Tomsk, founded in 1604, nearly in the heart of the Siberian provinces, is one of the most important towns in Asiatic Russia. Tobolsk, situated above the sixtieth parallel; Irkutsk, built beyond the hundredth meridian—have seen Tomsk increase at their expense.
And yet Tomsk, as has been said, is not the capital of this important province. It is at Omsk that the Governor-General of the province and the official world reside. But Tomsk is the most considerable town of that territory. The country being rich, the town is so likewise, for it is in the center of fruitful mines. In the luxury of its houses, its arrangements, and its equipages, it might rival the greatest European capitals. It is a city of millionaires, enriched by the spade and pickax, and though it has not the honor of being the residence of the Czar’s representative, it can boast of including in the first rank of its notables the chief of the merchants of the town, the principal grantees of the imperial government’s mines.
But the millionaires were fled now, and except for the crouching poor, the town stood empty to the hordes of Feofar-Khan. At four o’clock the Emir made his entry into the square, greeted by a flourish of trumpets, the rolling sound of the big drums, salvoes of artillery and musketry.
Feofar mounted his favorite horse, which carried on its head an aigrette of diamonds. The Emir still wore his uniform. He was accompanied by a numerous staff, and beside him walked the Khans of Khokhand and Koundouge and the grand dignitaries of the Khanats.
At the same moment appeared on the terrace the chief of Feofar’s wives, the queen, if this title may be given to the sultana of the states of Bokhara. But, queen or slave, this woman of Persian origin was wonderfully beautiful. Contrary to the Mahometan custom, and no doubt by some caprice of the Emir, she had her face uncovered. Her hair, divided into four plaits, fell over her dazzling white shoulders, scarcely concealed by a veil of silk worked in gold, which fell from the back of a cap studded with gems of the highest value. Under her blue-silk petticoat, fell the “zirdjameh” of silken gauze, and above the sash lay the “pirahn.” But from the head to the little feet, such was the profusion of jewels—gold beads strung on silver threads, chaplets of turquoises, “firouzehs” from the celebrated mines of Elbourz, necklaces of cornelians, agates, emeralds, opals, and sapphires—that her dress seemed to be literally made of precious stones. The thousands of diamonds which sparkled on her neck, arms, hands, at her waist, and at her feet might have been valued at almost countless millions of roubles.
The Emir and the Khans dismounted, as did the dignitaries who escorted them. All entered a magnificent tent erected on the center of the first terrace. Before the tent, as usual, the Koran was laid.
Feofar’s lieutenant did not make them wait, and before five o’clock the trumpets announced his arrival. Ivan Ogareff—the Scarred Cheek, as he was already nick-named—wearing the uniform of a Tartar officer, dismounted before the Emir’s tent. He was accompanied by a party of soldiers from the camp at Zabediero, who ranged up at the sides of the square, in the middle of which a place for the sports was reserved. A large scar could be distinctly seen cut obliquely across the traitor’s face.
Ogareff presented his principal officers to the Emir, who, without departing from the coldness which composed the main part of his dignity, received them in a way which satisfied them that they stood well in the good graces of their chief.
At least so thought Harry Blount and Alcide Jolivet, the two inseparables, now associated together in the chase after news. After leaving Zabediero, they had proceeded rapidly to Tomsk. The plan they had agreed upon was to leave the Tartars as soon as possible, and to join a Russian regiment, and, if they could, to go with them to Irkutsk. All that they had seen of the invasion, its burnings, its pillages, its murders, had perfectly sickened them, and they longed to be among the ranks of the Siberian army. Jolivet had told his companion that he could not leave Tomsk without making a sketch of the triumphal entry of the Tartar troops, if it was only to satisfy his cousin’s curiosity; but the same evening they both intended to take the road to Irkutsk, and being well mounted hoped to distance the Emir’s scouts.
Alcide and Blount mingled therefore in the crowd, so as to lose no detail of a festival which ought to supply them with a hundred good lines for an article. They admired the magnificence of Feofar-Khan, his wives, his officers, his guards, and all the Eastern pomp, of which the ceremonies of Europe can give not the least idea. But they turned away with disgust when Ivan Ogareff presented himself before the Emir, and waited with some impatience for the amusements to begin.
“You see, my dear Blount,” said Alcide, “we have come too soon, like honest citizens who like to get their money’s worth. All this is before the curtain rises, it would have been better to arrive only for the ballet.”
“What ballet?” asked Blount.
“The compulsory ballet, to be sure. But see, the curtain is going to rise.” Alcide Jolivet spoke as if he had been at the Opera, and taking his glass from its case, he prepared, with the air of a connoisseur, “to examine the first act of Feofar’s company.”
A painful ceremony was to precede the sports. In fact, the triumph of the vanquisher could not be complete without the public humiliation of the vanquished. This was why several hundreds of prisoners were brought under the soldiers’ whips. They were destined to march past Feofar-Khan and his allies before being crammed with their companions into the prisons in the town.
In the first ranks of these prisoners figured Michael Strogoff. As Ogareff had ordered, he was specially guarded by a file of soldiers. His mother and Nadia were there also.
The old Siberian, although energetic enough when her own safety was in question, was frightfully pale. She expected some terrible scene. It was not without reason that her son had been brought before the Emir. She therefore trembled for him. Ivan Ogareff was not a man to forgive having been struck in public by the knout, and his vengeance would be merciless. Some frightful punishment familiar to the barbarians of Central Asia would, no doubt, be inflicted on Michael. Ogareff had protected him against the soldiers because he well knew what would happen by reserving him for the justice of the Emir.
The mother and son had not been able to speak together since the terrible scene in the camp at Zabediero. They had been pitilessly kept apart—a bitter aggravation of their misery, for it would have been some consolation to have been together during these days of captivity. Marfa longed to ask her son’s pardon for the harm she had unintentionally done him, for she reproached herself with not having commanded her maternal feelings. If she had restrained herself in that post-house at Omsk, when she found herself face to face with him, Michael would have passed unrecognized, and all these misfortunes would have been avoided.
Michael, on his side, thought that if his mother was there, if Ogareff had brought her with him, it was to make her suffer with the sight of his own punishment, or perhaps some frightful death was reserved for her also.
As to Nadia, she only asked herself how she could save them both, how come to the aid of son and mother. As yet she could only wonder, but she felt instinctively that she must above everything avoid drawing attention upon herself, that she must conceal herself, make herself insignificant. Perhaps she might at least gnaw through the meshes which imprisoned the lion. At any rate if any opportunity was given her she would seize upon it, and sacrifice herself, if need be, for the son of Marfa Strogoff.
In the meantime the greater part of the prisoners were passing before the Emir, and as they passed each was obliged to prostrate himself, with his forehead in the dust, in token of servitude. Slavery begins by humiliation. When the unfortunate people were too slow in bending, the rough guards threw them violently to the ground.
Alcide Jolivet and his companion could not witness such a sight without feeling indignant.
“It is cowardly—let us go,” said Alcide.
“No,” answered Blount; “we must see it all.”
“See it all!—ah!” cried Alcide, suddenly, grasping his companion’s arm.
“What is the matter with you?” asked the latter.
“Look, Blount; it is she!”
“The sister of our traveling companion—alone, and a prisoner! We must save her.”
“Calm yourself,” replied Blount coolly. “Any interference on our part in behalf of the young girl would be worse than useless.”
Alcide Jolivet, who had been about to rush forward, stopped, and Nadia—who had not perceived them, her features being half hidden by her hair—passed in her turn before the Emir without attracting his attention.
However, after Nadia came Marfa Strogoff; and as she did not throw herself quickly in the dust, the guards brutally pushed her. She fell.
Her son struggled so violently that the soldiers who were guarding him could scarcely hold him back. But the old woman rose, and they were about to drag her on, when Ogareff interposed, saying, “Let that woman stay!”
As to Nadia, she happily regained the crowd of prisoners. Ivan Ogareff had taken no notice of her.
Michael was then led before the Emir, and there he remained standing, without casting down his eyes.
“Your forehead to the ground!” cried Ogareff.
“No!” answered Michael.
Two soldiers endeavored to make him bend, but they were themselves laid on the ground by a buffet from the young man’s fist.
Ogareff approached Michael. “You shall die!” he said.
“I can die,” answered Michael fiercely; “but your traitor’s face, Ivan, will not the less carry forever the infamous brand of the knout.”
At this reply Ivan Ogareff became perfectly livid.
“Who is this prisoner?” asked the Emir, in a tone of voice terrible from its very calmness.
“A Russian spy,” answered Ogareff. In asserting that Michael was a spy he knew that the sentence pronounced against him would be terrible.
The Emir made a sign at which all the crowd bent low their heads. Then he pointed with his hand to the Koran, which was brought him. He opened the sacred book and placed his finger on one of its pages.
It was chance, or rather, according to the ideas of these Orientals, God Himself who was about to decide the fate of Michael Strogoff. The people of Central Asia give the name of “fal” to this practice. After having interpreted the sense of the verse touched by the judge’s finger, they apply the sentence whatever it may be.
The Emir had let his finger rest on the page of the Koran. The chief of the Ulemas then approached, and read in a loud voice a verse which ended with these words, “And he will no more see the things of this earth.”
“Russian spy!” exclaimed Feofar-Kahn in a voice trembling with fury, “you have come to see what is going on in the Tartar camp. Then look while you may.”