Soon I was among lanes between half-ruined walls, crossing patches of open ground littered with rubbish, stepping into the sudden shadow and echo of an alley - amongst the evidence of decay which alternates, in a prosperous old Eastern town, with the glimpse through an arch into some verdant courtyard round a dripping fountain, for within a hovel-like exterior may be found the shade and water of the Muslim paradise. These were the streets Colonel Stoddart rode through on his way to his first meeting with Emir Nasrullah in December 1838.
The children stopped playing, a foot on a bicycle pedal, a fist raised to strike a friend, to stare at me out of curious eyes. Smaller sisters with fingers in mouths came to doorways to watch me pass. Stoddart had been in the East, at Teheran and Herat, for three years before he was sent to Bokhara; but he had never been on his own in the hostile East beyond British power. What did he make of the straw-flecked mud walls in these twisting streets, of the tracery of the low carved doors? Against all advice and precedent he was on horseback in a city where infidels were forbidden to ride. Burnes and his party, in Bokhara four years earlier, had all walked, and had all submitted to put on the cap and waist cord of the unbeliever. Did Stoddart as he rode past mosques and medressehs feel the threat from their stork-capped minarets and turquoise domes? He was (wrote his friend Captain Grover) "a mere soldier, a man of the greatest bravery and determination, with a delicate sense of a soldier's honour; but he was a man of impulse, with no more power of self-control than an infant . . . for a diplomatic mission, requiring coolness and self-command, a man less adapted to the purpose could not readily be met with". How did he come to be chosen for this adventure? Successful at intimidating the Afghans at Herat out of accepting Persian (and with it, Russian) influence, he had been sent by the Minister at Teheran, Sir John MacNeill, to dissuade the Emir Nasrullah from accepting the same Russian influence at Bokhara. He was certainly pleased with himself, under the cloak ot humility: to his parson brother in England he wrote of his Herat success, "I cannot tell you how thankful to the Almighty I feel at being the humble means of effecting this change from War to Peace." In keeping with Captain Grover's sketch of his character, and with his own notion of how to browbeat a native ruler, he doubtless felt grimly secure on horseback in these streets-thronged with every race in Asia as he drew near the central markets of the city, his horse carrying him above the crowd in a fretting wind off the desert. He would have seen these sandy buildings, heard the doves purring in the recesses of the markets' many domes, ridden through the sunshafts which fall on the many-tinted robes of the crowd. His heart might have beat a little faster when first he caught sight of the tall dust-coloured minar, the Tower of Death, which rises above the medressehs and mosques whose domes and flat roofs make up the skyline of Bokhara. But I imagine him to have been riding in that glassy state of pride which is aware only of self - which takes in nothing of the outside world, being intent wholly on holding up the fabric from within. The streets, the crowd, the colours were a blurred background to the bold personal adventure of a man determined to assert what he believed to be the dignity essential to a British envoy. He saw no more of the background to his ride than a man charging with the Light Brigade saw of the wild flowers in the Balaclava turf.
And like such a brave soldier, he was in that state of nervous excitement which sees an enemy to be sabred in whoever touches him or tries to interfere with his blinkered charge. "Now [says Grover], the Oozbeg etiquette requires that a person 011 being presented to the Emir should be supported by two attendants on entering the presence-chamber, who place their hands under his armpits." Stoddart wasn't having this. "Not being disposed to submit ... he shook off these attendants. The master of ceremonies now approached." This dignitary's attempt to frisk the colonel for weapons fared even less well, for "his zeal was rewarded by a blow, which laid him prostrate; and Colonel Stoddart entered alone into the royal presence-chamber''.
Can any man in history, about to be received by the autocrat of a remote kingdom - a tyrant who has waded through his brothers' blood to the throne — can anyone ever have behaved with more misguided effrontery? No doubt it was Stoddart's reflex response to the sensation of edginess he must have felt on entering the Ark by its sloping tunnel between bastion towers, like the entry into a fortress of the middle ages, and making his way amid the jingle of armed natives by passages and little courts to the centre of the web. He wished to be back in the saddle, controlling events, not pushed about by "Oozbeg etiquette". In a letter he wrote three years later, still the emir's prisoner, he talks of "topping Death's grizzly fence", the choice ot phrase showing this courageous man still defining his ordeal in terms of a foxhunter facing a double-oxer. Nerve was the thing. Nerve and dash would carry you over. He would have betrayed his idea of himself if he had used Burnes' pliability in creeping about unnoticed in a suit of inoffensive mufti. Placed on half pay in 1833, Stoddart does not seem to have had much of a military career behind him; here was his opportunity, as envoy of his Queen — which he certainly believed himself to be, whatever Lord Aberdeen at the Foreign Office was later to write about "private travellers" — here was his chance to show an uncompromising boldness, the best of British characteristics as he understood them, in face ot the airs of a petty sovereign. So he rode through the streets, and buffeted the chamberlain aside, and strode into the emir's presence in his flashy full dress, his sword at his hip, quite in the style of one of the knights in Tennyson come from Camelot to search out the wizard in his barbarous haunt.
I walked round the presence-chamber thinking of the scene and of Stoddart's character. It is about the size of a tennis court, open air, with a rough-paved floor and a raised platform a yard wide against two of its mud-brick walls. The tiles and bricks are much broken, and heaps of rubble moulder everywhere. Within the entrance stands the stone screen behind which those granted an audience must retire backwards out of the royal presence when they had learned their fate. This screen is the sole object left from the wreck of Nasrullah's grandeur, but it gave the place, to me at least, something tangible of the scene I had so often imagined. The emir, strangely, appeared satisfied with Stoddart's visit, though he had seen him on horseback in the Registan before this, and had stared at him coldly and long. Goodness knows what schemes had animated his brain in those moments at the sight of this proud Englishman fallen into his grasp.
England's Indian Empire was a dreadfully confusing factor for a Central Asian strategist trying to assess England's strength. How could it be that an island far away to the west, which some said was merely a dependency of Russia, could yet rule the greatest and richest kingdom on earth, far beyond Kabul to the east, the kingdom of Hind? It was a conundrum. And British policy in Central Asia was indeed confused by being shaped from both London and Calcutta. The Europe-minded Foreign Office of Lord Palmerston and his contemporaries, of either political party, viewed these half-savage khanates as marginal to British interests, concerning itself chiefly with the balance of power in Europe. The East India Company at Calcutta, on the other hand, saw Central Asia close and clear, a great deal nearer than Europe, and expected a Russian invasion of India by way of the suborned kingdoms of Central Asia. Between London's indifference and Calcutta's apprehensions there was plenty of room for confusion and bad faith. Stoddart's mission to Bokhara was part of Calcutta's plan to baulk Russia in two ways: first, by persuading the emir to free all Russians held as slaves in his territory (these creatures were the victims of Turcoman border raids sold into slavery at the Khiva market) so that Russia should thereby lose her excuse for invading Bokhara; and, second, by persuading the emir of the delightful benefits of aligning himself with the all-powerful rulers of India, who were at that moment known to be assembling a fearsome host for the conquest of Afghanistan, his own neighbour across the Oxus. Charged with these commissions by Calcutta, Stoddart considered himself an envoy, and impressed his status upon the emir. But Lord Palmerston and Lord Aberdeen at the Foreign Office in London could not see a thirty-two-year-old captain with the local rank of lieutenent-colonel, who gave himself airs with an Asiatic kinglet, in at all the same limelight as Calcutta saw him, or as he saw himself. The difference in views was fatal to Stoddart.
As I found my way about the passages and courtyards of the Ark I wondered what assessment Stoddart made of the emir's character at that meeting, or indeed if he allowed the matter of character much weight. Mohun Lai starts off by giving Nasrullah rather a good reference, saying that, though severe, he is religious and just; but he is obliged to admit that "ambition" had caused him to murder all his brothers and all the chief nobles to secure the throne to himself. Ambitious, and careful too: his water was brought to him direct from the canal in a sealed container, food in a locked box from the kitchen, both to be tasted in his presence by a servant before he would eat or drink of them. For arousing his displeasure the punishments were various, cudgelling, execution with the knife, confinement in the sia tchah pit which crawled with vermin, or an assisted fall from the Tower of Death which overshadows every view of Bokhara. Knowledge of Stoddart's fate perhaps makes a modern visitor over-sensitive to all that was ominous and alarming about Nasrullah and his city. To Stoddart himself, Bokhara probably appeared, as it had done to Burnes, a fascinating and thriving town, its markets and streets full of the bustle of trade, altogether an enthralling spectacle of oriental life only faintly overshadowed in his eyes (as it was in the eyes of the Bokhara crowd intent on their own affairs) by the presence within the Ark of a tyrannical ruler. Burnes in his enjoyment of the town noticed that even the beggars in Bokhara could afford ice in their water, and remarked on the beauty of its Jewesses, and surprised Mohun Lai by his energy in walking for enjoyment about the streets - "on foot in the hottest days, to feast his eyes, while a gentleman in India never moves a span without calling 'Bara chhata lao!'". Burnes wasn't granted an audience with the emir; perhaps it was as well for his health that those "small eyes, in a visage gaunt and pale" never activated the malevolence of the brain behind them by lighting upon him.
All poor Stoddart's pluck was needed on the fourth evening of his stay. Sent for by the emir's vizier, the reiss, he was set upon in the vizier's house by twelve men who seized and bound him. Then appeared the reiss himself armed with a long naked knife. "Colonel Stoddart, thinking his last hour had come [wrote Captain Grover] said in Persian 'May God forgive you your sins' and patiently awaited the result." The vizier soon darted off, whilst Stoddart was dragged about the town by the light of torches in the rain - one of his tormentors said that he must be a sorcerer, for "it is impossible that any human being could face death with such calm indifference" — until he was flung down, still bound, on his back on a board in a dark chamber where he lay two hours. Then by the glimmer of candles came a rustling muffled figure, whom Stoddart took to be the emir, to whom he made a dignified request for his liberty; but it was in fact the chief of police, who soon went away, Stoddart himself ending that night in the emir's pit-dungeon, where he was kept two months. "The blood [says Grover] tingles at my fingers' ends whilst I write these horrors."
For three years Stoddart's life hung in the balance, now in this dungeon, now in that, now temporarily freed to live in the house of a sly servant of the emir, Abdul Sameet Khan. The British government did nothing in the least bit effective. Palmerston, then at the Foreign Office, would neither threaten the emir with force nor would he comply with the emir's request, which was simply that Queen Victoria herself might write to him, as he had written to her, instead of insulting him with letters signed by underlings. Many years later, speaking in the House of Commons in favour of sending an expedition to Abyssinia to force King Theodore to give up his British captives, Sir Henry Rawlinson (Oriental scholar and traveller and Indian administrator of great authority) cited England's loss of prestige in the matter of Stoddart's captivity as a chief cause of the Afghan rebellion and the Indian Mutiny. "Prestige [he said] may not be of paramount importance in Europe, bill in the East, sir, our whole position depends upon it." Whether it was ignorance or wilfulness, the Foreign Office's want ot understanding of the Asiatic mind in this matter was to cost Stoddart and Conolly their lives.
No doubt Englishmen in billycocks and tight, high-buttoned suits used to come and stay with the final emir before the Bolshevik Revolution ended his reign. If you were to saunter out of the Ark as the emir's guest, and board one of his motorcars or landaus at the foot of the ramp (just where Stoddart and Conolly were executed), you would be driven off to the railway station or to the summer palace I had seen yesterday. The road passes along a street of glass-fronted shops, in front of them a raised wooden walkway to keep pedestrians out of dust or mud, and past municipal buildings constructed in the last emir's day out of a vile railway-tunnel brick. The visitor whirled through these up-to-date scenes in the back of the Daimler might well have overlooked (as visitors to Native States in India overlooked) the realities of both past and present in this picturesque little capital - the slaves, vice, corruption, persecution, which underlay what was on show for the emir's guests from Europe or from Russia. The benefits of Russian civilisation? On his return from St Petersburg, which he visited after his submission to General Kaufmann in 1868, the then emir (Nasrullah's son) had a dais and throne installed in his presence-chamber, upon which in future all emirs sat like European rulers instead of squatting like Asiatics. This, though, was the extent of the emir's reforms. Count Pahlen, visiting Bokhara as the tsar's envoy in 1908, records the repulsive condition of the prisons - holes in the ground covered by an iron grating which confined the captives in darkness, filth and hunger - as well as giving an unsavoury picture of the emir himself, "a cunning and acquisitive personality . . . one of the world's richest men", his wealth "amassed after the Russian occupation of Turkestan because of the protection he had gained as a result of our orderly administration".
Above the leaves shading the low roofs rose the walls of the fortress against the sky, protection as natural as a dune of desert sand, so that the whole quarter of cottages and gardens lay snug in their shelter like a flock of sheep under a hedge. This arrangement — the citadel's protection of humble houses - made me realise that Bokhariots, the poor at least, had cause to be glad of their emir's strong rule in pre-Russian days of independence and warfare. For the subjects of an age-old absolutism must acquiesce in its tyranny; each nation evolves over centuries its own contract between ruler and ruled. In bargaining away their freedom (or the European idea of it) in return for permission to live and trade under those protecting walls in the most thriving market in Central Asia the Bokhariots had made a contract which was tolerable to themselves.
Russia didn't interfere with the emir's tyranny, except to demand the release of Russian-born slaves - a wonderfully progressive casus belli, from a nation that itself only abolished slave owning in 1861 - and I do not know of Colonel Stoddart having complained of the emir's rule before he became its victim. But Arthur Conolly brings into the picture a new moral element of regeneration and reform. It is agreed by his contemporaries that Conolly, at thirty-one a year younger than Stoddart, was as winning and warm-hearted a man as ever lived. "If the reader [wrote the historian Sir John Kaye] remembering what I have written about the careers and characters of Alexander Burnes and Henry Martyn [the saintly missionary], can conceive the idea of a man combining in his own person all that was excellent and lovable in both, and devoting his life to the pursuit of objects which each in turn sought to attain, the image of Arthur Conolly will stand in full perfection before him . . . ready to dare everything and suffer everything in a good cause; full of faith and love and boundless charity, he strove without ceasing for the glory of God and for the good of his fellow men." This .character that Kaye gives him, and his own purpose in travelling to Turkestan, separate him from Stoddart the soldier and political envoy. By his character and purpose his danger, if anything, was increased.
His father a merchant who had shaken the pagoda tree pretty energetically in eighteenth-century India, and one of six brothers all sent to the subcontinent, Arthur Conolly began his service at sixteen. At twenty-two, after an English leave, he returned to India through Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan, a journey which included being captured by Turcoman slavers during a dash towards Khiva - he was luckily turned loose again - and a journey which fixed in his mind the ambition to visit Kokand and Bokhara. He wrote a delightful account of these travels in which his charm of character shows in every incident, convincing the sceptical reader as the panegyrics of contemporaries never quite can. Listen to him on a night march with a Persian caravan between Herat and Kandahar, alone amongst such a gallimaufry at twenty-two:
Being well clothed we felt the air bracing rather than unpleasantly cold, and as we had all become intimate, we rode socially along in the bright moonlight, chatting with each other, or joking aloud, whilst occasionally one of the party would shout out a wild Pushtoo song. Syud Mohecn Shah and I had become great friends, and our affection for each other was strengthened by our mutual liking for tea: we generally took the first watch and cooked a kettleful which we drank sociably whilst the others were sleeping round us.
It is an enviable picture of an Eastern journey.
Once back in India, at Cawnpore, Conolly made a friend of the most outrageous and weird of all the figures travelling the East in those days, the Anglican missionary Dr Joseph Wolff, who had already been in Bokhara, and had rambled about the whole of Asia, and indeed the wide world, as if it were his Yorkshire parish, disputing with mullahs, suffering beatings and imprisonments, even losing all his clothes to one set of attackers so that he was obliged to wander naked through the Pamir. This rumbustious clergyman is rather too absurd and far-fetched to seem credible when described, but he emerges from his own writings as a wholly convincing eccentric of strong magnetic charm. Of his meetings with Conolly at Cawnpore - which were to be the cause of Wolff's narrowest squeak with death — he wrote that they "took sweet counsel and walked in the house of the Lord as friends".
Now occurred the chastening factor in Conolly's life. In India he fell in love with a travelling nobleman's daughter and, following her to England, became betrothed to her. For some reason unknown to me - and Conolly is at pains to blame no one for the wreck of his happiness — the engagement was broken off. Much dejected, as his letters of the time show, he took refuge in conceiving of a grand design, to free the slaves of the Central Asian khanates, and to keep Russian influence out of Turkestan by forming the emirates into a federation of independent states. Here were diplomacy and philanthropy hand in hand. In Constantinople on his way back to India from emotional shipwreck he held talks on the matter with an emissary of the Khan of Kokand who, with the Emirs of Bokhara and of Khiva, shared control of Turkestan. Encouraged by these talks Conolly next persuaded the Governor-General of India to approve a mission of himself and Henry Rawlinson to Khiva. But just then, in 1839, the Russian expedition under General Peroffski against Khiva (ostensibly to free Russian slaves) foundered in disaster in the freezing steppes of the Aral.
Lord Auckland, the governor-general, withdrew his permission. But Conolly stuck to his plan. Indeed it became an obsession, to which he added the further purpose of freeing (Colonel Stoddart from his detention at Bokhara. Peevishness, even jealousy, is detectable in Burnes' comments in a letter: "He is to regenerate Turkestan, free all the slaves, and looks upon our advent as a design of Providence to spread Christianity . . . Conolly having been beaten out of Kokand has chalked out for himself a mission to Bokhara to release Stoddart . . . he will stand a very fair chance of keeping Stoddart company if he goes."
What Arthur Conolly was determined upon was a mission in one direction or another. He directly disclaims that his broken engagement was the spur driving him into Godforsaken regions where he had once already fallen into the hands of the Turcomans; but he does say, writing of his disappointment at Lord Auckland's change of mind, "I felt the blank that a man must feel who has a heavy grief as the first thing to fall back upon." Go he would, somehow. No doubt he remembered the happy times drinking tea with Syud Moheen Shah on his earlier journey, and forgot its fears and hardships, for there is a real exhilaration in his letters to Rawlinson (whose promotion had meant that he could not accompany Conolly) when he is sure at last, in August 1840, that he is really off. In describing the significance of Rawlinson's new work, that of uniting the Afghans (under Shah Soojah and British protection) into a state which was to stabilise the North-West Frontier, Conolly was no doubt thinking of his own work too, the mission of creating a federation of Turkestan's rulers — as well as rescuing Stoddart and releasing other captives and slaves of the khans — when he wrote to Rawlinson: "You've a great game, a noble game, before you . . . we may keep the Russians out of Toorkistan altogether, if the British Government would only play the grand game."
In the summer of 1841, when Arthur Conolly was at last able to set out on his mission to regenerate Turkestan, Colonel Stoddart viewed his own altered situation at Bokhara with self-satisfaction. "Thank God [he wrote] I have fought my way from imprisonment to the highest favour." He was then living at the house of the Russian envoy, and indeed had refused to take advantage of the emir's permission to quit Bokhara under Russian escort to Orenburg, saying that he had not been ordered away from his post by his own government and refused to profit by the intercession of a foreign power — the helping Russian hand no doubt made uncomfortable to his ticklish sense of honour by the fact that his own purpose in Bokhara had been to frustrate Russian designs on the khanate - and adding also, to the emir himself, "No doubt the Russians would treat me well, but when my own government demands me, what will your Highness answer?" At which "noble answer" the emir laid his own cloak of rich sables on the colonel's shoulders and bade him ride where he liked through Bokhara the Holy. Nasrullah must have laughed in his quilted sleeve to see his sables so temporarily laid upon that prison-wasted frame, for Stoddart was caught fast, trapped as much by his own soldierly characteristics of honour and courage as by his captor's orders. That the experiences of three years in the hands of this capricious despot had affected Stoddart's judgement - had brainwashed him into an oriental attitude -may be surmised from his choice of the words "highest favour" to describe an enviable situation. "Highest favour" is the description of a perch attained by a dependent servant fawning his way upward at an oriental court, to be tumbled down to nothing by the frown of caprice. It is not a European term. "Influence" is what the envoy of Great Britain set out to achieve with a native ruler, not "favour". The Colonel Stoddart who had first swaggered into the Ark and knocked out the chamberlain would have sneered at the emir's "highest favour". But living a life dependent on the whims of a tyrant, with periods of favour the only relief from immersions in intolerable dungeons, had brainwashed him until he looked at matters as did the oriental courtiers who were his only company. Under duress he had even repeated the Muslim creed. It was in this altered character, and more or less as a creature of Nasrullah's, that Stoddart sent Conolly an invitation to join him at Bokhara.
Conolly had been travelling in Turkestan for nine or ten months, had visited both Merv and Khiva, and was now, in the autumn of 1841, in the camp of the Khan of Kokand, who was (as usual) at war with Bokhara. So anxious, however, was Nasrullah to catch Conolly too for his menagerie of Englishmen that he promised a slave his freedom if he carried Stoddart's invitation safe through enemy lines. When Conolly accepted it, and came into the emir's camp at Mehram, he was sent under escort to Bokhara. By mid-November Nasrullah had both men in his grasp in one house in his capital.
Quite what the emir wanted, if indeed he wanted anything rational or specific, is as hard to make out as are the intentions of modern hostage-takers in the Middle East. To keep up his prestige with fellow tyrants at Kokand and Khiva he perhaps caught at the Englishmen as a means of showing that he had the power to command the attention of the rulers of India, who had by that time established themselves also as the sovereign power at Kabul. Whether it was British policy deliberately to deny the emir this source of prestige, or whether it was mere muddle and vacillation (as Captain Grover claimed), the rulers of India more or less ignored Nasrullah and his two prisoners.
It isn't easy to make a fair judgement of the London and Calcutta governments' behaviour in the affair. Perhaps Stoddart was an envoy of sorts, but he had only been locally commissioned, by the East India Company's representative at Teheran, and was a person of no standing: perhaps Conolly's journey had been, as Grover claimed, "sanctioned in a private letter from authority", though Lord Auckland's successor as governor-general denied it. Certainly neither man was a diplomatist; both were obscure young Indian officers eager for the adventure which brings fame or death, and in this they were material ready to a government's hand in the equivocal game of testing the water in Turkestan without making that official commitment which would have to be backed with troops in case of failure. Not Conolly's "noble game", quite, but the half-hidden "great game" an Imperial government must play to protect its interests, using for its purpose the noble-minded if need be. In a later age they would have sent spies disguised as salesmen, or as embassy attaches, but there was no organised secret service at that date. So, if one or two of these young adventurers went astray and found himself in hot water, so far as Whitehall and Calcutta were concerned he immediately became the "private gentleman" and "innocent traveller" of the mild rebukes which the governor-general despatched to the emir.
Neither the governor-general's mild rebukes nor the letter which Lord Palmerston wrote him, in English - it was a reply to the letter he had himself addressed to Queen Victoria assuring her of his friendship as a fellow sovereign - were at all what Nasrullah had hoped for. There was no prestige to be had from a letter from a government servant; and another letter which the post brought, one which the British had persuaded the Sultan of Turkey to write him about his prisoners, so provoked him that he threw it away exclaiming, "This man is half a Kaffir!" What the emir wanted was a letter from Queen Victoria herself. In this he persisted, furious with Conolly and Stoddart for not being important enough to elicit the prestigious correspondence he hankered after. Soon after Lord Pal-merston's inadequate letter had arrived at Bokhara, the two Englishmen were thrust into a dungeon.
They were imprisoned about the middle of December 1841, at a time when news of an event very significant for British power in the East must have come to the emir's long ears. In November had occurred the Afghan rising against British occupation, and the murder in Kabul not only of Sir William Macnaghten (political head of the British Mission) but of Sir Alexander Burnes himself. To these outrages the British army under hesitant, doddering generals lay quiet in its vulnerable camp outside Kabul and made no response — took no action to exact revenge, only sought terms for a disgraceful withdrawal. In January 1842 the entire army was slaughtered at the hands of the clansman Akbar Khan as it retreated towards India. If (as Rawlinson claimed) the British position in Afghanistan had been weakened by British inaction over Stoddart's imprisonment, then Stoddart and Conolly's position after the debacle to British arms in Afghanistan became fatally insecure. The emir could do what he liked to them without fear of British reprisal. But more than that, I imagine him to have been disgusted to find that Great Britain, upon which he had depended to enhance his own prestige, and whose sovereign he had prepared to treat as an equal, was nothing but a broken reed. He might as well have captured a couple of Dutchmen. That he had deceived himself made his rage vengeful.
Until the end of May 1842 the two prisoners contrived to keep up a correspondence, in letters smuggled somehow to the outside world, as well as to keep a journal account of their sufferings in minute characters in the margins of Conolly's prayer book. Their misery, Conolly breaking down in illness, the little flickers of hope in Satanic darkness, rend the heart of a reader. Their spirit, and indomitable faith, the true mettle of their characters under such cruelties, bring tears to the eyes. Again one thinks of modern hostages in the Middle East. Near the end Conolly writes that he and "my poor brother Stoddart" have found their "hearts comforted, as if an angel had spoken to them, resolved, please God, to wear our English honesty and dignity to the last, within all the filth and misery that this monster may try to degrade us with".
That this journal of their tortures should have survived is a miracle. The prayer book was bought in the Bokhara market by a Russian prisoner and given to General Ignatieff on his visit to the city in 1858, whence it came to be left, one evening four years later, on the doorstep of Conolly's sister's house in Eaton Place in London. I wish I had been present to see how it affected her. From mid-Victorian Belgravia's gas-light and hansom cabs Bokhara and her brother's ordeal must have seemed as remote, in time and place, as a tale of the Crusades: yet she had the details in her hand, cramped small in a brother's
familiar writing in his own prayer book's margins. I wonder if she put the book in a drawer and went out to dinner; or if she went upstairs and read the children to sleep with something out of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. Three others of her brothers had by this date met their deaths in the East, one murdered by a native, another as a prisoner of the Afghans after the Kabul disaster; yet it is painful to discover how ineffectively Victorian hearts were cauterised by the frequency of tragedies' occurrence in their families, and Mrs Macnaghten's heart, which carried the scars of these violent deaths, will have been comforted by the certainty that her brother Arthur faced his executioner "with English honesty and dignity to the last", as he had prayed to do, on the patch of bloody ground outside the Ark at Bokhara.
I know of a Victorian painting of Stoddart and Conolly herded along in beautifully pressed uniforms and rather theatrical chains by a crowd of tribesmen waving their weapons towards a dungeon tower in the early days of their captivity. I don't know of a painting of their death scene, which took place probably on June 17th 1842 close to where I stood, but I had seen inside the Ark a drawing of the manner of execution, and from the scribble in Conolly's prayer book their physical state can be learned. Half naked, emaciated into nail-lacerated skeletons by the fever and vermin of years, chained, the two Englishmen stood, or crouched, in the midsummer heat burn ing on the walls and the baked earth, whilst their graves were dug in front of them in the presence of a curious crowd. The executioner first seized Stoddart by the hair, dragged back his head, and cut the exposed throat with a huge butcher's knife. Then Conolly, it is said, was offered his life if he would repeat the Muslim creed. He refused with scorn, and his throat too was cut.
"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook