The Ural Mountains extend in a length of over two thousand miles between Europe and Asia. Whether they are called the Urals, which is the Tartar, or the Poyas, which is the Russian name, they are correctly so termed; for these names signify “belt” in both languages. Rising on the shores of the Arctic Sea, they reach the borders of the Caspian. This was the barrier to be crossed by Michael Strogoff before he could enter Siberian Russia. The mountains could be crossed in one night, if no accident happened. Unfortunately, thunder muttering in the distance announced that a storm was at hand. The electric tension was such that it could not be dispersed without a tremendous explosion, which in the peculiar state of the atmosphere would be very terrible.
Michael took care that his young companion should be as well protected as possible. The hood, which might have been easily blown away, was fastened more securely with ropes, crossed above and at the back. The traces were doubled, and, as an additional precaution, the nave-boxes were stuffed with straw, as much to increase the strength of the wheels as to lessen the jolting, unavoidable on a dark night. Lastly, the fore and hinder parts, connected simply by the axles to the body of the tarantass, were joined one to the other by a crossbar, fixed by means of pins and screws.
Nadia resumed her place in the cart, and Michael took his seat beside her. Before the lowered hood hung two leathern curtains, which would in some degree protect the travelers against the wind and rain. Two great lanterns, suspended from the iemschik’s seat, threw a pale glimmer scarcely sufficient to light the way, but serving as warning lights to prevent any other carriage from running into them.
It was well that all these precautions were taken, in expectation of a rough night. The road led them up towards dense masses of clouds, and should the clouds not soon resolve into rain, the fog would be such that the tarantass would be unable to advance without danger of falling over some precipice.
The Ural chain does not attain any very great height, the highest summit not being more than five thousand feet. Eternal snow is there unknown, and what is piled up by the Siberian winter is soon melted by the summer sun. Shrubs and trees grow to a considerable height. The iron and copper mines, as well as those of precious stones, draw a considerable number of workmen to that region. Also, those villages termed “gavody” are there met with pretty frequently, and the road through the great passes is easily practicable for post-carriages.
But what is easy enough in fine weather and broad daylight, offers difficulties and perils when the elements are engaged in fierce warfare, and the traveler is in the midst of it. Michael Strogoff knew from former experience what a storm in the mountains was, and perhaps this would be as terrible as the snowstorms which burst forth with such vehemence in the winter.
Rain was not yet falling, so Michael raised the leathern curtains which protected the interior of the tarantass and looked out, watching the sides of the road, peopled with fantastic shadows, caused by the wavering light of the lanterns. Nadia, motionless, her arms folded, gazed forth also, though without leaning forward, whilst her companion, his body half out of the carriage, examined both sky and earth.
The calmness of the atmosphere was very threatening, the air being perfectly still. It was just as if Nature were half stifled, and could no longer breathe; her lungs, that is to say those gloomy, dense clouds, not being able to perform their functions. The silence would have been complete but for the grindings of the wheels of the tarantass over the road, the creaking of the axles, the snorting of the horses, and the clattering of their iron hoofs among the pebbles, sparks flying out on every side.
The road was perfectly deserted. The tarantass encountered neither pedestrians nor horsemen, nor a vehicle of any description, in the narrow defiles of the Ural, on this threatening night. Not even the fire of a charcoal-burner was visible in the woods, not an encampment of miners near the mines, not a hut among the brushwood.
Under these peculiar circumstances it might have been allowable to postpone the journey till the morning. Michael Strogoff, however, had not hesitated, he had no right to stop, but then—and it began to cause him some anxiety—what possible reason could those travelers in the telga ahead have for being so imprudent?
Michael remained thus on the look-out for some time. About eleven o’clock lightning began to blaze continuously in the sky. The shadows of huge pines appeared and disappeared in the rapid light. Sometimes when the tarantass neared the side of the road, deep gulfs, lit up by the flashes, could be seen yawning beneath them. From time to time, on their vehicle giving a worse lurch than usual, they knew that they were crossing a bridge of roughly-hewn planks thrown over some chasm, thunder appearing actually to be rumbling below them. Besides this, a booming sound filled the air, which increased as they mounted higher. With these different noises rose the shouts of the iemschik, sometimes scolding, sometimes coaxing his poor beasts, who were suffering more from the oppression of the air than the roughness of the roads. Even the bells on the shafts could no longer rouse them, and they stumbled every instant.
“At what time shall we reach the top of the ridge?” asked Michael of the iemschik.
“At one o’clock in the morning if we ever get there at all,” replied he, with a shake of his head.
“Why, my friend, this will not be your first storm in the mountains, will it?”
“No, and pray God it may not be my last!”
“Are you afraid?”
“No, I’m not afraid, but I repeat that I think you were wrong in starting.”
“I should have been still more wrong had I stayed.”
“Hold up, my pigeons!” cried the iemschik; it was his business to obey, not to question.
Just then a distant noise was heard, shrill whistling through the atmosphere, so calm a minute before. By the light of a dazzling flash, almost immediately followed by a tremendous clap of thunder, Michael could see huge pines on a high peak, bending before the blast. The wind was unchained, but as yet it was the upper air alone which was disturbed. Successive crashes showed that many of the trees had been unable to resist the burst of the hurricane. An avalanche of shattered trunks swept across the road and dashed over the precipice on the left, two hundred feet in front of the tarantass.
The horses stopped short.
“Get up, my pretty doves!” cried the iemschik, adding the cracking of his whip to the rumbling of the thunder.
Michael took Nadia’s hand. “Are you asleep, sister?”
“Be ready for anything; here comes the storm!”
“I am ready.”
Michael Strogoff had only just time to draw the leathern curtains, when the storm was upon them.
The iemschik leapt from his seat and seized the horses’ heads, for terrible danger threatened the whole party.
The tarantass was at a standstill at a turning of the road, down which swept the hurricane; it was absolutely necessary to hold the animals’ heads to the wind, for if the carriage was taken broadside it must infallibly capsize and be dashed over the precipice. The frightened horses reared, and their driver could not manage to quiet them. His friendly expressions had been succeeded by the most insulting epithets. Nothing was of any use. The unfortunate animals, blinded by the lightning, terrified by the incessant peals of thunder, threatened every instant to break their traces and flee. The iemschik had no longer any control over his team.
At that moment Michael Strogoff threw himself from the tarantass and rushed to his assistance. Endowed with more than common strength, he managed, though not without difficulty, to master the horses.
The storm now raged with redoubled fury. A perfect avalanche of stones and trunks of trees began to roll down the slope above them.
“We cannot stop here,” said Michael.
“We cannot stop anywhere,” returned the iemschik, all his energies apparently overcome by terror. “The storm will soon send us to the bottom of the mountain, and that by the shortest way.”
“Take you that horse, coward,” returned Michael, “I’ll look after this one.”
A fresh burst of the storm interrupted him. The driver and he were obliged to crouch upon the ground to avoid being blown down. The carriage, notwithstanding their efforts and those of the horses, was gradually blown back, and had it not been stopped by the trunk of a tree, it would have gone over the edge of the precipice.
“Do not be afraid, Nadia!” cried Michael Strogoff.
“I’m not afraid,” replied the young Livonian, her voice not betraying the slightest emotion.
The rumbling of the thunder ceased for an instant, the terrible blast had swept past into the gorge below.
“Will you go back?” said the iemschik.
“No, we must go on! Once past this turning, we shall have the shelter of the slope.”
“But the horses won’t move!”
“Do as I do, and drag them on.”
“The storm will come back!”
“Do you mean to obey?”
“Do you order it?”
“The Father orders it!” answered Michael, for the first time invoking the all-powerful name of the Emperor.
“Forward, my swallows!” cried the iemschik, seizing one horse, while Michael did the same to the other.
Thus urged, the horses began to struggle onward. They could no longer rear, and the middle horse not being hampered by the others, could keep in the center of the road. It was with the greatest difficulty that either man or beasts could stand against the wind, and for every three steps they took in advance, they lost one, and even two, by being forced backwards. They slipped, they fell, they got up again. The vehicle ran a great risk of being smashed. If the hood had not been securely fastened, it would have been blown away long before. Michael Strogoff and the iemschik took more than two hours in getting up this bit of road, only half a verst in length, so directly exposed was it to the lashing of the storm. The danger was not only from the wind which battered against the travelers, but from the avalanche of stones and broken trunks which were hurtling through the air.
Suddenly, during a flash of lightning, one of these masses was seen crashing and rolling down the mountain towards the tarantass. The iemschik uttered a cry.
Michael Strogoff in vain brought his whip down on the team, they refused to move.
A few feet farther on, and the mass would pass behind them! Michael saw the tarantass struck, his companion crushed; he saw there was no time to drag her from the vehicle.
Then, possessed in this hour of peril with superhuman strength, he threw himself behind it, and planting his feet on the ground, by main force placed it out of danger.
The enormous mass as it passed grazed his chest, taking away his breath as though it had been a cannon-ball, then crushing to powder the flints on the road, it bounded into the abyss below.
“Oh, brother!” cried Nadia, who had seen it all by the light of the flashes.
“Nadia!” replied Michael, “fear nothing!”
“It is not on my own account that I fear!”
“God is with us, sister!”
“With me truly, brother, since He has sent thee in my way!” murmured the young girl.
The impetus the tarantass had received was not to be lost, and the tired horses once more moved forward. Dragged, so to speak, by Michael and the iemschik, they toiled on towards a narrow pass, lying north and south, where they would be protected from the direct sweep of the tempest. At one end a huge rock jutted out, round the summit of which whirled an eddy. Behind the shelter of the rock there was a comparative calm; yet once within the circumference of the cyclone, neither man nor beast could resist its power.
Indeed, some firs which towered above this protection were in a trice shorn of their tops, as though a gigantic scythe had swept across them. The storm was now at its height. The lightning filled the defile, and the thunderclaps had become one continued peal. The ground, struck by the concussion, trembled as though the whole Ural chain was shaken to its foundations.
Happily, the tarantass could be so placed that the storm might strike it obliquely. But the counter-currents, directed towards it by the slope, could not be so well avoided, and so violent were they that every instant it seemed as though it would be dashed to pieces.
Nadia was obliged to leave her seat, and Michael, by the light of one of the lanterns, discovered an excavation bearing the marks of a miner’s pick, where the young girl could rest in safety until they could once more start.
Just then—it was one o’clock in the morning—the rain began to fall in torrents, and this in addition to the wind and lightning, made the storm truly frightful. To continue the journey at present was utterly impossible. Besides, having reached this pass, they had only to descend the slopes of the Ural Mountains, and to descend now, with the road torn up by a thousand mountain torrents, in these eddies of wind and rain, was utter madness.
“To wait is indeed serious,” said Michael, “but it must certainly be done, to avoid still longer detentions. The very violence of the storm makes me hope that it will not last long. About three o’clock the day will begin to break, and the descent, which we cannot risk in the dark, we shall be able, if not with ease, at least without such danger, to attempt after sunrise.”
“Let us wait, brother,” replied Nadia; “but if you delay, let it not be to spare me fatigue or danger.”
“Nadia, I know that you are ready to brave everything, but, in exposing both of us, I risk more than my life, more than yours, I am not fulfilling my task, that duty which before everything else I must accomplish.”
“A duty!” murmured Nadia.
Just then a bright flash lit up the sky; a loud clap followed. The air was filled with sulphurous suffocating vapor, and a clump of huge pines, struck by the electric fluid, scarcely twenty feet from the tarantass, flared up like a gigantic torch.
The iemschik was struck to the ground by a counter-shock, but, regaining his feet, found himself happily unhurt.
Just as the last growlings of the thunder were lost in the recesses of the mountain, Michael felt Nadia’s hand pressing his, and he heard her whisper these words in his ear: “Cries, brother! Listen!”