The Gobi Desert

THE GOBI DESERT

by Pierre Benoit

Translated from the French by Robert Wight

Copyright © 2015 Pierre Benoit

Translated by Robert Wight

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

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The Gobi Desert
Pierre Benoit

Pierre Benoit was born in Albi in southern France in 1886.

He lived in Algeria and Tunisia until 1907, before studying in Montpellier, and moving to Paris in 1910. His first two novels, Koenigsmark and L'Atlantide, published in 1917 and 1919, won him an enormous readership. In total Pierre Benoit wrote almost 50 novels.

He was elected to the Academie francaise in 1931, and died at Cibourne in France in 1962.

*

Translated from the French by Robert Wight

*

The Gobi, the terrifying desert, devouring men and herds of animals, with its confusion of ravines, steep slopes, and precipices: a dreadful labyrinth, in turn burning and frozen, where men and beasts turn and turn without escape . . .

In this hell, swept by pitiless tornados, two adventurers, Sanders and Rodianko, are hunting for Kublai, the giant snow tiger . . . . But each one of them is secretly pursuing the conquest of the dancer Alzire. Will Alzire belong to the one who brings back the mythical creature?

I

Is there anything more annoying than seeing a ship preparing to set sail when you don't have the ready money in your pocket to get on board, and nor are you likely to get the money anyway? The ship in question was not concerned about that. Its name was
Bendigo,
a curious name, don't you think? The flag at its stern was so covered in coal dust that you had to look hard to make out its nationality.

The dockyard at Fouzan wasn't very pretty that morning either. It had been snowing, of course, and normally snow is cheerful. Yes, but rain had started to fall almost immediately on that particular snow, transforming it into a sort of mushy soot. You couldn't help shivering as you made your way along those quaysides, which were mercilessly beaten by a pale greenish backwash from all the passing ships
.
And to complete the joyful experience for your soul, here and there, from all sides there disappeared and then loomed up again the reassuring silhouettes of myriads of little Japanese policemen.

Fouzan, at the southern tip of Korea, is the terminus of the country's railway line. The connection with Japan is provided by a flotilla of steamships which in a few hours make the crossing to Simonosaki. Precisely at that moment the mail ship sailed majestically into port. It passed in front of the old
Bendigo
with the scorn that a pedigree greyhound might have for some poor dog from the muddy backstreets.

I wasn't paying pay much attention to these matters. There was nothing of any interest for me, in the somewhat awkward situation in which I found myself. An ugly worn-out old suit, a pair of shoes which were letting in water, a stomach and a wallet which were both equally just about empty, all of which would prevent anyone from looking to the future through rose-coloured spectacles, don't you think? I should add that all of this would have been of no importance if something, something dear and slim by the name of Alzire, was not just then waiting for me at the house, in a mood which I preferred not to think about.

I had left her early that morning, promising her, and myself as well, that I would be back before midday, having got everything together which we needed to get us both out of trouble. I had about one hour left to keep my promise. It would be too bad for me if I didn't manage to do so. I knew Alzire well enough, and I knew all right what would undoubtedly happen.

*

‘Well, there are some people who you wonder what on earth they could be good for!' I jumped. This exclamation corresponded exactly with what I was thinking just then about myself. But that was no reason for the first clown
to disembark from the ship to think he could just say what he liked on the subject. Besides which, I should at least make sure it was me who he was talking about.

‘Who might you be talking about, my dear sir?' I enquired politely.

‘Who do you think I'm talking about if not yourself, you layabout?'

I looked at this individual who had taken upon himself the right to speak to me in such a manner. He was tall and sharply dressed. I'm not what you might call a weakling, and it wasn't his shoulders, as wide as a wardrobe, or the revolver which he carried prominently in a leather belt, which in ordinary times would have been enough to impress me. But these were not exactly ordinary times. And my time was too valuable on that particular morning to waste it in silly quarrels. But on the other hand – why not just tell the truth? – I had a sudden intuition that the character who had taken the liberty to walk into my life in such a discourteous manner was perfectly capable of helping me to overcome the unfortunate set of circumstances which Alzire and I were trying to get away from.

He was a strapping fellow, with an appearance that was genuinely sympathetic, and in any other circumstances I would have felt a real pleasure in shaking him by the hand. Imagine a huge man with ginger eyebrows and sideboards, his hands deep in his raincoat pockets. Instinctively, instantly, I felt that particular type of inclination towards him that an Englishman might have for any self-respecting Russian. Perhaps he was English himself! Or rather a Yank, or a South African, or, even better, an Australian, yes that must be it, some wool merchant from Brisbane. I wasn't entirely wrong, as will become clear from the following idiotic conversation.

‘Layabout? What makes you think I'm a layabout?' I asked, without losing my composure.

He shrugged his shoulders scornfully. ‘What makes me think that?' he said. ‘Such a gentleman, dressed up in his Sunday best as you are, is not going to convince me that he wouldn't want to take advantage of an opportunity being offered to him to earn a few dollars.'

He spat on the ground in the most disgusting manner.

‘I have no need of your dollars', I replied equably. ‘However, if you wish to pursue any further a conversation which you have initiated, don't you think it would be more suitable to begin by introducing ourselves?'

I bowed slightly.

‘Count Michel Rodianko, ex-lieutenant in the former imperial Russian army,' I said. ‘And now I should like to ask you a question, after you have introduced yourself, of course'.

‘I shall perhaps allow myself to accept some conditions from a scruffy type like you,' he growled, a bit put out. ‘But I don't see that when I've told you that my name is Sanders, Jack Sanders, how you will be any better off, young lad.'

‘Everyone is free to have his own opinions,' I replied calmly. ‘So, my dear Mr Sanders, let's come to my question. A moment ago you offered me a few dollars. I presume it would be in return for me giving a helping hand to these good fellows here who seem to be having great difficulty in their work?'

He sniggered. ‘That's just it, Mr Lieutenant. But however much Mr Lieutenant insists he has no need of money, I notice that even so Mr Lieutenant hasn't quite understood.'

Not understood? I would have to have been devoid of any sense of observation not to have understood. For almost a quarter of an hour I had been witnessing the scene below. Imagine if you can on the quay, on the port side of the
Bendigo,
five wretched Korean coolies, the least skilful and the most undernourished specimens in the world. Despite the curses from Sanders, these poor devils were completely incapable of slipping a double noose of chains under an enormous crate, big enough to contain half a dozen pianos lined up in a row. No doubt some aeroplane was being transported. From the ship's gangway, the European mechanic and the dock workers entrusted with this manoeuvre looked down at this performance, waiting patiently and philosophically for the moment for them to operate the steam-powered crane.

‘What a mess!' said Sanders through gritted teeth, as the fourth attempt by the poor wretches failed. ‘Yes, it's a real mess!'

Once again he spat a disgusting jet of saliva.

‘It's not entirely the fault of your coolies', I said amiably. ‘I think they would ask for nothing more than reinforcements from someone far more intelligent than themselves, and who would take on the supervision of the job. From the remarks which we have had the honour of exchanging, I think this is the role, isn't it, which you would like me to accept?'

‘I admire the perspicacity of His Excellency the count', he replied, with considerably less insolence than before.

‘Very good! Then let me ask you a second question, the last, I promise. It will cost a lot of dollars for the time required. Why not therefore economise, if only for half the amount, and pitch in yourself? You don't seem to be a delicate young girl, and I'm sure that in less than five minutes, if you wanted . . . ‘

He cut me short with his usual politeness. ‘I have more important things in my life to worry about than explaining my behaviour to a tramp like you. Never mind! I'm keen to be a good boss. So take a look at this and try to understand, young man.'

In saying this he put under my nose the most easily comprehensible thing imaginable: a wallet stuffed full of banknotes.

‘No-one understands the value of the dollar better than old Sanders, believe me. And believe me also that those here have not been taken on just to hear the nightingale singing. So please admit that it would be a stupid thing for me to risk crippling myself by getting down to some simple task which I would hope to see carried out by any poor wretch who comes along.'

‘Your reasoning is perfectly logical,' I said, ‘and as far as the delicacy of its sentiments is concerned, one could travel throughout the five continents without meeting anyone like you. I like you, such as you are. I like you enormously. And I shall try to give you proof of that. On one condition though: not for a single moment can there be a question of money between us. Once your load has been hoisted on board this old tub, you will agree to slip the half-dollar which you had intended for me, into the collection box of some good charity or other. With a bit of perseverance one can always find some such collection box, even if it's rather late in life that one begins to look for one, as I imagine it must be in your case.'

I was beaming. It had got to the point where I had promised myself I would bring him, where I in my turn could dish up some equally unpleasant things to him. He gaped at me with a mixture of amazement and admiration, which filled me with joy and delight.

‘Ah! That's good' he grumbled. ‘Just listen to you! You certainly can talk!' His huge bulging wallet was still in his hand, like something he didn't know what to do with.

Finally he put it back, carefully and a bit sheepishly, in the inside pocket of his jacket. ‘You certainly can talk!' he repeated. ‘It's all the same to me. There's no more to say. I quite like you as well.'

*

‘All right, is everything ready down below?'

The voice of the mechanic from the
Bendigo
, who was now operating the steam crane. A nice voice but raucous, still calm, very calm in fact, but which seemed to be getting a bit impatient.

‘Ready!' I cried.

‘Good! All right my lads, you can . . . ‘

‘Hey! Just a moment, please!'

This time it was Jack Sanders' voice, and how different it was! Short, jerky, over-excited, almost begging! Really, it wasn't worth being haughty at a time like this.

‘Just a moment, I said! Don't you understand? Is it me who is paying for this, or isn't it?'

It was impossible to tell what he was afraid of all of a sudden. Was it on account of the risk which I could be running, or was it on account of his cargo? Even today, as I am writing this, after everything that has happened since, I am no clearer as to the answer. The strangest thing was that the danger in question was not particularly threatening, as one can judge from the scene which I shall try to describe as closely as possible.

Five minutes, according to my watch, was all I needed to fix the chains around the crate for it to be loaded on to the ship. Certainly, the crate was heavy, but no more so than I might have feared from its appearance and dimensions. I still thought it contained a small aircraft, no doubt with only the wings and fuselage inside. As for the engine, that had probably been packed somewhere else. In the end it wasn't too difficult for me, and I used some iron bars which were lying around on the quayside as levers to help me, something which would never have occurred to the poor idiotic coolies.

There was just one thing which caused me concern, something more of an impression than a certainty. Had the goods in the crate been stowed correctly according to proper weight distribution? I doubted it. But enough of that! I had no reason to get involved in such idle details. I shall confine myself to saying that during a number of relatively uneventful years when I worked in a number of uneventful jobs . . . Well, once again, you needn't worry! I have no wish, thank heaven, to give an account of my past life. Later, perhaps, we shall see! And perhaps I shall be happy to do so.

*

‘Ready! Let's go!'

Despite the furious protests from Sanders, it was me who had just repeated that order. From where I was now I had all the necessary authority to do that. Not for anything in the world would I have remained where I was, standing like a fool on the quayside among the unfortunate coolies, at the most delicate moment of a manoeuvre for which I had taken responsibility. In short, having climbed on to the crate, I was standing on the central knot of the chains, clinging with both hands on to the steel cable of the crane, ready to rise up into the air in company with all that gear which from now on I was part of. I felt the cable become tense. I heard the rumble of the winch starting up. The crate and the chains shook and shuddered. This was it! We were on our way . . . . .

*

‘Careful! Look out below!'

‘Oh God, I saw this was going to happen!'

Two shouts, two simultaneous exclamations coming from the mechanic and from Sanders, not from me, please believe me, I had other things to do than shout out from the position where I suddenly found myself. That ridiculous big crate had been loaded up without any proper care or attention. No sooner had it left the ground when it suddenly tipped up and now, fifteen feet in the air it was swinging in space, perpendicular and no longer parallel to the quayside. As for me, it was a miracle first of all that I did not let go, and secondly that I was not caught up and squashed between the top of the crate and the winch.

This spectacle, whatever else one may thought, was not lacking in the picturesque, at least as far as I was concerned. I now had a splendid view over Fouzan, its dark houses, its white mountains over which the sun was rising, pale and pink, just like a wintery moon. Beneath me the coolies had fled like a flock of starlings. Only Sanders was still there, his face furious and aghast. He shook his fist at me, uttering unintelligible threats. I remember sending him a friendly little wave of the hand. Above my head, three metres at most but three metres which seemed like the end of the world, I could make out the ruddy cheeks of the mechanic. He wasn't enjoying himself either. He watched with alarm as this nightmare load swung back and forth. What was it going to do? Crash to the ground? Break through the hull of the ship? In any case I could hardly delay in deciding what to do. Loud creaks, increasingly ominous, reverberated and multiplied . . . . I smiled, and made a little sign:

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