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CHAPTER III BLOW FOR BLOW
SUCH were now the relative situations of Marfa Strogoff and Nadia. All was understood by the old Siberian, and though the young girl was ignorant that her much-regretted companion still lived, she at least knew his relationship to her whom she had made her mother; and she thanked God for having given her the joy of taking the place of the son whom the prisoner had lost.
But what neither of them could know was that Michael, having been captured at Kolyvan, was in the same convoy and was on his way to Tomsk with them.
The prisoners brought by Ivan Ogareff had been added to those already kept by the Emir in the Tartar camp. These unfortunate people, consisting of Russians, Siberians, soldiers and civilians, numbered some thousands, and formed a column which extended over several versts. Some among them being considered dangerous were handcuffed and fastened to a long chain. There were, too, women and children, many of the latter suspended to the pommels of the saddles, while the former were dragged mercilessly along the road on foot, or driven forward as if they were animals. The horsemen compelled them to maintain a certain order, and there were no laggards with the exception of those who fell never to rise again.
In consequence of this arrangement, Michael Strogoff, marching in the first ranks of those who had left the Tartar camp-that is to say, among the Kolyvan prisoners - was unable to mingle with the prisoners who had arrived after him from Omsk. He had therefore no suspicion that his mother and Nadia were present in the convoy, nor did they suppose that he was among those in front. This journey from the camp to Tomsk, performed under the lashes and spear-points of the soldiers, proved fatal to many, and terrible to all. The prisoners traveled across the steppe, over a road made still more dusty by the passage of the Emir and his vanguard. Orders had been given to march rapidly. The short halts were rare. The hundred miles under a burning sky seemed interminable, though they were performed as rapidly as possible.
The country, which extends from the right of the Obi to the base of the spur detached from the Sayanok Mountains, is very sterile. Only a few stunted and burnt-up shrubs here and there break the monotony of the immense plain. There was no cultivation, for there was no water; and it was water that the prisoners, parched by their painful march, most needed. To find a stream they must have diverged fifty versts eastward, to the very foot of the mountains.
There flows the Tom, a little affluent of the Obi, which passes near Tomsk before losing itself in one of the great northern arteries. There water would have been abundant, the steppe less arid, the heat less severe. But the strictest orders had been given to the commanders of the convoy to reach Tomsk by the shortest way, for the Emir was much afraid of being taken in the flank and cut off by some Russian column descending from the northern provinces.
It is useless to dwell upon the sufferings of the unhappy prisoners. Many hundreds fell on the steppe, where their bodies would lie until winter, when the wolves would devour the remnants of their bones.
As Nadia helped the old Siberian, so in the same way did Michael render to his more feeble companions in misfortune such services as his situation allowed. He encouraged some, supported others, going to and fro, until a prick from a soldier's lance obliged him to rsum the place which had been assigned him in the ranks.
Why did he not endeavor to escape?
The reason was that he had now quite determined not to venture until the steppe was safe for him. He was resolved in his idea of going as far as Tomsk "at the Emir's expense," and indeed he was right. As he observed the numerous detachments which scoured the plain on the convoy's flanks, now to the south, now to the north, it was evident that before he could have gone two versts he must have been recaptured. The Tartar horsemen swarmed-it actually appeared as if they sprang from the earth - like insects which a thunderstorm brings to the surface of the ground. Flight under these conditions would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. The soldiers of the escort displayed excessive vigilance, for they would have paid for the slightest carelessness with their heads.
At nightfall of the 15th of August, the convoy reached the little village of Zabediero, thirty versts from Tomsk.
The prisoners' first movement would have been to rush into the river, but they were not allowed to leave the ranks until the halt had been organized. Although the current of the Tom was just now like a torrent, it might have favored the flight of some bold or desperate man, and the strictest measures of vigilance were taken. Boats, requisitioned at Zabediero, were brought up to the Tom and formed a line of obstacles impossible to pass. As to the encampment on the outskirts of the village, it was guarded by a cordon of sentinels.
Michael Strogoff, who now naturally thought of escape, saw, after carefully surveying the situation, that under these conditions it was perfectly impossible; so, not wishing to compromise himself, he waited.
The prisoners were to encamp for the whole night on the banks of the Tom, for the Emir had put off the entrance of his troops into Tomsk. It had been decided that a military fete should mark the inauguration of the Tartar headquarters in this important city. Feofar-Khan already occupied the fortress, but the bulk of his army bivouacked under its walls, waiting until the time came for them to make a solemn entry.
Ivan Ogareff left the Emir at Tomsk, where both had arrived the evening before, and returned to the camp at Zabediero. From here he was to start the next day with the rear-guard of the Tartar army. A house had been arranged for him in which to pass the night. At sunrise horse and foot soldiers were to proceed to Tomsk, where the Emir wished to receive them with the pomp usual to Asiatic sovereigns. As soon as the halt was organized, the prisoners, worn out with their three days' journey, and suffering from burning thirst, could drink and take a little rest. The sun had already set, when Nadia, supporting Marfa Strogoff, reached the banks of the Tom. They had not till then been able to get through those who crowded the banks, but at last they came to drink in their turn.
The old woman bent over the clear stream, and Nadia, plunging in her hand, carried it to Marfa's lips. Then she refreshed herself. They found new life in these welcome waters. Suddenly Nadia started up; an involuntary cry escaped her.
Michael Strogoff was there, a few steps from her. It was he. The dying rays of the sun fell upon him.
At Nadia's cry Michael started. But he had sufficient command over himself not to utter a word by which he might have been compromised. And yet, when he saw Nadia, he also recognized his mother.
Feeling he could not long keep master of himself at this unexpected meeting, he covered his eyes with his hands and walked quickly away.
Nadia's impulse was to run after him, but the old Siberian murmured in her ear, "Stay, my daughter!"
"It is he!" replied Nadia, choking with emotion. "He lives, mother! It is he!"
"It is my son," answered Marfa, "it is Michael Strogoff, and you see that I do not make a step towards him! Imitate me, my daughter."
Michael had just experienced the most violent emotion which a man can feel. His mother and Nadia were there!
The two prisoners who were always together in his heart, God had brought them together in this common misfortune. Did Nadia know who he was? Yes, for he had seen Marfa's gesture, holding her back as she was about to rush towards him. Marfa, then, had understood all, and kept his secret.
During that night, Michael was twenty times on the point of looking for and joining his mother; but he knew that he must resist the longing he felt to take her in his arms, and once more press the hand of his young companion. The least imprudence might be fatal. He had besides sworn not to see his mother. Once at Tomsk, since he could not escape this very night, he would set off without having even embraced the two beings in whom all the happiness of his life was centered, and whom he should leave exposed to so many perils.
Michael hoped that this fresh meeting at the Zabediero camp would have no disastrous consequences either to his mother or to himself. But he did not know that part of this scene, although it passed so rapidly, had been observed by Sangarre, Ogareff's spy.
The Tsigane was there, a few paces off, on the bank, as usual, watching the old Siberian woman. She had not caught sight of Michael, for he disappeared before she had time to look around; but the mother's gesture as she kept back Nadia had not escaped her, and the look in Marfa's eyes told her all.
It was now beyond doubt that Marfa Strogoff's son, the Czar's courier, was at this moment in Zabediero, among Ivan Ogareff's prisoners. Sangarre did not know him, but she knew that he was there. She did not then attempt to discover him, for it would have been impossible in the dark and the immense crowd.
As for again watching Nadia and Marfa Strogoff, that was equally useless. It was evident that the two women would keep on their guard, and it would be impossible to overhear anything of a nature to compromise the courier of the Czar. The Tsigane's first thought was to tell Ivan Ogareff. She therefore immediately left the encampment. A quarter of an hour after, she reached Zabediero, and was shown into the house occupied by the Emir's lieutenant. Ogareff received the Tsigane directly.
"What have you to tell me, Sangarre?" he asked.
"Marfa Strogoff's son is in the encampment."
"Ah!" exclaimed Ogareff, "I shall know - "
"You will know nothing, Ivan," replied Tsigane; "for you do not even know him by sight."
"But you know him; you have seen him, Sangarre?"
"I have not seen him; but his mother betrayed herself by a gesture, which told me everything."
"Are you not mistaken?"
"I am not mistaken."
"You know the importance which I attach to the apprehension of this courier," said Ivan Ogareff. "If the letter which he has brought from Moscow reaches Irkutsk, if it is given to the Grand Duke, the Grand Duke will be on his guard, and I shall not be able to get at him. I must have that letter at any price. Now you come to tell me that the bearer of this letter is in my power. I repeat, Sangarre, are you not mistaken?"
Ogareff spoke with great animation. His emotion showed the extreme importance he attached to the possession of this letter. Sangarre was not at all put out by the urgency with which Ogareff repeated his question. "I am not mistaken, Ivan," she said.
"But, Sangarre, there are thousands of prisoners; and you say that you do not know Michael Strogoff."
"No," answered the Tsigane, with a look of savage joy, "I do not know him; but his mother knows him. Ivan, we must make his mother speak."
"To-morrow she shall speak!" cried Ogareff. So saying, he extended his hand to the Tsigane, who kissed it; for there is nothing servile in this act of respect, it being usual among the Northern races.
Sangarre returned to the camp. She found out Nadia and Marfa Strogoff, and passed the night in watching them. Although worn out with fatigue, the old woman and the girl did not sleep. Their great anxiety kept them awake. Michael was living, but a prisoner. Did Ogareff know him, or would he not soon find him out? Nadia was occupied by the one thought that he whom she had thought dead still lived. But Marfa saw further into the future: and, although she did not care what became of herself, she had every reason to fear for her son.
Sangarre, under cover of the night, had crept near the two women, and remained there several hours listening. She heard nothing. From an instinctive feeling of prudence not a word was exchanged between Nadia and Marfa Strogoff. The next day, the 16th of August, about ten in the morning, trumpet-calls resounded throughout the encampment. The Tartar soldiers were almost immediately under arms.
Ivan Ogareff arrived, surrounded by a large staff of Tartar officers. His face was more clouded than usual, and his knitted brow gave signs of latent wrath which was waiting for an occasion to break forth.
Michael Strogoff, hidden in a group of prisoners, saw this man pass. He had a presentiment that some catastrophe was imminent: for Ivan Ogareff knew now that Marfa was the mother of Michael Strogoff.
Ogareff dismounted, and his escort cleared a large circle round him. Just then Sangarre approached him, and said, "I have no news."
Ivan Ogareff's only reply was to give an order to one of his officers. Then the ranks of prisoners were brutally hurried up by the soldiers. The unfortunate people, driven on with whips, or pushed on with lances, arranged themselves round the camp. A strong guard of soldiers drawn up behind, rendered escape impossible.
Silence then ensued, and, on a sign from Ivan Ogareff, Sangarre advanced towards the group, in the midst of which stood Marfa.
The old Siberian saw her, and knew what was going to happen. A scornful smile passed over her face. Then leaning towards Nadia, she said in a low tone, "You know me no longer, my daughter. Whatever may happen, and however hard this trial may be, not a word, not a sign. It concerns him, and not me."
At that moment Sangarre, having regarded her for an instant, put her hand on her shoulder.
"What do you want with me?" said Marfa.
"Come!" replied Sangarre, and pushing the old Siberian before her, she took her to Ivan Ogareff, in the middle of the cleared ground. Michael cast down his eyes that their angry flashings might not appear.
Marfa, standing before Ivan Ogareff, drew herself up, crossed her arms on her breast, and waited.
"You are Marfa Strogoff?" asked Ogareff.
"Yes," replied the old Siberian calmly.
"Do you retract what you said to me when, three days ago, I interrogated you at Omsk?"
"Then you do not know that your son, Michael Strogoff, courier of the Czar, has passed through Omsk?"
"I do not know it."
"And the man in whom you thought you recognized your son, was not he your son?"
"He was not my son."
"And since then you have not seen him amongst the prisoners?"
"If he were pointed out, would you recognize him?"
On this reply, which showed such determined resolution, a murmur was heard amongst the crowd.
Ogareff could not restrain a threatening gesture.
"Listen," said he to Marfa, "your son is here, and you shall immediately point him out to me."
"All these men, taken at Omsk and Kolyvan, will defile before you; and if you do not show me Michael Strogoff, you shall receive as many blows of the knout as men shall have passed before you."
Ivan Ogareff saw that, whatever might be his threats, whatever might be the tortures to which he submitted her, the indomitable Siberian would not speak. To discover the courier of the Czar, he counted, then, not on her, but on Michael himself. He did not believe it possible that, when mother and son were in each other's presence, some involuntary movement would not betray him. Of course, had he wished to seize the imperial letter, he would simply have given orders to search all the prisoners; but Michael might have destroyed the letter, having learnt its contents; and if he were not recognized, if he were to reach Irkutsk, all Ivan Ogareff's plans would be baffled. It was thus not only the letter which the traitor must have, but the bearer himself.
Nadia had heard all, and she now knew who was Michael Strogoff, and why he had wished to cross, without being recognized, the invaded provinces of Siberia.
On an order from Ivan Ogareff the prisoners defiled, one by one, past Marfa, who remained immovable as a statue, and whose face expressed only perfect indifference.
Her son was among the last. When in his turn he passed before his mother, Nadia shut her eyes that she might not see him. Michael was to all appearance unmoved, but the palm of his hand bled under his nails, which were pressed into them.
Ivan Ogareff was baffled by mother and son.
Sangarre, close to him, said one word, "The knout!"
"Yes," cried Ogareff, who could no longer restrain himself; "the knout for this wretched old woman - the knout to the death!"
A Tartar soldier bearing this terrible instrument of torture approached Marfa. The knout is composed of a certain number of leathern thongs, at the end of which are attached pieces of twisted iron wire. It is reckoned that a sentence to one hundred and twenty blows of this whip is equivalent to a sentence of death.
Marfa knew it, but she knew also that no torture would make her speak. She was sacrificing her life.
Marfa, seized by two soldiers, was forced on her knees on the ground. Her dress torn off left her back bare. A saber was placed before her breast, at a few inches' distance only. Directly she bent beneath her suffering, her breast would be pierced by the sharp steel.
The Tartar drew himself up. He waited. "Begin!" said Ogareff. The whip whistled in the air.
But before it fell a powerful hand stopped the Tartar's arm. Michael was there. He had leapt forward at this horrible scene. If at the relay at Ichim he had restrained himself when Ogareff's whip had struck him, here before his mother, who was about to be struck, he could not do so. Ivan Ogareff had succeeded.
"Michael Strogoff!" cried he. Then advancing, "Ah, the man of Ichim?"
"Himself!" said Michael. And raising the knout he struck Ogareff a sharp blow across the face. "Blow for blow!" said he.
"Well repaid!" cried a voice concealed by the tumult.
Twenty soldiers threw themselves on Michael, and in another instant he would have been slain.
But Ogareff, who on being struck had uttered a cry of rage and pain, stopped them. "This man is reserved for the Emir's judgment," said he. "Search him!"
The letter with the imperial arms was found in Michael's bosom; he had not had time to destroy it; it was handed to Ogareff.
The voice which had pronounced the words, "Well repaid!" was that of no other than Alcide Jolivet. "Par-dieu!" said he to Blount, "they are rough, these people. Acknowledge that we owe our traveling companion a good turn. Korpanoff or Strogoff is worthy of it. Oh, that was fine retaliation for the little affair at Ichim."
"Yes, retaliation truly," replied Blount; "but Strogoff is a dead man. I suspect that, for his own interest at all events, it would have been better had he not possessed quite so lively a recollection of the event."
"And let his mother perish under the knout?"
"Do you think that either she or his sister will be a bit better off from this outbreak of his?"
"I do not know or think anything except that I should have done much the same in his position," replied Alcide. "What a scar the Colonel has received! Bah! one must boil over sometimes. We should have had water in our veins instead of blood had it been incumbent on us to be always and everywhere unmoved to wrath."
"A neat little incident for our journals," observed Blount, "if only Ivan Ogareff would let us know the contents of that letter."
Ivan Ogareff, when he had stanched the blood which was trickling down his face, had broken the seal. He read and re-read the letter deliberately, as if he was determined to discover everything it contained.
Then having ordered that Michael, carefully bound and guarded, should be carried on to Tomsk with the other prisoners, he took command of the troops at Zabediero, and, amid the deafening noise of drums and trumpets, he marched towards the town where the Emir awaited him.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER IV THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY