Page:The Czar, A Tale of the Time of the First Napleon.djvu/49

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there was abundant leisure, in which the young people amused themselves with games of babshky—little pieces of mutton bone, which they used as English children use nine-pins—while their elders sat beside the stoves, and too often enlivened their gossip with much vodka. In this respect, however, Nicolofsky contrasted rather favourably with other villages, since the starost and the pope were both temperate men and set a good example.

They were great friends, and during their long confidential talks one question often came uppermost, What was to be done with Ivan when he grew up? In a country like Russia, where sons almost invariably followed the calling of their fathers, and every man's position was assigned him by the fact of his birth, it was peculiarly difficult to find a niche for a waif like Ivan. A mujik, of course, he could never be; nor a priest, since he was not a popovitch, or priest's son; nor a merchant, that would have been a terrible degradation for one who was born a boyar; nor a soldier, for his village friends had not the influence necessary to procure him a commission, while had he been drawn for a recruit they would at once have provided a substitute. But Ivan was not old enough to share these perplexities. The knowledge that he was by birth a boyar, with the desire, sincere though ignorant and wavering, to be worthy of his destiny, sufficed him for the present.

Thus two long winters passed away. A second spring had come, heralded by the eight days of drinking and carousing which the Russians call the Mässlanitza, or "Butter-week." Then the long fast went slowly by. At last came the crown of the Russian year, with Easter eggs, and joyous greetings, and manifold festivities.

One fine evening, a few weeks after, a kibitka, or rude one-horse vehicle, drove up to the starost's door. Its occupant, a well-dressed man, whose hair and beard of iron gray showed him past the prime of life, flung the rope that served him for a