Nadia, with the clear perception of a right-minded woman, guessed that some secret motive directed all Michael Strogoff’s actions; that he, for a reason unknown to her, did not belong to himself; and that in this instance especially he had heroically sacrificed to duty even his resentment at the gross injury he had received.
Nadia, therefore, asked no explanation from Michael. Had not the hand which she had extended to him already replied to all that he might have been able to tell her?
Michael remained silent all the evening. The postmaster not being able to supply them with fresh horses until the next morning, a whole night must be passed at the house. Nadia could profit by it to take some rest, and a room was therefore prepared for her.
The young girl would no doubt have preferred not to leave her companion, but she felt that he would rather be alone, and she made ready to go to her room.
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. But since the Muscovite Government had believed these hordes reduced to absolute submission, they had been abandoned, and now could not be used; just at the time when they were needed. Many of these forts had been reduced to ashes; and the boatmen even pointed out the smoke to Michael, rising in the southern horizon, and showing the approach of the Tartar advance-guard.
As soon as the ferryboat landed the tarantass on the right bank of the Ichim, the journey across the steppe was resumed with all speed. Michael Strogoff remained very silent. He was, however, always attentive to Nadia, helping her to bear the fatigue of this long journey without break or rest; but the girl never complained. She longed to give wings to the horses. Something told her that her companion was even more anxious than herself to reach Irkutsk; and how many versts were still between!
It also occurred to her that if Omsk was entered by the Tartars, Michael’s mother, who lived there, would be in danger, and that this was sufficient to explain her son’s impatience to get to her.
Nadia at last spoke to him of old Marfa, and of how unprotected she would be in the midst of all these events.
“Have you received any news of your mother since the beginning of the invasion?” she asked.
“None, Nadia. The last letter my mother wrote to me contained good news. Marfa is a brave and energetic Siberian woman. Notwithstanding her age, she has preserved all her moral strength. She knows how to suffer.”
“I shall see her, brother,” said Nadia quickly. “Since you give me the name of sister, I am Marfa’s daughter.”
And as Michael did not answer she added:
“Perhaps your mother has been able to leave Omsk?”
“It is possible, Nadia,” replied Michael; “and I hope she may have reached Tobolsk. Marfa hates the Tartars. She knows the steppe, and would have no fear in just taking her staff and going down the banks of the Irtych. There is not a spot in all the province unknown to her. Many times has she traveled all over the country with my father; and many times I myself, when a mere child, have accompanied them across the Siberian desert. Yes, Nadia, I trust that my mother has left Omsk.”
“And when shall you see her?”
“I shall see her—on my return.”
“If, however, your mother is still at Omsk, you will be able to spare an hour to go to her?”
“I shall not go and see her.”
“You will not see her?”
“No, Nadia,” said Michael, his chest heaving as he felt he could not go on replying to the girl’s questions.
“You say no! Why, brother, if your mother is still at Omsk, for what reason could you refuse to see her?”
“For what reason, Nadia? You ask me for what reason,” exclaimed Michael, in so changed a voice that the young girl started. “For the same reason as that which made me patient even to cowardice with the villain who—” He could not finish his sentence.
“Calm yourself, brother,” said Nadia in a gentle voice. “I only know one thing, or rather I do not know it, I feel it. It is that all your conduct is now directed by the sentiment of a duty more sacred—if there can be one—than that which unites the son to the mother.”
Nadia was silent, and from that moment avoided every subject which in any way touched on Michael’s peculiar situation. He had a secret motive which she must respect. She respected it.
The next day, July 25th, at three o’clock in the morning, the tarantass arrived at Tioukalmsk, having accomplished a distance of eighty miles since it had crossed the Ichim. They rapidly changed horses. Here, however, for the first time, the iemschik made difficulties about starting, declaring that detachments of Tartars were roving across the steppe, and that travelers, horses, and carriages would be a fine prize for them.
Only by dint of a large bribe could Michael get over the unwillingness of the iemschik, for in this instance, as in many others, he did not wish to show his podorojna. The last ukase, having been transmitted by telegraph, was known in the Siberian provinces; and a Russian specially exempted from obeying these words would certainly have drawn public attention to himself—a thing above all to be avoided by the Czar’s courier. As to the iemschik’s hesitation, either the rascal traded on the traveler’s impatience or he really had good reason to fear.
However, at last the tarantass started, and made such good way that by three in the afternoon it had reached Koulatsinskoe, fifty miles farther on. An hour after this it was on the banks of the Irtych. Omsk was now only fourteen miles distant.
The Irtych is a large river, and one of the principal of those which flow towards the north of Asia. Rising in the Altai Mountains, it flows from the southeast to the northwest and empties itself into the Obi, after a course of four thousand miles.
At this time of year, when all the rivers of the Siberian basin are much swollen, the waters of the Irtych were very high. In consequence the current was changed to a regular torrent, rendering the passage difficult enough. A swimmer could not have crossed, however powerful; and even in a ferryboat there would be some danger.
But Michael and Nadia, determined to brave all perils whatever they might be, did not dream of shrinking from this one. Michael proposed to his young companion that he should cross first, embarking in the ferryboat with the tarantass and horses, as he feared that the weight of this load would render it less safe. After landing the carriage he would return and fetch Nadia.
The girl refused. It would be the delay of an hour, and she would not, for her safety alone, be the cause of it.
The embarkation was made not without difficulty, for the banks were partly flooded and the boat could not get in near enough. However, after half an hour’s exertion, the boatmen got the tarantass and the three horses on board. The passengers embarked also, and they shoved off.
For a few minutes all went well. A little way up the river the current was broken by a long point projecting from the bank, and forming an eddy easily crossed by the boat. The two boatmen propelled their barge with long poles, which they handled cleverly; but as they gained the middle of the stream it grew deeper and deeper, until at last they could only just reach the bottom. The ends of the poles were only a foot above the water, which rendered their use difficult. Michael and Nadia, seated in the stern of the boat, and always in dread of a delay, watched the boatmen with some uneasiness.
“Look out!” cried one of them to his comrade.
The shout was occasioned by the new direction the boat was rapidly taking. It had got into the direct current and was being swept down the river. By diligent use of the poles, putting the ends in a series of notches cut below the gunwale, the boatmen managed to keep the craft against the stream, and slowly urged it in a slanting direction towards the right bank.
They calculated on reaching it some five or six versts below the landing place; but, after all, that would not matter so long as men and beasts could disembark without accident. The two stout boatmen, stimulated moreover by the promise of double fare, did not doubt of succeeding in this difficult passage of the Irtych.
But they reckoned without an accident which they were powerless to prevent, and neither their zeal nor their skill-fulness could, under the circumstances, have done more.
The boat was in the middle of the current, at nearly equal distances from either shore, and being carried down at the rate of two versts an hour, when Michael, springing to his feet, bent his gaze up the river.
Several boats, aided by oars as well as by the current, were coming swiftly down upon them.
Michael’s brow contracted, and a cry escaped him.
“What is the matter?” asked the girl.
But before Michael had time to reply one of the boatmen exclaimed in an accent of terror:
“The Tartars! the Tartars!”
There were indeed boats full of soldiers, and in a few minutes they must reach the ferryboat, it being too heavily laden to escape from them.
The terrified boatmen uttered exclamations of despair and dropped their poles.
“Courage, my friends!” cried Michael; “courage! Fifty roubles for you if we reach the right bank before the boats overtake us.”
Incited by these words, the boatmen again worked manfully but it soon become evident that they could not escape the Tartars.
It was scarcely probable that they would pass without attacking them. On the contrary, there was everything to be feared from robbers such as these.
“Do not be afraid, Nadia,” said Michael; “but be ready for anything.”
“I am ready,” replied Nadia.
“Even to leap into the water when I tell you?”
“Whenever you tell me.”
“Have confidence in me, Nadia.”
“I have, indeed!”
The Tartar boats were now only a hundred feet distant. They carried a detachment of Bokharian soldiers, on their way to reconnoiter around Omsk.
The ferryboat was still two lengths from the shore. The boatmen redoubled their efforts. Michael himself seized a pole and wielded it with superhuman strength. If he could land the tarantass and horses, and dash off with them, there was some chance of escaping the Tartars, who were not mounted.
But all their efforts were in vain. “Saryn na kitchou!” shouted the soldiers from the first boat.
Michael recognized the Tartar war-cry, which is usually answered by lying flat on the ground. As neither he nor the boatmen obeyed a volley was let fly, and two of the horses were mortally wounded.
At the next moment a violent blow was felt. The boats had run into the ferryboat.
“Come, Nadia!” cried Michael, ready to jump overboard.
The girl was about to follow him, when a blow from a lance struck him, and he was thrown into the water. The current swept him away, his hand raised for an instant above the waves, and then he disappeared.
Nadia uttered a cry, but before she had time to throw herself after him she was seized and dragged into one of the boats. The boatmen were killed, the ferryboat left to drift away, and the Tartars continued to descend the Irtych.