He had not time to see what it was like, but as he dashed by he distinctly heard this word, uttered in an imperious tone: "Stop!"
But they did not stop; on the contrary, the berlin was soon distanced by the two tarantasses.
It now became a regular race; for the horses of the berlin-- no doubt excited by the sight and pace of the others-- recovered their strength and kept up for some minutes. The three carriages were hidden in a cloud of dust. From this cloud issued the cracking of whips mingled with excited shouts and exclamations of anger.
Nevertheless, the advantage remained with Michael and his companions, which might be very important to them if the relay was poorly provided with horses. Two carriages were perhaps more than the postmaster could provide for, at least in a short space of time.
Half an hour after the berlin was left far behind, looking only a speck on the horizon of the steppe.
It was eight o'clock in the evening when the two carriages reached Ichim. The news was worse and worse with regard to the invasion. The town itself was menaced by the Tartar vanguard; and two days before the authorities had been obliged to retreat to Tobolsk. There was not an officer nor a soldier left in Ichim.
On arriving at the relay, Michael Strogoff immediately asked for horses. He had been fortunate in distancing the berlin. Only three horses were fit to be harnessed. The others had just come in worn out from a long stage.
As the two correspondents intended to stop at Ichim, they had not to trouble themselves to find transport, and had their carriage put away. In ten minutes Michael was told that his tarantass was ready to start.
"Good," said he.
Then turning to the two reporters: "Well, gentlemen, the time is come for us to separate."
"What, Mr. Korpanoff," said Alcide Jolivet, "shall you not stop even for an hour at Ichim?"
"No, sir; and I also wish to leave the post-house before the arrival of the berlin which we distanced."
"Are you afraid that the traveler will dispute the horses with you?"
"I particularly wish to avoid any difficulty."
"Then, Mr. Korpanoff," said Jolivet, "it only remains for us to thank you once more for the service you rendered us, and the pleasure we have had in traveling with you."
"It is possible that we shall meet you again in a few days at Omsk," added Blount.
"It is possible," answered Michael, "since I am going straight there."
"Well, I wish you a safe journey, Mr. Korpanoff," said Alcide, "and Heaven preserve you from telgas."
The two reporters held out their hands to Michael with the intention of cordially shaking his, when the sound of a carriage was heard outside. Almost immediately the door was flung open and a man appeared.
It was the traveler of the berlin, a military-looking man, apparently about forty years of age, tall, robust in figure, broad-shouldered, with a strongly-set head, and thick mus-taches meeting red whiskers. He wore a plain uniform. A cavalry saber hung at his side, and in his hand he held a short-handled whip.
"Horses," he demanded, with the air of a man accustomed to command.
"I have no more disposable horses," answered the postmaster, bowing.
"I must have some this moment."
"It is impossible."
"What are those horses which have just been harnessed to the tarantass I saw at the door?"
"They belong to this traveler," answered the postmaster, pointing to Michael Strogoff.
"Take them out!" said the traveler in a tone which admitted of no reply.
Michael then advanced.
"These horses are engaged by me," he said.
"What does that matter? I must have them. Come, be quick; I have no time to lose."
"I have no time to lose either," replied Michael, restraining himself with difficulty.
Nadia was near him, calm also, but secretly uneasy at a scene which it would have been better to avoid.
"Enough!" said the traveler. Then, going up to the postmaster, "Let the horses be put into my berlin," he exclaimed with a threatening gesture.
The postmaster, much embarrassed, did not know whom to obey, and looked at Michael, who evidently had the right to resist the unjust demands of the traveler.