On the balcony of a Moscow hospital sat a group of convalescent soldiers, who had been wounded during the investment of Przemysl, 1 chatting and smoking in the warm sunshine. Their dialects varied as much as their physical characteristics for they hailed from various parts of the Tsar's domains. Some were typical Slav peasants, whose native villages lay scattered among the marshes and forests of White Russia--broad-shouldered men with dark flaxen hair and auburn beards, deeply lined foreheads, and meditative eyes set in cobwebs of wrinkles; others were of the fairer and larger-limbed northern type from the Baltic provinces--Lithuanians and Livonians and Finns, while not a few were dark-haired, brown-eyed, swarthy men from the fertile river valleys of Little Russia. All except one, a student who had volunteered for active service on the outbreak of war, were strangers to Moscow, and regarded with deep interest its busy streets, roaring factories, and great buildings.
"In ancient days, before Petrograd was built
by Peter the Great," the student said, "this city was the capital of all Russia. Yonder are the royal palaces." He pointed towards the Kremlin, the ancient citadel which juts out like a spear-head in the centre of the city between the Moskwa river and its tributary the Neglin, and is protected by thick stone walls.
"Before the days of big cannon," he added, "the Kremlin was impregnable." The soldiers gazed in silence on the picturesque eminence, with its congested mass of ponderous cathedrals and palaces, its sublime domes and tapering spires.
"At which building," one of them asked, "is the Tsar Kolokol (the 'King of bells')?"
The student pointed towards the lofty tower of Ivan Veliki, tipped with a bright gilded dome. "At that one yonder," he smiled. "We must visit it ere we return to the front."
"Often have I heard of it," a Livonian remarked. "They say its equal is not to be found in the wide world."
"That is true enough," agreed the student. "I myself have once seen it. Round the rim it measures sixty feet, and its height is that of four men perched one above another."
"Had our fathers been heretics like the Prussians," a Little Russian chimed in, "they would have manufactured the 'King of guns' instead of the 'King of bells'. But they were men of peace and prayer." He crossed himself reverently.
"One shell from Tsar Kolokol, were it a gun, would shatter the whole Austrian army," stammered a fair Livonian.
"And what a distance it would travel!" laughed another. "Perhaps it would reach Przemysl, while the sound of it might be heard in Vienna."
"The sound of Tsar Kolokol reaches farther than Vienna," commented the Little Russian, "for it ascends to high Heaven."
"That is true indeed," sighed a deep-eyed peasant beside him. "Heaven is far off, but God is near."
"It took long centuries," the student went on, "to erect all these buildings on the Kremlin. Parts of the wall are nearly five hundred years old."
"Your knowledge is wonderful," remarked a red-bearded peasant. "But it makes my head ache. I would much prefer to hear your stories, those you heard from your grandsire on winter nights. Have you no more to tell?"
The student laughed. "There is a story attached to every building on the Kremlin," he answered, "but the most wonderful one I know relates how Moscow became a city."
"That must be a very old tale, my friend," declared a wrinkled peasant, drawing his chair closer to the student.
"What does it matter how old it is, if it is a good story?" another urged with a smile.
"It is both old and good," the student said. "I heard it in my boyhood from the lips of the
wise old woman who nursed me after my mother died."
"God rest her soul!" exclaimed the Little Russian. "Let her voice speak from your lips once again."
The student laid down his pipe, and then proceeded to relate the story as follows
Once upon a time the only building which stood on the Kremlin was a stately castle, in which dwelt the Princess Peerless with twelve fair maidens who were her attendants. There were no streets and no houses where there are now so many, because Moscow had not come into being. The Kremlin was surrounded by a great and pathless forest.
This Princess Peerless was as beautiful as the stately moon of summer, and her voice had the sweetness of a bird's song on a dewy evening. A strange power dwelt in her tender eyes. Those she looked upon with favour were stirred by feelings of deep joy, but those she glanced at in wrath were immediately transformed into blocks of ice.
When the Princess grew into young womanhood, and hunters who visited the forest beheld her, the fame of her beauty was spread far and wide. Then large numbers of people came from all parts of Russia to gaze upon her. Even princes and noblemen came, and they vied one with another to win the heart of that fair lady, but she refused them all.
Then one bold prince plotted to seize Princess Peerless by force. He came through the forest with a strong army. In bright array his soldiers marched towards the Kremlin, their banners flying and their trumpets blowing, but the Princess looked out from a castle window and gazed upon them with anger. Suddenly a deep silence fell upon the forest, for the whole army was transformed into blocks of ice.
After this it came about that the Demon King of the Underworld awoke from sleep and went forth to look upon all the princes and princesses and all the kings and queens that held sway over mankind. One night, when the calm moon rode high and fair, he looked down upon Princess Peerless, who lay fast asleep surrounded by her twelve maidens. A smile lingered on her lips; rosy were her cheeks, and her forehead gleamed like ivory. She was dreaming a beautiful dream, and saw coming nigh to her a noble young knight, clad in golden armour and horsed on a prancing steed. In her heart she loved him dearly. His eyes were clear and grey like placid sea waters sparkling in sunshine.
The Demon gazed long at the sleeping Princess and fell deeply in love with her. Thereafter he transformed himself into comely human shape, and appeared on the Kremlin among her wooers. It was well that he had no knowledge of her dream, else he would have worn golden armour. He knelt before the Princess; he vowed he
loved her, and besought her to be his bride. But, like the others, he was sent away. The Princess had taken a silent vow that she would wed no other than the unknown golden knight, whom she had beheld in her dream.
The Demon was angry. He vowed that he would carry off Princess Peerless by force, but she was given knowledge that he was possessed of great power, and prepared to thwart his design. She assembled together all the warriors on the Kremlin, and they entered into her service with glad hearts. They surrounded the castle to protect the fair lady; but when the Demon came nigh, he blew his poisonous breath towards them, and they all fell down in a magic swoon. The twelve fair handmaidens were overcome also. Indeed, none within the castle, or on the Kremlin and near it, escaped the warriors' fate save the Princess alone. She went to a high window and looked forth, and when the Demon came in sight, she gazed at him angrily, and he was immediately transformed into a block of ice. Then she sat down and wept.
The Demon, however, was not easily thwarted. He wrought a counter spell and resumed his wonted form. Then he began to make preparations to protect himself against the terrible glances of the Princess, and, at the same time, prevent her from escaping. He erected a wall of iron round the castle, and at the gate he chained a fierce dragon with twelve heads, so that none
could enter or depart without his knowledge and consent. The dragon kept watch constantly. One by one its heads fell asleep during the night, and one by one they awoke during the day; but when the last head closed its eyes, those of the first opened wide. It could not, therefore, be attacked unawares. The life of the monster was in its heads. These must needs be all cut off ere it could be killed.
The Demon smiled, well content. He knew that the glance of the Princess could not penetrate iron, and that no human being was able to overcome the dragon in combat. In his evil heart he decided to keep the Princess confined in solitude, within the castle, until she consented to be his bride. Every day he called to her, saying: "Promise you will be mine, and I will set you free. Marry me and become Queen of the Underworld." But the Princess Peerless refused to answer. She sat at the high window and wept while he spoke, and then turned away to wander through the lone and silent castle in which all her maidens lay in dreamless magic sleep.
The days went past and the weeks, until three months were fulfilled. No joy ever entered her heart, except when she thought of the fair hero who had appeared before her in her dream, clad in golden armour and horsed on a prancing steed.
One day, as she sat gazing at the sky, a white cloud went flitting past. She took up her harp
and, playing a sweet melody, sang out of her lonely heart:
The cloud heard and made answer, singing:
The Princess was disconsolate. But while she sat musing alone, a gentle wind fluttered round a fair company of white snowdrops that had sprung into life. Then she sang to wind:
Softly the wind made answer in song:
The Princess waited until night came on. Then she sang to the stars:
Sweetly the stars made answer:
When the Moon arose, the Princess sang:
The Moon heard and made answer, singing softly:
All night long the Princess sat waiting until dawn broke and the Sun arose. Then she sang:
When the Sun heard this song of sorrow, he sang with bird-like voice, quivering with hope and joy:
For ages long,
In deeps profound, p. 61
Hath lain the ring
That he hath found.
He seeks thee now
Afar and wide;
He vows that thou
Wilt be his bride.
An army strong
He leadeth here--
The Demon laughs
And knows no fear.
For with his breath
He can lay low
In deadly swoon
The strongest foe.
But tremble not,
Nor be dismayed,
For to thy Prince
I'll give mine aid.
And sigh no more
"Alone am I" . . .
Be of good cheer,
Thy knight comes nigh,
Who loves thee well--
That morning the Golden Knight, horsed on a prancing steed, was leading his strong army through a river valley towards the Kremlin. He thought of Princess Peerless now with joy and now with sorrow. Thrice he had beheld her in his dreams. In the first dream she sat among her maidens, and seemed as beautiful as the moon surrounded by pale white stars; in the second dream he saw the Demon, who built round her
castle a wall of iron, while she sat at her high window weeping tears of woe; in the third dream he gazed in her deep eyes that were dreaming of him alone. The Knight rode on, musing over his dreams.
The Sun rose high, and when he beheld the Golden Knight, spoke to him and said: "It is useless for you to lead an army against the Demon. Send all your soldiers home again, and your fiery steed also, and go forth yourself alone to rescue the Princess. She cannot be set free until the Demon is slain, and he cannot be slain in battle. You alone among all men can accomplish his fall. Listen to me, and do as I counsel you, so that all may be well."
"As you advise me, so shall I do, and that right gladly," the Golden Knight made answer.
When he had spoken thus he flung his golden ring into the river, and commanded his soldiers to march homeward, leaving him alone without steed, or companion, or any weapon. The army marched up the valley and vanished from sight.
Said the Sun: "You must slay the Demon, so that the Princess may be set free. He cannot be struck down until you have obtained secret knowledge regarding him. You must, therefore, visit that wise old woman, the Yaga. She will instruct you as to what should be done. But first of all you must find the magic horse that will carry you to her distant dwelling. Turn eastward now, and walk on foot until you reach the great
plain. In the middle of that plain there grow three stately oak-trees, and close to the oak-trees you will find an iron door which opens to an underground mansion. Inside the mansion the horse waits for you, and beside the horse hangs the invisible club that will carry out your commands."
The Sun bade the Golden Knight farewell, and he then rose up to set out on his lonely journey. At first there were doubts in his heart. He knew not what mysterious perils awaited him, and sometimes, as he walked on, he wished that his brave soldiers were at hand and within call. Over mountains he went and across broad valleys, and sometimes he was delayed while searching for the ford of a broad stream. He kept pressing eastward day after day until seven days had gone past. Then on the eighth day he reached the great plain, and saw before him three giant oaks whose branches rose almost to the clouds.
Towards these giant oaks he walked with hasty steps, and soon found the iron door which leads to the underground mansion. He opened the door and beheld a flight of steps twisting downward in deepening shadow. Fearlessly he descended until he came to another door, which he opened also. Thick darkness then confronted him, and he faltered. But suddenly his heart was uplifted to hear from afar off the neighing of a horse. He pressed onward through a narrow passage, groping his way with hands outstretched
until he reached another iron door. This door he opened likewise, and resumed his journey through night-black corridors which were silent as the tomb. In all he met with twelve doors, each of which he flung wide. When he had passed through the last door of all, he found himself in the chamber in which the horse was bound fast. A dim light burned there, and as soon as he entered, the horse sprang up and broke free from the twelve chains with which a magician had bound him long ages before. Then it spoke to the Golden Knight and said: "For many uncounted years 1 have waited for you, my deliverer. Now know that I am at your service. Leap upon my back, and stretch forth your hand and seize the invisible club which hangs beside me. This club will carry out whatever command you give in combat, and return again to your hand when you call upon it. Let us hasten forth from this dismal place. My heart is panting for the sunlight. Whither shall I carry you? I will hasten speedily to whatever place you name."
Seated on the horse's back, the Prince returned to the surface of the great plain. Then he said to the wise animal: "Carry me towards the dwelling of the Yaga."
The horse immediately sprang forward and rose high in the air. Treading the clouds and speeding like the wind, it went on all day long without pausing until the sun began to sink low in the west. Then it descended to the earth,
Click to enlarge
PEOPLE CAME FROM ALL PARTS OF RUSSIA TO GAZE UPON THE PRINCESS
and entered a thick forest of great oak-trees, in the middle of which the Yaga has her dwelling. It hastened fearlessly through the shadows. Deep silence brooded all around. No wind whispered there, nor stream raised its voice; no bird sang, and no insect caused a sound. There was, indeed, no sign of life anywhere, and day was fast fading into night.
In the middle of this strange and awesome forest the Golden Knight beheld the dwelling of the Yaga. It was a feather-thatched hut perched on birds' legs, and it turned round and round continually, now this way and now that, so as to prevent anyone who approached it from entering by the door.
The Golden Knight muttered a secret spell and spoke, saying: "O hut, hear and obey. Turn round with the door towards me and your back to the shadows and stand still."
The hut turned round as he commanded it and stood still. Then he walked through the door, and beheld the old Yaga sitting alone in the middle of the one chamber within. She looked up and exclaimed: "No mortal has ever entered my dwelling before. Why have you come hither, O Golden knight?"
"Foolish Yaga," answered the Knight, "it is not seemly that you should ask questions before you make offer to me of hospitality."
The old woman at once rose up and prepared a meal for him. Then he sat down and ate and
drank and took his rest. Thereafter he informed her why he had taken the perilous journey towards her dwelling, and she said: "The task which lies before you is dangerous and difficult. But I will inform you how the Demon can be overcome. You must visit the Isle of Immortality, which is situated in the midst of the ocean. On that island there is an oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest. Inside the chest is a hare, and under the hare a duck, and under the duck an egg. The life of the Demon is in this egg; when it is broken before him he will fall down dead."
Next morning the Golden Knight set forth to find the egg. He rode on the back of the magic horse until he reached the seashore. Then he dismounted and wondered what next he should do.
While he stood musing on the point of a rocky headland, he saw a great fish which had been caught in a net. "Set me free, O Golden Knight," the fish exclaimed, "and I will remember you in time of need."
The Knight shook the net, and thus assisted the fish to escape, and it disappeared through the depths. He stood there gazing across the waters, wondering how he could contrive to reach the Isle of Immortality. His heart was filled with sadness and despair, but the magic horse spoke to him and said: "Why do you linger here, and why is your face wrinkled with grief?"
"Alas!" the Knight made answer, "how can I be otherwise than sorrowful? I cannot cross the ocean to reach the Isle of Immortality."
Said the horse: "Leap upon my back, and I will carry you to that distant isle. But be careful and grasp the reins tightly, lest you should fall off."
The Knight mounted the magic steed, which immediately plunged into the sea. It swam very swiftly, raising great billows, and tossing the spray to right and to left. The brave Knight held the reins tightly, and in time was borne safely to the shore of the far-distant isle.
As soon as he climbed the strand he looked round about him with eyes of wonder. Then he beheld a great oak which grew in the middle of the island and walked towards it. Suddenly he felt himself endowed with great strength, and, grasping the oak, pulled it up by the roots and flung it aside. As he did so, the tree moaned like a beast in pain.
In the hole left by the tree the Knight found an iron box. As soon as he raised the lid a hare leapt forth, and he turned to look at it. Then a duck came out and flew through the air, grasping the egg between its webbed toes. The Knight desired above all things to obtain this egg, which contained the life of the giant. So he drew his bow and shot a swift arrow which went through the duck. The egg fell into the sea and was lost.
Perceiving this the Prince began to utter cries
of sorrow, for well he knew that if he could not recover the egg, Princess Peerless must remain a prisoner in that lonely castle which the Demon had surrounded with a wall of iron. His heart sank within him, and he ran down to the point of a headland and gazed across the waves. Then suddenly the fish which he had rescued from the net rose up and spoke, saying: "Why do you sorrow thus, O Golden Knight? I have not for-gotten the service you rendered me. What can I do for your sake?"
"Find me the egg which fell into the sea when I shot the duck," the Knight cried. out eagerly.
The fish at once dived, and ere long appeared again with the egg in its mouth. Then glad of heart was the Golden Knight. He seized the egg, but ere he could thank the fish it vanished again in the midst of the waters.
Having thus obtained power over the Demon, the Knight leapt on his horse's back, and bade it carry him to the lonely castle in which dwelt Princess Peerless whom he loved.
The horse crossed the sea, and when it reached dry land it rose high in the air like a bird and flew swiftly. Then it made its way towards the place where Moscow now stands, and in time the Knight found himself close to the castle on the Kremlin. He gazed on the iron wall which enclosed the palace and walked round it until he came to the gate. Beside the gate crouched the fierce dragon. Six of its heads were asleep and
six remained awake, keeping watch lest anyone should venture nigh.
The Golden Knight stood gazing at the monster with wonder but unafraid. Then he bade his invisible club to attack it. The club at once flew from his hand and began to smite the dragon so furiously that its six sleeping heads awoke. Suffering great pain the monster leapt from side to side, and shrank back, and darted forward, attempting to avoid the blows. Its four-and-twenty eyes meanwhile glanced in all directions looking for the assailant, while from the twelve mouths darted forth twelve fiery tongues. But still the blows rained down upon it, and each blow was like a thunderbolt. At length the dragon became so angry that its heads commenced to quarrel one with another. In the end it was seized with madness and tore itself to pieces, so that it expired.
The Knight called back his invisible club, and walked through the iron gate towards the castle. He was met by the Princess, who came forth to greet him, her eyes sparkling with love and joy.
"You have slain the dragon," she said softly, "but a greater task still awaits you. The cruel Demon is coming nigh even now. He will endeavour to poison you with his breath, so be careful how you approach him. Alas! if you are slain, my heart will be broken, and I will fling myself over yonder steep into the Moskwa river."
Said the Golden Knight. "Beautiful Princess
[paragraph continues] Peerless, have no fear. The Demon is in my power. This egg, which I hold in my hand, contains his life. I could have slain him ere now, but I desire first to punish him for the wrong he has done against you."
As he spoke the heavy footsteps of the Demon were heard approaching through the forest. Trees fell down before him and snapped like twigs as he stepped upon them.
The Golden Knight spoke to his invisible club, and said, "Go and smite the Demon."
As he commanded, so did the club do. It flew through the air and smote the Demon heavily and long. None but he could have sustained such an attack, for he had great strength. He looked to right and to left, behind him and before, and he gazed upward and towards the ground, wondering whence came the blows that he staggered beneath. Nothing could he see. Soon he began to howl with terror and pain. He ran forward towards the palace as if to find shelter there. But the Golden Knight went out to meet him.
The Demon paused and exclaimed, "Ah! you are the enemy who is causing me all this pain, are you?"
"I have come to slay you," answered the Prince, "because of the evil you have done, and chiefly because you have caused Princess Peerless to sorrow greatly."
The Demon heard in silence, and prepared to
blow his poisonous breath towards the rescuer of the Princess. But ere he could do so, the Golden Knight crushed the egg which he held in his hand. The yolk dropped upon the ground, and immediately the Demon fell dead.
Then everything underwent a sudden change. The sun came out from behind dark clouds and shone brightly. Birds that had long been silent broke into song throughout the forest. The iron wall vanished like morning mist, and human voices were heard on every side, for all those who had been cast down in a swoon, awoke and resumed their various duties again. Towards the Princess came her twelve maidens, and she wept to hear their voices once again.
There were great rejoicings in the castle when the Golden Knight and Princess Peerless were married. They lived happily together for long years. There was less sorrow than there had been in the world after the Demon of the Underworld had been slain.
All the people who were liberated from the spells cast upon them by the Demon elected to remain near to the castle on the Kremlin. They acknowledged the Golden Knight as their Tsar, and the Princess Peerless as Tsarina, and they made a clearance in the forest where they built the first houses of the city of Moscow, which was named after the Moskwa river. In time Moscow became the capital of the great Kingdom of Muskovy, from which modern Russia has grown.
51:1 Pronounced Pzhĕm´is’l.