Once upon a time what happened did happen: and if it had not happened, you would never have heard this story.
Well, once upon a time there lived an emperor who had half a world all to himself to rule over, and in this world dwelt an old herd and his wife and their three daughters, Anna, Stana, and Laptitza.
Anna, the eldest, was so beautiful that when she took the sheep to pasture they forgot to eat as long as she was walking with them. Stana, the second, was so beautiful that when she was driving the flock the wolves protected the sheep. But Laptitza, the youngest, with a skin as white as the foam on the milk, and with hair as soft as the finest lamb's wool, was as beautiful as both her sisters put together--as beautiful as she alone could be.
One summer day, when the rays of the sun were pouring down on the earth, the three sisters went to the wood on the outskirts of the mountain to pick strawberries. As they were looking about to find where the largest berries grew they heard the tramp of horses approaching, so loud that you would have thought a whole army was riding by. But it was only the emperor going to hunt with his friends and attendants.
They were all fine handsome young men, who sat their horses as if they were part of them, but the finest and handsomest of all was the young emperor himself.
As they drew near the three sisters, and marked their beauty, they checked their horses and rode slowly by.
'Listen, sisters!' said Anna, as they passed on. 'If one of those young men should make me his wife, I would bake him a loaf of bread which should keep him young and brave for ever.'
'And if I,' said Stana, 'should be the one chosen, I would weave my husband a shirt which will keep him unscathed when he fights with dragons; when he goes through water he will never even be wet; or if through fire, it will not scorch him.'
'And I,' said Laptitza, 'will give the man who chooses me two boys, twins, each with a golden star on his forehead, as bright as those in the sky.'
And though they spoke low the young men heard, and turned their horses' heads.
'I take you at your word, and mine shall you be, most lovely of empresses!' cried the emperor, and swung Laptitza and her strawberries on the horse before him.
'And I will have you,' 'And I you,' exclaimed two of his friends, and they all rode back to the palace together.
The following morning the marriage ceremony took place, and for three days and three nights there was nothing but feasting over the whole kingdom. And when the rejoicings were over the news was in everybody's mouth that Anna had sent for corn, and had made the loaf of which she had spoken at the strawberry beds. And then more days and nights passed, and this rumour was succeeded by another one--that Stana had procured some flax, and had dried it, and combed it, and spun it into linen, and sewed it herself into the shirt of which she had spoken over the strawberry beds.
Now the emperor had a stepmother, and she had a daughter by her first husband, who lived with her in the palace. The girl's mother had always believed that her daughter would be empress, and not the 'Milkwhite Maiden,' the child of a mere shepherd. So she hated the girl with all her heart, and only bided her time to do her ill.
But she could do nothing as long as the emperor remained with his wife night and day, and she began to wonder what she could do to get him away from her.
At last, when everything else had failed, she managed to make her brother, who was king of the neighbouring country, declare war against the emperor, and besiege some of the frontier towns with a large army. This time her scheme was successful. The young emperor sprang up in wrath the moment he heard the news, and vowed that nothing, not even his wife, should hinder his giving them battle. And hastily assembling whatever soldiers happened to be at hand he set off at once to meet the enemy. The other king had not reckoned on the swiftness of his movements, and was not ready to receive him. The emperor fell on him when he was off his guard, and routed his army completely. Then when victory was won, and the terms of peace hastily drawn up, he rode home as fast as his horse would carry him, and reached the palace on the third day.
But early that morning, when the stars were growing pale in the sky, two little boys with golden hair and stars on their foreheads were born to Laptitza. And the stepmother, who was watching, took them away, and dug a hole in the corner of the palace, under the windows of the emperor, and put them in it, while in their stead she placed two little puppies.
The emperor came into the palace, and when they told him the news he went straight to Laptitza's room. No words were needed; he saw with his own eyes that Laptitza had not kept the promise she had made at the strawberry beds, and, though it nearly broke his heart, he must give orders for her punishment.
So he went out sadly and told his guards that the empress was to be buried in the earth up to her neck, so that everyone might know what would happen to those who dared to deceive the emperor.
Not many days after, the stepmother's wish was fulfilled. The emperor took her daughter to wife, and again the rejoicings lasted for three days and three nights.
Let us now see what happened to the two little boys.
The poor little babies had found no rest even in their graves. In the place where they had been buried there sprang up two beautiful young aspens, and the stepmother, who hated the sight of the trees, which reminded her of her crime, gave orders that they should be uprooted. But the emperor heard of it, and forbade the trees to be touched, saying, 'Let them alone; I like to see them there! They are the finest aspens I have ever beheld!'
And the aspens grew as no aspens had ever grown before. In each day they added a year's growth, and each night they added a year's growth, and at dawn, when the stars faded out of the sky, they grew three years' growth in the twinkling of an eye, and their boughs swept across the palace windows. And when the wind moved them softly, the emperor would sit and listen to them all the day long.
The stepmother knew what it all meant, and her mind never ceased from trying to invent some way of destroying the trees. It was not an easy thing, but a woman's will can press milk out of a stone, and her cunning will overcome heroes. What craft will not do soft words may attain, and if these do not succeed there still remains the resource of tears.
One morning the empress sat on the edge of her husband's bed, and began to coax him with all sorts of pretty ways.
It was some time before the bait took, but at length-- even emperors are only men!
'Well, well,' he said at last, 'have your way and cut down the trees; but out of one they shall make a bed for me, and out of the other, one for you!'
And with this the empress was forced to be content. The aspens were cut down next morning, and before night the new bed had been placed in the emperor's room.
Now when the emperor lay down in it he seemed as if he had grown a hundred times heavier than usual, yet he felt a kind of calm that was quite new to him. But the empress felt as if she was lying on thorns and nettles, and could not close her eyes.
When the emperor was fast asleep, the bed began to crack loudly, and to the empress each crack had a meaning. She felt as if she were listening to a language which no one but herself could understand.
'Is it too heavy for you, little brother?' asked one of the beds.
'Oh, no, it is not heavy at all,' answered the bed in which the emperor was sleeping. 'I feel nothing but joy now that my beloved father rests over me.'
'It is very heavy for me!' said the other bed, 'for on me lies an evil soul.'
And so they talked on till the morning, the empress listening all the while.
By daybreak the empress had determined how to get rid of the beds. She would have two others made exactly like them, and when the emperor had gone hunting they should be placed in his room. This was done and the aspen beds were burnt in a large fire, till only a little heap of ashes was left.
Yet while they were burning the empress seemed to hear the same words, which she alone could understand.
Then she stooped and gathered up the ashes, and scattered them to the four winds, so that they might blow over fresh lands and fresh seas, and nothing remain of them.
But she had not seen that where the fire burnt brightest two sparks flew up, and, after floating in the air for a few moments, fell down into the great river that flows through the heart of the country. Here the sparks had turned into two little fishes with golden scales, and one was so exactly like the other that everyone could tell at the first glance that they must be twins. Early one morning the emperor's fishermen went down to the river to get some fish for their master's breakfast, and cast their nets into the stream. As the last star twinkled out of the sky they drew them in, and among the multitude of fishes lay two with scales of gold, such as no man had ever looked on.
They all gathered round and wondered, and after some talk they decided that they would take the little fishes alive as they were, and give them as a present to the emperor.
'Do not take us there, for that is whence we came, and yonder lies our destruction,' said one of the fishes.
'But what are we to do with you?' asked the fisherman.
'Go and collect all the dew that lies on the leaves, and let us swim in it. Then lay us in the sun, and do not come near us till the sun's rays shall have dried off the dew,' answered the other fish.
The fisherman did as they told him--gathered the dew from the leaves and let them swim in it, then put them to lie in the sun till the dew should be all dried up.
And when he came back, what do you think he saw? Why, two boys, two beautiful young princes, with hair as golden as the stars on their foreheads, and each so like the other, that at the first glance every one would have known them for twins.
The boys grew fast. In every day they grew a year's growth, and in every night another year's growth, but at dawn, when the stars were fading, they grew three years' growth in the twinkling of an eye. And they grew in other things besides height, too. Thrice in age, and thrice in wisdom, and thrice in knowledge. And when three days and three nights had passed they were twelve years in age, twenty-four in strength, and thirty-six in wisdom.
'Now take us to our father,' said they. So the fisherman gave them each a lambskin cap which half covered their faces, and completely hid their golden hair and the stars on their foreheads, and led them to the court.
By the time they arrived there it was midday, and the fisherman and his charges went up to an official who was standing about. 'We wish to speak with the emperor,' said one of the boys.
'You must wait until he has finished his dinner,' replied the porter.
'No, while he is eating it,' said the second boy, stepping across the threshold.
The attendants all ran forward to thrust such impudent youngsters outside the palace, but the boys slipped through their fingers like quicksilver, and entered a large hall, where the emperor was dining, surrounded by his whole court.
'We desire to enter,' said one of the princes sharply to a servant who stood near the door.
'That is quite impossible,' replied the servant.
'Is it? let us see!' said the second prince, pushing the servants to right and left.
But the servants were many, and the princes only two. There was the noise of a struggle, which reached the emperor's ears.
'What is the matter?' asked he angrily.
The princes stopped at the sound of their father's voice.
'Two boys who want to force their way in,' replied one of the servants, approaching the emperor.
'To FORCE their way in? Who dares to use force in my palace? What boys are they?' said the emperor all in one breath.
'We know not, O mighty emperor,' answered the servant, 'but they must surely be akin to you, for they have the strength of lions, and have scattered the guards at the gate. And they are as proud as they are strong, for they will not take their caps from their heads.'
The emperor, as he listened, grew red with anger.
'Thrust them out,' cried he. 'Set the dogs after them.'
'Leave us alone, and we will go quietly,' said the princes, and stepped backwards, weeping silently at the harsh words. They had almost reached the gates when a servant ran up to them.
'The emperor commands you to return,' panted he: 'the empress wishes to see you.'
The princes thought a moment: then they went back the way they had come, and walked straight up to the emperor, their caps still on their heads.
He sat at the top of a long table covered with flowers and filled with guests. And beside him sat the empress, supported by twelve cushions. When the princes entered one of the cushions fell down, and there remained only eleven.
'Take off your caps,' said one of the courtiers.
'A covered head is among men a sign of honour. We wish to seem what we are.'
'Never mind,' said the emperor, whose anger had dropped before the silvery tones of the boy's voice. 'Stay as you are, but tell me WHO you are! Where do you come from, and what do you want?'
'We are twins, two shoots from one stem, which has been broken, and half lies in the ground and half sits at the head of this table. We have travelled a long way, we have spoken in the rustle of the wind, have whispered in the wood, we have sung in the waters, but now we wish to tell you a story which you know without knowing it, in the speech of men.'
And a second cushion fell down.
'Let them take their silliness home,' said the empress.
'Oh, no, let them go on,' said the emperor. 'You wished to see them, but I wish to hear them. Go on, boys, sing me the story.'
The empress was silent, but the princes began to sing the story of their lives.
'There was once an emperor,' began they, and the third cushion fell down.
When they reached the warlike expedition of the emperor three of the cushions fell down at once.
And when the tale was finished there were no more cushions under the empress, but the moment that they lifted their caps, and showed their golden hair and the golden stars, the eyes of the emperor and of all his guests were bent on them, and they could hardly bear the power of so many glances.
And there happened in the end what should have happened in the beginning. Laptitza sat next her husband at the top of the table. The stepmother's daughter became the meanest sewing maid in the palace, the stepmother was tied to a wild horse, and every one knew and has never forgotten that whoever has a mind turned to wickedness is sure to end badly.