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CHAPTER II CORRESPONDENTS IN TROUBLE
IVAN OGAREFF was bringing up the main body of the army of the Emir. The cavalry and infantry now under him had formed part of the column which had taken Omsk. Ogareff, not having been able to reduce the high town, in which, it must be remembered, the governor and garrison had sought refuge, had decided to pass on, not wishing to delay operations which ought to lead to the conquest of Eastern Siberia. He therefore left a garrison in Omsk, and, reinforcing himself en route with the conquerors of Kolyvan, joined Feofar's army.
Ivan Ogareff's soldiers halted at the outposts of the camp. They received no orders to bivouac. Their chief's plan, doubtless, was not to halt there, but to press on and reach Tomsk in the shortest possible time, it being an important town, naturally intended to become the center of future operations.
Besides his soldiers, Ogareff was bringing a convoy of Russian and Siberian prisoners, captured either at Omsk or Kolyvan. These unhappy creatures were not led to the enclosure - already too crowded - but were forced to remain at the outposts without shelter, almost without nourishment. What fate was Feofar-Khan reserving for these unfortunates? Would he imprison them in Tomsk, or would some bloody execution, familiar to the Tartar chiefs, remove them when they were found too inconvenient? This was the secret of the capricious Emir.
This army had not come from Omsk and Kolyvan without bringing in its train the usual crowd of beggars, freebooters, pedlars, and gypsies, which compose the rear-guard of an army on the march.
All these people lived on the country traversed, and left little of anything behind them. There was, therefore, a necessity for pushing forward, if only to secure provisions for the troops. The whole region between Ichim and the Obi, now completely devastated, no longer offered any resources. The Tartars left a desert behind them.
Conspicuous among the gypsies who had hastened from the western provinces was the Tsigane troop, which had accompanied Michael Strogoff as far as Perm. Sangarre was there. This fierce spy, the tool of Ivan Ogareff, had not deserted her master. Ogareff had traveled rapidly to Ichim, whilst Sangarre and her band had proceeded to Omsk by the southern part of the province.
It may be easily understood how useful this woman was to Ogareff. With her gypsy-band she could penetrate anywhere. Ivan Ogareff was kept acquainted with all that was going on in the very heart of the invaded provinces. There were a hundred eyes, a hundred ears, open in his service. Besides, he paid liberally for this espionage, from which he derived so much advantage.
Once Sangarre, being implicated in a very serious affair, had been saved by the Russian officer. She never forgot what she owed him, and had devoted herself to his service body and soul.
When Ivan Ogareff entered on the path of treason, he saw at once how he might turn this woman to account. Whatever order he might give her, Sangarre would execute it. An inexplicable instinct, more powerful still than that of gratitude, had urged her to make herself the slave of the traitor to whom she had been attached since the very beginning of his exile in Siberia.
Confidante and accomplice, Sangarre, without country, without family, had been delighted to put her vagabond life to the service of the invaders thrown by Ogareff on Siberia. To the wonderful cunning natural to her race she added a wild energy, which knew neither forgiveness nor pity. She was a savage worthy to share the wigwam of an Apache or the hut of an Andaman.
Since her arrival at Omsk, where she had rejoined him with her Tsiganes, Sangarre had not again left Ogareff. The circumstance that Michael and Marfa Strogoff had met was known to her. She knew and shared Ogareff's fears concerning the journey of a courier of the Czar. Having Marfa Strogoff in her power, she would have been the woman to torture her with all the refinement of a RedSkin in order to wrest her secret from her. But the hour had not yet come in which Ogareff wished the old Siberian to speak. Sangarre had to wait, and she waited, without losing sight of her whom she was watching, observing her slightest gestures, her slightest words, endeavoring to catch the word "son" escaping from her lips, but as yet always baffled by Marfa's taciturnity.
At the first flourish of the trumpets several officers of high rank, followed by a brilliant escort of Usbeck horsemen, moved to the front of the camp to receive Ivan Ogareff. Arrived in his presence, they paid him the greatest respect, and invited him to accompany them to Feofar-Khan's tent.
Imperturbable as usual, Ogareff replied coldly to the deference paid to him. He was plainly dressed; but, from a sort of impudent bravado, he still wore the uniform of a Russian officer.
As he was about to enter the camp, Sangarre, passing among the officers approached and remained motionless before him. "Nothing?" asked Ogareff.
"Is the time approaching when you will force the old woman to speak?"
"It is approaching, Sangarre."
"When will the old woman speak?"
"When we reach Tomsk."
"And we shall be there - "
"In three days."
A strange gleam shot from Sangarre's great black eyes, and she retired with a calm step. Ogareff pressed his spurs into his horse's flanks, and, followed by his staff of Tartar officers, rode towards the Emir's tent.
Feofar-Khan was expecting his lieutenant. The council, composed of the bearer of the royal seal, the khodja, and some high officers, had taken their places in the tent. Ivan Ogareff dismounted and entered.
Feofar-Khan was a man of forty, tall, rather pale, of a fierce countenance, and evil eyes. A curly black beard flowed over his chest. With his war costume, coat of mail of gold and silver, cross-belt and scabbard glistening with precious stones, boots with golden spurs, helmet ornamented with an aigrette of brilliant diamonds, Feofar presented an aspect rather strange than imposing for a Tartar Sardana-palus, an undisputed sovereign, who directs at his pleasure the life and fortune of his subjects.
When Ivan Ogareff appeared, the great dignitaries remained seated on their gold-embroidered cushions; but Feofar rose from a rich divan which occupied the back part of the tent, the ground being hidden under the thick velvet-pile of a Bokharian carpet.
The Emir approached Ogareff and gave him a kiss, the meaning of which he could not mistake. This kiss made the lieutenant chief of the council, and placed him temporarily above the khodja.
Then Feofar spoke. "I have no need to question you," said he; "speak, Ivan. You will find here ears very ready to listen to you."
"Takhsir," answered Ogareff, "this is what I have to make known to you." He spoke in the Tartar language, giving to his phrases the emphatic turn which distinguishes the languages of the Orientals. "Takhsir, this is not the time for unnecessary words. What I have done at the head of your troops, you know. The lines of the Ichim and the Irtych are now in our power; and the Turcoman horsemen can bathe their horses in the now Tartar waters. The Kirghiz hordes rose at the voice of Feofar-Khan. You can now push your troops towards the east, and where the sun rises, or towards the west, where he sets."
"And if I march with the sun?" asked the Emir, without his countenance betraying any of his thoughts.
"To march with the sun," answered Ogareff, "is to throw yourself towards Europe; it is to conquer rapidly the Siberian provinces of Tobolsk as far as the Ural Mountains."
"And if I go to meet this luminary of the heavens?"
"It is to subdue to the Tartar dominion, with Irkutsk, the richest countries of Central Asia."
"But the armies of the Sultan of St. Petersburg?" said Feofar-Khan, designating the Emperor of Russia by this strange title.
"You have nothing to fear from them," replied Ivan Ogareff. "The invasion has been sudden; and before the Russian army can succor them, Irkutsk or Tobolsk will have fallen into your power. The Czar's troops have been overwhelmed at Kolyvan, as they will be everywhere where yours meet them."
"And what advice does your devotion to the Tartar cause suggest?" asked the Emir, after a few moments' silence.
"My advice," answered Ivan Ogareff quickly, "is to march to meet the sun. It is to give the grass of the eastern steppes to the Turcoman horses to consume. It is to take Irkutsk, the capital of the eastern provinces, and with it a hostage, the possession of whom is worth a whole country. In the place of the Czar, the Grand Duke his brother must fall into your hands."
This was the great result aimed at by Ivan Ogareff. To listen to him, one would have taken him for one of the cruel descendants of Stephan Razine, the celebrated pirate who ravaged Southern Russia in the eighteenth century. To seize the Grand Duke, murder him pitilessly, would fully satisfy his hatred. Besides, with the capture of Irkutsk, all Eastern Siberia would pass to the Tartars.
"It shall be thus, Ivan," replied Feofar.
"What are your orders, Takhsir?"
"To-day our headquarters shall be removed to Tomsk."
Ogareff bowed, and, followed by the housch-begui, he retired to execute the Emir's orders.
As he was about to mount his horse, to return to the outposts, a tumult broke out at some distance, in the part of the camp reserved for the prisoners. Shouts were heard, and two or three shots fired. Perhaps it was an attempt at revolt or escape, which must be summarily suppressed.
Ivan Ogareff and the housch-begui walked forward and almost immediately two men, whom the soldiers had not been able to keep back appeared before them.
The housch-begui, without more information, made a sign which was an order for death, and the heads of the two prisoners would have rolled on the ground had not Ogareff uttered a few words which arrested the sword already raised aloft. The Russian had perceived that these prisoners were strangers, and he ordered them to be brought to him.
They were Harry Blount and Alcide jolivet.
On Ogareff's arrival in the camp, they had demanded to be conducted to his presence. The soldiers had refused. In consequence, a struggle, an attempt at flight, shots fired which happily missed the two correspondents, but their execution would not have been long delayed, if it had not been for the intervention of the Emir's lieutenant.
The latter observed the prisoners for some moments, they being absolutely unknown to him. They had been present at that scene in the post-house at Ichim, in which Michael Strogoff had been struck by Ogareff; but the brutal traveler had paid no attention to the persons then collected in the common room.
Blount and Jolivet, on the contrary, recognized him at once, and the latter said in a low voice, "Hullo! It seems that Colonel Ogareff and the rude personage of Ichim are one!" Then he added in his companion's ear, "Explain our affair, Blount. You will do me a service. This Russian colonel in the midst of a Tartar camp disgusts me; and although, thanks to him, my head is still on my shoulders, my eyes would exhibit my feelings were I to attempt to look him in the face."
So saying, Alcide Jolivet assumed a look of complete and haughty indifference.
Whether or not Ivan Ogareff perceived that the prisoner's attitude was insulting towards him, he did not let it appear. "Who are you, gentlemen?" he asked in Russian, in a cold tone, but free from its usual rudeness.
"Two correspondents of English and French newspapers," replied Blount laconically.
"You have, doubtless, papers which will establish your identity?"
"Here are letters which accredit us in Russia, from the English and French chancellor's office."
Ivan Ogareff took the letters which Blount held out, and read them attentively. "You ask," said he, "authorization to follow our military operations in Siberia?"
"We ask to be free, that is all," answered the English correspondent dryly.
"You are so, gentlemen," answered Ogareff; "I am curious to read your articles in the Daily Telegraph."
"Sir," replied Blount, with the most imperturbable coolness, "it is sixpence a number, including postage." And thereupon he returned to his companion, who appeared to approve completely of his replies.
Ivan Ogareff, without frowning, mounted his horse, and going to the head of his escort, soon disappeared in a cloud of dust.
"Well, Jolivet, what do you think of Colonel Ivan Ogareff, general-in-chief of the Tartar troops?" asked Blount.
"I think, my dear friend," replied Alcide, smiling, "that the housch-begui made a very graceful gesture when he gave the order for our heads to be cut off."
Whatever was the motive which led Ogareff to act thus in regard to the two correspondents, they were free and could rove at their pleasure over the scene of war. Their intention was not to leave it. The sort of antipathy which formerly they had entertained for each other had given place to a sincere friendship. Circumstances having brought them together, they no longer thought of separating. The petty questions of rivalry were forever extinguished. Harry Blount could never forget what he owed his companion, who, on the other hand, never tried to remind him of it. This friendship too assisted the reporting operations, and was thus to the advantage of their readers.
"And now," asked Blount, "what shall we do with our liberty?"
"Take advantage of it, of course," replied Alcide, "and go quietly to Tomsk to see what is going on there."
"Until the time - very near, I hope - when we may rejoin some Russian regiment?"
"As you say, my dear Blount, it won't do to Tartarise ourselves too much. The best side is that of the most civilized army, and it is evident that the people of Central Asia will have everything to lose and absolutely nothing to gain from this invasion, while the Russians will soon repulse them. It is only a matter of time."
The arrival of Ivan Ogareff, which had given Jolivet and Blount their liberty, was to Michael Strogoff, on the contrary, a serious danger. Should chance bring the Czar's courier into Ogareff's presence, the latter could not fail to recognize in him the traveler whom he had so brutally treated at the Ichim post-house, and although Michael had not replied to the insult as he would have done under any other circumstances, attention would be drawn to him, and at once the accomplishment of his plans would be rendered more difficult.
This was the unpleasant side of the business. A favorable result of his arrival, however, was the order which was given to raise the camp that very day, and remove the headquarters to Tomsk. This was the accomplishment of Michael's most fervent desire. His intention, as has been said, was to reach Tomsk concealed amongst the other prisoners; that is to say, without any risk of falling into the hands of the scouts who swarmed about the approaches to this important town. However, in consequence of the arrival of Ivan Ogareff, he questioned whether it would not be better to give up his first plan and attempt to escape during the journey.
Michael would, no doubt, have kept to the latter plan had he not learnt that Feofar-Khan and Ogareff had already set out for the town with some thousands of horsemen. "I will wait, then," said he to himself; "at least, unless some exceptional opportunity for escape occurs. The adverse chances are numerous on this side of Tomsk, while beyond I shall in a few hours have passed the most advanced Tartar posts to the east. Still three days of patience, and may God aid me!"
It was indeed a journey of three days which the prisoners, under the guard of a numerous detachment of Tartars, were to make across the steppe. A hundred and fifty versts lay between the camp and the town-an easy march for the Emir's soldiers, who wanted for nothing, but a wretched journey for these people, enfeebled by privations. More than one corpse would show the road they had traversed.
It was two o'clock in the afternoon, on the 12th of August, under a hot sun and cloudless sky, that the toptschi-baschi gave the order to start.
Alcide and Blount, having bought horses, had already taken the road to Tomsk, where events were to reunite the principal personages of this story.
Amongst the prisoners brought by Ivan Ogareff to the Tartar camp was an old woman, whose taciturnity seemed to keep her apart from all those who shared her fate. Not a murmur issued from her lips. She was like a statue of grief. This woman was more strictly guarded than anyone else, and, without her appearing to notice, was constantly watched by the Tsigane Sangarre. Notwithstanding her age she was compelled to follow the convoy of prisoners on foot, without any alleviation of her suffering.
However, a kind Providence had placed near her a courageous, kind-hearted being to comfort and assist her. Amongst her companions in misfortune a young girl, remarkable for beauty and taciturnity, seemed to have given herself the task of watching over her. No words had been exchanged between the two captives, but the girl was always at the old woman's side when help was useful. At first the mute assistance of the stranger was accepted with some mistrust. Gradually, however, the young girl's clear glance, her reserve, and the mysterious sympathy which draws together those who are in misfortune, thawed Marfa Strogoff's coldness.
Nadia - for it was she - was thus able, without knowing it, to render to the mother those attentions which she had herself received from the son. Her instinctive kindness had doubly inspired her. In devoting herself to her service, Nadia secured to her youth and beauty the protection afforded by the age of the old prisoner.
On the crowd of unhappy people, embittered by sufferings, this silent pair - one seeming to be the grandmother, the other the grand-daughter - impo sed a sort of respect.
After being carried off by the Tartar scouts on the Irtych, Nadia had been taken to Omsk. Kept prisoner in the town, she shared the fate of all those captured by Ivan Ogareff, and consequently that of Marfa Strogoff.
If Nadia had been less energetic, she would have succumbed to this double blow. The interruption to her journey, the death of Michael, made her both desperate and excited. Divided, perhaps forever, from her father, after so many happy efforts had brought her near him, and, to crown her grief, separated from the intrepid companion whom God seemed to have placed in her way to lead her. The image of Michael Strogoff, struck before her eyes with a lance and disappearing beneath the waters of the Irtych, never left her thoughts.
Could such a man have died thus? For whom was God reserving His miracles if this good man, whom a noble object was urging onwards, had been allowed to perish so miserably? Then anger would prevail over grief. The scene of the affront so strangely borne by her companion at the Ichim relay returned to her memory. Her blood boiled at the recollection.
"Who will avenge him who can no longer avenge himself?" she said.
And in her heart, she cried, "May it be I!" If before his death Michael had confided his secret to her, woman, aye girl though she was, she might have been able to carry to a successful conclusion the interrupted task of that brother whom God had so soon taken from her.
Absorbed in these thoughts, it can be understood how Nadia could remain insensible to the miseries even of her captivity. Thus chance had united her to Marfa Strogoff without her having the least suspicion of who she was. How could she imagine that this old woman, a prisoner like herself, was the mother of him, whom she only knew as the merchant Nicholas Korpanoff? And on the other hand, how could Marfa guess that a bond of gratitude connected this young stranger with her son?
The thing that first struck Nadia in Marfa Strogoff was the similarity in the way in which each bore her hard fate. This stoicism of the old woman under the daily hardships, this contempt of bodily suffering, could only be caused by a moral grief equal to her own. So Nadia thought; and she was not mistaken. It was an instinctive sympathy for that part of her misery which Marfa did not show which first drew Nadia towards her. This way of bearing her sorrow went to the proud heart of the young girl. She did not offer her services; she gave them. Marfa had neither to refuse nor accept them. In the difficult parts of the journey, the girl was there to support her. When the provisions were given out, the old woman would not have moved, but Nadia shared her small portion with her; and thus this painful journey was performed. Thanks to her companion, Marfa was able to follow the soldiers who guarded the prisoners without being fastened to a saddle-bow, as were many other unfortunate wretches, and thus dragged along this road of sorrow.
"May God reward you, my daughter, for what you have done for my old age!" said Marfa Strogoff once, and for some time these were the only words exchanged between the two unfortunate beings.
During these few days, which to them appeared like centuries, it would seem that the old woman and the girl would have been led to speak of their situation. But Marfa Strogoff, from a caution which may be easily understood, never spoke about herself except with the greatest brevity. She never made the smallest allusion to her son, nor to the unfortunate meeting.
Nadia also, if not completely silent, spoke little. However, one day her heart overflowed, and she told all the events which had occurred from her departure from Wladimir to the death of Nicholas Korpanoff.
All that her young companion told intensely interested the old Siberian. "Nicholas Korpanoff!" said she. "Tell me again about this Nicholas. I know only one man, one alone, in whom such conduct would not have astonished me. Nicholas Korpanoff! Was that really his name? Are you sure of it, my daughter?"
"Why should he have deceived me in this," replied Nadia, "when he deceived me in no other way?"
Moved, however, by a kind of presentiment, Marfa Strogoff put questions upon questions to Nadia.
"You told me he was fearless, my daughter. You have proved that he has been so?" asked she.
"Yes, fearless indeed!" replied Nadia.
"It was just what my son would have done," said Marfa to herself.
Then she resumed, "Did you not say that nothing stopped him, nor astonished him; that he was so gentle in his strength that you had a sister as well as a brother in him, and he watched over you like a mother?"
"Yes, yes," said Nadia. "Brother, sister, mother - he has been all to me!"
"And defended you like a lion?"
"A lion indeed!" replied Nadia. "A lion, a hero!"
"My son, my son!" thought the old Siberian. "But you said, however, that he bore a terrible insult at that post-house in Ichim?"
"He did bear it," answered Nadia, looking down.
"He bore it!" murmured Marfa, shuddering.
"Mother, mother," cried Nadia, "do not blame him! He had a secret. A secret of which God alone is as yet the judge!"
"And," said Marfa, raising her head and looking at Nadia as though she would read the depths of her heart, "in that hour of humiliation did you not despise this Nicholas Korpanoff?"
"I admired without understanding him," replied the girl. "I never felt him more worthy of respect."
The old woman was silent for a minute.
"Was he tall?" she asked.
"And very handsome? Come, speak, my daughter."
"He was very handsome," replied Nadia, blushing.
"It was my son! I tell you it was my son!" exclaimed the old woman, embracing Nadia.
"Your son!" said Nadia amazed, "your son!"
"Come," said Marfa; "let us get to the bottom of this, my child. Your companion, your friend, your protector had a mother. Did he never speak to you of his mother?"
"Of his mother?" said Nadia. "He spoke to me of his mother as I spoke to him of my father - often, always. He adored her."
"Nadia, Nadia, you have just told me about my own son," said the old woman.
And she added impetuously, "Was he not going to see this mother, whom you say he loved, in Omsk?"
"No," answered Nadia, "no, he was not."
"Not!" cried Marfa. "You dare to tell me not!"
"I say so: but it remains to me to tell you that from motives which outweighed everything else, motives which I do not know, I understand that Nicholas Korpanoff had to traverse the country completely in secret. To him it was a question of life and death, and still more, a question of duty and honor."
"Duty, indeed, imperious duty," said the old Siberian, "of those who sacrifice everything, even the joy of giving a kiss, perhaps the last, to his old mother. All that you do not know, Nadia - all that I did not know myself - I now know. You have made me understand everything. But the light which you have thrown on the mysteries of my heart, I cannot return on yours. Since my son has not told you his secret, I must keep it. Forgive me, Nadia; I can never repay what you have done for me."
"Mother, I ask you nothing," replied Nadia.
All was thus explained to the old Siberian, all, even the conduct of her son with regard to herself in the inn at Omsk. There was no doubt that the young girl's companion was Michael Strogoff, and that a secret mission in the invaded country obliged him to conceal his quality of the Czar's courier.
"Ah, my brave boy!" thought Marfa. "No, I will not betray you, and tortures shall not wrest from me the avowal that it was you whom I saw at Omsk."
Marfa could with a word have paid Nadia for all her devotion to her. She could have told her that her companion, Nicholas Korpanoff, or rather Michael Strogoff, had not perished in the waters of the Irtych, since it was some days after that incident that she had met him, that she had spoken to him.
But she restrained herself, she was silent, and contented herself with saying, "Hope, my child! Misfortune will not overwhelm you. You will see your father again; I feel it; and perhaps he who gave you the name of sister is not dead. God cannot have allowed your brave companion to perish. Hope, my child, hope! Do as I do. The mourning which I wear is not yet for my son."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER III BLOW FOR BLOW