"Michael," continued Nadia, "do you not know that he defended you when you were the Tartars' sport; that he risked his life for me?"
Michael was still silent. Motionless, his face buried in his hands; of what was he thinking? Perhaps, although he did not answer, he heard Nadia speak.
Yes! he heard her, for when the young girl added, "Where shall I lead you, Michael?"
"To Irkutsk!" he replied.
"By the highroad?"
Michael was still the same man who had sworn, whatever happened, to accomplish his object. To follow the highroad, was certainly to go the shortest way. If the vanguard of Feofar-Khan's troops appeared, it would then be time to strike across the country.
Nadia took Michael's hand, and they started.
The next morning, the 13th of September, twenty versts further, they made a short halt in the village of Joulounov-skoe. It was burnt and deserted. All night Nadia had tried to see if the body of Nicholas had not been left on the road, but it was in vain that she looked among the ruins, and searched among the dead. Was he reserved for some cruel torture at Irkutsk?
Nadia, exhausted with hunger, was fortunate enough to find in one of the houses a quantity of dried meat and "soukharis," pieces of bread, which, dried by evaporation, preserve their nutritive qualities for an indefinite time.
Michael and the girl loaded themselves with as much as they could carry. They had thus a supply of food for several days, and as to water, there would be no want of that in a district rendered fertile by the numerous little affluents of the Angara.
They continued their journey. Michael walked with a firm step, and only slackened his pace for his companion's sake. Nadia, not wishing to retard him, obliged herself to walk. Happily, he could not see to what a miserable state fatigue had reduced her.
However, Michael guessed it. "You are quite done up, poor child," he said sometimes.
"No," she would reply.
"When you can no longer walk, I will carry you."
During this day they came to the little river Oka, but it was fordable, and they had no difficulty in crossing. The sky was cloudy and the temperature moderate. There was some fear that the rain might come on, which would much have increased their misery. A few showers fell, but they did not last.
They went on as before, hand in hand, speaking little, Nadia looking about on every side; twice a day they halted. Six hours of the night were given to sleep. In a few huts Nadia again found a little mutton; but, contrary to Michael's hopes, there was not a single beast of burden in the country; horses, camels--all had been either killed or carried off. They must still continue to plod on across this weary steppe on foot.
The third Tartar column, on its way to Irkutsk, had left plain traces: here a dead horse, there an abandoned cart. The bodies of unfortunate Siberians lay along the road, principally at the entrances to villages. Nadia, overcoming her repugnance, looked at all these corpses!
The chief danger lay, not before, but behind. The advance guard of the Emir's army, commanded by Ivan Ogareff, might at any moment appear. The boats sent down the lower Yenisei must by this time have reached Krasnoiarsk and been made use of. The road was therefore open to the invaders. No Russian force could be opposed to them between Krasnoiarsk and Lake Baikal, Michael therefore expected before long the appearance of the Tartar scouts.
At each halt, Nadia climbed some hill and looked anxiously to the Westward, but as yet no cloud of dust had signaled the approach of a troop of horse.
Then the march was resumed; and when Michael felt that he was dragging poor Nadia forward too rapidly, he went at a slower pace. They spoke little, and only of Nicholas. The young girl recalled all that this companion of a few days had done for them.
In answering, Michael tried to give Nadia some hope of which he did not feel a spark himself, for he well knew that the unfortunate fellow would not escape death.