THE SOLDIER'S MIDNIGHT WATCH
A Russian Fairy Tale Story
Once upon a time there was a Soldier who served God and the
great Gosudar for fifteen years, without ever setting eyes on his
parents. At the end of that time there came an order from the
Tsar to grant leave to the soldiers--to twenty-five of each company
at a time--to go and see their families. Together with
the rest our Soldier, too, got leave to go, and set off to pay a
visit to his home in the government of Kief. After a time he
reached Kief, visited the _Lavra_, prayed to God, bowed down
before the holy relics, and then started again for his birthplace,
a provincial town not far off. Well, he walked and walked.
Suddenly there happens to meet him a fair maiden who was the
daughter of a merchant in that same town; a most remarkable
beauty. Now everyone knows that if a soldier catches sight of
a pretty girl, nothing will make him pass her by quietly, but he
hooks on to her somehow or other. And so this Soldier gets
alongside of the merchant's daughter, and says to her jokingly--
"How now, fair damsel! not broken in to harness yet?"
"God knows, soldier, who breaks in whom," replies the girl.
"I may do it to you, or you to me."
So saying she laughed and went her way. Well, the Soldier
arrived at home, greeted his family, and rejoiced greatly at finding
they were all in good health.
Now he had an old grandfather, as white as a _lun_, who had
lived a hundred years and a bit. The Soldier was gossiping
with him, and said:
"As I was coming home, grandfather, I happened to meet
an uncommonly fine girl, and, sinner that I am, I chaffed her,
and she said to me:
"'God knows, soldier, whether you'll break me in to harness,
or I'll break you.'"
"Eh, sirs! whatever have you done? Why that's the
daughter of our merchant here, an awful witch! She's sent
more than one fine young fellow out of the white world."
"Well, well! I'm not one of the timid ones, either! You
won't frighten me in a hurry. We'll wait and see what God will
"No, no, grandson!" says the grandfather. "If you don't
listen to me, you won't be alive to-morrow!"
"Here's a nice fix!" says the Soldier.
"Yes, such a fix that you've never known anything half so
awful, even when soldiering."
"What must I do then, grandfather?"
"Why this. Provide yourself with a bridle, and take a thick
aspen cudgel, and sit quietly in the izba--don't stir a step anywhere.
During the night she will come running in, and if she
manages to say before you can 'Stand still, my steed!' you
will straightway turn into a horse. Then she will jump upon
your back, and will make you gallop about until she has ridden
you to death. But if you manage to say before she speaks,
'Tprru! stand still, jade!' she will be turned into a mare.
Then you must bridle her and jump on her back. She will run
away with you over hill and dale, but do you hold your own; hit
her over the head with the aspen cudgel, and go on hitting her
until you beat her to death."
The Soldier hadn't expected such a job as this, but there
was no help for it. So he followed his grandfather's advice,
provided himself with a bridle and an aspen cudgel, took his
seat in a corner, and waited to see what would happen. At the
midnight hour the passage door creaked and the sound of steps
was heard; the witch was coming! The moment the door of
the room opened, the Soldier immediately cried out--
"Tprru! stand still, jade!"
The witch turned into a mare, and he bridled her, led her
into the yard, and jumped on her back. The mare carried him
off over hills and dales and ravines, and did all she could to try
and throw her rider. But no! the Soldier stuck on tight, and
thumped her over the head like anything with the aspen cudgel,
and went on treating her with a taste of the cudgel until he
knocked her off her feet, and then pitched into her as she lay on
the ground, gave her another half-dozen blows or so, and at last
beat her to death.
By daybreak he got home.
"Well, my friend! how have you got on?" asks his grandfather.
"Glory be to God, grandfather! I've beaten her to death!"
"All right! now lie down and go to sleep."
The Soldier lay down and fell into a deep slumber. Towards
evening the old man awoke him--
"Get up, grandson."
He got up.
"What's to be done now? As the merchant's daughter is
dead, you see, her father will come after you, and will bid you
to his house to read psalms over the dead body."
"Well, grandfather, am I to go, or not?"
"If you go, there'll be an end of you; and if you don't go,
there'll be an end of you! Still, it's best to go."
"But if anything happens, how shall I get out of it?"
"Listen, grandson! When you go to the merchant's he will
offer you brandy; don't you drink much--drink only a moderate
allowance. Afterwards the merchant will take you into the room
in which his daughter is lying in her coffin, and will lock you in
there. You will read out from the psalter all the evening, and
up to midnight. Exactly at midnight a strong wind will suddenly
begin to blow, the coffin will begin to shake, its lid will
fall off. Well, as soon as these horrors begin, jump on to the
stove as quick as you can, squeeze yourself into a corner, and
silently offer up prayers. She won't find you there."
Half an hour later came the merchant, and besought the
"Ah, Soldier! there's a daughter of mine dead; come and
read the psalter over her."
The Soldier took a psalter and went off to the merchant's
house. The merchant was greatly pleased, seated him at his
table, and began offering him brandy to drink. The Soldier
drank, but only moderately, and declined to drink any more.
The merchant took him by the hand and led him to the room in
which the corpse lay.
"Now then," he says, "read away at your psalter."
Then he went out and locked the door. There was no help
for it, so the Soldier took to his psalter and read and read.
Exactly at midnight there was a great blast of wind, the coffin
began to rock, its lid flew off. The Soldier jumped quickly on
to the stove, hid himself in a corner, guarded himself by a sign
of the cross, and began whispering prayers. Meanwhile the
witch had leapt out of the coffin, and was rushing about from
side to side--now here, now there. Then there came running
up to her countless swarms of evil spirits; the room was full of
"What are you looking for?" say they.
"A soldier. He was reading here a moment ago, and now
The devils eagerly set to work to hunt him up. They
searched and searched, they rummaged in all the corners. At
last they cast their eyes on the stove; at that moment, luckily
for the Soldier, the cocks began to crow. In the twinkling of
an eye all the devils had vanished, and the witch lay all of a
heap on the floor. The Soldier got down from the stove, laid
her body in the coffin, covered it up all right with the lid, and
betook himself again to his psalter. At daybreak came the
master of the house, opened the door, and said--
"I wish you good health, master merchant."
"Have you spent the night comfortably?"
"Glory be to God! yes."
"There are fifty roubles for you, but come again, friend, and
read another night."
"Very good, I'll come."
The Soldier returned home, lay down on the bench, and
slept till evening. Then he awoke and said--
"Grandfather, the merchant bid me go and read the psalter
another night. Should I go or not?"
"If you go, you won't remain alive, and if you don't go, just
the same! But you'd better go. Don't drink much brandy,
drink just what is right; and when the wind blows, and the
coffin begins to rock, slip straight into the stove. There no one
will find you."
The Soldier got ready and went to the merchant's, who
seated him at table, and began plying him with brandy. Afterwards
he took him to where the corpse was, and locked him into
The Soldier went on reading, reading. Midnight came, the
wind blew, the coffin began to rock, the coffin lid fell afar off on
the ground. He was into the stove in a moment. Out jumped
the witch and began rushing about; round her swarmed devils,
the room was full of them!
"What are you looking for?" they cry.
"Why, there he was reading a moment ago, and now he's
vanished out of sight. I can't find him."
The devils flung themselves on the stove.
"Here's the place," they cried, "where he was last night!"
There was the place, but he wasn't there! This way and
that they rushed. Suddenly the cocks began to crow, the devils
vanished, the witch lay stretched on the floor.
The Soldier stayed awhile to recover his breath, crept out
of the stove, put the merchant's daughter back in her coffin, and
took to reading the psalter again. Presently he looks round,
the day has already dawned. His host arrives:
"Hail, Soldier!" says he.
"I wish you good health, master merchant."
"Has the night passed comfortably?"
"Glory be to God! yes."
"Come along here, then."
The merchant led him out of the room, gave him a hundred
roubles, and said--
"Come, please, and read here a third night; I sha'n't treat
"Good, I'll come."
The Soldier returned home.
"Well, grandson, what has God sent you?" says his grandfather.
"Nothing much, grandfather! The merchant told me to
come again. Should I go or not?"
"If you go, you won't remain alive, and if you don't go, you
won't remain alive! But you'd better go."
"But if anything happens where must I hide?"
"I'll tell you, grandson. Buy yourself a frying-pan, and hide
it so that the merchant sha'n't see it. When you go to his house
he'll try to force a lot of brandy on you. You look out, don't
drink much, drink just what you can stand. At midnight, as
soon as the wind begins to roar, and the coffin to rock, do you
that very moment climb on to the stove-pipe, and cover yourself
over with the frying-pan. There no one will find you out."
The Soldier had a good sleep, bought himself a frying-pan,
hid it under his cloak, and towards evening went to the merchant's
house. The merchant seated him at table and took to plying
him with liquor--tried every possible kind of invitation and
cajolery on him.
"No," says the Soldier, "that will do. I've had my whack.
I won't have any more."
"Well, then, if you won't drink, come along and read your
The merchant took him to his dead daughter, left him alone
with her, and locked the door.
The Soldier read and read. Midnight came, the wind blew,
the coffin began to rock, the cover flew afar off. The Soldier
jumped up on the stove-pipe, covered himself with the frying-pan,
protected himself with a sign of the cross, and awaited what was
going to happen. Out jumped the witch and began rushing
about. Round her came swarming countless devils, the izba
was full of them! They rushed about in search of the Soldier;
they looked into the stove--
"Here's the place," they cried, "where he was last night."
"There's the place, but he's not there."
This way and that they rush,--cannot see him anywhere.
Presently there stepped across the threshold a very old devil.
"What are you looking for?"
"The Soldier. He was reading here a moment ago, and now
"Ah! no eyes! And who's that sitting on the stove-pipe
The Soldier's heart thumped like anything; he all but tumbled
down on the ground!
"There he is, sure enough!" cried the devils, "but how are
we to settle him. Surely it's impossible to reach him there?"
"Impossible, forsooth! Run and lay your hands on a candle-end
which has been lighted without a blessing having been
uttered over it."
In an instant the devils brought the candle-end, piled up a
lot of wood right under the stove-pipe, and set it alight. The
flame leapt high into the air, the Soldier began to roast: first one
foot, then the other, he drew up under him.
"Now," thinks he, "my death has come!"
All of a sudden, luckily for him, the cocks began to crow,
the devils vanished, the witch fell flat on the floor. The soldier
jumped down from the stove-pipe, and began putting out the
fire. When he had put it out he set every thing to rights, placed
the merchant's daughter in her coffin, covered it up with the
lid, and betook himself to reading the psalter. At daybreak
came the merchant, and listened at the door to find out whether
the Soldier was alive or not. When he heard his voice he
opened the door and said--
"I wish you good health, master merchant."
"Have you passed the night comfortably?"
"Glory be to God, I've seen nothing bad."
The merchant gave him a hundred and fifty roubles, and
"You've done a deal of work, Soldier! do a little more.
Come here to-night and carry my daughter to the graveyard."
"Good, I'll come."
"Well, friend, what has God given?"
"Glory be to God, grandfather, I've got off safe! The merchant
has asked me to be at his house to-night, to carry his
daughter to the graveyard. Should I go or not?"
"If you go, you won't be alive, and if you don't go, you won't
be alive. But you must go; it will be better so."
"But what must I do? tell me."
"Well this. When you get to the merchant's, everything will
be ready there. At ten o'clock the relations of the deceased will
begin taking leave of her; and afterwards they will fasten three
iron hoops round the coffin, and place it on the funeral car; and
at eleven o'clock they will tell you to take it to the graveyard.
Do you drive off with the coffin, but keep a sharp look-out. One
of the hoops will snap. Never fear, keep your seat bravely; a
second will snap, keep your seat all the same; but when the
third hoop snaps, instantly jump on to the horse's back and
through the _duga_ (the wooden arch above its neck), and run
away backwards. Do that, and no harm will come to you."
The Soldier lay down to sleep, slept till the evening, and then
went to the merchant's. At ten o'clock the relations began
taking leave of the deceased; then they set to work to fasten
iron hoops round the coffin. They fastened the hoops, set the
coffin on the funeral car, and cried--
"Now then, Soldier! drive off, and God speed you!"
The Soldier got into the car and set off: at first he drove
slowly, but as soon as he was out of sight he let the horse go
full split. Away he galloped, but all the while he kept an eye on
the coffin. Snap went one hoop--and then another. The witch
began gnashing her teeth.
"Stop!" she cried, "you sha'n't escape! I shall eat you up
in another moment."
"No, dovey! Soldiers are crown property; no one is allowed
to eat them."
Here the last hoop snapped: on to the horse jumped the
Soldier, and through the _duga_, and then set off running backwards.
The witch leapt out of the coffin and tore away in pursuit.
Lighting on the Soldier's footsteps she followed them back
to the horse, ran right round it, saw the soldier wasn't there, and
set off again in pursuit of him. She ran and ran, lighted again
on his footsteps, and again came back to the horse. Utterly at
her wit's end, she did the same thing some ten times over. Suddenly
the cocks began crowing. There lay the witch stretched
out flat on the road! The Soldier picked her up, put her in the
coffin, slammed the lid down, and drove her to the graveyard.
When he got there he lowered the coffin into the grave, shovelled
the earth on top of it, and returned to the merchant's house.
"I've done it all," says he; "catch hold of your horse."
When the merchant saw the Soldier he stared at him with
"Well, Soldier!" said he, "I know a good deal! and as to
my daughter, we needn't speak of her. She was awfully sharp,
she was! But, really, you know more than we do!"
"Come now, master merchant! pay me for my work."
So the merchant handed him over two hundred roubles. The
soldier took them, thanked him, and then went home, and gave
his family a feast.
[The next chapter will contain a number of vampire
stories which, in some respects, resemble these tales
of homicidal corpses. But most of them belong, I
think, to a separate group, due to a different myth or
superstition from that which has given rise to such
tales as those quoted above. The vampire is actuated
by a thirst which can be quenched only by blood, and
which impels it to go forth from the grave and
destroy. But the enchanted corpses which rise at
midnight, and attempt to rend their watchers, appear
to owe their ferocity to demoniacal possession. After
the death of a witch her body is liable, says popular
tradition, to be tenanted by a devil (as may be seen
from No. iii.), and to corpses thus possessed have
been attributed by the storytellers the terrible deeds
which Indian tales relate of Rakshasas and other evil
spirits. Thus in the story of Nischayadatta, in the
seventh book of the "Kathasaritsagara," the hero and
the four pilgrims, his companions, have to pass a
night in a deserted temple of Siva. It is haunted by a
_Yakshini_, a female demon, who turns men by spells
into brutes, and then eats them; so they sit watching
and praying beside a fire round which they have traced
a circle of ashes. At midnight the demon-enchantress
arrives, dancing and "blowing on a flute made of a
dead man's bone." Fixing her eyes on one of the
pilgrims, she mutters a spell, accompanied by a wild
dance. Out of the head of the doomed man grows a horn;
he loses all command over himself, leaps up, and
dances into the flames. The _Yakshini_ seizes his
half-burnt corpse and devours it. Then she treats the
second and the third pilgrim in the same way. But just
as she is turning to the fourth, she lays her flute on
the ground. In an instant the hero seizes it, and
begins to blow it and to dance wildly around the
_Yakshini_, fixing his eyes upon her and applying to
her the words of her own spell. Deprived by it of all
power, she submits, and from that time forward renders
the hero good service.]
In one of the skazkas a malignant witch is destroyed by a benignant
female power. It had been predicted that a certain baby princess would
begin flying about the world as soon as she was fifteen. So her
parents shut her up in a building in which she never saw the light of
day, nor the face of a man. For it was illuminated by artificial
means, and none but women had access to it. But one day, when her
nurses and _Mamzeli_ had gone to a feast at the palace, she found a
door unlocked, and made her way into the sunlight. After this her
attendants were obliged to allow her to go where she wished, when her
parents were away. As she went roaming about the palace she came to a
cage "in which a _Zhar-Ptitsa_, lay [as if] dead." This bird, her
guardians told her, slept soundly all day, but at night her papa flew
about on it. Farther on she came to a veiled portrait. When the veil
was lifted, she cried in astonishment "Can such beauty be?" and
determined to fly on the _Zhar-Ptitsa_ to the original of the picture.
So at night she sought the _Zhar-Ptitsa_, which was sitting up and
flapping its wings, and asked whether she might fly abroad on its
back. The bird consented and bore her far away. Three times it carried
her to the room of the prince whose portrait she had so much admired.
On the first and second occasion he remained asleep during her visit,
having been plunged into a magic slumber by the _Zhar-Ptitsa_. But
during her third visit he awoke, "and he and she wept and wept, and
exchanged betrothal rings." So long did they remain talking that,
before the _Zhar-Ptitsa_ and his rider could get back, "the day began
to dawn--the bird sank lower and lower and fell to the ground." Then
the princess, thinking it was really dead, buried it in the
earth--having first cut off its wings, and "attached them to herself
so as to walk more lightly."
After various adventures she comes to a land of mourning. "Why are
you so mournful?" she asks. "Because our king's son has gone out of
his mind," is the reply. "He eats a man every night." Thereupon she
goes to the king and obtains leave to watch the prince by night. As
the clock strikes twelve the prince, who is laden with chains, makes a
rush at her; but the wings of the _Zhar-Ptitsa_ rustle around her, and
he sits down again. This takes place three times, after which the
light goes out. She leaves the room in search of the means of
rekindling it, sees a glimmer in the distance, and sets off with a
lantern in search of it. Presently she finds an old witch who is
sitting before a fire, above which seethes a cauldron. "What have you
got there?" she asks. "When this cauldron seethes," replies the witch,
"within it does the heart of Prince Ivan rage madly."
Pretending to be merely getting a light, the Princess contrives to
splash the seething liquid over the witch, who immediately falls dead.
Then she looks into the cauldron, and there, in truth, she sees the
Prince's heart. When she returns to his room he has recovered his
senses. "Thank you for bringing a light," he says. "Why am I in
chains?" "Thus and thus," says she. "You went out of your mind and ate
people." Whereat he wonders greatly.
The _Zhar-Ptitsa_, or Fire-Bird, which plays so important a part in
this story, is worthy of special notice. Its name is sufficient to
show its close connection with flame or light, and its appearance
corresponds with its designation. Its feathers blaze with silvery or
golden sheen, its eyes shine like crystal, it dwells in a golden cage.
In the depth of the night it flies into a garden, and lights it up as
brightly as could a thousand burning fires. A single feather from its
tail illuminates a dark room. It feeds upon golden apples which have
the power of bestowing youth and beauty, or according to a Croatian
version, on magic-grasses. Its song, according to Bohemian legends,
heals the sick and restores sight to the blind. We have already seen
that, as the Phoenix, of which it seems to be a Slavonic counterpart,
dies in the flame from which it springs again into life, so the
_Zhar-Ptitsa_ sinks into a death-like slumber when the day dawns, to
awake to fresh life after the sunset.
One of the skazkas about the _Zhar-Ptitsa_ closely resembles the
well-known German tale of the Golden Bird. But it is a
"Chap-book" story, and therefore of doubtful origin. King Vuislaf has
an apple-tree which bears golden fruits. These are stolen by a
_Zhar-Ptitsa_ which flies every night into the garden, so he orders
his sons to keep watch there by turns. The elder brothers cannot keep
awake, and see nothing; but the youngest of the three, Prince Ivan,
though he fails to capture the bird, secures one of its tail-feathers.
After a time he leaves his home and goes forth in search of the bird.
Aided by a wolf, he reaches the garden in which the _Zhar-Ptitsa_
lives, and succeeds in taking it out of its golden cage. But trying,
in spite of the wolf's warning, to carry off the cage itself, an alarm
is sounded, and he is taken prisoner. After various other adventures
he is killed by his envious brothers, but of course all comes right in
the end. In a version of the story which comes from the Bukovina, one
of the incidents is detailed at greater length than in either the
German or the Russian tale. When the hero has been killed by his
brothers, and they have carried off the _Zhar-Ptitsa_, and their
victim's golden steed, and his betrothed princess--as long as he lies
dead, the princess remains mute and mournful, the horse refuses to
eat, the bird is silent, and its cage is lustreless. But as soon as he
comes back to life, the princess regains her spirits, and the horse
its appetite. The _Zhar-Ptitsa_ recommences its magic song, and its
cage flashes anew like fire.
In another skazka a sportsman finds in a forest "a golden feather
of the _Zhar-Ptitsa_; like fire does the feather shine!" Against the
advice of his "heroic steed," he picks up the feather and takes it to
the king, who sends him in search of the bird itself. Then he has
wheat scattered on the ground, and at dawn he hides behind a tree near
it. "Presently the forest begins to roar, the sea rises in waves, and
the _Zhar-Ptitsa_ flies up, lights upon the ground and begins to peck
the wheat." Then the "heroic steed" gallops up, sets its hoof upon the
bird's wing, and presses it to the ground, so that the shooter is able
to bind it with cords, and take it to the king. In a variant of the
story the bird is captured by means of a trap--a cage in which "pearls
large and small" have been strewed.
* * * * *
I had intended to say something about the various golden haired or
golden-horned animals which figure in the Skazkas, but it will be
sufficient for the present to refer to the notices of them which occur
in Prof. de Gubernatis's "Zoological Mythology." And now I will bring
this chapter to a close with the following weird story of