In those days the king of a certain country had a daughter, who was not only exceedingly beautiful but also remarkably clever. Many kings and princes travelled from far distant lands, each one with the hope of making her his wife. But she would have nothing to do with any one of them. Finally, it was proclaimed that she would marry that man who for three successive nights should keep such strict watch upon her that she could not escape unnoticed. Those who failed were to have their heads cut off.
The news of this offer was noised about in all parts of the world. A great many kings and princes hastened to make the trial, taking their turn and keeping watch. But each one lost his life in the attempt, for they could not prevent, indeed they were not even able to see, the princess take her flight.
Now it happened that Matthias, prince of a royal city, heard of what was going on and resolved to watch through the three nights. He was young, handsome as a deer, and brave as a falcon. His father did all he could to turn him from his purpose: he used entreaties, prayers, threats, in fact he forbade him to go, but in vain, nothing could prevent him. What could the poor father do? Worn-out with contention, he was at last obliged to consent. Matthias filled his purse with gold, girded a well-tried sword to his side, and quite alone started off to seek the fortune of the brave.
Walking along next day, he met a man who seemed hardly able to drag one leg after the other.
“Whither are you going?” asked Matthias.
“I am travelling all over the world in search of happiness.”
“What is your profession?”
“I have no profession, but I can do what no one else can. I am called Broad, because I have the power of swelling myself out to such a size that there is room for a whole regiment of soldiers inside me.”
So saying he puffed himself out till he formed a barricade from one side of the road to the other.
“Bravo!” cried Matthias, delighted at this proof of his capacities. “By the way, would you mind coming with me? I, too, am travelling across the world in search of happiness.”
“If there is nothing bad in it I am quite willing,” answered Broad. And they continued their journey together.
A little further on they met a very slender man, frightfully thin, and tall and straight as a portico.
“Whither are you going, good man?” asked Matthias, filled with curiosity at his strange appearance.
“I am travelling about the world.”
“To what profession do you belong?”
“To no profession, but I know something every one else is ignorant of. I am called Tall, and with good reason. For without leaving the earth I can stretch out and reach up to the clouds. When I walk I clear a mile at each step.”
Without more ado he lengthened himself out until his head was lost in the clouds, while he really cleared a mile at each step.
“I like that, my fine fellow,” said Matthias. “Come, would you not like to travel with us?”’
“Why not?” replied he. “I’ll come.”
So they proceeded on their way together. While passing through a forest they saw a man placing trunks of trees one upon another.
“What are you trying to do there?” asked Matthias, addressing him.
“I have Eyes of Flame,” said he, “and I am building a pile here.” So saying he fixed his flaming eyes upon the wood, and the whole was instantly set alight.
“You are a very clever and powerful man,” said Matthias, “would you like to join our party?”
“All right, I am willing.”
So the four travelled along together. Matthias was overjoyed to have met with such gifted companions, and paid their expenses generously, without complaining of the enormous sum of money he had to spend on the amount of food Broad consumed.
After some days they reached the princess’s palace. Matthias had told them the object of his journey, and had promised each a large reward if he was successful. They gave him their word to work with a will at the task which every one up till then had failed to accomplish. The prince bought them each a handsome suit of clothes, and when they were all presentable sent them to tell the king, the princess’s father, that he had come with his attendants to watch three nights in the lady’s boudoir. But he took very good care not to say who he was, nor whence he had come.
The king received them kindly, and after hearing their request said: “Reflect well before engaging yourselves in this, for if the princess should escape you will have to die.”
“We very much doubt her escaping from us,” they replied, “but come what will, we intend to make the attempt and to begin at once.”
“My duty was to warn you,” replied the monarch, smiling, “but if you still persist in your resolution I myself will take you to the lady’s apartments.”
Matthias was dazzled at the loveliness of the royal maiden, while she, on her side, received the brilliant and handsome young man most graciously, not trying to hide how much she liked his good looks and gentle manner. Hardly had the king retired when Broad lay down across the threshold; Tall and the Man with Eyes of Flame placed themselves near the window; while Matthias talked with the princess, and watched her every movement attentively.
Suddenly she ceased to speak, then after a few moments said, “I feel as if a shower of poppies were falling on my eyelids.”
And she lay down on the couch, pretending to sleep.
Matthias did not breathe a word. Seeing her asleep he sat down at a table near the sofa, leaned his elbows upon it, and rested his chin in the hollow of his hands. Gradually he felt drowsy and his eyes closed, as did those of his companions.
Now this was the moment the princess was waiting for. Quickly changing herself into a dove, she flew towards the window. If it had not happened that one of her wings touched Tall’s hair he would not have awakened, and he would certainly never have succeeded in catching her if it had not been for the Man with Eyes of Flame, for he, as soon as he knew which direction she had taken, sent such a glance after her, that is, a flame of fire, that in the twinkling of an eye her wings were burnt, and having been thus stopped, she was obliged to perch on the top of a tree. From thence Tall reached her easily, and placed her in Matthias’ hands, where she became a princess again. Matthias had hardly awakened out of his sleep.
Next morning and the morning after the king was greatly astonished to find his daughter sitting by the prince’s side, but he was obliged to keep silent and accept facts as they were, at the same time entertaining his guests royally. At the approach of the third night he spoke with his daughter, and begged her to practise all the magic of which she was capable, and to act in such a way as to free him from the presence of intruders of whom he knew neither the rank nor the fortune.
As for Matthias, he used every means in his power to bring about a happy ending to such a hitherto successful undertaking. Before entering the princess’s apartments he took his comrades aside and said, “There is but one more stroke of luck, dear friends, and then we have succeeded. If we fail, do not forget that our four heads will roll on the scaffold.”
“Come along,” replied the three; “never fear, we shall be able to keep good watch.”
When they came into the princess’s room they hastened to take up their positions, and Matthias sat down facing the lady. He would have much preferred to remain with her without being obliged to keep watch all the time for fear of losing her for ever. Resolving not to sleep this time, he said to himself, “Now I will keep watch upon you, but when you are my wife I will rest.”
At midnight, when sleep was beginning to overpower her watchers, the princess kept silence, and, stretching herself on the couch, shut her beautiful eyes as if she were really asleep.
Matthias, his elbows on the table, his chin in the palms of his hand, his eyes fixed upon her, admired her silently. But as sleep closes even the eyes of the eagle, so it shut those of the prince and his companions.
The princess, who all this time had been watching them narrowly and only waiting for this moment, got up from her seat, and changing herself into a little fly, flew out of the window. Once free, she again changed herself into a fish, and falling into the palace well, plunged and hid herself in the depths of the water.
She would certainly have made her escape if, as a fly, she had not just touched the tip of the nose of the Man with Eyes of Flame. He sneezed, and opened his eyes in time to notice the direction in which she had disappeared. Without losing an instant he gave the alarm, and all four ran into the courtyard. The well was very deep, but that did not matter. Tall soon stretched himself to the required depth, and searched in all the corners: but he was unable to find the little fish, and it seemed impossible that it could ever have been there.
“Now then, get out of that, I will take your place,” said Broad.
And getting in at the top by the rim, he filled up all the inside of the well, stopping it so completely with his huge body that the water sprang out: but nothing was seen of the little fish.
“Now it is my turn,” said the Man with Eyes of Flame, “I warrant I’ll dislodge this clever magician.”
When Broad had cleared the well of his enormous person the water returned to its place, but it soon began to boil from the heat of the eyes of flame. It boiled and boiled, till it boiled over the rim; then, as it went on boiling and rising ever higher and higher, a little fish was seen to throw itself out on the grass half cooked. As it touched the ground it again took the form of the princess.
Matthias went to her and kissed her tenderly.
“You have conquered, my master and husband,” she said, “you have succeeded in preventing my escape. Henceforth I am yours, both by right of conquest and of my own free will.”
The young man’s courtesy, strength, and gentleness, as well as his beauty, were very pleasing to the princess; but her father, the king, was not so ready to approve of her choice, and he resolved not to let her go with them. But this did not trouble Matthias, who determined to carry her off, aided by his three comrades. They soon all left the palace.
The king was furious, and ordered his guards to follow them and bring them back under pain of death. Meanwhile Matthias, the princess, and the three comrades had already travelled a distance of some miles. When she heard the steps of the pursuers she begged the Man with Eyes of Flame to see who they were. Having turned to look, he told her that a large army of men on horseback were advancing at a gallop.
“They are my father’s guards,” said she, “we shall have some difficulty in escaping them.”
Then, seeing the horsemen draw nearer she took the veil from her face, and throwing it behind her in the direction of the wind, said, “I command as many trees to spring up as there are threads in this veil.”
Instantly, in the twinkling of an eye, a high thick forest rose up between them. Before the soldiers had time to clear for themselves a pathway through this dense mass, Matthias and his party had been able to get far ahead, and even to take a little rest.
“Look,” said the princess, “and see if they are still coming after us.”
The Man with Eyes of Flame looked back, and replied that the king’s guards were out of the forest and coming towards them with all speed.
“They will not be able to reach us,” cried she. And she let fall a tear from her eyes, saying as she did so, “Tear, become a river.”
At the same moment a wide river flowed between them and their pursuers, and before the latter had found means of crossing it, Matthias and his party were far on in front.
“Man with Eyes of Flame,” said the princess, “look behind and tell me how closely we are followed.”
“They are quite near to us again,” he replied, “they are almost upon our heels.”
“Darkness, cover them,” said she.
At these words Tall drew himself up. He stretched and stretched and stretched until he reached the clouds, and there, with his hat he half covered the face of the sun. The side towards the soldiers was black as night, while Matthias and his party, lit up by the shining half, went a good way without hindrance.
When they had travelled some distance, Tall uncovered the sun, and soon joined his companions by taking a mile at each step. They were already in sight of Matthias’ home, when they noticed that the royal guards were again following them closely.
“Now it is my turn,” said Broad; “go on your way in safety, I will remain here. I shall be ready for them.”
He quietly awaited their arrival, standing motionless, with his large mouth open from ear to ear. The royal army, who were determined not to turn back without having taken the princess, advanced towards the town at a gallop. They had decided among themselves that if it resisted they would lay siege to it.
Mistaking Broad’s open mouth for one of the city gates, they all dashed through and disappeared.
Broad closed his mouth, and having swallowed them, ran to rejoin his comrades in the palace of Matthias’ father. He felt somewhat disturbed with a whole army inside him, and the earth groaned and trembled beneath him as he ran. He could hear the shouts of the people assembled round Matthias, as they rejoiced at his safe return.
“Ah, here you are at last, brother Broad,” cried Matthias, directly he caught sight of him. “But what have you done with the army? Where have you left it?”
“The army is here, quite safe,” answered he, patting his enormous person. “I shall be very pleased to return them as they are, for the morsel is not very easy to digest.”
“Come then, let them out of their prison,” said Matthias, enjoying the joke, and at the same time calling all the inhabitants to assist at the entertainment.
Broad, who looked upon it as a common occurrence, stood in the middle of the palace square, and putting his hands to his sides, began to cough. Then—it was really a sight worth seeing—at each cough horsemen and horses fell out of his mouth, one over the other, plunging, hopping, jumping, trying who could get out of the way the quickest. The last one had a little difficulty in getting free, for he somehow got into one of Broad’s nostrils and was unable to move. It was only by giving a good sneeze that Broad could release him, the last of the royal cavaliers, and he lost no time in following his companions at the top of his speed.
A few days later a splendid feast was given at the wedding of Prince Matthias and the princess. The king, her father, was also present. Tall had been sent to invite him. Owing to his knowledge of the road and the length of his limbs, he accomplished the journey so quickly that he was there before the royal horsemen had time to get back. It was well for them that it was so, for, had he not pleaded that their lives might be saved, their heads would certainly have been cut off for returning empty-handed.
Everything was now arranged to everybody’s satisfaction. The princess’s father was delighted to know that his daughter was married to a rich and noble prince, and Matthias generously rewarded his brave travelling companions, who remained with him to the end of their days.
Notes: Contains 20 folktales of the Slavic people. Originally published in french.
Author: Alexander Chodsko
Translator: Emily J. Harding
Publisher: George Allen, London