The waves caused by the steamer splashed on the banks, covered with flocks of wild duck, who flew away uttering deafening cries. A little farther, on the dry fields, bordered with willows, and aspens, were scattered a few cows, sheep, and herds of pigs. Fields, sown with thin buckwheat and rye, stretched away to a background of half-cultivated hills, offering no remarkable prospect. The pencil of an artist in quest of the picturesque would have found nothing to reproduce in this monotonous landscape.
The Caucasus had been steaming on for almost two hours, when the young Livonian, addressing herself to Michael, said, "Are you going to Irkutsk, brother?"
"Yes, sister," answered the young man. "We are going the same way. Consequently, where I go, you shall go."
"To-morrow, brother, you shall know why I left the shores of the Baltic to go beyond the Ural Mountains."
"I ask you nothing, sister."
"You shall know all," replied the girl, with a faint smile. "A sister should hide nothing from her brother. But I cannot to-day. Fatigue and sorrow have broken me."
"Will you go and rest in your cabin?" asked Michael Strogoff.
"Yes--yes; and to-morrow--"
He hesitated to finish his sentence, as if he had wished to end it by the name of his companion, of which he was still ignorant.
"Nadia," said she, holding out her hand.
"Come, Nadia," answered Michael, "and make what use you like of your brother Nicholas Korpanoff." And he led the girl to the cabin engaged for her off the saloon.
Michael Strogoff returned on deck, and eager for any news which might bear on his journey, he mingled in the groups of passengers, though without taking any part in the conversation. Should he by any chance be questioned, and obliged to reply, he would announce himself as the merchant Nicholas Korpanoff, going back to the frontier, for he did not wish it to be suspected that a special permission authorized him to travel to Siberia.
The foreigners in the steamer could evidently speak of nothing but the occurrences of the day, of the order and its consequences. These poor people, scarcely recovered from the fatigue of a journey across Central Asia, found themselves obliged to return, and if they did not give loud vent to their anger and despair, it was because they dared not. Fear, mingled with respect, restrained them. It was possible that inspectors of police, charged with watching the passengers, had secretly embarked on board the Caucasus, and it was just as well to keep silence; expulsion, after all, was a good deal preferable to imprisonment in a fortress. Therefore the men were either silent, or spoke with so much caution that it was scarcely possible to get any useful information.
Michael Strogoff thus could learn nothing here; but if mouths were often shut at his approach--for they did not know him-- his ears were soon struck by the sound of one voice, which cared little whether it was heard or not.
The man with the hearty voice spoke Russian, but with a French accent; and another speaker answered him more reservedly. "What," said the first, "are you on board this boat, too, my dear fellow; you whom I met at the imperial fete in Moscow, and just caught a glimpse of at Nijni-Novgorod?"
"Yes, it's I," answered the second drily.
"Really, I didn't expect to be so closely followed."
"I am not following you sir; I am preceding you."
"Precede! precede! Let us march abreast, keeping step, like two soldiers on parade, and for the time, at least, let us agree, if you will, that one shall not pass the other."
"On the contrary, I shall pass you."
"We shall see that, when we are at the seat of war; but till then, why, let us be traveling companions. Later, we shall have both time and occasion to be rivals."
"Enemies, if you like. There is a precision in your words, my dear fellow, particularly agreeable to me. One may always know what one has to look for, with you."
"What is the harm?"
"No harm at all. So, in my turn, I will ask your permission to state our respective situations."
"You are going to Perm--like me?"
"And probably you will go from Perm to Ekaterenburg, since that is the best and safest route by which to cross the Ural Mountains?"
"Once past the frontier, we shall be in Siberia, that is to say in the midst of the invasion."
"We shall be there."
"Well! then, and only then, will be the time to say, Each for himself, and God for--"
"For you, all by yourself! Very well! But since we have a week of neutral days before us, and since it is very certain that news will not shower down upon us on the way, let us be friends until we become rivals again."
"Yes; that's right, enemies.