"I ought to tell you," said the major, "that it is the new town we are going to see."
"And why not the old one first? That would be more logical and more chronological."
"Because old Merv is eighteen miles away, and you will hardly see it as you pass. So you must refer to the accurate description given of it by your great geographer Elisée Reclus."
And certainly readers will not lose anything by the change.
The distance from the station to new Merv is not great. But what an abominable dust! The commercial town is built on the left of the river--a town in the American style, which would please Ephrinell, wide streets straight as a line crossing at right angles; straight boulevards with rows of trees; much bustle and movement among the merchants in Oriental costume, in Jewish costume, merchants of every kind; a number of camels and dromedaries, the latter much in request for their powers of withstanding fatigue and which differ in their hinder parts from their African congeners. Not many women along the sunny roads which seem white hot. Some of the feminine types are, however, sufficiently remarkable, dressed out in a quasi-military costume, wearing soft boots and a cartouche belt in the Circassian style. You must take care of the stray dogs, hungry brutes with long hair and disquieting fangs, of a breed reminding one of the dogs of the Caucasus, and these animals--according to Boulangier the engineer--have eaten a Russian general.
"Not entirely," replies the major, confirming the statement. "They left his boots."
In the commercial quarter, in the depths of the gloomy ground floors, inhabited by the Persians and the Jews, within the miserable shops are sold carpets of incredible fineness, and colors artistically combined, woven mostly by old women without any Jacquard cards.
On both banks of the Mourgab the Russians have their military establishment. There parade the Turkoman soldiers in the service of the czar. They wear the blue cap and the white epaulettes with their ordinary uniform, and drill under the orders of Russian officers.
A wooden bridge, fifty yards long, crosses the river. It is practicable not only for foot-passengers, but for trains, and telegraph wires are stretched above its parapets.
On the opposite bank is the administrative town, which contains a considerable number of civil servants, wearing the usual Russian cap.
In reality the most interesting place to see is a sort of annexe, a Tekke village, in the middle of Merv, whose inhabitants have retained the villainous characteristics of this decaying race, the muscular bodies, large ears, thick lips, black beard. And this gives the last bit of local color to be found in the new town.
At a turning in the commercial quarter we met the commercials, American and English.
"Mr. Ephrinell," I said, "there is nothing curious in this modern Merv."
"On the contrary, Mr. Bombarnac, the town is almost Yankee, and it will soon see the day when the Russians will give it tramways and gaslights!"
"That will come!"
"I hope it will, and then Merv will have a right to call itself a city."
"For my part, I should have preferred a visit to the old town, with its mosque, its fortress, and its palace. But that is a little too far off, and the train does not stop there, which I regret."
"Pooh!" said the Yankee. "What I regret is, that there is no business to be done in these Turkoman countries! The men all have teeth--"
"And the women all have hair," added Horatia Bluett.
"Well, miss, buy their hair, and you will not lose your time."
"That is exactly what Holmes-Holme of London will do as soon as we have exhausted the capillary stock of the Celestial Empire."
And thereupon the pair left us.
I then suggested to Major Noltitz--it was six o'clock--to dine at Merv, before the departure of the train. He consented, but he was wrong to consent. An ill-fortune took us to the Hotel Slav, which is very inferior to our dining car--at least as regards its bill of fare. It contained, in particular, a national soup called "borchtch," prepared with sour milk, which I would carefully refrain from recommending to the gourmets of the _Twentieth Century_.