IN A far land where they pay people to keep its name a profound secret, there lived an old man who brought up his three sons just exactly in the way they should go. He taught them the three R’s, and also showed them what books to read and how to read them. He was particularly careful about their education, for he had learned that to know things was to be able to do things.
At last, when he came to die, he gathered his three sons round his deathbed and cautioned them.
‘Do not forget,’ he said--’do not forget to come and read the prayers over my grave.’
‘We will not forget, father,’ they replied.
The two elder brothers were great big, strapping fellows, but the youngest one, Ivan, was a mere stripling. As they all stood around the bed of their dying father, he looked a mere reed compared to his proud, stout, elder brothers. But his eyes were full of fire and spirit, and the firm expression of his mouth showed great determination. And, when the father had breathed his last, and his two elder brothers wept without restraint, Ivan stood silent, his pale face set and his eyes full of the bright wonder of tears that would not melt.
On the day that they buried their father, Ivan returned to the grave in the evening to read prayers over it. He had done so, and was making his way homeward, when there was a great clatter of hoofs behind him; then, as he reached the village square, the horseman pulled up and dismounted quite near to him. After blowing a loud blast on his silver trumpet--for he was the King’s messenger--he cried in a loud voice:
‘All and every man, woman and child, take notice, in the name of the King. It is the King’s will that this proclamation be cried abroad in every town and village where his subjects dwell. The King’s daughter, Princess Helena the Fair, has caused to be built for herself a shrine having twelve pillars and twelve rows of beams. And she sits there upon a high throne till the time when the bridegroom of her choice rides by. And this is how she shall know him: with one leap of his steed he reaches the height of the tower, and, in passing, his lips press those of the Princess as she bends from her throne. Wherefore the King has ordered this to be proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the land, for if any deems himself able so to reach the lips of the Princess and win her, let him try. In the name of the King I have said it!’
The blood of the youth of the nation, wherever this proclamation was issued, took flame and leapt to touch the lips of Princess Helena the Fair. All wondered to whose lot this lucky fate would fall. Some said it would be to the most daring, others contended that it was a matter of the leaping powers of the steed, and yet others that it depended not only on the steed but on the daring skill of the rider also.
When the three brothers had listened to the words of the King’s messenger they looked at one another; at least the elder two did, for it was apparent to them that Ivan, the youngest, was quite out of the competition, whereas they, two splendid handsome fellows, were distinctly in it.
‘Brothers,’ said Ivan at last, ‘our first thought must be to fulfil our father’s dying wish. But, if you prefer it, we could take it in turns to read the prayers over our father’s grave. Let it be the duty of one of us each day to fulfil the duty, morning and evening.’
The elder brothers agreed readily to this, but, when Ivan asked whose turn it should be on the morrow, they both began to make excuses.
‘As for me,’ said the eldest, ‘I must go and order the work of the farm my father left me, and that will take seven days.’
‘And for me,’ said the younger, ‘I must see to the estate which is my part of the inheritance, and that also will take seven days.’
‘Then,’ replied Ivan, ‘if I perform the duty for seven days, you will each do your share afterwards?’
His brothers agreed still more readily than before. Then they went their ways, Ivan full of thoughts of his father, and the other two to train their jumping horses, the one on his farm and the other on his estate. And both laughed to themselves, for neither knew the purpose of the other.
How they curled their hair and cleaned their teeth, and practised ‘prunes and prisms’ with their mouths close to the looking-glass!--so that when, at one bound of their magnificent steeds, they reached the level of the Princess’s lips, to aim the kiss that was to win the prize, they would make a brave show, and a conquering one. As for their little brother, they each thought he could go on praying over their father’s grave as long as he liked,--it would be the best thing he could do, and it would not interfere with their secret plans, so carefully concealed from each other and from him.
So, for seven days, in their separate districts, they raced about on their horses by day and dreamed of the greatest leaping feats by night. And at the end of the seven days the youngest brother summoned them to keep their agreement, and asked which of them would read the prayers, morning and evening, for the second seven days.
‘I have done my part,’ he said; ‘now it is for you to arrange between you which one shall continue the sacred duty.’
The two elder brothers looked at each other and then at Ivan.
‘As for me,’ said one, ‘I care little who does it, so long as I am free to get on with my business, which is more important.’
‘And as for me,’ said the other, ‘I am in no mind to watch each blade of grass growing on the grave. I cannot really afford the time, I am so busy. You, Ivan,--you are different: you are not a man of affairs; how could you spend your time better than reading prayers over our father’s grave?’
‘So be it,’ replied Ivan. ‘You get back to your work and I will attend to the sacred duty for another seven days.’
The two elder brothers went their separate ways, and for seven more days devoted their entire attention to training their horses for the flying leap at the Princess’s lips. How they tore like mad about the fields! How they jumped the hedges and ditches! How they curled their hair and dyed their moustaches and practised their lips, not only to ‘prunes and prisms,’ but to ‘peaches of passion’ and ‘pomegranates,’ and ‘peripatetic perambulation’ and everything they could think of! In fact, they paid so much attention to the lips which were to meet those of the Princess at the top of the flying leap, that they began to neglect their own and their horses’ meals. In other words, they were beginning to show signs of over-training.
At the end of the second seven days Ivan again summoned them to a family council, and asked them if either of them could now take up the sacred duty. But no; thinking heavily on horses and lips, and high jumps and kisses, they spoke lightly of fields to be tilled, seed to be sown, and all such things that must be done at once. Their view was--and they got quite friendly over it--that Ivan should be more than delighted to bear this pleasurable burden of reading prayers over his father’s grave. Indeed, nothing but the stern call of immediate duty would prevail upon them to relinquish a task so pleasant.
‘So be it,’ said Ivan; ‘I will perform the sacred duty for another seven days.’ But as he spoke, he noted his brothers’ curled hair and dyed moustaches, and gleaned from this, and from the look of sudden suspicion and jealousy exchanged between them, that they were both in love with the same fair one. But he kept this to himself, and left them to their own concerns.
Again, at the end of seven days, when Ivan had read the prayers devoutly, he summoned his brothers. But they did not come. Both sent messages saying that they were frightfully busy, and would he be so good as to go on with the sacred duty until they could be spared to do their share later on. Ivan accepted their messages, and went on reading the prayers over the father’s grave.
Meanwhile each of his brothers prepared for the great flying leap; and each said to himself: ‘What about Ivan? He would like to see this great exploit. It might make a man of him. He is altogether lacking in ambition, and to see a great deed done might stir him to try to be a great hero himself. But yet--I fear it would never do. He is so weedy, so insignificant. I feel I should lose by having a brother like that anywhere about. No; he is far better reading prayers over our father’s grave.’
So each in his own way resolved to go in alone--apart from the other and apart from Ivan.
The morning of the great day came. The eldest brother had chosen from his horses a magnificent black one with arched neck and flowing mane and tail. The second brother had selected a bay equally splendid. And now, at sunrise, they were, each unknown to the other, combing their well-curled hair, re-dyeing their moustaches, and booting and trapping themselves for the wonderful display of prowess the day was to bring forth. And they did not forget to make sure that their lips were as fit as they were anxious for the ‘high kiss.’
At the appointed time they rode into the lists and drew their lots, and neither was altogether surprised at seeing his brother among the host of competitors for the hand of Helena the Fair. Their surprise came later, when Ivan arrived on the scene.
It so happened in this way: that, towards evening, when his two brothers had each had their last try to leap up to the Princess’s lips and failed, like every one else, Ivan himself was reading the prayers over his father’s grave. Suddenly a great emotion came over him, and he stopped in his reading. He was filled with a longing to look just for once upon the face of Helena the Fair, for whose favour he knew that the most splendid in the land were competing with their wonderful steeds. So strong was this longing that he broke down and, bending over his father’s grave, wept bitterly.
And then a strange thing happened. His father heard him in his coffin, and shook himself free from the damp earth, and came out and stood before him.
‘Do not weep, Ivan, my son,’ he said. And Ivan looked up and was terrified at the sight of him.
‘Nay, my son, do not fear me,’ his father went on. ‘You have fulfilled my dying wish, and I will help you in your trouble. You wish to look upon the face of Helena the Fair, and so it shall be.’
With this he drew himself up, and his aspect was commanding. Then he called in a loud voice, and, as the echoes of his tones began to die away, Ivan heard them change into the far-distant beat of a horse’s hoofs. After listening for a while his father called again, and this time the echo was a horse’s neigh and galloping hoofs. It seemed beyond the hillside, and Ivan looked up and wondered. A third time his father called, and nearer and nearer came the galloping sound, until at last, with a thundering snort and a ringing neigh, a beautiful chestnut horse appeared, circled round them thrice, and then came to a halt before them, its two forefeet close together and its eyes, ears, and nostrils shooting flames of fire.
Then came a voice, and Ivan knew it was the voice of the chestnut horse with the proudly arched neck and flowing mane:
‘What is your will? Command me and I obey!’
The father took Ivan by the hand and led him to the horse’s head.
‘Enter here at the right ear,’ he said, ‘and pass through, and make your way out at the left ear. By so doing you will be able to command the horse, and he will do whatever you may wish that a horse should do.’
So Ivan, nothing doubting, passed in at the right ear of the chestnut horse and came out at the left; and immediately there was a wonderful change in him. He was no longer a dreamy youth: he was at once a man of affairs, and the light of a high ambition shone in his eyes.
‘Mount! Go, win the Princess Helena the Fair!’ said his father, and immediately vanished.
With one spring Ivan was astride the chestnut horse, and, in another moment, they were speeding like lightning towards the shrine of Helena the Fair.
The sun was setting, and the two elder brothers, disconsolate, were about to withdraw from the field, when, startled by the cries of the people, they saw a steed come galloping on, well ridden, and at a terrific pace. They turned to look and they marked how Helena the Fair, disappointed of all others, leaned out to watch the oncoming horseman. And the whole concourse turned and stood to await the possible event.
On came the chestnut horse, his nostrils snorting fire, his hoofs shaking the earth. He neared the shrine, and, to a masterful rein, rose at a flying leap. The daring rider looked up and the Princess leaned down, but he could not reach her lips, ready as they were.
The whole field now stood at gaze as the chestnut horse with its rider circled round and came up again. And this time, with a splendid leap, the brave steed bore its rider aloft so that the fragrant breath of the Princess seemed to meet his nostrils, and yet his lips did not meet hers.
Again they circled round while all stood still and tense. Again the chestnut steed rose to the leap, and, this time, the lips of Ivan met those of the Princess in a long sweet kiss, for the chestnut horse seemed to linger in the air at the top of its leap while that kiss endured.
Then, while the Princess looked after, horse and rider reached the ground and disappeared like lightning.
Instantly the host of onlookers swarmed in.
‘Who is he? Where is he?’ was the cry on every hand. ‘He kissed her on the lips, and she kissed him. Look at her! Is it not true?’
It was true, for Princess Helena the Fair, with a lovelight in her eyes, was leaning down and searching, with all her soul, even for the very dust spurned from the heels of her lover’s horse. But she could see nothing, and sank back within her shrine, treasuring the kiss upon her lips; while the people, dissatisfied, but wondering greatly, melted away. Among them went the splendid brothers, seeking how they could sell their well-trained horses to advantage, for they had both been frantically near to the Princess’s lips.
Whither had Ivan flown on the chestnut horse? Loosing the reins--he cared for nothing but the kiss--he let his steed go, and presently it came to a standstill before his father’s grave. There he dismounted and turned the horse adrift. As if its errand was completed, it galloped off; a rainbow came down to meet it, and, closing in, seemed to snatch it up in its folds. Ivan was alone before his father’s grave.
Once more he bowed himself in prayer. Once more his father appeared before him.
‘Thou hast done well, O my son,’ he said. ‘Thou hast fulfilled my dying wish, but my living wish is yet to be fulfilled. To-morrow Helena the Fair will summon the people and demand her bridegroom. Be thou there, but say nothing.’
With this Ivan found himself alone.
On the following day there was a great gathering at the palace, and, in the midst of it, sat Princess Helena the Fair demanding her bridegroom--the one who had leapt to her lips and won her from all others. Her heart and soul and body were his. The half of her kingdom to come was his. She, herself, was his;--where was he?
Search was made among the highest in the land, but, fearing a demand for the repetition of the leap and the kiss, none came forward. Ivan sat at the back, a humble spectator.
‘She is thinking of that leap and that kiss,’ said he to himself. ‘When she sees me as I am, then let her judge.’ But love, though blind, has eyes. The Princess rose from her seat and swept a glance over the people. She saw the two handsome elder brothers and passed them by as so much dirt. Then, by the light of love, she descried, sitting in a corner, where the lights were low, the hero of the chestnut horse,--the one who had leapt high and reached her lips in the first sweet kiss of love.
She knew him at once, and, as all looked on in wonder, she made her way to that dim corner, took him by the hand without a word, and led him up, past the throne of honour, to an antechamber, where, with the joyous cries of the people ringing in their ears, their lips met a second time,--at the summit of a leap of joy.
At that moment the King entered, knowing all.
‘What is this?’ said he.
Then he smiled, for he understood his daughter, and knew that she had not only chosen her lover, but had won her choice.
‘My son,’ he added, without waiting for an answer, ‘you and yours will reign after me. Look to it! Now let us go to supper.’