Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Norm Wolcott and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
OF A SPECIAL
AMONG THE VARIOUS RACES AND
COUNTRIES OF CENTRAL ASIA
BEING THE EXPLOITS AND EXPERIENCES OF
CLAUDIUS BOMBARNAC OF "THE TWENTIETH
BIOGRAPHY AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
Jules Verne, French author, was born at Nantes, France, in 1828, and
died in 1905. In 1850 he wrote a comedy in verse, but he eventually
confined himself to the writing of scientific and geographical
romances, achieving a great reputation. He visited the United States in
1867, sailing for New York on the _Great Eastern_, and his book, _A
Floating City_, was the result of this voyage. His best-known books
are: _A Captain at Fifteen, A Two Years' Vacation, A Voyage to the
Center of the Earth_ (1864), _From the Earth to the Moon_ (1865),
_20,000 Leagues Under the Sea_ (1870), _A Tour of the World in Eighty
Days_ (1873), _Michael Strogoff_ (1876), _Mrs. Branica_ (1891), _Clovis
Dordentor_ (1896), _The Brothers Kip_ (1902). Most of his works have
been translated into English.
Such is the address of the telegram I found on the 13th of May when I
arrived at Tiflis.
This is what the telegram said:
"As the matters in hand will terminate on the 15th instant Claudius
Bombarnac will repair to Uzun Ada, a port on the east coast of the
Caspian. There he will take the train by the direct Grand Transasiatic
between the European frontier and the capital of the Celestial Empire.
He will transmit his impressions in the way of news, interviewing
remarkable people on the road, and report the most trivial incidents by
letter or telegram as necessity dictates. The _Twentieth Century_
trusts to the zeal, intelligence, activity and tact of its
correspondent, who can draw on its bankers to any extent he may deem
It was the very morning I had arrived at Tiflis with the intention of
spending three weeks there in a visit to the Georgian provinces for the
benefit of my newspaper, and also, I hoped, for that of its readers.
Here was the unexpected, indeed; the uncertainty of a special
At this time the Russian railways had been connected with the line
between Poti, Tiflis and Baku. After a long and increasing run through
the Southern Russian provinces I had crossed the Caucasus, and imagined
I was to have a little rest in the capital of Transcaucasia. And here
was the imperious administration of the _Twentieth Century_ giving me
only half a day's halt in this town! I had hardly arrived before I was
obliged to be off again without unstrapping my portmanteau! But what
would you have? We must bow to the exigencies of special correspondence
and the modern interview!
But all the same I had been carefully studying this Transcaucasian
district, and was well provided with geographic and ethnologic
memoranda. Perhaps it may be as well for you to know that the fur cap,
in the shape of a turban, which forms the headgear of the mountaineers
and cossacks is called a "papakha," that the overcoat gathered in at
the waist, over which the cartridge belt is hung, is called a
"tcherkeska" by some and "bechmet" by others! Be prepared to assert
that the Georgians and Armenians wear a sugar-loaf hat, that the
merchants wear a "touloupa," a sort of sheepskin cape, that the Kurd
and Parsee still wear the "bourka," a cloak in a material something
like plush which is always waterproofed.
And of the headgear of the Georgian ladies, the "tassakravi," composed
of a light ribbon, a woolen veil, or piece of muslin round such lovely
faces; and their gowns of startling colors, with the wide open sleeves,
their under skirts fitted to the figure, their winter cloak of velvet,
trimmed with fur and silver gimp, their summer mantle of white cotton,
the "tchadre," which they tie tight on the neck--all those fashions in
fact so carefully entered in my notebook, what shall I say of them?
Learn, then, that their national orchestras are composed of "zournas,"
which are shrill flutes; "salamouris," which are squeaky clarinets;
mandolines, with copper strings, twanged with a feather; "tchianouris,"
violins, which are played upright; "dimplipitos," a kind of cymbals
which rattle like hail on a window pane.
Know that the "schaska" is a sword hung from a bandolier trimmed with
studs and silver embroidery, that the "kindjall" or "kandijar" is a
dagger worn in the belt, that the armament of the soldiers of the
Caucasus is completed by a long Damascus gun ornamented with bands of
Know that the "tarantass" is a sort of berline hung on five pieces of
rather elastic wood between wheels placed rather wide apart and of
moderate height; that this carriage is driven by a "yemtchik," on the
front seat, who has three horses, to whom is added a postilion, the
"faletre," when it is necessary to hire a fourth horse from the
"smatritel," who is the postmaster on the Caucasian roads.
Know, then, that the verst is two-thirds of a mile, that the different
nomadic people of the governments of Transcaucasia are composed of
Kalmucks, descendants of the Eleuthes, fifteen thousand, Kirghizes of
Mussulman origin eight thousand, Koundrof Tartars eleven hundred,
Sartof Tartars a hundred and twelve, Nogais eight thousand five
hundred, Turkomans nearly four thousand.
And thus, after having so minutely absorbed my Georgia, here was this
ukase obliging me to abandon it! And I should not even have time to
visit Mount Ararat or publish my impressions of a journey in
Transcaucasia, losing a thousand lines of copy at the least, and for
which I had at my disposal the 32,000 words of my language actually
recognized by the French Academy.
It was hard, but there was no way out of it. And to begin with, at what
o'clock did the train for Tiflis start from the Caspian?
The station at Tiflis is the junction of three lines of railway: the
western line ending at Poti on the Black Sea, where the passengers land
coming from Europe, the eastern line which ends at Baku, where the
passengers embark to cross the Caspian, and the line which the Russians
have just made for a length of about a hundred miles between
Ciscaucasia and Transcaucasia, from Vladikarkaz to Tiflis, crossing the
Arkhot range at a height of four thousand five hundred feet, and which
connects the Georgian capital with the railways of Southern Russia.
I went to the railway station at a run, and rushed into the departure
"When is there a train for Baku?" I asked.
"You are going to Baku?" answered the clerk.
And from his trap-door he gave me one of those looks more military than
civil, which are invariably found under the peak of a Muscovite cap.
"I think so," said I, perhaps a little sharply, "that is, if it is not
forbidden to go to Baku."
"No," he replied, dryly, "that is, if you are provided with a proper
"I will have a proper passport," I replied to this ferocious
functionary, who, like all the others in Holy Russia, seemed to me an
Then I again asked what time the train left for Baku.
"Six o'clock to-night."
"And when does it get there?"
"Seven o'clock in the morning."
"Is that in time to catch the boat for Uzun Ada?"
And the man at the trap-door replied to my salute by a salute of
The question of passport did not trouble me. The French consul would
know how to give me all the references required by the Russian
Six o'clock to-night, and it is already nine o'clock in the morning!
Bah! When certain guide books tell you how to explore Paris in two
days, Rome in three days, and London in four days, it would be rather
curious if I could not do Tiflis in a half day. Either one is a
correspondent or one is not!
It goes without saying that my newspaper would not have sent me to
Russia, if I could not speak fluently in Russian, English and German.
To require a newspaper man to know the few thousand languages which are
used to express thought in the five parts of the world would be too
much; but with the three languages above named, and French added, one
can go far across the two continents. It is true, there is Turkish of
which I had picked up a few phrases, and there is Chinese of which I
did not understand a single word. But I had no fear of remaining dumb
in Turkestan and the Celestial Empire. There would be interpreters on
the road, and I did not expect to lose a detail of my run on the Grand
Transasiatic. I knew how to see, and see I would. Why should I hide it
from myself? I am one of those who think that everything here below can
serve as copy for a newspaper man; that the earth, the moon, the sky,
the universe were only made as fitting subjects for newspaper articles,
and that my pen was in no fear of a holiday on the road.
Before starting off round Tiflis let us have done with this passport
business. Fortunately I had no need for a "poderojnaia," which was
formerly indispensable to whoever traveled in Russia. That was in the
time of the couriers, of the post horses, and thanks to its powers that
official exeat cleared away all difficulties, assured the most rapid
relays, the most amiable civilities from the postilions, the greatest
rapidity of transport, and that to such a pitch that a well-recommended
traveler could traverse in eight days five hours the two thousand seven
hundred versts which separate Tiflis from Petersburg. But what
difficulties there were in procuring that passport!
A mere permission to move about would do for to-day, a certificate
attesting in a certain way that you are not a murderer or even a
political criminal, that you are what is called an honest man, in a
civilized country. Thanks to the assistance I received from our consul
at Tiflis, I was soon all in due order with the Muscovite authorities.
It was an affair of two hours and two roubles. I then devoted myself
entirely, eyes, ears, legs, to the exploration of the Georgian capital,
without taking a guide, for guides are a horror to me. It is true that
I should have been capable of guiding no matter what stranger, through
the mazes of this capital which I had so carefully studied beforehand.
That is a natural gift.
Here is what I recognized as I wandered about haphazard: first, there
was the "douma," which is the town hall, where the "golova," or mayor,
resides; if you had done me the honor to accompany me, I would have
taken you to the promenade of Krasnoia-Gora on the left bank of the
Koura, the Champs Elysees of the place, something like the Tivoli of
Copenhagen, or the fair of the Belleville boulevard with its
"Katchelis," delightful seesaws, the artfully managed undulations of
which will make you seasick. And everywhere amid the confusion of
market booths, the women in holiday costume, moving about with faces
uncovered, both Georgians and Armenians, thereby showing that they are
As to the men, they are Apollos of the Belvedere, not so simply
clothed, having the air of princes, and I should like to know if they
are not so. Are they not descended from them? But I will genealogize
later on. Let us continue our exploration at full stride. A minute lost
is ten lines of correspondence, and ten lines of correspondence
is--that depends on the generosity of the newspaper and its managers.
Quick to the grand caravanserai. There you will find the caravans from
all points of the Asiatic continent. Here is one just coming in,
composed of Armenian merchants. There is one going out, formed of
traders in Persia and Russian Turkestan. I should like to arrive with
one and depart with the other. That is not possible, and I am sorry for
it. Since the establishment of the Transasiatic railways, it is not
often that you can meet with those interminable and picturesque lines
of horsemen, pedestrians, horses, camels, asses, carts. Bah! I have no
fear that my journey across Central Asia will fail for want of
interest. A special correspondent of the _Twentieth Century_ will know
how to make it interesting.
Here now are the bazaars with the thousand products of Persia, China,
Turkey, Siberia, Mongolia. There is a profusion of the fabrics of
Teheran, Shiraz, Kandahar, Kabul, carpets marvelous in weaving and
colors, silks, which are not worth as much as those of Lyons.
Will I buy any? No; to embarrass oneself with packages on a trip from
the Caspian to the Celestial Empire, never! The little portmanteau I
can carry in my hand, the bag slung across my shoulders, and a
traveling suit will be enough for me. Linen? I will get it on the road,
in English fashion.
Let us stop in front of the famous baths of Tiflis, the thermal waters
of which attain a temperature of 60 degrees centigrade. There you will
find in use the highest development of massage, the suppling of the
spine, the cracking of the joints. I remember what was said by our
great Dumas whose peregrinations were never devoid of incidents; he
invented them when he wanted them, that genial precursor of
high-pressure correspondence! But I have no time to be shampooed, or to
be cracked or suppled.
Stop! The Hotel de France. Where is there not a Hotel de France? I
enter, I order breakfast--a Georgian breakfast watered with a certain
Kachelie wine, which is said to never make you drunk, that is, if you
do not sniff up as much as you drink in using the large-necked bottles
into which you dip your nose before your lips. At least that is the
proceeding dear to the natives of Transcaucasia. As to the Russians,
who are generally sober, the infusion of tea is enough for them, not
without a certain addition of vodka, which is the Muscovite brandy.
I, a Frenchman, and even a Gascon, am content to drink my bottle of
Kachelie, as we drank our Chateau Laffite, in those regretted days,
when the sun still distilled it on the hillsides of Pauillac. In truth
this Caucasian wine, although rather sour, accompanied by the boiled
fowl, known as pilau--has rather a pleasant taste about it.
It is over and paid for. Let us mingle with the sixteen thousand
inhabitants of the Georgian capital. Let us lose ourselves in the
labyrinth of its streets, among its cosmopolitan population. Many Jews
who button their coats from left to right, as they write--the contrary
way to the other Aryan peoples. Perhaps the sons of Israel are not
masters in this country, as in so many others? That is so, undoubtedly;
a local proverb says it takes six Jews to outwit an Armenian, and
Armenians are plentiful in these Transcaucasian provinces.
I reach a sandy square, where camels, with their heads out straight,
and their feet bent under in front, are sitting in hundreds. They used
to be here in thousands, but since the opening of the Transcaspian
railway some years ago now, the number of these humped beasts of burden
has sensibly diminished. Just compare one of these beasts with a goods
truck or a luggage van!
Following the slope of the streets, I come out on the quays by the
Koura, the bed of which divides the town into two unequal parts. On
each side rise the houses, one above the other, each one looking over
the roof of its neighbors. In the neighborhood of the river there is a
good deal of trade. There you will find much moving about of vendors of
wine, with their goatskins bellying out like balloons, and vendors of
water with their buffalo skins, fitted with pipes looking like
Here am I wandering at a venture; but to wander is human, says the
collegians of Bordeaux, as they muse on the quays of the Gironde.
"Sir," says a good little Jew to me, showing me a certain habitation
which seems a very ordinary one, "you are a stranger?"
"Then do not pass this house without stopping a moment to admire it."
"There lived the famous tenor Satar, who sang the _contre-fa_ from his
chest. And they paid him for it!"
I told the worthy patriarch that I hoped he would be able to sing a
_contre-sol_ even better paid for; and I went up the hill to the right
of the Koura, so as to have a view of the whole town.
At the top of the hill, on a little open space where a reciter is
declaiming with vigorous gestures the verses of Saadi, the adorable
Persian poet, I abandon myself to the contemplation of the
Transcaucasian capital. What I am doing here, I propose to do again in
a fortnight at Pekin. But the pagodas and yamens of the Celestial
Empire can wait awhile, here is Tiflis before my eyes; walls of the
citadels, belfries of the temples belonging to the different religions,
a metropolitan church with its double cross, houses of Russian,
Persian, or Armenian construction; a few roofs, but many terraces; a
few ornamental frontages, but many balconies and verandas; then two
well-marked zones, the lower zone remaining Georgian, the higher zone,
more modern, traversed by a long boulevard planted with fine trees,
among which is seen the palace of Prince Bariatinsky, a capricious,
unexpected marvel of irregularity, which the horizon borders with its
grand frontier of mountains.
It is now five o'clock. I have no time to deliver myself in a
remunerative torrent of descriptive phrases. Let us hurry off to the
There is a crowd of Armenians, Georgians, Mingrelians, Tartars, Kurds,
Israelites, Russians, from the shores of the Caspian, some taking their
tickets--Oh! the Oriental color--direct for Baku, some for intermediate
This time I was completely in order. Neither the clerk with the
gendarme's face, nor the gendarmes themselves could hinder my departure.
I take a ticket for Baku, first class. I go down on the platform to the
carriages. According to my custom, I install myself in a comfortable
corner. A few travelers follow me while the cosmopolitan populace
invade the second and third-class carriages. The doors are shut after
the visit of the ticket inspector. A last scream of the whistle
announces that the train is about to start.
Suddenly there is a shout--a shout in which anger is mingled with
despair, and I catch these words in German:
I put down the window and look out.
A fat man, bag in hand, traveling cap on head, his legs embarrassed in
the skirts of a huge overcoat, short and breathless. He is late.
The porters try to stop him. Try to stop a bomb in the middle of its
trajectory! Once again has right to give place to might.
The Teuton bomb describes a well-calculated curve, and has just fallen
into the compartment next to ours, through the door a traveler had
obligingly left open.
The train begins to move at the same instant, the engine wheels begin
to slip on the rails, then the speed increases.
We are off.
We were three minutes late in starting; it is well to be precise. A
special correspondent who is not precise is a geometer who neglects to
run out his calculations to the tenth decimal. This delay of three
minutes made the German our traveling companion. I have an idea that
this good man will furnish me with some copy, but it is only a
It is still daylight at six o'clock in the evening in this latitude. I
have bought a time-table and I consult it. The map which accompanies it
shows me station by station the course of the line between Tiflis and
Baku. Not to know the direction taken by the engine, to be ignorant if
the train is going northeast or southeast, would be insupportable to
me, all the more as when night comes, I shall see nothing, for I cannot
see in the dark as if I were an owl or a cat.
My time-table shows me that the railway skirts for a little distance
the carriage road between Tiflis and the Caspian, running through
Saganlong, Poily, Elisabethpol, Karascal, Aliat, to Baku, along the
valley of the Koura. We cannot tolerate a railway which winds about; it
must keep to a straight line as much as possible. And that is what the
Among the stations there is one I would have gladly stopped at if I had
had time, Elisabethpol. Before I received the telegram from the
_Twentieth Century_, I had intended to stay there a week. I had read
such attractive descriptions of it, and I had but a five minutes' stop
there, and that between two and three o'clock in the morning! Instead
of a town resplendent in the rays of the sun, I could only obtain a
view of a vague mass confusedly discoverable in the pale beams of the
Having ended my careful examination of the time-table, I began to
examine my traveling companions. There were four of us, and I need
scarcely say that we occupied the four corners of the compartment. I
had taken the farthest corner facing the engine. At the two opposite
angles two travelers were seated facing each other. As soon as they got
in they had pulled their caps down on their eyes and wrapped themselves
up in their cloaks--evidently they were Georgians as far as I could
see. But they belonged to that special and privileged race who sleep on
the railway, and they did not wake up until we reached Baku. There was
nothing to be got out of those people; the carriage is not a carriage
for them, it is a bed.
In front of me was quite a different type with nothing of the Oriental
about it; thirty-two to thirty-five years old, face with a reddish
beard, very much alive in look, nose like that of a dog standing at
point, mouth only too glad to talk, hands free and easy, ready for a
shake with anybody; a tall, vigorous, broad-shouldered, powerful man.
By the way in which he settled himself and put down his bag, and
unrolled his traveling rug of bright-hued tartan, I had recognized the
Anglo-Saxon traveler, more accustomed to long journeys by land and sea
than to the comforts of his home, if he had a home. He looked like a
commercial traveler. I noticed that his jewelry was in profusion; rings
on his fingers, pin in his scarf, studs on his cuffs, with photographic
views in them, showy trinkets hanging from the watch-chain across his
waistcoat. Although he had no earrings and did not wear a ring at his
nose I should not have been surprised if he turned out to be an
American--probably a Yankee.
That is my business. To find out who are my traveling companions,
whence they come, where they go, is that not the duty of a special
correspondent in search of interviews? I will begin with my neighbor in
front of me. That will not be difficult, I imagine. He is not dreaming
or sleeping, or looking out on the landscape lighted by the last rays
of the sun. If I am not mistaken he will be just as glad to speak to me
as I am to speak to him--and reciprocally.
I will see. But a fear restrains me. Suppose this American--and I am
sure he is one--should also be a special, perhaps for the _World_ or
the _New York Herald_, and suppose he has also been ordered off to do
this Grand Asiatic. That would be most annoying! He would be a rival!
My hesitation is prolonged. Shall I speak, shall I not speak? Already
night has begun to fall. At last I was about to open my mouth when my
companion prevented me.
"You are a Frenchman?" he said in my native tongue.
"Yes, sir," I replied in his.
Evidently we could understand each other.
The ice was broken, and then question followed on question rather
rapidly between us. You know the Oriental proverb:
"A fool asks more questions in an hour than a wise man in a year."
But as neither my companion nor myself had any pretensions to wisdom we
asked away merrily.
"_Wait a bit_," said my American.
I italicize this phrase because it will recur frequently, like the pull
of the rope which gives the impetus to the swing.
"_Wait a bit_! I'll lay ten to one that you are a reporter!"
"And you would win! Yes. I am a reporter sent by the _Twentieth
Century_ to do this journey."
"Going all the way to Pekin?"
"So am I," replied the Yankee.
And that was what I was afraid of.
"Same trade?" said I indifferently.
"No. You need not excite yourself. We don't sell the same stuff, sir."
"Claudius Bombarnac, of Bordeaux, is delighted to be on the same road
"Fulk Ephrinell, of the firm of Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York City,
New York, U.S.A."
And he really added U.S.A.
We were mutually introduced. I a traveler in news, and he a traveler
in--In what? That I had to find out.
The conversation continues. Ephrinell, as may be supposed, has been
everywhere--and even farther, as he observes. He knows both Americas
and almost all Europe. But this is the first time he has set foot in
Asia. He talks and talks, and always jerks in _Wait a bit_, with
inexhaustible loquacity. Has the Hunson the same properties as the
I listen to him for two hours. I have hardly heard the names of the
stations yelled out at each stop, Saganlong, Poily, and the others. And
I really should have liked to examine the landscape in the soft light
of the moon, and made a few notes on the road.
Fortunately my fellow traveler had already crossed these eastern parts
of Georgia. He pointed out the spots of interest, the villages, the
watercourses, the mountains on the horizon. But I hardly saw them.
Confound these railways! You start, you arrive, and you have seen
nothing on the road!
"No!" I exclaim, "there is none of the charm about it as there is in
traveling by post, in troika, tarantass, with the surprises of the
road, the originality of the inns, the confusion when you change
horses, the glass of vodka of the yemtchiks--and occasionally the
meeting with those honest brigands whose race is nearly extinct."
"Mr. Bombarnac," said Ephrinell to me, "are you serious in regretting
all those fine things?"
"Quite serious," I reply. "With the advantages of the straight line of
railway we lose the picturesqueness of the curved line, or the broken
line of the highways of the past. And, Monsieur Ephrinell, when you
read of traveling in Transcaucasia forty years ago, do you not regret
it? Shall I see one of those villages inhabited by Cossacks who are
soldiers and farmers at one and the same time? Shall I be present at
one of those merry-makings which charm the tourist? those djiquitovkas
with the men upright on their horses, throwing their swords,
discharging their pistols, and escorting you if you are in the company
of some high functionary, or a colonel of the Staniza."
"Undoubtedly we have lost all those fine things," replies my Yankee.
"But, thanks to these iron ribbons which will eventually encircle our
globe like a hogshead of cider or a bale of cotton, we can go in
thirteen days from Tiflis to Pekin. That is why, if you expect any
incidents, to enliven you--"
"Certainly, Monsieur Ephrinell."
"Illusions, Mr. Bombarnac! Nothing will happen either to you or me.
Wait a bit, I promise you a journey, the most prosaic, the most homely,
the flattest--flat as the steppes of Kara Koum, which the Grand
Transasiatic traverses in Turkestan, and the plains of the desert of
Gobi it crosses in China--"
"Well, we shall see, for I travel for the pleasure of my readers."
"And I travel merely for my own business."
And at this reply the idea recurred to me that Ephrinell would not be
quite the traveling companion I had dreamed of. He had goods to sell, I
had none to buy. I foresaw that our meeting would not lead to a
sufficient intimacy during our long journey. He was one of those
Yankees who, as they say, hold a dollar between their teeth, which it
is impossible to get away from them, and I should get nothing out of
him that was worth having.
And although I knew that he traveled for Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New
York, I had never heard of the firm. To listen to their representative,
it would appear that Strong, Bulbul & Co. ought to be known throughout
But then, how was it that they were unknown to me, a pupil of
Chincholle, our master in everything! I was quite at a loss because I
had never heard of the firm of Strong, Bulbul & Co.
I was about to interrogate Ephrinell on this point, when he said to me:
"Have you ever been in the United States, Mr. Bombarnac?"
"No, Monsieur Ephrinell."
"You will come to our country some day?"
"Then you will not forget to explore the establishment of Strong,
Bulbul & Co.?"
"That is the proper word."
"Good! I shall not fail to do so."
"You will see one of the most remarkable industrial establishments of
the New Continent."
"I have no doubt of it; but how am I to know it?"
"Wait a bit, Mr. Bombarnac. Imagine a colossal workshop, immense
buildings for the mounting and adjusting of the pieces, a steam engine
of fifteen hundred horse-power, ventilators making six hundred
revolutions a minute, boilers consuming a hundred tons of coals a day,
a chimney stack four hundred and fifty feet high, vast outhouses for
the storage of our goods, which we send to the five parts of the world,
a general manager, two sub-managers, four secretaries, eight
under-secretaries, a staff of five hundred clerks and nine hundred
workmen, a whole regiment of travelers like your servant, working in
Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, in short, a turnover
exceeding annually one hundred million dollars! And all that, Mr.
Bombarnac, for making millions of--yes, I said millions--"
At this moment the train commenced to slow under the action of its
automatic brakes, and he stopped.
"Elisabethpol! Elisabethpol!" shout the guard and the porters on the
Our conversation is interrupted. I lower the window on my side, and
open the door, being desirous of stretching my legs.
Ephrinell did not get out.
Here was I striding along the platform of a very poorly lighted
station. A dozen travelers had already left the train. Five or six
Georgians were crowding on the steps of the compartments. Ten minutes
at Elisabethpol; the time-table allowed us no more.
As soon as the bell begins to ring I return to our carriage, and when I
have shut the door I notice that my place is taken. Yes! Facing the
American, a lady has installed herself with that Anglo-Saxon coolness
which is as unlimited as the infinite. Is she young? Is she old? Is she
pretty? Is she plain? The obscurity does not allow me to judge. In any
case, my French gallantry prevents me from claiming my corner, and I
sit down beside this person who makes no attempt at apology.
Ephrinell seems to be asleep, and that stops my knowing what it is that
Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York, manufacture by the million.
The train has started. We have left Elisabethpol behind. What have I
seen of this charming town of twenty thousand inhabitants, built on the
Gandja-tchai, a tributary of the Koura, which I had specially worked up
before my arrival? Nothing of its brick houses hidden under verdure,
nothing of its curious ruins, nothing of its superb mosque built at the
beginning of the eighteenth century. Of its admirable plane trees, so
sought after by crows and blackbirds, and which maintain a supportable
temperature during the excessive heats of summer, I had scarcely seen
the higher branches with the moon shining on them. And on the banks of
the stream which bears its silvery murmuring waters along the principal
street, I had only seen a few houses in little gardens, like small
crenelated fortresses. All that remained in my memory would be an
indecisive outline, seized in flight from between the steam puffs of
our engine. And why are these houses always in a state of defence?
Because Elisabethpol is a fortified town exposed to the frequent
attacks of the Lesghians of Chirvan, and these mountaineers, according
to the best-informed historians, are directly descended from Attila's
It was nearly midnight. Weariness invited me to sleep, and yet, like a
good reporter, I must sleep with one eye and one ear open.
I fall into that sort of slumber provoked by the regular trepidations
of a train on the road, mingled with ear-splitting whistles and the
grind of the brakes as the speed is slowed, and tumultuous roars as
passing trains are met with, besides the names of the stations shouted
out during the short stoppages, and the banging of the doors which are
opened or shut with metallic sonority.
In this way I heard the shouts of Geran, Varvara, Oudjarry, Kiourdamir,
Klourdane, then Karasoul, Navagi. I sat up, but as I no longer occupied
the corner from which I had been so cavalierly evicted, it was
impossible for me to look through the window.
And then I began to ask what is hidden beneath this mass of veils and
wraps and petticoats, which has usurped my place. Is this lady going to
be my companion all the way to the terminus of the Grand Transasiatic?
Shall I exchange a sympathetic salute with her in the streets of Pekin?
And from her my thoughts wander to my companion who is snoring in the
corner in a way that would make all the ventilators of Strong, Bulbul &
Co. quite jealous. And what is it these big people make? Is it iron
bridges, or locomotives, or armor plates, or steam boilers, or mining
pumps? From what my American told me, I might find a rival to Creusot
or Cokerill or Essen in this formidable establishment in the United
States of America. At least unless he has been taking a rise out of me,
for he does not seem to be "green," as they say in his country, which
means to say that he does not look very much like an idiot, this
And yet it seems that I must gradually have fallen sound asleep.
Withdrawn from exterior influences, I did not even hear the stentorian
respiration of the Yankee. The train arrived at Aliat, and stayed there
ten minutes without my being aware of it. I am sorry for it, for Aliat
is a little seaport, and I should like to have had a first glimpse of
the Caspian, and of the countries ravaged by Peter the Great. Two
columns of the historico-fantastic might have been made out of that,
with the aid of Bouillet and Larousse.
The word repeated as the train stopped awoke me.
It was seven o'clock in the morning.
The boat did not start until three o'clock in the afternoon. Those of
my companions who intended to cross the Caspian hurried off to the
harbor; it being necessary to engage a cabin, or to mark one's place in
the steamer's saloon.
Ephrinell precipitately left me with these words:
"I have not an instant to lose. I must see about the transport of my
"Have you much?"
"Forty-two cases!" I exclaimed.
"And I am sorry I have not double as many. Allow me--"
If he had had a voyage of eight days, instead of one of twenty-four
hours, and had to cross the Atlantic instead of the Caspian, he could
not have been in a greater hurry.
As you may imagine, the Yankee did not for a moment think of offering
his hand to assist our companion in descending from the carriage. I
took his place. The lady leaned on my arm and jumped--no, gently put
her foot on the ground. My reward was a _thank you, sir_, uttered in a
hard, dry, unmistakably British voice.
Thackeray has said somewhere that a well-brought-up Englishwoman is the
completest of the works of God on this earth. My only wish is to verify
this gallant affirmation in the case of my companion. She has put back
her veil. Is she a young woman or an old girl? With these Englishwomen
one never knows! Twenty-five years is apparently about her age, she has
an Albionesque complexion, a jerky walk, a high dress like an
equinoctial tide, no spectacles, although she has eyes of the intense
blue which are generally short-sighted. While I bend my back as I bow,
she honors me with a nod, which only brings into play the vertebrae of
her long neck, and she walks off straight toward the way out.
Probably I shall meet this person again on the steamboat. For my part,
I shall not go down to the harbor until it is time to start. I am at
Baku: I have half a day to see Baku, and I shall not lose an hour, now
that the chances of my wanderings have brought me to Baku.
It is possible that the name may in no way excite the reader's
curiosity. But perhaps it may inflame his imagination if I tell him
that Baku is the town of the Guebres, the city of the Parsees, the
metropolis of the fire-worshippers.
Encircled by a triple girdle of black battlemented walls, the town is
built near Cape Apcheron, on the extreme spur of the Caucasian range.
But am I in Persia or in Russia? In Russia undoubtedly, for Georgia is
a Russian province; but we can still believe we are in Persia, for Baku
has retained its Persian physiognomy. I visit a palace of the khans, a
pure product of the architecture of the time of Schahriar and
Scheherazade, "daughter of the moon," his gifted romancer, a palace in
which the delicate sculpture is as fresh as it came from the chisel.
Further on rise some slender minarets, and not the bulbous roofs of
Moscow the Holy, at the angles of an old mosque, into which one can
enter without taking off one's boots. True, the muezzin no longer
declaims from it some sonorous verse of the Koran at the hour of
prayer. And yet Baku has portions of it which are real Russian in
manners and aspect, with their wooden houses without a trace of
Oriental color, a railway station of imposing aspect, worthy of a great
city in Europe or America, and at the end of one of the roads, a modern
harbor, the atmosphere of which is foul with the coal smoke vomited
from the steamer funnels.
And, in truth, one asks what they are doing with coal in this town of
naphtha. What is the good of coal when the bare and arid soil of
Apcheron, which grows only the Pontic absinthium, is so rich in mineral
oil? At eighty francs the hundred kilos, it yields naphtha, black or
white, which the exigencies of supply will not exhaust for centuries.
A marvelous phenomenon indeed! Do you want a light or a fire? Nothing
can be simpler; make a hole in the ground, the gas escapes, and you
apply a match. That is a natural gasometer within the reach of all
I should have liked to visit the famous sanctuary of Atesh Gah; but it
is twenty-two versts from the town, and time failed me. There burns the
eternal fire, kept up for centuries by the Parsee priests from India,
who never touch animal food.
This reminds me that I have not yet breakfasted, and as eleven o'clock
strikes, I make my way to the restaurant at the railway, where I have
no intention of conforming myself to the alimentary code of the Parsees
of Atesh Gah.
As I am entering, Ephrinell rushes out.
"Breakfast?" say I.
"I have had it," he replies.
"And your cases?"
"I have still twenty-nine to get down to the steamer. But, pardon, I
have not a moment to lose. When a man represents the firm of Strong,
Bulbul & Co., who send out every week five thousand cases of their
"Go, go, Monsieur Ephrinell, we will meet on board. By the by, you have
not met our traveling companion?"
"What traveling companion?"
"The young lady who took my place in the carriage."
"Was there a young lady with us?"
"Well you are the first to tell me so, Mr. Bombarnac. You are the first
to tell me so."
And thereupon the American goes out of the door and disappears. It is
to be hoped I shall know before we get to Pekin what it is that Strong,
Bulbul & Co. send out in such quantities. Five thousand cases a
week--what an output, and what a turnover!
I had soon finished my breakfast and was off again. During my walk I
was able to admire a few magnificent Lesghians; these wore the grayish
tcherkesse, with the cartridge belts on the chest, the bechmet of
bright red silk, the gaiters embroidered with silver, the boots flat,
without a heel, the white papak on the head, the long gun on the
shoulders, the schaska and kandijar at the belt--in short men of the
arsenal as there are men of the orchestra, but of superb aspect and who
ought to have a marvelous effect in the processions of the Russian
It is already two o'clock, and I think I had better get down to the
boat. I must call at the railway station, where I have left my light
luggage at the cloakroom.
Soon I am off again, bag in one hand, stick in the other, hastening
down one of the roads leading to the harbor.
At the break in the wall where access is obtained to the quay, my
attention is, I do not know why, attracted by two people walking along
together. The man is from thirty to thirty-five years old, the woman
from twenty-five to thirty, the man already a grayish brown, with
mobile face, lively look, easy walk with a certain swinging of the
hips. The woman still a pretty blonde, blue eyes, a rather fresh
complexion, her hair frizzed under a cap, a traveling costume which is
in good taste neither in its unfashionable cut nor in its glaring
color. Evidently a married couple come in the train from Tiflis, and
unless I am mistaken they are French.
But although I look at them with curiosity, they take no notice of me.
They are too much occupied to see me. In their hands, on their
shoulders, they have bags and cushions and wraps and sticks and
sunshades and umbrellas. They are carrying every kind of little package
you can think of which they do not care to put with the luggage on the
steamer. I have a good mind to go and help them. Is it not a happy
chance--and a rare one--to meet with French people away from France?
Just as I am walking up to them, Ephrinell appears, drags me away, and
I leave the couple behind. It is only a postponement. I will meet them
again on the steamboat and make their acquaintance on the voyage.
"Well," said I to the Yankee, "how are you getting on with your cargo?"
"At this moment, sir, the thirty-seventh case is on the road."
"And no accident up to now?
"And what may be in those cases, if you please?
"In those cases? Ah! There is the thirty-seventh!" he exclaimed, and he
ran out to meet a truck which had just come onto the quay.
There was a good deal of bustle about, and all the animation of
departures and arrivals. Baku is the most frequented and the safest
port on the Caspian. Derbent, situated more to the north, cannot keep
up with it, and it absorbs almost the entire maritime traffic of this
sea, or rather this great lake which has no communication with the
neighboring seas. The establishment of Uzun Ada on the opposite coast
has doubled the trade which used to pass through Baku. The Transcaspian
now open for passengers and goods is the chief commercial route between
Europe and Turkestan.
In the near future there will perhaps be a second route along the
Persian frontier connecting the South Russian railways with those of
British India, and that will save travelers the navigation of the
Caspian. And when this vast basin has dried up through evaporation, why
should not a railroad be run across its sandy bed, so that trains can
run through without transhipment at Baku and Uzun Ada?
While we are waiting for the realization of this desideratum, it is
necessary to take the steamboat, and that I am preparing to do in
company with many others.
Our steamer is called the _Astara_, of the Caucasus and Mercury
Company. She is a big paddle steamer, making three trips a week from
coast to coast. She is a very roomy boat, designed to carry a large
cargo, and the builders have thought considerably more of the cargo
than of the passengers. After all, there is not much to make a fuss
about in a day's voyage.
There is a noisy crowd on the quay of people who are going off, and
people who have come to see them off, recruited from the cosmopolitan
population of Baku. I notice that the travelers are mostly Turkomans,
with about a score of Europeans of different nationalities, a few
Persians, and two representatives of the Celestial Empire. Evidently
their destination is China. .
The _Astara_ is loaded up. The hold is not big enough, and a good deal
of the cargo has overflowed onto the deck. The stern is reserved for
passengers, but from the bridge forward to the topgallant forecastle,
there is a heap of cases covered with tarpaulins to protect them from
There Ephrinell's cases have been put. He has lent a hand with Yankee
energy, determined not to lose sight of his valuable property, which is
in cubical cases, about two feet on the side, covered with patent
leather, carefully strapped, and on which can be read the stenciled
words, "Strong, Bulbul & Co., Now York."
"Are all your goods on board?" I asked the American.
"There is the forty-second case just coming," he replied.
And there was the said case on the back of a porter already coming
along the gangway.
It seemed to me that the porter was rather tottery, owing perhaps to a
lengthy absorption of vodka.
"Wait a bit!" shouted Ephrinell. Then in good Russian, so as to be
better understood, he shouted:
"Look out! Look out!"
It is good advice, but it is too late. The porter has just made a false
step. The case slips from his shoulders, falls--luckily over the rail
of the _Astara_--breaks in two, and a quantity of little packets of
paper scatter their contents on the deck.
What a shout of indignation did Ephrinell raise! What a whack with his
fist did he administer to the unfortunate porter as he repeated in a
voice of despair: "My teeth, my poor teeth!"
And he went down on his knees to gather up his little bits of
artificial ivory that were scattered all about, while I could hardly
keep from laughing.
Yes! It was teeth which Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York made! It was
for manufacturing five thousand cases a week for the five parts of the
world that this huge concern existed! It was for supplying the dentists
of the old and new worlds; it was for sending teeth as far as China,
that their factory required fifteen hundred horse power, and burned a
hundred tons of coal a day! That is quite American!
After all, the population of the globe is fourteen hundred million, and
as there are thirty-two teeth per inhabitant, that makes forty-five
thousand millions; so that if it ever became necessary to replace all
the true teeth by false ones, the firm of Strong, Bulbul & Co. would
not be able to supply them.
But we must leave Ephrinell gathering up the odontological treasures of
the forty-second case. The bell is ringing for the last time. All the
passengers are aboard. The _Astara_ is casting off her warps.
Suddenly there are shouts from the quay. I recognize them as being in
German, the same as I had heard at Tiflis when the train was starting
It is the same man. He is panting, he runs, he cannot run much farther.
The gangway has been drawn ashore, and the steamer is already moving
off. How will this late comer get on board?
Luckily there is a rope out astern which still keeps the _Astara_ near
the quay. The German appears just as two sailors are manoeuvring with
the fender. They each give him a hand and help him on board.
Evidently this fat man is an old hand at this sort of thing, and I
should not be surprised if he did not arrive at his destination.
However, the _Astara_ is under way, her powerful paddles are at work,
and we are soon out of the harbor.
About a quarter of a mile out there is a sort of boiling, agitating the
surface of the sea, and showing some deep trouble in the waters. I was
then near the rail on the starboard quarter, and, smoking my cigar, was
looking at the harbor disappearing behind the point round Cape
Apcheron, while the range of the Caucasus ran up into the western
Of my cigar there remained only the end between my lips, and taking a
last whiff, I threw it overboard.
In an instant a sheet of flame burst out all round the steamer The
boiling came from a submarine spring of naphtha, and the cigar end had
set it alight.
Screams arise. The _Astara_ rolls amid sheaves of flame; but a movement
of the helm steers us away from the flaming spring, and we are out of
The captain comes aft and says to me in a frigid tone:
"That was a foolish thing to do."
And I reply, as I usually reply under such circumstances:
"Really, captain, I did not know--"
"You ought always to know, sir!"
These words are uttered in a dry, cantankerous tone a few feet away
I turn to see who it is.
It is the Englishwoman who has read me this little lesson.
I am always suspicious of a traveler's "impressions." These impressions
are subjective--a word I use because it is the fashion, although I am
not quite sure what it means. A cheerful man looks at things
cheerfully, a sorrowful man looks at them sorrowfully. Democritus would
have found something enchanting about the banks of the Jordan and the
shores of the Dead Sea. Heraclitus would have found something
disagreeable about the Bay of Naples and the beach of the Bosphorus. I
am of a happy nature--you must really pardon me if I am rather
egotistic in this history, for it is so seldom that an author's
personality is so mixed up with what he is writing about--like Hugo,
Dumas, Lamartine, and so many others. Shakespeare is an exception, and
I am not Shakespeare--and, as far as that goes, I am not Lamartine, nor
Dumas, nor Hugo.
However, opposed as I am to the doctrines of Schopenhauer and Leopardi,
I will admit that the shores of the Caspian did seem rather gloomy and
dispiriting. There seemed to be nothing alive on the coast; no
vegetation, no birds. There was nothing to make you think you were on a
great sea. True, the Caspian is only a lake about eighty feet below the
level of the Mediterranean, but this lake is often troubled by violent
storms. A ship cannot "get away," as sailors say: it is only about a
hundred leagues wide. The coast is quickly reached eastward or
westward, and harbors of refuge are not numerous on either the Asiatic
or the European side.
There are a hundred passengers on board the _Astara_--a large number of
them Caucasians trading with Turkestan, and who will be with us all the
way to the eastern provinces of the Celestial Empire.
For some years now the Transcaspian has been running between Uzun Ada
and the Chinese frontier. Even between this part and Samarkand it has
no less than sixty-three stations; and it is in this section of the
line that most of the passengers will alight. I need not worry about
them, and I will lose no time in studying them. Suppose one of them
proves interesting, I may pump him and peg away at him, and just at the
critical moment he will get out.
No! All my attention I must devote to those who are going through with
me. I have already secured Ephrinell, and perhaps that charming
Englishwoman, who seems to me to be going to Pekin. I shall meet with
other traveling companions at Uzun Ada. With regard to the French
couple, there is nothing more at present, but the passage of the
Caspian will not be accomplished before I know something about them.
There are also these two Chinamen who are evidently going to China. If
I only knew a hundred words of the "Kouan-hoa," which is the language
spoken in the Celestial Empire, I might perhaps make something out of
these curious guys. What I really want is some personage with a story,
some mysterious hero traveling _incognito_, a lord or a bandit. I must
not forget my trade as a reporter of occurrences and an interviewer of
mankind--at so much a line and well selected. He who makes a good
choice has a good chance.
I go down the stairs to the saloon aft. There is not a place vacant.
The cabins are already occupied by the passengers who are afraid of the
pitching and rolling. They went to bed as soon as they came on board,
and they will not get up until the boat is alongside the wharf at Uzun
Ada. The cabins being full, other travelers have installed themselves
on the couches, amid a lot of little packages, and they will not move
As I am going to pass the night on deck, I return up the cabin stairs.
The American is there, just finishing the repacking of his case.
"Would you believe it!" he exclaims, "that that drunken moujik actually
asked me for something to drink?"
"I hope you have lost nothing, Monsieur Ephrinell?" I reply.
"May I ask how many teeth you are importing into China in those cases?"
"Eighteen hundred thousand, without counting the wisdom teeth!"
And Ephrinell began to laugh at this little joke, which he fired off on
several other occasions during the voyage. I left him and went onto the
bridge between the paddle boxes.
It is a beautiful night, with the northerly wind beginning to freshen.
In the offing, long, greenish streaks are sweeping over the surface of
the sea. It is possible that the night may be rougher than we expect.
In the forepart of the steamer are many passengers, Turkomans in rags,
Kirghizes wrapped up to the eyes, moujiks in emigrant costume--poor
fellows, in fact, stretched on the spare spars, against the sides, and
along the tarpaulins. They are almost all smoking or nibbling at the
provisions they have brought for the voyage. The others are trying to
sleep and forget their fatigue, and perhaps their hunger.
It occurs to me to take a stroll among these groups. I am like a hunter
beating the brushwood before getting into the hiding place. And I go
among this heap of packages, looking them over as if I were a custom
A rather large deal case, covered with a tarpaulin, attracts my
attention. It measures about a yard and a half in height, and a yard in
width and depth. It has been placed here with the care required by
these words in Russian, written on the side, "Glass--Fragile--Keep from
damp," and then directions, "Top--Bottom," which have been respected.
And then there is the address, "Mademoiselle Zinca Klork, Avenue
Cha-Coua, Pekin, Petchili, China."
This Zinca Klork--her name showed it--ought to be a Roumanian, and she
was taking advantage of this through train on the Grand Transasiatic to
get her glass forwarded. Was this an article in request at the shops of
the Middle Kingdom? How otherwise could the fair Celestials admire
their almond eyes and their elaborate hair?
The bell rang and announced the six-o'clock dinner. The dining-room is
forward. I went down to it, and found it already occupied by some forty
Ephrinell had installed himself nearly in the middle. There was a
vacant seat near him; he beckoned to me to occupy it, and I hastened to
Was it by chance? I know not; but the Englishwoman was seated on
Ephrinell's left and talking to him. He introduced me.
"Miss Horatia Bluett," he said.
Opposite I saw the French couple conscientiously studying the bill of
At the other end of the table, close to where the food came from--and
where the people got served first--was the German passenger, a man
strongly built and with a ruddy face, fair hair, reddish beard, clumsy
hands, and a very long nose which reminded one of the proboscidean
feature of the plantigrades. He had that peculiar look of the officers
of the Landsturm threatened with premature obesity.
"He is not late this time," said I to Ephrinell.
"The dinner hour is never forgotten in the German Empire!" replied the
"Do you know that German's name?"
"And with that name is he going to Pekin?"
"To Pekin, like that Russian major who is sitting near the captain of
I looked at the man indicated. He was about fifty years of age, of true
Muscovite type, beard and hair turning gray, face prepossessing. I knew
Russian: he ought to know French. Perhaps he was the fellow traveler of
whom I had dreamed.
"You said he was a major, Mr. Ephrinell?"
"Yes, a doctor in the Russian army, and they call him Major Noltitz."
Evidently the American was some distance ahead of me, and yet he was
not a reporter by profession.
As the rolling was not yet very great, we could dine in comfort.
Ephrinell chatted with Miss Horatia Bluett, and I understood that there
was an understanding between these two perfectly Anglo-Saxon natures.
In fact, one was a traveler in teeth and the other was a traveler in
hair. Miss Horatia Bluett represented an important firm in London,
Messrs. Holmes-Holme, to whom the Celestial Empire annually exports two
millions of female heads of hair. She was going to Pekin on account of
the said firm, to open an office as a center for the collection of the
Chinese hair crop. It seemed a promising enterprise, as the secret
society of the Blue Lotus was agitating for the abolition of the
pigtail, which is the emblem of the servitude of the Chinese to the
Manchu Tartars. "Come," thought I, "if China sends her hair to England,
America sends her teeth: that is a capital exchange, and everything is
for the best."
We had been at the table for a quarter of an hour, and nothing had
happened. The traveler with the smooth complexion and his blonde
companion seemed to listen to us when we spoke in French. It evidently
pleased them, and they were already showing an inclination to join in
our talk. I was not mistaken, then; they are compatriots, but of what
At this moment the _Astara_ gave a lurch. The plates rattled on the
table; the covers slipped; the glasses upset some of their contents;
the hanging lamps swung out of the vertical--or rather our seats and
the table moved in accordance with the roll of the ship. It is a
curious effect, when one is sailor enough to bear it without alarm.
"Eh!" said the American; "here is the good old Caspian shaking her
"Are you subject to seasickness?" I asked.
"No more than a porpoise," said he. "Are you ever seasick?" he
continued to his neighbor.
"Never," said Miss Horatia Bluett.
On the other side of the table there was an interchange of a few words
"You are not unwell, Madame Caterna?"
"No, Adolphe, not yet; but if this continues, I am afraid--"
"Well, Caroline, we had better go on deck. The wind has hauled a point
to the eastward, and the _Astara_ will soon be sticking her nose in the
His way of expressing himself shows that "Monsieur Caterna"--if that
was his name--was a sailor, or ought to have been one. That explains
the way he rolls his hips as he walks.
The pitching now becomes very violent. The majority of the company
cannot stand it. About thirty of the passengers have left the table for
the deck. I hope the fresh air will do them good. We are now only a
dozen in the dining room, including the captain, with whom Major
Noltitz is quietly conversing. Ephrinell and Miss Bluett seem to be
thoroughly accustomed to these inevitable incidents of navigation. The
German baron drinks and eats as if he had taken up his quarters in some
bier-halle at Munich, or Frankfort, holding his knife in his right
hand, his fork in his left, and making up little heaps of meat, which
he salts and peppers and covers with sauce, and then inserts under his
hairy lip on the point of his knife. Fie! What behavior! And yet he
gets on splendidly, and neither rolling nor pitching makes him lose a
mouthful of food or drink.
A little way off are the two Celestials, whom I watch with curiosity.
One is a young man of distinguished bearing, about twenty-five years
old, of pleasant physiognomy, in spite of his yellow skin and his
narrow eyes. A few years spent in Europe have evidently Europeanized
his manners and even his dress. His mustache is silky, his eye is
intelligent his hair is much more French than Chinese. He seems to me a
nice fellow, of a cheerful temperament, who would not ascend the "Tower
of Regret," as the Chinese have it, oftener than he could help.
His companion, on the contrary, whom he always appears to be making fun
of, is of the type of the true porcelain doll, with the moving head; he
is from fifty to fifty-five years old, like a monkey in the face, the
top of his head half shaven, the pigtail down his back, the traditional
costume, frock, vest, belt, baggy trousers, many-colored slippers; a
China vase of the Green family. He, however, could hold out no longer,
and after a tremendous pitch, accompanied by a long rattle of the
crockery, he got up and hurried on deck. And as he did so, the younger
Chinaman shouted after him, "Cornaro! Cornaro!" at the same time
holding out a little volume he had left on the table.
What was the meaning of this Italian word in an Oriental mouth? Did the
Chinaman speak the language of Boccaccio? The _Twentieth Century_ ought
to know, and it would know.
Madame Caterna arose, very pale, and Monsieur Caterna, a model husband,
followed her on deck.
The dinner over, leaving Ephrinell and Miss Bluett to talk of
brokerages and prices current, I went for a stroll on the poop of the
_Astara_. Night had nearly closed in. The hurrying clouds, driven from
the eastward, draped in deep folds the higher zones of the sky, with
here and there a few stars peeping through. The wind was rising. The
white light of the steamer clicked as it swung on the foremast. The red
and green lights rolled with the ship, and projected their long colored
rays onto the troubled waters.
I met Ephrinell, Miss Horatia Bluett having retired to her cabin; he
was going down into the saloon to find a comfortable corner on one of
the couches. I wished him good night, and he left me after gratifying
me with a similar wish.
As for me, I will wrap myself in my rug and lie down in a corner of the
deck, and sleep like a sailor during his watch below.
It is only eight o'clock. I light my cigar, and with my legs wide
apart, to assure my stability as the ship rolled, I begin to walk up
and down the deck. The deck is already abandoned by the first-class
passengers, and I am almost alone. On the bridge is the mate, pacing
backward and forward, and watching the course he has given to the man
at the wheel, who is close to him. The paddles are impetuously beating
into the sea, and now and then breaking into thunder, as one or the
other of the wheels runs wild, as the rolling lifts it clear of the
water. A thick smoke rises from the funnel, which occasionally belches
forth a shower of sparks.
At nine o'clock the night is very dark. I try to make out some
steamer's lights in the distance, but in vain, for the Caspian has not
many ships on it. I can hear only the cry of the sea birds, gulls and
scoters, who are abandoning themselves to the caprices of the wind.
During my promenade, one thought besets me: is the voyage to end
without my getting anything out of it as copy for my journal? My
instructions made me responsible for producing something, and surely
not without reason. What? Not an adventure from Tiflis to Pekin?
Evidently that could only be my fault! And I resolved to do everything
to avoid such a misfortune.
It is half-past ten when I sit down on one of the seats in the stern of
the _Astara_. But with this increasing wind it is impossible for me to
remain there. I rise, therefore, and make my way forward. Under the
bridge, between the paddle boxes, the wind is so strong that I seek
shelter among the packages covered by the tarpaulin. Stretched on one
of the boxes, wrapped in my rug, with my head resting against the
tarpaulin, I shall soon be asleep.
After some time, I do not exactly know how much, I am awakened by a
curious noise. Whence comes this noise? I listen more attentively. It
seems as though some one is snoring close to my ear.
"That is some steerage passenger," I think. "He has got under the
tarpaulin between the cases, and he will not do so badly in his
By the light which filters down from the lower part of the binnacle, I
I listen again. The noise has ceased.
I look about. There is no one on this part of the deck, for the
second-class passengers are all forward.
Then I must have been dreaming, and I resume my position and try again
This time there is no mistake. The snoring has begun again, and I am
sure it is coming from the case against which I am leaning my head.
"Goodness!" I say. "There must be an animal in here!"
An animal? What? A dog? A cat? Why have they hidden a domestic animal
in this case? Is it a wild animal? A panther, a tiger, a lion?
Now I am off on the trail! It must be a wild animal on its way from
some menagerie to some sultan of Central Asia. This case is a cage, and
if the cage opens, if the animal springs out onto the deck--here is an
incident, here is something worth chronicling; and here I am with my
professional enthusiasm running mad. I must know at all costs to whom
this wild beast is being sent; is it going to Uzon Ada, or is it going
to China? The address ought to be on the case.
I light a wax vesta, and as I am sheltered from the wind, the flame
By its light what do I read?
The case containing the wild beast is the very one with the address:
"_Mademoiselle Zinca Klork, Avenue Cha-Coua, Pekin, China."_
_Fragile_, my wild beast! _Keep from damp_, my lion! Quite so! But for
what does Miss Zinca Klork, this pretty--for the Roumanian ought to be
pretty, and she is certainly a Roumanian--for what does she want a wild
beast sent in this way?
Let us think about it and be reasonable. This animal, whatever it may
be, must eat and drink. From the time it starts from Uzon Ada it will
take eleven days to cross Asia, and reach the capital of the Celestial
Empire. Well, what do they give it to drink, what do they give it to
eat, if he is not going to get out of his cage, if he is going to be
shut up during the whole of the journey? The officials of the Grand
Transasiatic will be no more careful in their attentions to the said
wild beast than if he were a glass, for he is described as such; and he
will die of inanition!
All these things sent my brain whirling. My thoughts bewildered me. "Is
it a lovely dream that dazes me, or am I awake?" as Margaret says in
Faust, more lyrically than dramatically. To resist is impossible. I
have a two-pound weight on each eyelid. I lay down along by the
tarpaulin; my rug wraps me more closely, and I fall into a deep sleep.
How long have I slept? Perhaps for three or four hours. One thing is
certain, and that is that it is not yet daylight when I awake.
I rub my eyes, I rise, I go and lean against the rail.
The _Astara_ is not so lively, for the wind has shifted to the
The night is cold. I warm myself by walking about briskly for half an
hour. I think no more of my wild beast. Suddenly remembrance returns to
me. Should I not call the attention of the stationmaster to this
disquieting case? But that is no business of mine. We shall see before
I look at my watch. It is only three o'clock in the morning. I will go
back to my place. And I do so with my head against the side of the
case. I shut my eyes.
Suddenly there is a new sound. This time I am not mistaken. A
half-stifled sneeze shakes the side of the case. Never did an animal
sneeze like that!
Is it possible? A human being is hidden in this case and is being
fraudulently carried by the Grand Transasiatic to the pretty Roumanian!
But is it a man or a woman? It seems as though the sneeze had a
masculine sound about it.
It is impossible to sleep now. How long the day is coming! How eager I
am to examine this box! I wanted incidents--well! and here is one, and
if I do not get five lines out of this--
The eastern horizon grows brighter. The clouds in the zenith are the
first to color. The sun appears at last all watery with the mists of
I look; it is indeed the case addressed to Pekin. I notice that certain
holes are pierced here and there, by which the air inside can be
renewed. Perhaps two eyes are looking through these holes, watching
what is going on outside? Do not be indiscreet!
At breakfast gather all the passengers whom the sea has not affected:
the young Chinaman, Major Noltitz, Ephrinell, Miss Bluett, Monsieur
Caterna, the Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer, and seven or eight other
passengers. I am careful not to let the American into the secret of the
case. He would be guilty of some indiscretion, and then good-by to my
About noon the land is reported to the eastward, a low, yellowish land,
with no rocky margin, but a few sandhills in the neighborhood of
In an hour we are in sight of Uzun Ada, and twenty-seven minutes
afterward we set foot in Asia.
Travelers used to land at Mikhailov, a little port at the end of the
Transcaspian line; but ships of moderate tonnage hardly had water
enough there to come alongside. On this account, General Annenkof, the
creator of the new railway, the eminent engineer whose name will
frequently recur in my narrative, was led to found Uzun Ada, and
thereby considerably shorten the crossing of the Caspian. The station
was built in three months, and it was opened on the 8th of May, 1886.
Fortunately I had read the account given by Boulangier, the engineer,
relating to the prodigious work of General Annenkof, so that I shall
not be so very much abroad during the railway journey between Uzun Ada
and Samarkand, and, besides, I trust to Major Noltitz, who knows all
about the matter. I have a presentiment that we shall become good
friends, and in spite of the proverb which says, "Though your friend be
of honey do not lick him!" I intend to "lick" my companion often enough
for the benefit of my readers.
We often hear of the extraordinary rapidity with which the Americans
have thrown their railroads across the plains of the Far West. But the
Russians are in no whit behind them, if even they have not surpassed
them in rapidity as well as in industrial audacity.
People are fully acquainted with the adventurous campaign of General
Skobeleff against the Turkomans, a campaign of which the building of
the railway assured the definite success. Since then the political
state of Central Asia has been entirely changed, and Turkestan is
merely a province of Asiatic Russia, extending to the frontiers of the
Chinese Empire. And already Chinese Turkestan is very visibly
submitting to the Muscovite influence which the vertiginous heights of
the Pamir plateau have not been able to check in its civilizing march.
I was about to cross the countries which were formerly ravaged by
Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, those fabulous countries of which the
Russians in 1886 possessed six hundred and fifteen thousand square
kilometres, with thirteen hundred thousand inhabitants. The southern
part of this region now forms the Transcaspian province, divided into
six districts, Fort Alexandrovski, Krasnovodsk, Askhabad, Karibent,
Merv, Pendjeh, governed by Muscovite colonels or lieutenant-colonels.
As may be imagined, it hardly takes an hour to see Uzun Ada, the name
of which means Long Island. It is almost a town, but a modern town,
traced with a square, drawn with a line or a large carpet of yellow
sand. No monuments, no memories, bridges of planks, houses of wood, to
which comfort is beginning to add a few mansions in stone. One can see
what this, first station of the Transcaspian will be like in fifty
years; a great city after having been a great railway station.
Do not think that there are no hotels. Among others there is the Hotel
du Czar, which has a good table, good rooms and good beds. But the
question of beds has no interest for me. As the train starts at four
o'clock this afternoon, to begin with, I must telegraph to the
_Twentieth Century,_ by the Caspian cable, that I am at my post at the
Uzun Ada station. That done, I can see if I can pick up anything worth
Nothing is more simple. It consists in opening an account with those of
my companions with whom I may have to do during the journey. That is my
custom, I always find it answers, and while waiting for the unknown, I
write down the known in my pocketbook, with a number to distinguish
1. Fulk Ephrinell, American.
2. Miss Horatia Bluett, English.
3. Major Noltitz, Russian.
4. Monsieur Caterna, French.
5. Madame Caterna, French.
6. Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer, German.
As to the Chinese, they will have a number later on, when I have made
up my mind about them. As to the individual in the box, I intend to
enter into communication with him, or her, and to be of assistance in
that quarter if I can do so without betraying the secret.
The train is already marshaled in the station. It is composed of first
and second-class cars, a restaurant car and two baggage vans. These
cars are painted of a light color, an excellent precaution against the
heat and against the cold. For in the Central Asian provinces the
temperature ranges between fifty degrees centigrade above zero and
twenty below, and in a range of seventy degrees it is only prudent to
minimize the effects.
These cars are in a convenient manner joined together by gangways, on
the American plan. Instead of being shut up in a compartment, the
traveler strolls about along the whole length of the train. There is
room to pass between the stuffed seats, and in the front and rear of
each car are the platforms united by the gangways. This facility of
communication assures the security of the train.
Our engine has a bogie on four small wheels, and is thus able to
negotiate the sharpest curves; a tender with water and fuel; then come a
front van, three first-class cars with twenty-four places each, a
restaurant car with pantry and kitchen, four second-class cars and a
rear van; in all twelve vehicles, counting in the locomotive and tender.
The first class cars are provided with dressing rooms, and their seats,
by very simple mechanism, are convertible into beds, which, in fact, are
indispensable for long journeys. The second-class travelers are not so
comfortably treated, and besides, they have to bring their victuals with
them, unless they prefer to take their meals at the stations. There are
not many, however, who travel the complete journey between the Caspian
and the eastern provinces of China--that is to say about six thousand
kilometres. Most of them go to the principal towns and villages of
Russian Turkestan, which have been reached by the Transcaspian Railway
for some years, and which up to the Chinese frontier has a length of
over 1,360 miles.
This Grand Transasiatic has only been open six weeks and the company is
as yet only running two trains a week. All has gone well up to the
present; but I ought to add the significant detail that the railway men
carry a supply of revolvers to arm the passengers with if necessary.
This is a wise precaution in crossing the Chinese deserts, where an
attack on the train is not improbable.
I believe the company are doing their best to ensure the punctuality of
their trains; but the Chinese section is managed by Celestials, and who
knows what has been the past life of those people? Will they not be
more intent on the security of their dividends than of their passengers?
As I wait for the departure I stroll about on the platform, looking
through the windows of the cars, which have no doors along the sides,
the entrances being at the ends.
Everything is new; the engine is as bright as it can be, the carriages
are brilliant in their new paint, their springs have not begun to give
with wear, and their wheels run true on the rails. Then there is the
rolling stock with which we are going to cross a continent. There is no
railway as long as this--not even in America. The Canadian line
measures five thousand kilometres, the Central Union, five thousand two
hundred and sixty, the Santa Fe line, four thousand eight hundred and
seventy-five, the Atlantic Pacific, five thousand six hundred and
thirty, the Northern Pacific, six thousand two hundred and fifty. There
is only one line which will be longer when it is finished, and that is
the Grand Transsiberian, from the Urals to Vladivostock, which will
measure six thousand five hundred kilometres.
Between Tiflis and Pekin our journey will not last more than thirteen
days, from Uzun Ada it will only last eleven. The train will only stop
at the smaller stations to take in fuel and water. At the chief towns
like Merv, Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkend, Kachgar, Kokhand, Sou Tcheou,
Lan Tcheou, Tai Youan, it will stop a few hours--and that will enable
me to do these towns in reporter style.
Of course, the same driver and stoker will not take us through. They
will be relieved every six hours. Russians will take us up to the
frontier of Turkestan, and Chinese will take us on through China.
But there is one representative of the company who will not leave his
post, and that is Popof, our head guard, a true Russian of soldierly
bearing, hairy and bearded, with a folded overcoat and a Muscovite cap.
I intend to talk a good deal with this gallant fellow, although he is
not very talkative. If he does not despise a glass of vodka,
opportunity offered, he may have a good deal to say to me; for ten
years he has been on the Transcaspian between Uzun Ada and the Pamirs,
and during the last month he has been all along the line to Pekin.
I call him No. 7 in my notebook, and I hope he will give me information
enough. I only want a few incidents of the journey, just a few little
incidents worthy of the _Twentieth Century._
Among the passengers I see on the platform are a few Jews, recognizable
more by their faces than their attire. Formerly, in Central Asia, they
could only wear the "toppe," a sort of round cap, and a plain rope
belt, without any silk ornamentation--under pain of death. And I am
told that they could ride on asses in certain towns and walk on foot in
others. Now they wear the oriental turban and roll in their carriages
if their purse allows of it. Who would hinder them now they are
subjects of the White Czar, Russian citizens, rejoicing in civil and
political rights equal to those of their Turkoman compatriots?
There are a few Tadjiks of Persian origin, the handsomest men you can
imagine. They have booked for Merv, or Bokhara, or Samarkand, or
Tachkend, or Kokhand, and will not pass the Russo-Chinese frontier. As
a rule they are second-class passengers. Among the first-class
passengers I noticed a few Usbegs of the ordinary type, with retreating
foreheads and prominent cheek bones, and brown complexions, who were
the lords of the country, and from whose families come the emirs and
khans of Central Asia.
But are there not any Europeans in this Grand Transasiatic train? It
must be confessed that I can only count five or six. There are a few
commercial travelers from South Russia, and one of those inevitable
gentlemen from the United Kingdom, who are inevitably to be found on
the railways and steamboats. It is still necessary to obtain permission
to travel on the Transcaspian, permission which the Russian
administration does not willingly accord to an Englishman; but this man
has apparently been able to get one.
And he seems to me to be worth notice. He is tall and thin, and looks
quite the fifty years that his gray hairs proclaim him to be. His
characteristic expression is one of haughtiness, or rather disdain,
composed in equal parts of love of all things English and contempt for
all things that are not. This type is occasionally so insupportable,
even to his compatriots, that Dickens, Thackeray and others have often
made fun of it. How he turned up his nose at the station at Uzun Ada,
at the train, at the men, at the car in which he had secured a seat by
placing in it his traveling bag! Let us call him No. 8 in my pocketbook.
There seem to be no personages of importance. That is a pity. If only
the Emperor of Russia, on one side, or the Son of Heaven, on the other,
were to enter the train to meet officially on the frontier of the two
empires, what festivities there would be, what grandeur, what
descriptions, what copy for letters and telegrams!
It occurs to me to have a look at the mysterious box. Has it not a
right to be so called? Yes, certainly. I must really find out where it
has been put and how to get at it easily.
The front van is already full of Ephrinell's baggage. It does not open
at the side, but in front and behind, like the cars. It is also
furnished with a platform and a gangway. An interior passage allows the
guard to go through it to reach the tender and locomotive if necessary.
Popof's little cabin is on the platform of the first car, in the
left-hand corner. At night it will be easy for me to visit the van, for
it is only shut in by the doors at the ends of the passage arranged
between the packages. If this van is reserved for luggage registered
through to China, the luggage for the Turkestan stations ought to be in
the van at the rear.
When I arrived the famous box was still on the platform.
In looking at it closely I observe that airholes have been bored on
each of its sides, and that on one side it has two panels, one of which
can be made to slide on the other from the inside. And I am led to
think that the prisoner has had it made so in order that he can, if
necessary, leave his prison--probably during the night.
Just now the porters are beginning to lift the box. I have the
satisfaction of seeing that they attend to the directions inscribed on
it. It is placed, with great care, near the entrance to the van, on the
left, the side with the panels outward, as if it were the door of a
cupboard. And is not the box a cupboard? A cupboard I propose to open?
It remains to be seen if the guard in charge of the luggage is to
remain in this van. No. I find that his post is just outside it.
"There it is, all right!" said one of the porters, looking to see that
the case was as it should be, top where top should be, and so on.
"There is no fear of its moving," said another porter; "the glass will
reach Pekin all right, unless the train runs off the metals."
"Or it does not run into anything," said the other; "and that remains
to be seen."
They were right--these good fellows--it remained to be seen--and it
would be seen.
The American came up to me and took a last look at his stock of
incisors, molars and canines, with a repetition of his invariable "Wait
"You know, Monsieur Bombarnac," he said to me, "that the passengers are
going to dine at the Hotel du Czar before the departure of the train.
It is time now. Will you come with me?"
"I follow you."
And we entered the dining room. All my numbers are there: 1, Ephrinell,
taking his place as usual by the side of 2, Miss Horatia Bluett. The
French couple, 4 and 5, are also side by side. Number 3, that is Major
Noltitz, is seated in front of numbers 9 and 10, the two Chinese to
whom I have just given numbers in my notebook. As to the fat German,
number 6, he has already got his long nose into his soup plate. I see
also that the Guard Popol, number 7, has his place at the foot of the
table. The other passengers, Europeans and Asiatics, are installed,
_passim_ with the evident intention of doing justice to the repast.
Ah! I forgot my number 8, the disdainful gentleman whose name I don't
yet know, and who seems determined to find the Russian cookery inferior
to the English.
I also notice with what attention Monsieur Caterna looks after his
wife, and encourages her to make up for the time lost when she was
unwell on board the _Astara_. He keeps her glass filled, he chooses the
best pieces for her, etc.
"What a good thing it is," I hear him say, "that we are not to leeward
of the Teuton, for there would be nothing left for us!"
He is to windward of him--that is to say, the dishes reach him before
they get to the baron, which, however, does not prevent his clearing
them without shame.
The observation, in sea language, made me smile, and Caterna, noticing
it, gave me a wink with a slight movement of the shoulder toward the
It is evident that these French people are not of high distinction,
they do not belong to the upper circles; but they are good people, I
will answer for it, and when we have to rub shoulders with compatriots,
we must not be too particular in Turkestan.
The dinner ends ten minutes before the time fixed for our departure.
The bell rings and we all make a move for the train, the engine of
which is blowing off steam.
Mentally, I offer a last prayer to the God of reporters and ask him not
to spare me adventures. Then, after satisfying myself that all my
numbers are in the first-class cars, so that I can keep an eye on them,
I take my place.
The Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer--what an interminable name--is not
behindhand this time. On the contrary, it is the train this time which
is five minutes late in starting; and the German has begun to complain,
to chafe and to swear, and threatens to sue the company for damages.
Ten thousand roubles--not a penny less!--if it causes him to fail. Fail
in what, considering that he is going to Pekin?
At length the last shriek of the whistle cleaves the air, the cars
begin to move, and a loud cheer salutes the departure of the Grand
The ideas of a man on horseback are different to those which occur to
him when he is on foot. The difference is even more noticeable when he
is on the railway. The association of his thoughts, the character of
his reflections are all affected by the speed of the train. They "roll"
in his head, as he rolls in his car. And so it comes about that I am in
a particularly lively mood, desirous of observing, greedy of
instruction, and that at a speed of thirty-one miles an hour. That is
the rate at which we are to travel through Turkestan, and when we reach
the Celestial Empire we shall have to be content with eighteen.
That is what I have just ascertained by consulting my time-table, which
I bought at the station. It is accompanied by a long slip map, folded
and refolded on itself, which shows the whole length of the line
between the Caspian and the eastern coast of China. I study, then, my
Transasiatic, on leaving Uzun Ada, just as I studied my Transgeorgian
when I left Tiflis.
The gauge of the line is about sixty-three inches--as is usual on the
Russian lines, which are thus about four inches wider than those of
other European countries. It is said, with regard to this, that the
Germans have made a great number of axles of this length, in case they
have to invade Russia. I should like to think that the Russians have
taken the same precautions in the no less probable event of their
having to invade Germany.
On either side of the line are long sandhills, between which the train
runs out from Uzun Ada; when it reaches the arm of the sea which
separates Long Island from the continent, it crosses an embankment
about 1,200 yards long, edged with masses of rock to protect it against
the violence of the waves.
We have already passed several stations without stopping, among others
Mikhailov, a league from Uzun Ada. Now they are from ten to eleven
miles apart. Those I have seen, as yet, look like villas, with
balustrades and Italian roofs, which has a curious effect in Turkestan
and the neighborhood of Persia. The desert extends up to the
neighborhood of Uzun Ada, and the railway stations form so many little
oases, made by the hand of man. It is man, in fact, who has planted
these slender, sea-green poplars, which give so little shade; it is man
who, at great expense, has brought here the water whose refreshing jets
fall back into an elegant vase. Without these hydraulic works there
would not be a tree, not a corner of green in these oases. They are the
nurses of the line, and dry-nurses are of no use to locomotives.
The truth is that I have never seen such a bare, arid country, so clear
of vegetation; and it extends for one hundred and fifty miles from Uzun
Ada. When General Annenkof commenced his works at Mikhailov, he was
obliged to distil the water from the Caspian Sea, as if he were on
board ship. But if water is necessary to produce steam, coal is
necessary to vaporize the water. The readers of the _Twentieth Century_
will ask how are the furnaces fed in a country in which there is
neither coal nor wood? Are there stores of these things at the
principal stations of the Transcaspian? Not at all. They have simply
put in practice an idea which occurred to our great chemist,
Sainte-Claire Deville, when first petroleum was used in France. The
furnaces are fed, by the aid of a pulverizing apparatus, with the
residue produced from the distillation of the naphtha, which Baku and
Derbent produce in such inexhaustible quantities. At certain stations
on the line there are vast reservoirs of this combustible mineral, from
which the tenders are filled, and it is burned in specially adapted
fireboxes. In a similar way naphtha is used on the steamboats on the
Volga and the other affluents of the Caspian.
I repeat, the country is not particularly varied. The ground is nearly
flat in the sandy districts, and quite flat in the alluvial plains,
where the brackish water stagnates in pools. Nothing could be better
for a line of railway. There are no cuttings, no embankments, no
viaducts, no works of art--to use a term dear to engineers, very
"dear," I should say. Here and there are a few wooden bridges from two
hundred to three hundred feet long. Under such circumstances the cost
per kilometre of the Transcaspian did not exceed seventy-five thousand
The monotony of the journey would only be broken on the vast oases of
Merv, Bokhara and Samarkand.
But let us busy ourselves with the passengers, as we can do all the
more easily from our being able to walk from one end to the other of
the train. With a little imagination we can make ourselves believe we
are in a sort of traveling village, and I am just going to take a run
down main street.
Remember that the engine and tender are followed by the van at the
angle of which is placed the mysterious case, and that Popof's
compartment is in the left-hand corner of the platform of the first car.
Inside this car I notice a few Sarthes of tall figure and haughty face,
draped in their long robes of bright colors, from beneath which appear
the braided leather boots. They have splendid eyes, a superb beard,
arched nose, and you would take them for real lords, provided we ignore
the word Sarthe, which means a pedlar, and these were going evidently
to Tachkend, where these pedlars swarm.
In this car the two Chinese have taken their places, opposite each
other. The young Celestial looks out of window. The old one--Ta-lao-ye,
that is to say, a person well advanced in years--is incessantly turning
over the pages of his book. This volume, a small 32mo, looks like our
_Annuaire du Bureau des Longitudes_, and is covered in plush, like a
breviary, and when it is shut its covers are kept in place by an
elastic band. What astonishes me is that the proprietor of this little
book does not seem to read it from right to left. Is it not written in
Chinese characters? We must see into this!
On two adjoining seats are Ephrinell and Miss Horatia Bluett. Their
talk is of nothing but figures. I don't know if the practical American
murmurs at the ear of the practical Englishwoman the adorable verse
which made the heart of Lydia palpitate:
"Nee tecum possum vivere sine te,"
but I do know that Ephrinell can very well live without me. I have been
quite right in not reckoning on his company to charm away the tedium of
the journey. The Yankee has completely "left" me--that is the word--for
this angular daughter of Albion.
I reach the platform. I cross the gangway and I am at the door of the
In the right-hand corner is Baron Weissschnitzerdoerfer. His long
nose--this Teuton is as short-sighted as a mole--rubs the lines of the
book he reads. The book is the time-table. The impatient traveler is
ascertaining if the train passes the stations at the stated time.
Whenever it is behind there are new recriminations and menaces against
the Grand Transasiatic Company.
In this car there are also the Caternas, who have made themselves quite
comfortable. In his cheery way, the husband is talking with a good deal
of gesticulation, sometimes touching his wife's hands, sometimes
putting his arms round her waist; and then he turns his head toward the
platform and says something aside. Madame Caterna leans toward him,
makes little confused grimaces, and then leans back into the corner and
seems to reply to her husband, who in turn replies to her. And as I
leave I hear the chorus of an operetta in the deep voice of Monsieur
In the third car, occupied by many Turkomans and three or four
Russians, I perceive Major Noltitz. He is talking with one of his
countrymen. I will willingly join in their conversation if they make me
any advances, but I had better maintain a certain reserve; the journey
has only begun.
I then visit the dining car. It is a third longer than the other cars,
a regular dining room, with one long table. At the back is a pantry on
one side, a kitchen on the other, where the cook and steward are at
work, both of them Russians. This dining car appears to me capitally
arranged. Passing through it, I reach the second part of the train,
where the second-class passengers are installed. Kirghizes who do not
look very intelligent with their depressed heads, their prognathous
jaws stuck well out in front, their little beards, flat Cossack noses
and very brown skins. These wretched fellows are Mahometans and belong
either to the Grand Horde wandering on the frontier between China and
Siberia, or to the Little Horde between the Ural Mountains and the Aral
Sea. A second-class car, or even a third-class car, is a palace for
these people, accustomed to the encampments on the Steppes, to the
miserable "iourts" of villages. Neither their beds nor their seats are
as good as the stuffed benches on which they have seated themselves
with true Asiatic gravity.
With them are two or three Nogais going to Eastern Turkestan. Of a
higher race than the Kirghizes, being Tartars, it is from them that
come the learned men and professors who have made illustrious the
opulent cities of Bokhara and Samarkand. But science and its teaching
do not yield much of a livelihood, even when reduced to the mere
necessaries of life, in these provinces of Central Asia. And so these
Nogais take employment as interpreters. Unfortunately, since the
diffusion of the Russian language, their trade is not very remunerative.
Now I know the places of my numbers, and I know where to find them when
I want them. As to those going through to Pekin, I have no doubt of
Ephrinell and Miss Horatia Bluett nor the German baron, nor the two
Chinese, nor Major Noltitz, nor the Caternas, nor even for the haughty
gentleman whose bony outline I perceive in the corner of the second car.
As to these travelers who are not going across the frontier, they are
of most perfect insignificance in my eyes. But among my companions I
have not yet found the hero of my chronicle! let us hope he will
declare himself as we proceed.
My intention is to take notes hour by hour--what did I say? To "minute"
my journey. Before the night closes in I go out on the platform of the
car to have a last look at the surrounding country. An hour with my
cigar will take me to Kizil Arvat, where the train has to stop for some
time. In going from the second to the first car I meet Major Noltitz. I
step aside to let him pass. He salutes me with that grace which
distinguishes well-bred Russians. I return his salute. Our meeting is
restricted to this exchange of politeness, but the first step is taken.
Popof is not just now in his seat. The door of the luggage van being
open, I conclude that the guard has gone to talk with the driver. On
the left of the van the mysterious box is in its place. It is only