Yes! It would be better for me to relieve his anxiety this very night. That is impossible, for the train will soon stop at Gheok Tepe, and then at Askhabad which it will leave in the first hour of daylight. I can no longer trust to Popof’s going to sleep.
I am absorbed in these reflections, when the locomotive stops in Gheok Tepe station at one o’clock in the morning. None of my companions have left their beds.
I get out on to the platform and prowl around the van. It would be too risky to try and get inside. I should have been glad to visit the town, but the darkness prevents me from seeing anything. According to what Major Noltitz says it still retains the traces of Skobeleffs terrible assault in 1880—dismantled walls, bastions in ruins. I must content myself with having seen all that with the major’s eyes.
The train starts at two o’clock in the morning, after having been joined by a few passengers who Popof tells me are Turkomans. I will have a look at them when daylight comes.
For ten minutes I remained on the car platform and watched the heights of the Persian frontier on the extreme limit of the horizon. Beyond the stretch of verdant oasis watered by a number of creeks, we crossed wide cultivated plains through which the line made frequent diversions.
Having discovered that Popof did not intend to go to sleep again, I went back to my corner.
At three o’clock there was another stop. The name of Askhabad was shouted along the platform. As I could not remain still I got out, leaving my companions sound asleep, and I ventured into the town.
Askhabad is the headquarters of the Transcaspian, and I opportunely remembered what Boulangier, the engineer, had said about it in the course of that interesting journey he had made to Merv. All that I saw on the left as I went out of the station, was the gloomy outline of the Turkoman Fort, dominating the new town, the population of which has doubled since 1887. It forms a confused mass behind a thick curtain of trees.
When I returned at half-past three, Popof was going through the luggage van, I know not why. What must be the Roumanian’s anxiety during this movement to and fro in front of his box!
As soon as Popof reappeared I said to him: “Anything fresh?”
“Nothing, except the morning breeze!” said he.
“Very fresh!” said I. “Is there a refreshment bar in the station?”
“There is one for the convenience of the passengers.”
“And for the convenience of the guards, I suppose? Come along, Popof.”
And Popof did not want asking twice.
The bar was open, but there did not seem to be much to choose from. The only liquor was “Koumiss,” which is fermented mare’s milk, and is the color of faded ink, very nourishing, although very liquid. You must be a Tartar to appreciate this koumiss. At least that is the effect it produced on me. But Popof thought it excellent, and that was the important point.