Bombarnac," said Ephrinell to me, "are you serious in regretting all those fine things?"
"Quite serious," I reply. "With the advantages of the straight line of railway we lose the picturesqueness of the curved line, or the broken line of the highways of the past. And, Monsieur Ephrinell, when you read of traveling in Transcaucasia forty years ago, do you not regret it? Shall I see one of those villages inhabited by Cossacks who are soldiers and farmers at one and the same time? Shall I be present at one of those merry-makings which charm the tourist? those djiquitovkas with the men upright on their horses, throwing their swords, discharging their pistols, and escorting you if you are in the company of some high functionary, or a colonel of the Staniza."
"Undoubtedly we have lost all those fine things," replies my Yankee. "But, thanks to these iron ribbons which will eventually encircle our globe like a hogshead of cider or a bale of cotton, we can go in thirteen days from Tiflis to Pekin. That is why, if you expect any incidents, to enliven you--"
"Certainly, Monsieur Ephrinell."
"Illusions, Mr. Bombarnac! Nothing will happen either to you or me. Wait a bit, I promise you a journey, the most prosaic, the most homely, the flattest--flat as the steppes of Kara Koum, which the Grand Transasiatic traverses in Turkestan, and the plains of the desert of Gobi it crosses in China--"
"Well, we shall see, for I travel for the pleasure of my readers."
"And I travel merely for my own business."
And at this reply the idea recurred to me that Ephrinell would not be quite the traveling companion I had dreamed of. He had goods to sell, I had none to buy. I foresaw that our meeting would not lead to a sufficient intimacy during our long journey. He was one of those Yankees who, as they say, hold a dollar between their teeth, which it is impossible to get away from them, and I should get nothing out of him that was worth having.
And although I knew that he traveled for Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York, I had never heard of the firm. To listen to their representative, it would appear that Strong, Bulbul & Co. ought to be known throughout the world.
But then, how was it that they were unknown to me, a pupil of Chincholle, our master in everything! I was quite at a loss because I had never heard of the firm of Strong, Bulbul & Co.
I was about to interrogate Ephrinell on this point, when he said to me:
"Have you ever been in the United States, Mr. Bombarnac?"
"No, Monsieur Ephrinell."
"You will come to our country some day?"
"Then you will not forget to explore the establishment of Strong, Bulbul & Co.?"
"That is the proper word."
"Good! I shall not fail to do so."
"You will see one of the most remarkable industrial establishments of the New Continent."
"I have no doubt of it; but how am I to know it?"
"Wait a bit, Mr. Bombarnac. Imagine a colossal workshop, immense buildings for the mounting and adjusting of the pieces, a steam engine of fifteen hundred horse-power, ventilators making six hundred revolutions a minute, boilers consuming a hundred tons of coals a day, a chimney stack four hundred and fifty feet high, vast outhouses for the storage of our goods, which we send to the five parts of the world, a general manager, two sub-managers, four secretaries, eight under-secretaries, a staff of five hundred clerks and nine hundred workmen, a whole regiment of travelers like your servant, working in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, in short, a turnover exceeding annually one hundred million dollars! And all that, Mr. Bombarnac, for making millions of--yes, I said millions--"
At this moment the train commenced to slow under the action of its automatic brakes, and he stopped.
"Elisabethpol! Elisabethpol!" shout the guard and the porters on the station.
Our conversation is interrupted. I lower the window on my side, and open the door, being desirous of stretching my legs.
Ephrinell did not get out.