CHAPTER I I was travelling post from Tiflis.
All the luggage I had in my cart consisted of one small portmanteau half filled with travelling-notes on Georgia; of these the greater part has been lost, fortunately for you; but the portmanteau itself and the rest of its contents have remained intact, fortunately for me.
As I entered the Koishaur Valley the sun was disappearing behind the snow-clad ridge of the mountains. In order to accomplish the ascent of Mount Koishaur by nightfall, my driver, an Ossete, urged on the horses indefatigably, singing zealously the while at the top of his voice.
What a glorious place that valley is! On every hand are inaccessible mountains, steep, yellow slopes scored by water-channels, and reddish rocks draped with green ivy and crowned with clusters of plane-trees. Yonder, at an immense height, is the golden fringe of the snow. Down below rolls the River Aragva, which, after bursting noisily forth from the dark and misty depths of the gorge, with an unnamed stream clasped in its embrace, stretches out like a thread of silver, its waters glistening like a snake with flashing scales.
Arrived at the foot of Mount Koishaur, we stopped at a dukhan. About a score of Georgians and mountaineers were gathered there in a noisy crowd, and, close by, a caravan of camels had halted for the night. I was obliged to hire oxen to drag my cart up that accursed mountain, as it was now autumn and the roads were slippery with ice. Besides, the mountain is about two versts in length.
There was no help for it, so I hired six oxen and a few Ossetes. One of the latter shouldered my portmanteau, and the rest, shouting almost with one voice, proceeded to help the oxen.
Following mine there came another cart, which I was surprised to see four oxen pulling with the greatest ease, notwithstanding that it was loaded to the top. Behind it walked the owner, smoking a little, silver-mounted Kabardian pipe. He was wearing a shaggy Circassian cap and an officer's overcoat without epaulettes, and he seemed to be about fifty years of age. The swarthiness of his complexion showed that his face had long been acquainted with Transcaucasian suns, and the premature greyness of his moustache was out of keeping with his firm gait and robust appearance. I went up to him and saluted. He silently returned my greeting and emitted an immense cloud of smoke.
"We are fellow-travellers, it appears."
Again he bowed silently.
"I suppose you are going to Stavropol?"
"Yes, sir, exactly—with Government things."
"Can you tell me how it is that that heavily-laden cart of yours is being drawn without any difficulty by four oxen, whilst six cattle are scarcely able to move mine, empty though it is, and with all those Ossetes helping?"
He smiled slyly and threw me a meaning glance.
"You have not been in the Caucasus long, I should say?"
"About a year," I answered.
He smiled a second time.
"Just so, sir," he answered. "They're terrible beasts, these Asiatics! You think that all that shouting means that they are helping the oxen?...