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The Story Of Three Wonderful Beggars

from The Violet Fairy Book





There once lived a merchant whose name was Mark, and whom people
called 'Mark the Rich.' He was a very hard-hearted man, for he
could not bear poor people, and if he caught sight of a beggar
anywhere near his house, he would order the servants to drive him
away, or would set the dogs at him.

One day three very poor old men came begging to the door, and
just as he was going to let the fierce dogs loose on them, his
little daughter, Anastasia, crept close up to him and said:

'Dear daddy, let the poor old men sleep here to-night, do--to
please me.'

Her father could not bear to refuse her, and the three beggars
were allowed to sleep in a loft, and at night, when everyone in
the house was fast asleep, little Anastasia got up, climbed up to
the loft, and peeped in.

The three old men stood in the middle of the loft, leaning on
their sticks, with their long grey beards flowing down over their
hands, and were talking together in low voices.

'What news is there?' asked the eldest.

'In the next village the peasant Ivan has just had his seventh
son. What shall we name him, and what fortune shall we give
him?' said the second.

The third whispered, 'Call him Vassili, and give him all the
property of the hard-hearted man in whose loft we stand, and who
wanted to drive us from his door.'

After a little more talk the three made themselves ready and
crept softly away.

Anastasia, who had heard every word, ran straight to her father,
and told him all.

Mark was very much surprised; he thought, and thought, and in the
morning he drove to the next village to try and find out if such
a child really had been born. He went first to the priest, and
asked him about the children in his parish.

'Yesterday,' said the priest, 'a boy was born in the poorest
house in the village. I named the unlucky little thing
"Vassili." He is the seventh son, and the eldest is only seven
years old, and they hardly have a mouthful amongst them all. Who
can be got to stand godfather to such a little beggar boy?'

The merchant's heart beat fast, and his mind was full of bad
thoughts about that poor little baby. He would be godfather
himself, he said, and he ordered a fine christening feast; so the
child was brought and christened, and Mark was very friendly to
its father. After the ceremony was over he took Ivan aside and
said:

'Look here, my friend, you are a poor man. How can you afford to
bring up the boy? Give him to me and I'll make something of him,
and I'll give you a present of a thousand crowns. Is that a
bargain?'

Ivan scratched his head, and thought, and thought, and then he
agreed. Mark counted out the money, wrapped the baby up in a fox
skin, laid it in the sledge beside him, and drove back towards
home. When he had driven some miles he drew up, carried the
child to the edge of a steep precipice and threw it over,
muttering, 'There, now try to take my property!'

Very soon after this some foreign merchants travelled along that
same road on the way to see Mark and to pay the twelve thousand
crowns which they owed him.

As they were passing near the precipice they heard a sound of
crying, and on looking over they saw a little green meadow wedged
in between two great heaps of snow, and on the meadow lay a baby
amongst the flowers.

The merchants picked up the child, wrapped it up carefully, and
drove on. When they saw Mark they told him what a strange thing
they had found. Mark guessed at once that the child must be his
godson, asked to see him, and said:

'That's a nice little fellow; I should like to keep him. If you
will make him over to me, I will let you off your debt.'

The merchants were very pleased to make so good a bargain, left
the child with Mark, and drove off.

At night Mark took the child, put it in a barrel, fastened the
lid tight down, and threw it into the sea. The barrel floated
away to a great distance, and at last it floated close up to a
monastery. The monks were just spreading out their nets to dry
on the shore, when they heard the sound of crying. It seemed to
come from the barrel which was bobbing about near the water's
edge. They drew it to land and opened it, and there was a little
child! When the abbot heard the news, he decided to bring up the
boy, and named him 'Vassili.'

The boy lived on with the monks, and grew up to be a clever,
gentle, and handsome young man. No one could read, write, or
sing better than he, and he did everything so well that the abbot
made him wardrobe keeper.

Now, it happened about this time that the merchant, Mark, came to
the monastery in the course of a journey. The monks were very
polite to him and showed him their house and church and all they
had. When he went into the church the choir was singing, and one
voice was so clear and beautiful, that he asked who it belonged
to. Then the abbot told him of the wonderful way in which
Vassili had come to them, and Mark saw clearly that this must be
his godson whom he had twice tried to kill.

He said to the abbot: 'I can't tell you how much I enjoy that
young man's singing. If he could only come to me I would make
him overseer of all my business. As you say, he is so good and
clever. Do spare him to me. I will make his fortune, and will
present your monastery with twenty thousand crowns.'

The abbot hesitated a good deal, but he consulted all the other
monks, and at last they decided that they ought not to stand in
the way of Vassili's good fortune.

Then Mark wrote a letter to his wife and gave it to Vassili to
take to her, and this was what was in the letter: 'When the
bearer of this arrives, take him into the soap factory, and when
you pass near the great boiler, push him in. If you don't obey
my orders I shall be very angry, for this young man is a bad
fellow who is sure to ruin us all if he lives.'

Vassili had a good voyage, and on landing set off on foot for
Mark's home. On the way he met three beggars, who asked him:
'Where are you going, Vassili?'

'I am going to the house of Mark the Merchant, and have a letter
for his wife,' replied Vassili.

'Show us the letter.'

Vassili handed them the letter. They blew on it and gave it back
to him, saying: 'Now go and give the letter to Mark's wife. You
will not be forsaken.'

Vassili reached the house and gave the letter. When the mistress
read it she could hardly believe her eyes and called for her
daughter. In the letter was written, quite plainly: 'When you
receive this letter, get ready for a wedding, and let the bearer
be married next day to my daughter, Anastasia. If you don't obey
my orders I shall be very angry.'

Anastasia saw the bearer of the letter and he pleased her very
much. They dressed Vassili in fine clothes and next day he was
married to Anastasia.

In due time, Mark returned from his travels. His wife, daughter,
and son-in-law all went out to meet him. When Mark saw Vassili
he flew into a terrible rage with his wife. 'How dared you marry
my daughter without my consent?' he asked.

'I only carried out your orders,' said she. 'Here is your
letter.'

Mark read it. It certainly was his handwriting, but by no means
his wishes.

'Well,' thought he, 'you've escaped me three times, but I think I
shall get the better of you now.' And he waited a month and was
very kind and pleasant to his daughter and her husband.

At the end of that time he said to Vassili one day, 'I want you
to go for me to my friend the Serpent King, in his beautiful
country at the world's end. Twelve years ago he built a castle
on some land of mine. I want you to ask for the rent for those
twelve years and also to find out from him what has become of my
twelve ships which sailed for his country three years ago.'

Vassili dared not disobey. He said good-bye to his young wife,
who cried bitterly at parting, hung a bag of biscuits over his
shoulders, and set out.

I really cannot tell you whether the journey was long or short.
As he tramped along he suddenly heard a voice saying: 'Vassili!
where are you going?'

Vassili looked about him, and, seeing no one, called out: 'Who
spoke to me?'

'I did; this old wide-spreading oak. Tell me where you are
going.'

'I am going to the Serpent King to receive twelve years' rent
from him.'

'When the time comes, remember me and ask the king: "Rotten to
the roots, half dead but still green, stands the old oak. Is it
to stand much longer on the earth?" '

Vassili went on further. He came to a river and got into the
ferryboat. The old ferryman asked: 'Are you going far, my
friend?'

'I am going to the Serpent King.'

'Then think of me and say to the king: "For thirty years the
ferryman has rowed to and fro. Will the tired old man have to
row much longer?" '

'Very well,' said Vassili; 'I'll ask him.'

And he walked on. In time he came to a narrow strait of the sea
and across it lay a great whale over whose back people walked and
drove as if it had been a bridge or a road. As he stepped on it
the whale said, 'Do tell me where you are going.'

'I am going to the Serpent King.'

And the whale begged: 'Think of me and say to the king: "The
poor whale has been lying three years across the strait, and men
and horses have nearly trampled his back into his ribs. Is he to
lie there much longer?" '

'I will remember,' said Vassili, and he went on.

He walked, and walked, and walked, till he came to a great green
meadow. In the meadow stood a large and splendid castle. Its
white marble walls sparkled in the light, the roof was covered
with mother o' pearl, which shone like a rainbow, and the sun
glowed like fire on the crystal windows. Vassili walked in, and
went from one room to another astonished at all the splendour he
saw.

When he reached the last room of all, he found a beautiful girl
sitting on a bed.

As soon as she saw him she said: 'Oh, Vassili, what brings you
to this accursed place?'

Vassili told her why he had come, and all he had seen and heard
on the way.

The girl said: 'You have not been sent here to collect rents,
but for your own destruction, and that the serpent may devour
you.'

She had not time to say more, when the whole castle shook, and a
rustling, hissing, groaning sound was heard. The girl quickly
pushed Vassili into a chest under the bed, locked it and
whispered: 'Listen to what the serpent and I talk about.'

Then she rose up to receive the Serpent King.

The monster rushed into the room, and threw itself panting on the
bed, crying: 'I've flown half over the world. I'm tired, VERY
tired, and want to sleep--scratch my head.'

The beautiful girl sat down near him, stroking his hideous head,
and said in a sweet coaxing voice: 'You know everything in the
world. After you left, I had such a wonderful dream. Will you
tell me what it means?'

'Out with it then, quick! What was it?'

'I dreamt I was walking on a wide road, and an oak tree said to
me: "Ask the king this: Rotten at the roots, half dead, and yet
green stands the old oak. Is it to stand much longer on the
earth?" '

'It must stand till some one comes and pushes it down with his
foot. Then it will fall, and under its roots will be found more
gold and silver than even Mark the Rich has got.'

'Then I dreamt I came to a river, and the old ferryman said to
me: "For thirty year's the ferryman has rowed to and fro. Will
the tired old man have to row much longer?" '

'That depends on himself. If some one gets into the boat to be
ferried across, the old man has only to push the boat off, and go
his way without looking back. The man in the boat will then have
to take his place.'

'And at last I dreamt that I was walking over a bridge made of a
whale's back, and the living bridge spoke to me and said: "Here
have I been stretched out these three years, and men and horses
have trampled my back down into my ribs. Must I lie here much
longer?" '

'He will have to lie there till he has thrown up the twelve ships
of Mark the Rich which he swallowed. Then he may plunge back
into the sea and heal his back.'

And the Serpent King closed his eyes, turned round on his other
side, and began to snore so loud that the windows rattled.

In all haste the lovely girl helped Vassili out of the chest, and
showed him part of his way back. He thanked her very politely,
and hurried off.

When he reached the strait the whale asked: 'Have you thought of
me?'

'Yes, as soon as I am on the other side I will tell you what you
want to know.'

When he was on the other side Vassili said to the whale: 'Throw
up those twelve ships of Mark's which you swallowed three years
ago.'

The great fish heaved itself up and threw up all the twelve ships
and their crews. Then he shook himself for joy, and plunged into
the sea.

Vassili went on further till he reached the ferry, where the old
man asked: 'Did you think of me?'

'Yes, and as soon as you have ferried me across I will tell you
what you want to know.'

When they had crossed over, Vassili said: 'Let the next man who
comes stay in the boat, but do you step on shore, push the boat
off, and you will be free, and the other man must take your
place.

Then Vassili went on further still, and soon came to the old oak
tree, pushed it with his foot, and it fell over. There, at the
roots, was more gold and silver than even Mark the Rich had.

And now the twelve ships which the whale had thrown up came
sailing along and anchored close by. On the deck of the first
ship stood the three beggars whom Vassili had met formerly, and
they said: 'Heaven has blessed you, Vassili.' Then they
vanished away and he never saw them again.

The sailors carried all the gold and silver into the ship, and
then they set sail for home with Vassili on board.

Mark was more furious than ever. He had his horses harnessed and
drove off himself to see the Serpent King and to complain of the
way in which he had been betrayed. When he reached the river he
sprang into the ferryboat. The ferryman, however, did not get in
but pushed the boat off. . . .

Vassili led a good and happy life with his dear wife, and his
kind mother-in-law lived with them. He helped the poor and fed
and clothed the hungry and naked and all Mark's riches became
his.

For many years Mark has been ferrying people across the river.
His face is wrinkled, his hair and beard are snow white, and his
eyes are dim; but still he rows on.

[From the Serbian.]





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Previous: The Finest Liar In The World



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