Thomas De Quincey.

Revolt of the Tartars online

. (page 6 of 9)
Online LibraryThomas De QuinceyRevolt of the Tartars → online text (page 6 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

dreams of home and restored happiness only for the pur-

10 pose of blighting them, the good-natured prince dis-
claimed all participation in the affair, and went so far in
proving his sincerity as even to give him permission to
effect his escape ; and, as a ready means of commencing
it without raising suspicion, the Khan mentioned to Mr.

15 Weseloff that he had just then received a message from
the Hetman of the Bashkirs, soliciting a private interview
on the banks of the Torgau at a spot pointed out. That
interview was arranged for the coming night ; and Mr.
Weseloff might go in the Khan's suite, which on either

20 side was not to exceed three persons. Weseloff was a
prudent man, acquainted with the world, and he read
treachery in the very outline of this scheme, as stated by
the Khan treachery against the Khan's person. He
mused a little, and then communicated so much of his

25 suspicions to the Khan as might put him on his guard ;
but, upon further consideration, he begged leave to
decline the honor of accompanying the Khan. The fact
was that three Kalmucks, who had strong motives for
returning to their countrymen on the west bank of the

30 Wolga, guessing the intentions of Weseloff, had offered
to join him in his escape. These men the Khan would
probably find himself obliged to countenance in their
project, so that it became a point of honor with Weseloff
to conceal their intentions, and therefore to accomplish



the evasion from the camp (of which the first steps only
would be hazardous) without risking the notice of the

The district in which they were now encamped
abounded through many hundred miles with wild horses 5
of a docile and beautiful breed. Each of the four fugi-
tives had caught from seven to ten of these spirited
creatures in the course of the last few days. This
raised no suspicion, for the rest of the Kalmucks had
been making the same sort of provision against the com- 10
ing toils of their remaining route to China. These horses
were secured by halters, and hidden about dusk in the
thickets which lined the margin of the river. To these
thickets, about ten at night, the four fugitives repaired.
They took a circuitous path, which drew them as little as 15
possible within danger of challenge from any of the out-
posts or of the patrols which had been established on the
quarters where the Bashkirs lay ; and in three-quarters of
an hour they reached the rendezvous. The moon had
now risen, the horses were unfastened ; and they were 20
in the act of mounting, when the deep silence of the
woods was disturbed by a violent uproar and the clash-
ing of arms. Weseloff fancied that he heard the voice of
the Khan shouting for assistance. He remembered the
communication made by that prince in the morning ; and, 25
requesting his companions to support him, he rode off in
the direction of the sound. A very short distance brought
him to an open glade in the wood, where he beheld four
men contending with a party of at least nine or ten.
Two of the four were dismounted at the very instant of 30
Weseloff's arrival. One of these he recognized almost
certainly as the Khan, who was fighting hand to hand,
but at great disadvantage, with two of the adverse horse-
men. Seeing that no time was to be lost, Weseloff fired


and brought down one of the two. His companions dis-
charged their carabines at the same moment ; and then
all rushed simultaneously into the little open area. The
thundering sound of about thirty horses, all rushing at

5 once into a narrow space, gave the impression that a
whole troop of cavalry was coming down upon the assail-
ants, who accordingly wheeled about and fled with one
impulse. Weseloff advanced to the dismounted cavalier,
who, as he expected, proved to be the Khan. The man

10 whom Weseloff had shot was lying dead ; and both were
shocked, though Weseloff at least was not surprised, on
stooping down and scrutinizing his features, to recog-
nize a well-known confidential servant of Zebek-Dorchi.
Nothing was said by either party. The Khan rode off,

15 escorted by W'eseloff and his companions; and for some
time a dead silence prevailed. The situation of Weseloff
was delicate and critical. To leave the Khan at this point
was probably to cancel their recent services ; for he might
be again crossed on his path, and again attacked, by the

20 very party from whom he had just been delivered. Yet, on
the other hand, to return to the camp was to endanger the
chances of accomplishing the escape. The Khan, also, was
apparently revolving all this in his mind ; for at length he
broke silence and said: "I comprehend your situation;

25 and, under other circumstances, I might feel it my duty to
detain your companions, but it would ill become me to do
so after the important service you have just rendered me.
Let us turn a little to the left. There, where you see the
watch fire, is an outpost. Attend me so far. I am then

30 safe. You may turn and pursue your enterprise ; for
the circumstances under which you will appear as my
escort are sufficient to shield you from all suspicion for
the present. I regret having no better means at my dis-
posal for testifying my gratitude. But tell me before we


part was it accident only which led you to my rescue ?
Or had you acquired any knowledge of the plot by which
I was decoyed into this snare ? " Weseloff answered very
candidly that mere accident had brought him to the spot
at which he heard the uproar ; but that, having heard it, 5
and connecting it with the Khan's communication of the
morning, he had then designedly gone after the sound in
a way which he certainly should not have done, at so
critical a moment, unless in the expectation of finding
the Khan assaulted by assassins. A few minutes after 10
they reached the outpost at which it became safe to
leave the Tartar chieftain ; and immediately the four
fugitives commenced a flight which is, perhaps, without a
parallel in the annals of travelling. Each of them led
six or seven horses besides the one he rode; and by 15
shifting from one to the other (like the ancient Desultors
of the Roman circus), so as never to burden the same
horse for more than half an hour at a time, they con-
tinued to advance at the rate of 200 miles in the twenty-
four hours for three days consecutively. After that time, 20
considering themselves beyond pursuit, they proceeded
less rapidly ; though still with a velocity which staggered
the belief of WeselofPs friends in after years. He was,
however, a man of high principle, and always adhered
firmly to the details of his printed report. One of the 25
circumstances there stated is that they continued to pur-
sue the route by which the Kalmucks had fled, never for
an instant finding any difficulty in tracing it by the skele-
tons and other memorials of their calamities. In par-
ticular, he mentions vast heaps of money as part of the 30
valuable property which it had been necessary to sacri-
fice. These heaps were found lying still untouched in
the deserts. From these Weseloff and his companions
took as much as they could conveniently carry ; and this


it was, with the price of their beautiful horses, which they
afterward sold at one of the Russian military settlements
for about ^15 apiece, which eventually enabled them to
pursue their journey in Russia. This journey, as regarded
5 Weseloff in particular, was closed by a tragical catas-
trophe. He was at that time young and the only child
of a doting mother. Her affliction under the violent ab-
duction of her son had been excessive, and probably had
undermined her constitution. Still she had supported it.

10 Weseloff, giving way to the natural impulses of his filial
affection, had imprudently posted through Russia to his
mother's house without warning of his approach. He
rushed precipitately into her presence ; and she, who had
stood the shocks of sorrow, was found unequal to the

15 shock of joy too sudden and too acute. She died upon
the spot.

We now revert to the final scenes of the Kalmuck
flight. These it would be useless to pursue circumstan-
tially through the whole two thousand miles of suffering

20 which remained ; for the character of that suffering was
even more monotonous than on the former half of the
flight, but also more severe. Its main elements were
excessive heat, with the accompaniments of famine and
thirst, but aggravated at every step by the murderous

25 attacks of their cruel enemies, the Bashkirs and the

These people, " more fell than anguish, hunger, or
the sea," stuck to the unhappy Kalmucks like a swarm
of enraged hornets. And very often, while they were

30 attacking them in the rear, their advanced parties and
flanks were attacked with almost equal fury by the people
of the country which they were traversing ; and with good
reason, since the law of self-preservation had now obliged


the fugitive Tartars to plunder provisions and to forage
wherever they passed. In this respect their condition
was a constant oscillation of wretchedness ; for some-
times, pressed by grinding famine, they took a circuit of
perhaps a hundred miles, in order to strike into a land 5
rich in the comforts of life ; but in such a land they were
sure to find a crowded population, of which every arm
was raised in unrelenting hostility, with all the advantages
of local knowledge, and with constant preoccupation of
all the defensible positions, mountain passes, or bridges. 10
Sometimes, again, wearied out with this mode of suffer-
ing, they took a circuit of perhaps a hundred miles, in
order to strike into a land with few or no inhabitants.
But in such a land they were sure to meet absolute
starvation. Then, again, whether with or without this 15
plague of starvation, whether with or without this plague
of hostility in front, whatever might be the " fierce vari-
eties " of their misery in this respect, no rest ever came
to their unhappy rear ; post equitem sedet atra cura: it
was a torment like the undying worm of conscience. 20
And, upon the whole, it presented a spectacle altogether
unprecedented in the history of mankind. Private and
personal malignity is not unfrequently immortal ; but rare
indeed is it to find the same pertinacity of malice in
a nation. And what imbittered the interest was that the 25
malice was reciprocal. Thus far the parties met upon
equal terms ; but that equality only sharpened the sense
of their dire inequality as to other circumstances. The
Bashkirs were ready to fight "from morn till dewy eve."
The Kalmucks, on the contrary, were always obliged to 30
run. Was it from their enemies as creatures whom they
feared ? No ; but towards their friends towards that
final haven of China as what was hourly implored by
the prayers of their wives and the tears of their children.


But, though they fled unwillingly, too often they fled in
vain being unwillingly recalled. There lay the tor-
ment. Every day the Bashkirs fell upon them ; every
day the same unprofitable battle was renewed ; as a
5 matter of course, the Kalmucks recalled part of their
advanced guard to fight them ; every day the battle raged
for hours, and uniformly with the same result. For, no
sooner did the Bashkirs find themselves too heavily
pressed, and that the Kalmuck march had been retarded

10 by some hours, than they retired into the boundless
deserts, where all pursuit was hopeless. But if the Kal-
mucks resolved to press forwards, regardless of their ene-
mies in that case their attacks became so fierce and
overwhelming that the general safety seemed likely to be

15 brought into question ; nor could any effectual remedy
be applied to the case, even for each separate day, ex-
cept by a most embarrassing halt and by countermarches
that, to men in their circumstances, were almost worse
than death. It will not be surprising that the irritation

20 of such a systematic persecution, superadded to a previ-
ous and hereditary hatred, and accompanied by the
stinging consciousness of utter impotence as regarded all
effectual vengeance, should gradually have inflamed the
Kalmuck animosity into the wildest expression of down-

25 right madness and frenzy. Indeed, long before the
frontiers of China were approached, the hostility of both
sides had assumed the appearance much more of a
warfare amongst wild beasts than amongst creatures
acknowledging the restraints of reason or the claims of a

30 common nature. The spectacle became too atrocious ; it
was that of a host of lunatics pursued by a host of fiends.

On a fine morning in early autumn of the year 1771,
Kien Long, the Emperor of China, was pursuing his


amusements in a wild frontier district lying on the out-
side of the Great Wall. For many hundred square
leagues the country was desolate of inhabitants, but rich
in woods of ancient growth, and overrun with game of
every description. In a central spot of this solitary 5
region the Emperor had built a gorgeous hunting lodge,
to which he resorted annually for recreation and relief
from the cares of government. Led onwards in pursuit
of game, he had rambled to a distance of 200 miles or
more from his lodge, followed at a little distance by a 10
sufficient military escort, and every night pitching his
tent in a different situation, until at length he had arrived
on the very margin of the vast central deserts of Asia. 1
Here he was standing by accident, at an opening of his
pavilion, enjoying the morning sunshine, when suddenly 15
to the westward there arose a vast, cloudy vapor, which
by degrees expanded, mounted, and seemed to be slowly
diffusing itself over the whole face of the heavens. By
and by this vast sheet of mist began to thicken toward
the horizon and to roll forward in billowy volumes. The 20
Emperor's suite assembled from all quarters ; the silver
trumpets were sounded in the rear ; and from all the
glades and forest avenues began to trot forwards towards
the pavilion the yagers half cavalry, half huntsmen
who composed the imperial escort. Conjecture was on 25
the stretch to divine the cause of this phenomenon ; and
the interest continually increased in proportion as simple
curiosity gradually deepened into the anxiety of uncertain
danger. At first it had been imagined that some vast

1 All the circumstances are learned from a long state paper on the
subject of this Kalmuck migration drawn up in the Chinese language
by the Emperor himself. Parts of this paper have been translated by
the Jesuit missionaries. The Emperor states the whole motives of
his conduct and the chief incidents at great length.


troops of deer or other wild animals of the chase had
been disturbed in their forest haunts by the Emperor's
movements, or possibly by wild beasts prowling for prey,
and might be fetching a compass by way of re-entering
5 the forest grounds at some remoter points, secure from
molestation. But this conjecture was dissipated by the
slow increase of the cloud and the steadiness of its
motion. In the course of two hours the vast phenome-
non had advanced to a point which was judged to be

10 within five miles of the spectators, though all calcula-
tions of distance were difficult, and often fallacious, when
applied to the endless expanses of the Tartar deserts.
Through the next hour, during which the gentle morning
breeze had a little freshened, the dusty vapor had devel-

15 oped itself far and wide into the appearance of huge
aerial draperies, hanging in mighty volumes from the sky
to the earth ; and at particular points, where the eddies
of the breeze acted upon the pendulous skirts of these
aerial curtains, rents were perceived, sometimes taking the

20 form of regular arches, portals, and windows, through
which began dimly to gleam the heads of camels " in-
dorsed " * with human beings, and at intervals the moving
of men and horses in tumultuous array, and then through
other openings, or vistas, at far-distant points, the flash-

25 ing of polished arms. But sometimes, as the wind slack-
ened or died away, all those openings, of whatever form,
in the cloudy pall, would slowly close, and for a time the
whole pageant was shut up from view ; although the
growing din, the clamors, the shrieks, and groans ascend-

30 ing from infuriated myriads, reported, in a language not
to be misunderstood, what was going on behind the
cloudy screen.

1 Camels "indorsed" "and elephants indorsed with towers."
MILTON in Paradise Regained,


It was, in fact, the Kalmuck host, now in the last
extremities of their exhaustion, and very fast approaching
to that final stage of privation and killing misery beyond
which few or none could have lived, but also, happily for
themselves, fast approaching (in a literal sense) that final 5
stage of their long pilgrimage at which they would meet
hospitality on a scale of royal magnificence and full pro-
tection from their enemies. These enemies, however, as
yet, still were hanging on their rear as fiercely as ever,
though this day was destined to be the last of their hid- 10
ecus persecution. The Khan had, in fact, sent forward
couriers with all the requisite statements and petitions,
addressed to the Emperor of China. These had been
duly received, and preparations made in consequence to
welcome the Kalmucks with the most paternal benevo- 15
lence. But as these couriers had been dispatched from
the Torgau at the moment of arrival thither, and before
the advance of Traubenberg had made it necessary
for the Khan to order a hasty renewal of the flight, the
Emperor had not looked for their arrival on his frontiers 20
until full three months after the present time. The Khan
had, indeed, expressly notified his intention to pass the
summer heats on the banks of the Torgau, and to recom-
mence his retreat about the beginning of September. The
subsequent change of plan being unknown to Kien Long, 25
left him for some time in doubt as to the true interpreta-
tion to be put upon this mighty apparition in the desert :
but at length the savage clamors of hostile fury and
clangor of weapons unveiled to the Emperor the true
nature of those unexpected calamities which had so pre- 3
maturely precipitated the Kalmuck measure.

Apprehending the real state of affairs, the Emperor
instantly perceived that the first act of his fatherly care
for these erring children (as he esteemed them), now


returning to their ancient obedience, must be to deliver
them from their pursuers. And this was less difficult
than might have been supposed. Not many miles in the
rear was a body of well-appointed cavalry, with a strong
5 detachment of artillery, who always attended the Em-
peror's motions. These were hastily summoned. Mean-
time it occurred to the train of courtiers that some danger
might arise to the Emperor's person from the proximity
of a lawless enemy, and accordingly he was induced to

10 retire a little to the rear. It soon appeared, however, to
those who watched the vapory shroud in the desert, that
its motion was not such as would argue the direction of
the march to be exactly upon the pavilion, but rather in
a diagonal line, making an angle of full 45 degrees with

15 that line in which the imperial cortege had been standing,
and therefore with a distance continually increasing.
Those who knew the country judged that the Kalmucks
were making for a large fresh-water lake about seven or
eight miles distant. They were right ; and to that point

20 the imperial cavalry was ordered up ; and it was precisely
in that spot, and about three hours after, and at noonday
on the 8th of September, that the great Exodus of the
Kalmuck Tartars was brought to a final close, and with a
scene of such memorable and hellish fury as formed an

25 appropriate winding up to an expedition in all its parts
and details so awfully disastrous. The Emperor was not
personally present, or at least he saw whatever he ^ft/see
from too great a distance to discriminate its individual
features; but he records in his written memorial the

30 report made to him of this scene by some of his own

The Lake of Tengis, near the frightful Desert of Kobi,
lay in a hollow amongst hills of a moderate height, ranging
generally from two to three thousand feet high. About


eleven o'clock in the forenoon, the Chinese cavalry
reached the summit of a road which led through a cradle-
like dip in the mountains right down upon the margin of
the lake. From this pass, elevated about two thousand
feet above the level of the water, they continued to 5
descend, by a very winding and difficult road, for an hour
and a half ; and during the whole of this descent they were
compelled to be inactive spectators of the fiendish spec-
tacle below. The Kalmucks, reduced by this time from
about six hundred thousand souls to two hundred and 10
sixty thousand, and after enduring for two months and a
half the miseries we have previously described outra-
geous heat, famine, and the destroying scimiter of the
Kirghises and the Bashkirs had for the last ten days
been traversing a hideous desert, where no vestiges were 15
seen of vegetation, and no drop of water could be found.
Camels and men were already so overladen that it was a
mere impossibility that they should carry a tolerable suffi-
ciency for the passage of this frightful wilderness. On
the eighth day the wretched daily allowance, which had 20
been continually diminishing, failed entirely; and thus, for
two days of insupportable fatigue, the horrors of thirst
had been carried to the fiercest extremity. Upon this
last morning, at the sight of the hills and the forest
scenery, which announced to those who acted as guides 25
the neighborhood of the Lake of Tengis, all the people
rushed along with maddening eagerness to the anticipated
solace. The day grew hotter and hotter, the people more
and more exhausted ; and gradually, in the general rush
forward -to the lake, all discipline and command were lost 30

all attempts to preserve a rear guard were neglected

the wild Bashkirs rode on amongst the encumbered
people and slaughtered them by wholesale, and almost
without resistance. Screams and tumultuous shouts pro-


claimed the progress of the massacre; but none heeded
none halted ; all alike, pauper or noble, continued to rush
on with maniacal haste to the waters all with faces
blackened by the heat preying upon the liver and with
5 tongue drooping from the mouth. The cruel Bashkir was
affected by the same misery, and manifested the same
symptoms of his misery, as the wretched Kalmuck ; the
murderer was oftentimes in the same frantic misery as his
murdered victim many, indeed (an ordinary effect of

10 thirst), in both nations had become lunatic, and in this
state, whilst mere multitude and condensation of bodies
alone opposed any check to the destroying scimiter and
the trampling hoof, the lake was reached ; and to that
the whole vast body of enemies rushed, and together

15 continued to rush, forgetful of all things at that moment
but of one almighty instinct. This absorption of the
thoughts in one maddening appetite lasted for a single
half hour ; but in the next arose the final scene of parting
vengeance. Far and wide the waters of the solitary lake

20 were instantly dyed red with blood and gore : here rode a
party of savage Bashkirs, hewing off heads as fast as the
swaths fall before the mower's scythe ; there stood unarmed
Kalmucks in a death grapple with their detested foes,
both up to the middle in water, and oftentimes both sink-

2 5 ing together below the surface, from weakness or from
struggles, and perishing in each other's arms. Did the
Bashkirs at any point collect into a cluster for the sake
of giving impetus to the assault ? Thither were the camels
driven in fiercely by those who rode them, generally

3 women or boys ; and even these quiet creatures were
forced into a share in this carnival of murder by tram-
pling down as many as they could strike prostrate with the
lash of their fore-legs. Every moment the water grew
more polluted ; and yet every moment fresh myriads came


up to the lake and rushed in, not able to resist their
frantic thirst, and swallowing large draughts of water,
visibly contaminated with the blood of their slaughtered

1 2 3 4 6 8 9

Online LibraryThomas De QuinceyRevolt of the Tartars → online text (page 6 of 9)