Russian Folk-Tales/Danílo the Unfortunate

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Good Prince Vladímir had many henchmen and serfs in the city of Kíev, and amongst them there was Danílo the Unfortunate, the noble. And on Sundays Prince Vladímir used to give all his servants goblets filled with wine, but Danílo good hard blows; and on great feast days every one was sated, but Danílo had nothing.

On the eve of Easter Sunday Prince Vladímir summoned Danílo the Unfortunate, and he gave him eighty score of sable skins, and he bade him sew a shúba[1] for the feast: the sable skins were not prepared, and the buttons had not been moulded, and the buttonholes had not been made. In the buttons he was bidden mould the wild beasts of the wood and to sew into the buttonholes all the seabirds.

Danílo the Unfortunate loathed the task, so he hurled it away, and he went outside. He went out on his road and way, and shed tears. An old woman came to meet him. "Look, Danílo," she said, "do not rend yourself asunder: why are you crying, Danílo the Unfortunate?"

"Oh, you old fatty " he exclaimed, "shivers and shakes, quivers and quakes! Be off! this has nothing to do with you!" Then he went on a little way and thought, "Why did I bid her remove?" So he approached her again and said, "Bábushka,[2] little dove, forgive me: this is my trouble. Prince Vladímir has given me eighty score of sable skins, of which I am to make a shuba in the morning. If only the buttons had been moulded and the silken buttonholes sewn! But there are to be lions moulded on to the buttons, and there are to be shepherds[3] embroidered on to the button-holes that should have sung and warbled. How am I to set about it? It would be better for me to drink vódka behind the counter."

Then the old woman, with her patched skirt, said, "Oh, I am now 'Bábushka' and your 'little dove'! Do you go to the border of the blue sea, and stand in front of the grey oak: at the hour of midnight the blue sea will boil over and Chúdo-Yúda, he Old Man of the Sea, will come out to you: he has no hands, no feet, and he has a grey beard. Take hold of him by his beard and beat him until he asks you, 'Why do you beat me, Danílo the Unfortunate?' Then you are to answer, 'I am beating you for this reason: let me see the Swan,[4] the fair maiden; let her body glint through her wings, and through her body let her bones appear, and from bone to bone let the marrow run like a flowing string of pearls.'"

Then Danílo the Unfortunate went to the blue sea, and he stood in front of the dusky oak: and at midnight the blue sea was disturbed and Chúdo-Yúda, the Old Man of the Sea, appeared before him. He had no hands, he had no feet, and his beard was grey. Danílo seized him by his beard and began to beat him on to the grey earth. Then at last Chúdo-Yúda asked him: "Why do you beat me, Danílo the Unfortunate?" "For this reason: let me see the Swan, the fair maiden; let her body glint through her wings, and through her body let her bones appear, and from bone to bone let the marrow run like a flowing string of pearls."

Very soon the Swan, the fair maiden, swam up to the shore, and she spoke in this wise:

"Is it work on your way,
Or for sloth do you stay?"

"Oh, Swan, fair maiden, I have a double task: Prince Vladímir has bidden me sew a shúba, and the sables are not prepared, the buttons are not moulded, and the buttonholes are not sewn."

"You take me with you, and it will all be done in time."

Then he began to think in his thoughts, "How shall I take her with me?"

"Now, Danílo, what are you thinking?"

"I must do as you say: I will take you with me."

So she flapped her wings, and she moved her little head, and said, "Turn to me with your white face; we will build for ourselves a princely house. Shake your locks, that our house may have rooms." Then twelve youths appeared, all of them carpenters, sawyers, stone-hewers; and they set to work, and the house was soon ready.

Then Danílo took her by her right hand, and he kissed her on her sweet lips, and he led her into the princely home. They sat down at a table, ate and drank. They refreshed themselves, and their hands met at one table. "Now, Danílo, go to rest and to bed; think of nothing else; it will all be done." So she laid him to sleep and herself went out to the crystal flight of steps. And she waved her pinions and she shook her little head: "My father," she cried, "send me your craftsmen!"

And the twelve youths appeared and asked, "Swan-bird, fair maiden, what do you bid us do?"

"Sew me this shúba at once: the sables are not prepared, the buttons are not moulded, the buttonholes are not sewn."

So they set to work: one of them made the sables ready and sewed the shúba, one of them worked the forge and moulded the buttons, and one of them sewed the buttonholes, and in a minute, wondrously, the shúba was made.

Then the Swan-bird, the fair maiden, came up and woke Danílo the Unfortunate: "Arise, my dear friend, the shúba is ready, and the church-bells are ringing in the city of Kíev: it is time for you to arise and to prepare for matins."

Danílo arose, put on the shúba, and went: she looked out of the window, stayed, gave him a silver staff, and bade him, "When you leave matins, stand on the right side of the choir as the choir leave, raise your hands and strike the sable shúba, and the birds will sing joyously and the lions roar fearsomely. Then take the shúba from your shoulders and array Prince Vladímir at that instant, lest he forget us. He will then summon you as a guest, and will give you a glass of wine. Do not drink the glass to the bottom: if you drink it to the bottom no good will befall you; and do not boast of me: do not boast that we built a house together in a single night."

Danílo took the silver staff and hied away, and she again stayed him on his course, and she gave him three little eggs, two of silver, one of gold, and said, "With the silver eggs give the Easter greeting to the Prince and the Princess, but the golden one keep and live your life along with it."

Danílo the Unfortunate bade farewell to her and went to matins. All the people wondered. "Look what a fine man Danílo the Unfortunate has become: he has made the shúba and he has brought it with him for the feast."

After the Mass, he went up to the Prince and Princess, and he gave them the Easter greeting, but carelessly took out the golden egg. Alyósha Popóvich saw this, the Mocker of Women. As they went out of the church, Danílo the Unfortunate struck himself on the breast with the silver staff, and the birds sang and the lions roared; and all the folk were amazed and gazed at Danílo. But Alyósha Popóvich, the Mocker of Women, dressed himself as a sorry beggar and asked for holy alms. They all gave to him; only Danílo the Unfortunate alone said and thought, "What shall I give him? I have nothing to give." So, as it was Easter Day, he gave him the golden egg. Alyósha Popóvich took that golden egg and changed into his former garb.

Prince Vladímir summoned them all to him, all to his palace to dessert: so they ate and drank and were refreshed, and they exalted themselves. Danílo drank until he was drunk; and, when he was drunk, made boast of his wife. Alyósha Popóvich bragged at the feast that he knew Danílo's wife. But Danílo said, "If you know my wife you may cut off my head; and, if you do not know her, you shall forfeit your own."

So Alyósha Popóvich, the Mocker of Women, went whither his eyes might go, and he went and wept.

Then the old woman met him on his way and asked, "Why are you weeping, Alyósha Popóvich?"

"Go away, old woman with the swollen belly; I have naught to do with you."

"Yet I shall be of service to you."

Then he began to ask her, "O my own grandmother, what did you wish to tell me?"

"Ha! am I now your own grandmother?"

"O, I was boasting I knew Danílo's wife!"

"O bátyushka,[5] how do you know her: was there any little bird that told you? Do you go up to a certain house and invite her to feast with the Prince. She will wash herself, busk herself, and put a little chain out of the window. You take that chain and show it to Danílo the Unfortunate."

So Alyósha Popóvich, the Mocker of Women, went to the window jamb, and called the Swan-bird, the fair maiden, to dine with the Prince. She was starting to wash herself, busk herself, and make ready for the feast, and that moment Alyósha Popóvich seized her little chain, ran up into the palace, and showed it to Danílo the Unfortunate.

So Prince Vladímir said to Danílo the Unfortunate, "I see now that you must forfeit your head."

"Let me go home and bid farewell to my wife." So he went home and said, "O fair Swan-maiden, what have I done? I became drunk and I bragged of you and have lost my life."

"I know it all, Danílo the Unfortunate. Go, summon the Prince and Princess here as your guests, and all the burghers and generals and field-marshals and boyárs."

"But the Prince will not come out in the mud and the mire!" (For the roads were bad, and the blue sea became stormy; the marshes surged and opened.)

"You are to tell him: 'Have no fear, Prince Vladímir: across the rivers have been built hazel-tree bridges, the transoms are of oak covered with cloth of purple and with nails of tin. The shoes of the doughty warrior will not be soiled, nor will the hoofs of his horse be smeared.'"

So Danílo the Unfortunate invited them as guests; and the Swan-bird, the fair maiden, stepped out to her window, flapped her wings, shook her little head, and there was a bridge laid from her house to the palace of Prince Vladímir. It was covered with cloth of purple, tacked in with tacks of tin; and on one side flowers grew, nightingales sang, and on the other side apple-trees and fruits bloomed and ripened.

The Prince and Princess made ready to be guests, and they set out on their journey with all their noble host with them, crossed the first river, which ran with splendid beer. And very many soldiers fell down by that beer. Then they advanced to the second river, which ran with wonderful mead, and more than half of the brave host bent down to drink the mead and rolled on their sides. So they came to the third river, which ran with glorious wine. Here all the officers bent down and drank till they were drunk. At the fourth river powerful vódka flowed. And the Prince looked backwards: all of his generals were lying on their backs. Only the Prince was left with three companions—with the Princess, Alyósha Popóvich, the Mocker of Women, and Danílo the Unfortunate.

Then the invited guests arrived, and they entered into the lofty palace: there were tables standing, and the tablecloths were of silk, and the chairs painted with many colours. They sat down at the tables: there were all sorts of dishes and of foreign drinks. There were no bottles, no mere pints—entire rivers flowed! Prince Vladímir and the Princess drank nothing, tasted nothing, only looked on. When would the Swan, the fair maiden, come out? And they sat long at the table, waited for her long, until it was time to go home. Danílo the Unfortunate called her once, and twice, and a third time, but she would not come and see her guests.

Alyósha Popóvich, the Mocker of Women, then said, "If this had been my wife I should have taught her to obey!"

Then the Swan-bird, the fair maiden, came out and stood at the window, and she said these words: "This is how we teach our husbands!" And so she flapped her wings, moved her little head, and flew about: and there the guests sat on mounds in the bog.

One way the waters tossed,
   On the other lay woe,
On the third side naught but moss,
   On the fourth side—Oh!

"Get up, Prince, and avaunt! Let Danílo sit at the head of the table."

So they went back all the way to their palace, and they were covered with mud from head to foot.

I myself then should have liked to see the Prince and Princess; and they were just poking their heads out of the door, but, whilst it was opening, I slipped and fell down flat.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Fur mantle
  2. Grandmother
  3. Russian: птицы заморские (exotic birds). (Wikisource contributor note)
  4. Another variant, "the Fearsome Swan."
  5. Little Father