11. Between Two Banks
BY eight in the evening, the country, as the state of the sky had foretold, was
enveloped in complete darkness. The moon being new had not yet risen. From
the middle of the river the banks were invisible. The cliffs were confounded with
the heavy, low-hanging clouds. At intervals a puff of wind came from the east, but
it soon died away in the narrow valley of the Angara.
The darkness could not fail to favor in a considerable degree the plans of the
fugitives. Indeed, although the Tartar outposts must have been drawn up on both
banks, the raft had a good chance of passing unperceived. It was not likely either
that the besiegers would have barred the river above Irkutsk, since they knew
that the Russians could not expect any help from the south of the province.
Besides this, before long Nature would herself establish a barrier, by cementing
with frost the blocks of ice accumulated between the two banks.
Perfect silence now reigned on board the raft. The voices of the pilgrims were no
longer heard. They still prayed, but their prayer was but a murmur, which could
not reach as far as either bank. The fugitives lay flat on the platform, so that the
raft was scarcely above the level of the water. The old boatman crouched down
forward among his men, solely occupied in keeping off the ice blocks, a
maneuver which was performed without noise.
The drifting of the ice was a favorable circumstance so long as it did not offer an
insurmountable obstacle to the passage of the raft. If that object had been alone
on the water, it would have run a risk of being seen, even in the darkness, but, as
it was, it was confounded with these moving masses, of all shapes and sizes,
and the tumult caused by the crashing of the blocks against each other
concealed likewise any suspicious noises.
There was a sharp frost. The fugitives suffered cruelly, having no other shelter
than a few branches of birch. They cowered down together, endeavoring to keep
each other warm, the temperature being now ten degrees below freezing point.
The wind, though slight, having passed over the snow-clad mountains of the
east, pierced them through and through.
Michael and Nadia, lying in the afterpart of the raft, bore this increase of suffering
without complaint. Jolivet and Blount, placed near them, stood these first
assaults of the Siberian winter as well as they could. No one now spoke, even in
a low voice. Their situation entirely absorbed them. At any moment an incident
might occur, which they could not escape unscathed.
For a man who hoped soon to accomplish his mission, Michael was singularly
calm. Even in the gravest conjunctures, his energy had never abandoned him.
He already saw the moment when he would be at last allowed to think of his
mother, of Nadia, of himself! He now only dreaded one final unhappy chance;
this was, that the raft might be completely barred by ice before reaching Irkutsk.
He thought but of this, determined beforehand, if necessary, to attempt some
Restored by a few hours' rest, Nadia had regained the physical energy which
misery had sometimes overcome, although without ever having shaken her moral