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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 and principal people of Moscow was at the height of its brilliancy, without ample cause; for he had just received information that serious events were taking place beyond the frontiers of the Ural. It had become evident that a formidable rebellion threatened to wrest the Siberian provinces from the Russian crown.
Asiatic Russia, or Siberia, covers a superficial area of 1,790,208 square miles, and contains nearly two millions of inhabitants. Extending from the Ural Mountains, which separate it from Russia in Europe, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, it is bounded on the south by Turkestan and the Chinese Empire; on the north by the Arctic Ocean, from the Sea of Kara to Behring's Straits. It is divided into several governments or provinces, those of Tobolsk, Yeniseisk, Irkutsk, Omsk, and Yakutsk; contains two districts, Okhotsk and Kamtschatka; and possesses two countries, now under the Muscovite dominion-- that of the Kirghiz and that of the Tshouktshes. This immense extent of steppes, which includes more than one hundred and ten degrees from west to east, is a land to which criminals and political offenders are banished.
Two governor-generals represent the supreme authority of the Czar over this vast country. The higher one resides at Irkutsk, the far capital of Eastern Siberia. The River Tchouna separates the two Siberias.
No rail yet furrows these wide plains, some of which are in reality extremely fertile. No iron ways lead from those precious mines which make the Siberian soil far richer below than above its surface. The traveler journeys in summer in a kibick or telga; in winter, in a sledge.
An electric telegraph, with a single wire more than eight thousand versts in length, alone affords communication between the western and eastern frontiers of Siberia. On issuing from the Ural, it passes through Ekaterenburg, Kasirnov, Tioumen, Ishim, Omsk, Elamsk, Kolyvan, Tomsk, Krasnoiarsk, Nijni-Udinsk, Irkutsk, Verkne-Nertschink, Strelink, Albazine, Blagowstenks, Radde, Orlomskaya, Alexandrowskoe, and Nikolaevsk; and six roubles and nineteen copecks are paid for every word sent from one end to the other. From Irkutsk there is a branch to Kiatka, on the Mongolian frontier; and from thence, for thirty copecks a word, the post conveys the dispatches to Pekin in a fortnight.
It was this wire, extending from Ekaterenburg to Nikolaevsk, which had been cut, first beyond Tomsk, and then between Tomsk and Kolyvan.
This was why the Czar, to the communication made to him for the second time by General Kissoff, had answered by the words, "A courier this moment!"
The Czar remained motionless at the window for a few moments, when the door was again opened. The chief of police appeared on the threshold.
"Enter, General," said the Czar briefly, "and tell me all you know of Ivan Ogareff."
"He is an extremely dangerous man, sire," replied the chief of police.
"He ranked as colonel, did he not?"
"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 involved in secret intrigues, and was degraded from his rank by his Highness the Grand Duke, and exiled to Siberia."
"How long ago was that?"
"Two years since. Pardoned after six months of exile by your majesty's favor, he returned to Russia."
"And since that time, has he not revisited Siberia?"
"Yes, sire; but he voluntarily returned there," replied the chief of police, 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 CAN return."
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 was evident that he did not approve of such half-measures. According to his idea, a man who had once passed the Ural Mountains in charge of policemen, ought never again to cross them. Now, it was not thus under the new reign, and the chief of police sincerely deplored it. What! no banishment for life for other crimes than those against social order! What! political exiles returning from Tobolsk, from Yakutsk, from Irkutsk! In truth, the chief of police, accustomed to the despotic sentences of the ukase which formerly never pardoned, could not understand this mode of governing. But he was silent, waiting until the Czar should interrogate him further. The questions were not long in coming.
"Did not Ivan Ogareff," asked the Czar, "return to Russia a second time, after that journey through the Siberian provinces, the object of which remains unknown?"
"And have the police lost trace of him since?"
"No, sire; for an offender only becomes really dangerous from the day he has received his pardon."
The Czar frowned. Perhaps the chief of police feared that he had gone rather too far, though the stubbornness of his ideas was at least equal 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 his conduct."
"Then he was not under the surveillance of the secret police?"
"When did he leave Perm?"
"About the month of March?"
"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 received anonymous communications which did not pass through the police department; and, in the face of events now taking place beyond the frontier, I have every reason to believe that they are correct."
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Michael Strogoff -by- Jules Verne