Besides, the animal was strong, and of a race calculated to endure great fatigue. He was in no want of rich pasturage along the road, the grass being thick and abundant. Therefore, it was possible to demand an increase of work from him.
Nicholas gave in to all these reasons. He was much moved at the situation of these two young people, going to share their father's exile. Nothing had ever appeared so touching to him. With what a smile he said to Nadia: "Divine goodness! what joy will Mr. Korpanoff feel, when his eyes behold you, when his arms open to receive you! If I go to Irkutsk-- and that appears very probable now--will you permit me to be present at that interview! You will, will you not?" Then, striking his forehead: "But, I forgot, what grief too when he sees that his poor son is blind! Ah! everything is mingled in this world!"
However, the result of all this was the kibitka went faster, and, according to Michael's calculations, now made almost eight miles an hour.
After crossing the little river Biriousa, the kibitka reached Biriousensk on the morning of the 4th of September. There, very fortunately, for Nicholas saw that his provisions were becoming exhausted, he found in an oven a dozen "pogatchas," a kind of cake prepared with sheep's fat and a large supply of plain boiled rice. This increase was very opportune, for something would soon have been needed to replace the koumyss with which the kibitka had been stored at Krasnoiarsk.
After a halt, the journey was continued in the afternoon. The distance to Irkutsk was not now much over three hundred miles. There was not a sign of the Tartar vanguard. Michael Strogoff had some grounds for hoping that his journey would not be again delayed, and that in eight days, or at most ten, he would be in the presence of the Grand Duke.
On leaving Biriousinsk, a hare ran across the road, in front of the kibitka. "Ah!" exclaimed Nicholas.
"What is the matter, friend?" asked Michael quickly, like a blind man whom the least sound arouses.
"Did you not see?" said Nicholas, whose bright face had become suddenly clouded. Then he added, "Ah! no! you could not see, and it's lucky for you, little father!"
"But I saw nothing," said Nadia.
"So much the better! So much the better! But I--I saw!"
"What was it then?" asked Michael.
"A hare crossing our road!" answered Nicholas.
In Russia, when a hare crosses the path, the popular belief is that it is the sign of approaching evil. Nicholas, superstitious like the greater number of Russians, stopped the kibitka.
Michael understood his companion's hesitation, without sharing his credulity, and endeavored to reassure him, "There is nothing to fear, friend," said he.
"Nothing for you, nor for her, I know, little father," answered Nicholas, "but for me!"
"It is my fate," he continued. And he put his horse in motion again. However, in spite of these forebodings the day passed without any accident.
At twelve o'clock the next day, the 6th of September, the kibitka halted in the village of Alsalevok, which was as deserted as the surrounding country. There, on a doorstep, Nadia found two of those strong-bladed knives used by Siberian hunters. She gave one to Michael, who concealed it among his clothes, and kept the other herself.
Nicholas had not recovered his usual spirits. The ill-omen had affected him more than could have been believed, and he who formerly was never half an hour without speaking, now fell into long reveries from which Nadia found it difficult to arouse him. The kibitka rolled swiftly along the road. Yes, swiftly! Nicholas no longer thought of being so careful of his horse, and was as anxious to arrive at his journey's end as Michael himself. Notwithstanding his fatalism, and though resigned, he would not believe himself in safety until within the walls of Irkutsk. Many Russians would have thought as he did, and more than one would have turned his horse and gone back again, after a hare had crossed his path.
Some observations made by him, the justice of which was proved by Nadia transmitting them to Michael, made them fear that their trials were not yet over.