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The Boy Emigrant in Russia by David Ker

A True Story.



Many years ago, when Peter the Great was Czar of Russia, and when the improvements that he was making all over the country gave foreign workmen a fine chance of earning high wages, a number of emigrants landed one cold winter morning at one of the Russian ports on the Gulf of Finland, to see if they could find work, as so many others had done.

A curious mixture they were—men, women, and children from every country on either side of the Baltic. Tall, fresh-colored Swedes, in gray frocks and thick blue stockings; stout, light-haired Germans, and ruddy, blue-eyed Danes; big-boned Pomeranians, with low foreheads and shaggy brown beards; and short, squat Finns, whose round puffy faces and thick yellow hair gave them the look of overboiled apple-dumplings.

But their first taste of Russia was not at all a pleasant one. At the port where they had landed it was the rule that all emigrants who came ashore should be kept in one place till the Czar's agents came to examine them; and the place where they were kept was an old warehouse, very bare and dismal-looking, with nothing in it but a few old sails and some heaps of straw. Here they remained for two days, while the snow fell and the wind roared outside, their food being brought them by the soldiers of the port. The men smoked their pipes and played cards, the women knitted stockings or mended the clothes of their husbands and children, while the little people played hide-and-seek in and out of the dark corners, and made the gloomy old place quite merry with their shouts and laughter.

But there was one boy (a bright-eyed little fellow with brown curly hair) who took no part in the fun, but sat in a corner by himself, chalking curious figures on the wall, which he seemed to copy from the book in his other hand. Any one who had looked closely at these figures would have seen that they were letters—Russian letters—and that sometimes he would write a whole word at once, and then put the meaning opposite it in German. In fact, he was teaching himself the language of this new country that he had got into, and seemed to be pretty well on with it, for every now and then he would leave off writing, and read a page of his book without meeting a single word that he could not master.

"Look at Karl Osterman yonder, slaving away at that book of his!" said one of the men. "Much good that'll do him! As if one could saw a plank or hammer a rivet any better for knowing that crack-jaw lingo!"

"He's going to teach the Russians their own language—that's what he's at!" grinned another. "A regular professor, ain't he? far too clever for poor fellows like us!"

"Ay, he'll be a great man one of these days," chimed in a third, with a hoarse laugh, "and then perhaps he'll be kind enough to give us a job."

Little Karl's eyes sparkled, and he set his lips firmly, as if making up his mind that he would be a great man yet, somehow or other; but he said nothing, and went quietly on with his work.

Suddenly the door flew open, and in came a Russian soldier in a shabby green uniform trimmed with faded gold lace. He was a very tall and powerful man, with a dark, weather-beaten face framed in close-cropped hair, and great black eyes that seemed to pierce right through any one whom they looked at.

"I say, my good fellows," cried he, "here's an order from the Czar, which I'm to paste up in this room; and I want to have it in German and Swedish as well as Russian, that every one who comes in may be able to read it. Perhaps one of you would kindly lend me a hand with the job, for I'm not very glib at foreign languages myself."

The men glanced meaningly at each other, and the two who had been making fun of Osterman looked rather sheepish, as if thinking that they had better have been learning Russian themselves instead of laughing at him.

"I'll do it for you, Mr. Soldier," said little Osterman, stepping boldly forward, "if there aren't any very big words in it. I've only got as far as three-syllable words in Russian yet, you know."

The soldier stared at him for a moment, and then began to laugh.

"Well, my boy, I don't think you'll find many big words on this paper; it's pretty plain sailing so far as it goes. See if you can read it."

Karl took the paper, and read it off easily enough.

"Well done, my fine fellow!" cried the Russian; "you're a smart lad for your age, I can see that. Now try if you can put it into German."

To work went our hero, with a look as solemn as any professor on his little round face. Once or twice he stopped as if at a loss for a word; but he got through at last, and having finished the German, began upon the Swedish.

"What? do you know Swedish too?" cried his new friend. "Why, man, you're a perfect dictionary!"

"My mother was a Swede," answered Osterman, "and she taught me her own language; and my father was a German, and he taught me his."

"You're a lucky fellow!" said the Russian, with a sigh. "I only wish I'd had some one to teach me when I was your age, I should know a great deal more than I do."

"What? didn't your father teach you, then?"

"He died when I was a mere child," said the Russian, sadly, "and my mother, too."

"Oh dear, I'm so sorry! But had you no brothers or sisters?"

"I had a brother, but he was blind, poor fellow, and couldn't help me; and as for my sister" (here his face darkened fearfully), "instead of being kind to me, she tried to have me killed!"

"What a shame!" cried the boy, indignantly, clinching a fist about the size of a large plum. "I only wish I'd been your brother!—I wouldn't have let anybody touch you!"

This valiant promise of protection, made by a tiny boy to a stalwart soldier of six feet three, tickled the other emigrants so much that they burst into a roar of laughter which made the old walls ring. But the soldier did not laugh; he only passed his hand tenderly over the child's curly head, and then stooped to look at the book which Karl had been reading.

"Ah! the story of Ilia the Strong. I used to be very fond of it when I was a boy. How do you like it?"

"Very much indeed. I didn't think I'd have time to finish it, when they said the Czar was coming to look at us; but I suppose he's too busy amusing himself to care about us poor fellows."

The soldier gave such a terrible frown that the men nearest him started back in dismay, and even Osterman himself looked startled. But the next moment the Russian's face cleared again, though it was still very sad.

"You shouldn't talk like that, my boy," said he; "the Czar would have come to you directly you landed, if he hadn't been ill. However, he's well again now, and I shouldn't wonder if you were to see him here to-day."

Just then the door opened again, and in tramped a dozen grand-looking officers in splendid uniforms, the foremost of whom, making a low bow to the shabby soldier, said, very respectfully, "All is ready, your majesty."

At the word "majesty," all the emigrants started as if they had been shot; for they now saw that this shabby-looking fellow, whom they had taken for a common soldier, was no other than the Czar Peter the Great himself. But little Osterman did not seem frightened in the least. He slid his soft little hand into the Emperor's huge brown fist, and cried joyfully:

"I'm so glad you're a good Czar after all, for the Czars that I've read about were all very bad fellows indeed, and I know I shouldn't have liked them."

"Well, well, my boy," said Peter, clapping him on the shoulder, with a hearty laugh, "I hope you'll find me a little better than some of them, even though I am an Emperor. Come along with me, and I'll find you something better to do than chalking an old wall."

The boy went with his new friend, and any history of Russia will tell you how high Osterman rose, and what great things he accomplished. Peter the Great made him his secretary; the Empress Catherine I. made him her chamberlain; and the Czar Peter II. gave him a title of honor; and before the Empress Anne had been many years on the throne, the little student whom his comrades had laughed at in the old warehouse thirty years before, had become Count Osterman, Prime Minister of Russia.