Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

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Soldier's Midnight Watch, The

Perhaps the most remarkable among the stories of this class is the following, which comes from Little Russia. Those readers who are acquainted with the works of Gogol, the great Russian novelist, who was a native of that part of the country, will observe how closely he has kept to popular traditions in his thrilling story of the Vy, which has been translated into English, from the French, under the title of "The King of the Gnomes." [1]


ONCE upon a time there was a Soldier who served God and the great Gosudar for fifteen years, without ever setting eyes on his parents. At the end of that time there came an order from the Tsar to grant leave to the soldiers--to twenty-five of each company at a time--to go and see their families. Together with the rest our Soldier, too, got leave to go, and set off to pay a visit to his home in the government of Kief. After a time he reached Kief, visited the Lavra, prayed to God, bowed down before the holy relics, and then started again for his birthplace, a provincial town not far off. Well, he walked and walked. Suddenly there happens to meet him a fair maiden who was the daughter of a merchant in that same town; a most remarkable beauty. Now everyone knows that if a soldier catches sight of a pretty girl, nothing will make him pass her by quietly, but he hooks on to her somehow or other. And so this Soldier gets alongside of the merchant's daughter, and says to her jokingly--

                 "How now, fair damsel! not broken in to harness yet?"

                 "God knows, soldier, who breaks in whom," replies the girl. "I may do it to you, or you to me."

                 So saying she laughed and went her way. Well, the Soldier arrived at home, greeted his family, and rejoiced greatly at finding they were all in good health.

                 Now he had an old grandfather, as white as a lun, who had lived a hundred years and a bit. The Soldier was gossiping with him, and said:

                 "As I was coming home, grandfather, I happened to meet an uncommonly fine girl, and, sinner that I am, I chaffed her, and she said to me:

                 "'God knows, soldier, whether you'll break me in to harness, or I'll break you.'"

                 "Eh, sirs! whatever have you done? Why that's the daughter of our merchant here, an awful witch! She's sent more than one fine young fellow out of the white world."

                 "Well, well! I'm not one of the timid ones, either! You won't frighten me in a hurry. We'll wait and see what God will send."

                 "No, no, grandson!" says the grandfather. "If you don't listen to me, you won't be alive to-morrow!"

                 "Here's a nice fix!" says the Soldier.

                 "Yes, such a fix that you've never known anything half so awful, even when soldiering."

                 "What must I do then, grandfather?"

                 "Why this. Provide yourself with a bridle, and take a thick aspen cudgel, and sit quietly in the izba--don't stir a step anywhere. During the night she will come running in, and if she manages to say before you can 'Stand still, my steed!' you will straightway turn into a horse. Then she will jump upon your back, and will make you gallop about until she has ridden you to death. But if you manage to say before she speaks, 'Tprru! stand still, jade!' she will be turned into a mare. Then you must bridle her and jump on her back. She will run away with you over hill and dale, but do you hold your own; hit her over the head with the aspen cudgel, and go on hitting her until you beat her to death."

                 The Soldier hadn't expected such a job as this, but there was no help for it. So he followed his grandfather's advice, provided himself with a bridle and an aspen cudgel, took his seat in a corner, and waited to see what would happen. At the midnight hour the passage door creaked and the sound of steps was heard; the witch was coming! The moment the door of the room opened, the Soldier immediately cried out--

                 "Tprru! stand still, jade!"

                 The witch turned into a mare, and he bridled her, led her into the yard, and jumped on her back. The mare carried him off over hills and dales and ravines, and did all she could to try and throw her rider. But no! the Soldier stuck on tight, and thumped her over the head like anything with the aspen cudgel, and went on treating her with a taste of the cudgel until he knocked her off her feet, and then pitched into her as she lay on the ground, gave her another half-dozen blows or so, and at last beat her to death.

                 By daybreak he got home.

                 "Well, my friend! how have you got on?" asks his grandfather.

                 "Glory be to God, grandfather! I've beaten her to death!"

                 "All right! now lie down and go to sleep."

                 The Soldier lay down and fell into a deep slumber. Towards evening the old man awoke him--

                 "Get up, grandson."

                 He got up.

                 "What's to be done now? As the merchant's daughter is dead, you see, her father will come after you, and will bid you to his house to read psalms over the dead body."

                 "Well, grandfather, am I to go, or not?"

                 "If you go, there'll be an end of you; and if you don't go, there'll be an end of you! Still, it's best to go."

                 "But if anything happens, how shall I get out of it?"

                 "Listen, grandson! When you go to the merchant's he will offer you brandy; don't you drink much--drink only a moderate allowance. Afterwards the merchant will take you into the room in which his daughter is lying in her coffin, and will lock you in there. You will read out from the psalter all the evening, and up to midnight. Exactly at midnight a strong wind will suddenly begin to blow, the coffin will begin to shake, its lid will fall off. Well, as soon as these horrors begin, jump on to the stove as quick as you can, squeeze yourself into a corner, and silently offer up prayers. She won't find you there."

                 Half an hour later came the merchant, and besought the Soldier, crying:

                 "Ah, Soldier! there's a daughter of mine dead; come and read the psalter over her."

                 The Soldier took a psalter and went off to the merchant's house. The merchant was greatly pleased, seated him at his table, and began offering him brandy to drink. The Soldier drank, but only moderately, and declined to drink any more. The merchant took him by the hand and led him to the room in which the corpse lay.

                 "Now then," he says, "read away at your psalter."

                 Then he went out and locked the door. There was no help for it, so the Soldier took to his psalter and read and read. Exactly at midnight there was a great blast of wind, the coffin began to rock, its lid flew off. The Soldier jumped quickly on to the stove, hid himself in a corner, guarded himself by a sign of the cross, and began whispering prayers. Meanwhile the witch had leapt out of the coffin, and was rushing about from side to side--now here, now there. Then there came running up to her countless swarms of evil spirits; the room was full of them!

                 "What are you looking for?" say they.

                 "A soldier. He was reading here a moment ago, and now he's vanished!"

                 The devils eagerly set to work to hunt him up. They searched and searched, they rummaged in all the corners. At last they cast their eyes on the stove; at that moment, luckily for the Soldier, the cocks began to crow. In the twinkling of an eye all the devils had vanished, and the witch lay all of a heap on the floor. The Soldier got down from the stove, laid her body in the coffin, covered it up all right with the lid, and betook himself again to his psalter. At daybreak came the master of the house, opened the door, and said--

                 "Hail, Soldier!"

                 "I wish you good health, master merchant."

                 "Have you spent the night comfortably?"

                 "Glory be to God! yes."

                 "There are fifty roubles for you, but come again, friend, and read another night."

                 "Very good, I'll come."

                 The Soldier returned home, lay down on the bench, and slept till evening. Then he awoke and said--

                 "Grandfather, the merchant bid me go and read the psalter another night. Should I go or not?"

                 "If you go, you won't remain alive, and if you don't go, just the same! But you'd better go. Don't drink much brandy, drink just what is right; and when the wind blows, and the coffin begins to rock, slip straight into the stove. There no one will find you."

                 The Soldier got ready and went to the merchant's, who seated him at table, and began plying him with brandy. Afterwards he took him to where the corpse was, and locked him into the room.

                 The Soldier went on reading, reading. Midnight came, the wind blew, the coffin began to rock, the coffin lid fell afar off on the ground. He was into the stove in a moment. Out jumped the witch and began rushing about; round her swarmed devils, the room was full of them!

                 "What are you looking for?" they cry.

                 "Why, there he was reading a moment ago, and now he's vanished out of sight. I can't find him."

                 The devils flung themselves on the stove.

                 "Here's the place," they cried, "where he was last night!"

                 There was the place, but he wasn't there! This way and that they rushed. Suddenly the cocks began to crow, the devils vanished, the witch lay stretched on the floor.

                 The Soldier stayed awhile to recover his breath, crept out of the stove, put the merchant's daughter back in her coffin, and took to reading the psalter again. Presently he looks round, the day has already dawned. His host arrives:

                 "Hail, Soldier!" says he.

                 "I wish you good health, master merchant."

                 "Has the night passed comfortably?"

                 "Glory be to God! yes."

                 "Come along here, then."

                 The merchant led him out of the room, gave him a hundred roubles, and said--

                 "Come, please, and read here a third night; I sha'n't treat you badly."

                 "Good, I'll come."

                 The Soldier returned home.

                 "Well, grandson, what has God sent you?" says his grandfather.

                 "Nothing much, grandfather! The merchant told me to come again. Should I go or not?"

                 "If you go, you won't remain alive, and if you don't go, you won't remain alive! But you'd better go."

                 "But if anything happens where must I hide?"

                 "I'll tell you, grandson. Buy yourself a frying-pan, and hide it so that the merchant sha'n't see it. When you go to his house he'll try to force a lot of brandy on you. You look out, don't drink much, drink just what you can stand. At midnight, as soon as the wind begins to roar, and the coffin to rock, do you that very moment climb on to the stove-pipe, and cover yourself over with the frying-pan. There no one will find you out."

                 The Soldier had a good sleep, bought himself a frying-pan, [3] hid it under his cloak, and towards evening went to the merchant's house. The merchant seated him at table and took to plying him with liquor--tried every possible kind of invitation and cajolery on him.

                 "No," says the Soldier, "that will do. I've had my whack. I won't have any more."

                 "Well, then, if you won't drink, come along and read your psalter."

                 The merchant took him to his dead daughter, left him alone with her, and locked the door.

                 The Soldier read and read. Midnight came, the wind blew, the coffin began to rock, the cover flew afar off. The Soldier jumped up on the stove-pipe, covered himself with the frying-pan, protected himself with a sign of the cross, and awaited what was going to happen. Out jumped the witch and began rushing about. Round her came swarming countless devils, the izba was full of them! They rushed about in search of the Soldier; they looked into the stove--

                 "Here's the place," they cried, "where he was last night."

                 "There's the place, but he's not there."

                 This way and that they rush,--cannot see him anywhere. Presently there stepped across the threshold a very old devil.

                 "What are you looking for?"

                 "The Soldier. He was reading here a moment ago, and now he's disappeared."

                 "Ah! no eyes! And who's that sitting on the stove-pipe there?"

                 The Soldier's heart thumped like anything; he all but tumbled down on the ground!

                 "There he is, sure enough!" cried the devils, "but how are we to settle him. Surely it's impossible to reach him there?"

                 "Impossible, forsooth! Run and lay your hands on a candle-end which has been lighted without a blessing having been uttered over it."

                 In an instant the devils brought the candle-end, piled up a lot of wood right under the stove-pipe, and set it alight. The flame leapt high into the air, the Soldier began to roast: first one foot, then the other, he drew up under him.

                 "Now," thinks he, "my death has come!"

                 All of a sudden, luckily for him, the cocks began to crow, the devils vanished, the witch fell flat on the floor. The soldier jumped down from the stove-pipe, and began putting out the fire. When he had put it out he set every thing to rights, placed the merchant's daughter in her coffin, covered it up with the lid, and betook himself to reading the psalter. At daybreak came the merchant, and listened at the door to find out whether the Soldier was alive or not. When he heard his voice he opened the door and said--

                 "Hail, Soldier!"

                 "I wish you good health, master merchant."

                 "Have you passed the night comfortably?"

                 "Glory be to God, I've seen nothing bad."

                 The merchant gave him a hundred and fifty roubles, and said--

                 "You've done a deal of work, Soldier! do a little more. Come here to-night and carry my daughter to the graveyard."

                 "Good, I'll come."

                 "Well, friend, what has God given?"

                 "Glory be to God, grandfather, I've got off safe! The merchant has asked me to be at his house to-night, to carry his daughter to the graveyard. Should I go or not?"

                 "If you go, you won't be alive, and if you don't go, you won't be alive. But you must go; it will be better so."

                 "But what must I do? tell me."

                 "Well this. When you get to the merchant's, everything will be ready there. At ten o'clock the relations of the deceased will begin taking leave of her; and afterwards they will fasten three iron hoops round the coffin, and place it on the funeral car; and at eleven o'clock they will tell you to take it to the graveyard. Do you drive off with the coffin, but keep a sharp look-out. One of the hoops will snap. Never fear, keep your seat bravely; a second will snap, keep your seat all the same; but when the third hoop snaps, instantly jump on to the horse's back and through the duga (the wooden arch above its neck), and run away backwards. Do that, and no harm will come to you."

                 The Soldier lay down to sleep, slept till the evening, and then went to the merchant's. At ten o'clock the relations began taking leave of the deceased; then they set to work to fasten iron hoops round the coffin. They fastened the hoops, set the coffin on the funeral car, and cried--

                 "Now then, Soldier! drive off, and God speed you!"

                 The Soldier got into the car and set off: at first he drove slowly, but as soon as he was out of sight he let the horse go full split. Away he galloped, but all the while he kept an eye on the coffin. Snap went one hoop--and then another. The witch began gnashing her teeth.

                 "Stop!" she cried, "you sha'n't escape! I shall eat you up in another moment."

                 "No, dovey! Soldiers are crown property; no one is allowed to eat them."

                 Here the last hoop snapped: on to the horse jumped the Soldier, and through the duga, and then set off running backwards. The witch leapt out of the coffin and tore away in pursuit. Lighting on the Soldier's footsteps she followed them back to the horse, ran right round it, saw the soldier wasn't there, and set off again in pursuit of him. She ran and ran, lighted again on his footsteps, and again came back to the horse. Utterly at her wit's end, she did the same thing some ten times over. Suddenly the cocks began crowing. There lay the witch stretched out flat on the road! The Soldier picked her up, put her in the coffin, slammed the lid down, and drove her to the graveyard. When he got there he lowered the coffin into the grave, shovelled the earth on top of it, and returned to the merchant's house.

                 "I've done it all," says he; "catch hold of your horse."

                 When the merchant saw the Soldier he stared at him with wide-open eyes.

                 "Well, Soldier!" said he, "I know a good deal! and as to my daughter, we needn't speak of her. She was awfully sharp, she was! But, really, you know more than we do!"

                 "Come now, master merchant! pay me for my work."

                 So the merchant handed him over two hundred roubles. The soldier took them, thanked him, and then went home, and gave his family a feast.

                [The next chapter will contain a number of vampire stories which, in some respects, resemble these tales of homicidal corpses. But most of them belong, I think, to a separate group, due to a different myth or superstition from that which has given rise to such tales as those quoted above. The vampire is actuated by a thirst which can be quenched only by blood, and which impels it to go forth from the grave and destroy. But the enchanted corpses which rise at midnight, and attempt to rend their watchers, appear to owe their ferocity to demoniacal possession. After the death of a witch her body is liable, says popular tradition, to be tenanted by a devil (as may be seen from No. iii.), and to corpses thus possessed have been attributed by the storytellers the terrible deeds which Indian tales relate of Rákshasas and other evil spirits. Thus in the story of Nischayadatta, in the seventh book of the "Kathásaritságara," the hero and the four pilgrims, his companions, have to pass a night in a deserted temple of Siva. It is haunted by a Yakshini, a female demon, who turns men by spells into brutes, and then eats them; so they sit watching and praying beside a fire round which they have traced a circle of ashes. At midnight the demon-enchantress arrives, dancing and "blowing on a flute made of a dead man's bone." Fixing her eyes on one of the pilgrims, she mutters a spell, accompanied by a wild dance. Out of the head of the doomed man grows a horn; he loses all command over himself, leaps up, and dances into the flames. The Yakshini seizes his half-burnt corpse and devours it. Then she treats the second and the third pilgrim in the same way. But just as she is turning to the fourth, she lays her flute on the ground. In an instant the hero seizes it, and begins to blow it and to dance wildly around the Yakshini, fixing his eyes upon her and applying to her the words of her own spell. Deprived by it of all power, she submits, and from that time forward renders the hero good service. [4]]

               In one of the skazkas a malignant witch is destroyed by a benignant female power. It had been predicted that a certain baby princess would begin flying about the world as soon as she was fifteen. So her parents shut her up in a building in which she never saw the light of day, nor the face of a man. For it was illuminated by artificial means, and none but women had access to it. But one day, when her nurses and Mamzeli had gone to a feast at the palace, she found a door unlocked, and made her way into the sunlight. After this her attendants were obliged to allow her to go where she wished, when her parents were away. As she went roaming about the palace she came to a cage "in which a Zhar-Ptitsa, [5] lay  [as if] dead." This bird, her guardians told her, slept soundly all day, but at night her papa flew about on it. Farther on she came to a veiled portrait. When the veil was lifted, she cried in astonishment "Can such beauty be?" and determined to fly on the Zhar-Ptitsa to the original of the picture. So at night she sought the Zhar-Ptitsa, which was sitting up and flapping its wings, and asked whether she might fly abroad on its back. The bird consented and bore her far away. Three times it carried her to the room of the prince whose portrait she had so much admired. On the first and second occasion he remained asleep during her visit, having been plunged into a magic slumber by the Zhar-Ptitsa. But during her third visit he awoke, "and he and she wept and wept, and exchanged betrothal rings." So long did they remain talking that, before the Zhar-Ptitsa and his rider could get back, "the day began to dawn--the bird sank lower and lower and fell to the ground." Then the princess, thinking it was really dead, buried it in the earth--having first cut off its wings, and "attached them to herself so as to walk more lightly."

               After various adventures she comes to a land of mourning. "Why are you so mournful?" she asks. "Because our king's son has gone out of his mind," is the reply. "He eats a man every night." Thereupon she goes to the king and obtains leave to watch the prince by night. As the clock strikes twelve the prince, who is laden with chains, makes a rush at her; but the wings of the Zhar-Ptitsa rustle around her, and he sits down again. This takes place three times, after which the light goes out. She leaves the room in search of the means of rekindling it, sees a glimmer in the distance, and sets off with a lantern in search of it. Presently she finds an old witch who is sitting before a fire, above which seethes a cauldron. "What have you got there?" she asks. "When this cauldron seethes," replies the witch, "within it does the heart of Prince Ivan rage madly."

               Pretending to be merely getting a light, the Princess contrives to splash the seething liquid over the witch, who immediately falls dead. Then she looks into the cauldron, and there, in truth, she sees the Prince's heart. When she returns to his room he has recovered his senses. "Thank you for bringing a light," he says. "Why am I in chains?" "Thus and thus," says she. "You went out of your mind and ate people." Whereat he wonders greatly. [6]

               The Zhar-Ptitsa, or Fire-Bird, which plays so important a part in this story, is worthy of special notice. Its name is sufficient to show its close connection with flame or light, [7] and its appearance corresponds with its designation. Its feathers blaze with silvery or golden sheen, its eyes shine like crystal, it dwells in a golden cage. In the depth of the night it flies into a garden, and lights it up as brightly as could a thousand burning fires. A single feather from its tail illuminates a dark room. It feeds upon golden apples which have the power of bestowing youth and beauty, or according to a Croatian version, on magic-grasses. Its song, according to Bohemian legends, heals the sick and restores sight to the blind. We have already seen that, as the Phœnix, of which it seems to be a Slavonic counterpart, dies in the flame from which it springs again into life, so the Zhar-Ptitsa sinks into a death-like slumber when the day dawns, to awake to fresh life after the sunset.

               One of the skazkas [8] about the Zhar-Ptitsa closely resembles the well-known German tale of the Golden Bird. [9] But it is a "Chap-book" story, and therefore of doubtful origin. King Vuislaf has an apple-tree which bears golden fruits. These are stolen by a Zhar-Ptitsa which flies every night into the garden, so he orders his sons to keep watch there by turns. The elder brothers cannot keep awake, and see nothing; but the youngest of the three, Prince Ivan, though he fails to capture the bird, secures one of its tail-feathers. After a time he leaves his home and goes forth in search of the bird. Aided by a wolf, he reaches the garden in which the Zhar-Ptitsa lives, and succeeds in taking it out of its golden cage. But trying, in spite of the wolf's warning, to carry off the cage itself, an alarm is sounded, and he is taken prisoner. After various other adventures he is killed by his envious brothers, but of course all comes right in the end. In a version of the story which comes from the Bukovina, one of the incidents is detailed at greater length than in either the German or the Russian tale. When the hero has been killed by his brothers, and they have carried off the Zhar-Ptitsa, and their victim's golden steed, and his betrothed princess--as long as he lies dead, the princess remains mute and mournful, the horse refuses to eat, the bird is silent, and its cage is lustreless. But as soon as he comes back to life, the princess regains her spirits, and the horse its appetite. The Zhar-Ptitsa recommences its magic song, and its cage flashes anew like fire.

               In another skazka [10] a sportsman finds in a forest "a golden feather of the Zhar-Ptitsa; like fire does the feather shine!" Against the advice of his "heroic steed," he picks up the feather and takes it to the king, who sends him in search of the bird itself. Then he has wheat scattered on the ground, and at dawn he hides behind a tree near it. "Presently the forest begins to roar, the sea rises in waves, and the Zhar-Ptitsa flies up, lights upon the ground and begins to peck the wheat." Then the "heroic steed" gallops up, sets its hoof upon the bird's wing, and presses it to the ground, so that the shooter is able to bind it with cords, and take it to the king. In a variant of the story the bird is captured by means of a trap--a cage in which "pearls large and small" have been strewed.



[1] In Mr. Hain Friswell's collection of "Ghost Stories," 1858.

[2] Afanasief, vii. No. 36 c. Also without special title.

[3] The Russian skovoroda is a sort of stew-pan, of great size, without a handle.

[4] From Professor Brockhaus's summary in the "Berichte der phil. hist. Classe der Königl. Sächs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften," 1861, pp. 215, 16.

[5] For an account of this mythological bird, see the note on next page. Ornithologically, the Zhar-ptitsa is the Cassowary.

[6] Khudyakof, No. 110. From the Nijegorod Government.

[7] Zhar = glowing heat, as of a furnace; zhar-ptitsa = the glow-bird. Its name among the Czekhs and Slovaks is Ptak Ohnivák. The heathens Slavonians are said to have worshipped Ogon or Agon, Fire, the counterpart of the Vedic Agni. Agon is still the ordinary Russian word for fire, the equivalent of the Latin ignis.

[8] Afanasief, vii. No. 11. See also the notes in viii. p. 620, etc.

[9] Grimm's KM., No. 57. See the notes in Bd. iii. p. 98.

[10] Afanasief, vii. No. 12.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Soldier's Midnight Watch, The
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: unclassified

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