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CHAPTER IX IN THE STEPPE
MICHAEL STROGOFF and Nadia were once more as free as they had been in the journey from Perm to the banks of the Irtych. But how the conditions under which they traveled were altered! Then, a comfortable tarantass, fresh horses, well-kept post-horses assured the rapidity of their journey. Now they were on foot; it was utterly impossible to procure any other means of locomotion, they were without resources, not knowing how to obtain even food, and they had still nearly three hundred miles to go! Moreover, Michael could now only see with Nadia's eyes.
As to the friend whom chance had given them, they had just lost him, and fearful might be his fate. Michael had thrown himself down under the brushwood at the side of the road. Nadia stood beside him, waiting for the word from him to continue the march.
It was ten o'clock. The sun had more than three hours before disappeared below the horizon. There was not a house in sight. The last of the Tartars was lost in the distance. Michael and Nadia were quite alone.
"What will they do with our friend?" exclaimed the girl. "Poor Nicholas! Our meeting will have been fatal to him!" Michael made no response.
"Michael," continued Nadia, "do you not know that he defended you when you were the Tartars' sport; that he risked his life for me?"
Michael was still silent. Motionless, his face buried in his hands; of what was he thinking? Perhaps, although he did not answer, he heard Nadia speak.
Yes! he heard her, for when the young girl added, "Where shall I lead you, Michael?"
"To Irkutsk!" he replied.
"By the highroad?"
Michael was still the same man who had sworn, whatever happened, to accomplish his object. To follow the highroad, was certainly to go the shortest way. If the vanguard of Feofar-Khan's troops appeared, it would then be time to strike across the country.
Nadia took Michael's hand, and they started.
The next morning, the 13th of September, twenty versts further, they made a short halt in the village of Joulounov-skoe. It was burnt and deserted. All night Nadia had tried to see if the body of Nicholas had not been left on the road, but it was in vain that she looked among the ruins, and searched among the dead. Was he reserved for some cruel torture at Irkutsk?
Nadia, exhausted with hunger, was fortunate enough to find in one of the houses a quantity of dried meat and "soukharis," pieces of bread, which, dried by evaporation, preserve their nutritive qualities for an indefinite time.
Michael and the girl loaded themselves with as much as they could carry. They had thus a supply of food for several days, and as to water, there would be no want of that in a district rendered fertile by the numerous little affluents of the Angara.
They continued their journey. Michael walked with a firm step, and only slackened his pace for his companion's sake. Nadia, not wishing to retard him, obliged herself to walk. Happily, he could not see to what a miserable state fatigue had reduced her.
However, Michael guessed it. "You are quite done up, poor child," he said sometimes.
"No," she would reply.
"When you can no longer walk, I will carry you."
During this day they came to the little river Oka, but it was fordable, and they had no difficulty in crossing. The sky was cloudy and the temperature moderate. There was some fear that the rain might come on, which would much have increased their misery. A few showers fell, but they did not last.
They went on as before, hand in hand, speaking little, Nadia looking about on every side; twice a day they halted. Six hours of the night were given to sleep. In a few huts Nadia again found a little mutton; but, contrary to Michael's hopes, there was not a single beast of burden in the country; horses, camels - all had been either killed or carried off. They must still continue to plod on across this weary steppe on foot.
The third Tartar column, on its way to Irkutsk, had left plain traces: here a dead horse, there an abandoned cart. The bodies of unfortunate Siberians lay along the road, principally at the entrances to villages. Nadia, overcoming her repugnance, looked at all these corpses!
The chief danger lay, not before, but behind. The advance guard of the Emir's army, commanded by Ivan Ogareff, might at any moment appear. The boats sent down the lower Yenisei must by this time have reached Krasnoiarsk and been made use of. The road was therefore open to the invaders. No Russian force could be opposed to them between Krasnoiarsk and Lake Baikal, Michael therefore expected before long the appearance of the Tartar scouts.
At each halt, Nadia climbed some hill and looked anxiously to the Westward, but as yet no cloud of dust had signaled the approach of a troop of horse.
Then the march was resumed; and when Michael felt that he was dragging poor Nadia forward too rapidly, he went at a slower pace. They spoke little, and only of Nicholas. The young girl recalled all that this companion of a few days had done for them.
In answering, Michael tried to give Nadia some hope of which he did not feel a spark himself, for he well knew that the unfortunate fellow would not escape death.
One day Michael said to the girl, "You never speak to me of my mother, Nadia."
His mother! Nadia had never wished to do so. Why renew his grief? Was not the old Siberian dead? Had not her son given the last kiss to her corpse stretched on the plain of Tomsk?
"Speak to me of her, Nadia," said Michael. "Speak - you will please me."
And then Nadia did what she had not done before. She told all that had passed between Marfa and herself since their meeting at Omsk, where they had seen each other for the first time. She said how an inexplicable instinct had led her towards the old prisoner without knowing who she was, and what encouragement she had received in return. At that time Michael Strogoff had been to her but Nicholas Korpanoff.
"Whom I ought always to have been," replied Michael, his brow darkening.
Then later he added, "I have broken my oath, Nadia. I had sworn not to see my mother!"
"But you did not try to see her, Michael," replied Nadia. "Chance alone brought you into her presence."
"I had sworn, whatever might happen, not to betray myself."
"Michael, Michael! at sight of the lash raised upon Marfa, could you refrain? No! No oath could prevent a son from succoring his mother!"
"I have broken my oath, Nadia," returned Michael. "May God and the Father pardon me!"
"Michael," resumed the girl, "I have a question to ask you. Do not answer it if you think you ought not. Nothing from you would vex me!"
"Why, now that the Czar's letter has been taken from you, are you so anxious to reach Irkutsk?"
Michael tightly pressed his companion's hand, but he did not answer.
"Did you know the contents of that letter before you left Moscow?"
"No, I did not know."
"Must I think, Michael, that the wish alone to place me in my father's hands draws you toward Irkutsk?"
"No, Nadia," replied Michael, gravely. "I should deceive you if I allowed you to believe that it was so. I go where duty orders me to go. As to taking you to Irkutsk, is it not you, Nadia, who are now taking me there? Do I not see with your eyes; and is it not your hand that guides me? Have you not repaid a hundred-fold the help which I was able to give you at first? I do not know if fate will cease to go against us; but the day on which you thank me for having placed you in your father's hands, I in my turn will thank you for having led me to Irkutsk."
"Poor Michael!" answered Nadia, with emotion. "Do not speak so. That does not answer me. Michael, why, now, are you in such haste to reach Irkutsk?"
"Because I must be there before Ivan Ogareff," exclaimed Michael.
"Even now, and I will be there, too!"
In uttering these words, Michael did not speak solely through hatred to the traitor. Nadia understood that her companion had not told, or could not tell, her all.
On the 15th of September, three days later, the two reached the village of Kouitounskoe. The young girl suffered dreadfully. Her aching feet could scarcely support her; but she fought, she struggled, against her weariness, and her only thought was this: "Since he cannot see me, I will go on till I drop."
There were no obstacles on this part of the journey, no danger either since the departure of the Tartars, only much fatigue. For three days it continued thus. It was plain that the third invading column was advancing rapidly in the East; that could be seen by the ruins which they left after them-the cold cinders and the already decomposing corpses.
There was nothing to be seen in the West; the Emir's advance-guard had not yet appeared. Michael began to consider the various reasons which might have caused this delay. Was a sufficient force of Russians directly menacing Tomsk or Krasnoiarsk? Did the third column, isolated from the others, run a risk of being cut off? If this was the case, it would be easy for the Grand Duke to defend Irkutsk, and any time gained against an invasion was a step towards repulsing it. Michael sometimes let his thoughts run on these hopes, but he soon saw their improbability, and felt that the preservation of the Grand Duke depended alone on him.
Nadia dragged herself along. Whatever might be her moral energy, her physical strength would soon fail her. Michael knew it only too well. If he had not been blind, Nadia would have said to him, "Go, Michael, leave me in some hut! Reach Irkutsk! Accomplish your mission! See my father! Tell him where I am! Tell him that I wait for him, and you both will know where to find me! Start! I am not afraid! I will hide myself from the Tartars! I will take care of myself for him, for you! Go, Michael! I can go no farther!"
Many times Nadia was obliged to stop. Michael then took her in his strong arms and, having no longer to think of her fatigue, walked more rapidly and with his indefatigable step.
On the 18th of September, at ten in the evening, Kimilteiskoe was at last entered. From the top of a hill, Nadia saw in the horizon a long light line. It was the Dinka River. A few lightning flashes were reflected in the water; summer lightning, without thunder. Nadia led her companion through the ruined village. The cinders were quite cold. The last of the Tartars had passed through at least five or six days before.
Beyond the village, Nadia sank down on a stone bench. "Shall we make a halt?" asked Michael.
"It is night, Michael," answered Nadia. "Do you not want to rest a few hours?"
"I would rather have crossed the Dinka," replied Michael, "I should like to put that between us and the Emir's advance-guard. But you can scarcely drag yourself along, my poor Nadia!"
"Come, Michael," returned Nadia, seizing her companion's hand and drawing him forward.
Two or three versts further the Dinka flowed across the Irkutsk road. The young girl wished to attempt this last effort asked by her companion. She found her way by the light from the flashes. They were then crossing a boundless desert, in the midst of which was lost the little river. Not a tree nor a hillock broke the flatness. Not a breath disturbed the atmosphere, whose calmness would allow the slightest sound to travel an immense distance.
Suddenly, Michael and Nadia stopped, as if their feet had been fast to the ground. The barking of a dog came across the steppe. "Do you hear?" said Nadia.
Then a mournful cry succeeded it - a despairing cry, like the last appeal of a human being about to die.
"Nicholas! Nicholas!" cried the girl, with a foreboding of evil. Michael, who was listening, shook his head.
"Come, Michael, come," said Nadia. And she who just now was dragging herself with difficulty along, suddenly recovered strength, under violent excitement.
"We have left the road," said Michael, feeling that he was treading no longer on powdery soil but on short grass.
"Yes, we must!" returned Nadia. "It was there, on the right, from which the cry came!"
In a few minutes they were not more than half a verst from the river. A second bark was heard, but, although more feeble, it was certainly nearer. Nadia stopped.
"Yes!" said Michael. "It is Serko barking! . . . He has followed his master!"
"Nicholas!" called the girl. Her cry was unanswered.
Michael listened. Nadia gazed over the plain illumined now and again with electric light, but she saw nothing. And yet a voice was again raised, this time murmuring in a plaintive tone, "Michael!"
Then a dog, all bloody, bounded up to Nadia.
It was Serko! Nicholas could not be far off! He alone could have murmured the name of Michael! Where was he? Nadia had no strength to call again. Michael, crawling on the ground, felt about with his hands.
Suddenly Serko uttered a fresh bark and darted towards a gigantic bird which had swooped down. It was a vulture. When Serko ran towards it, it rose, but returning struck at the dog. The latter leapt up at it. A blow from the formidable beak alighted on his head, and this time Serko fell back lifeless on the ground.
At the same moment a cry of horror escaped Nadia. "There . . . there!" she exclaimed.
A head issued from the ground! She had stumbled against it in the darkness.
Nadia fell on her knees beside it. Nicholas buried up to his neck, according to the atrocious Tartar custom, had been left in the steppe to die of thirst, and perhaps by the teeth of wolves or the beaks of birds of prey!
Frightful torture for the victim imprisoned in the ground-the earth pressed down so that he cannot move, his arms bound to his body like those of a corpse in its coffin! The miserable wretch, living in the mold of clay from which he is powerless to break out, can only long for the death which is so slow in coming!
There the Tartars had buried their prisoner three days before! For three days, Nicholas waited for the help which now came too late! The vultures had caught sight of the head on a level with the ground, and for some hours the dog had been defending his master against these ferocious birds!
Michael dug at the ground with his knife to release his friend! The eyes of Nicholas, which till then had been closed, opened.
He recognized Michael and Nadia. "Farewell, my friends!" he murmured. "I am glad to have seen you again! Pray for me!"
Michael continued to dig, though the ground, having been tightly rammed down, was as hard as stone, and he managed at last to get out the body of the unhappy man. He listened if his heart was still beating. . . . It was still!
He wished to bury him, that he might not be left exposed; and the hole into which Nicholas had been placed when living, was enlarged, so that he might be laid in it - dead! The faithful Serko was laid by his master.
At that moment, a noise was heard on the road, about half a verst distant. Michael Strogoff listened. It was evidently a detachment of horse advancing towards the Dinka. "Nadia, Nadia!" he said in a low voice.
Nadia, who was kneeling in prayer, arose. "Look, look!" said he.
"The Tartars!" she whispered.
It was indeed the Emir's advance-guard, passing rapidly along the road to Irkutsk.
"They shall not prevent me from burying him!" said Michael. And he continued his work.
Soon, the body of Nicholas, the hands crossed on the breast, was laid in the grave. Michael and Nadia, kneeling, prayed a last time for the poor fellow, inoffensive and good, who had paid for his devotion towards them with his life.
"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.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER X BAIKAL AND ANGARA