Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

CHAPTER XV.

HOME FROM THE WAR.

It is the afternoon of the sixth day from the Te Deum, and all Kazalinsk is expectant. A portion of the conquerors are already on their way home, and any hour may bring them to our doors. Day after day, men congregate on the bank of the Syr-Daria, to look wistfully down the stream toward the Sea of Aral, watching for the masts of the coming steamer against the sky-line, and listening for the boom of the signal-gun. Old Morozoff, my landlord (a Russian to the backbone), can talk of nothing but the campaign, and pours himself out in rejoicing to any one who will listen. Here he comes, lounging along the wall, with his white jacket and great bushy head, uncovered in the full blaze of the sun, and catching sight of me where I sit by the door, for the ten minutes of digestion which intervene between my dinner and march number two, plunges at once into his favourite topic.

“They've got it at last, the dogs! and serve 'em right. They've played tricks upon us long enough ; but now they're going to get their porridge hot! We've got the place, and we'll keep it. We want the AmuDaria (Oxus) for our trade—and we'll have it too!"

“Isn't one river enough for you, then?” "Ach, David Stepanovitch! what are you saying ? Do you call this thing a river ? The Syr-Daria's not fit to float a slop-bowl—all sand and shoals, and shoals and sand, just like sailing in a panful of cabbage! Now, over yonder, on the Amu-Daria, there is water enough

—or at least there will be when we break down the dams which that (unprintable) Khan put across it to spite Christian folk. And if the water's too shallow for our steamers, we'll just do it in flat-bottomed boats without keels, with rushes tied round them—such as Alexander Makedonski had for his campaign in Bactria.”

Hardened as I am to surprises, I cannot but stare a little at hearing a common tavern-keeper, in a mudbuilt Asiatic village, talk so glibly of Alexander of Macedon and his Bactrian campaign. I have yet to learn (as I am fated to do later on) how persistently the ancient traditions cling to the region where the great conqueror achieved his crowning exploits.

“Let me know when the boats are ready, and I'll go a voyage in them,” answer I, rising ; “in the meantime, I'm off for another walk.”.

"What, a walk? You're surely not going for a walk when the steamer may come in any minute !” expostulates Morozoff, scandalised at such utter want of public feeling.

Off I go, however, consoling myself with the reflection that, having waited six days in vain, the probabilities are in favour of my risking another hour or two. But it is always hazardous to argue from pro

babilities. An hour later, I hear, far up the river (just in the midst of my second swim), a deep, dull sound, which I have heard too often of late not to recognise it at once.

Boom ! “ Just like my luck! Now, of course, I shall miss it —the only thing worth seeing for a week. This comes of trusting to chances."

Boom! boom ! boom ! Gun after gun takes up the tale. There can be no doubt about the steamer having arrived ; and the only thing to do is to make speed back to the town, before the debarkation is completed. But, with all my haste, I arrive too late. The masts of the “Samarcand” stand out against the sky above the low fortress wall, but her distinguished passengers are nowhere to be seen. Returning to my quarters, I am met at the door by Morozoff, who turns upon me with an air of fatherly reproach.

“There now, David Stepanovitch! did'nt I tell you so ? You've just missed it all, and it was worth seeing, I promise you! What do you think? they've brought back two of the Khivan ministers prisoners, and one of them's the very rascal who stuck those dams across the mouths of the Amu-Daria! It's the judgment of heaven upon them, the accursed, heathenish, good-fornothing—"

And here the old gentleman, warming to his subject, goes off in a volley of curses worthy of @dipus Coloneus.

“Who have come with them, then?" ask I, breaking in upon this characteristic commination.

“O, the whole place is full of them! I've got three or four here, and there are some more in the fortress, and the rest here and there about the town. Let me see ”—and he begins to reckon upon his big greasy fingers. “There's the Grand Duke Nikolai Constantinovitch,* and young Count Berg, and Dr Grimm of the field-hospital, and General Verevkin '(pronounced Veriovkin)'—he's wounded, by-the-by; and Commodore Sytnikoff of the Aral flotilla—so's he; and then there's a German whose name I don't know-he's here in the next room to yours; and then there are a lot of staff-officers, half a dozen at least—they're all up at Verevkin's quarters in the town. As for the soldiers and sailors, they're all over the place getting drunk.”

I congratulate my host upon his new customers, and retire to my waggon in the courtyard (where I write by day and sleep at night) in order to add these last events to my diary. But I have barely pencilled half a dozen lines, when a clear voice says close to my ear, in broken English:

“Mistare, vill you buy your vagen ?".

I start and look round. Beside me stands a tall, slim, active young man (with an unmistakably military air) whose smooth face bears the legible impress of the southern desert. In the background appears my

* Son of the Grand Duke Constantine, and nephew to the Emperor.

ubiquitous Tartar, surveying him with a critical air, like a club epicure eyeing a questionable cutlet.

“You can speak German if you wish–I understand it,” answer I, guessing at once with whom I have to do.

The stranger's face brightens at the almost forgotten sound of his own tongue, and he proceeds to explain that he is in quest of a travelling-waggon to carry himself and baggage to Orenburg—and that, if mine is to be had, he would like to buy it. The bargain is speedily concluded, and my new acquaintance courteously invites me to step in and have a glass of tea with him, at the same time introducing himself by name.

My surmise proves to be correct. It is Lieutenant Stumm of the Prussian army, the only foreign officer with the expedition, and in all probability, its future historian. Indeed, any historian might envy the admirable sketches, and not less admirable military maps, which crowd the young volunteer's note-book from one end to the other. Spots which are now historical crowd upon me, one after the other ; Kungrad from the river, Mangit, a night bivouac on the Oxus, the outer wall of Khiva, the Khan's palace, the interior of a house in the town, and others too many to name.

Nor is this all. The great Frederic's maxim, to “examine every position as if you were one day to give battle there,” has been followed out to the letter. Every turn of this remote campaign, through regions where the German flag has never been, nor shall be, is

« AnteriorContinuar »