"Come!" he exclaimed. Nicholas and Nadia went towards him and followed him into the cottage.
"What are these?" asked Michael, touching several objects piled up in a corner.
"They are leathern bottles," answered Nicholas.
"Are they full?"
"Yes, full of koumyss. We have found them very opportunely to renew our provisions!"
"Koumyss" is a drink made of mare's or camel's milk, and is very sustaining, and even intoxicating; so that Nicholas and his companions could not but congratulate themselves on the discovery.
"Save one," said Michael, "but empty the others."
"Directly, little father."
"These will help us to cross the Yenisei."
"And the raft?"
"Will be the kibitka itself, which is light enough to float. Besides, we will sustain it, as well as the horse, with these bottles."
"Well thought of, little father," exclaimed Nicholas, "and by God's help we will get safely over . . . though perhaps not in a straight line, for the current is very rapid!"
"What does that matter?" replied Michael. "Let us get across first, and we shall soon find out the road to Irkutsk on the other side of the river."
"To work, then," said Nicholas, beginning to empty the bottles.
One full of koumyss was reserved, and the rest, with the air carefully fastened in, were used to form a floating apparatus. Two bottles were fastened to the horse's sides to support it in the water. Two others were attached to the shafts to keep them on a level with the body of the machine, thus transformed into a raft. This work was soon finished.
"You will not be afraid, Nadia?" asked Michael.
"No, brother," answered the girl.
"And you, friend?"
"I?" cried Nicholas. "I am now going to have one of my dreams realized-- that of sailing in a cart."
At the spot where they were now standing, the bank sloped, and was suitable for the launching of the kibitka. The horse drew it into the water, and they were soon both floating. As to Serko, he was swimming bravely.
The three passengers, seated in the vehicle, had with due precaution taken off their shoes and stockings; but, thanks to the bottles, the water did not even come over their ankles. Michael held the reins, and, according to Nicholas's directions, guided the animal obliquely, but cautiously, so as not to exhaust him by struggling against the current. So long as the kibitka went with the current all was easy, and in a few minutes it had passed the quays of Krasnoiarsk. It drifted northwards, and it was soon evident that it would only reach the opposite bank far below the town. But that mattered little. The crossing would have been made without great difficulty, even on this imperfect apparatus, had the current been regular; but, unfortunately, there were whirlpools in numbers, and soon the kibitka, notwithstanding all Michael's efforts, was irresistibly drawn into one of these.
There the danger was great. The kibitka no longer drifted, but spun rapidly round, inclining towards the center of the eddy, like a rider in a circus. The horse could scarcely keep his head above water, and ran a great risk of being suffocated. Serko had been obliged to take refuge in the carriage.
Michael knew what was happening. He felt himself drawn round in a gradually narrowing line, from which they could not get free. How he longed to see, to be better able to avoid this peril, but that was no longer possible. Nadia was silent, her hands clinging to the sides of the cart, which was inclining more and more towards the center of depression.
And Nicholas, did he not understand the gravity of the situation? Was it with him phlegm or contempt of danger, courage or indifference? Was his life valueless in his eyes, and, according to the Eastern expression, "an hotel for five days," which, whether one is willing or not, must be left the sixth? At any rate, the smile on his rosy face never faded for an instant.
The kibitka was thus in the whirlpool, and the horse was nearly exhausted, when, all at once, Michael, throwing off such of his garments as might impede him, jumped into the water; then, seizing with a strong hand the bridle of the terrified horse, he gave him such an impulse that he managed to struggle out of the circle, and getting again into the current, the kibitka drifted along anew.