A RUSSIAN peasant sat out in the field. The sun was shining fiercely. In the distance the man saw something coming to him. It came nearer, and then he saw it was a woman. She was clad in a large cloak, and strode along with great strides. The man felt much afraid, and would have run away, but the phantom held him with its bare arms.
“Do you know the Plague?” said she. “I am it. Take me on your shoulders and carry me through all Russia. Miss no village or town, for I must go everywhere. For yourself fear nothing. You shall live in the midst of death.”
She wrapt her long arms round the neck of the fearful peasant. The man went on, and was astonished to find that he felt no weight. He turned his head, and saw that the Plague was on his back.
He first took her to a town, and when they came there, there was joy in all the streets, dancing, music, and jollity. The peasant went on and stood in the market-place, and the woman shook her cloak. Soon the dance, joy, and merriment ceased. Wherever the man looked he saw terror. People carried coffins, the bells tolled, the burial-ground was full; there was at length no room for more to be buried in it.
Then the people brought the dead to the market-place and left them there, having no place in which to bury them.
The wretched man went on. Whenever he came to a village the houses were left deserted, and the peasants fled with white faces, and trembling with fear. On the roads, in the woods, and out in the fields, could be heard the groans of the dying.
Upon a high hill stood the man’s own village, the place in which he was born, and to this place the Plague began to direct his steps. There were the man’s wife, his children, and his old parents.
The man’s heart was bleeding! When he came near his own village, he laid hold of the Plague so that she should not escape him, and held her with all his might.
He looked before him and saw the blue Pruth flowing past, and beyond it were the green hills, and afar off the dark mountains with snow-capped tops.
He ran quickly to the stream and leaped under its waters, wishing to destroy himself and his burden together, and so free his land from sorrow and the Plague.
He himself was drowned, but the Plague, being as light as a feather, slipped off his shoulders, and so escaped. She was, however, so alarmed by this brave deed that she fled away and hid herself in the mountain forests.
So the man saved his village, his parents, his wife, and his little children, and all that part of fair Russia through which the Plague had not passed.