PEACE had no charm for Vasily of Novgorod the Great, but where there was fighting to be done there he was at his best and happiest. Rest and ease had no attraction for him, but where the rover wandered there was the place of his journeying. His father, however, had lived in peace with the men of Novgorod the Great, and had died leaving to his widow and his only son a great store of treasure, a wide palace with a lofty tower, and a cellar full of green wine without price.
When Vasily had reached the age of seven years his mother sent him to learn to read and write, for she longed to curb his fiery spirit with the rein of reflection which learning places upon the violent; and Vasily, being of a determined disposition, applied himself to learning with a will so that he succeeded better than all the scholars who studied by his side. But reading and writing did not curb his fiery spirit, nor even church singing in which he also excelled, and he could pass from the cathedral and the singing of holy songs to noisy brawls in the city streets in which he cracked heads as if they were nuts. He was so strong and thoughtless that even his friends ran down side paths to avoid meeting him, for it was said that he had one day torn out a young man's arm in the act of shaking hands with him, and had stricken another to the ground by clapping him playfully upon the back.
As Vasily grew up his vigorous pranks began to terrify the good people of Novgorod, who came to his widow mother to beg for protection against her son. She was a peaceable, gentle lady, who was greatly alarmed at the strength which her son was developing, and she upbraided him with tears in her eyes.
"My son," she said, "why do you delight in going about the city making cripples? At your age your father had no treasure to speak of, but he had a band of brave bodyguards, and was a wise leader among men and a judge among the people of Novgorod the Great."
These gentle words displeased Vasily greatly, and instead of restraining him moved him to greater mischief. "Men shall speak of my might" he muttered as he left his mother, "and in after years shall boast even in Novgorod of the heroic deeds of their own townsman, aye, even if I crack hundreds of their own thick skulls for them. They will remember me when they have forgotten men of wisdom and of safe judgment." Then he proceeded to win his reputation.
He went up to his own room in the top of his lofty tower and sat down at the table to write on a scroll of parchment, but it was no psalm or cathedral hymn which the turbulent scholar wrote. It was an invitation to a feast and ran thus:
"Whosoever wishes to eat savoury viands ready to his hand and without cost to himself, as well as to drink green wine of priceless value and to wear embroidered robes of the best, let him come to the court of Vasily at once and instantly."
He wrote out this invitation many times and then gathering up the scrolls went to the open window. Here he fitted each of the parchments to a stout arrow and shot them into the city, which was about two miles away; and as the men of Novgorod came from church they gathered up these strange missives in the streets and lanes and broad paven courtyards. Many of them wondered, and they came together in groups gravely discussing the marvellous matter, until a priest came along from the church and read one of the scrolls which was attached to the arrow. Then the word buzzed round the town, "Vasily the Turbulent commandeth us to an honourable feast." And the men of Novgorod the Great thought that now their chance had surely come to pay off the long score against the man who troubled the peace of their trading city.
Meanwhile Vasily was making preparation for his guests, and he meant to use the occasion to select for himself a brave bodyguard. The test for admission to this very select and honourable company was to be so severe that Vasily would be perfectly sure of gaining protectors of the bravest. He rolled a great cask of green wine from the vaults and set it up in the middle of the banquet-hall, saying to himself, "Whoever shall lift in one hand a cup of this wine and shall drain it at one breath, and shall likewise stand upright after a blow from my cudgel of red elm, shall make one of my brave bodyguard." Then he went to his room in the top of the lofty tower and lying down upon his heroic bed of smooth planks slept the sleep of Ilya the Old Cossáck.
The next morning, very early, his widow mother paced the passages of her palace and chanced to look out upon the broad courtyard. To her surprise she saw that it was crowded with a great company of the men of Novgorod. In trembling haste she ascended the tall tower and roused her unruly son from his heavy sleep.
"Do you sleep, Vasily," she said, "and take your ease and care nothing for the peril which is even now at your gates? See, a company of angry men make your courtyard as black as a raven's wing."
The young man at once sprang to his nimble feet, grasped his great club of red elm in his white hands, and went out into the wide courtyard.
"Ho, there, Vasily the Turbulent," shouted some of the foremost of the guests. "We have come to your banquet and are determined to eat up all your stores of food, to drink up your green wine, to wear your embroidered robes, and then drag forth your golden treasures."
The tone of the acceptance of the invitation could scarcely be described as polite, and it roused the hot blood of Vasily the Turbulent. He leapt forth into the courtyard, grasped his club of red elm with a firm grip and began to brandish it. Wherever he swung it forward an open lane appeared among the crowd, and when he drew it backward he made an alley. Soon the men of Novgorod were lying in great heaps in the courtyard, while the rest went back to the town; and Vasily climbed once more to his chamber at the top of the tall tower.
After a while there came a black-browed handmaid to the door of the chamber, and calling Vasily outside she told him that the New Trader wished to join his bodyguard; and Vasily came down to the hall where the young man stood near the great vat of green wine. He was a comely youth with black curls upon a white brow, and blue eyes which looked ever into the distance, as if he sighted new lands afar off and cared not for the trodden ways. As soon as he saw him standing there proudly erect, Vasily advanced swiftly upon him, grasping his great club of red elm, and smote him a stunning, staggering blow. But the young man was neither stunned nor did he stagger. He stood firm under that heavy blow, the black curls upon his forehead did not move, and the wine from the full cup in his hand was not spilt.
"Is my strength waning?" cried Vasily in despair, and then as if to test it he raised the club again and brought it down upon a white and burning stone which lay at his feet. The hard stone was shivered to atoms and Vasily laughed grimly, as he turned to the New Trader.
"Drain off the green wine at a breath," he commanded, and the young man did so. "Hail, New Trader!" cried Vasily the Turbulent, "you shall be of my bodyguard from this day forward."
Then there entered the hall two young men of the town, one of whom was known as the Lame and the other as the Hunchback, and in spite of their infirmities these two stood the severe tests of Vasily and were admitted to his bodyguard.
In this strange manner did Vasily the Turbulent choose his brave bodyguard of three men only, three men and no more.
"Enter now my palace of white stone," said the hero, "and there we will feast on the best that my larders can afford; and while we eat together I will tell you how I shall entertain the men of Novgorod."
The four heroes sat down to the white tables and Vasily sat in the great corner. They were waited upon by the black-browed maiden, and when the meal was nearly over Vasily unfolded his plan for his next banquet. His bodyguard laughed gently as they heard of his purpose; and the next day they went out into Novgorod to invite the leading men to come and partake of the hospitality of Vasily the Turbulent. They came in a great crowd and found the tables prepared for a banquet, being filled with dishes and huge cups, but there was only one waiting-maid, the girl of the black brows, to attend upon this great company.
As soon as the guests were seated and Vasily had taken his place in the big corner, the black-browed maid brought steaming dishes and foaming tankards and placed them before her master and his bodyguard, but she placed neither food nor drink before the men of Novgorod, who were very hungry, for the wind was keen and the world was white. Now when the citizens saw that they were mocked by Vasily and his bodyguard, and even by the black-browed servant maid, they were spitefully angry and cursed their host and his men, but this only made the four jokers laugh the louder; whereupon the guests arose and crowded out into the snow-covered courtyard rather more hungry than when they came in.
"We will not forget this vile insult," piped one small citizen in a mantle of marten skins with a collar of sables; "why, my neighbour was full of spleen because of my invitation to the lord's castle, and when the story is known his pity and scorn will be much worse to bear than his spleen. But we shall repay Vasily in his own bad coin. Let us make such a feast as the citizens of Novgorod have never seen before, and we will not send Vasily an invitation."
"That is a good thought," said two stout citizens, and they all went home with their heads so high in the air that some of them slipped down on the way upon some slides that certain wicked boys--who would assuredly never grow up to be councillors--had made in the roadway. In a few days the feast was prepared and the invitations were issued, but there was no bidding for Vasily and his contemptible bodyguard.
It was impossible that the preparations for the banquet should escape the vigilance of Vasily, and indeed the merchants agreed that it would be well if he did hear of it. "Otherwise," said one of them, who had made a great fortune by buying and selling rags and bones, "how can he be humbled, for, look you, neighbours, if he does not know of the feast he will not miss our invitation."
"That is so," said the others, "that is indeed so, and true, and wise, and intelligent. Our friend must be the next Elder of Novgorod the Great."
So the servant maid of the rag-merchant told the servant maid of another trader, who told the black-browed maid at the castle, only to find that she knew all about it already, for her master had told her two days before.
"Mother," said Vasily that morning, "I shall go to the feast of the men of Novgorod."
"My dear child," said the old lady, "there is always room for the guest who is bidden, but none for the guest who is unbidden." But her gentle counsel placed no restraint upon Vasily who, when the time came, summoned his bodyguard and walked straight into the banquet-hall, asking no leave of the gatekeepers nor yet of the lackeys at the doors. He strode forward to the wall-bench in the great corner by the stove and sat down there to wait his turn to be served. No man present dared withstand him, and he glared down the table in such a ferocious manner that many of the citizens burnt their tongues by forgetting to blow upon their broth.
"Ah, well," said one of them, as he made a brave attack upon a great sirloin of beef, "Vasily may be here but he wasn't invited, while we were invited,--in fact I invited myself."
"Ah, yes," piped the small rag-merchant, who wore a coat of greater value than any, "we were invited but he wasn't." And with this consolation they went on with their feasting, Vasily being served as nobly as the rest with meat of the richest and wine of the greenest.
As the banquet went on the spirits of the citizens arose, and the small rag-merchant began to think that he might some day be bold enough to challenge even Vasily to mortal combat. As for the turbulent lord himself, he stood up when the merriment was at its height and issued a mighty challenge. He would go, he said, with his brave bodyguard on the following day to the bridge over the Volkof river, and would hold his own against all the men of Novgorod. Then he stalked from the room and across the snow-covered streets to his own palace.
At the doorway he was met by his widow mother, who noticed at once that he was aroused to turbulent anger. "Did they pass you with the dishes," she asked, "or did they jeer at you?" Vasily was too much moved to reply, but the bodyguard told her all the truth. Then the widow mother put her shoes upon her bare feet, cast her mantle of fine sables over her cold shoulders and went her way down, down into the deep vaults below the palace. There she heaped up a bowl with rich red gold, another with white silver, and a third with fine seed pearls; and having called the black-browed maiden, who came from her room with hair unbound and feet all bare, the two women crossed the white courtyard and passed along the silent streets until they came to the hall where the citizens were finishing their banquet.
The widow mother went forward to the great corner with the black-browed maid close behind her, and holding out the glittering bowls, said to the chief citizens:
"Hail, ye men of Novgorod! Forgive now the fault of Vasily my turbulent son."
But the citizens were now so filled with the courage born of rich food and green wine that they thought themselves superior to bribes, and with drunken scorn they refused the gifts of the peace-loving mother, and said with a great show of spirit:
"If we shall be able to take Vasily, we will ride his good steed, wear his embroidered garments, and take, but not as a gift, all his rich red gold, his white silver, and his fine seed pearls. We will pardon him freely when we shall have cut off his turbulent head."
Then the widow mother went home in great grief and sadness, scattering as she went upon the frozen snow the rich red gold, the white silver, and the fine seed pearls, saying to herself as she went, "Not these things are dear to me, but the turbulent head of my own dear son."
Now when she came once more to her own house she gave Vasily to drink of the cup of forgetfulness, led him down into the deepest dungeon, and locked him securely within. Then she went out into the stables and set his wild shaggy charger free to wander over the wide steppe, and taking his great cudgel of red elm, his sharp sword, and his coat of mail, she hid them where she thought no one would ever be able to find them.
Early the next morning Vasily's brave bodyguard took their stand at one end of the bridge over the Volkof river, and the men of Novgorod came against them in a great crowd. All that day they fought without pause for refreshment, and for a second day and a night and yet a third day without pause for taking breath. In the meantime Vasily slept and took his ease, knowing nothing of the straits to which his brave bodyguard was reduced. But as the black-browed maiden went to the stream for fresh water, with her buckets fastened on a maple yoke, she saw the fight by the bridge. Then she set down the buckets, and taking the yoke from her white shoulders entered into the fray and cracked the skulls of many more citizens than she could count. After that she ran quickly home, and coming to the door of Vasily's dungeon cried out:
"Do you sleep, Vasily, and take your ease? Up there upon Volkof bridge your brave bodyguard stand as prisoners of the men of Novgorod, their feet in blood, their heads broken with whips, and their hands bound with their own girdles."
"Open this pestilent door," roared Vasily, "and I will give you as much treasure as you desire in return for the displeasure of your mistress."
The black-browed maiden needed no bribe to urge her to obey. With one stout blow of her maple yoke she broke the heavy lock, whereupon she set her white shoulder against the door, which creaked and then gave way under her young strength. So Vasily came out once more into the white world, and as he could not find his warlike gear he wrenched the iron axle from a cart which stood in the empty stable, threw it over his shoulder and said, "I thank you, maiden, that you did not let my brave bodyguard perish. Hereafter I will repay you, but now I must not tarry."
"Haste, oh haste," said the black-browed maid, "and give no thought to reward for me. It is enough for me to be the handmaid of a man who loves a fight against odds."
In a short time Vasily came to the Volkof bridge and found all as the black-browed maid had told him. "Ah, my brave bodyguard," he cried, "you have breakfasted well; now let me dine. It was not I, my band of brothers, who betrayed you but my own mother." With a mighty forward sweep of the iron axle he made a lane through the crowd of citizens and with a backward stroke he made an alley. Then he loosed the bonds of his brave bodyguard and said to them, "Go now, my brothers, and rest, while I play with these children from Novgorod."
Thereupon he began to stride about upon the bridge, brandishing his axle, and the men of Novgorod fell in great heaps about him. At this the leaders drew off unobserved and went with the Elder at their head to the peace-loving widow mother, begging her to calm her wild son before he had completely wiped out all the citizens of Novgorod; but she said, "I dare not do that, you men of Novgorod, for I did him grievous wrong by confining him in a dungeon and sowing distrust of his valour in the hearts of his brave bodyguard. But my son has a godfather who is known as the Ancient Pilgrim, and who dwells in the monastery upon the hill. He is a man of discretion--for what can a woman do alone in such a strait? Ask him for help against my turbulent son."
So the men of Novgorod with the Elder at their head went to the Ancient Pilgrim and told him all their trouble, at which he sorrowed greatly; and he made ready at once to leave the peace of his monastery and go with them to see what he could do. Now he was known as the Ancient Pilgrim, but he was really a great Russian hero who was spending some time in quiet, but who had known what it was in the earlier days to stand up against a host. Hearing that there was stern fighting going on, it came into his mind that he might possibly need protection, and having no armour or helmet at hand he climbed up very nimbly for an Ancient Pilgrim into the belfry, loosed the great service bell and put it upon his heroic head.
"This will serve me in good stead," he said, "in the place where heads are being broken." Then finding the clapper of the bell somewhat in his way, he detached it and used it as a staff; and as he stepped across the great drawbridge which led from the monastery it bent and groaned beneath his weight.
He walked straightway to Vasily and looked him squarely in the eyes. "My godson," he said in a coaxing voice, "curb your heroic turbulence. Spare at least a few of these men to carry on the business of the town."
These words added fuel to the fire within the breast of Vasily, and he replied:
"Hail, godfather! If I gave you no white peace egg at Easter yet take this red one from me on St. Peter's Day."
Then he heaved up the great axle and brought it down with a resounding clang upon the great service bell on the heroic head of the Ancient Pilgrim; and with that single blow the life of the hero of old time was ended. His staff now served Vasily for a new weapon, and he continued to strike down the men of Novgorod in dozens and twenties. The Elder and his companions kept carefully upon the outside of the throng, and when they saw the fall of the Ancient Pilgrim they went again to the widow mother and asked her to make intercession for them with her turbulent son.
So she dressed herself in a robe of black, threw a cloak of fine sables about her shoulders, set a helmet from her husband's armoury upon her aged head, and went to plead with her son. She did not, however, as the Ancient Pilgrim had done, walk straight up to Vasily and look him squarely in the eyes; she crept up behind him and laid her trembling hands upon his mighty shoulders, entreating him to spare the men of Novgorod in his wild anger. And at the sound of her gentle voice Vasily dropped his arms, the bell clapper fell from his hands upon the lap of moist Mother Earth, and he said in a gentle voice:
"Lady mother, you are a cunning old woman and a wise one too. Well you knew how to break my power by coming at me from behind, for if you had approached me from before I should not have spared even you in my anger, so blinded was I with fury against these traders of Novgorod."
The Elder and the councillors now took heart, and having conceived a tremendous respect for Vasily came forward and prayed that he would be their honoured guest at a banquet, where he should sit in the great corner and eat and drink of the best. Vasily consented to go with them, but he felt ill at ease at the banquet, for he was the only fighting man there and had no conversation for traders. So he slipped away from the feast as soon as he could, and went home to his widow mother and his brave body-guard; and he sat among them by the stove until long past midnight, talking of many things which had happened and of things which were to come.
"When our wounds are healed," said Vasily, "I will build me a red ship with delicate sails of white linen and launch it upon the bosom of Ilmen Lake; and with my brave bodyguard I will go to pray in Jerusalem city, to worship at the holy of holies, to visit the grave of the Risen Christ, and to bathe in the Jordan river."
In a short time the red ship was built and sailed proudly upon the bosom of Ilmen Lake. Vasily walked the decks while his brave bodyguard managed the sailing, and as the sun shone on the sails of white linen the heart of the hero filled with pride.
"Set the sails towards the town of Novgorod," he cried, and in a short space of time they caught the shore, threw out gangways to the bank, and having left a watch behind on the ship came into the town and thence to the palace of Vasily. The hero sought out his widow mother and gently folded his strong arms about her trembling form.
"Lady mother," he said in persuasive tones, "give me your sacred blessing, for with my brave bodyguard I will go to pray in Jerusalem city, to worship at the holy of holies, to visit the grave of the Risen Christ, and to bathe in the Jordan river."
"Ah, my son," his mother made answer, "if you go with a good purpose I will give you my good blessing, but if you go to rob I will not give it. If that is your purpose may moist Mother Earth no longer bear you."
"That is to be discovered and found out," said Vasily, and he persuaded his mother so that she gave him freely from the armoury great stores of weapons, and from the kitchen and larder as much bread and other food as the black-browed maid had prepared in a month of Holy Days. Then she said good-bye with tears, and the black-browed maid stood upon the bank as the red ship with sails of fair white linen sailed away from Novgorod and ran out like a full-breasted water-bird upon the bosom of Lake Ilmen.
For a long time the black-browed maid stood shading her eyes with her hand while her white shoulders heaved. Then when the ship could no more be seen, she turned and went back to the kitchen, where she wrapped the widow mother in her cloak of sables; for though the sun shone the mother of Vasily was cold as with the breath of winter from the broad white world.
For two days the red ship sailed onward, and on the second day they met a ship which they spoke in a friendly fashion. "Whither away, Vasily?" asked the sailors, who hailed from Novgorod the Great.
"I am going, my mariners," said Vasily, "upon an unwilling path. Young as I am I am blood-guilty, and I must save my soul; so now I go to pray in Jerusalem city, to worship at the holy of holies, to visit the grave of the Risen Christ, and to bathe in the Jordan river. Tell me, good youths, where is the straight way to the Sacred City?"
Then they told him that the straight way would lead him by a seven weeks' journey, but that the way about would take a year and a half to traverse. But if he took the straight way he would meet with a stout barrier, for the chieftains of the Cossacks, in number about three thousand, made their lair upon the island of Kuminsk, robbing merchant vessels and destroying red ships with sails of fair white linen.
"I trust in my cudgel of the red elm," said Vasily. "Haste now, my bodyguard, and steer my red beauty by the straight way."
So they sailed onward, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, until they came to a lofty mountain which sloped down steeply to the water. Tired of his confinement Vasily ran in to the shore and ascended the steep hill with his brave bodyguard at his heels. Half-way up the ascent they found a human skull and human bones lying in the pathway. Vasily cast them aside with spurning foot, and from the hollow skull came a human voice. "Hey, Vasily the Turbulent, why do you spurn me? There was a time, O youth, when I was such as you are, and even yet I know how to defend myself. Upon this lofty mountain, in the days that are to come, shall lie the skull of Vasily the Turbulent."
The young man made a gesture of disgust and passed on, saying, "Surely a spirit unclean speaks from this hollow skull." At the top of the mountain he found a huge stone on which was carved the inscription: "He who shall comfort himself at this stone and divert himself by leaping along it shall break his turbulent head."
Vasily scoffed at the warning and began to divert himself by leaping across the great stone, his brave bodyguard following his example. But, somehow, they did not feel inclined to leap lengthwise. After spending some time in this diversion and stretching their cramped limbs thereby, they came down from the mountain and embarked once more upon the red ship. Then they hoisted the sails of fair white linen and sped swiftly over the heaving bosom of the Caspian Sea until they came to that great barrier feared of merchantmen where the robber Cossacks hid in the island of Kuminsk, robbing merchant vessels and destroying red ships with sails of fair white linen.
At the landing stood a hundred fierce warriors, but neither their height nor their girth nor their weapons had any terrors for Vasily. He drew near to the shore, his men cast out landing-stages, and he crossed over into the midst of the Cossack guard, flourishing his cudgel of red elm.
As soon as the brave hundred saw Vasily coming they trembled, turned and fled to their chieftains, who did not seem to be greatly surprised at the news brought by the young men.
"Surely," they said quietly, "it is Vasily the Turbulent from Novgorod the Great who comes upon us with the flight of the falcon."
They had no sooner spoken these words than the young man stepped boldly among them with his club of red elm in his hand. But instead of making a lane with a forward stroke and an alley with a backward, Vasily bowed courteously before the Cossack chiefs and said, "Hail, masters! Show me now the straight road to the holy city of Jerusalem."
The chieftains bowed in return saying, "Hail, Vasily of Novgorod! We entreat you to eat bread and drink green wine with us."
Then they poured out green wine without price, and Vasily, grasping the cup in one hand, emptied it at a single draught, though it contained a bucket and a half. At this the chieftains wondered greatly but said nothing, and when they had broken bread together, Vasily went back to the red ship with fair white linen sails, taking with him rich gifts from the Cossack chieftains--a bowl of red gold, another of white silver, and a third of fine seed pearls. He was also accompanied by a young Cossack chieftain who had undertaken to be his guide to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Without loss of time Vasily and his brave bodyguard hoisted their sails of fair white linen and ran out upon the Caspian Sea. After much journeying they came to the Jordan river, where they threw out strong anchors and landing-stages upon the steep banks; and Vasily with his brave bodyguard entered in all peacefulness the holy city of Jerusalem. They came to the cathedral church and attended mass, where Vasily prayed for his mother, himself, and all his family, and as he prayed the thought of Novgorod the Great softened his turbulent heart. On the next day a service was held for the bold travellers, and the priests begged forgiveness for all their guilt in the matter of violence and headstrong wilfulness. Then Vasily prayed before the holy of holies, bathed in the sacred river Jordan, gave gold without stint to the priests of the city as well as to the aged people, and embarked once more on his red ship with sails of fair white linen.
Now before they put off again the brave bodyguard went also to bathe in the sacred Jordan river, and as they did so an aged woman came down to them.
"Why do you bathe," she said, "in Jordan river? None must bathe therein save Vasily only, whom you shall lose on your way home. Do you not know that your master will be taken from your head as you go homewards?"
And the youths answered curtly:
In a short time the sails were hoisted, and they put out once more on the broad bosom of the Caspian Sea, and came at last to the island of Kuminsk, where they sought out the Cossack chieftains and bowed down before them. But Vasily was somehow disinclined to talk of his travels or of his early days of violence and headiness. He gave to the chieftains a parchment scroll which he had brought from Jerusalem, in which were written many hard commandments that he enjoined the Cossack chiefs to follow. When these men invited him to a banquet Vasily declined, and taking leave of them very quietly for a man of such a turbulent heart, he set out once more across the Caspian Sea for Novgorod the Great.
When they had sailed for two weeks they came to the steep mountain, and being weary of confinement on the ship they landed to stretch their legs. The young man went up the steep face of the mountain with springing step and came at last to the great stone upon the summit across which they all leapt in much merriment of heart. Then Vasily in his height of spirits tried to leap lengthwise along the stone, but fell in a heap upon it and was taken up dead; and his brave bodyguard buried him at the place where the hollow skull had lain.
Then the sad youths hoisted the fair white sails upon the masts of the red ship and came at last to the city of Novgorod the Great. They sought out the widow mother of Vasily who sat huddled by the stove in the kitchen and who gave no sign of surprise when the brave bodyguard entered, bowed before her, and gave her a letter which Vasily had written upon the voyage. She read the scroll without tears, surprise, or cries of desolation, and then holding up her head in the pride of sacred grief she said:
"Thanks to you, good and noble youths. Go now into the treasure-house and take from thence whatever your hearts desire."
Then the black-browed maiden came forward and led them to the vaults, turning her white shoulders from them as they chose whatever seemed good to them. When they returned to the kitchen they found the dry-eyed widow mother preparing clothes and boots and food and wine for them that they might clothe themselves afresh and feast well before they went into the city to speak with the men of Novgorod.
After supper they sat quietly near the stove and the widow mother was the first to break the silence. "Yet Sadko came back to Novgorod the Great," she said; "Sadko came back to take his ease in his own city."
"But Sadko was a trader," said the black-browed maid with quiet scorn.
"Tell on," said the brave bodyguard. And the maiden said, "It will pass the time till morning if I tell you the tale of Merchant Sadko which has been told in Novgorod since you went away in your red ship with fair white linen sails." So she seated herself at the feet of the widow mother on the red bricks of the floor for humility, and told her story to the listening youths, the tale of
Merchant Sadko, the Rich Guest of Novgorod.
In Novgorod the Great dwelt Sadko the harpist, who had no store of treasure except the golden tones of his harp of maple-wood. He went about to the great feasts of the nobles and made all merry with his playing.
Now for three days Sadko had not been bidden to any merry feast, and his heart grew sad within him. So he went down to the shore of Lake Ilmen and sat down upon a blue stone. And there, to soothe his spirit, he began to play upon his harp of maple-wood, and played from early morning until far into the night. Then a great storm arose; the waves lashed up the shore to the blue stone on which Sadko sat, and great terror seized upon the heart of the minstrel so that he returned to Novgorod in haste and disquiet.
The stormy night passed, another day dawned fair and peaceful, but still Sadko was not bidden to a merry feast. So he went again to the shore of the lake, again a storm arose, and again he returned to Novgorod in haste and disquiet.
The stormy night passed, another day dawned fair and peaceful, but even yet Sadko was not bidden to a merry feast. So he went again to the shore of the lake, again a storm arose, but this time the heart of Sadko grew stout, and he went on with his playing though his fingers trembled sorely. Then the Water Tsar arose from the lake and said to Sadko:
"We thank you, Sadko the Musician, for your diversion, for the sweet sounds of your harp came down to the ears of the worshipful guests at my banquet; and I am at a loss, Sadko, for means of granting reward to you.
"But go back, Sadko, to Novgorod the Great, where to-morrow you shall be called to a merry feast, at which many merchants of Novgorod shall be present. Now when they have eaten well and drunk better, they will begin to boast. One shall brag of his good horse as if it were another Cloudfall; another of the great deeds of his youth as if Svyatogor were puny beside him; a third of the beauty of his young wife as if she were another Golden Tress; and a fourth, a wise man, of the goodness of his aged father and the tenderness of his mother.
"Then boast in your own turn, Sadko, and say: 'I know something which is known to none of this worshipful company. I know that there are in Lake Ilmen fishes with golden fins.' Then they will argue with you and say that such fishes do not exist, but you must wager your head upon the truth of your word, in return for their pledge of all their shops and their precious wares.
"Then you shall buy a net of the finest silk, not for youthful vanity, but for strength, and come and cast it into the waters of Lake Ilmen. You must cast the net three times in the lake, and at each cast I will place within it a fish with fins of gold. So shall you win your wager, even the rich shops of Novgorod, and become Sadko the Rich Guest. But in wealth forget not your sweet playing, nor the golden tones of your harp of maple-wood."
Then the Water Tsar vanished from Sadko's sight.
The harper went back to Novgorod the Great, and it all happened as the Water Tsar had spoken up to the time when the boasters had said their say. Then one of them said to Sadko:
"Why do you sit there, musician, and utter never a single word of boasting?"
"What shall I boast of?" asked Sadko. "I have no treasure except the golden tones of my harp of maple-wood. But there is one thing I know right well; there are in Ilmen Lake fishes with fins of gold."
"You lie, Sadko," cried the merchants. But Sadko said:
"I will wager my head against all the wealth of your shops."
"It is done," said they, and at once they went down to Lake Ilmen, Sadko carrying a net of fine silk, not for youthful vanity but for strength; and it all fell out as the Water Tsar had promised. Then the merchants gave Sadko the treasures they had wagered, and he took to trading. He prospered well, for he did not forget his sweet playing nor the golden tones of his harp of maple-wood, and so wherever he went he was welcomed among the merchants of distant lands and won great profit thereby. In a short time he married a beautiful young wife, and built a palace of white stone, wherein all things were heavenly. His young wife moved among treasures of which even Elena the Beautiful would have been envious.
After a while Sadko made a merry feast, to which he invited a great company, including the brave heroes Laka and Thoma. Now when they had eaten well and drunk better they began to boast. One bragged of his good horse as if it were a second Cloudfall; another of the great deeds of his youth as if Svyatogor were puny beside him; a third of the beauty of his young wife as if she were another Golden Tress; and a fourth, a wise man, of the goodness of his aged father and the tenderness of his mother.
Then Sadko, not to be outdone, boasted of his wealth, and swore to buy up all the wares of the shops of Novgorod, both good and bad, day after day, until there should not be any more for sale in all that city of busy traders. And upon his oath he named a great wager of countless treasure.
The next day he sent his servants to the markets of Novgorod, who bought up all the wares, both good and bad. On the second day the markets were full again, but Sadko sent his servants, who bought up all the wares, both good and bad. On the third day he found the markets full of precious merchandise from Moscow, and felt a merchant's pride in the enterprise of his city; and he made a pause while he went home, sat down in his own chamber and softly played upon his harp of maple-wood, which seemed to speak the golden tones of wisdom.
"If you buy all these goods from Moscow," it seemed to whisper, "others will flow into Novgorod the Great from far away across the sea; and even Sadko the Rich Guest cannot buy all the treasures of the whole white world. Sadko is rich but Novgorod the Great is still richer. Yield your wager and venture forth upon the merchant path of lake and river and broad grey sea where the Water Tsar will be your friend."
Then Sadko yielded his wager, which was an enormous sum of gold, and built a great fleet of thirty-three red ships with sails of fair white linen. The prows of these scarlet vessels were in the likeness of fearful dragons, whose eyes were precious jacinths, whose brows were Siberian sables and whose ears were the dark-brown skins of Siberian foxes. Soon these ships were filled with the rich wares of Novgorod, and Sadko sailed away to Lake Ladoga and thence into the Neva and through that river to the deep-blue sea. At the ports upon the shore he sold his wares, making great gain and filling many casks of forty buckets with red gold, white silver, and fair seed pearls. Then they sailed away with Sadko in the Falcon ship which was ever foremost and the finest in all that scarlet fleet.
But suddenly the blue sea turned to grey and the ships, now almost black in the shadow, halted and stood still. The waves rose like mountains, the sails flapped, the ships began to rock while men whispered of Whirlwind the Whistler and said that surely Ivan the son of Golden Tress had not killed him.
Then Sadko, the Rich Guest, shouted from his ship:
"Ho, there, my brave mariners! I hear the voice of the mighty Water Tsar, to whom we have paid no tribute. Cast into the waters a cask of red gold." And they did so, but still the dark-red ships rocked, the waves beat, the sails tore, and the hearts of the mariners longed for Novgorod the Great.
Again Sadko the Rich Guest shouted from his ship:
"Ho there, my brave mariners! A cask of red gold is but a small gift for the Water Tsar. Cast into the waves a cask of fine seed pearls." And they did so, but still the dark-red ships rocked, the waves beat, the sails tore, and the hearts of the mariners longed for Novgorod the Great.
Once again Sadko the Rich Guest shouted from his ship:
"Ho, there, my brave mariners! It is plain that the Water Tsar asks the tribute of a living man. Make therefore slips of alder-wood and let each man write his name upon his own lot and cast them all into the dark-grey sea, and the lots of all who are to see their homes once again shall float. But that man among us whose lot sinketh shall be cast into the sea." Then the command of Sadko was obeyed, but Sadko's lot was a bunch of hop flowers. And all the lots swam like ducks, but the bunch of hop flowers sank like a stone.
Yet again Sadko the Rich Guest shouted from his ship: "Those lots were not just. Make other lots of willow-wood and try again." Then the command of Sadko was obeyed, but Sadko's lot was a piece of blue steel from Damascus, wondrously wrought and heavy in weight. And all the lots swam like wild ducks, but the piece of blue steel sank like a stone.
Then Sadko said, "It is plain that the Water Tsar asks for Sadko himself." So he told his servants to fetch him his massive inkstand, his swan-quill pen, and his paper, and they did so. Whereupon Sadko seated himself in his folding chair at his table of oak and began to apportion his goods. He gave much to God's churches, much for the improvement of choir singing, much to the poor, and much to his young wife, and the remainder of his goods he divided among his faithful mariners.
Having done this in due order he wept and said to those about him:
"Ho, my brave mariners! Place an oaken plank upon the heaving dark-grey sea upon which I shall journey; and fill a bowl with red gold, another with white silver and a third with fine seed pearls and place them upon the plank." After that Sadko took in his right hand an iron image of a saint of God, and in his left hand his harp of maple-wood. He wore a mantle of rich sables over all, and he stepped upon the oaken plank and was borne away upon the waves while the dark-red ships sped on and flew as if they had been ravens over the field of the slain.
Now as his strange raft floated turbulently upon the surface of the water, Sadko at first was greatly terrified, but after a while he fell into a gentle sleep, and when he awoke he was in the crystal kingdom of the Water Tsar. He looked about him and saw the red sun burning though it gave no heat, and he saw also before him a palace of white stone in which sat the Water Tsar with a head like a heap of yellow hay.
"Welcome, Sadko, the Rich Guest of Novgorod," he said. "You have long sailed upon the waters, but have paid no tribute to the Water Tsar. I have sent for you that you may solve this riddle which is a matter of dispute between me and my Tsaritza. Which is now of greatest worth in Russia, gold or silver or damascened steel?"
"Gold and silver are of great worth in Russia," said Sadko, "but damascened steel is of great value also. For without gold and silver a man may contrive to live, but without the ore of iron no man can live at ease."
"What do you hold in your right hand and in your left?" asked the Water Tsar.
"In my right hand is a holy image," replied Sadko, "and in my left my harp of maple-wood."
"I am told," said the Water Tsar, whose memory must, of course, have been washed quite clean each day by living in the sea, "that you are, in spite of your trading, a master player upon the harp. Play for me upon your harp of maple-wood."
Sadko at once commenced to finger his harp, and forgetting all his trading and golden prosperity--perhaps the water washed his memory clean also--he played such music as the sea fairies with the pink conch shells could not surpass. Then he struck up a merry dance-tune, and at once the Tsar rose from his throne and began to jump about, beating time with the skirts of his royal robe and swinging his mantle of white fleece round him like an encircling cloud, while above all gleamed his hair as yellow as a bunch of hay. At the sound a troop of lovely sea fairies, clad in transparent garments of the most beautiful colours, joined in a choral dance, while strange sea creatures squatted and leapt about the oozy floor of the ocean sea.
But the merriment at the bottom of the Water Tsar's kingdom made sad havoc at the top. For the upper waters of the sea were churned into yeasty foam, heaving into great billows, breaking ships asunder, drowning many mariners, and swallowing up rich stores of merchandise. For three hours did Sadko play, and then the quiet-eyed Water Tsaritza said to him in a compelling voice:
"Break thy harp of maple-wood, Sadko the Rich Guest, for though the Water Tsar makes merry in his palace below, in the upper borders of his realm there is trouble enough and to spare."
All at once Sadko stopped playing, broke his harp and snapped its golden strings, and when the Water Tsar commanded him to play for two hours more, he told him boldly that the instrument was broken.
"But I have sea-smiths here," said His Watery Majesty, "who can mend a broken pearl, so that it would be an easy thing for them to restore a harp-string."
"All the sea-smiths of your ocean realm," said Sadko, "could not revive music that is lost. That can only be done in Holy Russia, when the maker of the music comes once more to his own home."
"Talk not of land kingdoms," said the Tsar, whirling round Sadko in the hope of regaining the step which he had lost, but finding it impossible to dance without music. "Stay with me and wed some beautiful sea-maiden. Take your choice from the maids in the train of my queen."
Seeing that he was in the power of the Water Tsar, Sadko promised to do so, and asked the advice of the quiet-eyed Water Tsaritza, who gave it in her own compelling voice, so that Sadko felt that it was a command. "Do not choose," she said, "any sea-maid from the first three hundred which the Tsar will marshal before you, but let them pass by in all their beauty. Do not choose from the second three hundred, but let them pass in all their loveliness. But from the third three hundred choose the Princess who shall come last of all, and who is smaller and blacker than all the rest. But when you have chosen her do not kiss her, for if you do, you shall never more dwell in Holy Russia, nor see the fair white world and the round and ruddy sun."
Therefore Sadko allowed the first three hundred maidens to pass him by in all their beauty; and he let the second three hundred pass him by in all their loveliness; but from the third three hundred he chose the Princess who came last of all, and who was smaller and blacker than all the rest. But when he chose her he did not kiss her, for he longed once more to dwell in Holy Russia, to see the fair white world and the round and ruddy sun.
At the wedding feast the Water Tsar made a great banquet, after which Sadko lay down and fell into a heavy sleep; and when he awoke he found himself on the steep banks of a river near Novgorod. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and saw far away on the Volkof river his fleet of bright-red ships with their sails of fair white linen on the decks of which his men were standing thoughtful, thinking of Sadko in the depths of the deep-blue sea. But when they saw their master standing upon the steep bank, they rubbed their eyes in astonishment. Then they hailed him, and took him on board with great rejoicing. He carried with him a broken harp, and lo, as he entered his palace and saw his young wife again the harp-strings were suddenly restored to all their strength and flexibility, and the body of maple-wood rang as sound as the great bell of St. Sophia.
Thenceforth Sadko sailed no more upon seas, either blue or grey, but lived at home in Novgorod the Great, and delighted all with the golden tones of his harp of maple-wood.
The stove was growing cold, the black-browed maiden rose to her feet, and stretching herself to ease her limbs stooped tenderly to wrap the great mantle of sables more closely about the widow mother of Vasily the Turbulent, who murmured gently but not complainingly, "Yet Sadko came home again."
"We thank you for your tale, maiden," said the brave bodyguard of Vasily. Then they went to their rest; and on the next day they sought out the men of Novgorod, and the Sea Trader told them of new routes for rich merchandise which their turbulent lord had opened out for their enrichment; and they equipped the brave bodyguard with more scarlet ships to go out again upon those routes and win more glory for Novgorod the Great.
As for Vasily, they made a great image of him, and set it up in their market, telling all men how his valour had earned for him the praise of all his townsmen.
But the black-browed maiden smiled with upturned scarlet lip when she saw it, and shrugged her white shoulders as she turned away to wait upon the mother of Vasily the Turbulent.