Delighted at the prospect, the boys said that they should like a drive, and a few minutes later, descending to the courtyard, they found a sledge with three horses at the door.
“What a stunning turn-out!” Jack exclaimed, delighted. “We shall fancy we are princes, Dick, and get spoiled altogether for a midshipman’s berth.”
The sledge was of graceful form, painted deep blue. The seats were covered with furs, while an apron of silver fox-skin was wrapped round their legs. The driver sat perched up on a high seat in front. He was a tall, stately figure, with an immense beard. On his head was the cap of black sheep-skin, which may be considered the national head-dress. He wore a long fur-lined coat of dark blue, fitting somewhat tightly, and reaching to his ankles. It was bound by a scarlet sash round his waist. It had a great fur collar and cuffs. His feet were encased in untanned leather boots, reaching above the knees.
The horses were harnessed in a manner quite different to anything the lads had before seen. They were three abreast; the middle one was in shafts, those on either side ran free in traces, and by dint, as the boys supposed, of long training, each carried his head curved round outwards, so that he seemed to be looking half-backwards, giving them a most peculiar effect, exactly similar to that which may be seen in ancient Greek bas-reliefs, and sculptures of horses in ancient chariots. This mode of harnessing and training the horses is peculiarly Russian, and is rigidly adhered to by all the old Russian families. Over each horse was a blue netting reaching almost to the ground, its object being to prevent snow or dirt being thrown up in the faces of those sitting in the low sledge.
Cracking his whip with a report as loud as that of a pistol, the driver set the horses in motion, and in a minute the sledge was darting across the plain at a tremendous pace; the centre horse trotting, the flankers going at a canter, each keeping the leg next to the horse in the shafts in front. The light snow rose in a cloud from the runners as the sledge darted along, and as the wind blew keenly in their faces, and their spirits rose, the boys declared to each other that sledging was the most glorious fun they had ever had.
They had been furnished with fur-lined coats, whose turned-up collars reached far above their ears, and both felt as warm as toast, in spite of the fact that the thermometer was down at zero.
The country here differed in its appearance from that over which they had been travelling, and great forests extended to within two or three miles of the town.
“I suppose,” Dick said, “that’s where the shooting is, for I can’t fancy any birds being fools enough to stop out on these plains, and if they did, there would be no chance of getting a shot at them. How pretty those sledge-bells are, to be sure! I wonder they don’t have them in England.”