THE BANK OF THE IRTYSH, May 7, 1890.
My greetings, honoured Marya Vladimirovna! I meant to write you a farewell letter from Moscow, but I had not time; I write to you now sitting in a hut on the bank of the Irtysh.
It is night. This is how I have come to be here. I am driving across the plain of Siberia. I have already driven 715 versts; I have been transformed from head to foot into a great martyr. This morning a keen cold wind began blowing, and it began drizzling with the most detestable rain. I must observe that there is no spring yet in Siberia. The earth is brown, the trees are bare, and there are white patches of snow wherever one looks; I wear my fur coat and felt overboots day and night. . . . Well, the wind has been blowing since early morning. . . . Heavy leaden clouds, dull brown earth, mud, rain, wind. . . . Brrr! I drive on and on. . . . I drive on endlessly, and the weather does not improve. Towards evening I am told at the station I can’t go on further, as everything is under water, the bridges have been carried away, and so on. Knowing how fond these drivers are of frightening one with the elements so as to keep the traveller for the night (it is to their interest), I did not believe them, and ordered them to harness the three horses; and now — alas for me! — I had not driven more than five versts when I saw the land on the bank of the Irtysh all covered with great lakes, the road disappeared under water, and the bridges on the road really had been swept away or had decayed. I was prevented from turning back partly by obstinacy and partly by the desire to get out of these dreary parts as quickly as possible. We began driving through the lakes. . . . My God, I have never experienced anything like it in my life! The cutting wind, the cold, the loathsome rain, and one had to get out of the chaise (not a covered one), if you please, and hold the horses: at each little bridge one could only lead the horses over one at a time. . . . What had I come to? Where was I? All around, desert, dreariness; the bare sullen bank of the Irtysh in sight. . . . We drive into the very biggest lake. Now I should be glad to turn back, but it is not easy. . . . We drive on a long strip of land . . . the strip comes to an end — we go splash! Again a strip of land, again a splash. . . . My hands were numb, and the wild ducks seemed jeering at us and floated in huge flocks over our heads. . . . It got dark. The driver said nothing — he was bewildered. But at last we reached the last strip that separated the Irtysh from the lake. . . . The sloping bank of the Irtysh was nearly three feet above the level; it was of clay, bare, hollowed out, and looked slippery. The water was muddy. . . . White waves splashed on the clay, but the Irtysh itself made no roar or din, but gave forth a strange sound as though someone were nailing up a coffin under the water. . . . The further bank was a flat, disconsolate plain. . . . You often dream of the Bozharovsky pool; in the same way now I shall dream of the Irtysh. . . .
But behold a ferry. We must be ferried across to the other side. A peasant shrinking from the rain comes out of a hut, and tells us that the ferry cannot cross now as it is too windy. . . . (The ferries are worked by oars). He advises us to wait for calm weather. . . .
And so I am sitting at night in a hut on a lake at the very edge of the Irtysh. I feel a penetrating dampness to the very marrow of my bones, and a loneliness in my soul; I hear my Irtysh banging on the coffins and the wind howling, and wonder where I am, why I am here.
In the next room the peasants who work the ferry and my driver are asleep. They are good-natured people. But if they were bad people they could perfectly well rob me and drown me in the Irtysh. The hut is the only one on the river bank; there would be no witnesses.
The road to Tomsk is absolutely free from danger as far as brigands are concerned. It isn’t the fashion even to talk of robbery. There is no stealing even from travellers. When you go into a hut you can leave your things outside and they will all be safe.
But they very nearly did kill me all the same. Imagine the night just before dawn. . . . I was driving along in a chaise, thinking and thinking. . . . All at once I see coming flying towards us at full gallop a post-cart with three horses; my driver had hardly time to turn to the right, the three horses dashed by, and I noticed in it the driver who had to take it back. . . . Behind it came another, also at full speed; we had turned to the right, it turned to the left. “We shall smash into each other,” flashed into my mind . . . one instant, and — there was a crash, the horses were mixed up in a black mass, my chaise was rearing in the air, and I was rolling on the ground with all my bags and boxes on the top of me. I leap up and see — a third troika dashing upon us. . . .
My mother must have been praying for me that night, I suppose. If I had been asleep, or if the third troika had come immediately after the second, I should have been crushed to death or maimed. It appeared the foremost driver lashed on the horses, while the drivers in the second and the third carts were asleep and did not see us. The collision was followed by the blankest amazement on both sides, then a storm of ferocious abuse. The traces were torn, the shafts were broken, the yokes were lying about on the road. . . . Ah, how the drivers swore! At night, in that swearing turbulent crew, I felt in utter solitude such as I have never felt before in my life. . . .
But my paper is running out.
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