15. The Marshes Of The Baraba
IT was fortunate that Michael Strogoff had left the posting-house so promptly.
The orders of Ivan Ogareff had been immediately transmitted to all the
approaches of the city, and a full description of Michael sent to all the various
commandants, in order to prevent his departure from Omsk. But he had already
passed through one of the breaches in the wall; his horse was galloping over the
steppe, and the chances of escape were in his favor.
It was on the 29th of July, at eight o'clock in the evening, that Michael Strogoff
had left Omsk. This town is situated about halfway between Moscow and Irkutsk,
where it was necessary that he should arrive within ten days if he wished to get
ahead of the Tartar columns. It was evident that the unlucky chance which had
brought him into the presence of his mother had betrayed his incognito. Ivan
Ogareff was no longer ignorant of the fact that a courier of the Czar had just
passed Omsk, taking the direction of Irkutsk. The dispatches which this courier
bore must have been of immense importance. Michael Strogoff knew, therefore,
that every effort would be made to capture him.
But what he did not know, and could not know, was that Marfa Strogoff was in
the hands of Ivan Ogareff, and that she was about to atone, perhaps with her life,
for that natural exhibition of her feelings which she had been unable to restrain
when she suddenly found herself in the presence of her son. And it was fortunate
that he was ignorant of it. Could he have withstood this fresh trial?
Michael Strogoff urged on his horse, imbuing him with all his own feverish
impatience, requiring of him one thing only, namely, to bear him rapidly to the
next posting-house, where he could be exchanged for a quicker conveyance.
At midnight he had cleared fifty miles, and halted at the station of Koulikovo. But
there, as he had feared, he found neither horses nor carriages. Several Tartar
detachments had passed along the highway of the steppe. Everything had been
stolen or requisitioned both in the villages and in the posting-houses. It was with
difficulty that Michael Strogoff was even able to obtain some refreshment for his
horse and himself.
It was of great importance, therefore, to spare his horse, for he could not tell
when or how he might be able to replace it. Desiring, however, to put the greatest
possible distance between himself and the horsemen who had no doubt been
dispatched in pursuit, he resolved to push on. After one hour's rest he resumed
his course across the steppe.
Hitherto the weather had been propitious for his journey. The temperature was
endurable. The nights at this time of the year are very short, and as they are
lighted by the moon, the route over the steppe is practicable. Michael Strogoff,
moreover, was a man certain of his road and devoid of doubt or hesitation, and in
spite of the melancholy thoughts which possessed him he had preserved his
clearness of mind, and made for his destined point as though it were visible upon
the horizon. When he did halt for a moment at some turn in the road it was to
breathe his horse. Now he would dismount to ease his steed for a moment, and