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A Russian General in Central Asia by D. K.

 

Afternoon in Tashkent, the burning sun of Central Asia glaring upon the dusty streets and countless mud-hovels of the great city; files of camels gliding past with their long, noiseless stride, led by gaunt brown men in blue robes and white turbans; a deep archway in a high wall of baked earth, above which appear the trees of a spacious garden, and just within the entrance two tall, wiry, black-eyed Cossacks, in flat forage-caps, soiled cotton jackets and red goatskin trousers, leaning indolently on their long Berdan rifles.

At my approach, however, the two sentinels start up briskly enough—as well they may, for they are guarding one whom every man in Bokhara would give his best horse for a fair chance of murdering. My announcement that I am expected by the governor-general is received with evident suspicion and a crossing of bayonets to bar my way; but, happily, a passing aide-de-camp recognizes me and promptly leads me in.

The clustering trees, through which the sunshine filters in a rich, subdued light suggestive of some great cathedral, are deliciously cool and shady after the blinding glare outside; but there is life enough in the scene, nevertheless. White-frocked soldiers are hurrying to and fro; laced jackets, shining epaulettes, clinking spurs and sabres meet us at every turn; and in the centre of all, under a huge spreading tree planted years before any Russian had set foot in Turkestan, sits a towering form whose vast proportions and bold swarthy face seem to dwarf every other figure in the group. Twelve years ago, General Kolpakovski was a private soldier in the Russian army: to-day he is the commander of thirty thousand men and absolute master of a territory as large as the States of New York and Pennsylvania together.

"Fine fellow, isn't he?" says my conductor, looking admiringly at the stalwart form of his chief. "Did you ever hear of his ride across the steppes from here to Kouldja? He started with twelve Tartars, and you know what horsemen they are. Well, three of them broke down the first day, five more the second, and all the rest on the third; and the general got in by himself. Ever since then the Tartars have called him 'The Chief with the Iron Skin;' and the soldiers go about singing,

Kolpakovski molodetz—
Fsadnik Tatarski—glupetz!

("Kolpakovski's a fine fellow: the Tartar horseman is a fool.")

"Well done!"

"Ay, and he did a better thing still two years ago. He was crossing the mountains with a Cossack squadron in the heat of summer. Presently up comes one fellow: 'Your Excellency, my horse is lame.'—'Go back, then.'—Another man, seeing that, thought he'd get off the same way; so he calls out, 'My horse is lame, Your Excellency.'—'Get off and lead him, then,' says Kolpakovski; and the unfortunate fellow had to tramp up hill all day, and tow his horse after him into the bargain, with the thermometer ninety-five in the shade."

But just at this moment my name is called, and I go up to the general's chair, to receive a cordial handshake, a few words of frank, manly kindness, and the passport which is to carry me northward across the steppes as far as the border of Siberia.

D.K.