"I beg to introduce you to Caroline Caterna," said the actor, in much the same tone as he would have introduced me to Patti or Sarah Bernhardt.
"Having shaken hands with your husband," said I, "I shall be happy to shake hands with you, Madame Caterna."
"There you are, then," said the actress, "and without ceremony, foot to the front, and no prompting."
"As you see, no nonsense about her, and the best of wives--"
"As he is the best of husbands."
"I believe I am, Monsieur Claudius," said the actor, "and why? Because I believe that marriage consists entirely in the precept to which husbands should always conform, and that is, that what the wife likes the husband should eat often."
It will be understood that it was touching to see this honest give-and-take, so different from the dry business style of the two commercials who were in conversation in the adjoining car.
But here is Baron Weissschnitzerdörfer, wearing a traveling cap, coming out of the dining car, where I imagine he has not spent his time consulting the time-table.
"The good man of the hat trick!" said Caterna, after the baron went back into the car without favoring us with a salute.
"He is quite German enough!" said Madame Caterna.
"And to think that Henry Heine called those people sentimental oaks!" I added.
"Then he could not have known that one!" said Caterna. "Oak, I admit, but sentimental--"
"Do you know why the baron has patronized the Grand Transasiatic?" I asked.
"To eat sauerkraut at Pekin!" said Caterna.
"Not at all. To rival Miss Nelly Bly. He is trying to get around the world in thirty-nine days."
"Thirty-nine days!" exclaimed Gaterna. "You should say a hundred and thirty-nine!"
And in a voice like a husky clarinet the actor struck up the well-known air from the Cloches de Corneville:
"I thrice have been around the world."
Adding, for the baron's benefit:
"He will not do the half."
At a quarter-past twelve our train passed the station of Kari Bata, which resembles one of the stations on the line from Naples to Sorrento, with its Italian roofs. I noticed a vast Asiatico-Russian camp, the flags waving in the fresh breeze. We have entered the Mervian oasis, eighty miles long and eight wide, and containing about six hundred thousand hectares--there is nothing like being precise at the finish. Right and left are cultivated fields, clumps of fine trees, an uninterrupted succession of villages, huts among the thickets, fruit gardens between the houses, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle among the pastures. All this rich country is watered by the Mourgab--the White Water--or its tributaries, and pheasants swarm like crows on the plains of Normandy. At one o'clock in the afternoon the train stopped at Merv Station, over five hundred miles from Uzun Ada.
The town has been often destroyed and rebuilt. The wars of Turkestan have not spared it. Formerly, it seems, it was a haunt of robbers and bandits, and it is a pity that the renowned Ki-Tsang did not live in those days. Perhaps he would have become a Genghis Khan?
Major Noltitz told me of a Turkoman saying to the following effect: "If you meet a Mervian and a viper, begin by killing the Mervian and leave the viper till afterwards."
I fancy it would be better to begin with killing the viper now that the Mervian has become a Russian.
We have seven hours to stop at Merv. I shall have time to visit this curious town. Its physical and moral transformation has been profound, owing to the somewhat arbitrary proceedings of the Russian administration. It is fortunate that its fortress, five miles round, built by Nour Verdy in 1873, was not strong enough to prevent its capture by the czar, so that the old nest of malefactors has become one of the most important cities of the Transcaspian.
I said to Major Noltitz:
"If it is not trespassing on your kindness, may I ask you to go with me?"
"Willingly," he answered; "and as far as I am concerned, I shall be very pleased to see Merv again."
We set out at a good pace.