Simon felt his knees grow weak beneath him — he was almost overcome with nausea; he was not frightened for himself, only appalled at this sudden slaying of a fellow human without warning. “It’s — it’s awful,” he stammered.
“There, there, my son,” said De Richleau, soothingly. “Do not waste your great heart on this scum. Praise be to God, I have killed many such. You would not pity him if you had seen, as I have, all that his kind accomplished in 1919 and 1920. I fought with Denikin’s White Army, and we saw sights that froze one’s heart. Little children burned to death — men with their eyes gouged out — women of our own blood, who had been kept in brothels, filthy with disease — a thousand horrors committed at the instigation of your friend Leshkin and his kind. It is a nightmare that I would forget. Come now, help me to hide the body of this dog.”
Simon put down the suitcases and drew a breath. He was a natural philosopher, and once recovered from the shock, accepted the awful thing as part and parcel of this astounding adventure into which he had been drawn.
The door of the shed was fastened only by a piece of rope, and they found it to be filled with old farm implements.
Quickly, and as noiselessly as possible, they moved a stack of bent and broken shovels — carried in the body of the wall-eyed man, and piled the shovels over him until he was completely hidden; they secured the door more firmly, and, having obliterated the blood marks in the snow, hurried through the maze of wood stacks towards another group of sheds, the roofs of which were rapidly becoming plainer in the growing light.
The goods-yard seemed deserted, and they were fortunate in finding an empty shed. Once inside it De Richleau flung his suitcase on the ground, and, kneeling down, commenced to unpack. Simon followed his example. In a few minutes they had stuffed the rucksacks with the supplies of food and their most necessary belongings. Next they defaced the labels on their bags and stowed them in an opening between two sheds, heaping stones and rubble on top to hide them from view.
Wherever they moved they left large footprints in the snow, and Simon, greatly perturbed, pointed out there tracks to the Duke, but De Richleau did not seem unduly worried.
“Look at the snow,” he waved his hand about him. “They will be covered in an hour.” And, with the coming of day, the snow had begun to fall again, softly, silently, in great, white, drifting petals that settled as they fell, increasing the heavy band of white on every roof and ledge.
“Well, I never thought I should be glad to see snow,” said Simon, with his little nervous laugh. “What do we do now?”
De Richleau adjusted his rucksack on his shoulders; he frowned.
“We have a difficult task before us — while attracting as little attention as possible, we must find out how the trains run on the branch line to the Tavda River, and then secure seats.
“How far is it — I mean to Tobolsk?” Simon inquired.
“Two hundred miles to the dead end of the railway, and a further hundred across country — but we have at least one piece of good fortune.”
“That we should have arrived here early in the morning; if there is a train today we cannot have missed it!”
“Today?” echoed Simon, aghast “Aren’t there trains every day?”
De Richleau laughed. “My dear fellow, it is not Brighton that we are going to. In such a place as this, trains run only twice weekly, or at best every other day!”
Simon grunted. “Thank God we didn’t arrive in the middle of the night, then.”
“Yes, we should have been frozen before the morning.”
While they were talking they had left the goods-yard and turned down a road leading away from the station. There were no houses, only timber-yards and back lots.
After they had walked about half a mile De Richleau spoke again. “I think we might now turn back. Our train should have halted here for about twenty minutes, and it must be forty at least since our good friend the steward set us down.”
“Poor chap, I hope he doesn’t get it in the neck over this job.”
“Let us hope not. If he has any sense he will say that we left the train without his knowledge. They are certain to question him at Irkutsk, but if he says that he did not see us after dinner last night, they cannot put the blame on him.”
Simon began sawing his arms across his narrow chest. “My God, it’s cold,” he said suddenly. “I could do with some breakfast!”
De Richleau laughed. “About that we shall see. We are coming to a cluster of houses, and that building on the left looks like the station. I should think there is certain to be some sort of inn near it.”
He was right; they found a small third-rate hostelry, of which the only occupant was a solemn peasant seated near the great china stove, sipping his tea and staring into vacancy.
The Duke clapped his hands loudly, and the landlord appeared, a clean, honest-looking fellow in a starched white blouse. After some questioning he disappeared, presently to return with two plates of eggs; true, they were fried in lard, but the two travellers were so hungry and cold that almost any food would have been welcome, even the black rye bread and bitter tea which accompanied the eggs.
When they had finished De Richleau drew the landlord into conversation. They were Germans, the Duke said; fur buyers, seeking new sources of supply. How were the markets in Sverdlovsk for such commodities?
“Bad,” said the landlord. “Bad; the trappers will not go out any more. Why should they?” he shrugged; “the Government will not pay them for their skins, and there are no longer the rich who will buy. They go out for a few weeks every season that they may catch enough to keep their families from starving by exchanging the skins for corn and oil. For the rest — they sleep!”
The Duke nodded. “You speak truly. Why should a man work more than he need if there is no prospect of his becoming rich? What of the north? Think you our chances would be better there?”
“I do not think so. Not if what one hears is true. Things may be better in the towns that lie to the east, perhaps, but I do not know.”
“To the eastward?” said the Duke softly. “You mean in Omsk?”
The landlord shrugged. “There, and at other places in Siberia, there are not so many Tchinovinks as here, trading is more free.”
“What of Tobolsk?”
“That would perhaps be the best place of all if you could get there, but Tobolsk is in the forbidden territory.”
“The forbidden territory? What is that?” asked the Duke with a frown.
The man shrugged again. “It is some madness of the Tchinovinks; a great area, where, without special papers, no man may go — but they are the lords, and it is useless to protest.”
“If we could get within reasonable distance of Tobolsk we could send messengers,” the Duke suggested, “and the traders could bring their furs for us to see.”
“That should be possible. There is a train which goes to Turinsk; farther than that you may not go; the railway to Tobolsk is finished, but it is for the officials and the military only.”
“And how often do the trains run?”
“It used to be only once weekly, but since the line is finished it is every other day. Many military and Tchinovinks go through.”
“Is there a train today?”
“What is today?” the man asked vaguely.
“It is Saturday.”
“Yes, there is a train — it leaves at midday.”
“Do you know how long it takes?”
“To Tobolsk, about eight hours — to Turinsk, some five hours, perhaps.”
“And are permissions necessary?” De Richleau asked casually.
“It depends,” said the landlord; “for Turinsk no special permission is necessary, but in the case of foreigners I should think your tickets would require endorsement; however, it is of no great moment; the Tchinovinks hate to be bothered. They sleep all day; if there is trouble, give a few roubles, and all will be well.”
“Thank you, my friend. In that case I think we will go to Turinsk on the midday train, and, if we may, we will remain under your hospitable roof until then. We shall require another meal before we go.”
“Welcome, and again welcome,” said the landlord, with all the inherent politeness of the peasant.
“All is well.” The Duke turned to Simon as he spoke, for the latter had not understood one word of this conversation. “There is a train at midday which will take us as far as Turinsk; after that the forbidden territory begins, and we shall have to use our wits.”
“How about tickets?” asked Simon, doubtfully.
“Bluff, my friend. I gather that the officials here are lazy and careless, and open to bribes, very different to those in Moscow.”
“Better say we left the other tickets in the train!”
“Yes, that is an excellent idea.”
“I’ve been wondering about that Shulimoff treasure,” said Simon, in a low voice. “Do you think Rex got it before they got him?”
“How can we say?” De Richleau raised his slanting eyebrows. “We know that Shulimoff had estates near Tobolsk. Evidently the treasure must be buried there, or Rex would never have ventured into this dangerous area.”
“Fun if we could take a few souvenirs out of this rotten country!” Simon chuckled into his hand.
“Let us not think of that. We shall have our work cut out to get Rex out of the clutch of these devils!”
At eleven o’clock the landlord produced two wooden bowls containing a kind of stew, mainly composed of skinny mutton and barley. With it was the inevitable rye bread and bitter tea.
In spite of the unappetizing nature of the fare they both ate heartily, since they realized that it might well be the last food they would touch for many hours.
When they had finished they paid the landlord handsomely, and crossed the road to the station. At the booking office there were difficulties. The Duke explained that through some misunderstanding their baggage, and with it their tickets, had been carried on that morning by the main-line train, and that they were merchants from the great fur market of Lemberg, anxious to trade. There was much argument, but De Richleau had been clever in that he had not allowed much time before the train was due to depart. It was too late for them to return into the town for an examination by senior officials — their passports were in order — only the tickets were missing.
At the sight of the Duke’s wallet stuffed with money, the man gave way. “It could be managed, perhaps,” he said. “It was irregular, of course — also the tickets were expensive! The fares, in fact, had more than doubled since the tickets were printed. They were old stock!”
So the affair was settled, and the Duke and Simon took their seats in the train for Turinsk. In this branch-line train there was none of the comfort they had found on the Trans-Continental. Hard seats, and a foul wash-place — a crowded compartment where the mingled odours of unwashed humanity fought with that of the smaller birds and beasts, which seemed to be the principal impedimenta of their travelling companions.
“Well, this is another stage on our journey as good as accomplished,” said De Richleau, as the train drew out of Sverdlovsk, only twenty minutes late in starting.
“Um,” said Simon. “But we’re going to be in a muddle when we get to Turinsk!”
“On the contrary —” De Richleau disagreed. “There we shall be able to show our tickets and get accommodation, which we could not do here.”
“You’ve forgotten one thing.”
“And what is that?”
“We were counting on a sleigh service to get us where we want to go, weren’t we?”
“Well — if you’re right about the railway line being finished, there won’t be any sleigh service — and it’s quite certain that the people at Turinsk won’t let us go on in the train.”
“That’s true,” said the Duke, thoughtfully. “Mon Dieu, how these people stink!”
“Pretty awful,” Simon agreed, and then both he and the Duke lapsed into a thoughtful silence.
The scenery was completely different from that which they had seen the day before; the train puffed and snorted excitedly as it wound its way, at a fair speed, in and out along the snow-covered valleys; they had passed the tops of the Urals during the night, and were now descending through the foothills on the eastern side.
The snow had ceased falling, and the sun came out at midday, but now, in the early afternoon, it was sinking rapidly, and dusk was upon them when they reached Turinsk just before five.
Turinsk seemed little more than a long, straggling village. The train actually ran through the high street, in the most populous part of which it came to a jerky halt.
Nobody asked for or examined their tickets, but Simon noticed that several men with lanterns went carefully along the train, searching each compartment to see that it was empty, and the soldiers and officials, who remained seated in the coach nearest to the engine, had their papers inspected before the train moved on. •
The two fur traders from Lemberg made their way to the hotel, a rambling, wooden building, and ordered the best meal that the place could provide. They had decided, at all costs, to get hold of a sleigh that night and continue their journey. All too soon Soviet officials would be on their track; every moment of their precious start must be utilized. De Richleau asked the landlord if it were possible to obtain a sleigh.
“At this hour?” He seemed amazed and hurt. “Where did they wish to go? Was not his hotel good enough?”
The Duke, on this occasion, told a completely different story. He said that he had just come in on the train from Sverdlovsk, and that on his arrival he had been handed a telegram to say that his wife had had a serious accident. He must return at once.
“You can get the train back at three o’clock tomorrow —” the landlord suggested. “It leaves Tobolsk at an hour before midday, and arrives in Sverdlovsk at eight o’clock.”
“I must go tonight!” The Duke seemed distraught with anxiety. “Please help me, and get a sleigh — then tomorrow I can be beside my poor wife.”
“I cannot.” The man shook his head. “Tomorrow — yes, you shall have my cousin’s troika — a fine affair. He will drive you himself, but he lives six versts from here. I cannot send for him tonight”
“In that case I might as well wait for the train,” the Duke protested. “It would be quicker in the end!”
“You speak truly,” the landlord nodded. “It is sad about your wife, but there is nothing I can do.”
At that they had to leave it “Come,” said the Duke to Simon. “Let’s walk down the village street. It is possible that there may be another inn at which we may have better luck.”
They shouldered their knapsacks, and left the hotel under the landlord’s disapproving eye. He looked as though he guessed their purpose.
Outside the darkness of the long Siberian night had already fallen, lights glimmered from the narrow windows of the houses casting a beam here and there on the crisp, frozen snow. The air was cold, but invigorating like wine, the night fine, cloudless and startlit.
Not many people were about, and to their disappointment they failed to find an inn of any size. As they were walking back to the hotel, a fine sleigh passed them at a trot, and pulled up in front of a small brick building, which had an official air.
De Richleau hurried forward, and was in time to intercept the driver before he entered the building. The man, a tall fellow with high Mongolian cheekbones, was tying his reins to a wooden post.
“Will you hire me your troika?” the Duke asked at once.
The man looked up in surprise. “But no,” he said. “This troika is not for hire.”
The Duke launched into the same story again, of his sick wife and the urgent necessity of his immediate return to Sverdlovsk.
The tall man was not impressed. He shrugged his shoulders and entered the little brick building.
It was a fine troika, with three well-fed horses, the arch above the centre horse brightly painted and gay with little hanging bells; fur rugs were scattered over the interior.
De Richleau made up his mind instantly. “Jump in,” he cried, giving Simon a little push. “He may be back in a minute.”
Even as he spoke he was untying the reins, and scrambling into the driver’s seat; with one crack of the whip they were careering down the street, the sleigh bells jingling loudly.
The owner came running out of the building, shouting and gesticulating as he ran, but there was nothing to bar their progress, and they very soon had left the town behind.
The whole thing had been so sudden that Simon had hardly time to realize what had happened until they were out in the open country, then he leant forward and shouted in De Richleau’s ear:
“The way — will you be able to find it?”
The Duke’s only answer was to point with his whip to the stars. High above them, and a little to the left, Simon made out the “Great Bear”, with its pointers to the North Star. They were the only stars he knew, but it was enough. He realized that they must be going in the right direction.
The three horses carried them forward at a fast trot, but De Richleau was too old a soldier not to know the necessity of economizing their staying-power. Once he felt that they were safe from immediate pursuit he reduced the pace. At the end of the each hour he halted for ten minutes, carefully rugging up the horses against a chill.
Mile after mile was eaten up as the night wore on; the road twisted and turned a little here and there, but in the main it led them through vast stretches of glistening, snow-covered forest, ever to the eastward, towards the heart of Siberia.
At one o’clock in the morning they reached the Tavda river. There was no bridge and only a primitive wooden ferry.
They knocked up the ferryman, but he refused to turn out and take them over at that hour. De Richleau did not press the point or attempt to bribe the man; the horses badly needed rest if they were to be fit to travel next day. Simon and he had been up since six that morning, and both of them were worn out.
They found stabling for the horses in the ferryman’s barn, and rolled themselves up in their furs on the floor of his living-room — in spite of its hardness they were soon asleep.
Next morning they were up early and soon away, the horses — hardy beasts — seemed as fresh as ever. All through that long monotonous day they drove onwards, halting with military regularity, but never exceeding their allotted time of rest, except once, at midday, when they made a hurried meal at a wayside farmhouse.
Such farms were few and far between — during the whole of the long journey they scarcely saw a human being. Wide, desolate, wastes of snow alternated with long vistas of silent mysterious forest The whole land was so deeply in the grip of winter that it was almost impossible to imagine it otherwise, and to picture the fields bright with the thousand flowers of the short Siberian summer.
As the sun was sinking, a dull red globe, into the forests from which they had come, they passed first one farmstead and then another; they topped a hill, and there, in the gathering darkness spread below them, lay a town. They knew that they had reached their journey’s end, and that this must be the city of Tobolsk.