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 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.
Notes: Contains 21 Russian folktales.
Author: Arthur Ransome
Publisher: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., London, Edinbourgh, NY, Toronto, Paris