THE tale of the wedding of Vladimir and the Princess Apraxia was one which was often told after a banquet; and here it is:
Quiet Dunai was a great traveller, and one who loved to move without turbulence, leisurely and at his chosen ease. From land to land he wandered, both seeing and observing, across the green and open steppe in summer, but resting in the winter within whatever palace of fair white stone he could find a seat in the great corner and hearers who would listen quietly to his traveller's tales.
At last he came to the kingdom of Lithuania, where in the palace of the monarch he served for three years as equerry with the care of the King's horses and chargers; for three more years he served as Grand Steward with the oversight of the great banquets with which the King honoured his nobles; for three more years he served as Groom of the Chambers, and knew all the King's mind. And during all these years he loved, at times somewhat turbulently but yet on the whole quietly and devotedly and faithfully and hopefully, the Princess Nastasya, who in her turn favoured him silently and kept him ever in her golden heart.
Now, on a certain day, the King of Lithuania made a great feast and invited all his nobles to share his hospitality. Quiet Dunai was very busy with the preparations for the banquet, and on one of his many visits to the King's apartments he happened to meet, quite by accident, the Princess Nastasya. She looked at him quietly and said:
"Go not to this banquet, quiet Dunai, for there will be much eating and more drinking, and when the boasting time comes near the end of the feast you will brag of me."
"I know you will, Dunai," she added gently, and Dunai looked at her quietly, feeling in his heart that what she said could not be denied. "Then they will set upon you, Dunai, and you will lose your head." Hereupon the Princess sighed gently and looked down at the point of her golden slipper. But Dunai, quiet as he was, had no mind to avoid the feast, and declared his intention of being present; and the Princess turned and left him humming a light song which seemed to have lost its merriment.
The feast was held, and when the guests had eaten well and drunk better, then came the boasting time, when quiet Dunai took his turn with the rest, telling of his far wanderings, of the King's favour and rewards, and of how the beautiful young Princess Nastasya kept him ever in her golden heart. Then the King grew very angry and cried out:
"Ho, there, ye headsmen, seize quiet Dunai by his white hands, lead him out upon the open steppe and chop off his turbulent head."
Without delay the pitiless headsmen bore down upon Dunai and seized him by the shoulders. "I go without help from you," he said quietly as he shook them off; "but as you lead me to the open steppe see that we pass by the window of the Princess Nastasya, who keeps me ever in her golden heart."
Then there happened a great wonder, and yet it was no wonder at all. Before they had reached the window of the Princess, Dunai said quietly, "Sleepest thou, Nastasya? Wakest thou not? Lo, they are leading Dunai to the open steppe to cut off his loving head."
Now the Princess lay sleeping when the whisper rustled through her casement and woke her very gently. Without delay she rose from her couch and put on a loose robe of fair white linen. But she had no time to fasten round it a girdle of gold, or to bind up her flowing tresses, before she heard the voice of Dunai once more, this time in tones of thunder, "Sleepest thou, Nastasya? Wakest thou not? Lo, they are leading Dunai to the open steppe to cut off his loving head."
Then the Princess ran with her feet all bare out into the open corridor, from which she could see the prisoner and his guards, and stretching out her little hands in piteous entreaty she cried:
"Ho, there, ye pitiless headsmen! Take what treasure you desire, but when you come to the open steppe set free quiet Dunai that he may wander once again. And take back to the King the head of some prisoner who has paid for his crimes with his death--some one, any one except quiet Dunai."
Then the headsmen made signs to the Princess that they would obey her, and the group passed out to the open steppe where quiet Dunai was set free and wandered on as he had done before he became the officer of the King of Lithuania and loved the Princess Nastasya. On he went, quietly watching until he came to Kiev town, where he went to the inn and entered into conversation with men of the place. From these fellows he learnt that Prince Vladimir was holding a great feast, and that his guests were eating the white swan and drinking green wine of priceless value.
As it happened, just at that moment the boasting time had come. One man bragged of his horse, another of his valour, a third of his sharp sword, a fourth of his young wife, and a wise man who had not drunk so well, of the goodness of his father and the tenderness of his mother. In time, Prince Vladimir grew weary of their boasting and stood up among them, whereupon all their voices were hushed.
"Boast not, my brothers," he said with a show of impatience. "Glory not in your horses, your great deeds, your golden treasures. Have not I red gold, white silver, and fine seed pearls in great abundance? But in one matter most of you outstrip me. For ye have wives loving and beautiful, while I, your Prince, am still unwed. Is there no Princess who is my mate, and who will wed with me? She must be like a goddess in stature and like a goddess in the perfection of her beauty, of delicate grace, and stately of gait like the peacock. There must be a faint flush in her face like unto the white hare, while her eyes must be falcon clear and full of light. Yellow hair must she have, with eyebrows of blackest sable, and her speech must be entrancing. Then, having found her, I shall have one beside me with whom I may think my deepest thoughts and take counsel, and to whom ye mighty princes, heroes, and all Kiev may pay homage as your queen."
Then all the guests grew silent, and for a long time no man spoke a word; and as often as the eye of Vladimir sought out one man, he took pains to hide himself behind some one bigger. At length there stood up in his place the bold, brave youth Nikitich, who could both read and write, and said:
"My lord and master, Prince Vladimir, have I leave to speak what is in my mind without fear of speedy death or distant exile or heavy chastisement?"
And Vladimir said, "Say on, Nikitich, and God may forgive you if you speak unwisely."
Then the bold youth said fearlessly:
"I know a fitting mate for you who is all that you have said, a beauty with whom none can compare in all the white world. For myself, I have not seen her, but of her loveliness I have often heard from my comrade, quiet Dunai, who sitteth now in the inn and hath no garments to fit him out for appearance at this honourable feast."
"Take my golden keys," said Vladimir, "and open my wardrobes. Choose from thence all that quiet Dunai requires of raiment, and bring him to me."
Then Nikitich went out and did all that the Prince had ordered; and as he passed through the streets with quiet Dunai by his side, the maidens and the wives, young and old, put forth their heads from the windows, asking each other across the narrow way, "Whence come such goodly youths as these?"
As soon as they had come into the banquet hall, Dunai bowed to North, South, East, and West, and especially to Prince Vladimir, and they gave him a seat in the great corner by the fair white oaken table. Then they set food and wine before him, and when he had refreshed himself, Prince Vladimir poured out green wine into a crystal goblet from the East with a rim of thick gold and brought it to quiet Dunai, who took the cup in one hand and quaffed its contents at a breath. Then he stood up and said steadily:
"I know a bride fit even to mate with you, Prince Vladimir, the Fair Sun of Kiev. The King of Lithuania has two fair daughters. The eldest, the Princess Nastasya, is no mate for you, for she loves best to ride abroad in the open plain seeking adventures, but her sister, the Princess Apraxia, sits at home in a fair chamber of her palace embroidering a kerchief of white linen with threads of ruddy gold. She sits behind thrice nine locks of cunning workmanship and thrice nine guards in a lofty castle, and the ruddy sun may not scorch her nor the fine and frequent rains drop upon her, nor the stormy winds disarrange her braided locks of yellow gold, while no venturesome breeze may mar the delicate flush in her face like unto the white hare. I have not yet seen her, but I know of her peerless beauty and speak of what I know."
"Hear ye this, my Russian heroes!" cried Prince Vladimir, while his eyes shone brightly and his face was wreathed in smiles. "Whom shall we send as our royal envoy to far-off Lithuania?"
Then one of the heroes spoke out:
"Prince Vladimir," he said, "we have none of us been in strange lands with strange customs, nor talked in strange speech with strange people. In a matter where more than strength and goodwill is needed, namely, the wooing of a fair Princess, I doubt that none of your heroes would serve you well. Send quiet Dunai. He has been ambassador to royal courts and has received ambassadors also. He can talk in strange speech as well as fight; let him woo the fair Princess Apraxia for you, and when she comes here, as she surely will, we will eat the white swan and drink green wine in her honour, and crack skulls, too, if she needs such heroic help."
The truth of these words could not be denied, and as the hero who had spoken, suddenly realising that he had made a wise speech, hid in confusion behind his neighbour at the table, Prince Vladimir rose to his feet and said:
"Go in my name, quiet Dunai, to the far-famed Lithuanian kingdom and woo the Princess Apraxia for me with all the skill at your command."
"I go at your bidding," said quiet Dunai, with a bow, "but it is not fitting that I should go alone."
"Take a great army with you, if you will," said the Prince, "and if the King will not send his daughter with his blessing take her with his curse."
"I need no army," said quiet Dunai, "nor yet rich store of treasure to tempt the King to sell his daughter. Send Nikitich with me. He is my beloved comrade, a man of good birth who knows how to read and write, and therefore understands how to deal with people. Give us only two shaggy colts, fresh from the steppe, which have never borne saddle or bridle, and prepare a parchment scroll setting forth to the King that you desire the Princess Apraxia, not for youthful vanity, but for helpfulness that you may make her your wife, to whom all your thoughts will be made known, and who will share in all your counsels."
These things were done in exact accordance with the wishes of quiet Dunai, who then left the palace in the company of Nikitich. In the courtyard they found awaiting them two shaggy colts, fresh from the steppe, which had never borne saddle or bridle. Upon these they fitted plaited bridles of many-coloured silks and saddle-cloths of silk, not for youthful vanity but for ease to their steeds. Over these they laid thick felts, and then their saddles of stout leather secured by twelve girths with silver buckles, while the buckles of the stirrups were of fine ruddy gold.
Then they dressed themselves in silken robes and Saracen caps, took up their maces of steel from Damascus, their mighty bows, and their silken whips, and, mounting their frisky chargers, rode quickly through the narrow streets of Kiev city. Before long they came to the outskirts and then out upon the open plain, when they urged on their shaggy steeds, spurring them gently and persuading them further with their whips of braided silk. Past deep lakes they rode and through dense forests, crashing through the undergrowth where the hoof of horse had never trodden, until they came at last, and after a long journey, to the brave land of Lithuania and the royal palace of its King.
Quiet Dunai asked no leave of guards, porters, or gate-keepers, but flung the barriers wide and led the horses into the spacious courtyard, where they dismounted. Leaving Nikitich on guard over the chargers, Dunai took the bridles in his left hand, and in his right his club of elm-wood.
"Stand there, Nikitich," said quiet Dunai, "and look steadfastly towards the hall of royal audience. When I call, come!"
Then quiet Dunai crossed the courtyard and went into the hall of royal audience, where he found the King sitting upon his throne, and said to him in a quiet tone:
"Hail, little father, King of brave Lithuania!"
"Hail, quiet Dunai!" said the King. "Whither do you wander? Have you come to fight against us or to serve us as before? But before you answer, eat your fill and drink all that you need." Then he set him in the great corner, and when he had refreshed himself somewhat hastily, Dunai said:
"My errand is peaceful, little father. I come on behalf of the Fair Sun, Vladimir of Kiev, to woo your daughter the Princess Apraxia." Then he laid the parchment scroll upon the table, and the King spelled out a little of it, a little and no more, but that was enough to make him tear in anger at the black curls upon his forehead and stamp his feet upon the floor of red brick.
"Stupid and dolt is Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who sends as his envoy such a slave as you. Ho there, my merciless jailors! Seize quiet Dunai by his white hands and by his flowing curls, and lead him down to the deepest dungeon. Shut him in, bar the door, heap up against it logs of wood and iron gratings, and then over all pile up the yellow sand. Feed him on frozen oats and let him drink cold spring water until he returns to his senses."
Quiet Dunai hung his head for a moment, and dropped his clear eyes to the floor of red brick. Then he raised his white hand and smote the table with his fist so that the wine was spilled, the dishes rolled upon the floor, the tables tumbled down and the pillars of the hall leaned this way and that, while the roof groaned and creaked. The servants of the King fled this way and the other, while their master gathered up the skirts of his royal robe and ran at great speed up the winding stairway to the top of his lofty tower, never pausing even to take a deep breath until he was safely hidden beneath a thick rug of marten skins.
Then quiet Dunai took one light leap over the King's golden chair, seized one of the stout attendants by the heels, and using him as a club, began to slay the rest. "This club is tough," he said quietly but a little grimly to himself, as he went on with his work. "He will not break. He is wiry and will not tear." Then raising his voice he called through the window, "Ho, there, Nikitich!" and the young man entered the hall, snatched up another attendant by the heels, and began to assist quiet Dunai in the first part of his strange wooing of the Princess Apraxia.
But by and by the two friends heard the voice of the King through the window of the topmost apartment of his lofty tower. "Ho, there, quiet little Dunai!" he cried. "Forget not my kindness towards you of old. Let us sit again together, you in the big corner, to discuss the wooing of Prince Vladimir. Take my elder daughter the Princess Nastasya, for I know little of her seeing that she loves adventure on the open steppe, and I shall not miss her so much."
"I will not," said quiet Dunai, and went on with his work, Nikitich also ceasing not to assist him.
"Take, then, the Princess Apraxia," cried the King in great haste, and the two friends paused to gather breath. Then quiet Dunai went to the great castle and began to knock off the thrice nine locks, and to force open the doors. He entered the tower with the golden roof and came to the apartment where the Princess Apraxia was pacing to and fro clad in a fine robe without a girdle, her golden hair all unbound and her feet all bare.
"Hail, Princess," said the royal envoy, bowing courteously, "and pardon my coming without announcement. Will you wed with Prince Vladimir, the Fair Sun of Kiev?"
"For three years," said the Princess, "have I longed and prayed that Vladimir might be my husband." Then quiet Dunai took her by the small white hands, kissed her golden ring, and led her at once into the courtyard where they met the King.
"Take with the Princess," he said, "her royal dowry," and he gave immediate orders for the loading of thirty wagons with red gold, white silver, and fine seed pearls. Then the Princess arrayed herself, and coming forth again rode away with the goodly youths over the smiling, far-reaching, green and open plain; and as they rode she sang softly to herself of love and freedom and a fair white throne.
When the dark night fell the two youths set up a white linen pavilion, in which the Princess Apraxia rested, while they lay down near the entrance with their shaggy steeds at their feet, their sharp spears at their heads, their stout swords at their right hands and their daggers of steel at their left. Both slept, for their steeds were their sentinels, and the dark night passed by with nothing seen except the stars, nothing heard except the rustle of the breeze round the curtains of the fair white linen bower of the Princess Apraxia.
While it was still early morning they arose, and were setting out again upon their way, when, looking back, they saw a Tatar horseman in pursuit of them, his steed all bespattered with the mire of the plain. When Dunai was aware of this, he sent Nikitich forward to Kiev town with the Princess Apraxia, but remained himself to meet the bold adventurer, who surely had not heard how quiet Dunai had wooed the Princess Apraxia for his royal master.
In the midst of the plain the combatants met, and, without taking time to observe each other closely, but each taking the other for an accursed Tatar, they fell to resounding blows. In a few moments quiet Dunai was unhorsed, but he sprang at once to his nimble feet and fought his foe with mace and spear and sword, until he laid him prone upon the broad bosom of moist Mother Earth. Then quiet Dunai drew his dagger:
"Tell me now," he said, as he brushed the dew of onset from his eyes with his left sleeve, "the name that you bear and the name of the accursed horde from whence you come."
"If I sat on your white breast," said the stranger, "I would not ask your name and horde, but would stab you to the heart." Then quiet Dunai raised his dagger and would have pierced the heart of his foe, but with his will, or without his will, his arm stiffened at the shoulder and that blow never fell, for now he saw in the prostrate figure before him the form of a woman--while the fallen headgear revealed the parted, flowing hair and the low brow of the Princess Nastasya who loved quiet Dunai and kept him ever in her golden heart.
Without a word of speech, but with a heart full of deep and tender reproach, quiet Dunai took Nastasya by her lily-white hands, and raising her to her nimble feet, looked at her until he knew of her forgiveness and then kissed her sugar mouth. "Let us go," he said quietly, "to Kiev town and take the golden crowns." Then he placed her upon his good steed, took from her the mace of steel and the sharp sword which she bore, and, mounting behind her, rode onward to the city of Prince Vladimir.
"I came to seek my sister," said the Princess, as if suddenly remembering the cause of her ride.
"You shall find her in Kiev town," said Dunai, "and there she and Prince Vladimir will also take the golden crowns."
Then Nastasya spoke no further, for she was too contented for speech, and they rode ever onward across the open steppe, the glorious far-reaching, sun-lit, boundless plain.
Thus they came to Kiev town, and went at once to the great church. In the outer porch they met Prince Vladimir and the Princess Apraxia who had also come thither to take the golden crowns. The sisters greeted each other with love, and the company went into the dim coolness of the great church and up to the high altar where a priest awaited them. And there Prince Vladimir was wedded to the Princess Apraxia while the singing boys held the golden crowns above their heads, and quiet Dunai was wedded to the Princess Nastasya while the singing boys held in turn the golden crowns above their heads; and when that was done the whole company went to the palace of Prince Vladimir, where such a feast was laid as had not been prepared since the coming of the Prince to his royal city; and quiet Dunai sat in the great corner.
For three years they lived in mirth and joy, the Princess Apraxia keeping to her palace, her fine embroidery and her household and knowing all her husband's thoughts; the Princess Nastasya sharing her husband's life of quiet wandering, both of them being quite content in the summer with the life on the boundless steppe and in winter returning to the palace of white stone in fair Kiev city.
Then Prince Vladimir made another great feast, and when it came to the boasting time quiet Dunai bragged with the loudest:
"In all this royal city," he said, "there is no such hero as quiet Dunai. From the land of Lithuania he carried away two white swans of glorious plumage, one of whom he took for himself while he gave away the other with ungrudging hand."
The Princess Nastasya looked at him, and a world of wisdom was in her glance. "Your boast is emptiness, Dunai," she said. "I have not dwelt long in this city, but I have learnt much. There are handsomer, braver, more courteous heroes in Kiev town whom I could name. Neither in deeds nor promise are these men lacking, and, apart from them, even I, the wife of a boaster, have some skill with the bow. Let us take a stout bow and set up a sharp dagger on the open steppe a mile away, and before the dagger a silver ring. Then let us shoot through the ring of silver at the sharp dagger in such a skilful way that the shaft may fall into two equal parts against the dagger, into two parts exactly equal both to the eye and to the discerning hand which can tell weight from weight."
Thereupon quiet Dunai was very angry, but he said steadily, "It is well, little Nastasya. Let us go to the open steppe, set up a sharp dagger a mile away with a silver ring before it, and shoot our fiery darts as you have said." So they went out to put the matter to the trial. Nastasya shot a flaming arrow, which passed through the ring as through the open air, fell upon the sharp blade and was cut into two parts exactly equal both to the eye and to the discerning hand. Then quiet Dunai shot a flaming arrow, and it sped too far; he shot a second, and it sped not far enough; he shot a third, which came not near the silver ring and was not seen again. Then he shot a fourth into the breast of Nastasya, and she fell upon the open plain where she had loved to wander.
And still in the moment of her death she loved quiet Dunai and kept him ever in her golden heart. "Forgive, my lord, my foolish woman's words," she said, "and tend with care the son of mine whom I leave in Kiev town, for such a boy is not to be found in all the world. His little legs are silver to the knee, his arms to the elbow are of purest gold; upon his open forehead glows the fair round sun, upon his golden head glitter countless stars, and at the back of his head the bright moon shineth." So she spoke in her death-pain, and the heart of quiet Dunai burned within his breast for deep grief and scorching remorse and torturing pity. "Where the white swan fell," he said, "there shall fall the falcon bright."
Then he placed the handle of his sword in the bosom of moist Mother Earth and fell with his white breast upon the sharp point. And from that spot far away across the boundless plain flowed two gently wandering streams. The greater was the Dnieper, deep and full and quiet, yet resistless in its noiseless might, which ran past Kiev town; the lesser was the Dwina, which flowed to the kingdom of Lithuania. And where the two streams met, two cypress trees sprang up, and their branches twined lovingly together, whispering when the breeze arose in tender tones of love and pity of the steadfastness of the Princess Nastasya, who loved quiet Dunai and kept him ever in her golden heart.