For fifteen years I think I said our guard had been in the Transcaspian service. He knows the country up to the Chinese frontier, and five or six times already he has been over the whole line known as the Grand Transasiatic.
Popof was on duty on the section between Mikhailov and Kizil Arvat when the line opened—a section which was begun in the December of 1880 and finished in ten months, in November, 1881. Five years later the locomotive entered Merv, on the 14th July, 1886, and eighteen months later it was welcomed at Samarkand. Now the road through Turkestan joins the road through the Celestial Empire, and the ribbon of iron extends without interruption from the Caspian Sea to Pekin.
When Popof had given me this information, I asked if he knew anything of our fellow travelers, I meant those who were going through to China. And in the first place of Major Noltitz?
“The major,” said Popof, “has lived a long time in the Turkestan provinces, and he is going to Pekin to organize the staff of a hospital for our compatriots, with the permission of the Czar, of course.”
“I like this Major Noltitz,” I said, “and I hope to make his acquaintance very soon.”
“He would be equally pleased to make yours,” replied Popof.
“And these two Chinese, do you know them?”
“Not in the least, Monsieur Bombarnac; all I know is the name on the luggage.”
“What is that?”
“The younger man’s name is Pan-Chao, the elder’s is Tio-King. Probably they have been traveling in Europe for some years. As to saying where they come from, I cannot. I imagine that Pan-Chao belongs to some rich family, for he is accompanied by his doctor.”
“Yes, Doctor Tio-King.”
“And do they only speak Chinese?”
“Probably; I have not heard them speak any other language together.”
On this information from Popof, I will keep to the number nine I have given to young Pan-Chao, and to the ten with which I have labelled Doctor Tio-King.
“The American,” began Popof.
“Ephrinell?” I exclaimed, “and Miss Horatia Bluett, the Englishwoman? Oh! You can tell me nothing about them I don’t know.”
“Shall I tell you what I think about that couple, Monsieur Bombarnac?”
“What do you think?”
“That as soon as they reach Pekin, Miss Bluett will become Mrs. Ephrinell.”
“And may Heaven bless their union, Popof, for they are really made for each other.”
I saw that on this subject Popof and I held similar ideas.
“And the two French people, that couple so affectionate.” I asked, “who are they?”
“Have they not told you?”
“You need not be anxious, Monsieur Bombarnac. Besides, if you wish to know their profession, it is written at full length on all their luggage.
“And that is?”