Russian Folk-Tales/A Story of Saint Nicholas

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In a certain city, in a certain state, there once lived a merchant Nicholas with his wife. From the beginning they lived happily and were wealthy. But their chief joy was in this: that the Lord had presented them with a son, and such a beautiful son too! Sensible and wise—and the only prayer which the mother and father addressed to God and to his holy godfather St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, was that they should endow him with happiness and long life.

But, as old age crept on, they, for some reason, began to become poor; and they became so poor that Nicholas, from a famous merchant, became a mere tradesman, and they only had one little shop, and in the shop there was a chest of tobacco, a few nails, and a little iron. And either from the fact that they were growing poorer, or that they were becoming older, the mother and father of Iván—for this was the name of Nicholas's son—had become feeble.

One day the father called Iván to him, and said: "Now, our beloved son, we, it seems, shall soon die; but do you not weep for us, but rather pray God. For we have already lived out our life; and this is as it must be. But you bury us properly, for I have saved up money for you for this purpose. One third of the money you are to spend on the funeral, the second on the Requiem Mass, and with the third buy a shop and go into trade. And I will give you my blessing. Do not give any one false measure or cheat; and if you shall grow rich, do not forget God, and to give alms to the poor, as I did time agone. Now, my son, farewell. May the Divine mercy guard you and our guilty souls."

Seven days passed, and Iván buried his father, and his mother soon afterwards, and began to trade. Soon he began to overlook the stock, and in the corner he found an image of the holy St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker. So he brought the image into the izbá[1] and he poured water into a vessel, washed it out, cleaned it in front of the image, and soon after went to market, bought a little lamp, and lighted it in front of the image.

On the first Sunday he called the Pope in, had a Mass said for his parents, chanted a prayer to St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, and took the image into the shop, so that he might gaze at it constantly; and thereafter, whenever he went into the shop, he used first of all to pray before the image, and afterwards he began to trade.

And his trade went so well that it seemed as if the Lord Himself had been sending customers. Later on he built a second shop, and every day he gave much money in alms, and amongst others, to one old man who every day repaired to him. Iván was very fond of him, and when a new clerk had to be engaged for the new shop, he said to this old man: "Grandfather, I do not know thy hallowed name; I do not know, father, how to call thee; only do not be angry with me, for I have built a new shop, and I have no clerk. Come with me as my clerk, and I will obey you as I would have obeyed my own father. Do be kind and do not refuse."

The old man at the beginning would very gladly have refused; but afterwards they agreed, and began to live and dwell together, and Iván, in all things, obeyed the old man, and called him Bátyushka.

The old man carried on trade prosperously and profitably; and one day he said: "Ivánushka, your trade does not altogether suit me; for you trade in tobacco, and God loves not smoking, nor does He love tobacconists. So buy some small goods, and you will have more purchasers, and will not incur sin.

Iván obeyed, and purchased many goods of all sorts and set up shop anew. When all the goods were sold out, Iván went into the counting-house, and he saw threefold his money wherever he looked. Iván was extremely joyous at so big a profit, and he called in the Pope, and he recited the prayer to Nicholas the Wonder-Worker. And as to the old man, he was so happy, and he prayed so heartily to God.

So they traded on for three years more, and Iván became so rich that the old man advised him to sell out and cross the seas with his goods. And Iván obeyed the old man, bought a ship, loaded it with wares, and gave his house to the poor, setting one of them m as the master until he should come back himself. And they prayed to God, and he and the old man set sail.

Soon they arrived: it may be near, it may be far—the tale is soon told, but the deed is not soon done—and suddenly robbers came upon them and plundered them of all their goods: and only left themselves alive and unscathed. It was a bitter shock to Iván. But the old man quieted him, and said that all of this was for the best. So they sailed on for three days after this; and on the third day they landed on an island, and they saw a great mass of bricks. The old man said to Iván: "Get ready, Ivánushka, and load these bricks on your ship. Iván said: "What shall I do with these bricks? I would sooner die than do trade in them." But the old man answered and said: "Oh, Ivánushka, Ivánushka, you have had little experience; and I tell you that any single one of these bricks is worth more than all the wares of which the robbers plundered you!" And he threw one of the bricks on the ground, and under the clay there was a splendid jewel.

So Iván was glad, and began loading the ship with the bricks. And when they had loaded it to the full, the old man said: "Now, Ivánushka, you must also make some plain bricks in order that buccaneers may not steal the valuable ones." So they loaded plain bricks as well. But on their way the wind arose and they sailed farther, and the robbers fell on them again and began to search for the goods. So the old man said to them: "Have mercy, good folk! Leave us alive; for robbers some time ago took away all we had, and now we only carry bricks, such bricks as we made on the island." The pirates looked and were persuaded and sailed farther on, and so did Iván and the old man, and very soon arrived at a haven and stayed there.

In that kingdom there was a custom that all merchants who arrived should bring some of all their wares as a homage to the king. So the old man said to Iván: "Ivánushka, pray to the Lord God, and go and buy a golden vessel and a fatá, and to-morrow go and make your homage to the king." Iván obeyed the old man, and the next day went to make his homage to the king. They told the king that a merchant had come to do allegiance, and the king sat on his throne and gave audience to Iván.

Iván came up to the king, and in his hands there was a golden vessel covered by fatá, and in the golden vessel there was a brick. So the king asked Iván from what realm he came, and how his father and mother were named. And then he uncovered the fatá, and when he saw the brick he was very wroth, and said: "I suppose you think I have very few bricks, and you have come to trade in them in my kingdom!" And then he rushed at Iván. But Iván turned aside and the brick fell to the ground and split in two.

Then the king saw that he had behaved unseemlywise, and began to ask Iván for forgiveness. And he forthwith bought the entire ship off Iván. And when Iván saw this, he said: "You may take all my goods, but I will not sell my vessel, for therein do I have an old man who is my clerk, and we should not be able to live in the town." "Oh," said the king, "are there two of you?" And the king, on hearing this, became very angry, and said: "I will not let you go, but I must have the ship." And Iván went down on his knees and besought him that he would let them go. Then the king said: "If one of you will read some psalms for three nights to my daughter who is now in the church, you may keep the ship." For his daughter was a witch, and every night turned into a human being.

Iván returned to his ship, and he was sad and disheartened. He did not wish to go himself, for he did not wish to die; and if he dismissed the old man, it was very hard to part.

The old man said to Iván: "Why, Ivánushka, why are you so miserable and hang your head?" And Iván told him all that had happened, and what the king had said. So the old man answered him: "Never mind, Ivánushka, cheer up! Pray to the Saviour, and lie down and sleep, and I will think out some means of getting out of the danger."

Soon it began to grow dark, and the old man roused Iván and said: "Here are three tapers. As long as the first burns, pray to God; when the second is burnt out, light the third, and then enter by the right-hand side of the Holy Gates by the altar-screen and say nothing; only mutter a prayer all the time. Go, and God bless you."

So Iván landed, and the king's attendants took Iván into the church and locked it, and he began to read the Psalter. One candle went out and then another, and he lighted the third, and lay down at the right-hand side of the Holy Gates. Then the flooring suddenly jumped up, and the witch began to search for Iván: "Where are you? I want to eat you." And she looked, and she looked, and she could not find him, and then the cock crew, and she went once more into the grave. Then Iván got up, covered up the grave, and began to read once more.

In the morning they went there to collect his bones; but there Iván was, as large as life. And they went and told the king. And he bade him for the second time go and read prayers.

And Iván went to the old man and told him what had happened in the church by night.

Next night the old man told Iván to lie down on the left-hand side of the Holy Gates. And once more the witch could not find him.

On the third night the old man gave him three tapers and a ball of pitch; and the pitch was rolled round with hair. He said: "To-night, Ivánushka, is the last night. When you have burned out the last taper, lie down beside the grave, and when the witch rises out of it, go and lie in the grave in her place, and do not let her in until she shall read out the prayers 'Maiden Mother of God, rejoice!' and 'Our Father Which art in Heaven.'"

Iván went into the church and began to read the Psalter, and after lighting the third candle, lay down on the right-hand side of the grave. The witch broke out of the coffin and passed over Iván and began to look for him all over the church. When the time came for her to lie down, there was Iván in her place. "Ah! there art thou!" the witch cried. "For thrice twenty-four hours I have been hungry. Come out; I want to eat you." And Iván threw the ball covered with hair at her, and she nibbled and gnawed at it. And she at last said: "Let me go!" "No," said Iván, "I will not let you go." "Let me go!" the witch repeated. "Then do you," said Iván, "recite the prayer 'Maiden Mother of God, rejoice!' after me, and then I will let you go." And the witch read out the prayer and then said: "Let me go!" And Iván said: "Now read the Our Father, then I will let you go." And the witch read it out. Then Iván came out and said: "Lie down." But the witch said: "Now I cannot lie down." Then she and Iván began to pray.

In the morning two men came in, and they not only saw Iván, but also Olyóna, the king's daughter—for this was the witch's name. And they went to the king, and recounted all they had beheld.

And the king assembled all the spiritual hierarchy and went into the church. And he thought it must be that Iván had turned into a wizard, but when he saw how things really were, he embraced Iván and called him his son. And the witch said to Iván: "Now, Iván, the merchant's son, if you have been able to pray to God and to bring me to life again, now learn how to master me, and I will never depart one step from you."

So Iván went to the ship, and he told the old man all that had happened, and the old man said: "Ivánushka, fear nothing, take Olyóna Korólyevna[2] as your wife, only for the first three nights do not go to sleep until the cock has crowed three times, and then she will never more oppress you."

There was no loitering at the king's court; very soon all was got ready, and Iván was affianced to Princess Olyóna. And for two weeks he lived quite happily. Then he said to his father-in-law: "Good father, let me go home and have a Mass said for my father and mother, and once more see my home." And the king said: "My beloved son, Iván, the merchant's son, I will not withstand your wish, but do return hither. You see yourself I am no longer young, and I have no heir. When you return I will give you my kingdom, and you will live happily and merrily."

So they set out on their journey, and arrived at their own kingdom, to their native land. And Iván took Olyóna with him. When they arrived at the island of the bricks, they loaded all the vessels, and there were many ships, and they excavated the entire island.

One day the old man began to cut firewood, took them to the opposite side of the island and said: "Ivánushka, my well-doer, I must now speak with you." And he bade them come where the firewood was stacked. He lit the firewood; and when it was in flame-he took Olyóna, threw her down, trod on one leg, and pulled her apart into two halves, taking hold of the other leg. Iván did not know what to say! And the old man put both halves on the fire, and out of the fire there then crept snakes, frogs, and all sorts of reptiles. Then he took the two parts out of the fire, rinsed them thoroughly in the sea, sprinkled them over with water, made the sign of the cross, and Olyóna arose such a beauty as no tale can tell and no pen can write. Then he said: "Now, my well-doer, Ivánushka, you are to be a mighty king; Iván, the merchant's son, you are now rich and famous and happy, so see to it that you do not forget God and the poor. I shall see you no more."

Iván and Olyona knelt down and began to beseech him, but the old man said: "Beg no more of me, but rather thank God for sending me to you. I loved you and your father, Iván, and you even more, because you kindly gave me alms; and now you are rich and famous, do not forget to give alms to the poor." Then he vanished.

Iván and Olyona praised God, went back to the ships, and sailed farther on.

When the poor saw that Iván had arrived with untold wealth, they crowded to the shore and began to kiss Iván's hands, his feet, and the hem of his garment; and all present were so joyous that the tears flowed from their eyes.

Iván put up crosses on his parents' grave, clothed the poor, gave them his house, and returned to his father-in-law, and for many years governed his kingdom. And he lived so long that he saw in his old age his sons, his grandsons, and his great-grandsons. And he ever prayed and blessed God and Nicholas the Wonder-Worker for the mercy they had manifested to him.

In that kingdom where he was king, to this very day King Iván and his wife Olyóna the Fair are remembered.[3]

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Hut.
  2. Koról'  king: hence princess.
  3. I have taken this story as it stands. There are obvious gaps I have not ventured to fill up.