The Baba Yaga and Peter
There was once a King who had one only son, and him he loved better than anything in the whole world — better even than his own life. The King’s greatest desire was to see his son married, but though the Prince had travelled in many lands, and had seen many noble and beautiful ladies, there was not one among them all whom he wished to have for a wife.
One day the King called his son to him and said, “My son, for a long time now I have hoped to see you choose a bride, but you have desired no one. Take now this silver key. Go to the top of the castle, and there you will see a steel door. This key will unlock it. Open the door and enter. Look carefully at everything in the room, and then return and tell me what you have seen. But, whatever you do, do not touch nor draw aside the curtain that hangs at the right of the door. If you should disobey me and do this thing, you will suffer the greatest dangers, and may even pay for it with your life.”
The Prince wondered greatly at his father’s words, but he took the key and went to the top of the castle, and there he found the steel door his father had described. He unlocked it with the silver key, stepped inside, and looked about him. When he had done so, he was filled with amazement at what he saw. The room had twelve sides, and on eleven of these sides were pictures of eleven princesses more beautiful than any the Prince had ever seen in all his life before. Moreover, these pictures were as though they were alive. When the Prince looked at them, they moved and smiled and blushed and beckoned to him. He went from one to the other, and they were so beautiful that each one he looked upon seemed lovelier than the last. But lovely though they were, there was not one of them whom the Prince wished to have for a wife.
Last of all, the Prince came to the twelfth side of the room, and it was covered over with a curtain, and the curtain was of velvet richly embroidered with gold and precious stones. The Prince stood before it and looked at it and looked at it. He tried to peer under its edges, but he could see nothing; never in all his life had he longed for anything as he longed to lift that curtain and see what was behind it.
At last his longing grew so great that he could withstand it no longer. He laid his hand upon the folds and drew it aside, and when he had done so, his heart melted within him for love and joy. For there was the portrait of a maiden so fair and lovely that all the other eleven beauties were as nothing beside her.
The Prince stood and looked at her, and she looked back at him, and she did not blush or beckon to him as the others had done, but rather she grew pale.
“Yes,” said the Prince at last, “you and you only shall be my bride, even though I should have to go to the ends of the world to find you.”
When he said that, the picture bowed its head gravely.
Then the Prince dropped the curtain and left the room and went down to where the old King was waiting for him. As soon as he came before his father, the old man asked whether he had found the room and entered it.
“I did,” answered the Prince.
“And what did you see in the room, my son?”
“I saw a picture of the maiden whom I wish to have for a wife.”
“And which of the eleven was it?”
“It was none of the eleven; it was the twelfth — she whose portrait hangs behind the curtain.”
When the old King heard this, he gave a cry of grief. “Alas, alas, my son! What have you done! Did I not warn you not to lift the curtain and not to look behind it?”
“You warned me, my father, and yet I could not but look, and now I have seen the only one whom I will ever marry. Tell me, I pray of you, who she is, that I may go in search of her.”
“Well did I know that misfortune would come upon you if ever you entered that room. That Princess whom you have seen is indeed the most beautiful Princess in all the world, but she is also the most unfortunate. Because of her beauty, she was carried away by a wicked and powerful Magician who wished to marry her. To this, however, she would not consent. He still keeps her a prisoner in an iron castle far away beyond forest, plain, and mountain at the very end of the world. Many princes and heroes and brave men have tried to rescue her, but none has ever succeeded. They have lost their lives in the attempt, and the Magician has turned them all into stone statues to adorn his castle. And now you are determined to throw away your life also.”
“That may be,” said the Prince; “and yet it may also be that I shall succeed even though others have failed. At any rate, I must try, for I cannot live without her.”
When the King found that his son was determined to go, and that nothing could stay him, he gave him a jewelled sword and the finest steed in his stable and bade him God-speed.
So the Prince set out with his father’s blessing, and he rode along and rode along until at last he came to a forest that was so vast there seemed to be no end to it. In this forest he quite lost his way. He was therefore very glad when he saw some one trudging along in front of him.
The Prince rode on until he overtook the man, and then he reined in his horse and bade him good day.
“Good day,” answered the man.
“Do you know the ways through this forest?” asked the Prince.
“No, I know nothing about them, but that never bothers me. If at any time I think I am going in the wrong direction, it is easy to right myself.”
“How is that?” said the Prince.
“Oh, I have the power of stretching myself out to any length, and if I lose my way I have only to make myself tall enough to see over the tree-tops, and then I can easily tell where I am.”
“That must be very curious. I should like to see that,” said the Prince.
Well, that was easy enough, and the man would be glad enough to oblige him. So he began to stretch himself. He stretched and stretched and stretched until he was taller than the tallest tree in the forest. His head and body were quite lost to sight among the branches, and all that the Prince could see were his legs and feet.
“Is that enough?” the man called down to the Prince.
“Yes, that is enough,” answered the Prince, and he had to shout to make himself heard, the man’s head was so far away.
Then the man began to shrink. He shrank and shrank until he was no taller than the Prince himself.
“You are a wonderful fellow,” said the Prince. “What is your name?”
The man’s name was Long.
“And what did you see up there?”
“I saw a plain and great mountains beyond, and still beyond that an iron castle, and it was so far away that it must be at the very end of the world.”
“It is that castle that I am seeking,” said the Prince, “and now I see that you are the very man to guide me there. Tell me, Long, will you take service with me? If you will, I will pay you well.”
Yes, Long would do that, and not for the sake of the money either, but because he had taken a fancy to the Prince.
So the Prince and his new servant travelled along together, and presently they came out of the forest on to a plain, and there, far in front of them, was another man also travelling along toward the mountains.
“Look, Master!” said Long. “Do you see that man? His name is Broad. You ought to have him for a servant too, for he is even more wonderful than I am.”
“Call him, then,” said the Prince, “and I will speak with him.”
No, Long could not call him, for Broad was too far away to hear him, but he could soon overtake him. So Long stretched himself out until he was tall enough to go half a mile at every step. In this way he soon overtook Broad and stopped him, and then he and Broad waited until the Prince had caught up to them.
“Good day,” said the Prince to Broad.
“Good day,” answered Broad.
“My servant here tells me that you are a very wonderful person,” said the Prince. “What can you do that is so wonderful?”
What Broad could do was to spread himself out until he was as broad across as he wished to be.
“I should like to see that,” said the Prince.
Very well! Nothing was easier, and Broad was willing to show him. “But first,” said Broad, “do you get behind those rocks over yonder. Otherwise you may get hurt. And now I will begin.”
“Quick! quick, Master!” cried Long, in a voice of fear. “We have not a moment to lose,” and he ran at full speed and crouched down behind the rocks. The Prince followed him, and he also got behind the rocks, but he did not know why Long was in such a hurry, nor why he seemed so frightened. He soon saw, however, for when Broad began to spread, he spread so fast and with such force that unless the Prince and Long had been behind the rocks, they would certainly have been pushed against them and crushed.
“Is that enough?” cried Broad, after he had spread out so wide that the Prince could scarcely see across him.
“Yes, that is enough.”
So Broad began to shrink, and soon he was no fatter than he had been before.
“Yes, you are certainly a very wonderful fellow, and I should like to have you for a servant,” said the Prince. “Will you come with me also?”
Yes, Broad would come, for a master who was good enough for Long was good enough for him too. So now the Prince had two servants. He rode on across the plain toward the mountains, and the two followed him.
After a while they came to a man sitting by the way with a bandage over his eyes. The Prince stopped and spoke to him.
“Are you blind, my poor fellow, that you wear a bandage over your eyes?”