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"But I saw nothing," said Nadia.
"So much the better! So much the better! But I--I saw!"
"What was it then?" asked Michael.
"A hare crossing our road!" answered Nicholas.
In Russia, when a hare crosses the path, the popular belief is that it is
the sign of approaching evil. Nicholas, superstitious like the greater number
of Russians, stopped the kibitka.
Michael understood his companion's hesitation, without sharing his
credulity, and endeavored to reassure him, "There is nothing to fear, friend,"
said he.
"Nothing for you, nor for her, I know, little father," answered Nicholas,
"but for me!"
"It is my fate," he continued. And he put his horse in motion again.
However, in spite of these forebodings the day passed without any accident.
At twelve o'clock the next day, the 6th of September, the kibitka
halted in the village of Alsalevok, which was as deserted as the
surrounding country. There, on a doorstep, Nadia found two of those
strong-bladed knives used by Siberian hunters. She gave one to Michael, who
concealed it among his clothes, and kept the other herself.
Nicholas had not recovered his usual spirits. The ill-omen had affected
him more than could have been believed, and he who formerly was never half an
hour without speaking, now fell into long reveries from which Nadia found it
difficult to arouse him. The kibitka rolled swiftly along the road. Yes,
swiftly! Nicholas no longer thought of being so careful of his horse, and was
as anxious to arrive at his journey's end as Michael himself. Notwithstanding
his fatalism, and though resigned, he would not believe himself in safety
until within the walls of Irkutsk. Many Russians would have thought as he did,
and more than one would have turned his horse and gone back again, after a
hare had crossed his path.
Some observations made by him, the justice of which was proved by Nadia
transmitting them to Michael, made them fear that their trials were not yet
over. Though the land from Krasnoiarsk had been respected in its natural
productions, its forests now bore trace of fire and steel; and it was evident
that some large body of men had passed that way.
Twenty miles before Nijni-Oudinsk, the indications of recent devastation
could not be mistaken, and it was impossible to attribute them to others than
the Tartars. It was not only that the fields were trampled by horse's feet,
and that trees were cut down. The few houses scattered along the road were not
only empty, some had been partly demolished, others half burnt down. The marks
of bullets could be seen on their walls.
Michael's anxiety may be imagined. He could no longer doubt that a party
of Tartars had recently passed that way, and yet it was impossible that they
could be the Emir's soldiers, for they could not have passed without being
seen. But then, who were these new invaders, and by what out-of-the-way path
across the steppe had they been able to join the highroad to Irkutsk? With
what new enemies was the Czar's courier now to meet?
He did not communicate his apprehensions either to Nicholas or Nadia, not
wishing to make them uneasy. Besides, he had resolved to continue his way, as
long as no insurmountable obstacle stopped him. Later, he would see what it
was best to do. During the ensuing day, the recent passage of a large body of
foot and horse became more and more apparent. Smoke was seen above the
horizon. The kibitka advanced cautiously. Several houses in deserted villages
still burned, and could not have been set on fire more than four and twenty
hours before.
At last, during the day, on the 8th of September, the kibitka stopped
suddenly. The horse refused to advance. Serko barked furiously.
"What is the matter?" asked Michael.
"A corpse!" replied Nicholas, who had leapt out of the kibitka. The body
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was that of a moujik, horribly mutilated, and already cold. Nicholas crossed
himself. Then, aided by Michael, he carried the body to the side of the road.
He would have liked to give it decent burial, that the wild beasts of the
steppe might not feast on the miserable remains, but Michael could not allow
him the time.
"Come, friend, come!" he exclaimed, "we must not delay, even for an
hour!" And the kibitka was driven on.
Besides, if Nicholas had wished to render the last duties to all the dead
bodies they were now to meet with on the Siberian highroad, he would have had
enough to do! As they approached Nijni-Oudinsk, they were found by twenties,
stretched on the ground.
It was, however, necessary to follow this road until it was manifestly
impossible to do so longer without falling into the hands of the invaders. The
road they were following could not be abandoned, and yet the signs of
devastation and ruin increased at every village they passed through. The blood
of the victims was not yet dry. As to gaining information about what had
occurred, that was impossible. There was not a living being left to tell the
tale.
About four o'clock in the afternoon of this day, Nicholas caught sight of
the tall steeples of the churches of Nijni-Oudinsk. Thick vapors, which could
not have been clouds, were floating around them.
Nicholas and Nadia looked, and communicated the result of their
observations to Michael. They must make up their minds what to do. If the town
was abandoned, they could pass through without risk, but if, by some
inexplicable maneuver, the Tartars occupied it, they must at every cost avoid
the place. [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]




 

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