Alcide directly communicated with the old boatman, and asked a passage for himself and his companion, offering to pay anything he demanded, whatever it might be.
"No one pays here," replied the old man gravely; "every one risks his life, that is all!"
The two correspondents came on board, and Nadia saw them take their places in the forepart of the raft. Harry Blount was still the reserved Englishman, who had scarcely addressed a word to her during the whole passage over the Ural Mountains. Alcide Jolivet seemed to be rather more grave than usual, and it may be acknowledged that his gravity was justified by the circumstances.
Jolivet had, as has been said, taken his seat on the raft, when he felt a hand laid on his arm. Turning, he recognized Nadia, the sister of the man who was no longer Nicholas Korpanoff, but Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar. He was about to make an exclamation of surprise when he saw the young girl lay her finger on her lips.
"Come," said Nadia. And with a careless air, Alcide rose and followed her, making a sign to Blount to accompany him.
But if the surprise of the correspondents had been great at meeting Nadia on the raft it was boundless when they perceived Michael Strogoff, whom they had believed to be no longer living.
Michael had not moved at their approach. Jolivet turned towards the girl. "He does not see you, gentlemen," said Nadia. "The Tartars have burnt out his eyes! My poor brother is blind!"
A feeling of lively compassion exhibited itself on the faces of Blount and his companion. In a moment they were seated beside Michael, pressing his hand and waiting until he spoke to them.
"Gentlemen," said Michael, in a low voice, "you ought not to know who I am, nor what I am come to do in Siberia. I ask you to keep my secret. Will you promise me to do so?"
"On my honor," answered Jolivet.
"On my word as a gentleman," added Blount.
"Can we be of any use to you?" asked Harry Blount. "Could we not help you to accomplish your task?"
"I prefer to act alone," replied Michael.
"But those blackguards have destroyed your sight," said Alcide.
"I have Nadia, and her eyes are enough for me!"
In half an hour the raft left the little port of Livenitchnaia, and entered the river. It was five in the evening and getting dusk. The night promised to be dark and very cold also, for the temperature was already below zero.
Alcide and Blount, though they had promised to keep Michael's secret, did not leave him. They talked in a low voice, and the blind man, adding what they told him to what he already knew, was able to form an exact idea of the state of things. It was certain that the Tartars had actually invested Irkutsk, and that the three columns had effected a junction. There was no doubt that the Emir and Ivan Ogareff were before the capital.
But why did the Czar's courier exhibit such haste to get there, now that the Imperial letter could no longer be given by him to the Grand Duke, and when he did not even know the contents of it? Alcide Jolivet and Blount could not understand it any more than Nadia had done.
No one spoke of the past, except when Jolivet thought it his duty to say to Michael, "We owe you some apology for not shaking hands with you when we separated at Ichim."
"No, you had reason to think me a coward!"
"At any rate," added the Frenchman, "you knouted the face of that villain finely, and he will carry the mark of it for a long time!"
"No, not a long time!" replied Michael quietly.
Half an hour after leaving Livenitchnaia, Blount and his companion were acquainted with the cruel trials through which Michael and his companion had successively passed. They could not but heartily admire his energy, which was only equaled by the young girl's devotion. Their opinion of Michael was exactly what the Czar had expressed at Moscow: "Indeed, this is a Man!"
The raft swiftly threaded its way among the blocks of ice which were carried along in the current of the Angara.