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Chapter 1

The start--The terrors of the Russian Custom-house--An amusing
incident at the Russian frontier--Politeness of Russian
officials--Warsaw: its sights; its lovely women--The talented
Pole--People who know how to travel by train--A ludicrous scene.

"First single to Baku," I requested when my turn came at the window of the ticket office at Victoria Station.

"Baku?--where is that?" queried the ticket man.

"In Southern Russia."

"Oh, I see! Well, we cannot book further than Warsaw for Russia."

"Warsaw will do. . . . . How much? . . . Thank you."

My baggage having next been duly registered direct for the capital of Poland, off I set to Queenborough, crossed over by the night boat to Flushing, and continued the following morning by express to Berlin.

Once in the Russian train from the German capital one hears a great deal of the terrors of the approaching Russian Custom-house, and here I may relate rather an amusing incident which will prove what these terrors amount to. In my sleeping car there happened to be some French merchants on their way to the fair of Nijni-Novgorod. On perceiving my two rifles, a good-sized ammunition case, and two cameras, one of the gentlemen gratuitously informed me that if I intended to proceed to Russia I had better leave all these things behind, or they would all be confiscated at the frontier. I begged to differ, and the Frenchmen laughed boisterously at my ignorance, and at what would happen presently. In their imaginative minds they perceived my valued firearms being lost for ever, and predicted my being detained at the police station till it pleased les terribles Cossacques to let me proceed.

"Evidently," shouted one of the Frenchmen at the top of his voice, "this is your first journey abroad. . . . We," he added, "are great travellers. We have been once before in Russia."

"You are great travellers!" I exclaimed, with the emphasis very strong on the are, and pretending intense admiration.

Naturally the Franco-Russian Alliance was dragged into the conversation; were I a Frenchman I might fare less badly. The Russians and the French were brothers. But a British subject! A hated Englishman bringing into Russia two rifles, two revolvers, six hundred cartridges, twelve hundred photographic plates, two cameras, a large case of scientific instruments, all of which I would duly declare! Why? Russia was not England. I should soon experience how Englishmen were treated in some countries. "Russians," he exclaimed, "have not a polished manner like the French. Ah, non! They are semi-barbarians yet. They respect and fear the French, but not the English. . . . par exemple!"

The frontier station of Alexandrovo was reached, and a horde of terror-stricken passengers alighted from the carriages, preceded and followed by bags, portmanteaux, hold-alls, and bundles of umbrellas, which were hastily conveyed to the long tables of the huge Custom-house inspection room.

The two Frenchmen had their belongings next to mine on the long counter, and presently an officer came. They were French subjects and they had nothing to declare. Their elaborately decorated bags were instantly ordered open and turned upside down, while the officer searched with some gusto among the contents now spread on the table. There was a small pocket camera, two packets of photographic plates, some soiled handkerchiefs, collars and cuffs, a box of fancy note-paper, a bottle of scent, a pair of embroidered pantoufles, and a lot of patent brass studs and cuff links.

With the exception of the soiled linen, everything was seized, for all were liable to duty, and some sharp words of reprimand were used by the officer to my now subdued French neighbours for attempting to smuggle.

The officer moved on to me.

"Monsieur," mournfully remarked the Frenchman, "now you will be done for."

I declared everything and produced a special permit, which had been very courteously given me by the Russian Ambassador, and handed it to the officer. Having eagerly read it, he stood with his heels together and gave me a military salute. With a profound bow he begged me to point out to him all my luggage so that he could have it stamped without giving me further trouble. He politely declined to use the keys I handed him, and thinking that I might feel uncomfortable in the hustling crowd of people he conveyed me to a chair in order that I might sit down.

I turned round to look at the Frenchmen. They had altogether collapsed.

"I thought you said that Englishmen were hated in Russia, and that they would confiscate all my things? You see they have confiscated nothing," I meekly remarked to the Frenchmen, when they returned to the sleeping car. "I do not think that I have met with more polite Customs officials anywhere."

"Oui, oui," muttered the stouter Frenchman, who was evidently in no mood to enter into further conversation. "Et nous autres bêtes," he soliloquized, "qui avons fait l'alliance avec ces sauvages là! On m'a tout pris même le papier à lettres!"

He removed his coat and waistcoat and the many interesting patent appliances for holding his tie in the correct position--where it never remained--then he threw himself violently on the berth, face towards the wall, and grumbled the greater part of the night on the stupid mistake of the Franco-Russian Alliance. On his return to France he would write a letter to the Ministre des Affaires Étrangères. After a long and tedious soliloquy he fortunately fell asleep.

Warsaw on the Vistula, the old capital of Poland, was reached in the morning.

The quickest way to Baku would have been to proceed to Moscow and then by the so-called "petroleum express," which leaves once a week, every Tuesday, for Baku. Unluckily, I could not reach Moscow in time, and therefore decided to travel across Russia by the next best route, via Kiev, Rostoff, and the Caspian. The few hours I remained in Warsaw were pleasantly spent in going about seeing the usual sights; the Palace and lovely Lazienski gardens, laid out in the old bed of the Vistula; the out-of-door theatre on a small island, the auditorium being separated by water from the stage; the lakes, the Saski Ogrod, and the Krasinski public gardens; the Jewish quarter of the town; the museums of ancient and modern art.

There are few cities in Europe that are prettier, cleaner, and more animated than Warsaw, and few women in the world that have a better claim to good looks than the Warsaw fair sex. The majority of women one sees in the streets are handsome, and carry themselves well, and their dress is in good taste, never over-done as it is in Paris, for instance.

The whole city has a flourishing appearance, with its tramways, gay omnibuses, electric light, telephones, and every modern convenience. The streets are broad and cheerful. In the newer parts of the city there are beautiful residences, several of which, I was told, belong to British subjects settled there. The Russian military element is very strong, for Poland's love for Russia is not yet very great. As we walk along the main thoroughfares a long string of Cossacks, in their long black felt cloaks and Astrakan caps, canter along. They are a remarkably picturesque and business-like lot of soldiers.

Poles are civility itself, that is, of course, if one is civil to them.

Historically the place is of extreme interest, and the battlefields of Novogeorgievsk, which played such an important part in the Polish insurrection of 1831, and of Grochowo, where the Poles were defeated, are well worth a visit. At Maciejowice, too, some fifty miles up the Vistula, Kosciuzko was made prisoner by the conquering Russians.

Warsaw is the third largest city in the Russian Empire, and its favourable geographical position makes it one of the great pivots of Eastern Europe. With a navigable river and the great main railway lines to important centres such as Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Dantzig, Kiev, and Odessa, with good climatic conditions, and fertile soil; with the pick of natural talent in art and science, and the love for enterprise that is innate in the Polish character, Warsaw cannot help being a prosperous place.

The city has very extensive suburbs. The best known to foreigners, Praga, on the opposite bank of the Vistula, is connected with Warsaw by two iron bridges. Warsaw itself is built on terraces, one above another, along the bank of the river, but the main portion of the city stands on a high undulating plain above. There are over a hundred Catholic, several Greek churches, and a number of synagogues; a university, schools of art, academies, fourteen monasteries, and two nunneries.

There are few places in the world where the artisan or the common workman is more intelligent and artistic, and where the upper classes are more refined and soundly cultured, than in Warsaw. With a certain reflex of the neighbouring German commercial influence, the place has become a thriving manufacturing and trading centre. Machinery, excellent pianos and other musical instruments, carriages, silver and electro-plate, boots and leather goods are manufactured and exported on a large scale. The tanneries of Warsaw are renowned the world over, and the Warsaw boots are much sought after all over the Russian Empire for their softness, lightness and durability. Then there are great exports of wheat, flax, sugar, beer, spirits, and tobacco.

But time is short, and we must drive to the station. Say what you will about the Russian, there is a thing that he certainly knows how to do. He knows how to travel by rail. One has a great many preconceived ideas of the Russian and his ways. One is always reminded that he is a barbarian, that he is ignorant, that he is dirty. He is possibly a barbarian in one way, that he can differentiate good from bad, real comfort from "optical illusions" or illusions of any other kind, a thing highly civilised people seem generally unable to do. This is particularly noticeable in Russian railway travelling,--probably the best and cheapest in the world.

To begin with, when you take a first-class ticket it entitles you to a seat numbered and reserved that nobody can appropriate. No more tickets are sold than correspond with the accommodation provided in the train. This does away entirely with the "leaving one's umbrella" business, to secure a seat, or scattering one's belongings all over the carriage to ensure the whole compartment to one's self, to the inconvenience of other travellers. Then first, second and third-class passengers are provided with sleeping accommodation. The sleeping accommodation, especially for first and second-class passengers, consists of a wide and long berth wherein they can turn round at their will, if they please, not of a short, narrow bunk in which even a lean person has to lie edgewise or roll out, as in the continental sleeping car, for which discomfort (rather than accommodation) preposterous extra charges have to be paid, above the first-class fare. Then, too, in the latter the compartments are so small, so ridiculously ventilated, that after one night spent boxed in, especially if another passenger shares the same cabin, one feels sick for some hours, and in the day-time one has no room to turn round, nor space to put one's legs. As for the lighting, the less said the better. These faults exist in our own and the continental first-class compartments.

But the barbarian Russian knows and does better. The line being of a very broad gauge, his first-class carriages are extremely spacious and very high, with large windows and efficacious ventilators; and there is plenty of room everywhere to spread one's limbs in every direction. There is probably less gilding about the ceiling, fewer nickel-plated catches about the doors; not so much polished wood, nor ghastly coloured imitation-leather paper, nor looking-glasses, but very convenient folding-tables are found instead; the seats are ample and serviceable, of plain, handsome red velvet, devoid of the innumerable dust-collecting button-pits--that striking feature of British and continental railway-carriage decoration. Movable cushions are provided for one's back and head. There are bright electric lights burning overhead, and adjustable reading lights in the corners of the carriage. A corridor runs along the whole train, and for a few kopeks passengers can at any moment procure excellent tea, caviare sandwiches, or other light refreshments from attendants.

Now for the bedding itself. The Russian, who is ever a practical man, carries his own bedding--a couple of sheets, blankets, and small pillow,--a custom infinitely cleaner and more sensible than sleeping in dubious, smelly blankets of which one does not know who has used them before, nor when they were washed last. But if passengers wish, by paying a rouble (two shillings) a night to the guard, bedding is provided by the Railway. There is a fine lavabo at the end of each carriage, with shampoo, hot and cold water, etc. Here, too, by asking the guard, towels are handed over to those passengers who have not brought their own.

Here I may relate another amusing incident. Unable to get at my towels packed in my registered baggage, and ignorant of the Russian language, I inquired of a polyglot fellow-passenger what was the Russian word for towel, so that I could ask the guard for one.

"Palatiensi," said he, and I repeated, "Palatiensi, palatiensi, palatiensi," so as to impress the word well upon my memory. Having enjoyed a good wash and a shampoo, and dripping all over with water, I rang for the guard, and sure enough, when the man came, I could not recollect the word. At last it dawned upon me that it was,--"Palatinski," and "Palatinski," I asked of the guard.

To my surprise the guard smiled graciously, and putting on a modest air replied: "Palatinski niet, paruski (I do not speak Latin, I speak only Russian)," and the more I repeated "palatinski," putting the inflection now on one syllable, then on the other, to make him understand, the more flattered the man seemed to be, and modestly gave the same answer.

This was incomprehensible to me, until my polyglot fellow-passenger came to my assistance.

"Do you know what you are asking the guard?" he said in convulsions of laughter.

"Yes, I am asking for a 'palatinski'--a towel."

"No, you are not!" and he positively went into hysterics. "Palatinski means 'Do you speak Latin?' How can you expect a Russian railway-guard to speak Latin? Look how incensed the poor man is at being mistaken for a Latin scholar! Ask him for a palatiensi, and he will run for a towel."

The man did run on the magic word being pronounced, and duly returned with a nice clean palatiensi, which, however, was little use to me for I had by this time nearly got dry by the natural processes of dripping and evaporation.

One or two other similar incidents, and the extreme civility one meets from every one while travelling in Russia, passed the time away pleasantly until Kiev, one of the oldest cities of Russia, was reached.