CHAPTER XL. THE GREATEST HORSE-EXPRESS SERVICE IN THE WORLD - EQUIPMENT FOR THE ROAD - A SIBERIAN "SEND-OFF" - POST TRAVEL ON THE ICE - BROKEN SLEEP - DRIVING INTO AN AIR-HOLE - REPAIRING DAMAGES - FIRST SIGHT OF IRKUTSK
We put on our kukhlankas and fur hoods at last; shook hands once more all around; and finally got out into the street; - Malchanski dragging Schwartz off to his sleigh singing the chorus of a Russian drinking song that ended in "Ras-to-chee'-tel-no! Vos-khe-tee'-tel-no! Oo-dee-vee'-tel-no!" We then drank a farewell stirrup cup, which our bareheaded host brought out to us after we had taken our seats, and were just about to start, when Baron Maidel shouted to me, with an air of serious concern, "Have you got a club - for the drivers and station-masters?"
"No," I replied, "I don't need a club; I can talk to them in the most persuasive Russian you ever heard."
"Akh! Neilza!" ("Impossible") he exclaimed. "It is impossible to go so! You must have a club! Wait a minute!" and he rushed back into the house to get me a bludgeon from his private armory. My driver, meanwhile, who evidently disapproved, on personal grounds, of this suggestion, laid his whip across his horses' backs with a cry of "Noo, rebatta!" ("Now then, boys") and we dashed away from the house, just as the Baron reappeared on the steps brandishing a formidable cudgel and shouting: "Pastoy! Neilza!" ("Stop, it's impossible.") "You can't go without a club!" When we turned a neighbouring corner and lost sight of the house, our host was waving a bottle in one hand and a lighted candle in the other; Baron Maidel was still gesticulating on the steps, shouting: "Neilza! Hold on! Club! For your drivers! It's impossible to go so!" and the little group of "provozhatters" on the sidewalk were laughing, cheering, and shouting "Good-bye! Good luck! With God!"
We dashed away at a gallop through the snow-drifted streets, past earth-banked yurts whose windows of ice were irradiated with a warm glow by the open fires within; past columns of luminous smoke rising from the wide chimneys of Yakut houses; past a red stuccoed church upon whose green, balloon-shaped domes golden stars glittered in the frosty moonlight; past a lonely graveyard on the outskirts of the city; and finally down a gentle decline to the snow-covered river, which had a width of nearly four miles and which stretched away to the westward like a frozen lake surrounded by dark wooded hills. Up this great river - the Lena - we were to travel on the ice for a distance of nearly a thousand miles, following a sinuous, never-ending line of small evergreen trees, which had been cut in the neighbouring forests and set up at short intervals in the snow, to guide the drivers in storms and to mark out a line of safety around air-holes and between areas of thin ice or stretches of open water. I fell asleep, shortly after leaving Yakutsk, but was awakened, two or three hours later, at the first post-station, by the voice of our driver shouting: "Ai! Boys! Out with the horses - lively!" Two of us then had to alight from our sleighs, go into the post-station, show our podorozhnayas to the station-master, and superintend the harnessing of two fresh teams. Getting back into my fur bag, I lay awake for the next three hours, listening to the jangle of a big bell on the wooden arch over the thill-horse's back, and watching, through frosty eyelashes, the dark outlines of the high wooded shores as they seemed to drift swiftly past us to the eastward.