"And where are you going to in this fashion?" he asked, opening wide his great honest eyes.
At the sound of his voice, Michael said to himself that he had heard it before. And it was satisfactory to him to recognize the man for his brow at once cleared.
"Well, where are you going?" repeated the young man, addressing himself more directly to Michael.
"We are going to Irkutsk," he replied.
"Oh! little father, you do not know that there are still versts and versts between you and Irkutsk?"
"I know it."
"And you are going on foot?"
"You, well! but the young lady?"
"She is my sister," said Michael, who judged it prudent to give again this name to Nadia.
"Yes, your sister, little father! But, believe me, she will never be able to get to Irkutsk!"
"Friend," returned Michael, approaching him, "the Tartars have robbed us of everything, and I have not a copeck to offer you; but if you will take my sister with you, I will follow your cart on foot; I will run when necessary, I will not delay you an hour!"
"Brother," exclaimed Nadia, "I will not! I will not! Sir, my brother is blind!"
"Blind!" repeated the young man, much moved.
"The Tartars have burnt out his eyes!" replied Nadia, extending her hands, as if imploring pity.
"Burnt out his eyes! Oh! poor little father! I am going to Krasnoiarsk. Well, why should not you and your sister mount in the kibitka? By sitting a little close, it will hold us all three. Besides, my dog will not refuse to go on foot; only I don't go fast, I spare my horse."
"Friend, what is your name?" asked Michael.
"My name is Nicholas Pigassof."
"It is a name that I will never forget," said Michael.
"Well, jump up, little blind father. Your sister will be beside you, in the bottom of the cart; I sit in front to drive. There is plenty of good birch bark and straw in the bottom; it's like a nest. Serko, make room!"
The dog jumped down without more telling. He was an animal of the Siberian race, gray hair, of medium size, with an honest big head, just made to pat, and he, moreover, appeared to be much attached to his master.
In a moment more, Michael and Nadia were seated in the kibitka. Michael held out his hands as if to feel for those of Pigassof. "You wish to shake my hands!" said Nicholas. "There they are, little father! shake them as long as it will give you any pleasure."
The kibitka moved on; the horse, which Nicholas never touched with the whip, ambled along. Though Michael did not gain any in speed, at least some fatigue was spared to Nadia.
Such was the exhaustion of the young girl, that, rocked by the monotonous movement of the kibitka, she soon fell into a sleep, its soundness proving her complete prostration. Michael and Nicholas laid her on the straw as comfortably as possible. The compassionate young man was greatly moved, and if a tear did not escape from Michael's eyes, it was because the red-hot iron had dried up the last!
"She is very pretty," said Nicholas.
"Yes," replied Michael.
"They try to be strong, little father, they are brave, but they are weak after all, these dear little things! Have you come from far."
"Poor young people! It must have hurt you very much when they burnt your eyes!"
"Very much," answered Michael, turning towards Nicholas as if he could see him.
"Did you not weep?"
"I should have wept too. To think that one could never again see those one loves. But they can see you, however; that's perhaps some consolation!"
"Yes, perhaps. Tell me, my friend," continued Michael, "have you never seen me anywhere before?"
"You, little father? No, never."
"The sound of your voice is not unknown to me."
"Why!" returned Nicholas, smiling, "he knows the sound of my voice! Perhaps you ask me that to find out where I come from. I come from Kolyvan."
"From Kolyvan?" repeated Michael. "Then it was there I met you; you were in the telegraph office?"
"That may be," replied Nicholas. "I was stationed there. I was the clerk in charge of the messages."
"And you stayed at your post up to the last moment?"
"Why, it's at that moment one ought to be there!"
"It was the day when an Englishman and a Frenchman were disputing, roubles in hand, for the place at your wicket, and the Englishman telegraphed some poetry."
"That is possible, but I do not remember it."
"What! you do not remember it?"
"I never read the dispatches I send.