"Ceci non!"

A spacious apartment, its polished parquet strewn with white bearskins and the thickest and softest of Persian rugs; its panelled walls hung with Oriental tapestries, costly daggers, pistols, and shields of barbaric, but beautiful, workmanship, glistening with gold and silver. Every detail of the room denotes the artistic taste of the owner. Inlaid tables and Japanese cabinets are littered with priceless porcelain andcloisonne, old silver, and diamond-set miniatures; the low divans are heaped with cushions of deep-tinted satin and gold; heavy violet plush curtains drape the windows; while huge palms, hothouse plants, and bunches of sweet-smelling Russian violets occupy every available nook and corner. The pinewood fire flashes fitfully on a masterpiece of Vereschagin's, which stands on an easel by the hearth, and the massive gold "ikon," [A] encrusted with diamonds and precious stones, in the corner. A large oil painting of his Majesty the Czar of Russia hangs over the marble chimneypiece.

It is growing dark. Already a wintry wilderness of garden without, upon which snow and sleet are pitilessly beating, is barely discernible. By the window looms, through the dusk, the shadowy shape of an enormous stuffed tiger, crouched as if about to spring upon a spare white-haired man in neat dark green uniform, who, seated at a writing-table covered with papers and official documents, has just settled himself more comfortably in a roomy armchair. With a pleasant smile, and a long pull at a freshly lit "papirosh," he gives vent to his feelings with the remark that heads this chapter.

There is silence for a while, unbroken save by the crackle of blazing logs and occasional rattle of driving sleet against the window-panes. It is the 5th of January (O.S.). I am at Tiflis, in the palace of Prince Dondoukoff Korsakoff, Governor of the Caucasus, and at the present moment in that august personage's presence.

"Ceci non!" repeats the prince a second time, in answer to my request; adding impatiently, "They should know better in London than to send you to me. The War Minister in St. Petersburg alone has power to grant foreigners permission to visit Central Asia. You must apply to him, but let me first warn you that it is a long business. No" - after a pause - "no; were I in your place I would go to Persia. It is a country replete with interest."

I know, from bitter experience of Russian officials, that further parley is useless. Making my bow with as good a grace as possible under the circumstances, I take leave of the governor and am escorted by an aide-de-camp, resplendent in white and gold, through innumerable vestibules, and down the great marble staircase, to where my sleigh awaits me in the cutting north-easter and whirling snow. Gliding swiftly homewards along the now brilliantly lit boulevards, I realize for the first time that mine has been but a wild-goose chase after all; that, if India is to be reached by land, it is not via Merv and Cabul, but by way of Persia and Baluchistan.

The original scheme was a bold one, and I derive some consolation in the thought that the journey would most probably have ended in defeat. This was the idea. From Tiflis to Baku, and across the Caspian to Ouzoun Ada, the western terminus of the Trans-Caspian Railway. Thence by rail to Merv and Bokhara, and from the latter city direct to India, via Balkh and Cabul, Afghanistan. A more interesting journey can scarcely be conceived, but Fate and the Russian Government decreed that it was not to be. Not only was I forbidden to use the railway, but (notwithstanding the highest recommendation from the Russian Ambassador in London) even to set foot in Trans-Caspia.

The old adage, "delay is dangerous," is never so true as when applied to travel. The evening of my interview with the governor, I had resolved, ere retiring to rest, to make for India via Teheran. My route beyond that city was, perforce, left to chance, and the information I hoped to gain in the Shah's capital.

Tiflis, capital of the Caucasus, is about midway between the Black and Caspian seas, and lies in a valley between two ranges of low but precipitous hills. The river Kur, a narrow but swift and picturesque stream spanned by three bridges, bisects the city, which is divided in three parts: the Russian town, European colony, and Asiatic quarter. The population of over a hundred thousand is indeed a mixed one. Although Georgians form its bulk, Persia contributes nearly a quarter, the rest being composed of Russians, Germans, French, Armenians, Greeks, Tartars, Circassians, Jews, Turks, and Heaven knows what besides. [B]

Tiflis is a city of contrasts. The principal boulevard, with its handsome stone buildings and shops, tramways, gay cafes, and electric light, would compare favourably with the Nevski Prospect in St. Petersburg, or almost any first-class European thoroughfare; and yet, almost within a stone's throw, is the Asiatic quarter, where the traveller is apparently as far removed from Western civilization as in the most remote part of Persia or Turkestan. The Armenian and Persian bazaars are perhaps the most interesting, I doubt whether the streets of Yezd or Bokhara present so strange and picturesque a sight, such vivid effects of movement and colour. Every race, every nationality, is represented, from the stalwart, ruddy-faced Russian soldier in flat white cap and olive-green tunic, to the grave, stately Arab merchant with huge turban and white draperies, fresh from Bagdad or Bussorah. Georgians and Circassians in scarlet tunics and silver cartridge-belts, Turks in fez and frock-coat, Greeks and Albanians in snowy petticoats and black gaiters, Khivans in furs and quaint conical lamb's-wool hats, Tartars from the Steppes, Turkomans from Merv, Parsees from Bombay, African negroes, - all may be seen in the Tiflis Bazaar during the busy part of the day.

But woe to the luckless European who, tempted by the beauty of their wares, has dealings with the wily Persian merchant. There is a proverb in Tiflis that "It takes two Jews to rob an Armenian, two Armenians to rob a Persian," and the "accursed Faringi" is mercilessly swindled whenever he ventures upon a bargain.

With the exception of the aforesaid boulevard, the European quarter of Tiflis presents the same mixture of squalor and grandeur found in most Russian towns, St. Petersburg not excepted. There is the same dead, drab look about the streets and houses, the same absence of colour, the same indescribable smell of mud, leather, and drainage, familiar to all who have visited Asiatic Russia. I had intended remaining a couple of days, at most, in Tiflis, but my stay was now indefinitely prolonged. Such a severe winter had not been known for years. The mountain passes into Persia were reported impassable, and the line to Baku had for some days been blocked with snow.

My Russian Christmas (which falls, O.S., on our 6th of January) was not a cheerful one. A prisoner in a stuffy bedroom of the Hotel de Londres, I sat at the window most of the day, consuming innumerable glasses of tea and cigarettes, watching the steadily falling snow, and wondering whether the weather would ever clear and allow me to escape from a place so full of unpleasant associations, and which had brought me so much disappointment and vexation. The loud laughter and bursts of song that ascended every now and then from the crowded salle-a-manger (for the Hotel de Londres is the "Maison Doree" of Tiflis) only served to increase my depression and melancholy. Had there been a train available, I verily believe I should have taken a ticket then and there, and returned to England!

But morning brings consolation in the shape of blue sky and dazzling sunshine. The snow has ceased, apparently for good. Descending to breakfast full of plans for the future, I find awaiting me an individual destined to play an important part in these pages - one Gerome Realini, a Levantine Russian subject, well acquainted with the Persian language - who offers to accompany me to India as interpreter. His terms are moderate, and credentials first-rate. The latter include one from Baker Pasha, with whom he served on the Turkoman frontier expedition. More for the sake of a companion than anything else, I close with Gerome, who, though he does not understand one word of English, speaks French fluently.

There is a very natural prejudice against the Levantine race, but my new acquaintance formed an exception to the rule. I never had reason to regret my bargain; a better servant, pluckier traveller, or cheerier companion no man could wish for. Gerome had just returned from a visit to Bokhara, and his accounts of Central Asia were certainly not inviting. The Trans-Caspian railway was so badly laid that trains frequently ran off the line. There was no arrangement for water, travellers being frequently delayed three or four hours, while blocks of ice were melted for the boiler; while the so-called first-class carriages were filthy, and crowded with vermin. The advance of Holy Russia had apparently not improved Merv, which had become, since its annexation, a kind of inferior Port Said, a refuge for the scum, male and female, of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Odessa. Drunkenness and debauchery reigned paramount. Low gambling-houses, cafe chantants, and less reputable establishments flourished under the liberal patronage of the Russian officers, who, out of sheer ennui, ruined their pockets and constitutions with drunken orgies, night and day. There was no order of any kind, no organized police-force, and robberies and assassinations took place almost nightly. Small-pox was raging in the place when Gerome left it; also a loathsome disease called the "Bouton d'alep " - a painful boil which, oddly enough, always makes its appearance upon the body in odd numbers, never in even. It is caused by drinking or washing in unboiled water. Though seldom fatal, there is no cure for the complaint but complete change of climate.

We now set about making preparations for the journey. Provisions, saddlery, both had to be thought of; and, having laid in a small stock of Liebig, tea, biscuits, chocolate, and cigarettes (for space was limited), I proceeded, under Gerome's guidance, to purchase a saddle. Seventy-five roubles bought a capital one, including bridle. Here let me advise those visiting Persia to follow my example, and buy their saddlery in Tiflis. There is a heavy duty payable on foreign saddles in Russia, and they are not one whit better, or indeed so well suited to the purpose, as those made in the Caucasus.

One hears a deal, in Europe, of the beauty of the Circassian and Georgian women. Although I remained in Tiflis over a week, I did not see a single pretty woman among the natives. As in every Russian town, however, the "Moushtaid," or "Bois de Boulogne" of Tiflis, was daily, the theatre nightly, crowded with pretty faces of the dark-eyed, oval-faced Russian type. The new opera-house, a handsome building near the governor's palace, is not yet completed.

The Hotel de Londres was the favourite rendezvous after the play. Here till the small hours assembled nightly the elite of European Tiflis. Russian and Georgian officers in gorgeous uniforms of dark green, gold lace, and astrachan; French and German merchants with their wives and daughters; with a sprinkling demi-mondaines from Odessa or Kharkoff, sipping tea or drinking kummel and "kaketi" at the little marble tables, and discussing the latest scandals. Kaketi, a wine not unlike Carlowitz, is grown in considerable quantities in the Caucasus. There are two kinds, red and white, but the former is considered the best. Though sound and good, it is cheap enough - one rouble the quart. Tobacco is also grown in small quantities in parts of Georgia and made into cigarettes, which are sold in Tiflis at three kopeks per hundred. But it is poor, rank stuff, and only smoked by the peasantry and droshki-drivers.

Tiflis has a large and important garrison, but is not fortified. Its topographical depot is one of the best in Russia, and I managed, not without some difficulty, to obtain from it maps of Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The latter I subsequently found better and far more accurate than any obtainable in England. The most insignificant hamlets and unimportant camel-tracks and wells were set down with extraordinary precision, especially those in the districts around Kelat.

There is plenty of sport to be had round Tiflis. The shooting is free excepting over certain tracts of country leased by the Tiflis shooting-club. Partridge, snipe, and woodcock abound, and there are plenty of deer and wild boar within easy distance of the capital. Ibex is also found in the higher mountain ranges. For this (if for no other reason) Tiflis seems to be increasing in popularity every year for European tourists. It is now an easy journey of little over a week from England, with the advantage that one may travel by land the whole way from Calais. This route is via Berlin, Cracow, Kharkoff, and Vladikavkas, and from the latter place by coach (through the Dariel Gorge) to Tiflis.

The purchase of a warm astrachan bonnet, a bourka, [C] and bashlik, [D] completed my outfit. It now consisted of two small portmanteaus (to be changed at Teheran for saddle-bags), a common canvas sack for sleeping purposes, and a brace of revolvers. Gerome was similarly accoutred, with the exception of the portmanteaus. My interpreter was evidently not luxuriously inclined, for his impedimenta were all contained in a small black leather hand-bag! All being ready, eleven o'clock on the night of the 12th of January found us standing on the platform of the Tiflis railway station, awaiting the arrival of the Baku train, which had been delayed by a violent storm down the line.

I received a letter from the governor a few hours before my departure, wishing me bon voyage, and enclosing a document to ensure help and civility from the officials throughout his dominions. It may seem ungrateful, but I felt that I could well have dispensed with this, especially as I was leaving his Excellency's government at Baku, a distance of only ten hours by rail.

It was again snowing hard, and the east wind cut through my bourka as if it had been a thin linen jacket. Seeking shelter in the crowded, stuffy waiting-room, we solaced ourselves with cigarettes and vodka till past 2 a.m., when the train arrived. Another delay of two hours now occurred, the engine having broken down; but the carriages, like those of most Russian railways, were beautifully warmed, and we slept soundly, undisturbed by the howling of the wind and shouting of railway officials. When I awoke, we were swiftly rattling through the dreary monotonous steppe country that separates Tiflis from the Caspian Sea.

The Russians may, according to English ideas, be uncivilized in many ways, but they are undoubtedly far ahead of other European nations, with the exception perhaps of France, as regards railway travelling. Although the speed is slow, nothing is left undone, on the most isolated lines, to ensure comfort, not to say luxury. Even in this remote district the refreshment-rooms were far above the average in England. At Akstafa, for instance, a station surrounded by a howling wilderness of steppe and marsh; well-cooked viands, game, pastry, and other delicacies, gladdened the eye, instead of the fly-blown buns and petrified sandwiches only too familiar to the English railway traveller. The best railway buffet I have ever seen is at Tiumen, the terminus of the Oural railway, and actually in Siberia.

Railway travelling has, however, one drawback in this part of Russia, which, though it does not upset the arrangements of a casual traveller, must seriously inconvenience the natives - the distance of stations from towns. We drank tea, a couple of hours or so before arriving at Baku, at a station situated more than one hundred versts [E] from the town of its name. The inhabitants of the latter seldom availed themselves of the railway, but found it easier, except in very bad weather, to drive or ride to the Caspian port.

The dull wintry day wears slowly away, as we crawl along past league upon league of wild steppe land. The coup d'oeil from our carriage-window is not inspiriting. It rests upon a bare, bleak landscape, rolling away to the horizon, of waves of drab and dirty-green land, unbroken save for here and there a pool of stagnant water, rotting in a fringe of sedge and rush, or an occasional flock of wild-fowl. At rare intervals we pass, close to the line, a Tartar encampment. Half a dozen dirty brown tents surrounded by horses, camels, and thin shivering cattle, the latter covered with coarse sack-clothing tied round their bellies to protect them from the cutting blast that sweeps from the coast across this land of desolation. None of the human population are visible, and no wonder. It must be cold enough outside. Even in this well-warmed compartment one can barely keep feet and fingers from getting numbed.

It is almost dark when, towards six o'clock, there appears, far ahead, a thin streak of silver, separating the dreary brown landscape from the cold grey sky.

"We have nearly arrived, monsieur," says Gerome. "There is the Caspian Sea."

[Footnote A: The sacred image of the Saviour or Holy Virgin.]

[Footnote B: The name Tiflis is derived from Tbilis Kalaki, or "Hot Town," so called from the hot mineral springs near which it stands.]

[Footnote C: Bourka, a long sleeveless coat made of goatskin.]

[Footnote D: Bashlik, the soft camel-hair hood and neckerchief in one, worn by Russian soldiers.]

[Footnote E: A verst is about three-quarters of a mile.]