In a wild and lonely region of the great empire of Russia, there lived an old couple who had three sons. They loved the first and the second dearly, for these were quick-witted and prudent beyond their years; but they had no love to spare for the youngest, whom they nicknamed 'Dourak,' the fool, and whom they regarded as a dreamer and a good-for-nothing.
Now it chanced that the Tsar then ruling over Russia had an only daughter of great beauty, whom many Princes came to woo. So he sent forth a proclamation to every corner of his dominions that whoever could make a Flying Ship should marry the Tsarena—which, in Russian, means the Princess, the daughter of the Tsar.
The eldest son of the old couple, and the second son, about this time decided to leave home and go and seek their fortunes. Their mother wept and kissed them, and gave each of them a flask of wine to cheer him on the way, and a bundle full of the best food she could afford. When they had gone Dourak had an even harder life than before, for his father and mother were always lamenting that their two wise and witty sons should be far away, while only this stupid fellow remained at home.
So at last Dourak decided that he, too, would go and seek his fortune.
"Whatever happens to me," he thought to himself, "I cannot be more unlucky than I am here. And perhaps I may find out how Flying Ships are made. And then I should marry the Tsarena. To-morrow I will go forth."
When he told his mother that he, too, was bent upon seeking his fortune she laughed at him, and told him that the wolves that lived in the great dark forest would gobble him up. She wished Dourak to remain at home, not because she had any love for him, but because she could always make him work for her, chopping wood, and gathering sticks, and digging and weeding their little plot of garden.
Dourak, however, was determined to go. So the old woman gave him neither a kiss nor a blessing, but thrust a bundle with a piece of bread and a flask of water into his hands, and turned him roughly out of the house.
Poor Dourak trudged and trudged through the great dark forest, and at last he met a very old man, who asked him whither he was bound.
"I am going to seek my fortune, father," returned the young man.
"But what if you should not find it?"
"Whatever happens to me, I cannot be more unlucky than I was at home."
The old man looked keenly at Dourak. "Last week," said he, "I met two young men in this forest, neither of whom would give me a bite or a sup from the bundle of food which each carried. You also have some food. Are you as hard-hearted as they?"
"Truly, Sir," said Dourak, "I would gladly give you all that I have—I fear there is not enough for two—but dry bread and plain water may not seem to you worth the having."
"Let us sit down under this tree," suggested the old man, "and do you untie your bundle. What God gives, man must take, and be thankful."
Poor Dourak blushed as he untied the knot, for he was ashamed to offer such miserable fare to a stranger; but when the knot was untied, he was astonished to find that instead of bread and water his bundle contained white rolls, and sausages, and a flask of red wine.
He and his new friend crossed themselves, and said grace, and shared the good things fairly between them.
When they had finished, the old man asked, "Have you any plan by which you hope to make your fortune?"
"Well," said Dourak, simply, "the Tsar has promised his daughter to the man who can make a Flying Ship."
"Can you make such a ship?"
"Not I. But maybe I might find the place where they are made."
"Where is that place?"
"God alone knows! I can but look for it, father."
The old man smiled. "Listen, Dourak," said he, "go into the forest, follow the first path you see, stop at the first tree at the path's end, cross yourself three times, strike the tree once with your axe, then lie down with your face to the ground and wait. Only remember this. Fly where you will, but take on board whomever you meet by the way."
Dourak thanked his friend warmly, and hurried into the forest. At the end of the path he found a tall and beautiful fir-tree. There he stopped, and carefully obeyed the advice which the old man had given him. As he lay with his face against the ground he fell fast asleep. After a time he woke up, and there, instead of the fir-tree, he saw a beautiful ship, of polished and painted wood, with sails shaped like the wings of a bird.
Dourak jumped into the ship, and it immediately rose into the air and flew toward Moscow, where the Tsar held his Court. Dourak peeped over the side and saw a man far below, lying with his ear pressed to the ground. He took the helm and steered the ship downward, and called out "Good-day, uncle! What are you doing?"
"Good-day, my lad! I am listening to what is going on in the wide world."
"Will you come with me in my ship?"
So Dourak helped him to climb on board.
When they had flown a little farther they saw a man hopping on one foot, while the other was tied up against his ear.
"Good-day, uncle," cried Dourak, "why do you tie one of your legs against your ear?"
"Because if I were to untie it I should go half way round the world in one stride."
"Come with us." And he came.
The ship flew, and flew, and presently they saw a man taking aim with a gun, though there was neither bird nor beast to be seen.
"God save you, uncle," quoth Dourak, "are you shooting at nothing?"
"Not I. I am aiming at a bird a hundred leagues away. That's what I call good sport."
"Come with us, uncle." And he came.
They flew, and flew, and presently they saw a man with a sackful of bread on his back. "Whither bound, uncle?" asked Dourak.
"To get some bread for my dinner."
"Have you not got enough in that sack?"
"Indeed I have not. I could eat all that at one gulp."
"Come with us, Mr. Gobbler." And he came.
They flew, and flew, and they saw a man standing by a lake.
"Fair befall you, uncle," cried Dourak, "what do you seek?"
"Some water to drink."
"Why, there is a whole lake in front of you!"
"That? oh, I should empty that at one draught."
"Come with us, Mr. Thirstyman." And he came.
They flew, and flew, and next they spied a man carrying a heap of straw, "Whither bound with that straw, uncle?" enquired Dourak.
"To the village."
"Is there no straw in your village?"
"There is none like this. If you scatter it on the hottest mid-summer day, the weather will become freezingly cold, and snow will begin to fall."
"Come with us, Mr. Strawmonger." And he came.
They flew, and flew, and soon they saw a man with a bundle of wood. "Good-morrow, uncle," said Dourak, "why are you taking wood into the forest where there is plenty already?"
"This is most unusual wood, my young friend. Wherever it is scattered, an army will spring up."
"Come with us, Mr. Woodman." And he came.
They flew, and flew, and at last they reached the beautiful city of Moscow, with its clanging belfries and its many-coloured domes. The Tsar was looking out of his palace window, and saw the Flying Ship, and as he looked, it circled thrice and came down in a field not far away. Greatly excited, he sent one of his most fleet-footed servants to find out who was the captain of the vessel, "for," thought his Imperial Majesty, "whoever he may be, he can claim the hand of my daughter, the Tsarena."
The servant soon returned, and the news he brought alarmed the Tsar. He declared that the ship carried a crew of seven very odd-looking men, and that their leader was a simple peasant lad, in patched and threadbare clothes.
"This is exceedingly awkward," exclaimed the Tsar. "The only thing to be done is to give the fellow some impossible tasks to perform. Go," he commanded his Lord High Chamberlain, "go and tell him that before I have finished my dinner he must bring me some water that both lives and sings."
Now the first of Dourak's fellow-travellers, he with the keen ear, heard what the Tsar was saying, and told the others.
"Alas," cried Dourak, "I see that I am to be as unlucky here as I was at home! Where could I find such water? And if I knew where, might it not take me a whole life-time to fetch it?"
"Have no fear," said the hopping man, "I know where it is. And if I untie my leg I can bring it to you in a twinkling."
So when the Lord High Chamberlain arrived with the imperial message, Dourak replied, "His Majesty shall be obeyed."
And the hopping man untied his leg, and in one stride he reached the distant country where the living river flows, and sings as it flows. When he had filled a jar with the singing water the hopping man felt tired. "I have plenty of time for a nap," he thought. So he lay down by the river bank beside a mill-wheel, and fell asleep.
Time passed, and his companions in the Flying Ship began to feel anxious. Then he with his keen ear laid himself flat on the ground and listened. "I hear a mill-wheel turning, and I hear a man snoring," said he.
The marksman shaded his eyes with his hand. "I can see the mill," he said. So he raised his gun to his shoulder, took careful aim, and sent a bullet through the roof of the mill, which awoke the hopping man with its noise. Up jumped the hopping man, seized his jar, made one long stride, and was back in Moscow before the Tsar had finished his dinner.
Instead of being pleased at this prompt fulfilment of his commands, the Tsar was furious. He sent word to Dourak that before he could claim the hand of the Tsarena he and his comrades must eat at one sitting twenty roast oxen and twenty large loaves of bread.
"Alas," cried Dourak, "why, for my part, I could not eat one!"
"Be of good cheer," said his fellow-traveller, Mr. Gobbler, "that will be a mere snack for me."
So they brought the twenty roast oxen and the twenty large loaves, and the Gobbler ate them all up in a trice. "All very well," he remarked, when he had finished, "but the Tsar might have sent me a little more while he was about it."
Then the Tsar commanded Dourak to drink forty barrels of red wine, each barrel holding forty buckets.
"Woe is me," cried Dourak, "I am as unlucky as ever!"
"Not so," said his fellow-traveller, Mr. Thirstyman. "It will seem a mere thimbleful to me."
So when the Tsar's servants brought the forty barrels of wine, the thirsty man drained all the wine at a draught. "Very good," he remarked, wiping his lips, "but not enough of it!"
Then the Tsar became desperate, and cast about in his mind for some way of ridding himself of this tiresome Dourak. He sent word that before the Tsarena's future husband could be presented to her he would no doubt wish to have a bath, and to array himself in new garments. And then he gave orders to his servants that they should heat the bath so hot that no man could come out of it alive. He with the keen ear overheard these orders, and told the fellow-traveller with the bundle of straw. So when Dourak, obeying the royal command, wended his way to the imperial bathroom, the Strawmonger said, "I am coming with you." And he went with him.
It was fearfully hot in the bath-room, after the Tsar's servants had locked the door on the outside, and great clouds of steam rose from the bath.
Then Dourak's fellow-traveller scattered some of his straw on the floor, and immediately the water in the bath froze, and Dourak was fain to clamber up onto the top of the stove lest he too should be frozen.
The next morning, when the Tsar's servants came and unlocked the door, they found Dourak perched on the stove, singing and whistling, not a whit the worse for his ordeal of fire and ice.
When tidings of these things reached the Tsar he was greatly alarmed and perplexed. How could he rid himself of this stubborn fellow? Then he had an idea. "Go," he said to his Lord High Chamberlain, "go and tell Dourak that he may now come and claim the hand of my daughter, but that when he comes he must come at the head of a great army."
This message reduced Dourak to despair. "When I was at home," he exclaimed, "I was unlucky, and I had no friends. Now, though I have seven friends, I am still unlucky. What the Tsar asks is impossible."
"Nothing of the sort," cried his seventh fellow-traveller with the bundle of wood. "You have forgotten me! Fear nothing. Tell the Lord High Chamberlain to inform the Tsar that you will come at the head of an army, as he desires, but that if he refuses you the hand of the Tsarena, you will command your troops to lay siege to Moscow."
That night the seventh fellow-traveller went out into the open plain beyond the walls of the city, and scattered his faggots far and wide. And the next morning, when the Tsar looked out of his palace window he heard the braying of trumpets and the thunder of drums, and saw the glint of swords and breastplates and helmets, and the gay columns of banners and military attire. "I can do no more," cried the Tsar. "He must marry the Tsarena!"
So he sent his servants to Dourak, and they gave him a bath of perfumed water, and combed his locks with a comb of gold, and clothed him in the gorgeous robes of a Tsar's son. And nobody would have recognized poor Dourak, the despised and neglected Dourak, in the handsome youth who rode on horseback at the head of an army to claim the hand of the Tsarena. All the seven fellow-travellers were invited to the wedding-feast, and for once in their lives the gobbler had enough to eat, and the thirsty man had so much to drink that even he wished for no more.
As for the Tsarena, she was very happy as the wife of Dourak, and grew to love him as truly as he did her; and he, whose own father and mother had cared nothing for him, became a great favourite with his father-in-law and mother-in-law, the parents of the Tsarena, his bride.
And as for the old, old man whom Dourak met in the wood when he set out to look for the place where Flying Ships are made, nobody ever saw him again, and nobody ever learnt who he was. Most people believed that he was one of those kindly saints who are said to revisit the earth sometimes, and befriend any friendless boy or girl who deserves it, but no two people ever agreed as to which saint he was, for long, long ago there were many such kindly saints in the empire of the Tsars.