The road was perfectly deserted. The tarantass encountered neither pedestrians nor horsemen, nor a vehicle of any description, in the narrow defiles of the Ural, on this threatening night. Not even the fire of a charcoal-burner was visible in the woods, not an encampment of miners near the mines, not a hut among the brushwood.
Under these peculiar circumstances it might have been allowable to postpone the journey till the morning. Michael Strogoff, however, had not hesitated, he had no right to stop, but then--and it began to cause him some anxiety-- what possible reason could those travelers in the telga ahead have for being so imprudent?
Michael remained thus on the look-out for some time. About eleven o'clock lightning began to blaze continuously in the sky. The shadows of huge pines appeared and disappeared in the rapid light. Sometimes when the tarantass neared the side of the road, deep gulfs, lit up by the flashes, could be seen yawning beneath them. From time to time, on their vehicle giving a worse lurch than usual, they knew that they were crossing a bridge of roughly-hewn planks thrown over some chasm, thunder appearing actually to be rumbling below them. Besides this, a booming sound filled the air, which increased as they mounted higher. With these different noises rose the shouts of the iemschik, sometimes scolding, sometimes coaxing his poor beasts, who were suffering more from the oppression of the air than the roughness of the roads. Even the bells on the shafts could no longer rouse them, and they stumbled every instant.
"At what time shall we reach the top of the ridge?" asked Michael of the iemschik.
"At one o'clock in the morning if we ever get there at all," replied he, with a shake of his head.
"Why, my friend, this will not be your first storm in the mountains, will it?"
"No, and pray God it may not be my last!"
"Are you afraid?"
"No, I'm not afraid, but I repeat that I think you were wrong in starting."
"I should have been still more wrong had I stayed."
"Hold up, my pigeons!" cried the iemschik; it was his business to obey, not to question.
Just then a distant noise was heard, shrill whistling through the atmosphere, so calm a minute before. By the light of a dazzling flash, almost immediately followed by a tremendous clap of thunder, Michael could see huge pines on a high peak, bending before the blast. The wind was unchained, but as yet it was the upper air alone which was disturbed. Successive crashes showed that many of the trees had been unable to resist the burst of the hurricane. An avalanche of shattered trunks swept across the road and dashed over the precipice on the left, two hundred feet in front of the tarantass.
The horses stopped short.
"Get up, my pretty doves!" cried the iemschik, adding the cracking of his whip to the rumbling of the thunder.
Michael took Nadia's hand. "Are you asleep, sister?"
"Be ready for anything; here comes the storm!"
"I am ready."
Michael Strogoff had only just time to draw the leathern curtains, when the storm was upon them.
The iemschik leapt from his seat and seized the horses' heads, for terrible danger threatened the whole party.
The tarantass was at a standstill at a turning of the road, down which swept the hurricane; it was absolutely necessary to hold the animals' heads to the wind, for if the carriage was taken broadside it must infallibly capsize and be dashed over the precipice. The frightened horses reared, and their driver could not manage to quiet them. His friendly expressions had been succeeded by the most insulting epithets. Nothing was of any use. The unfortunate animals, blinded by the lightning, terrified by the incessant peals of thunder, threatened every instant to break their traces and flee. The iemschik had no longer any control over his team.
At that moment Michael Strogoff threw himself from the tarantass and rushed to his assistance. Endowed with more than common strength, he managed, though not without difficulty, to master the horses.