Suddenly a thought occurred to her. She denied by her son! It was not possible. As for being herself deceived, and taking another for him, equally impossible. It was certainly her son whom she had just seen; and if he had not recognized her it was because he would not, it was because he ought not, it was because he had some cogent reasons for acting thus! And then, her mother's feelings arising within her, she had only one thought--"Can I, unwittingly, have ruined him?"
"I am mad," she said to her interrogators. "My eyes have deceived me! This young man is not my child. He had not his voice. Let us think no more of it; if we do I shall end by finding him everywhere."
Less than ten minutes afterwards a Tartar officer appeared in the posting-house. "Marfa Strogoff?" he asked.
"It is I," replied the old woman, in a tone so calm, and with a face so tranquil, that those who had witnessed the meeting with her son would not have known her.
"Come," said the officer,
Marfa Strogoff, with firm step, followed the Tartar. Some moments afterwards she found herself in the chief square in the presence of Ivan Ogareff, to whom all the details of this scene had been immediately reported.
Ogareff, suspecting the truth, interrogated the old Siberian woman. "Thy name?" he asked in a rough voice.
"Thou hast a son?"
"He is a courier of the Czar?"
"Where is he?"
"Thou hast no news of him?"
"Since how long?"
"Since two months."
"Who, then, was that young man whom thou didst call thy son a few moments ago at the posting-house?"
"A young Siberian whom I took for him," replied Marfa Strogoff. "This is the tenth man in whom I have thought I recognized my son since the town has been so full of strangers. I think I see him everywhere."
"So this young man was not Michael Strogoff?"
"It was not Michael Strogoff."
"Dost thou know, old woman, that I can torture thee until thou avowest the truth?"
"I have spoken the truth, and torture will not cause me to alter my words in any way."
"This Siberian was not Michael Strogoff?" asked a second time Ivan Ogareff.
"No, it was not he," replied a second time Marfa Strogoff. "Do you think that for anything in the world I would deny a son whom God has given me?"
Ivan Ogareff regarded with an evil eye the old woman who braved him to the face. He did not doubt but that she had recognized her son in this young Siberian. Now if this son had first renounced his mother, and if his mother renounced him in her turn, it could occur only from the most weighty motive. Ogareff had therefore no doubt that the pretended Nicholas Korpanoff was Michael Strogoff, courier of the Czar, seeking concealment under a false name, and charged with some mission which it would have been important for him to know. He therefore at once gave orders for his pursuit. Then "Let this woman be conducted to Tomsk," he said.
While the soldiers brutally dragged her off, he added between his teeth, "When the moment arrives I shall know how to make her speak, this old sorceress!"
CHAPTER XV THE MARSHES OF THE BARABA
IT was fortunate that Michael Strogoff had left the posting-house so promptly. The orders of Ivan Ogareff had been immediately transmitted to all the approaches of the city, and a full description of Michael sent to all the various commandants, in order to prevent his departure from Omsk. But he had already passed through one of the breaches in the wall; his horse was galloping over the steppe, and the chances of escape were in his favor.
It was on the 29th of July, at eight o'clock in the evening, that Michael Strogoff had left Omsk. This town is situated about halfway between Moscow and Irkutsk, where it was necessary that he should arrive within ten days if he wished to get ahead of the Tartar columns. It was evident that the unlucky chance which had brought him into the presence of his mother had betrayed his incognito. Ivan Ogareff was no longer ignorant of the fact that a courier of the Czar had just passed Omsk, taking the direction of Irkutsk.