Russian Folk-Tales/The Snake Princess
THE SNAKE PRINCESS
A Cossack was going on his road and way, and he arrived in the sleepy forest, and in that forest, in a glade, stood a hayrick. So the Cossack stood in front just to have a little rest, lay down in front of the hayrick and smoked his pipe, went on smoking, smoking, and never saw that a spark had fallen into the hay. After his rest he again mounted his horse and went on his road.
But he had gone only some dozen paces, when a flame blazed out and lit up the wood. Then the Cossack looked back steadily, and saw the hayrick burning, and in the middle of the flame a fair maiden standing, saying in a threatening voice, "Cossack, good man, save me from death!"
"How shall I save you? I see flames all around and cannot get up to you."
"Thrust your pike into the flame: I will jump out on to it."
So the Cossack thrust his pike into the flame and leapt to avoid the great heat. Then the fair maiden turned into a snake, crept on to the pike, crawled round the Cossack's neck, coiled herself round his neck three times and put her tail between her mouth. The Cossack was frightened and had no notion what he should do or what should come to him.
Then the snake spoke to him in a human voice: "Do not be frightened, good youth; bear me on your neck for seven years, and go to seek the Kingdom of Tin: when you arrive in that kingdom stay there and live there seven years more, and do not ever leave it: if you serve this service you shall be happy."
So the Cossack went to look for the Kingdom of Tin; much time went by, much water flowed in the river, and at the end of the seventh year he at last reached a steep mountain, and on that mountain stood a castle of tin, and around the castle was a lofty white stone wall. So he climbed up the mountain, and the wall opened in front of him, and he arrived at a broad courtyard. At that same instant the snake disentailed herself from his neck, struck the grey earth, and turned into the maiden of his soul, vanished from his eyes as though she had never been there.
The Cossack stabled his horse, went into the palace, and began looking at the rooms: there were looking-lasses all about, silver and velvet, but never a soul of a man to be seen. "Ah!" thought the Cossack, "Wherever have I got to? Who will give me food and drink? I must here die of thirst and hunger." And whilst he was thinking this, lo and behold! in front of him stood a covered table, and on the table was food and drink, enough for all. So he tasted what he would, drank what he would, strengthened his body, and thought of mounting on his horse to survey. He went into the stable, and the horse was standing in the stall and was eagerly devouring oats.
Well, this affair had turned out very well after all; possibly he might go on living without any suffering. So the Cossack stayed for a very, very long time in the tin castle, until he became wearied unto death: it might be a joke, but he was always alone and could never exchange as much as a whisper with anybody. So, from sheer grief, he drank himself drunk and thought he would go out into the free world. But wherever he ventured forth there were lofty walls, with neither an entrance nor an exit. So he grew very angry, and the doughty youth took his cudgel, went into the palace and began knocking about the looking-glasses and mirrors, tearing up the velvet, breaking the chairs, shattering the silver. Possibly, he thought, the owner might come and let him free. But no, never a soul appeared!
Then the Cossack lay down to sleep. Next day he woke up, went for a walk and a saunter, and he thought he would like to have some food, and he looked around: there was nothing to be had. "Ah!" he thought, "The slave rains on herself the blows if unfaithfully she mows. I smoked to death yesterday, and to-day I must starve."
He had despaired. And that very instant food and drink stood ready for him.
Three days went by: the Cossack slept in the morning, and then looked out of the window, and his good horse stood saddled at the steps. What did that mean? So he washed and dressed, prayed to God, took his long pike and went into the open courtyard.
Suddenly, from somewhere or other, the fair maiden appeared and said, "Health to you, good youth: the seven years are over. You saved me from my perdition and my end. Now, listen to me: I am a king's daughter; Koshchéy the Deathless fell in love with me, took me away from my father and from my mother, wished to marry me, but I always laughed at him. Then he grew angry, and he turned me into a wild snake: I thank you for your long service. We will fare forth to my father's court; he will wish to reward you with gold from his treasury and with precious stones: but do you take nothing of them. Simply ask for the keg which is lying in his cellar."
"But what is the use of that?"
"If you turn that keg to the right a palace appears forthwith, if you turn it to the left, it vanishes."
"Very well," said the Cossack.
So he mounted his steed, set himself and the fair princess on it, and the lofty walls moved away from before him, and they set out on their road and way. May be long, may be short, at last they arrived at the kingdom named: the king saw his daughter and was overjoyed, began expressing his thanks and gave the Cossack sacks full of gold and pearls: but the doughty youth answered him, "I desire neither gold nor pearls, give me as a remembrance of you simply the keg which is lying in your cellar."
"You ask for a great gift, brother; but I must do what you say, for my daughter is dearer to me than all else that I have here. I do not regret the barrel; take it and go with God."
So the Cossack took the royal gift and set out to roam through the white world. He went on and on, and he met an ancient old man on the way: the old man answered him, "Give me food and drink, good youth!"
So the Cossack leapt from his horse, undid the keg, turned it to the right, and a miraculous palace appeared on the spot: both of them went into the painted rooms and sat on covered chairs. "Ho, ye my faithful servants!" cried out the Cossack, "give food and drink to this guest." Before ever the words were uttered, the servants brought an entire ox and three casks of beer.
The old man set to and gourmandised, making the best of it. He ate the entire ox, and he drank the three casks of beer, croaked and said, "That was a small gift: still I cannot help it. I thank you for the bread and salt." Then they went out of the palace, and the Cossack turned his keg to the left, and there was no sign of the palace.
"Let us exchange," said the old man to the Cossack. "I will give you a sword, and you give me the keg: what is the use of the keg to you? This is a sword which slays of itself: you need only wave it, and however incalculable the force may be it will slay them all in front of it. You see that forest? Shall I show you what it can do?" Then the old man drew his sword and said to it, "Set to work, self-slaying sword, and despoil all the dreamy forest." So the sword flew out of his hands, cut down the trees, and laid them all down in regular boards. Then, after it had cut them down, it came back to its master.
So the Cossack did not long bethink him, but gave the old man his keg and took the self-slaying sword waved the sword, and killed the old man. Then he tied the keg to his saddle, mounted his horse, and thought he would go back to the King. But just then a terrible enemy was besieging the capital city of that King, and the Cossack saw an incalculable host and array, waved his sword and said, "Self-slaying sword, serve me a service and spill the hostile host." And then there was a fine sight— heads flying about, blood flowing freely—and within one hour all the field was covered with corpses.
Then the King came out, kissed him, and decided to give him the fair princess to wife.
It was a gorgeous wedding. I was there at the wedding. I drank mead and wine: it flowed up to my whiskers, but it never entered my mouth.