Snippets 185. One of the most brave and remarkable explorers in British history was the relatively little-known Lucy Atkinson (nee Finley). During the late 1830s and early 1840s she worked as a governess in St Petersburg, where she met her husband Thomas Atkinson. They were married in 1848 and set off on a grand tour of Siberia and Central Asia, which lasted until 1853. The following quote is from her account of her travels, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, published in 1863, and describes her disappointing arrival in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia.
As we travelled on, the roads varied; at times, the snow was so deep, we stuck fast, and were obliged to send to the villages for assistance. The country we now passed over was neither pretty nor interesting to us; it was one white waste, with a cold cutting wind; but the last stage to Omsk, the roads were entirely clear of snow. It was four o’clock p.m. of Saturday the 27th, when we reached the town; we drove to the house of the Police-master, having a letter for him from a young man, an acquaintance of his and ours, whom we had met on the road.
A Cossack presented himself. On our asking for his master, he said he was sleeping and could not be disturbed — at six we could see him, which was the hour he usually awoke. Mr. Atkinson told him he could not be kept waiting in the streets; that he must see him, therefore he must be awoke. The poor fellow asked us in, and went, apparently with great reluctance, to obey the orders.
In about ten minutes the sleeper made his appearance, in a dirty greasy dressing-gown. He had a most malicious countenance. With a shrill squeaking voice, he demanded our business. Mr. Atkinson handed him the letter from his friend. Having perused it, he flew into a great passion, and demanded how we dared to awaken him, and was turning upon his heel to walk away, when Mr. Atkinson presented his official papers, saying that perhaps those would command a little more civility than his friend’s letter had done. He took them, and having read them, appeared a little annoyed; he then called a Cossack, and gave him orders which we did not overhear. He said the man would conduct us to quarters.
We left him without his having recovered his equanimity of temper; the disturbing of his rest had been too much for him; indeed, I think both parties were mutually dissatisfied.
The Cossack now had us driven to the outskirts of the town, to a most horrible place — we had to pass through a room on the floor of which men were lying stretched out in all directions, some smoking, and others talking at the utmost pitch of their voices; it was not pleasant, and, moreover, the room we entered was cold; however, we succeeded in getting a fire and procuring something to satisfy our hunger — our sledge was unpacked, and we set about making ourselves as comfortable as we could under the circumstances. It was now near ten o’clock, so we were glad to spread the bear-skins on which to stretch our cramped and bruised limbs; for six nights I had not had my clothing off.
The following morning we were up early, Mr. Atkinson being desirous to call upon Prince Gortchikoff with his letters. He received us most politely, and acceded to Mr. Atkinson’s request for an escort to travel in the Steppe.
He then enquired what kind of quarters had been given to us. Mr. Atkinson informed him, and likewise what had occurred. He was very angry, and despatched a Cossack to the Police-master, with orders to have us removed immediately into proper quarters. The prince then invited Mr. Atkinson to dine with him, saying, how sorry he was that he had no lady to receive me.
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