ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE
IT WAS near midnight when the car slackened speed and its headlights struck gleams from parallel lines of steel. Beside the track stood a square brick building, half fort, half section-house. There the chauffeur left us, after Serge had paid him extra rubles to secure his promised silence.
We thought it wise not to rouse the sleeping telegrapher guard in the blockhouse. Three strangers out there in the wilderness that hour of night might send him to his key to chatter our presence over the wire back to Chita.
Baron Ungem von Stemburg would learn of our flight from the town soon enough. We hoped it would not be until after the train we planned to board had left Chita at its scheduled hour of 11.15 p.m.
Though weird nights were to follow, I think I’ll always kxook back on those two hours of waiting on the stepjx*s as the most unearthly ever lived. The spangled heavens pressed so low I fancied 1 could hear the planets humming in their courses. Darkness grew faintly luminous in imagination as I looked to the north. That way. I knew, not a town likely not a single habitation between this blockhouse and the Arctic Ocean. South’ard. too, whence came a faint wind, balsamic and warmed by Gobi sands, unnumbered miles stretching away and away into the hidden heart of mysterious Asia. There lands were unchanged since that dim dawn when mankind was cradled in their sweep; lands once knowing the mystery of crouching beings whose dull brains slowly evolved chipped flint, fire and the first crude wheel. There, too. lay the dust of cities that Marco Polo saw when he visited the Great Cham.
Vera guessed my mood.
"One feels,” she whispered, “like falling down and hugging one of these rails as if they were lifelines in mid-ocean.”
"You. too, are seeing through the dark?”
"That is the Russian nxxxl." the girl answered, her deep voice thrilling to hidden emotions. "We Russians move through life hoping the gxx! Gx! is near to us to sustain us, but finding it hard to sex* Him. We all are such tiny creatures tiny. Life is so vast like this."
1 ventured something that was in my heart:
"But two together always can walk more securely than one through this starlit night we call life. If one stumbles, the otlver is there to help."
She turned her face suddenly to Uxk up at me. and I saw faint glints of light marking tears on her lashes.
"How you came to me a few evenings ago in Harbin, Stacey Horton, when I stumbled: how you picket! me up from the dust and strengthened me with your brave heart when 1 was despairing IX) I not know two can walk
together through the night more securely than one?”
An exaltation of spirit almost breath-taking wrapped me about.
"Vera," I whispered, "if you could love me a little . . . You must know how from the first, when we talked together in Harbin. I ”
"Hush, Stacey Horton! One does not speak of loving until one is sure. Only two days ago. in Chita, you saw me lunching with the Baron, and yours was a black hate for me. I am Russian; you are Canadian. Hard for you to understand Vera Constantinovna. much harder than to think you love her.”
“Hard for you to understand Stacey Horton, then?” I tried to parry the heavy blow of disappointment.
The girl, who was pacing the roadbed by my side, gave a low, teasing laugh.
"Nationality, difference in bkxx!—they have nothing to
do with a woman’s understanding. It bridges all that. Have 1 not told you I plan to burn candles at your shrine?”
1 tried to echo her whimsical laugh, but made rather a hollow business of it.
"But,” 1 said. “I have no intention of stepping into a shrine when I can worship at one of my own choosing.”
SURGE WAS standing a little apart from us, whistling softly up at the stars. Vera seized upon the moment of intimacy to halt our walk and give me a steady look. In the starlight the violet of her eyes was nearly black. I could see the adorable roundness of lier chin and the bow of her lij», dark as the petals of a damask rose.
“Stacey see. I give you the shortened address we Russians use only lor those very close and of the family Stacey.” she repeated, "we go into greater dangers. When if the g(X>d God wills it. we escape from them. then, my comrade, we shall see if love is added to our great happiness. I do hope it may be. I believe love of a man must be a wonderful thing, yet I have not felt it—ever.”
Away down on the Eastern horizon of stars, a round eye of light, like the luminous eye of some insect crawling through the night, slowly crept toward us. A full half-hour
before, the eye grew appreciably larger and the rails commenced a faint singing. A distant whistle, sound of puffing up-grade, then the brakes went on and with a great jangling of couplings the engineer brought his train to a standstill at our rendezvous. A light went on belatedly in the blockhouse, and its sleepy guardian came out to investigate just as we three climbed the steps and the train got under way.
A conductor took our fares and found us compartments. At eight o’clock next morning we detrained at Verknieudinsk (two sniffs and a cough) on the Selinga River, roughly 250 miles straight north from Urga, sacred capital of Outer Mongolia.
We were the only passengers to alight at this Siberian outpost. Tea, black bread and eggs at what passed for a hotel, then we hurled ourselves into high-power activity. My gold belt had to stand the strain of financing an outfit for Vera -her Harbin daintiness was hardly appropriate for Mongolia—and necessities for myself, I having fled Chita without so much as a toothbrush. And Serge must needs secure passports for Vera and himself from a muddle-headed commissioner of the old régime who was rebaptizing himself in vodka on the day of his name saint. Nor did Serge and I overlook the precaution of ammunition for our automatics.
A kindly Russianized Mongol who was the civil representative of Kolchak in the village, gave us a paper which would ensure relays of horses on the second leg of our journey south.
By the greatest of luck, a tiny river steamer making a bi-weekly trip up the Selinga River to the neighborhood of the Siberian boundary was due to pull out that afternoon. It would account for half our journey to Urga in comparative comfort if not with dizzy speed. Just before we went aboard I was visited by an inspiration. No more terribly inept one will ever be laid to my account, I hope.
I remembered Pao Lin-chun’s final injunction as I was leaving his yamen to take train from Tsitsihar. “Watch Ungem,” he had said. “Should he slip out of Chita to westward, send me by telegraph one word, ‘Happiness.’ ” At the time I had not the remotest idea of complying with his request, but now the situation was different. Ungern, so my palsied reasoning told me, surely would be coming west from Chita on the next train; Ungem and Hamatori riding our trail like furies. If old Pao were warned by the telegram, certainly he would try to block them by tipping Semenov to their plans. Even if the old fox should take it into his head to make for Urga himself, he couldn’t do it from
Tsitsihar by cart or camel across the Gobi caravan route out of Hailar in less than eighteen days. We would be out of Urga, for better or worse, before he could arrive.
I went to the telegraph office and addressed the single word, “Happiness,” to Pao Lin-chun, commander at Tsitsihar.
NEXT DAY, quitting the steamer at the border town of Kiachta, we hired a tarantass—a wooden bathtub on wheels and a driver to take us three days farther to Urga. All handholds on a familiar world were broken when we quit the village to face the pine-clad alleys of the mountains, leading up and up to the great Mongolian tableland, roof of the continent. Nights we spent in strange felt tents stretched over wicker-work—the Mongolian yurt unchanged in form and furnishings from the day Genghis Khan carried them with his horde to rear on the Danubian plain. Our hosts were of a race of giants, men and women equally— smiling, simple and exceedingly high flavored when approached from windward. Our days in the tarantass. jolting over roads scarce more than dim tracks through the forest, were idyllic. Vera and Serge whiled away hours with singing peasant songs of their homeland, their voices blending like
the quick autumn colors in the larches which met over our heads. Or they insisted with mock studiousness upon receiving primer lessons in English from me. They laughed like children at the strange sounds issuing from their throats when they attempted to speak alien words.
By contrast with what lay in events ahead of us, those three days were precious passages snatched from a book of innocence.
By common consent we said nothing of the propelling force which was driving us deep into an uncharted world—the Czar’s gold; virgin bars of it and kegs of minted rubles lying buried beneath the floor of an abandoned monastery in the proscribed gloom of a sacred forest. You must believe ours was not the usual gold madness. With two of us. at least, it was a crusaders’ spirit of unselfishness which prompted this excursion into the unknown. Vera and Serge had dedicated themselves to the recovery of that which meant life-blood for a sacred cause. As for myself, the narrative up to this point must offer my most convincing alibi. You have seen how a transplanted North American Galahad devoted himself to the quest, not so much ol gold as of a golden girl.
Near the end of our third day on the road the topping of a divide revealed to us with the suddenness of cinema action in a darkened theatre a breath-taking panorama. Far as the eye carried, a rolling, shimmering plain of grassland yellowed by summer’s heat; that plateau which stretches a thousand vacant miles to the mountain ramparts of Tibet. In the near foreground was the white band of a river and, where it curved about the foot of a long mountain ridge that was pine-covered and stretched like a furred tongue from the timl>ered mountains behind us, were sparklets of gold. That mountain dark with living timl>er lwming over the river was, we knew with a catching of breath, Bogdo-ol. Somewhere in its fastness Kolchak’s gold caravanera had met death. The glints of golden light came from the galleries and peaked pagoda nx)fs of lamasseries and palaces of the Living Buddha.
Urga was in 1918—and doubtless still is today—no more than a barbaric encampment of desert peoples - nomad sheep and horse herders, with a scattering of Chinese and Russian traders, plumped down amid a permanent religious foundation of the Tibetan brand of Buddhism and demon worship. The only electric light was a plant in one of the palaces of the Huiukhtu or Living Buddha—a plaything for his jealous enjoyment. Permanent residents surrounded their felt tents with twelve-foot stockades of peeled pine. Streets which were cow trails were jammed by day with mounted Mongols in barbaric colors unchanged from the time their Tartar ancestors owned half the world; by night savage dogs of a Tibetan breed made them grim alleys of chance, with death for an unarmed man afoot.
But the approach to Urga from the north leads into a Russian street of gaily painted cottages wherein live traders, engineers and Danish operators for a European telegraph company. In the absence of a hotel, any of these families is happy to throw open si>are rooms to the very rare visitor from “Outside.” One Ivan GatchofT, a fur trader, welcomed us warmly when he saw Serge’s uniform of the old régime. Luckily for us, we went to Gatchoff rather than to the ugly brick Russian Consulate, for we learned from our host that
the incumbent had gone Red. So. too. had half the Russian colony—a sad state of strained neutrality among these exiles in the heart of a barbaric world.
AFTER WE’D been refreshed by a meal and when k Gatchoff, by his eager enquiries concerning the fortunes of Kolchak and the White forces under him. had fully established his sympathies with the cause whose uniform Serge wore, Vera and her brother opened their hearts to the round, smiling little fellow. In truth, circumstances forced them to do so, for we realized we must walk warily in this citadel of fanatic superstition. Blood of the Caravaners slain for trespassing upon unknown taboos was hardly dry on the slopes of Bogdo-ol. Gatchoff could advise our first move.
His jaw dropped when Serge repeated the story of the Buriat camel driver. His head wagged a warning when he learned the purpose of our coming to Urga.
“Good saints, but it is a mad undertaking!” exclaimed the fur trader. “Though we Russians here heard whispers that some of our countrymen were killed on Bogdo-ol, little did w'e know their bones guard gold. It is impossible—” “Nothing is impossible,” Vera caught him up somewhat shortly.
"But the monks . . .” Gatchoff spread his hands. “Thousands of them. They never will let you take the Czar’s gold away from a sacred spot. Not that they would want it for themselves: the Mongol cares little for gold except to ornament his temples and his women. But should they discover you plundering even a ruined monastery, your lives would not be worth a kopek.”
“We could see this Living Buddha and explain," Serge put in hopefully, “that we come, not to enrich ourselves but to recover what rightfully belongs to the Czar’s government.”
"Impossible! The Hutukhlu is half mad and slowly dying. His high lamas surrounding him will not even permit devout pilrrrims to approach the presence, much less foreigners. In all eyes he is the Living God.”
The fur trader did concede the strong probability that neither the “Living God” nor any of his train knew the Russians whom they had slaughtered had hidden anything beneath the floor of the monastery. He was in daily association with the Mongols, and surely would have heard of the prodigy had bar gold and rubles been discovered on the slopes of the sacred mountain.
"Moreover," the man finished his discouraging survey of the prospect, “the w'hole city is in a dangerous tension. Hatred of the Chinese, who insist upon a shadowy suzerainty of the Republic over Outer Mongolia, is increasing. Twice recently clashes between Mongols and the small guard of the Chinese Amban, as the representative of Peking is called, have threatened a general massacre.”
Gatchoff seemed to relish his rôle of crêpe hanger.
“Only yesterday.” he continued, "my Danish friend at the telegraph office tells me the operator at a lonely telegraph station in the midst of Gobi gossiped to him that a Chinese general and two auto truckloads of soldiers auto trucks for the first time on the old caravan trail, mind you!-had jiassed there on the way to Urga. More trouble when they arrive.”
We talked until midnight. The best we could get from our reluctant host was his promise to put us on the trail to the ruined monastery, some ten miles south of Urga, by a route that would not take us through the main part of town and so make us conspicuous.
Sun was sparkling upon a score of gilded temple gables and a wind carrying hint of early autumn was straightening out prayer flags on all the beehive yurts of Urga when on the following morning, Gatchoff mounted us on fiery little ixmies and we sallied down the Russian street.
Luck served us liandsomely for. as the fur buyer explained, today was the great autumn festival of horse racing and wrestling: all Urga and the dwellers in the lamasseries would attend. That explained the long cavalcade of horsemen we could see a mile away as it wound up from the clutter of the town to the low mesa eastward. In the crystal clear air of that altitude the whole spectacle was so close it might have been the opening pageant of a circus and us in a box. Barbaric colors burned bright. Peacock feathers and ribbons whipped from the peaks of conical hats. Trumpets and tambours brayed and pulsed. Above all, the pagoda towers of the Temple City of the lamas on Bogdo-ol brooded in their aloof mysticism.
Wre gained a rise at the foot of the mountain, and there our guide pointed a road which, following the mountain’s contour, would lead us to the ruined monastery' on the southern slope. I looked back once when he had left us. Something caught my eye and, unobserved by the others. I gave a closer look.
A dust cloud was moving down the road from the north which we had followed the evening before; coming out of that wilderness of forest stretching back to Siberia and the Trans-Siberian rails which gave touch with the world beyond this land of fantasy. There was something exigent about that swiftly striding dust cloud, something vaguely menacing.
Two horsemen kept just an inch before the cloud. Through the telescopic atmosphere I could see mounted figures
leaning over their horses’ heads in a fury of driving. Who could be whirling down from the north upon Urga, over a road so little travelled and so close upon our heels? Who but —?
I SA ID NOTHING of my discovery but rode on with Serge and Vera. To break the spell of fey which unreal surroundings laid upon me, I stole side glances at Vera, riding beside me. In her gay Russian peasant’s costume— only available outfit at the railroad town we’d quit back in Siberia —the girl w-as a vision of beauty. Vivid embroidery at her throat matched the glow in her cheeks. Her short chestnut curls were all awry where they blew away from the gay handkerchief binding her head. But her features wore a set, strained look; her eyes had a visionary light. I fancied that mysticism underlying generations of her blood had now swept back to answer the whisper of demons in this enchanted wood.
It was an enchanted wood, in truth; dark with the shade of ancient firs and cypress and oppressively quiet. A wild boar, like some bristled gnome, paused in his rooting to wrinkle the skin over his tusks at us. A beautiful buck raced across the road, antlers laid back. And the half-gloom was alive with spirits come from the Buddhistic hell to cry halt to our impiety.
After much riding, a thin screen of larches parted to reveal a small meadow, all dotted with tawny flowers resembling tiger lilies which swayed like dancers on tall stems. Beyond, in a grove of second-growth spruce, reared the façade of a two-story monastery of plaster and w'ood in the Tibetan style, blue tiled and with bronze demons perched on each tilted gable. The ghostly thing wore an air of decay and death. Abode of the evil genius of Bogdo-ol.
A gasp from Vera as we reined in to stare; then, surprisingly, she commenced to weep. I saw her cross herself and her lips moved in a prayer. Easy for me to understand this emotional outburst. I myself felt suddenly that I had been brought to face an ogre’s castle haled back from childhood terrors.
The girl speedily regained her calm. We dismounted and tied our ponies. We spoke in whispers as we parted the spruce saplings to approach the ruin. A wide porch of crumbling wood gave access to a doorway from which doors had fallen away. On either side stood, each in its little hutch, a prayer cylinder whereon the faithful, now long since turned to dust, once registered their passports to heaven. I touched the capstan bar of one and it shrilled a circle on its rusty spindle.
“ Namu namu, amidaButsu." I chanted in mock seriousness the only Buddhist prayer I knew.
Vera seized my arm in a quick flurry of fear.
"No, Stacey! They will hear and they,” she cried, “will not be mocked.”
We entered the great hall, stripped of all furnishing but tatters of banners falling from a vaulted roof two stories above. As our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, we could see in the far end of the hall an elaborate canopy which once sheltered the head of Buddha, lesser vacant shrines to right and left. Passageways behind them led to chambers which doubtless were the monks’ quarters when this tabernacle of mysteries was tenanted.
"He said, that Buriat camel driver in Chita, the gold w-as buried under slabs of the floor,” Serge whispered. “See; this floor is of boards. Slabs surely mean stones.”
"It might mean either,” I suggested. “We’ll look for some particularly wide boards or a piece of stone pavement.” We parted then, each taking a section of floor to pace, head bent low, eyes straining for a loose board, a stone flag. I know Vera and her brother must have burned with the same fire that consumed me; must have felt like those warriors of the Crusade who searched Jerusalem Redeemed for the supreme treasure of all their sacrifices.
A single tense word from Serge: “Here!”
Vera and I hurried to where he stooped squarely before the largest of the three dismantled shrines. Three slabs of grey stone were there, lying flush with the board floor. Between two of them a thin, ragged line of fresh dirt filled a crack. By looking closely we could see where dust on adjacent flags had been scored as if recently brushed with pine boughs to hide evidences of disturbance.
"The gold of our Czarhere!” Vera gave a little cry. She dropped to her knees and laid her two hands on the joining slabs in a gesture you’d say was one of beatification. Serge knelt beside her and said a brief prayer of thanksgiving.
They arose, exalted. They seized my hands. They kissed each other. Serge, in the Russian manner of family tenderness, smacked me on the forehead. Vera, laughing amid tears threw her arms about me and kissed me on the lips. "The gold ! Our Little Father’s gold !”
A flicker of movement in the wide doorway behind me caught a comer of my eye. I turned.
There in the strong sunshine and framed by the black aperture, stood a blocky figure in uniform. Thick and widebellied. Like a toad rearing on hind legs. A gross face beneath a military vizor —a face greenly pale and round as a cheddar cheese was split by a wide smile.
Pao Lin-chun !
Pao, whom I'd thought safely in Tsitsihar 800 and more miles across the Gobi Desert, there in the doorw ay grinning
at us! An appreciative witness of our little tableau ol rejoicing, the significance of which was, of course, not lost on him. Fiere at the moment of our triumph appeared this implacable bloodsucker to share it with us. No, not to share it; to hog it all.
Blind folly of rage filled me. I was ready to go out to him and sink my fingers into his fat throat, though he had a hundred of his ruffians to protect him.
"It’s Pao,” I choked. "You tw>o remain here and I’ll go talk to him.”
Serge and Vera stood frozen in astonishment, speechless. I saw Serge’s hand move toward where he carried his revolver in an arm holster.
“No,” I warned him. “Probably he is not alone, and we don’t want to be killed. Wait until I signal you to join me.”
I walked slow'ly toward the door. My right hand was curled about the butt of the automatic in my pocket. A hairbreadth’s consideration for the safety of the tw'o behind me mastered an impulse to put a bullet through that gross, khaki-clad shape.
Pao’s smile w-as unchanging as I approached. His thumbs w'ere ostentatiously hooked into his belt to flaunt the menace he read in my bulging pocket. He let me stand before him an appreciable time before he spoke—long enough for me to throw a quick look around the little grove of pines. No one else was in sight.
“Happiness, my worthy Canadian friend,” chuckled Pao. “That little word you w'ere good enough to send me over the w'ire a few days ago. Happiness—ah, yes; I hope you share mine in this reunion.”
"And if I do not?” I gave this to him as icily as the tumult in my brain would permit. I was in no mood to bandy honeyed words.
“Somewhere in the Ten Bamboo Books,” droned Pao with a pious rolling of his eyes, “it is written, ‘The frosts of discourtesy cannot blight the plum blossom of sincerity.’ It grieves me that you Canadians have no such teaching.”
With difficulty I kept check on a murderous impulse. This fjit leech spawmed from nowhere at the opportune moment to frustrate our hopes when consummation lay literally right at our feet. He quoting hoary apothegms at such a time !
“What do you wish here, Pao Lin-chun?” I managed to put the question with outward calmness.
Tsitsihar’s commander gave me another.of his frog smiles.
“To worship with yourself and your friends at this neglected shrine of the gods. Did I not see the military man just now kneel in prayer? That w'as very affecting. I,” purred the fat rascal, “have a very w-ide taste in religions. I can worship any gods—particularly them whose feet are shod with gold.”
“And if w'e prefer not to have your company?”
Pao sighed gustily as one who felt disappointment at flagrant boorishness, and lifted one hand to settle the vizor of his cap low'er against the sun in his eyes. At that gesture I saw' six or eight khaki-clad soldiers stand out from behind clumps of young spruce behind us. Theatrical. Like an admirably rehearsed climax in a melodrama. The men came forward. Mauser pistols were in their hands.
“Now you observe,” Pao murmured oilily, “how' near you w'ere to joining the honorable congregation of your ancestors when you had the desire to shoot Pao Lin-chun. No. respected Canadian friend, I am not one to ignore all possibilities in a situation of delicacy.”
At Pao’s nod a yellow'-faced ruffian thrust his hand in my pocket and wrenched my automatic from me. Pao looked through the wide doorway tow'ard Serge and Vera.
“Flave the goodness,” he said crisply, “to advise your friends to join us here—and without unnecessary shooting.”
Nothing to do but comply.
“And don’t attempt violence,” I called out to Serge. “We w'ill only die if you do.”
VERA CAME FIRST out of the monastery’s gloom, to be met by a profound bow from our enemy. The girl’s face was paper-white. Her eyes summed all the bitterness in her heart. Serge, with a scowl, threw off a yellow hand which would search him and unbuttoned his tunic to offer the butt of his automatic to Pao.
“Charming Russians,” Pao gave me the aside in the Mandarin dialect. “Somehow you failed to advise me when we exchanged confidences in my yamen at Tsitsihar you had friends who were interested also in the matter which brings you —and I myself no lesshere to this ruined temple of the gods. They are friends of the Russian baron as well?”
I did not answer. I was dumb w ith rage and mortification at this frustration of our hopes on the instant of achievement. For now it bore in on me that my telegram to Pao, sent before we plunged into the wilderness, had backfired to bring about this situation. Instead of its resulting in blocking Ungem and Hamatori as I’d fondly hoped, that single ironic word “Happiness” miraculously had brought this prime villain to the spot where the Czar’s treasure lay buried. Now it w-as his for the digging. Happiness !
“We return to Urga now.” Pao chirped happily, and he nodded to his guard to fall in behind us as he led the way down from the porch. Then, surely reading my devastating thoughts, he started on a garrulous strain.
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Continued from page 22
“When, worthy friend, you sent me the warning agreed upon, I could not help wondering why the telegram came from a spot so far west of Chita. It must be, I told myself, you were accompanying the baron, yet remembered your compact with me. Your telegram told me the baron was coming to l Irga to betray me.
“So. with time pressing," the gloating old rascal pursued maddeningly, “Pao Lin-chun must act quickly. Gas fire-wagons never had crossed the caravan trail from Hailar, near Tsitsihar. to Urga. But. said I. these foreign-devil wagons must cross this time. And cross they did, I with a clever driver leading, my soldiers in two large conveyances behind. Pao Lin-chun. with his guard of twenty, flying over the desert in three days instead of the camel’s eighteen. Flying like the spirits of evil on wings. Does that surprise you. my friend?”
“When you mentioned the spirits of evil,” I answered, "you were more than usually frank. That surprises me."
Pao received the shaft with a grin.
“And yesterday." he purled on. "when my spies tell me a party from the north has arrived in town, I, who had come but six lkmrs before, believed I had to deal with the Russian madman and the Eastern Dwarf 1 who works with him. How joyful am l when this morning I learn the three strangers have set out on horseback for this mountain. All I have to do is follow at a discreet distance and so have the pleasure of this encounter.” So that was the way of it Pao Lin-chun’s poisonously accurate reasoning plus marvellous good luck. And all built upon my supreme idiocy. I, who had thought myself so clever in threading all pitfalls, deliberately to have dug one to engulf Serge and Vera at the very moment of triumph !
We mounted our ponies. Pao and his guard found theirs. With the ragamuffins closing in behind us. we took the forest trail back to Urga. A dreadful ride. Abysmal disappointment rode the three of us hard. Pao could not restrain his exultation. He filled my ears with dreary quotations from the classics, all ¡xnnting to the inevitable triumph of rigid integrity . . . Ugh!
What was he going to do with us; how dispose of us until he could return to the monastery and unearth the treasure we so unerringly had pointed out to him? In this barbarous Urga, any one of a dozen unguess-
able recourses was at the hand of a military governor of a Chinese province.
Answer to these questions came when we arrived in the native town all but deserted because of the festival on the plains. Pao preceded us through the ornamental gateway of a stockaded compound, with its palisades of pine posts and guards at inner courtyards, for all the world like that caserne at Chita which had held me prisoner a few days back. Chinese soldiers lolled in the inner courts. Pao conducted us into a low brick building of Chinese architecture, through a hallway and into a sparsely furnished nx>m in the rear.
"This is the yamen of the Amiran, my subordinate in Urga,” Pao explained when he had closed the door behind him. “The Amban will be delighted to entertain you to the best of his poor hospitality for a time.”
“You mean we are prisoners?” I asked.
The old scoundrel bared his canine teeth at me and made a deprecatory wave with one hand.
"That is an unpleasant word, my good friend. Let us say. rather, the guards who will be placed outside your door are there to answer your least request - within admirable reason. Perhaps, too, we shall not see each other again in Urga, you and I. l ut remember, respected friend, the yamen of Pao Lin-chun in Tsitsihar always will be honored by your visits. And now . . . ” He made a deep bow to Vera, gave Serge and myself a proper military salute and passed through the door.
We heard a lock turned and the dropping of a bar into place.
VERA was weeping. Serge paced the room like a caged leopard. That perverse instinct nearly all of us possess which prompts us to pile desi>air upon heaped despair moved me to make to my companions full confession of my bungling Yhe dispatch of the telegram to Pao from Yerknieudinsk. I made no effort to spare myself by defending the fancied merits of my strategy.
”... And here we sit under lock and bar, like helpless puppies in a pound, while Pao Lin-chun and his bravos go back to lift those stone slabs in the monastery on Bogdo-ol.”
Vera rose quickly from the blackwood bench where she sat and came over to me.
She put both hands on my bent head with a mothering touch.
“Don't punish yourself. Stacey, comrade. If it had not been that telegram it would have been some other trick of fate.”
“But stupidity isn't fate.” I would not be diverted from punishing myself.
Soft hands smoothed my head gently. “Everything we do in life is fate, little brother. Now I believeyes, a voice whispers in my soul: ‘It was not ordained the Czar’s gold should ever be recovered by you. It is not the will of God,’ says this voice, ‘that gold shall ever be recovered from infidel ground for a holy cause.’ ”
Serge spoke up:
“We may be very sure the Chinaman will hardly divert it to a holy cause.”
“No. Serge,” the girl reproved, and her deep voice seemed the voice of a sibyl uttering prophecy. “Pao Lin-chun never will get the Czar’s goldnever.”
Her compelling mood of a seeress was not to be argued. Nor, in reaction from the morning's high hopes, was any conversation easy. A servant entered with a meal. Chinese style. Hours dragged. Through the bars of the single window we saw the sun burning low over the illimitable grasslands. A confused noise of hoofbeats, shouts, barbaric yawpings of trumpets told of the return of Urga's merrymakers from the festival on the plains.
It must have been about an hour after sunset, with the sky still holding the suspended light of those northern latitudes, when a strange din came to our ears. It was a persistent bellowing in five or six different notes -primitive, blood-chilling, like the bark of bull sea lions on a rocky coast. The noise seemed to come in waves from a distance, to be caught up and repeated. Listening attentively, we could distinguish throaty individual roars of distinct trumpets, a savage rousing to action. We guessed these must be the sacred trumpets of the lamasseries in the city of the monks on Bogdo-ol. But no mere call to prayer, this swelling of harsh antiphonals. An alarm, then.
Soon, very near at hand, a burst of rifle shots. Through the window we saw the Amban s soldiers scurrying to slam courtyard gates. Rifles were on their backs. Still the great trumpets snarled and grumbled. A bullet spatted against the top of one of the
log palings within view of our window, sending slivers bounding.
Serge and I moved the table over under the window and piled upon it for hasty barricade our prison room’s scanty furnishings. Then we crouched in a far comer, with Vera between us and partly protected against a ricocheting bullet.
FIRING increased, drew nearer. Now we could hear, just outside, answering volleys of the yamen defenders. Helpless, unarmed, we three were the centre of a siege of the Chinese log citadel by all the Mongols of Urga. This the action for which roaring lamas’ trumpets had given tongue.
The door suddenly opened and a Chinese in the uniform of a commander of high rank beckoned us wildly.
“Come!” he commanded in a dialect half comprehended by me. “Mongols are killing. You foreigners need not be killed, too.” If this were the Amban himself, certainly he was not of General Pao’s stripe; something of humaneness in him.
He hurried us through to the back of the brick building, where a courtyard opened upon a gate in the stockade. A dozen saddled ponies were kicking and squealing under a shed. Our rescuer waved a hand at them, bidding us choose and mount. He himself opened the gate when we had done so.
“River!” I heard him shout as our mounts bounded through.
A burst of firing not a hundred yards to the left shut off that avenue of escape. To the right the stockade dropped down a steep bank to the river—just a fluid streak of deeper dark in the night. River it had to be then. No other way of escape. The river in the dark.
Serge and I had Vera's pony between ours when icy water crept over our knees to our waists. Mercifully, the depth was not great and the beasts had to do no swimming. Perhaps fifty yards in water, then the other bank gave footing and we were out.
It was dark, with just a hint of dying day to the west; enough to show nothing but open plain ahead of us rising to the first flicker of stars. Behind us was Urga in uproar. No turning back to the Mongol town by the bridge we’d crossed that morning, because we hadn’t the remotest
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notion where it lay. nor where was the Russian street on which Gatchoff lived. To do any wandering in search of this refuge would be but to court stumbling on to the Mongols in their killing mood. Nothing for us but the shelter of the grasslands for the night, and then see what morning would bring us.
We rode at a stiff pace for an hour so that the warm night wind would dry our clothing. Always to the right of us marched a great shadow block which we knew to be Bogdo-ol, the mountain; Bogdo-ol whose spirits of evil had mocked us so viciously, and still mocked us. For were we not still in their fleshless fists? Homeless, hungry, counting possession of our lives the only credit entry on the ledger of our disaster.
We drew up in a little swale w'here the wind could not reach us. Serge and I rolled our coats for a pillow to Vera's head. He and I rode slowly around her, fighting sleep, and all the night pageantry of the heavens marched over our heads.
STACEY!” 1 felt a hand shaking my stirrup. "Stacey look!”
It was Vera, rosy in full dawn. Her eyes were shining excitement, as if they’d known no night of strain. 1 sat up in my saddle and followed the direction of her pointing arm.
There was Bogdo-ol, its black timbered sides not two miles away. And there, where a tiny break showed like a rent in the mantle of the forest, was the wood-and-plaster front of the abandoned monastery. Brooding alone in the wilderness of the sacred mountain, that spirit house which yesterday had trapped us into despair. And now, in league with it, the genius of Gobi had led us through the dark to reveal with the dawn what had been with us in fitful half-dreams all the long night. Uncanny.
Vera fcjbked questioningly at me. I passed the unspoken challenge on to Serge. We dug our heèls into ponies’ ribs and went skimming over the yellow grass carpet for the tree line marking the mountain’s base. I cannot tell you why we did this. An unconquerable lure pushed us there, if only to see a hole under stone slabs whence Bao Linchun had plundered gold ingots and kegs of shining coins.
Taking our reckonings from the plain, it was easy to push upward through the forest until we cut the road that had been ours the day before. Soon the little meadow with its dancing tiger lilies smiled at us in rosy light. The monastery’s façade towered ghostly in a veil of mist.
"A place of devils." Vera whispered as we dismounted and tied our horses. She crossed herself and shivered.
I was leading a way through the lilies when my eyes jumped to a place where stalks were bent and trampled. I saw a khaki-clad body face down amid broken flowers a Chinese soldier. Serge, behind me, saw the same grisly blot and stepped between it and his sister, saying nothing. We came to the jx>rch and there . . . But there was no concealing it from Vera. A Mongol lama in-a blood-red robe sprawled down the steps, with his head in the sand. A long curved sword was still thonged to his dead hand.
Vera kept her eyes resolutely on the doorway, nor faltered at the trash of death.
The low sun was shooting a long path of gold along the dusty floor of the interior. We followed it on tiptoe. We saw where it stopped at a fresh mound of earth, like grave dirt, where yesterday three stone slabs had been.
From the top of that dirt pile, just above the sun’s cleansing shafts, looked Pao Lin-chun.
Narrow eyes of Pao Lin-chun looking at us from a fat face, more greenly pale than common . . Just Pao’s severed head sitting there atop a fresh pile of dirt.
Vera stiffened. Her eyes widened in terror. I could see the struggle she made to keep from crying out. She turned to me with a little whimper. Serge had walked about the dirt pile and looked down into the pit dug where the stone slabs had been. I heard the sharp whistle of his indrawn breath. He
signed for me to join him. That I did.
No glimmer of gold came out of the deep and broad gap in the earth. No, not that . .
Instead, propped in a sitting posture there in that raw pit, with his grey face turned upward on a wry neck, as if eyes strained for a look at the clean morning’s sunlight, was the Baron Ungern von Sternburg. A huddle of khaki was alongside. A bristling black head lay in his lap: from it had half fallen the red-banded cap of a major in His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s Army.
No, not gold of the Czar there in that pit. Just these relics of covetous men. And, mounting sentry guard over them, the fleshy head of Pao Lin-chun, military commander of Tsitsihar.
ANOTHER DAWN—first pale flush of k dawn before ever a blast of trumpets from the lamasseries on Bogdo-ol hailed the mercy of Buddha in granting a new day to his faithful.
We three refugees in the house of Gatchoff sat with our host in candlelight, having tea and a hot snack to stay us on the journey ahead. Good little Gatchoff. Over the day of disorder following the attack on the Chinese Ambaris vamen and while Urga’s hot blood still was simmering, he had pursued the tricky path of negotiation in our behalf, while we, on his urgent representations, remained indoors after our return from the horror of the abandoned monastery. Now we awaited the laratitass and driver to take us north to Siberia and the railroad. This was flight, no less; for. as the fur trader told us again over his steaming saucer: "Should the monks come to suspect your mission was the same as the Chinaman’s and Ungern’s, I fear their rage would flare to madness again and against you.”
Serge was defiant:
“They cannot keep that gold of our Czar, these crazy fanatics. When I report to our Admiral Kolchak, he’ll send a regiment down here and burn every monastery in
Urga if necessary to recover what is rightfully ours.”
Gatchoff’s bearded face in the candlelight appeared that of a mystic when he turned to answer the young man.
“Little Brother, we do not know the hearts of these strange people, how they are moved by their religion. Gold as wealth means nothing to them. But when monks surprised the Chinaman and those other two taking gold from sacred ground . . . You saw for yourself. Murder in the monastery, and the whole town rising against the Chinese garrison.”
"But,” Serge persisted, "when they killed Pao, Ungern and the Japanese, your monks left no gold in the pit they had dug. They were mighty careful to take it away.”
"Because,” Gatchoff murmured, “that sacred ground was defiled by the blood of spoilers and the evil spirits of the dead will hover there always . . . No, my lieutenant, the world never will see that gold of our Czar. Somewhere on the holy mountain— somewhere under the golden eyes of the Great Buddha of Ganden who looks out through slits in his high tower over all Mongolia —those yellow bars and those heaps of rubles will be buried for all time. And”—he crossed himself—"the demons and the accursed spirits who guide every step in the lives of the Mongols will be stronger than any regiments of our Admiral Kolchak.”
Vera, who had kept silence during this colloquy, stretched a hand to lay it in her brother’s.
"Remember, Serge, it might have been us—we three—whom the monks left behind them in that dreadful pit. But for the mercy of God we would have been discovered digging there, and then—”
A muffled sound of bells outside the house; the taranlass. Gatchoff arose and looked significantly to where a little wick in nut-oil burned in a gold bracket before an ikon on the wall. Vera held a hand to me as she pushed back her chair. I went willingly, her hand in mind, to kneel with the rest. Gatchoff offered a prayer of thanksgiving for our delivery from death and of intercession for our safe journey. Then we went out to the waiting cart. Our host stood waving farewell until a turn in the road blotted him out.
We had reached the divide on the north road out of Urga when the sun came up, monstrous, over the rim of Gobi. All the infinity of grasslands behind us burst suddenly into a sheen of red gold as if a Hand had touched off the fuse to a gigantic set-piece. Came faintly a blast of trumpets, barbaric, stridulent. Servants of the Living Buddha were calling a new day to bow obeisance to his glory.
I looked to Serge; he dozed. I looked to Vera. Her eyes were shining with the marvel of it. She drew closer to me and leaned her chin on my arm where it lay along the back of the cart, to look back with me upon Urga. There, a wide band of scarlet, lay the scimitar of the river we’d forded in bitter desperation. There, black and foreboding. the long reach of Bogdo-ol, spirit haunt wherein now three alien shades were beginning an age-long vigil. Little pricklets of gold against white marked the tower of the Great Buddha of Ganden, whence through gilded vanes the eyes of the god surveys his domain.
“We tried, Stacey,” the girl whispered. “We tried, and I think none could have done more.”
I turned my eyes from an eye-filling spectacle to one nearer, supremely more wonderful. In the deep violet eyes of Vera Constantinovna lay for me all beauty, all achievement’s reward—the sum of life’s values.
“If—if I have found your love, Vera, then there is no failure behind me; nothing but triumph.”
A mist came in her eyes. Her lips trembled between a smile and a sob.
“You say, ‘if.’ Do you not know, blind one? Must I—would you have me kiss your eyes so that they will never more be blind?”
"Yes,” I said.