IN A certain kingdom of Holy Russia there reigned a ruler so fierce that he was known as the Terrible Tsar, and the way in which he won his title was this. One day he frowned such an angry frown at his body-servant, who had brought him diamond shoes instead of those set with fine seed pearls, that the man ran out of the room in great terror; and he told the chambermaid, who told the butler, who told the cook, who told the soldiers of the guard, who told the generals, who told the people that their master was indeed the Terrible Tsar. So this ruler became the terror of all the neighbouring princes; and when he heard of his reputation he took great care not to lose it for it proved very useful to him.
By-and-by the Terrible Tsar made up his mind to marry, and he wrote a proclamation in golden ink on a large piece of crimson velvet, and sent a herald into every town and village to read the announcement, which was to this effect--that whoever should find for him a bride who was ruddier than the sun, fairer than the moon, and whiter than snow should be given a reward so great that he would be forced to spend most of his time in computing its value. This was a prize worth trying for, and before long the people of all the cities with their suburbs and towns with their villages, as well as the goose-herds, swan-herds, cow-herds, and keepers of downy ducks on the open steppe, were wagging their heads over the matter and counting up enormous numbers upon their finger-tips.
Now not far from the Tsar's palace there was a large brewery, and when the workers in this place met together to eat their food they began to talk of the matter which was exercising the minds of the people throughout the kingdom. "Well, my brothers," said a certain man among them, who was known as Nikita Koltoma, "I am quite certain of this. No one can find such a bride as the Terrible Tsar desires without my help; and if I promise to find her, found she shall be, though whether the Tsar enjoys his good fortune when he finds her is another matter."
"You are a fool and a boaster," said the other workmen. "How can one of us do such a great deed as this? Why all the bravest heroes of Holy Russia will attempt it, and even they have small chance of success. Let us go back to make more beer. Why, Nikita, you could not do it in a dream, to say nothing of your waking hours."
"Well, brothers," said Nikita firmly and cheerfully, "say what it may please you to say; but I have faith in myself, and if any man can find the bride I can do so."
"Hush, Nikita," said the others in warning voices. "Have you not heard how terrible our Tsar really is? Why if he hears of your boasting he will surely put you to death."
"Not so," said Nikita quite cheerfully, "he will not put me to death. He will give me much money, and some day, indeed, he may make me his first minister."
The workmen looked at him in dismay and terror, for over the wall they saw the head of one of the Tsar's soldiers, and they could tell quite plainly from the tilt of his headgear that the man had heard all the boastful speeches of Nikita. Before long a strong guard came to take the boaster away to the Tsar's palace. "That is the last of him," said one of the workmen as the poor fellow was marched off. And so it was, at least as far as the brewery was concerned.
For the Terrible Tsar received Nikita with great delight. "Are you the man," he asked, "who boasted that you could find me a bride ruddier than the sun, fairer than the moon, and whiter than snow?"
"I am, Your Majesty," said Nikita firmly.
"That is well," said the Terrible Tsar. "If you can do this, I will give you such and such a reward and make you first minister. But if, after boasting, you cannot do it, I will cut off your head."
"I am honoured by Your Majesty's august commands," said Nikita; "but I beg of you that you will first give orders that I should be given a holiday for a month."
The Terrible Tsar consented to this, and ordered his steward to give Nikita a paper commanding all keepers of inns and eating-houses to place before him food and drink of their best without stint and without charge. Then Nikita went out, and for three complete weeks he enjoyed himself as he had never done before. Meanwhile the Terrible Tsar waited patiently, and when Nikita presented himself at the palace he scarcely knew him he was so well favoured, so vigorous, and so cheerful and confident of success. To him even the Terrible Tsar seemed to have lost his terror.
"May it please Your Majesty," said Nikita, "to choose for me twelve brave youths exactly the same in height, in breadth, in the colour of their hair and the pitch of their voice; and let your workmen make thirteen tents of fair white linen embroidered with gold." In a very short space of time the youths and the tents were ready, and Nikita said to his royal employer:
"Now Great Tsar, prepare yourself, and we will go to find a bride ruddier than the sun, fairer than the moon, and whiter than snow."
Without further delay they saddled their good steeds and packed the white linen tents on horseback. Then after saying a prayer in the cathedral they gave the rein to their chargers. So fast they rode that it was only a pillar of dust on the open plain and they were gone. For three days they travelled onward, and then they came to a smith's forge.
"Go ahead now," said Nikita, "and may good go with you. I will go into this forge to smoke a pipe with the blacksmiths." Then he went in and found fifteen smiths making the anvils ring.
"Good-day to you, brothers," he bellowed, and at the sound of his great voice they ceased their hammering and returned his greeting with proper courtesy.
"Make me a staff of wrought iron," he said, "of five hundred pounds in weight."
"We are willing enough to make such a staff," said the master smith, "but who will turn the iron? Five hundred pounds is no light weight even for a hero."
"Beat away, my merry men," said Nikita, "and I will turn the iron." So they beat away and Nikita turned the iron; and when the staff was ready Nikita took it out into the open field. There he threw it skyward to a height of ninety feet and let it fall into his hand. As he grasped it with his heroic strength, it bent and broke. Then Nikita went back to the forge, paid the men for their work, threw the broken pieces of rod away, and rode off with a pleased look upon his face. Before long he caught up again with his companions, and they rode onward for three days longer, when once more they came to a forge in the open field.
"Go ahead again," said Nikita, "and may good go with you. I will go into this forge to smoke a pipe with the blacksmiths." Then he went in and found twenty-five smiths making the anvils ring.
"Good-day to you, brothers," he bellowed, and at the sound of his great voice they ceased their hammering and returned his greeting with proper courtesy.
"Make me a staff of wrought iron," he said, "of a thousand pounds in weight."
"We are willing enough," said the master smith, "to make such a staff, but who will turn the iron?"
"Beat away, my merry men," said Nikita, "and I will turn the iron." So they beat away and Nikita turned the iron; and when the staff was ready, Nikita took it out into the open field. There he threw it skyward to a height of one hundred and fifty feet and let it fall into his hand. As he grasped it with his heroic strength, it bent and broke. Then Nikita went back to the forge, paid the men for their work, threw the broken pieces of the rod away, and rode off with a pleased look upon his face. Before long he caught up again with his companions, and they rode onward for three days longer, whence once more they came to a forge in the open field.
"Go ahead a third time," said Nikita, "and may good go with you. I will go into this forge to smoke a pipe with the blacksmiths."
Within the third forge he found fifty blacksmiths tormenting an old man whom they had stretched out upon a large anvil. Ten of these great fellows were holding him by the beard with pincers and the forty were pounding him on his body with hammers.
"Have mercy, have mercy, good brothers," the old man was screaming. "Leave some life in me to allow me to show how sorry I am."
"Good-day to you all," roared Nikita above the din.
"Good-day to you, brother," replied the blacksmiths, pausing in their work.
"Why do you use this old man in such a cruel manner?" asked Nikita.
"Because he owes each one of us a rouble," was the answer, "and he will not pay. Why should he not be beaten?"
"It is a great deal to suffer for fifty roubles," said Nikita. "Here is the money. Let the old fellow go in peace."
"Very good, brother," said the blacksmiths. "We do not care who pays the money so long as we get it somewhere, somehow." Then they let the old man free, and as soon as they stood aside from the anvil he vanished from their sight.
Nikita rubbed his eyes and looked round in blank amazement. "Why, where is the old man?" he asked.
"Oh," replied one of the blacksmiths, "you may look for him in vain now. He is a wizard, and can wriggle out of anything."
Nikita laughed, and then ordered the blacksmiths to make him a staff of iron weighing two thousand pounds. When it was ready he went out into the field and threw it upward to a height of three hundred feet. The staff fell into his outstretched hand, which never shook, and remained there firmly held.
"This will do," said Nikita. Thereupon he paid the men for their work, and rode off quickly after his companions. But as he rode onward he heard some one behind him lustily calling out his name, and turning in his saddle he saw the old man running quickly after him.
"Thanks, thanks, many thanks and more thanks again for your help," said the old man. "For thirty years I lay upon that anvil and was tortured by those fifty fiends. Now will you accept a present from me in return? Here is a wonderful cap for you. When you put it on your head no man will be able to see you, for it is a cap of darkness." Nikita thanked the old man warmly, took the cap, and once more galloped on after his companions, whom he overtook after a short space of time. By-and-by they came to a castle which was surrounded by a stout iron paling through which there was no gateway.
"Well," said the Terrible Tsar, "what shall we do now? It is very plain, Nikita, that the people of this castle do not intend that any one should enter."
"Why not?" asked Nikita. "That is surely a small difficulty--with all due respect to Your Majesty. Now, boys, tear down the paling and let us through." So the good fellows got down from their horses and began to tug and push at the railings with all their heroic strength; but they could not make them budge an inch.
"Oh, brothers," said Nikita. "I find I am a deep-sea captain of a crew of river sailors. What I wish to have done I must do for myself. No matter; after all it was I myself who promised to find for the Terrible Tsar a bride who is ruddier than the sun, fairer than the moon, and whiter than snow." Nikita leapt from his horse, put his heroic hand to the paling and a full length of it lay upon the ground. Through the opening thus made the company rode boldly forward. On the green lawn before the great door of the castle they quietly set up their white gold-embroidered tents, ate a good meal, and then, lying down, slept soundly. But Nikita did not enter one of the tents. He took three old mats, made a little shelter for himself, and lay down on the cold hard ground; and Nikita did not sleep, but waited watchfully for what might turn out.
Now when morning dawned, Yelena the Haughty Beauty woke with a sigh and looked out through the lattice-window of her room which was decked with ruddy gold, white silver, and fine seed pearls. There she saw upon the lawn the thirteen white tents of the Terrible Tsar, and in front of them all a small shelter made of old mats, from which a pair of very sharp eyes were looking out.
"Whatever can have happened?" said Yelena to herself. "Who are my new guests and whence have they come? Why the strong iron paling which was better than a whole army of guards is broken and thrown to the ground." Then she put her haughty head out of the window and cried in a voice of heroic rage:
"Ho, there, guards and protectors! To my rescue! Put these intruders to a speedy and cruel death while I watch you at your work. Throw their carcases over the iron paling and bring their white gold-embroidered tents to me."
Then the hero who lived in the castle as the special protector of Yelena the Haughty Beauty, saddled his great steed and put on his battle armour, on which the morning sun shone brightly, and rode towards the unbidden guests, while the Princess watched from her lattice-window to see that her orders were strictly carried out.
Nikita sprang from his little shelter and stood boldly in the path of the horseman.
"Who goes?" he asked.
"Who asks?" was the angry reply.
Then Nikita sprang forward, and seizing the hero by the foot, dragged him from his horse. Raising his iron staff he gave him one all-sufficient blow and said, "Go now to Yelena the Haughty Beauty; tell her to hide her haughtiness and prepare to marry my master the Terrible Tsar without further delay."
Meanwhile the would-be bridegroom and his young men slept on.
The bold hero was glad enough to obey the brave wooer, and rode up to the castle, where he saluted his mistress with reverence and said:
"These are men whose might cannot be measured, O Princess. Their leader is plainly a man of great weight, and told me to bid you hide your haughtiness and prepare to marry the Terrible Tsar without further delay."
The lady looked down from the window, and as she looked her scorn seemed to wither up the hero, horse and all. Then she turned haughtily from the window, attired herself in her most beautiful garments, and went down to the great hall, where she summoned a band of generals and leaders.
"My brave men," she cried in tones of passionate anger, "get together a great array and sweep these intruders out of my lawn as the serving maids sweep the court before the great door."
Then quickly, very quickly, and with lightning speed, the horsemen rode forth from the castle and swept down with a sound of rushing water upon the tents of the Terrible Tsar. But they drew rein when Nikita stood before them waving his mighty staff; and quickly, very quickly, and with lightning speed, they fell and lay dead upon the green lawn.
Meanwhile the would-be bridegroom and his young men slept on.
"Go back," cried Nikita to the first hero, who had kept well out of reach of that terrible staff. "Go back to Yelena the Haughty Beauty and tell her not to resist us further. See how I have dealt with your men alone and all by myself! What will it be when the Terrible Tsar and his young men awake from sleep? We shall not leave one stone of your castle upon another. You would do well to go back and tell the bride to prepare for her wedding."
So the hero went back and told his mistress all that had happened.
"What is to be, must be," she said with outward graciousness. "I will go to meet this heroic bridegroom in a manner fitting to his warlike ways." So she summoned her heroic bodyguard, and, surrounded by these youths, who carried battle-bows in their hands, she walked proudly from the front door of the castle towards the tents of white linen standing upon her own green lawn.
Nikita saw them coming, and knew without instruction that the kiss of the bride would be sharp and stinging. So he put on the Cap of Darkness, bent his own bow, shot off a flaming shaft, and knocked off the top story of the castle. Yelena the Haughty Beauty bowed to her fate, advanced with stately step towards the Terrible Tsar, took him by the hand, and led him within the banquet-hall, where he and his company were feasted on the best. When his master had eaten well and drunk just as well, Nikita said in his ear, "Does the bride please you, or shall we set out to seek a better?"
"No, Nikita," said the Terrible Tsar with a smile of satisfaction, "let us not go on any more, for the whole white world cannot contain better fortune than is granted to us here."
"Well, then," said Nikita, "haste to your wedding, but beware of your bride." So the wedding was hastened, and when the feast was over the bride came to the bridegroom and laid her hand in affection upon his shoulder. But if this were affection it was heavy affection, for at the weight of her hand the Terrible Tsar felt as if he were being pushed down bodily into the lap of moist Mother Earth.
"Is my hand heavy, my lord and master?" asked the bride sweetly.
"It is as heavy as a feather on the bosom of the summer lake," was the polite reply. "But, stay, my bride. I have to give an order to my brave troops." Then with a great effort he freed himself, and went out into the next room where Nikita was awaiting him.
"Ah, Nikita," said the Terrible Tsar in great distress, "what shall I do? The hand of my bride is heavier than the staff of Ilya of Murom."
Then Nikita put on his Cap of Darkness and went back into the room with the Terrible Tsar, and as often as Yelena laid her hand upon his master in affection, he stepped in the way and bore the weight of it. So they went on all the time that the Terrible Tsar stayed in the castle for the wedding festivity, which lasted for a week. But before the week was over Yelena the Haughty Beauty knew that her people were laughing at her because she had married a man whose strength was as nothing but who relied always upon Nikita; and she planned in her heart a terrible revenge.
"We have feasted enough," said the Terrible Tsar at the end of the festival week. "It is time for us to go homeward and we shall go by water."
So a glorious ship was prepared, and the bridal party went on board. The sails were set, and the ship put out from the harbour with a fair wind and a bright sun. The Terrible Tsar was very happy in his good fortune, but the haughty bride made merry to his face and plotted behind his back. As for Nikita he fell into a heroic sleep and slept for twelve whole days and nights.
When Yelena saw him sleeping she summoned her trusty bodyguard and ordered them to cut off his legs to the knee, put him all maimed into a boat, and cast it out upon the open sea. They did so; and on the thirteenth day Nikita awoke from his heroic sleep to find himself lying footless in an open boat far out upon the sea with no ship in sight anywhere.
Meanwhile the bridal ship sailed on its way with a fair wind and a bright sun, and at last it entered the harbour of the royal city of the Terrible Tsar. Then the cannon gave the sign, and the people ran down to the wharves, where the nobles and the chief merchants, with the Elder at their head, offered bread and salt to their royal master, and greeted him with compliments on his marriage with a bride so beautiful and so stately. And the Terrible Tsar was so busy for a long time in feasting and smiling, giving presents and receiving them, that he forgot all about Nikita.
But when the feast was over the haughty bride took the rule of the kingdom upon herself, and forced the Terrible Tsar to go out into the fields to herd the pigs! Then she gave orders that all the relatives of Nikita should be brought before her at the royal palace. Her soldiers found only one, Timothy, the brother of Nikita, and by order of the Terrible Tsaritza his eyes were put out and he was driven from the town into the green fields.
The blind man went on with his hands spread out before him, onward and ever onward until he came to the seashore and found the water beneath his feet. Then he halted and stood still, fearing to go forward. But as he stood there with his sightless eyes turned towards the heaving waters of the deep blue sea a boat was quickly borne towards the beach and a cheery voice called out: "Ho, good fellow! Help me to land in your fine country."
"I would gladly do so, friend," was the sad reply, "but, truth to tell, I am without sight and see nothing."
"But who are you and whence do you come?" asked Nikita.
"I am Timothy, the brother of Nikita," said the blind man, "whose eyes have been darkened by Yelena the Haughty Beauty."
"My own and very true brother," said Nikita cheerily. "Turn, Timothy, to the right hand where you will find a tall oak growing. Pull out the oak, bring it here, and stretch it from the shore across the water. Then I will mount upon it and so come to you in safety."
Timothy did as his brother directed and made a bridge of the tall oak so that Nikita could creep on shore, where he took Timothy in his arms and kissed him heartily.
"Ah, brother," he said, "how is it now with the Terrible Tsar?"
"He found his bride," said Timothy, "and she is indeed ruddier than the sun, fairer than the moon, and whiter than snow, but her heart is as black as night. The Terrible Tsar is now in great misfortune for he is herding his own pigs in the field! Each morning he has for breakfast a pound of sour bread, a jug of frozen water, and three stripes upon his back!"
"Alas," said Nikita. "We now have indeed a Terrible Tsaritza."
Then the two brothers began to discuss their present condition and their future plans, and of course Nikita was full of ideas. "Brother of mine," he said brightly, "you cannot see my condition so I must tell you that I am footless. Now as you are blind it seems to me that there is only one sound man between us. My plan is that you should carry me upon your back while I will tell you where to go."
"It is well," said the blind man, kneeling down at once so that his brother could get upon his back. Then he walked onward with his new burden, onward and ever onward, turning to the right hand or to the left as his brother directed him. After a long time they came to a dense forest in which stood the pine-wood cabin of the wicked Baba-Yaga.
Nikita directed his brother towards this hut, and the two in one entered the home of the wicked Baba-Yaga, but found no one inside. "Feel in the oven, brother," said Nikita, "perhaps there is some food there." Sure enough they found hot savoury food in the oven and they sat down to the table and had a good meal, for the sea air had made them both very hungry. When they were fully satisfied Nikita asked his brother to carry him round the cabin in order that he might examine everything that was to be found in it. On the window-sill he found a small whistle, and, putting this to his lips, began to blow. The shrill sound had a marvellous effect, for, whether he would or would not, Timothy began to dance, the cabin also began to dance, the table danced, the chairs danced, and even the stove took to its nimble feet.
"Stop, Nikita," cried Timothy at last, for he was utterly exhausted, "I can no longer dance with such a burden upon my back." So Nikita stopped whistling, and as the last note died away everything settled down in quiet once again. Then when all was still the door was suddenly opened and the wicked Baba-Yaga entered her cottage.
When she saw the two in one she screamed out with a loud voice:
"You beggars and thieves! Up to this time not even a bird or a beast had come to my lonely dwelling, and now you have come to devour my food and loosen the very props of my little cottage. But very soon, and indeed sooner than that, I will settle with you."
"Hold the wicked old witch, Timothy," cried Nikita, and the blind man caught her in his arms and squeezed her very hard. Then Nikita seized her by the hair, and she was ready enough to make all kinds of promises to win her freedom.
"We want nothing," said Nikita, who had still more ideas in his head, "but your whistle and healing and living water. I have the whistle already, and if you will give us the water, you shall go free once more into the white world."
"That I can, and will since I must," said the Baba-Yaga.
"That you shall and are obliged to," replied Nikita.
Then the old witch led them to two springs and said:
"Here for your benefit is healing and living water." Nikita took of the healing water and sprinkled his stumps, whereupon his feet grew out as they had been before, but they would not move. So he sprinkled them next with living water, and they were made sound and whole as they had been before.
Guided by his brother, the blind man stooped to the spring of healing water and bathed the hollow sockets of his eyes. Then eyeballs came into them as they had been before, but they could not see. So he sprinkled them next with living water and they were made sound and useful as they had been before.
The brothers thanked the wicked Baba-Yaga and gave her a gift in exchange for her help and her whistle of which Nikita had need, but she grunted and said, "I could, and I would, and I did because I must." Then she went off to her cottage and the restored men took their way to the city of the Terrible Tsar for Nikita had another bright idea. In a field outside the palace they found the Terrible Tsar herding pigs, whereupon Nikita began to blow on the whistle and the pigs began to dance, for their ancestors had come from the herd of the wicked Baba-Yaga. Yelena the Haughty Beauty saw what was happening from the window, but she did not laugh, for she was not a woman of that kind. She only rose in all her haughty beauty and gave a stern command to her servants to take a bunch of rods and beat the pig-herd and the two strangers who were standing near him. At once the guards ran out and brought them to the castle to give them the punishment they deserved for their lack of gravity. This was just what Nikita desired, for he ran forward and seizing Yelena by her lily-white hands in a grasp no man or woman could ever resist, he cried:
"Now, Terrible Tsar, what shall I do with the Terrible Tsaritza?"
"Send her home," said the poor worried monarch, "out of my sight." So they sent her away to her own castle, where she spent all her time in admiring her beauty in the mirror until she died of dulness. But Nikita was made chief minister, and Timothy a general, and the Terrible Tsar did whatever they wished him to do from that day forward.