Russian Folk-Tales/The Miraculous Hen
THE MIRACULOUS HEN
Beyond thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-tenth realm—it was not in our kingdom—once an old man and an old woman lived in great need and poverty. They had two sons, who were very young and as yet of no use for field work. So the old man got up himself, and himself did all the work; he went out and looked after the labourers, and for all that he could only earn a few pence.
As he was going home one day he met a sorry drunkard, who had a hen in his hands. "Will you, old man, buy my hen?"
"What do you want for it?"
"Give me fifty kopeks for it."
"No, brother; take these few pence—that will be enough for you; you will get a pint and can drink it out on your way home and go to sleep."
So the drunkard took the pence and gave the old man the hen.
Then the old man returned home. But they were very hungry there; there was not a crust of bread. "Here," he said, as he came in, to his wife, "here is a hen I have bought you."
But his wife turned on him fiercely and scolded him.
"What an old fool you are! You must have gone utterly mad: our children are sitting down at home without any bread, and you buy a hen which you must feed!"
"Hold your tongue, foolish woman; does a hen eat so much? Why, she will lay us an egg and will bring us chicks; we can sell the chicks and then buy bread."
So the old man made a little nest and he put the hen under the stove. In the morning he looked, and the hen had laid a jewel of absolutely natural colours. So the old man said to his wife, "Now, old lady; amongst other folks the hens lay eggs, but our hen lays jewels: what shall we do?"
"Take it into the city; possibly somebody may buy it."
So the old man went into the city, went into all the inns by turns and showed his precious stone. All the merchants gathered round him and began valuing the stone. They valued it and valued it, and it was at last bought for five hundred roubles.
From that day the old man went on trading in precious stones which his hen laid him, and he very soon became enriched, had himself inscribed into the merchants' guild, put up a shop, hired apprentices, and set up sea-faring ships to carry his wares into foreign lands. One day he was going into foreign parts, and he bade his wife have a great heed to the hen: "Treasure her more than your eyes; should she be lost, you shall forfeit your own head."
As soon as he had gone the old woman began to think evil thoughts. For she was great friends with one of the young apprentices.
"Where do you get these precious stones from?" the apprentice asked her.
"Oh, it is our hen that lays them."
So the apprentice took the hen, looked, and under the right wing he saw written in gold: "Whoever eats this hen's head shall become a king, and whoever eats her liver shall spit out gold."
So he told the wife, "Bake me the hen for supper."
"Oh, my dear friend, how can I? My husband will be coming back and will punish me."
But the apprentice would not listen to any argument. "Bake it," he said—that was all.
The next day the old woman got supper ready, made ready to twist the hen's neck and to roast it for supper with the head and the liver. The cook twisted the hen's neck and put her into the oven, and himself went out. But in that time the two little children of the house, who were at school, ran in, looked into the oven, and wanted to nibble. The elder brother ate the head and the youngest ate the liver.
When supper-time came, the hen was put on the table, but when the apprentice saw that both the head and the liver were missing he was very angry, quarrelled with the old woman and went home. The old woman followed him and wheedled, but he still insisted: "You bring your children, take their liver out and brains, and give them me for supper; otherwise I will have nothing to do with you."
So the old woman put her children to bed, called the cook and bade him take them whilst they were asleep into the wood, there kill them and extract their liver and their brains and get them ready for supper. The cook took the children into the slumbrous forest, stopped, and made ready to whet the knife.
The boys woke up and asked, "Why are you sharpening the knife?"
"Because your mother has bidden me take out your liver and brains and cook them."
"Oh, grandfather, little dove, do not slay us; we will give you all the gold you desire, only pity us and let us free." So the younger brother filled his skirt with gold, and the cook was contented with this and he set them free.
So the boys went forth into the forest and he turned back. Fortunately for him a bitch came his way, so he took her two puppies, took their livers and brains, roasted them and gave them for supper. The apprentice was very pleased with the dish, swallowed it all, and became neither a king nor a king's son, but simply a fool.
The boys went out of the wood on the broad road, and went whither their eyes gazed—maybe far, maybe short, they went. Soon the road divided into two, and a column stood there, and on the column it was written:
"WHO GOES TO THE RIGHT SHALL RECEIVE A KINGDOM,
WHO GOES TO THE LEFT SHALL RECEIVE MUCH OF EVIL AND OF GRIEF,
BUT HE SHALL MARRY A FAIR PRINCESS."
So the brothers considered this inscription, and decided to go in different directions; the elder went to the right and the younger to the left.
The elder went on and on, and soon came to an unknown capital city. He also saw a mass of people, only they were all mourning and sad. So he begged shelter of a poor old widow. "Will you protect," he said, "a foreigner from the dark night?"
"I should be very glad to have you," she said, "but I cannot put you anywhere, I am so closely packed."
"Do let me in, bábushka; I am such a simple youth, just as you are; you can find me some small space, some kind of nook for the night."
So the old woman admitted him, and they began to speak.
"Why, bábushka" the stranger asked, "is there such a throng in the city, why are rooms so dear, and why are the people all mourning and melancholy?"
"Well, our king has just died, and the boyárs have sent the town-crier out to announce that old and young are to assemble, and each of them is to have a candle, and with the candles they are to go into the cathedral, and whosesoever's candle lights of itself is to be king."
So in the morning the boy got up, washed, prayed to God, said the grace for the bread and salt and the soft bed which his hostess had given him, and went into the cathedral. When he got there, if you had been there three years you could not have counted all those people. And he took a candle in his hand, and it lit up at once. So they all burst upon him and began to blow out his candle, to damp it, but the flame lit all the brighter. There was no help for it: they acknowledged him as their king, and dressed him in golden apparel and led him to the palace.
But the younger brother, who had turned to the left, heard that there was a fair princess in a certain kingdom who was indescribably lovely. But she was very grudging, and she announced in all countries that she would only marry the man who could feed her army for three whole years; yet every one had to try his luck. So the boy went there, and he went on his way, went on the broad road. And he spat into his little bag, and spat it full of pure gold. Well, it may be long, it may be short, it may be near, it may be far, but he at last reached the fair princess, and he said he would accomplish her task. He had no need to ask for gold, he simply had to spit and there it was. For three years he maintained the princess's army, gave it food and drink and dress.
So the time came for a jolly feast and for the wedding. But the princess was still full of wiles. She asked herself and she sought to know whence God had sent him such enormous wealth. So she invited him to be her guest, received him, honoured him. And the doughty youth fell sick, and he vomited up the liver of the hen, and the Tsarévna swallowed it. From that day gold fell from her lips, and she would not have her bridegroom with her. "What shall I do with this ignoramus?" she asked her boyárs, and she asked her generals. "He has had the idiotic idea of wanting to marry me."
So the boyárs said he must be hung, and the generals said he must be shot. But the Tsarévna had a better idea—that he ought to be sent to hell.
So the doughty youth escaped and once more set forth on his road. And he had only one thought in his mind, how he should make himself wise and revenge himself on the Tsarévna for her unkind jest. So he went on and went on, and he came into the dreamy wood, and he looked and he saw three men fighting with their fists.
"What are you fighting about?"
"We have three finds in the road, and we cannot divide them; every one wants them for himself."
"What are the finds? what are you contending for?"
"Look, this is a barrel: you only have to knock it, and a soldier leaps out of its mouth. This is a flying carpet: wherever you think it will take you. And this is a whip: strike a maiden and say 'You have been a maiden, now become a mare,' and she will become a mare at once."
"These are valuable gifts, and they are hard to divide. But this is the way out: I will send an arrow in this direction, and you all run after it; he who reaches it first shall have the barrel, and the second shall have the flying carpet, and the third shall have the whip."
"Very well; shoot the dart."
So the youth sent out the arrow very far. The three darted after it and ran, and they never looked up. But the doughty youth took the barrel and the whip, sat upon the flying carpet, waved it one end, and he rose higher than the forest that stood there, lower than the clouds above, and he flew whither he would.
So he went back to the forbidden lands of the fair princess, began beating the barrel, and an enormous army came out; infantry, cavalry and artillery, with cannon and with powder waggons. And the mighty host rolled on and rolled on. The doughty youth asked for a horse, mounted it, and went up to his army and commanded it. The drums beat out and the trumpets sounded, and the army went at a pace. Then the Tsarévna saw from her rooms and was very much frightened, and sent her boyárs and generals to ask for peace. The good youth bade these ambassadors be seized, had them cruelly and savagely punished and sent them back to the Tsarévna, who was to come herself and ask for a reconciliation.
Well, there was no help for it: so the Tsarévna herself got out of her carriage, recognised him and swooned. But he took the whip, struck her on the back: "You are a maiden, now became a mare!" And the Tsarévna turned into a mare. He bridled and rode her, and went to the kingdom of his elder brother. He galloped at a full pace, put both spurs into her back and used a scourge of three iron rods, and the army followed him, an unbelievable host. It may be long, it may be short, at last they came to the boundary, and the doughty youth stopped, collected his army into the barrel, and went to the capital. He went straight to the royal palace, and the king himself saw him and looked at the mare and began to wonder: "What is this great hero approaching? I have never seen such a fine mare in all my life." So he sent his generals to trade for that horse.
"No, what an envious king you have!" said the youth. "It would evidently be out of the question in your city to come here with a young wife; if you are so greedy for a mare, you would certainly take away my wife."
Then he went to the palace and said, "Hail, brother!"
"Oh, I never knew you!"
So they set to kissing each other.
"What sort of barrel have you?"
"That is for drinking. How should I journey forth on the road otherwise?"
"And the carpet?"
"Sit down and you will find out."
So they sat on the flying carpet, and the younger brother shook it at the corner and they flew higher than the forest, lower than the wandering cloud, straight back to their own country. So they flew back, took a room with their father, and as to who they were they never told their father and mother. So they then thought they would give a feast to all the christened world. They assembled all the people in countless hosts, and for three whole days they gave food and drink to all without requital, without any charge. And afterwards every one began saying had any one a tale of wonder to tell; let him start. But no one would say: "We, it is said, are strange folk, but——"
"Well, I will tell you a story," said the younger brother; "only do not talk until the end. Whoever interrupts three times is to be ruthlessly punished." So they all agreed.
And he began to tell how the two old folks had lived together, how they had had a hen which laid jewels, and how the mother had made friends with the apprentice. "What a lie!" interrupted the mistress. But the son went on with his tale. And he narrated how they had twisted the hen's neck, and the mother again interrupted. At last the story went up to the point when the old woman wished to take away the children, and again she would not stand it: "It is untrue!" she said. "Could ever such a thing happen? Could ever a mother wish to be torn from her children?"
"Obviously, it is possible. Look at us, mother; we are your children."
Then the whole story came out, and the father bade his wife be chopped up into bits. He tied the apprentice to the tail of horses, and the horses broke in every direction and scattered his bones over the fields. "Let the dog die a dog's death!" said the old man. And he gave all his property to the poor and went to live in his elder son's kingdom.
But the younger son smote his mare with the back of his hand and said, "You are a mare; now become a maiden!" So the mare turned into the fair Tsarévna. They made peace, became friends and wedded. It was a magnificent wedding.
I was there, I drank mead and it flowed up to my beard, but none came into my mouth.