Samarcand, which contains the tomb of Tamerlane and the famous palace where the blue stone is kept on which each new khan must seat himself on his accession, is defended by a very strong citadel. Karschi, with its triple cordon, situated in an oasis, surrounded by a marsh peopled with tortoises and lizards, is almost impregnable, Is-chardjoui is defended by a population of twenty thousand souls. Protected by its mountains, and isolated by its steppes, the khanat of Bokhara is a most formidable state; and Russia would need a large 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 dear to Tartar instincts--aided by the chiefs who ruled all the hordes of Central Asia, he had placed himself at the head of the rebellion of which Ivan Ogareff was the instigator. This traitor, impelled by insane ambition as much as by hate, had ordered the movement so as to attack Siberia. Mad indeed he was, if he hoped to rupture the Muscovite Empire. Acting under his suggestion, the Emir--which is the title taken by the khans of Bokhara--had poured his hordes over the Russian frontier. He invaded the government of Semipolatinsk, and the Cossacks, who were only in small force there, had been obliged to retire before him. He had advanced farther than Lake Balkhash, gaining over the Kirghiz population on his way. Pillaging, ravaging, enrolling those who submitted, taking prisoners those who resisted, he marched from one town to another, followed by those impedimenta of Oriental sovereignty which may be called his household, his wives and his slaves--all with the cool audacity of a modern Ghengis-Khan. It was impossible to ascertain where he now was; how far his soldiers had marched before the news of the rebellion reached Moscow; or to what part of Siberia the Russian troops had been forced to retire. All communication was interrupted. Had the wire between Kolyvan and Tomsk been cut by Tartar scouts, or had the Emir himself arrived at the Yeniseisk provinces? Was all the lower part of Western Siberia in a ferment? Had the rebellion already spread to the eastern regions? No one could say. The only agent which fears neither cold nor heat, which can neither be stopped by the rigors of winter nor the heat of summer, and which flies with the rapidity of lightning-- the electric current--was prevented from traversing the steppes, and it was no longer possible to warn the Grand Duke, shut up in Irkutsk, of the danger threatening him from the treason of Ivan Ogareff.
A courier only could supply the place of the interrupted current. It would take this man some time to traverse the five thousand two hundred versts between Moscow and Irkutsk. To pass the ranks of the rebels and invaders he must display almost superhuman courage and intelligence. But with a clear head and a firm heart much can be done.
"Shall I be able to find this head and heart?" thought the Czar.
CHAPTER III MICHAEL STROGOFF MEETS THE CZAR
THE door of the imperial cabinet was again opened and General Kissoff was announced.
"The courier?" inquired the Czar eagerly.
"He is here, sire," replied General Kissoff.
"Have you found a fitting man?"
"I will answer for him to your majesty."
"Has he been in the service of the Palace?"
"You know him?"
"Personally, and at various times he has fulfilled difficult missions with success."
"In Siberia itself."
"Where does he come from?"
"From Omsk. He is a Siberian."
"Has he coolness, intelligence, courage?"
"Yes, sire; he has all the qualities necessary to succeed, even where others might possibly fail."
"What is his age?"
"Is he strong and vigorous?"
"Sire, he can bear cold, hunger, thirst, fatigue, to the very last extremities."
"He must have a frame of iron."
"Sire, he has."
"And a heart?"
"A heart of gold."
"Is he ready to set out?"
"He awaits your majesty's orders in the guard-room."
"Let him come in," said the Czar.