After describing some heroic combats the stranger at last remarked, 'And what may be the doughty deeds that you young heroes have set to your credit?'

At this the eldest brother told how he had slain the alligator; and, to vouch for the truth of his story, showed the two ears he had preserved, placing them before the stranger.

When the unknown had applauded his story the younger brother told how he had slain the alligator with two heads, and threw down on the table the four ears as evidence.

The stranger applauded more loudly than before, and then turned to the youngest brother; but he remained silent.

'Come,' said the stranger, coaxing him; 'your brothers have performed great exploits: have you not followed their example?'

Then the young Prince replied: 'I am only young; but, now I think of it, I did kill an alligator once, myself. It was a rather ferocious beast in its way, and had three heads; but I managed to - well, here are its ears.' And he threw the six ears on the table.

At this his two brothers were as much astonished as the stranger; for, though he was the youngest, he had done the bravest deed. The official - for such was the stranger - then begged the young Prince to tell of his other exploits. So the hero told how he had slain the giants. This was enough for the official: he sprang up and hastened away to the palace, where he informed the Tsar that he had found the mighty hero for whom every one was searching.

The Story Of Bashtchelik

The Story Of Bashtchelik

The Prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the Princess . . . . and soar rapidly away.

The Tsar was delighted; and having rewarded the official, sent for the Princes in all haste. When they arrived, he bade them tell all they had been through, and listened to their adventures with all attention. And, when they had finished, he turned to the youngest brother and said: 'Your exploits, young sir, are the most extraordinary of all I have heard. But all of you follow me to the tower; I would make certain - quite certain!'

Beckoning the three brothers to follow him, he led the way; and, finally, they reached the room where the youngest had pinned the snake's head to the wall.

The couch was empty, but the snake and the dagger were still there, just as the young Prince had left them.

Then said the Tsar, addressing the eldest: 'Draw forth the dagger!'

The eldest brother seized the hilt, and put forth all his strength; but the dagger did not move.

Then said the Tsar: 'It is so. Let your younger brother try.'

His words were obeyed; but the dagger was immovable.

Then said the Tsar: 'It is so. Let the youngest try.'

His words were obeyed. The youngest Prince took the hilt, and, with a mighty wrench, tore it from the wall; then, as he restored it to its sheath at his side, the snake fell at his feet.

'It is sol' said the Tsar. 'It was your hand saved my daughter's life. I will give her to you in marriage, and you shall be my Prime Minister.' Then, to the two elder Princes, he said: 'If you would prefer to remain with your brother in my country I will bestow two ladies of the land upon you for wives, and give you suitable castles to live in.'

But, though the youngest accepted the Tsar's offer with a proud pleasure, the other two excused themselves with thanks, saying that it was only right for their brother to remain, but, for themselves, their duty was to carry out the quest for their lost sisters.

The Tsar honoured their refusal, and, having given orders that they should be escorted from the city with every mark of royal favour, bade them farewell; and they departed the richer by two asses laden with gifts of gold and silver and precious stones. Shortly afterwards, the youngest Prince and the Princess were married; and the whole city rejoiced for three days with great celebrations.

But the Prince, much as he loved his wife, soon began to blame himself for accepting this great happiness so easily when the quest of his lost sisters was his first duty. On this account he began to pine, and the Princess could not comfort him.

One day, when his grief threatened to sink him in remorse, the Tsar came to him with a bunch of nine keys in his hand, and said: 'My son; I am going forth to the hunt; but you remain, and, with these keys, you may open some delights while I am absent.'

Then he took him and showed him the doors of nine rooms of the palace, assuring him he would find great joy in the first four, a more hidden joy in the next three, and, in the eighth, a summing up of all the joys in the four and the three; but - the ninth he must not enter; for, what was there, no man could endure.

When the Tsar had gone to the hunt, the young Prince opened the doors one by one, and he was truly amazed at what was revealed to him. The first four led him to all the delights of earth; the next three to all the delights of heaven; and the eighth to the Great Joy of Earth and Heaven in one.

And now he stood at the door of the ninth.

'What is here?' said he. 'What is here that is denied me? I have slain the three-headed alligator; I have hewed off the heads of nine giants; I have vanquished the serpent that encircles the world, and rescued the Princess from his lowering fangs. Surely the Tsar is testing me I Come what may, I will enter at this door; for he who does not go on, slides back.'

With this he selected the key; and, inserting it in the lock, opened the ninth door, and entered. What an unexpected sight was there! The joys of the four, the three, and the eighth - were they at last bound up in this? - this man with the strength of the underworld in his limbs, the strength of the mid-world in his set face, and the strength of the skies in his calm gaze beneath tortured brows?

There, before him, was a man, bound, it seemed, by all the bonds of the universe. His legs were encircled with bands of iron, which, at their fastenings into the floor, were rusted. His hips and loins were bound with lead. A copper girdle held his breast. A silver band enthralled his tongue and hands, and what seemed like a spider's web of thin, light-blue wire encircled his body and gathered itself in a circlet of the same woven material upon his brows. Truly, if ever a man was fast bound, this man was; for, in addition to all these things, there was a ring of gold round his neck, and from it extended thick cables of platinum, which were firmly riveted into four strong beams, one in each corner of the room. Around him, on the eight sides of the room, were open windows revealing all the joys of the eight chambers; but the man was bound in the centre.