"The Two Brothers." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
is the story of Yoska and Yanko, two brothers who were as unlike each other as night is unlike day. Each was tall and straight, with handsome features and thick dark locks, but while Yoska was mean and selfish, Yanko had a kindly disposition and a generous heart, and never saw a fellow-creature in distress without trying to help him.
Their father was very poor, and as years went on, and he saw no prospect of his circumstances mending, he thought that the time had come for one of his sons to seek his fortune. As was only to be expected, he felt that Yoska could be the better spared, so, giving him his blessing, he bade him depart.
Yoska was glad to leave home, for he hated work, and was an idle fellow.
"Now, at least," he thought to himself, as he set off gaily, his pockets bulging with the cakes that were his mother's parting gift, "I can please myself as to when I get up. There will be no rising early in the winter-time to look after the cows, or feed the chickens. I can do just as I please all day."
Having walked a long distance and crossed a mountain, he came to a wide prairie, shaded here and there by luxuriant trees. Seating himself under one of these, he drew out some of his cakes, and gobbled them down like a greedy child.
"Won't you spare us a morsel, kind sir?" asked two little ants, running over his hand. He shook them off roughly with an angry snarl.
"Not a crumb!" he said, putting out his foot as though to crush them.
"You are not very generous, Yoska," cried the tiny creatures, as they hurried out of his reach. "When you want our help, you will go without it."
"Wait till I ask for it," was his retort; and he munched his cakes more greedily than ever. Soon after he resumed his walk, and came to the banks of the river, where a little fish lay panting on the rough earth.
"Won't you help me?" he cried. "Put me back into the river, and I will bless you, for I must perish if I stay here."
Yoska's only reply was to kick it aside; nevertheless, with a great effort, the fish managed to jump into the stream.
"Cruel youth," he cried, "You will never prosper. No fish will help you in your hour of need."
Yoska paid no more heed to the fish than he had done to the ants, but marched straight on. By and by he reached a spot where four roads crossed, and here a group of goblins were quarrelling angrily, striking each other with puny fists, and contorting their tiny faces into queer grimaces. Without attempting to pacify them, or even to find out what was the matter, Yoska pushed them aside. This made the little men so angry that they stopped their quarrel to reproach him for his callousness.
"You are a selfish fellow," they squeaked, "and nothing that you do will prosper."
This prediction was well fulfilled, for though Yoska travelled over many countries, and met men and women of all sorts and kinds, he did not succeed in making his fortune, and returned to his home as poor as he had left it. His mother, good soul, said nothing, but his father upbraided him for his want of success, and grieved to think that now he must part with Yanko, since he could not find food for both.
"Never fear, dear Father," said Yanko tenderly, as he thanked him for the phial of magic fluid he had just received as a parting gift. "If I do not make my own fortune, I will make yours, and you and my mother shall live in comfort for the rest of your days."
He started in high spirits, whistling a merry tune as he swung along, and stopping now and then for a moment to admire the rich deep blue of the sky, or the cunning nest of some little bird.
When he became weary, he seated himself on a cushion of moss by the roadside, and began to eat the loaf of bread which was all that his mother could afford to give him when he bade her farewell. He was soon surrounded by a troop of ants.
"We are hungry also," they cried. "Will you not let us share your meal?"
"Willingly," he answered, scattering crumbs with a liberal hand.
OOD Yanko!" they exclaimed, as they bore them away to the ant-hill. "If you ever want help, you will know where to come for it. We are your friends from this time forward."
Yanko felt inclined to smile at the idea of being helped by such tiny creatures, but he was far too kind to hurt their feelings, and thanked them gratefully for their promise.
Towards the close of the afternoon he reached a still, blue lake. A ray from the setting sun made a pathway of gold across it, and fell on a poor little fish that lay on the bank with quivering sides as it panted for breath. Without waiting to be asked, Yanko immediately picked it up, and put it back into the water.
"Good fellow!" it gasped, ere it disappeared beneath the shining stream. "If ever you are in need of help, call on the fish, and some of us will come to your rescue."
Yanko laughed to himself as he went his way, but he was glad that he had happened to pass the lake at the right moment. The birds were singing their vesper hymn, and the landscape was flooded in rose-coloured light, as he neared the four crossroads. The sound of squeaking, angry voices made him hasten his steps.
"What is wrong, little people?" he asked in his gentlest tones, when he came up with the same goblin crowd whom we have met before. "You are surely not going to quarrel on such a lovely evening! Shake hands and make friends before I wish you good-night."
The goblins' frowns and grimaces changed into merry smiles as they patted each other on the back and declared they were "only pretending."
"You are a very good fellow, dear Yanko," they said, just as the fish had done, "and whenever you need our help you have only to call us, and we will come."
Yanko trudged on happily until he came to a town, where he was distressed to find the inhabitants in the deepest grief. The daughter of their good King, whom all adored, lay at the point of death. The court physicians had wrung their hands, declaring they could not cure her, and signs of mourning were in every face. Yanko listened to all they had to say with never a word in reply, and then entered the nearest inn.
"I would talk with your master," he said to the buxom maid who came forward to ask his pleasure. When her master appeared, Yanko drew him on one side and begged him to make his way with all speed to the palace.
"Bear word to his Majesty the King," he said, "that a great physician awaits his summons."
"A great physician?" echoed the landlord, looking curiously at the slim youth who stood before him.
"I am the greatest physician in the world," declared Yanko solemnly, "and can cure the Princess if his Majesty will allow me."
So saying, he retired to the parlour of the inn, and the landlord hurried to the palace.
The King received the news with joy, and sent an escort at once for Yanko.
"Sir Doctor," he said, as he received him in the great audience-chamber, whose walls were of pale green marble, with a ceiling of pure gold, "if you can cure my beloved daughter, you shall have her hand in marriage, and any other reward that you may demand."
Yanko was then ushered into the room of the sick Princess, and when he saw her exceeding loveliness, he desired nothing better than to become her husband. Her hair spread over her pillows like a mantle of woven sunbeams, and her heavy lids veiled eyes of the purest violet. Her slender hands were as fair as lilies, and her dimpled chin looked fit for an angel's kiss. Lifting her head on his strong young arm, he parted her unconscious lips that he might give her some of the precious fluid with which his father had entrusted him, for he knew that this was the Water of Life.
HE first drop revived her; at the second she stirred faintly, and at the third she opened her violet eyes. Seeing a stranger bending over her, and that stranger a young man, she drew back haughtily, and demanded of her attendants what he was doing in her room.
"He is the greatest physician in the world," they murmured, "and will quickly cure your Royal Highness of your sad sickness."
But the Princess declared that she did not wish to be cured, and obstinately refused to swallow any more of the Water of Life. It was only at her father's tearful entreaty that she at last consented to do so, and when she heard, on her recovery, the reward that the King had promised, her maidenly indignation knew no bounds.
"If I break my word to this great physician," her father pleaded, "my people will no longer have faith in me. I pray you, dear daughter, give way to me in this one thing. He is a comely youth, and will make you a good husband."
The Princess had ever been a loyal and devoted daughter, and seeing the justice of her father's plea, she at last consented to marry Yanko, provided that he carried out three conditions.
"Whatever you ask me, that will I do," declared the enamoured youth, and the Princess did not look so very angry as she met his ardent gaze. Calling for a sack of cinders and a sack of grain, she mixed these thoroughly together, strewing them on the ground.
"If you can separate the cinders from the grain before the first sign of dawn, I will be your wife," she said, and left the room with her maidens.
Yanko saw at once the difficulty of the task, but in spite of this he did not despair. In order that he might think in peace, he repaired to a green field, where he threw himself down under a spreading oak-tree, and knit his brow in a puzzled frown. He was hardly seated when a number of ants ran over his foot.
"Do not look so perplexed, dear Yanko," remarked their leader. "You were kind to us when we were hungry, and now we will serve you equally well."
With this they trooped off to the palace, and by the time that Yanko returned, the grain and the cinders were neatly separated, and replaced in their respective sacks. The Princess did her best to appear disappointed, but in her heart she was not ill-pleased.
"You have fulfilled my first condition," she said ungraciously, "but the second and third are more difficult. Fetch me the largest pearl in existence."
Yanko bowed and left the palace, feeling this time at his wits' end. Without thinking where he was going, he wandered on until he came to the lake. The little fish popped up its head and asked why his face was troubled.
"If it's a pearl you want, my friend," he said, when Yanko had told him of the second condition that the Princess had made, "I can bring you the finest that is to be found." He darted down to the bed of the lake, and a moment later returned to the surface of the water, holding in his mouth the largest and most lustrous pearl that Yanko had ever seen. Having thanked the little creature warmly, the youth returned to the palace; and now the Princess permitted herself to smile.
"It is lovely indeed," she said, as she bound it in the gold of her hair.
"What shall I bring you next?" asked Yanko tenderly, venturing to take her hand. She did not draw it away until he had raised it to his lips, when she told him in mischievous tones to bring her a rose from Hades.
That night he walked for many miles under the starlit sky, for his heart was sick for love of the fair Princess, and he could not think how he was to get that rose. If he had only known that she too was sleepless, it would have cheered him greatly, though he already guessed that she was not so indifferent to him as she would have it appear.
While still musing on her loveliness, he reached the spot where he had seen the goblins. To his surprise, he found they were still there, and before he had time to speak they had swarmed around him.
"Tell us how we can help you," they cried in chorus. "We know you are in trouble by the way you stare at the moon."
When they heard of the wish of the fair Princess for a rose from Hades they bade him not despair, but wait at the crossroads until the magic hour of sunrise. As the mist on the hills turned from grey to purple, and the first thrush raised her morning song, the eldest goblin reappeared, and, laying a crimson rose at Yanko's feet, told him that he had had some difficulty in finding it in Hades, since it was the flower of Hope. He had plucked it from the breast of an old, old man, he said, who had learnt to see that good might come out of evil, even as dawn from night.
Yanko carried the rose to the palace, and when the Princess saw it she very sweetly gave him her hand. Yanko had no need to press her to fulfil her promise, and at the marriage ceremony, which shortly after took place amidst general rejoicing, she was the most willing of brides. The bridegroom's parents, and his brother Yoska, were all three invited to the wedding; and when the latter heard how Yanko had won his beautiful bride, he realised that selfishness does not pay, and that even the smallest and meanest of creatures may sometimes be of service.