we lose. If we win, Fandi joins us and we can hold the temple indefinitely against the tribe—until Sheng Wu arrives.”
Once again Severn felt that singular uneasiness over the way in which Kilgore's ultimate plans depended on the arrival of Sheng Wu. But he thrust the thought from his mind.
The sun slipped away and was gone. In the valley the whirling sands had died down and the wind ceased. Rifles were cleaned and loaded. The machine gun was not unpacked, as its chief value was for defense. When the long twilight was merging into night Kilgore gave the word to mount.
To Severn this final two miles presented a choking tedium, for eagerness was dragging at his soul. No word was spoken; the orders had been given and understood beforehand. Presently the horses sniffed the green oasis ahead and their pace quickened. Mounting a sharp rise in the sand, a light appeared ahead—rather, a glow of soft radiance marking the low rounded dome of the temple.
“Luminous paint in the tope,” whispered Kilgore. “A lot of tricks like this inside. Come ahead!”
He and Severn quickened their advance, followed by the risaldar. Day halted the others and deployed some of them—for all egress from the place was to be shut off.
The mass of the temple was now clearly visible in the dim starlight; Severn perceived that it was a long, low building of stone, seemingly of massive strength. There was no indication of any watch being kept. Indeed, the central gates stood open and unguarded.
“Got 'em!” murmured Kilgore, and dis-mounted. “This is the hour when they meet to communicate with Esrun. If we're lucky we'll see things.”
Handing their reins to the risaldar, Kilgore and Severn advanced on foot. They were in the gateway, and through. Pistol in hand, Kilgore led the way as if he had a perfect familiarity with the temple. Star-beams lighted their advance.
Inside the gates, a courtyard, small and backed by the temple proper. Somewhere afar a Mongol woman's voice rose in shrill, reedy song, followed by a banging of copper pots. This prosaic note drew a smile from Severn; then he followed Kilgore into darkness. A stone passage walled them in.
Kilgore had provided himself with a tiny pocket flashlit, probably for this very need. He flashed the pencil-beam ahead and Severn discerned only stone walls. An occasional door showed itself; then came a flight of descending steps. The Canadian halted.
“We've passed the entrance to the main hall,” he breathed. “Nobody there now. Steps wind down, come out directly on council chamber. Not a sound, now!”
In darkness again, Severn followed down the stone steps. His nostrils caught the indescribable reek of temple candles, loose cotton wicks burning but unconsumed. The stairs went on interminably—twenty-five, thirty of them. Then a soft glow of light, and a curtain of some frayed material through which came the light.
To Severn this unhindered access was incredible. Now came the explanation, as Kilgore halted him with a touch—a high, shrill voice, vibrant with excitement, that rose from behind the curtain and spoke a Mongol readily understood by Severn.
“We have obeyed the orders of our lord Esrun. It is three weeks and more since the men of Darkan went forth, led by five novices, to the destruction of the impious white men and their followers. Let us ask our lord if the novices have made report to him.”
Severn's eyes widened. Kilgore was glancing at him interrogatively; evidently the Canadian knew little of this language. But Severn dared say nothing. He held up a hand for silence and leaned forward, tensed, awaiting what might come next.
No further sound—blank silence from behind the curtain. Kilgore moved forward and Severn cautiously joined him. They stood at the curtain and looked through the frayed holes therein. And now, for a moment, Severn could not believe the scene before him. He even forgot that frightful news which had just come to his ears.
He gazed upon a company of ten men seated about a table, and on the table were four huge temple candles of soft, painted wax, smoking unheeded. The table was of ancient stone, but neither table nor candles held the stupefied gaze of Severn; it was the men themselves, the ten priests of Darkan, who sat in ungainly temple chairs of cracked lacquer and hugely curving mastodons' tusks, fossil ivory from the northern glaciers.
Each of those barbaric chairs framed a picture of brutish splendor. Red lamas were these men; their robes and hats were of dusky red, highly embroidered and glittering with an abundance of rich jewels—not the usual Tibetan ornaments of coral and turquoise, but blazing stones, cut and polished, set in antique fashion and throwing back the yellow candle-light in a flashing stream of fire. The men themselves were obese, bestial figures of lust and license unchecked. They sat in silence, staring at the candles. Their hair and mustaches and straggly beards were heavily gilded; their finger-nails were long and encased in quills of gold after the old Chinese fashion.
Now Severn saw the brutal faces crossed by a wave of startled emotion, as if into each man's brain had come some perturbing thought—yet no word had been spoken. After an instant one of them spoke, uneasily, as if to affirm the message he had caught.
“Our lord tells me that the men of Darkan have destroyed that caravan, and that our novices report there was no trace of white men. Is this correct, brethren?”
The others assented. Their breathing was heavy, rapid, tense. Severn, who saw that Kilgore understood nothing of what was said, went sick at heart.
The scheme of this infernal Esrun was plain to him now. Esrun had sent out the tribe under five novices, directing them by telepathy to destroy Kilgore's caravan, yet not knowing that Kilgore had left that caravan. The other five novices, no doubt, were bringing the virgin tribute from Urga. And Sheng Wu had been destroyed!
In his agitation, Severn touched the curtain before him. It waved. From one of the Ten broke a cry—and the cry was lost in the crack of Kilgore's pistol.
What came afterward was a mad frenzy of destruction. The priests were armed—and were armed with automatic pistols. They dashed down the candles and scattered. The chamber had other doors. Kilgore's little flashlight was of small avail.
Severn yielded to the lust of the manhunt—running after fleeing figures, shooting, pursuing blindly with sobbing breath and emptied pistol. Dark passages, shots stabbing the obscurity, the stifling stink of smoldering candle-wicks, the tumultuous shouts and screams of fighting men—everything was pandemonium, sheer madness! Of what he did or where he went Severn could afterward remember little.
He emerged into the open night, staggering, gasping for breath, and found himself standing in the temple courtyard. The stone building behind was reverberating to shots, shouts, poundings. There welled up the same wild Sikh battle-yell that sounded when the foundations of Mogul mosques were washed in the blood of swine by the hillmen.
With swish of torn silk, a figure leaped out past Severn, darted across the open sand. Behind it, in the darkness of some doorway, clanged the echoing breath of a rifle; the figure spun about, tottered, went down.
The risaldar came forth, joined Severn and laughed wildly. “Ha, sahib! There was the last of the rats—we have hunted them down well, eh? By the brood of the Lion, this was good work! The women are under guard, unhurt; they were all old cattle, those women. And only two of our men wounded!”
Severn felt suddenly sickened with himself.
“Do not rejoice too soon,” he returned harshly. “Sheng Wu and the caravan have been destroyed.”
The risaldar uttered one astonished ejaculation, then fell silent.
- Ghenghis Khan was a minor chief. later son-in-law of Prester John, according to Marco Polo.