The aged Tsar was dying, and his three sons and three daughters were standing round his bed. He had yet strength to give his last commands, which were extraordinary.

'It is my will, O my sons,' he said, 'that you give my daughters in marriage to the first suitors that come to demand them. Question me not, but fulfil to the letter this, my last injunction. If you fail, my curse will fall upon you.'

These were the Tsar's last words before he died. It was approaching the hour of midnight when he passed away; and, when the dawn found his sons and daughters weeping for grief, they were startled by a dreadful noise. Came a loud beating against the palace gates, and instantly an awful tempest sprang up around the palace. Peal on peal of thunder roared, and vivid lightning flashed. The whole place rocked and swayed and trembled to its foundations. Then above the fearful din came a loud voice: 'In the name of a King, open the gates!'

'Do not open!' cried the eldest brother.

'See to it that you do not open!' insisted the younger one. But the youngest disregarded them both, and rushed to the gates.

"Tis I will open!' he flung back to them as they followed at his heels. 'Though the earth dissolve, what have we to fear? We have done no wrong!'

With this he flung the gates wide. There was no one there, but a sizzling light moved in towards them, and, out of the heart of it came a clear, cold voice:

'I have come to demand the hand of your eldest sister in marriage. Forbid me not. I await your consent, but, if you refuse, it will be at your peril.'

The eldest brother answered at once, without a glance at the other two: 'It is unheard of! I cannot see you; I do not know you; who is to know where or how you will bestow my sister? I might never see her again.' He turned to the younger one and added, 'What say you, brother?'

'For my part, I will not consent,' replied he readily. 'I like not these signs of ill omen.'

Then they both turned to the youngest.

'What say you, little brother?'

He was quick to answer:

'I obey my father, and counsel you to do the same. It is not that I fear his curse, but I love him, and will obey his wish.'

Without waiting for any reply he ran within, and soon returned, leading his eldest sister by the hand.

'Here,' said he, 'offering her to the unseen visitant, 'in accordance with the custom of my country and the dying wish of my father, I give you my sister for your wedded wife. May she be faithful to you.'

The Princess was then taken by an invisible hand and led away; and, as she stepped across the threshold of the palace gates, a tremendous clap of thunder burst overhead; the lightning flashed again, and the whole earth rocked at the sound and sight of it; and, at terror of it, the courtiers who had gathered round fell on their faces and prayed for deliverance with all their might.

When the sun rose, the palace was still astir. None had slept, so none had dreamed; therefore, when eyes met eyes, the truth was known: a terrible thing had happened, but none knew how it had happened. All sought to find some clue to explain the disappearance of the eldest Princess, but there was no clue to the midnight mystery of the thing.

And on the second night the same terrible thing occurred again. The palace was stormed by thunder and lightning till its foundations quaked. Then, above all, came another commanding voice: 'Open the gates immediately - in the name of a King!'

Again the elder brother demurred, and again the youngest admitted the invisible but powerful applicant, and bestowed upon him the second sister.

'I trust she will be loyal and faithful to you,' he said; and, as she stepped over the threshold, the elements roared like a great lion glutting on his prey. And still, to the courtiers who stood by, the mystery of the thing was greater than their fear of the quakings of the earth and the sudden gasps of icy air that smote them.

Again, on the third night, while the youngest sister, who was very proud, was preparing to reject a suitor promised by her brothers, a greater storm than ever swept up about the palace, and, to hear it, one would have thought that half the world were rolling down a hill. It was terrific, and still more terrific was a voice that cried: 'Open these gates, in the name of a King who comes on his own business!'

As before, the two elder brothers demurred, but the youngest was more obedient to his father's dying wish. He bestowed the youngest sister upon the first to seek her hand. And, as she stepped over the threshold, the whole palace trembled and fluttered as if disturbed by the wings of a thousand giant eagles.

The two elder brothers mourned and grieved for their sisters, saying they were lost for ever. How could they see them again? How could they visit them? They were gone - swallowed up in the invisible.

'It is not so,' said the youngest. 'We have fulfilled our father's command. We have done no wrong; though the skies fall down, what have we to fear? Follow me forth: we will go and search for them!'

And so, not knowing what had befallen their sisters, nor whom they had married, they set out to search far and wide for them.

After journeying for some days, they reached a wild, inhospitable country, where, in a mighty forest so dense they could see neither the sun by day nor the stars by night, they lost their way. But still they pushed on, hoping to find an outlet. At last, after wandering for days, they came at sunset to a small lake, where they prepared to pass the night.

The eldest watched while the two younger brothers slept.

In the middle of the night, while his brothers slept soundly, he was gazing upon the waters of the lake, watching the moonbeams play with the ripples stirred by the soft night wind, when he saw a great black head appear on the surface and rapidly approach the shore where he was standing. Presently, as the monster emerged from the water, he found himself face to face with a great alligator rushing upon him to devour him.