"Yes, your Highness. I might have been obliged to destroy it, to prevent its falling into the hands of the Tartars, and should such have been the case, I wished to be able to bring the contents of it to your Highness."
"You know that this letter enjoins us all to die, rather than give up the town?"
"I know it."
"You know also that it informs me of the movements of the troops which have combined to stop the invasion?"
"Yes, your Highness, but the movements have failed."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Ichim, Omsk, Tomsk, to speak only of the more important towns of the two Siberias, have been successively occupied by the soldiers of Feofar-Khan."
"But there has been fighting? Have not our Cossacks met the Tartars?"
"Several times, your Highness."
"And they were repulsed?"
"They were not in sufficient force to oppose the enemy."
"Where did the encounters take place?"
"At Kolyvan, at Tomsk." Until now, Ogareff had only spoken the truth, but, in the hope of troubling the defenders of Irkutsk by exaggerating the defeats, he added, "And a third time before Krasnoiarsk."
"And what of this last engagement?" asked the Grand Duke, through whose compressed lips the words could scarcely pass.
"It was more than an engagement, your Highness," answered Ogareff; "it was a battle."
"Twenty thousand Russians, from the frontier provinces and the government of Tobolsk, engaged with a hundred and fifty thousand Tartars, and, notwithstanding their courage, were overwhelmed."
"You lie!" exclaimed the Grand Duke, endeavoring in vain to curb his passion.
"I speak the truth, your Highness," replied Ivan Ogareff coldly. "I was present at the battle of Krasnoiarsk, and it was there I was made prisoner!"
The Grand Duke grew calmer, and by a significant gesture he gave Ogareff to understand that he did not doubt his veracity. "What day did this battle of Krasnoiarsk take place?" he asked.
"On the 2d of September."
"And now all the Tartar troops are concentrated here?"
"And you estimate them?"
"At about four hundred thousand men."
Another exaggeration of Ogareff's in the estimate of the Tartar army, with the same object as before.
"And I must not expect any help from the West provinces?" asked the Grand Duke.
"None, your Highness, at any rate before the end of the winter."
"Well, hear this, Michael Strogoff. Though I must expect no help either from the East or from the West, even were these barbarians six hundred thousand strong, I will never give up Irkutsk!"
Ogareff's evil eye slightly contracted. The traitor thought to himself that the brother of the Czar did not reckon the result of treason.
The Grand Duke, who was of a nervous temperament, had great difficulty in keeping calm whilst hearing this disastrous news. He walked to and fro in the room, under the gaze of Ogareff, who eyed him as a victim reserved for vengeance. He stopped at the windows, he looked forth at the fires in the Tartar camp, he listened to the noise of the ice-blocks drifting down the Angara.
A quarter of an hour passed without his putting any more questions. Then taking up the letter, he re-read a passage and said, "You know that in this letter I am warned of a traitor, of whom I must beware?"
"Yes, your Highness."
"He will try to enter Irkutsk in disguise; gain my confidence, and betray the town to the Tartars."
"I know all that, your Highness, and I know also that Ivan Ogareff has sworn to revenge himself personally on the Czar's brother."
"It is said that the officer in question was condemned by the Grand Duke to a humiliating degradation."
"Yes, I remember. But it is a proof that the villain, who could afterwards serve against his country and head an invasion of barbarians, deserved it."
"His Majesty the Czar," said Ogareff, "was particularly anxious that you should be warned of the criminal projects of Ivan Ogareff against your person."
"Yes; of that the letter informs me."
"And His Majesty himself spoke to me of it, telling me I was above all things to beware of the traitor."
"Did you meet with him?"
"Yes, your Highness, after the battle of Krasnoiarsk.