In a far land where they pay people to keep its name a profound secret, there lived an old man who brought up his three sons just exactly in the way they should go. He taught them the three R's, and also showed them what books to read and how to read them. He was particularly careful about their education, for he had learned that to know things was to be able to do things.

At last, when he came to die, he gathered his three sons round his deathbed and cautioned them.

'Do not forget,' he said - 'do not forget to come and read the prayers over my grave.'

'We will not forget, father,' they replied.

The two elder brothers were great big, strapping fellows, but the youngest one, Ivan, was a mere stripling. As they all stood around the bed of their dying father, he looked a mere reed compared to his proud, stout, elder brothers. But his eyes were full of fire and spirit, and the firm expression of his mouth showed great determination. And, when the father had breathed his last, and his two elder brothers wept without restraint, Ivan stood silent, his pale face set and his eyes full of the bright wonder of tears that would not melt.

On the day that they buried their father, Ivan returned to the grave in the evening to read prayers over it. He had done so, and was making his way homeward, when there was a great clatter of hoofs behind him; then, as he reached the village square, the horseman pulled up and dismounted quite near to him.

After blowing a loud blast on his silver trumpet - for he was the King's messenger - he cried in a loud voice:

'All and every man, woman and child, take notice, in the name of the King. It is the King's will that this proclamation be cried abroad in every town and village where his subjects dwell. The King's daughter, Princess Helena the Fair, has caused to be built for herself a shrine having twelve pillars and twelve rows of beams. And she sits there upon a high throne till the time when the bridegroom of her choice rides by. And this is how she shall know him: with one leap of his steed he reaches the height of the tower, and, in passing, his lips press those of the Princess as she bends from her throne. Wherefore the King has ordered this to be proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the land, for if any deems himself able so to reach the lips of the Princess and win her, let him try. In the name of the King I have said it!'

The blood of the youth of the nation, wherever this proclamation was issued, took flame and leapt to touch the lips of Princess Helena the Fair. All wondered to whose lot this lucky fate would fall. Some said it would be to the most daring, others contended that it was a matter of the leaping powers of the steed, and yet others that it depended not only on the steed but on the daring skill of the rider also.

When the three brothers had listened to the words of the King's messenger they looked at one another; at least the elder two did, for it was apparent to them that Ivan, the youngest, was quite out of the competition, whereas they, two splendid handsome fellows, were distinctly in it.

'Brothers,' said Ivan at last, 'our first thought must be to fulfil our father's dying wish. But, if you prefer it, we could take it in turns to read the prayers over our father's grave. Let it be the duty of one of us each day to fulfil the duty, morning and evening.'

The elder brothers agreed readily to this, but, when Ivan asked whose turn it should be on the morrow, they both began to make excuses.

Ivan And The Chestnut Horse

Ivan And The Chestnut Horse

The chestnut horse seemed to linger in the air at the top of its leap while that kiss endured.

'As for me,' said the eldest, 'I must go and order the work of the farm my father left me, and that will take seven days.'

'And for me,' said the younger, 'I must see to the estate which is my part of the inheritance, and that also will take seven days.'

'Then,' replied Ivan, 'if I perform the duty for seven days, you will each do your share afterwards?'

His brothers agreed still more readily than before. Then they went their ways, Ivan full of thoughts of his father, and the other two to train their jumping horses, the one on his farm and the other on his estate. And both laughed to themselves, for neither knew the purpose of the other.

How they curled their hair and cleaned their teeth, and practised 'prunes and prisms' with their mouths close to the looking-glass! - so that when, at one bound of their magnificent steeds, they reached the level of the Princess's lips, to aim the kiss that was to win the prize, they would make a brave show, and a conquering one. As for their little brother, they each thought he could go on praying over their father's grave as long as he liked, - it would be the best thing he could do, and it would not interfere with their secret plans, so carefully concealed from each other and from him.

So, for seven days, in their separate districts, they raced about on their horses by day and dreamed of the greatest leaping feats by night. And at the end of the seven days the youngest brother summoned them to keep their agreement, and asked which of them would read the prayers, morning and evening, for the second seven days.

'I have done my part,' he said; 'now it is for you to arrange between you which one shall continue the sacred duty.'

The two elder brothers looked at each other and then at Ivan.

'As for me,' said one, 'I care little who does it, so long as I am free to get on with my business, which is more important.'

'And as for me,' said the other, 'I am in no mind to watch each blade of grass growing on the grave. I cannot really afford the time, I am so busy. You, Ivan, - you are different: you are not a man of affairs; how could you spend your time better than reading prayers over our father's grave?'