Then, pointing to the letter which he held in his hand, "Here is a letter which I charge thee, Michael Strogoff, to deliver into the hands of the Grand Duke, and to no other but him."
"I will deliver it, sire."
"The Grand Duke is at Irkutsk."
"I will go to Irkutsk."
"Thou wilt have to traverse a rebellious country, invaded by Tartars, whose interest it will be to intercept this letter."
"I will traverse it."
"Above all, beware of the traitor, Ivan Ogareff, who will perhaps meet thee on the way."
"I will beware of him."
"Wilt thou pass through Omsk?"
"Sire, that is my route."
"If thou dost see thy mother, there will be the risk of being recognized. Thou must not see her!"
Michael Strogoff hesitated a moment.
"I will not see her," said he.
"Swear to me that nothing will make thee acknowledge who thou art, nor whither thou art going."
"I swear it."
"Michael Strogoff," continued the Czar, giving the letter to the young courier, "take this letter; on it depends the safety of all Siberia, and perhaps the life of my brother the Grand Duke."
"This letter shall be delivered to his Highness the Grand Duke."
"Then thou wilt pass whatever happens?"
"I shall pass, or they shall kill me."
"I want thee to live."
"I shall live, and I shall pass," answered Michael Strogoff.
The Czar appeared satisfied with Strogoff's calm and simple answer.
"Go then, Michael Strogoff," said he, "go for God, for Russia, for my brother, and for myself!"
The courier, having saluted his sovereign, immediately left the imperial cabinet, and, in a few minutes, the New Palace.
"You made a good choice there, General," said the Czar.
"I think so, sire," replied General Kissoff; "and your majesty may be sure that Michael Strogoff will do all that a man can do."
"He is indeed a man," said the Czar.
CHAPTER IV FROM MOSCOW TO NIJNI-NOVGOROD
THE distance between Moscow and Irkutsk, about to be traversed by Michael Strogoff, was three thousand four hundred miles. Before the telegraph wire extended from the Ural Mountains to the eastern frontier of Siberia, the dispatch service was performed by couriers, those who traveled the most rapidly taking eighteen days to get from Moscow to Irkutsk. But this was the exception, and the journey through Asiatic Russia usually occupied from four to five weeks, even though every available means of transport was placed at the disposal of the Czar's messengers.
Michael Strogoff was a man who feared neither frost nor snow. He would have preferred traveling during the severe winter season, in order that he might perform the whole distance by sleighs. At that period of the year the difficulties which all other means of locomotion present are greatly diminished, the wide steppes being leveled by snow, while there are no rivers to cross, but simply sheets of glass, over which the sleigh glides rapidly and easily.
Perhaps certain natural phenomena are most to be feared at that time, such as long-continuing and dense fogs, excessive cold, fearfully heavy snow-storms, which sometimes envelop whole caravans and cause their destruction. Hungry wolves also roam over the plain in thousands. But it would have been better for Michael Strogoff to face these risks; for during the winter the Tartar invaders would have been stationed in the towns, any movement of their troops would have been impracticable, and he could consequently have more easily performed his journey. But it was not in his power to choose either weather or time. Whatever the circumstances, he must accept them and set out.
Such were the difficulties which Michael Strogoff boldly confronted and prepared to encounter.
In the first place, he must not travel as a courier of the Czar usually would. No one must even suspect what he really was. Spies swarm in a rebellious country; let him be recognized, and his mission would be in danger. Also, while supplying him with a large sum of money, which was sufficient for his journey, and would facilitate it in some measure, General Kissoff had not given him any document notifying that he was on the Emperor's service, which is the Sesame par excellence. He contented himself with furnishing him with a "podorojna."
This podorojna was made out in the name of Nicholas Korpanoff, merchant, living at Irkutsk.