All the members of the council simultaneously started forward. A courier from the Czar arrived in Irkutsk! Had these officers for a moment considered the improbability of this fact, they would certainly not have credited what they heard.
The Grand Duke advanced quickly to his aide-de-camp. “This courier!” he exclaimed.
A man entered. He appeared exhausted with fatigue. He wore the dress of a Siberian peasant, worn into tatters, and exhibiting several shot-holes. A Muscovite cap was on his head. His face was disfigured by a recently-healed scar. The man had evidently had a long and painful journey; his shoes being in a state which showed that he had been obliged to make part of it on foot.
“His Highness the Grand Duke?” he asked.
The Grand Duke went up to him. “You are a courier from the Czar?” he asked.
“Yes, your Highness.”
“You left Moscow?”
“On the 15th of July.”
It was Ivan Ogareff. He had taken the designation of the man whom he believed that he had rendered powerless. Neither the Grand Duke nor anyone knew him in Irkutsk, and he had not even to disguise his features. As he was in a position to prove his pretended identity, no one could have any reason for doubting him. He came, therefore, sustained by his iron will, to hasten by treason and assassination the great object of the invasion.
After Ogareff had replied, the Grand Duke signed to all his officers to withdraw. He and the false Michael Strogoff remained alone in the saloon.
The Grand Duke looked at Ivan Ogareff for some moments with extreme attention. Then he said, “On the 15th of July you were at Moscow?”
“Yes, your Highness; and on the night of the 14th I saw His Majesty the Czar at the New Palace.”
“Have you a letter from the Czar?”
“Here it is.”
And Ivan Ogareff handed to the Grand Duke the Imperial letter, crumpled to almost microscopic size.
“Was the letter given you in this state?”
“No, your Highness, but I was obliged to tear the envelope, the better to hide it from the Emir’s soldiers.”
“Were you taken prisoner by the Tartars?”
“Yes, your Highness, I was their prisoner for several days,” answered Ogareff. “That is the reason that, having left Moscow on the 15th of July, as the date of that letter shows, I only reached Irkutsk on the 2d of October, after traveling seventy-nine days.”
The Grand Duke took the letter. He unfolded it and recognized the Czar’s signature, preceded by the decisive formula, written by his brother’s hand. There was no possible doubt of the authenticity of this letter, nor of the identity of the courier. Though Ogareff’s countenance had at first inspired the Grand Duke with some distrust, he let nothing of it appear, and it soon vanished.
The Grand Duke remained for a few minutes without speaking. He read the letter slowly, so as to take in its meaning fully. “Michael Strogoff, do you know the contents of this letter?” he asked.
“Yes, your Highness. I might have been obliged to destroy it, to prevent its falling into the hands of the Tartars, and should such have been the case, I wished to be able to bring the contents of it to your Highness.”
“You know that this letter enjoins us all to die, rather than give up the town?”
“I know it.”
“You know also that it informs me of the movements of the troops which have combined to stop the invasion?”
“Yes, your Highness, but the movements have failed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Ichim, Omsk, Tomsk, to speak only of the more important towns of the two Siberias, have been successively occupied by the soldiers of Feofar-Khan.”
“But there has been fighting? Have not our Cossacks met the Tartars?”
“Several times, your Highness.”
“And they were repulsed?”
“They were not in sufficient force to oppose the enemy.”
“Where did the encounters take place?”
“At Kolyvan, at Tomsk.” Until now, Ogareff had only spoken the truth, but, in the hope of troubling the defenders of Irkutsk by exaggerating the defeats, he added, “And a third time before Krasnoiarsk.”
“And what of this last engagement?” asked the Grand Duke, through whose compressed lips the words could scarcely pass.
“It was more than an engagement, your Highness,” answered Ogareff; “it was a battle.”
“Twenty thousand Russians, from the frontier provinces and the government of Tobolsk, engaged with a hundred and fifty thousand Tartars, and, notwithstanding their courage, were overwhelmed.”
“You lie!” exclaimed the Grand Duke, endeavoring in vain to curb his passion.
“I speak the truth, your Highness,” replied Ivan Ogareff coldly. “I was present at the battle of Krasnoiarsk, and it was there I was made prisoner!”
The Grand Duke grew calmer, and by a significant gesture he gave Ogareff to understand that he did not doubt his veracity. “What day did this battle of Krasnoiarsk take place?” he asked.
“On the 2d of September.”
“And now all the Tartar troops are concentrated here?”
“And you estimate them?”
“At about four hundred thousand men.”
Another exaggeration of Ogareff’s in the estimate of the Tartar army, with the same object as before.
“And I must not expect any help from the West provinces?” asked the Grand Duke.
“None, your Highness, at any rate before the end of the winter.”
“Well, hear this, Michael Strogoff. Though I must expect no help either from the East or from the West, even were these barbarians six hundred thousand strong, I will never give up Irkutsk!”
Ogareff’s evil eye slightly contracted. The traitor thought to himself that the brother of the Czar did not reckon the result of treason.
The Grand Duke, who was of a nervous temperament, had great difficulty in keeping calm whilst hearing this disastrous news. He walked to and fro in the room, under the gaze of Ogareff, who eyed him as a victim reserved for vengeance. He stopped at the windows, he looked forth at the fires in the Tartar camp, he listened to the noise of the ice-blocks drifting down the Angara.
A quarter of an hour passed without his putting any more questions. Then taking up the letter, he re-read a passage and said, “You know that in this letter I am warned of a traitor, of whom I must beware?”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“He will try to enter Irkutsk in disguise; gain my confidence, and betray the town to the Tartars.”
“I know all that, your Highness, and I know also that Ivan Ogareff has sworn to revenge himself personally on the Czar’s brother.”
“It is said that the officer in question was condemned by the Grand Duke to a humiliating degradation.”
“Yes, I remember. But it is a proof that the villain, who could afterwards serve against his country and head an invasion of barbarians, deserved it.”
“His Majesty the Czar,” said Ogareff, “was particularly anxious that you should be warned of the criminal projects of Ivan Ogareff against your person.”
“Yes; of that the letter informs me.”
“And His Majesty himself spoke to me of it, telling me I was above all things to beware of the traitor.”
“Did you meet with him?”
“Yes, your Highness, after the battle of Krasnoiarsk. If he had only guessed that I was the bearer of a letter addressed to your Highness, in which his plans were revealed, I should not have got off so easily.”
“No; you would have been lost!” replied the Grand Duke. “And how did you manage to escape?”
“By throwing myself into the Irtych.”
“And how did you enter Irkutsk?”
“Under cover of a sortie, which was made this evening to repulse a Tartar detachment. I mingled with the defenders of the town, made myself known, and was immediately conducted before your Highness.”
“Good, Michael Strogoff,” answered the Grand Duke. “You have shown courage and zeal in your difficult mission. I will not forget you. Have you any favor to ask?”
“None; unless it is to be allowed to fight at the side of your Highness,” replied Ogareff.
“So be it, Strogoff. I attach you from to-day to my person, and you shall be lodged in the palace.”
“And if according to his intention, Ivan Ogareff should present himself to your Highness under a false name?”
“We will unmask him, thanks to you, who know him, and I will make him die under the knout. Go!”
Ogareff gave a military salute, not forgetting that he was a captain of the couriers of the Czar, and retired.
Ogareff had so far played his unworthy part with success. The Grand Duke’s entire confidence had been accorded him. He could now betray it whenever it suited him. He would inhabit the very palace. He would be in the secret of all the operations for the defense of the town. He thus held the situation in his hand, as it were. No one in Irkutsk knew him, no one could snatch off his mask. He resolved therefore to set to work without delay.
Indeed, time pressed. The town must be captured before the arrival of the Russians from the North and East, and that was only a question of a few days. The Tartars once masters of Irkutsk, it would not be easy to take it again from them. At any rate, even if they were obliged to abandon it later, they would not do so before they had utterly destroyed it, and before the head of the Grand Duke had rolled at the feet of Feofar-Khan.
Ivan Ogareff, having every facility for seeing, observing, and acting, occupied himself the next day with visiting the ramparts. He was everywhere received with cordial congratulations from officers, soldiers, and citizens. To them this courier from the Czar was a link which connected them with the empire.
Ogareff recounted, with an assurance which never failed, numerous fictitious events of his journey. Then, with the cunning for which he was noted, without dwelling too much on it at first, he spoke of the gravity of the situation, exaggerating the success of the Tartars and the numbers of the barbarian forces, as he had when speaking to the Grand Duke. According to him, the expected succors would be insufficient, if ever they arrived at all, and it was to be feared that a battle fought under the walls of Irkutsk would be as fatal as the battles of Kolyvan, Tomsk, and Krasnoiarsk.
Ogareff was not too free in these insinuations. He wished to allow them to sink gradually into the minds of the defenders of Irkutsk. He pretended only to answer with reluctance when much pressed with questions. He always added that they must fight to the last man, and blow up the town rather than yield!
These false statements would have done more harm had it been possible; but the garrison and the population of Irkutsk were too patriotic to let themselves be moved. Of all the soldiers and citizens shut up in this town, isolated at the extremity of the Asiatic world, not one dreamed of even speaking of a capitulation. The contempt of the Russians for these barbarians was boundless.
No one suspected the odious part played by Ivan Ogareff; no one guessed that the pretended courier of the Czar was a traitor. It occurred very naturally that on his arrival in Irkutsk, a frequent intercourse was established between Ogareff and one of the bravest defenders of the town, Wassili Fedor. We know what anxiety this unhappy father suffered. If his daughter, Nadia Fedor, had left Russia on the date fixed by the last letter he had received from Riga, what had become of her? Was she still trying to cross the invaded provinces, or had she long since been taken prisoner? The only alleviation to Wassili Fedor’s anxiety was when he could obtain an opportunity of engaging in battle with the Tartars— opportunities which came too seldom for his taste. The very evening the pretended courier arrived, Wassili Fedor went to the governor-general’s palace and, acquainting Ogareff with the circumstances under which his daughter must have left European Russia, told him all his uneasiness about her. Ogareff did not know Nadia, although he had met her at Ichim on the day she was there with Michael Strogoff; but then, he had not paid more attention to her than to the two reporters, who at the same time were in the post-house; he therefore could give Wassili Fedor no news of his daughter.
“But at what time,” asked Ogareff, “must your daughter have left the Russian territory?”
“About the same time that you did,” replied Fedor.
“I left Moscow on the 15th of July.”
“Nadia must also have quitted Moscow at that time. Her letter told me so expressly.”
“She was in Moscow on the 15th of July?”
“Yes, certainly, by that date.”
“Then it was impossible for her—But no, I am mistaken— I was confusing dates. Unfortunately, it is too probable that your daughter must have passed the frontier, and you can only have one hope, that she stopped on learning the news of the Tartar invasion!”
The father’s head fell! He knew Nadia, and he knew too well that nothing would have prevented her from setting out. Ivan Ogareff had just committed gratuitously an act of real cruelty. With a word he might have reassured Fedor. Although Nadia had passed the frontier under circumstances with which we are acquainted, Fedor, by comparing the date on which his daughter would have been at Nijni-Novgorod, and the date of the proclamation which forbade anyone to leave it, would no doubt have concluded thus: that Nadia had not been exposed to the dangers of the invasion, and that she was still, in spite of herself, in the European territory of the Empire.
Ogareff obedient to his nature, a man who was never touched by the sufferings of others, might have said that word. He did not say it. Fedor retired with his heart broken. In that interview his last hope was crushed.
During the two following days, the 3rd and 4th of October, the Grand Duke often spoke to the pretended Michael Strogoff, and made him repeat all that he had heard in the Imperial Cabinet of the New Palace. Ogareff, prepared for all these questions, replied without the least hesitation. He intentionally did not conceal that the Czar’s government had been utterly surprised by the invasion, that the insurrection had been prepared in the greatest possible secrecy, that the Tartars were already masters of the line of the Obi when the news reached Moscow, and lastly, that none of the necessary preparations were completed in the Russian provinces for sending into Siberia the troops requisite for repulsing the invaders.
Ivan Ogareff, being entirely free in his movements, began to study Irkutsk, the state of its fortifications, their weak points, so as to profit subsequently by his observations, in the event of being prevented from consummating his act of treason. He examined particularly the Bolchaia Gate, the one he wished to deliver up.
Twice in the evening he came upon the glacis of this gate. He walked up and down, without fear of being discovered by the besiegers, whose nearest posts were at least a mile from the ramparts. He fancied that he was recognized by no one, till he caught sight of a shadow gliding along outside the earthworks. Sangarre had come at the risk of her life for the purpose of putting herself in communication with Ivan Ogareff.
For two days the besieged had enjoyed a tranquillity to which the Tartars had not accustomed them since the commencement of the investment. This was by Ogareff’s orders. Feofar-Khan’s lieutenant wished that all attempts to take the town by force should be suspended. He hoped the watchfulness of the besieged would relax. At any rate, several thousand Tartars were kept in readiness at the outposts, to attack the gate, deserted, as Ogareff anticipated that it would be, by its defenders, whenever he should summon the besiegers to the assault.
This he could not now delay in doing. All must be over by the time that the Russian troops should come in sight of Irkutsk. Ogareff’s arrangements were made, and on this evening a note fell from the top of the earthworks into Sangarre’s hands.
On the next day, that is to say during the hours of darkness from the 5th to the 6th of October, at two o’clock in the morning, Ivan Ogareff had resolved to deliver up Irkutsk.