Just as she was about to retire she could not refrain from going up to Michael to say good-night.
"Brother," she whispered. But he checked her with a gesture. The girl sighed and left the room.
Michael Strogoff did not lie down. He could not have slept even for an hour. The place on which he had been struck by the brutal traveler felt like a burn.
"For my country and the Father," he muttered as he ended his evening prayer.
He especially felt a great wish to know who was the man who had struck him, whence he came, and where he was going. As to his face, the features of it were so deeply engraven on his memory that he had no fear of ever forgetting them.
Michael Strogoff at last asked for the postmaster. The latter, a Siberian of the old type, came directly, and looking rather contemptuously at the young man, waited to be questioned.
"You belong to the country?" asked Michael.
"Do you know that man who took my horses?"
"Had you never seen him before?"
"Who do you think he was?"
"A man who knows how to make himself obeyed."
Michael fixed his piercing gaze upon the Siberian, but the other did not quail before it.
"Do you dare to judge me?" exclaimed Michael.
"Yes," answered the Siberian, "there are some things even a plain merchant cannot receive without returning."
"Blows, young man. I am of an age and strength to tell you so."
Michael went up to the postmaster and laid his two powerful hands on his shoulders.
Then in a peculiarly calm tone, "Be off, my friend," said he: "be off! I could kill you."
The postmaster understood. "I like him better for that," he muttered and retired without another word.
At eight o'clock the next morning, the 24th of July, three strong horses were harnessed to the tarantass. Michael Strogoff and Nadia took their places, and Ichim, with its disagreeable remembrances, was soon left far behind.
At the different relays at which they stopped during the day Strogoff ascertained that the berlin still preceded them on the road to Irkutsk, and that the traveler, as hurried as they were, never lost a minute in pursuing his way across the steppe.
At four o'clock in the evening they reached Abatskaia, fifty miles farther on, where the Ichim, one of the principal affluents of the Irtych, had to be crossed. This passage was rather more difficult than that of the Tobol. Indeed the current of the Ichim was very rapid just at that place. During the Siberian winter, the rivers being all frozen to a thickness of several feet, they are easily practicable, and the traveler even crosses them without being aware of the fact, for their beds have disappeared under the snowy sheet spread uniformly over the steppe; but in summer the difficulties of crossing are sometimes great.
In fact, two hours were taken up in making the passage of the Ichim, which much exasperated Michael, especially as the boatmen gave them alarming news of the Tartar invasion. Some of Feofar-Khan's scouts had already appeared on both banks of the lower Ichim, in the southern parts of the government of Tobolsk. Omsk was threatened. They spoke of an engagement which had taken place between the Siberian and Tartar troops on the frontier of the great Kirghese horde--an engagement not to the advantage of the Russians, who were weak in numbers. The troops had retreated thence, and in consequence there had been a general emigration of all the peasants of the province. The boatmen spoke of horrible atrocities committed by the invaders-- pillage, theft, incendiarism, murder. Such was the system of Tartar warfare.
The people all fled before Feofar-Khan. Michael Strogoff's great fear was lest, in the depopulation of the towns, he should be unable to obtain the means of transport. He was therefore extremely anxious to reach Omsk. Perhaps there they would get the start of the Tartar scouts, who were coming down the valley of the Irtych, and would find the road open to Irkutsk.
Just at the place where the tarantass crossed the river ended what is called, in military language, the "Ichim chain"--a chain of towers, or little wooden forts, extending from the southern frontier of Siberia for a distance of nearly four hundred versts. Formerly these forts were occupied by detachments of Cossacks, and they protected the country against the Kirghese, as well as against the Tartars.