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Casuals in the Caucasus; the diary of a sporting holiday online

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expressed our sense of deprivation, Ali Ghirik said that
upon the next occasion he would translate for us all
that passed, which he did in the following handsome

"Aleikum ! " The salutation most in favour with
True BeHevers.

" Who are these strangers with you ? Are they men
or women ? "

" That I know not. Sometimes I think the one,
sometimes the other. Anyhow " — pointing to Kenneth,
and all unconsciously quoting our Greatest^ — " God
made him, therefore let him pass for a man. They are
travellers, travelling I know not why."


" Has he no money that he dresses so ? "
" It is as it pleases him. He has clothes at

" Are they old or yoimg ? "
" In truth I cannot say. Judge for yourself."
" I cannot," answered the vagrant farer, investiga-
ting us from all sides. "They resemble nothing I know
of. Why does the tall one wear glass in his eye ? "
" That I know not. It is his custom."
" Would you say these two are his wives ? "
" He treats them well, therefore I think it is not so.
She," — indicating Cecily, a propos of nothing — " has
hair which falls over her like a cloak of gold. I myself
have seen it."

" It is very strange that he dresses thus ! " murmured
the chance acquaintance, gazing disapprovingly at
Kenneth, unable to get past the amazing apparition.

Our inquisitor came as a critic, and it is so easy to
criticize. He had no schooling, therefore no pre-
judices. He looked from the highest standpoint — the
natural aspect.

We descended, by devious paths, guided by a
friendly Tatar riding a piebald horse, the one and
only piebald I saw in the country, to the post-road
connecting Telav with Signakh. Here, at a cross-road,
we found a post-house, where we tried to obtain lunch.
It produced some animated eggs, a lump of the under-
done bread of the country, and some of the wine which
Kenneth understood so thoroughly. For our horses the
good postmaster provided what he was pleased to
term " oats," and this " extra," for which we had to


pay heavily, was a mixture of one part grain and three
parts tiny stones, bits of stick, and earthy debris. I
don't know if Caucasian ponies are fitted out with
helpful gizzards, but the tough diet in no way upset
their equilibriums — they ate the whole mangerful to
the last pebble.

In the vineyards all around us, and at house
doors, stood colossal dull - coloured jars in which
the grape juice ferments at vintage times. These
great receptacles, called " kuf skins " by the Tatars,
and " kwewris " by the Georgians, stand higher
than the tallest man, and are four feet or so
in circumference, with a holding capacity of six
thousand bottles. In one fine vineyard a row of these
empty mammoth pots bordered the path to a black-
mouthed cave room, excavated from a hill-side — a
scene from The Forty Thieves. The largest thief
would lie safe hidden in the smallest kufskin !

At vintage time the big jars are buried to their necks
in the ground for greater convenience of filling. Save
in the case of a very limited number of careful vintners
the wine manufacture and methods of straining are
primitive to a degree. In fact, the so-called straining
process appears, from all accounts, to be a sort of
general stir-up from which the liquor never clears.
From the vast pots the wine is drawn off into the
bourdyouky, or buffalo skins, prepared with the
naphtha dressing which makes each carcass water-
tight and the drink so strongly flavoured.

Signakh — which means " City of Refuge " — hangs
on the hill-side like a bee on a heather bell. Seen


from below it is a beautiful thing, seen from above
more enchanting still, seen from within, with its quaint
little narrow streets, picturesquely primitive, overhung
with balconies, it bids you stay for ever. We should
call the place a hill-station in India. Little chalets,
for the most part two-storied, nestle amid a world of
green, each pigeon-house abode higher than its neigh-

Signakh is fortified, though the once extensive
fortifications have a somewhat Earl's Courtian air about
them now. The need for them is at an end. But in
Schamyl's day — the little place is at the very gate of
Daghestan — it was a strongly-held Russian post,
whither the country folk of the valleys below were
accustomed to retreat when a raid was imminent.

We were entertained at her summer residence by a
countrywoman of our own, to whom we had letters of
introduction, a lady who was busily solving for herself
the benefits or disadvantages — these things depend on
the personal point of view — of international marriages,
her husband being a Russian holding a Civil appoint-
ment. She was as lonely and cut off from her own people
as though she lived in Kamchatka, and reminded me
of a tiny chip of wood cast up by a mighty river on the
banks of a sleepy backwater where the weeds grow a-
tangle, and the tall swaying bulrushes hide the light
of day. As the little timber fragment lies high and dry,
never more to float over swirling rapids, doomed to rot
in the sun until the dust is caught up and scattered by
the winds, so are some of us thrown by Fate on somno-
lent hills or forgotten estuaries, and there, unless a


beneficent upheaval floods our Never-Never country,
we stay !

And so — I associate beautiful Signakh with unful-
filled dreams, impossible longings, and castles in the

Alas ! cloud palaces are of very little use in these
practical days unless one is the possessor of a really
navigable air-ship.



I p'rythee, shepherd, if that love or gold
Can in this distant place buy entertainment,
Bring us where we may rest ourselves and feed.

As You Like It.

Strangers, and come here by chance.

Love's Labour's Lost.

The day we left Signakh to climb into Daghestan was,
or was not — we could not quite determine — Kenneth's
birthday. At home we should have been wishing him
" Many happy returns," but the Russian Calendar,
twelve days behind ours, said we were premature.

It had rained hard all night, and the beautiful httle
place gleamed and glittered like a jewel in the dancing
sunlight. Across the Alanza an o'erarching rainbow
was reflected in the dull-toned plains rolling to the
horizon. Ali Ghirik called the glowing belt of prismatic
light " the Girdle of the Prophet " — such a poetical
synonym, I thought.

The spirit of summer, golden-sandalled, trod the
gracious vine-clad slopes, woimd in and out the rain-
drenched sweet-smelling mulberry trees, and touched
with warm glory the snowy peaks which rose here and
there from the wall-like frontage of the main chain,



a frontage uniform in solidarity, looking impenetrable,

One of our pack mules was ill, and unable to travel,
so we had to search for a substitute, and effected an
exchange with a dealer of the sect known as the
Dukhobors, Russian dissenters, who were exiled to
Transcaucasia by the Imperial Government in the
reign of Alexander I. For many years they were com-
pelled to keep within a stipulated radius, now one
meets them all over. Have we not admitted the
Dukhobors to Canada as settlers ? It is quite im-
possible to spell their name correctly. No two English
writers render it alike, and every Russian scholar
differently. It is understood to be derived from doukh,
spirit, and harotsya, to wrestle, probably because any
individual Dukhobor may soulfully wrestle with the
Spirit during times of worship.

Just how and wherein they differ from the religious
tenets of their forbears. Orthodox churchmen, is
rather hard to gather. The Russians don't seem
to know or care, and the Dukhobors themselves
won't tell. They recognize the omnipotence of no
earthly Power — that was one of the reasons which
led to their banishment — and subscribe to no outward
forms of religion, which they say should be expressed
spiritually. To their way of thinking a smoke-stack
is just as holy as a church steeple, both being man-
made, and nothing holy can emanate from frail
humanity. Prayer is shown by deeds, not words,
and a behef is general among the sect that the joys of
the Hereafter may be gained by worthy members of


any other religious denomination, which in itself
argues originality of a very high order. Marriage with
them is not a Sacrament. They have the honesty to
call it a glorified toss-up, and those people whom God
cannot — obviously — have joined, the Dukhobors do
not try and gyve together. Love is the fulfilling of
the law — Nature's primitive statute. Well, we are
great on that in England. And when it becomes a
man's first maxim instead of being, as at present, his
last, we shall all, Dukhobors and the rest of us, get
the niillennium.

Every Dukhobor possesses the pioneer turn of
mind, unlike the average lower-class Russian, and in
their thrifty hands agriculture is raised to an art. Their
Orthodox brethren will tell you that the Dukhobors
were a finer people when they were perpetually waging
moral battles for their beliefs, and have it that the
tenets of the sect are considerably slacker than in the
days of suspicion and distrust which followed on
their banishment. This is as may be. Prosperity,
the world over, is very like matrimony ; it doesn't
suit everybody.

Where the world's way joined a lonesome shepherds'
track we came on a last o utpost duchan , which suggested
mild refreshment. The proprietor gave Ali to under-
stand that he was much too ill to be troubled with us,
and if we wanted anything we must get it for ourselves.
Excellent red wine he had, indicating by a jerk of his
thumb in what direction the treasure lay, but it was
expensive, everything was expensive, how else should
it be?


We explored the recesses of the place, and in a
fusty corner, sunk to its neck in the earth floor, we
found a vast pottery jug similar to those we had seen
in the vineyards of Kakheti. Ali produced from a
rubbish heap a long-handled scoop with string attach-
ment, which we carefully let down into the depths
below. It was most exciting, this fishing in a kufskin,
like the mysterious delights of a bazaar lucky-tub at
home magnified a thousandfold. We hooked up all
sorts of oddments. Bits of cloth and quaint little
thread buttons, egg-shells, and, most wonderful find
of all, a ring of iron with five spiked teeth set round it, —
a dread implement which our servant said was always
worn in olden days on the right thumb by the Khevsur
tribe, who did great execution on the faces of their
enemies with it.

Kenneth, tired of collecting relics, nothing daunted,
would drink of the residue ! He said it was excellent,
and free of the naphtha taste which permeates all wine
stored in the skin " bottles."

There was nothing in the duchan to be purchased.
Far from its proprietor being able to supply us with
necessaries, we — in all humanity — had to contribute to
his comfort from our meagre stock.

By the end of a big day we were over the frontier of
Daghestan, not a very rough Daghestan as yet, but
grim and grey enough. Travelling, as we purposely
did, off the better-known tracks reduced our chances of
meeting anyone. When we wished to make a halt for
the night we found that Yakimo and his mules, loaded
with our tents and sleeping kit generally, had lost


themselves and were nowhere to be seen. Neither
could we hear the tinkle of the vibrant bell.

We waited for an hour or more, still — no Yakimo,
who had travelled in our wake up to the last three or
four miles of the journey.

Things began to look awkward, as rain fell heavily,
and there was no shelter in the surrounding rocks.
Riding on a little, after turning a sharp corner, we
came on a shepherd with the traditional crook in a
henna-stained hand, sitting on a heap of stones by
the wayside, if, indeed, the rough track could be
called a " way " at all. He stood up in his surprise
at seeing us, and pulled his scanty toga of half-cured
sheepskin around him, as though to hide the time-
worn skeleton framework beneath.

Shelter he had none, but he seemed very happy.
Nature never meant money to make happiness.
That's why I love her. Unnatural civiHzation has
done it. The worst of it is we've got to be civilized
whether we like it or not.

A neck-end of mutton, lying on the stones, was
proffered to us with the great-hearted hospitality
peculiar to the shepherds of the Caucasus, who think
that kindness shown to strangers is returned a
hundredfold in prosperity to the flocks.

Next our acquaintance, made rich in spite of himself
beyond the dreams of his simple avarice, aided us to
greater comfort for the night. A wine-shop of sorts
lay a mile westward, on a trading channel which
linked up two villages, and thither we set off, our
shepherd for guide, walking our horses, with the rain


pelting down and a murmur of thunder in the air.
Darkness fell suddenly. One instant it was light
enough to see, the next a pall-like gloom hid us from
each other, and nothing but the scrunch of hoofs on
the stones told us of the exact proximity of the fol-
lowing horse in the file. Each of us was a peram-
bulating Whiteley, and from his Universal Provider
Ali detached a lantern, which he lighted and gave to
our herdsman to carry ahead of us. Pursuing this
flickering will-o'-the-wisp, we stumbled on until a small
square two-storied stone house faced us, all alone, dark
and dreary.

A tap at the door, and out popped a gigantic
Lesghian, with the promptitude of a penny-in-the-slot
machine. High above his head he held a flaming torch,
and the lurid glare gave the man's eagle features a wild
rough beauty almost unearthly. He stood on the
topmost step of a deeply excavated evil-smelling
stable, which constituted the cavernous ground-floor
of the domicile, and through the Augean depths we
were expected to wade to a ladder, by which we gained
the comparative comfort of an apartment above, into
which we bobbed up, suddenly, rather like seals in
the ice.

In the grimy recesses of this place we arranged to
pass the night, a very mixed entertainment, as, unless we
allowed Kenneth a corner, he would have to repose on
the road in the drenching downpour, or sample the
unutterable horrors of the regions below. One gets
serenely callous to conventionalities in the Caucasus.
And it must not be forgotten that, as a general rule.


you cannot make even the one primitive apartment
of a wild hostelry your ver}^ own. Other chance
wayfarers may be precipitated into it at any minute.

We manoeuvred a very excellent supper from some
of the gift mutton, and the proprietor of the auberge —
a most attentive individual, who never left us or for-
sook us — had somehow or other hooked a large trout
at a remote stage of its career, which he had kippered
after the fashion of smoked salmon. This petrified
treasure he bestowed on us, and we cooked it in sections
in the frying-pan portion of our en route lunch basket.
The blowing out of the flaming wick gave our host
untold joy. Over and over again he lighted it for the
sheer delight of extinguishing the thing.

After the meal he produced some stuff he called —
at least so Ali translated the word — " brandy," fire-
water of the fiercest description, masquerading in
an attractive bottle, labelled " Finest French Cognac."

The voice was the voice of Jacob, but the hand was
the hand of Esau !

Kenneth was most frightfully ill all night, and made
his will on the back of an envelope, which I promptly
lost in the rubbish of the room, or else the local vermin
ate it. I could not find any more paper, so Kenneth
decided on trying to live until he got into a will-making
radius again, and presently he fell asleep.

Early in the morning I descended the ladder and
found our henchman reposing on some straw in the
filthy subterranean stable where the ponies stood
fetlock-deep in slush, chumping the " oats " of the
country happily.


Yakimo had arrived — directed to us by the faithful
shepherd of the evening before, and when I saw the
lost one I hadn't the heart to upbraid him, he was
so wet and forlorn, having been at large all night.
Some natives would have had the sense to erect one
of the tents and creep into it, but of such people
clearly Yakimo was not one.

Elizabeth Lazenby provided breakfast. Why, I
wonder, is there no statue to Elizabeth ? There are
memorials of so many less beneficent persons.

Then we mounted our ponies again, and set forth,
keeping Yakimo well in sight this time, over boulders
big as coal-boxes, through continuous dark defiles
where the sun's rays never penetrated and a species
of damp, tentacled fungi covered the rocks, frieze-
like, over our heads.

Game was non est as yet. No signs of their passing
met our eyes, and we searched each corrie with the

A good-sized tomb, piled with high stones, had some
broken horns of tur and chamois laid upon the apex,
offerings, I suppose, to some well-graced hunter. Two
black vipers, sunning themselves, flickered into safety
beneath the weather-worn skulls. Farther on we saw
a pale grey scorpion, whose sting, our servant told us,
is about as bad as that of a horse-fly, whilst that of the
black viper endangers life.

We followed a glacier stream, milky white, for some
way, until it tumbled over a precipice and eluded us.
By lying flat on a rock at its edge we could see in a deep
hollow far, far below a village of little square houses,

: t


set against the sheer granite wall of the mountain.
Patches of cultivated ground clung to the hill-sides,
entirely manufactured gardens, to which all the earth
must have been laboriously carried.

I always thought that the Manx nation tilled the
steepest slopes possible, but the Caucasian ploughman
goes one better. With the most primitive implement
in the world, so heavy that it takes twelve or sixteen
oxen to drag it, he slowly carves the almost perpen-
dicular cHff-side into furrows.

Strange that a people prehistoric enough to use
archaic ploughs and such obsolete methods of corn-
grinding should yet show such artistic tastes in
other directions. Much of the exquisite silver work
in the Bazaar at Tiflis is fashioned in Daghestan.
These people love beautiful things, without knowing
why, and the majority could do a bit of thinking on
their own account if they tried.

That Cecily and I might not trouble to fag down in
case the place was impossible — we wanted to buy some
food for the horses and mules — Kenneth and our servant
set off, by devious paths and winding ways, to prospect,
acting in such a covert, suspicious fashion as to draw
the attention of the entire village. They stalked the
place as though it were an antelope. From insignificant
bushes they crept to projecting rocks, round which
they peered mysteriously, jerking back in absurdly
provocative style when observed.

Of course it was not long before the Yuzbashi,
or Headman, of the settlement pounced upon them,
and the explanations offered only served to make


things worse. Wc must produce our " papers," and
give an account of ourselves generally.

All the permits and passports, together with a
gigantic talisman with dangling red seals, were laid
out on the plateau for inspection, and the mascu-
line part of the community came to the exhibition.
The Yuzbashi, on hands and knees, said he didn't
care for any of them, that he couldn't find a single
paper vised for Daghestan, and, even if they were,
why did we wish to come, and how was he to know
whether Russia was at peace with Germany. This
seemed to us more or less immaterial until we gathered
from Ali's interpretation that the Headman thought
England, a place of which he had only heard dimly,
was a Teutonic province. Shade of The Daily Mail !

Yuzbashi is a Tatar word, and means " Head of a
hundred." Very often there are nothing like a hundred
fighting men in a village to be head over, but that
cannot be helped. He would be head of a hundred if
so many were forthcoming.

It was very disconcerting about the " papers," until
Kenneth suddenly extracted from his pocket-book the
remnants of a receipted bill from Gunters, headed by
a magnificent gold embossed heraldic design. In an
instant the Yuzbashi had seized it, and clasping it
joyfully in his stained hand held it aloft for all to see.

"This," he said, and Ali translated — "This valuable
paper is worth all the rest. Take great care of it, take
the greatest care of it, for wherever you go it will
ensure you attention and respect. Now I know* that I
do well to bid you welcome."


He had a rough way with him, this untutored
stalwart, but as soon as he was satisfied of our peaceful
— if somewhat enigmatical — intentions was not only
desirous, but wild to show us kindness and hospitality.

Now we began to realize something of All's value.
As an interpreter he was really wonderful, and patient
beyond words to describe. He told us that Lesghian
and English would be very difficult to intertranslate,
Lesghian being a high-class language easily con-
founded !

We left Yakimo in charge of our beasts, and the
tattered aristocrats of the mountains guided us dowTi
the ledges to the door of our host's house, scrutinizing us
all the way. It is a very noticeable trait in these men
of the hills as opposed to those of the plains, this habit
of taking one in from head to foot. They will not
meet a straight look in the eyes, and if for a moment
they catch and hold your glance, it disconcerts them
frightfully. At first I thought this characteristic
untrustworthy, but at last I knew it to be the Daghestan
idea of good breeding.

The house was two-storied, like our domicile of the
night before, but cleaner, larger, and with verandahs
to each story. In the ground-floor apartment were
comfortable divans, and a frayed carpet lay in the
centre, humming quietly to itself.

In a sort of lean-to lived the surplus wives of the
Yuzbashi. Of course, in a Mahommedan country one
does not expect to see much of the womenfolk, but the
belles here were not all veiled and by no means living
purdah. Some were quite unveiled, others covered


their faces to their eyes in nondescript coverings. The
veiled ones had it, for there are possibiHties in invisi-
bihty, and the actiiahty was rudely realistic. They
all wore py jama-like trousers, some tight, some loose,
tied in at the ankles. Top wrappings were in layers,
or else of bolster plainness, as the whim seized the
wearer. In wilder places we met both men and women
clad in primitive toga-robes of very " niffy " sheepskin,
and this levelHng kit made it difficult to sort out
t'other from which.

Water in a wooden bowl was solemnly brought to us
by a handsome youth, whose eyes never left us, so
interested was he. We thought it was a drink offering,
and I was just stooping to swallow some of the rather
dirty liquid in obedience to — as we thought — local
custom, when Ali whispered wamingly " Wa-ash ! "
Only just in time ! We immersed our fingers and,
soapless, affected to clear away the dust of travel.
Towels were not. Time dried us. Next our Yuzbashi
had a vigorous go at the bowl, bobbing his head in
rather like a duck and splashing gaily.

A feast of boiled mutton served on a large fiat loaf
made from barley meal, into which the husks were
ground, appeared. Carefully the Yuzbashi picked out
the largest and the fattest morsels and handed the
dripping portions to each of us in his fingers. Not to
be outdone in politeness we received them on the flat
of our hands. We ate alone. Like Shylock, our host
would talk with us, walk with us, and so following,
but he would not eat with us, drink with us, or pray
with us.


The mutton disposed of, inwardly and outwardly,
we sounded the Yuzbashi on the game question. It
was quite hopeless. He never went after tiir, he said.
Nobody in his village did. There was no good fat on
a tiir, and of what use were the horns ? We were so
flabbergasted, we had no answer ready for him.

Ah, well ! There are men at home — but, of course,
they are of the Uninitiated — who can look at the

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Online LibraryAgnes HerbertCasuals in the Caucasus; the diary of a sporting holiday → online text (page 8 of 23)