There was once a Tsar who had three sons, and they were all dear to him, but the youngest, Ivan, was the dearest of them all.
When the Princes grew to manhood the Tsar began to talk and talk to them about getting married, but it so happened not one of the Princes had ever seen the girl he wished to have for a wife. There were many in the kingdom whom they might well have loved, but not one of them meant more to any of the Princes than another.
“Very well, then,” said the Tsar at last, “we will leave it to chance. Take your bows and arrows and come with me into the courtyard. You shall each shoot an arrow, and in whatever places your arrows fall, there shall you take your brides.”
The Princes were not greatly pleased with this plan, but still they dared not say no to their father. They took their bows and went with him into the courtyard.
First the eldest son shot his arrow, and he aimed it toward the east, where the sun rises. The arrow fell upon the balcony of a great nobleman’s house.
Well and good! The nobleman had a daughter, and she was so stately and handsome that the Prince was very glad to take her for a wife.
Then the second Prince shot an arrow and aimed it toward the west, where the sun is in its glory. He was no less lucky than his brother, for his arrow fell into the court of a rich merchant, and he also had a daughter who was a beauty. So the second son took her for a bride, and he was well content.
Last of all Prince Ivan shot his arrow, and he aimed neither toward the east nor the west, but straight up into the sky above him. Then a sudden gust of wind arose and caught the arrow and blew it away so that it fell in a great swamp. In this swamp were no rich nor beautiful ladies, but only a poor, green, croaking frog.
When the young Prince Ivan saw where his arrow had fallen he was in despair. “How can I marry a frog,” said he, “and have her rule with me as my Princess?”
“It is a great pity,” said the Tsar; “nevertheless what I have said I have said, and where your arrow fell there must you take your bride.”
So Prince Ivan was married to the frog, and the Tsar built a castle on the edge of the swamp for them to live in.
Now the Tsar was growing old, and he began to consider in his mind to which of his sons he would leave his kingdom. Gladly would he have left it to his youngest son, who was his favorite, but it did not seem right that a frog should ever rule over the kingdom as Queen.
At last he called the three Princes before him and said, “My sons, to-morrow let your wives bake me some soft white bread. I will eat of it, and in this way I will know which of you has the cleverest wife, and he who has the cleverest wife shall inherit my kingdom.”
After they had heard him the three Princes went away to their own homes, and Prince Ivan was very sad.
“What ails you, my dear husband,” said the frog, “that you hang your head and are so downcast?”
“It is no wonder I am downcast,” answered Prince Ivan. “My father has commanded that you shall make him a loaf of soft white bread to-morrow, and well I know that your webby fingers can never make bread that he would taste or even so much as look at.”
“Do not be too sure of that,” answered the frog. “Sleep in peace, and I promise that to-morrow I will provide a loaf that even the Tsar will be glad to eat of.”
The Prince did not believe this, but grief is heavy, so no sooner was he in bed than he fell into a deep sleep.
Then the frog arose from beside him and went into a far-off room and took off her frog-skin; for she was really a Princess who had been enchanted. She combed her hair and washed herself and then she went out on the balcony of the castle and cried, “Nurses dear, nurses dear, bring me a loaf of bread such as I used to have in the palace of my own dear father, the King.”
After she had called this three times three crows appeared, carrying among them a fine napkin embroidered with gold, and in this napkin was a loaf of bread. They laid the napkin before the Princess and bowed three times, croaking solemnly, and then they flew away again into the night.
The Princess took up the bread and went back into the room and put on her frog-skin again; after that she returned to her chamber and lay down beside her husband.
The next day when the Prince was ready to set out for the Tsar’s palace, the frog brought him the loaf of bread still wrapped in the napkin.
“Take this, dear husband,” said she, “and carry it to your father, the Tsar, but do not open it on the way lest the dust should spoil the fineness of the bread.”
The Prince took the loaf and rode away with it, but he could not forbear from peeping into the napkin to see what was there, and what he saw filled him with admiration and wonder. Quickly he rode on his way, and soon reached the Tsar’s palace.
The two older brothers were there, and each brought a loaf of fine white bread that his wife had made.
When Prince Ivan entered his brothers could not forbear from smiling. “Come!” said they, “show us quickly what kind of bread the Frog Princess has made. Does it smell of reeds and rushes?”
The young Prince made no answer but gave what he carried to his father.
When the Tsar saw the fineness of the napkin and the beautiful embroidery upon it he was very much surprised. But he was still more surprised when he opened the napkin and saw what it contained. Never before had he seen such bread. Not only was it soft and light and fine, but it was molded along the sides in cunning scenes, castles and cities, moats and bridges, and upon the top was the imprint of the royal eagle, perfect even to the claws and feathers.
The Tsar could not admire it enough. Still he was not willing to leave the kingdom to Prince Ivan and so make a queen of a frog.
“This is very beautiful, but a loaf of bread is soon eaten and forgotten,” said he. “I now wish each one of you to bring me a carpet to lay before my throne, and he who brings me the finest carpet, him will I make my heir.”
The Princes returned to their own homes, and the youngest one was very sad and sorrowful.
“What ails you, my dear husband?” asked the frog. “Why are you so downcast, and why do you hang your head. Was not the Tsar pleased with the bread you carried to him?”
“He was well pleased,” answered the Prince; “but now he has commanded each one of us to bring him a carpet, and to him who brings the finest carpet he will leave his kingdom. No wonder I am sad, for where, in this swamp, can I find a carpet such as I require?”
“Do not trouble yourself about that,” answered the frog. “Do you go and lie down and go quietly to sleep. I will supply you such a carpet as you need.”
The Prince did not believe her, but because grief is heavy he lay down and soon fell into a deep sleep.
Again as before the frog stole away to a distant chamber and laid aside her frog-skin. Then she went out on the balcony and cried aloud three times; “Nurses dear, nurses true, bring me a carpet such as lay before my bed in my own home.”
At once the three crows appeared, carrying among them a carpet rolled up and covered with a piece of embroidered velvet. They laid the roll before the Princess, bowed three times, and then flew away again.
The Princess carried the carpet back into the chamber and put on her frog-skin again, and then she went back and lay down quietly beside the Prince.
The next morning when the Prince was ready to set out, the frog brought the roll of carpet to him.
“Here,” said she; “carry this to your father, but do not open it upon the way lest the dust spoil its beauty.”
The Prince took the carpet and rode away. When he reached the Tsar’s palace his two brothers were already there, and each had brought with him a piece of carpet so fine and rich that it was difficult to say which of the two was the more beautiful.
When the older brothers saw Ivan they began to laugh. “Come!” said they. “Let us see what kind of a carpet he has brought from his swamp home. No doubt it is very wonderful.”
The Prince laid the roll of carpet upon the floor and opened it out and when they saw it every one was struck with wonder. The elder Princes had not a word to say. Never before had they seen such a carpet. Not only was it as thick and soft as eiderdown, but it shone with wondrous colors that changed as one looked at them, and it was embroidered with gold in strange designs.
The Tsar was filled with admiration. All the same he still was unwilling to have a frog reign in his kingdom.
“This is all very well,” said he, “and never before have I seen such a beautiful carpet. But now I wish you all to appear before me to-morrow with your wives. Let the Princesses wear their most beautiful dresses and their finest jewels, and whichever of you has the wife best fitted to be Queen, to him will I leave the kingdom.”
When the Prince Ivan heard this he was in despair. How could he ever bring the frog to court and present her to the Tsar as though she were a beautiful Princess?
When he went home the frog at once asked him why he was so sad and woebegone. “Is not the kingdom to be yours?” she asked.
“No,” answered the Prince, “for now my father, the Tsar, has demanded something else of us.” He then told her how the Tsar had bidden him and his brothers bring their wives to court, and had said that whichever of the Princesses was the finest and most beautiful should reign as Queen, and her husband should be the Tsar.
“Do not trouble over that,” said the frog. “Only go to bed and sleep quietly. The kingdom shall still be yours.”
Then the Prince went to bed, but he only closed his eyes and pretended to go to sleep, for he had grown very curious as to how the frog had been able to provide him with the wonderful loaf and the carpet.
The frog kept very still until she thought the Prince was asleep. Then she arose quietly from his side and slipped away, but the Prince also arose and followed her without her being aware of it. She went to the far-off chamber, and there she laid aside her frog-skin; and when the prince saw her in her human form he was amazed at her beauty, and his heart melted within him for love of her, for her hair was like spun gold, her eyes as blue as the sky, and her skin as white as milk. Never had he seen such a beauty.
The Princess went out on a balcony as she had before, and cried aloud three times, “Nurses dear, nurses true, bring me fine clothes and jewels to wear, richer than ever were seen before.”
At once the three crows appeared, carrying with them jewels and fine robes all encrusted with gems and embroidery. These they laid at the Princess’s feet and bowed three times, croaking hoarsely, and then they flew away.
The Princess took the robes and jewels back into the chamber to hide them, and while she was doing this Prince Ivan returned to his bed and lay down and closed his eyes as though he were asleep. When the frog came back she looked at him carefully, but he kept so still she never guessed that he had stirred from where he lay.
The next morning the frog bade Ivan ride away alone to the palace of the Tsar. “I will follow you,” she said, “and when you hear a great noise, say, ‘That is my little Froggie, driving up in her basket made of rushes.’”
The Prince promised to do this and then he rode away to the palace of the Tsar.
His brothers were already there, and their two wives were with them, both so handsome and so magnificently dressed that each looked finer than the other.
When Ivan came in they all began to laugh. “Where is thy dear frog?” they asked. “Is she still asleep among her reeds and rushes, or is she too hoarse to come?”
Even as they spoke there was a great noise outside,—a roaring and rumbling like thunder.
The palace shook until it seemed as though it would fall about their ears. Every one was terrified. Only Prince Ivan was calm.
“There is my little Froggie now,” he said; “she is driving up in her little basket of rushes.”
At once the noise ceased, the doors were flung open, and a magnificent Princess swept into the room. Never was such a beauty seen before. Her golden hair fell almost to the floor and was bound about with jewels. Her robes were stiff with embroidery and gems. The other Princesses paled before her as stars pale before the rising moon.
Prince Ivan took her by the hand and led her to the Tsar. “This is my dear Princess,” said he, “and surely it is she and she only who should reign over this land.”
Well, there were no two ways to that. The Tsar could hardly contain himself for joy over the beauty of Prince Ivan’s bride. A great feast was spread, and the Tsar himself led the Princess to the table. She sat at his right hand and drank from his jewelled cup, and all was joy and merriment. Only the older brothers and their wives were sad, for they knew they had missed all chance of gaining the kingdom.
Now while they were still at the table, all eating and drinking, Prince Ivan arose and made some excuse for leaving the room. He went quietly and mounted his horse and rode back to his own castle.
There he made haste to the room where his wife had left her frog-skin. He hunted about until he found it, and then he threw it into the fire, for he did not intend that she should ever hide herself away in it again.
At once a clap of thunder sounded, and the Princess stood before him. Her eyes were streaming with tears, and she wrung her hands in grief.
“Alas and woe is me!” she cried. “Why did you burn my frog-skin? A little longer, and I would have been free. Now I must go away and leave you forever.”
“But where are you going?” cried the Prince in despair. “Wherever it is I will follow and find you.”
“Seek me beyond the seven mountains, beyond the seven seas, in the kingdom of Koshchei the Deathless, for it is in his house I will be,” answered the Princess. Then she turned into a great white swan and flew out through the window and far, far away; so far the Prince could no longer see her.
Then Prince Ivan was filled with grief; and he neither stayed nor tarried but set out at once in search of his Princess.
He journeyed on and journeyed on a short way and a long way, and then he met an old man with a grey beard that hung down far below his belt.
“Good day, good youth,” said the old man.
“Good day, grandfather,” answered Ivan.
“Whither do you journey with so sad a face?” asked the stranger.
“I journey over land and over sea in search of the kingdom of Koshchei the Deathless,” answered Ivan.
“Then you have a long journey before you,” said the old man. “But why do you seek the kingdom of Koshchei the Deathless, that terrible man?”
“I seek it that I may find what is lost.” Then Ivan told the old man his story, all about his frog bride and how she had turned into a Princess,—how he had burned the frog-skin and how she had flown away as a swan, and that now life would be nothing but a burden to him until he could find her again.
The old man shook his head. “Alas! alas! You should never have burned the frog-skin!” he said. He then told Ivan that the name of the Princess was Vasilisa the Fair. “Her mother was the sister of Koshchei the Deathless,” said the stranger, “and when she was born it was foretold that before she was eighteen Koshchei should lose his life because of her. It was for this reason that he changed her into a frog and set her in the midst of the lonely swamp. In a month and a day from now the Princess would have been eighteen, and the danger to Koshchei would have been over. Then he would have allowed her to lay aside her frog-skin and take back her human shape. But now he is angry and has carried her away to his castle, and only by the grace of Heaven will you be able to find her and set her free.”
The old man then gave Prince Ivan a little ball. “Take this,” he said, “and roll it before you as you go. It will show you which way to travel, and with its help you may reach the kingdom of Koshchei.”
Ivan took the ball and thanked the old man and journeyed on. He rolled the ball before him, and in whichever direction it rolled he followed.
He went along and went along, until after a while he came to a forest, and there he saw a bear.
Prince Ivan would have shot it, but the bear cried to him, “Do not shoot me, Prince. Take me with you as a servant, and the time may come when I can help you.”
“Very well,” said the Prince. “Come with me”; so he journeyed on with the bear at his heels.
Presently he saw a wild duck and would have shot it, but the duck called to him, “Do not shoot me, dear Prince. Take me with you, and I will be a faithful servant. The time may come when you will need me.”
“Very well,” answered the Prince. “You also may come with us as a companion.”
So the Prince journeyed along with the bear at his heels and the duck flying overhead.
After a while they came to the edge of a river, and there lay a great fish, gasping out its life in the sunlight.
“Now at last I shall have a good meal,” said the Prince.
But the fish cried to him in a human voice, “Throw me back into the river, Prince, that I may live. The time may come when I can do you a good turn also.”
So the Prince had mercy on the fish and threw it back into the water.
After that he and his companions traveled on a long way. They journeyed over seven mountains and crossed seven seas, and so they came at last to the kingdom of Koshchei the Deathless.
There the Prince saw a little hut. It stood on hen’s legs and turned this way and that, whichever way the wind blew. There was no getting at the door. Then the Prince cried, “Little hut, stand the way my mother built you with your back away from me and your door before me.”
At once the hut whirled round and stood with the open door in front of him.
Prince Ivan entered in, and saw a bony-legged Baba Yaga lying on the stove with her grey hair over her face.
“Who are you? And what seek you here in the kingdom of Koshchei the Deathless?” she cried.
“Do not ask questions but rise up and give me food and drink,” said the Prince; “for I am both hungry and thirsty.”
The Baba Yaga arose and served him food and drink. He ate and gave part to the bear and the duck. Then he told the Baba Yaga why he had come there—that he was wandering in search of his dear wife, Vasilisa the Fair.
The old witch shook her head. “It will be a hard thing to rescue her,” she said. “Koshchei is very powerful. Only in one way can you overcome him. Not far from here stands a tree. It is as hard as rock, so that no ax can dent it, and so smooth that none can climb it. On the top of it is a nest. In the nest is an egg. A duck sits over the egg to guard it. In that egg is a needle, and only with that needle can you kill Koshchei the Deathless.”
The Baba Yaga then led Prince Ivan to the door and pointed out to him where the tree grew, and Prince Ivan hurried on toward it, with his two faithful servants, the bear and the duck.
But when he reached the tree he looked at it with despair. It was indeed very smooth and high,—as smooth as glass, and when he tried his hunting knife upon it the knife bent and crumpled in his hand.
“Master, now is the time that I can help you,” said the bear. He went to the tree and clasped it and shook it, so that its roots cracked, and it fell with a mighty noise.
At once the duck that was guarding the egg caught it up in its claws and flew away with it. But Ivan’s duck pursued so fiercely that the other was forced to drop the egg in order to defend itself.
Unfortunately they had both flown over a river, and into this river the egg dropped and was lost to sight.
Ivan sat down upon the bank of the river and wept. “Alas, alas!” he cried. “Now truly is my dear wife lost to me, for never can I recover the egg from the river.”
Hardly had he spoken when the fish he had thrown back into the river appeared, bearing the egg in its mouth.
Now Ivan’s grief was turned to rejoicing. He broke the egg and took out the needle. Then, with the little ball to lead him, he soon made his way to Koshchei’s palace.
The Deathless One rushed out to meet him, but Ivan attacked him with the point of the needle. It was in vain Koshchei tried to protect himself. Ivan drove the needle into him deeper and deeper, and presently Koshchei sank down dead before him, no better than a lump of clay.
Prince Ivan strode across him and on into the castle. From room to room he went, and in the deepest dungeon he found the Princess Vasilisa, his own dear wife. She threw herself into his arms, weeping with joy.
Then they went to Koshchei’s treasure room and took from it all the most precious jewels,—all that the faithful bear could carry they loaded upon his back and carried away with them.
After that they journeyed back to their own kingdom, and if any one was glad to see them it was the Tsar himself.
He built for them a castle close to his own, where they could not even see the swamp. There Ivan and his frog princess lived in the greatest love and happiness, and after the old Tsar’s death they themselves ruled over the kingdom as the Tsar and Tsaritsa.