"Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
A FAR-OFF land surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and watered by rivers that flowed swiftly down to the sea, dwelt a mighty Tsar. His people loved as well as feared him, for the glance of his eagle eye was very kind, and he was ever ready to listen to their pleas for help or justice. When he rode abroad on the great white horse that was shod with gold, they flocked to bless him, and throughout the whole of his wide dominion there was not one discontented man, woman, or child. He had no foes to trouble him, since rival monarchs knew full well that their troops would be dispersed like mist in sunlight before the charge of his victorious army, and his three sons, Dimitri, Vasili, and Ivan, were all that a father could desire. Yet the good Tsar's brow was clouded as he walked in his garden, and from time to time he uttered a deep sigh.
This garden was his greatest pride. In days gone by the forests had been rifled of their most splendid trees that they might spread their shade over the rare and lovely flowers that travellers brought him from every part of the globe. The perfume of his million rose-trees was carried on the wind for fifty miles beyond the palace, and so wonderful were their colours that the eyes of those who beheld them were dazzled by so much brilliance. There were the gorgeous orchids which, in order that the garden of their beloved Tsar might be the most beautiful in the world, men had risked their lives to obtain, and every imaginable kind of fruit hung in tempting clusters from the drooping boughs of the trees. To look at them was to make one's mouth water, and the sick folk in his kingdom shared with the Tsar the pleasures of taste and touch.
HE tree that gave him most pleasure bore nothing but golden apples. When spring came round, and tender buds appeared upon the whispering branches, the Tsar caused a net of fine white seed pearls to be spread around it, so that the sweet-voiced choristers who filled his groves with music should not come near them. They might feast at will on every other tree in his garden, he said, but the golden apples they must leave for him; and as if in gratitude for his many kindnesses, even when the net of pearls was taken away, and the apples gleamed like fairy gold amidst the emerald green of their shapely leaves, not one of the birds approached them. When cares of state pressed heavily upon him, the Tsar sought rest beneath the loaded branches, and forgot his troubles in watching the sunlight play on the golden balls.
Now all was changed, and the Tsar's deep sigh betokened feelings of deep annoyance. Morning after morning he found the apple-tree stripped of its golden treasures, and its emerald leaves strewn on the ground.
This was the work of the Magic Bird, who once upon a time had lived in the great cloud castles that gather in the West, but was now the slave of a distant King. The feathers of the Magic Bird were as radiant as the sun-god's plumes, and her eyes as clear as crystal. When she had wrought her will on the apple-trees, she would fly blithely home to the garden of her own master, and, try as they would, not one of the Tsar's head gardeners could even catch sight of her.
The good Tsar meditated much upon the matter, and one windy morning in autumn he called his three sons to him.
"My children," he said, "the source of my grief is known to you, and now I entreat your help. Will you each in turn forego your sleep, that you may watch in my garden for the Magic Bird? To him who shall capture her, I will give the half of my kingdom, and when I am called thence he shall reign in my stead."
"Willingly, O my father," answered each of his three sons; and Prince Dimitri, as the eldest, claimed the right to the first watch.
The garden was flooded with moonlight as the Prince threw himself down on a moss-grown bank that faced the tree, and the fragrance of the roses soon worked its drowsy spell. From a grove of myrtles came the song of a sweet-voiced nightingale; "Glück-glück-glück" she trilled, and in listening to her the Prince fell fast asleep. When he awoke it was light again. The tree had been once more despoiled, and the Magic Bird had flown.
HE same thing occurred when Prince Vasili took his turn in watching. It is only fair to him to say that he did not fall asleep until the night was far spent, but as the East began to quiver with light, he too became overpowered with slumber. The Magic Bird was watching her opportunity, and yet again she robbed the tree. When questioned by the Tsar, both Princes solemnly assured him that no strange bird had visited the garden during the night, but though he fain would have believed them, he could not doubt the evidence of his eyes.
It was now Prince Ivan's turn to watch. He was not nearly so good-looking as his brothers, but he had a stout heart and a cool head, and he made up his mind to keep awake at any cost. Instead of reclining on the ground, he perched himself in the boughs of the tree, and when the song of the nightingale threatened to lull him to sleep, as it had done the elder Princes, he put his fingers into his ears that he might not hear it.
An hour passed slowly; a second, and then a third. Suddenly the whole garden was lit up as if with a burst of sunshine, and with rays of light flashing from every shaft of her golden feathers the Magic Bird flew down and began to peck at the shining apples. Prince Ivan, scarcely daring to breathe, stretched out his hand and caught as much of her tail as he could grasp. With a startled cry the Magic Bird spread her beautiful wings and wrenched herself free, leaving behind one glittering feather, which the Prince held firmly. At break of day he took this to his father, humbly apologising for his ill-success in not having caught the Magic Bird herself.
"Nevertheless, you have done well, my son," said the Tsar gratefully, and he placed the feather, which shone so brightly that at dusk it illuminated the whole room, in a cabinet of cedar and mother-of-pearl.
The Magic Bird came no more to the palace garden, and the precious tree was never again despoiled of its golden apples. But the Tsar was not content. He sighed to possess the bird that had robbed him, and once more he summoned his three sons.
"My children," he said, "I am sick with longing for the Magic Bird. Seek her, I pray you, and bring her to me. What I have promised already shall then be yours."
The Princes assented gladly, each anxious to find the Magic Bird. Prince Ivan alone wished to please his father; his brothers were only thinking of the riches and honours they would gain for themselves. So dear was this youngest son to the monarch's heart that he was loath to part with him when the time came, but the youth insisted.
"It will not be for long, dear Father," he cried. "I shall soon return with the Magic Bird you sigh for." So the Tsar blessed him, and let him go.
Prince Ivan took the fleetest horse in the Imperial stables, and rode on and on for many days. At last he came to a bare field set in the midst of fair green meadows, and in the centre of this stood a block of rough grey stone. Inscribed upon the stone in crimson letters was a strange verse:
Hungry and cold shall that man be
Who rides in pride straight up to me;
To ride from the left means death and sorrow,
Though his horse shall live for many a morrow.
He who rides from the right shall have good things all,
But ere three days pass his horse shall fall!
Prince Ivan was greatly troubled at the thought of losing his horse, but to ride from the right seemed the wisest course for him to pursue. Accordingly he did so, and so swift was his horse's flight that he had soon left the grey stone far behind. On the third day, as he was passing the borders of a gloomy forest, a big Grey Wolf sprang out from a thicket, and, flying at his horse's throat, threw him on the ground and killed him in spite of Ivan's gallant attempt to beat him off. Ivan would now have run the Grey Wolf through with the jewelled dagger his father had given him as a parting present, but before he could rise from the spot where he had been thrown, the creature spoke.
"Spare me, wise Prince," he entreated humbly. "I have but done as I was commanded. My death will not give you back your horse, while if you spare my life I will be your friend for ever, and will carry you over the world."
Prince Ivan saw that he would gain nothing by being revengeful, and, mindful of his quest, accepted the Wolf's offer to be his steed.
"Tell me where you wish to go, dear master!" said the Grey Wolf, "and it shall be as you will." And, true enough, when he heard the object of Prince Ivan's journey, he galloped even more swiftly than the horse had done, till towards nightfall he came to a standstill behind a thick stone wall.
"On the other side of this wall," he said, "is a terraced garden, and there, in a golden cage, is the Magic Bird. The garden is empty now, so no one will stay you if you capture her; but if you touch her cage there will be trouble."
Dismounting from the Grey Wolf's back, Prince Ivan climbed the wall without much difficulty, and quickly seized the Magic Bird. She fluttered so wildly, however, as he tried to hold her, though without uttering a sound, that he quite forgot the Grey Wolf's warning, and hastened back for the cage. As he touched it, the stillness of the garden was broken by the pealing of bells and the clanking of armour, for the cage was connected with the palace courtyard by invisible wires. Before he could escape, Prince Ivan was surrounded by excited soldiers, who quickly carried him before the King.
"Are you not ashamed?" the monarch thundered, noting the young man's rich attire, "to be caught in my garden like a common thief? Where do you come from, and what is your name?"
"I am the son of a great Tsar," the young Prince answered, "and they call me Ivan. My father has a very beautiful garden, in which grows a tree of golden apples that is the pride of his heart. Night after night your Magic Bird rifled this precious fruit, until I all but succeeded in capturing her. She was too quick for me, however, and flew away, leaving one feather in my hand. This feather I took to my father, who admired it greatly, and ever since has longed to possess the Magic Bird."
Tsar Dolmat looked less angry, though he still frowned.
"If you had come to me," he said," and told me what you wanted, I would have made your father a present of the Magic Bird. As it is, I feel inclined to let all nations know how dishonourably you have acted."
Prince Ivan bowed his head in shame, and after a searching glance at him the Tsar continued his speech.
"You shall go forth free, young Prince," he said, "if you will do me a service. In the realm of Tsar Afron, beyond the thrice-ninth kingdom, there is a gold-maned horse which belongs to him, and this I greatly covet. If you will procure it, and bring it here to me, I will forgive your theft of the Magic Bird, and present her to you as a mark of honour."
Prince Ivan promised to do his best, but he did not feel very hopeful as he rejoined the Grey Wolf, who was patiently waiting for him outside the wall. When Ivan had confessed the reason that led to his capture the Grey Wolf patted his shoulder with one rough paw.
T takes a wise man," he remarked, "to own himself in the wrong, so we will say no more about it. Jump on my back again, and I will take you to the far-famed realm of Tsar Afron, beyond the thrice-ninth kingdom."
The Grey Wolf ran so swiftly that Ivan could scarcely see the country through which they passed, and after travelling for many nights and days, they reached, at last, their journey's end. The marble stables of the Tsar shone fair and stately in the morning light, and, through a door which a careless groom had left half open, Prince Ivan made his way. The horse with the golden mane was feeding on the yellow pollen collected by the bees from the tall white lilies that edged the rose garden, and stared at Prince Ivan haughtily as he approached. Firmly grasping his golden mane, Prince Ivan led him out of the stall. The Grey Wolf had cautioned him more than once not to attempt to bring the golden bridle that hung above the door, but as he was leaving the stable the Prince suddenly thought how useful this would be, and, turning back, stretched out his hand and touched it. Immediately he did so, bells pealed all over the palace, for, like the cage of the Magic Bird, the bridle was fastened to invisible wires.
The stable guards came hurrying in, full of alarm, and when they saw Prince Ivan they seized him angrily, and took him before their master. Tsar Afron was even more indignant than Tsar Dolmat had been at the Prince's attempt to rob him. When he questioned him as to his birth and station his face became sterner still.
"Is this the deed of a gallant knight?" he asked with withering scorn "I have a great regard for your father's name, and if you had come to me openly and in good faith, I would gladly have given you my gold-maned horse. But now all nations shall know of your dishonour, for such acts as yours must not go unpunished."
This was more than Prince Ivan could bear, and with eager haste he protested his willingness to atone for his fault.
"Very well, then," said Tsar Afron, "I will take you at your word. Go forth and bring me Queen Helen the Beautiful, whom I have long loved with all my heart and soul. I have seen a picture of her in my Seer's white crystal, and she is more fair to look upon than any other maid. I cannot reach her, try as I may, since her kingdom is guarded by elves and goblins. If you can capture her for me and bring her here, in return I will give you anything you ask."
Prince Ivan hurried away to the Grey Wolf, fearing that since he had disregarded his advice for a second time, he might refuse to help him in this new enterprise. Once more he humbly confessed that he had been at fault, and once more the Grey Wolf consoled him.
"One must buy wit," he growled. "Well, jump on my back, and I will see what I can do for you."
Then he ran so swiftly that it seemed as though his feet were winged, and the elves and goblins that guarded the kingdom of Helen the Beautiful scattered before him in all directions, thinking him to be a spectre. When he came to the golden streamlet that bordered the Queen's magic garden, he told Prince Ivan that he must now dismount.
"Go back by the road we came," he commanded, "and wait for me in the shade of that spreading oak-tree we passed just now."
Prince Ivan did as he was told, and the Grey Wolf crouched under a bush of juniper, and waited until evening fell. As the light faded out of the sunset sky and the pale little moon rose slowly over the mountain-tops, Queen Helen walked in her garden. She was so fair and sweet to look upon that even the heart of the Grey Wolf was moved to admiration, and he wished her a worthier mate than the stern Tsar Afron, who knew not how to be gentle even in his love. After a while she approached the streamlet, winding round her dainty throat a cloud of milk-white gossamer, that she might not feel the touch of the evening breeze.
"Do not fear, sweet lady! I will not harm you!" the Grey Wolf cried, as he sprang from his hiding-place and crossed the stream. Holding her tenderly by her flowing draperies, he leapt back to the other side, and galloped with her to the Prince, who waited under the spreading oak.
When Queen and Prince beheld each other, it was as if a veil had fallen from their eyes. Never had the world appeared so beautiful, and as they gazed at each other in the soft twilight, the Queen's fears fled. As for Prince Ivan, he knew from that moment that she was intended for his wife, and when they rode away together on the Grey Wolf's back, he already felt she belonged to him.
The journey was all too short, and soon Tsar Afron's palace loomed before them.
"Why are you weeping?" the Grey Wolf inquired, as their tears splashed on his head. Queen Helen could make no answer, but Prince Ivan's words poured forth like a raging flood.
OW can we help it, Grey Wolf," he cried, "since we love each other, and I must resign my beautiful Queen to the stern Tsar Afron, or else be branded before all nations as a robber and a thief?"
"I have kept my promise, Prince Ivan," said the Grey Wolf, "and served you well, but I will do more for you still. By means of magic known to myself alone, I, the Grey Wolf, will take the form of beautiful Queen Helen. You shall leave the real Queen here, in the shade of this grove of pine-trees, and when you have taken Tsar Afron his strange Wolf-bride, who will appear to him as a lovely woman with golden hair, he will give you the gold-maned horse. Bid him farewell as quickly as you can, and, taking your Queen behind you, ride swiftly towards the west. When I have given you time to journey far, I will ask Tsar Afron to let me walk with my maidens in the woods. Then, if you call me to your mind, I shall disappear from their midst even as they watch me, and join you and your Queen."
Prince Ivan once more did as the Grey Wolf said, and great was the delight of the Tsar Afron as he beheld the tall and gracious woman whom the Prince presented to him. She was even more beautiful than he had imagined from her picture, and he would have given not only his gold-maned horse, but his crown as well, to her captor had he desired it. Prince Ivan, however, asked nothing but the gold-maned horse, and was soon speeding across the plains with the real Queen Helen nestling against his side. He rode towards the west, where lay the kingdom of Tsar Dolmat.
Tsar Afron was more than content with his wolfish bride, who was not alarmed by his fierce caresses, and only smiled when he threatened to kill her if her love for him should waver for a single instant. On the fourth day after their marriage feast she complained of feeling stifled in the royal palace.
"If I might walk in the meadows," she said, "the breath of the cool fresh wind would refresh my spirit, and I could once more laugh with my lord."
So the Tsar allowed her to walk with her maidens. Just at this time the thought of the Grey Wolf flashed into Prince Ivan's head.
"I had forgotten him," he exclaimed remorsefully to his dear wife. "What is he doing, I wonder? I wish we had him here."
He had no sooner spoken than there came a clap of thunder from the distant hills, and the Grey Wolf suddenly appeared.
OU must let the Queen ride the gold-maned horse alone," he told the Prince, "and I will be your steed."
Somewhat reluctantly, the Prince accepted his suggestion, and in this manner they rode to the verge of Tsar Dolmat's capital. The kindly looks of the Grey Wolf emboldened the Prince to ask him another favour.
"Since you can change yourself into a beautiful woman, and then back again into a Grey Wolf, could you not become for a time a gold-maned horse, so that I might give you to Tsar Dolmat, and keep the real one for my dear Queen?"
The Grey Wolf readily assented, and striking his right paw three times in succession on a patch of bare earth, became the exact image of the gold-maned horse who bore the fair Queen Helen. Leaving the real horse with his bride in a flower-strewn meadow outside the city, Prince Ivan rode on to the Tsar. He was greeted by that monarch with every sign of joy, for the mane of the Grey Wolfhorse shone in the sunshine like purest gold. The Tsar kissed Prince Ivan on either cheek and, leading him to his palace, gave him a royal feast. For three whole days they revelled in the choicest wines and the richest viands the kingdom could supply, and on the third, Tsar Dolmat rewarded the Prince with many thanks, and the gift of the Magic Bird in her golden cage.
Prince Ivan felt now that his quest was over, and quickly regaining Queen Helen's side, he fastened the cage of the Magic Bird round the neck of the gold-maned horse, and rode with her towards his father's kingdom. Early the next afternoon they were joined by the Grey Wolf; Tsar Dolmat had ridden his newly acquired treasure in an open field, and had been heavily thrown for his pains by the false horse, which had then galloped away.
As the Grey Wolf had been so good a friend to him, Prince Ivan could not refuse his request when he asked to be allowed to carry him, so once more the Queen alone sat on the gold-maned horse.
Thus they rode on until they came to the place where the Grey Wolf had slain the horse which Prince Ivan had brought from his father's stable. Here the strange creature came to a sudden stop.
"I have done all that I said, and more," he told the Prince. "Now I am your servant no longer. Farewell!" And he galloped back to the gloomy wood from which he had first come.
RINCE IVAN'S sorrow at parting with him was very real, but in the pleasure afforded by the Queen's company he soon forgot his loss. When he came within sight of his father's realm, he stopped by the shade of a belt of fir-trees, and placing the cage of the Magic Bird and the golden bridle beneath their shade, he lifted down his beautiful Queen, and rested with her on a bank of fern. They were weary after their long journey, and soon, talking together softly as ringdoves coo in their nests, both fell asleep.
Now Prince Dimitri and Prince Vasili had fared badly on their travels, and were returning to the palace, empty-handed, and sadly out of temper, when they caught sight of the reclining forms of the two sleepers, with the gold-maned horse browsing close beside them. As they stared in amazement, an evil spirit of envy took possession of them, and there presently entered into their minds the thought of killing their brother. Each looked at the other, and then Prince Dimitri drew his sword, and ran it through Prince Ivan as he slept; he died without a murmur, and when the Queen awoke, she found him lifeless.
HAT is this you have done?" she sobbed to the guilty Princes. "If you had met him in fair fight, and slain him thus, he might at least have struck a blow in self-defence. But you are cowards and dastards, fit only for ravens' food!"
In vain she wept and protested, as the Princes drew lots for their dead brother's possessions. The Queen fell to the keeping of Prince Vasili, and the gold-maned horse was adjudged to Prince Dimitri. In a passion of tears, the Queen hid her face in her golden hair, as her would-be lord spoke roughly to her.
"You are in our power, fair Helen," he said. "We shall tell our father that it was we who found you, the Magic Bird, and the gold-maned horse. If you deny our words, we will instantly put you to death, so look to it that you hold your tongue, and keep our counsel."
The poor Queen was so terrified by his cruel threat that speech forsook her, and when they arrived at the palace she was mute as some marble statue, and could not contradict the wicked statements which she heard them boldly utter.
Prince Ivan lay dead with his face to the sky, but the wood-elves guarded his body, so that neither beast nor bird came near to devour it until the end of thirty days. Then, as the sun was sinking, a raven seeking food for her young, hopped on his breast, and would have pecked at his eyes had not the Grey Wolf galloped up in the nick of time. He knew at once that the dead man must be Ivan, and pouncing upon one of the young birds, would have torn it asunder in his rage.
O not touch my little birdling, fierce Grey Wolf!" entreated the mother piteously. "It has done you no harm, and deserves no ill from you."
"Then listen," the Grey Wolf replied. "I will spare the life of your birdling, if you will fly away beyond the thrice-nine lands, and bring me back the Water of Death and the Water of Life from the crystal stream whence they flow to the great Forever."
"I will do what you wish," cried the raven, "only do not touch my little son." And as she spoke she sped away.
Three days and three nights had passed before she returned to the Grey Wolf, carrying two small vials. One held the Water of Life, the other the Water of Death, and as the Grey Wolf took them from her, he gave a cry of triumph. With a snap of his teeth, he bit the young raven in two, tearing it to pieces before its mother's frantic eyes. This done, he broke one of the vials, and when he had sprinkled three drops of the Water of Death on the slain birdling, immediately its torn body grew together again. Then he touched it with a few drops from the second vial, and the little thing spread its wings, and flew off rejoicing.
Thus the Grey Wolf knew that the raven had served him well, and he poured what was left of the Waters of Life and Death over the body of the dead Prince. In a few moments life came back to him, and, stumbling to his feet, he smiled at the Grey Wolf.
"Have I slept long?" he asked dreamily.
"You would have slept for ever had it not been for me," was the reply. And the Prince listened with grieved surprise as the Grey Wolf told him all that had happened.
"Your brother is going to marry your bride to-day," he ended by saying. "We must hasten to the palace with all possible speed. Mount on my back, and I will carry you once more."
So they galloped to the palace of the old Tsar, and the Grey Wolf bade Prince Ivan farewell for the last time as he dismounted at the great gates. The Prince hurried into the banquet-hall, and there, looking like some fair statue that had been moulded from frozen snow, sat beautiful Queen Helen by Prince Vasili's side. They had just returned from the wedding ceremony, and all the nobles were gathered round.
HEN Queen Helen saw who had entered the hall, her speech came back to her, and she flew to her lover with a cry of rapture and kissed him on the lips. "This is my own dear husband," she cried. "I belong to him, and not to the wicked Prince I have married to-day." From the shelter of Ivan's breast she told the Tsar all that had happened, and how it was to his youngest son that he owed the gold-maned horse and the Magic Bird.
The joy of the Tsar at his favourite son's return was tempered by his grief and amazement at the conduct of the elder Princes. They were cast into prison, where they languish still: but Prince Ivan and the beautiful Queen Helen are as happy as the days are long, and the Magic Bird was allowed to return to her home in the golden west.