By River and Road in Russia
IT happened that I, Edmund Ivanovich, deeply involved in furs, drove rapidly away on a winter morning from the house of my host, Vassily Nikolaievich, at Astrakhan, with the matured intention first of proceeding to the nearest station on the post-road, and then of plunging with my driver into the uncertainties and mysteries of the grand route to Tsarítsyn. That I only partially carried out this plan of action was due to quite unforeseen events, and these it is now my desire to narrate in the order of their occurrence. Let me first, tell the reader that I had decided to proceed to my destination by road, in the belief that the navigation on the Volga had actually closed for the season ; but on reaching the stantsia, or station, from which my journey would have really begun, I was informed not only that the river was still free from ice up to Tsaritsyn, but that an Astrakhan proprietor had declared that he would run one of his steamers to that point at all risks. Inquiries drew forth the further information that a boat named the Muravieff would leave Astrakhan the same evening, and that the local merchants, eager to avail themselves of an unexpected “ last, trip,” were having their consignments delivered at the quay with all speed. Feeling that a river passage to Tsaritsyn meant a saving of at least three days, I gave an order to my driver, and was soon moving westward, amid long lines of carts and wagons laden with goods for the Muravieff.
It was my first business, on reaching the quay, to seek an interview with the steamboat proprietor who had been credited with the hardihood of a determination to make his way to Tsaritsyn after navigation on the Volga was properly and duly closed for the year by official proclamation. The man held to his purpose quite tenaciously, and was fortified in his views regarding the freedom of the Volga from ice by a number of telegrams from various points along the route, setting forth the said freedom with more or less of detail ; he further drew my attention to the river, then free from even drift ice as far as the eye could reach, and finally pointed triumphantly to the piles of merchandise which lithe and halfnaked porters, Persian and Tatar, were rapidly transferring from the quay to the hold of the Muravieff. What was I to do at this juncture, — yield to the man’s optimism, and join in the confidence with which commercial Astrakhan evidently regarded his scheme, or trust to my own misgivings, and take the view of the enterprise held by some half dozen loiterers, who were audibly predicting not only failure but disaster to the attempt ? I knew little of the Volga, but I knew enough of it to be aware for how brief a time “ open ” water could be depended upon at that late period of the year, — was sufficiently acquainted, in fact, with the delta of the river, and its numerous turns and windings, to be keenly alive to the changes which, with the upper reaches of the stream already gorged with ice, a night, even an hour, might bring forth. After some deliberation I decided to take passage on the Muravieff; not at all because I believed that without a miracle the boat could ever reach Tsarítsyn, but because the chances seemed at least in favor of the steamer accomplishing a good half of its promised trip, and because a swift river run as far as, say, Chorny Yar, the half-way point, would repay me even for an expenditure in boat fare fully ten times higher than that exacted for like passages during open navigation. Dismissing my driver, I purchased a ticket, and formally joined fortunes with the hundred or more passengers who were waiting for the Muravieff to convey them to Tsarítsyn.
It was now three o’clock in the afternoon, and as the steamer would not begin her journey until seven P. M., there were four hours available in which to establish myself in new quarters and make preliminary acquaintances among the passengers. The companions of my trip included a large number of Russian merchants, several Persians, two commercial travelers of Greek nationality, a Siberian traveling to Arkliangel, a carriage manufacturer proceeding to Chorny Yar, and his brother, a student, on his way to the University at St. Petersburg. Most of the members of this heterogeneous gathering had discovered local habitations for themselves within the walls of the Muravieff hours before my own arrival on board that vessel, and for a time — so unceremoniously had the passenger accommodation of the steamer been encroached upon by merchandise — it seemed my fate to find my restingplace during the journey on the open deck, among the children of Iran, who were already paying their reverences to the departing sun. It was by a mere accident that, stumbling through a narrow passage, I came suddenly into a capacious cabin, where a lady and her husband were disposing of their impedimenta, and consigning their two children to sleeping-places for the night. A sentence of apology brought me an hospitable offer of tea; and when, above the music of a bubbling samovar, I was enabled to make my position understood, a pressing invitation relieved me from all further embarrassment on the score of quarters. I became the guest of the manufacturer and his wife from Chorny Yar, and of their brother, the student, journeying to St. Petersburg. It was in close intercourse with these kind and sociable people that I lived through the strangest and most unexpected adventures, and it was owing to their thoughtfulness that the rude realism of some of my subsequent movements came to be so pleasantly modified.
An unwonted cheer broke from the crowd on the quay as the Muravieff, her mooring-ropes thrown ashore and her gangways drawn in, steamed slowly out into deep water, and then, turning to the northward, headed for the broad, glittering mass along which, in the moonlight, long lines of white were already slowly creeping. For a few hours our progress was comparatively smooth, small groups of ice pellicles alone opposing the advance of the steamer. Just before midnight wakeful passengers became aware of larger masses of drift ice, snow covered, that broke with a loud crash against the vessel’s sides ; yet as the Muravieff seemed to brush away these obstacles with the greatest ease, the watchers retired to rest without special apprehension or anxiety. Judge, therefore, of my surprise on being roused the next morning with the information that the steamer had been brought to a complete standstill by an apparently impassable barrier of ice.
I went at once on deck, and there witnessed a spectacle which has remained deeply fixed upon my memory, and which, for weird sublimity, I have never seen equaled. The steamer lay in clear water, but ten yards ahead rose the jagged teeth of an immense ice block, stretching from shore to shore, more than half a mile in width, and running backwards for fully two thousand yards. The cause of the obstruction could be seen at a glance. Less than a mile ahead the river bent sharply to the left, and after describing almost a semicircle turned again into its old course. It was in this loop that the ice, at first merely hampered in its descent, had at last been caught as in a gorge, and the advance guard of the mass now lay before us, layer piled on layer, block welded to block, the whole frozen together in rugged shapes, rising out of the water like a fringe of rocks, just as pitiless, just as impenetrable. Far off, beyond the bend, the glimmer of open water could be perceived, but between it and us the ice field stretched for more than a mile. One by one the passengers appeared above the stairway, and had soon aggregated themselves into groups, from which came the sounds of eager, in some cases excited, conversation. By the majority, further advance was not to be thought of; a few were content to await the starting of the ice, which they thought might happen at any moment; one alone suggested the wisdom of a retrograde movement.
The captain evidently had a plan of his own, and as soon as day had fully lighted up the scene he took prompt measures for putting his scheme to the test. We heard him give an order to the engineer, and then, before any of us could anticipate what would follow, we found the Muravieff moving forward at full speed in the direction of the ice barrier. A few moments later a loud crash was heard, as the steamer, shivering from stem to stern, buried herself in the obstruction. The engines were at once reversed, and the Muravieff retreated slowly from the cavity which her hull had left in the ice field; but on reaching her former position she once more advanced to the attack, these movements being again and again repeated. At first it had seemed the captain’s purpose to force his way through the barrier, — a plan which, had it been entertained, would have abundantly deserved the epithet of foolhardy. Gradually we became aware of the more reasonable elements of the method of action resolved upon. In the first place, be it said, the Muravieff was in no danger ; iron-sided, otherwise strongly built, she had nothing to fear from rough usage. Her battery of the ice barrier, moreover, contemplated something much more easy of accomplishment than a downright destruction of the obstacle by dint of repeated blows. It was at least probable that, with fresh masses pressing against the upper side of the field, the ice might start, leaving the bend once again clear; and what would be more likely to aid such a movement than a series of persistent taps from the prow of the Muravieff ?
The day grew slowly to noon, the afternoon succeeded ; at sundown we were still struggling with our foe in front. Slice after slice had heen cut from the ice mass, now to right and now to left; slice after slice, separated from the bank by the broad hull of the steamer, had first lingered near us, and then gone down with the lazy current southwards ; but after a day’s work the block was as immovable as ever, while the Muravieff, judging by marks on shore, had not advanced sensibly from her first position. A night of rest followed, and then the Muravieff resumed her attack upon the barrier. Before noon a companion steamer, also laden heavily with merchandise, reached the scene of the block, and was for some time enabled to aid us, though but feebly, in our efforts to push forward. In the afternoon we had succeeded in reaching a patch of extremely thin ice, near the right bank of the river, and there found comparatively easy progress for a quarter of a mile. Then came the barrier again, more formidable than ever. Night at last fell redly, threatening new troubles, above all prophesying the direst enemy that -we had encountered yet.
On the morning of the third day I rose just before sunrise, and found the scene transformed. The thermometer had fallen ten degrees; the Muravieff lay motionless, frozen to the barrier, of which she had now become almost part and parcel; all around, everything not living, was stiff and stark. The natural desolateness of the spectacle had taken a new and forbidding aspect in the wan light and frosty air ; right and left long stretches of steppe joined their deserts of brown with the sullen hues of the ice field, making a scape of land and river that looked bare as if swept by a hurricane. One seemed, in fine, to be gazing on a petrified world, timeless as well as motionless, when all of a sudden a bright ray shot across the scene from the southeastern horizon. A few minutes later a round red ball had climbed into sight, and was tipping with fire some of the landmarks now so familiar to us: the long low building with a tower, to our right, not unlike a church; the river cliff above the bend in front; the bluff flanking the steppe-like plains on our left.
This beam of sunlight, heightening by contrast the bitter cold of the morning, and betraying the utter isolation of our position, as well as the hopelessness of our struggles, fell upon faces in which not a little consternation was beginning to be depicted. Throughout the first two days of their detention in the Volga the passengers had adapted themselves to the circumstances of their position not only with great good-humor, but with some of that elevation of spirits so often produced, as a sort of reflex action, by sudden or unexpected change in the character of one’s experiences. Social fraternization had almost given the aspect of a single family to a company whose elements were decidedly heterogeneous ; visits from cabin to cabin had brought together people not at all intersympathetic ; while what chess failed to accomplish in the way of assimilation was wrought by cards, above all by music. That the situation had any peril could not have entered into the thoughts of a single passenger; most of those on board, encouraged by the temporary success of the second day, were looking forward to an early resumption of their journey. But when the third day came and found the Muravieff frozen in, when the report ran from mouth to mouth that the provisions were becoming exhausted, and when the keenest vision failed to detect the slightest sign of a habitation in all the landscape round, then it was that a feeling of genuine alarm became almost general among the passengers.
Yet the captain did not give up his plan. He set the whole of his crew to the work of breaking up the ice around the steamer, and, this task accomplished, the Muravieff was led time after time against her old enemy. I need not further describe the labors of the third day. They proved fruitless, and when the fourth morning dawned the steamer was again frozen in, this time inextricably. One resource alone presented itself to the passengers, — that of making the best of their way to shore, and resuming their journey in the conveyances of the post-road. This saving scheme was all the more practicable because of the presence on the right bank of a number of peasants, who had seen the erratic movements of the steamer, and, having taken a business-like view of the situation, had hurried down to the river bank with a supply of carts and wagons. How royally welcome were these great rough fellows, in huge sheepskins and ponderous sandals, only we to whom their services meant so much can at all appreciate. To walk on foot to a distant village must have proved fatal to not a few of the passengers, a considerable number of whom were ladies; snow was falling and a wind abroad, the keenest I ever felt.
The peasants conveyed us safely over the four miles or thereabouts which separated our place of landing from the nearest station of the post-road. I ought here to explain that, strictly speaking, Russia has no roads, in the West-European sense of the word. The so-called roads are no more than broad, wellbeaten paths or tracks connecting villages with each other, traversing the steppe, or running across country between great towns; but none of them have been “made,” — constructed after the fashion, for example, of the French chaussées. The post-road in Russia is simply the road or way taken by the post-cart in parts of the country where there is no line of railway ; for sake of directness it usually follows the line of telegraph posts. Fortunately for the passengers of the Muravieff, the line of telegraph wire, and therefore the postroad, coincides with the course of the Volga, at times approaching, at times receding from, the river brink. The postroad is thus used for the postal service in Russia, but the passenger who takes that road cannot therefore be said to travel by the post-cart. He may never see the official vehicle at all. What he does is to hire the means of travel from those who are bound by contract to supply the postal authorities with the carts and horses needed to fill up the gap in the railway system.
The post-road between Yenotaivsk, the point at which we left the Muravieff to her winter quarters, and Tsarítsyn is divided into lengths of from ten to fifteen miles, each length or stretch ending in a station, of which the proprietor is the government letter-carrier, in accordance with the arrangement just described, as far as the next stopping-place. This stantsia is a kind of tea-house or refreshment-room. It is built of wood, and usually contains one, sometimes two, spacious waiting-rooms, the windows of which look out upon the courtyard. The station is always well heated, but it is not provided with beds, so that travelers are obliged to sleep in their furs, on the benches or floors of the waiting-room. So far as my own experience is concerned, I can recall only a single bed throughout my journey to Tsaritsyn. It is true that ladies are sometimes able to avoid this, the most disagreeable of all forms of “ roughing it ” along the postroad, but the exception is experienced only when the proprietor has succeeded in persuading some member of his family to surrender her resting-place for the night, and after the traveler has consented to pay specially for what is called “ extra accommodation.”
In some respects it was well that the manufacturer and his wife, the student and myself, were enabled to carry out our prearranged plan of keeping together at least as far as Chorny Yar, since our joint arrangement with the proprietors of the stations both lessened our expenses and facilitated our movements. Nevertheless, we suffered much from delay. Procrastination is the ineradicable vice of the Tsar’s letter-carriers, and they are masters of the situation into the bargain. Sometimes they will detain you a whole day, often for the mere purpose of gathering together as large a party as possible, and sending it off at a minimum of cost per individual for driving and horse fodder. But when a chinovnik, or government official, rides up, horses and vehicles appear with magical rapidity. There is a great cracking of whips, the proprietor casts his own personal exertions into the scale, and the representative of bureaucracy is dispatched to his destination at the head of a cavalcade long enough to satisfy the emperor himself. Officials enjoy the right of way along these postroads over all other travelers whatsoever, and woe to the man, traveler or carrier, who is found meddling with their supremacy!
In our case, moreover, the pleasures of actual travel formed by no means such a fair set-off against the pains of delay as would justify memory of the one in suppressing within us any specific recollection of the other. The roads were on the whole excellent, but the vehicles in which we traversed them menaced not a little the integrity of our desire as travelers to push on. Most of them were carts or wagons, neither elegant nor comfortable ; I must describe the horses used as probably the smallest and withal the sorriest nags to be seen in any part of Europe. One of the rudest of the post-carts — and two of us had it in the form of a first dose, administered by the peasants of Yenotaivsk — might have belonged primordially to the category of that wellknown Russian cart, the telega, but it had undergone too much degradation to be confidently claimed for any vehicular species. The spinal column, for example, showed a well-developed and by no means systematic curvature, while the rib-like processes arching upwards from it on each side had become open enough to permit of easy descents to the earth on the part of the passenger and his luggage. The tarantass presented itself in a variety of forms: sometimes it resembled a droshky, with the seats placed back to back ; occasionally it reminded me of an English butcher’s shandry, with inclosing sides. Not infrequently the men of the party were thrust into a square, box - like conveyance, — a sort of Boston herdic with the top knocked out.
What it was to ride four hundred versts across country in carts of that ilk the reader will best appreciate when he knows the atmospheric conditions of our journey up to Tsaritsyn. I shall tell him, then, that the mercury fell with a tolerably regular descent throughout the trip, and that on the warmest day there were moments when the Réaumur scale indicated 28 degrees of frost, — moments when to touch metal in the open air was to be seared as with a red-hot iron, and when water thrown up fell to the ground in a shower of ice. Now, to preserve sensations of bodily warmth at such times as these, even to enjoy the negative comfort of a sensible absence of cold, were alike impossible. Wrappings we had in plenty, and the tendency to use many of them was little resisted ; yet their effects were cumulative simply in magnifying the personal aspects of the party. The more multifold were our garments the more painful was the attack of the frost after it had penetrated them; the cooling — rather let me say, freezing—of the thickest of them was only a matter of time. We might sally forth from the station yard fresh and warm, yet half an hour’s riding would never fail to exhaust our largest stores of caloric, and leave every subsequent step of our progress to be stamped upon our memories with an acute sense of physical pain, from which, owing to the unavoidable exposure and the impossibility of motion apart from the vehicle itself, there was no escape.
There were, of course, times when our spirits ran so high as to make the exercise exhilarating, and awaken us somewhat to the picturesque aspects of experiences by no means commonplace. Poor as were the vehicles themselves, each had the great bow with its jingling bells, —that familiar feature of the Russian troïka, — and when the drivers took it into their heads to “go like the wind,” as they called it, our progress supplied a quite campanalian corrective to the monotony of the environing landscape. For a time our way ran through a part of the country wild and desolate in the extreme. In one stretch of fifteen miles we did not glimpse a single habitation. The stations are mere oases of wood lost in immense tracts of steppe land, without bush or tree. On each side of the traveler the country extends bare and level as far as the horizon ; or should snow enter into the prospect, as it did for us, then the dull, blinding sameness of the spectacle becomes almost unbearable. A journey, moreover, through plains like these has an effect both provocative and tantalizing, — the facility for seeing long distances at once excites and disappoints the imagination. In a hilly country, like, for example, my own Derbyshire, the nearness of the peaks is an unexpected companionship from far away, shortening the longest day’s journey, and making picturesque the traveler’s progress from horizon to horizon. The Russian steppe, on the other hand, exaggerates all distances, for it is smooth and open as the sea, shrinking away from the feet of man — himself a mere speck in its midst — in avast neutraltinted concave, whose well-nigh insufferable monotony is prolonged until it meets the greater and deeper concave of the sky. Under such circumstances as these, — the cold not only forbidding conversation, but depriving us of the slightest desire for it, — we fell into unwonted moods of reflection, and learned to practice not a little of that grim and patient resistance to physical pain to which the Great Russian has been inured for centuries.
Nothing could be happier or more welcome than the spirit in which, after long and exhausting rides, we were received at most of the stations. The proprietor and all his staff often came out to assist us in dismounting, and to deposit us and our luggage as speedily as possible under the hospitable roof of the well-warmed stantsia. It is true that the cuisine of the post-road is yet in its infancy; that anything more choice than tea, milk, wines, bread, and salted fish is usually unattainable, however ready the traveler may be to pay for more liberal fare. The passenger traffic over the post-road is much too small and uncertain to justify any special provision for the entertainment of travelers, who are for the most part people of the merchant class, remarkable for the simplicity of their tastes and the smallness of their necessities; hence tire station proprietors do not feel themselves called upon to supply anything more elaborate than simple food like that which is consumed by their own families. For myself, I found this diet, after so much appetizing exercise in the open air, much more satisfying than it could have been under other circumstances. On occasions, moreover, it was modified in unexpected ways. One proprietor supplied several draughts of milk from the Russian bison, — a somewhat greasy but highly nourishing fluid. Another cooked some river lampreys, serving them up with the pickled mushrooms which are so eagerly eaten throughout Russia. A third provided me with a dish of sterlet.
We reached the stations at all hours of day and night. At times they were empty and silent; oftener they were almost too full of passengers to receive any more. The busy aspect of the stantsia was then a spectacle in itself. Opening the door suddenly, half an hour before the wagons are expected, you find yourself in the midst of a group strangely picturesque and interesting. Half a dozen distinct parties, some of their members seated, others standing, have aggregated themselves about as many small tables, whereon a steaming samovar jostles several tea-glasses, a large bowl of milk, a bottle of wine, and probably a plate of fish, as well as a supply of bread, in the form known as kalach. The floor is strewn with half-open traveling-bags, from which various breakfast appliances and luxuries have just been withdrawn ; confusion reigns paramount. For a moment, everybody seems to be eating, drinking, and talking at the same time ; groups exchange gossip in all parts of the room ; the clatter of plates and glasses, reinforced even by the occasional pop of a champagne cork, struggles feebly up through the loud hum of interlaced voices. What surprises you most of all, perhaps, is to learn that these traveling parties met for the first time on the preceding night. Yet they are as intimate as if their acquaintance had existed for years. The family names have not yet been spoken, and are unknown; these jovial, sociable, goodhearted people are simple Piotr Ivanoviches and Anna Petrovnas to each other. It is in countries further west that genial spirits exact pledges of respectability before coalescing.
The first of the group to leave table and prepare himself for the next drive is Stepan Andréevich, a bustling, active man of about middle age, whose plump cheeks have trembled, since we first saw him, with many a peal of explosive laughter. First donning a heavy sheepskin, he binds it tightly to his waist by a leathern belt, into which he thrusts a revolver. He then arranges his bashlyk, — a strange head gear of coarse cloth, used to protect face and ears from the wind, descending with its strings almost as far as the belt, ending above in a sharp peak, higher than the wearer’s pate by a foot. Stepan Andréevich finally thrusts his feet into a pair of felt boots, reaching as high as his knees, and thus attired mounts his horse and rides away; looking at some distance much more like a knight of the Middle Ages than a realistic Russian merchant, going on a business expedition of thirty or forty miles.
In the window corner of the room sit two ladylike women, smoking cigarettes — one of them, the elder, a doctor on her way to the capital, the other a student returning to Moscow. The uniformed and epauleted youth who obtains permission to drink their health is a young soldier, called by military duty to Tsarítsyn. A haggard, indescribable figure, which has contrived to learn French and plays chess, — a sort of educated peasant in the rôle of farmer, — is making its way to Arkhangel. Fully a dozen of the rest are merchants, for they wear the attire of their class, and carry about with them in small bags the sugar necessary to their comfort when tea-drinking. Ivan Gavrilovich is evidently richer than any of his commercial brethren, as we may gather from the furs upon which he has been reposing, and from the rings that glitter upon his fingers ; yet, more parsimonious than all, he places a cube of sugar between his teeth, and is thus enabled to drink four or five glasses of tea in succession without further encroachment upon the treasures of his saccharine store. His wife attracts almost general attention. She has an agreeable face, oval in form, of smooth outlines, yet her great charm for the Russian merchants is the marble paleness of her features, above all the plump fullness of her whole figure. “ What beauty ! ” ejaculates one of her admirers. “ And what fatness ! ” adds another, completing the argument.
Further northward welcome modifications began to appear in the character of the landscape. Slight undulations, along the declivities of which the drivers urged their horses at almost breakneck speed ; a night drive in the moonlight under the right cliff of the Volga, followed by a trot over the ice of an extensive river bend to the left; a miniature ravine, deftly avoided; and on a slight eminence, the ruins of one of those ancient walled towns known to Russian archaeologists as gorodishché, — such appearances and experiences as these pleasantly replaced the earlier monotony of the post-road. At times we passed long trains of camels drawing merchandise, each annual attached by a string to the wagon in front, the whole in charge of about half a dozen armed drivers. Numerous windmills, standing in rows upon the plain, notified us of our approach to the first of the larger villages through which our route lay; we found it a struggling aggregation of one-story wooden houses, a hundred of them scattered over ground capable of accommodating a thousand with ease. It afterwards fell to my lot to see many Russian villages, but I was never able to discover the slightest deviation from the general plan in accordance with which they all seemed to be constructed. I have elsewhere spoken of the relation, in this country, of the native to his domicile, and of the domicile to his environment; for truly, if ever dwelling-house be autochthonous, it is so in Russia. Hence these villages, shifting and unsettled as the populations to which they give shelter; built on the arid plain, in the gorges of ravines, on the banks or in the deltas of rivers ; to-day engulfed in a landslip or to-morrow overwhelmed by a thunderstorm, yet oftener still scattered far and wide by the winds after the flames have done their work, — these villages, I say, symbolize and typify Russian life, its wide horizons, its straggling aims, its migrant fancies, its instability, its restlessness, better, perhaps, than anything else ever can.
The growing human interest of the journey was simply one of the signs of our nearness to that half-way point which I had hoped to attain by the Muravieff. At Chorny Yar, a town of a few thousand inhabitants, my trip terminated as member of the party to whose fortunes I had been attached since leaving the winter quarters of a forlorn steamboat at Yenotaivslt. As individual traveler, I readily accepted an invitation to spend a day with my friend the manufacturer before again committing myself to the mercies of the postroad. In a snug and cozy parlor, the comforts of which seemed to all of us unspeakable, we discussed the situation with a zeal as collective as if a decision were to affect not one only, but the whole four. It had taken tlnee full days and nights to reach Chorny Yar by the Russian diligence, as the student playfully called it; to complete the journey to Tsaritsyn by the postroad would therefore exact three days and nights more of combined progress and delay, to say nothing of jolting, famine, and brigands. In fine, it was deemed best that I should hire a carriage, and proceed to my destination independently of the station proprietors and the post-road. My friends aided me in the choice of a vehicle, inquired into the character of the driver, and fixed an hour at which he was to present himself on the following morning.
After a night of luxurious rest I resumed my journey. The new carriage was a sort of cross between an English gig and shandry, covered in and mounted upon stout springs. It proved a source of much comfort to me, but it failed to justify the expectations that had been formed of its speed. The fault lay, of course, not with the vehicle, but with the driver, who drank heavily in the villages, kept his horses — his solicitude for the animals amounting to a passion — at a slow trot all the way, and thought that twenty miles a day was as much as ought to be expected from a Russian yamshchik by the emperor himself. Once I had to take the reins, and threaten to leave the man behind ; to get rid of him altogether was impossible, however strongly that course appeared to me the preferable alternative. On another occasion he nearly overturned me into a ravine half concealed by snow. To see him in lucid moments was, I admit, to be disposed in his favor ; to deal with him when he had surrendered the reins to alcohol was to suffer indescribably from his mingled naïveté and clumsiness.
Observe that the situation was both disagreeably and unexpectedly new. I had discarded the post-carts altogether, and, though nobody could hinder me from traveling along the post-road, I had lost all right to accommodation at the stations, and could not even purchase a glass of tea in the humblest of them. For two nights longer, at least, I was to be on the road, and for the repose of those nights I should have to depend upon the chance hospitality of villagers. That an intoxicated driver would be of much service to me I could not hope. To push on as rapidly as possible was evidently the best way out of the dilemma, and for some hours I succeeded in keeping the horses at a fair pace. It was, nevertheless, dusk before we turned into the broad roads of the next village.
The driver halted at the door of a house standing somewhat alone, and occupying part of the space of a large courtyard. Our first knock brought to the outlet a young man, dressed like a farm hand, who, on hearing of our necessities, at once invited us in. Leaving the driver to enter the courtyard and stable his horses there, I groped my way with some difficulty through a room quite dark, the floor of which had been strewn with straw. A line of bright light finally appeared, and slowly grew to the width of an open doorway, through which I stepped, after my guide, into the kitchen. The light shed by two oil lamps, suspended from the roof, fell upon a spectacle novel even to me. An immense whitewashed brick stove, strongly resembling a stout square chimney, was radiating an almost stifling heat throughout the apartment; from ledges in the brickwork ran four or five rows of shelves to similar ledges in the opposite wall. The lowest of these crossboards had a distance of about six feet from the floor ; the apertures between them were little more than a foot and a half in width. From one of the shelves I noticed the dependence of bed-clothes, and on closer observation I saw that on the lower shelf a man and his wife had already retired for the night. From the next aperture a somewhat youthful figure leaned lazily out to listen to the conversation, and also to gain a glimpse of the visitor. Two robust-looking girls were busily at work when I entered, the one knitting stockings, the other spinning. But the work was at once thrown aside, and in a few minutes this hospitable household had prepared for me a rude but welcome meal.
In the conversation which followed I learned that I had taken refuge in the domicile of three married brothers, engaged in agriculture, who were living together, with their wives. The six had organized their work on a communistic plan, for the house and land belonged to them in common, and their earnings went into a common purse. That the women were a year or two older than their husbands was in thorough accordance with the customs of the Russian peasantry. The parents who have sons marry them as early as possible, in order that a second pair of working arms may be brought into the household, since married lads continue to find a home, with their wives, beneath the paternal roof. The parents who have daughters, on the contrary, keep them unmarried as long as possible, in order that the working strength, which in case of marriage would be surrendered to the fatherin-law, may be retained at home.
From these three families I gained much information concerning country people and their ways, the women carrying on the conversation until late into the night. But when at last the time came for retirement I found myself in somewhat of a dilemma. Two chairs, an old bench, and several stools were the only furniture which the place contained ; to occupy one of the shelves was out of the question ; to take to the floor was, to say the least, undignified. I cut the knot by spreading my furs on the bench ; comfortably deposited whereon, I remember finding myself just beneath the household icon. A glance at the Madonna would have assured me even in a nest of professional robbers, and I fell asleep forthwith. The house was astir next morning at four o’clock, although it then lacked many hours of daylight. My driver, who had found comfortable lodgings for the night in an outhouse, joined me at breakfast, and at eight A. M., in the gray dawn just beginning to steal over the landscape, we were ready to depart. One preliminary alone remained, that of paying for our accommodation ; but the charge made by these simple people was so small - five copeks, that is to say, scarcely three cents of American money — that I had to insist upon my own estimate of the value of our entertainment.
On the second evening we reached a village about an hour before midnight. Here I found a kind of inn, at which something equivalent to the English " lodgings for man and beast ” was offered. I had no sooner concluded arrangements with the landlord, and settled myself for repose, when the noise of the tramping of many feet was suddenly heard. The domestics called out Burlaki! and at once every one ran to the door. In the bright moonlight I saw a great crowd surging past, with a march as persistent and an aspect as multitudinous as that of a tidal wave ; above it ascended the roar, not of the sea, but of voices, — of mutterings, ejaculations, shouts, cries, of wild exclamations, of delirious screams, of drunken songs, of howls uttered in the vertigo of intoxication. The numbers of this human flood seemed such as no man could count; only after the first bewilderment was over could it be seen that the mass moving by was composed wholly of men. Illuminating at first only the total confusion of the spectacle, the moon began to light up separate clusters, groups, and finally individuals. The strangest figures then came into sight: beings attired fantastically, some in rags, others well-nigh nude ; countenances besmeared with soot, imparting to the eye a demoniacal glare by the simplest effects of contrast; heads overflowing with matted disorder. In a moment the mass had swept past, and the sound of its vanishing came up on the night air like the retreating voice of many waters. I had simply witnessed a migration of the burlaki, or river boatmen, from point to point on the Volga, yet the spectacle was one that I have never fancied even in my dreams.
On reaching the village of Popovitskaya, the following afternoon, an unexpected difficulty presented itself. There was no possibility, we were informed, of proceeding further, the road being blocked by brigands. As a piece of coronation clemency, many of the southern prisons had been opened in the interest of certain non-political criminals, and the objects of the emperor’s favor in the autumn were now pursuing a successful career of robbery; sweeping the steppe in bands, despoiling the traveler of his horses and baggage, shooting him dead should he resist. At first my driver refused point-blank to proceed. He pointed to our defenseless condition, both of us being unarmed. Then he told me, as a clincher, that the horses were borrowed, and that he would have to replace them should they be stolen. Having no time to waste, I insisted on going forward, — our journey had already been prolonged to an outrageous extent. He thereupon asked me to remain in the village until daylight on the following morning. “ The robbers,” he added, “ won’t be abroad, and we shall have company.” I declined his proposition, knowing that a night frittered away meant a whole day lost. Moreover, by traveling in the night I hoped to reach Tsaritsyn early enough on the following day to catch the afternoon train for the north. Finally I promised to make good his horses in case they were stolen, and he consented very reluctantly to start; muttering, as we set out from Popovitskaya at dusk, a phrase which meant that he committed himself to the will or favor of God.
Twenty-eight versts of desolate country, mist-covered and all a-glimmer with the light of a hidden moon, we traversed that night; myself in not a little apprehension, my driver whistling continually, after the fashion of his class, to hold evil afar off. Towards the morning, we overtook a well-armed party in charge of a camel caravan, and were glad to follow in its rear. On reaching Sarepta I was informed that our escape was a mere chance ; that only a week before two travelers had sallied forth from the settlement, armed to the teeth, and had been brought back lifeless, — murdered and robbed by the brigands. But we were now out of all danger. From Sarepta it is only five or six hours’ ride to Tsaritsyn, and I was thus enabled to catch the afternoon train to the north, after ten days’ journeying by river and road.