I fancy it would be better to begin with killing the viper now that the Mervian has become a Russian.
We have seven hours to stop at Merv. I shall have time to visit this curious town. Its physical and moral transformation has been profound, owing to the somewhat arbitrary proceedings of the Russian administration. It is fortunate that its fortress, five miles round, built by Nour Verdy in 1873, was not strong enough to prevent its capture by the czar, so that the old nest of malefactors has become one of the most important cities of the Transcaspian.
I said to Major Noltitz:
“If it is not trespassing on your kindness, may I ask you to go with me?”
“Willingly,” he answered; “and as far as I am concerned, I shall be very pleased to see Merv again.”
We set out at a good pace.
“I ought to tell you,” said the major, “that it is the new town we are going to see.”
“And why not the old one first? That would be more logical and more chronological.”
“Because old Merv is eighteen miles away, and you will hardly see it as you pass. So you must refer to the accurate description given of it by your great geographer Elisee Reclus.”
And certainly readers will not lose anything by the change.
The distance from the station to new Merv is not great. But what an abominable dust! The commercial town is built on the left of the river—a town in the American style, which would please Ephrinell, wide streets straight as a line crossing at right angles; straight boulevards with rows of trees; much bustle and movement among the merchants in Oriental costume, in Jewish costume, merchants of every kind; a number of camels and dromedaries, the latter much in request for their powers of withstanding fatigue and which differ in their hinder parts from their African congeners. Not many women along the sunny roads which seem white hot. Some of the feminine types are, however, sufficiently remarkable, dressed out in a quasi-military costume, wearing soft boots and a cartouche belt in the Circassian style. You must take care of the stray dogs, hungry brutes with long hair and disquieting fangs, of a breed reminding one of the dogs of the Caucasus, and these animals—according to Boulangier the engineer—have eaten a Russian general.
“Not entirely,” replies the major, confirming the statement. “They left his boots.”
In the commercial quarter, in the depths of the gloomy ground floors, inhabited by the Persians and the Jews, within the miserable shops are sold carpets of incredible fineness, and colors artistically combined, woven mostly by old women without any Jacquard cards.
On both banks of the Mourgab the Russians have their military establishment. There parade the Turkoman soldiers in the service of the czar. They wear the blue cap and the white epaulettes with their ordinary uniform, and drill under the orders of Russian officers.