Our acquaintance was made very simply. The major came up to me, and I went up to him as soon as we set foot on the platform of the railway station.
“Sir,” said I, “I am a Frenchman, Claudius Bombarnac, special correspondent of the Twentieth Century, and you are Major Noltitz of the Russian army. You are going to Pekin, so am I. I can speak your language, and it is very likely that you can speak mine.”
The major made a sign of assent.
“Well, Major Noltitz, instead of remaining strangers to each other during the long transit of Central Asia, would it please you for us to become more than mere traveling companions? You know all about this country that I do not know, and it would be a pleasure for me to learn from you.”
“Monsieur Bombarnac,” replied the major in French, without a trace of accent, “I quite agree with you.”
Then he added with a smile:
“As to learning from me, one of your most eminent critics, if I remember rightly, has said that the French only like to learn what they know.”
“I see that you have read Sainte Beuve, Major Noltitz; perhaps this sceptical academician was right in a general way. But for my part, I am an exception to the rule, and I wish to learn what I do not know. And in all that concerns Russian Turkestan, I am in a state of ignorance.”
“I am entirely at your disposal,” said the major, “and I will be happy to tell you all about General Annenkof, for I was all through the work with him.”
“I thank you, Major Noltitz. I expected no less than the courtesy of a Russian towards a Frenchman.”
“And,” said the major, “if you will allow me to quote that celebrated sentence in the Danicheffs, ’It will be always thus so long as there are Frenchmen and Russians.’”
“The younger Dumas after Sainte Beuve?” I exclaimed. “I see, major, that I am talking to a Parisian—”
“Of Petersburg, Monsieur Bombarnac.”
And we cordially shook hands. A minute afterwards, we were on our way through the town, and this is what Major Noltitz told me:
It was towards the end of 1885 that General Annenkof finished, at Kizil Arvat, the first portion of this railway measuring about 140 miles, of which 90 were through a desert which did not yield a single drop of water. But before telling me how this extraordinary work was accomplished, Major Noltitz reminded me of the facts which had gradually prepared the conquest of Turkestan and its definite incorporation with the Russian Empire.
As far back as 1854 the Russians had imposed a treaty of alliance on the Khan of Khiva. Some years afterwards, eager to pursue their march towards the east, the campaigns of 1860 and 1864 had given them the Khanats of Kokhand and Bokhara. Two years later, Samarkand passed under their dominion after the battles of Irdjar and Zera-Buleh.
There remained to be conquered the southern portion of Turkestan, and chiefly the oasis of Akhal Tekke, which is contiguous to Persia. Generals Sourakine and Lazareff attempted this in their expeditions of 1878 and 1879. Their plans failed, and it was to the celebrated Skobeleff, the hero of Plevna, that the czar confided the task of subduing the valiant Turkoman tribes.