They discussed the pros and cons of the serious events which were taking place beyond the Ural, and those merchants seemed to fear lest the government should be led to take certain restrictive measures, especially in the provinces bordering on the frontier--measures from which trade would certainly suffer. They apparently thought only of the struggle from the single point of view of their threatened interests. The presence of a private soldier, clad in his uniform--and the importance of a uniform in Russia is great--would have certainly been enough to restrain the merchants' tongues. But in the compartment occupied by Michael Strogoff, there was no one who seemed a military man, and the Czar's courier was not the person to betray himself. He listened, then.
"They say that caravan teas are up," remarked a Persian, known by his cap of Astrakhan fur, and his ample brown robe, worn threadbare by use.
"Oh, there's no fear of teas falling," answered an old Jew of sullen aspect. "Those in the market at Nijni-Novgorod will be easily cleared off by the West; but, unfortunately, it won't be the same with Bokhara carpets."
"What! are you expecting goods from Bokhara?" asked the Persian.
"No, but from Samarcand, and that is even more exposed. The idea of reckoning on the exports of a country in which the khans are in a state of revolt from Khiva to the Chinese frontier!"
"Well," replied the Persian, "if the carpets do not arrive, the drafts will not arrive either, I suppose."
"And the profits, Father Abraham!" exclaimed the little Jew, "do you reckon them as nothing?"
"You are right," said another; "goods from Central Asia run a great risk in the market, and it will be the same with the tallow and shawls from the East."
"Why, look out, little father," said a Russian traveler, in a bantering tone; "you'll grease your shawls terribly if you mix them up with your tallow."
"That amuses you," sharply answered the merchant, who had little relish for that sort of joke.
"Well, if you tear your hair, or if you throw ashes on your head," replied the traveler, "will that change the course of events? No; no more than the course of the Exchange."
"One can easily see that you are not a merchant," observed the little Jew.
"Faith, no, worthy son of Abraham! I sell neither hops, nor eider-down, nor honey, nor wax, nor hemp-seed, nor salt meat, nor caviare, nor wood, nor wool, nor ribbons, nor, hemp, nor flax, nor morocco, nor furs."
"But do you buy them?" asked the Persian, interrupting the traveler's list.
"As little as I can, and only for my own private use," answered the other, with a wink.
"He's a wag," said the Jew to the Persian.
"Or a spy," replied the other, lowering his voice. "We had better take care, and not speak more than necessary. The police are not over-particular in these times, and you never can know with whom you are traveling."
In another corner of the compartment they were speaking less of mercantile affairs, and more of the Tartar invasion and its annoying consequences.
"All the horses in Siberia will be requisitioned," said a traveler, "and communication between the different provinces of Central Asia will become very difficult."
"Is it true," asked his neighbor, "that the Kirghiz of the middle horde have joined the Tartars?"
"So it is said," answered the traveler, lowering his voice; "but who can flatter themselves that they know anything really of what is going on in this country?"
"I have heard speak of a concentration of troops on the frontier. The Don Cossacks have already gathered along the course of the Volga, and they are to be opposed to the rebel Kirghiz."
"If the Kirghiz descend the Irtish, the route to Irkutsk will not be safe," observed his neighbor. "Besides, yesterday I wanted to send a telegram to Krasnoiarsk, and it could not be forwarded. It's to be feared that before long the Tartar columns will have isolated Eastern Siberia."
"In short, little father," continued the first speaker, "these merchants have good reason for being uneasy about their trade and transactions. After requisitioning the horses, they will take the boats, carriages, every means of transport, until presently no one will be allowed to take even one step in all the empire."
"I'm much afraid that the Nijni-Novgorod fair won't end as brilliantly as it has begun," responded the other, shaking his head. "But the safety and integrity of the Russian territory before everything. Business is business."
If in this compartment the subject of conversation varied but little-- nor did it, indeed, in the other carriages of the train--in all it might have been observed that the talkers used much circumspection. When they did happen to venture out of the region of facts, they never went so far as to attempt to divine the intentions of the Muscovite government, or even to criticize them.