Long ago there lived a King, and he had three daughters, the loveliest in all the world. He loved them so well that he built a palace for them underground, lest the rough winds should blow on them or the red sun scorch their delicate faces. A wonderful palace it was, down there underground, with fountains and courts, and lamps burning, and precious stones glittering in the light of the lamps. And the three lovely princesses grew up in that palace underground, and knew no other light but that of the coloured lanterns, and had never seen the broad world that lies open under the sun by day and under the stars by night. Indeed, they did not know that there was a world outside those glittering walls, above that shining ceiling, carved and gilded and set with precious stones.
But it so happened that among the books that were given them to read was one in which was written of the world: how the sun shines in the sky; how trees grow green; how the grass waves in the wind and the leaves whisper together; how the rivers flow between their green banks and through the flowery meadows, until they come to the blue sea that joins the earth and the sky. They read in that book of white-walled towns, of churches with gilded and painted domes, of the brown wooden huts of the peasants, of the great forests, of the ships on the rivers, and of the long roads with the folk moving on them, this way and that, about the world.
And when the King came to see them, as he was used to do, they asked him,–
“Father, is it true that there is a garden in the world?”
“Yes,” said the King.
“And green grass?”
“Yes,” said the King.
“And little shining flowers?”
“Why, yes,” said the King, wondering and stroking his silver beard.
And the three lovely princesses all begged him at once,–
“Oh, your Majesty, our own little father, whom, we love, let us out to see this world. Let us out just so that we may see this garden, and walk in it on the green grass, and see the shining flowers.”
The King turned his head away and tried not to listen to them. But what could he do? They were the loveliest princesses in the world, and when they begged him just to let them walk in the garden he could see the tears in their eyes. And after all, he thought, there were high walls to the garden.
So he called up his army, and set soldiers all round the garden, and a hundred soldiers to each gate, so that no one should come in. And then he let the princesses come up from their underground palace, and step out into the sunshine in the garden, with ten nurses and maids to each princess to see that no harm came to her.
The princesses stepped out into the garden, under the blue sky, shading their eyes at first because they had never before been in the golden sunlight. Soon they were taking hands, and running this way and that along the garden paths and over the green grass, and gathering posies of shining flowers to set in their girdles and to shame their golden crowns. And the King sat and watched them with love in his eyes, and was glad to see how happy they were. And after all, he thought, what with the high walls and the soldiers standing to arms, nothing could get in to hurt them.
But just as he had quieted his old heart a strong whirlwind came down out of the blue sky, tearing up trees and throwing them aside, and lifting the roofs from the houses. But it did not touch the palace roofs, shining green in the sunlight, and it plucked no trees from the garden. It raged this way and that, and then with its swift whirling arms it caught up the three lovely princesses, and carried them up into the air, over the high walls and over the heads of the guarding soldiers. For a moment the King saw them, his daughters, the three lovely princesses, spinning round and round, as if they were dancing in the sky. A moment later they were no more than little whirling specks, like dust in the sunlight. And then they were out of sight, and the King and all the maids and nurses were alone in the empty garden. The noise of the wind had gone. The soldiers did not dare to speak. The only sound in the King’s ears was the sobbing and weeping of the maids and nurses.
The King called his generals, and made them send the soldiers in all directions over the country to bring back the princesses, if the whirlwind should tire and set them again upon the ground. The soldiers went to the very boundaries of the kingdom, but they came back as they went. Not one of them had seen the three lovely princesses.
Then the King called together all his faithful servants, and promised a great reward to any one who should bring news of the three princesses. It was the same with the servants as with the soldiers. Far and wide they galloped out. Slowly, one by one, they rode back, with bent heads, on tired horses. Not one of them had seen the King’s daughters.
Then the King called a grand council of his wise boyars and men of state. They all sat round and listened as the King told his tale and asked if one of them would not undertake the task of finding and rescuing the three princesses. “The wind has not set them down within the boundaries of my kingdom; and now, God knows, they may be in the power of wicked men or worse.” He said he would give one of the princesses in marriage to any one who could follow where the wind went and bring his daughters back; yes, and besides, he would make him the richest man in the kingdom. But the boyars and the wise men of state sat round in silence. He asked them one by one. They were all silent and afraid. For they were boyars and wise men of state, and not one of them would undertake to follow the whirlwind and rescue the three princesses.
The King wept bitter tears.
“I see,” he said, “I have no friends about me in the palace. My soldiers cannot, my servants cannot, and my boyars and wise men will not, bring back my three sweet maids, whom I love better than my kingdom.”
And with that he sent heralds throughout the kingdom to announce the news, and to ask if there were none among the common folk, the moujiks, the simple folk like us, who would put his hand to the work of rescuing the three lovely princesses, since not one of the boyars and wise men was willing to do it.
Now, at that time in a certain village lived a poor widow, and she had three sons, strong men, true bogatirs and men of power. All three had been born in a single night: the eldest at evening, the middle one at midnight, and the youngest just as the sky was lightening with the dawn. For this reason they were called Evening, Midnight, and Sunrise. Evening was dusky, with brown eyes and hair; Midnight was dark, with eyes and hair as black as charcoal; while Sunrise had hair golden as the sun, and eyes blue as morning sky. And all three were as strong as any of the strong men and mighty bogatirs who have shaken this land of Russia with their tread.
As soon as the King’s word had been proclaimed in the village, the three brothers asked for their mother’s blessing, which she gave them, kissing them on the forehead and on both cheeks. Then they made ready for the journey and rode off to the capital–Evening on his horse of dusky brown, Midnight on his black horse, and Sunrise on his horse that was as white as clouds in summer. They came to the capital, and as they rode through the streets everybody stopped to look at them, and all the pretty young women waved handkerchiefs at the windows. But the three brothers looked neither to right nor left but straight before them, and they rode to the palace of the King.
They came to the King, bowed low before him, and said,–
“May you live for many years, O King. We have come to you not for feasting but for service. Let us, O King, ride out to rescue your three princesses.”
“God give you success, my good young men,” says the King. “What are your names?”
“We are three brothers–Evening, Midnight, and Sunrise.”
“What will you have to take with you on the road?”
“For ourselves, O King, we want nothing. Only, do not leave our mother in poverty, for she is old.”
The King sent for the old woman, their mother, and gave her a home in his palace, and made her eat and drink at his table, and gave her new boots made by his own cobblers, and new clothes sewn by the very sempstresses who were used to make dresses for the three daughters of the King, who were the loveliest princesses in the world, and had been carried away by the whirlwind. No old woman in Russia was better looked after than the mother of the three young bogatirs and men of power, Evening, Midnight, and Sunrise, while they were away on their adventure seeking the King’s daughters.
The young men rode out on their journey. A month they rode together, two months, and in the third month they came to a broad desert plain, where there were no towns, no villages, no farms, and not a human being to be seen. They rode on over the sand, through the rank grass, over the stony wastes. At last, on the other side of that desolate plain, they came to a thick forest. They found a path through the thick undergrowth, and rode along that path together into the very heart of the forest. And there, alone in the heart of the forest, they came to a hut, with a railed yard and a shed full of cattle and sheep. They called out with their strong young voices, and were answered by the lowing of the cattle, the bleating of the sheep, and the strong wind in the tops of the great trees.
They rode through the railed yard and came to the hut. Evening leant from his brown horse and knocked on the window. There was no answer. They forced open the door, and found no one at all.
“Well, brothers,” says Evening, “let us make ourselves at home. Let us stay here awhile. We have been riding three months. Let us rest, and then ride farther. We shall deal better with our adventure if we come to it as fresh men, and not dusty and weary from the long road.”
The others agreed. They tied up their horses, fed them, drew water from the well, and gave them to drink; and then, tired out, they went into the hut, said their prayers to God, and lay down to sleep with their weapons close to their hands, like true bogatirs and men of power.
In the morning the youngest brother. Sunrise, said to the eldest brother, Evening,–
“Midnight and I are going hunting to-day, and you shall rest here, and see what sort of dinner you can give us when we come back.”
“Very well,” says Evening; “but to-morrow I shall go hunting, and one of you shall stay here and cook the dinner.”
Nobody made bones about that, and so Evening stood at the door of the hut while the others rode off–Midnight on his black horse, and Sunrise on his horse, white as a summer cloud. They rode off into the forest, and disappeared among the green trees.
Evening watched them out of sight, and then, without thinking twice about what he was doing, went out into the yard, picked out the finest sheep he could see, caught it, killed it, skinned it, cleaned it, and set it in a cauldron on the stove so as to be ready and hot whenever his brothers should come riding back from the forest. As soon as that was done, Evening lay down on the broad bench to rest himself.
He had scarcely lain down before there were a knocking and a rattling and a stumbling, and the door opened, and in walked a little man a yard high, with a beard seven yards long 4 flowing out behind him over both his shoulders. He looked round angrily, and saw Evening, who yawned, and sat up on the bench, and began chuckling at the sight of him. The little man screamed out,–
“What are you chuckling about? How dare you play the master in my house? How dare you kill my best sheep?”
Evening answered him, laughing,–
“Grow a little bigger, and it won’t be so hard to see you down there. Till then it will be better for you to keep a civil tongue in your head.”
The little man was angry before, but now he was angrier.
“What?” he screamed. “I am little, am I? Well, see what little does!”
And with that he grabbed an old crust of bread, leapt on Evening’s shoulders, and began beating him over the head. Yes, and the little fellow was so strong he beat Evening till he was half dead, and was blind in one eye and could not see out of the other. Then, when he was tired, he threw Evening under the bench, took the sheep out of the cauldron, gobbled it up in a few mouthfuls, and, when he had done, went off again into the forest.
When Evening came to his senses again, he bound up his head with a dishcloth, and lay on the ground and groaned.
Midnight and Sunrise rode back, on the black horse and the white, and came to the hut, where they found their brother groaning on the ground, unable to see out of his eyes, and with a dishcloth round his head.
“What are you tied up like that for?” they asked; “and where is our dinner?”
Evening was ashamed to tell them the truth–how he had been thumped about with a crust of bread by a little fellow only a yard high. He moaned and said,–
“O my brothers, I made a fire in the stove, and fell ill from the great heat in this little hut. My head ached. All day I lay senseless, and could neither boil nor roast. I thought my head would burst with the heat, and my brains fly beyond the seventh world.”
Next day Sunrise went hunting with Evening, whose head was still bound up in a dishcloth, and hurting so sorely that he could hardly see. Midnight stayed at home. It was his turn to see to the dinner. Sunrise rode out on his cloud-white horse, and Evening on his dusky brown. Midnight stood in the doorway of the hut, watched them disappear among the green trees, and then set about getting the dinner.
He lit the fire, but was careful not to make it too hot. Then he went into the yard, caught the very fattest of the sheep, killed it, skinned it, cleaned it, cut it up, and set it on the stove. Then, when all was ready, he lay down on the bench and rested himself.
But before he had lain there long there were a knocking, a stamping, a rattling, a grumbling, and in came the little old man, one yard high, with a beard seven yards long, and without wasting words the little fellow leapt on the shoulders of the bogatir, and set to beating him and thumping him, first on one side of his head and then on the other. He gave him such a banging that he very nearly made an end of him altogether. Then the little fellow ate up the whole of the sheep in a few mouthfuls, and went off angrily into the forest, with his long white beard flowing behind him.
Midnight tied up his head with a handkerchief, and lay down under the bench, groaning and groaning, unable to put his head to the ground, or even to lay it in the crook of his arm, it was so bruised by the beating given it by the little old man.
In the evening the brothers rode back, and found Midnight groaning under the bench, with his head bound up in a handkerchief.
Evening looked at him and said nothing. Perhaps he was thinking of his own bruised head, which was still tied up in a dishcloth.
“What’s the matter with you?” says Sunrise.
“There never was such another stove as this,” says Midnight. “I’d no sooner lit it than it seemed as if the whole hut were on fire. My head nearly burst. It’s aching now; and as for your dinner, why, I’ve not been able to put a hand to anything all day.”
Evening chuckled to himself, but Sunrise only said, “That’s bad, brother; but you shall go hunting to-morrow, and I’ll stay at home, and see what I can do with the stove.”
And so on the third day the two elder brothers went hunting–Midnight on his black horse, and Evening on his horse of dusky brown. Sunrise stood in the doorway of the hut, and saw them disappear under the green trees. The sun shone on his golden curls, and his blue eyes were like the sky itself. There, never was such another bogatir as he.
He went into the hut and lit the stove. Then he went out into the yard, chose the best sheep he could find, killed it, skinned it, cleaned it, cut it up, and set it on the stove. He made everything ready, and then lay down on the bench.
Before he had lain there very long he heard a stumping, a thumping, a knocking, a rattling, a grumbling, a rumbling. Sunrise leaped up from the bench and looked out through the window of the hut. There in the yard was the little old man, one yard high, with a beard seven yards long. He was carrying a whole haystack on his head and a great tub of water in his arms. He came into the middle of the yard, and set down his tub to water all the beasts. He set down the haystack and scattered the hay about. All the cattle and the sheep came together to eat and to drink, and the little man stood and counted them. He counted the oxen, he counted the goats, and then he counted the sheep. He counted them once, and his eyes began to flash. He counted them twice, and he began to grind his teeth. He counted them a third time, made sure that one was missing, and then he flew into a violent rage, rushed across the yard and into the hut, and gave Sunrise a terrific blow on the head.
Sunrise shook his head as if a fly had settled on it. Then he jumped suddenly and caught the end of the long beard of the little old man, and set to pulling him this way and that, round and round the hut, as if his beard was a rope. Phew! how the little man roared.
Sunrise laughed, and tugged him this way and that, and mocked him, crying out, “If you do not know the ford, it is better not to go into the water,” meaning that the little fellow had begun to beat him without finding out who was the stronger.
The little old man, one yard high, with a beard seven yards long, began to pray and to beg,–
“O man of power, O great and mighty bogatir, have mercy upon me. Do not kill me. Leave me my soul to repent with.”
Sunrise laughed, and dragged the little fellow out into the yard, whirled him round at the end of his beard, and brought him to a great oak trunk that lay on the ground. Then with a heavy iron wedge he fixed the end of the little man’s beard firmly in the oaken trunk, and, leaving the little man howling and lamenting, went back to the hut, set it in order again, saw that the sheep was cooking as it should, and then lay down in peace to wait for the coming of his brothers.
Evening and Midnight rode home, leapt from their horses, and came into the hut to see how the little man had dealt with their brother. They could hardly believe their eyes when they saw him alive and well, without a bruise, lying comfortably on the bench.
He sat up and laughed in their faces.
“Well, brothers,” says he, “come along with me into the yard, and I think I can show you that headache of yours. It’s a good deal stronger than it is big, but for the time being you need not be afraid of it, for it’s fastened to an oak timber that all three of us together could not lift.”
He got up and went into the yard. Evening and Midnight followed him with shamed faces. But when they came to the oaken timber the little man was not there. Long ago he had torn himself free and run away into the forest. But half his beard was left, wedged in the trunk, and Sunrise pointed to that and said,–
“Tell me, brothers, was it the heat of the stove that gave you your headaches? Or had this long beard something to do with it?”
The brothers grew red, and laughed, and told him the whole truth.
Meanwhile Sunrise had been looking at the end of the beard, the end of the half beard that was left, and he saw that it had been torn out by the roots, and that drops of blood from the little man’s chin showed the way he had gone.
Quickly the brothers went back to the hut and ate up the sheep. Then they leapt on their horses, and rode off into the green forest, following the drops of blood that had fallen from the little man’s chin. For three days they rode through the green forest, until at last the red drops of the trail led them to a deep pit, a black hole in the earth, hidden by thick bushes and going far down into the underworld.
Sunrise left his brothers to guard the hole, while he went off into the forest and gathered bast, and twisted it, and made a strong rope, and brought it to the mouth of the pit, and asked his brothers to lower him down.
He made a loop in the rope. His brothers kissed him on both cheeks, and he kissed them back. Then he sat in the loop, and Evening and Midnight lowered him down into the darkness. Down and down he went, swinging in the dark, till he came into a world under the world, with a light that was neither that of the sun, nor of the moon, nor of the stars. He stepped from the loop in the rope of twisted bast, and set out walking through the underworld, going whither his eyes led him, for he found no more drops of blood, nor any other traces of the little old man.
He walked and walked, and came at last to a palace of copper, green and ruddy in the strange light. He went into that palace, and there came to meet him in the copper halls a maiden whose cheeks were redder than the aloe and whiter than the snow. She was the youngest daughter of the King, and the loveliest of the three princesses, who were the loveliest in all the world. Sweetly she curtsied to Sunrise, as he stood there with his golden hair and his eyes blue as the sky at morning, and sweetly she asked him,–
“How have you come hither, my brave young man–of your own will or against it?”
“Your father has sent to rescue you and your sisters.”
She bade him sit at the table, and gave him food and brought him a little flask of the water of strength.
“Strong you are,” says she, “but not strong enough for what is before you. Drink this, and your strength will be greater than it is; for you will need all the strength you have and can win, if you are to rescue us and live.”
Sunrise looked in her sweet eyes, and drank the water of strength in a single draught, and felt gigantic power forcing its way throughout his body.
“Now,” thought he, “let come what may.”
Instantly a violent wind rushed through the copper palace, and the Princess trembled.
“The snake that holds me here is coming,” says she. “He is flying hither on his strong wings.”
She took the great hand of the bogatir in her little fingers, and drew him to another room, and hid him there.
The copper palace rocked in the wind, and there flew into the great hall a huge snake with three heads. The snake hissed loudly, and called out in a whistling voice,–
“I smell the smell of a Russian soul. What visitor have you here?”
“How could any one come here?” said the Princess. “You have been flying over Russia. There you smelt Russian souls, and the smell is still in your nostrils, so that you think you smell them here.”
“It is true,” said the snake: “I have been flying over Russia. I have flown far. Let me eat and drink, for I am both hungry and thirsty.”
All this time Sunrise was watching from the other room.
The Princess brought meat and drink to the snake, and in the drink she put a philtre of sleep.
The snake ate and drank, and began to feel sleepy. He coiled himself up in rings, laid his three heads in the lap of the Princess, told her to scratch them for him, and dropped into a deep sleep.
The Princess called Sunrise, and the bogatir rushed in, swung his glittering sword three times round his golden head, and cut off all three heads of the snake. It was like felling three oak trees at a single blow. Then he made a great fire of wood, and threw upon it the body of the snake, and, when it was burnt up, scattered the ashes over the open country.
“And now fare you well,” says Sunrise to the Princess; but she threw her arms about his neck.
“Fare you well,” says he. “I go to seek your sisters. As soon as I have found them I will come back.”
And at that she let him go.
He walked on further through the underworld, and came at last to a palace of silver, gleaming in the strange light.
He went in there, and was met with sweet words and kindness by the second of the three lovely princesses. In that palace he killed a snake with six heads. The Princess begged him to stay; but he told her he had yet to find her eldest sister. At that she wished him the help of God, and he left her, and went on further.
He walked and walked, and came at last to a palace of gold, glittering in the light of the underworld. All happened as in the other palaces. The eldest of the three daughters of the King met him with courtesy and kindness. And he killed a snake with twelve heads and freed the Princess from her imprisonment. The Princess rejoiced, and thanked Sunrise, and set about her packing to go home.
And this was the way of her packing. She went out into the broad courtyard and waved a scarlet handkerchief, and instantly the whole palace, golden and glittering, and the kingdom belonging to it, became little, little, little, till it went into a little golden egg. The Princess tied the egg in a corner of her handkerchief, and set out with Sunrise to join her sisters and go home to her father.
Her sisters did their packing in the same way. The silver palace and its kingdom were packed by the second sister into a little silver egg. And when they came to the copper palace, the youngest of the three lovely princesses clapped her hands and kissed Sunrise on both his cheeks, and waved a scarlet handkerchief, and instantly the copper palace and its kingdom were packed into a little copper egg, shining ruddy and green.
And so Sunrise and the three daughters of the King came to the foot of the deep hole down which he had come into the underworld. And there was the rope hanging with the loop at its end. And they sat in the loop, and Evening and Midnight pulled them up one by one, rejoicing together. Then the three brothers took, each of them, a princess with him on his horse, and they all rode together back to the old King, telling talcs and singing songs as they went. The Princess from the golden palace rode with Evening on his horse of dusky brown; the Princess from the silver palace rode with Midnight on his horse as black as charcoal; but the Princess from the copper palace, the youngest of them all, rode with Sunrise on his horse, white as a summer cloud. Merry was the journey through the green forest, and gladly they rode over the open plain, till they came at last to the palace of her father.
There was the old King, sitting melancholy alone, when the three brothers with the princesses rode into the courtyard of the palace. The old King was so glad that he laughed and cried at the same time, and his tears ran down his beard.
“Ah me!” says the old King, “I am old, and you young men have brought my daughters back from the very world under the world. Safer they will be if they have you to guard them, even than they were in the palace I had built for them underground. But I have only one kingdom and three daughters.”
“Do not trouble about that,” laughed the three princesses, and they all rode out together into the open country, and there the princesses broke their eggs, one after the other, and there were the palaces of silver, copper, and gold, with the kingdoms belonging to them, and the cattle and the sheep and the goats. There was a kingdom for each of the brothers. Then they made a great feast, and had three weddings all together, and the old King sat with the mother of the three strong men, and men of power, the noble bogatirs, Evening, Midnight, and Sunrise, sitting at his side. Great was the feasting, loud were the songs, and the King made Sunrise his heir, so that some day he would wear his crown. But little did Sunrise think of that. He thought of nothing but the youngest Princess. And little she thought of it, for she had no eyes but for Sunrise. And merrily they lived together in the copper palace. And happily they rode together on the horse that was as white as clouds in summer.
One evening, when they were sitting round the table after their supper, old Peter asked the children what story they would like to hear. Vanya asked whether there were any stories left which they had not already heard.
“Why,” said old Peter, “you have heard scarcely any of the stories, for there is a story to be told about everything in the world.”
“About everything, grandfather?” asked Vanya.
“About everything,” said old Peter.
“About the sky, and the thunder, and the dogs, and the flies, and the birds, and the trees, and the milk?”
“There is a story about everyone of those things.”
“I know something there isn’t a story about,” said Vanya.
“And what’s that?” asked old Peter, smiling in his beard.
“Salt,” said Vanya. “There can’t be a story about salt.” He put the tip of his finger into the little box of salt on the table, and then he touched his tongue with his finger to taste.
“But of course there is a story about salt,” said old Peter.
“Tell it us,” said Maroosia; and presently, when his pipe had been lit twice and gone out, old Peter began.
Once upon a time there were three brothers, and their father was a great merchant who sent his ships far over the sea, and traded here and there in countries the names of which I, being an old man, can never rightly call to mind. Well, the names of the two elder brothers do not matter, but the youngest was called Ivan the Ninny, because he was always playing and never working; and if there was a silly thing to do, why, off he went and did it. And so, when the brothers grew up, the father sent the two elder ones off, each in a fine ship laden with gold and jewels, and rings and bracelets, and laces and silks, and sticks with little bits of silver hammered into their handles, and spoons with patterns of blue and red, and everything else you can think of that costs too much to buy. But he made Ivan the Ninny stay at home, and did not give him a ship at all. Ivan saw his brothers go sailing off over the sea on a summer morning, to make their fortunes and come back rich men; and then, for the first time in his life, he wanted to work and do something useful. He went to his father and kissed his hand, and he kissed the hand of his little old mother, and he begged his father to give him a ship so that he could try his fortune like his brothers.
“But you have never done a wise thing in your life, and no one could count all the silly things you’ve done if he spent a hundred days in counting,” said his father.
“True,” said Ivan; “but now I am going to be wise, and sail the sea and come back with something in my pockets to show that I am not a ninny any longer. Give me just a little ship, father mine–just a little ship for myself.”
“Give him a little ship,” said the mother. “He may not be a ninny after all.”
“Very well,” said his father. “I will give him a little ship; but I am not going to waste good roubles by giving him a rich cargo.”
“Give me any cargo you like,” said Ivan.
So his father gave him a little ship, a little old ship, and a cargo of rags and scraps and things that were not fit for anything but to be thrown away. And he gave him a crew of ancient old sailormen who were past work; and Ivan went on board and sailed away at sunset, like the ninny he was. And the feeble, ancient, old sailormen pulled up the ragged, dirty sails, and away they went over the sea to learn what fortune, good or bad, God had in mind for a crew of old men with a ninny for a master.
The fourth day after they set sail there came a great wind over the sea. The feeble old men did the best they could with the ship; but the old, torn sails tore from the masts, and the wind did what it pleased, and threw the little ship on an unknown island away in the middle of the sea. Then the wind dropped, and left the little ship on the beach, and Ivan the Ninny and his ancient old men, like good Russians, praising God that they were still alive.
“Well, children,” said Ivan, for he knew how to talk to sailors, “do you stay here and mend the sails, and make new ones out of the rags we carry as cargo, while I go inland and see if there is anything that could be of use to us.”
So the ancient old sailormen sat on deck with their legs crossed, and made sails out of rags, of torn scraps of old brocades, of soiled embroidered shawls, of all the rubbish that they had with them for a cargo. You never saw such sails. The tide came up and floated the ship, and they threw out anchors at bow and stern, and sat there in the sunlight, making sails and patching them and talking of the days when they were young. All this while Ivan the Ninny went walking off into the island.
Now in the middle of that island was a high mountain, a high mountain it was, and so white that when he came near it Ivan the Ninny began thinking of sheepskin coats, although it was midsummer and the sun was hot in the sky. The trees were green round about, but there was nothing growing on the mountain at all. It was just a great white mountain piled up into the sky in the middle of a green island. Ivan walked a little way up the white slopes of the mountain, and then, because he felt thirsty, he thought he would let a little snow melt in his mouth. He took some in his fingers and stuffed it in. Quickly enough it came out again, I can tell you, for the mountain was not made of snow but of good Russian salt. And if you want to try what a mouthful of salt is like, you may.
“No, thank you, grandfather,” the children said hurriedly together.
Old Peter went on with his tale.
Ivan the Ninny did not stop to think twice. The salt was so clean and shone so brightly in the sunlight. He just turned round and ran back to the shore, and called out to his ancient old sailor-men and told them to empty everything they had on board over into the sea. Over it all went, rags and tags and rotten timbers, till the little ship was as empty as a soup bowl after supper. And then those ancient old men were set to work carrying salt from the mountain and taking it on board the little ship, and stowing it away below deck till there was not room for another grain. Ivan the Ninny would have liked to take the whole mountain, but there was not room in the little ship. And for that the ancient old sailor men thanked God, because their backs ached and their old legs were weak, and they said they would have died if they had had to carry any more.
Then they hoisted up the new sails they had patched together out of the rags and scraps of shawls and old brocades, and they sailed away once more over the blue sea. And the wind stood fair, and they sailed before it, and the ancient old sailors rested their backs, and told old tales, and took turn and turn about at the rudder.
And after many days’ sailing they came to a town, with towers and churches and painted roofs, all set on the side of a hill that sloped down into the sea. At the foot of the hill was a quiet harbor, and they sailed in there and moored the ship and hauled down their patchwork sails.
Ivan the Ninny went ashore, and took with him a little bag of clean white salt to show what kind of goods he had for sale, and he asked his way to the palace of the Tzar of that town. He came to the palace, and went in and bowed to the ground before the Tzar.
“Who are you?” says the Tzar.
“I, great lord, am a Russian merchant, and here in a bag is some of my merchandise, and I beg your leave to trade with your subjects in this town.”
“Let me see what is in the bag,” says the Tzar. Ivan the Ninny took a handful from the bag and showed it to the Tzar.
“What is it?” says the Tzar.
“Good Russian salt,” says Ivan the Ninny.
Now in that country they had never heard of salt, and the Tzar looked at the salt, and he looked at Ivan and he laughed.
“Why, this,” says he, “is nothing but white dust, and that we can pick up for nothing. The men of my town have no need to trade with you. You must be a ninny.”
Ivan grew very red, for he knew what his father used to call him. He was ashamed to say anything. So he bowed to the ground, and went away out of the palace.
But when he was outside he thought to himself, “I wonder what sort of salt they use in these parts if they do not know good Russian salt when they see it. I will go to the kitchen.”
So he went round to the back door of the palace, and put his head into the kitchen, and said, “I am very tired. May I sit down here and rest a little while?”
“Come in,” says one of the cooks. “But you must sit just there, and not put even your little finger in the way of us; for we are the Tzar’s cooks, and we are in the middle of making ready his dinner.” And the cook put a stool in a corner out of the way, and Ivan slipped in round the door, and sat down in the corner and looked about him. There were seven cooks at least, boiling and baking, and stewing and toasting, and roasting and frying. And as for scullions, they were as thick as cockroaches, dozens of them, running to and fro, tumbling over each other, and helping the cooks.
Ivan the Ninny sat on his stool, with his legs tucked under him and the bag of salt on his knees. He watched the cooks and the scullions, but he did not see them put anything in the dishes which he thought could take the place of salt. No; the meat was without salt, the kasha was without salt, and there was no salt in the potatoes. Ivan nearly turned sick at the thought of the tastelessness of all that food.
There came the moment when all the cooks and scullions ran out of the kitchen to fetch the silver platters on which to lay the dishes. Ivan slipped down from his stool, and running from stove to stove, from saucepan to frying pan, he dropped a pinch of salt, just what was wanted, no more no less, in everyone of the dishes. Then he ran back to the stool in the corner, and sat there, and watched the dishes being put on the silver platters and carried off in gold-embroidered napkins to be the dinner of the Tzar.
The Tzar sat at table and took his first spoonful of soup.
“The soup is very good to-day,” says he, and he finishes the soup to the last drop.
“I’ve never known the soup so good,” says the Tzaritza, and she finishes hers.
“This is the best soup I ever tasted,” says the Princess, and down goes hers, and she, you know, was the prettiest princess who ever had dinner in this world.
It was the same with the kasha and the same with the meat. The Tzar and the Tzaritza and the Princess wondered why they had never had so good a dinner in all their lives before.
“Call the cooks,” says the Tzar. And they called the cooks, and the cooks all came in, and bowed to the ground, and stood in a row before the Tzar.
“What did you put in the dishes to-day that you never put before?” says the Tzar.
“We put nothing unusual, your greatness,” say the cooks, and bowed to the ground again.
“Then why do the dishes taste better?”
“We do not know, your greatness,” say the cooks.
“Call the scullions,” says the Tzar. And the scullions were called, and they too bowed to the ground, and stood in a row before the Tzar.
“What was done in the kitchen to-day that has not been done there before?” says the Tzar.
“Nothing, your greatness,” say all the scullions except one.
And that one scullion bowed again, and kept on bowing, and then he said, “Please, your greatness, please, great lord, there is usually none in the kitchen but ourselves; but to-day there was a young Russian merchant, who sat on a stool in the corner and said he was tired.”
“Call the merchant,” says the Tzar.
So they brought in Ivan the Ninny, and he bowed before the Tzar, and stood there with his little bag of salt in his hand.
“Did you do anything to my dinner?” says the Tzar.
“I did, your greatness,” says Ivan.
“What did you do?”
“I put a pinch of Russian salt in every dish.”
“That white dust?” says the Tzar.
“Nothing but that.”
“Have you got any more of it?”
“I have a little ship in the harbor laden with nothing else,” says Ivan.
“It is the most wonderful dust in the world,” says the Tzar, “and I will buy every grain of it you have. What do you want for it?”
Ivan the Ninny scratched his head and thought. He thought that if the Tzar liked it as much as all that it must be worth a fair price, so he said, “We will put the salt into bags, and for every bag of salt you must give me three bags of the same weight–one of gold, one of silver, and one of precious stones. Cheaper than that, your greatness, I could not possibly sell.”
“Agreed,” says the Tzar. “And a cheap price, too, for a dust so full of magic that it makes dull dishes tasty, and tasty dishes so good that there is no looking away from them.”
So all the day long, and far into the night, the ancient old sailor men bent their backs under sacks of salt, and bent them again under sacks of gold and silver and precious stones. When all the salt had been put in the Tzar’s treasury–yes, with twenty soldiers guarding it with great swords shining in the moonlight–and when the little ship was loaded with riches, so that even the deck was piled high with precious stones, the ancient old men lay down among the jewels and slept till morning, when Ivan the Ninny went to bid good-bye to the Tzar.
“And whither shall you sail now?” asked the Tzar.
“I shall sail away to Russia in my little ship,” says Ivan.
And the Princess, who was very beautiful, said, “A little Russian ship?”
“Yes,” says Ivan.
“I have never seen a Russian ship,” says the Princess, and she begs her father to let her go to the harbor with her nurses and maids, to see the little Russian ship before Ivan set sail.
She came with Ivan to the harbor, and the ancient old sailor men took them on board.
She ran all over the ship, looking now at this and now at that, and Ivan told her the names of everything–deck, mast, and rudder.
“May I see the sails?” she asked. And the ancient old men hoisted the ragged sails, and the wind filled the sails and tugged.
“Why doesn’t the ship move when the sails are up?” asked the Princess.
“The anchor holds her,” said Ivan.
“Please let me see the anchor,” says the Princess.
“Haul up the anchor, my children, and show it to the Princess,” says Ivan to the ancient old sailor men.
And the old men hauled up the anchor, and showed it to the Princess; and she said it was a very good little anchor. But, of course, as soon as the anchor was up the ship began to move. One of the ancient old men bent over the tiller, and, with a fair wind behind her, the little ship slipped out of the harbor and away to the blue sea. When the Princess looked round, thinking it was time to go home, the little ship was far from land, and away in the distance she could only see the gold towers of her father’s palace, glittering like pin points in the sunlight. Her nurses and maids wrung their hands and made an outcry, and the Princess sat down on a heap of jewels, and put a handkerchief to her eyes, and cried and cried and cried.
Ivan the Ninny took her hands and comforted her, and told her of the wonders of the sea that he would show her, and the wonders of the land. And she looked up at him while he talked, and his eyes were kind and hers were sweet; and the end of it was that they were both very well content, and agreed to have a marriage feast as soon as the little ship should bring them to the home of Ivan’s father. Merry was that voyage. All day long Ivan and the Princess sat on deck and said sweet things to each other, and at twilight they sang songs, and drank tea, and told stories. As for the nurses and maids, the Princess told them to be glad; and so they danced and clapped their hands, and ran about the ship, and teased the ancient old sailor men.
When they had been sailing many days, the Princess was looking out over the sea, and she cried out to Ivan, “See, over there, far away, are two big ships with white sails, not like our sails of brocade and bits of silk.”
Ivan looked, shading his eyes with his hands.
“Why, those are the ships of my elder brothers,” said he. “We shall all sail home together.”
And he made the ancient old sailor men give a hail in their cracked old voices. And the brothers heard them, and came on board to greet Ivan and his bride. And when they saw that she was a Tzar’s daughter, and that the very decks were heaped with precious stones, because there was no room below, they said one thing to Ivan and something else to each other.
To Ivan they said, “Thanks be to God, He has given you good trading.”
But to each other, “How can this be?” says one. “Ivan the Ninny bringing back such a cargo, while we in our fine ships have only a bag or two of gold.”
“And what is Ivan the Ninny doing with a princess?” says the other.
And they ground their teeth, and waited their time, and came up suddenly, when Ivan was alone in the twilight, and picked him up by his head and his heels, and hove him overboard into the dark blue sea.
Not one of the old men had seen them, and the Princess was not on deck. In the morning they said that Ivan the Ninny must have walked overboard in his sleep. And they drew lots. The eldest brother took the Princess, and the second brother took the little ship laden with gold and silver and precious stones. And so the brothers sailed home very well content. But the Princess sat and wept all day long, looking down into the blue water. The elder brother could not comfort her, and the second brother did not try. And the ancient old sailor men muttered in their beards, and were sorry, and prayed to God to give rest to Ivan’s soul; for although he had been a ninny, and although he had made them carry a lot of salt and other things, yet they loved him, because he knew how to talk to ancient old sailor men.
But Ivan was not dead. As soon as he splashed into the water, he crammed his fur hat a little tighter on his head, and began swimming in the sea. He swam about until the sun rose, and then, not far away, he saw a floating timber log, and he swam to the log, and got astride of it, and thanked God. And he sat there on the log in the middle of the sea, twiddling his thumbs for want of something to do.
There was a strong current in the sea that carried him along, and at last, after floating for many days without ever a bite for his teeth or a drop for his gullet, his feet touched land. Now that was at night, and he left the log and walked up out of the sea, and lay down on the shore and waited for morning.
When the sun rose he stood up, and saw that he was on a bare island, and he saw nothing at all on the island except a huge house as big as a mountain; and as he was looking at the house the great door creaked with a noise like that of a hurricane among the pine forests, and opened; and a giant came walking out, and came to the shore, and stood there, looking down at Ivan.
“What are you doing here, little one?” says the giant.
Ivan told him the whole story, just as I have told it to you.
The giant listened to the very end, pulling at his monstrous whiskers. Then he said, “Listen, little one. I know more of the story than you, for I can tell you that to-morrow morning your eldest brother is going to marry your Princess. But there is no need for you to take on about it. If you want to be there, I will carry you and set you down before the house in time for the wedding. And a fine wedding it is like to be, for your father thinks well of those brothers of yours bringing back all those precious stones, and silver and gold enough to buy a kingdom.”
And with that he picked up Ivan the Ninny and set him on his great shoulders, and set off striding through the sea.
He went so fast that the wind of his going blew off Ivan’s hat.
“Stop a moment,” shouts Ivan; “my hat has blown off.”
“We can’t turn back for that,” says the giant; “we have already left your hat five hundred versts behind us.” And he rushed on, splashing through the sea. The sea was up to his armpits. He rushed on, and the sea was up to his waist. He rushed on, and before the sun had climbed to the top of the blue sky he was splashing up out of the sea with the water about his ankles. He lifted Ivan from his shoulders and set him on the ground.
“Now,” says he, “little man, off you run, and you’ll be in time for the feast. But don’t you dare to boast about riding on my shoulders. If you open your mouth about that you’ll smart for it, if I have to come ten thousand thousand verses.”
Ivan the Ninny thanked the giant for carrying him through the sea, promised that he would not boast, and then ran off to his father’s house. Long before he got there he heard the musicians in the courtyard playing as if they wanted to wear out their instruments before night. The wedding feast had begun, and when Ivan ran in, there, at the high board, was sitting the Princess, and beside her his eldest brother. And there were his father and mother, his second brother, and all the guests. And everyone of them was as merry as could be, except the Princess, and she was as white as the salt he had sold to her father.
Suddenly the blood flushed into her cheeks. She saw Ivan in the doorway. Up she jumped at the high board, and cried out, “There, there is my true love, and not this man who sits beside me at the table.”
“What is this?” says Ivan’s father, and in a few minutes knew the whole story.
He turned the two elder brothers out of doors, gave their ships to Ivan, married him to the Princess, and made him his heir. And the wedding feast began again, and they sent for the ancient old sailormen to take part in it. And the ancient old sailormen wept with joy when they saw Ivan and the Princess, like two sweet pigeons, sitting side by side; yes, and they lifted their flagons with their old shaking hands, and cheered with their old cracked voices, and poured the wine down their dry old throats.
There was wine enough and to spare, beer too, and mead–enough to drown a herd of cattle. And as the guests drank and grew merry and proud they set to boasting. This one bragged of his riches, that one of his wife. Another boasted of his cunning, another of his new house, another of his strength, and this one was angry because they would not let him show how he could lift the table on one hand. They all drank Ivan’s health, and he drank theirs, and in the end he could not bear to listen to their proud boasts.
“That’s all very well,” says he, “but I am the only man in the world who rode on the shoulders of a giant to come to his wedding feast.”
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before there were a tremendous trampling and a roar of a great wind. The house shook with the footsteps of the giant as he strode up. The giant bent down over the courtyard and looked in at the feast.
“Little man, little man,” says he, “you promised not to boast of me. I told you what would come if you did, and here you are and have boasted already.”
“Forgive me,” says Ivan; “it was the drink that boasted, not I.”
“What sort of drink is it that knows how to boast?” says the giant.
“You shall taste it,” says Ivan.
And he made his ancient old sailormen roll a great barrel of wine into the yard, more than enough for a hundred men, and after that a barrel of beer that was as big, and then a barrel of mead that was no smaller.
“Try the taste of that,” says Ivan the Ninny.
Well, the giant did not wait to be asked twice. He lifted the barrel of wine as if it had been a little glass, and emptied it down his throat. He lifted the barrel of beer as if it had been an acorn, and emptied it after the wine. Then he lifted the barrel of mead as if it had been a very small pea, and swallowed every drop of mead that was in it. And after that he began stamping about and breaking things. Houses fell to pieces this way and that, and trees were swept flat like grass. Every step the giant took was followed by the crash of breaking timbers. Then suddenly he fell flat on his back and slept. For three days and nights he slept without waking. At last he opened his eyes.
“Just look about you,” says Ivan, “and see the damage that you’ve done.”
“And did that little drop of drink make me do all that?” says the giant. “Well, well, I can well understand that a drink like that can do a bit of bragging. And after that,” says he, looking at the wrecks of houses, and all the broken things scattered about–“after that,” says he, “you can boast of me for a thousand years, and I’ll have nothing against you.”
And he tugged at his great whiskers, and wrinkled his eyes, and went striding off into the sea.
That is the story about salt, and how it made a rich man of Ivan the Ninny, and besides, gave him the prettiest wife in the world, and she a Tzar’s daughter.
THE CHRISTENING IN THE VILLAGE:
This chapter is not one of old Peter’s stories, though there are, doubtless, some stories in it. It tells how Vanya and Maroosia drove to the village to see a new baby.
Old Peter had a sister who lived in the village not so very far away from the forest. And she had a plump daughter, and the daughter was called Nastasia, and she was married to a handsome peasant called Sergie, who had three cows, a lot of pigs, and a flock of fat geese. And one day when old Peter had gone to the village to buy tobacco and sugar and sunflower seeds, he came back in the evening, and said to the children,–
“There’s something new in the village.”
“What sort of a something?” asked Vanya.
“Alive,” said old Peter.
“Is there a lot of it?” asked Vanya.
“No, only one.”
“Then it can’t be pigs,” said Vanya, in a melancholy voice. “I thought it was pigs.”
“Perhaps it is a little calf,” said Maroosia.
“I know what it is,” said Vanya.
“It’s a foal. It’s brown all over with white on its nose, and a lot of white hairs in its tail.”
“What is it then, grandfather?”
“I’ll tell you, little pigeons. It’s small and red, and it’s got a bumpy head with hair on it like the fluff of a duckling. It has blue eyes, and ten fingers to its fore paws, and ten toes to its hind feet–five to each.”
“It’s a baby,” said Maroosia.
“Yes. Nastasia has got a little son, Aunt Sofia has got a grandson, you have got a new cousin, and I have got a new great-nephew. Think of that! Already it’s a son, and a cousin, and a grandson, and a great-nephew, and he’s only been alive twelve hours. He lost no time in taking a position for himself. He’ll be a great man one of these days if he goes on as fast as that.”
The children had jumped up as soon as they knew it was a baby.
“When is the christening?”
“The day after to-morrow.”
“Who is going to the christening?”
“The baby, of course.”
“Yes; but other people?”
“All the village.”
“I have to go, and I suppose there’ll be room in the cart for two little bear cubs like you.”
And so it was settled that Vanya and Maroosia were to go to the christening of their new cousin, who was only twelve hours old. All the next day they could think of nothing else, and early on the morning of the christening they were up and about, Maroosia seeing that Vanya had on a clean shirt, and herself putting a green ribbon in her hair. The sun shone, and the leaves on the trees were all new and bright, and the sky was pale blue through the flickering green leaves.
Old Peter was up early too, harnessing the little yellow horse into the old cart. The cart was of rough wood, without springs, like a big box fixed on long larch poles between two pairs of wheels. The larch poles did instead of springs, bending and creaking, as the cart moved over the forest track. The shafts came from the front wheels upwards to the horse’s shoulders, and between the ends of them there was a tall strong hoop of wood, called a douga, which rose high over the shoulders of the horse, above his collar, and had two little bells hanging from it at the top. The wooden hoop was painted green with little red flowers. The harness was mostly of ropes, but that did not matter so long as it held together. The horse had a long tail and mane, and looked as untidy as a little boy; but he had a green ribbon in his forelock in honour of the christening, and he could go like anything, and never got tired.
When all was ready, old Peter arranged a lot of soft fresh hay in the cart for the children to sit in. Hay is the best thing in the world to sit in when you drive in a jolting Russian cart. Old Peter put in a tremendous lot, so that the horse could eat some of it while waiting in the village, and yet leave them enough to make them comfortable on the journey back. Finally, old Peter took a gun that he had spent all the evening before in cleaning, and laid it carefully in the hay.
“What is the gun for?” asked Vanya.
“I am to be a godparent,” said old Peter, “and I want to give him a present. I could not give him a better present than a gun, for he shall be a forester, and a good shot, and you cannot begin too early.”
Presently Vanya and Maroosia were tucked into the hay, and old Peter climbed in with the plaited reins, and away they went along the narrow forest track, where the wheels followed the ruts and splashed through the deep holes; for the spring was young, and the roads had not yet dried. Some of the deepest holes had a few pine branches laid in them, but that was the only road-mending that ever was done. Overhead were the tall firs and silver birches with their little pale round leaves; and somewhere, not far away, a cuckoo was calling, while the murmur of the wild pigeons never stopped for a moment.
They drove on and on through the forest, and at last came out from among the trees into the open country, a broad, flat plain stretching to the river. Far away they could see the big square sail of a boat, swelled out in the light wind, and they knew that there was the river, on the banks of which stood the village. They could see a small clump of trees, and, as they came nearer, the pale green cupolas of the white village church rising above the tops of the birches.
Presently they came to a rough wooden bridge, and crossed over a little stream that was on its way to join the big river.
Vanya looked at it.
“Grandfather,” he asked, “when the frost went, which was water first–the big river or the little river?”
“Why, the little river, of course,” said old Peter. “It’s always the little streams that wake first in the spring, and running down to the big river make it swell and flood and break up the ice. It’s always been so ever since the quarrel between the Vazouza and the Volga.”
“What was that?” said Vanya.
“It was like this,” said old Peter.
The Vazouza and the Volga flow for a long way side by side, and then they join and flow together. And the Vazouza is a little river; but the Volga is the mother of all Russia, and the greatest river in the world.
And the little Vazouza was jealous of the Volga.
“You are big and noisy,” she says to the Volga, “and terribly strong; but as for brains,” says she, “why, I have more brains in a single ripple than you in all that lump of water.”
Of course the Volga told her not to be so rude, and said that little rivers should know their place and not argue with the great.
But the Vazouza would not keep quiet, and at last she said to the Volga: “Look here, we will lie down and sleep, and we will agree that the one of us who wakes first and comes first to the sea is the wiser of the two.”
And the Volga said, “Very well, if only you will stop talking.”
So the little Vazouza and the big Volga lay and slept, white and still, all through the winter. And when the spring came, the little Vazouza woke first, brisk and laughing and hurrying, and rushed away as hard as she could go towards the sea. When the Volga woke the little Vazouza was already far ahead. But the Volga did not hurry. She woke slowly and shook the ice from herself, and then came roaring after the Vazouza, a huge foaming flood of angry water.
And the little Vazouza listened as she ran, and she heard the Volga coming after her; and when the Volga caught her up–a tremendous foaming river, whirling along trees and blocks of ice–she was frightened, and she said,–
“O Volga, let me be your little sister. I will never argue with you any more. You are wiser than I and stronger than I. Only take me by the hand and bring me with you to the sea.”
And the Volga forgave the little Vazouza, and took her by the hand and brought her safely to the sea. And they have never quarrelled again. But all the same, it is always the little Vazouza that gets up first in the spring, and tugs at the white blankets of ice and snow, and wakes her big sister from her winter sleep.
They drove on over the flat open country, with no hedges, but only ditches to drain off the floods, and very often not even ditches to divide one field from another. And huge crows, with gray hoods and shawls, pecked about in the grass at the roadside or flew heavily in the sunshine. They passed a little girl with a flock of geese, and another little girl lying in the grass holding a long rope which was fastened to the horns of a brown cow. And the little girl lay on her face and slept among the flowers, while the cow walked slowly round her, step by step, chewing the grass and thinking about nothing at all.
And at last they came to the village, where the road was wider; and instead of one pair of ruts there were dozens, and the cart bumped worse than ever. The broad earthy road had no stones in it; and in places where the puddles would have been deeper than the axles of the wheels, it had been mended by laying down fir logs and small branches in the puddles, and putting a few spadefuls of earth on the top of them.
The road ran right through the village. On either side of it were little wooden huts. The ends of the timbers crossed outside at the four corners of the huts. They fitted neatly into each other, and some of them were carved. And there were no slates or tiles on the roofs, but little thin slips of wood overlapping each other. There was not a single stone hut or cottage in the village. Only the church was partly brick, whitewashed, with bright green cupolas up in the air, and thin gold crosses on the tops of the cupolas, shining in the clear sky.
Outside the church were rows of short posts, with long rough fir timbers nailed on the top of them, to which the country people tied their horses when they came to church. There were several carts there already, with bright-coloured rugs lying on the hay in them; and the horses were eating hay or biting the logs. Always, except when the logs are quite new, you can tell the favourite places for tying up horses to them, because the timbers will have deep holes in them, where they have been gnawed away by the horses’ teeth. They bite the timbers, while their masters eat sunflower seeds, not for food, but to pass the time.
“Now then,” said old Peter, as he got down from the cart, tied the horse, gave him an armful of hay from the cart, and lifted the children out. “Be quick. We shall be late if we don’t take care. I believe we are late already.–Good health to you, Fedor,” he said to an old peasant; “and has the baby gone in?”
“He has, Peter. And my health is not so bad; and how is yours?”
“Good also, Fedor, thanks be to God. And will you see to these two? for I am a god-parent, and must be near the priest.”
“Willingly,” said the old peasant Fedor. “How they do grow, to be sure, like young birch trees. Come along then, little pigeons.”
Old Peter hurried into the church, followed by Fedor with Vanya and Maroosia. They all crossed themselves and said a prayer as they went in.
The ceremony was just beginning.
The priest, in his silk robes, was standing before the gold and painted screen at the end of the church, and there were the basin of holy water, and old Peter’s sister, and the nurse Babka Tanya, very proud, holding the baby in a roll of white linen, and rocking it to and fro. There were coloured pictures of saints all over the screen, which stretches from one side of the church to the other. Some of the pictures were framed in gilt frames under glass, and were partly painted and partly metal. The faces and hands of the saints were painted, and their clothes were glittering silver or gold. Little lamps were burning in front of them, and candles.
A Russian christening is very different from an English one. For one thing, the baby goes right into the water, not once, but three times. Babka Tanya unrolled the baby, and the priest covered its face with his hand, and down it went under the water, once, twice, and again. Then he took some of the sacred ointment on his finger and anointed the baby’s forehead, and feet, and hands, and little round stomach. Then, with a pair of scissors, he cut a little pinch of fluff from the baby’s head, and rolled it into a pellet with the ointment, and threw the pellet into the holy water. And after that the baby was carried solemnly three times round the holy water. The priest blessed it and prayed for it; and there it was, a little true Russian, ready to be carried back to its mother, Nastasia, who lay at home in her cottage waiting for it.
When they got outside the church, they all went to Nastasia’s cottage to congratulate her on her baby, and to tell her what good lungs it had, and what a handsome face, and how it was exactly like its father.
Nastasia smiled at Vanya and Maroosia; but they had no eyes except for the baby, and for all that belonged to it, especially its cradle. Now a Russian baby has a very much finer cradle than an English baby. A long fir pole is fastened in the middle and at one end to the beams in the ceiling of the hut, so that the other end swings free, just below the rafters. From this end is hung a big basket, and on the ropes by which the basket hangs are fastened shawls of bright colours. The baby is tucked in the basket, the shawls closed round it; and as the mother or the nurse sits at her spinning, she just kicks the basket gently now and again, and it swings up and down from the end of the pole, as if it were hung from the branch of a tree.
This baby had a fine new basket and a larch pole, newly fixed, white and shining, under the dark beams of the ceiling. It had presents besides old Peter’s gun. It had a fine wooden spoon with a picture on it of a cottage and a fish. It had a wooden bowl and a painted mug, bought from one of the peddling barges that go up and down the rivers selling chairs and crockery, just like the caravans that travel our English roads. And also, although it was so young, it had a little sacred picture, made of metal, a picture of St. Nikolai; because this was St. Nikolai’s day, and the baby was called Nikolai.
There was a samovar already steaming in the cottage, and a great cake of pastry, and cabbage and egg and fish. And there were cabbage soup with sour cream, and black bread and a little white bread, and red kisel jelly and a huge jug of milk.
And everybody ate and drank and talked as if they were never going to stop. The sun was warm, and presently the men went outside and sat on a log, leaning their backs against the wall of the hut and making cigarettes and smoking, or eating sunflower seeds, cracking the husks with their teeth, taking out the white kernels, and blowing the husks away. And the women sat in the hut, and now and then brought out glasses of hot tea to the men, and then went back again to talk of what a fine man the baby would be, and to remember other babies. And the old women looked at the young mothers and laughed, and said that they could remember the days when they were christened–when they were babies themselves, no bigger than the little Nikolai who swung in the basket and squalled, or slept proudly, just as if he knew that all the world belonged to him because he was so very young. And Vanya and Maroosia ate sunflower seeds too, and sometimes played outside the cottage and sometimes inside; but mostly stood very quiet close to the swinging cradle, waiting till old Babka Tanya, the nurse, should pull the shawls a little way aside and let them see the pink, crumpled face of the little Nikolai, and the yellow fluff, just like a duckling’s, which covered his bumpy pink head.
At last, towards evening, old Peter packed what was left of the hay into the cart, and packed Vanya and Maroosia in with the hay. Everybody said good-byes all round, and Peter climbed in and took up the rope reins.
“He’ll be a fine man,” he shouted through the door to Nastasia, “a fine man; and God grant he’ll be as healthy as he is good.–Till we meet again,” he cried out merrily to the villagers; and Vanya and Maroosia waved their hands, and off they drove, back again to the hut in the forest.
They were very much quieter on the way back than they had been when they drove to the village in the morning. And the early summer day was quiet as it came to its end. There was a corncrake rattling in the fields, and more than once they saw frogs hop out of the road as they drove by in the twilight. A hare ran before them through the dusk and disappeared. And when they came to the wooden bridge over the stream, a tall gray bird with a long beak rose up from the bank and flew slowly away, carrying his long legs, like a thin pair of crutches, straight out behind him.
“Who is that?” asked Vanya sleepily from his nest in the hay.
“That is Mr. Crane,” said old Peter. “Perhaps he is on his way to visit Miss Heron and tell her that this time he has really made up his mind, and to ask her to let bygones be bygones.”
“What bygones?” said Vanya.
Old Peter watched the crane’s slow, steady flight above the low marshy ground on either side of the stream, and then he said,–
“Why, surely you know all about that. It is an old story, little one, and I must have told it you a dozen times.”
“No, never, grandfather,” said Maroosia. She was nearly as sleepy as Vanya after the day in the village, and the fuss and pleasure of the christening.
“Oh, well,” said old Peter; and he told the tale of Mr. Crane and Miss Heron as the cart bumped slowly along the rough road, while Vanya and Maroosia looked out with sleepy eyes from their nest of hay and listened, and the sky turned green, and the trees grew dim, and the frogs croaked in the ditches.
Mr. Crane and Miss Heron lived in a marsh five miles across from end to end. They lived there, and fed on the frogs which they caught in their long bills, and held up in the air for a moment, and then swallowed, standing on one leg. The marsh was always damp, and there were always plenty of frogs, and life went well for them, except that they saw very little company. They had no one to pass the time of day with. For Mr. Crane had built his little hut on one side of the marsh, and Miss Heron had built hers on the other.
So it came into the head of Mr. Crane that it was dull work living alone. If only I were married, he thought, there would be two of us to drink our tea beside the samovar at night, and I should not spend my evenings in melancholy, thinking only of frogs. I will go to see Miss Heron, and I will offer to marry her.
So off he flew to the other side of the marsh, flap, flap, with his legs hanging out behind, just as we saw him to-night. He came to the other side of the marsh, and flew down to the hut of Miss Heron. He tapped on the door with his long beak.
“Is Miss Heron at home?”
“At home,” said Miss Heron.
“Will you marry me?” said Mr. Crane.
“Of course I won’t,” said Miss Heron; “your legs are long and ill-shaped, and your coat is short, and you fly awkwardly, and you are not even rich. You would have no dainties to feed me with. Off with you, long-bodied one, and don’t come bothering me.”
She shut the door in his face.
Mr. Crane looked the fool he thought himself, and went off home, wishing he had never made the journey.
But as soon as he was gone, Miss Heron, sitting alone in her hut, began to think things over and to be sorry she had spoken in such a hurry.
“After all,” thinks she, “it is poor work living alone. And Mr. Crane, in spite of what I said about his looks, is really a handsome enough young fellow. Indeed at evening, when he stands on one leg, he is very handsome indeed. Yes, I will go and marry him.”
So off flew Miss Heron, flap, flap, over five miles of marsh, and came to the hut of Mr. Crane.
“Is the master at home?”
“At home,” said Mr. Crane.
“Ah, Mr. Crane,” said Miss Heron, “I was chaffing you just now. When shall we be married?”
“No, Miss Heron,” said Mr. Crane; “I have no need of you at all. I do not wish to marry, and I would not take you for my wife even if I did. Clear out, and let me see the last of you.” He shut the door.
Miss Heron wept tears of shame, that ran from her eyes down her long bill and dropped one by one to the ground. Then she flew away home, wishing she had not come.
As soon as she was gone Mr. Crane began to think, and he said to himself, “What a fool I was to be so short with Miss Heron! It’s dull living alone. Since she wants it, I will marry her.” And he flew off after Miss Heron. He came to her hut, and told her,–
“Miss Heron, I have thought things over. I have decided to marry you.”
“Mr. Crane,” said Miss Heron, “I, too, have thought things over. I would not marry you, not for ten thousand young frogs.”
Off flew Mr. Crane.
As soon as he was gone Miss Heron thought, “Why didn’t I agree to marry Mr. Crane? It’s dull alone. I will go at once and tell him I have changed my mind.”
She flew off to betroth herself; but Mr. Crane would have none of her, and she flew back again.
And so they go on to this day–first one and then the other flying across the marsh with an offer of marriage, and flying back with shame. They have never married, and never will.
“Grandfather,” whispered Maroosia, tugging at old Peter’s sleeve, “Vanya is asleep.”
They drove on through the forest silently, except for the creaking of the cart and the loud singing of the nightingales in the tops of the tall firs. They came at last to their hut.
“Ah!” said old Peter, as he lifted them out, first one and then the other; “it isn’t only Vanya who’s asleep.” And he carried them in, and put them to bed without waking them.
Russian Stories From the Old Days…
Posted by Kyle Keeton
Windows to Russia…