ONCE upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman, who had been married many years and had no children, and when they were yet old they prayed to God to give them a child who might help them in their work as they advanced in years. Their prayer was heard. When seven years had passed the old woman gave birth to seven sons, and they were all called Simeon. When the children were ten years old the old man and his wife died, and the sons began to till his ground.
It chanced that one day the Czar Ados came past, and, seeing them working in the fields, he was astonished to see such little fellows doing such work. He sent one of his nobles to ask whose children they were. So the noble came to them and asked who they were who worked so hard. The eldest Simeon told him that they were orphans and had no one to work for them. As for their names they were all called Simeon.
When the Czar got back to the palace he called together all his nobles and asked them their opinion, saying—
“My lords, there are seven orphans who have no kinsfolk. I will make them such men that they shall be grateful to me. Now, I want your advice as to what trade or art I shall have them taught.”
Then all answered—
“Gracious sire, since they are old enough and have ability, we think it would be best to ask each of them what trade or art he wishes to learn.”
The Czar was pleased with this advice, and asked the eldest Simeon—
“Tell me, friend, what trade or art would you like to learn? I will see that you are instructed in it.”
The lad answered—
“May it please your majesty, I wish to learn no art, but if you will order a smithy to be built in the middle of your court, I will smithy a column which shall reach to heaven.”
The Czar saw that this Simeon required no teaching, since he was such a smith, for he showed him very costly work, but he did not believe that he would be able to smithy a column that should reach to heaven. However, he ordered a place to be built in the middle of his yard, and the eldest Simeon set to work.
Then the Czar asked the second Simeon—
“And you, my friend, what art will you learn?”
“Your majesty,” said he, “I do not wish to learn any business or trade, but when my brother has finished the column, I will stand on the top of it, look around into all the countries, and let you know what is passing in each of them.”
The Czar perceived that there was no need to teach this lad anything, since he was so clever already.
Then he said to the third Simeon—
“What business or what art will you learn?”
“Your majesty,” said he, “I do not wish to learn either handiwork or art, but if my eldest brother will make me an axe, I will build a ship in an instant.”
“Such a man do I want,” said the Czar. “You, too, have nothing to learn.”
“And you,” said the Czar to the fourth Simeon, “what handiwork or what art do you wish to learn?”
“Your majesty,” said he, “I do not wish to learn anything, but, when my brother has finished his ship, and it is attacked by the enemy, I will seize it by the prow, carry it to the underground kingdom, and, when the enemy is gone, I will put it again on the sea.”
The Czar was very much astonished, and said—
“You, too, have nothing to learn.”
Then he spoke to the fifth brother—
“And you, Simeon, what handiwork or what art will you learn?”
“I want to learn nothing, your majesty,” said he, “but if my eldest brother will make me a gun, I will shoot with it any bird that flies, however far off it be, so that I am able to see it.”
“You will be an excellent sportsman,” said the Czar.
Then he asked the sixth brother—
“Well, Simeon, what art do you wish to learn?”
“I wish to learn no art, your majesty,” said he, “but if my fifth brother shoots a bird, I will catch it before it comes to the ground and bring it to your majesty.”
“That is very clever,” said the Czar. “You will do instead of a dog in the field.”
Then the Czar asked the last brother—
“And you, Simeon, what handiwork or art will you learn?”
“I want to learn neither handiwork nor art, your majesty,” replied he, “for I already know a precious art.”
“What is it,” asked the Czar, “that is so good?”
“I am so skilful at stealing,” said he, “that no one can beat me at it.”
When the Czar heard that the lad was acquainted with such a wicked art, he was angry, and said to his nobles—
“My lords, let me have your advice as to how this thief, Simeon, should be punished. What death should he die?”
“Your majesty,” said they all, “why should he die? It is not unlikely, since he is such a clever thief, that he may prove useful in some case.”
“How so?” asked the Czar.
“Your majesty,” said they, “has during the last ten years sought the hand of the Czarina, the beautiful Helena, in vain, and lost many armies and much treasure. Now this thief, Simeon, may devise some means of stealing the Czarina for your Majesty.”
“You say well, my friends,” observed the Czar, and he went and said to the thief—
“Now, Simeon, can you wander over seven and twenty countries into the thirtieth and steal for me the beautiful princess, Helena? I love her very much, and if you procure her for me you shall be well rewarded.”
“We will see to it,” said he, “you have but to command.”
“I do not merely command,” said the Czar, “but I beg of you not to remain longer at my court, but to take what armies you wish to effect your purpose.”
“I do not want either your armies or your treasure,” said the thief. “Only send all of us together, for I can do nothing without the others.”
The Czar did not wish for all the brothers to go, but though he thought it hard, he was obliged to consent.
In the meantime the eldest brother had completed the iron column in the smithy in the court of the palace. The second brother climbed up to the top, and from there he saw the kingdom of the fair Helena’s father. He called out to the Czar Ados—
“Your majesty, beyond twenty-seven countries in the thirtieth there sits, at a window, the Czarina, the beautiful Helena. How fair she is! One can see every blue vein in her white skin.”
Then the Czar was more in love with her than ever, and cried out to the Simeons—
“My friends, set out as quickly as you can and return soon. I can live no longer without the beautiful Helena.”
The eldest Simeon smithied a gun for the third brother, and carried bread for the journey. The thief took with him a cat, and so they set out. Now the thief had so trained the cat that it ran after him everywhere, just like a dog, and when he stood still it stood by him, on its hind-legs, rubbing against him and purring. So they went on till they came to the shore of a sea over which they must pass. For a long time they walked about on the shore and looked for wood, in order to build a ship, and at last they came to a great oak. The third brother took his axe and cut away at the root. The oak was brought to the ground, and a ship was in a moment built from it, filled with all kinds of precious things. The brothers entered the ship and sailed away.
After some months they came to the place they sought, and cast anchor in the harbour. The next day the thief, taking his cat, went into the town, and, coming to the Czar’s palace, stood in front of the Princess Helena’s window. His cat at once stood up on its hind-legs and began to rub itself against him, and to purr. Now a cat had never before been seen in that kingdom, nor, indeed, had the people knowledge that there was any such animal.
The princess sat at the window, and, when she saw the cat, she sent out her servants and maids to ask Simeon if he would sell it, and if so, what he wanted for it. The servants came to Simeon, and asked him what kind of animal the cat was, and whether he would sell it.
“Tell her majesty, the beautiful Helena,” said the thief, “that the animal is called a cat. I cannot sell it, but, if her majesty pleases, I desire the honour of making her a present of it.”
The attendants took the message to the princess, who, when she heard it, was delighted, and coming out of her chamber she asked Simeon why he would not sell the cat.
“I cannot sell the cat, your majesty,” said he, “but, if you please, I will give it to you.”
The princess took the cat in her arms, and going back to her apartment, told Simeon to follow. When they were in the palace, she went to her father, the Czar Say, showed him the cat, and told him that a stranger had given it to her. The Czar was very much pleased with the strange animal, and ordered that the thief Simeon should be brought to him. When he came, the Czar wished to give him treasures in return for the cat, but, as Simeon refused all, the Czar said to him: “My friend, stay for a while in my palace. The cat will become more familiar to my daughter if you are here.”
Simeon, however, did not wish to stay, and said—
“It would give me the greatest pleasure, your majesty, to stay in your palace if I had not a ship in which I came to your country, and which I can leave in charge of no one. If, however, your majesty wishes it, I will come every day to the palace, and get the cat accustomed to your daughter.”
So the Czar ordered him to come. Simeon went every day to the beautiful Princess Helena, and one day he said to her—
“Gracious lady, I have come a long while to you, but I have noticed that you never go out. Would you not like to see my vessel? I could show you fine goods, gold-stuff, and diamonds, such as you have never seen.”
The princess went away to her father, and begged his permission for her to take a walk on the quay. The Czar gave it her, but told her to take her attendants and maids with her. So the princess went with Simeon. When they had come to the quay, Simeon invited the princess on board his vessel, and, calling his brothers to show her all the various goods, he said, after a time—
“Tell your servants and maids to leave the ship so that I can show you some costly things they must not see.”
So the princess bade them leave the vessel. When she was alone, the thief ordered his brothers to cut the cable, set all sail, and put out to sea. In the meanwhile he amused the princess, showing her the things, and giving presents to her. So they spent several hours examining the goods. At last the princess told him that it was time for her to go home, as the Czar would be expecting her. But when she went up out of the cabin, she saw that the vessel was already far out at sea, and that she was far away from the coast. Then she beat upon her breast, changed herself to a swan, and flew upwards; but the fifth Simeon, seizing his gun, shot at her, and the sixth caught her as she was falling into the water and brought her to the vessel. The princess became a young woman once more.
The attendants and maids, who had gone to the quay with the princess, and had seen the ship sail away with her, told the Czar of the trick Simeon had played them, and he ordered that all his fleet should go in pursuit. It had come near to Simeon’s vessel, when the fourth brother laid hold of the vessel by the prow and dragged it off to the underground kingdom. The sailors of the fleet saw the vessel vanish, and they thought that it had sunk with the beautiful princess; so, going back to the Czar Say, they told him of the ship’s disappearance.
The brothers came safely home, and led the fair Princess Helena to the Czar Ados, who gave the Simeons, in reward for their great service, their freedom and much gold, silver, and many precious stones. And he lived with the princess for many years, prosperous and happy.