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filling up the scorching day with mere lounges, choose for our more serious voyages of discovery.
On the evening in question we have been specially fortunate. Having scaled a broken part of the wall, we look down from the high ground upon which it stands, over the whole city at once. Far and wide, the great sheet of dark glossy green lies outspread below; and in its midst, outlined as on a map, appear straight, wide streets, and low white houses, and glittering streams winding in and out, and broad, open spaces, on which the passing groups of promenaders look like swarming ants; while far away along the horizon extend the purple ridges of the distant hills, framing the picture. Just below the spot where we stand, a deep ravine shelters a smooth dark pool, in which two or three native women are washing their clothes. Behind us, again, outside the wall, stretches a broad sweep of dusty road, flanked by a high wall of baked clay, above which long ranks of clustering boughs wave in the evening breeze, and over all streams the golden transparent splendour of the Asiatic sunset—a sea of glass mingled with fire.
Suddenly a horse and cart come briskly up a lane at the back of our position, with an ear-splitting creak of wheels which makes us face about as if by word of command. Having reached the foot of the bank on which we stand, the horse comes to a dead halt, and begins to look about him as if asking his way. In an instant the driver—a fat, lumpy Sart, whose ill-shaven crown looks like a worn-out scrubbing-brush — leaps down and clutches his beast's right fore-leg as if he meant to pull it off, the animal surveying him meanwhile with an air of mild wonder. Thereupon three or four lathy, copper-coloured vagabonds, yelling like demons, rush from behind an angle of the wall, and fasten like leeches upon the other fore-leg—the poor horse staring first at them, and then at us, in mute protest. And now, as if the madness had become contagious, at least ten more hobgoblins start up all at once from nowhere in particular, and fly upon every part of the poor beast that is still unoccupied—hindlegs, tail, ears, mane, harness—all pulling and hauling in different directions, with cries and gesticulations which might appal the stoutest lunatic in Hanwell. And, to crown all, in the very height of the uproar, comes sweeping by a long procession of cows, two and two like a boarding-school, stepping daintily and noiselessly along, and surveying the Laocoon-group in the middle of the road with a quiet, aristocratic contempt which is worth going a mile to see.
What they wanted to do with the horse, or where they wished him to go, I have never been able to find out; and the brute himself seemed equally mystified. At last, as the most effectual means of resistance, he coolly lies down in the middle of the road, with all his assailants upon him. This unexpected move evidently puzzles the aggressors, who relax their hold and stand at gaze; whereupon the liberated horse rises, shakes himself, looks about him, and quietly trots back again along the same road by which he came, leaving his persecutors staring at each other as blankly as if from maniacs they had suddenly become idiots.
At last comes the morning of the 25th August, the day of our departure for Samarcand; and a busy day it is for us all. Our passes are brought in from the Bureau of Police, sealed, signed, and in order. Mourad is despatched to the post-house to see about horses ; while we, meanwhile, go manfully to work at the packing of our baggage. Mine, however, needs little packing, consisting merely of a tarpaulin camp-bed rolling up into a bag, and containing my entire kit, photographs included—a large stock of which latter I have laid in since my arrival. A little after noon we have our farewell meal of “pilmenn,”—little cocked hats of dough filled with chopped meat, and served up hot in the water that boiled them. Just as we finish, up to the door rattles one of those little clothes-baskets on wheels which I already know to my cost; and the hangers-on of the hotel, to whom an arrival or a departure is always a kind of fête, rush to assist in the stowing of the baggage. Piece after piece is wedged in, like a Chinese puzzle ; and then a huge sheet of grey felt is drawn tightly over the top, giving the whole concern the look of a gigantic egg, with nothing to hold by, and very little to sit upon.
“This is pretty much like putting a man upon the dome of St Paul's, and telling him to sit firm,” remark I, ruefully, as we perch ourselves upon the inclined plane. “After this, I shall begin to believe in the aeronaut who 'greased his pants and slid down the rainbow.'”
“We ought to be roped together, Alpine fashion," remarks my comrade, with an air of experience. “This thing's every bit as slippery as a glacier, I'll take my oath ; and as for crevasses, I'd as soon fall down one, any day, as into one of the ruts about here.”
But his suggestion is cut short in its very utterance. The throng clears away from before us—Mourad clambers to his place beside the driver—there is a yell, and a crack, and a snort--and we, sitting across the cart, with faces turned in opposite directions, find ourselves launched into space once more.
Once clear of the town, the dust (bad enough inside) becomes outrageous. Our hair is powdered like a footman's; every fold of our dress becomes an impromptu hour-glass, ever running and never spent. Mourad's round black head looks (as the classic wits said of Cornelius Sylla) “like a mulberry sprinkled with meal ;" and the whole firmament appears like a gigantic pepperbox with the lid off, Little by little, the labyrinth of gardens, entrenched behind their high, blank walls of baked earth, melts away behind us; and the open country (at this stage one great flood of luxuriant vegetation wherever the water has gone) outstretches itself on every side. Here and there we come upon a group of men winnowing corn, or a turbaned elder asleep in the shadow of the trees, or a knot of recumbent camels, with all their limbs packed away under them in that curious fashion which recalls Mr Hibb's comparison of “a long nigger in a short bed.” Every now and then a broad sweep of smooth green meadow, dappled with substantial-looking haystacks, carries one back for a moment to dear Old England; but the next moment the strange vegetation, and reed-thatched huts, and grazing camels, and swarthy men in Eastern dress, destroy the illusion again.
Up to the first station, all goes well enough; but there we are suddenly brought to a stand-still by a rather important deficiency—the want of a cart! For on this line, as we now learn to our cost, it is the rule to change carts, not merely at all the main points of the route (as upon the Lower Syr-Daria), but at every station, great or small. The old postmaster, who, apart from his atrocious calling, seems a jolly fellow enough, greets us with a cheerful grin, and the consolatory assurance that, even if there were a cart for us, there are no horses, the Samarcand mail having just taken them all; and that, after all, we shall only have to wait six or seven hours at the most. We look at each other for a moment, and then burst into a loud laugh, in which the postmaster joins lustily.
“Kismet—and who can avert it ?” remarks my companion, philosophically, seating himself in the shade. “I shouldn't wonder if I turn Mussulman myself, one of these days—it's a very comfortable kind of creed. The best thing we can do now is just to order a samovar (urn) and have some tea."
We get out our provisions—including a sheaf of the thin wheaten cakes already mentioned, together with