14.The Golden Duck
THE STORY OF PRINCE RADUZ AND THE FAITHFUL LUDMILA
ONCE upon a time there was a king who had four sons. One day the queen said to him, “It is time that one of our boys went out into the world to make his fortune.”
“I have been thinking that very same thing,” the king said. “Let us get ready Raduz, our youngest, and send him off with God’s blessing.”
Preparations were at once made and in a few days Raduz bid his parents farewell and set off.
He traveled many days and many nights over desert plains and through dense forests until he came to a high mountain. Halfway up the mountain he found a house.
“I’ll stop here,” he thought to himself, “and see if they’ll give me a job.”
Now this house was occupied by three people: old Yezibaba, who was a bad old witch; her husband, who was a wizard but not so bad as Yezibaba; and their daughter, Ludmila, the sweetest, kindest girl that two wicked parents ever had.
“Good day to you all,” Raduz said, as he stepped into the house and bowed.
“The same to you,” old Yezibaba answered. “What brings you here?”
“I’m looking for work and I thought you might have something for me to do.”
“What can you do?” Yezibaba asked.
“I’ll do anything you set me to. I’m trustworthy and industrious.”
Yezibaba didn’t want to take him, but the old man wanted him and in the end Yezibaba with very ill grace agreed to give him a trial.
He rested that night and early next morning presented himself to the old witch and said, “What work am I to do today, mistress?”
Yezibaba looked him over from head to foot. Then she took him to a window and said, “What do you see out there?”
“I see a rocky hillside.”
“Good. Go to that rocky hillside, plough it, plant it in trees that will grow, blossom, and bear fruit tonight. Tomorrow morning bring me the ripe fruit. Here is a wooden hoe with which to work.”
“Alas,” thought Raduz to himself, “did ever a man have such a task as this? What can I do on that rocky hillside with a wooden hoe? How can I finish my task in so short a time?”
He started to work but he hadn’t struck three blows with the wooden hoe before it broke. In despair he tossed it aside and sat down under a beech tree.
In the meantime wicked old Yezibaba had cooked a disgusting mess of toads which she told Ludmila to carry out to the serving man for his dinner. Ludmila was sorry for the poor young man who had fallen into her mother’s clutches and she said to herself, “What has he done to deserve such unkind treatment? I won’t let him eat this nasty mess. I’ll share my own dinner with him.”
She waited until her mother was out of the room, then she took Yezibaba’s magic wand and hid it under her apron. After that she hurried out to Raduz, whom she found sitting under the beech tree with his face in his hands.
“Don’t be discouraged,” she said to him. “It is true your mistress cooked you a mess of toads for your dinner but, see, I have thrown them away and have brought you my own dinner instead. As for your task,” she continued, “I will help you with that. Here is my mother’s magic wand. I have but to strike the rocky hillside and by tomorrow the trees that my mother has ordered will spring up, blossom, and bear fruit.”
Ludmila did as she promised. She struck the ground with the magic wand and instantly instead of the rocky hillside there appeared an orchard with rows on rows of trees that blossomed and bore fruit as you watched them.
Raduz looked from Ludmila to the orchard and couldn’t find words with which to express his surprise and gratitude. Then Ludmila spread out her dinner and together they ate it, laughing merrily and talking. Raduz would have kept Ludmila all the afternoon but she remembered that Yezibaba was waiting for her and she hurried away.
The next morning Raduz presented Yezibaba a basket of ripe fruit. She sniffed it suspiciously and then very grudgingly acknowledged that he had accomplished his task.
“What am I to do today?” Raduz asked.
Yezibaba led him to a second window and asked him what he saw there.
“I see a rocky ravine covered with brambles,” he said.
“Right. Go now and clear away the brambles, dig up the ravine, and plant it in grape vines. Tomorrow morning bring me the ripe grapes. Here is another wooden hoe with which to work.”
Raduz took the hoe and set to work. At the first blow the hoe broke into three pieces.
“Alas,” he thought, “what is going to happen to me now? Unless Ludmila helps me again, I am lost.”
At home Yezibaba was busy cooking a mess of snakes. When noonday came she said to Ludmila, “Here, my child, is dinner for the serving man. Take it out to him.”
Ludmila took the nasty mess and, as on the day before, threw it away. Then again hiding Yezibaba’s wand under her apron, she went to Raduz, carrying in her hands her own dinner.
Raduz saw her coming and at once his heart grew light and he thought to himself how kind Ludmila was and how beautiful.
“I have been sitting here idle,” he told her, “for at the first blow my hoe broke. Unless you help me, I don’t know what I shall do.”
“Don’t worry,” Ludmila said. “It is true your mistress sent you a mess of snakes for your dinner, but I threw them out and have brought you my own dinner instead. And I’ve brought the magic wand, too, so it will be easy enough to plant a vineyard that will produce ripe grapes by tomorrow morning.”
They ate together and after dinner Ludmila took the wand and struck the earth. At once a vineyard appeared and, as they watched, the vines blossomed and the blooms turned to grapes.
It was harder than before for Raduz to let Ludmila go, for he wanted to keep on talking to her forever, but she remembered that Yezibaba was waiting for her and she hurried away.
The next morning when Raduz presented a basket of ripe grapes, old Yezibaba could scarcely believe her eyes. She sniffed the grapes suspiciously and then very grudgingly acknowledged that he had accomplished his second task.
“What am I to do today?” Raduz asked.
Yezibaba led him to a third window and told him to look out and tell her what he saw.
“I see a great rocky cliff.”
“Right,” she said. “Go now to that cliff and grind me flour out of the rocks and from the flour bake me bread. Tomorrow morning bring me the fresh loaves. Today you shall have no tools of any kind. Go now and do this task or suffer the consequences.”
As Raduz started off, Yezibaba looked after him and shook her head suspiciously.
“I don’t understand this,” she said to her husband. “He could never have done these two tasks alone. Do you suppose Ludmila has been helping him? I’ll punish her if she has!”
“Shame on you,” the old man said, “to talk so of your own daughter! Ludmila is a good girl and has always been loyal and obedient.”
“I hope so,” Yezibaba said, “but just the same I think I myself will carry him out his dinner today.”
“Nonsense, old woman! You’ll do no such thing! You’re always smelling a rat somewhere! Let the boy alone and don’t go nagging at Ludmila either!”
So Yezibaba said no more. This time she cooked a mess of lizards for Raduz’ dinner.
“Here, Ludmila,” she said, “carry this out to the young man. But see that you don’t talk to him. And hurry back.”
Poor Raduz had been pounding stones one on another as well as he could, but he hadn’t been able to grind any of them into flour. As noonday approached he kept looking up anxiously to see whether beautiful Ludmila was again coming to help him.
“Here I am,” she called while she was yet some distance away. “You were to have lizard stew today but, see, I am bringing you my own dinner!”
Then she told him what she had heard Yezibaba say to her father.
“Today she almost brought you your dinner herself, for she suspects that I have been helping you. If she knew that I really had she would kill you.”
“Dear Ludmila,” Raduz said, “I know very well that without you I am lost! How can I ever thank you for all you have done for me?”
Ludmila said she didn’t want thanks. She was helping Raduz because she was sorry for him and loved him.
Then she took Yezibaba’s wand and struck the rocky cliff. At once, instead of the bare rock, there were sacks of grain and a millstone that worked merrily away grinding out fine flour. As you watched, the flour was kneaded up into loaves and then, pop went the loaves into a hot oven and soon the air was sweet with the smell of baking bread.
Raduz begged Ludmila to stay and talk to him, but she remembered that the old witch was waiting for her and she hurried home.
The next morning Raduz carried the baked loaves to Yezibaba. She sniffed at them suspiciously and then her wicked heart nearly cracked with bitterness to think that Raduz had accomplished his third task. But she hid her disappointment and pretending to smile, she said, “I see, my dear boy, that you have been able to do all the tasks that I have set you. This is enough for the present. Today you may rest.”
That night the old witch hatched the plot of boiling Raduz alive. She had him fill a big cauldron with water and put it on the fire. Then she said to her husband:
“Now, old man, I’m going to take a nap but when the water boils wake me up.”
As soon as Yezibaba was asleep Ludmila gave the old man strong wine until he, too, fell asleep. Then she called Raduz and told him what Yezibaba was planning to do.
“You must escape while you can,” she said, “for if you are here tomorrow you will surely be thrown into the boiling cauldron.”
But Raduz had fallen too deeply in love with Ludmila to leave her and now he declared that he would never go unless she went with him.
“Very well,” Ludmila said, “I will go with you if you swear you will never forget me.”
“Forget you? How could I forget you,” Raduz said, “when I wouldn’t give you up for the whole world!”
So Raduz took a solemn oath and they made ready to flee. Ludmila threw down her handkerchief in one corner of the house and Raduz’ cap in another. Then she took Yezibaba’s wand and off they started.
The next morning when the old man awoke, he called out: “Hi, there, boy! Are you still asleep?”
“No, I’m not asleep,” answered Raduz’ cap. “I’m just stretching.”
Presently the old man called out again: “Here, boy, hand me my clothes.”
“In a minute,” the cap answered. “Just wait till I put on my slippers.”
Then old Yezibaba awoke. “Ludmila!” she cried. “Get up, you lazy girl, and hand me my skirt.”
“In a minute! In a minute!” the handkerchief answered.
“What’s the matter?” Yezibaba scolded. “Why are you so long dressing?”
“Just one more minute!” the handkerchief said.
But Yezibaba, who was an impatient old witch, sat up in bed and then she could see that Ludmila’s bed was empty. That threw her into a fine rage and she called out to her husband, “Now, old man, what have you got to say? As sure as I’m alive that good-for-nothing boy is gone and that precious daughter of yours has gone with him!”
“No, no,” the old man said. “I don’t think so.”
Then they both got up and sure enough neither Raduz nor Ludmila was to be found.
“What do you think now, you old fool!” Yezibaba shouted. “A mighty good and loyal and obedient girl that daughter of yours is! But why do you stand there all day? Mount the black horse and fly after them and when you overtake them bring them back to me and I’ll punish them properly!”
In the meantime Raduz and Ludmila were fleeing as fast as they could.
Suddenly Ludmila said, “Oh, how my left cheek burns! I wonder what it means. Look back, dear Raduz, and see if there is any one following us.”
Raduz turned and looked. “There’s nothing following us,” he said, “but a black cloud in the sky.”
“A black cloud? That’s the old man on the black horse that rides on the clouds. Quick! We must be ready for him!”
Ludmila struck the ground with Yezibaba’s wand and changed it into a field. She turned herself into the growing rye and made Raduz the reaper who was cutting the rye. Then she instructed him how to answer the old man with cunning.
The black cloud descended upon them with thunder and a shower of hailstones that beat down the growing rye.
“Take care!” Raduz cried. “You’re trampling my rye! Leave some of it for me.”
“Very well,” the old man said, alighting from his horse, “I’ll leave some of it for you. But tell me, reaper, have you seen anything of two young people passing this way?”
“Not a soul has passed while I’ve been reaping, but I do remember that while I was planting this field two such people did pass.”
The old man shook his head, mounted his horse, and flew home again on the black cloud.
“Well, old fool,” said Yezibaba, “what brings you back so soon?”
“No use my going on,” the old man said. “The only person I saw was a reaper in a field of rye.”
“You idiot!” cried Yezibaba, “not to know that Raduz was the reaper and Ludmila the rye! How they fooled you! And didn’t you bring me back just one stalk of rye? Go after them again and this time don’t let them fool you!”
In the meantime Raduz and Ludmila were hurrying on. Suddenly Ludmila said, “I wonder why my left cheek burns? Look back, dear Raduz, and see if there is any one following us.”
Raduz turned and looked. “There’s nothing following us but a gray cloud in the sky.”
“A gray cloud? That’s the old man on the gray horse that rides on the clouds. But don’t be afraid. Only have a cunning answer ready.”
Ludmila struck her hat with the wand and changed it into a chapel. Herself she changed into a fly that attracted a host of other flies. She changed Raduz into a hermit. All the flies flew into the chapel and Raduz began preaching to them.
Suddenly the gray cloud descended on the chapel with a flurry of snow and such cold that the shingles of the roof crackled.
The old man alighted from the gray steed and entered the chapel.
“Hermit,” he said to Raduz, “have you seen two travelers go by here, a girl and a youth?”
“As long as I’ve been preaching here,” Raduz said, “I’ve had only flies for a congregation. But I do remember that while the chapel was being built two such people did go by. But now I must beg you, good sir, to go out, for you are letting in so much cold that my congregation is freezing.”
At that the old man mounted his steed and flew back home on the gray cloud.
Old Yezibaba was waiting for him. When she saw him coming she called out, “Again you bring no one, you good-for-nothing! Where did you leave them this time?”
“Where did I leave them?” the old man said. “How could I leave them when I didn’t even see them? All I saw was a little chapel and a hermit preaching to a congregation of flies. I almost froze the congregation to death!”
“Oh, what a fool you are!” Yezibaba cried. “Raduz was the hermit and Ludmila one of the flies! Why didn’t you bring me just one shingle from the roof of the chapel? I see I’ll have to go after them myself!”
In a rage she mounted the third magic horse and flew off.
In the meantime Raduz and Ludmila were hurrying on. Suddenly Ludmila said:
“I wonder why my left cheek burns. Look back, dear Raduz, again, and see if there is any one following us.”
Raduz turned and looked. “There’s nothing following us but a red cloud in the sky.”
“A red cloud? That must be Yezibaba herself on the horse of fire. Now indeed we must be careful. Up to this it has been easy enough but it won’t be easy to deceive her. Here we are beside a lake. I will change myself into a golden duck and float on the water. You dive into the water so that she can’t burn you. When she alights and tries to catch me, you jump up and get the horse by the bridle. Don’t be afraid of what happens.”
The fiery cloud descended, burning up everything it touched. At the edge of the water Yezibaba alighted from her horse and tried to catch the golden duck. The duck fluttered on and on just out of her reach and Yezibaba went farther and farther from her horse.
Then Raduz leaped out of the water and caught the horse by its bridle. At once the duck rose on its wings and flew to Raduz and became again Ludmila. Together they mounted the fiery horse and flew off over the lake.
Yezibaba, helpless with rage and dismay, called after them a bitter curse, “If you, Raduz, are kissed by woman before you wed Ludmila, then will you forget Ludmila! And you, ungrateful girl, if once Raduz forgets you then he shall not remember you again until seven long years have come and gone!”
Raduz and Ludmila rode on and on until they neared Raduz’ native city. There they met a man of whom Raduz asked the news.
“News indeed!” the man said. “The king and his three older sons are dead. Only the queen is alive and she cries night and day for her youngest son who went out into the world and has never been heard of since. The whole city is in an uproar as to who shall be the new king.”
When Raduz heard this he said to Ludmila: “My dear Ludmila, wait for me here outside the city while I go quickly to the palace and let it be known that I am alive and am returned. It would not be fitting to present you to my mother, the queen, in those ragged clothes. As soon as I am made king I shall come for you, bringing you a beautiful dress.”
Ludmila agreed to this and Raduz left her and hurried to the castle. His mother recognized him at once and ran with open arms to greet him. She wanted to kiss him but he wouldn’t let her. The news of his return flew abroad and he was immediately proclaimed king. A great feast was spread and all the people ate and drank and made merry.
Fatigued with his journey and with the excitement of his return, Raduz lay down to rest. While he slept his mother came in and kissed him on both cheeks. Instantly Yezibaba’s curse was fulfilled and all memory of Ludmila left him.
Poor Ludmila waited for his return but he never came. Then she knew what must have happened. Heartbroken and lonely she found a spot near a farmhouse that had a view of the castle, and she stood there day after day hoping to see Raduz. She stood there so long that finally she took root and grew up into a poplar tree that was so beautiful that soon throughout the countryside people began talking about it. Every one admired it but the young king. He when he looked at it always felt unhappy and he supposed this was because it obstructed the view from his window. At last he ordered it to be cut down.
The farmer near whose house it stood begged hard to have it saved, but the king was firm.
Shortly after the poplar was cut down there grew up under the king’s very window a pretty little pear tree that bore golden pears. It was a wonderful little tree. No matter how many pears you picked in the evening, by the next morning the tree would again be full.
The king loved the little tree and was forever talking about it. The old queen, on the other hand, disliked it.
“I wish that tree would die,” she used to say. “There’s something strange about it that makes me nervous.”
The king begged her to leave the tree alone but she worried and complained and nagged until at last for his own peace of mind he had the poor little pear tree cut down.
The seven years of Yezibaba’s curse at last ran out. Then Ludmila changed herself again into a little golden duck and went swimming about on the lake that was under the king’s window.
Suddenly the king began to remember that he had seen that duck before. He ordered it to be caught and brought to him. But none of his people could catch it. Then he called together all the fishermen and bird catchers in the country but none of them could catch the strange duck.
The days went by and the king’s mind was more and more engrossed with the thought of the golden duck. “If no one can catch it for me,” he said at last, “I must try to catch it myself.”
So he went to the lake and reached out his hand after the golden duck. The duck led him on and on but at last she allowed herself to be caught. As soon as she was in his hand she changed to herself and Raduz recognized her as his own beautiful Ludmila.
She said to him: “I have been true to you but you have forgotten me all these years. Yet I forgive you, for it was not your fault.”
In Raduz’ heart his old love returned a hundredfold and he was overjoyed to lead Ludmila to the castle. He presented her to his mother and said, “This is she who saved my life many times. She and no one else will be my wife.”
A great wedding feast was prepared and so at last Raduz married the faithful Ludmila.