Michael hesitated an instant. He did not wish to make use of his podorojna, which would have drawn attention to him, and he was most unwilling also, by giving up his horses, to delay his journey, and yet he must not engage in a struggle which might compromise his mission.
The two reporters looked at him ready to support him should he appeal to them.
"My horses will remain in my carriage," said Michael, but without raising his tone more than would be suitable for a plain Irkutsk merchant.
The traveler advanced towards Michael and laid his hand heavily on his shoulder. "Is it so?" he said roughly. "You will not give up your horses to me?"
"No," answered Michael.
"Very well, they shall belong to whichever of us is able to start. Defend yourself; I shall not spare you!"
So saying, the traveler drew his saber from its sheath, and Nadia threw herself before Michael.
Blount and Alcide Jolivet advanced towards him.
"I shall not fight," said Michael quietly, folding his arms across his chest.
"You will not fight?"
"Not even after this?" exclaimed the traveler. And before anyone could prevent him, he struck Michael's shoulder with the handle of the whip. At this insult Michael turned deadly pale. His hands moved convulsively as if he would have knocked the brute down. But by a tremendous effort he mastered himself. A duel! it was more than a delay; it was perhaps the failure of his mission. It would be better to lose some hours. Yes; but to swallow this affront!
"Will you fight now, coward?" repeated the traveler, adding coarseness to brutality.
"No," answered Michael, without moving, but looking the other straight in the face.
"The horses this moment," said the man, and left the room.
The postmaster followed him, after shrugging his shoulders and bestowing on Michael a glance of anything but approbation.
The effect produced on the reporters by this incident was not to Michael's advantage. Their discomfiture was visible. How could this strong young man allow himself to be struck like that and not demand satisfaction for such an insult? They contented themselves with bowing to him and retired, Jolivet remarking to Harry Blount
"I could not have believed that of a man who is so skillful in finishing up Ural Mountain bears. Is it the case that a man can be courageous at one time and a coward at another? It is quite incomprehensible."
A moment afterwards the noise of wheels and whip showed that the berlin, drawn by the tarantass' horses, was driving rapidly away from the post-house.
Nadia, unmoved, and Michael, still quivering, remained alone in the room. The courier of the Czar, his arms crossed over his chest was seated motionless as a statue. A color, which could not have been the blush of shame, had replaced the paleness on his countenance.
Nadia did not doubt that powerful reasons alone could have allowed him to suffer so great a humiliation from such a man. Going up to him as he had come to her in the police-station at Nijni-Novgorod:
"Your hand, brother," said she.
And at the same time her hand, with an almost maternal gesture, wiped away a tear which sprang to her companion's eye.
CHAPTER XIII DUTY BEFORE EVERYTHING
NADIA, with the clear perception of a right-minded woman, guessed that some secret motive directed all Michael Strogoff's actions; that he, for a reason unknown to her, did not belong to himself; and that in this instance especially he had heroically sacrificed to duty even his resentment at the gross injury he had received.
Nadia, therefore, asked no explanation from Michael. Had not the hand which she had extended to him already replied to all that he might have been able to tell her?
Michael remained silent all the evening. The postmaster not being able to supply them with fresh horses until the next morning, a whole night must be passed at the house. Nadia could profit by it to take some rest, and a room was therefore prepared for her.
The young girl would no doubt have preferred not to leave her companion, but she felt that he would rather be alone, and she made ready to go to her room.