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FROM UNDER THE SWORD.
This alternation of busy sight-seeing and voluptuous inaction brings us pleasantly enough to the end of our first week in Tashkent; but our life, enjoyable as it is, lies none the less under the sword of Damocles. Mr Dilke being known for an Englishman, and I strongly suspected of being another, the authorities may “come down” upon us at any moment; and our constant wonder is that they have not already done so. At every hour of the day—eating, strolling, bathing; chatting, or doing nothing—the ever-present consciousness is with us still ; and we take our pleasure with much the same feelings as M. Jules Verne's three voyagers to the moon, making themselves comfortable inside the projectile of the Gun Club, with four hundred thousand pounds of fulminating cotton just about to ignite beneath them.
One hope, indeed, still remains, though a poor one. I have already telegraphed to General Kolpakovski (who is now far away to the north-east, at Vernoë, between the Ili and Issik-Koul) for permission to visit Samarcand; and with his permit in our pocket, we may
defy the municipal authorities and all other powers of darkness. But how if they send us orders to leave the country before his answer can arrive? or if the answer be unfavourable? And, with all this in our minds, we sit down to tea, on the evening before our visit to General Euler, the municipal governor, with the air of men about to lead a forlorn hope.
“I think I know now how the Spartans felt on the eve of Thermopylæ,” remarks my companion, with his mouth full of bread and water-melon.
"Let us make good cheer, then, my friends," answer I, paraphrasing Leonidas, “for to-morrow we shall breakfast with General Euler!”
However, we did not breakfast with him, nor indeed see him at all; for the poor old General was taken suddenly ill, and could not receive us; so that, after all, the terrible interview ended in nothing, and we had a kind of reprieve—“like finding a dentist not at home,” as I bitterly remarked, on finding myself once more outside the meek little wooden house which contains the head of the administration.
But even here the theory of compensation asserts itself once more. Just as we are settling to our neverending tea in the garden (which gives me a haunting memory of that of the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse, as seen by Alice in Wonderland) my Tartar comes up with an important air, and hands me a telegram, which I translate verbatim from the original :
“Vernoë, roth (220) August 1873. " To Mr Ker, Tashkent.
“Leave granted you to Samarcand for two weeks. Show this telegram to the Governor.
“KOLPAKOVSKI.” The next morning Mr Eugene Schuyler, Secretary of the American Legation at St Petersburg, turns up all on a sudden from Bokhara, and gives us various useful hints respecting our road to Samarcand, more especially the passage of the Syr-Daria at Tchinaz. He also tells us that the insurrection in Kokan (mentioned in my last chapter) has resulted altogether contrary to the general expectation; that the Khan has returned, defeated the rebels, retaken his capital, and is now (in accordance with immemorial usage) beheading every one whom he can lay his hands on. “So,” concludes the narrator, “I'd recommend you not to try that road, but just to be content with Samarcand.”
Later on in the same day, I am agreeably surprised by meeting two or three of the officers who had entertained me at Orenburg, whose freely-expressed astonishment at finding me here sufficiently proves how thoroughly their secret conviction belied the hopeful assurances with which they sent me on my way. The city authorities seem to be much of the same way of thinking; but the telegram works wonders, and we are officially assured, to our no small satisfaction, that our travelling-passes shall be ready for Samarcand within two days at the farthest.
Meanwhile I pay another visit to General Euler, who, happily, is by this time well enough to be seen. We look at each other with a not unnatural interest
-I at the man whose influence has cost me a seven weeks' imprisonment, and all but driven me out of the country; he at the mysterious traveller who seems to have no nationality, and who has slipped into the forbidden ground, no one knows whence, and no one knows how. But, to do him justice, his reception of me bears no trace whatever of our past relations. Very wan and worn looks the fine old face amid its many-folded wrappings; but neither pain nor illness can subdue the quiet, dignified courtesy which marks the soldier and the gentleman—not a whit abated by the fact that he has already gone through all the statements and mis-statements of my case borrowed by the Russian papers from those of London—and, if he does not actually know the whole story, knows at least quite enough to form his own opinion. He says a few kind words to me, and then wishes me good speed, with a cordial shake of the hand. So ends our first and last meeting. I doubt whether I shall ever see him again, in the face of the sweeping changes which are now impending over the Turkestan administration ; but it is pleasant to remember, looking back upon it all, that even the man whom I had most reason to account my enemy, parted from me as a friend.
During our two days of expectation, Mr Dilke and I amuse ourselves by taking wide sweeps around the city wall, surveying it from either side, and wondering
(as well we may) that, with such defences to back them, the native stock made no better fight of it. The mud walls of Tashkent are certainly inferior to the huge rampart which girdles Samarcand; in some places, indeed, they are less than double the height of a man; but, nevertheless, in their old completeness, they would have been (if well defended) a very tough morsel for any force not possessed of a strong artillery; and the few light pieces carried by Tchernaieff's flying column, which took the place in June 1865, were hardly worth counting.
" It just shows what duffers they are, these Asiatics," says my comrade, in a flush of righteous indignation. “Put twenty thousand English, or twenty thousand Germans, into a place like this, and see how long they'd hold it against all comers! Fancy what cover you'd have for skirmishers among all these trees! Why, even when the walls were down, the riflemen in the gardens would keep any force at bay, unless they were actually shelled out of their cover."
“All that's possible enough in European warfare,” answer I; “but the Sarts have no Todleben, or a very 'mute inglorious' one indeed. So far as I'm acquainted with Asiatic strategy, it seems to consist in running out at one gate just as the Russians run in at another.”
It was in the course of one of these strolls that we witnessed a scene which I cannot persuade myself to leave out. There is a peculiar stillness and softness in the evenings of Southern Turkestan, which tempts every one into the open air, and this is the time which we,