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burning face, and be cool and clean again for a few moments! or to lift a huge jar of milk to my cracked, bleeding lips, and drink a long, long draught! Food has already lost all value, both to myself and my Tartar. With a large stock of bread and meat close beside us, we more than once remain without touching food for twenty-four hours at a stretch; but our consumption of fluid borders upon the incredible.
At times the monotony of our surroundings is broken by a passing file of camels, or a Cossack swooping past on his wiry little horse, gun on shoulder and sabre in belt, casting a hungry glare at us in passing, as if in mute protest against the iron age which compels him to pass a waggon in the desert without plundering it. But these visits are few and far between. Day after day, it is the same dreary expanse of lonely prairie and burning sky, the same heat, and dust, and thirst, and languor; the same monotonous round of halting, and going forward, and halting again—till it seems as if civilised life were but a dream, and this weird nightmare of a march the only reality.
At length, one morning about sunrise, we reach an important landmark—Fort Karabutak, one of those little bicoques of dried clay, garrisoned by a handful of Cossacks, which are the milestones of Russia's advance into Central Asia. At this early hour, the little cluster of log-huts, and the tiny grey fort above them, are silent as the grave—the only sign of life being the small dark figure of the pacing sentry, outlined against the bright morning sky.
And here we experience for the first time, in all their fulness, the pleasures of a regular " stick-fast." Hitherto, although we have seldom got clear of a station under the three hours, there has been no doubt about the horses being obtainable—it was merely a question of time. But now the postmaster has no such comfort to give. There may be horses to-day, and there may be none till to-morrow—the beasts are somewhere out on the steppe, he cannot exactly say where—he will send a man after them presently, provided he can find a man to send. In fact, his whole address to us is very much in the style of the "doubting philosopher;" "O blessed Madonna (if there be a Madonna), have mercy upon my soul (if I have a soul)."
There is nothing for it but patience. My first act is, of course, to order a tea-urn, the invariable panacea in cases of the kind; after which I bring out my copyingbook and metallic style, and commence another of my weekly despatches to the Daily Telegraph; while a brace of Kirghiz, squatting in the doorway, gaze wonderingly at the great magician who can write three letters at once by scratching a piece of blank paper with a stick.
On a sudden a strange cry, like the whimper of a child mingled with the snarl of an angry puppy, draws me to the door, where I find my host's two children, sturdy little brats of three and four years old, romping boisterously with a young wolf. The little creature seems to enter into the sport as heartily as either of them; but every now and then a cruel gleam in the narrow, deep-set eye, and a wicked display of the sharp white fangs which will one day be terribly effective, show that the fierce nature of his race is only dormant. Nevertheless, when I take him up and begin to pet him, he receives my caresses with apparent satisfaction, and licks my hand like a dog. In the midst of our fraternisation the postmaster comes out, and laughs heartily on seeing how I am employed.
"New kind of baby that, eh, master? Found him on the hills a few weeks ago—old one's killed, I suppose: not many of them hereabouts except in winter. Great pet with the children—sleeps in their crib at night. I shall have to kill him when he gets bigger, though; the old blood's in him still!"
By this time the urn is ready, and Mourad and I have our usual gorge of tea, looking down from our hill-top into a deep narrow ravine, through which trickles languidly the tiny thread of water which two months ago was a roaring torrent. But just as we are making up our minds to remain stationary for the day, the missing horses suddenly turn up, and it is southward ho! once more.
And now comes a dreary interregnum, in which even the primitive post-houses disappear, and are replaced by skin tents, in which grimy Kirghiz sit stewing over a charcoal fire, happily oblivious that there are such things as travellers and post-horses in the world. Not without infinite delay, and a good deal of mingled bribing and bullying, do we get over the next three stages; and night finds us at least thirty miles short of the distance which we ought to have covered.
But the night has a tableau in store for us which might compensate much greater drawbacks. Just as the falling shadows deepen into utter darkness, we crown the high bank of a small river, and see a line of fires spring up as if from the earth, right in front of us. Around them flit throngs of tall white figures, appearing and vanishing spectrally as the blaze waxes and wanes; while in front the light flashes redly on piled lances and carabines, and in the shadowy background the half-seen figures of camels and horses dimly reveal themselves. It is a Cossack bivouac of the old type, unchanged since the days when they followed Yermak Timopheievitch to the conquest of Siberia; and had I a few hours to spare, I would gladly share their hospitality, as I am fated to do many a time hereafter, on the banks of the Syr-Daria. But as it is, we have barely time to shout a passing greeting, hoarsely answered by a score of voices—and then we plunge into the river and welter through it, and the weird encampment vanishes like a dream.
NOTE.—The post-rate in Central Asia is 2^ kopecks (a little less than id.) per verst for each horse; and thus the total cost (excluding food and gratuities) of the whole journey from Orenburg to Tashkent—a distance of 1945 versts, or about 1300 miles—is £20 with three horses, and under £14 with two.
"STUCK FAST" ON THE STEPPES.
"No horses, Master!"
For the fourth time since sunrise, the fatal words are repeated; and I find myself stuck fast once more, amid exactly the same surroundings; for in these lifeless wastes there is little variety. A little kennel of mud and timber, called by courtesy a post-house; three or four Kirghiz tents sticking up like rabbit burrows from the grey, unending level; a waggon with its shafts lying helplessly on the ground, moodily sentinelled by myself and my Tartar servant; and- over all, the bright, clear, pitiless Asiatic sky.
Were I DArtagnan or Monte-Cristo, I should, of course, improvise a balloon, or evolve horses by the mere force of my will, or (in the words of the great master) "courir plus vite que les chevaux." But the feats which are easy to a French novelist, are unattainable by an English correspondent; and there is nothing for it but to accept the situation as it stands—which my Tartar, with true Mussulman stoicism, has already done.
"What can we do, master? It was so written for us at our birth—we must just bear it!"