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down (the third within twelve hours) which occurs a few miles farther on. It is true that we can only sleep from stage to stage, for at every station we must up and out, to show our passes and make our arrangements. But, as I have already said, it is wonderful how soon one gets used to this kind of work; and when, about six in the morning, we reach the last station before Samarcand, we are still as fresh and unspoiled as if we had slept eight hours at a stretch, in the snuggest room of an English country-house.
“Another month or two of this, and we should make first-rate couriers,” remarks my companion approvingly, as we start again. “I used to think that kind of work impossible; but it seems easy enough now. You remember that fellow who rode to Moscow with despatches at such a pace that his sabre clattered against the mileposts like a stick drawn along a railing."
“He must have been a brother of the New York gigdriver, whose shadow came up five minutes later to ask which way he had gone. I say, isn't that rice growing
“So it is, by Jove—just the sort of thing I used to see on the Ili. The soil looks rich enough, anyhow."
“And here come a lot of carts with stones to mend the road; and there are hedgerows along either side. Looks like England, doesn't it?”
“Well, this last mile would just do for a bit out of the Midland Counties, if it weren't for the rice. I dare say Kingsley's right—the other end of Nowhere is a good deal like this end of Somewhere, after all.”
The soft, wet, low-lying fields, fenced in by their tall hedgerows, cling to our road for several miles; and we are nearly half-way through the final stage when they suddenly break off, and we come out upon a wide, bare, gravelly plain—once covered, no doubt, by the waters of the Zer-Affshan. A shining streak far away in front marks the present course of the river, running fiercely and turbidly as ever in its narrowed channel; while beyond it, surging up against the clear morning sky in one great wave of green and purple, looms the ridge of Tchepan-Ata, eight miles from Samarcand, upon which the Bokhariotes made their last stand in 1868 for the defence of their Holy City.
As I look up at it, the whole scene comes before me again. Far and wide, the broad sunny slope is alive with the gay dresses and glittering arms of the heathen host, entrenched behind the countless guns that peer hungrily down into the valley below, waiting to devour the little handful of men gathered upon the opposite bank of the river. The Zer-Affshan, swollen into full flood, rushes roaring along the foot of the ridge, grinding the great stones together with a rumble like the rolling of war-chariots; and beyond it lie the steep hillside and the embattled host, five times the number of their assailants. There are no braver men than the Russians; but how can any man, however brave, surmount a task like this ?
Then steps forward a solitary figure—the man chosen to lead the assault—and looks round upon his
men with a look of quiet confidence, as one who knows what they can do. In that dead hush of expectation, his calm, stern voice falls upon the still air like the measured beat of a drum :
“Lads, our father the General has ordered us to storm those heights, and therefore it must be possible. Forward !”
Like one man, they dash into the boiling current, pressing hard together to stem the mighty rush that bends every man like a reed. And then, in one moment, the slope above them breaks into fire, and thunder, and billowy smoke ; and down comes the hail of shot, lashing the water into foam on every side. Shoulder to shoulder, like brothers, with their muskets held high overhead to keep the charge dry, the brave fellows struggle blindly on-death in front of them, death all around—knowing only that their leader has given them work to do, and that done it must be. And here, at last, thank God, is the opposite shore ; and before us, as the blinding smoke whirls aside for a moment, are not merely senseless cannon, but ranks of living men—men who can be hurt and killed like ourselves. Forward all!
But it is not mere pith of arm, or weight of metal, that turns the scale of a pitched field; it is the ascendancy of the stronger heart over the weaker. To the nervous, impressible Asiatic, there is something terrible and unearthly in the deadly composure of this handful of men, coming grimly on, one against five, as if certain of victory. Already the glittering line begins to waver