10 NOVEMBER 1883, Page 18


THE Special Correspondent is the true modern representative of the knight-errant. It is he who blows the magic horns, not- withstanding the dragon guardians of the gates, and enters the enchanted castles, and reveals to the outer world all that there is of strange and mysterious within. It is he who passes scatheless through encounters with windmills and giants, who heals the poor captive, and can on occasion eat poisons and swallow deadly meats without wincing. Amongst Special Cor- respondents, none has had a stranger experience or told a more exciting tale than the hero of Merv, whose career, so prematurely cut short by death, is told by himself in the volume before us. The volume is a compression into a handy book which one can take comfortably on a railway journey of the two huge volumes in which the tale was first told. A good deal of political discussion, which, however interesting at the time, has now be- come rather stale, has been cut out, and the story, as a story, has been considerably improved thereby. It is told in an easy, flowing style, without any attempt at fine-writing or startling effects of literary composition. A hazardous ride for life is &scribed as coolly as a dinner party, and a grand council in no more gorgeous language than a vestry meeting.

* The Story of Merv, By Edward O'Donovan. London : Smith, Elder, and Co.

The author started in 1878 from Trebizond on his hazardous travels, with the object of penetrating to the mysterious regions of Central Thibet, but when he arrived at Elizabeth- pol, finding that a Russian expedition was just about

to start for to Caspian against the Tekke Turcomans, he determined to accompany it, General Lazareff, an Armenian by birth, who was to command the expedition, giving him leave to do so. He went with the General on a reconnaissance, during which the most memorable incident was a supper which they partook of sitting on drums lighted by bayonets stuck point downwards for candlesticks, in company with a Khivan clad in " a silk tunic of the brightest possible emerald green, with lavish gold embroidery, sky-blue trousers of semi-European make, a purple mantle profusely laced, his fingers covered with massive rings of gold, a gold embroidered skull-cap on the back of his head, and perched forward, the brim almost upon the bridge of his nose, was a cylindrical cap of black Astrakhan fur." This gorgeous individual was, however, nothing more thaw a caravan Bashi. After pushing on to the front by himself with an Armenian merchant, and nearly being cut- off by a Turcoman raid, O'Donovan returned to the Russian camp, where he was even more nearly being carried off by dysentery, due to the absolute want of sanitary precautions shown by the Russians. General Lazareff himself succumbed to the disease. The General who succeeded knew not Joseph, and ordered him to quit the camp; and he accordingly proceeded to Asterabad, a Persian town. After many months, spent there and among some neighbouring Yamud Turcomans and at Teheran, in vain endeavours to get permission to accompany the Russian columns, at last receiving a flat refusal from General Skobeleff, he telegraphed to him an "Au revoir a Merv," and started on his adventurous quest of that city two years after his first start from Trebizond. Scarcely had he begun his journey, before he was bitten by the " bite-the-stranger," or Persian bug, a beast whose venomous bite is often fatal, and the remedies for which were even worse than the disease. Amongst the cures proffered, a priest wanted to tie him up in a net like a hammock, the head protruding, and hang him on a tree. " When I had swallowed a large quantity of new milk, I was to be turned round until the suspending cords were well twisted, and then, being let go, to be allowed to turn rapidly round. This operation was to be repeated until sickness was produced, when other measures were to follow." He declined the cure, however, having heard from a friend that he once saw it "tried on an old woman, who, when taken down for supplementary treatment," was beyond need of any, being already dead.

From the "bite-the-stranger," our hero went, in the quite as unpleasant company of a band of pilgrims, towards Meshed. The account of the journey, made under dread of Turcomans, bears a . strong resemblance to Mr. Keane's account of the pilgrimage to Mecca, under dread of the Bedouins ; and what with robbers without and quarrels within the caravans, the wonder is that in either case the pilgrims ever reach their destination. At Kuchan, a dinner with the Governor proved even more dangerous. It began with large glasses of arrack, drained al a draught, continued with Bordeaux, then came soup and dishes ad libitum, accompanied and followed by the white wine of the country and more claret, and returned again to arrack. As the Emir was talking wildly before dinner, and rolled on the ground embracing his friends and relations during dinner, and finally dismissed his Christian guest that he might proceed to further revels, orthodox Mohammedanism does not seem strongly developed in Persia. We are not told the effect of the dinner on the host, but on the guest it produced a three weeks' fever, of which he was finally cured by a dose of opium and renewed applications of arrack. Then came fresh delays from Persian opposition until the Derguez was reached, where every village and house is fortified for protection against Turcoman raids, and the author had the plea- sure of seeing one perpetrated while riding with the Governor, in which some sixty oxen and over one hundred sheep were car- ried off. But the Governor was not at all anxious to see the raiding system put down, as he thought his people rather gained than lost by it, and it transpired that his income would have been diminished by three thousand tomans yearly, if the brigandage were suppressed, a fact which is probably not without its parallel amongst Turkish- Governors nearer Europe. Mean- while, Geok Tepe fell into the hands of the Russians, and it was only by putting their Agent on a false scent that O'Donovan finally evaded the vigilance of Persians and Russo-Turcomans, and got a clear start to Merv, with only a couple of Kurd servants. He threw himself on the dangerous friendship of a couple of Turcomans on the look-out for prey, and was by them safely conducted to Merv. The " Queen of the World turned out to be a mere collection of wattled huts, in the midst of which the stranger was accommodated with a tent, which at once became the centre of attraction for the whole settlement.. As Miss Bird found in her travels in Japan, the European became the object of the ceaseless curiosity of staring eyes- Waking or sleeping, the tent was filled with sightseers, who at last became so numerous and excited that they brought the whole structure down on the occupant's head. Meanwhile, O'Donovan had the pleasure of hearing it keenly discussed whether he was a Russian, or only a Black-Russian, or English- man, and whether his throat should at once be cut as a spy, or whether he should be put to ransom. At length, after a fort- night's incessant inspection, he was brought before the council of chiefs, and it was decided to let him remain alive ; and when his identity was established by communication with the British Native Agent at Meshed, ho was allowed to remain as an honoured guest, subject to a kind of police supervision.

He found the Mervli fortifying themselves against the appre- hended attack of Russia behind a tremendous earthwork, forty feet high, but unfortunately thrown up only in the direction in which the Russian advance was expected, the hinder part being only protected by a musketry trench, the Turcomans, like the Chinese in the first China war, being seemingly of opinion that an enemy was bound to attack in front, and not try any underhand methods of walking round a place to get at a weak point. The artillery which was to protect the rampart was equally primi- tive, consisting chiefly of some twenty-eight brass cannon cap- tured from the Persians, mostly unmounted, and with no gun- powder provided ; while the shot was to consist of what the Persians had fired at them, when it had been dug up again- But the Turcomans were uo despicable engineers in their way, a great part of their territory, some fifty-five miles by thirty-five, being watered by canals, drawn from the River Mergab, which is dammed up by a gigantic weir, on which 100 men are kept constantly at work repairing damages. All around were the ruins of ancient cities, built of stone and brick, no fewer than three Mervs close to each other, yet quite distinct, and all deserted, being visited by Mr. O'Donovan, the present inhabitants dwelling only in scattered villages of wattled huts or tents. But little cultivation is done beyond a certain amount of corn and fruits, which last mostly grow spontaneously. In fact,. the Tekke Turcomans seem to have advanced but little in civili- sation, if at all, since the days of Zenghis Khan. Their favourite pastime is robbery, and when not on a raid, they spend their time in sleeping, smoking, and eating. Their raiment is gorgeous in colour, but the precious metals are rare, and they are in- veterate beggars.

How their chief executive officer was deposed, in view of the- Russian advance, and the young hereditary Khans assumed power in his place ; how O'Donovan, from being a quasi-prisoner, was elevated into the chief of the ruling triumvirate as the representative of British power, which was to come to the aid of the Mervli against the Russians ; how he assumed the Turco- man dress, was offered Turcoman wives, and was supported, after his own money had all gone in presents, on Turcoman tribal contributions ; and how he eventually got away from Merv, under the pretext of attending a meeting of European Ambassadors at Meshed,—these things give an excitement to- this book of travels which raises it to the rank of a romance, and can only be enjoyed by reading it at large. There is one defect in the book, and that is the absence of any maps. They would have enforced more strongly the practical conclusion to be drawn from the whole story, that if Russia has an appetite for the Turcoman artichoke, there is no earthly reason why England should try to interfere with her digestion of a very tough and unprofitable fruit.