3. Blow For Blow
SUCH were now the relative situations of Marfa Strogoff and Nadia. All was
understood by the old Siberian, and though the young girl was ignorant that her
much-regretted companion still lived, she at least knew his relationship to her
whom she had made her mother; and she thanked God for having given her the
joy of taking the place of the son whom the prisoner had lost.
But what neither of them could know was that Michael, having been captured at
Kolyvan, was in the same convoy and was on his way to Tomsk with them.
The prisoners brought by Ivan Ogareff had been added to those already kept by
the Emir in the Tartar camp. These unfortunate people, consisting of Russians,
Siberians, soldiers and civilians, numbered some thousands, and formed a
column which extended over several versts. Some among them being
considered dangerous were handcuffed and fastened to a long chain. There
were, too, women and children, many of the latter suspended to the pommels of
the saddles, while the former were dragged mercilessly along the road on foot, or
driven forward as if they were animals. The horsemen compelled them to
maintain a certain order, and there were no laggards with the exception of those
who fell never to rise again.
In consequence of this arrangement, Michael Strogoff, marching in the first ranks
of those who had left the Tartar camp-- that is to say, among the Kolyvan
prisoners--was unable to mingle with the prisoners who had arrived after him
from Omsk. He had therefore no suspicion that his mother and Nadia were
present in the convoy, nor did they suppose that he was among those in front.
This journey from the camp to Tomsk, performed under the lashes and spear-
points of the soldiers, proved fatal to many, and terrible to all. The prisoners
traveled across the steppe, over a road made still more dusty by the passage of
the Emir and his vanguard. Orders had been given to march rapidly. The short
halts were rare. The hundred miles under a burning sky seemed interminable,
though they were performed as rapidly as possible.
The country, which extends from the right of the Obi to the base of the spur
detached from the Sayanok Mountains, is very sterile. Only a few stunted and
burnt-up shrubs here and there break the monotony of the immense plain. There
was no cultivation, for there was no water; and it was water that the prisoners,
parched by their painful march, most needed. To find a stream they must have
diverged fifty versts eastward, to the very foot of the mountains.
There flows the Tom, a little affluent of the Obi, which passes near Tomsk before
losing itself in one of the great northern arteries. There water would have been
abundant, the steppe less arid, the heat less severe. But the strictest orders had
been given to the commanders of the convoy to reach Tomsk by the shortest
way, for the Emir was much afraid of being taken in the flank and cut off by some
Russian column descending from the northern provinces.
It is useless to dwell upon the sufferings of the unhappy prisoners. Many
hundreds fell on the steppe, where their bodies would lie until winter, when the
wolves would devour the remnants of their bones.