Nadia fell on her knees beside it. Nicholas buried up to his neck, according to the atrocious Tartar custom, had been left in the steppe to die of thirst, and perhaps by the teeth of wolves or the beaks of birds of prey!
Frightful torture for the victim imprisoned in the ground-- the earth pressed down so that he cannot move, his arms bound to his body like those of a corpse in its coffin! The miserable wretch, living in the mold of clay from which he is powerless to break out, can only long for the death which is so slow in coming!
There the Tartars had buried their prisoner three days before! For three days, Nicholas waited for the help which now came too late! The vultures had caught sight of the head on a level with the ground, and for some hours the dog had been defending his master against these ferocious birds!
Michael dug at the ground with his knife to release his friend! The eyes of Nicholas, which till then had been closed, opened.
He recognized Michael and Nadia. "Farewell, my friends!" he murmured. "I am glad to have seen you again! Pray for me!"
Michael continued to dig, though the ground, having been tightly rammed down, was as hard as stone, and he managed at last to get out the body of the unhappy man. He listened if his heart was still beating. . . . It was still!
He wished to bury him, that he might not be left exposed; and the hole into which Nicholas had been placed when living, was enlarged, so that he might be laid in it--dead! The faithful Serko was laid by his master.
At that moment, a noise was heard on the road, about half a verst distant. Michael Strogoff listened. It was evidently a detachment of horse advancing towards the Dinka. "Nadia, Nadia!" he said in a low voice.
Nadia, who was kneeling in prayer, arose. "Look, look!" said he.
"The Tartars!" she whispered.
It was indeed the Emir's advance-guard, passing rapidly along the road to Irkutsk.
"They shall not prevent me from burying him!" said Michael. And he continued his work.
Soon, the body of Nicholas, the hands crossed on the breast, was laid in the grave. Michael and Nadia, kneeling, prayed a last time for the poor fellow, inoffensive and good, who had paid for his devotion towards them with his life.
"And now," said Michael, as he threw in the earth, "the wolves of the steppe will not devour him."
Then he shook his fist at the troop of horsemen who were passing. "Forward, Nadia!" he said.
Michael could not follow the road, now occupied by the Tartars. He must cross the steppe and turn to Irkutsk. He had not now to trouble himself about crossing the Dinka. Nadia could not move, but she could see for him. He took her in his arms and went on towards the southwest of the province.
A hundred and forty miles still remained to be traversed. How was the distance to be performed? Should they not succumb to such fatigue? On what were they to live on the way? By what superhuman energy were they to pass the slopes of the Sayansk Mountains? Neither he nor Nadia could answer this!
And yet, twelve days after, on the 2d of October, at six o'clock in the evening, a wide sheet of water lay at Michael Strogoff's feet. It was Lake Baikal.
CHAPTER X BAIKAL AND ANGARA
LAKE BAIKAL is situated seventeen hundred feet above the level of the sea. Its length is about six hundred miles, its breadth seventy. Its depth is not known. Madame de Bourboulon states that, according to the boatmen, it likes to be spoken of as "Madam Sea." If it is called "Sir Lake," it immediately lashes itself into fury. However, it is reported and believed by the Siberians that a Russian is never drowned in it.
This immense basin of fresh water, fed by more than three hundred rivers, is surrounded by magnificent volcanic mountains. It has no other outlet than the Angara, which after passing Irkutsk throws itself into the Yenisei, a little above the town of Yeniseisk. As to the mountains which encase it, they form a branch of the Toungouzes, and are derived from the vast system of the Altai.