Here begins the tale of a grey horse, a chestnut horse and of the wise fallow-bay. On the shore of the ocean, in the isle of Buyán, there stood a roasted ox, and behind pounded garlic: on the one side cut your meat, on the other dip deep and eat.
Once upon a time there lived a merchant who had a son, and when the son grew up he was taken into the shop. Now, the first wife of the merchant died, and he married a second.
After some months the merchant made ready to sail to foreign lands, and he loaded his ship with goods and he bade his son look after the house well and attend to business duly.
Then the merchant's son asked, "Bátyushka, when you go, get me my luck!"
"My beloved son," answered the old man, "where shall I find it?"
"It is not far to seek, my luck. When you get up to-morrow morning, stand at the gates and buy the first thing that meets you and give it to me."
"Very well, my son."
So next day the father got up very early, stood outside the gates, and the first thing that met him was a peasant who was selling a sorry, scabby foal—mere dog's meat. So the merchant bargained for it and got it for a silver rouble, took the foal into the courtyard and put it into the stable.
Then the merchant's son asked him, "Well, bátyushka, what have you found as my luck?"
"I went out to find it, and it turned into a very poor thing."
"Well, so it really had to be: whatever luck the Lord has given us we must use."
Then the father set sail with his goods into foreign lands, and the son sat on the counter and engaged in trade. He grew into the habit, whether he were going into the shop or returning home, always to go and stand in front of his foal.
Now, his stepmother did not love her stepson, and looked out for fortune-tellers to learn how to get rid of him. At last she found an old wise woman, who gave her a poison and bade her put it under the threshold just when her stepson was coming in. As he came back from the shop, the merchant's son went into the stable and saw that his foal was standing in tears, and so he stroked him and asked, "Why, my good horse, do you weep? Why your counsel do you keep?"
Then the foal answered, "Oh, Iván the merchant's son, my beloved master, why should I not weep? Your stepmother is trying to ruin you. You have a dog: when you go home let it go in front of you, and you will see what will come to it."
So the merchant's son listened, and as soon as ever the dog crossed the threshold it was torn into small atoms.
Iván the merchant's son never let his stepmother know that he saw through her spite, and set out next day to the shop, whilst the stepmother went to see the soothsayer. So the old woman got a second poison, and bade her put it into the trough. In the evening, as he went home, the merchant's son went into the stable; and once more the foal was standing on tip-toes and in tears; and he struck him on the haunches and said, "Why, my good horse, do you weep? Why your counsel do you keep?"
Then the foal answered, "Why should I not weep, my master, Iván the merchant's son? I hear a very great misfortune—that your stepmother wishes to ruin you. Look when you go into the room and sit down at the table: your mother will bring you a draught in the glass. Do you not drink it, but pour it out of the window: you will yourself see what will happen outside."
Iván the merchant's son did as he was bidden and as soon as ever he had thrown the draught out of the window it began to rend the earth; and again he never said a single word to his stepmother; so she still thought that he was in the dark.
On the third day he went to the shop, and the stepmother again went to the soothsayer. The old woman gave her an enchanted shirt. In the evening, as he was going out of the shop, the merchant's son went up to the foal, and he saw that there stood his good horse on tip-toes and in tears. So he struck him by the bridle and said, "Why do you weep, my good horse? Why your counsel do you keep?"
Then the foal answered him, "Why should I not weep? Do I not know that your stepmother is wishing to destroy you? Listen to what I say. When you go home your stepmother will send you to the bath, and she will send the boy to you with a shirt. Do not put on the shirt yourself, but put it on the boy, and you will see yourself what will come of it."
So the merchant's son went up to his attic, and his stepmother came and said to him, "Would you not like to have a steam bath? The bath is now ready."
"Very well," said Iván, and he went into the bath, and very soon after the boy brought him a shirt. As soon as ever the merchant's son put it on the boy he that very instant closed his eyes and fell on the floor, as though he were dead. And when he took the shirt off him and cast it into the stove, the boy revived, but the stove was split into small pieces.
The stepmother saw that she was doing no good, so she again went to the old soothsayer and asked and besought her how she should destroy her stepson. The old woman answered, "As long as the horse is alive nothing can be brought about. But you pretend to be ill, and when your husband comes back tell him, 'I saw in my sleep that the throat of our foal must be cut and the liver extracted, and I must be rubbed with the liver; then my disease will pass away.'"
Some time after the merchant came back, and the son went out to meet him.
"Hail, my son!" said the father. "Is all well with you at home?"
"All is well, only mother is ill," he answered.
So the merchant unloaded his wares and went home, and he found his wife lying in the bedclothes groaning, saying, "I can only recover if you will fulfil my dream."
So the merchant agreed at once, summoned his son and said, "Now, my son, I want to cut the throat of your horse: your mother is ill, and I must cure her."
So Iván the merchant's son wept bitterly and said, "Oh, father, you wish to take away from me my last luck!" Then he went into the stable.
The foal saw him and said, "My beloved master, I have saved you from three deaths—do you now save me from one. Ask your father that you may go out on my back for the last time to fare in the open fields with your companions."
So the son asked his father for leave to go into the open field for the last time on the horse, and the father agreed. Iván the merchant's son mounted his horse, leapt into the open field, and went and diverted himself with his friends and companions. Then he sent his father a letter in this wise: "Do you cure my stepmother with a twelve-tongued whip—this is the best means of curing her illness." He sent this letter with one of his good companions, and himself went into foreign lands.
The merchant read the letter, and began curing his wife with a twelve-tongued whip: and she very soon recovered.
The merchant's son went out into the open field, into the wide plains, and he saw horned cattle grazing in front of him.
So the good horse said, "Iván the merchant's son, let me go free at will, and do you pull three little hairs out of my tail: whenever I can be of service to you burn a single hair, and I shall appear at once in front of you, like a leaf in front of the grass. But you, good youth, go to the herd, buy a bull and cut its throat; dress yourself in the bull's hide, put a bladder on your head, and wherever you go, whatever you are asked about, answer only this one word, 'Idonotknow.'"
Iván the merchant's son let his horse go free, dressed himself in the bull's hide, put a bladder on his head, and went beyond the seas. On the blue sea there was a ship a-sailing. The ship's crew saw this marvel—an animal which was not an animal, a man that was not a man, with a bladder on his head and with fur all round him. So they sailed up to the shore in a light boat and began to ask him and to inquire of him. Iván the merchant's son only returned one answer, "Idonotknow."
"If it be so, then your name must be 'Donotknow.'" Then the ship's crew took him, carried him on board the boat, and they sailed to their King.
May-be long, may-be short, they at last reached a capital city, went to the King with gifts, and informed him of Donotknow. So the King bade the portent be presented before his eyes. So they brought Donotknow into the palace, and the people came up from all parts, seen and unseen, to gaze on him.
Then the King began to ask him, "What sort of a man are you?"
"From what lands have you come?"
"From what race and from what place?"
Then the King put Donotknow into the garden as a scarecrow, to frighten the birds from the apple trees, and he bade him be fed from his royal kitchen.
Now this king had three daughters: the elder ones were beautiful, but the younger fairer still. Very soon the son of the King of the Arabs began asking for the hand of the youngest daughter, and he wrote to the King with threats such as this, "If you do not give her to me of your good will, I will take her by force."
This did not suit the King at all, so he answered the Arab prince in this wise, "Do you begin the war, and it shall go as God shall will."
So the Prince assembled a countless multitude and laid siege.
Donotknow shook off his oxhide, took off his bladder, went into the open fields, burnt one of the hairs, and cried out in a grim voice with a knightly whistle. From some source or other a wondrous horse appeared in front of him, and the steed galloped up, and the earth trembled. "Hail, doughty youth, why do you want me so speedily?"
"Go and prepare for war!"
So Donotknow sat on his good horse, and the horse asked him, "Where shall I carry you—aloft, under the trees, or over the standing woods?"
"Carry me over the standing woods."
So the horse raised himself from the earth and flew over the hostile host. Then Donotknow leapt upon the enemies, seized a warlike sword from one of them, tore a golden helmet from another of them, and put them on himself; covered his face with the visor, and set to slaying the Arab host. Wherever he turned, heads flew: it was like mowing hay. The King and the Princess looked on in amazement from the city wall: "What a mighty hero it must be! Whence has he come? Is it Egóri the Brave who has come to help us?"
But they never imagined that it was Donotknow whom the King had set in the garden as a scarecrow. Donotknow slew many of that host, and even more than he slew his horse trampled down, and he left only the Arab Prince alive and ten men as a suite to see him home. After this great combat he rode back to the town wall and said, "Your kingly Majesty, has my service pleased you?" Then the King thanked him and asked him in as a guest. But Donotknow would not come. He leapt into the open field, sent away his good horse, turned back home, put on the bladder and the bull's hide, and began to walk about in the garden, as before, just like a scarecrow.
Some time went by, not too much, not too little, and the Arab Prince again wrote to the King, "If you do not give me your youngest daughter's hand I will burn up all your kingdom and will take her prisoner."
This also did not please the King, and so he wrote in answer that he would await him with his host. Once again the Arab Prince collected a countless host, larger than before, and he besieged the King from all sides, having three mighty knights standing in front.
Donotknow learned of this, shook off the bull's hide, took off the bladder, summoned his good horse, and leapt to the field. One knight came to meet him. They met in combat, greeted each other and set at each other with their lances. The knight struck Donotknow so doughtily that he could hardly hold on by one stirrup. Then he got up, flew like a youth, struck off the knight's head, seized him, and threw him over, saying, "This is how all of your heads shall fly." Then another knight came out, and it happened likewise with him; and a third came, and Donotknow fought with him for one whole hour. The knight cut his hand and drew blood, but Donotknow cut off his head and threw it with the rest. Then all of the Arab host trembled and turned back. Just then the King, with the Princesses, was standing on the town wall; and the youngest Princess saw that blood was flowing from the valiant champion's hand, took a kerchief off her neck and bound up the wound herself; and the King summoned him as a guest. "I will come one day," said Donotknow, "but not this time." So he leapt into the open field, dismissed his horse, dressed himself in his oxhide, put the bladder on his head, and began walking up and down the garden like a scarecrow.
Some time went by, not much, not little, and the King gave his two elder daughters away to famous Tsarévichi. He was making ready for a great celebration, and the guests came to walk in the garden; and they saw Donotknow and asked, "What sort of a monster is this?"
So the King said, "This is Donotknow: I am using him as a scarecrow: he keeps the birds off my apple trees."
But the youngest daughter looked at Donotknow's hand and observed her kerchief on it, blushed and never said a word. From that time she began to walk into the garden and to gaze on Donotknow, and became thoughtful, never giving heed to the festivals and to the merriment.
"Where are you always going, my daughter?" asked her father.
"Oh, father, I have lived so many years with you, I have so often walked in the garden, and I have never seen such a delightful bird as I saw there just now!"
Then she began to ask her father to give her his blessing and to wed her to Donotknow. And for all the father might do to convince her, she insisted. "If you will not give me to him, I will remain unmarried all my life and will seek no other man." So the father agreed and he betrothed them.
Soon afterwards the Arab Prince wrote to him for the third time and asked for the hand of his youngest daughter. "If you will not consent, I will consume all of your kingdom with fire, and I will take her by main force."
Then the King answered, "My daughter is already promised: if you wish, come yourself and you will see. So the Prince came, and when he saw what a monster was betrothed to the fair Princess he thought he would slay Donotknow, and he summoned him to mortal combat.
Donotknow shook off his oxhide, took the bladder from his head, summoned his good horse and rode out, so fair a youth as no tale can tell and no pen can write.
They met in the open field, in the wide plains, and the list lasted long. Iván the merchant's son killed the Arab Prince. Then at last the King recognised that Donotknow was not a monster but a splendid and handsome knight, and he made him his heir. Iván the merchant's son lived on in his kingdom for good and lived all for happiness, took his own father to stay with him, but consigned his stepmother to punishment.