, Monsieur Bombarnac? Because this station at Douchak might be the terminus of a line from British India through the Afghan frontier, Kandahar, the Bolan Pass and the Pendjeh oasis, that would unite the two systems."
"And how long would the line be?"
"About six hundred miles. But the English will not meet the Russians in a friendly way. But if we could put Calcutta within twelve days of London, what an advantage that would be for their trade!"
Talking in this way the major and I "did" Douchak. Some years ago it was foreseen how important this village would be. A branch line unites it with Teheran in Persia, while there has, as yet, been no survey for a line to India. While gentlemen cast in the mould of Sir Francis Trevellyan are in the majority in the United Kingdom, the Asiatic network of railways will never be complete.
I was led to question the major regarding the safety of the Grand Transasiatic across the provinces of Central Asia.
In Turkestan, he told me, the safety is well assured. The Russian police keep constant watch over it; there is a regular police force at the stations, and as the stations are not far apart, I don't think the travelers have much to fear from the nomad tribes. Besides, the Turkomans are kept in their place by the Russian administration. During the years the Transcaspian has been at work, there has been no attack to hinder the train service.
"That is comforting, Major Noltitz. And as to the section between the frontier and Pekin?"
"That is another matter," replied the major. "Over the Pamir plateau, up to Kachgar, the road is carefully guarded; but beyond that, the Grand Transasiatic is under Chinese control, and I have not much confidence in that."
"Are the stations very far from each other?" I asked.
"Very far, sometimes."
"And the Russians in charge of the train are replaced by Chinese, are they not?"
"Yes, with the exception of Popof, who goes through with us."
"So that we shall have Chinese engine drivers and stokers? Well, major, that seems rather alarming, and the safety of the travelers--"
"Let me undeceive you, Monsieur Bombarnac. These Chinese are just as clever as we are. They are excellent mechanics, and it is the same with the engineers who laid out the line through the Celestial Empire. They are certainly a very intelligent race, and very fit for industrial progress."
"I think, major, that they will one day become masters of the world--after the Slavs, of course!"
"I do not know what the future may have in store," said Major Noltitz, with a smile. "But, returning to the Chinese, I say that they are of quick comprehension, with an astonishing facility of assimilation. I have seen them at work, and I speak from experience."
"Agreed," said I; "but if there is no danger under this head, are there not a lot of scoundrels prowling about Mongolia and Northern China?"
"And you think these scoundrels will be daring enough to attack the train?"
"Exactly, major, and that is what makes me feel easy."
"What? Makes you feel easy?"
"Quite so, for my sole anxiety is that our journey may not be devoid of incident."
"Really, Mr. Special Correspondent, I admire you. You must have incidents--"
"As a doctor must have patients. Now a real good adventure--"
"Well, Monsieur Bombarnac, I am afraid you will be disappointed, as I have heard that the company has treated several chiefs of the robber bands--"
"As the Greek Government treated Hadji Stavros in About's romance."
"Precisely; and who knows that if in their wisdom--"
"I don't believe it."
"Why not? It would be quite in the modern style, this way of assuring the safety of the trains during the run through the Celestial Empire. Anyhow, there is one of these highwaymen, who has retained his independence and liberty of action, a certain Ki-Tsang."
"Who is he?"
"A bold bandit chief, half-Chinaman, half-Mongol. Having for some time been a terror to Yunnan, he was being too closely pursued, and has now moved into the northern provinces.