One day Michael said to the girl, "You never speak to me of my mother, Nadia."
His mother! Nadia had never wished to do so. Why renew his grief? Was not the old Siberian dead? Had not her son given the last kiss to her corpse stretched on the plain of Tomsk?
"Speak to me of her, Nadia," said Michael. "Speak--you will please me."
And then Nadia did what she had not done before. She told all that had passed between Marfa and herself since their meeting at Omsk, where they had seen each other for the first time. She said how an inexplicable instinct had led her towards the old prisoner without knowing who she was, and what encouragement she had received in return. At that time Michael Strogoff had been to her but Nicholas Korpanoff.
"Whom I ought always to have been," replied Michael, his brow darkening.
Then later he added, "I have broken my oath, Nadia. I had sworn not to see my mother!"
"But you did not try to see her, Michael," replied Nadia. "Chance alone brought you into her presence."
"I had sworn, whatever might happen, not to betray myself."
"Michael, Michael! at sight of the lash raised upon Marfa, could you refrain? No! No oath could prevent a son from succoring his mother!"
"I have broken my oath, Nadia," returned Michael. "May God and the Father pardon me!"
"Michael," resumed the girl, "I have a question to ask you. Do not answer it if you think you ought not. Nothing from you would vex me!"
"Why, now that the Czar's letter has been taken from you, are you so anxious to reach Irkutsk?"
Michael tightly pressed his companion's hand, but he did not answer.
"Did you know the contents of that letter before you left Moscow?"
"No, I did not know."
"Must I think, Michael, that the wish alone to place me in my father's hands draws you toward Irkutsk?"
"No, Nadia," replied Michael, gravely. "I should deceive you if I allowed you to believe that it was so. I go where duty orders me to go. As to taking you to Irkutsk, is it not you, Nadia, who are now taking me there? Do I not see with your eyes; and is it not your hand that guides me? Have you not repaid a hundred-fold the help which I was able to give you at first? I do not know if fate will cease to go against us; but the day on which you thank me for having placed you in your father's hands, I in my turn will thank you for having led me to Irkutsk."
"Poor Michael!" answered Nadia, with emotion. "Do not speak so. That does not answer me. Michael, why, now, are you in such haste to reach Irkutsk?"
"Because I must be there before Ivan Ogareff," exclaimed Michael.
"Even now, and I will be there, too!"
In uttering these words, Michael did not speak solely through hatred to the traitor. Nadia understood that her companion had not told, or could not tell, her all.
On the 15th of September, three days later, the two reached the village of Kouitounskoe. The young girl suffered dreadfully. Her aching feet could scarcely support her; but she fought, she struggled, against her weariness, and her only thought was this: "Since he cannot see me, I will go on till I drop."
There were no obstacles on this part of the journey, no danger either since the departure of the Tartars, only much fatigue. For three days it continued thus. It was plain that the third invading column was advancing rapidly in the East; that could be seen by the ruins which they left after them-- the cold cinders and the already decomposing corpses.
There was nothing to be seen in the West; the Emir's advance-guard had not yet appeared. Michael began to consider the various reasons which might have caused this delay. Was a sufficient force of Russians directly menacing Tomsk or Krasnoiarsk? Did the third column, isolated from the others, run a risk of being cut off? If this was the case, it would be easy for the Grand Duke to defend Irkutsk, and any time gained against an invasion was a step towards repulsing it. Michael sometimes let his thoughts run on these hopes, but he soon saw their improbability, and felt that the preservation of the Grand Duke depended alone on him.