STAVR the Noble lived in Chernigof, and when the daughter of Prince Vladimir was honoured at her father's feast he was among the guests but took no part in the boasting. For he sat all silent while the heroes praised their heroic chargers, their mighty strength, or their rich store of treasure, and while the merchants bragged of their great wealth of Siberian fox-skins or sables. Now when the Prince saw Stavr sitting all silent, he poured out with his own royal hands a cup of green wine and brought it to him, courteously inquiring why he would neither eat nor drink.
"You do not eat of the white swan, Lord Stavr," he said, "nor do you make any boast along with the others. Have you then no towns with wide suburbs, or villages with subject hamlets, nor yet a good mother, nor a beautiful young wife of whom you may make your boast?"
"I have enough of which I might boast," said Stavr. "What petty town is this of Kiev? My palace alone covers five miles, my halls of white oak are hung with pelts of the grey beaver, the roof with skins of the black sable. The floors are of silver and the locks and bars are of steel.
"Furthermore, Prince Vladimir, I have thirty young men in my hire, each one a master shoemaker. With never a pause the thirty continue making shoes, and I wear a pair for one day and only by a chance wear them a second day. After I have cast off a pair of these shoes they are taken to the market and sold to some prince or nobleman for their full value. I have another thirty young men in my hire, each one a master tailor. With never a pause the thirty continue making coats, and I wear a coat for one day and only by a chance wear it for a second day. After I have cast off one of these coats it is taken to the market and sold to some prince or nobleman for its full value. But I am no boaster."
"Moreover," he went on, after a short pause for breath, "I have a mare with a golden coat which cost at a market price five hundred roubles. On the best of her foals I ride abroad myself, while the worst are sold to princes and nobles, who are delighted when they get them. But I am no boaster."
"Yet there is one treasure," he continued, "of which I will boast, and that is my wife Vasilissa, who could buy all Kiev town in one market and sell it in the next, who could by her wiles deceive the most dignified princes and nobles, and drive even Prince Vladimir out of his mind."
For a moment no one among the guests spoke a single word, but Prince Vladimir sat in his place with ever darkening brow. Then some of the men about him said:
"Prince Vladimir, Fair Sun of Kiev, it is not meet to permit this boaster to flout us all. Let him be cast into a cold, dark dungeon, and then let his young wife Vasilissa buy all Kiev town in one market and sell it in the next, let her by her wiles deceive us all, and let her, if she can, drive even Prince Vladimir out of his mind."
The counsel seemed wise to the Prince, and he ordered his guards to fasten iron fetters on the feet and hands of Stavr, and to place him in a cold, dark dungeon, with doors of iron and locks of steel, and there feed him on frozen oats and cold spring water. This was done forthwith, but while the Prince's command was being performed the body-servant of Stavr took horse and rode homeward to Chernigof, where he found Vasilissa presiding at a great feast which she had made for the wives of the rich traders and the councillors of the town, including also the wife of the Elder, who was of great consequence.
When the young Vasilissa heard the news from Kiev town she rose in her place at the board and said:
"It is time, good dames, that ye went to your own dwellings."
Then they all did so without a word, and Vasilissa sat pondering for the space of three full hours. "It is not a matter of ransom, however high the offer," she said to herself, "nor of force, however great and courageous, but it is a matter for a woman's wit."
Then she rose in her place, went to her own apartment and summoned the ladies of her wardrobe.
"My trusty maids," she said, "cut off my red gold hair, dress me like an envoy to a prince and prepare for me a heroic steed. I go now as ambassador from Kodol Island to Prince Vladimir, the Fair Sun of Kiev, asking the hand of his daughter Lovely in honourable marriage."
In a short space of time she was ready, shorn and dressed like a goodly gallant and a prince's envoy. Then they brought her heroic steed, and she rode off, surrounded by a brave body-guard of forty youths of the stoutest, across the open, boundless glorious plain, and as she rode she trilled a merry song.
Half of the journey was accomplished when the party met a rider whose face was sternly set towards the city of Chernigof. They greeted him courteously, and reining in his horse he asked the leader of the party who he was and where he was going.
"I am the ambassador of King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich," was the answer, "and I am on my way to collect tribute from any princes who value their lives above roubles. Whither away, yourself?"
"I am the messenger of Prince Vladimir," returned the other, "and I am on my way to lock the doors of Stavr's palace of white stone, and to conduct his young wife Vasilissa to Kiev town."
"You are too late," said the youths of the bodyguard, "for the Lady Vasilissa has left the palace of her husband and has gone away to a distant land."
The messenger thanked the young men for their news, and turning his steed, rode swiftly back to Kiev town, where he informed his royal master that an ambassador from the stern King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich was on his way, with a strong body-guard, to collect tribute from any prince who valued his life above roubles. At this intelligence Vladimir was sorely troubled, but gave orders that the streets of Kiev should be cleaned without delay, and that logs of wood should be placed across the muddy holes, so that a fair passage might be afforded to the body-guard.
When Vasilissa reached the outskirts of Kiev town she put her good steed to the walls and leapt lightly over them into the courtyard of Vladimir's palace of white stone. Then she leapt from her horse, thrust the butt end of her spear into moist Mother Earth, and flung the bridle over the point. With the stride of a bold envoy she passed the guards without greeting, and came into the royal hall, where she bowed to North, South, East, and West, and especially to Prince Vladimir. Then she turned to the Prince, and making known her name as Vasily Mikulich, the envoy of King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich, she demanded the hand of Prince Vladimir's daughter Lovely in honourable marriage. The Prince looked earnestly at the bold wooer and then said:
"It is well. I will give you the hand of my daughter Lovely in honourable marriage."
Then, after due notice had been given, he went in state to his daughter's apartment to tell her with all the solemnity which the occasion demanded, that he had chosen for her a goodly husband whose claim upon her love was supported by a strong body-guard of forty good youths.
But Lovely looked with a smile at her royal father, and then looked again with a laugh. "Why, father," she said, "this is no bold ambassador from the Island of Kodol or elsewhere; from King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich or any other stern-eyed monarch. It is a woman. Why, when he walks in the courtyard I think of a duck in the pond. When he speaks I think of the note of a flute. When he walks in the palace I think of the dance, and when he sits on the bench of white oak he presses his feet close together. His hands are lily white with taper fingers, and upon them the marks of rings are plainly to be discovered." Then Lovely laughed and laughed again, and the sound was not pleasant to Prince Vladimir, the Fair Sun of Kiev, who walked away to the window.
"I will prove her," he said, after pondering for a time. Then he left the apartment and came to the ambassador. "Will it please you," he said courteously, "to accept the challenge of my heroes to a shooting match?"
"I have longed for many things," was the quick reply, "but for none so much as to receive such a challenge." Then without further delay they went out upon the open plain and began to shoot at an oak tree standing at a distance of about a mile. One shot and another shot, one struck and another missed, the shooting was good and not so good, and the old oak merely shook its smaller boughs as if a summer breeze were blowing.
Then it came to the turn of the ambassador from the stern King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich, and stepping forward the envoy said, "I will not shoot with one of the heroic bows of Kiev. I have within the fair white linen pavilion in which I have lodged my brave body-guard a little bow which I always carry with me when my royal master sends me upon an embassy across the open steppe." Then at a hail from the envoy the brave body-guard brought out the bow. Five of them carried it at one end and five at the other, while the remaining thirty bold youths dragged along the quiver filled full of flaming arrows. Then the ambassador took the little travelling bow in her hand and fitted to the bow-string a flaming shaft of steel.
The cord twanged, Prince Vladimir stepped quickly aside, the arrow sang a journeying song and shivered the trunk of the ancient oak, so that the sun streamed through it.
"I will prove this ambassador once again," murmured Prince Vladimir in his royal beard. "If he (she) be a woman he (she) will have no taste for a wrestling match."
Then he got together his strong wrestlers and assembled them in a brave company. "Will it please you," he said courteously, "bold ambassador of the stern King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich, to try a bout of wrestling."
"Have you then bold wrestlers, as well as expert bowmen?" asked the envoy. "I have often wrestled with children during my childhood, and I can but make a bold man's effort." Then the ambassador grasped two brave wrestlers in one heroic arm and three brave wrestlers in the other heroic arm, and cracked their skulls together until the Prince begged the wrestler with children to spare his brave heroes. Then said the ambassador:
"I came to woo your daughter Lovely, Prince Vladimir, and if you will not give her to me with your blessing, I will take her with your curse."
"You shall have her by my own consent," said the King, "for with such a wooer her own consent does not greatly matter."
Then Prince Vladimir seized the occasion to make a great wedding-feast, which lasted with intervals for resting for the full space of three days. When the feast was over the bride and bridegroom were about to be led to the church to take the golden crowns, but the ambassador sat sad and silent in the hall.
"What ails you on your wedding morning?" asked the father of the bride.
"I know not," was the reply. "It may be that my father has died or my mother, and my heaviness is the sign of grief. Perchance I need some music. Call the harp players, and let us see if they can dispel my heaviness."
So the harpers were called, and they sang of the great deeds of Svyatogor, of Ilya of Murom, and of Ivan the son of Golden Tress, but for all their skill and sweetness the heaviness of the ambassador was not dispelled.
"I heard in my own home," he said, when the music ceased, "of a skilful player upon the harp of maple wood whose name was Stavr of Chernigof. Send for him, and let us see if he can dispel my heaviness."
"If I do it not," said Vladimir in his royal beard, "I shall anger the stern King Yetmanuila Yetmanuilovich. If I do it, Stavr may be freed from my prison." Yet he did it.
Then Stavr came, and, standing before the ambassador, plucked the strings of his harp of maple wood. And he sang brave songs of heroic victory, and gentle songs of constancy in love. As he sang, the ambassador began to sleep and dream, and from these signs the royal host knew well that his guest was pleased and delighted and thankful beyond measure. Then with a gentle sigh the envoy woke and the music ceased.
"A boon, O Prince," cried he; "let Stavr go to my white pavilion to entertain my brave body-guard as he has entertained me."
Such a request from one who had paid the musician the high honour of dreaming to his music could not be refused, and Stavr was allowed to go out of the banquet-hall with the ambassador by his side.
Now when they came out into the bright sunlight and had almost reached the pavilion, Vasilissa looked up at her husband and said:
"Do you not know me, Stavr?"
"Alas and alack!" said he, rubbing his eyes, "after such a time in such a dungeon I cannot recall the faces of far-off years."
"Stupid," said she. "Do you not know your own young wife Vasilissa, of whom you made your boast?"
"I would know Vasilissa if I had not seen her for thirteen years," said Stavr, with a great deal of certainty and not a little vexation.
"Stupider and stupider," said Vasilissa, turning away. "I am certain that you would not know her after three months."
Then she went into the pavilion, where she put off her ambassador's garments and dressed herself as Vasilissa, placing a coif upon her head to hide her shortened hair. When she came forth Stavr dropped his harp of maple wood upon the lap of moist Mother Earth, and taking his young wife by her lily-white hands, he kissed her sugar mouth.
"Let us ride, my fair one," he said, "ride fast and far."
"Not so," was the reply; "we shall not steal away but march away from royal Kiev town. Let us go back to Prince Vladimir, and to Lovely, my promised bride."
So they went back to the Prince and told him all their tale. "With good reason did Stavr boast of his young wife," he said, with a laugh, and then with a frown he added, "but what of Lovely the forsaken bride, for whom I chose a husband?"
"She will doubtless be easily consoled," said Vasilissa, "and will choose her next bridegroom for herself. May he harp as well and boast not so well as Stavr of Chernigof."