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CHAPTER VI A FRIEND ON THE HIGHWAY
HALF an hour afterwards, Michael and Nadia had left Tomsk.
Many others of the prisoners were that night able to escape from the Tartars, for officers and soldiers, all more or less intoxicated, had unconsciously relaxed the vigilant guard which they had hitherto maintained. Nadia, after having been carried off with the other prisoners, had been able to escape and return to the square, at the moment when Michael was led before the Emir. There, mingling with the crowd, she had witnessed the terrible scene. Not a cry escaped her when the scorching blade passed before her companion's eyes. She kept, by her strength of will, mute and motionless. A providential inspiration bade her restrain herself and retain her liberty that she might lead Marfa's son to that goal which he had sworn to reach. Her heart for an instant ceased to beat when the aged Siberian woman fell senseless to the ground, but one thought restored her to her former energy. "I will be the blind man's dog," said she.
On Ogareff's departure, Nadia had concealed herself in the shade. She had waited till the crowd left the square. Michael, abandoned as a wretched being from whom nothing was to be feared, was alone. She saw him draw himself towards his mother, bend over her, kiss her forehead, then rise and grope his way in flight.
A few instants later, she and he, hand in hand, had descended the steep slope, when, after having followed the high banks of the Tom to the furthest extremity of the town, they happily found a breach in the inclosure.
The road to Irkutsk was the only one which penetrated towards the east. It could not be mistaken. It was possible that on the morrow, after some hours of carousal, the scouts of the Emir, once more scattering over the steppes, might cut off all communication. It was of the greatest importance therefore to get in advance of them. How could Nadia bear the fatigues of that night, from the l6th to the 17th of August? How could she have found strength for so long a stage? How could her feet, bleeding under that forced march, have carried her thither? It is almost incomprehensible. But it is none the less true that on the next morning, twelve hours after their departure from Tomsk, Michael and she reached the town of Semilowskoe, after a journey of thirty-five miles.
Michael had not uttered a single word. It was not Nadia who held his hand, it was he who held that of his companion during the whole of that night; but, thanks to that trembling little hand which guided him, he had walked at his ordinary pace.
Semilowskoe was almost entirely abandoned. The inhabitants had fled. Not more than two or three houses were still occupied. All that the town contained, useful or precious, had been carried off in wagons. However, Nadia was obliged to make a halt of a few hours. They both required food and rest.
The young girl led her companion to the extremity of the town. There they found an empty house, the door wide open. An old rickety wooden bench stood in the middle of the room, near the high stove which is to be found in all Siberian houses. They silently seated themselves.
Nadia gazed in her companion's face as she had never before gazed. There was more than gratitude, more than pity, in that look. Could Michael have seen her, he would have read in that sweet desolate gaze a world of devotion and tenderness.
The eyelids of the blind man, made red by the heated blade, fell half over his eyes. The pupils seemed to be singularly enlarged. The rich blue of the iris was darker than formerly. The eyelashes and eyebrows were partly burnt, but in appearance, at least, the old penetrating look appeared to have undergone no change. If he could no longer see, if his blindness was complete, it was because the sensibility of the retina and optic nerve was radically destroyed by the fierce heat of the steel.
Then Michael stretched out his hands.
"Are you there, Nadia?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the young girl; "I am close to you, and I will not go away from you, Michael."
At his name, pronounced by Nadia for the first time, a thrill passed through Michael's frame. He perceived that his companion knew all, who he was.
"Nadia," replied he, "we must separate!"
"We separate? How so, Michael?"
"I must not be an obstacle to your journey! Your father is waiting for you at Irkutsk! You must rejoin your father!"
"My father would curse me, Michael, were I to abandon you now, after all you have done for me!"
"Nadia, Nadia," replied Michael, "you should think only of your father!"
"Michael," replied Nadia, "you have more need of me than my father. Do you mean to give up going to Irkutsk?"
"Never!" cried Michael, in a tone which plainly showed that none of his energy was gone.
"But you have not the letter!"
"That letter of which Ivan Ogareff robbed me! Well! I shall manage without it, Nadia! They have treated me as a spy! I will act as a spy! I will go and repeat at Irkutsk all I have seen, all I have heard; I swear it by Heaven above! The traitor shall meet me one day face to face! But I must arrive at Irkutsk before him."
"And yet you speak of our separating, Michael?"
"Nadia, they have taken everything from me!"
"I have some roubles still, and my eyes! I can see for you, Michael; and I will lead you thither, where you could not go alone!"
"And how shall we go?"
"And how shall we live?"
"Let us start, Nadia."
The two young people no longer kept the names "brother" and "sister." In their common misfortune, they felt still closer united. They left the house after an hour's repose. Nadia had procured in the town some morsels of "tchornekhleb," a sort of barley bread, and a little mead, called "meod" in Russia. This had cost her nothing, for she had already begun her plan of begging. The bread and mead had in some degree appeased Michael's hunger and thirst. Nadia gave him the lion's share of this scanty meal. He ate the pieces of bread his companion gave him, drank from the gourd she held to his lips.
"Are you eating, Nadia?" he asked several times.
"Yes, Michael," invariably replied the young girl, who contented herself with what her companion left.
Michael and Nadia quitted Semilowskoe, and once more set out on the laborious road to Irkutsk. The girl bore up in a marvelous way against fatigue. Had Michael seen her, perhaps he would not have had the courage to go on. But Nadia never complained, and Michael, hearing no sigh, walked at a speed he was unable to repress. And why? Did he still expect to keep before the Tartars? He was on foot, without money; he was blind, and if Nadia, his only guide, were to be separated from him, he could only lie down by the side of the road and there perish miserably. But if, on the other hand, by energetic perseverance he could reach Krasnoiarsk, all was perhaps not lost, since the governor, to whom he would make himself known, would not hesitate to give him the means of reaching Irkutsk.
Michael walked on, speaking little, absorbed in his own thoughts. He held Nadia's hand. The two were in incessant communication. It seemed to them that they had no need of words to exchange their thoughts. From time to time Michael said, "Speak to me, Nadia."
"Why should I, Michael? We are thinking together!" the young girl would reply, and contrived that her voice should not betray her extreme fatigue.
But sometimes, as if her heart had ceased to beat for an instant, her limbs tottered, her steps flagged, her arms fell to her sides, she dropped behind. Michael then stopped, he fixed his eyes on the poor girl, as though he would try to pierce the gloom which surrounded him; his breast heaved; then, supporting his companion more than before, he started on afresh.
However, amidst these continual miseries, a fortunate circumstance on that day occurred which it appeared likely would considerably ease their fatigue. They had been walking from Semilowskoe for two hours when Michael stopped.
"Is there no one on the road?"
"Not a single soul," replied Nadia.
"Do you not hear some noise behind us? If they are Tartars we must hide. Keep a good look-out!"
"Wait, Michael!" replied Nadia, going back a few steps to where the road turned to the right.
Michael Strogoff waited alone for a minute, listening attentively.
Nadia returned almost immediately and said, "It is a cart. A young man is leading it."
"Is he alone?"
Michael hesitated an instant. Should he hide? or should he, on the contrary, try to find a place in the vehicle, if not for himself, at least for her? For himself, he would be quite content to lay one hand on the cart, to push it if necessary, for his legs showed no sign of failing him; but he felt sure that Nadia, compelled to walk ever since they crossed the Obi, that is, for eight days, must be almost exhausted. He waited.
The cart was soon at the corner of the road. It was a very dilapidated vehicle, known in the country as a kibitka, just capable of holding three persons. Usually the kibitka is drawn by three horses, but this had but one, a beast with long hair and a very long tail. It was of the Mongol breed, known for strength and courage.
A young man was leading it, with a dog beside him. Nadia saw at once that the young man was Russian; his face was phlegmatic, but pleasant, and at once inspired confidence. He did not appear to be in the slightest hurry; he was not walking fast that he might spare his horse, and, to look at him, it would not have been believed that he was following a road which might at any instant be swarming with Tartars.
Nadia, holding Michael by the hand, made way for the vehicle. The kibitka stopped, and the driver smilingly looked at the young girl.
"And where are you going to in this fashion?" he asked, opening wide his great honest eyes.
At the sound of his voice, Michael said to himself that he had heard it before. And it was satisfactory to him to recognize the man for his brow at once cleared.
"Well, where are you going?" repeated the young man, addressing himself more directly to Michael.
"We are going to Irkutsk," he replied.
"Oh! little father, you do not know that there are still versts and versts between you and Irkutsk?"
"I know it."
"And you are going on foot?"
"You, well! but the young lady?"
"She is my sister," said Michael, who judged it prudent to give again this name to Nadia.
"Yes, your sister, little father! But, believe me, she will never be able to get to Irkutsk!"
"Friend," returned Michael, approaching him, "the Tartars have robbed us of everything, and I have not a copeck to offer you; but if you will take my sister with you, I will follow your cart on foot; I will run when necessary, I will not delay you an hour!"
"Brother," exclaimed Nadia, "I will not! I will not! Sir, my brother is blind!"
"Blind!" repeated the young man, much moved.
"The Tartars have burnt out his eyes!" replied Nadia, extending her hands, as if imploring pity.
"Burnt out his eyes! Oh! poor little father! I am going to Krasnoiarsk. Well, why should not you and your sister mount in the kibitka? By sitting a little close, it will hold us all three. Besides, my dog will not refuse to go on foot; only I don't go fast, I spare my horse."
"Friend, what is your name?" asked Michael.
"My name is Nicholas Pigassof."
"It is a name that I will never forget," said Michael.
"Well, jump up, little blind father. Your sister will be beside you, in the bottom of the cart; I sit in front to drive. There is plenty of good birch bark and straw in the bottom; it's like a nest. Serko, make room!"
The dog jumped down without more telling. He was an animal of the Siberian race, gray hair, of medium size, with an honest big head, just made to pat, and he, moreover, appeared to be much attached to his master.
In a moment more, Michael and Nadia were seated in the kibitka. Michael held out his hands as if to feel for those of Pigassof. "You wish to shake my hands!" said Nicholas. "There they are, little father! shake them as long as it will give you any pleasure."
The kibitka moved on; the horse, which Nicholas never touched with the whip, ambled along. Though Michael did not gain any in speed, at least some fatigue was spared to Nadia.
Such was the exhaustion of the young girl, that, rocked by the monotonous movement of the kibitka, she soon fell into a sleep, its soundness proving her complete prostration. Michael and Nicholas laid her on the straw as comfortably as possible. The compassionate young man was greatly moved, and if a tear did not escape from Michael's eyes, it was because the red-hot iron had dried up the last!
"She is very pretty," said Nicholas.
"Yes," replied Michael.
"They try to be strong, little father, they are brave, but they are weak after all, these dear little things! Have you come from far."
"Poor young people! It must have hurt you very much when they burnt your eyes!"
"Very much," answered Michael, turning towards Nicholas as if he could see him.
"Did you not weep?"
"I should have wept too. To think that one could never again see those one loves. But they can see you, however; that's perhaps some consolation!"
"Yes, perhaps. Tell me, my friend," continued Michael, "have you never seen me anywhere before?"
"You, little father? No, never."
"The sound of your voice is not unknown to me."
"Why!" returned Nicholas, smiling, "he knows the sound of my voice! Perhaps you ask me that to find out where I come from. I come from Kolyvan."
"From Kolyvan?" repeated Michael. "Then it was there I met you; you were in the telegraph office?"
"That may be," replied Nicholas. "I was stationed there. I was the clerk in charge of the messages."
"And you stayed at your post up to the last moment?"
"Why, it's at that moment one ought to be there!"
"It was the day when an Englishman and a Frenchman were disputing, roubles in hand, for the place at your wicket, and the Englishman telegraphed some poetry."
"That is possible, but I do not remember it."
"What! you do not remember it?"
"I never read the dispatches I send. My duty being to forget them, the shortest way is not to know them."
This reply showed Nicholas Pigassof's character. In the meanwhile the kibitka pursued its way, at a pace which Michael longed to render more rapid. But Nicholas and his horse were accustomed to a pace which neither of them would like to alter. The horse went for two hours and rested one - so on, day and night. During the halts the horse grazed, the travelers ate in company with the faithful Serko. The kibitka was provisioned for at least twenty persons, and Nicholas generously placed his supplies at the disposal of his two guests, whom he believed to be brother and sister.
After a day's rest, Nadia recovered some strength. Nicholas took the best possible care of her. The journey was being made under tolerable circumstances, slowly certainly, but surely. It sometimes happened that during the night, Nicholas, although driving, fell asleep, and snored with a clearness which showed the calmness of his conscience. Perhaps then, by looking close, Michael's hand might have been seen feeling for the reins, and giving the horse a more rapid pace, to the great astonishment of Serko, who, however, said nothing. The trot was exchanged for the amble as soon as Nicholas awoke, but the kibitka had not the less gained some versts.
Thus they passed the river Ichirnsk, the villages of Ichisnokoe, Berikylokoe, Kuskoe, the river Marunsk, the village of the same name, Bogostowskoe, and, lastly, the Ichoula, a little stream which divides Western from Eastern Siberia. The road now lay sometimes across wide moors, which extended as far as the eye could reach, sometimes through thick forests of firs, of which they thought they should never get to the end. Everywhere was a desert; the villages were almost entirely abandoned. The peasants had fled beyond the Yenisei, hoping that this wide river would perhaps stop the Tartars.
On the 22d of August, the kibitka entered the town of Atchinsk, two hundred and fifty miles from Tomsk. Eighty miles still lay between them and Krasnoiarsk.
No incident had marked the journey. For the six days during which they had been together, Nicholas, Michael, and Nadia had remained the same, the one in his unchange-able calm, the other two, uneasy, and thinking of the time when their companion would leave them.
Michael saw the country through which they traveled with the eyes of Nicholas and the young girl. In turns, they each described to him the scenes they passed. He knew whether he was in a forest or on a plain, whether a hut was on the steppe, or whether any Siberian was in sight. Nicholas was never silent, he loved to talk, and, from his peculiar way of viewing things, his friends were amused by his conversation. One day, Michael asked him what sort of weather it was.
"Fine enough, little father," he answered, "but soon we shall feel the first winter frosts. Perhaps the Tartars will go into winter quarters during the bad season."
Michael Strogoff shook his head with a doubtful air.
"You do not think so, little father?" resumed Nicholas. "You think that they will march on to Irkutsk?"
"I fear so," replied Michael.
"Yes . . . you are right; they have with them a bad man, who will not let them loiter on the way. You have heard speak of Ivan Ogareff?"
"You know that it is not right to betray one's country!"
"No . . . it is not right . . ." answered Michael, who wished to remain unmoved.
"Little father," continued Nicholas, "it seems to me that you are not half indignant enough when Ivan Ogareff is spoken of. Your Russian heart ought to leap when his name is uttered."
"Believe me, my friend, I hate him more than you can ever hate him," said Michael.
"It is not possible," replied Nicholas; "no, it is not possible! When I think of Ivan Ogareff, of the harm which he is doing to our sacred Russia, I get into such a rage that if I could get hold of him - "
"If you could get hold of him, friend?"
"I think I should kill him."
"And I, I am sure of it," returned Michael quietly.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VII THE PASSAGE OF THE YENISEI