THERE was once a king, and he had two sons. The king sent his eldest son to marry. He went, and chose the elder sister of the Reed Maiden. When he brought home his wife the king was satisfied with the choice. After that the king sent his younger son to marry, and he answered that he would not take any poor skeleton of a thing, but that his wife must be the most beautiful flower on the whole round of the earth,--the most lovely, world-beautiful maiden.
Once the king's two sons went to hunt; on the way home the younger said to the elder: "My dear elder brother, I would beg of thee a favor."
"And what may it be, younger brother?"
"In truth, no other than this: When we come home, ask thy wife if there is any one more beautiful than she."
"If that's thy trouble, it is no great matter, for my wife is just coming to meet us.--Well, my heart's gold-enclosed ruby, wilt thou answer one question? Thou art for me the most beautiful, but is there one still more beautiful in the world?"
Now the princess all at once acted like one hard of hearing; she answered nothing, but stopped them with a nod, and commanded with her eye, "Silence! not a word more."
It stopped there. The younger brother, whatever he did not do, he stole into his brother's bed-chamber quietly. In the evening, when the elder brother and his wife came in, the husband said: "Tell me, my heart's heart, why didst thou not answer my question a little while ago?"
"I did not answer, dear husband, because thou didst ask me before thy brother. It would not have been well for him to know that I have a younger sister who is the most beautiful maiden on the whole round of the earth, but she is hidden in the middle one of three reeds; for this reason she is known as the world-beautiful Reed Maiden. The other two reeds are her waiting-maids."
"But thou hast not told me, my dear, in what corner of the world she is hidden."
"Oh, my dear husband, it is far from here,--as far as from here there and from there back; but as thou hast asked I will tell thee. Hast thou heard of the fame of the Black Sea?"
"I have not, indeed."
"Well, if thou hast not, then hear now. In the seventy-seventh island of the Black Sea, right in the middle, are hidden three reeds, but no mortal could go to them unless by some magic power or infernal art; but if by a miracle he should get there, he would not be able to bring away anything.--First, because there is such darkness on the islands of the Black Sea that a spoon might stand up in it; second, because the world-beautiful Reed Maiden is guarded by a witch whose life will end when the reeds are cut down; therefore she guards them as the light of her two eyes, or still more carefully. But if any man could bring the maiden away, he would be the happiest person in the wide world; for the islands would be lighted up, and he would gain a wife whom the starry heavens would gaze upon with smiles."
When the king's younger son had heard all this from root to branch, he went out of the room by the same way he had entered. Then saddling his best and favorite steed, he put provisions in his bag and moved out into the wide world in search of the beautiful Reed Maiden. He journeyed and travelled over forty-nine kingdoms and beyond the Operentsia Sea till he came to a hut; in the hut an old woman was living: "God give thee good-day, dear old mother."
"If thou hadst not called me old mother, I should have eaten thee on the spot. But whither art thou journeying in this strange land, where even a bird does not go?"
"I am looking for the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, who is blooming in the seventy-seventh island of the Black Sea. Hast thou not heard of her, dear old mother?"
"What's the use in denying, my son? I have not heard. Why should I evade, since it can neither harm nor profit me? But here in the neighboring valley, over the mountain, straight ahead, near a round forest on the top of a hill, lives my elder sister; if she knows nothing about it, then no one in the world knows. Here, Mitsi, come out! Conduct the king's son to my elder sister."
The king's son followed Mitsi, who was no other than a large-whiskered little mouse. When they came to a cross-road Mitsi squeaked once, showed the middle of the road, and ran home. The king's son went along the right road, and arrived at the hut in which the second sister lived. She received him in like manner as the first, and sent her servant, Pitsi, to show him the road to her eldest sister. Pitsi was no other than a dove-white squirrel, with a long bushy tail. When the king's son came to the third hut, where the eldest sister lived, he said: "God give thee a good-day, dear old mother."
"If thou hadst not called me old mother, I should have eaten thee on the spot. Whither art thou wandering in this strange land, where even a bird does not go?"
"I am in search of the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, who is blooming in the seventy-seventh island of the Black Sea. Hast thou not heard of her, dear old mother?"
"Oh, king's son, thou wouldst wear off thy horse's legs to the knees, and wear out twelve pairs of iron boots on thy own feet, before thou couldst reach that place, for it is only possible to go there on a steed that has sucked dragon's milk, eaten glowing coals, and drunk the fiery flame; but thou hast in thy head three golden hairs, grown from one root, of which thou hast known nothing to this moment. Come hither; let me cut them out."
The king's son bent down his head. The old woman cut out the three golden hairs. "See, my son, these three hairs have wondrous power. A fairy gave them to thy father, with whom, as he was a beautiful man, she fell in love, and thou hast inherited them. Here they are; I give them to thee with this latch-string. Go up on this terribly high mountain, which in front of my hut supports the heavens. When thou shalt come to the top, strike the three golden hairs with the latch-string three times; at once will stand before thee a magic steed that has grown up on the silken meadow, sucked dragon's milk, eaten glowing coals, and drunk fiery flames."
The king's son gave heartfelt thanks for the kindness shown him, then went up on the great unclimbable mountain that supported the heavens. When he had reached the top he took out the three golden hairs and struck them three times with the old latch-string. Behold, a fiery cloud rushed towards him like a shot arrow, with a fearful rumbling and cracking, as if a whole stud of horses were before it, and then stood still above his head. All at once he heard from the fiery cloud a triple neighing, at the sound of which, as of a bell, the earth trembled three times. The magic steed rushed out, and like a flood, like a cloud-burst, plunged down by his side, blowing from its nostrils varied flames,--red, blue, and green. The latch-string became such a saddle that for the fur and diamond buttons, and silver and gold embroidery, the earth could not be seen.
"Hip, hop! here am I, dear master! That there be no delay in thy affair, wilt thou not sit on my back that I may be off with thee? Shall I go like the swiftest whirlwind, or like thought, or as a bird can fly?"
"Go, my dear steed, in such fashion that there may be no fault in thee or me."
"But before we set out on the long road," said the magic steed, "I wish to say this: Since such dense darkness reigns in the islands that a spoon might stand straight in it, we must first go to the bright antechamber of the Sun, and take thence one burning ray."
When the steed had thus ended the speech, he rose in the airy heavens. They journeyed and travelled across forty-nine kingdoms till they came to the portals of the earth, where two bearded wolves stood on guard. These wolves stood on the road and demanded toll. The toll was no other than two pounds of flesh from the good steed. Now, if two pounds of flesh were taken from the steed, it would be but half magic, and so would never reach the end of the road. Whatever the king's son did not do, he took his gleaming clasp-knife and cut out two pounds of his own flesh; then he threw it to the bearded wolves, and only on this condition did they let him pass.
The king's son pursued his way till he came to the Sun's bright antechamber, where he tied his steed to a diamond pillar; then he bathed in the fire-bath, and rubbed with fire-towels; looking at himself from head to foot in the shining wall of the antechamber as in a mirror, he combed his hair with a golden comb. Here, 'pon my soul, what came of the affair, or what did not, a subject-spirit in the service of the Sun became enraged in good earnest (for his eyebrows struggled with each other),--no doubt it was at the king's son,--and with a single breath, which the son of the hurricane could not withstand, blew straight ahead, so that the king's son did not feel the ground under his feet for seventy-seven miles. Then he fell into a terribly dark opening, and groped along in this cavern, feeling his way like a blind man. If he made a step, he trod on a serpent; if he felt with his hand, he grasped a warty toad; if he looked around, he saw only red-eyed worms,--creeping, crawling things. He went on and on till he heard the plash of seething water. The beating of iron hammers struck his ear-drum, and so struck as almost to break it. This is the place where thunderbolts are made. He went on till he came to a great iron gate, standing open just then; but a tremendous, cursed, hundred-headed dragon, who let no one pass, kept guard there. What could the king's son take hold of? What could he do with his life? Here, upon my soul! what he did, or what he did not do, he took out a sweet-speaking, magic flute, and blew on it so sadly that his tears rolled down. Such touching notes did he draw from the flute that the great powerful beast--the hundred-headed dragon--became as a lamb, lowered his bloody crest; his bristling scales dropped smoothly, one on the other; he stretched on the ground, and cowered, whining like a dog when he beholds his master after an absence. Seeing this, the king's son grew bold, and going straight to the dragon, stepped upon him, walked on his back, and the terrible wild beast did not mind it; he only licked his foot, wagged his tail, and let the king's son pass over.
After he had gone through the gate the darkness began to part; and no wonder, for a charm-given, lovely maiden, in a purple velvet robe, stepped before him. She was no other than Dawn, the dearest and best-beloved daughter of the Sun. Now, the splendid young prince pleased this flower of the skies. She placed him by her side on her winged steed, and flew across the vault of heaven, and they swept on till they reached the razor bridge. When they touched the bridge, their horse became as if he were not; and they crossed so that the horse's feet were not injured, and the razor's edge was not dented. Having passed the razor bridge they came to the copper forest, where were working at that moment the woodcutters of the Sun, who on iron wagons were taking wood to the kitchen, with a terrible rattling and pounding. Thence they rode to the silver forest, where silver-white birds cheered every wanderer. Two of the birds came and sang the sweetest notes. The silver-trees inclined thrice to the daughter of the Sun. Next they reached the golden forest, where sweet-voiced, golden-yellow birds enlivened the visitors, and threw down golden nuts here and there from the trees. The golden forest bent thrice to the daughter of the Sun.
In the middle of the golden forest was Dawn's garden; in the garden her copper-roofed mansion. When the Beauty of the Skies came home the pearly flowers shook their bells, and began to sound. On hearing this, the stars swept forth like a swarm, and glittered round about. The maiden nodded but once, and behold! purple clouds swam before her like so many sky-sacks, which serve on the extended firmament as boats. Dawn took her seat, but first she spread her mantle and seated the king's son at her side. Lest his part of the boat might be heavier, she drew him nearer to her with an embrace; but he dared not embrace in return.
They sailed and sailed through the airy heavens till they were weary; then they tied their boat to the tree with diamond blossoms, silver leaves, and golden apples. They sat on a golden bench under the tree, and were there but a moment, when at a nod from the Sun's daughter a golden butterfly appeared more quickly than a spoken word, and brought fresh-gathered honey of the skies on a rose-leaf. When they had eaten, thirst seized the king's son; then a modest star came bringing a goblet on a silver tray, in the goblet a charm-drink, and when the king's son had drunk from the golden goblet his thirst fell away as if it had been cut in two.
When their hunger and thirst were gone, at the Sun's daughter's nod the modest stars brought a cithara. Dawn then played on its golden chords with silver feathers, and sounded such notes that a man hearing them would spring up and whirl in the dance, even if his own father were lying dead on the table. After that came the hour of rest; the king's son was led across seventy-seven chambers to the bath-room. In the middle of the room stood a great golden cask filled with dew, and on a boxwood table lay lathery soap. The king's son bathed in the dew-water, washed himself with the lathery soap, and wiped with a towel of gold.
When he rose next morning, Dawn gave him a burning ray which she wound up like a ribbon, put in a box, and hung with a golden hair on the neck of the king's son. After that they parted amidst tear-shedding. The Sun's daughter sped across the vault of heaven on her winged steed, and the king's son continued his journey.
As I say, he had a ray to light up the island. The king's son journeyed and travelled till the steed spoke, saying: "Listen, dear master."
"What is thy command, dear horse?"
"Gird thyself well, for thou must cut the three reeds at a blow; a second blow would lose thee thy head. If at one blow thou succeed, the island will be lighted up. The world-beautiful maiden and her two attendants will be thine, but only on condition that thou cut not open the reeds before coming to water; for if thou dost, they will die a fearful death in a moment."
The king's son promised by heaven and earth that he would act as told. On the seventh day they came to the island of the Black Sea, where there was such darkness that a spoon would have stood up in it; but the king's son drew out the box hanging by the golden hair and removed the cover. All at once the way was lighted, but so strangely that it gave light only to him; he could see everything, but not a created soul could see him. When he came to where the three reeds were growing, they bent before him and bowed to the earth. They continued to bow; at the best moment the king's son drew his sword and with a blow all three reeds fell upon his breast. But from the three reed-stumps black blood sprang forth, and a bitter wail was heard as if a naked sword had been thrust into some one's heart. It had been thrust into the heart of the witch; for the black blood was hers, and the bitter wail was her death-sigh. She could only live while the three reeds stood. As soon as the old witch had breathed out her soul, the burning ray flew out of the silver box as if it had been shot from a gun, and the whole island was in light.
Then the king's son sat on his good steed and journeyed over forty-nine kingdoms as swiftly as the most fleet-winged bird could go. Once curiosity rose in him to know if there was indeed something in the reeds, and what it could be like. I say, curiosity rose up in him, and bored his side as if with an iron auger, so that what he did or did not do, he took out his gleaming knife and split the smallest reed, in which was the youngest attendant of the world-beautiful Reed Maiden. No sooner had he split the reed than a beauteous, pearl-given, lovely girl fell upon his breast; and her first word was: "Water! Only as much water as a little swallow takes in her beak when she gives drink to her young, or I die!"
But the king's son had it not. One drop of water is not much, but he could not give that much. The beautiful maiden, like a broken flower, began to wither, grew paler and paler, till at last the pallor of death seized her head, and bending to the breast of the king's son, she died.
The king's son was so sorry for his fault that if it had been possible, he would have atoned for it with his blood; but that was not possible. Therefore he came down from his good steed, dug a grave with his sword, and buried the maiden; as a grave-mark he planted the split reed, and from it a black rose sprang, which as mourning, bloomed in black.
A bitter weeping wail, a bitter woe-cry was heard from the two reeds that were not split yet, as if some one were bewailing a brother. Great sadness seized the king's son too, who thought, "I caused the death of this maiden. I broke this flower and planted it in the bosom of death." But if he had wept out his soul, it would have been useless; therefore he mounted his steed and rode farther. He travelled and journeyed till curiosity rose in his breast, and bored his side as with an iron auger. "Is there in the second reed another such maiden; and will she go like the first?"
At last he could resist the devil's boring no longer; so he took his gleaming clasp-knife, and split the second reed also. Behold, the elder attendant of the Reed Maiden, came out, saying: "Water, water, or I shall die a fearful death!" But the king's son had not one drop of water; the maiden grew paler and paler, till she dropped her head on the breast of the king's son, and died. The king's son came to the earth, dug a grave with his sword, and buried the maiden. At the head of the grave he placed the split reed; from it a beautiful rose-bush sprang up, which bloomed in black, as mourning.
A bitter weeping wail, a bitter woe-cry of pain was heard from the unsplit reed, in which the world-beautiful maiden herself was hidden; and no less grief seized the king's son. He had killed two; with his own strength he had broken two beautiful flowers, and put them in the bosom of death. Grief covered him with black wing. His good steed went as a bird of swiftest flight till curiosity rose up in the breast of the king's son, bored his side as with an iron auger. "What sort of person is his future bride? who is the world-beautiful Reed Maiden?"
Since he could not resist this devil's boring, this mighty curiosity, he took out the third and last reed to split it; but the magic steed reached back, and taking the reed from the king's son, did not return it till they came to the shore of a lake.
At the water the king's son split the last reed, and there came forth such a maiden that her like was not born since the world began, nor before, nor after. Her first word was: "Water! Only as much water as a little swallow takes in her beak when she gives drink to her young, or I shall die in a moment!"
The king's son gave her to drink; she felt better. Then they embraced, and kissed, saying, "I am thine, thou art mine."
"Listen, my beautiful love," said the king's son, "while I ride home for a carriage of glass and gold do thou hide in this willow; but till I see thee, though one word is not much, speak not that much to any one."
The king's son rode for the glass and golden carriage; the maiden climbed the willow where she hid. Now, what came of the affair, and what did not, while the king's son was gone a crawfish-gathering gypsy girl happened under the willow-tree, and looking in the water she saw the quivering image of the charming maiden. Putting her hand on her hip she said: "What a beautiful shadow I have, quite worthy of a princess."
"It's thine of course! I'll tell whose it is," said a golden bird from the tree, in a golden voice.
The gypsy looked into the tree, where she saw the world-beautiful princess, for the sight of whom the sun would have stood still in heaven. The girl said nothing, but in a twinkle she dragged the maiden from the tree by her white foot, pulled off her purple velvet robe, and threw her into the water. The maiden did not sink, but shaking herself, turned into a golden-feathered duck and swam on the lake. The gypsy then, ill or well, put on the purple velvet robe, which sat on her as if it had been put on with a fork and rake; then she sat with great importance on the tree. But she did not sit long; for seeing the golden duck, she jumped down and began to throw stones at her. She threw and threw so many that her arm grew tired, but she could not hit, for the golden duck dived into the water the moment a stone flew over her. At last the gypsy was tired, climbed into the willow-tree and waited for fortune.
She had not long to wait, for soon the king's son came with a gold and glass carriage to take home the golden bird; but the gypsy had her mind, for she would not come down from the tree--at least she said so--till he should shoot the golden duck on the lake, so she might drink its red blood, and eat its tender flesh.
The king's son took his arrow, aimed to kill the golden duck; but the gypsy will not drink its red blood, will not eat its tender flesh, for the arrow never went with its point to the duck, but always turned towards her the feathered end. If it had found her, it would not have been her death. The king's son had shot away all his arrows, and besides it was evening; he had to leave the amusement and turn his wagon-tongue homeward.
At home he had told how beautiful a wife he was bringing; all the greater was the surprise when he led in the bride with raised veil. The king's son had praised the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, and now before the wedding assembly stands a leather-cheeked gypsy girl. The guests know not whether to laugh or to be angry.
Now, the queen--the former gypsy--thought that it could not remain thus, without the world-beautiful Reed Maiden visiting her husband in the night; therefore she put a sleeping-powder into his drink every God-given evening, from which the king's son slept like a shepherd's coat.
The world-beautiful Reed Maiden shook herself, turned into a little bird, and at midnight she came to the king's son's window. She knocked with her little beak, the window opened of itself, and she flew in; then the little bird shook herself, turned into a princess such as had not been born before, nor since, nor after that. She went to the king's son, spoke to him fondling words, but he did not hear; roused him, but he did not wake; bent over him, and at last cried long, but he did not feel the hot tears which burned his cheek,--he lay there motionless as a block.
Then she said: "Oh, king's son, youth of my soul, thy dear lips are dumb; open them for one, two words, to cheer thy beautiful love, thy tender violet. I will come yet twice, then never again."
But the king's son did not wake. When the clock struck one after midnight the maiden shook herself, turned into a bird, and flew out through the window; the window closed after her of itself.
The servant of the king's son heard all these words clearly, for he was awake; but in the morning when he woke he thought it was all a dream, therefore he did not tell the king's son what he had seen, but resolved that he would wait for the coming night, and if the maiden would appear again in the form of a bird, then surely it was not a dream, and he would tell the king's son.
The next evening also his wife gave the king's son a sleeping-powder, and he slept like a shepherd's coat. When the clock struck twelve the little bird rapped with her beak, the window opened before her, and closed behind.
The little bird shook herself and became the beautiful Reed Maiden. She went to the bed of the sleeping king's son, spoke to him, strove to rouse him, and cried as the evening before; but he was motionless as a block. When the clock struck one the maiden shook herself, was a bird, and flew out through the window, which closed behind her. The servant of the king's son heard all this clearly, for he had not slept, and was now sure that it was no dream. He said to his master next morning: "I would say something to thy Highness if I were not afraid."
"Oh, good Yanchi, thou wilt have no trouble, only speak."
"Well, the night before last, at midnight, a little bird flew to the window, struck and beat it with her beak; the window opened before her. She flew in, shook herself, and became such a beautiful maiden that I looked on her as an altar image; and I was afraid that she would bewitch me. The beautiful maiden then bent over thy Highness, spoke to thee, but thou didst not wake; she cried a long time, but thou didst not feel her hot tears. At last she said, with a bird's tongue: 'Oh, king's son, youth of my soul, thy dear lips are dumb; open them for one, two words, to cheer thy beautiful love, thy tender violet I will come yet twice, then never again.' This was repeated last night, but thy Highness spoke not a word, and lay there like a block. And thy Highness may believe that she was so beautiful that if I had been lying dead on the table, I should have risen."
"Is that true, Yanchi?"
"As true as that the bright sun is shining in the sky."
"Well, Yanchi, couldst thou take a slap on the cheek for a hundred florins?"
"Not for the money, but gladly for thy Highness,--even a hundred of them."
"If thou wilt, then take it when my wife gives me the sleeping-powder again; for her dog soul gives it so that I should not wake. Knock down the light as though from awkwardness, then I will pour the sleeping-draught quietly into the bath; the woman will think that I have drunk it."
When bath-time came Yanchi took the candle as if he wished to snuff it, and put it out. The king's son, meanwhile, poured the sleeping-powder and wine into the bath quietly. The gypsy queen thought that he had drunk it, but she gave such a cuff to poor Yanchi that his eyes saw stars; but Yanchi, for the sake of his master, took the cuff as if a pretty girl had kissed him.
As the clock struck twelve, the king's son feigned sleep; but he was just as much awake as good myself. I say, the clock struck twelve. The little bird came to the window, knocked with her beak, the window opened before and closed behind her; she shook herself and became such a maiden as neither before that, nor since, was born, so that the starry heavens would have looked at her with smiles. She bent over the king's son; when at last she cried, the king's son put his arm around her and drew her to him, that she might not become a little bird again; that she might not fly away any more.
He assembled, next day, all the dukes and counts in the kingdom, and all the doers of good, and taking before them the hand of the world-beautiful Reed Maiden, he asked,--
"What does that person deserve who tries to separate from each other a couple?"
Because the gypsy thought that the question was in favor of her own leathery face, she called out in an instant: "That person, my royal husband, deserves to be put in a cask, with spikes driven inward from the outside all through it, and rolled from the highest mountain in the kingdom."
"Oh, dog-given wretch, thou hast pronounced thy own sentence!"
And they took by the neck the queen, once a gypsy, and put her in a cask like that, with spikes driven in, and let the cask roll from the highest mountain in the kingdom.