Nikitich and Marina

THE STORY OF NIKITICH AND MARINA

The Story of Nikitich and Marina

The day of the birth of Nikitich had been a day of trouble for wide distances across the open steppe. For upon that wonderful day a great storm seemed to arise, and yet not a great storm but a strange commotion, unseen, unheard, but keenly felt. From far across the open plain came a herd of beasts, wild beasts and fearsome dragons large and small, and sought the shallow valley of the Dnieper river. At their head ran the Skiper-beast, with woolly fleece, twisted horn, and hoofs which struck sparks from the pebbles of flint. Then the waters of the Dnieper were strangely troubled, the banks of the river quaked and fell, and trees which once had waved upright now spanned the stream. Such had been the day of the birth of Nikitich.

Now when he grew up to youthful manhood, Nikitich sought service in the royal household of Prince Vladimir, and though he was of supernatural wisdom, having learnt to read and write, he served with the rest, for three years in the palace, for three years in the royal gardens, and for three years as keeper of the gate; but for all his faithful service he won no praise of Vladimir and no reward except a horse of the finest mettle, and he was kept always within the confines of the royal palace. But at a certain princely banquet Nikitich rose to his feet in his place at one end of the oaken board, and said:

“Prince Vladimir, Fair Sun of royal Kiev, I have served thee long and faithfully, but always within the confines of the royal palace. Give me leave to wander farther, and first of all through the narrow lanes of Kiev town.”

“Young nestling,” said Prince Vladimir, “fly not from the nest. Young colt of the open steppe, gallop not away.” But the heroes of Holy Russia who sat at the board of Prince Vladimir had pity upon the young man and they said, “Go, Nikitich, and ask your mother.” Then Vladimir laughed and gave the young man leave.

And the counsel of the mother of Nikitich ran thus:

“Walk at will through all the streets of Kiev town and roam through all the little by-ways. But avoid a certain little lane where dwells the Princess Marina, for she is a witch of the vilest who has brought to their death many Tsars and Tsareviches, Kings, and Crown Princes, nobles and their heirs. If you go near the Princess Marina you will lose your life.”

But, sad to tell, the counsel had this effect upon the young man, that he longed most of all to go to the certain little lane where dwelt the Princess Marina.

On the next day he rose very early and washed himself very white in clear water from the spring. Then he took his stout bow in his hand and slung his quiver of gleaming arrows upon his back. He wandered on through the streets and narrow lanes and came at length to a certain little lane where he found the palace of the Princess Marina. It was finely built and richly adorned, while in the window of one apartment sat a mated pair of dark-blue doves cooing lovingly with yellow bill to yellow bill and wing enfolding wing. Then Nikitich fitted a flaming arrow to his stout bow and shot at the cooing doves, but as the shaft was leaving the string his left foot slipped and his right hand shook so that the arrow missed the loving birds, went singing through the lattice-window and slew the favourite of the Princess Marina who was known as the Son of the Dragon and was known for nothing good.

“If I go into the palace,” said Nikitich to himself, “I shall lose my head. If I do not go, I shall lose my arrow.” So he called to his page, who always walked or stood three paces behind him, and sent him into the palace to seek for the arrow.

“Thou witch and sorceress,” said the bold page to the Princess, “return to us our burning arrow.”

“Nay,” said Marina, “let him who sent it come to ask for it.” And when this was told to Nikitich he ran quickly into the courtyard of the palace and from thence to the apartment of the Princess Marina and took the shaft from the body of the Son of the Dragon. Marina lay upon a couch which wascovered with a broad mantle of marten skins and fondled a fiery dragon with her right hand, while she played with two poisonous serpents with her left. As soon as Nikitich entered the room she sprang to her nimble feet and stretched out her lily-white hands to him:

“Sweet Nikitich,” she said looking at him with honey eyes and sugar lips, “stay with me always and I will teach you to calm the fiery dragon and charm the poisonous serpent. You shall rest all day and no foe, however powerful, will be able to harm you.”

“Sweet Marina,” answered the young man, who was really in a very great hurry, “I will not. I have no desire to calm the fiery dragon and charm the poisonous serpent but to fight and kill them. Nor would rest without labour have any charms for me. Besides I know your guile, for you have brought nine brave Russian heroes to their end and now are minded to put an end to me.” Then he turned abruptly from the apartment in spite of all the sweet glances of Marina, who was really very lovely, and went home again to his mother with his fiery dart in his hand.

As soon as he was gone, Marina seized her dagger, and from the clay floor of the apartment she hacked out the footprints of Nikitich. Then she painted the pieces of earth with many devices in various colours and said her verses over them as she placed them in an oven to bake:

Burn ye footsteps of Nikitich, burn in this oven, burn, burn; and as his footsteps burn may his heart burn to return to me.

‘Marina lay upon a couch ... and fondled a fiery dragon with her right hand'

‘Marina lay upon a couch ... and fondled a fiery dragon with her right hand'

Now as the witch spoke these words Nikitich felt a strange longing and uneasiness fall upon his spirit. He sat down at night by the fair white oaken table but he could eat no food; when he went to rest he could not sleep but lay tossing about and waiting with impatience for the coming of the white dawn. At the first bell for prayers he rose, dressed himself, went first to the cathedral service, and then took his way to a certain little lane in Kiev town where lived the Princess Marina.

He entered the apartment of the Princess slowly and with downcast eyes; but she turned her white shoulders upon him and did not reply to his greeting.

“Ah, sweet Marina,” said the enchanted youth, “I have come to stay with you always, for since yesterday I have had no peace of mind apart from you.”

“I asked you yesterday to stay with me, Nikitich,” said the enchantress, “and you would not. So now you are in my power. If I wish, I can turn you into a raven, a magpie, a pig, or a heroic ox with golden horns, silver hoofs, and a coat as sleek as velvet, or even into a loathsome frog. And if I change you into a frog no power on earth or in the sky or in the sea, or in the underworld can change you again so that your spiteful mother will know you.”

Then by a slight movement of her lily-white hand she turned the young man into a heroic ox with golden horns, silver hoofs, and a coat as sleek as velvet. And she drove him out into the open steppe to drink swamp water and to eat marsh grass and to be lord over the nine brown oxen which had once been Russian heroes, strong and mighty. Now as he roamed about the plain not far away from the dwellings of Kiev, he saw a flock of geese which belonged to his aunt; and wickedness entered into his heart, so that he trampled the whole gabbling flock to death down to the very last gosling. Then the goose-girls went to their mistress and with much shaking of dark locks and heaving of white shoulders they told their tale.

As soon as they had finished their story the swan-keepers came with a similar tale, and then the shepherds, and after these the herdsmen. Not a living creature of all the flocks and herds had the golden-horned monster spared.

“I know,” said the aunt of Nikitich, “whence comes this fierce beast. It is my well-beloved Nikitich whom the vile witch Marina has changed by her sorcery.” Even as she spoke the horse-keepers came to tell how the animal had driven the steeds before him so that all had been lost far over the open steppe, dispersed and driven away many miles from Kiev city. Then the aunt of Nikitich rose in white anger, and by means of a secret charm she knew she changed herself into a chattering magpie and flew away to the palace of Marina, where she perched herself upon the sill of the lattice-window and began to scold with all her might and to say:

“Wicked Marina, the ugly! Why have you turned my nephew Nikitich into a golden-horned heroic ox, and set him free to roam across the open steppe? Take off your charm from my nephew or I will turn you into a long-tailed dog to be chased through the lanes of Kiev by the children, or into a chattering magpie full of guile and spleen.”

Now at the game of changes no one could excel Marina, and when she heard the threat of the aunt of Nikitich she changed herself into a grey swallow and flew over the head of the chattering magpie far away across the open steppe. After a long flight she came to the golden-horned heroic ox, and alighting upon his head said in his ear:

“Promise me now, Nikitich, promise me with a great oath that you will take the golden crowns with me, and I will turn you back into your own shape again. Swear now, for you have roamed the wild steppe and must needs be weary, and have wandered far by the bubbling marshes and must needs be tired.”

“Ah, sweet Marina,” said Nikitich, glancing upward with a piteous look, “only deliver me from the form of this heroic beast and I will take the golden crowns with you. I will marry you, Marina, and will teach you the little lessons which a wise husband imparts to an obedient wife for her advantage.”

Then Marina believed him and turned him into a goodly youth as he had been when he first entered her apartment in search of his fiery dart; and she changed herself into a lovely bride, but she could not change the emerald hue of her eyes.

“Now I will wed you, Marina,” said the wise Nikitich. “Round this bush we go, three times round this willow bush, and then you may call Nikitich your husband if you will.” So round the bush they went, hand in hand, three times round the willow bush, while the eyes of the beautiful bride gleamed greener than ever before.

So the bride and bridegroom came, side by side, to the palace of Marina, where Nikitich called to one of the servants:

“Ho, there, bring me a cup of green wine, and a sword of damascened steel, sharp and bright.”

At these words the witch bride put forth her spells again and turned her bridegroom into a little ermine and began to frighten him. Then she turned him into a falcon, but by her witchcraft she was able to prevent him from flying anywhere except round and round her head.

“I cannot fly like the falcon clear,” said Nikitich, “I can only flap my wings up and down. Give me, I beg of you, a cup of green wine to drink.”

Then as if to delight her own eyes and tease him still further, the witch bride turned him once more into a goodly young man who shouted out again:

“Ho, there, bring me a cup of green wine and a sword of damascened steel, sharp and bright.”

Once more Marina raised her lily-white hands and began to perform her enchantments. But before she could change her bridegroom again the servant stood at his side with the cup of wine in one hand and the sword in the other. Nikitich set aside the wine and taking the sword in his hands cut off the head of Marina with one sharp stroke.

In the morning, as the young man went to his bath, a great company of princes and nobles met him in the passage:

“Hail, Nikitich,” they cried courteously. “How is it with your bride?”

“Hail, princes and nobles, heroes and courtiers of Vladimir,” said the young man with a jolly laugh. “Last night I was wedded and no longer alone. This morning I am alone and no longer wedded, for I have cut off the head of my troublesome bride, who had brought to their death many heroes and princes of Holy Russia.”

Then he went to his bath, and returning to the court of Vladimir was given a seat in the great corner while he told his wonderful adventure. “There is no need,” said the Prince, “to cross the boundless plain for strange happenings, for to the adventurous the adventure may come in a narrow lane.”

But in spite of the words of his Prince, Nikitich now longed to roam the open plain to seek fresh adventures. So he set out on the very next day and wandered on and on until he came to a wide-spreading oak on which a pied raven, half of whose wings were white, sat croaking, croaking, croaking. So harsh was its voice that Nikitich strung his bow, fitted a flaming arrow to the cord and prepared to shoot the croaking bird. But as he did so the raven put its head on one side and spoke to him in the speech of Holy Russia.

“Hail now, little Nikitich, the adventurer. Do not kill me and I will make known to you all kinds of secrets. Do not the little ones of the lanes and streets say to one another, ‘There is no wisdom in killing an old man, and he who shoots a raven makes no broth.' Now that I see your bow unstrung I will tell you something worth knowing in return for your forbearance. By the lofty mountain across the steppe there are three wonders, even three marvellous damsels. The first is a lily for whiteness, the second is a rose for redness, and the third is a violet for darkness. More beautiful are they than the spring flowers on the steppe. How is this for an adventure on a fine morning for Nikitich the slayer of dragon brides?”

Now Nikitich had succeeded so well in his first adventure that he was burning to try a second. So he lowered his bow and reflected a little before he spoke. Then he said:

“What you have quoted of the children's wisdom must be true and I will try the adventure. It is better to go to the lofty mountain and see with my own eyes the lily, the rose, and the violet, those three marvels of beauty, than that I should prove my valour by shooting a raven.” Then the pied bird flew away, croaking, croaking, croaking.

Nikitich turned his horse and rode, quickly, very quickly, very, very quickly, and with heroic speed,towards the lofty mountain far away across the open steppe, and at the foot of this mountain he found a pavilion of fair white linen embroidered with gold. “This is a fitting dwelling for three marvellous damsels,” said the young man to himself, “the first a lily for whiteness, the second a rose for redness, and the third a violet for darkness. But it seems to me that either they are not at home or they have locked up their beauty very securely;” for the entrance to the pavilion was secured by a stout bar on which was a lock of damascened steel. The young man alighted, spread fine wheat for his horse near the entrance of the pavilion, planted his spear in the bosom of moist Mother Earth, and went forward to look more closely at the lock, upon which he found this inscription:

Whoso enters this pavilion shall not come thence alive.

This was, of course, a direct invitation to an adventurous youth, and with one blow of his fist Nikitich struck the lock from its place and it fell to the earth at his feet. Then he removed the beam and pushed his way into the pavilion, where he saw tables set with food of the richest and wine of the greenest. He looked round warily, his hand upon his sword, and even searched beneath the tables, but found neither hero nor damsels in all the place. So he sat down at one table and ate well and drank too well, for as soon as he was satisfied he began to throw food and wine about the floor. When he was weary of this foolish exercise, he lay down to sleep.

For a long time he slept, dreaming of lilies, roses, and violets, and knew not that even as he slumbered the owner of that fair pavilion was speeding across the open steppe. This was the hero Alyosha of the court of Prince Vladimir, who arrived breathless to find a steed feeding quietly before his pavilion, and a sleeper within who had eaten well and drunk too well and then had thrown food and wine about the floor.

Now at this sight Alyosha grew very angry, and his turbulent heart boiled within him. His pointed spear was in his hand, and in a moment his anger suggested to him that he could easily punish Nikitich for his fault. But he put aside the idea with disgust, for he was a hero and a gentleman. “I shall win no honour,” he said to himself, “if I kill a sleeping man who is no better than a dead one.” Then he reflected for a few moments, smiled gently, went out of the pavilion and mounted not his own horse but the good steed of Nikitich.

Holding his spear reversed, he rode into the pavilion and struck the sleeper on the breast with the butt end of it. Nikitich sat up suddenly, sprang to his nimble feet, from which he had cast his shoes before falling asleep, and grasping his mace in his right hand prepared to defend himself against all comers. Then a stern fight began within the pavilion to the sound of tumbling tables, breaking crockery and crashing glass. All day they fought without ceasing even to snatch up a bite of food; all night the fight went on with never a draught of wine to slake their thirst. For two more days and two more nights the combat continued, and then there came a clap of thunder loud enough to wake Svyatogor from his sleep among the Holy Mountains.

Now Ilya of Murom the Old Cossáck heard that sound and he said to himself, “Somewhere in the white world Russian heroes are fighting one another. That is not well, for their strength must be kept for battle with accursed Tatars.”

So he saddled his good steed Cloudfall, and those who watched his preparations for his ride saw him mount, but they did not see him as he rode, so quickly sped the shaggy bay steed across the open steppe. In a short space of time he came to the lofty mountain, and entering the pavilion saw the two young men fighting amidst the remnants of a feast. Then he seized Nikitich by his right hand and Alyosha by his left and shouted in a heroic voice, “Why fight against  each other, ye heroes of Holy Russia?”

Alyosha was the first to speak. “Ah,” he said, “thou Old Cossáck, Ilya of Murom, how could I refrain from punishing Nikitich? For I prepared a banquet within my own pavilion and this fellow unbarred the door, sat down by himself to eat well and drink too well, and then scattered the rich food and green wine about the floor!” As he spoke, the voice of Alyosha rose higher and higher with indignation until the last words were like the scream of a peacock in the garden of the Princess Apraxia.

“You did well, Alyosha,” said Ilya with a fatherly smile about his lips, “for a man is no man who is not able to defend his own. And as for you, Nikitich, how does it stand with your case?”

“I could do nothing in honour but fight,” was the reply. “For the inscription on the lock denied life to those who entered this pavilion. It was but an invitation to an adventurer from the court of Vladimir.”

“You did well, Nikitich,” said Ilya with a deep laugh in his eyes, “to defend yourself against such odds, for a hero is no hero who is not able to defend his own.” Then he paused and looked at both of the combatants, who presented a sorry spectacle. After that he looked round about the wrecked pavilion which had been intended as a place of entertainment for heroes and bold warrior maids.

“It will be well, Nikitich,” he said quietly, “if you stay to be invited to the next feast that is laid in this pavilion, and well for you, Alyosha, if you do not tempt brave men by forbidding them. Come now, calm your heroic turbulent hearts and swear brotherhood with exchange of crosses.” Then the two heroes swore eternal friendship with the exchange of crosses, and they all set out for the court of Vladimir, who when he saw them and heard their story laughed in his beard.

“It is not wise, Nikitich,” he said, “to expect to win a bride in each day's adventure.”

Then they went in to supper, and Ilya of Murom sat in the great corner that night and it was he who told the tale.