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
The severest hardship of post travel in eastern Siberia in winter is not the cold, but the breaking up of all one's habits of sleep. In the first stages of our journey, when the nights were clear and the river ice was smooth and safe, we made the distances between stations in from two to three hours; and at the end of every such period we were awakened, and had to get out of our warm fur bags into a temperature that was almost always below zero and sometimes forty or fifty degrees below. When we got back into our vehicles and resumed our journey, we were usually cold, and just as we would get warm enough to go to sleep, we would reach another station and again have to turn out. Sleeping in short snatches, between shivers, to the accompaniment of a jangling dinner-bell and a driver's shouts, and getting out into an arctic temperature every two or three hours, night and day, for a whole week, reduces one to a very fagged and jaded condition. At the end of the first four days, it seemed to me that I should certainly have to stop somewhere for an unbroken night's rest; but man is an animal that gets accustomed to things, and in the course of a week I became so used to the wild cries of the driver and the jangle of the thill-horse's bell that they no longer disturbed me, and I gradually acquired the habit of sleeping, in brief cat-naps, at all hours of the day and night. As we ascended the river, the moon rose later and later and the nights were often so dark that our drivers had great difficulty in following the line of evergreen trees that marked the road. Finally, about five hundred miles from Yakutsk, a particularly reckless or self-confident driver got off the road, went ahead at a venture instead of stopping to look for the evergreen trees, and just after midnight drove us into an air-hole, about a quarter of a mile from shore, where the water was thirty feet deep. Price and I were fast asleep, and were awakened by the crashing of ice, the snorting of the terrified horses, and the rush of water into the sleigh. I cannot remember how we got out of our fur bags and gained the solid ice. I was so bewildered by sleep and so completely taken by surprise that I must have acted upon blind impulse, without any clear consciousness of what I was doing. From subsequent examination of the air-hole and the sleigh, I concluded that we must have jumped from the widely extended outriggers, which were intended to guard against an accidental capsize, which had a span of ten or twelve feet, and which rested on the broken ice around the margin of the hole in such a way as to prevent the sleigh from becoming completely submerged. But be that as it may, we all got out on the solid ice in some way, and the first thing I remember is standing on the edge of the hole, staring at the swimming, snorting horses, the outlines of whose heads and necks I could just make out, and wondering whether this were not a particularly vivid and terrifying nightmare. For an instant, I could not be absolutely sure that I was awake. In a moment, the other sleigh, which was only a short distance behind, loomed up through the darkness and its driver shouted to our man, "What's the matter?"