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My Tartar by David Ker


Most of us have read descriptions and seen pictures of those sallow, flat-faced, narrow-eyed, round-headed hobgoblins who, under the name of Tartars (a wrong one, too, for it should be Tatâré), used to amuse themselves by conquering Eastern Europe every now and then some hundreds of years ago. But it is not every one who has had the pleasure of travelling alone with one of these fellows over nearly a thousand miles of Asiatic desert in time of war—a pleasure which I enjoyed to the full in 1873.

And a very queer journey it was. First came a range of steep rocky hills (marked on the map as the Ural Mountains), where we had to get out and walk whenever we went up hill, and to hold tight to the sides of our wagon, for fear of being thrown out and smashed, whenever we went down hill. Then we got out on the great plains, where we came upon a post-house of dried mud (the only house there was) once in three or four hours; and here we used to change horses by sending out a Cossack with his lasso to see if he could catch any running loose on the prairie; for there are no stables in that country.

Next came a sand desert, where we harnessed three camels to our wagon instead of horses. Here the people lived in tents instead of mud houses, while a hot wind blew all day, and a cold wind all night. One fine evening we had a sand-storm, which almost buried us, wagon and all; and the sand stuck so to my Tartar's yellow face that he looked just like a peppered omelet.

After this came a "rolling prairie," where the people lived in holes under the ground, popping up like rabbits every now and then as we passed. Beyond it was a large fresh-water lake (called by the Russians "Aralskoë Moré," or Sea of Aral), where the mosquitoes fell upon us in good earnest. Here we were both boxed up in a mud fort for seven weeks by a Cossack captain, on suspicion of being spies, like Joseph's brethren. When we got out again, we had to go up a great river (called the Syr-Daria, or Clear Stream, though it was the dirtiest I ever saw), fringed with thickets, and huge reeds taller than a man, where the mosquitoes were doubled, and we had the chance of meeting a tiger or two as well. Then came some more deserts, and then some more mountains; and so at last we got to the capital of the country—a big mud-walled town called Tashkent, or Stone Village—I suppose because there is not a single stone within twenty miles of it.

All this while, Murad (for so my Tartar was named) had been like a man of stone. He never complained; he never smiled; he never got angry. When our food and water ran out; when the sand-flies and mosquitoes bit us all over; when we lost our way on the prairie at midnight in a pouring rain; when the jolting of our wagon bumped us about till we were all bruises from head to foot; when we had to sit for hours upon a sand-heap waiting for horses, with the sun toasting us black all the time; when our wheels came off, or our camels ran away—honest Murad's heavy, mustard-colored face never changed a whit. At every fresh mishap he only shrugged his shoulders, saying, "It is my kismet" (fate); and when he had said that, he seemed quite satisfied. I never even saw him laugh but once. That once, however, I had good reason to remember; and this was how it happened.

On getting to Tashkent we took up our quarters at a native hotel (caravanserai they call it there), where we were kindly allowed a stone floor to sleep on, provided we brought our own beds and our own food along with us. However, we were pretty well used to that sort of thing by this time; so I got out my camp-kettle, and proceeded to make tea, while Murad, like Mother Hubbard in the song,

"Went to the baker's to buy him some bread."

By this time our daily mess of food had become a mess in every sense. Bumped and jolted about as we had been, it was no uncommon thing for me to find my bottle of cold tea standing on its head with the cork out, my soda powders fraternizing with the salt and pepper, and my brown loaf taking a bath in the contents of a broken ink-bottle, the splinters of which would be acting as seasoning to the mashed remains of a Bologna sausage. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a piece of chocolate half buried in my last packet of tea, and by way of experiment I decided to boil the two together, and try how they agreed.

But apparently they didn't agree at all, for I had hardly taken a sip of my first tumbler when I became aware of the most horrible and astounding taste imaginable, as if a whole apothecary's shop had been boiled down into that one glass. The second tumbler was, if possible, even worse than the first; but this time I noticed a white froth on the top, such as I had never seen upon any tea before. A frightful suspicion suddenly occurred to me. I emptied out my camp-kettle, and discovered—with what emotion I need not say—that the supposed chocolate was nothing less than a piece of brown soap!

Just at that eventful moment in came my Tartar. One glance at the soap, my distorted visage, and the froth in the glass, told him the whole story; and the effect was magical. To throw himself on the floor, to kick up his heels in a kind of convulsive ecstasy, to burst into a succession of shrill, crowing screams, like a pleased baby, was the work of a moment; and he kept on kicking and crowing, till, provoked as I was, I could not help laughing along with him. Then he suddenly sprang up and stood before me with his usual solemn face, as if it were somebody else who had been doing all this, and he were utterly shocked at him. But he never afterward alluded to the occurrence, nor did I ever again see him laugh, or even smile.