Tomsk, in fact, had been taken by Feofar-Khan some days previously, and it was thence that the invaders, masters of Central Siberia, were to march upon Irkutsk.
Irkutsk was the real object of Ivan Ogareff. The plan of the traitor was to reach the Grand Duke under a false name, to gain his confidence, and to deliver into Tartar hands the town and the Grand Duke himself. With such a town, and such a hostage, all Asiatic Siberia must necessarily fall into the hands of the invaders. Now it was known that the Czar was acquainted with this conspiracy, and that it was for the purpose of baffling it that a courier had been intrusted with the important warning. Hence, therefore, the very stringent instructions which had been given to the young courier to pass incognito through the invaded district.
This mission he had so far faithfully performed, but now could he carry it to a successful completion?
The blow which had struck Michael Strogoff was not mortal. By swimming in a manner by which he had effectually concealed himself, he had reached the right bank, where he fell exhausted among the bushes.
When he recovered his senses, he found himself in the cabin of a mujik, who had picked him up and cared for him. For how long a time had he been the guest of this brave Siberian? He could not guess. But when he opened his eyes he saw the handsome bearded face bending over him, and regarding him with pitying eyes. "Do not speak, little father," said the mujik, "Do not speak! Thou art still too weak. I will tell thee where thou art and everything that has passed."
And the mujik related to Michael Strogoff the different incidents of the struggle which he had witnessed--the attack upon the ferry by the Tartar boats, the pillage of the tarantass, and the massacre of the boatmen.
But Michael Strogoff listened no longer, and slipping his hand under his garment he felt the imperial letter still secured in his breast. He breathed a sigh of relief.
But that was not all. "A young girl accompanied me," said he.
"They have not killed her," replied the mujik, anticipating the anxiety which he read in the eyes of his guest. "They have carried her off in their boat, and have continued the descent of Irtych. It is only one prisoner more to join the many they are taking to Tomsk!"
Michael Strogoff was unable to reply. He pressed his hand upon his heart to restrain its beating. But, notwithstanding these many trials, the sentiment of duty mastered his whole soul. "Where am I?" asked he.
"Upon the right bank of the Irtych, only five versts from Omsk," replied the mujik.
"What wound can I have received which could have thus prostrated me? It was not a gunshot wound?"
"No; a lance-thrust in the head, now healing," replied the mujik. "After a few days' rest, little father, thou wilt be able to proceed. Thou didst fall into the river; but the Tartars neither touched nor searched thee; and thy purse is still in thy pocket."
Michael Strogoff gripped the mujik's hand. Then, recovering himself with a sudden effort, "Friend," said he, "how long have I been in thy hut?"
"Three days lost!"
"Three days hast thou lain unconscious."
"Hast thou a horse to sell me?"
"Thou wishest to go?"
"I have neither horse nor carriage, little father. Where the Tartar has passed there remains nothing!"
"Well, I will go on foot to Omsk to find a horse."
"A few more hours of rest, and thou wilt be in a better condition to pursue thy journey."
"Not an hour!"
"Come now," replied the mujik, recognizing the fact that it was useless to struggle against the will of his guest, "I will guide thee myself. Besides," he added, "the Russians are still in great force at Omsk, and thou couldst, perhaps, pass unperceived."
"Friend," replied Michael Strogoff, "Heaven reward thee for all thou hast done for me!"
"Only fools expect reward on earth," replied the mujik.
Michael Strogoff went out of the hut. When he tried to walk he was seized with such faintness that, without the assistance of the mujik, he would have fallen; but the fresh air quickly revived him. He then felt the wound in his head, the violence of which his fur cap had lessened.