in Central Asia
by D. K.
Afternoon in Tashkent, the burning sun of Central Asia glaring upon the
dusty streets and countless mud-hovels of the great city; files of
camels gliding past with their long, noiseless stride, led by gaunt
brown men in blue robes and white turbans; a deep archway in a high wall
of baked earth, above which appear the trees of a spacious garden, and
just within the entrance two tall, wiry, black-eyed Cossacks, in flat
forage-caps, soiled cotton jackets and red goatskin trousers, leaning
indolently on their long Berdan rifles.
At my approach, however, the two sentinels start up briskly enough—as
well they may, for they are guarding one whom every man in Bokhara would
give his best horse for a fair chance of murdering. My announcement that
I am expected by the governor-general is received with evident suspicion
and a crossing of bayonets to bar my way; but, happily, a passing
aide-de-camp recognizes me and promptly leads me in.
The clustering trees, through which the sunshine filters in a rich,
subdued light suggestive of some great cathedral, are deliciously cool
and shady after the blinding glare outside; but there is life enough in
the scene, nevertheless. White-frocked soldiers are hurrying to and fro;
laced jackets, shining epaulettes, clinking spurs and sabres meet us at
every turn; and in the centre of all, under a huge spreading tree
planted years before any Russian had set foot in Turkestan, sits a
towering form whose vast proportions and bold swarthy face seem to dwarf
every other figure in the group. Twelve years ago, General Kolpakovski
was a private soldier in the Russian army: to-day he is the commander of
thirty thousand men and absolute master of a territory as large as the
States of New York and Pennsylvania together.
"Fine fellow, isn't he?" says my conductor, looking admiringly at the
stalwart form of his chief. "Did you ever hear of his ride across the
steppes from here to Kouldja? He started with twelve Tartars, and you
know what horsemen they are. Well, three of them broke down the first
day, five more the second, and all the rest on the third; and the
general got in by himself. Ever since then the Tartars have called him
'The Chief with the Iron Skin;' and the soldiers go about singing,
("Kolpakovski's a fine fellow: the Tartar horseman is a fool.")
"Ay, and he did a better thing still two years ago. He was crossing the
mountains with a Cossack squadron in the heat of summer. Presently up
comes one fellow: 'Your Excellency, my horse is lame.'—'Go back,
then.'—Another man, seeing that, thought he'd get off the same way; so
he calls out, 'My horse is lame, Your Excellency.'—'Get off and lead
him, then,' says Kolpakovski; and the unfortunate fellow had to tramp up
hill all day, and tow his horse after him into the bargain, with the
thermometer ninety-five in the shade."
But just at this moment my name is called, and I go up to the general's
chair, to receive a cordial handshake, a few words of frank, manly
kindness, and the passport which is to carry me northward across the
steppes as far as the border of Siberia.