1. A Tartar Camp
AT a day's march from Kolyvan, several versts beyond the town of Diachinks,
stretches a wide plain, planted here and there with great trees, principally pines
and cedars. This part of the steppe is usually occupied during the warm season
by Siberian shepherds, and their numerous flocks. But now it might have been
searched in vain for one of its nomad inhabitants. Not that the plain was
deserted. It presented a most animated appearance.
There stood the Tartar tents; there Feofar-Khan, the terrible Emir of Bokhara,
was encamped; and there on the following day, the 7th of August, were brought
the prisoners taken at Kolyvan after the annihilation of the Russian force, which
had vainly attempted to oppose the progress of the invaders. Of the two
thousand men who had engaged with the two columns of the enemy, the bases
of which rested on Tomsk and Omsk, only a few hundred remained. Thus events
were going badly, and the imperial government appeared to have lost its power
beyond the frontiers of the Ural--for a time at least, for the Russians could not fail
eventually to defeat the savage hordes of the invaders. But in the meantime the
invasion had reached the center of Siberia, and it was spreading through the
revolted country both to the eastern, and the western provinces. If the troops of
the Amoor and the province of Takutsk did not arrive in time to occupy it, Irkutsk,
the capital of Asiatic Russia, being insufficiently garrisoned, would fall into the
hands of the Tartars, and the Grand Duke, brother of the Emperor, would be
sacrificed to the vengeance of Ivan Ogareff.
What had become of Michael Strogoff? Had he broken down under the weight of
so many trials? Did he consider himself conquered by the series of disasters
which, since the adventure of Ichim, had increased in magnitude? Did he think
his cause lost? that his mission had failed? that his orders could no longer be
Michael was one of those men who never give in while life exists. He was yet
alive; he still had the imperial letter safe; his disguise had been undiscovered. He
was included amongst the numerous prisoners whom the Tartars were dragging
with them like cattle; but by approaching Tomsk he was at the same time drawing
nearer to Irkutsk. Besides, he was still in front of Ivan Ogareff.
"I will get there!" he repeated to himself.
Since the affair of Kolyvan all the powers of his mind were concentrated on one
object--to become free! How should he escape from the Emir's soldiers?
Feofar's camp presented a magnificent spectacle.
Numberless tents, of skin, felt, or silk, glistened in the rays of the sun. The lofty
plumes which surmounted their conical tops waved amidst banners, flags, and
pennons of every color. The richest of these tents belonged to the Seides and
Khodjas, who are the principal personages of the khanat. A special pavilion,
ornamented with a horse's tail issuing from a sheaf of red and white sticks
artistically interlaced, indicated the high rank of these Tartar chiefs. Then in the