Russian Folk-Tales/The Tsarítsa Harpist

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In a certain kingdom in a certain land once there lived a Tsar and a Tsarítsa. He lived with her for some time, then he thought he would go to that far distant country where the Jews crucified Christ. So he issued orders to his ministers, bade farewell to his wife, and set out on his road.

It may-be far, it may-be short, he at last reached that distant land where the Jews crucified Christ. And in that country then the Accursèd King was the ruler. This King saw the Tsar, and he bade him be seized and lodged in the dungeon. There were many tortures in that dungeon for him. At night he must sit in chains, and in the morning the Accursèd King used to put a horse-collar on him and make him drive the plough until the evening. This was the torment in which the Tsar lived for three whole years, and he had no idea how he should tear himself away or send any news of himself to his Tsarítsa. And he sought for some occasion. And he wrote her this little line: "Sell," he said, "all my possessions and come to redeem me from my misfortune."

When the Tsarítsa received the letter she read it through and said to herself, "How can I redeem the Tsar? If I go myself, the Accursèd King will receive me and will take me to himself as a wife. If I send one of the ministers, I can place no reliance on him." So what did she advise? She cut off her red hair, went and disguised herself as a wandering musician, took her gusli, and never told anybody, and so set out on her road and way.

She arrived at the Accursèd King's courtyard and began to play the gusli so finely as had never been heard or listened to for ages. When the King heard such wonderful music he summoned the harpist into the palace. "Hail, guslyár! From what land have you come? From what kingdom?" asked the King.

"I do not journey far[1] in the wide white world: I rejoice men's hearts and I feed myself."

"Stay with me one day and another day, and a third, and I will reward you generously."

So the guslyár stayed on, and played for an entire day in front of the King, and he could never hear enough of her. "What wonderful music! why, it drove away all weariness and grief as though at a breath."

So guslyár the stayed with the King three days, and was going to say farewell.

"What reward can I offer you for your labour?" asked the King.

"Oh, your Majesty, give me one prisoner who has sat long in the prison; I must have a companion on the road! I wish to go to foreign kingdoms, and I have no one with whom I can exchange a word."

"Certainly! Select whom you will," said the King, and he led the guslyár into the prison.

The guslyár looked at the prisoners, selected the Tsar, and they went out to roam together.

As they were journeying on to their own kingdom the Tsar said, "Let me go, good man, for I am no simple prisoner, I am the Tsar himself. I will pay you ransom for as much as you will; I will grudge you neither money nor service."

"Go with God," said the guslyár: "I do not need you at all."

"Well, come to me as my guest."

"When the time shall come, I will be there."

So they parted, and each set out on his own way. The Tsarítsa went by a circuitous route, reached home before her husband, took off her guslyár's dress and arrayed herself like an empress.

In about one hour cries rang out and the attendants came up to the palace, for the Tsar had arrived. The Tsarítsa ran out to meet him, and he greeted them all, but he did not look at her. He greeted the ministers and said, "Look, gentlemen, what a wife mine is! Now she flings herself on my neck, but when I sat in prison and sent her a letter to sell all my goods and to redeem me she did nothing. Of what was she thinking if she so forgot her liege husband?"

And the ministers answered the Tsar, "Your Majesty, on the very day the Tsarítsa received your letter she vanished no one knows where, and has been away all this time, and she has only just appeared in the palace."

Then the Tsar was very angry and commanded, "My ministers, do ye judge my unfaithful wife according to justice and to truth. Where has she been roaming in the white world? Why did she not try to redeem me? You would never have seen your Tsar again for ages of eternity, if a young guslyár had not arrived, for whom I am going to pray God, and I do not grudge giving him half my kingdom."

In the meantime the Tsarítsa got off her throne and arrayed herself as the harpist, went into the courtyard and began to play the gusli. The Tsar heard, ran to meet her, seized the musician by the hand, led her into the palace and said to his Court, "This is the guslyár who rescued me from my confinement." The guslyár then flung off his outer garment, and they then all recognised the Tsarítsa. Then the Tsar was overjoyed and for his joy he celebrated a feast which lasted seven whole days.

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. Russian: Сызмала хожу (I have journeyed since I was a child) (Wikisource contributor note)