Michael Strogoff: Part One

Chapter VIII

Going up the Kama

The next day, the 18th of July, at twenty minutes to seven in the morning, the Caucasus reached the Kasan quay, seven versts from the town.

Kasan is situated at the confluence of the Volga and Kasanka. It is an important chief town of the government, and a Greek archbishopric, as well as the seat of a university. The varied population preserves an Asiatic character. Although the town was so far from the landing-place, a large crowd was collected on the quay. They had come for news. The governor of the province had published an order identical with that of Nijni-Novgorod. Police officers and a few Cossacks kept order among the crowd, and cleared the way both for the passengers who were disembarking and also for those who were embarking on board the Caucasus, minutely examining both classes of travelers. The one were the Asiatics who were being expelled; the other, mujiks stopping at Kasan.

Michael Strogoff unconcernedly watched the bustle which occurs at all quays on the arrival of a steam vessel. The Caucasus would stay for an hour to renew her fuel. Michael did not even think of landing. He was unwilling to leave the young Livonian girl alone on board, as she had not yet reappeared on deck.

The two journalists had risen at dawn, as all good huntsmen should do. They went on shore and mingled with the crowd, each keeping to his own peculiar mode of proceeding; Harry Blount, sketching different types, or noting some observation; Alcide Jolivet contenting himself with asking questions, confiding in his memory, which never failed him.

There was a report along all the frontier that the insurrection and invasion had reached considerable proportions. Communication between Siberia and the empire was already extremely difficult. All this Michael Strogoff heard from the new arrivals. This information could not but cause him great uneasiness, and increase his wish of being beyond the Ural Mountains, so as to judge for himself of the truth of these rumors, and enable him to guard against any possible contingency. He was thinking of seeking more direct intelligence from some native of Kasan, when his attention was suddenly diverted.

Among the passengers who were leaving the Caucasus, Michael recognized the troop of Tsiganes who, the day before, had appeared in the Nijni-Novgorod fair. There, on the deck of the steamboat were the old Bohemian and the woman. With them, and no doubt under their direction, landed about twenty dancers and singers, from fifteen to twenty years of age, wrapped in old cloaks, which covered their spangled dresses. These dresses, just then glancing in the first rays of the sun, reminded Michael of the curious appearance which he had observed during the night. It must have been the glitter of those spangles in the bright flames issuing from the steamboat’s funnel which had attracted his attention.

“Evidently,” said Michael to himself, “this troop of Tsiganes, after remaining below all day, crouched under the forecastle during the night. Were these gipsies trying to show themselves as little as possible? Such is not according to the usual custom of their race.”

Michael Strogoff no longer doubted that the expressions he had heard, had proceeded from this tawny group, and had been exchanged between the old gypsy and the woman to whom he gave the Mongolian name of Sangarre. Michael involuntarily moved towards the gangway, as the Bohemian troop was leaving the steamboat.

The old Bohemian was there, in a humble attitude, little conformable with the effrontery natural to his race. One would have said that he was endeavoring rather to avoid attention than to attract it. His battered hat, browned by the suns of every clime, was pulled forward over his wrinkled face. His arched back was bent under an old cloak, wrapped closely round him, notwithstanding the heat. It would have been difficult, in this miserable dress, to judge of either his size or face. Near him was the Tsigane, Sangarre, a woman about thirty years old. She was tall and well made, with olive complexion, magnificent eyes, and golden hair.

Many of the young dancers were remarkably pretty, all possessing the clear-cut features of their race. These Tsiganes are generally very attractive, and more than one of the great Russian nobles, who try to vie with the English in eccentricity, has not hesitated to choose his wife from among these gypsy girls. One of them was humming a song of strange rhythm, which might be thus rendered:

“Glitters brightly the gold

In my raven locks streaming Rich coral around

My graceful neck gleaming; Like a bird of the air,

Through the wide world I roam.”

The laughing girl continued her song, but Michael Strogoff ceased to listen. It struck him just then that the Tsigane, Sangarre, was regarding him with a peculiar gaze, as if to fix his features indelibly in her memory.

It was but for a few moments, when Sangarre herself followed the old man and his troop, who had already left the vessel. “That’s a bold gypsy,” said Michael to himself. “Could she have recognized me as the man whom she saw at Nijni-Novgorod? These confounded Tsiganes have the eyes of a cat! They can see in the dark; and that woman there might well know—”

Michael Strogoff was on the point of following Sangarre and the gypsy band, but he stopped. “No,” thought he, “no unguarded proceedings. If I were to stop that old fortune teller and his companions my incognito would run a risk of being discovered. Besides, now they have landed, before they can pass the frontier I shall be far beyond it. They may take the route from Kasan to Ishim, but that affords no resources to travelers. Besides a tarantass, drawn by good Siberian horses, will always go faster than a gypsy cart! Come, friend Korpanoff, be easy.”

By this time the man and Sangarre had disappeared.

Kasan is justly called the “Gate of Asia” and considered as the center of Siberian and Bokharian commerce; for two roads begin here and lead across the Ural Mountains. Michael Strogoff had very judiciously chosen the one by Perm and Ekaterenburg. It is the great stage road, well supplied with relays kept at the expense of the government, and is prolonged from Ishim to Irkutsk.

It is true that a second route—the one of which Michael had just spoken—avoiding the slight detour by Perm, also connects Kasan with Ishim. It is perhaps shorter than the other, but this advantage is much diminished by the absence of post-houses, the bad roads, and lack of villages. Michael Strogoff was right in the choice he had made, and if, as appeared probable, the gipsies should follow the second route from Kasan to Ishim, he had every chance of arriving before them.

An hour afterwards the bell rang on board the Caucasus, calling the new passengers, and recalling the former ones. It was now seven o’clock in the morning. The requisite fuel had been received on board. The whole vessel began to vibrate from the effects of the steam. She was ready to start. Passengers going from Kasan to Perm were crowding on the deck.

Michael noticed that of the two reporters Blount alone had rejoined the steamer. Was Alcide Jolivet about to miss his passage?

But just as the ropes were being cast off, Jolivet appeared, tearing along. The steamer was already sheering off, the gangway had been drawn onto the quay, but Alcide Jolivet would not stick at such a little thing as that, so, with a bound like a harlequin, he alighted on the deck of the Caucasus almost in his rival’s arms.

“I thought the Caucasus was going without you,” said the latter.

“Bah!” answered Jolivet, “I should soon have caught you up again, by chartering a boat at my cousin’s expense, or by traveling post at twenty copecks a verst, and on horseback. What could I do? It was so long a way from the quay to the telegraph office.”

“Have you been to the telegraph office?” asked Harry Blount, biting his lips.

“That’s exactly where I have been!” answered Jolivet, with his most amiable smile.

“And is it still working to Kolyvan?”

“That I don’t know, but I can assure you, for instance, that it is working from Kasan to Paris.”

“You sent a dispatch to your cousin?”

“With enthusiasm.”

“You had learnt then—?”

“Look here, little father, as the Russians say,” replied Alcide Jolivet, “I’m a good fellow, and I don’t wish to keep anything from you. The Tartars, and Feofar-Khan at their head, have passed Semipolatinsk, and are descending the Irtish. Do what you like with that!”

What! such important news, and Harry Blount had not known it; and his rival, who had probably learned it from some inhabitant of Kasan, had already transmitted it to Paris. The English paper was distanced! Harry Blount, crossing his hands behind him, walked off and seated himself in the stern without uttering a word.

About ten o’clock in the morning, the young Livonian, leaving her cabin, appeared on deck. Michael Strogoff went forward and took her hand. “Look, sister!” said he, leading her to the bows of the Caucasus.

The view was indeed well worth seeing. The Caucasus had reached the confluence of the Volga and the Kama. There she would leave the former river, after having descended it for nearly three hundred miles, to ascend the latter for a full three hundred.

The Kama was here very wide, and its wooded banks lovely. A few white sails enlivened the sparkling water. The horizon was closed by a line of hills covered with aspens, alders, and sometimes large oaks.

But these beauties of nature could not distract the thoughts of the young Livonian even for an instant. She had left her hand in that of her companion, and turning to him, “At what distance are we from Moscow?” she asked.

“Nine hundred versts,” answered Michael.

“Nine hundred, out of seven thousand!” murmured the girl.

The bell now announced the breakfast hour. Nadia followed Michael Strogoff to the restaurant. She ate little, and as a poor girl whose means are small would do. Michael thought it best to content himself with the fare which satisfied his companion; and in less than twenty minutes he and Nadia returned on deck. There they seated themselves in the stern, and without preamble, Nadia, lowering her voice to be heard by him alone, began:

“Brother, I am the daughter of an exile. My name is Nadia Fedor. My mother died at Riga scarcely a month ago, and I am going to Irkutsk to rejoin my father and share his exile.”

“I, too, am going to Irkutsk,” answered Michael, “and I shall thank Heaven if it enables me to give Nadia Fedor safe and sound into her father’s hands.”

“Thank you, brother,” replied Nadia.

Michael Strogoff then added that he had obtained a special podorojna for Siberia, and that the Russian authorities could in no way hinder his progress.

Nadia asked nothing more. She saw in this fortunate meeting with Michael a means only of accelerating her journey to her father.

“I had,” said she, “a permit which authorized me to go to Irkutsk, but the new order annulled that; and but for you, brother, I should have been unable to leave the town, in which, without doubt, I should have perished.”

“And dared you, alone, Nadia,” said Michael, “attempt to cross the steppes of Siberia?”

“The Tartar invasion was not known when I left Riga. It was only at Moscow that I learnt the news.”

“And despite it, you continued your journey?”

“It was my duty.”

The words showed the character of the brave girl.

She then spoke of her father, Wassili Fedor. He was a much-esteemed physician at Riga. But his connection with some secret society having been asserted, he received orders to start for Irkutsk. The police who brought the order conducted him without delay beyond the frontier.

Wassili Fedor had but time to embrace his sick wife and his daughter, so soon to be left alone, when, shedding bitter tears, he was led away. A year and a half after her husband’s departure, Madame Fedor died in the arms of her daughter, who was thus left alone and almost penniless. Nadia Fedor then asked, and easily obtained from the Russian government, an authorization to join her father at Irkutsk. She wrote and told him she was starting. She had barely enough money for this long journey, and yet she did not hesitate to undertake it. She would do what she could. God would do the rest.

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 15:48:16 $