ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE
The story: In the city of Harbin in 1918. Stacey Horton, a which stood apart from young Canadian exporter, rescues a Russian girl, Vera the rows of prison Constanlinovna. from starvation. She states that her brother, barracks. Locks solid lookSerge. was one of a party entrusted with the delivery of two ing as coupling grips on a million dollars in gold to the anti-Bolshevik commander, railroad car opened under Kolchak, and that both men and gold have disappeared. the jailer’s key. I was
Falling in love with Vera, Horton decides to try and rescue pushed into a twelve-byher brother and recover the gold. He goes to Tsitsihar and twelve room with solid there, after saving a Japanese from a mob, meets Major Hamatori. The latter thinks Horton is Baron Ungern von Sternburg from the White army of General Semenov, and thus the Canadian secures information of some value. He has a narrow escape, however, when the real baron appears.
By pretending that he learned considerable about the missing fold from Hamatori and promising a share when it is recovered, Horton secures a pass from the local Chinese general,
Pao Lin-chun, and goes to Chita, leaving Vera behind. His avowed object is to assist General Semenov in recovering the gold, but his primary object is to liberate her brother Serge.
He is disconcerted to find that his open enemy, Baron Ungern von Sternburg, has also arrived and is horror-stricken when he finds that his beloved Vera is with the baron. A traitress, he thinks. To cap his misfortune, when he presents his “pass” to General Semenov it proves to be a warning that he is dangerous.
Horton is imprisoned.
IN THE HEADQUARTERS outer room the sergeant, under an officer’s command, searched me, took away my passport, money belt and the protection paper from Pao Lin-chun. Luckily for me, my automatic I’d left behind in my room, else Semenov could have trumped up a charge of attempted assassination. A guard of six ruffians with rifles was summoned from the street to take me to the prison.
Straight down the main staircase they marched me and past the restaurant doors. As luck had it, Vera, with her hand lightly laid on the Bloody Baron’s arm, emerged the instant I, with my clumping guards, was passing. I saw the blood leave her cheeks, and 1 thought a message of quick sympathy flashed from her eyes; at least, they went almost black on the instant. Ungern halted abruptly at sight of me. His saturnine face crinkled into little lines of mirth. A queer falsetto titter escaped from his slit mouth.
Beyond the town, directly under a gloomy, pine-fringed ridge where a river was laid like a silver scimitar about it. the car which conveyed my guards and myself halted before gates in a quadrangular stockade of logs with watch towers at the four corners. This was the war prison, which had been cleared of its Germans, Turks, and Austrians by the Bolsheviks before Semenov and ln gern von Sternburg came from the Elast to drive out the Reds and their ex-prisoner allies.
But nowthe yard within the stockade was comfortably filled by Bolsheviks themselvessad groups squatting in the sunlight and wondering, doubtless, how many more suns would be vouchsafed them. Not for me. however, sunlight and free air. After 1 was booked by an oaf of a jailer 1 was led to a small building sliaped like a blockhouse
log walls, log floor like a corduroy road and a tiny barred window on the far wall which looked on to the near-by pine mountain. Locks clicked behind me like teeth of a snapping mastiff. .
Stacey Horton, Canadian citizen, a prisoner in Siberia. No friend nearer than Harbin; no consul within 800 miles.
Here, I bitterly reflected, was the end of that road of glittering romance and glorious resolve upon which a girl’s magic voice, like a temple bell, had set my feet less than a week before. Or was this quite the end of the road? I had seen, as we approached the stockade, a field all ridged with newly turned earth in long rows. That field was notorious in Chita. It was named, “Ungem’s private graveyard.”
You may well believe that your Simple Simon hero spent a morbid period of review and stock-taking of the situation there in that log bear trap, with the light from over the pine
wrath of the Bloody Baron to count upon as a sure thing.
Riddles, riddles. Cross and double-cross. The only certain, clearly demonstrable fact was the overwhelmingly important one that Stacey Horton was behind locks in a Siberian hoosegow.
It was dark when a warder brought me a bowl of cabbage soup and a hunk of black bread. He left a stub of candle scarcely an inch long with a happy comment.
“The dead in Ungem’s private graveyard." said he with a pointed grin, “will not come to talk with you while this burns."
I do not know what hour it was —in the dark the night was interminable—when I heard keys creaking in the locks. I bounded from the bare board shelf where I’d been lying in racking wakefulness. The round eye of an electric torch sought me out. I could not distinguish its bearer.
a long, coolly appraising study. Eyes in his death mask of a face were the only living force there. He commenced speaking slowly and in guttural English. Ferhaps he used this medium out of deference to Hamatori’s facility with it.
“When last I spoke to you. Canadian, you remember 1 said some day you would have the pleasure of knowing the Baron Ungem better. Now ...” He opened one hand where it lay on the table palm up. and with his eyes on it he slowly flexed the fingers to a fist; slowly and with a relish of strangling. Then he lifted his gaze back to me with a Satanic laugh behind pin-point pupils.
“Semenov would have had you shot in the morning if I had not intervened; and," added Ungern, "you still may be shot. That depends largely on yourself."
I nodded. Surely no place for words of mine here. The blue-white eyes bored me steadily.
mountain coming sicklier through the bars as the day waned. Betrayed, 1 reflected bitterly; betrayed twice in almost as many hours. First by Vera Constantinovna, then by that consummate crook. Pao Lin-chun. I had been a fool to trust any woman, much less one picked up in the Railway Club Park like any sick kitten. And a triple-plated ass I was to have put any faith whatever in the offer of alliance made by the slick commander of Tsitsihar.
What I'd said to Semenov in quick defensive impulse to meet his challenge—about Pao’s having used me and the letter I bore as leverage against the White commander, I mean—was a silly fabrication availing nothing. The startling truth behind old Pao’s letter to Semenov was just this; The wily Chinaman thought I knew too much about his designs upon the lost gold hoard; guessed, of course. I knew much more than I revealed to him. Wherefore, with artless skill he’d made me the bearer of my own warrant guaranteed to remove me from the theatre of action: either permanently as a tenant of that field of death across the road from the prison stockade, or for a convenient time here in this wretched hole.
Oh. yes, I could see clearly now with admirable hindsight. That would be Pao’s way.
And, when I came to think of it, how much more about me had my fat friend in Tsitsihar written to Semenov besides the two sentences of accusation the latter read to me? Had he killed two birds with one stone by including the accusation that Ungem von Stemburg was playing his associate in the W’hite command false by whacking in with Hamatori on a secret hunt for the Czar’s treasure? Pao wouldn’t hesitate to put that flea in Semenov’s ear. If he had, then my fate was certain. I would have the doubled
“Up, little prisoner!" a hearty voice hailed through the dark. “We make a journey."
HANDS WERE LAID solidly on either arm and I was propelled out of the cell into starlight. A shape of indistinguishable black walked at right and left; the only tangible thing about the wraiths being their grip on my arms. The exploring torch eye covered the path to the stockade gates, where guards fumbled at the bars. Outside a car waited, its engine humming, two broad antennae of light touching the mounds in Ungem’s graveyard. Those feelers of light were reassuring— pointed beyond the furrows of the dead. Evidently my destination was not among them.
Between two silent fellows, my warders, the car carried me around the town —I could see a faint haze of light marking it—and for some distance beyond. Now a flash of river in starlight, now the black shoulder of a bluff. We drew up at a dim huddle of conical shapes which proved to be tents. Sentries were there to bar progress until my guards grunted a password. I was escorted down a dim alley of tents to where light shone through canvas walls at the far end. Guards at the tent door stood aside to let us pass.
For a moment I was blinded by the light, then out of the dazzle familiar figures began to take shape. The Bloody Baron sat behind a light camp table; an electric bulb over his head cut down to emphasize the unearthly pallor of his face. Beside him was Major Hamatori. surprisingly in the uniform of his Emperor—khaki with red tabs and red band about his cap where the gold chrysanthemum pinned it in front. The major’s incompetent interpreter of Russian stood like an undertaker’s assistant behind his chair.
Ungem nodded dismissal to my two guards, then gave me
“Why did you come to Chita, idiot?”
“To try to secure the release of a man imprisoned here,” I answered promptly.
“Ha! Who is that man?”
“Misname, I believe, is Serge Constantinovna.”
At my frank avowal the Bloody Baron’s eyes went up. He was an instant fitting that news into the background his mind had built around me.
“Serge Constantinovna?” he repeated. “You know him, then.”
That was another facer for the Baron. I thought I could read in an instant’s flicker of the eyelids indecision in pressing this line farther.
“Why then,” he demanded, "did you come all the way to Chita to seek to free a man you did not know?"
“I was asked to do so,” I answered promptly.
“Ha! Asked by Pao Lin-chun.” He said that triumphantly and as a rare piece of deduction. Why. since I had gone thus far along the line of truth. I did not deny this and name V’era Constantinovna I do not know. Perhaps my wounded pride forbade me admit acquaintance with the girl who, at luncheon, had been the recipient of his possessive glances. At any rate. I let him have his own interpretation of the facts.
“You are in the pay of Pao Lin-chun." Ungem challenged.
“If I were,” I answered hotly enough, “why should he give me a letter to Semenov which landed me in a cell? And which, you say, brought his order for my execution?”
The Bloody Baron was just framing an answer to that when Hamatori, with a little bow of apology, cut in:
“Excoose. prease. You say letter from the Chinaman to
General Semenov? Is that why you speak with Semenov in restaurant today?”
"Yes. I delivered the letter as Pao asked me to do.” Hamatori exchanged glances with Ungern, then with painstaking choice of words:
"Mister Horton, sir; you know, then, what was content that letter?”
"No.” I answered. "It was written in Mandarin. PaoLin-chun said it was a letter which would give me influence with Semenov.”
“Influence for what purpose, curse you!" Ungem broke in with cold fury.
"The purpose of my mission to free the man, Serge Constantinovna.” I think 1 gave that convincingly. I think, too, by this time 1 was finding a little solid ground in all the quicksands. If I could just continue to play upon the twain’s suspicion of Pao's double dealing . . At least, it was plain that my plumping of the fact of a letter was a surprise. Evidently they wrere not yet in Semenov’s confidence in that regard. I had a growing belief, moreover, I had Hamatori on my side as insurance against whatever insane fury might seize Ungem. Yet my position there in that tent with a killer and a cold, calculating agent of predatory Tokyo was hardly jxrfumed with rose leaves.
“In Tsitsihar, where did you go after I last saw you?” “To the only place in towm." I replied hardily, "where I could not lx* murdered by someone under your orders.”
A sharp, nervous twitch pulled down the gaping sabre slit w'hich gave his mouth a gargoyle’s leer.
"And that w'as . . . ?”
"The yamen of Pao Lin-chun.”
"Ten thousand devils!” Ungem leaped from his camp stool. His sabre flickered from its scabbard and threaded a semicircle of light above his head. Quick as thought, little Hamatori was under his sword arm and struggling to wrest the weapon from the Russian. The Baron mouthed horrible oaths at him. breasted against the brown man’s strength. The flurry was over quickly as it came. Ungem’s sabre clattered to the table. With a duck of his head in apology, the major picked it up and slipped it into its scabbard. Ungem sat down and swabbed the saliva from his riven mouth.
"Mister Horton, sir; prease excoose. ” Hamatori was suave as a court chamberlain. "And wrhen you go to Chinaman’s house, you tell him all?”
"Only, Major Hamatori, enough to explain why 1 should wake him at that hour of night, seeking protection.” Here was I, just snatched from a butcher’s hands, sparring and dodging for the next minute of life.
Hamatori was quietly persistent:
"But you were saying to that Chinaman—something? How you learned something from my so foolish mistake?” "I could tell him nothing more than he knew already. You forget that Baron Ungem already had made an agreement with Pao Lin-chun to work with him in hunting —in a business I need not mention.” Ungem. nowmaster of himself again, put in a question coldly:
"Did that fat Chinese scoundrel tell you he had come to agreement with me?"
"He did.” 1 affirmed. "And it will interest you to know that Pao suspects you, Baron Ungem. of being prepared to betray him." That was a desperate flinging of the truth into the dark, prompted only by a shadowy flicker of a plan of salvation that had jx>pjxd into my taut mind. If I could gain but a temporary respite from the threat of death this mad Russian personified, I might save myself. The Bkxxiv Baron knew I was desperately fencing. But he must have realized, Ux>. that his sabre could seal for ever a source of information likely to ta valuable to him.
"So!” The slit comer of his mouth dropped in a grotesque sneer. "Pao Lin-chun told you that? What else?"
I played my boldest stroke.
"Am 1 likely." 1 asked, “to give you the confidences of Pao Lin-chun when a stroke from your sabre or one of Semenov’s bullets will be my reward?” And I threw in an afterthought for good measure: “After Pao deliberately
sent me up here with a letter which he knew would cause my death or imprisonment when he did that because he was afraid he’d told me too much, should I have any scruples in revealing what he did say -provided I am not killed for doing so?”
Hamatori touched the Baron's sleeve and gave him a quick look. I watched the changing lights in the Russian’s pale eyes. Blood lust and caution were tattling in his brain. Finally he blew a whistle dangling from a cord about his neck. My two guards appeared.
"Take this man for a walk." the Baron commanded in Russian. “Keep him out of earshot until you hear me whistle to bring him tack.”
So out under the stars again, with the grip of fingers on my arms. 1 could have chanted a hymn of thankfulness to the myriad burning points in the infinity overhead. Stay of execution—at least I had achieved that. Now, what would be the next turning in this night trail of perils?
At the whistle’s summons 1 was escorted back to the tent. The Bloody Baron was lolling, leg up over one arm of his camp chair, ironic humor in his eyes. The little Japanese,
sitting stiffly, cleared his throat with a noisy ha-a-a-auk.
“Mister Horton, sir. I have per-suade honorable Baron you is ver’ valable man for our purpose. Have per-suade him you is more valable alive than dying; so
“And I am not one easily persuaded. Mister Horton, sir," cut in the other with a cackling imitation of the major’s odd mode of address.
Hamatori doggedly plowed on:
"The Baron will explain to Semenov he has need of you. He has a ver’ clever way to make that explaining. He does this because in a day or so we go the Baron and I—on ver’ interesting journey to the west. And, Horton—san, you go with us. Yiss, we sink better you go with us. Better, also, for you than becoming shot—I sink so.”
The major gave me a foxy smile to punctuate his making of a joke and purled on:
"Your guards take you back to hotel, where you will find all property taken from you w'hen you are arrest. You will be wise man not making any attempt leave Chita until you depart with us westward. So—sayonara gozientas.”
Ungem nodded at my guards and I was marched down the row of dark tents to the waiting car. A free man? Not exactly,
THE CLOCK behind the desk of the Hotel Versailles said it was two in the morning when my hammering on locked doors finally roused the night porter. My two warders had dumped me on the curb and sped away by car after bringing me back from Ungem’s camp. I went to my room as a man returning home from years of exile, a Jean Valjean with years of chains behind him, though it was but ten hours to the dot since I’d quit that room for my interview with Semenov.
I was exhausted, limp from reaction following fiddlestring tautness. The discovery that, by the side of my automatic where I’d left it on the dresser before going to call on Semenov, my money belt, passport and the protection letter from Pao Lin-chun were neatly stacked should have surprised me, but did not. I was numb to further surprise. It appeared to me a matter of course that these possessions, taken from me at the moment of my arrest, should be there. Almost as if I’d never lost them.
Down ten thousand fathoms into black sleep.
I was at sea bottom, couched amid gently waving grasses and with parrot fish playing like kittens through the arches of gorgeous corals. A sound came from a far distance tolling of a bell. How could a bell be tolling at the bottom of the sea? Indolently I pondered the problem, and then by those mysterious alleys leading up from sleep I came to comprehension. Just a knocking at my door—hesitant, cautious, patiently continuous.
I padded barefooted and threw back the lock. A midget in a trick bowler hat leaped swiftly through the doorway, softly closed and locked the door, then faced me with a bow and a sharp hissing of indrawn breath. The little Japanese mud turtle, Hamatori’s unscrambler of Russian. I dropped on the bed, dumbfounded.
"Excoose. I speak Enguliss more tatter’n Russian.” Another duck of the comic headpiece. "My name you do not know—Raita Yamamotu. Ver’ pleasant to meet you.” "I am honored, Mr. Yamamotu,” I managed to answer. "But why the locked door?” Incidentally. I asked myself why I had left my revolver on the dresser when I turned in. Aliens in the Orient usually do not separate themselves so far from that ace-in-the-hole when sleeping.
"You excoose locked door, kindly sir,” Mr. Yamamotu apologized with a flicker of a grin. “I come to see you with much confusion.” He sat gingerly on a chair’s edge and twirled his trick hat by its brim. The little man evidently was under a severe strain of nerves. His mouth gasped open and shut like a landed mullet’s.
"In Tsitsihar, kindly sir, you had convenience for saving my life from unpleasant Chinamans. I ver’ happy for you do this. I not forgetting.”
"A small matter. Mr. Yamamotu," I said with not the happiest choice of phrase.
"I not forgetting this life saving, so I do likewise. Never minding great peril which is to me for doing same. I come to say to you your death is arrange by honorable Ungem and Major Hamatori. Only my thankfulness for life saving permits me deceive my master this way for warning you.” "My death is arranged?” I echoed, wide awake by this time. “You mean ?"
"Last night before you ap-pear at honorable Baron’s tent I overhear Baron say to Major Hamatori he persuade Semenov it ver’ bad for shooting Canadian gentleman here in Chita—so easy news travel to lx>ndon and besides British soldiers expected coming soonly at Vladivostok. Better, he persuade Semenov, let him take Canadian prisoner with him when he goes west for railroad inspection. Then excoose ver’ tad Enguliss—honorable Baron say regretably wicked bandits will kill you.”
Little Mud-turtle’s teeth were chattering in very real terror. I commenced to realize what scruples his sense of gratitude had been forced to ride down before he could screw up his courage to visit me with his warning.
"Mr. Yamamotu. you are very good to do this. I would not have expected -”
He was on his feet and scurrying for the door.
"Ver’ kindly sir, my master. Major Hamatori, is not bloodthirsting man like honorable Ungem. He say to Ungern, ‘When we go searching that Czar’s gold we takg* this Canadian. And not to kill him until he say to us all he know. Then never mind.’ ”
Yamamotu’s hand was turning the key. He turned to grin at me again like a scared squirrel.
“This railroad inspection is really hunt for Czar's gold, you un’erstand—to demonish place named Urga— so have kindness not to go, if possible, with honorable Baron and my respectable major because you not get there alive. Sayonara.”
He faded and I was left with a new day’s shock.
Good little Yamamotu! After all, he’d risked his neck to tell me what I should have realized the moment Hamatori delivered his specifications of my reprieve finishing that early morning conference in Ungern’s tent; I mean, the plan to take me along on the trail of the treasure lure. The Chinese classics say somewhere a man cannot ride on a tiger’s back. How much less able would I be to do the circus trick of riding two tigers, with a foot on the back of each. Fatuously, I had grasped at the straw that my life would be safe so long as I knew something Ungern and Hamatori would like to know. Now, in the light of the little interpreter’s warning, that wasn’t even a straw. It was a horse hair.
I WENT DOWN to fortify myself with coffee in the I restaurant. It was noon. The.place was again crowded. The orchestra was sawing away in a lightsome mood far apart from my own. Ungern was not there, nor Hamatori. Vera I saw seated with a man strange to me; a youngish, blonde chap, rather fetching, who wore the bottle-green uniform of the old Czarist infantry of the line.
Neither disguised interest in the other. Laughter tinged with almost a hysteria of happiness passed between them. Vera’s smile, when her lips were not parted wider in mirth, was something to send a man through hell and high water to win. What use all my fulminations against the minx? My heart went black when I saw her hand grope for the young officer’s under the screen of the tablecloth and give it a lover’s squeeze.
As on the day before, her eyes met mine blankly when I passed her table.
“What rot, all this lovesick glooming,” I yelled inwardly at myself as I walked out into the foyer. “Your business now is to save your silly neck.”
The bulletin on the desk said there would be no train to Harbin for two days; an Irkutsk-bound one left for the west at 11.15 that night. What good to me if there were a train each way every ten minutes? There was not a chance that Ungem’s and Hamatori’s spies would permit me to board one. I was under espionage this minute; no doubt of that. Granting I could slip out of town on a horse under cover of darkness, the nearest Manchurian town was two hundred miles away; and if there was a road thither I did not know it.
Chita was a trap and I was the rat running round and round inside it.
After dinner that night, with my automatic in pocket and belted comfortably with gold, I went to the Golden Horn. Chita’s classiest café chantant. Just to get away from myself; from the dreadful treadmill of futile scheming I'd been climbing all day. A smoky, tawdry dive the Golden Horn proved to be. On the stage a display of naked fat women, and at the tables Buriats smelling abominably of mutton tallow, along with Russian and Japanese swaggerers.
A waiter brought me a second glass of beer—the only clean thing in the place. As he set it before me, I saw the edge of a card protruding from the base of the glass where it stuck to the bottom. I detached it in idle curiosity. The engraving read :
“Serge Constantinovna, Lieutenant, Imperial XVth
Regiment.” Pencil markings blurred with beer said:
“Vera Constantinovna would see you in the street.”
I crumpled the card into my pocket, left some kopeks in the beer slop and started for the door. As I drew near it I was conscious that a young, clean-looking officer was quartering on the same destination from another part of the hall. He was the officer I’d seen lunching with Vera.
"If you will follow me, sir,” he said in a low voice as he pushed through the door close behind my shoulder.
I did so. He led the way down street beyond the light from an arc cluster outside the Golden Horn. Under shadows of larches surrounding a small park a car stood, lights off. a driver dimly outlined behind the wheel. My guide stepped alertly forward to open the limousine door, motioning me to enter.
As I stepped in gingerly, groping in the dark, a warm hand closed over mine, drew me to a seat.
"At last!” Swift bending of a head, scarcely visible. A faintly perfumed breath, then—lips met mine, gently, oh, gently.
"At last,” whispered Vera Constantinovna, “we three -together. My brother; you, my brave one. and I. Now we go together to secure the Czar’s gold which was lost."
Continued on page 46
Continued from page 20
THAT KISS; that kiss in the dark from the lips of Vera Constantinovna ! I tell you it was as unreal as the brushing of a fairy’s gossamer wing, yet glowingly alive. That instant I felt her lips on mine the world went all golden. Miraculously all the structure of bleak pessimism I had reared in my heart against the girl flattened. I was bound by her spell completely as the night of our meeting in Harbin.
As the young officer stepped in beside me and the chauffeur slipped gears into mesh, Vera groped for my hand and guided it to her brother’s:
“Serge, this is Stacey Horton, the bold one who makes all this çossible.”
“Vera tells me,” the young fellow said as he gave me a hearty grip, “she would have you change your name to George or Michael, for they are the hero saints in our Russian belief.”
"This Stacey Horton,” trilled Vera with a laugh of excited abandon, “must learn to act natural in his shrine when Vera Constantinovna hums candles before him.”
The car was skimming silently through Chita’s outskirts. In less than it takes to tell this the lights were behind us and we were swallowed by the awesome infinity of the Siberian night. All the world was constricted to that tiny glassed-in space wherein three adventurers went rocketing out into the wilderness to tilt at Destiny: a glassed-in cubicle packed with hopes, fears, the gallant resolves and fantastic dreams of three. Of three, yes; for even before I had a chance to put questions crowding to be answered by Vera, I had dedicated myself anew to whatever hazard might lie beyond the wide pocket of the night.
“We go.” said Vera, “to board the night train westward which will stop for us at a ! blockhouse sixty versts from Chita. Serge j has persuaded the engineer with gold. Now I tell you other things you must know: Why I came to Chita and refused to know you when you saw me with that animal. Ungem —and. my friend, the look of hurt in your eyes stabbed me until I almost cried out and spoiled all my plans. You must know, too, why I soiled myself by allowing all Chita to guess I was the Baron’s latest Orce.” She gave a low laugh. “But not Circe. She was one who changed her admirers into swine. I could not equal her magic because Ungem is already that.” "Vera played Ungern for a fool.” Serge hastily put in. “in order to secure my release from prison. Only just at noon today I was freed by his orders, to find Vera waiting at the prison gate.”
“And I was thrown into a cell yesterday,”
I appended grimly, “because I came to Chita to free you.”
Vera’s hand was laid lightly on mine and her voice trembled.
“It was I who was at fault. When you left me alone in Harbin—when I knew you were going to Chita to do your best to free Serge, yet could I not be satisfied to remain behind, helpless. I was mad with yearning for Serge here. Believed perhaps a woman might succeed where a man could not. You, dear friend—I could not ask your permission to join you at Chita; so I took all the money you were so thoughtful to leave with me and boarded the next train for Chita.”
The girl snuggled my arm in hers, and like a child she whispered:
“Scold me now as I deserve to be scolded. Vera Constantinovna. always the headstrong one, always doing the impulsive thing. Serge will say I am like that. But” —her voice climbed to a note of exultation —“when, at Tsitsihar, the Baron boarded the train I had my chance. They say I have beauty—see, I am such a brazen one I say this myself. I knew Ungem is susceptible to beauty, so I became a tiger tamer.”
“A dangerous business, tiger taming.” I said. I felt her arm tremble. Her voice came haltingly.
“Yes. because one in the cage with beasts is expected by them to give rewards for good conduct.”
“Vera !” The brother’s exclamation was a stab through the dark.
“Peace, little brother!” she said soothingly. “We are here now, fleeing from Ungem, are we not? Think no more of what | might have been.”
“Amen to that,” I breathed. My heart suddenly was cold at thought of the desperate game this girl had played with a mad satyr, of the stake she’d risked to gain her j brother’s freedom. But Vera permitted no j instant for morbid retrospection. She was crowding me with questions, would have me detail every crowded moment since I quit Harbin. Though I was burning to know what lay immediately beyond this night ride in a car over rolling steppes, her insistence brought my story first. I gave briefly the high lights of kaleidoscopic adventures, from the yamen of Pao Lin-chun to the warning of little Yamamotu predicting my death at the hands of Ungern and Hamatori.
SERGE, when I had finished, had me go back to my second interview with Pao, following my experience with the two plotters in the Japanese hotel.
“You say.” he queried, “the Chinaman was informed by Ungem that the Czar’s gold is hidden near Urga?” j
“Pao declared a Buriat camel driver who’d escaped the killing of all in the caravan told Ungem that. And,” I added, “at noon today when Yamamotu came to warn me he said that Urga was the destination of Ungem and Hamatori’s imminent trip to the west.”
“As I thought !” Serge exclaimed. “That Buriat fellow was put in my cell to pump me.” Then he told how, when he was torn from Vera at the Chita station and thrown into a cell in the same caserne I later came to know, a Russian-speaking Buriat was made to share his quarters.
“The man pretended to know me,” Serge continued in a sharp incisive way of speaking which I came to accept as a mannerism. “He said he’d been with Kolchak and had seen me in the admiral’s camp. Wanted to know how I happened to be so far east as Chita and why I was arrested. I refused to talk to the hairy dog until one night—it was the second after my arrest—he whispered to me through the dark.
“ ‘I was a camel driver with the gold caravan, tovarish,’ that infidel whispered. ‘I am the only one the lamas did not kill at Bogdo-ol.’ ”
“Hear this, Stacey Horton,” Vera urged. “Serge has told me only a little, but it is the story which is sending us westward.”
Serge went on:
“I believed then; now I am doubly sure that camel driver was telling truth. He said the caravan came south from the railroad along the Selinga River, avoided the Siberian towns at the border by a detour and approached Urga, the Mongols’ sacred city on the road across the desert to Manchuria. A sacred mountain there belongs to the Living Buddha of Urga, says this fellow; a great mountain heavily forested where all the country to south, east and west is without a tree; on the side nearest Urga, monasteries and the palaces of the Living Buddha. The mountain, Bogdo-ol, is patrolled by monks because the animals living in its forests, the musk deer, the bear and elk, are themselves sacred—not to be killed.
"Camped near a deserted monastery at the base of this Bogdo-ol, the caravan was resting its beasts before taking the Gobi road to the east. A Russian, not knowing the sacredness of the wild beasts, shot a deer. A priest heard the sound of the gun. came to the camp and saw the dead deer, then rode to rouse the mob of priests on the other side of the mountain. Then, so said this Buriat prisoner, the caravan’s leader realized the danger. Furiously he and his men lifted slabs in the floor of the halfruined monastery and buried there the gold bars and kegs of gold rubles.”
“And Serge can find this monastery,” Vera cut in excitedly. “The wild Mongol camel driver described the site perfectly.”
“The lamas and the mob from Urga came in the night,” her brother carried on. “It was not a fight, it was a massacre, my Buriat tells me. The Russians tried to defend themselves from behind logs, but were shot down. The Buriat escaped death by mingling with the killers—he speaks their language—and, by keeping his mouth shut, he finally got out of Urga with a camel train headed east across the desert, and so made his way to Semenov’s camp.”
“But why,” I asked, “did Semenov throw the man in jail?”
“It was not Semenov but the Baron Ungem who ordered the fellow jailed,” Serge answered. “I asked the man why he’d been imprisoned. ‘Because,’ he answered, ‘I knew the hidden gold under the monastery on Bogdo-ol belonged to the Russians. I told the Russian general with the slit mouth. As a reward, he put me in prison.’ ”
"It seems reasonable to believe,” I hazarded, “Ungem wished to keep his mouth shut. Especially to ensure against
your camel driver’s talking to Semenov’s men until he and Hamatori could perfect their plans for going to Urga. Until they could take that Buriat with them as a guide, he was safer behind a locked log door.”
“But why,” Vera interposed, “was Serge locked up with this man?”
“As I said,” her brother answered, “it must have been that Ungem hoped I would reveal myself to be what he suspected— Kolchak’s scout, looking for evidences of the lost gold in Semenov’s camp. If I had, you can be certain I would not be here now.”
I WAS REVOLVING young Serge’s story I in my mind, fitting it with the fragments of intrigue and counter-intrigue which lay like a jumbled jig-saw puzzle over recent days. I thought I saw where fantastic flutings and scallopings of incident began to fit together.
"Doesn’t the whole picture,” I ventured, “begin to look something like this: Semenov had a rumor of the gold caravan, else he would not have arrested you, Serge Constantinovna, on suspicion of spying out the land. But the Bloody Baron had the Buriat’s story—knew much more than did Semenov. He feared his partner in command might block him if he started west for Urga by way of the railroad and then crosscountry; moreover, he hit upon the idea of freezing out Semenov by playing with the Japanese. So he went to Tsitsihar for a double purpose—to meet Hamatori, coming as agent for Tokyo, and to secure from Pao Lin-chun a protection flag to ensure his reaching Urga by the desert caravan route through Manchuria. And old Pao bluffed the Baron into a promise of co-operation in return for guarantees of safety.”
“Good!” the young lieutenant commented. “But you nearly spoiled Ungem’s plans by blundering upon the Japanese agent from Tokyo before he could meet him.”
“So nearly,” I laughed, “that when Ungern found me in Chita he was certain I’d been sent by Pao to tip his hand to Semenov; at least, to block him until the commander of Tsitsihar could take the long trail across Gobi for Urga. So Ungern and Hamatori decided to take me with them when they make the bold dash for Urga directly out from under Semenov’s nose— and shut my mouth with a bullet when they were certain I could do them no harm.
“One thing more,” I added. “We must count now ujx)n Ungern’s certainty of another fact: When he discovers we three are missing from Chita, there’ll be no doubt in his mind we are together. Little doubt, too, concerning where we’re bound. The Baron and his Man Friday, Hamatori, will come after us as soon as they can.”
There was silence in the car for a minute and more. I think each of us was taking measure of the hardihood, or foolhardiness, of us three rocketing through the night over a savage land and bound foja gold bourne under the protection of a Living Buddha somewhere away off to the west and south by sacred Bogdo-ol. We three pitting ourselves against the ruthless craft of a mad Russian, a calculating Japanese and that polite villain. Pao Lin-chun.
“Stacey Horton”—how I wished Vera would cease to follow that Russian manner of address—"you are brave. You are chivalrous. Whatever the outcome of this thing we attempt for Holy Russia, always will you be shrined with my icon behind an ever burning lamp.”
In the dark I groped for her hand and lifted it to my lips.
"Saint Stacey?” I laughingly mocked. “You’ll have a hard job persuading the Metropolitan of your Holy Russian Church to include a name like that in his calendar of saints.”
To be Concluded