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"Yes, Nadia, but what a constitution anyone must have to endure such friendship! I have often seen the temperature in the Siberian steppes fall to more than forty degrees below freezing point! I have felt, notwithstanding my reindeer coat, my heart growing chill, my limbs stiffening, my feet freezing in triple woolen socks; I have seen my sleigh horses covered with a coating of ice, their breath congealed at their nostrils. I have seen the brandy in my flask change into hard stone, on which not even my knife could make an impression. But my sleigh flew like the wind. Not an obstacle on the plain, white and level farther than the eye could reach! No rivers to stop one! Hard ice everywhere, the route open, the road sure! But at the price of what suffering, Nadia, those alone could say, who have never returned, but whose bodies have been covered up by the snow storm."
"However, you have returned, brother," said Nadia.
"Yes, but I am a Siberian, and, when quite a child, I used to follow my father to the chase, and so became inured to these hardships. But when you said to me, Nadia, that winter would not have stopped you, that you would have gone alone, ready to struggle against the frightful Siberian climate, I seemed to see you lost in the snow and falling, never to rise again."
"How many times have you crossed the steppe in winter?" asked the young Livonian.
"Three times, Nadia, when I was going to Omsk."
"And what were you going to do at Omsk?"
"See my mother, who was expecting me."
"And I am going to Irkutsk, where my father expects me. I am taking him my mother's last words. That is as much as to tell you, brother, that nothing would have prevented me from setting out."
"You are a brave girl, Nadia," replied Michael. "God Himself would have led you."
All day the tarantass was driven rapidly by the iemschiks, who succeeded each other at every stage. The eagles of the mountain would not have found their name dishonored by these "eagles" of the highway. The high price paid for each horse, and the tips dealt out so freely, recommended the travelers in a special way. Perhaps the postmasters thought it singular that, after the publication of the order, a young man and his sister, evidently both Russians, could travel freely across Siberia, which was closed to everyone else, but their papers were all en regle and they had the right to pass.
However, Michael Strogoff and Nadia were not the only travelers on their way from Perm to Ekaterenburg. At the first stages, the courier of the Czar had learnt that a carriage preceded them, but, as there was no want of horses, he did not trouble himself about that.
During the day, halts were made for food alone. At the post-houses could be found lodging and provision. Besides, if there was not an inn, the house of the Russian peasant would have been no less hospitable. In the villages, which are almost all alike, with their white-walled, green-roofed chapels, the traveler might knock at any door, and it would be opened to him. The moujik would come out, smiling and extending his hand to his guest. He would offer him bread and salt, the burning charcoal would be put into the "samovar," and he would be made quite at home. The family would turn out themselves rather than that he should not have room. The stranger is the relation of all. He is "one sent by God."
On arriving that evening Michael instinctively asked the postmaster how many hours ago the carriage which preceded them had passed that stage.
"Two hours ago, little father," replied the postmaster.
"Is it a berlin?"
"No, a telga."
"How many travelers?"
"And they are going fast?"
"Let them put the horses to as soon as possible."
Michael and Nadia, resolved not to stop even for an hour, traveled all night. The weather continued fine, though the atmosphere was heavy and becoming charged with electricity. It was to be hoped that a storm would not burst whilst they were among the mountains, for there it would be terrible. Being accustomed to read atmospheric signs, Michael Strogoff knew that a struggle of the elements was approaching.
The night passed without incident. Notwithstanding the jolting of the tarantass, Nadia was able to sleep for some hours. The hood was partly raised so as to give as much air as there was in the stifling atmosphere.
Michael kept awake all night, mistrusting the iemschiks, who are apt to sleep at their posts. Not an hour was lost at the relays, not an hour on the road.
The next day, the 20th of July, at about eight o'clock in the morning, they caught the first glimpse of the Ural Mountains in the east. This important chain which separates Russia from Siberia was still at a great distance, and they could not hope to reach it until the end of the day. The passage of the mountains must necessarily be performed during the next night. The sky was cloudy all day, and the temperature was therefore more bearable, but the weather was very threatening.
It would perhaps have been more prudent not to have ascended the mountains during the night, and Michael would not have done so, had he been permitted to wait; but when, at the last stage, the iemschik drew his attention to a peal of thunder reverberating among the rocks, he merely said:
"Is a telga still before us?"
"How long is it in advance?"
"Nearly an hour."
"Forward, and a triple tip if we are at Ekaterenburg to-morrow morning."
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Michael Strogoff -by- Jules Verne