"And now," said Michael, as he threw in the earth, "the wolves of the steppe will not devour him."
Then he shook his fist at the troop of horsemen who were passing. "Forward, Nadia!" he said.
Michael could not follow the road, now occupied by the Tartars. He must cross the steppe and turn to Irkutsk. He had not now to trouble himself about crossing the Dinka. Nadia could not move, but she could see for him. He took her in his arms and went on towards the southwest of the province.
A hundred and forty miles still remained to be traversed. How was the distance to be performed? Should they not succumb to such fatigue? On what were they to live on the way? By what superhuman energy were they to pass the slopes of the Sayansk Mountains? Neither he nor Nadia could answer this!
And yet, twelve days after, on the 2d of October, at six o'clock in the evening, a wide sheet of water lay at Michael Strogoff's feet. It was Lake Baikal.
CHAPTER X BAIKAL AND ANGARA
LAKE BAIKAL is situated seventeen hundred feet above the level of the sea. Its length is about six hundred miles, its breadth seventy. Its depth is not known. Madame de Bourboulon states that, according to the boatmen, it likes to be spoken of as "Madam Sea." If it is called "Sir Lake," it immediately lashes itself into fury. However, it is reported and believed by the Siberians that a Russian is never drowned in it.
This immense basin of fresh water, fed by more than three hundred rivers, is surrounded by magnificent volcanic mountains. It has no other outlet than the Angara, which after passing Irkutsk throws itself into the Yenisei, a little above the town of Yeniseisk. As to the mountains which encase it, they form a branch of the Toungouzes, and are derived from the vast system of the Altai.
In this territory, subject to peculiar climatical conditions, the autumn appears to be absorbed in the precocious winter. It was now the beginning of October. The sun set at five o'clock in the evening, and during the long nights the temperature fell to zero. The first snows, which would last till summer, already whitened the summits of the neighboring hills. During the Siberian winter this inland sea is frozen over to a thickness of several feet, and is crossed by the sleighs of caravans.
Either because there are people who are so wanting in politeness as to call it "Sir Lake," or for some more meteorological reason, Lake Baikal is subject to violent tempests. Its waves, short like those of all inland seas, are much feared by the rafts, prahms, and steamboats, which furrow it during the summer.
It was the southwest point of the lake which Michael had now reached, carrying Nadia, whose whole life, so to speak, was concentrated in her eyes. But what could these two expect, in this wild region, if it was not to die of exhaustion and famine? And yet, what remained of the long journey of four thousand miles for the Czar's courier to reach his end? Nothing but forty miles on the shore of the lake up to the mouth of the Angara, and sixty miles from the mouth of the Angara to Irkutsk; in all, a hundred miles, or three days' journey for a strong man, even on foot.
Could Michael Strogoff still be that man?
Heaven, no doubt, did not wish to put him to this trial. The fatality which had hitherto pursued his steps seemed for a time to spare him. This end of the Baikal, this part of the steppe, which he believed to be a desert, which it usually is, was not so now. About fifty people were collected at the angle formed by the end of the lake.
Nadia immediately caught sight of this group, when Michael, carrying her in his arms, issued from the mountain pass. The girl feared for a moment that it was a Tartar detachment, sent to beat the shores of the Baikal, in which case flight would have been impossible to them both. But Nadia was soon reassured.
"Russians!" she exclaimed. And with this last effort, her eyes closed and her head fell on Michael's breast.
But they had been seen, and some of these Russians, running to them, led the blind man and the girl to a little point at which was moored a raft.
The raft was just going to start. These Russians were fugitives of different conditions, whom the same interest had united at Lake Baikal. Driven back by the Tartar scouts, they hoped to obtain a refuge at Irkutsk, but not being able to get there by land, the invaders having occupied both banks of the Angara, they hoped to reach it by descending the river which flows through the town.
Their plan made Michael's heart leap; a last chance was before him, but he had strength to conceal this, wishing to keep his incognito more strictly than ever.
The fugitives' plan was very simple. A current in the lake runs along by the upper bank to the mouth of the Angara; this current they hoped to utilize, and with its assistance to reach the outlet of Lake Baikal. From this point to Irkutsk, the rapid waters of the river would bear them along at a rate of eight miles an hour. In a day and a half they might hope to be in sight of the town.
No kind of boat was to be found; they had been obliged to make one; a raft, or rather a float of wood, similar to those which usually are drifted down Siberian rivers, was constructed. A forest of firs, growing on the bank, had supplied the necessary materials; the trunks, fastened together with osiers, made a platform on which a hundred people could have easily found room.
On board this raft Michael and Nadia were taken. The girl had returned to herself; some food was given to her as well as to her companion. Then, lying on a bed of leaves, she soon fell into a deep sleep.
To those who questioned him, Michael Strogoff said nothing of what had taken place at Tomsk. He gave himself out as an inhabitant of Krasnoiarsk, who had not been able to get to Irkutsk before the Emir's troops arrived on the left bank of the Dinka, and he added that, very probably, the bulk of the Tartar forces had taken up a position before the Siberian capital.
There was not a moment to be lost; besides, the cold was becoming more and more severe. During the night the temperature fell below zero; ice was already forming on the surface of the Baikal. Although the raft managed to pass easily over the lake, it might not be so easy between the banks of the Angara, should pieces of ice be found to block up its course.
At eight in the evening the moorings were cast off, and the raft drifted in the current along the shore. It was steered by means of long poles, under the management of several muscular moujiks. An old Baikal boatman took command of the raft. He was a man of sixty-five, browned by the sun, and lake breezes. A thick white beard flowed over his chest; a fur cap covered his head; his aspect was grave and austere. His large great-coat, fastened in at the waist, reached down to his heels. This taciturn old fellow was seated in the stern, and issued his commands by gestures. Besides, the chief work consisted in keeping the raft in the current, which ran along the shore, without drifting out into the open.
It has been already said that Russians of all conditions had found a place on the raft. Indeed, to the poor moujiks, the women, old men, and children, were joined two or three pilgrims, surprised on their journey by the invasion; a few monks, and a priest. The pilgrims carried a staff, a gourd hung at the belt, and they chanted psalms in a plaintive voice: one came from the Ukraine, another from the Yellow sea, and a third from the Finland provinces. This last, who was an aged man, carried at his waist a little padlocked collecting-box, as if it had been hung at a church door. Of all that he collected during his long and fatiguing pilgrimage, nothing was for himself; he did not even possess the key of the box, which would only be opened on his return.
The monks came from the North of the Empire. Three months before they had left the town of Archangel. They had visited the sacred islands near the coast of Carelia, the convent of Solovetsk, the convent of Troitsa, those of Saint Antony and Saint Theodosia, at Kiev, that of Kazan, as well as the church of the Old Believers, and they were now on their way to Irkutsk, wearing the robe, the cowl, and the clothes of serge.
As to the papa, or priest, he was a plain village pastor, one of the six hundred thousand popular pastors which the Russian Empire contains. He was clothed as miserably as the moujiks, not being above them in social position; in fact, laboring like a peasant on his plot of ground; baptis-ing, marrying, burying. He had been able to protect his wife and children from the brutality of the Tartars by sending them away into the Northern provinces. He himself had stayed in his parish up to the last moment; then he was obliged to fly, and, the Irkutsk road being stopped, had come to Lake Baikal.
These priests, grouped in the forward part of the raft, prayed at regular intervals, raising their voices in the silent night, and at the end of each sentence of their prayer, the "Slava Bogu," Glory to God! issued from their lips.
No incident took place during the night. Nadia remained in a sort of stupor, and Michael watched beside her; sleep only overtook him at long intervals, and even then his brain did not rest. At break of day, the raft, delayed by a strong breeze, which counteracted the course of the current, was still forty versts from the mouth of the Angara. It seemed probable that the fugitives could not reach it before three or four o'clock in the evening. This did not trouble them; on the contrary, for they would then descend the river during the night, and the darkness would also favor their entrance into Irkutsk.
The only anxiety exhibited at times by the old boatman was concerning the formation of ice on the surface of the water. The night had been excessively cold; pieces of ice could be seen drifting towards the West. Nothing was to be dreaded from these, since they could not drift into the Angara, having already passed the mouth; but pieces from the Eastern end of the lake might be drawn by the current between the banks of the river; this would cause difficulty, possibly delay, and perhaps even an insurmountable obstacle which would stop the raft.
Michael therefore took immense interest in ascertaining what was the state of the lake, and whether any large number of ice blocks appeared. Nadia being now awake, he questioned her often, and she gave him an account of all that was going on.
Whilst the blocks were thus drifting, curious phenomena were taking place on the surface of the Baikal. Magnificent jets, from springs of boiling water, shot up from some of those artesian wells which Nature has bored in the very bed of the lake. These jets rose to a great height and spread out in vapor, which was illuminated by the solar rays, and almost immediately condensed by the cold. This curious sight would have assuredly amazed a tourist traveling in peaceful times on this Siberian sea.
At four in the evening, the mouth of the Angara was signaled by the old boatman, between the high granite rocks of the shore. On the right bank could be seen the little port of Livenitchnaia, its church, and its few houses built on the bank. But the serious thing was that the ice blocks from the East were already drifting between the banks of the Angara, and consequently were descending towards Irkutsk. However, their number was not yet great enough to obstruct the course of the raft, nor the cold great enough to increase their number.
The raft arrived at the little port and there stopped. The old boatman wished to put into harbor for an hour, in order to make some repairs. The trunks threatened to separate, and it was important to fasten them more securely together to resist the rapid current of the Angara.
The old boatman did not expect to receive any fresh fugitives at Livenitchnaia, and yet, the moment the raft touched, two passengers, issuing from a deserted house, ran as fast as they could towards the beach.
Nadia seated on the raft, was abstractedly gazing at the shore. A cry was about to escape her. She seized Michael's hand, who at that moment raised his head.
"What is the matter, Nadia?" he asked.
"Our two traveling companions, Michael."
"The Frenchman and the Englishman whom we met in the defiles of the Ural?"
Michael started, for the strict incognito which he wished to keep ran a risk of being betrayed. Indeed, it was no longer as Nicholas Korpanoff that Jolivet and Blount would now see him, but as the true Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar. The two correspondents had already met him twice since their separation at the Ichim post-house—the first time at the Zabediero camp, when he laid open Ivan Ogareff's face with the knout; the second time at Tomsk, when he was condemned by the Emir. They therefore knew who he was and what depended on him.
Michael Strogoff rapidly made up his mind. "Nadia," said he, "when they step on board, ask them to come to me!"
It was, in fact, Blount and Jolivet, whom the course of events had brought to the port of Livenitchnaia, as it had brought Michael Strogoff. As we know, after having been present at the entry of the Tartars into Tomsk, they had departed before the savage execution which terminated the fete. They had therefore never suspected that their former traveling companion had not been put to death, but blinded by order of the Emir.
Having procured horses they had left Tomsk the same evening, with the fixed determination of henceforward dating their letters from the Russian camp of Eastern Siberia. They proceeded by forced marches towards Irkutsk. They hoped to distance Feofar-Khan, and would certainly have done so, had it not been for the unexpected apparition of the third column, come from the South, up the valley of the Yenisei. They had been cut off, as had been Michael, before being able even to reach the Dinka, and had been obliged to go back to Lake Baikal.
They had been in the place for three days in much perplexity, when the raft arrived. The fugitives' plan was explained to them. There was certainly a chance that they might be able to pass under cover of the night, and penetrate into Irkutsk. They resolved to make the attempt.
Alcide directly communicated with the old boatman, and asked a passage for himself and his companion, offering to pay anything he demanded, whatever it might be.
"No one pays here," replied the old man gravely; "every one risks his life, that is all!"
The two correspondents came on board, and Nadia saw them take their places in the forepart of the raft. Harry Blount was still the reserved Englishman, who had scarcely addressed a word to her during the whole passage over the Ural Mountains. Alcide Jolivet seemed to be rather more grave than usual, and it may be acknowledged that his gravity was justified by the circumstances.
Jolivet had, as has been said, taken his seat on the raft, when he felt a hand laid on his arm. Turning, he recognized Nadia, the sister of the man who was no longer Nicholas Korpanoff, but Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar. He was about to make an exclamation of surprise when he saw the young girl lay her finger on her lips.
"Come," said Nadia. And with a careless air, Alcide rose and followed her, making a sign to Blount to accompany him.
But if the surprise of the correspondents had been great at meeting Nadia on the raft it was boundless when they perceived Michael Strogoff, whom they had believed to be no longer living.
Michael had not moved at their approach. Jolivet turned towards the girl. "He does not see you, gentlemen," said Nadia. "The Tartars have burnt out his eyes! My poor brother is blind!"
A feeling of lively compassion exhibited itself on the faces of Blount and his companion. In a moment they were seated beside Michael, pressing his hand and waiting until he spoke to them.
"Gentlemen," said Michael, in a low voice, "you ought not to know who I am, nor what I am come to do in Siberia. I ask you to keep my secret. Will you promise me to do so?"
"On my honor," answered Jolivet.
"On my word as a gentleman," added Blount.
"Can we be of any use to you?" asked Harry Blount. "Could we not help you to accomplish your task?"
"I prefer to act alone," replied Michael.
"But those blackguards have destroyed your sight," said Alcide.
"I have Nadia, and her eyes are enough for me!"
In half an hour the raft left the little port of Livenitchnaia, and entered the river. It was five in the evening and getting dusk. The night promised to be dark and very cold also, for the temperature was already below zero.
Alcide and Blount, though they had promised to keep Michael's secret, did not leave him. They talked in a low voice, and the blind man, adding what they told him to what he already knew, was able to form an exact idea of the state of things. It was certain that the Tartars had actually invested Irkutsk, and that the three columns had effected a junction. There was no doubt that the Emir and Ivan Ogareff were before the capital.
But why did the Czar's courier exhibit such haste to get there, now that the Imperial letter could no longer be given by him to the Grand Duke, and when he did not even know the contents of it? Alcide Jolivet and Blount could not understand it any more than Nadia had done.
No one spoke of the past, except when Jolivet thought it his duty to say to Michael, "We owe you some apology for not shaking hands with you when we separated at Ichim."
"No, you had reason to think me a coward!"
"At any rate," added the Frenchman, "you knouted the face of that villain finely, and he will carry the mark of it for a long time!"
"No, not a long time!" replied Michael quietly.
Half an hour after leaving Livenitchnaia, Blount and his companion were acquainted with the cruel trials through which Michael and his companion had successively passed. They could not but heartily admire his energy, which was only equaled by the young girl's devotion. Their opinion of Michael was exactly what the Czar had expressed at Moscow: "Indeed, this is a Man!"
The raft swiftly threaded its way among the blocks of ice which were carried along in the current of the Angara. A moving panorama was displayed on both sides of the river, and, by an optical illusion, it appeared as if it was the raft which was motionless before a succession of picturesque scenes. Here were high granite cliffs, there wild gorges, down which rushed a torrent; sometimes appeared a clearing with a still smoking village, then thick pine forests blazing. But though the Tartars had left their traces on all sides, they themselves were not to be seen as yet, for they were more especially massed at the approaches to Irkutsk.
All this time the pilgrims were repeating their prayers aloud, and the old boatman, shoving away the blocks of ice which pressed too near them, imperturbably steered the raft in the middle of the rapid current of the Angara.
CHAPTER XI BETWEEN TWO BANKS
BY eight in the evening, the country, as the state of the sky had foretold, was enveloped in complete darkness. The moon being new had not yet risen. From the middle of the river the banks were invisible. The cliffs were confounded with the heavy, low-hanging clouds. At intervals a puff of wind came from the east, but it soon died away in the narrow valley of the Angara.
The darkness could not fail to favor in a considerable degree the plans of the fugitives. Indeed, although the Tartar outposts must have been drawn up on both banks, the raft had a good chance of passing unperceived. It was not likely either that the besiegers would have barred the river above Irkutsk, since they knew that the Russians could not expect any help from the south of the province. Besides this, before long Nature would herself establish a barrier, by cementing with frost the blocks of ice accumulated between the two banks.
Perfect silence now reigned on board the raft. The voices of the pilgrims were no longer heard. They still prayed, but their prayer was but a murmur, which could not reach as far as either bank. The fugitives lay flat on the platform, so that the raft was scarcely above the level of the water. The old boatman crouched down forward among his men, solely occupied in keeping off the ice blocks, a maneuver which was performed without noise.
The drifting of the ice was a favorable circumstance so long as it did not offer an insurmountable obstacle to the passage of the raft. If that object had been alone on the water, it would have run a risk of being seen, even in the darkness, but, as it was, it was confounded with these moving masses, of all shapes and sizes, and the tumult caused by the crashing of the blocks against each other concealed likewise any suspicious noises.
There was a sharp frost. The fugitives suffered cruelly, having no other shelter than a few branches of birch. They cowered down together, endeavoring to keep each other warm, the temperature being now ten degrees below freezing point. The wind, though slight, having passed over the snow-clad mountains of the east, pierced them through and through.
Michael and Nadia, lying in the afterpart of the raft, bore this increase of suffering without complaint. Jolivet and Blount, placed near them, stood these first assaults of the Siberian winter as well as they could. No one now spoke, even in a low voice. Their situation entirely absorbed them. At any moment an incident might occur, which they could not escape unscathed.
For a man who hoped soon to accomplish his mission, Michael was singularly calm. Even in the gravest conjunctures, his energy had never abandoned him. He already saw the moment when he would be at last allowed to think of his mother, of Nadia, of himself! He now only dreaded one final unhappy chance; this was, that the raft might be completely barred by ice before reaching Irkutsk. He thought but of this, determined beforehand, if necessary, to attempt some bold stroke.
Restored by a few hours' rest, Nadia had regained the physical energy which misery had sometimes overcome, although without ever having shaken her moral energy. She thought, too, that if Michael had to make any fresh effort to attain his end, she must be there to guide him. But in proportion as she drew nearer to Irkutsk, the image of her father rose more and more clearly before her mind. She saw him in the invested town, far from those he loved, but, as she never doubted, struggling against the invaders with all the spirit of his patriotism. In a few hours, if Heaven favored them, she would be in his arms, giving him her mother's last words, and nothing should ever separate them again. If the term of Wassili Fedor's exile should never come to an end, his daughter would remain exiled with him. Then, by a natural transition, she came back to him who would have enabled her to see her father once more, to that generous companion, that "brother," who, the Tartars driven back, would retake the road to Moscow, whom she would perhaps never meet again!
As to Alcide Jolivet and Harry Blount, they had one and the same thought, which was, that the situation was extremely dramatic, and that, well worked up, it would furnish a most deeply interesting article. The Englishman thought of the readers of the Daily Telegraph, and the Frenchman of those of his Cousin Madeleine. At heart, both were not without feeling some emotion.
"Well, so much the better!" thought Alcide Jolivet, "to move others, one must be moved one's self! I believe there is some celebrated verse on the subject, but hang me if I can recollect it!" And with his well-practiced eyes he endeavored to pierce the gloom of the river.
Every now and then a burst of light dispelling the darkness for a time, exhibited the banks under some fantastic aspect—either a forest on fire, or a still burning village. The Angara was occasionally illuminated from one bank to the other. The blocks of ice formed so many mirrors, which, reflecting the flames on every point and in every color, were whirled along by the caprice of the current. The raft passed unperceived in the midst of these floating masses.
The danger was not at these points.
But a peril of another nature menaced the fugitives. One that they could not foresee, and, above all, one that they could not avoid. Chance discovered it to Alcide Jolivet in this way:—Lying at the right side of the raft, he let his hand hang over into the water. Suddenly he was surprised by the impression made on it by the current. It seemed to be of a slimy consistency, as if it had been made of mineral oil. Alcide, aiding his touch by his sense of smell, could not be mistaken. It was really a layer of liquid naphtha, floating on the surface of the river!
Was the raft really floating on this substance, which is in the highest degree combustible? Where had this naphtha come from? Was it a natural phenomenon taking place on the surface of the Angara, or was it to serve as an engine of destruction, put in motion by the Tartars? Did they intend to carry conflagration into Irkutsk?
Such were the questions which Alcide asked himself, but he thought it best to make this incident known only to Harry Blount, and they both agreed in not alarming their companions by revealing to them this new danger.
It is known that the soil of Central Asia is like a sponge impregnated with liquid hydrogen. At the port of Bakou, on the Persian frontier, on the Caspian Sea, in Asia Minor, in China, on the Yuen-Kiang, in the Burman Empire, springs of mineral oil rise in thousands to the surface of the ground. It is an "oil country," similar to the one which bears this name in North America.
During certain religious festivals, principally at the port of Bakou, the natives, who are fire-worshipers, throw liquid naphtha on the surface of the sea, which buoys it up, its density being inferior to that of water. Then at nightfall, when a layer of mineral oil is thus spread over the Caspian, they light it, and exhibit the matchless spectacle of an ocean of fire undulating and breaking into waves under the breeze.
But what is only a sign of rejoicing at Bakou, might prove a fearful disaster on the waters of the Angara. Whether it was set on fire by malevolence or imprudence, in the twinkling of an eye a conflagration might spread beyond Irkutsk. On board the raft no imprudence was to be feared; but everything was to be dreaded from the conflagrations on both banks of the Angara, for should a lighted straw or even a spark blow into the water, it would inevitably set the whole current of naphtha in a blaze.
The apprehensions of Jolivet and Blount may be better understood than described. Would it not be prudent, in face of this new danger, to land on one of the banks and wait there? "At any rate," said Alcide, "whatever the danger may be, I know some one who will not land!"
He alluded to Michael Strogoff.
In the meantime, on glided the raft among the masses of ice which were gradually getting closer and closer together. Up till then, no Tartar detachment had been seen, which showed that the raft was not abreast of the outposts. At about ten o'clock, however, Harry Blount caught sight of a number of black objects moving on the ice blocks. Springing from one to the other, they rapidly approached.
"Tartars!" he thought. And creeping up to the old boatman, he pointed out to him the suspicious objects.
The old man looked attentively. "They are only wolves!" said he. "I like them better than Tartars. But we must defend ourselves, and without noise!"
The fugitives would indeed have to defend themselves against these ferocious beasts, whom hunger and cold had sent roaming through the province. They had smelt out the raft, and would soon attack it. The fugitives must struggle without using firearms, for they could not now be far from the Tartar posts. The women and children were collected in the middle of the raft, and the men, some armed with poles, others with their knives, stood prepared to repulse their assailants. They did not make a sound, but the howls of the wolves filled the air.
Michael did not wish to remain inactive. He lay down at the side attacked by the savage pack. He drew his knife, and every time that a wolf passed within his reach, his hand found out the way to plunge his weapon into its throat. Neither were Jolivet and Blount idle, but fought bravely with the brutes. Their companions gallantly seconded them. The battle was carried on in silence, although many of the fugitives received severe bites.
The struggle did not appear as if it would soon terminate. The pack was being continually reinforced from the right bank of the Angara. "This will never be finished!" said Alcide, brandishing his dagger, red with blood.
In fact, half an hour after the commencement of the attack, the wolves were still coming in hundreds across the ice. The exhausted fugitives were getting weaker. The fight was going against them. At that moment, a group of ten huge wolves, raging with hunger, their eyes glowing in the darkness like red coals, sprang onto the raft. Jolivet and his companion threw themselves into the midst of the fierce beasts, and Michael was finding his way towards them, when a sudden change took place.
In a few moments the wolves had deserted not only the raft, but also the ice on the river. All the black bodies dispersed, and it was soon certain that they had in all haste regained the shore. Wolves, like other beasts of prey, require darkness for their proceedings, and at that moment a bright light illuminated the entire river.
It was the blaze of an immense fire. The whole of the small town of Poshkavsk was burning. The Tartars were indeed there, finishing their work. From this point, they occupied both banks beyond Irkutsk. The fugitives had by this time reached the dangerous part of their voyage, and they were still twenty miles from the capital.
It was now half past eleven. The raft continued to glide on amongst the ice, with which it was quite mingled, but gleams of light sometimes fell upon it. The fugitives stretched on the platform did not permit themselves to make a movement by which they might be betrayed.
The conflagration was going on with frightful rapidity. The houses, built of fir-wood, blazed like torches—a hundred and fifty flaming at once. With the crackling of the fire was mingled the yells of the Tartars. The old boatman, getting a foothold on a near piece of ice, managed to shove the raft towards the right bank, by doing which a distance of from three to four hundred feet divided it from the flames of Poshkavsk.
Nevertheless, the fugitives, lighted every now and then by the glare, would have been undoubtedly perceived had not the incendiaries been too much occupied in their work of destruction.
It may be imagined what were the apprehensions of Jolivet and Blount, when they thought of the combustible liquid on which the raft floated. Sparks flew in millions from the houses, which resembled so many glowing furnaces. They rose among the volumes of smoke to a height of five or six hundred feet. On the right bank, the trees and cliffs exposed to the fire looked as if they likewise were burning. A spark falling on the surface of the Angara would be sufficient to spread the flames along the current, and to carry disaster from one bank to the other. The result of this would be in a short time the destruction of the raft and of all those which it carried.
But, happily, the breeze did not blow from that side. It came from the east, and drove the flames towards the left. It was just possible that the fugitives would escape this danger. The blazing town was at last passed. Little by little the glare grew dimmer, the crackling became fainter, and the flames at last disappeared behind the high cliffs which arose at an abrupt turn of the river.
By this time it was nearly midnight. The deep gloom again threw its protecting shadows over the raft. The Tartars were there, going to and fro near the river. They could not be seen, but they could be heard. The fires of the outposts burned brightly.
In the meantime it had become necessary to steer more carefully among the blocks of ice. The old boatman stood up, and the moujiks resumed their poles. They had plenty of work, the management of the raft becoming more and more difficult as the river was further obstructed.
Michael had crept forward; Jolivet followed; both listened to what the old boatman and his men were saying.
"Look out on the right!"
"There are blocks drifting on to us on the left!"
"Fend! fend off with your boat-hook!"
"Before an hour is past we shall be stopped!"
"If it is God's will!" answered the old man. "Against His will there is nothing to be done."
"You hear them," said Alcide.
"Yes," replied Michael, "but God is with us!"
The situation became more and more serious. Should the raft be stopped, not only would the fugitives not reach Irkutsk, but they would be obliged to leave their floating platform, for it would be very soon smashed to pieces in the ice. The osier ropes would break, the fir trunks torn asunder would drift under the hard crust, and the unhappy people would have no refuge but the ice blocks themselves. Then, when day came, they would be seen by the Tartars, and massacred without mercy!
Michael returned to the spot where Nadia was waiting for him. He approached the girl, took her hand, and put to her the invariable question: "Nadia, are you ready?" to which she replied as usual, "I am ready!"
For a few versts more the raft continued to drift amongst the floating ice. Should the river narrow, it would soon form an impassable barrier. Already they seemed to drift slower. Every moment they encountered severe shocks or were compelled to make detours; now, to avoid running foul of a block, there to enter a channel, of which it was necessary to take advantage. At length the stoppages became still more alarming. There were only a few more hours of night. Could the fugitives not reach Irkutsk by five o'clock in the morning, they must lose all hope of ever getting there at all.
At half-past one, notwithstanding all efforts, the raft came up against a thick barrier and stuck fast. The ice, which was drifting down behind it, pressed it still closer, and kept it motionless, as though it had been stranded.
At this spot the Angara narrowed, it being half its usual breadth. This was the cause of the accumulation of ice, which became gradually soldered together, under the double influence of the increased pressure and of the cold. Five hundred feet beyond, the river widened again, and the blocks, gradually detaching themselves from the floe, continued to drift towards Irkutsk. It was probable that had the banks not narrowed, the barrier would not have formed. But the misfortune was irreparable, and the fugitives must give up all hope of attaining their object.
Had they possessed the tools usually employed by whalers to cut channels through the ice-fields—had they been able to get through to where the river widened—they might have been saved. But they had nothing which could make the least incision in the ice, hard as granite in the excessive frost. What were they to do?
At that moment several shots on the right bank startled the unhappy fugitives. A shower of balls fell on the raft. The devoted passengers had been seen. Immediately afterwards shots were heard fired from the left bank. The fugitives, taken between two fires, became the mark of the Tartar sharpshooters. Several were wounded, although in the darkness it was only by chance that they were hit.
"Come, Nadia," whispered Michael in the girl's ear.
Without making a single remark, "ready for anything," Nadia took Michael's hand.
"We must cross the barrier," he said in a low tone. "Guide me, but let no one see us leave the raft."
Nadia obeyed. Michael and she glided rapidly over the floe in the obscurity, only broken now and again by the flashes from the muskets. Nadia crept along in front of Michael. The shot fell around them like a tempest of hail, and pattered on the ice. Their hands were soon covered with blood from the sharp and rugged ice over which they clambered, but still on they went.
In ten minutes, the other side of the barrier was reached. There the waters of the Angara again flowed freely. Several pieces of ice, detached gradually from the floe, were swept along in the current down towards the town. Nadia guessed what Michael wished to attempt. One of the blocks was only held on by a narrow strip.
"Come," said Nadia. And the two crouched on the piece of ice, which their weight detached from the floe.
It began to drift. The river widened, the way was open. Michael and Nadia heard the shots, the cries of distress, the yells of the Tartars. Then, little by little, the sounds of agony and of ferocious joy grew faint in the distance.
"Our poor companions!" murmured Nadia.
For half an hour the current hurried along the block of ice which bore Michael and Nadia. They feared every moment that it would give way beneath them. Swept along in the middle of the current, it was unnecessary to give it an oblique direction until they drew near the quays of Irkutsk. Michael, his teeth tight set, his ear on the strain, did not utter a word. Never had he been so near his object. He felt that he was about to attain it!
Towards two in the morning a double row of lights glittered on the dark horizon in which were confounded the two banks of the Angara. On the right hand were the lights of Irkutsk; on the left, the fires of the Tartar camp.
Michael Strogoff was not more than half a verst from the town. "At last!" he murmured.
But suddenly Nadia uttered a cry.
At the cry Michael stood up on the ice, which was wavering. His hand was extended up the Angara. His face, on which a bluish light cast a peculiar hue, became almost fearful to look at, and then, as if his eyes had been opened to the bright blaze spreading across the river, "Ah!" he exclaimed, "then Heaven itself is against us!"
CHAPTER XII IRKUTSK
IRKUTSK, the capital of Eastern Siberia, is a populous town, containing, in ordinary times, thirty thousand inhabitants. On the right side of the Angara rises a hill, on which are built numerous churches, a lofty cathedral, and dwellings disposed in picturesque disorder.
Seen at a distance, from the top of the mountain which rises at about twenty versts off along the Siberian highroad, this town, with its cupolas, its bell-towers, its steeples slender as minarets, its domes like pot-bellied Chinese jars, presents something of an oriental aspect. But this similarity vanishes as the traveler enters.
The town, half Byzantine, half Chinese, becomes European as soon as he sees its macadamized roads, bordered with pavements, traversed by canals, planted with gigantic birches, its houses of brick and wood, some of which have several stories, the numerous equipages which drive along, not only tarantasses but broughams and coaches; lastly, its numerous inhabitants far advanced in civilization, to whom the latest Paris fashions are not unknown.
Being the refuge for all the Siberians of the province, Irkutsk was at this time very full. Stores of every kind had been collected in abundance. Irkutsk is the emporium of the innumerable kinds of merchandise which are exchanged between China, Central Asia, and Europe. The authorities had therefore no fear with regard to admitting the peasants of the valley of the Angara, and leaving a desert between the invaders and the town.
Irkutsk is the residence of the governor-general of Eastern Siberia. Below him acts a civil governor, in whose hands is the administration of the province; a head of police, who has much to do in a town where exiles abound; and, lastly, a mayor, chief of the merchants, and a person of some importance, from his immense fortune and the influence which he exercises over the people.
The garrison of Irkutsk was at that time composed of an infantry regiment of Cossacks, consisting of two thousand men, and a body of police wearing helmets and blue uniforms laced with silver. Besides, as has been said, in consequence of the events which had occurred, the brother of the Czar had been shut up in the town since the beginning of the invasion.
A journey of political importance had taken the Grand Duke to these distant provinces of Central Asia. After passing through the principal Siberian cities, the Grand Duke, who traveled en militaire rather than en prince, without any parade, accompanied by his officers, and escorted by a regiment of Cossacks, arrived in the Trans-Baikalcine provinces. Nikolaevsk, the last Russian town situated on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk, had been honored by a visit from him. Arrived on the confines of the immense Muscovite Empire, the Grand Duke was returning towards Irkutsk, from which place he intended to retake the road to Moscow, when, sudden as a thunder clap, came the news of the invasion.
He hastened to the capital, but only reached it just before communication with Russia had been interrupted. There was time to receive only a few telegrams from St. Petersburg and Moscow, and with difficulty to answer them before the wire was cut. Irkutsk was isolated from the rest of the world.
The Grand Duke had now only to prepare for resistance, and this he did with that determination and coolness of which, under other circumstances, he had given incontestable proofs. The news of the taking of Ichim, Omsk, and Tomsk, successively reached Irkutsk. It was necessary at any price to save the capital of Siberia. Reinforcements could not be expected for some time. The few troops scattered about in the provinces of Siberia could not arrive in sufficiently large numbers to arrest the progress of the Tartar columns. Since therefore it was impossible for Irkutsk to escape attack, the most important thing to be done was to put the town in a state to sustain a siege of some duration.
The preparations were begun on the day Tomsk fell into the hands of the Tartars. At the same time with this last news, the Grand Duke heard that the Emir of Bokhara and the allied Khans were directing the invasion in person, but what he did not know was, that the lieutenant of these barbarous chiefs was Ivan Ogareff, a Russian officer whom he had himself reduced to the ranks, but with whose person he was not acquainted.
First of all, as we have seen, the inhabitants of the province of Irkutsk were compelled to abandon the towns and villages. Those who did not take refuge in the capital had to retire beyond Lake Baikal, a district to which the invasion would probably not extend its ravages. The harvests of corn and fodder were collected and stored up in the town, and Irkutsk, the last bulwark of the Muscovite power in the Far East, was put in a condition to resist the enemy for a lengthened period.
Irkutsk, founded in 1611, is situated at the confluence of the Irkut and the Angara, on the right bank of the latter river. Two wooden draw-bridges, built on piles, connected the town with its suburbs on the left bank. On this side, defence was easy. The suburbs were abandoned, the bridges destroyed. The Angara being here very wide, it would not be possible to pass it under the fire of the besieged.
But the river might be crossed both above and below the town, and consequently, Irkutsk ran a risk of being attacked on its east side, on which there was no wall to protect it.
The whole population were immediately set to work on the fortifications. They labored day and night. The Grand Duke observed with satisfaction the zeal exhibited by the people in the work, whom ere long he would find equally courageous in the defense. Soldiers, merchants, exiles, peasants, all devoted themselves to the common safety. A week before the Tartars appeared on the Angara, earth-works had been raised. A fosse, flooded by the waters of the Angara, was dug between the scarp and counterscarp. The town could not now be taken by a coup de main. It must be invested and besieged.
The third Tartar column—the one which came up the valley of the Yenisei on the 24th of September—appeared in sight of Irkutsk. It immediately occupied the deserted suburbs, every building in which had been destroyed so as not to impede the fire of the Grand Duke's guns, unfortunately but few in number and of small caliber. The Tartar troops as they arrived organized a camp on the bank of the Angara, whilst waiting the arrival of the two other columns, commanded by the Emir and his allies.
The junction of these different bodies was effected on the 25th of September, in the Angara camp, and the whole of the invading army, except the garrisons left in the principal conquered towns, was concentrated under the command of Feofar-Khan.
The passage of the Angara in front of Irkutsk having been regarded by Ogareff as impracticable, a strong body of troops crossed, several versts up the river, by means of bridges formed with boats. The Grand Duke did not attempt to oppose the enemy in their passage. He could only impede, not prevent it, having no field-artillery at his disposal, and he therefore remained in Irkutsk.
The Tartars now occupied the right bank of the river; then, advancing towards the town, they burnt, in passing, the summer-house of the governor-general, and at last having entirely invested Irkutsk, took up their positions for the siege.
Ivan Ogareff, who was a clever engineer, was perfectly competent to direct a regular siege; but he did not possess the materials for operating rapidly. He was disappointed too in the chief object of all his efforts—the surprise of Irkutsk. Things had not turned out as he hoped. First, the march of the Tartar army was delayed by the battle of Tomsk; and secondly, the preparations for the defense were made far more rapidly than he had supposed possible; these two things had balked his plans. He was now under the necessity of instituting a regular siege of the town.
However, by his suggestion, the Emir twice attempted the capture of the place, at the cost of a large sacrifice of men. He threw soldiers on the earth-works which presented any weak point; but these two assaults were repulsed with the greatest courage. The Grand Duke and his officers did not spare themselves on this occasion. They appeared in person; they led the civil population to the ramparts. Citizens and peasants both did their duty.
At the second attack, the Tartars managed to force one of the gates. A fight took place at the head of Bolchaia Street, two versts long, on the banks of the Angara. But the Cossacks, the police, the citizens, united in so fierce a resistance that the Tartars were driven out.
Ivan Ogareff then thought of obtaining by stratagem what he could not gain by force. We have said that his plan was to penetrate into the town, make his way to the Grand Duke, gain his confidence, and, when the time came, give up the gates to the besiegers; and, that done, wreak his vengeance on the brother of the Czar. The Tsigane Sangarre, who had accompanied him to the Angara, urged him to put this plan in execution.
Indeed, it was necessary to act without delay. The Russian troops from the government of Yakutsk were advancing towards Irkutsk. They had concentrated along the upper course of the Lena. In six days they would arrive. Therefore, before six days had passed, Irkutsk must be betrayed. Ogareff hesitated no longer.
One evening, the 2d of October, a council of war was held in the grand saloon of the palace of the governor-general. This palace, standing at the end of Bolchaia Street, overlooked the river. From its windows could be seen the camp of the Tartars, and had the invaders possessed guns of wider range, they would have rendered the palace uninhabitable.
The Grand Duke, General Voranzoff, the governor of the town, and the chief of the merchants, with several officers, had collected to determine upon various proposals.
"Gentlemen," said the Grand Duke, "you know our situation exactly. I have the firm hope that we shall be able to hold out until the arrival of the Yakutsk troops. We shall then be able to drive off these barbarian hordes, and it will not be my fault if they do not pay dearly for this invasion of the Muscovite territory."
"Your Highness knows that all the population of Irkutsk may be relied on," said General Voranzoff.
"Yes, general," replied the Grand Duke, "and I do justice to their patriotism. Thanks to God, they have not yet been subjected to the horrors of epidemic and famine, and I have reason to hope that they will escape them; but I cannot admire their courage on the ramparts enough. You hear my words, Sir Merchant, and I beg you to repeat such to them."
"I thank your Highness in the name of the town," answered the merchant chief. "May I ask you what is the most distant date when we may expect the relieving army?"
"Six days at most, sir," replied the Grand Duke. "A brave and clever messenger managed this morning to get into the town, and he told me that fifty thousand Russians under General Kisselef, are advancing by forced marches. Two days ago, they were on the banks of the Lena, at Kirensk, and now, neither frost nor snow will keep them back. Fifty thousand good men, taking the Tartars on the flank, will soon set us free."
"I will add," said the chief of the merchants, "that we shall be ready to execute your orders, any day that your Highness may command a sortie."
"Good, sir," replied the Grand Duke. "Wait till the heads of the relieving columns appear on the heights, and we will speedily crush these invaders."
Then turning to General Voranzoff, "To-morrow," said he, "we will visit the works on the right bank. Ice is drifting down the Angara, which will not be long in freezing, and in that case the Tartars might perhaps cross."
"Will your Highness allow me to make an observation?" said the chief of the merchants.
"Do so, sir."
"I have more than once seen the temperature fall to thirty and forty degrees below zero, and the Angara has still carried down drifting ice without entirely freezing. This is no doubt owing to the swiftness of its current. If therefore the Tartars have no other means of crossing the river, I can assure your Highness that they will not enter Irkutsk in that way."
The governor-general confirmed this assertion.
"It is a fortunate circumstance," responded the Grand Duke. "Nevertheless, we must hold ourselves ready for any emergency."
He then, turning towards the head of the police, asked, "Have you nothing to say to me, sir?"
"I have your Highness," answered the head of police, "a petition which is addressed to you through me."
"Addressed by whom?"
"By the Siberian exiles, whom, as your Highness knows, are in the town to the number of five hundred."
The political exiles, distributed over the province, had been collected in Irkutsk, from the beginning of the invasion. They had obeyed the order to rally in the town, and leave the villages where they exercised their different professions, some doctors, some professors, either at the Gymnasium, or at the Japanese School, or at the School of Navigation. The Grand Duke, trusting like the Czar in their patriotism, had armed them, and they had thoroughly proved their bravery.
"What do the exiles ask?" said the Grand Duke.
"They ask the consent of your Highness," answered the head of police, "to their forming a special corps and being placed in the front of the first sortie."
"Yes," replied the Grand Duke with an emotion which he did not seek to hide, "these exiles are Russians, and it is their right to fight for their country!"
"I believe I may assure your Highness," said the governor-general, "you will have no better soldiers."
"But they must have a chief," said the Grand Duke, "who will he be?"
"They wish to recommend to your Highness," said the head of police, "one of their number, who has distinguished himself on several occasions."
"Is he a Russian?"
"Yes, a Russian from the Baltic provinces."
"Is Wassili Fedor."
This exile was Nadia's father. Wassili Fedor, as we have already said, followed his profession of a medical man in Irkutsk. He was clever and charitable, and also possessed the greatest courage and most sincere patriotism. All the time which he did not devote to the sick he employed in organizing the defense. It was he who had united his companions in exile in the common cause. The exiles, till then mingled with the population, had behaved in such a way as to draw on themselves the attention of the Grand Duke. In several sorties, they had paid with their blood their debt to holy Russia—holy as they believe, and adored by her children! Wassili Fedor had behaved heroically; his name had been mentioned several times, but he never asked either thanks or favors, and when the exiles of Irkutsk thought of forming themselves into a special corps, he was ignorant of their intention of choosing him for their captain.
When the head of police mentioned this name, the Grand Duke answered that it was not unknown to him.
"Indeed," remarked General Voranzoff, "Wassili Fedor is a man of worth and courage. His influence over his companions has always been very great."
"How long has he been at Irkutsk?" asked the Duke.
"For two years."
"And his conduct?"
"His conduct," answered the head of police, "is that of a man obedient to the special laws which govern him."
"General," said the Grand Duke, "General, be good enough to present him to me immediately."
The orders of the Grand Duke were obeyed, and before half an hour had passed, Fedor was introduced into his presence. He was a man over forty, tall, of a stern and sad countenance. One felt that his whole life was summed up in a single word—strife—he had striven and suffered. His features bore a marked resemblance to those of his daughter, Nadia Fedor.
This Tartar invasion had severely wounded him in his tenderest affections, and ruined the hope of the father, exiled eight thousand versts from his native town. A letter had apprised him of the death of his wife, and at the same time of the departure of his daughter, who had obtained from the government an authorization to join him at Irkutsk. Nadia must have left Riga on the 10th of July. The invasion had begun on the 15th of July; if at that time Nadia had passed the frontier, what could have become of her in the midst of the invaders? The anxiety of the unhappy father may be supposed when, from that time, he had no further news of his daughter.
Wassili Fedor entered the presence of the Grand Duke, bowed, and waited to be questioned.
"Wassili Fedor," said the Grand Duke, "your companions in exile have asked to be allowed to form a select corps. They are not ignorant that in this corps they must make up their minds to be killed to the last man?"
"They are not ignorant of it," replied Fedor.
"They wish to have you for their captain."
"I, your Highness?"
"Do you consent to be placed at their head?"
"Yes, if it is for the good of Russia."
"Captain Fedor," said the Grand Duke, "you are no longer an exile."
"Thanks, your Highness, but can I command those who are so still?"
"They are so no longer!" The brother of the Czar had granted a pardon to all Fedor's companions in exile, now his companions in arms!
Wassili Fedor wrung, with emotion, the hand which the Grand Duke held out to him, and retired.
The latter, turned to his officers, "The Czar will not refuse to ratify that pardon," said he, smiling; "we need heroes to defend the capital of Siberia, and I have just made some."
This pardon, so generously accorded to the exiles of Irkutsk, was indeed an act of real justice and sound policy.
It was now night. Through the windows of the palace burned the fires of the Tartar camp, flickering beyond the Angara. Down the river drifted numerous blocks of ice, some of which stuck on the piles of the old bridges; others were swept along by the current with great rapidity. It was evident, as the merchant had observed, that it would be very difficult for the Angara to freeze all over. The defenders of Irkutsk had not to dread being attacked on that side. Ten o'clock had just struck. The Grand Duke was about to dismiss his officers and retire to his apartments, when a tumult was heard outside the palace.
Almost immediately the door was thrown open, an aide-de-camp appeared, and advanced rapidly towards the Grand Duke.
"Your Highness," said he, "a courier from the Czar!"
CHAPTER XIII THE CZAR'S COURIER
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.
CHAPTER XIV THE NIGHT OF THE FIFTH OF OCTOBER
IVAN OGAREFF'S plan had been contrived with the greatest care, and except for some unforeseen accident he believed that it must succeed. It was of importance that the Bolchaia Gate should be unguarded or only feebly held when he gave it up. The attention of the besieged was therefore to be drawn to another part of the town. A diversion was agreed upon with the Emir.
This diversion was to be effected both up and down the river, on the Irkutsk bank. The attack on these two points was to be conducted in earnest, and at the same time a feigned attempt at crossing the Angara from the left bank was to be made. The Bolchaia Gate, would be probably deserted, so much the more because on this side the Tartar outposts having drawn back, would appear to have broken up.
It was the 5th of October. In four and twenty hours, the capital of Eastern Siberia would be in the hands of the Emir, and the Grand Duke in the power of Ivan Ogareff.
During the day, an unusual stir was going on in the Angara camp. From the windows of the palace important preparations on the opposite shore could be distinctly seen. Numerous Tartar detachments were converging towards the camp, and from hour to hour reinforced the Emir's troops. These movements, intended to deceive the besieged, were conducted in the most open manner possible before their eyes.
Ogareff had warned the Grand Duke that an attack was to be feared. He knew, he said, that an assault was to be made, both above and below the town, and he counselled the Duke to reinforce the two directly threatened points. Accordingly, after a council of war had been held in the palace, orders were issued to concentrate the defense on the bank of the Angara and at the two ends of the town, where the earthworks protected the river.
This was exactly what Ogareff wished. He did not expect that the Bolchaia Gate would be left entirely without defenders, but that there would only be a small number. Besides, Ogareff meant to give such importance to the diversion, that the Grand Duke would be obliged to oppose it with all his available forces. The traitor planned also to produce so frightful a catastrophe that terror must inevitably overwhelm the hearts of the besieged.
All day the garrison and population of Irkutsk were on the alert. The measures to repel an attack on the points hitherto unassailed had been taken. The Grand Duke and General Voranzoff visited the posts, strengthened by their orders. Wassili Fedor's corps occupied the North of the town, but with orders to throw themselves where the danger was greatest. The right bank of the Angara had been protected with the few guns possessed by the defenders. With these measures, taken in time, thanks to the advice so opportunely given by Ivan Ogareff, there was good reason to hope that the expected attack would be repulsed. In that case the Tartars, momentarily discouraged, would no doubt not make another attempt against the town for several days. Now the troops expected by the Grand Duke might arrive at any hour. The safety or the loss of Irkutsk hung only by a thread.
On this day, the sun which had risen at twenty minutes to six, set at forty minutes past five, having traced its diurnal arc for eleven hours above the horizon. The twilight would struggle with the night for another two hours. Then it would be intensely dark, for the sky was cloudy, and there would be no moon. This gloom would favor the plans of Ivan Ogareff.
For a few days already a sharp frost had given warning of the approaching rigor of the Siberian winter, and this evening it was especially severe. The Russians posted by the bank of the Angara, obliged to conceal their position, lighted no fires. They suffered cruelly from the low temperature. A few feet below them, the ice in large masses drifted down the current. All day these masses had been seen passing rapidly between the two banks.
This had been considered by the Grand Duke and his officers as fortunate. Should the channel of the Angara continue to be thus obstructed, the passage must be impracticable. The Tartars could use neither rafts nor boats. As to their crossing the river on the ice, that was not possible. The newly-frozen plain could not bear the weight of an assaulting column.
This circumstance, as it appeared favorable to the defenders of Irkutsk, Ogareff might have regretted. He did not do so, however. The traitor knew well that the Tartars would not try to pass the Angara, and that, on its side at least, their attempt was only a feint.
About ten in the evening, the state of the river sensibly improved, to the great surprise of the besieged and still more to their disadvantage. The passage till then impracticable, became all at once possible. The bed of the Angara was clear. The blocks of ice, which had for some days drifted past in large numbers, disappeared down the current, and five or six only now occupied the space between the banks. The Russian officers reported this change in the river to the Grand Duke. They suggested that it was probably caused by the circumstance that in some narrower part of the Angara, the blocks had accumulated so as to form a barrier.
We know this was the case. The passage of the Angara was thus open to the besiegers. There was great reason for the Russians to be on their guard.
Up to midnight nothing had occurred. On the Eastern side, beyond the Bolchaia Gate, all was quiet. Not a glimmer was seen in the dense forest, which appeared confounded on the horizon with the masses of clouds hanging low down in the sky. Lights flitting to and fro in the Angara camp, showed that a considerable movement was taking place. From a verst above and below the point where the scarp met the river's bank, came a dull murmur, proving that the Tartars were on foot, expecting some signal. An hour passed. Nothing new.
The bell of the Irkutsk cathedral was about to strike two o'clock in the morning, and not a movement amongst the besiegers had yet shown that they were about to commence the assault. The Grand Duke and his officers began to suspect that they had been mistaken. Had it really been the Tartars' plan to surprise the town? The preceding nights had not been nearly so quiet—musketry rattling from the outposts, shells whistling through the air; and this time, nothing. The officers waited, ready to give their orders, according to circumstances.
We have said that Ogareff occupied a room in the palace. It was a large chamber on the ground floor, its windows opening on a side terrace. By taking a few steps along this terrace, a view of the river could be obtained.
Profound darkness reigned in the room. Ogareff stood by a window, awaiting the hour to act. The signal, of course, could come from him, alone. This signal once given, when the greater part of the defenders of Irkutsk would be summoned to the points openly attacked, his plan was to leave the palace and hurry to the Bolchaia Gate. If it was unguarded, he would open it; or at least he would direct the overwhelming mass of its assailants against the few defenders.
He now crouched in the shadow, like a wild beast ready to spring on its prey. A few minutes before two o'clock, the Grand Duke desired that Michael Strogoff—which was the only name they could give to Ivan Ogareff—should be brought to him. An aide-de-camp came to the room, the door of which was closed. He called.
Ogareff, motionless near the window, and invisible in the shade did not answer. The Grand Duke was therefore informed that the Czar's courier was not at that moment in the palace.
Two o'clock struck. Now was the time to cause the diversion agreed upon with the Tartars, waiting for the assault. Ivan Ogareff opened the window and stationed himself at the North angle of the side terrace.
Below him flowed the roaring waters of the Angara. Ogareff took a match from his pocket, struck it and lighted a small bunch of tow, impregnated with priming powder, which he threw into the river.
It was by the orders of Ivan Ogareff that the torrents of mineral oil had been thrown on the surface of the Angara! There are numerous naphtha springs above Irkutsk, on the right bank, between the suburb of Poshkavsk and the town. Ogareff had resolved to employ this terrible means to carry fire into Irkutsk. He therefore took possession of the immense reservoirs which contained the combustible liquid. It was only necessary to demolish a piece of wall in order to allow it to flow out in a vast stream.
This had been done that night, a few hours previously, and this was the reason that the raft which carried the true Courier of the Czar, Nadia, and the fugitives, floated on a current of mineral oil. Through the breaches in these reservoirs of enormous dimensions rushed the naphtha in torrents, and, following the inclination of the ground, it spread over the surface of the river, where its density allowed it to float. This was the way Ivan Ogareff carried on warfare! Allied with Tartars, he acted like a Tartar, and against his own countrymen!
The tow had been thrown on the waters of the Angara. In an instant, with electrical rapidity, as if the current had been of alcohol, the whole river was in a blaze above and below the town. Columns of blue flames ran between the two banks. Volumes of vapor curled up above. The few pieces of ice which still drifted were seized by the burning liquid, and melted like wax on the top of a furnace, the evaporated water escaping in shrill hisses.
At the same moment, firing broke out on the North and South of the town. The enemy's batteries discharged their guns at random. Several thousand Tartars rushed to the assault of the earth-works. The houses on the bank, built of wood, took fire in every direction. A bright light dissipated the darkness of the night.
"At last!" said Ivan Ogareff.
He had good reason for congratulating himself. The diversion which he had planned was terrible. The defenders of Irkutsk found themselves between the attack of the Tartars and the fearful effects of fire. The bells rang, and all the able-bodied of the population ran, some towards the points attacked, and others towards the houses in the grasp of the flames, which it seemed too probable would ere long envelop the whole town.
The Gate of Bolchaia was nearly free. Only a very small guard had been left there. And by the traitor's suggestion, and in order that the event might be explained apart from him, as if by political hate, this small guard had been chosen from the little band of exiles.
Ogareff re-entered his room, now brilliantly lighted by the flames from the Angara; then he made ready to go out. But scarcely had he opened the door, when a woman rushed into the room, her clothes drenched, her hair in disorder.
"Sangarre!" exclaimed Ogareff, in the first moment of surprise, and not supposing that it could be any other woman than the gypsy.
It was not Sangarre; it was Nadia!
At the moment when, floating on the ice, the girl had uttered a cry on seeing the fire spreading along the current, Michael had seized her in his arms, and plunged with her into the river itself to seek a refuge in its depths from the flames. The block which bore them was not thirty fathoms from the first quay of Irkutsk.
Swimming beneath the water, Michael managed to get a footing with Nadia on the quay. Michael Strogoff had reached his journey's end! He was in Irkutsk!
"To the governor's palace!" said he to Nadia.
In less than ten minutes, they arrived at the entrance to the palace. Long tongues of flame from the Angara licked its walls, but were powerless to set it on fire. Beyond the houses on the bank were in a blaze.
The palace being open to all, Michael and Nadia entered without difficulty. In the confusion, no one remarked them, although their garments were dripping. A crowd of officers coming for orders, and of soldiers running to execute them, filled the great hall on the ground floor. There, in a sudden eddy of the confused multitude, Michael and the young girl were separated from each other.
Nadia ran distracted through the passages, calling her companion, and asking to be taken to the Grand Duke. A door into a room flooded with light opened before her. She entered, and found herself suddenly face to face with the man whom she had met at Ichim, whom she had seen at Tomsk; face to face with the one whose villainous hand would an instant later betray the town!
"Ivan Ogareff!" she cried.
On hearing his name pronounced, the wretch started. His real name known, all his plans would be balked. There was but one thing to be done: to kill the person who had just uttered it. Ogareff darted at Nadia; but the girl, a knife in her hand, retreated against the wall, determined to defend herself.
"Ivan Ogareff!" again cried Nadia, knowing well that so detested a name would soon bring her help.
"Ah! Be silent!" hissed out the traitor between his clenched teeth.
"Ivan Ogareff!" exclaimed a third time the brave young girl, in a voice to which hate had added ten-fold strength.
Mad with fury, Ogareff, drawing a dagger from his belt, again rushed at Nadia and compelled her to retreat into a corner of the room. Her last hope appeared gone, when the villain, suddenly lifted by an irresistible force, was dashed to the ground.
"Michael!" cried Nadia.
It was Michael Strogoff. Michael had heard Nadia's call. Guided by her voice, he had just in time reached Ivan Ogareff's room, and entered by the open door.
"Fear nothing, Nadia," said he, placing himself between her and Ogareff.
"Ah!" cried the girl, "take care, brother! The traitor is armed! He can see!"
Ogareff rose, and, thinking he had an immeasurable advantage over the blind man leaped upon him. But with one hand, the blind man grasped the arm of his enemy, seized his weapon, and hurled him again to the ground.
Pale with rage and shame, Ogareff remembered that he wore a sword. He drew it and returned a second time to the charge. A blind man! Ogareff had only to deal with a blind man! He was more than a match for him!
Nadia, terrified at the danger which threatened her companion ran to the door calling for help!
"Close the door, Nadia!" said Michael. "Call no one, and leave me alone! The Czar's courier has nothing to fear to-day from this villain! Let him come on, if he dares! I am ready for him."
In the mean time, Ogareff, gathering himself together like a tiger about to spring, uttered not a word. The noise of his footsteps, his very breathing, he endeavored to conceal from the ear of the blind man. His object was to strike before his opponent was aware of his approach, to strike him with a deadly blow.
Nadia, terrified and at the same time confident, watched this terrible scene with involuntary admiration. Michael's calm bearing seemed to have inspired her. Michael's sole weapon was his Siberian knife. He did not see his adversary armed with a sword, it is true; but Heaven's support seemed to be afforded him. How, almost without stirring, did he always face the point of the sword?
Ivan Ogareff watched his strange adversary with visible anxiety. His superhuman calm had an effect upon him. In vain, appealing to his reason, did he tell himself that in so unequal a combat all the advantages were on his side. The immobility of the blind man froze him. He had settled on the place where he would strike his victim. He had fixed upon it! What, then, hindered him from putting an end to his blind antagonist?
At last, with a spring he drove his sword full at Michael's breast. An imperceptible movement of the blind man's knife turned aside the blow. Michael had not been touched, and coolly he awaited a second attack.
Cold drops stood on Ogareff's brow. He drew back a step, then again leaped forward. But as had the first, this second attempt failed. The knife had simply parried the blow from the traitor's useless sword.
Mad with rage and terror before this living statue, he gazed into the wide-open eyes of the blind man. Those eyes which seemed to pierce to the bottom of his soul, and yet which did not, could not, see—exercised a sort of dreadful fascination over him.
All at once, Ogareff uttered a cry. A sudden light flashed across his brain. "He sees!" he exclaimed, "he sees!" And like a wild beast trying to retreat into its den, step by step, terrified, he drew back to the end of the room.
Then the statue became animated, the blind man walked straight up to Ivan Ogareff, and placing himself right before him, "Yes, I see!" said he. "I see the mark of the knout which I gave you, traitor and coward! I see the place where I am about to strike you! Defend your life! It is a duel I deign to offer you! My knife against your sword!"
"He sees!" said Nadia. "Gracious Heaven, is it possible!"
Ogareff felt that he was lost. But mustering all his courage, he sprang forward on his impassible adversary. The two blades crossed, but at a touch from Michael's knife, wielded in the hand of the Siberian hunter, the sword flew in splinters, and the wretch, stabbed to the heart, fell lifeless on the ground.
At the same moment, the door was thrown open. The Grand Duke, accompanied by some of his officers, appeared on the threshold. The Grand Duke advanced. In the body lying on the ground, he recognized the man whom he believed to be the Czar's courier.
Then, in a threatening voice, "Who killed that man?" he asked.
"I," replied Michael.
One of the officers put a pistol to his temple, ready to fire.
"Your name?" asked the Grand Duke, before giving the order for his brains to be blown out.
"Your Highness," answered Michael, "ask me rather the name of the man who lies at your feet!"
"That man, I know him! He is a servant of my brother! He is the Czar's courier!"
"That man, your Highness, is not a courier of the Czar! He is Ivan Ogareff!"
"Ivan Ogareff!" exclaimed the Grand Duke.
"Yes, Ivan the Traitor!"
"But who are you, then?"
CHAPTER XV CONCLUSION
MICHAEL STROGOFF was not, had never been, blind. A purely human phenomenon, at the same time moral and physical, had neutralized the action of the incandescent blade which Feofar's executioner had passed before his eyes.
It may be remembered, that at the moment of the execution, Marfa Strogoff was present, stretching out her hands towards her son. Michael gazed at her as a son would gaze at his mother, when it is for the last time. The tears, which his pride in vain endeavored to subdue, welling up from his heart, gathered under his eyelids, and volatiliz-ing on the cornea, had saved his sight. The vapor formed by his tears interposing between the glowing saber and his eyeballs, had been sufficient to annihilate the action of the heat. A similar effect is produced, when a workman smelter, after dipping his hand in vapor, can with impunity hold it over a stream of melted iron.
Michael had immediately understood the danger in which he would be placed should he make known his secret to anyone. He at once saw, on the other hand, that he might make use of his supposed blindness for the accomplishment of his designs. Because it was believed that he was blind, he would be allowed to go free. He must therefore be blind, blind to all, even to Nadia, blind everywhere, and not a gesture at any moment must let the truth be suspected. His resolution was taken. He must risk his life even to afford to all he might meet the proof of his want of sight. We know how perfectly he acted the part he had determined on.
His mother alone knew the truth, and he had whispered it to her in Tomsk itself, when bending over her in the dark he covered her with kisses.
When Ogareff had in his cruel irony held the Imperial letter before the eyes which he believed were destroyed, Michael had been able to read, and had read the letter which disclosed the odious plans of the traitor. This was the reason of the wonderful resolution he exhibited during the second part of his journey. This was the reason of his unalterable longing to reach Irkutsk, so as to perform his mission by word of mouth. He knew that the town would be betrayed! He knew that the life of the Grand Duke was threatened! The safety of the Czar's brother and of Siberia was in his hands.
This story was told in a few words to the Grand Duke, and Michael repeated also—and with what emotion!—the part Nadia had taken in these events.