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Six Years at the Russian Court - by Margaret Eager



No life is without its compensations, and life in a Russian village has its bright side also. During the long winter evenings a professional story-teller comes round. He is kept and fed at the expense of the villagers, and in return he tells them wonderful tales about gnomes, pixies, and fairies in general. Or he will relate some historical tale, or even make and recite poetry to them. Russian poetry is in blank verse, and deals very often with heroic deeds. The Russian fairy, like its Irish prototype, is, as a general rule, a malignant being, always ready to do some mean or nasty trick; but the traditions regarding them differ in many respects. The Irish peasant will tell you that after the great war in heaven, when Satan was thrown out, there fell also with him many evil spirits. The worst of these evil spirits fell at once into hell, there to remain for evermore, but those who were less guilty got another chance and fell on the earth, where they may, by their good or evil deeds, ultimately work out their salvation or damnation.

Sometimes unaccountable bruises appear on one's body, these they regard with great horror; they are supposed to be the work of evil spirits who wish to get you out of the house. In Ireland these bruises are called "dead men's pinches." So in both countries a mystical origin is given to them. One class of Russian fairies inhabits the pools and streams of fresh water, and are specially to be found in wooded spots. The Russian peasant, wandering near, hears the sound of sweet singing; should he try to distinguish the sounds his name will be called aloud. If he is so unguarded as to answer, the wicked fairies throw themselves upon him and cry, "Thou art my beloved." He is drawn down into the water and returns no more. In both countries, should you be so unfortunate as to sneeze three times, unless someone calls out "God bless you," you are indeed in a perilous situation, for the fairies will surely have you then.

Twice a year the ferns blossom; they bear a large golden flower, gifted with the power of making the fortunate finder wealthy for life. One of these nights is midsummer night; the other, the Eve of the Feast of the Assumption. All through those two nights the peasants walk in the woods searching for the magic bloom. No one has succeeded in yet finding it, for the fairies are always on the look-out, and either throw dust into the eyes of the seekers, or divert their attention to something else, and break down the flower.

As might be supposed, fire plays an important part in their superstitions. In a peasant's house the fire is never allowed to go out. Should it by chance do so, there is great dismay, as the little old man who lives behind the chimney might be offended, or might even feel the cold and die. If the family move to another home, some of the fire is taken in a small saucepan or jar packed into a basket, and is sent on by a special messenger before the rest of the family follow. When it is placed on the hearth stone the fire genius is addressed somewhat as follows: "There, grandfather, rest easy, and be assured that your place will always be the warmest in the cabin." Should the fire go out, it shows that the spirit is displeased, and all sorts of dire calamities may be expected. When the house is locked up for the summer the fire is carried in the cart in a saucepan and attended to most assiduously.

Dreams are very much regarded, and interpreters of them are held in great respect. Many people will not take any important step in life without consulting the cards; fortune- tellers must reap a large fortune. I very often had my fortune told, and strange to relate a part of what was said always came true. At Christmas many are the chances taken to see what your future will be. Some of these I had already seen practised in Ireland. On a table seven saucers are arranged in a row. Under one is placed a ring; one is left without anything, a piece of white cloth in another, earth in another, a red cloth in another, a button, and a nut, and so over all the saucers is placed a cloth. These things signify marriage, no change, a parson, death, a soldier, an engagement, and a long journey. You are sent out of the room while the saucers are being arranged; then you are blind-folded and led up to the table, told to lift the cloth and put your hand into one. According to what you find will your future be. If you go into a room just at midnight and sitting between two mirrors gaze steadily into one, you are supposed to see gradually forming on the face of the glass- a picture, significant of your fate for the coming year. On midsummer night all unmarried girls go into the fields and gather seven different wild flowers. To sleep with these under the pillow is to insure a vision of her future husband.

There are many gipsies in Russia, and at Peterhoff I often witnessed their most extra ordinary marriage ceremony. Sunday is usually the day chosen for it. They choose a spot where they can drive round in a circuit. The bride and bridegroom -- the bride gorgeously dressed in a new print or muslin dress, a pair of white cotton gloves, and a piece of lace shaped like a three-cornered handkerchief with the corner hanging down behind, tied over her head and crowned with a wreath of artificial flowers take their places in a little pony-cart. After them come the groomsmen and bridesmaids, who are dressed like the bride, but without the crowning glory of the wreath, two in each cart; then the elders of the camp, the grave married people generally accompanied by a few children, and, last of all, the bachelors or widowers. This strange procession drives round the chosen route three times .and the marriage is accomplished. I t holds good and is quite legal. I suppose the presence of so many witnesses makes it so.

There are many ceremonies of blessings observed by the Russians. I have already spoken of blessing the food on Easter Saturday. On the first of July (old style) the apples and orchards generally are blessed, and the very worst boy in the village would not steal an apple before it had been blessed. After the blessing the fruit is offered for sale in the streets and market-places. After the ice has melted the fishing-boats are all blessed before they go to sea.

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