The Candle by Leo Tolstoi
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not
evil."—ST. MATTHEW V. 38, 39.
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 princes.
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
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."
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
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
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."
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
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 master.
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.
"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
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."
"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
"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
"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 places.
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.