The Little Humpbacked Horse
by P.P. Yershov
translated from Russian by Louis Zellikoff
illustrations by N. Kochergin


Now the telling of the tale begins.

Past the woods and mountains steep,
Past the rolling waters deep,
You will find a hamlet pleasant
Where once dwelt an aged peasant.
Of his sons - and he had three,
Th'eldest sharp was as could be;
Second was nor dull nor bright,
But the third - a fool all right.
Now, these brothers planted wheat,
Brought it to the royal seat,
By which token you may know
That they hadn't far to go.
There they sold their golden grain
Counted carefully their gain
And, with well-filled money bags,
Home again would turn their nags.

But upon an evil day,
Dire misfortune came their way —
Someone, 'twixt the dark and dawn,
Took to trampling down their corn;
Never had such grief before
Come to visit at their door;
Day and night they sat and thought
How the villain could be caught,
Till at last it dawned upon them
That the way to solve the problem
And to save their crops from harm
Was, each night to guard their farm.

As the day drew near its close,
Up the eldest brother rose
And, with pitchfork, axe in hand,
Started out his watch to stand.
Dark and stormy was the night,
He was overcome with fright
And, of all his wits deprived,
In the nearest haystack dived.
Slowly night gave way to day;
Our brave watchman left his hay,
And, with water from the well,
Soused himself—then, with a yell,
Pounded on the cottage door;
And you should have heard him roar!

"Hey, you sleepy owls," cried he —
"Open up the door — it's me!
I am soaked right to the skin!
Hurry, there, and let me in!"
Quickly they the door unbarred
Letting in their sentry guard.
Then they started questioning -
Had he noticed anything?
First, in prayer he bent his head,
Cleared his throat, and then he said
(After bowing left and right):
"Why - I never slept all night!
And I really wonder whether
There was ever fouler weather!
Cats and dogs it poured, no joking!
Feel my shirt - it's simply soaking!
Oh, it was an awful night!
But, then, everything's all right."
Father praised his son with pleasure,
Said: "Danilo, you're a treasure!
You have served me well, my son,
I can only say, well done!
You have proved that you're a man
And have not disgraced me, Dan!"

As next day drew near its close,
Up the second brother rose
And, with pitchfork, axe in hand,
Also went his watch to stand.
Such a fearful frost set in,
That he shivered in his skin.
Teeth a-chatt'ring in his head,
Freezing, from his post he fled.
All night long, bereft of sense,
He walked round his neighbour's fence.
What a dreadful night he passed!
But the morning came at last,
Found him on the porch once more
Pounding on the cottage door.
"Hey, you sleepy owls," yelled he,
"Let your brother in - it's me!
I am frozen, frozen quite -
It was dreadful cold last night!"
Quickly they the door unbarred
Letting in their sentry guard.
Then they started questioning -
Had he noticed anything?
First, in prayer he bent his head,
Through his teeth, he slowly said
(After bowing left and right):
"Why, I never slept all night!
And I really wonder whether
There was ever colder weather!
It was cold, I'd have you know -
I kept running to and fro -
Wasn't it a chilly night!
But, then, everything's all right."
And his father said with pleasure:
"You, Gavrilo, are a treasure."

Evening once again drew near,
Now the third should don his gear,
But he never turned a hair,
Sitting on the oven there,
Singing with his foolish might:
"O, you eyes, as black as night!"
Then to coax and beg Ivan
Both the elder sons began
Bade him go and guard the grain;
They grew hoarse - but all in vain.
Father finally said: "Here,
You just listen, Vanya dear,
Go on watch, and if you do,
This is what I'll do for you:
I shall give you beans and peas,
And some pictures, if you please."

At these words, Ivan climbed down,
Donned his coat of russet brown,
Pocketed a lump of bread
And on sentry-go he sped.

Night fell and the white moon rose.
On his beat Ivan now goes,
Looking sharply all around;
Then he sits upon the ground,
Munching slowly at his bread,
Counts the bright stars overhead.
Suddenly, a neigh resounded -
To his feet our sentry bounded;
Peering round with shaded eyes,
In the field a mare he spies.
Now, this mare, I'd have you know,
Whiter was than whitest snow,
Silken mane in ringlets streaming
To the ground, all golden gleaming.
"Oh, ho ho - so this is it!
You're the rogue - but wait a bit!
I don't like such nasty jokes
Played on honest farming folks!
Trifling never was my line
And I'll jump upon your spine,
Nasty little plague," said he
And, approaching stealthily,
Seized her tail as in a vice,
Mounted on her in a trice,
Landed on her with a smack,
Back to front and front to back.
But the mare, whose blood was hot,
Started bucking on the spot.

Eyes ablaze with angry glow,
Like an arrow from its bow
Over hills and valleys sped,
Over streams and gullies fled,
On her haunches rearing, prancing,
'Neath the forest branches dancing,
All her wiles and strength in vain
Plying, to be free again.
But - she found her match at last -
To her tail Ivan stuck fast.

Finally, she said to him,
Spent, and trembling in each limb:
"Since you sat me, I confess
I am yours now to possess;
Find a place for me to rest,
Care for me as you know best,
But - remember this my warning:
That for three days, every morning,
You must let me out to graze.
At the end of these three days,
Two such handsome steeds I'll bear
As have ne'er been seen, I swear;
And a third I promise you,
Only twelve hands high, with two
Little humps upon his back;
Ears - a yard long; eyes - coal-black.
If you wish, why, sell the two,
But, Ivan, whate'er you do,
Part not with the little steed,
Though you be in direst need,
Nor for gold, nor silken raiment,
Nor for lucky charm in payment.
Faithful friend to you he'll be,
Where you go, on land or sea;
He'll find shade from summer's heat,
Keep you warm in snow and sleet,
Find your food in time of need,
Quench your thirst with cooling mead. Afterwards, you'll set me free,
Let me roam at liberty."

Now, Ivan thought this all right,
Found her shelter for the night
In an empty shepherd's shack;
O'er its door he hung a sack;
Then he homeward made his way
With the early light of day,
Singing merrily: "Heigh-ho,
Vanya would a-wooing go."

See him near his home once more,
Knocking at the cottage door,
Calling out with might and main,
Till the rafters rang again.
You'd have sworn, to hear him shout,
That a fire had broken out.
Up his brothers from their beds
Jumped in fright, and scratched their heads,
Stammering: "Who knocks so loud?"
"Me, the Fool," came answer proud.
So they opened up the door,
Let him in, and roundly swore
At Ivan - how did he dare
Give his brothers such a scare?
But Ivan, with heedless air,
Climbed up on the oven, where,
Lying down in all his clothes,
He related, at repose,
His adventures - while, amazed,
Open-mouthed, his hearers gazed.
"Well, I didn't sleep all night,
Counting all the stars so bright.
Possibly, the moon was there,
Though I really wouldn't swear -
Satan suddenly appeared,
Bristling whiskers, bushy beard,
Cat-like face and saucer eyes;
I stared on in stark surprise
As that devil, with his tail,
Whipped the wheat as with a flail.
You know, joking's not my line -
So I jumped right on his spine.
He led me a dance, look you -
Nearly broke my head in two.
But I'm not a fool - not quite -
Like a vice, I held him tight.
How that cunning rascal tried!
Finally, he begged and cried:
'Spare my life this once, please do!
For twelve months, I promise you
Not to break a single law,
Christian folks to plague no more.'
I believed him on the spot -
Off the devil's back I got."
And Ivan then said no more -
Yawned and soon began to snore,
While his brothers, though they tried
Not to, laughed until they cried,
Laughing at that booby's joke -
You'd have thought that they would choke!
Father, too, could not refrain -
Laughed, and cried, and laughed again,
Though it is a sin, they say,
For old men to laugh that way.

Since that night, I cannot say
How much time had passed away -
For of this I heard no word
Nor from man, nor beast, nor bird.
What is this to you or me
Whether one year passed, or three?
Time can't be recalled, once fled -
Let me tell my tale instead.

Well, Danilo (I should say -
This was on a holiday),
Tipsy, reeled along the track
Leading to that shepherd's shack.
There he saw a handsome pair -
Steeds, with manes of golden hair,
And beside them, in its stall,
Stood a horse, so queer and small,
Two humps on his little back;
Ears a yard long; eyes - coal-black.
All the fumes immediately
Left Danilo's head, and he
Murmured: "Hm! At last it's clear
Why that fool is sleeping here!"
Breathless bursting home, Danilo
Cried excitedly: "Gavrilo,
Come and see what lovely pair
Our young fool has hidden there -
Steeds, with manes of golden hair -
No one saw their likes, I swear."
Fast as legs could carry, Dan,
Barefoot, with Gavrilo ran,
Through the fields, as though on wings,
Heedless of the nettle stings.

Thrice they fell, and thrice they rose,
Bruised their eyes and tore their clothes
Ere they reached the shepherd's shack,
Rubbing one another's back.
Here, two chargers met their gaze -
Snorting, ruby eyes ablaze,
Silken tails in ringlets streaming,
Golden in the shadows gleaming;
And their hoofs, of diamonds made,
Were with monster pearls inlaid.
Yes, it cannot be denied -
Horses fit for tsars to ride.
And they nearly burst from spleen
As they stared upon this scene;
Th'eldest, gaping, scratched his head -
"Where'd he get them from?" he said.
"This just proves the ancient rule -
Fortune favours but the fool.
Though you'd rack your brains, you'd never
Raise a ruble, though you're clever.
Say, Gavrilo - let's go down,
Sunday, to the fair in town,
Sell them to the Boyards there;
We will share the takings square -
And, with money, you'll agree
We can have a merry spree,
Once we set our pockets jingling.
While not e'en the slightest inkling
Of his horses' whereabout
Will he have, that foolish lout.
Let him seek them high and low -
Strike the bargain, brother - so!"
Said and done - and here, each brother
Crossed himself and kissed the other;
They went home in glee together
Chatting, in the highest feather,
Of the steeds, their future feast,
And that little wonder beast.

Slowly, Time crept on its way,
Hour by hour and day by day;
Sunday came and found them dressed
For the town, in all their best;
There they meant to sell their ware,
Find out, at the harbour there,
What strange ships had put to port,
And what linens merchants sought;
Had Saltan his flag unfurled
To enslave the Christian world?
See them at their icons praying,
Then, for Father's blessing staying,
After which, in secret, they
Took the steeds and stole away.

Night her shadows softly spread,
And Ivan set out for bed.
Through the village he went, swinging,
Munching at his crust, and singing;
Through the meadow now he skips,
With his hands upon his hips;
In the shack, upon his toes,
Like a very lord, he goes.
Everything was in its place -
But the steeds - of them no trace!
Only tiny humpback, neighing,
Fawned around his feet, a-playing,
Flapping both ears left and right,
Prancing gaily in delight.
At this sight, Ivan wept sore,
As he leaned against the door.
"Oh, my horses black as night,
With your golden manes so bright!
Did not I look after you?
What foul devil stole you? Who?
Plague on him, the dirty dog!
May he perish in a bog!
When he to the next world goes,
May he trip and break his nose!
Oh, my horses black as night,
With your golden manes so bright!"

Humpback neighed and shook his head.
"Do not fret, Ivan," he said.
"Yes, your loss is great, I know —
But I'll help you in your woe.
Blame the devil for his deeds —
Your two brothers stole those steeds.
Dry your tears, Ivan — make haste —
We have not much time to waste.
Mount my back — when I say: 'Go',
Hold to me for all you know.
Though I'm small — that's true, of course,
I'm as good as any horse.
Once I get into my pace
Any demon I'll outrace."

Saying this, he stretched out flat,
On his back Ivan then sat,
Grabbed his ears and held them tight,
Shouting out with all his might;
Little humpback's sinews quivered,
He stood on his feet and shivered,
Shook his mane and, with a neigh,
Like an arrow sped away.
Only dust clouds marked the course
Of the rider and the horse.
On they flew, as quick as thought —
In a trice, the thieves were caught.

Seeing him, his brothers stared,
Scratched their heads, confused and scared;
Wrathfully, Ivan exclaimed:
"Brothers, are you not ashamed!
Though you're clev'rer than Ivan,
Still, Ivan's an honest man.
I did not rob you — not I!"
Th'eldest, squirming, made reply:
"We are both to blame, I fear,
But, dear brother — listen here —
And, consider if you please
That we lead no life of ease;
Though we sow a lot of wheat,
We can hardly make ends meet.
Quit-rent's always overdue,
The police, they fleece us too.
So, Gavrilo, here, and I
All last night ne'er closed an eye
Talking of our sorry plight
And of how to put things right.
So, to meet our many needs,
We resolved to sell your steeds
For a thousand at the fair —
Not a ruble less, I swear.
And, in gratitude to you,
Bring you back a gift or two —
High-heeled boots of finest leather,
And a cap, with bells and feather.
Then — the old man's frail and ailing
He can work no more — he's failing,
Yet must dodder out his span —
Come, you're not a fool, Ivan."
"If that's so," Ivan said, "well,
I suppose you'd better sell
My two golden-crested horses —
Take me with you—let's join forces."
If thoughts could, their thoughts would kill —
But, perforce, they feigned goodwill.

Soon the sky grew overcast,
Colder, colder blew the blast,
So they called a bivouac
So as not to lose the track,
In a wood; the steeds were made
Fast beneath its leafy shade;
There they made themselves at ease,
Ate and drank beneath the trees,
After which, in happy mood,
Each made merry as he could.

Soon, Danilo saw a light
In the darkness of the night;
Nudged Gavrilo on the sly,
Cunningly, he winked an eye,
Pointed where the light was burning,
Coughed a muffled cough of warning,
After which he scratched his head.
"My — how dark it is," he said.
"If the moon would show her face
Even for a little space,
How much better it would be —
Why, the blindest owl can see
More than us — but stay — look there —
Can you see it? I declare
Something's burning — yes, a fire!
Just the thing that we require!
Listen, now, Vanyusha dear,
Go and fetch some embers here —
For it really slipped my mind,
And I left my flint behind."
To himself says brother Dan:
"May you break your neck, young man!
Says Gavrilo, "Do I care?
Lord knows what is burning there.
If a highwayman besets him,
We for ever can forget him."

So our fool, who knew no care,
Climbed upon his horse right there,
Twined its mane around his wrist,
Urged it on with heel and fist,
Shouting out with all his might.
Up his horse rose out of sight.
Then Gavrilo cried in fright:
"Saints be with us all this night!
Save us, Lord, from evil sin —
Say — what devil's under him?"

Brighter, brighter shone the light,
Swifter, swifter was their flight
Till they halted where it lay —
There, the field was bright as day,
Lit by wondrous brilliant rays —
Cold and smokeless in their blaze!
Here, Ivan in stark surprise,
Stared and said: "Why, bless my eyes!
Look — there's light in plenty there —
But no smoke or heat — I swear
Now, this is a curious light."

Quoth his horse: "Yes, you're quite right,
And you very well may stare!
That's a Fire-Bird's feather there!
But, Ivan, for your own sake,
Touch it not, for in its wake
Many sorrows, many woes
Follow everywhere it goes."
Growled our fool: "You're telling me —
Woes and sorrows — we shall see!"
So he wrapped it up with care

In a rag to hide the glare,
Hid it in his hat, and then
Galloped swiftly back again;
Tied his horse fast to a tree,
To his brothers then said he:
"When I got there, all I found,
Was a burnt stump on the ground;
I blew hard to raise a spark,
Nearly burst there in the dark.
And I puffed and puffed — in vain,
For it wouldn't burn again!"
Both his brothers laughed all night
At Ivan, in sheer delight.
He, however, merely crept

'Neath the wain and snoring, slept
Till the dawning of the day,
When to town they drove away,
Halting at the Hostlers' Fair,
Opposite the Palace there.

Now, there was an old tradition
That, without the Mayor's permission,
Nothing could be bought or sold,
Nor for barter, nor for gold.
As the church-bells called for prayer,
On his palfrey rode the Mayor;
Spurred and belted, furs on shoulders,
Guarded by a hundred soldiers.
Near him, bearded and sedate,
Rode a crier in full state,
Golden trumpet gaily sounding,
Voice stentorian resounding:
"Oyez, honest merchants there,
Open up and sell your ware!
And you watchmen — stay you near,
Guard their stalls — keep eye and ear
Sharp, maintaining strictest order,
Keep from riots and disorder;
See no rogue, however sly,
Fools good folk with honeyed lie."
Then the merchants loudly call,
As each opens up his stall:
"Honest masters — come this way!
See what wares we have today!
Oh, come buy! Come buy! Come buy!
Our goods always satisfy!"
Buyers flock like flies round honey,
Choose their goods and pay their money;
As the coins change hands and chink,
Merchants to the watchmen wink.

Meanwhile, with his guards, the Mayor
Halted at the Hostlers' Fair,
Where he saw a crowd so great,
That it blocked up every gate,
Surging like a stormy sea,
Shouting, laughing lustily.
Here, the Mayor, who wished to see
What aroused such jollity,
Gave his troops an order to
Clear the way and let him through.
"Hey, you ragamuffins there —
Make way! Make way for the Mayor!"
Shouted his bewhiskered soldiers,
Cracking whips on backs and shoulders.
Doffing hats, the crowd in pain,
Stepped aside and made a lane.

Then the Mayor rode in the Fair,
Saw two chargers standing there—
Handsome horses, black as night,
Silken manes in ringlets bright,
Golden in the sunlight streaming,
Flowing tails, all golden gleaming.
Here the old man stroked his beard
And his anger disappeared.
"Wondrous is God's world," quoth he.
"Countless are its marvels — see!"
And his guards bowed to the ground
Dumbstruck by his speech profound.
Then the Mayor gave out strict orders
'Gainst all tumults and disorders,
That those steeds, on no condition,
Might be sold without permission;
Set a guard, and off to Court
Raced to hand in his report.

Straightway to the Tsar went he.
"Pardon, Gracious Majesty!"
Cried the Mayor, as he fell prone
Breathlessly before the throne.
"Be not angry with your slave —
Suffer me to speak, I crave."
"Speak," vouchsafed the Tsar. "Commence,
But be sure your words make sense."
"I shall try, Your Majesty,
I am Lord Mayor here, you see,
I would give my life for you..."
"Yes — we know — we know 'tis true."
"Sire, I rode to Hostlers' Fair
With my guard today, and there
I beheld a crowd, so great,
That it blocked up every gate;
So I told my men that they
Break the crowd and clear the way —
Which they did, Your Majesty.
In I rode — what did I see
When I got inside the Fair?
I saw two such chargers there —
Handsome horses, black as night,
Silken manes in ringlets bright,
Golden in the sunlight streaming,
Flowing tails, all golden gleaming,
And their hoofs, of diamonds made,
Were with monster pearls inlaid."

Cried the Tsar excitedly:
"We shall have to go and see —
And, if they are all you say,
We shall buy those two today.
Ho! My coach!" — he clapped his hands —
Lo! — his coach all ready stands —
Donned his robes and crown with care
And in haste drove to the fair,
Followed by his Guard of State.

When he stopped outside the gate,
All the people straightaway
Kneeled and wildly cheered: "Hurray!"
In reply, the Tsar smiled brightly,
Bowed, and from his coach sprang lightly.
Charmed by those two steeds, the Tsar
Gazed at them from near and far,
Praised and praised them once again,
Softly stroked each golden mane,
Gently patted each steed's spine,
Felt their necks, so sleek and fine.

After he had gazed his fill,
He turned round with right goodwill,
Saying: "My good people, who
Owns these handsome chargers two?
Who's the master?" Here, Ivan,
Arms akimbo, like a Pan,*
Pushed his brothers both aside,
Puffed his cheeks and proudly cried:
"Tsar, these steeds belong to me,
I'm their owner, too, you see."
"Will you sell them to me, say?"
"No, I'm swapping them today."
"What will you be taking, then?"
"Twice five caps — and that makes ten,
Full of silver — that's my price!"
So the coins were in a trice
Counted out — the Tsar, in pleasure,
Gave five rubles for good measure —
Generous a tsar was he!

Ten grey grooms in livery,
Trimmed with gold and silver slashes,
Each with gaily coloured sashes,
Each with saffian whip in hand,
Took the horses' bridles, and
Led them to the Royal Palace.
But the steeds, in play, or malice,
Tripped their grooms and straightway ran,
Bridles broken, to Ivan.

Back the Tsar drove to Ivan,
Said to him: "Look here, my man,
Now, my grooms can't hold those two
So, there's nothing else to do,
But to come along with me.
I shall issue a decree,
Make you Master of my Horse,
Like a lord, you'll live, of course;
You'll have raiment of the best,
Gold brocade upon your chest;
On my royal word — you'll see!
Are you willing?" "Well, I'll be...
In the Palace I shall live!
And to me, the Tsar will give
Handsome raiment of the best,
Gold brocade upon my chest!
Like a lord, I'll live in clover,
Rule the Royal Stables over!
I, a ploughboy, now will be
Voivode to His Majesty!
Well, I never! Your commission,
I accept, Tsar, on condition —
That you never treat me rough,
Always let me sleep enough —
Or you'll see no more of me!"

Whistling to his horses, he
Sauntered through the city, singing,
Carelessly his mittens swinging,
Followed by his steeds a-prancing
And his humpbacked horse a-dancing
To the rhythm of his song,
And the marvel of the throng.

As for his two brothers, they
Stowed the silver safe away
In their belts; then, in high feather,
Had a drink or two together
And rode home in glee; once there,
Shared the money fair and square;
Married, 'mid much joy and laughter,
Lived and prospered ever after.
And the rest of all their days
Spoke of their Ivan with praise.

Let us now forget those two
And, good people, Christians true,
I'll amuse you if I can
With the deeds of our Ivan.
How he ruled the stables over,
Living like a lord in clover,
And was taken for a sprite;

How he lost his feather bright;
How he laid the Fire-Bird's snare;
How he stole the Tsar-Maid Fair;
How he found her ring for her,
How he was her messenger;
How the Sun, at his request,
Gave the Monster Whale his rest;
One more deed, but not the least,
How he thirty ships released;
How, when boiled in cauldrons, he
Came out handsome as could be.
In a word, how our young man
Ended up as Tsar Ivan.

To be continued...

* Pan — Gentleman. — Tr.