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CHAPTER XI TRAVELERS IN DISTRESS
DURING the momentary lull which followed, shouts could be distinctly heard from farther on, at no great distance from the tarantass. It was an earnest appeal, evidently from some traveler in distress.
Michael listened attentively. The iemschik also listened, but shook his head, as though it was impossible to help.
"They are travelers calling for aid," cried Nadia.
"They can expect nothing," replied the iemschik.
"Why not?" cried Michael. "Ought not we do for them what they would for us under similar circumstances?"
"Surely you will not risk the carriage and horses!"
"I will go on foot," replied Michael, interrupting the iemschik.
"I will go, too, brother," said the young girl.
"No, remain here, Nadia. The iemschik will stay with you. I do not wish to leave him alone."
"I will stay," replied Nadia.
"Whatever happens, do not leave this spot."
"You will find me where I now am."
Michael pressed her hand, and, turning the corner of the slope, disappeared in the darkness.
"Your brother is wrong," said the iemschik.
"He is right," replied Nadia simply.
Meanwhile Strogoff strode rapidly on. If he was in a great hurry to aid the travelers, he was also very anxious to know who it was that had not been hindered from starting by the storm; for he had no doubt that the cries came from the telga, which had so long preceded him.
The rain had stopped, but the storm was raging with redoubled fury. The shouts, borne on the air, became more distinct. Nothing was to be seen of the pass in which Nadia remained. The road wound along, and the squalls, checked by the corners, formed eddies highly dangerous, to pass which, without being taken off his legs, Michael had to use his utmost strength.
He soon perceived that the travelers whose shouts he had heard were at no great distance. Even then, on account of the darkness, Michael could not see them, yet he heard distinctly their words.
This is what he heard, and what caused him some surprise: "Are you coming back, blockhead?"
"You shall have a taste of the knout at the next stage."
"Do you hear, you devil's postillion! Hullo! Below!"
"This is how a carriage takes you in this country!"
"Yes, this is what you call a telga!"
"Oh, that abominable driver! He goes on and does not appear to have discovered that he has left us behind!"
"To deceive me, too! Me, an honorable Englishman! I will make a complaint at the chancellor's office and have the fellow hanged."
This was said in a very angry tone, but was suddenly interrupted by a burst of laughter from his companion, who exclaimed, "Well! this is a good joke, I must say."
"You venture to laugh!" said the Briton angrily.
"Certainly, my dear confrere, and that most heartily. 'Pon my word I never saw anything to come up to it."
Just then a crashing clap of thunder re-echoed through the defile, and then died away among the distant peaks. When the sound of the last growl had ceased, the merry voice went on: "Yes, it undoubtedly is a good joke. This machine certainly never came from France."
"Nor from England," replied the other.
On the road, by the light of the flashes, Michael saw, twenty yards from him, two travelers, seated side by side in a most peculiar vehicle, the wheels of which were deeply imbedded in the ruts formed in the road.
He approached them, the one grinning from ear to ear, and the other gloomily contemplating his situation, and recognized them as the two reporters who had been his companions on board the Caucasus.
"Good-morning to you, sir," cried the Frenchman. "Delighted to see you here. Let me introduce you to my intimate enemy, Mr. Blount."
The English reporter bowed, and was about to introduce in his turn his companion, Alcide Jolivet, in accordance with the rules of society, when Michael interrupted him.
"Perfectly unnecessary, sir; we already know each other, for we traveled together on the Volga."
"Ah, yes! exactly so! Mr. - "
"Nicholas Korpanoff, merchant, of Irkutsk. But may I know what has happened which, though a misfortune to your companion, amuses you so much?"
"Certainly, Mr. Korpanoff," replied Alcide. "Fancy! our driver has gone off with the front part of this confounded carriage, and left us quietly seated in the back part! So here we are in the worse half of a telga; no driver, no horses. Is it not a joke?"
"No joke at all," said the Englishman.
"Indeed it is, my dear fellow. You do not know how to look at the bright side of things."
"How, pray, are we to go on?" asked Blount.
"That is the easiest thing in the world," replied Alcide. "Go and harness yourself to what remains of our cart; I will take the reins, and call you my little pigeon, like a true iemschik, and you will trot off like a real post-horse."
"Mr. Jolivet," replied the Englishman, "this joking is going too far, it passes all limits and - "
"Now do be quiet, my dear sir. When you are done up, I will take your place; and call me a broken-winded snail and faint-hearted tortoise if I don't take you over the ground at a rattling pace."
Alcide said all this with such perfect good-humor that Michael could not help smiling. "Gentlemen," said he, "here is a better plan. We have now reached the highest ridge of the Ural chain, and thus have merely to descend the slopes of the mountain. My carriage is close by, only two hundred yards behind. I will lend you one of my horses, harness it to the remains of the telga, and to-mor-how, if no accident befalls us, we will arrive together at Ekaterenburg."
"That, Mr. Korpanoff," said Alcide, "is indeed a generous proposal."
"Indeed, sir," replied Michael, "I would willingly offer you places in my tarantass, but it will only hold two, and my sister and I already fill it."
"Really, sir," answered Alcide, "with your horse and our demi-telga we will go to the world's end."
"Sir," said Harry Blount, "we most willingly accept your kind offer. And, as to that iemschik - "
"Oh! I assure you that you are not the first travelers who have met with a similar misfortune," replied Michael.
"But why should not our driver come back? He knows perfectly well that he has left us behind, wretch that he is!"
"He! He never suspected such a thing."
"What! the fellow not know that he was leaving the better half of his telga behind?"
"Not a bit, and in all good faith is driving the fore part into Ekaterenburg."
"Did I not tell you that it was a good joke, confrere?" cried Alcide.
"Then, gentlemen, if you will follow me," said Michael, "we will return to my carriage, and - "
"But the telga," observed the Englishman.
"There is not the slightest fear that it will fly away, my dear Blount!" exclaimed Alcide; "it has taken such good root in the ground, that if it were left here until next spring it would begin to bud."
"Come then, gentlemen," said Michael Strogoff, "and we will bring up the tarantass."
The Frenchman and the Englishman, descending from their seats, no longer the hinder one, since the front had taken its departure, followed Michael.
Walking along, Alcide Jolivet chattered away as usual, with his invariable good-humor. "Faith, Mr. Korpanoff," said he, "you have indeed got us out of a bad scrape."
"I have only done, sir," replied Michael, "what anyone would have done in my place."
"Well, sir, you have done us a good turn, and if you are going farther we may possibly meet again, and - "
Alcide Jolivet did not put any direct question to Michael as to where he was going, but the latter, not wishing it to be suspected that he had anything to conceal, at once replied, "I am bound for Omsk, gentlemen."
"Mr. Blount and I," replied Alcide, "go where danger is certainly to be found, and without doubt news also."
"To the invaded provinces?" asked Michael with some earnestness.
"Exactly so, Mr. Korpanoff; and we may possibly meet there."
"Indeed, sir," replied Michael, "I have little love for cannon-balls or lance points, and am by nature too great a lover of peace to venture where fighting is going on."
"I am sorry, sir, extremely sorry; we must only regret that we shall separate so soon! But on leaving Ekaterenburg it may be our fortunate fate to travel together, if only for a few days?"
"Do you go on to Omsk?" asked Michael, after a moment's reflection.
"We know nothing as yet," replied Alcide; "but we shall certainly go as far as Ishim, and once there, our movements must depend on circumstances."
"Well then, gentlemen," said Michael, "we will be fellow-travelers as far as Ishim."
Michael would certainly have preferred to travel alone, but he could not, without appearing at least singular, seek to separate himself from the two reporters, who were taking the same road that he was. Besides, since Alcide and his companion intended to make some stay at Ishim, he thought it rather convenient than otherwise to make that part of the journey in their company.
Then in an indifferent tone he asked, "Do you know, with any certainty, where this Tartar invasion is?"
"Indeed, sir," replied Alcide, "we only know what they said at Perm. Feofar-Khan's Tartars have invaded the whole province of Semipolatinsk, and for some days, by forced marches, have been descending the Irtish. You must hurry if you wish to get to Omsk before them."
"Indeed I must," replied Michael.
"It is reported also that Colonel Ogareff has succeeded in passing the frontier in disguise, and that he will not be slow in joining the Tartar chief in the revolted country."
"But how do they know it?" asked Michael, whom this news, more or less true, so directly concerned.
"Oh! as these things are always known," replied Alcide; "it is in the air."
"Then have you really reason to think that Colonel Ogareff is in Siberia?"
"I myself have heard it said that he was to take the road from Kasan to Ekaterenburg."
"Ah! you know that, Mr. Jolivet?" said Harry Blount, roused from his silence.
"I knew it," replied Alcide.
"And do you know that he went disguised as a gypsy!" asked Blount.
"As a gypsy!" exclaimed Michael, almost involuntarily, and he suddenly remembered the look of the old Bohemian at Nijni-Novgorod, his voyage on board the Caucasus, and his disembarking at Kasan.
"Just well enough to make a few remarks on the subject in a letter to my cousin," replied Alcide, smiling.
"You lost no time at Kasan," dryly observed the Englishman.
"No, my dear fellow! and while the Caucasus was laying in her supply of fuel, I was employed in obtaining a store of information."
Michael no longer listened to the repartee which Harry Blount and Alcide exchanged. He was thinking of the gypsy troupe, of the old Tsigane, whose face he had not been able to see, and of the strange woman who accompanied him, and then of the peculiar glance which she had cast at him. Suddenly, close by he heard a pistol-shot.
"Ah! forward, sirs!" cried he.
"Hullo!" said Alcide to himself, "this quiet merchant who always avoids bullets is in a great hurry to go where they are flying about just now!"
Quickly followed by Harry Blount, who was not a man to be behind in danger, he dashed after Michael. In another instant the three were opposite the projecting rock which protected the tarantass at the turning of the road.
The clump of pines struck by the lightning was still burning. There was no one to be seen. However, Michael was not mistaken. Suddenly a dreadful growling was heard, and then another report.
"A bear;" cried Michael, who could not mistake the growling. "Nadia; Nadia!" And drawing his cutlass from his belt, Michael bounded round the buttress behind which the young girl had promised to wait.
The pines, completely enveloped in flames, threw a wild glare on the scene. As Michael reached the tarantass, a huge animal retreated towards him.
It was a monstrous bear. The tempest had driven it from the woods, and it had come to seek refuge in this cave, doubtless its habitual retreat, which Nadia then occupied.
Two of the horses, terrified at the presence of the enormous creature, breaking their traces, had escaped, and the iemschik, thinking only of his beasts, leaving Nadia face to face with the bear, had gone in pursuit of them.
But the brave girl had not lost her presence of mind. The animal, which had not at first seen her, was attacking the remaining horse. Nadia, leaving the shelter in which she had been crouching, had run to the carriage, taken one of Michael's revolvers, and, advancing resolutely towards the bear, had fired close to it.
The animal, slightly wounded in the shoulder, turned on the girl, who rushed for protection behind the tarantass, but then, seeing that the horse was attempting to break its traces, and knowing that if it did so, and the others were not recovered, their journey could not be continued, with the most perfect coolness she again approached the bear, and, as it raised its paws to strike her down, gave it the contents of the second barrel.
This was the report which Michael had just heard. In an instant he was on the spot. Another bound and he was between the bear and the girl. His arm made one movement upwards, and the enormous beast, ripped up by that terrible knife, fell to the ground a lifeless mass. He had executed in splendid style the famous blow of the Siberian hunters, who endeavor not to damage the precious fur of the bear, which fetches a high price.
"You are not wounded, sister?" said Michael, springing to the side of the young girl.
"No, brother," replied Nadia.
At that moment the two journalists came up. Alcide seized the horse's head, and, in an instant, his strong wrist mastered it. His companion and he had seen Michael's rapid stroke. "Bravo!" cried Alcide; "for a simple merchant, Mr. Korpanoff, you handle the hunter's knife in a most masterly fashion."
"Most masterly, indeed," added Blount.
"In Siberia," replied Michael, "we are obliged to do a little of everything."
Alcide regarded him attentively. Seen in the bright glare, his knife dripping with blood, his tall figure, his foot firm on the huge carcass, he was indeed worth looking at.
"A formidable fellow," said Alcide to himself. Then advancing respectfully, he saluted the young girl.
Nadia bowed slightly.
Alcide turned towards his companion. "The sister worthy of the brother!" said he. "Now, were I a bear, I should not meddle with two so brave and so charming."
Harry Blount, perfectly upright, stood, hat in hand, at some distance. His companion's easy manners only increased his usual stiffness.
At that moment the iemschik, who had succeeded in recapturing his two horses, reappeared. He cast a regretful glance at the magnificent animal lying on the ground, loth to leave it to the birds of prey, and then proceeded once more to harness his team.
Michael acquainted him with the travelers' situation, and his intention of loaning one of the horses.
"As you please," replied the iemschik. "Only, you know, two carriages instead of one."
"All right, my friend," said Alcide, who understood the insinuation, "we will pay double."
"Then gee up, my turtle-doves!" cried the iemschik.
Nadia again took her place in the tarantass. Michael and his companions followed on foot. It was three o'clock. The storm still swept with terrific violence across the defile. When the first streaks of daybreak appeared the tarantass had reached the telga, which was still conscientiously imbedded as far as the center of the wheel. Such being the case, it can be easily understood how a sudden jerk would separate the front from the hinder part. One of the horses was now harnessed by means of cords to the remains of the telga, the reporters took their place on the singular equipage, and the two carriages started off. They had now only to descend the Ural slopes, in doing which there was not the slightest difficulty.
Six hours afterwards the two vehicles, the tarantass preceding the telga, arrived at Ekaterenburg, nothing worthy of note having happened in the descent.
The first person the reporters perceived at the door of the post-house was their iemschik, who appeared to be waiting for them. This worthy Russian had a fine open countenance, and he smilingly approached the travelers, and, holding out his hand, in a quiet tone he demanded the usual "pour-boire."
This very cool request roused Blount's ire to its highest pitch, and had not the iemschik prudently retreated, a straight-out blow of the fist, in true British boxing style, would have paid his claim of "na vodkou."
Alcide Jolivet, at this burst of anger, laughed as he had never laughed before.
"But the poor devil is quite right!" he cried. "He is perfectly right, my dear fellow. It is not his fault if we did not know how to follow him!"
Then drawing several copecks from his pocket, "Here my friend," said he, handing them to the iemschik; "take them. If you have not earned them, that is not your fault."
This redoubled Mr. Blount's irritation. He even began to speak of a lawsuit against the owner of the telga.
"A lawsuit in Russia, my dear fellow!" cried Alcide. "Things must indeed change should it ever be brought to a conclusion! Did you never hear the story of the wet-nurse who claimed payment of twelve months' nursing of some poor little infant?"
"I never heard it," replied Harry Blount.
"Then you do not know what that suckling had become by the time judgment was given in favor of the nurse?"
"What was he, pray?"
"Colonel of the Imperial Guard!"
At this reply all burst into a laugh.
Alcide, enchanted with his own joke, drew out his notebook, and in it wrote the following memorandum, destined to figure in a forthcoming French and Russian dictionary: "Telga, a Russian carriage with four wheels, that is when it starts; with two wheels, when it arrives at its destination."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XII PROVOCATION