THIS is the story of the first of the nightingales, those sweet singers of the evening, each of whom, as the old books tell with certainty, sprang from a poppy seed. And the sower of the first seeds of the blood-red poppy was Ilya the Old Cossáck, who rode the shaggy bay steed Cloudfall.
As for Cloudfall, the shaggy bay steed, it is well that you should try to picture him to yourselves. He had a mane of very great length, and a tail ten times as long as his mane, while the shaggy hair of his rough coat was of three colours or tints. He wore a bridle of leather plaited so as to be of enormous strength, twelve saddle-cloths and twelve felts (so cold it was in Holy Russia), and over these coverings a strong leather saddle bound with metal. He had twelve girths made of finest silk, not for display and youthful vanity, but for strength and easiness of movement. His stirrups were of engraved steel brought from Damascus, where the good sword blades are marked with strange devices; the buckles were of bronze which moist Mother Earth is not able to rust, and which no amount of hard wear can in the least affect. Such was Cloudfall the shaggy bay steed of Ilya the Old Cossáck.
One Easter morning Ilya took his way to church to greet his risen Master; and as he stood before the altar in the warm glow which lighted up the sanctuary, he vowed a mighty vow, "I will sing at High Mass on this very Easter Day in the royal town of Kiev, and I will go to Kiev by the straight way."
For a few moments Ilya stood in deep silence before the altar, as if pausing to gather strength. Then he vowed a second vow, and it was to this effect--as he took the straight way to the royal town of Kiev he would not stain his hand, nor yet the blade of his good keen sword with the blood of the accursed Tatars, the enemies of Holy Russia. A second time he stood in deep silence, as if pausing to gather still more strength. Then he vowed a third vow with his hand upon his mace of steel, and it was to the effect that though he would go by the straight way he would not make use of his fiery darts.
After a third space of silence Ilya left the church and came into the courtyard, where his shaggy bay steed Cloudfall was awaiting him to take the heroic journey to the city of Prince Vladimir, the Royal Sun of Kiev. A few wondering peasants saw Ilya as he strode across the courtyard, but as soon as he was mounted upon Cloudfall they saw him no more, so swift was the movement of the shaggy bay steed. Their eyes tried to follow his flight--for it was no gallop--but they seemed to see only a smoke-wreath upon the open plain, or a swift movement like that of a swirl of snow across the wind-swept steppe.
Over the grass skimmed Cloudfall, and over the lakes and rivers, while his long tail streamed behind him like that of a comet in the midnight sky; high above the lofty forests he soared, even above the oaks which had stood there since the days before history dawned, yet he kept lower than the drifting clouds; from mountain summit to mountain summit he sprang, and in leaping along the low hill-ranges he missed many of the tops in his flight; and wherever his hoofs fell, springs of water gushed forth from the rock, but when he alighted on the open plain smoke rose beneath his hoofs, wavered for a moment, and then ascended in a steady column towards the clouds. It was a ride or a flight to be remembered for all time, and Ilya himself was not forgetful of this. For he stopped his shaggy bay steed near a forest, felled two mighty trees with his mace, and erected a rough cross on which he carved with his keen sword the following inscription: "Ilya the Old Cossáck rides to Royal Kiev on his first heroic quest." Then he went again upon his wonderful way.
Now when he drew near to the city of Chernigof, he saw before him a great host of Tatars, the enemies of Holy Russia, marshalled under three princes, each of whom commanded forty thousand men. From their crowd of warlike steeds there arose a cloud of steam so dense that it hid the sun by day and the moon by night. When Ilya saw this great host before him he remembered his vows, leapt quickly to the earth, and knelt at the right foot of Cloudfall.
"Lend me your aid, my shaggy bay steed," he said, and the intelligent animal bowed his head in reply, after which he raised it and sniffed the air with quivering nostril. For a moment Ilya left his side to wrench from moist Mother Earth a ring-barked oak which he bound to the left stirrup of his shaggy bay steed. Then he tore up another tree by the roots, and mounting Cloudfall began to brandish it in his right hand. "Any man can vow a vow," he said grimly, "even before the high altar, but not every man can keep his vow when he has made it; and my vow was to shed no blood with my keen sword nor yet to use my fiery darts."
By this time Cloudfall was again passing through the air swifter than a falcon in its flight, though his progress was somewhat stayed when he reached the outer rim of the watching host. Ilya brandished his oak, and bringing it down with one mighty blow after another cleared a path through the host as a hurricane makes a lane through a forest. Through the pathway Cloudfall passed, alighting upon the earth again and again, and leaving wherever he touched the host a heap of prostrate warriors. So did Ilya the Old Cossáck pass through the great host of Tatars, the enemies of Holy Russia.
When the hero came to the gates of Chernigof he found them strongly barred, and a keen watch kept against the armies of the Tatars, who were reported to be advancing upon the city. The wall was lofty and broad, but not too high for Cloudfall, who leapt over it with ease, to the great astonishment of the guards and of the leaders who stood on one of the towers in earnest council. Ilya alighted in the broad courtyard of the church, and entering the holy place found the citizens assembled for prayer, which they hoped might avert the approaching calamity or fortify them for the endurance of a cruel death.
Then Ilya stood forth amongst them and said boldly, "Ye traders of Chernigof, and citizens all, why do you pray when the time is come for action? Why do you meet together to bid farewell to the white world with all its joys?" Then one of the merchants, who was very richly dressed, explained to Ilya, as if he were quite ignorant of outside affairs, how the city was at that moment besieged by the Tatars. Ilya made a slight gesture of impatience and disgust, "Go out," he said, "upon the broad wall of your famous city, and look towards the open steppe."
Then some of the men and a few of the bolder maidens went out upon the ramparts, and in the place where the Tatar banners had stood like a forest, the accursed foes lay in great heaps of slain. Upon this the men of the city bowed themselves before Ilya and begged for the honour of his name. They also besought him to stay with them and be their Tsar, and that he would accept at their hands a bowl of pure red gold, another of shining silver, and a third of fine seed pearls. "Nay, I ask no gifts from you," said Ilya, "though I may possibly have earned them, nor will I stay to be your Tsar. Go on with your lives as of old, my brothers, but grant the favour of showing me the straight way to Kiev town."
Again they bowed before him, and one of them, speaking for the others, said, "It is twice as far by the circling path as it is by the straight way, but you must take the longer journey, for athwart the straight way lie three barriers; and the road is so lonely that the grey wolf and the black raven avoid it, for it is deserted even by the dead. The first mighty barrier is a range of lofty mountains; the second is a rushing river of enormous breadth, bordered by the Black Morass; and the third is Nightingale the Robber.
"His enormous nest is built upon the tops of seven oaks which saw the dawn of history. When he whistles like a nightingale, roars like a lion, and hisses like a serpent, the trees bow themselves to the earth, the green leaves wither, and both horse and rider fall to the ground as if they were dead."
This was enough to stir the soul of the heroic Ilya, who forthwith mounted his shaggy bay steed Cloudfall, and rode out upon the straight way. In due time he came to the lofty mountain range; but this barrier was not likely to prove insurmountable to the shaggy bay steed which soared above it like an eagle in its flight. Then they came to the broad rushing river with the Black Morass by its margin, and Ilya, dismounting, wrenched great oak trees from the trembling grasp of moist Mother Earth and flung them before him with one hand while he led Cloudfall over these bridges which he had made with the other. Soon they came to the broad water, and when Ilya had mounted, the shaggy bay steed cleared its rushing current in a single leap.
At last they came to the third barrier, no less than Nightingale the Robber, who was known also as the Magic Bird. As Ilya drew near to his oak trees, Nightingale thrust his head out of the nest and sent forth tongues of flame and showers of sparks from his mouth and nostrils; but this terrible sight had no effect upon the stout heart of the heroic Ilya. Nightingale the Robber therefore began to sing like a bird, varying this entertainment with the roar of a lion and the spiteful hiss of a dragon; and at last the combination of sounds was too much even for Cloudfall. The shaggy bay steed began to tremble with great violence, and then fell upon his knees, whereupon Ilya proceeded to beat him without mercy.
"You grass-bag," he cried in his anger, "you wolf-carrion, have you never passed through a gloomy forest and heard the song of a bird, the roar of a wild beast, and the hiss of a serpent? See how easily I shall overcome the Magic Bird!"
Then Ilya went up to a willow tree that overhung a brook, broke off a twig, and fitted it to his bow, in order that he might keep his vow to abstain from using his fiery darts. And as he drew his bow-string he cried, "Fly, dart, fly! Pierce the left eye of Nightingale the Robber, and come out at his right ear."
Swish! went the magic dart. Cloudfall rose to his feet, and Nightingale the Robber fell from his nest in the old oaks and dumped down upon the lap of moist Mother Earth like an enormous sack of wheat. Then Ilya the Old Cossáck lifted the pestilent thief from the ground by his yellow curling hair, bound him securely to his stirrup, and went on his way once more.
By and by they came to the palace of the Magic Bird, where he used to retire with his spoils which he had won in the forest. It was built on seven pillars, and had a courtyard surrounded by an iron paling on each spike of which was the head of a luckless hero, for many brave men had tried to do the deed which Ilya was now performing. Round about the house were the greenest of gardens with loveliest flowers of every hue, and in the midst of these gardens was an orchard with heavily laden fruit trees. From the latticed casements of the palace looked forth the children of the Magic Bird, and when they saw Ilya approaching on his shaggy bay steed they cried out together, "See, Mother, here comes our Father leading a man at his stirrup. Shall we have the captive for dinner?"
But Elena, one of the children of the Magic Bird, had only one eye and therefore was a witch; and when she looked out from her own particular latticed casement she saw what had really happened and spoke the truth. "Nay, children," she cried, "it is Ilya the Old Cossáck on his shaggy bay steed Cloudfall, and he rides towards us, bringing our Father as a prisoner."
"Crick! Crock! Crack!" cried the children in a croaking chorus; "we will at once change ourselves into ravens and rend that peasant hero in pieces with our beaks of iron. Then shall the fragments of his white body be scattered on the bosom of moist Mother Earth." But Nightingale the Robber, who was not yet dead, shouted out a command that no harm was to be done to Ilya the Old Cossáck. This order, however, had no effect upon the one-eyed daughter, who ran quickly into the courtyard, tore up a heavy steel beam from the threshold, and raising it aloft, hurled it at Ilya with all her strength.
So fierce was the attack of the one-eyed witch-daughter of Nightingale the Robber, that even Ilya, whose saddle-seat was so secure, wavered for a moment, and it was only with great difficulty and much skill that he was able to avoid the full force of the angry blow. Then he leapt lightly from his shaggy bay steed and, remembering his vow, raised his right foot and caught the witch with the full force of his outstretched toe. Up she went into the air, higher than the height of a great cathedral, higher than the cross upon its topmost dome, and then she fell down with a bony rattle against the rear wall of the courtyard, and her skin burst with a sharp crack.
"Fools all!" shouted Nightingale the Robber. "Fools now and always! Fetch from the cellar a heaped-up waggon-load of red gold, another of white silver, and a third of fine seed pearls. Give all these treasures to Ilya the Old Cossáck, and to Cloudfall, his shaggy bay steed, and see if these fine gifts will not induce him to set me free in a trice. Ha, ha!"
But Nightingale the Robber chuckled too soon, for Ilya said in a voice that showed no doubtfulness, "If I should plant my lofty spear in the bosom of moist Mother Earth, and if you were to heap up about it red gold, white silver, and fine seed pearls until not even the sharp tip of it could be seen, yet would I not set you free, Nightingale the Robber, you pestilent thief and father of stealing. You shall come with me forthwith to the glorious town of Kiev, and there you shall receive such forgiveness as you deserve."
Then Ilya mounted Cloudfall once more, and the shaggy bay steed began to prance while Nightingale the Robber began to dance; and thus prancing and dancing they came to Kiev, the city of Prince Vladimir.
When they arrived the Prince was in the cathedral, and hearing this, Ilya went at once to the sacred courtyard, where he fastened Cloudfall to a golden ring in a tall carven pillar, and said to him, "Keep watch and ward upon Nightingale the Robber, Cloudfall, my faithful shaggy bay steed, and see that he escapes not from my stirrup of damascened steel." Then to the Magic Bird he spoke, "Presume not, Nightingale the Robber, to depart from the side of my good charger, for there is no place in all the white world where you will be hidden from my searching."
Then in fulfilment of his first vow Ilya went to the church for the Easter mass; and when he saw Prince Vladimir among the worshippers, he made obeisance to him, but not before he had devoutly crossed himself and done reverence to North, South, East, and West. When the mass had been celebrated, Prince Vladimir sent to summon the stranger hero to his Easter feast; and obedient to the invitation which was really a command, Ilya went to the royal palace, where the Prince asked him to which horde and country he belonged, and who were his parents.
"Sire," said Ilya, "I am the honourable son of honourable parents who reap their own meadow to feed their own beasts in their own farm, surrounded by the pine forest of Murom. Now as I greeted my Risen Lord at matins this morning, I vowed to come hither by the straight way, and I came."
The speaker ceased, and the group of heroes, warriors, notabilities, and fair ladies who stood near the Prince stared at him in unbelieving astonishment.
"Good youth," said Prince Vladimir, "you are fair to look upon, but none the less you must be a son of the Father of Lies. Why, the straight way has been lost for thirty years, and all men know of it is that athwart it lie great barriers. There are in the plains great hordes of accursed Tatars, the enemies of Holy Russia; then there is a broad rushing river bordered by the Black Morass; and, last of all, among the shining birches, on the top of seven great oaks which saw the dawn of history, is raised the nest of Nightingale the Robber. Moreover, that Magic Bird hath nine strong sons and eight ugly daughters, of whom one has only a single eye, and is therefore a witch. Now Nightingale the Robber hath permitted neither horse nor man to pass by him for thirty years."
"Nay, sire," said Ilya with perfect calm, "I did indeed come by the straight way, and Nightingale the Robber now sitteth as a prisoner securely bound within the sacred court of the holy temple, where all who thieve must be bound hand and foot."
Now the astonishment and curiosity which fell upon the company at this announcement was so great that it overcame the hunger of the lords and ladies, who forgot also their courtly dignity as they scrambled out from the palace to see the wonder, or at least to test the truth of Ilya's words. But Prince Vladimir and Princess Apraxia went out slowly upon the railed balcony.
And there they saw the wonder for themselves--Nightingale the Robber sitting securely bound to the steel stirrup of Cloudfall, the shaggy bay steed, with one eye fixed on Kiev city and the other on far-distant Chernigof, according to the habit he had acquired when awaiting the sallies of champions from those two cities within the security of his lofty nest.
Then said Prince Vladimir, full of wonder mixed with curiosity, "Whistle, Nightingale the Robber, roar like a lion, and hiss like a serpent." But the Magic Bird replied with a strange smile which had a long way to travel across his face from eye to eye. "I am not your prisoner, Prince Vladimir, and do not eat from your bountiful hand. However, bring me a bowl of wine, for I am plaguily thirsty, and then we shall see what will happen."
"Give him a bowl of green wine," said Ilya to the waiting attendants, "a large bowl, capable of accommodating a bucket and a half. And bring a large cake of fine wheat flour, for the mouth of the Magic Bird is parched, and his whistle, roar, and hiss will not be worth hearing if he is not refreshed."
Then Vladimir himself came forward bringing three large bowls, one of green wine, the drink of princes, a second of vodka, the drink of peasants, and a third of sweet mead, the drink of fair ladies; and Nightingale the Robber drained each of the bowls at a draught. Thereupon Ilya commanded the Magic Bird to whistle, roar and hiss, but to do so under his breath lest harm should come to the royal party, of whom the ladies were now preparing to hide behind the gentlemen, while the gentlemen were trying to persuade the ladies that it was very uncourtly to stand before such peerless beauties.
Then that wicked pestilent thief began to smile from one eye to the other, and it seemed as if a stormy gleam of light passed across the open steppe from Chernigof to Kiev; and out of malice of which his black heart was full, he gave his entertainment at full strength.
At the sounds which he made all the ancient palaces in the royal city cracked, tottered, and tumbled to the ground; the new palaces rocked, and only kept their upright position with a great effort. The roofs of all the poorer houses moved from their places and fell into the streets, while the walls remained, for they were of a tumble-down character in their ordinary state, and not knowing which way to fall decided to remain as they were. Moist Mother Earth quivered like a man with the ague, the horses of the heroes stampeded from the palace stables, the beautiful young ladies hid themselves in corners, and the gay youths were so terrified that they ran into other corners far away, where, of course, they could not comfort them. Ilya leaned over the balcony and caught up Prince Vladimir under one arm and the Princess Apraxia under the other in order to protect them; yet the Prince fell into a swoon from which he did not emerge for three hours.
Then said Ilya, son of strength, in the mightiness of his wrath, "For this base deed of thine, Nightingale the Robber, thou shalt die!"
"Spare a few of his family," pleaded Prince Vladimir, who had now recovered, and who had never been of a vindictive disposition. "Spare me myself," begged the Magic Bird, "and you shall have all my money to build a monastery."
"Nay," said Ilya, "I will sweep away his pestilent brood and scatter his bones to the winds. As for his ill-gotten gold, no monastery would stand or receive a blessing which was built with it."
Thereupon he took Nightingale the Robber in his strong white hands and led him far out upon the open plain. There he fitted a burning arrow to his stout bow, for his vow no longer held him, seeing that he had come to Kiev by the straight way, and shot the fiery dart into the black breast of the Magic Bird. After that he struck off his pestilent head and scattered his bones to the winds. Then he sought out his family and scattered their bones to the winds also, and mounting Cloudfall, his shaggy bay steed, he went once more to Prince Vladimir.
By this time the royal company had somewhat recovered their composure, and in order to hide their confusion were busily conversing about the day before yesterday. When Ilya arrived they were seated at the white tables eating savoury viands from the board and drinking green wine and sweet mead; and they complimented Ilya very prettily, as soon as he had washed himself. When the feast was over, the Prince gave the hero the supreme honour of ever henceforth styling himself Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck, for it was reckoned the highest honour that a hero should take his title from the land on which he was born, especially if it was owned by his father; and Ilya, being a true gentleman, valued this distinction infinitely higher than a heaped-up waggon-load of red gold, another of white silver, and a third of fine seed pearls.
As for those bones of the Magic Bird which were scattered to the winds, as they fell to earth they became seeds of the blood-red poppy, from the flowers of which came the first sweet whistling nightingales who know nothing of the roar of the lion or the hiss of the serpent.