OF ALL the mighty heroes of Holy Russia one of the mightiest was young Kasyan, the leader of a band of forty. Brave he was, without equal, who had fought against the accursed Tatars, and had won great renown in battle against infidel hordes; but he had never taken the golden crowns nor loved any lady except the Dream Maiden, whose image he kept ever in his golden heart. For she had come to him in a vision; and whether she were a lily for whiteness, a rose for redness, or a violet for darkness he could not tell. He knew only that he would know her when he met her among the warrior-maids or gentle hearth-dwellers of Holy Russia, and that she would know him also. But in all his wanderings and among all the fair maidens of palace and plain, he had seen no living lady who could compare with the Dream Maiden; though many a Princess and noble-woman of high descent had favoured him secretly or openly, and had longed to be hailed as the beauty of his vision.
On the broad and open plain he assembled his band of forty, and they came to a halt in a green meadow, dismounted from their nimble steeds, and sat down in a ring to tell of adventure and to take counsel as to the next journey to be made across the boundless steppe. They told many tales of far journeys and bold deeds, and boasted of death as if it were a pretty plaything. Then when silence fell upon them young Kasyan spoke:
"Greatly have ye sinned against the Most High, ye mighty heroes of Holy Russia; for though ye are bold and fearless, ye have made a plaything of death and shed much blood without cause. Will you agree, one and all, to follow out my plan? It would be better that each of us should now go on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem, to pray in the Holy of Holies, to visit the grave of the Risen Lord, and to bathe in Jordan river, for in this way only shall we win pardon for our sins. But before we go, it will be well if we take a vow--the keeping of which will prove our heroic strength--not to rob or steal, not to look with love upon the face of any maiden, and not to stain our hands with blood. And if any of our band shall break his vow then shall his nimble feet be hewn off at the knee, and his white hands at the elbow, his far-seeing eyes shall be darkened, and his tongue cut out, and he shall be buried up to the breast in moist Mother Earth."
The heroes agreed at once to the word of Kasyan, and rising to their feet loosed their good steeds and gave them their freedom. Then they dressed themselves in pilgrims' dress of the hue of the scarlet poppy, and slung over their shoulders the beggars' wallets of black velvet embroidered in thread of red gold and set with fine seed pearls, while on their heads they placed the pilgrims' caps. With curving staves of walrus tusks in their hands, they set out upon their way, travelling by day in the light of the glorious sun, and at night in the radiance which came from the jewels set thickly in their shoes of fine leather. So they passed onward from town to town and from city to city until they came to Kiev.
In the open plain near the city they met Prince Vladimir hunting the martens, black sables, white swans, grey geese, and downy ducks, and as the royal party drew near to them the pilgrims shouted: "Vladimir, Fair Sun of Kiev, give alms to the wandering pilgrims. Not a pittance but a royal gift will we take from such as you, even a noble benefaction of forty thousand roubles." Then the Prince lifted his hand to stay the hunt, and dismounting from his horse, greeted the holy pilgrims with the reverence which he paid to the Saints, and begged them to sing in his hearing the sweetest of the holy songs, even the psalm of Elena, which he was longing to hear.
So the one-and-forty pilgrims placed their staves in damp Mother Earth and hung their wallets upon them. Then standing in a circle they sang the sweetest of the holy songs, even the psalm of Elena; and as the sound welled upward to the heavens the bosom of moist Mother Earth heaved and trembled as if with mingled joy and grief, the pine trees shook in a neighbouring wood, far away the oak trees upon the mountains bowed their heads, and the birds were hushed into silence. The Prince was strangely moved, and at length could listen no longer, for the sound of the holy psalm showed him all that he might be as a King and a Leader; so he held up his hand to cause the music to cease, and the one-and-forty pilgrims took their wallets from their staves and made ready to pursue their journey.
"I have no roubles with me," said the courteous Prince, "nor can I refresh you as you deserve and as I desire. But go onward to Kiev town to the Princess Apraxia, who in my name will give you food and drink and lodging."
So they journeyed on until they came to Kiev town, where they went to the palace and gave the pilgrims' cry; and at this piercing sound from so many heroic throats the Princess Apraxia came in haste to the window of her apartment, with her golden hair all unbound, and thrust herself from the window to her waist. Then she saw the young Kasyan among the foremost, and knew him for the dreamer who had troubled the hearts of so many fair ladies; and there came into her heart a burning desire that he should find her as beautiful as the Dream Maiden and should tell her so.
The one-and-forty pilgrims were now conducted to an ante-chamber and from thence, after a little time, to the great hall, where they bowed to North, South, East, and West, and particularly to the Princess Apraxia, who was now arrayed more splendidly than ever before. She gave them a gracious welcome and ordered the cloths with drawn-thread work to be laid upon the white oaken tables, and the richest of food with the sweetest of drinks to be set before her guests. The Princess herself sat at the high table with her nurses and ladies and a host of bold warrior maids, and Kasyan sat in the great corner. He had laid aside his cap and from his fair hair the sun seemed to shine, while his eyes rested upon the company of ladies for a while, searching diligently, after his manner, for the Dream Maiden; but though all the beauty of Holy Russia was now before his eyes he turned away, after a while, to contemplate the painted pictures of holy saints.
When the feast was over the pilgrims were conducted each to his own apartment, where he might pray before retiring to rest. Now as Kasyan sat in holy meditation the door was opened and the Princess Apraxia entered softly. She was dressed in a simple robe of gleaming whiteness with a girdle of ruddy gold, and holding out her hands she cried in quivering tones:
"Am I not fair as the Dream Maiden, young Kasyan?"
"Nay, not so," was the cold answer. "Princess, ask Vladimir for his thoughts on your beauty." Then the young pilgrim turned aside, and with anger in her heart the Princess Apraxia left the room. But while he slept she came again very quietly, took down his pilgrim's wallet from the place where it hung, cut it open and placed within it the silver loving-cup from which Prince Vladimir always drank when he returned from his hunting. Then she sewed up the velvet once more, so neatly, that the place of the rent could not be seen.
Next morning, as the early sun was rising, the one-and-forty pilgrims arose, washed themselves in cold spring water and prayed to God. The Princess was already astir and saw that her guests were well supplied. Then having satisfied their heroic hunger, they called down a blessing upon Prince Vladimir and upon Princess Apraxia, swung their wallets over their shoulders and set out for the holy city of Jerusalem.
A short time after their departure Vladimir returned from his hunting, and sat down to appease his mighty hunger. Then he called for his silver loving-cup, and the stewards searched for it in all corners of the palace, but were not able to find it. The Prince was very angry, and looking round upon his household he asked sternly, "Which of you hath taken the royal cup?"
None spoke for a moment, and then the clear, cold voice of the Princess was heard. "My Prince and Lord," she said, "we feasted yesterday a band of one-and-forty pilgrims, in accordance with your own desires. It may be that they have stolen the royal cup." Thereupon Prince Vladimir gave the word, and a company of heroes sprang to their feet, eager to ride after the pilgrim band. But as they prepared themselves the voice of Ilya of Murom was heard from the great corner:
"These were no psalm-singers," he said, "but heroes of the boldest. Whom have we worthy to go and outface them."
"I will send Alyosha alone," said Vladimir, and it was done in accordance with his word, the messenger being commanded to speak gently to the pilgrims. But when he overtook them he called out in an angry voice:
"Ho, there, ye thieves and robbers. Restore to me now without dispute the royal cup which you have stolen."
At this discourteous speech young Kasyan sprang to his nimble feet, grasped his travelling staff of walrus ivory as if it were his heroic mace and flourished it about his head.
"Think you," he cried in righteous anger, "that we went to Kiev town for the royal cup? Come nigh to me and I will punish you as you richly deserve."
But Alyosha did not dare to come within the whirling circle of that ivory cudgel. He wheeled his horse about and returning in haste to Kiev told how the robbers had set upon him when he asked for the cup, and how he had escaped with difficulty from their heroic turbulence.
"Alyosha is a fool of an ambassador," said Ilya of Murom, "send Nikitich. He knows how to sweeten valour with courtesy."
So Nikitich mounted his horse at once, and when he came to the pilgrims, who were seated in a ring on the open plain, he said:
"All hail, ye one-and-forty holy men. I ask for your hospitality."
"All hail, goodly youth," was the reply, "sit with us here and share our humble fare."
Then Nikitich sat with them, and in hesitation began his message. "There is great trouble," he said gently, "in the palace of Prince Vladimir, for the royal loving-cup is mislaid and without it the Prince cannot refresh himself after his hunting. Let me therefore beg of you, good youths, to look within your pilgrims' wallets and see whether it has strayed into one of them in error."
The one-and-forty looked at each other, and then forty turned and looked at Kasyan. "It is well, good comrades," said their leader, "to satisfy the courteous youth. Open your wallets and show him what they contain, for we can do this without fear." Thereupon all the pilgrims sprang to their nimble feet, opened their wallets and showed Nikitich what they contained, but the royal cup was not to be found among the forty. Last of all Kasyan opened his velvet wallet and, lo! the loving-cup was found within.
Then the forty pilgrims looked in anger and sadness upon Kasyan. "What shall we do to you now, young Kasyan?" they asked sternly. "Did you not impose the great vow upon us of your own choice?"
"Beloved comrades," said their leader, "I did not steal the royal cup. Nevertheless do now what has been agreed amongst us, and break not your great vow for me."
Then they wept sorely, but they took Kasyan and did with him in accordance with their terrible vow. After that they prayed to God and went on their way once more to the holy city of Jerusalem. Young Nikitich stood in silence while the vow was performed, and then rode back at great speed to Kiev town, where he gave the cup to Prince Vladimir and told of all he had seen. When he had finished the Princess Apraxia fell in her place to the floor; and when her ladies had restored her she spoke no word, but unloosing her golden hair and unbinding her golden girdle she went unto the courtyard and lay upon the great dung-heap.
Prince Vladimir now prepared himself to go and see the wonder of the fulfilment of the vow. But before he could reach the place where Kasyan had been buried to the breast in moist Mother Earth there passed over the boundless white plain an aged saint with flowing beard, ruddy cheeks, and eyes which shone with the laughter of boys and girls. With his holy hands he restored Kasyan to his completeness, his manly strength and youthful beauty, and set him again upon his nimble feet, saying:
"Go thy way, young Kasyan, and thou shalt overtake the forty at the first inn upon the way to the holy city of Jerusalem. Pray in that holy city, visit the grave of the risen Lord and bathe in Jordan river. And when you come home again build a cathedral church to St. Nicholas, who loves all men and especially youths and maidens." Then the old man vanished from sight; it was only a snow-wreath driven before the winter wind across the white world and he was gone.
Young Kasyan went on his way and late on that same evening he overtook his companions, who, when they saw that he was much more comely than he had ever been, rejoiced over him and praised God for His goodness. Meanwhile Prince Vladimir had come to the place where young Kasyan had been buried and found a deep pit only, whereupon he and his company returned in wondering amazement to Kiev town.
Once more the one-and-forty pilgrims home returning stood at the gateway of Prince Vladimir's palace, asking alms in the name of the Risen Lord. Then the Prince begged them with reverence to enter his great hall and partake of his hospitality, and they came within the portals. But before they sat down to meat Kasyan asked that he might be taken to the Princess, who still lay upon the dung-heap, and whom when he saw in her sorrow and debasement he breathed upon with his holy breath. Then he laid his white hand upon her lowly head and pardoned her, and she arose, arrayed herself, and had never seemed so fair in the eyes of her lord, Prince Vladimir.
Then after feasting and quiet merriment the one-and-forty pilgrims went to their own home; and young Kasyan raised a cathedral church to St. Nicholas, who loved all men and especially youths and maidens; and for himself he spent his time in holy deeds and in ministration to the poor, loving always the Dream Maiden only and keeping her ever in his golden heart.