Baku is the most frequented and the safest port on the Caspian. Derbent, situated more to the north, cannot keep up with it, and it absorbs almost the entire maritime traffic of this sea, or rather this great lake which has no communication with the neighboring seas. The establishment of Uzun Ada on the opposite coast has doubled the trade which used to pass through Baku. The Transcaspian now open for passengers and goods is the chief commercial route between Europe and Turkestan.
In the near future there will perhaps be a second route along the Persian frontier connecting the South Russian railways with those of British India, and that will save travelers the navigation of the Caspian. And when this vast basin has dried up through evaporation, why should not a railroad be run across its sandy bed, so that trains can run through without transhipment at Baku and Uzun Ada?
While we are waiting for the realization of this desideratum, it is necessary to take the steamboat, and that I am preparing to do in company with many others.
Our steamer is called the _Astara_, of the Caucasus and Mercury Company. She is a big paddle steamer, making three trips a week from coast to coast. She is a very roomy boat, designed to carry a large cargo, and the builders have thought considerably more of the cargo than of the passengers. After all, there is not much to make a fuss about in a day's voyage.
There is a noisy crowd on the quay of people who are going off, and people who have come to see them off, recruited from the cosmopolitan population of Baku. I notice that the travelers are mostly Turkomans, with about a score of Europeans of different nationalities, a few Persians, and two representatives of the Celestial Empire. Evidently their destination is China. .
The _Astara_ is loaded up. The hold is not big enough, and a good deal of the cargo has overflowed onto the deck. The stern is reserved for passengers, but from the bridge forward to the topgallant forecastle, there is a heap of cases covered with tarpaulins to protect them from the sea.
There Ephrinell's cases have been put. He has lent a hand with Yankee energy, determined not to lose sight of his valuable property, which is in cubical cases, about two feet on the side, covered with patent leather, carefully strapped, and on which can be read the stenciled words, "Strong, Bulbul & Co., Now York."
"Are all your goods on board?" I asked the American.
"There is the forty-second case just coming," he replied.
And there was the said case on the back of a porter already coming along the gangway.
It seemed to me that the porter was rather tottery, owing perhaps to a lengthy absorption of vodka.
"Wait a bit!" shouted Ephrinell. Then in good Russian, so as to be better understood, he shouted:
"Look out! Look out!"
It is good advice, but it is too late. The porter has just made a false step. The case slips from his shoulders, falls--luckily over the rail of the _Astara_--breaks in two, and a quantity of little packets of paper scatter their contents on the deck.
What a shout of indignation did Ephrinell raise! What a whack with his fist did he administer to the unfortunate porter as he repeated in a voice of despair: "My teeth, my poor teeth!"
And he went down on his knees to gather up his little bits of artificial ivory that were scattered all about, while I could hardly keep from laughing.
Yes! It was teeth which Strong, Bulbul & Co., of New York made! It was for manufacturing five thousand cases a week for the five parts of the world that this huge concern existed! It was for supplying the dentists of the old and new worlds; it was for sending teeth as far as China, that their factory required fifteen hundred horse power, and burned a hundred tons of coal a day! That is quite American!
After all, the population of the globe is fourteen hundred million, and as there are thirty-two teeth per inhabitant, that makes forty-five thousand millions; so that if it ever became necessary to replace all the true teeth by false ones, the firm of Strong, Bulbul & Co.