Omsk is the official capital of Western Siberia. It is not the most important city of the government of that name, for Tomsk has more inhabitants and is larger. But it is at Omsk that the Governor-General of this the first half of Asiatic Russia resides. Omsk, properly so called, is composed of two distinct towns: one which is exclusively inhabited by the authorities and officials; the other more especially devoted to the Siberian merchants, although, indeed, the trade of the town is of small importance.
This city has about 12,000 to 13,000 inhabitants. It is defended by walls, but these are merely of earth, and could afford only insufficient protection. The Tartars, who were well aware of this fact, consequently tried at this period to carry it by main force, and in this they succeeded, after an investment of a few days.
The garrison of Omsk, reduced to two thousand men, resisted valiantly. But driven back, little by little, from the mercantile portion of the place, they were compelled to take refuge in the upper town.
It was there that the Governor-General, his officers, and soldiers had entrenched themselves. They had made the upper quarter of Omsk a kind of citadel, and hitherto they held out well in this species of improvised “kreml,” but without much hope of the promised succor. The Tartar troops, who were descending the Irtych, received every day fresh reinforcements, and, what was more serious, they were led by an officer, a traitor to his country, but a man of much note, and of an audacity equal to any emergency. This man was Colonel Ivan Ogareff.
Ivan Ogareff, terrible as any of the most savage Tartar chieftains, was an educated soldier. Possessing on his mother’s side some Mongolian blood, he delighted in deceptive strategy and ambuscades, stopping short of nothing when he desired to fathom some secret or to set some trap. Deceitful by nature, he willingly had recourse to the vilest trickery; lying when occasion demanded, excelling in the adoption of all disguises and in every species of deception. Further, he was cruel, and had even acted as an executioner. Feofar-Khan possessed in him a lieutenant well capable of seconding his designs in this savage war.
When Michael Strogoff arrived on the banks of the Irtych, Ivan Ogareff was already master of Omsk, and was pressing the siege of the upper quarter of the town all the more eagerly because he must hasten to Tomsk, where the main body of the Tartar army was concentrated.
Tomsk, in fact, had been taken by Feofar-Khan some days previously, and it was thence that the invaders, masters of Central Siberia, were to march upon Irkutsk.
Irkutsk was the real object of Ivan Ogareff. The plan of the traitor was to reach the Grand Duke under a false name, to gain his confidence, and to deliver into Tartar hands the town and the Grand Duke himself. With such a town, and such a hostage, all Asiatic Siberia must necessarily fall into the hands of the invaders. Now it was known that the Czar was acquainted with this conspiracy, and that it was for the purpose of baffling it that a courier had been intrusted with the important warning. Hence, therefore, the very stringent instructions which had been given to the young courier to pass incognito through the invaded district.
This mission he had so far faithfully performed, but now could he carry it to a successful completion?
The blow which had struck Michael Strogoff was not mortal. By swimming in a manner by which he had effectually concealed himself, he had reached the right bank, where he fell exhausted among the bushes.
When he recovered his senses, he found himself in the cabin of a mujik, who had picked him up and cared for him. For how long a time had he been the guest of this brave Siberian? He could not guess. But when he opened his eyes he saw the handsome bearded face bending over him, and regarding him with pitying eyes. “Do not speak, little father,” said the mujik, “Do not speak! Thou art still too weak. I will tell thee where thou art and everything that has passed.”
And the mujik related to Michael Strogoff the different incidents of the struggle which he had witnessed—the attack upon the ferry by the Tartar boats, the pillage of the tarantass, and the massacre of the boatmen.
But Michael Strogoff listened no longer, and slipping his hand under his garment he felt the imperial letter still secured in his breast. He breathed a sigh of relief.
But that was not all. “A young girl accompanied me,” said he.
“They have not killed her,” replied the mujik, anticipating the anxiety which he read in the eyes of his guest. “They have carried her off in their boat, and have continued the descent of Irtych. It is only one prisoner more to join the many they are taking to Tomsk!”
Michael Strogoff was unable to reply. He pressed his hand upon his heart to restrain its beating. But, notwithstanding these many trials, the sentiment of duty mastered his whole soul. “Where am I?” asked he.
“Upon the right bank of the Irtych, only five versts from Omsk,” replied the mujik.
“What wound can I have received which could have thus prostrated me? It was not a gunshot wound?”
“No; a lance-thrust in the head, now healing,” replied the mujik. “After a few days’ rest, little father, thou wilt be able to proceed. Thou didst fall into the river; but the Tartars neither touched nor searched thee; and thy purse is still in thy pocket.”
Michael Strogoff gripped the mujik’s hand. Then, recovering himself with a sudden effort, “Friend,” said he, “how long have I been in thy hut?”
“Three days lost!”
“Three days hast thou lain unconscious.”
“Hast thou a horse to sell me?”
“Thou wishest to go?”
“I have neither horse nor carriage, little father. Where the Tartar has passed there remains nothing!”
“Well, I will go on foot to Omsk to find a horse.”
“A few more hours of rest, and thou wilt be in a better condition to pursue thy journey.”
“Not an hour!”
“Come now,” replied the mujik, recognizing the fact that it was useless to struggle against the will of his guest, “I will guide thee myself. Besides,” he added, “the Russians are still in great force at Omsk, and thou couldst, perhaps, pass unperceived.”
“Friend,” replied Michael Strogoff, “Heaven reward thee for all thou hast done for me!”
“Only fools expect reward on earth,” replied the mujik.
Michael Strogoff went out of the hut. When he tried to walk he was seized with such faintness that, without the assistance of the mujik, he would have fallen; but the fresh air quickly revived him. He then felt the wound in his head, the violence of which his fur cap had lessened. With the energy which he possessed, he was not a man to succumb under such a trifle. Before his eyes lay a single goal—far-distant Irkutsk. He must reach it! But he must pass through Omsk without stopping there.
“God protect my mother and Nadia!” he murmured. “I have no longer the right to think of them!”
Michael Strogoff and the mujik soon arrived in the mercantile quarter of the lower town. The surrounding earthwork had been destroyed in many places, and there were the breaches through which the marauders who followed the armies of Feofar-Khan had penetrated. Within Omsk, in its streets and squares, the Tartar soldiers swarmed like ants; but it was easy to see that a hand of iron imposed upon them a discipline to which they were little accustomed. They walked nowhere alone, but in armed groups, to defend themselves against surprise.
In the chief square, transformed into a camp, guarded by many sentries, 2,000 Tartars bivouacked. The horses, picketed but still saddled, were ready to start at the first order. Omsk could only be a temporary halting-place for this Tartar cavalry, which preferred the rich plains of Eastern Siberia, where the towns were more wealthy, and, consequently, pillage more profitable.
Above the mercantile town rose the upper quarter, which Ivan Ogareff, notwithstanding several assaults vigorously made but bravely repelled, had not yet been able to reduce. Upon its embattled walls floated the national colors of Russia.
It was not without a legitimate pride that Michael Strogoff and his guide, vowing fidelity, saluted them.
Michael Strogoff was perfectly acquainted with the town of Omsk, and he took care to avoid those streets which were much frequented. This was not from any fear of being recognized. In the town his old mother only could have called him by name, but he had sworn not to see her, and he did not. Besides—and he wished it with his whole heart—she might have fled into some quiet portion of the steppe.
The mujik very fortunately knew a postmaster who, if well paid, would not refuse at his request either to let or to sell a carriage or horses. There remained the difficulty of leaving the town, but the breaches in the fortifications would, of course, facilitate his departure.
The mujik was accordingly conducting his guest straight to the posting-house, when, in a narrow street, Michael Strogoff, coming to a sudden stop sprang behind a jutting wall.
“What is the matter?” asked the astonished mujik.
“Silence!” replied Michael, with his finger on his lips. At this moment a detachment debouched from the principal square into the street which Michael Strogoff and his companion had just been following.
At the head of the detachment, composed of twenty horsemen, was an officer dressed in a very simple uniform. Although he glanced rapidly from one side to the other he could not have seen Michael Strogoff, owing to his precipitous retreat.
The detachment went at full trot into the narrow street. Neither the officer nor his escort concerned themselves about the inhabitants. Several unlucky ones had scarcely time to make way for their passage. There were a few half-stifled cries, to which thrusts of the lance gave an instant reply, and the street was immediately cleared.
When the escort had disappeared, “Who is that officer?” asked Michael Strogoff. And while putting the question his face was pale as that of a corpse.
“It is Ivan Ogareff,” replied the Siberian, in a deep voice which breathed hatred.
“He!” cried Michael Strogoff, from whom the word escaped with a fury he could not conquer. He had just recognized in this officer the traveler who had struck him at the posting-house of Ichim. And, although he had only caught a glimpse of him, it burst upon his mind, at the same time, that this traveler was the old Zingari whose words he had overheard in the market place of Nijni-Novgorod.
Michael Strogoff was not mistaken. The two men were one and the same. It was under the garb of a Zingari, mingling with the band of Sangarre, that Ivan Ogareff had been able to leave the town of Nijni-Novgorod, where he had gone to seek his confidants. Sangarre and her Zingari, well paid spies, were absolutely devoted to him. It was he who, during the night, on the fair-ground had uttered that singular sentence, which Michael Strogoff could not understand; it was he who was voyaging on board the Caucasus, with the whole of the Bohemian band; it was he who, by this other route, from Kasan to Ichim, across the Urals, had reached Omsk, where now he held supreme authority.
Ivan Ogareff had been barely three days at Omsk, and had it not been for their fatal meeting at Ichim, and for the event which had detained him three days on the banks of the Irtych, Michael Strogoff would have evidently beaten him on the way to Irkutsk.
And who knows how many misfortunes would have been avoided in the future! In any case—and now more than ever—Michael Strogoff must avoid Ivan Ogareff, and contrive not to be seen. When the moment of encountering him face to face should arrive, he knew how to meet it, even should the traitor be master of the whole of Siberia.
The mujik and Michael resumed their way and arrived at the posting-house. To leave Omsk by one of the breaches would not be difficult after nightfall. As for purchasing a carriage to replace the tarantass, that was impossible. There were none to be let or sold. But what want had Michael Strogoff now for a carriage? Was he not alone, alas? A horse would suffice him; and, very fortunately, a horse could be had. It was an animal of strength and mettle, and Michael Strogoff, accomplished horseman as he was, could make good use of it.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Michael Strogoff, compelled to wait till nightfall, in order to pass the fortifications, but not desiring to show himself, remained in the posting-house, and there partook of food.
There was a great crowd in the public room. They were talking of the expected arrival of a corps of Muscovite troops, not at Omsk, but at Tomsk—a corps intended to recapture that town from the Tartars of Feofar-Khan.
Michael Strogoff lent an attentive ear, but took no part in the conversation. Suddenly a cry made him tremble, a cry which penetrated to the depths of his soul, and these two words rushed into his ear: “My son!”
His mother, the old woman Marfa, was before him! Trembling, she smiled upon him. She stretched forth her arms to him. Michael Strogoff arose. He was about to throw himself—
The thought of duty, the serious danger for his mother and himself in this unfortunate meeting, suddenly stopped him, and such was his command over himself that not a muscle of his face moved. There were twenty people in the public room. Among them were, perhaps, spies, and was it not known in the town that the son of Marfa Strogoff belonged to the corps of the couriers of the Czar?
Michael Strogoff did not move.
“Michael!” cried his mother.
“Who are you, my good lady?” Michael Strogoff stammered, unable to speak in his usual firm tone.
“Who am I, thou askest! Dost thou no longer know thy mother?”
“You are mistaken,” coldly replied Michael Strogoff. “A resemblance deceives you.”
The old Marfa went up to him, and, looking straight into his eyes, said, “Thou art not the son of Peter and Marfa Strogoff?”
Michael Strogoff would have given his life to have locked his mother in his arms; but if he yielded it was all over with him, with her, with his mission, with his oath! Completely master of himself, he closed his eyes, in order not to see the inexpressible anguish which agitated the revered countenance of his mother. He drew back his hands, in order not to touch those trembling hands which sought him. “I do not know in truth what it is you say, my good woman,” he replied, stepping back.
“Michael!” again cried his aged mother.
“My name is not Michael. I never was your son! I am Nicholas Korpanoff, a merchant at Irkutsk.”
And suddenly he left the public room, whilst for the last time the words re-echoed, “My son! my son!”
Michael Strogoff, by a desperate effort, had gone. He did not see his old mother, who had fallen back almost inanimate upon a bench. But when the postmaster hastened to assist her, the aged woman raised herself. Suddenly a thought occurred to her. She denied by her son! It was not possible. As for being herself deceived, and taking another for him, equally impossible. It was certainly her son whom she had just seen; and if he had not recognized her it was because he would not, it was because he ought not, it was because he had some cogent reasons for acting thus! And then, her mother’s feelings arising within her, she had only one thought—“Can I, unwittingly, have ruined him?”
“I am mad,” she said to her interrogators. “My eyes have deceived me! This young man is not my child. He had not his voice. Let us think no more of it; if we do I shall end by finding him everywhere.”
Less than ten minutes afterwards a Tartar officer appeared in the posting-house. “Marfa Strogoff?” he asked.
“It is I,” replied the old woman, in a tone so calm, and with a face so tranquil, that those who had witnessed the meeting with her son would not have known her.
“Come,” said the officer,
Marfa Strogoff, with firm step, followed the Tartar. Some moments afterwards she found herself in the chief square in the presence of Ivan Ogareff, to whom all the details of this scene had been immediately reported.
Ogareff, suspecting the truth, interrogated the old Siberian woman. “Thy name?” he asked in a rough voice.
“Thou hast a son?”
“He is a courier of the Czar?”
“Where is he?”
“Thou hast no news of him?”
“Since how long?”
“Since two months.”
“Who, then, was that young man whom thou didst call thy son a few moments ago at the posting-house?”
“A young Siberian whom I took for him,” replied Marfa Strogoff. “This is the tenth man in whom I have thought I recognized my son since the town has been so full of strangers. I think I see him everywhere.”
“So this young man was not Michael Strogoff?”
“It was not Michael Strogoff.”
“Dost thou know, old woman, that I can torture thee until thou avowest the truth?”
“I have spoken the truth, and torture will not cause me to alter my words in any way.”
“This Siberian was not Michael Strogoff?” asked a second time Ivan Ogareff.
“No, it was not he,” replied a second time Marfa Strogoff. “Do you think that for anything in the world I would deny a son whom God has given me?”
Ivan Ogareff regarded with an evil eye the old woman who braved him to the face. He did not doubt but that she had recognized her son in this young Siberian. Now if this son had first renounced his mother, and if his mother renounced him in her turn, it could occur only from the most weighty motive. Ogareff had therefore no doubt that the pretended Nicholas Korpanoff was Michael Strogoff, courier of the Czar, seeking concealment under a false name, and charged with some mission which it would have been important for him to know. He therefore at once gave orders for his pursuit. Then “Let this woman be conducted to Tomsk,” he said.
While the soldiers brutally dragged her off, he added between his teeth, “When the moment arrives I shall know how to make her speak, this old sorceress!”