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
"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.