But Michael was not to be looking at Ivan when his eyes were put out. Marfa Strogoff stood before him.
"My mother!" cried he. "Yes! yes! my last glance shall be for you, and not for this wretch! Stay there, before me! Now I see once more your well-beloved face! Now shall my eyes close as they rest upon it . . . !"
The old woman, without uttering a word, advanced.
"Take that woman away!" said Ivan.
Two soldiers were about to seize her, but she stepped back and remained standing a few paces from Michael.
The executioner appeared. This time, he held his saber bare in his hand, and this saber he had just drawn from the chafing-dish, where he had brought it to a white heat. Michael was going to be blinded in the Tartar fashion, with a hot blade passed before his eyes!
Michael did not attempt to resist. Nothing existed before his eyes but his mother, whom his eyes seemed to devour. All his life was in that last look.
Marfa Strogoff, her eyes open wide, her arms extended towards where he stood, was gazing at him. The incandescent blade passed before Michael's eyes.
A despairing cry was heard. His aged mother fell senseless to the ground. Michael Strogoff was blind.
His orders executed, the Emir retired with his train. There remained in the square only Ivan Ogareff and the torch bearers. Did the wretch intend to insult his victim yet further, and yet to give him a parting blow?
Ivan Ogareff slowly approached Michael, who, feeling him coming, drew himself up. Ivan drew from his pocket the Imperial letter, he opened it, and with supreme irony he held it up before the sightless eyes of the Czar's courier, saying, "Read, now, Michael Strogoff, read, and go and repeat at Irkutsk what you have read. The true Courier of the Czar is Ivan Ogareff."
This said, the traitor thrust the letter into his breast. Then, without looking round he left the square, followed by the torch-bearers.
Michael was left alone, at a few paces from his mother, lying lifeless, perhaps dead. He heard in the distance cries and songs, the varied noises of a wild debauch. Tomsk, illuminated, glittered and gleamed.
Michael listened. The square was silent and deserted. He went, groping his way, towards the place where his mother had fallen. He found her with his hand, he bent over her, he put his face close to hers, he listened for the beating of her heart. Then he murmured a few words.
Did Marfa still live, and did she hear her son's words? Whether she did so or not, she made not the slightest movement. Michael kissed her forehead and her white locks. He then raised himself, and, groping with his foot, trying to stretch out his hand to guide himself, he walked by degrees to the edge of the square.
Suddenly Nadia appeared. She walked straight to her companion. A knife in her hand cut the cords which bound Michael's arms. The blind man knew not who had freed him, for Nadia had not spoken a word.
But this done: "Brother!" said she.
"Nadia!" murmured Michael, "Nadia!"
"Come, brother," replied Nadia, "use my eyes whilst yours sleep. I will lead you to Irkutsk."
CHAPTER VI A FRIEND ON THE HIGHWAY
HALF an hour afterwards, Michael and Nadia had left Tomsk.
Many others of the prisoners were that night able to escape from the Tartars, for officers and soldiers, all more or less intoxicated, had unconsciously relaxed the vigilant guard which they had hitherto maintained. Nadia, after having been carried off with the other prisoners, had been able to escape and return to the square, at the moment when Michael was led before the Emir. There, mingling with the crowd, she had witnessed the terrible scene. Not a cry escaped her when the scorching blade passed before her companion's eyes. She kept, by her strength of will, mute and motionless. A providential inspiration bade her restrain herself and retain her liberty that she might lead Marfa's son to that goal which he had sworn to reach. Her heart for an instant ceased to beat when the aged Siberian woman fell senseless to the ground, but one thought restored her to her former energy. "I will be the blind man's dog," said she.