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CHAPTER VIII A HARE CROSSES THE ROAD
MICHAEL STROGOFF might at last hope that the road to Irkutsk was clear. He had distanced the Tartars, now detained at Tomsk, and when the Emir's soldiers should arrive at Krasnoiarsk they would find only a deserted town. There being no communication between the two banks of the Yenisei, a delay of some days would be caused until a bridge of boats could be established, and to accomplish this would be a difficult undertaking. For the first time since the encounter with Ivan Ogareff at Omsk, the courier of the Czar felt less uneasy, and began to hope that no fresh obstacle would delay his progress.
The road was good, for that part of it which extends between Krasnoiarsk and Irkutsk is considered the best in the whole journey; fewer jolts for travelers, large trees to shade them from the heat of the sun, sometimes forests of pines or cedars covering an extent of a hundred versts. It was no longer the wide steppe with limitless horizon; but the rich country was empty. Everywhere they came upon deserted villages. The Siberian peasantry had vanished. It was a desert, but a desert by order of the Czar.
The weather was fine, but the air, which cooled during the night, took some time to get warm again. Indeed it was now near September, and in this high region the days were sensibly shortening. Autumn here lasts but a very little while, although this part of Siberian territory is not situated above the fifty-fifth parallel, that of Edinburgh and Copenhagen. However, winter succeeds summer almost unexpectedly. These winters of Asiatic Russia may be said to be precocious, considering that during them the thermometer falls until the mercury is frozen nearly 42 degrees below zero, and that 20 degrees below zero is considered an unsupportable temperature.
The weather favored our travelers. It was neither stormy nor rainy. The health of Nadia and Michael was good, and since leaving Tomsk they had gradually recovered from their past fatigues.
As to Nicholas Pigassof, he had never been better in his life. To him this journey was a trip, an agreeable excursion in which he employed his enforced holiday.
"Decidedly," said he, "this is pleasanter than sitting twelve hours a day, perched on a stool, working the manip-ulator!"
Michael had managed to get Nicholas to make his horse quicken his pace. To obtain this result, he had confided to Nicholas that Nadia and he were on their way to join their father, exiled at Irkutsk, and that they were very anxious to get there. Certainly, it would not do to overwork the horse, for very probably they would not be able to exchange him for another; but by giving him frequent rests-every ten miles, for instance - forty miles in twenty-four hours could easily be accomplished. Besides, the animal was strong, and of a race calculated to endure great fatigue. He was in no want of rich pasturage along the road, the grass being thick and abundant. Therefore, it was possible to demand an increase of work from him.
Nicholas gave in to all these reasons. He was much moved at the situation of these two young people, going to share their father's exile. Nothing had ever appeared so touching to him. With what a smile he said to Nadia: "Divine goodness! what joy will Mr. Korpanoff feel, when his eyes behold you, when his arms open to receive you! If I go to Irkutsk-and that appears very probable now - will you permit me to be present at that interview! You will, will you not?" Then, striking his forehead: "But, I forgot, what grief too when he sees that his poor son is blind! Ah! everything is mingled in this world!"
However, the result of all this was the kibitka went faster, and, according to Michael's calculations, now made almost eight miles an hour.
After crossing the little river Biriousa, the kibitka reached Biriousensk on the morning of the 4th of September. There, very fortunately, for Nicholas saw that his provisions were becoming exhausted, he found in an oven a dozen "pogatchas," a kind of cake prepared with sheep's fat and a large supply of plain boiled rice. This increase was very opportune, for something would soon have been needed to replace the koumyss with which the kibitka had been stored at Krasnoiarsk.
After a halt, the journey was continued in the afternoon. The distance to Irkutsk was not now much over three hundred miles. There was not a sign of the Tartar vanguard. Michael Strogoff had some grounds for hoping that his journey would not be again delayed, and that in eight days, or at most ten, he would be in the presence of the Grand Duke.
On leaving Biriousinsk, a hare ran across the road, in front of the kibitka. "Ah!" exclaimed Nicholas.
"What is the matter, friend?" asked Michael quickly, like a blind man whom the least sound arouses.
"Did you not see?" said Nicholas, whose bright face had become suddenly clouded. Then he added, "Ah! no! you could not see, and it's lucky for you, little father!"
"But I saw nothing," said Nadia.
"So much the better! So much the better! But I - I saw!"
"What was it then?" asked Michael.
"A hare crossing our road!" answered Nicholas.
In Russia, when a hare crosses the path, the popular belief is that it is the sign of approaching evil. Nicholas, superstitious like the greater number of Russians, stopped the kibitka.
Michael understood his companion's hesitation, without sharing his credulity, and endeavored to reassure him, "There is nothing to fear, friend," said he.
"Nothing for you, nor for her, I know, little father," answered Nicholas, "but for me!"
"It is my fate," he continued. And he put his horse in motion again. However, in spite of these forebodings the day passed without any accident.
At twelve o'clock the next day, the 6th of September, the kibitka halted in the village of Alsalevok, which was as deserted as the surrounding country. There, on a doorstep, Nadia found two of those strong-bladed knives used by Siberian hunters. She gave one to Michael, who concealed it among his clothes, and kept the other herself.
Nicholas had not recovered his usual spirits. The ill-omen had affected him more than could have been believed, and he who formerly was never half an hour without speaking, now fell into long reveries from which Nadia found it difficult to arouse him. The kibitka rolled swiftly along the road. Yes, swiftly! Nicholas no longer thought of being so careful of his horse, and was as anxious to arrive at his journey's end as Michael himself. Notwithstanding his fatalism, and though resigned, he would not believe himself in safety until within the walls of Irkutsk. Many Russians would have thought as he did, and more than one would have turned his horse and gone back again, after a hare had crossed his path.
Some observations made by him, the justice of which was proved by Nadia transmitting them to Michael, made them fear that their trials were not yet over. Though the land from Krasnoiarsk had been respected in its natural productions, its forests now bore trace of fire and steel; and it was evident that some large body of men had passed that way.
Twenty miles before Nijni-Oudinsk, the indications of recent devastation could not be mistaken, and it was impossible to attribute them to others than the Tartars. It was not only that the fields were trampled by horse's feet, and that trees were cut down. The few houses scattered along the road were not only empty, some had been partly demolished, others half burnt down. The marks of bullets could be seen on their walls.
Michael's anxiety may be imagined. He could no longer doubt that a party of Tartars had recently passed that way, and yet it was impossible that they could be the Emir's soldiers, for they could not have passed without being seen. But then, who were these new invaders, and by what out-of-the-way path across the steppe had they been able to join the highroad to Irkutsk? With what new enemies was the Czar's courier now to meet?
He did not communicate his apprehensions either to Nicholas or Nadia, not wishing to make them uneasy. Besides, he had resolved to continue his way, as long as no insurmountable obstacle stopped him. Later, he would see what it was best to do. During the ensuing day, the recent passage of a large body of foot and horse became more and more apparent. Smoke was seen above the horizon. The kibitka advanced cautiously. Several houses in deserted villages still burned, and could not have been set on fire more than four and twenty hours before.
At last, during the day, on the 8th of September, the kibitka stopped suddenly. The horse refused to advance. Serko barked furiously.
"What is the matter?" asked Michael.
"A corpse!" replied Nicholas, who had leapt out of the kibitka. The body was that of a moujik, horribly mutilated, and already cold. Nicholas crossed himself. Then, aided by Michael, he carried the body to the side of the road. He would have liked to give it decent burial, that the wild beasts of the steppe might not feast on the miserable remains, but Michael could not allow him the time.
"Come, friend, come!" he exclaimed, "we must not delay, even for an hour!" And the kibitka was driven on.
Besides, if Nicholas had wished to render the last duties to all the dead bodies they were now to meet with on the Siberian highroad, he would have had enough to do! As they approached Nijni-Oudinsk, they were found by twenties, stretched on the ground.
It was, however, necessary to follow this road until it was manifestly impossible to do so longer without falling into the hands of the invaders. The road they were following could not be abandoned, and yet the signs of devastation and ruin increased at every village they passed through. The blood of the victims was not yet dry. As to gaining information about what had occurred, that was impossible. There was not a living being left to tell the tale.
About four o'clock in the afternoon of this day, Nicholas caught sight of the tall steeples of the churches of Nijni-Oudinsk. Thick vapors, which could not have been clouds, were floating around them.
Nicholas and Nadia looked, and communicated the result of their observations to Michael. They must make up their minds what to do. If the town was abandoned, they could pass through without risk, but if, by some inexplicable maneuver, the Tartars occupied it, they must at every cost avoid the place.
"Advance cautiously," said Michael Strogoff, "but advance!"
A verst was soon traversed.
"Those are not clouds, that is smoke!" exclaimed Nadia. "Brother, they are burning the town!"
It was, indeed, only too plain. Flashes of light appeared in the midst of the vapor. It became thicker and thicker as it mounted upwards. But were they Tartars who had done this? They might be Russians, obeying the orders of the Grand Duke. Had the government of the Czar determined that from Krasnoiarsk, from the Yenisei, not a town, not a village should offer a refuge to the Emir's soldiers? What was Michael to do?
He was undecided. However, having weighed the pros and cons, he thought that whatever might be the difficulties of a journey across the steppe without a beaten path, he ought not to risk capture a second time by the Tartars. He was just proposing to Nicholas to leave the road, when a shot was heard on their right. A ball whistled, and the horse of the kibitka fell dead, shot through the head.
A dozen horsemen dashed forward, and the kibitka was surrounded. Before they knew where they were, Michael, Nadia, and Nicholas were prisoners, and were being dragged rapidly towards Nijni-Oudinsk.
Michael, in this second attack, had lost none of his presence of mind. Being unable to see his enemies, he had not thought of defending himself. Even had he possessed the use of his eyes, he would not have attempted it. The consequences would have been his death and that of his companions. But, though he could not see, he could listen and understand what was said.
From their language he found that these soldiers were Tartars, and from their words, that they preceded the invading army.
In short, what Michael learnt from the talk at the present moment, as well as from the scraps of conversation he overheard later, was this. These men were not under the direct orders of the Emir, who was now detained beyond the Yenisei. They made part of a third column chiefly composed of Tartars from the khanats of Khokland and Koondooz, with which Feofar's army was to affect a junction in the neighborhood of Irkutsk.
By Ogareff's advice, in order to assure the success of the invasion in the Eastern provinces, this column had skirted the base of the Altai Mountains. Pillaging and ravaging, it had reached the upper course of the Yenisei. There, guessing what had been done at Krasnoiarsk by order of the Czar, and to facilitate the passage of the river to the Emir's troops, this column had launched a flotilla of boats, which would enable Feofar to cross and rsum the road to Irkutsk. Having done this, it had descended the valley of the Yenisei and struck the road on a level with Alsalevsk. From this little town began the frightful course of ruin which forms the chief part of Tartar warfare. Nijni-Oudinsk had shared the common fate, and the Tartars, to the number of fifty thousand, had now quitted it to take up a position before Irkutsk. Before long, they would be reinforced by the Emir's troops.
Such was the state of affairs at this date, most serious for this isolated part of Eastern Siberia, and for the comparatively few defenders of its capital.
It can be imagined with what thoughts Michael's mind was now occupied! Who could have been astonished had he, in his present situation, lost all hope and all courage? Nothing of the sort, however; his lips muttered no other words than these: "I will get there!"
Half an hour after the attack of the Tartar horsemen, Michael Strogoff, Nadia, and Nicholas entered Nijni-Oudinsk. The faithful dog followed them, though at a distance. They could not stay in the town, as it was in flames, and about to be left by the last of the marauders. The prisoners were therefore thrown on horses and hurried away; Nicholas resigned as usual, Nadia, her faith in Michael unshaken, and Michael himself, apparently indifferent, but ready to seize any opportunity of escaping.
The Tartars were not long in perceiving that one of their prisoners was blind, and their natural barbarity led them to make game of their unfortunate victim. They were traveling fast. Michael's horse, having no one to guide him, often started aside, and so made confusion among the ranks. This drew on his rider such abuse and brutality as wrung Nadia's heart, and filled Nicholas with indignation. But what could they do? They could not speak the Tartar language, and their assistance was mercilessly refused. Soon it occurred to these men, in a refinement of cruelty, to exchange the horse Michael was riding for one which was blind. The motive of the change was explained by a remark which Michael overheard, "Perhaps that Russian can see, after all!"
Michael was placed on this horse, and the reins ironically put into his hand. Then, by dint of lashing, throwing stones, and shouting, the animal was urged into a gallop. The horse, not being guided by his rider, blind as himself, sometimes ran into a tree, sometimes went quite off the road-in consequence, collisions and falls, which might have been extremely dangerous.
Michael did not complain. Not a murmur escaped him. When his horse fell, he waited until it got up. It was, indeed, soon assisted up, and the cruel fun continued. At sight of this wicked treatment, Nicholas could not contain himself; he endeavored to go to his friend's aid. He was prevented, and treated brutally.
This game would have been prolonged, to the Tartars' great amusement, had not a serious accident put an end to it. On the 10th of September the blind horse ran away, and made straight for a pit, some thirty or forty feet deep, at the side of the road.
Nicholas tried to go after him. He was held back. The horse, having no guide, fell with his rider to the bottom. Nicholas and Nadia uttered a piercing cry! They believed that their unfortunate companion had been killed.
However, when they went to his assistance, it was found that Michael, having been able to throw himself out of the saddle, was unhurt, but the miserable horse had two legs broken, and was quite useless. He was left there to die without being put out of his suffering, and Michael, fastened to a Tartar's saddle, was obliged to follow the detachment on foot.
Even now, not a protest, not a complaint! He marched with a rapid step, scarcely drawn by the cord which tied him. He was still "the Man of Iron," of whom General Kissoff had spoken to the Czar!
The next day, the 11th of September, the detachment passed through the village of Chibarlinskoe. Here an incident occurred which had serious consequences. It was nightfall. The Tartar horsemen, having halted, were more or less intoxicated. They were about to start. Nadia, who till then, by a miracle, had been respectfully treated by the soldiers, was insulted by one of them.
Michael could not see the insult, nor the insulter, but Nicholas saw for him. Then, quietly, without thinking, without perhaps knowing what he was doing, Nicholas walked straight up to the man, and, before the latter could make the least movement to stop him, had seized a pistol from his holster and discharged it full at his breast.
The officer in command of the detachment hastened up on hearing the report. The soldiers would have cut the unfortunate Nicholas to pieces, but at a sign from their officer, he was bound instead, placed across a horse, and the detachment galloped off.
The rope which fastened Michael, gnawed through by him, broke by the sudden start of the horse, and the half-tipsy rider galloped on without perceiving that his prisoner had escaped.
Michael and Nadia found themselves alone on the road.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER IX IN THE STEPPE