Easter Eve Among the Cossacks

This is a bonus Bookshelf Companions post. Instead of me writing paragraphs that tell about a book, I’m going to share a story from the May, 1878 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls – just because I like it, and it gives a little history lesson about a long ago culture.

The original story had footnotes at the end, but I’m including those in brackets within the story. I wasn’t sure just what a Cossack was, so I looked it up and learned it meant “a member of a group of frontiersmen of southern Russia organized as cavalry in the czarist army.” (The New Britannica-Webster Dictionary)

Here is The Charcoal-Burners’ Fire; Or, Easter Eve Among the Cossacks (A Russian Legend) by David Ker:

“If you want me to tell you any wonderful stories, Barin, such as you’ve been telling us,” says Ostap Mordenko, shaking his bushy yellow beard, as he finished his cup of tea, “you’re just looking for corn upon a rock, as the saying is; for I never had an adventure since the day I was born, except that time when I slipped through a hole in the ice, last winter. But, perhaps, it will do as well if I tell you an old tale that I’ve heard many a time from my grandfather, that’s dead (may the kingdom of heaven be his!), and which will show you how there may be hope for a man, even when everything seems to be at the very worst.

“Many, many years ago, there lived in a village on the Don River, a poor man. When I say he was poor, I don’t mean that he had a few holes in his coat at times, or that he had to go without a dinner every now and then, for that’s what we’ve all had to do in our time; but it fairly seemed as if poverty were his brother, and had come to stay with him for good and all. Many a cold day his stove was unlighted, because he couldn’t afford to buy wood; and he lived on black bread and cold water from the New Year to the Nativity – it was no good talking to him about cabbage soup, or salted cucumber, or tea with lemon in it. [The three great dainties of the Russian peasant.]

“Now, if he had only himself to be troubled about, it wouldn’t have mattered a kopeck, [One third of a penny; one hundred kopecks equal one rouble.] for a man can always make shift for himself. But, you see, this man had been married once upon a time, and, although his wife was gone, his three children were left, and he had them to care for as well as himself. And, what was worse, instead of being boys, who might have gone out and earned something for themselves, they were all girls, who could do nothing but stay at home and cry for food, and many a time it went to his heart so that he stopped his ears, and ran out of the house that he mightn’t hear them.

“However, as the saying is, ‘Bear up, Cossack, and thou’ll be Maman (chief) some day;’ so he struggled on somehow or other, till as last it came to Easter Eve. And then all the village was up like a fair, some lighting candles before pictures of the saints; some baking cakes and pies, and all sorts of good things; others running about in their best clothes, greeting their friends and relations; and, as soon as it came to midnight, such a kissing and embracing, such a shaking of hands and exchanging of good wishes, as I daresay you’ve seen many a time in our villages; and nothing to be heard all over the place but ‘Christ is risen!’ ‘He is risen indeed!’ [The Easter greeting, and reply.]

“But, as you may think, our poor Stepka (Stephen) had neither new clothes or rejoicing in his hut – nor lighted candles either, for that matter. The good old priest had left him a few tapers as he passed, for he was always a kind man to the poor; but he had quite forgotten that the poor fellow would have nothing to kindle them with, and so, though the candles were in their places, all ready for lighting, there was not a glimmer of light to be be seen! And that troubled poor Stepka more than all his other griefs, for he was a true Russian, and thought it a sore thing that he could not even do honor to the day on which our Lord had arisen from the dead. Besides, he had hoped that the sight of the pretty light would amuse his children, and make them forget their hunger a little; and at the thought of their disappointment his heart was very sore.

“However, as the proverb says, ‘Sitting still won’t make one’s corn grow.’ So he got up and went out to beg a light from some of his neighbors. But the people of the village (it’s a pity to have to say it), were a hard-hearted, cross-grained set, who had not a morsel of compassion for a man in trouble; for they forgot that the tears of the poor are God’s thunder-bolts, and that every one of them will burn into a man’s soul at last, as good father Arkadi used to tell us. So when poor Stepka came up to one door after another, saying humbly, ‘Give me a light for my Easter candles, good neighbors, for the love of Heaven,’ some mocked at him, and others bade him begone, and others asked why he didn’t take better care of his own concerns, instead of coming bothering them; and one or two laughed, and told him there was a fine bright moon overhead, and all he had to do was to reach up a good long stick and get as much light as he wanted. So, you see, the poor fellow didn’t get much by the move; and what with the disappointment, and what with grief at finding himself so shabbily treated by his own neighbors, just because he happened to be poor, he was ready to go out of his wits outright.

“Just then he happened to look down into the plain (for the village stood on the slope of a hill), and behold! there were ever so many lights twinkling all over it, as if a regiment were encamped there; and Stepka thought that this must be a gang of charcoal-burners halting for the night, as they often did in passing to and fro. So, then, the thought struck him, ‘Why shouldn’t I go and beg a light from them; they can’t well be harder upon me than my own neighbors have been. I’ll try, at any rate!’

“And off he set, down the hill, right toward the encampment.

“The nearer he came to it, the brighter the fires seemed to burn; and the sight of the cheery light, and all the people coming and going around it, all so busy and happy, made him feel comforted without knowing why. He went up to the nearest fire, and took off his cap.

“‘Christ is risen!’ said he.

“‘He is risen indeed!’ answered one of the black men, in such a clear, sweet voice, that it sounded to Stepka just like his mother singing him to sleep when he was a child.

“‘Give me a light for my Easter candles, good people, I pray you.’

“‘You are heartily welcome,’ said the other, pointing to the glowing fire; ‘but how are you going to carry it home?’

“‘Oh, dear me!’ cried poor Stepka, striking his forehead, ‘I never though of that!’

“‘Well, that shows that you were very much in earnest, my friend,’ said the other, laughing; ‘but never mind; I think we can manage it for you. Lay down your coat.’

Stepka pulled off his old patched coat and laid it on the ground, wondering what was to come next; but what was his amazement when the man coolly threw two great shovelfuls of blazing wood on the coat, as coolly as if it were a charcoal bucket!

“‘Hallo! Hallo!’ cried Stepka, seizing his arm, ‘what on earth are you about, burning my coat that way?’

“‘Your coat will be none the worse, brother,’ said the charcoal-burner, with a curious smile. ‘Look and see!’

“And, sure enough, the fire lay quietly in the hollow of the coat, and never singed a thread of it! Stepka was so startled, that for a moment he thought he had to do, not with charcoal-burners, but with something worse; but, remembering how they had greeted him in the Holy Name, he became easy again.

“‘Good luck to you, my lad,’ said the strange man, as the Cossack took up his load. ‘You’ll get it home all right, never fear.’

“Away went Stepka like one in a dream, and never stopped till he got to his own house. He lighted all his candles, and then awoke his children (who had cried themselves to sleep) that they might enjoy the bonny light; and, when they saw it they clapped their hands and shouted for joy.

“Just then Stepka happened to look toward his coat, which he had laid down on the table, with the burning wood still in it, and started as if he had been stung. It was chock-full of gold – good, solid, ducats [The Russian word is “tchervontzi” – gold pieces worth five dollars each.]

“Now, just at that moment one of the neighbors happened to be passing, and hearing the children hurrahing and clapping their hands, he peeped through the window, wondering what they could find to be merry about. But, when he saw the heap of gold on the table, everything went clean out of his head, and he opened the door and burst in, like a wolf flying from the dogs.

“‘I say,’ cried he, without even stopping to give Stepka the greeting of the day, ‘where did you get this fine legacy from? It makes one’s eyes blink to look at it!’

“Now, Stepka was a good-hearted fellow, as I’ve said, and he never thought of remembering how badly this very man had treated him an hour or two before, but just told him the whole story right out, exactly as I tell you now. The other hardly waited to hear the end of it, but set off full speed to find these wonderful charcoal burners and try if he couldn’t get some gold out of them, too. And, as there had been more than a few listeners at the door while the tale was being told, it ended with the whole village running like mad in the same direction.

“When they got to the burners’ camp, the charcoal men looked at them rather queerly, as well they might, to see such a procession come to ask for a light all at once. However, they said nothing, but signed to them to lay their coats on the ground, and served out two shovelfuls of burning wood to each; and away went the roguish villagers, chuckling at the thought of getting rich so easily, and thinking what they would do with their money.

“But they had hardly gone a quarter of the way home, when the foremost suddenly gave a terrible howl and let fall his load; and in another moment all the rest joined it, till there was a chorus that you might have heard a mile off. And they had good reason; for, although the fire had laid in Stepka’s coat, it wouldn’t lie in theirs – it had burned right through, and their holiday clothes were spoiled, and their hands famously blistered, and all that was left of their riches was a smoke and smell like the burning of fifty tar-barrels. And when they turned to abuse the charcoal-burners, the charcoal-burners were gone; fires, camp and men had all vanished like a dream!

“But as for Stepka, his gold stuck by him, and he used it well. And always, on the day of his visit to the charcoal-burners, he gave a good dinner to as many poor folks as he could get together, saying that he must be good to others, even as God had been good to him. And that’s the end of my story.”