16. A Final Effort
MICHAEL'S fear of meeting the Tartars in the plains beyond the Baraba was by
no means ungrounded. The fields, trodden down by horses' hoofs, afforded but
too clear evidence that their hordes had passed that way; the same, indeed,
might be said of these barbarians as of the Turks: "Where the Turk goes, no
Michael saw at once that in traversing this country the greatest caution was
necessary. Wreaths of smoke curling upwards on the horizon showed that huts
and hamlets were still burning. Had these been fired by the advance guard, or
had the Emir's army already advanced beyond the boundaries of the province?
Was Feofar-Khan himself in the government of Yeniseisk? Michael could settle
on no line of action until these questions were answered. Was the country so
deserted that he could not discover a single Siberian to enlighten him?
Michael rode on for two versts without meeting a human being. He looked
carefully for some house which had not been deserted. Every one was
One hut, however, which he could just see between the trees, was still smoking.
As he approached he perceived, at some yards from the ruins of the building, an
old man surrounded by weeping children. A woman still young, evidently his
daughter and the mother of the poor children, kneeling on the ground, was
gazing on the scene of desolation. She had at her breast a baby but a few
months old; shortly she would have not even that nourishment to give it. Ruin
and desolation were all around!
Michael approached the old man.
"Will you answer me a few questions?" he asked.
"Speak," replied the old man.
"Have the Tartars passed this way?"
"Yes, for my house is in flames."
"Was it an army or a detachment?"
"An army, for, as far as eye can reach, our fields are laid waste."
"Commanded by the Emir?"
"By the Emir; for the Obi's waters are red."
"Has Feofar-Khan entered Tomsk?"
"Do you know if his men have entered Kolyvan?"
"No; for Kolyvan does not yet burn."
"Thanks, friend. Can I aid you and yours?"
And Michael, having presented five and twenty roubles to the unfortunate
woman, who had not even strength to thank him, put spurs to his horse once