Page:The Czar, A Tale of the Time of the First Napleon.djvu/38

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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