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And then follow two days of intense expectation. Hour after hour do lean brown men, in long white robes, clamber on to the flat roofs of their little mudburrows, and gaze southward over the unending level; while some of the more enthusiastic actually march two miles (an enormous feat for an Asiatic) to the "crossing" of Kara-Toubeh, where a huge iron-bound raft, towed by a rope slung across the stream, forms the only ferry for miles round.
At length, about sunset on the second day, there goes up into the still evening air one universal shout which there is no mistaking. Far out upon the great billiard-board which environs the town, appear a cluster of moving black specks, which, on a nearer view, shape themselves into the figures of men and horses in full career, with the long dark robes and high caps of black sheepskin, which have been the terror of Central Asia since Khiva was first built. Foremost of the throng, on a magnificent Arab horse with silver-laced trappings, rides a tall handsome man of about forty, whose fresh complexion and purely Uzbeg features contrast strangely with the harsh, swarthy, brigand-like faces of his suite.
"I know that foremost fellow," says a grey-haired Cossack, scarred by the "Holy War" of 1868; "that's the Governor of Khodjeili, who was ambassador in Bokhara the time we were there. He's a brave fellow, too —devil take him!"
Why this postscript is added it is hard to say; but, undoubtedly, if you wish to hear real undiluted cursing, you must listen to a Russian speaking of a Mussulman, or vice versa.
Following the horsemen come a number of men on foot, and the Cossack escort brings up the rear. Nearer and nearer draws the cavalcade, the spectators watching in dead silence; and then up rises another shout, which makes the very air ring. The men on foot are in Asiatic garb like the rest; but, close as they now are, there is no mistaking the low forehead, the broad fiat features, and iron jaw of the Russian. The prisoners are come at last!
"It's they! it's our brothers!" roars a big tradesman, leaping from his perch on the wheel of a waggon. "Let's go and meet them ;" and off he runs, probably for the first time in his life. Instantly there is a rush of the whole assemblage; and, surging over the great space that extends from the fortress-ditch right up to the long, low, warehouse-like building which does duty for a town-hall, the crowd comes rolling up in front of the latter just as the Khivan envoy draws bridle at the door. And there they stand—as motley a concourse as painter's heart could desire. The gaunt Turkoman and the bullet-headed Tartar; the bun-faced Kalmuck, with eyes like crushed raisins; the low-browed Russian, the vulture-like Kirghiz ; the slim, wiry Cossack ; the stately Bokhariote, with the true Asiatic swagger in his long, slow stride; the gnome-like Bashkir, bulky and untameable as the four-footed ancestor assigned him by tradition; and the tall, swarthy, aquiline Khivan, with a lurking gleam in his fierce black eye, which shows that, even under the shadow of impending ruin, the old national hatred is still unabated.
The Khivan residents of the town, 200 in number, throng around their ambassador, to kiss his hands, and offer him presents of tea and dried fruits. He enters the hall with his suite, and, reclining on the carpets provided for his accommodation, refreshes himself with tea out of a huge wooden bowl, the dregs of which he graciously passes to his subordinates.
Meanwhile the stir outside rises to a height; for the prisoners have now come up, and the excitement is universal. The captives are embraced, kissed, pulled hither and thither, overwhelmed with questions and congratulations; and many a hard face in the crowd softens strangely as the rescued men, reverently doffing their caps, cross themselves in the old fashion, which seems now like the memory of a previous existence, and return thanks for their deliverance to the God and Father of all.
In the midst of the bustle, there steps forward among them a grey-haired man, with a look of weary expectation in his sad, earnest eyes, and asks eagerly, "Is there not among you one Obvertisheff—Nikolai Stepanovitch —he must be here somewhere, but I don't see him?"
"No, father, he's not," answer the prisoners, compassionately, well knowing what the question implies.
"Are you sure?" persists the old man, imploringly. "He may have lagged behind—he may be with the Cossacks! Nineteen years ago they took him—my