The Czar: A Tale of the Time of the First Napoleon/Chapter 3
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Chapter III: Something Wonderful Happens to Ivan
|Chapter IV: Ivan's Horizon Widens→|
SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENS TO IVAN.
"Dir ist dein Ohr geklungen
WHEN Ivan awoke it was broad daylight; the shed was empty, and all around him still and silent. After a few moments of bewilderment, he remembered where he was, and a sudden terror seized him lest the boat might have come and gone, and his companions have crossed the river without him. So he threw on his shuba and hurried out. They were standing on the bank, watching eagerly for the boat—or rather for the boatman, of whom as yet there was no appearance, though they were tantalized by the sight of the empty boat lying high and dry on the opposite bank. Their irritation increased every moment, and curses were not wanting, which lost none of their effect uttered in that hard, resonant, metallic language.
At this point a new wayfarer joined the group. He came with long strides, as one in eager haste, and his annoyance at the delay seemed even greater than that of the rest. He was a fine, active, young fellow, neatly dressed, and with a mason's trowel stuck in the sash of his caftan, where all the others carried the indispensable axe. Seeing no sign of the approach of a boat, He grew pale, and ground his teeth with angry disappointment.
"Just like my luck!" he muttered. "As well throw myself into the river at once, as wait here much longer."
"Patience, friend," said the oldest of the mujiks. "Are we not all in the like case? Nay, we are worse off than you, for we have waited here all night."
"Worse off! you little know! With you it is a matter of a few kopecks; with me it is life and death. If I am not at Klopti by sundown, there is the knout for my back."
"Why? In Heaven's name, what have you done?"
"Done! nothing in the world but work at my trade, and pay my obrok truly to my lord" (for he was one of that numerous class of serfs who were permitted by their lords to work on their own account, upon payment of an annual tax, or obrok).
"But he raised my obrok three times, until at last I could scarcely live, and was left no chance of saving a rouble or two for the future. Then last summer I fell from the scaffolding of a house I was building, and was sore hurt. Only that the people I lodged with were good Christians, it would have gone ill with me. But I recovered, thanks to my patron St. Stefen; and when the spring came on I got work again—government work too, which is well paid. I made up my obrok, and then—why then, my brothers, the world went well with me, and my heart was light. Little Katinka, the daughter of the kind soul that took care of me while I was ill, was the prettiest girl in the quarter, and good and pure like a candle of white wax made to burn before the picture of a holy saint. So we gave each other our troth; and I think the Czar himself on his golden throne was scarce happier than I. But five days ago there came a messenger from Klopti to call me home at once. My lord wants to make him a new house, and must needs have me to build it for him and to teach the men of the village to build also. It was sudden; but my lord does not think much of us poor people—God forgive him!"
"But, brother;—what is it you call yourself?" asked the mujik who had spoken before.
"Stefen Alexitch, at your service."
"Well, then, Brother Stefen, why did you not set out at once? You would have been by this time at your journey's end."
"I know it. Indeed I was wrong, very wrong. But the very next day was Katinka's feast-day, and as I knew only too well that I was never likely to look on her sweet face again, I was tempted to stay, just that I might dance one more measure with her. I thought I could have walked more quickly. And now this cursed delay! God grant my lord may not lose patience altogether, and wreak his vengeance on my poor old father and mother! That would be worse than the knout across my own shoulders."
Stefen's narrative elicited many expressions of compassion.
"Poor lad! thy case is hard indeed," said one.
"Ah," sighed another, "how true the proverb, 'Heaven is high, and the Czar far off.'"
But at that moment a third exclaimed joyfully,—
"Look, brothers! the boat at last!"
So it was. At first it was seen to shoot rapidly across the strong current of the river; but by-and-by the rower seemed to flag, and his strokes grew uncertain and unsteady.
The mujiks were too glad to see him on any terms to be critical about the quality of his performances. They crowded to the river's brink, that they might be ready to spring into the boat the moment it touched the land.
Ivan took advantage of the confusion to steal up to Stefen and slip his silver rouble quietly into his hand. "Take it," he whispered. "It is all I have; but you can get a fairing with it to send to Katinka."
It was poor consolation; but he meant it well, and Stefen's sore heart was soothed by the gentle touch. He bent over the boy and kissed him. There was no time to do more; if they wished to get places in the boat, they must hasten.
The boatman, meanwhile, was volubly explaining the cause of his delay, his speech thickened with much vodka. A party of boyars—very great boyars, high and mighty excellencies—had come to the post-house on the Moscow road, and the post-master had kept him busy going on their errands, both last night and this morning. It was easy to see in what coin his services had been paid for ; he had taken so much vodka that he was scarcely able to row the boat at all, and, moreover, it was too heavily freighted for safety, not to say for comfort.
Ivan, had never been on the water before, and he soon became thoroughly frightened; not without reason. When they reached the middle of the river the boatman showed himself so manifestly incapable that Stefen offered to take the oars. Russian peasants are usually good-tempered, even when under the influence of vodka; but the boatman, unhappily, was surly and dogged by nature, and rudely refused to yield his place. For a few minutes Stefen waited quietly; then seeing that the man was allowing the boat to drift, to the peril of all their lives, he made an attempt to take the oars from him by force. The boatman resisted, and a struggle ensued, from which Ivan hid his face in terror; for now the two men were standing up, striking and pushing each other wildly, while the frail, heavily-laden boat swayed and rocked beneath their reckless feet. One was drunk, the other angry and "bitter of soul." At length Ivan heard a heavy plash close beside him. Hastily uncovering his eyes, he saw the waters closing over the luckless Stefen, and uttered a cry of horror. To his great relief, however, Stefen rose again to the surface, and one of the mujiks, seizing an oar, held it out to him. But either he had lost his presence of mind, or, more probably, his head had been hurt by the boat in falling. At all events, he made no effort to grasp the oar; and the mujiks—ignorant, stupid, and awkward, though not lacking in kindliness—gave him up for lost. Indeed, their own situation was critical enough; but they got to the shore somehow.
The boatman was sobered by the shock, and almost stupified with grief for what had happened. But the others crowded round him, and urged him to go and seek for poor Stefen's body, that he might at least be buried like a Christian. This he consented to do; and the task of finding it proved unexpectedly easy, for a miniature island, in the midst of the river, with a single tree growing upon it, had arrested the body as it was borne downwards by the strong current of the stream. The group on the shore waited in mournful silence while the boatman and two of the mujiks went and returned, bringing with them their solemn freight, which they laid sadly and reverently on the fair greensward, beneath the happy morning sun.
All crossed themselves and murmured a prayer for his soul; and the oldest of the mujiks detached a little sacred picture from his own neck and laid it on his breast.
It was Ivan's first meeting face to face with the king of terrors. The form so lately full of life and energy lay stiff and rigid; while the brow, the cheek, the lips—when he saw the strange and solemn change that had swept over all these, his young heart could bear no more, he lifted up his voice and wept. His tears unlocked the floodgates of the general sorrow; all the mujiks standing around him wept and wrung their hands, like the grown-up children that in truth they were.
Just at that moment, as if to throw into strongest relief the contrast between life and death, between earth's brightest sunshine and her deepest shadows, a young boyar from the party at the post-house came riding rapidly over the smooth greensward. Drawing near the weeping group, he checked his horse to a foot-pace, and Ivan turned and looked at him. There was no splendour in his dress—an officer's uniform, gray in colour and plain in fashion. But his face, which seemed to bring the glow and glory of the morning with it, held Ivan's gaze with a kind of fascination. Features almost perfect enough for the deathless marble of a Grecian sculptor might have worn no charm to his untrained eye, if they had not also beamed with a kindness and gentleness that took his heart at once. That bright, young face—the first beardless manly face he remembered to have seen—left itself for ever on his mind. It was destined to be the inspiration of his life; and when death closed his eyes, he had scarcely a clearer hope than to see it once again in the morning of the resurrection.
The boyar, meanwhile, had come quite close to the group ere he appeared to perceive distinctly the cause of their distress. But no sooner had he done so than he sprang from his horse, flinging the bridle to Ivan, who proudly accepted the charge. The next moment he w^as bending over the lifeless form; the next, he turned and said cheerfully to the mujiks standing near,—
"My children, this is not death. We will save him yet."
They were speechless with amazement. Was this stranger a holy saint, a worker of miracles? They knew at least that he was a nobleman and an officer, whom fortunately every instinct of their nature, every habit of their lives, taught them to obey without a question. Rapidly singling out two or three of the most intelligent-looking, he set them to work—working with them himself as Ivan, used to the dawdling, dreamy ways of the mujiks, had never in his life seen any one work before. By magic, as it seemed, poor Stefen's dripping clothes were removed, and he was wrapped in the warmest garments the mujiks could contribute for the purpose—Ivan, amongst others, gladly offering his little sheepskin shuba. Then the cold and rigid limbs were gently chafed, a work of time and patience. Those who were helping did mechanically whatever they were directed to do, while the rest looked on in a kind of wondering stupefaction. How could even a boyar expect to bring a dead man to life?
After a considerable time had been spent in this manner, the whole party from the post-house came up, boyars and servants, all on horseback. Instead of calling upon their companion to join them, as Ivan rather expected them to do, the boyars at once dismounted and joined him, leaving their horses on the road in the care of the servants. One of these drew near Ivan, and attempted to take his charge from him ; but he resisted.
"No," he said. "My boyar's hand gave this bridle into mine, and into no other but his will I give it back again."
"Let the boy alone, Ilya," cried another of the attendants, with a good-humoured laugh. "Let him keep his luck. It may not come twice in his life-time."
After that Ivan could not so easily see what was happening, though he watched intently and with the keenest interest. "His boyar" seemed to refer the matter, as to a person of superior authority, to a very tall, very stern-looking individual, who examined Stefen carefully, putting his hand on his heart and on his wrist. Presently, and rather to Ivan's horror, he drew from his pocket a sort of case, out of which there flashed a bright instrument of steel, like a thin sharp knife, and with this he proceeded to inflict a deep cut upon Stefen's arm; while, far from objecting, the young boyar carefully held it for him, and then produced a fine white kerchief of his own, which he gave him to bind the wound.
But still the pale, cold form lay there stiff and motionless. Was it death? or was it only a death-like swoon? It was the nobles who were busy now, chafing the cold hands and feet, and using every other possible means to restore animation; for the peasants had given place to them, and stood aside, silent and wondering spectators of the scene.
Time passed: life and death were struggling for the mastery, and the conflict was tedious and protracted. It was no even contest. From the first, victory seemed to incline to the side of the sable king. The chance of life, always desperate, lessened apparently with every minute, and when the minutes grew to hours it seemed to vanish altogether away. At last the tall surgeon shook his head, and turning to the boyar said something in a foreign tongue that evidently expressed despair. But he would not admit the thought. Ivan knew not, of course, what he said in answer, but it was easy to see that he had steadfastly resolved not to abandon hope, and that he was entreating, urging, even commanding the rest to continue their efforts.
Apparently for no purpose but to please him they obeyed. An interval followed of renewed exertion, though of ever- waning hope. At length, however, the surgeon's instrument flashed out once more, and almost immediately afterwards a thrill of emotion passed through the entire group. One shuddering sigh, one faint, low groan was heard from the lips that had seemed to be sealed for ever in Death. "Thank God!" said the boyar, raising the military cap from his stately head with its clustering chestnut curls. "This is amongst the brightest days of my life." Ivan stood near enough to see that his blue eyes were full of tears.
Whilst they gave Stefen a little vodka, and prepared a kind of litter in which to carry him to the post-house, several other persons came up, including the priest and the starost of the nearest village; for some of the mujiks had gone away and spread the story of the strange things they had been witnessing.
Then to Ivan's young eyes the scene became confused. Much happened that he could not exactly understand. But Stefen was alive—that at least was certain, for he saw him try to kiss the hand that had so patiently drawn him back from the gates of the grave. And now, for the first time, the thought occurred to Ivan that his triumph over Michael would be complete and glorious. Michael assuredly had never seen a dead man brought to life again!
At last the great people seemed to be preparing to pursue their journey. Ivan watched "his boyar" as he talked for some time to the priest and the starost, who stood before him with uncovered heads and an air of the deepest reverence; then, seeing him look for his horse, he led his charge forward, and held the stirrup gracefully while he mounted. He got a word of praise for his "long patience," and a bright piece of gold glittered in his hand.
"Take me with you, my boyar," he cried, with a sudden impulse. "Let me serve you; I would love to do it."
"My child, you shall serve me one day not yet," said the boyar, smiling.
A few moments more, and the stately cavalcade had moved away. Ivan stood in silence, unable to withdraw his gaze from the retreating figure of his hero until it was lost in the distance.
The white-haired priest came up to him and laid his hand on his shoulder. "My lad," he said, "do you know who has spoken to you—whose horse you have had the honour of holding?"
"Yes," said Ivan, wakening out of a dream; "no—yes—at least I know it was a boyar, a great, and good, and splendid boyar, with the face of an angel. I love him!"
"Then pray for him all the days of thy life, for know that he is none other than thy sovereign lord and mine, the Czar Alexander Paulovitch."
Ivan stared, then burst out laughing. " You are jesting with me," he said. "Nay, father, I am only a boy, but I know better than that. I am quite twelve years old, and I know very well that the Czar lives in St. Petersburg, and wears a golden crown, and sits upon a throne, and all the boyars stand uncovered around him."
"Still, I tell tliee truth. That handsome young officer was the great Czar himself the lord of all the Russias. To prove my words—I am a poor man, but I will give thee twice, three times its value for that coin in thy hand, which his hand touched."
Ivan shook his head. "No, no, father; I don't believe a word of your story ; but I love my boyar, and I will not give away his gift. He said I should serve him one day, and I mean to do it. Though, to be sure," he added, thoughtfully, "I might almost part with it for poor Stefen's sake, and to do a good deed. How will he dare to meet his master's face later than ever now?"
"Never trouble thyself for thy friend Stefen; he is rich enough this day to buy his freedom, if he will. He who gave him back his life has taken care to make that life worth the keeping."
"Then he can marry Katinka?"
"He can marry whom he pleases. Our lord the Czar never leaves anything half done."
"Oh! what a good day it has been! " and Ivan, in his own estimation far too old to be deceived by an idle story, was by no means too old to leap and dance for very joy.
"You believe that" said the priest; "then why do you doubt the rest of my story?"
"Because," returned Ivan, "I have wit enough to know that the great Czar, who 'is God upon earth,' as the proverb says, would not care for the life of a poor mujik, and toil hard to save it, as my boyar did this day."
"Well, fools will be fools while the world lasts. Here, take thy shuba; Stefen left it for thee when they brought him to the post-house. Go thy ways; and God teach thee that it shows more wit to believe what one is told than to question it."
"Good day, father," returned Ivan; "I am going home—to Nicolofsky, where people speak the truth to their neighbours."
With this parting shaft, he drew on his shuba, and turned his steps homewards, highly pleased with his adventure. What a story he would have for the starost and mativshka, for Pope Nikita and one-eared Michael, not to speak of Anna Popovna, by no means the least in his estimation!
He crossed the river without delay—the ferry-boat and the penitent ferryman being this time both in readiness—and then he resumed his journey on foot. As he walked, he ate the remainder of his bread ; for he had tasted nothing that day, and it was now long past noon. With a happy heart he pursued his way until about sunset, when fatigue obliged him to stop and rest. He lay down under a solitary fir-tree, intending only to indulge in a short—a very short slumber. But nature proved too strong for him: when he awoke again the sky was flushed with the light of early dawn. The remainder of his task was quickly accomplished: he walked into the starost's cottage as the family were sitting down to their morning meal of kasha, or stewed grain.
Warm was the welcome and great were the rejoicings that greeted his appearance. The poor people had been sorely terrified by the mysterious absence of their nursling, and they had sought him far and near, through the birch-wood and the cornfields, and even for some distance in the waste. They were preparing to renew the search that day with anxious and foreboding hearts.
Almost all Nicolofsky crowded to the starost's cottage to congratulate Ivan and to hear his wonderful story. Certainly, he had attained his object, if that object was to make himself the hero of the village, and totally and for ever to eclipse the exploits of Michael Ivanovitch!
But Ivan was no more the thoughtless little lad who set out two days ago in search of adventures. His young heart had awakened from the sleep of childhood; new feelings, vague and dimly comprehended, were beginning to stir it. As he trod his homeward way, full of all the wonders he had witnessed, a voice seemed to murmur within him, "And I, too, am a boyar." What did it mean to be a boyar? He had no words in which to express his thought; but the dawning light of a grand truth, faint and far off, shone upon him from the face of the first boyar he had ever seen, as it bent anxiously and tenderly over the mujik's senseless form—that to be greater than all the rest meant to do good to all the rest.
He told his adventures modestly and truthfully. What he had done with his silver rouble he told no one, but he showed the gold piece that had been given him with proud pleasure, and asked the starost to make a hole in it, as he wished to keep it always, and to wear it on the ribbon round his neck with the little iron cross put there at his baptism.
He told what the priest had said to him, adding, however, "But of course he was mocking me; no one could believe such a foolish story as that."
Every one present agreed with him, except Pope Nikita, who pondered awhile, and then said thoughtfully, "Who knows? it may have been. After all, One greater than the Czar put his hands upon the poor sick folk and healed them."
- Of course this would not be done now. But the scene is given exactly as it occurred.
- Alexander's part in the adventure told above is historically true, even to the smallest particular. The only liberty taken has been that of transferring the scene from the bank of the Wilia to that of the Oka. The story became known in England through a private letter, and the Royal Humane Society sent the Czar a medal—rather a singular "decoration" for a monarch. He "accepted it with a noble and modest simplicity," and profited by the circumstance to introduce a similar society into his own dominions. For the description of his personal appearance one contemporary authority amongst many may be cited: "Malgré la régularité et la délicatesse de ses traits, l'éclat, la fraîcheur de ses teints, sa beauté frappait moins à la premiére vue que cet air de bienveillance qui lui captivait tout les cœurs, et du premier mouvement inspirait la confiance.... Il avait l'œil vif, spirituel, et couleur d'un ciel sans nuages; sa vue était un peu courte, mais il possédait le sourire des yeux, si l'on peut appeler ainsi l'expression de son regard bienveillant et doux.... Son front chauve, mais qui donnait à l'ensemble de sa figure quelque chose d'ouvert et de serein, ses cheveux d'un blond doré, arrangés avec soin comme dans les belles têtes des camées ou des médailles antiques, semblaient faits pour recevoir la triple couronne de laurier, de myrte, et d'olivier."