The latter, turned to his officers, "The Czar will not refuse to ratify that pardon," said he, smiling; "we need heroes to defend the capital of Siberia, and I have just made some."
This pardon, so generously accorded to the exiles of Irkutsk, was indeed an act of real justice and sound policy.
It was now night. Through the windows of the palace burned the fires of the Tartar camp, flickering beyond the Angara. Down the river drifted numerous blocks of ice, some of which stuck on the piles of the old bridges; others were swept along by the current with great rapidity. It was evident, as the merchant had observed, that it would be very difficult for the Angara to freeze all over. The defenders of Irkutsk had not to dread being attacked on that side. Ten o'clock had just struck. The Grand Duke was about to dismiss his officers and retire to his apartments, when a tumult was heard outside the palace.
Almost immediately the door was thrown open, an aide-de-camp appeared, and advanced rapidly towards the Grand Duke.
"Your Highness," said he, "a courier from the Czar!"
CHAPTER XIII THE CZAR'S COURIER
ALL the members of the council simultaneously started forward. A courier from the Czar arrived in Irkutsk! Had these officers for a moment considered the improbability of this fact, they would certainly not have credited what they heard.
The Grand Duke advanced quickly to his aide-de-camp. "This courier!" he exclaimed.
A man entered. He appeared exhausted with fatigue. He wore the dress of a Siberian peasant, worn into tatters, and exhibiting several shot-holes. A Muscovite cap was on his head. His face was disfigured by a recently-healed scar. The man had evidently had a long and painful journey; his shoes being in a state which showed that he had been obliged to make part of it on foot.
"His Highness the Grand Duke?" he asked.
The Grand Duke went up to him. "You are a courier from the Czar?" he asked.
"Yes, your Highness."
"You left Moscow?"
"On the 15th of July."
It was Ivan Ogareff. He had taken the designation of the man whom he believed that he had rendered powerless. Neither the Grand Duke nor anyone knew him in Irkutsk, and he had not even to disguise his features. As he was in a position to prove his pretended identity, no one could have any reason for doubting him. He came, therefore, sustained by his iron will, to hasten by treason and assassination the great object of the invasion.
After Ogareff had replied, the Grand Duke signed to all his officers to withdraw. He and the false Michael Strogoff remained alone in the saloon.
The Grand Duke looked at Ivan Ogareff for some moments with extreme attention. Then he said, "On the 15th of July you were at Moscow?"
"Yes, your Highness; and on the night of the 14th I saw His Majesty the Czar at the New Palace."
"Have you a letter from the Czar?"
"Here it is."
And Ivan Ogareff handed to the Grand Duke the Imperial letter, crumpled to almost microscopic size.
"Was the letter given you in this state?"
"No, your Highness, but I was obliged to tear the envelope, the better to hide it from the Emir's soldiers."
"Were you taken prisoner by the Tartars?"
"Yes, your Highness, I was their prisoner for several days," answered Ogareff. "That is the reason that, having left Moscow on the 15th of July, as the date of that letter shows, I only reached Irkutsk on the 2d of October, after traveling seventy-nine days."
The Grand Duke took the letter. He unfolded it and recognized the Czar's signature, preceded by the decisive formula, written by his brother's hand. There was no possible doubt of the authenticity of this letter, nor of the identity of the courier. Though Ogareff's countenance had at first inspired the Grand Duke with some distrust, he let nothing of it appear, and it soon vanished.
The Grand Duke remained for a few minutes without speaking. He read the letter slowly, so as to take in its meaning fully. "Michael Strogoff, do you know the contents of this letter?" he asked.