Nadia dragged herself along. Whatever might be her moral energy, her physical strength would soon fail her. Michael knew it only too well. If he had not been blind, Nadia would have said to him, "Go, Michael, leave me in some hut! Reach Irkutsk! Accomplish your mission! See my father! Tell him where I am! Tell him that I wait for him, and you both will know where to find me! Start! I am not afraid! I will hide myself from the Tartars! I will take care of myself for him, for you! Go, Michael! I can go no farther!"
Many times Nadia was obliged to stop. Michael then took her in his strong arms and, having no longer to think of her fatigue, walked more rapidly and with his indefatigable step.
On the 18th of September, at ten in the evening, Kimilteiskoe was at last entered. From the top of a hill, Nadia saw in the horizon a long light line. It was the Dinka River. A few lightning flashes were reflected in the water; summer lightning, without thunder. Nadia led her companion through the ruined village. The cinders were quite cold. The last of the Tartars had passed through at least five or six days before.
Beyond the village, Nadia sank down on a stone bench. "Shall we make a halt?" asked Michael.
"It is night, Michael," answered Nadia. "Do you not want to rest a few hours?"
"I would rather have crossed the Dinka," replied Michael, "I should like to put that between us and the Emir's advance-guard. But you can scarcely drag yourself along, my poor Nadia!"
"Come, Michael," returned Nadia, seizing her companion's hand and drawing him forward.
Two or three versts further the Dinka flowed across the Irkutsk road. The young girl wished to attempt this last effort asked by her companion. She found her way by the light from the flashes. They were then crossing a boundless desert, in the midst of which was lost the little river. Not a tree nor a hillock broke the flatness. Not a breath disturbed the atmosphere, whose calmness would allow the slightest sound to travel an immense distance.
Suddenly, Michael and Nadia stopped, as if their feet had been fast to the ground. The barking of a dog came across the steppe. "Do you hear?" said Nadia.
Then a mournful cry succeeded it--a despairing cry, like the last appeal of a human being about to die.
"Nicholas! Nicholas!" cried the girl, with a foreboding of evil. Michael, who was listening, shook his head.
"Come, Michael, come," said Nadia. And she who just now was dragging herself with difficulty along, suddenly recovered strength, under violent excitement.
"We have left the road," said Michael, feeling that he was treading no longer on powdery soil but on short grass.
"Yes, we must!" returned Nadia. "It was there, on the right, from which the cry came!"
In a few minutes they were not more than half a verst from the river. A second bark was heard, but, although more feeble, it was certainly nearer. Nadia stopped.
"Yes!" said Michael. "It is Serko barking! . . . He has followed his master!"
"Nicholas!" called the girl. Her cry was unanswered.
Michael listened. Nadia gazed over the plain illumined now and again with electric light, but she saw nothing. And yet a voice was again raised, this time murmuring in a plaintive tone, "Michael!"
Then a dog, all bloody, bounded up to Nadia.
It was Serko! Nicholas could not be far off! He alone could have murmured the name of Michael! Where was he? Nadia had no strength to call again. Michael, crawling on the ground, felt about with his hands.
Suddenly Serko uttered a fresh bark and darted towards a gigantic bird which had swooped down. It was a vulture. When Serko ran towards it, it rose, but returning struck at the dog. The latter leapt up at it. A blow from the formidable beak alighted on his head, and this time Serko fell back lifeless on the ground.
At the same moment a cry of horror escaped Nadia. "There . . . there!" she exclaimed.
A head issued from the ground! She had stumbled against it in the darkness.