Wassilissa the Beautiful

Illustrated by Ivan Bilibin

In a certain Tzardom, across three times nine kingdoms, beyond high mountain-chains, there once lived a merchant. He had been married for twelve years, but in that time there had been born to him only one child, a daughter, who from her cradle was called Wassilissa the Beautiful.

When the little girl was eight years old the mother fell ill, and before many days it was plain to be seen that she must die. So she called her little daughter to her, and taking a tiny wooden doll from under the blanket of the bed, put it into her hands and said: “My little Wassilissa, my dear daughter, listen to what I say, remember well my last words and fail not to carry out my wishes. I am dying, and with my blessing, I leave to thee this little doll. It is very precious for there is no other like it in the whole world. Carry it always about with thee in thy pocket and never show it to anyone. When evil threatens thee or sorrow befalls thee, go into a corner, take it from thy pocket and give it something to eat and drink. It will eat and drink a little, and then thou mayest tell it thy trouble and ask its advice, and it will tell thee how to act in thy time of need.” So saying, she kissed her little daughter on the forehead, blessed her, and shortly after died.

Little Wassilissa grieved greatly for her mother, and her sorrow was so deep that when the dark night came, she lay in her bed and wept and did not sleep. At length she bethought herself of the tiny doll, so she rose and took it from the pocket of her gown and finding a piece of wheat-bread and a cup of kwas (beer) she set them before it, and said: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead and I am lonely for her.”

Then the doll’s eyes began to shine like fire-flies, and suddenly it became alive. It ate a morsel of the bread and took a sip of the kwas, and when it had eaten and drank, it said: “Don’t weep, little Wassilissa. Grief is worst at night. Lie down, shut thine eyes, comfort thyself and go to sleep. The morning is wiser than the evening.” So Wassilissa the Beautiful lay down, comforted herself and went to sleep, and the next day her grieving was not so deep and her tears were less bitter.

Now after the death of his wife, the merchant sorrowed for many days as was right, but at the end of that time he began to desire to marry again and to look about him for a suitable wife. This was not difficult to find, for he had a fine house, with a stable of swift horses, besides being a good man who gave much to the poor. Of all the women he saw, however, the one who, to his mind, suited him best of all, was a widow of about his own age with two daughters of her own, and she, he thought, besides being a good housekeeper, would be a kind foster-mother to his little Wassilissa.

So the merchant married the widow and brought her home as his wife, but the little girl soon found that her foster-mother was very far from being what her father had thought. She was a cold, cruel woman, who had desired the merchant for the sake of his wealth, and had no love for his daughter.

Wassilissa was the greatest beauty in the whole village, while her own daughters were as spare and homely as two crows, and because of this all three envied and hated her. They gave her all sorts of errands to run and difficult tasks to perform, in order that the toil might make her thin and worn and that her face might grow brown from sun and wind, and they treated her so cruelly as to leave few joys in life for her. But all this the little Wassilissa endured without complaint, and while the stepmother’s two daughters grew always thinner and uglier, in spite of the fact that they had no hard tasks to do, never went out in cold or rain, and sat always with their arms folded like ladies of a Court, she herself had cheeks like blood and milk and grew every day more and more beautiful.

Now the reason for this was the tiny doll, without whose help little Wassilissa could never have managed to do all the work that was laid upon her. Each night, when everyone else was sound asleep, she would get up from her bed, take the doll into a closet, and locking the door, give it something to eat and drink, and say: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, drink a little, and listen to my grief. I live in my father’s house, but my spiteful step-mother wishes to drive me out of the white world. Tell me! How shall I act, and what shall I do?”

Then the little doll’s eyes would begin to shine like glow-worms, and it would become alive. It would eat a little food, and sip a little drink, and then it would comfort her and tell her how to act. While Wassilissa slept, it would get ready all her work for the next day, so that she had only to rest in the shade and gather flowers, for the doll would have the kitchen garden weeded, and the beds of cabbage watered, and plenty of fresh water brought from the well, and the stoves heated exactly right. And, besides this, the little doll told her how to make, from a certain herb, an ointment which prevented her from ever being sun-burnt. So all the joy in life that came to Wassilissa came to her through the tiny doll that she always carried in her pocket.

Years passed, till Wassilissa grew up and became of an age when it is good to marry. All the young men in the village, high and low, rich and poor, asked for her hand, while not one of them stopped even to look at the stepmother’s two daughters, so ill-favoured were they. This angered their mother still more against Wassilissa; she answered every gallant who came with the same words: “Never shall the younger be wed before the older ones!” and each time, when she had let a suitor out of the door, she would soothe her anger and hatred by beating her stepdaughter. So while Wassilissa grew each day more lovely and graceful, she was often miserable, and but for the little doll in her pocket, would have longed to leave the white world.

Now there came a time when it became necessary for the merchant to leave his home and to travel to a distant Tzardom. He bade farewell to his wife and her two daughters, kissed Wassilissa and gave her his blessing and departed, bidding them say a prayer each day for his safe return. Scarce was he out of sight of the village however, when his wife sold his house, packed all his goods and moved with them to another dwelling far from the town, in a gloomy neighbourhood on the edge of a wild forest. Here every day, while her two daughters were working indoors, the merchant’s wife would send Wassilissa on one errand or other into the forest, either to find a branch of a certain rare bush or to bring her flowers or berries.

Now deep in this forest, as the stepmother well knew, there was a green lawn and on the lawn stood a miserable little hut on hens’ legs, where lived a certain Baba-Yaga, an old witch grand-mother. She lived alone and none dared go near the hut, for she ate people as one eats chickens. The merchant’s wife sent Wassilissa into the forest each day, hoping she might meet the old witch and be devoured; but always the girl came home safe and sound, because the little doll showed her where the bush, the flowers and the berries grew, and did not let her go near the hut that stood on hens’ legs. And each time the stepmother hated her more and more because she came to no harm.

One autumn evening the merchant’s wife called the three girls to her and gave them each a task. One of her daughters she bade make a piece of lace, the other to knit a pair of hose, and to Wassilissa she gave a basket of flax to be spun. She bade each finish a certain amount. Then she put out all the fires in the house, leaving only a single candle lighted in the room where the three girls worked, and she herself went to sleep.

They worked an hour, they worked two hours, they worked three hours, when one of the elder daughters took up the tongs to straighten the wick of the candle. She pretended to do this awkwardly (as her mother had bidden her) and put the candle out, as if by accident.

“What are we to do now?” asked her sister. “The fires are all out, there is no other light in all the house, and our tasks are not done.”

“We must go and fetch fire,” said the first. “The only house near is a hut in the forest, where a Baba-Yaga lives. One of us must go and borrow fire from her.”

“I have enough light from my steel pins,” said the one who was making the lace, “and I will not go.”

“And I have plenty of light from my silver needles,” said the other, who was knitting the hose, “and I will not go.”

“Thou, Wassilissa,” they both said, “shalt go and fetch the fire, for thou hast neither steel pins nor silver needles and cannot see to spin thy flax!” They both rose up, pushed Wassilissa out of the house and locked the door, crying: “Thou shalt not come in till thou hast fetched the fire.”

Wassilissa sat down on the doorstep, took the tiny doll from one pocket and from another the supper she had ready for it, put the food before it and said: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little and listen to my sorrow. I must go to the hut of the old Baba-Yaga in the dark forest to borrow some fire and I fear she will eat me. Tell me! What shall I do?”

Then the doll’s eyes began to shine like two stars and it became alive. It ate a little and said: “Do not fear, little Wassilissa. Go where thou hast been sent. While I am with thee no harm shall come to thee from the old witch.” So Wassilissa put the doll back into her pocket, crossed herself and started out into the dark, wild forest.

From Russian wonder tales.
London: Adam and Charles Black, 1912.

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