It concerns him, and not me."
At that moment Sangarre, having regarded her for an instant, put her hand on her shoulder.
"What do you want with me?" said Marfa.
"Come!" replied Sangarre, and pushing the old Siberian before her, she took her to Ivan Ogareff, in the middle of the cleared ground. Michael cast down his eyes that their angry flashings might not appear.
Marfa, standing before Ivan Ogareff, drew herself up, crossed her arms on her breast, and waited.
"You are Marfa Strogoff?" asked Ogareff.
"Yes," replied the old Siberian calmly.
"Do you retract what you said to me when, three days ago, I interrogated you at Omsk?"
"Then you do not know that your son, Michael Strogoff, courier of the Czar, has passed through Omsk?"
"I do not know it."
"And the man in whom you thought you recognized your son, was not he your son?"
"He was not my son."
"And since then you have not seen him amongst the prisoners?"
"If he were pointed out, would you recognize him?"
On this reply, which showed such determined resolution, a murmur was heard amongst the crowd.
Ogareff could not restrain a threatening gesture.
"Listen," said he to Marfa, "your son is here, and you shall immediately point him out to me."
"All these men, taken at Omsk and Kolyvan, will defile before you; and if you do not show me Michael Strogoff, you shall receive as many blows of the knout as men shall have passed before you."
Ivan Ogareff saw that, whatever might be his threats, whatever might be the tortures to which he submitted her, the indomitable Siberian would not speak. To discover the courier of the Czar, he counted, then, not on her, but on Michael himself. He did not believe it possible that, when mother and son were in each other's presence, some involuntary movement would not betray him. Of course, had he wished to seize the imperial letter, he would simply have given orders to search all the prisoners; but Michael might have destroyed the letter, having learnt its contents; and if he were not recognized, if he were to reach Irkutsk, all Ivan Ogareff's plans would be baffled. It was thus not only the letter which the traitor must have, but the bearer himself.
Nadia had heard all, and she now knew who was Michael Strogoff, and why he had wished to cross, without being recognized, the invaded provinces of Siberia.
On an order from Ivan Ogareff the prisoners defiled, one by one, past Marfa, who remained immovable as a statue, and whose face expressed only perfect indifference.
Her son was among the last. When in his turn he passed before his mother, Nadia shut her eyes that she might not see him. Michael was to all appearance unmoved, but the palm of his hand bled under his nails, which were pressed into them.
Ivan Ogareff was baffled by mother and son.
Sangarre, close to him, said one word, "The knout!"
"Yes," cried Ogareff, who could no longer restrain himself; "the knout for this wretched old woman--the knout to the death!"
A Tartar soldier bearing this terrible instrument of torture approached Marfa. The knout is composed of a certain number of leathern thongs, at the end of which are attached pieces of twisted iron wire. It is reckoned that a sentence to one hundred and twenty blows of this whip is equivalent to a sentence of death.
Marfa knew it, but she knew also that no torture would make her speak. She was sacrificing her life.
Marfa, seized by two soldiers, was forced on her knees on the ground. Her dress torn off left her back bare. A saber was placed before her breast, at a few inches' distance only. Directly she bent beneath her suffering, her breast would be pierced by the sharp steel.
The Tartar drew himself up. He waited. "Begin!" said Ogareff. The whip whistled in the air.
But before it fell a powerful hand stopped the Tartar's arm. Michael was there. He had leapt forward at this horrible scene. If at the relay at Ichim he had restrained himself when Ogareff's whip had struck him, here before his mother, who was about to be struck, he could not do so.