The White Snake (Белая Змея)
A LONG time ago there lived a King whose wisdom was celebrated far and wide.
Nothing was unknown to him, and news of the most secret transactions seemed to reach him through the air.
Now he had one very odd habit.
Every day at dinner, when the courtiers had withdrawn, and be was quite alone, a trusted Servant had to bring in another dish.
It was always covered, and even the Servant did not know what it contained, nor any one else, for the King never uncovered it till he was alone.
This had gone on for a long time, when one day the Servant who carried the dish was overcome by his curiosity, and took the dish to his own room.
When he had carefully locked the door, he took the dish-cover off, and saw a White Snake lying on the dish.
At the sight of it, he could not resist tasting it;
so he cut a piece off, and put it into his mouth.
Hardly had he tasted it, however, when he heard a wonderful whispering of delicate voices.
He went to the window and listened, and he noticed that the whispers came from the sparrows outside.
They were chattering away, and telling each other all kinds of things that they had heard in the woods and fields.
Eating the Snake had given him the power of understanding the language of birds and animals.
Now it happened on this day that the Queen lost her most precious ring, and suspicion fell upon this trusted Servant who went about everywhere.
The King sent for him, and threatened that if it was not found by the next day, he would be sent to prison.
In vain he protested his innocence;
he was not believed.
In his grief and anxiety he went down into the courtyard and wondered how he should get out of his difficulty.
A number of Ducks were lying peaceably together by a stream, stroking down their feathers with their bills, while they chattered gaily.
The Servant stood still to listen to them.
They were telling each other of their morning’s walks and experiences.
Then one of them said somewhat fretfully:
‘I have something lying heavy on my stomach.
In my haste I swallowed the Queen’s ring this morning.’
The Servant quickly seized it by the neck, carried it off into the kitchen, and said to the Cook :
‘Here‘s a fine fat Duck.
You had better kill it at once.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the Cook, weighing it in her hand.
‘It has spared no pains in stuffing itself;
it should have been roasted long ago.’
So she killed it, and cut it open, and there, sure enough, was the Queen’s ring.
The Servant had now no difficulty in proving his innocence, and the King, to make up for his injustice, gave the Servant leave to ask any favour he liked, and promised him the highest post about the Court which he might desire.
The Servant, however, declined everything but a horse, and some money to travel with, as he wanted to wander about for a while, to see the world.
His request being granted, he set off on his travels, and one day came to a pond, where he saw three Fishes caught among the reeds, and gasping for breath.
Although it is said that fishes are dumb, he understood their complaint at perishing thus miserably.
As he had a compassionate heart, he got off his horse and put the three captives back into the water.
They wriggled in their joy, stretched up their heads above the water, and cried —
‘We will remember that you saved us, and reward you for it.’
He rode on again, and after a time he seemed to hear a voice in the sand at his feet.
He listened, and heard an Ant-King complain :
‘I wish these human beings and their animals would keep out of our way.
A clumsy horse has just put his hoof down upon a number of my people in the most heartless way.’
He turned his horse into a side path, and the Ant-King cried:
‘We will remember and reward you.’
The road now ran through a forest, and he saw a pair of Ravens standing by their nest throwing out their young.
‘Away with you, you gallows birds,’ they were saying.
‘We can’t feed you any longer.
You are old enough to look after yourselves.’
The poor little nestlings lay on the ground, fluttering and flapping their wings, and crying :
‘We, poor helpless children, to feed ourselves, and we can’t even fly!
We shall die of hunger, there is nothing else for it.’
The good Youth dismounted, killed his horse with his sword, and left the carcase as food for the young Ravens.
They hopped along to it, and cried :
‘We will remember and reward you.’
Now he had to depend upon his own legs, and after going a long way he came to a large town.
There was much noise and bustle in the streets, where a man on horseback was making a proclamation.
‘The King’s daughter seeks a husband, but any one who wishes to sue for her hand must accomplish a hard task;
and if he does not bring it to a successful issue, he will forfeit his life.’
Many had already attempted the task, but they had risked their lives in vain.
When the Youth saw the Princess, he was so dazzled by her beauty that he forgot all danger, at once sought an audience of the King, and announced himself as a suitor.
He was immediately led out to the seashore, and a golden ring was thrown into the water before his eyes.
Then the King ordered him to fetch it out from the depths of the sea, and added –
‘If you come to land without it, you will be thrown back every time till you perish in the waves.’
Every one pitied the handsome Youth, but they had to go and leave him standing solitary on the seashore.
He was pondering over what he should do, when, all at once, be saw three Fishes swimming towards him.
They were no others than the very ones whose lives he had saved.
The middle one carried a mussel-shell in its mouth, which it laid on the sand at the feet of the Youth.
When he picked it up, and opened it, there lay the ring.
Full of joy, he took it to the King, expecting that he would give him the promised reward.
The proud Princess, however, when she heard that he was not her equal, despised him, and demanded that he should perform yet another task.
So she went into the garden herself, and strewed ten sacks of millet seeds among the grass.
‘He must pick up every one of those before the sun rises to-morrow morning,’ said she.
‘Not a grain must be missing.’
The Youth sat miserably in the garden, wondering how it could possibly be done.
But as he could not think of a plan, he remained sadly waiting for the dawn which would bring death to him.
But when the first sunbeams fell on the garden, he saw the ten sacks full to the top, and not a grain was missing.
The Ant-King had come in the night with thousands and thousands of his Ants, and the grateful creatures had picked up the millet and filled the sacks.
The Princess came into the garden herself, and saw with amazement that the Youth had completed the task.
But still she could not control her proud heart, and she said :
‘Even if he has accomplished these two tasks, he shall not become my husband till he brings me an apple from the tree of life.’
The Youth had no idea where to find the tree of life.
However, he started off, meaning to walk as far as his legs would carry him;
but he had no hope of finding it.
When he had travelled through three kingdoms, he was one night passing through a great forest, and he lay down under a tree to sleep.
He heard a rustling among the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand.
At the same time three Ravens flew down and perched on his knee, and said :
‘We are the young Ravens you saved from death.
When we grew big, and heard that you were looking for the golden apple, we flew across the sea to the end of the world, where the tree of life stands, and brought you the apple.’
The Youth, delighted, started on his homeward journey;
and took the golden apple to the beautiful Princess, who had now no further excuse to offer.
They divided the apple of life, and ate it together, and then her heart was filled with love for him, and they lived happily to a great age.