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ONCE upon a time a poor man lived in a great forest with his wife. God had given them eight children, and the elder ones were already earning their living with strangers. So the parents were not much rejoiced when a ninth little son was born to them in their old age. But as God had given it to them, they were obliged to accept it, and to have it christened according to Christian usage. But they could find no one willing to stand sponsor for p. 309 the child, for everybody thought that if the parents died, the child would be left a burden on their hands. Then said the father, “I will take the child and carry it to church next Sunday, and say that although I can find no sponsors for the child, the parson may please himself. Then, whether he christens the child or not, no sin can rest on my soul.”
When he set out on Sunday, he found a beggar sitting by the wayside near his house, who asked for alms. The father said, “I have nothing to give you, dear brother, for I must pay out the few copecks which I have in my pocket for the christening. But if you will do me a kindness, come and stand godfather to my child, and afterwards go home with me, and share the christening feast which my good wife has prepared.” The beggar, who had never before been invited to stand godfather to anybody’s child, joyfully accepted the man’s proposal, and went with him to the church. Just as they arrived, a magnificent carriage and four drove up, and a young Saxon lady alighted from it. The poor man thought, “Now I’ll try my luck for the last time.” He bowed respectfully to the unknown lady, and said, “Noble lady, whoever p. 310 you may be! will you not have the kindness to stand godmother to my child?” The lady consented.
When the child was brought up to be baptized after the sermon, the parson and the congregation were much surprised to see a poor beggar-man and a proud handsome lady standing together as sponsors for the child. The child was baptized by the name of Pärtel.1 The rich lady paid the christening fees, and also made a christening present of three roubles, which much rejoiced the child’s father. The beggar went home to the christening feast. Before leaving in the evening, he took from his pocket a small box wrapped in a piece of rag, and gave it to the child’s mother, saying, “My christening gift is poor enough, but do not despise it, for it may possibly bring your son good fortune some day. I had a very clever aunt, who understood all sorts of magic arts, and before she died she gave me the bird’s egg in this little box, saying, ‘When something quite unexpected happens to you, which you could never have imagined, then part with this egg. If it comes into the possession of him for whom it is destined, it may bring him great good p. 311 fortune. But guard the egg like the apple of your eye, that it does not break, for the shell of fortune is tender.’ But although I am nearly sixty years old, nothing unexpected has happened to me till to-day, when I was invited to stand as godfather, and my first thought was, You must give the egg to the child as a christening gift.”
The little Pärtel grew and prospered, and became the delight of his parents, and at the age of ten he was sent to another village to become herd-boy to a rich farmer. All the people of the household were well satisfied with the herd-boy, as he was a good quiet fellow, who never gave any annoyance to his companions. When he left home, his mother put his christening gift in his pocket, and charged him to keep it as safe as the apple of his eye, and Pärtel did so. There was an old lime-tree in the pasturage, and a large granite rock lay under it. The boy was very fond of this place, and every day in summer he used to go and sit on the stone under the lime-tree. Here he used to eat the lunch which was given him every morning, and he quenched his thirst at a little brook hard by. Pärtel had no friendship with the other herd-boys, who were up to all sorts of pranks. It was remarkable that there was no such fine grass p. 312 anywhere as between the stone and the spring, and although the flocks grazed here every day, next morning the grass looked more like that of an enclosed meadow than of a pasturage.
When Pärtel slept a little while on the stone on a hot day, he had wonderfully pleasant dreams, and when he awoke, the sounds of music and song were still in his ears, so that he dreamed on after his eyes were open. The stone was like a dear friend to him, and he parted from it every day with a heavy heart, and returned to it next day full of longing. Thus Pärtel lived till he was fifteen years old, and was no longer to be herd-boy. His master now employed him as a farm-labourer, but did not give him any heavier work than he was able to accomplish. On Sundays and summer evenings, the other young men used to go to visit their sweethearts, but Pärtel did not join their company. He stole away, in deep meditation, to his favourite lime-tree in the pasturage, and often sat under it for half the night. One Sunday evening he was sitting on the stone playing the flute, when a milk-white snake crept out from under the stone. It raised its head as if to listen, and looked at Pärtel with its bright eyes, which shone like fire. This p. 313 happened often, and whenever Pärtel had any time to spare, he used to hasten to the stone to see the beautiful white snake, which at last became so familiar with him that it often coiled round his leg.
Pärtel was now growing up to be a young man; his father and mother were dead, and his brothers and sisters lived widely scattered, and seldom heard any tidings of each other, and still more rarely met. But the white snake had grown dearer to him than his brothers and sisters, and his thoughts were with her by day, and he dreamed of her almost every night. This made the winter-time seem very long to him, when the earth was frozen and the snow lay deep on the ground. When the sun-rays melted the snow in spring and the ground was thawed, Pärtel’s first walk was to the stone under the lime-trees, though there was not a leaf to be seen upon the tree as yet. O what joy! As soon as he breathed forth his longing in the notes of the flute, the white snake crept out from under the stone, and played about his feet. But it seemed to Pärtel to-day that the snake shed tears, and this made his heart sad. He now let no evening pass without visiting the stone, and the snake grew continually tamer, and she would let p. 314 him stroke her; but if he tried to hold her fast, she slipped through his fingers, and crept back under the stone.
On Midsummer Eve all the villagers, old and young, went together to St. John’s fire. Pärtel was not allowed to stay behind, though his heart drew him in another direction. But in the midst of the fun, when all the others were singing, dancing, and amusing themselves, he slippped away to the lime-tree, the only place where his heart was at ease. When he drew near, he saw a clear bright fire shining from the stone, which surprised him very much, for, as far as he knew, nobody but himself ever visited the spot. But when he reached the stone, the fire had disappeared, without leaving either ashes or sparks behind it. He sat down on the stone, and began to play on his flute as usual. All at once the fire blazed up again, and it was nothing else than the sparkling eyes of the white snake. She played about his feet again, allowed him to stroke her, and gazed at him as wistfully as if she was going to speak. It must have been almost midnight when the snake crept back to her nest under the stone, and did not reappear while Pärtel was playing. As he took the p. 315 instrument from his mouth and put it in his pocket and prepared to go home, the leaves of the lime-tree rustled in the breeze so strangely that it sounded like a human voice, and he thought he heard the following words repeated several times:
|“Thin-shelled is the egg of Fortune,|
And the heart is full of sorrow;
Venture not to spoil your fortune,”
Thereupon he experienced such a painful longing that his heart was like to break, and yet he did not know himself what he pined for. He began to weep bitterly, and lamented, “What does the lucky egg avail me, when no happiness is permitted me in this world? I have felt from childhood that I was unfit to mix with men, for they do not understand me, and I do not understand them. What causes pleasure to them is painful to me, while I myself know not what could make me happy, and how then should others know it? Riches and poverty stood together as my sponsors, and therefore nothing will go right with me.”
Suddenly it became as bright around him as if the mid-day sun was shining on the lime-tree and the rock, and he could not open his eyes for a time, p. 316 until he had got used to the light. Then he beheld a lovely female figure sitting beside him on the stone, clad in snow-white raiment, as if an angel had flown down from heaven. The maiden’s voice sounded sweeter to him than the song of the nightingale as she addressed him. “Dear youth, fear nothing, but give heed to the prayer of an unhappy girl. I am imprisoned in a miserable dungeon, and if you do not pity me, I can never hope to escape. O dear youth, take pity on me, and do not cast me off! I am the daughter of a king of the East, possessed of fabulous riches in gold and silver, but all this avails me nothing, for an enchanter has compelled me to live under this stone in the form of a white snake. I have lived thus for many centuries, without ever growing older. Although I never injured any human being, all fled before my shape, as soon as they beheld me. You are the only living being who did not fly at my approach; you have even allowed me to play about your feet, and have often kindly stroked me with your hand. Your kindness has led me to hope that you might be able to effect my deliverance. Your heart is as pure as that of a child, as yet ignorant of falsehood and deception. You have p. 317 all the signs which point to my rescue; a noble lady and a beggar stood together as your sponsors, and your christening gift was the egg of Good Fortune. I am only permitted to resume my human form once in twenty-five years on Midsummer Eve, and to wander about the earth for an hour, and if I should meet with a youth pure in heart, and with your peculiarities, who would listen to my request, I might be released from my long imprisonment. Save me, O save me from this endless imprisonment! I beseech you in the name of all the angels.”
Having thus spoken, she fell at Pärtel’s feet, embraced his knees, and wept bitterly.
Pärtel’s heart was melted by her tears and supplications, and he begged the maiden to stand up, and to tell him what he could do to rescue her. “If it was possible for me to save you,” said he, “I would go through fire and water. I am filled with an unknown longing which allows me no peace; but what I long for, I cannot tell.”
The maiden answered, “Come here again to-morrow evening about sunset, and if I meet you in my snake-form, and wind myself round your body like a girdle, and kiss you three times, do not start or shrink back, or I shall again be overwhelmed by p. 318 the waters of enchantment, and who knows for how many centuries?”
As she spoke, the maiden vanished from the youth’s sight, and he again heard the sighing in the leaves of the lime-tree:
|“Thin-shelled is the egg of Fortune,|
And the heart is full of sorrow;
Venture not to spoil your fortune.”
Pärtel went home and lay down to sleep before dawn, but his rest was disturbed by wonderfully varied dreams, some beautiful, some hideous. He sprang up with a shriek, for a dream showed him the white snake coiling round his breast and suffocating him. But he thought no more of this horrible picture, and firmly resolved to release the princess from the bonds of enchantment, even if he himself should perish. Nevertheless his heart failed him more and more as the sun sank nearer the horizon. At the appointed time he stood by the stone under the lime-tree, and gazed, sighing, towards heaven, praying for strength and courage, that he might not tremble with weakness when the snake should coil round his body and kiss him. Suddenly he remembered the lucky egg: he took the little box from his pocket, opened it, and took p. 319 the little egg, which was not larger than that of a sparrow, between his fingers.
At this moment the snow-white snake glided from under the stone, wound round his body, and had just raised her head to kiss him, when—he himself knew not how it happened—he pushed the lucky egg into her mouth. His heart froze within him, but he stood firm, without shrinking, till the snake had kissed him three times. A tremendous flash and crash followed, as if the stone had been struck by lightning, and amid the loud pealing of the thunder, Pärtel fell on the ground like one dead, and knew nothing more of what happened to him.
But at this terrible moment the bondage of the enchantment was loosened, and the royal maiden was released from her long captivity. When Pärtel awakened from his heavy swoon, he found himself lying on cushions of white silk in a magnificent glass room of a sky-blue colour. The fair maiden knelt by his bedside, patted his cheek, and cried out, when he opened his eyes, “Thanks to the Heavenly Father who has heard my prayer, and a thousand thousand thanks to you, dear youth, who released me from my long enchantment! Take my kingdom as your reward, along with this beautiful palace, and p. 320 all my treasures, and if you will, accept me also as your bride into the bargain! You shall always live here in happiness, as befits the lord of the lucky egg. Hitherto your lot has been as that of your godfather, but now you succeed to a better lot, such as fell to your godmother.”
No one could now come between Pärtel and his happiness and good fortune, and all the unknown longings of his heart, which constantly drew him back under the lime-tree, were finally laid to rest. He lived apart from the world with his dear bride in the enjoyment of the greatest happiness until his death.
But great sorrow was caused by his disappearance, both in the village, and in the farm-house where he had worked, and where he was much loved for his steady quiet ways. All the people went out to look for him, and their first visit was to the lime-tree which Pärtel was accustomed to visit so often, and towards which they had seen him going on the previous evening. Great was the amazement of the people when they found no trace of either Pärtel, the lime-tree, or the stone. The little spring near was dried up, and no trace of anything that had thus vanished was ever again beheld by human eyes.