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The Czar's Fish by David Ker

 

One fine July morning, a few years ago, there was a great stir among the villagers of Pavlovo, on the Lower Volga, for the news had got abroad that the Czar was coming down the river, on his way to his Summer Palace in the Crimea. So, of course, every one was on the look-out for him; for the Russian peasants of the Volga are a very loyal set, and many old men and women among them, who have never been out of their native village before, will tramp for miles over those great, bare, dusty plains on the chance of catching a passing glimpse of "Alexander Nikolaievitch" (Alexander the son of Nicholas), as they call the Czar.

Among those who talked over the great news most eagerly were the family of an old fisherman, who was known as "Lucky Michael," on account of his success in catching the finest fish, although hard work and experience had probably much more to do with it than any "luck."

But of late "Lucky Michael" had been very unlucky indeed. His wife had been ill, to begin with; and one of his two sons (who helped him with his fishing) had been disabled for several weeks by a bad hurt in his arm. Moreover, his boat was getting so crazy and worn out that it seemed wonderful how it kept afloat at all; but the news of the Czar's coming seemed to comfort him for everything.

"If Father Alexander Nikolaievitch would only give us money enough to buy a new boat!" said old Praskovia, Michael's wife, as she put away what was left of the huge black loaf that had served for breakfast; "but I suppose it wouldn't do to ask him."

"Of course not!" said Michael, who was an independent old fellow; "he's done quite enough for us already, in making us freemen, when we were all slaves before. Now, then, let's get to work. Come, Stepan [Stephen], come, Ivan [John], and let us see what God will send us."

But at first the luck seemed to be still against them, for they drew their net twice without catching anything. The third time, however, the net felt unusually heavy, and there was such a tugging and kicking inside of it that it was plain they had caught a pretty big fish of some kind. John, who was the first to look in, gave a loud hurrah, and shouted, "Father! father!—a sturgeon! a sturgeon!"

There, sure enough, lay the great fish amid a crowd of smaller ones, in all the pride of its spiky back, and smooth, brown, scaleless skin. All three rejoiced at the sight, for a sturgeon will always fetch a good price in Russia, and the two lads began to think at once how far this would go toward paying for a new boat.

They fished some time longer, and made one or two pretty good hauls; but the sturgeon was the great event of the day. John and Stephen wrapped it up carefully, and were quite proud to show it to their mother on getting home; but they looked rather blank at hearing their father say, in a way which showed that he meant it,

"This is the finest fish I've ever caught, and I won't sell it to any one. It's a Czar among fish, just like Alexander Nikolaievitch among us; so it shall be his fish, and I'll give it to him as he passes."

The news of Michael's fish, and of what he meant to do with it, soon spread through the village, and created considerable excitement. But there was not much time to talk it over, for, two days later, young Stephen, who had been sent to look out for the Czar's steamer, came running to say that it was in sight. So Michael put his sturgeon into the boat, and away they pulled. It was a hard pull against that strong current, but at last they got near enough to hail the steamer and be taken in tow.

Up went Michael, fish and all, and the captain led him aft to where the Czar and his officers were standing. Many of them were handsome, stalwart men, all ablaze with lace and embroidery; but the old fisherman, with his tall, upright figure, clear bright eye, and hale old face framed in snow-white hair, looked, despite his rough dress, as fine a man as any of them.

"See here, father," said he, "this is the finest fish I ever caught, and so I've kept it for you. I want nothing for it; take it as a free gift."

"Thank you, brother," said the Czar; "it's a royal fish, indeed, and I'll have it for dinner this very day, and drink your health over it. What's your name?"

"Michael Ribakoff, father, from the village of Pavlovo."

"Good—I won't forget you. Good-by!"

When the villagers heard what had happened, they all thought Michael rather a fool for giving his fish away, when the Czar would have paid a good price for it. But a week later came a fine new fishing-boat for "Michael Ribakoff," in the stern locker of which were a complete suit of fisherman's clothes and a new net, with a piece of paper inscribed, in the Czar's own handwriting, "A midsummer gift from Alexander Nikolaievitch." And old Michael always said that he valued the paper far more than the boat.