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Michael Strogoff; Or, The Courier of the Czar, Page 2

Jules Verne


  THE Czar had not so suddenly left the ball-room of the New Palace,when the fete he was giving to the civil and military authorities andprincipal people of Moscow was at the height of its brilliancy, withoutample cause; for he had just received information that serious eventswere taking place beyond the frontiers of the Ural. It had becomeevident that a formidable rebellion threatened to wrest the Siberianprovinces from the Russian crown.

  Asiatic Russia, or Siberia, covers a superficial area of 1,790,208square miles, and contains nearly two millions of inhabitants. Extendingfrom the Ural Mountains, which separate it from Russia in Europe, to theshores of the Pacific Ocean, it is bounded on the south by Turkestan andthe Chinese Empire; on the north by the Arctic Ocean, from the Sea ofKara to Behring's Straits. It is divided into several governments orprovinces, those of Tobolsk, Yeniseisk, Irkutsk, Omsk, and Yakutsk;contains two districts, Okhotsk and Kamtschatka; and possesses twocountries, now under the Muscovite dominion--that of the Kirghiz andthat of the Tshouktshes. This immense extent of steppes, which includesmore than one hundred and ten degrees from west to east, is a land towhich criminals and political offenders are banished.

  Two governor-generals represent the supreme authority of the Czar overthis vast country. The higher one resides at Irkutsk, the far capital ofEastern Siberia. The River Tchouna separates the two Siberias.

  No rail yet furrows these wide plains, some of which are in realityextremely fertile. No iron ways lead from those precious mines whichmake the Siberian soil far richer below than above its surface. Thetraveler journeys in summer in a kibick or telga; in winter, in asledge.

  An electric telegraph, with a single wire more than eight thousandversts in length, alone affords communication between the westernand eastern frontiers of Siberia. On issuing from the Ural, it passesthrough Ekaterenburg, Kasirnov, Tioumen, Ishim, Omsk, Elamsk, Kolyvan,Tomsk, Krasnoiarsk, Nijni-Udinsk, Irkutsk, Verkne-Nertschink, Strelink,Albazine, Blagowstenks, Radde, Orlomskaya, Alexandrowskoe, andNikolaevsk; and six roubles and nineteen copecks are paid for everyword sent from one end to the other. From Irkutsk there is a branch toKiatka, on the Mongolian frontier; and from thence, for thirty copecks aword, the post conveys the dispatches to Pekin in a fortnight.

  It was this wire, extending from Ekaterenburg to Nikolaevsk, which hadbeen cut, first beyond Tomsk, and then between Tomsk and Kolyvan.

  This was why the Czar, to the communication made to him for the secondtime by General Kissoff, had answered by the words, "A courier thismoment!"

  The Czar remained motionless at the window for a few moments, when thedoor was again opened. The chief of police appeared on the threshold.

  "Enter, General," said the Czar briefly, "and tell me all you know ofIvan Ogareff."

  "He is an extremely dangerous man, sire," replied the chief of police.

  "He ranked as colonel, did he not?"

  "Yes, sire."

  "Was he an intelligent officer?"

  "Very intelligent, but a man whose spirit it was impossible to subdue;and possessing an ambition which stopped at nothing, he became involvedin secret intrigues, and was degraded from his rank by his Highness theGrand Duke, and exiled to Siberia."

  "How long ago was that?"

  "Two years since. Pardoned after six months of exile by your majesty'sfavor, he returned to Russia."

  "And since that time, has he not revisited Siberia?"

  "Yes, sire; but he voluntarily returned there," replied the chief ofpolice, adding, and slightly lowering his voice, "there was a time,sire, when NONE returned from Siberia."

  "Well, whilst I live, Siberia is and shall be a country whence men CANreturn."

  The Czar had the right to utter these words with some pride, for often,by his clemency, he had shown that Russian justice knew how to pardon.

  The head of the police did not reply to this observation, but it wasevident that he did not approve of such half-measures. According tohis idea, a man who had once passed the Ural Mountains in charge ofpolicemen, ought never again to cross them. Now, it was not thus underthe new reign, and the chief of police sincerely deplored it. What! nobanishment for life for other crimes than those against social order!What! political exiles returning from Tobolsk, from Yakutsk, fromIrkutsk! In truth, the chief of police, accustomed to the despoticsentences of the ukase which formerly never pardoned, could notunderstand this mode of governing. But he was silent, waiting untilthe Czar should interrogate him further. The questions were not long incoming.

  "Did not Ivan Ogareff," asked the Czar, "return to Russia a second time,after that journey through the Siberian provinces, the object of whichremains unknown?"

  "He did."

  "And have the police lost trace of him since?"

  "No, sire; for an offender only becomes really dangerous from the day hehas received his pardon."

  The Czar frowned. Perhaps the chief of police feared that he had gonerather too far, though the stubbornness of his ideas was at leastequal to the boundless devotion he felt for his master. But the Czar,disdaining to reply to these indirect reproaches cast on his policy,continued his questions. "Where was Ogareff last heard of?"

  "In the province of Perm."

  "In what town?"

  "At Perm itself."

  "What was he doing?"

  "He appeared unoccupied, and there was nothing suspicious in hisconduct."

  "Then he was not under the surveillance of the secret police?"

  "No, sire."

  "When did he leave Perm?"

  "About the month of March?"

  "To go...?"

  "Where, is unknown."

  "And it is not known what has become of him?"

  "No, sire; it is not known."

  "Well, then, I myself know," answered the Czar. "I have receivedanonymous communications which did not pass through the policedepartment; and, in the face of events now taking place beyond thefrontier, I have every reason to believe that they are correct."

  "Do you mean, sire," cried the chief of police, "that Ivan Ogareff has ahand in this Tartar rebellion?"

  "Indeed I do; and I will now tell you something which you are ignorantof. After leaving Perm, Ivan Ogareff crossed the Ural mountains, enteredSiberia, and penetrated the Kirghiz steppes, and there endeavored, notwithout success, to foment rebellion amongst their nomadic population.He then went so far south as free Turkestan; there, in the provinces ofBokhara, Khokhand, and Koondooz, he found chiefs willing to pour theirTartar hordes into Siberia, and excite a general rising in AsiaticRussia. The storm has been silently gathering, but it has at last burstlike a thunderclap, and now all means of communication between Easternand Western Siberia have been stopped. Moreover, Ivan Ogareff, thirstingfor vengeance, aims at the life of my brother!"

  The Czar had become excited whilst speaking, and now paced up and downwith hurried steps. The chief of police said nothing, but he thought tohimself that, during the time when the emperors of Russia never pardonedan exile, schemes such as those of Ivan Ogareff could never have beenrealized. Approaching the Czar, who had thrown himself into an armchair,he asked, "Your majesty has of course given orders so that thisrebellion may be suppressed as soon as possible?"

  "Yes," answered the Czar. "The last telegram which reached Nijni-Udinskwould set in motion the troops in the governments of Yenisei, Irkutsk,Yakutsk, as well as those in the provinces of the Amoor and Lake Baikal.At the same time, the regiments from Perm and Nijni-Novgorod, and theCossacks from the frontier, are advancing by forced marches towardsthe Ural Mountains; but some weeks must pass before they can attack theTartars."

  "And your majesty's brother, his Highness the Grand Duke, is nowisolated in the government of Irkutsk, and is no longer in directcommunication with Moscow?"

  "That is so."

  "But by the last dispatches, he must know what measures have beentaken by your majesty, and what help he may expect from the governmentsnearest Irkutsk?"

  "He knows that," ans
wered the Czar; "but what he does not know is, thatIvan Ogareff, as well as being a rebel, is also playing the part of atraitor, and that in him he has a personal and bitter enemy. It is tothe Grand Duke that Ogareff owes his first disgrace; and what ismore serious is, that this man is not known to him. Ogareff's plan,therefore, is to go to Irkutsk, and, under an assumed name, offer hisservices to the Grand Duke. Then, after gaining his confidence, when theTartars have invested Irkutsk, he will betray the town, and with it mybrother, whose life he seeks. This is what I have learned from my secretintelligence; this is what the Grand Duke does not know; and this iswhat he must know!"

  "Well, sire, an intelligent, courageous courier..."

  "I momentarily expect one."

  "And it is to be hoped he will be expeditious," added the chief ofpolice; "for, allow me to add, sire, that Siberia is a favorable landfor rebellions."

  "Do you mean to say. General, that the exiles would make common causewith the rebels?" exclaimed the Czar.

  "Excuse me, your majesty," stammered the chief of police, for that wasreally the idea suggested to him by his uneasy and suspicious mind.

  "I believe in their patriotism," returned the Czar.

  "There are other offenders besides political exiles in Siberia," saidthe chief of police.

  "The criminals? Oh, General, I give those up to you! They are thevilest, I grant, of the human race. They belong to no country. But theinsurrection, or rather, the rebellion, is not to oppose the emperor; itis raised against Russia, against the country which the exiles havenot lost all hope of again seeing--and which they will see again. No, aRussian would never unite with a Tartar, to weaken, were it only for anhour, the Muscovite power!"

  The Czar was right in trusting to the patriotism of those whom hispolicy kept, for a time, at a distance. Clemency, which was thefoundation of his justice, when he could himself direct its effects,the modifications he had adopted with regard to applications for theformerly terrible ukases, warranted the belief that he was not mistaken.But even without this powerful element of success in regard to theTartar rebellion, circumstances were not the less very serious; for itwas to be feared that a large part of the Kirghiz population would jointhe rebels.

  The Kirghiz are divided into three hordes, the greater, the lesser,and the middle, and number nearly four hundred thousand "tents," or twomillion souls. Of the different tribes some are independent and othersrecognize either the sovereignty of Russia or that of the Khans ofKhiva, Khokhand, and Bokhara, the most formidable chiefs of Turkestan.The middle horde, the richest, is also the largest, and its encampmentsoccupy all the space between the rivers Sara Sou, Irtish, and the UpperIshim, Lake Saisang and Lake Aksakal. The greater horde, occupying thecountries situated to the east of the middle one, extends as far as thegovernments of Omsk and Tobolsk. Therefore, if the Kirghiz populationshould rise, it would be the rebellion of Asiatic Russia, and the firstthing would be the separation of Siberia, to the east of the Yenisei.

  It is true that these Kirghiz, mere novices in the art of war, arerather nocturnal thieves and plunderers of caravans than regularsoldiers. As M. Levchine says, "a firm front or a square of goodinfantry could repel ten times the number of Kirghiz; and a singlecannon might destroy a frightful number."

  That may be; but to do this it is necessary for the square of goodinfantry to reach the rebellious country, and the cannon to leave thearsenals of the Russian provinces, perhaps two or three thousand verstsdistant. Now, except by the direct route from Ekaterenburg to Irkutsk,the often marshy steppes are not easily practicable, and some weeks mustcertainly pass before the Russian troops could reach the Tartar hordes.

  Omsk is the center of that military organization of Western Siberiawhich is intended to overawe the Kirghiz population. Here are thebounds, more than once infringed by the half-subdued nomads, and therewas every reason to believe that Omsk was already in danger. The line ofmilitary stations, that is to say, those Cossack posts which are rangedin echelon from Omsk to Semipolatinsk, must have been broken in severalplaces. Now, it was to be feared that the "Grand Sultans," who governthe Kirghiz districts would either voluntarily accept, or involuntarilysubmit to, the dominion of Tartars, Mussulmen like themselves, andthat to the hate caused by slavery was not united the hate due to theantagonism of the Greek and Mussulman religions. For some time, indeed,the Tartars of Turkestan had endeavored, both by force and persuasion,to subdue the Kirghiz hordes.

  A few words only with respect to these Tartars. The Tartars belong moreespecially to two distinct races, the Caucasian and the Mongolian. TheCaucasian race, which, as Abel de Remusat says, "is regarded in Europeas the type of beauty in our species, because all the nations in thispart of the world have sprung from it," includes also the Turks and thePersians. The purely Mongolian race comprises the Mongols, Manchoux, andThibetans.

  The Tartars who now threatened the Russian Empire, belonged to theCaucasian race, and occupied Turkestan. This immense country is dividedinto different states, governed by Khans, and hence termed Khanats. Theprincipal khanats are those of Bokhara, Khokhand, Koondooz, etc. At thisperiod, the most important and the most formidable khanat was that ofBokhara. Russia had already been several times at war with its chiefs,who, for their own interests, had supported the independence of theKirghiz against the Muscovite dominion. The present chief, Feofar-Khan,followed in the steps of his predecessors.

  The khanat of Bokhara has a population of two million five hundredthousand inhabitants, an army of sixty thousand men, trebled in timeof war, and thirty thousand horsemen. It is a rich country, with variedanimal, vegetable, and mineral products, and has been increased by theaccession of the territories of Balkh, Aukoi, and Meimaneh. It possessesnineteen large towns. Bokhara, surrounded by a wall measuring more thaneight English miles, and flanked with towers, a glorious city, madeillustrious by Avicenna and other learned men of the tenth century, isregarded as the center of Mussulman science, and ranks among the mostcelebrated cities of Central Asia. Samarcand, which contains the tombof Tamerlane and the famous palace where the blue stone is kept on whicheach new khan must seat himself on his accession, is defended by a verystrong citadel. Karschi, with its triple cordon, situated in an oasis,surrounded by a marsh peopled with tortoises and lizards, is almostimpregnable, Is-chardjoui is defended by a population of twenty thousandsouls. Protected by its mountains, and isolated by its steppes, thekhanat of Bokhara is a most formidable state; and Russia would need alarge force to subdue it.

  The fierce and ambitious Feofar now governed this corner of Tartary.Relying on the other khans--principally those of Khokhand and Koondooz,cruel and rapacious warriors, all ready to join an enterprise so dearto Tartar instincts--aided by the chiefs who ruled all the hordes ofCentral Asia, he had placed himself at the head of the rebellion ofwhich Ivan Ogareff was the instigator. This traitor, impelled by insaneambition as much as by hate, had ordered the movement so as to attackSiberia. Mad indeed he was, if he hoped to rupture the Muscovite Empire.Acting under his suggestion, the Emir--which is the title taken by thekhans of Bokhara--had poured his hordes over the Russian frontier. Heinvaded the government of Semipolatinsk, and the Cossacks, who wereonly in small force there, had been obliged to retire before him. He hadadvanced farther than Lake Balkhash, gaining over the Kirghiz populationon his way. Pillaging, ravaging, enrolling those who submitted, takingprisoners those who resisted, he marched from one town to another,followed by those impedimenta of Oriental sovereignty which may becalled his household, his wives and his slaves--all with the coolaudacity of a modern Ghengis-Khan. It was impossible to ascertain wherehe now was; how far his soldiers had marched before the news of therebellion reached Moscow; or to what part of Siberia the Russian troopshad been forced to retire. All communication was interrupted. Had thewire between Kolyvan and Tomsk been cut by Tartar scouts, or had theEmir himself arrived at the Yeniseisk provinces? Was all the lower partof Western Siberia in a ferment? Had the rebellion already spread to theeastern regions? No one could say. The only
agent which fears neithercold nor heat, which can neither be stopped by the rigors of winter northe heat of summer, and which flies with the rapidity of lightning--theelectric current--was prevented from traversing the steppes, and it wasno longer possible to warn the Grand Duke, shut up in Irkutsk, of thedanger threatening him from the treason of Ivan Ogareff.

  A courier only could supply the place of the interrupted current. Itwould take this man some time to traverse the five thousand two hundredversts between Moscow and Irkutsk. To pass the ranks of the rebels andinvaders he must display almost superhuman courage and intelligence. Butwith a clear head and a firm heart much can be done.

  "Shall I be able to find this head and heart?" thought the Czar.