The Candle By Leo Tolstoy

It was in the time of serfdom–many years before Alexander II.’s
liberation of the sixty million serfs in 1862. In those days the people
were ruled by different kinds of lords. There were not a few who,
remembering God, treated their slaves in a humane manner, and not as
beasts of burden, while there were others who were seldom known to
perform a kind or generous action; but the most barbarous and tyrannical
of all were those former serfs who arose from the dirt and became

It was this latter class who made life literally a burden to those
who were unfortunate enough to come under their rule. Many of them had
arisen from the ranks of the peasantry to become superintendents of
noblemen’s estates.

The peasants were obliged to work for their master a certain number of
days each week. There was plenty of land and water and the soil was rich
and fertile, while the meadows and forests were sufficient to supply the
needs of both the peasants and their lord.

There was a certain nobleman who had chosen a superintendent from the
peasantry on one of his other estates. No sooner had the power to govern
been vested in this newly-made official than he began to practice the
most outrageous cruelties upon the poor serfs who had been placed under
his control. Although this man had a wife and two married daughters,
and was making so much money that he could have lived happily without
transgressing in any way against either God or man, yet he was filled
with envy and jealousy and deeply sunk in sin.

Michael Simeonovitch began his persecutions by compelling the peasants
to perform more days of service on the estate every week than the laws
obliged them to work. He established a brick-yard, in which he forced
the men and women to do excessive labor, selling the bricks for his own

On one occasion the overworked serfs sent a delegation to Moscow
to complain of their treatment to their lord, but they obtained no
satisfaction. When the poor peasants returned disconsolate from the
nobleman their superintendent determined to have revenge for their
boldness in going above him for redress, and their life and that of
their fellow-victims became worse than before.

It happened that among the serfs there were some very treacherous people
who would falsely accuse their fellows of wrong-doing and sow seeds
of discord among the peasantry, whereupon Michael would become greatly
enraged, while his poor subjects began to live in fear of their lives.
When the superintendent passed through the village the people would run
and hide themselves as from a wild beast. Seeing thus the terror which
he had struck to the hearts of the moujiks, Michael’s treatment of them
became still more vindictive, so that from over-work and ill-usage the
lot of the poor serfs was indeed a hard one.

There was a time when it was possible for the peasants, when driven to
despair, to devise means whereby they could rid themselves of an inhuman
monster such as Simeonovitch, and so these unfortunate people began to
consider whether something could not be done to relieve THEM of their
intolerable yoke. They would hold little meetings in secret places to
bewail their misery and to confer with one another as to which would
be the best way to act. Now and then the boldest of the gathering would
rise and address his companions in this strain: “How much longer can
we tolerate such a villain to rule over us? Let us make an end of it at
once, for it were better for us to perish than to suffer. It is surely
not a sin to kill such a devil in human form.”

See also  From The Diary Of A Violent Tempered Man By Anton Chekhov

It happened once, before the Easter holidays, that one of these meetings
was held in the woods, where Michael had sent the serfs to make a
clearance for their master. At noon they assembled to eat their dinner
and to hold a consultation. “Why can’t we leave now?” said one. “Very
soon we shall be reduced to nothing. Already we are almost worked to
death–there being no rest, night or day, either for us or our poor
women. If anything should be done in a way not exactly to please him he
will find fault and perhaps flog some of us to death–as was the case
with poor Simeon, whom he killed not long ago. Only recently Anisim
was tortured in irons till he died. We certainly cannot stand this much
longer.” “Yes,” said another, “what is the use of waiting? Let us act at
once. Michael will be here this evening, and will be certain to abuse us
shamefully. Let us, then, thrust him from his horse and with one blow of
an axe give him what he deserves, and thus end our misery. We can then
dig a big hole and bury him like a dog, and no one will know what became
of him. Now let us come to an agreement–to stand together as one man
and not to betray one another.”

The last speaker was Vasili Minayeff, who, if possible, had more cause
to complain of Michael’s cruelty than any of his fellow-serfs. The
superintendent was in the habit of flogging him severely every week, and
he took also Vasili’s wife to serve him as cook.

Accordingly, during the evening that followed this meeting in the woods
Michael arrived on the scene on horseback. He began at once to find
fault with the manner in which the work had been done, and to complain
because some lime-trees had been cut down.

“I told you not to cut down any lime-trees!” shouted the enraged
superintendent. “Who did this thing? Tell me at once, or I shall flog
every one of you!”

On investigation, a peasant named Sidor was pointed out as the guilty
one, and his face was roundly slapped. Michael also severely punished
Vasili, because he had not done sufficient work, after which the master
rode safely home.

In the evening the serfs again assembled, and poor Vasili said: “Oh,
what kind of people ARE we, anyway? We are only sparrows, and not men at
all! We agree to stand by each other, but as soon as the time for action
comes we all run and hide. Once a lot of sparrows conspired against a
hawk, but no sooner did the bird of prey appear than they sneaked off in
the grass. Selecting one of the choicest sparrows, the hawk took it away
to eat, after which the others came out crying, ‘Twee-twee!’ and found
that one was missing. ‘Who is killed?’ they asked. ‘Vanka! Well, he
deserved it.’ You, my friends, are acting in just the same manner. When
Michael attacked Sidor you should have stood by your promise. Why didn’t
you arise, and with one stroke put an end to him and to our misery?”

The effect of this speech was to make the peasants more firm in their
determination to kill their superintendent. The latter had already given
orders that they should be ready to plough during the Easter holidays,
and to sow the field with oats, whereupon the serfs became stricken
with grief, and gathered in Vasili’s house to hold another indignation
meeting. “If he has really forgotten God,” they said, “and shall
continue to commit such crimes against us, it is truly necessary that we
should kill him. If not, let us perish, for it can make no difference to
us now.”

See also  The Infra-Medians by Sewell Peaslee Wright

This despairing programme, however, met with considerable opposition
from a peaceably-inclined man named Peter Mikhayeff. “Brethren,” said
he, “you are contemplating a grievous sin. The taking of human life is a
very serious matter. Of course it is easy to end the mortal existence of
a man, but what will become of the souls of those who commit the deed?
If Michael continues to act toward us unjustly God will surely punish
him. But, my friends, we must have patience.”

This pacific utterance only served to intensify the anger of Vasili.
Said he: “Peter is forever repeating the same old story, ‘It is a sin to
kill any one.’ Certainly it is sinful to murder; but we should consider
the kind of man we are dealing with. We all know it is wrong to kill a
good man, but even God would take away the life of such a dog as he is.
It is our duty, if we have any love for mankind, to shoot a dog that
is mad. It is a sin to let him live. If, therefore, we are to suffer at
all, let it be in the interests of the people–and they will thank
us for it. If we remain quiet any longer a flogging will be our only
reward. You are talking nonsense, Mikhayeff. Why don’t you think of the
sin we shall be committing if we work during the Easter holidays–for
you will refuse to work then yourself?”

“Well, then,” replied Peter, “if they shall send me to plough, I will
go. But I shall not be going of my own free will, and God will know
whose sin it is, and shall punish the offender accordingly. Yet we must
not forget him. Brethren, I am not giving you my own views only. The law
of God is not to return evil for evil; indeed, if you try in this way to
stamp out wickedness it will come upon you all the stronger. It is not
difficult for you to kill the man, but his blood will surely stain your
own soul. You may think you have killed a bad man–that you have gotten
rid of evil–but you will soon find out that the seeds of still greater
wickedness have been planted within you. If you yield to misfortune it
will surely come to you.”

As Peter was not without sympathizers among the peasants, the poor serfs
were consequently divided into two groups: the followers of Vasili and
those who held the views of Mikhayeff.

On Easter Sunday no work was done. Toward the evening an elder came to
the peasants from the nobleman’s court and said: “Our superintendent,
Michael Simeonovitch, orders you to go to-morrow to plough the field for
the oats.” Thus the official went through the village and directed the
men to prepare for work the next day–some by the river and others by
the roadway. The poor people were almost overcome with grief, many
of them shedding tears, but none dared to disobey the orders of their

On the morning of Easter Monday, while the church bells were calling the
inhabitants to religious services, and while every one else was about to
enjoy a holiday, the unfortunate serfs started for the field to plough.
Michael arose rather late and took a walk about the farm. The domestic
servants were through with their work and had dressed themselves for the
day, while Michael’s wife and their widowed daughter (who was visiting
them, as was her custom on holidays) had been to church and returned. A
steaming samovar awaited them, and they began to drink tea with Michael,
who, after lighting his pipe, called the elder to him.

See also  Alfred Tennyson by Elbert Hubbard

“Well,” said the superintendent, “have you ordered the moujiks to plough

“Yes, sir, I did,” was the reply.

“Have they all gone to the field?”

“Yes, sir; all of them. I directed them myself where to begin.”

“That is all very well. You gave the orders, but are they ploughing?
Go at once and see, and you may tell them that I shall be there after
dinner. I shall expect to find one and a half acres done for every
two ploughs, and the work must be well done; otherwise they shall be
severely punished, notwithstanding the holiday.”

“I hear, sir, and obey.”

The elder started to go, but Michael called him back. After hesitating
for some time, as if he felt very uneasy, he said:

“By the way, listen to what those scoundrels say about me. Doubtless
some of them will curse me, and I want you to report the exact words. I
know what villains they are. They don’t find work at all pleasant. They
would rather lie down all day and do nothing. They would like to eat and
drink and make merry on holidays, but they forget that if the ploughing
is not done it will soon be too late. So you go and listen to what is
said, and tell it to me in detail. Go at once.”

“I hear, sir, and obey.”

Turning his back and mounting his horse, the elder was soon at the field
where the serfs were hard at work.

It happened that Michael’s wife, a very good-hearted woman, overheard
the conversation which her husband had just been holding with the elder.
Approaching him, she said:

“My good friend, Mishinka [diminutive of Michael], I beg of you to
consider the importance and solemnity of this holy-day. Do not sin, for
Christ’s sake. Let the poor moujiks go home.”

Michael laughed, but made no reply to his wife’s humane request. Finally
he said to her:

“You’ve not been whipped for a very long time, and now you have become
bold enough to interfere in affairs that are not your own.”

“Mishinka,” she persisted, “I have had a frightful dream concerning you.
You had better let the moujiks go.”

“Yes,” said he; “I perceive that you have gained so much flesh of late
that you think you would not feel the whip. Lookout!”

Rudely thrusting his hot pipe against her cheek, Michael chased his wife
from the room, after which he ordered his dinner. After eating a hearty
meal consisting of cabbage-soup, roast pig, meat-cake, pastry with
milk, jelly, sweet cakes, and vodki, he called his woman cook to him and
ordered her to be seated and sing songs, Simeonovitch accompanying her
on the guitar.

While the superintendent was thus enjoying himself to the fullest
satisfaction in the musical society of his cook the elder returned,
and, making a low bow to his superior, proceeded to give the desired
information concerning the serfs.

“Well,” asked Michael, “did they plough?”

“Yes,” replied the elder; “they have accomplished about half the field.”

“Is there no fault to be found?”

“Not that I could discover. The work seems to be well done. They are
evidently afraid of you.”

See also  Bill's Lapse By W W Jacobs

“How is the soil?”

“Very good. It appears to be quite soft.”

“Well,” said Simeonovitch, after a pause, “what did they say about me?
Cursed me, I suppose?”

As the elder hesitated somewhat, Michael commanded him to speak and tell
him the whole truth. “Tell me all,” said he; “I want to know their exact
words. If you tell me the truth I shall reward you; but if you conceal
anything from me you will be punished. See here, Catherine, pour out a
glass of vodki to give him courage!”

After drinking to the health of his superior, the elder said to himself:
“It is not my fault if they do not praise him. I shall tell him the
truth.” Then turning suddenly to the superintendent he said:

“They complain, Michael Simeonovitch! They complain bitterly.”

“But what did they say?” demanded Michael. “Tell me!”

“Well, one thing they said was, ‘He does not believe in God.'”

Michael laughed. “Who said that?” he asked.

“It seemed to be their unanimous opinion. ‘He has been overcome by the
Evil One,’ they said.”

“Very good,” laughed the superintendent; “but tell me what each of them
said. What did Vasili say?”

The elder did not wish to betray his people, but he had a certain grudge
against Vasili, and he said:

“He cursed you more than did any of the others.”

“But what did he say?”

“It is awful to repeat it, sir. Vasili said, ‘He shall die like a dog,
having no chance to repent!'”

“Oh, the villain!” exclaimed Michael. “He would kill me if he were not
afraid. All right, Vasili; we shall have an accounting with you. And
Tishka–he called me a dog, I suppose?”

“Well,” said the elder, “they all spoke of you in anything but
complimentary terms; but it is mean in me to repeat what they said.”

“Mean or not you must tell me, I say!”

“Some of them declared that your back should be broken.”

Simeonovitch appeared to enjoy this immensely, for he laughed outright.
“We shall see whose back will be the first to be broken,” said he. “Was
that Tishka’s opinion? While I did not suppose they would say anything
good about me, I did not expect such curses and threats. And Peter
Mikhayeff–was that fool cursing me too?”

“No; he did not curse you at all. He appeared to be the only silent one
among them. Mikhayeff is a very wise moujik, and he surprises me very
much. At his actions all the other peasants seemed amazed.”

“What did he do?”

“He did something remarkable. He was diligently ploughing, and as I
approached him I heard some one singing very sweetly. Looking between
the ploughshares, I observed a bright object shining.”

“Well, what was it? Hurry up!”

“It was a small, five-kopeck wax candle, burning brightly, and the wind
was unable to blow it out. Peter, wearing a new shirt, sang beautiful
hymns as he ploughed, and no matter how he handled the implement the
candle continued to burn. In my presence he fixed the plough, shaking
it violently, but the bright little object between the colters remained

“And what did Mikhayeff say?”

“He said nothing–except when, on seeing me, he gave me the holy-day
salutation, after which he went on his way singing and ploughing as
before. I did not say anything to him, but, on approaching the other
moujiks, I found that they were laughing and making sport of their
silent companion. ‘It is a great sin to plough on Easter Monday,’ they
said. ‘You could not get absolution from your sin if you were to pray
all your life.'”

See also  Old Amable By Guy de Maupassant

“And did Mikhayeff make no reply?”

“He stood long enough to say: ‘There should be peace on earth and
good-will to men,’ after which he resumed his ploughing and singing, the
candle burning even more brightly than before.”

Simeonovitch had now ceased to ridicule, and, putting aside his guitar,
his head dropped on his breast and he became lost in thought. Presently
he ordered the elder and cook to depart, after which Michael went behind
a screen and threw himself upon the bed. He was sighing and moaning, as
if in great distress, when his wife came in and spoke kindly to him. He
refused to listen to her, exclaiming:

“He has conquered me, and my end is near!”

“Mishinka,” said the woman, “arise and go to the moujiks in the field.
Let them go home, and everything will be all right. Heretofore you have
run far greater risks without any fear, but now you appear to be very
much alarmed.”

“He has conquered me!” he repeated. “I am lost!”

“What do you mean?” demanded his wife, angrily. “If you will go and
do as I tell you there will be no danger. Come, Mishinka,” she added,
tenderly; “I shall have the saddle-horse brought for you at once.”

When the horse arrived the woman persuaded her husband to mount the
animal, and to fulfil her request concerning the serfs. When he reached
the village a woman opened the gate for him to enter, and as he did so
the inhabitants, seeing the brutal superintendent whom everybody feared,
ran to hide themselves in their houses, gardens, and other secluded

At length Michael reached the other gate, which he found closed also,
and, being unable to open it himself while seated on his horse, he
called loudly for assistance. As no one responded to his shouts he
dismounted and opened the gate, but as he was about to remount, and had
one foot in the stirrup, the horse became frightened at some pigs and
sprang suddenly to one side. The superintendent fell across the
fence and a very sharp picket pierced his stomach, when Michael fell
unconscious to the ground.

Toward the evening, when the serfs arrived at the village gate, their
horses refused to enter. On looking around, the peasants discovered
the dead body of their superintendent lying face downward in a pool of
blood, where he had fallen from the fence. Peter Mikhayeff alone had
sufficient courage to dismount and approach the prostrate form, his
companions riding around the village and entering by way of the back
yards. Peter closed the dead man’s eyes, after which he put the body in
a wagon and took it home.

When the nobleman learned of the fatal accident which had befallen his
superintendent, and of the brutal treatment which he had meted out to
those under him, he freed the serfs, exacting a small rent for the use
of his land and the other agricultural opportunities.

And thus the peasants clearly understood that the power of God is
manifested not in evil, but in goodness.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *