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The pleasures of sledging rather exaggerated — A vasok — A kibitka
Cheapness of travelling -- A fellow-countryunan -- An adventure which befell him at Moscow — Character of sledge-drivers — A General and a jeweller — A Polish swindler of the fair sex.
Tamboff, February 2nd, 1838. The delights of sledging have always been cried up to me in the most exalted terms since I have been in this country. No doubt it is an excellent mode of travelling, when the snow is in a good state, and when the cold is not too intense ; since the pace is usually very rapid, and the risk of dangerous roads is avoided. I am, however, unable to appreciate the luxury, in which a Russian finds so much enjoyment, of driving about for amusement in the little sledges which are used in towns. Were there no other objection to this indolent pleasure, the coachman himself is a great hindrance to one's enjoyment, as he is too near to be agreeable, and his person entirely obstructs the view. Moreover the horse, and especially the outrigger, if there are two, sends up a perpetual shower of snow from his hoofs, which often compels one to close one's eyes. Still it must be owned that one of these sledges, with a well-dressed coachman to drive it, and a fine horse in the shafts, is a very pretty little equipage. The sledge is made of rosewood, mahogany, or some other handsome wood, well varnished, and neatly relieved by a little gilding; the apron being of cloth lined and edged with bearskin. The coachman wears a cloth caftan, edged with fur, and fastened round his waist by a gay-coloured sash. On his head he has a warm cap of crimson or blue velvet, with a fur band; while an ample and handsome beard is an essential ornament to his face. Sledges for family parties are made capacious enough to hold ten or a dozen people, being fitted like carriages with a pole, and drawn by four or even six horses. A close carriage, placed on runners instead of wheels, is called a vasok. It is a very convenient vehicle for town use, and it is preferred by many people for winter travelling on account of its warmth. A vasok adapted for this purpose has no springs; but it is not considered so safe for a journey when the roads are bad, and the snow is worn pinto holes, as the ordinary winter vehicle called a kibitka. Kibitkas are of various kinds, according to the taste or means of the owner ; the best sort being a species of calèche, warmly fitted up, and placed on runners.
The kibitka is closed with leather curtains instead of glass; and on each side near the ground projects a strong wooden elbow, so that the vehicle cannot easily be upset; the elbow being a necessary appendage for this purpose to all sledges intended for country use. The kibitka has shafts, and is driven tröjka ; that is, with three horses abreast. The traveller inside is able either to sit up or to lie down, stretching himself out as if he were in bed, the vehicle being built long for this purpose. The price of a first-rate kibitka is from twenty to five-and-twenty pounds.
The winter-roads in Russia were never known to be better than this year up to the present time, since the frost has been hard, and the quantity of snow on the ground moderate, both #of which are necessary conditions for the comfort of the traveller.
Russian travelling is not very expensive, even to strangers; but for those who know how to make a bargain its cheapness is almost fabulous. A gentleman who arrived here a short time ago on business from Kalouga, a distance of four hundred versts, or about three hundred miles, told us that instead of taking post-horses he had hired an istvostchik with a very good kibitka and three horses, for the period of his absence from home, at the rate of twenty-five roubles, or about a guinea, a week, the man undertaking to feed himself and his horses. On these terms the gentleman said that he was driven on his journey sixty miles a-day; that is to say, that he performed the whole distance in five days. Some of the Russian breeds of horses are wonderfully hardy and enduring; and I am told they will travel, especially in winter when the draught is light, sixty, eighty, and even a hundred versts, without more than a bait, and without being the worse for their exertions.
I have continued throughout the winter to take exercise on foot whenever I have been able to go out of doors, but walking is very fatiguing and disagreeable, owing to the slippery state of the footpath, and the necessary impediments of a heavy cloak and goloshes lined with fur. Few Russians like to use their feet when they can find any other mode of conveyance, and I should not have had any companion in my walks, had I not been fortunate enough to meet with a countryman who has been four years in Russia, and who was established here not long ago as tutor in the family of General A— Mr. R—and I have very often walked together, and we have enjoyed much pleasure in meeting with one another in this remote place, in talking together, and in comparing the observations which we have each made on the country.
Mr. R— tells me that two years ago at Moscow he met with an adventure which proved sufficiently serious, while it very nearly cost him his life. I believe I have already told you that there are in all considerable towns in Russia licensed istvostchiks, as they are called, who stand in the streets with droschkas for hire in summer, and sledges in winter. For the purpose of identification these men wear, attached to their necks, a tin plate with a number stamped on it. They do not in general bear a very high character, and in large towns it is not considered altogether safe at night to take ah unknown istvostchik in the street, especially in the winter. Robberies and murders have occasionally been perpetrated by these men, and a person wrapped up in a cloak is in a very defenceless position against an unexpected attack.
To return to my friend's story: he came one night out of a coffee-house at Moscow, stepped into a hack sledge, of which there were two or three waiting at the door, and directed the istvostchik to drive him to his lodgings. Unfortunately he neglected to make the porter of the house take down the number of the driver, who in that case would have known that he would be made responsible by the police for the safety of his fare, neither did he notice the man's number as he drove along. The night was bitterly cold, and R— was wrapped up in a fur pelisse with the collar put up round his head. Presently, as he was gliding quietly along, something was thrown over his head
from behind, and he was dragged out upon his back on the snow. Happily, however, the noose slipped off his neck when he fell, and he instantly got on his legs and saw an istvostchik in a sledge driving rapidly away. His own istvostchik sat quite still, and persuaded him that the other man was drunk, it being a fête-day, and that his attack was only intended as a joke. R— was not altogether satisfied with this explanation of the matter, but being in a lonely part of the town, and a good way from home, he at length got into his sledge again, having no suspicion that his own driver was a party to the attack, if a serious one had been intended. He, however, put down the collar of his pelisse, and kept looking over his shoulder to see that no one came up behind. While his attention was thus occupied, his driver turned suddenly into a dark street, nearly upsetting the sledge against the post at the corner, and almost at the same moment a rope was suddenly thrown over Mr. R—'s neck from the front, and he was a second time dragged out upon the snow. Before he could rise, three istvostchiks were upon him, who began stamping on his breast, and rifling his pockets. On his calling out for the police, one of the men put his hand inside the rope around his neck, and nearly strangled him by twisting it, while another thrust a hand into his mouth. A severe bite made him quickly withdraw it, and R— at the same time fortunately succeeded in slipping the rope off his neck; otherwise he would undoubtedly have been murdered. He was much hurt and nearly stunned, and the scoundrels* at length left him for dead, finishing their ill treatment with two or three stamps upon the breast. They robbed him of a gold watch and chain and two or three hundred roubles; and, what was even worse, they took away his pelisse, cap, and gloves. Thus exposed, he could not possibly have survived long, in twenty-seven degrees of frost. Happily, however, he was able to rise, though with difficulty, when he saw the three scoundrels driving away as fast as they could in their sledges. He tied a handkerchief round his head, and, knowing where he was, he made the best of his way to his lodgings, which happened to be not far off.
* When we were afterwards at Moscow, on returning one night to our hotel, we found the porter in the act of expelling one of these istvostchiks, and literally kicking him out of the house. Our liquris de place observed that the servant was but doing his duty, for that these fellows were in general such rascals, that, as he expressed himself, “ Poor as I am, I would not trust myself in one of their sledges at night, unless I knew something of the driver, for I should be almost sure to be robbed.”
He immediately sent for a surgeon, but it was a period of six weeks before he recovered the effects of his ill-treatment, his face having been severely bruised, and his eyes almost forced out of his head. Police officers came in the morning to receive his account of the attack made upon him, and a week afterwards, when he was able to leave the house, the master of police sent for him, and made three hundred istvostchiks pass in review before him. Among so large a number he was unable positively to identify the culprits, and though five were detained upon suspicion, and further inquiries were made, nothing was eventually discovered, and I need not add that poor R-- never recovered any of his property. His pelisse had cost eight hundred roubles, so that, with the watch and chain, and the money which was stolen, his loss must have amounted to sixty or seventy pounds, in addition to the personal injuries he had sustained. He found afterwards that the attack was premeditated, and that it was intended, not for himself, but for another gentleman, who frequented the same coffee-house, and who was known to carry habitually a considerable sum of money in his pocket.* The possibility of such an outrage being perpetrated with impunity in the heart of the city, and on a bright moonlight night, a circumstance which l omitted before to mention, does not say much for the vigilance with which the streets of Moscow are watched at night.[
The following anecdotes will show that the acuteness of the police is sometimes pretty severely taxed.
A person, dressed in the uniform of a General, entered the shop of a jeweller at Moscow, and asked to see some of his most valuable diamond rings; saying that he wanted one as
* Garrotting was, I believe, when these Letters were written, a crime unknown in London.
† The number of dark lanes with blank walls, and the lonely character of the streets of Moscow, render an efficient patrol extremely requisite, and at the same time, from the vast extent of the city, very difficult to establish. The lighting of the streets is disgracefully bad, except, as I am informed, when the Emperor is present.