Russia was threatened by a Tartar invasion. The commander of the Russian troops was the Czar’s brother, the Grand Duke, now stationed at Irkutsk. Suddenly all communication between him and the Czar was cut off by the enemy, under the leadership of Ivan Ogareff, a traitor, who had sworn to betray Russia and to kill the Grand Duke. It became necessary to send a messenger to the Grand Duke to warn him of his danger, and Michael Strogoff was chosen for that purpose. He was brought before the Czar, who looked this magnificent specimen of manhood full in the face. Then: “Thy name?”
“Michael Strogoff, sire.”
“Captain in the Corps of Couriers to the Czar.”
“Thou dost know Siberia?”
“I am a Siberian.”
“A native of—?”
“Hast thou relations there?”
“Yes, sire, my aged mother.”
The Czar suspended his questions for a moment; then pointed to a letter which he held in his hand: “Here is a letter which I charge thee, Michael Strogoff, to deliver into the hands of the Grand Duke, and to no one but him.”
“I will deliver it, sire.”
“The Grand Duke is at Irkutsk. Thou wilt have to traverse a rebellious country, invaded by Tartars, whose interest it will be to intercept this letter.”
“I will traverse it.”
“Above all, beware of the traitor, Ivan Ogareff, who will perhaps meet thee on the way.”
“I will beware of him.”
“Michael Strogoff, take this letter. On it depends the safety of all Siberia, and perhaps the life of my brother, the Grand Duke.” (Hands him letter.)
“This letter shall be delivered to His Highness, the Grand Duke.”
“Go, thou, for God, for the Czar, and for your native land.”
That very night Michael Strogoff started on his perilous journey. His path was constantly beset with dangers, but not until he reached Omsk did his greatest trial come. He had feared that he might see his mother in passing through the town. They stopped only for dinner and the danger was almost past, when, just as they were leaving the posting-house to renew their journey, suddenly a cry made him tremble—a cry which penetrated to the depths of his soul—and these two words rushed into his ear, “My son!” His mother, the old woman Marfa, was before him! Trembling she smiled upon him and stretched forth her arms to him. Michael Strogoff stepped forward; he was about to throw himself — when the thought of duty, the serious danger to himself and mother, in this unfortunate meeting, stopped him, and so great was his self-command that not a muscle of his face moved. There were twenty people in the public room, and among them were perhaps spies, and was it not known that the son of Marfa Strogoff belonged to the Corps of Couriers to the Czar? Michael Strogoff did not move.
“Michael!” cried his mother.
“Who are you, my good woman?”
“Who am I? Dost thou no longer know thy mother?”
“You are mistaken; a resemblance deceives you.”
Marfa went up to him, and looking straight into his eyes, said, “Art thou not the son of Peter and Marfa Strogoff?”
Michael would have given his life to have locked his mother in his arms. But if he yielded now, it was all over with him, with her, with his mission, with his oath! Completely master of himself, he closed his eyes that he might not see the inexpressible anguish of his mother.
“I do not know, in truth, what it is you say, my good woman.”
“My name is not Michael. I never was your son! I am Nicholas Horparoff, a merchant of Irkutsk,” and suddenly he left the room, while for the last time the words echoed in his ears.
“My son! My son!”
Michael Strogoff remembered—”For God, for the Czar, and for my native land,” and he had by a desperate effort gone. He did not see his old mother, who had fallen back almost inanimate on a bench. But when the Postmaster hastened to assist her, the aged woman raised herself. Suddenly the thought occurred to her: She denied by her own son! It was impossible! As for being herself deceived, it was equally impossible. It was certainly her son whom she had just seen; and if he had not recognized her, it was because he would not, because he ought not, because he had some strong reason for acting thus. And then, her mother feelings arising within her, she had only one thought: Can I unwittingly have ruined him?
“I am mad,” she said to her interrogators. “This young man was not my son; he had not his voice. Let us think no more of it. If we do, I shall end in finding him everywhere.”
This occurrence, however, came to the knowledge of Ivan Ogareff, who was stationed in the town. To obtain possession of any official message, which, if delivered, would frustrate his plans, and to detain the courier was his great desire. He succeeded in arresting Michael Strogoff, and then sent for Marfa to appear before him. Marfa, standing before Ivan Ogareff, drew herself up, crossed her arms on her breast, and waited.
“You are Marfa Strogoff?” asked Ogareff.
“Do you retract what you said a few hours ago?”
“Then you do not know that your son, Michael Strogoff, Courier to the Czar, has passed through Omsk?”
“I do not know.”
“And the man whom you thought you recognized as your son, was not your son?”
“He was not my son.”
“And since then, have you seen him among the prisoners?”
“If he were pointed out to you, would you recognize him?”
“Listen! Your son is here, and you shall immediately point him out to me.”
“All these men will file before you, and if you do not show me Michael Strogoff, you shall receive as many blows from the knout as men shall have passed before you.”
On an order from Ogareff, the prisoners filed one by one past Marfa, who was immovable as a statue, and whose face expressed only perfect indifference. Michael was to all appearances unmoved, but the palms of his hands bled under the nails which were pressed into the flesh.
Marfa, seized by two soldiers, was forced on her knees on the ground. Her dress torn off, left her back bare. A saber was placed before her breast at a few inches’ distance. If she bent beneath her sufferings, her breast would be pierced by the sharp steel. The Tartar drew himself up and waited.
“Begin,” said Ogareff.
The whip whistled through the air, but, before it fell, a powerful hand stopped the Tartar’s arm. Ivan Ogareff had succeeded.
“Ivan Ogareff!” and raising the knout, he struck Ogareff a blow across the face.
“Blow for blow.” Twenty soldiers threw themselves on Michael and in another instant he would have been slain, but Ogareff stopped them.
“This man is reserved for the Emir’s judgment. Search him.”
The letter bearing the imperial arms was bound in Michael’s bosom; he had not had time to destroy it. It was handed to Ogareff.
“Your forehead to the ground!” exclaimed Ogareff.
Two soldiers tried to make him bend, but were themselves laid on the ground by a blow from Michael’s fist.
“Who is this prisoner?” asked the Emir.
“A Russian spy,” answered Ogareff.
In asserting that Michael was a spy, he knew that the sentence would be terrible. The Emir made a sign, at which all bowed low their heads. Then he pointed to the Koran which was brought him. He opened the sacred book, and placing his finger on one of its pages, read in loud voice, a verse ending in these words: “And he shall no more see the things of this earth.”
“Russian spy, you have come to see what is going on in the Tartar camp; then look while you may!”
Michael Strogoff’s punishment was not death, but blindness. They drew a red-hot saber across his eyes, and the courier was blind! After the Emir’s orders were executed, thinking they had robbed Michael Strogoff of all power to do further harm, the Emir retired with his train, and Michael was left alone. But his desire to reach the Grand Duke was not quenched by this terrible calamity. He understood that Ivan Ogareff, having obtained his seal and commission, would try to reach the Grand Duke before he, himself, could possibly get there, carrying a false message, which would betray all Siberia. Michael, after disheartening trials in finding a trusty companion, finally succeeded and pushed on towards Irkutsk, only hoping he might reach the place before Ogareff should betray the city. At last, after a most painful fourteen days’ journey, he is at the very gate of the Governor’s palace. Entrance is easy, for confusion reigns everywhere. But Michael is in time. With his trusty companion he goes distractedly through the passages. No one heeds him. Michael opens one of the doors and enters a room flooded with light, and there he stands face to face with the one whose villainous hand would one instant later have betrayed all Siberia! “Ivan Ogareff!” he cries.
On hearing his name pronounced, the wretch starts. His real name known, all his plans will be frustrated. There is but one thing to be done; to kill the one who had just uttered it. Ogareff rises and sees the blind courier! Thinking he has an immense advantage over the blind man, he throws himself upon him. But with one hand Michael grasps the arm of his enemy and hurls him to the ground. Ogareff gathers himself together like a tiger about to spring, and utters not a word. The noise of his footsteps, his very breathing, he tries to conceal from the blind man. At last, with a spring, he drives his sword full blast at Michael’s breast. An imperceptible movement of the blind man’s knife turns aside the blow. Michael is not touched, and coolly waits a second attack. Cold drops stand on Ogareff’s brow; he draws back a step and again leaps forward. But like the first, this attempt fails. Michael’s knife has parried the blow from the traitor’s useless sword. Mad with rage and terror, he gazes into the wide open eyes of the blind man. Those eyes which seemed to pierce to the bottom of his soul, and which did not, could not, see, exercise a sort of dreadful fascination over him.
Suddenly Ogareff utters a cry: “He sees! He sees!”
“Yes, I see. Thinking of my mother, the tears which sprang to my eyes saved my sight. I see the mark of the knout which I gave you, traitor and coward! I see the place where I am about to strike you! Defend your life! It is a duel I offer you! My knife against your sword!” The tears, which his pride in vain endeavored to subdue, welling up from his heart, had gathered under his eyelids, and volatilized on the cornea, and the vapor formed by his tears interposing between the glowing saber and his eyeballs had been sufficient to annihilate the action of the heat and save his sight. Ogareff now feels that he is lost, but mustering up all his courage he springs forward. The two blades cross, but at a touch from Michael’s knife the sword flies in splinters, and the wretch, stabbed to the heart, falls lifeless to the ground. The crash of the steel attracting the attention of the ducal train, the door is thrown open, and the Grand Duke, accompanied by some of his officers, enters. The Grand Duke advances. In the body lying on the ground he recognizes the man whom he believes to be the Czar’s courier. Then in threatening voice, “Who killed this man.”
“I,” answered Michael.
“Thy name? I know him! He is the Czar’s courier.”
“That man, your highness, is not a courier of the Czar! He is Ivan Ogareff!”
“Ivan, the traitor?”
“But who are you, then?”
“And you come?”
“For God, for the Czar, and for my native land!”