6. A Friend On The Highway
HALF an hour afterwards, Michael and Nadia had left Tomsk.
Many others of the prisoners were that night able to escape from the Tartars, for
officers and soldiers, all more or less intoxicated, had unconsciously relaxed the
vigilant guard which they had hitherto maintained. Nadia, after having been
carried off with the other prisoners, had been able to escape and return to the
square, at the moment when Michael was led before the Emir. There, mingling
with the crowd, she had witnessed the terrible scene. Not a cry escaped her
when the scorching blade passed before her companion's eyes. She kept, by her
strength of will, mute and motionless. A providential inspiration bade her restrain
herself and retain her liberty that she might lead Marfa's son to that goal which he
had sworn to reach. Her heart for an instant ceased to beat when the aged
Siberian woman fell senseless to the ground, but one thought restored her to her
former energy. "I will be the blind man's dog," said she.
On Ogareff's departure, Nadia had concealed herself in the shade. She had
waited till the crowd left the square. Michael, abandoned as a wretched being
from whom nothing was to be feared, was alone. She saw him draw himself
towards his mother, bend over her, kiss her forehead, then rise and grope his
way in flight.
A few instants later, she and he, hand in hand, had descended the steep slope,
when, after having followed the high banks of the Tom to the furthest extremity of
the town, they happily found a breach in the inclosure.
The road to Irkutsk was the only one which penetrated towards the east. It could
not be mistaken. It was possible that on the morrow, after some hours of
carousal, the scouts of the Emir, once more scattering over the steppes, might
cut off all communication. It was of the greatest importance therefore to get in
advance of them. How could Nadia bear the fatigues of that night, from the l6th to
the 17th of August? How could she have found strength for so long a stage? How
could her feet, bleeding under that forced march, have carried her thither? It is
almost incomprehensible. But it is none the less true that on the next morning,
twelve hours after their departure from Tomsk, Michael and she reached the
town of Semilowskoe, after a journey of thirty-five miles.
Michael had not uttered a single word. It was not Nadia who held his hand, it was
he who held that of his companion during the whole of that night; but, thanks to
that trembling little hand which guided him, he had walked at his ordinary pace.
Semilowskoe was almost entirely abandoned. The inhabitants had fled. Not more
than two or three houses were still occupied. All that the town contained, useful
or precious, had been carried off in wagons. However, Nadia was obliged to
make a halt of a few hours. They both required food and rest.
The young girl led her companion to the extremity of the town. There they found
an empty house, the door wide open. An old rickety wooden bench stood in the
middle of the room, near the high stove which is to be found in all Siberian
houses. They silently seated themselves.