The distance between Moscow and Irkutsk, about to be
traversed by Michael Strogoff, was three thousand four hundred miles.
Before the telegraph wire extended from the Ural Mountains to the eastern
frontier of Siberia, the dispatch service was performed by couriers,
those who traveled the most rapidly taking eighteen days to get from
Moscow to Irkutsk. But this was the exception, and the journey through
Asiatic Russia usually occupied from four to five weeks, even though
every available means of transport was placed at the disposal of the
Michael Strogoff was a man who feared neither frost nor snow. He would have preferred traveling during the severe winter season, in order that he might perform the whole distance by sleighs. At that period of the year the difficulties which all other means of locomotion present are greatly diminished, the wide steppes being leveled by snow, while there are no rivers to cross, but simply sheets of glass, over which the sleigh glides rapidly and easily.
Perhaps certain natural phenomena are most to be feared at that time, such as long-continuing and dense fogs, excessive cold, fearfully heavy snow-storms, which sometimes envelop whole caravans and cause their destruction. Hungry wolves also roam over the plain in thousands. But it would have been better for Michael Strogoff to face these risks; for during the winter the Tartar invaders would have been stationed in the towns, any movement of their troops would have been impracticable, and he could consequently have more easily performed his journey. But it was not in his power to choose either weather or time. Whatever the circumstances, he must accept them and set out.
Such were the difficulties which Michael Strogoff boldly confronted and prepared to encounter.
In the first place, he must not travel as a courier of the Czar usually would. No one must even suspect what he really was. Spies swarm in a rebellious country; let him be recognized, and his mission would be in danger. Also, while supplying him with a large sum of money, which was sufficient for his journey, and would facilitate it in some measure, General Kissoff had not given him any document notifying that he was on the Emperor’s service, which is the Sesame par excellence. He contented himself with furnishing him with a “podorojna.”
This podorojna was made out in the name of Nicholas Korpanoff, merchant, living at Irkutsk. It authorized Nicholas Korpanoff to be accompanied by one or more persons, and, moreover, it was, by special notification, made available in the event of the Muscovite government forbidding natives of any other countries to leave Russia.
The podorojna is simply a permission to take post-horses; but Michael Strogoff was not to use it unless he was sure that by so doing he would not excite suspicion as to his mission, that is to say, whilst he was on European territory. The consequence was that in Siberia, whilst traversing the insurgent provinces, he would have no power over the relays, either in the choice of horses in preference to others, or in demanding conveyances for his personal use; neither was Michael Strogoff to forget that he was no longer a courier, but a plain merchant, Nicholas Korpanoff, traveling from Moscow to Irkutsk, and, as such exposed to all the impediments of an ordinary journey.
To pass unknown, more or less rapidly, but to pass somehow, such were the directions he had received.
Thirty years previously, the escort of a traveler of rank consisted of not less than two hundred mounted Cossacks, two hundred foot-soldiers, twenty-five Baskir horsemen, three hundred camels, four hundred horses, twenty-five wagons, two portable boats, and two pieces of cannon. All this was requisite for a journey in Siberia.
Michael Strogoff, however, had neither cannon, nor horsemen, nor foot-soldiers, nor beasts of burden. He would travel in a carriage or on horseback, when he could; on foot, when he could not.
There would be no difficulty in getting over the first thousand miles, the distance between Moscow and the Russian frontier. Railroads, post-carriages, steamboats, relays of horses, were at everyone’s disposal, and consequently at the disposal of the courier of the Czar.
Accordingly, on the morning of the 16th of July, having doffed his uniform, with a knapsack on his back, dressed in the simple Russian costume—tightly-fitting tunic, the traditional belt of the Moujik, wide trousers, gartered at the knees, and high boots—Michael Strogoff arrived at the station in time for the first train. He carried no arms, openly at least, but under his belt was hidden a revolver and in his pocket, one of those large knives, resembling both a cutlass and a yataghan, with which a Siberian hunter can so neatly disembowel a bear, without injuring its precious fur.
A crowd of travelers had collected at the Moscow station. The stations on the Russian railroads are much used as places for meeting, not only by those who are about to proceed by the train, but by friends who come to see them off. The station resembles, from the variety of characters assembled, a small news exchange.
The train in which Michael took his place was to set him down at Nijni-Novgorod. There terminated at that time, the iron road which, uniting Moscow and St. Petersburg, has since been continued to the Russian frontier. It was a journey of under three hundred miles, and the train would accomplish it in ten hours. Once arrived at Nijni-Novgorod, Strogoff would either take the land route or the steamer on the Volga, so as to reach the Ural Mountains as soon as possible.
Michael Strogoff ensconced himself in his corner, like a worthy citizen whose affairs go well with him, and who endeavors to kill time by sleep. Nevertheless, as he was not alone in his compartment, he slept with one eye open, and listened with both his ears.
In fact, rumor of the rising of the Kirghiz hordes, and of the Tartar invasion had transpired in some degree. The occupants of the carriage, whom chance had made his traveling companions, discussed the subject, though with that caution which has become habitual among Russians, who know that spies are ever on the watch for any treasonable expressions which may be uttered.
These travelers, as well as the large number of persons in the train, were merchants on their way to the celebrated fair of Nijni-Novgorod;—a very mixed assembly, composed of Jews, Turks, Cossacks, Russians, Georgians, Kalmucks, and others, but nearly all speaking the national tongue.
They discussed the pros and cons of the serious events which were taking place beyond the Ural, and those merchants seemed to fear lest the government should be led to take certain restrictive measures, especially in the provinces bordering on the frontier—measures from which trade would certainly suffer. They apparently thought only of the struggle from the single point of view of their threatened interests. The presence of a private soldier, clad in his uniform—and the importance of a uniform in Russia is great—would have certainly been enough to restrain the merchants’ tongues. But in the compartment occupied by Michael Strogoff, there was no one who seemed a military man, and the Czar’s courier was not the person to betray himself. He listened, then.
“They say that caravan teas are up,” remarked a Persian, known by his cap of Astrakhan fur, and his ample brown robe, worn threadbare by use.
“Oh, there’s no fear of teas falling,” answered an old Jew of sullen aspect. “Those in the market at Nijni-Novgorod will be easily cleared off by the West; but, unfortunately, it won’t be the same with Bokhara carpets.”
“What! are you expecting goods from Bokhara?” asked the Persian.
“No, but from Samarcand, and that is even more exposed. The idea of reckoning on the exports of a country in which the khans are in a state of revolt from Khiva to the Chinese frontier!”
“Well,” replied the Persian, “if the carpets do not arrive, the drafts will not arrive either, I suppose.”
“And the profits, Father Abraham!” exclaimed the little Jew, “do you reckon them as nothing?”
“You are right,” said another; “goods from Central Asia run a great risk in the market, and it will be the same with the tallow and shawls from the East.”
“Why, look out, little father,” said a Russian traveler, in a bantering tone; “you’ll grease your shawls terribly if you mix them up with your tallow.”
“That amuses you,” sharply answered the merchant, who had little relish for that sort of joke.
“Well, if you tear your hair, or if you throw ashes on your head,” replied the traveler, “will that change the course of events? No; no more than the course of the Exchange.”
“One can easily see that you are not a merchant,” observed the little Jew.
“Faith, no, worthy son of Abraham! I sell neither hops, nor eider-down, nor honey, nor wax, nor hemp-seed, nor salt meat, nor caviare, nor wood, nor wool, nor ribbons, nor, hemp, nor flax, nor morocco, nor furs.”
“But do you buy them?” asked the Persian, interrupting the traveler’s list.
“As little as I can, and only for my own private use,” answered the other, with a wink.
“He’s a wag,” said the Jew to the Persian.
“Or a spy,” replied the other, lowering his voice. “We had better take care, and not speak more than necessary. The police are not over-particular in these times, and you never can know with whom you are traveling.”
In another corner of the compartment they were speaking less of mercantile affairs, and more of the Tartar invasion and its annoying consequences.
“All the horses in Siberia will be requisitioned,” said a traveler, “and communication between the different provinces of Central Asia will become very difficult.”
“Is it true,” asked his neighbor, “that the Kirghiz of the middle horde have joined the Tartars?”
“So it is said,” answered the traveler, lowering his voice; “but who can flatter themselves that they know anything really of what is going on in this country?”
“I have heard speak of a concentration of troops on the frontier. The Don Cossacks have already gathered along the course of the Volga, and they are to be opposed to the rebel Kirghiz.”
“If the Kirghiz descend the Irtish, the route to Irkutsk will not be safe,” observed his neighbor. “Besides, yesterday I wanted to send a telegram to Krasnoiarsk, and it could not be forwarded. It’s to be feared that before long the Tartar columns will have isolated Eastern Siberia.”
“In short, little father,” continued the first speaker, “these merchants have good reason for being uneasy about their trade and transactions. After requisitioning the horses, they will take the boats, carriages, every means of transport, until presently no one will be allowed to take even one step in all the empire.”
“I’m much afraid that the Nijni-Novgorod fair won’t end as brilliantly as it has begun,” responded the other, shaking his head. “But the safety and integrity of the Russian territory before everything. Business is business.”
If in this compartment the subject of conversation varied but little—nor did it, indeed, in the other carriages of the train—in all it might have been observed that the talkers used much circumspection. When they did happen to venture out of the region of facts, they never went so far as to attempt to divine the intentions of the Muscovite government, or even to criticize them.
This was especially remarked by a traveler in a carriage at the front part of the train. This person—evidently a stranger—made good use of his eyes, and asked numberless questions, to which he received only evasive answers. Every minute leaning out of the window, which he would keep down, to the great disgust of his fellow-travelers, he lost nothing of the views to the right. He inquired the names of the most insignificant places, their position, what were their commerce, their manufactures, the number of their inhabitants, the average mortality, etc., and all this he wrote down in a note-book, already full.
This was the correspondent Alcide Jolivet, and the reason of his putting so many insignificant questions was, that amongst the many answers he received, he hoped to find some interesting fact “for his cousin.” But, naturally enough, he was taken for a spy, and not a word treating of the events of the day was uttered in his hearing.
Finding, therefore, that he could learn nothing of the Tartar invasion, he wrote in his book, “Travelers of great discretion. Very close as to political matters.”
Whilst Alcide Jolivet noted down his impressions thus minutely, his confrere, in the same train, traveling for the same object, was devoting himself to the same work of observation in another compartment. Neither of them had seen each other that day at the Moscow station, and they were each ignorant that the other had set out to visit the scene of the war. Harry Blount, speaking little, but listening much, had not inspired his companions with the suspicions which Alcide Jolivet had aroused. He was not taken for a spy, and therefore his neighbors, without constraint, gossiped in his presence, allowing themselves even to go farther than their natural caution would in most cases have allowed them. The correspondent of the Daily Telegraph had thus an opportunity of observing how much recent events preoccupied the merchants of Nijni-Novgorod, and to what a degree the commerce with Central Asia was threatened in its transit.
He therefore noted in his book this perfectly correct observation, “My fellow-travelers extremely anxious. Nothing is talked of but war, and they speak of it, with a freedom which is astonishing, as having broken out between the Volga and the Vistula.”
The readers of the Daily Telegraph would not fail to be as well informed as Alcide Jolivet’s “cousin.” But as Harry Blount, seated at the left of the train, only saw one part of the country, which was hilly, without giving himself the trouble of looking at the right side, which was composed of wide plains, he added, with British assurance, “Country mountainous between Moscow and Wladimir.”
It was evident that the Russian government purposed taking severe measures to guard against any serious eventualities even in the interior of the empire. The rebel lion had not crossed the Siberian frontier, but evil influences might be feared in the Volga provinces, so near to the country of the Kirghiz.
The police had as yet found no traces of Ivan Ogareff. It was not known whether the traitor, calling in the foreigner to avenge his personal rancor, had rejoined Feofar-Khan, or whether he was endeavoring to foment a revolt in the government of Nijni-Novgorod, which at this time of year contained a population of such diverse elements. Perhaps among the Persians, Armenians, or Kalmucks, who flocked to the great market, he had agents, instructed to provoke a rising in the interior. All this was possible, especially in such a country as Russia. In fact, this vast empire, 4,000,000 square miles in extent, does not possess the homogeneousness of the states of Western Europe. The Russian territory in Europe and Asia contains more than seventy millions of inhabitants. In it thirty different languages are spoken. The Sclavonian race predominates, no doubt, but there are besides Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Courlanders. Add to these, Finns, Laplanders, Esthonians, several other northern tribes with unpronounceable names, the Permiaks, the Germans, the Greeks, the Tartars, the Caucasian tribes, the Mongol, Kalmuck, Samoid, Kamtschatkan, and Aleutian hordes, and one may understand that the unity of so vast a state must be difficult to maintain, and that it could only be the work of time, aided by the wisdom of many successive rulers.
Be that as it may, Ivan Ogareff had hitherto managed to escape all search, and very probably he might have rejoined the Tartar army. But at every station where the train stopped, inspectors came forward who scrutinized the travelers and subjected them all to a minute examination, as by order of the superintendent of police, these officials were seeking Ivan Ogareff. The government, in fact, believed it to be certain that the traitor had not yet been able to quit European Russia. If there appeared cause to suspect any traveler, he was carried off to explain himself at the police station, and in the meantime the train went on its way, no person troubling himself about the unfortunate one left behind.
With the Russian police, which is very arbitrary, it is absolutely useless to argue. Military rank is conferred on its employees, and they act in military fashion. How can anyone, moreover, help obeying, unhesitatingly, orders which emanate from a monarch who has the right to employ this formula at the head of his ukase: “We, by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias of Moscow, Kiev, Wladimir, and Novgorod, Czar of Kasan and Astrakhan, Czar of Poland, Czar of Siberia, Czar of the Tauric Chersonese, Seignior of Pskov, Prince of Smolensk, Lithuania, Volkynia, Podolia, and Finland, Prince of Esthonia, Livonia, Courland, and of Semigallia, of Bialystok, Karelia, Sougria, Perm, Viatka, Bulgaria, and many other countries; Lord and Sovereign Prince of the territory of Nijni-Novgorod, Tchemigoff, Riazan, Polotsk, Rostov, Jaroslavl, Bielozersk, Oudoria, Obdoria, Kondinia, Vitepsk, and of Mstislaf, Governor of the Hyperborean Regions, Lord of the countries of Iveria, Kartalinia, Grou-zinia, Kabardinia, and Armenia, Hereditary Lord and Suzerain of the Scherkess princes, of those of the mountains, and of others; heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein, Stormarn, Dittmarsen, and Oldenburg.” A powerful lord, in truth, is he whose arms are an eagle with two heads, holding a scepter and a globe, surrounded by the escutcheons of Novgorod, Wladimir, Kiev, Kasan, Astrakhan, and of Siberia, and environed by the collar of the order of St. Andrew, surmounted by a royal crown!
As to Michael Strogoff, his papers were in order, and he was, consequently, free from all police supervision.
At the station of Wladimir the train stopped for several minutes, which appeared sufficient to enable the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph to take a twofold view, physical and moral, and to form a complete estimate of this ancient capital of Russia.
At the Wladimir station fresh travelers joined the train. Among others, a young girl entered the compartment occupied by Michael Strogoff. A vacant place was found opposite the courier. The young girl took it, after placing by her side a modest traveling-bag of red leather, which seemed to constitute all her luggage. Then seating herself with downcast eyes, not even glancing at the fellow-travelers whom chance had given her, she prepared for a journey which was still to last several hours.
Michael Strogoff could not help looking attentively at his newly-arrived fellow-traveler. As she was so placed as to travel with her back to the engine, he even offered her his seat, which he might prefer to her own, but she thanked him with a slight bend of her graceful neck.
The young girl appeared to be about sixteen or seventeen years of age. Her head, truly charming, was of the purest Sclavonic type—slightly severe, and likely in a few summers to unfold into beauty rather than mere prettiness. From beneath a sort of kerchief which she wore on her head escaped in profusion light golden hair. Her eyes were brown, soft, and expressive of much sweetness of temper. The nose was straight, and attached to her pale and somewhat thin cheeks by delicately mobile nostrils. The lips were finely cut, but it seemed as if they had long since forgotten how to smile.
The young traveler was tall and upright, as far as could be judged of her figure from the very simple and ample pelisse that covered her. Although she was still a very young girl in the literal sense of the term, the development of her high forehead and clearly-cut features gave the idea that she was the possessor of great moral energy—a point which did not escape Michael Strogoff. Evidently this young girl had already suffered in the past, and the future doubtless did not present itself to her in glowing colors; but she had surely known how to struggle still with the trials of life. Her energy was evidently both prompt and persistent, and her calmness unalterable, even under circumstances in which a man would be likely to give way or lose his self-command.
Such was the impression which she produced at first sight. Michael Strogoff, being himself of an energetic temperament, was naturally struck by the character of her physiognomy, and, while taking care not to cause her annoyance by a too persistent gaze, he observed his neighbor with no small interest. The costume of the young traveler was both extremely simple and appropriate. She was not rich—that could be easily seen; but not the slightest mark of negligence was to be discerned in her dress. All her luggage was contained in the leather bag which, for want of room, she held on her lap.
She wore a long, dark pelisse, gracefully adjusted at the neck by a blue tie. Under this pelisse, a short skirt, also dark, fell over a robe which reached the ankles. Half-boots of leather, thickly soled, as if chosen in anticipation of a long journey, covered her small feet.
Michael Strogoff fancied that he recognized, by certain details, the fashion of the costume of Livonia, and thought his neighbor a native of the Baltic provinces.
But whither was this young girl going, alone, at an age when the fostering care of a father, or the protection of a brother, is considered a matter of necessity? Had she now come, after an already long journey, from the provinces of Western Russia? Was she merely going to Nijni-Novgorod, or was the end of her travels beyond the eastern frontiers of the empire? Would some relation, some friend, await her arrival by the train? Or was it not more probable, on the contrary, that she would find herself as much isolated in the town as she was in this compartment? It was probable.
In fact, the effect of habits contracted in solitude was clearly manifested in the bearing of the young girl. The manner in which she entered the carriage and prepared herself for the journey, the slight disturbance she caused among those around her, the care she took not to incommode or give trouble to anyone, all showed that she was accustomed to be alone, and to depend on herself only.
Michael Strogoff observed her with interest, but, himself reserved, he sought no opportunity of accosting her. Once only, when her neighbor—the merchant who had jumbled together so imprudently in his remarks tallow and shawls—being asleep, and threatening her with his great head, which was swaying from one shoulder to the other, Michael Strogoff awoke him somewhat roughly, and made him understand that he must hold himself upright.
The merchant, rude enough by nature, grumbled some words against “people who interfere with what does not concern them,” but Michael Strogoff cast on him a glance so stern that the sleeper leant on the opposite side, and relieved the young traveler from his unpleasant vicinity.
The latter looked at the young man for an instant, and mute and modest thanks were in that look.
But a circumstance occurred which gave Strogoff a just idea of the character of the maiden. Twelve versts before arriving at Nijni-Novgorod, at a sharp curve of the iron way, the train experienced a very violent shock. Then, for a minute, it ran onto the slope of an embankment.
Travelers more or less shaken about, cries, confusion, general disorder in the carriages—such was the effect at first produced. It was to be feared that some serious accident had happened. Consequently, even before the train had stopped, the doors were opened, and the panic-stricken passengers thought only of getting out of the carriages.
Michael Strogoff thought instantly of the young girl; but, while the passengers in her compartment were precipitating themselves outside, screaming and struggling, she had remained quietly in her place, her face scarcely changed by a slight pallor.
She waited—Michael Strogoff waited also.
Both remained quiet.
“A determined nature!” thought Michael Strogoff.
However, all danger had quickly disappeared. A breakage of the coupling of the luggage-van had first caused the shock to, and then the stoppage of, the train, which in another instant would have been thrown from the top of the embankment into a bog. There was an hour’s delay. At last, the road being cleared, the train proceeded, and at half-past eight in the evening arrived at the station of Nijni-Novgorod.
Before anyone could get out of the carriages, the inspectors of police presented themselves at the doors and examined the passengers.
Michael Strogoff showed his podorojna, made out in the name of Nicholas Korpanoff. He had consequently no difficulty. As to the other travelers in the compartment, all bound for Nijni-Novgorod, their appearance, happily for them, was in nowise suspicious.
The young girl in her turn, exhibited, not a passport, since passports are no longer required in Russia, but a permit indorsed with a private seal, and which seemed to be of a special character. The inspector read the permit with attention. Then, having attentively examined the person whose description it contained:
“You are from Riga?” he said.
“Yes,” replied the young girl.
“You are going to Irkutsk?”
“By what route?”
“Good!” replied the inspector. “Take care to have your permit vised, at the police station of Nijni-Novgorod.”
The young girl bent her head in token of assent.
Hearing these questions and replies, Michael Strogoff experienced a mingled sentiment both of surprise and pity. What! this young girl, alone, journeying to that far-off Siberia, and at a time when, to its ordinary dangers, were added all the perils of an invaded country and one in a state of insurrection! How would she reach it? What would become of her?
The inspection ended, the doors of the carriages were then opened, but, before Michael Strogoff could move towards her, the young Livonian, who had been the first to descend, had disappeared in the crowd which thronged the platforms of the railway station.