Once there lived a peasant and his wife who had three daughters. The two elder girls were cunning and selfish; the youngest was simple and open-hearted, and on that account came to be called, first by her sisters and afterwards by her father and mother, “Little Simpleton.” Little Simpleton was pushed about, had to fetch everything that was wanted, and was always kept at work; but she was ever ready to do what she was told, and never uttered a word of complaint. She would water the garden, prepare pine splinters, milk the cows, and feed the ducks; she had to wait upon everybody,—in a word, she was the drudge of the family.
One day, as the peasant was going with the hay to market, he asked his daughters what they would like him to buy for them.
“Buy me some kumach for a sarafan, father,” answered the eldest daughter.
“And me some nankeen,” said the second. The youngest daughter alone did not ask for a present. The peasant was moved with compassion for the girl; although a simpleton she was still his daughter. Turning to her he asked,—”Well, Little Simpleton, what shall I buy for you?”
Little Simpleton smiled and replied,—
“Buy me, dearest father, a little silver plate and a little apple.”
“What do you want them for?” asked her sisters.
“I will make the little apple roll round the plate, and will say some words to it which an old woman taught me because I gave her a cake.”
The peasant promised to buy his daughters what they asked of him, and then started for market. He sold his hay, and bought the presents: some nankeen for one of his daughters, for another some kumach, and for Little Simpleton a little silver plate and a little apple. Then he returned home and gave these things to his daughters.
The girls were delighted; the two elder ones made themselves sarafans, and laughed at Little Simpleton, wondering what she would do with the silver plate and the apple.
Little Simpleton did not eat the apple, but sat down in a corner and cried,—
“Roll, roll, little apple on the silver plate, and show me towns and fields, forests and seas, lofty mountains, and beautiful skies.”
And the apple began to roll on the plate, and there appeared on it town after town; ships sailing on the seas, and people in the fields; mountains and beautiful skies; suns and stars. All these things looked so beautiful, and were so wonderful, that it would be impossible to tell of them in a story, or describe them with the pen.
At first the elder sisters looked at the little plate with delight; soon, however, their hearts were filled with envy, and they began to try to get it from their younger sister. But the girl would not part with it on any account. Then the wicked girls said,—
“Dearest sister, let us go into the forest to gather blackberries.”
Little Simpleton got up, gave the plate and apple to her father, and went with them into the forest. They walked about and gathered blackberries. All at once they saw a spade lying upon the ground. The wicked sisters killed Little Simpleton with it, and buried her under a birch-tree.
They returned home late, and told their father,—”The Simpleton is lost; she ran away from us in the forest; we searched, but could not find her anywhere. The wolves must have eaten her.”
The peasant regretted the loss of his daughter bitterly; for although so simple she was still his child. The wicked sisters also shed tears. Her father put the little silver plate and the little apple into a box, and locked them up.
Next morning a shepherd was tending his sheep near the place, playing on his pipe, and searching in the forest for one of his flock that was missing. He observed the little grave under the birch-tree; it was covered by the most lovely flowers, and out of the middle of the grave there grew a reed. The shepherd cut off the reed, and made a pipe of it. As soon as the pipe was prepared, oh, wonderful! it began to play of itself, and say,—
“Play, oh pipe, play! and comfort my poor parents and sisters. I was killed for the sake of my little silver plate and my little apple.”
When the people heard of this they ran out of their huts, and all came round the shepherd and began to ask him who was killed.
“Good people,” answered the shepherd, “I don’t know who it is. While searching for one of my sheep in the forest, I came upon a grave covered with flowers. Above them all stood a reed. I cut off the reed and made this pipe of it. It plays of itself, and you have heard what it says.”
The father of Little Simpleton happened to be present. He took the pipe into his own hand, and it began to play:—
“Play, oh pipe, play! Comfort my poor father and mother. I was killed for the sake of my little silver plate and my little apple.” The peasant asked the shepherd to take him to the place where he had cut the reed. They all went into the forest, saw the grave, and were astonished at the sight of the lovely flowers which grew there. They opened the grave, and there discovered the body of a girl, which the poor man recognised as that of his youngest daughter. There she lay, murdered—but by whom no one could tell. The people asked one another who it was that had killed the poor girl. Suddenly the pipe began to play,—
“Oh, my dearest father! my sisters brought me to this forest, and here killed me for the sake of my little plate and my little apple. You will not bring me to life until you fetch some of the water from the czar’s well.”
Then the wicked sisters confessed it all. They were seized and cast into a dark prison, to await the pleasure of the czar. The peasant set out for the capital. As soon as he arrived at the city, he went to the palace, saw the czar, told his story, and begged permission to take some water from the well. The Czar said, “You may take some water of life from my well, and as soon as you have restored your daughter to life, bring her here with her little plate, and the little apple; bring your other two daughters also.”
The peasant bowed to the ground, and returned home with a bottle full of the water of life. He hastened to the grave in the forest, lifted up the body of his daughter, and as soon as he had sprinkled it with the water the girl came to life again, and threw herself into his arms. All who were present were moved to tears.
Then the peasant started again for the capital, and arriving there went at once to the czar’s palace. The czar came out, and saw the peasant with his three daughters, two of them with their arms bound, the third, as beautiful as the spring flowers, stood near, the tears like diamonds falling down her cheeks. The czar was very angry with the two wicked sisters; then he asked the youngest for her little plate and apple. The girl took the box from her father’s hands, and said,—
“Sire, what would you like to see? Your towns or your armies; the ships at sea, or the beautiful stars in the sky?”
Then she made the little apple roll round the plate, and there appeared on it many towns, one after the other, with bodies of soldiers near them, with their standards and artillery. Then the soldiers made ready for the fight, and the officers stood in their places. The firing commenced, the smoke arose, and hid it all from view. The little apple began again to roll on the plate, and there appeared the sea covered with ships, their flags streaming in the wind. The guns began to fire, the smoke arose, and again all disappeared from their sight. The apple again began to roll on the plate, and there appeared on it the beautiful sky with suns and stars.
The czar was astonished. The girl fell down on her knees before him, and cried,—
“Oh, Sire, take my little plate and my little apple, and forgive my sisters!”
The czar was moved by her tears and entreaties, and forgave the wicked sisters; the delighted girl sprang up and began to embrace and kiss them. The czar smiled, took her by the hand and said, “I honour the goodness of your heart, and admire your beauty. Would you like to become my wife?”
“Sire,” answered the beautiful girl, “I obey your royal command; but allow me first to ask my parents’ permission.”
The delighted peasant at once gave his consent; they sent for the mother, and she, too, gladly bestowed her blessing.
“One favour more,” said the beautiful girl to the czar. “Permit my parents and sisters to remain with me.”
On hearing this the sisters fell down on their knees before her, and cried,—
“We are not worthy of so much favour!”
“Dearest sisters,” said the beautiful girl, “all is forgotten and forgiven. They who remember the past with malice deserve to lose their sight.”
She then tried to lift them up from the ground, but they, shedding bitter tears, would not rise. Then the czar, looking at them with a frown, bade them get up; he allowed them, however, to stay in the palace.
A magnificent entertainment then began: the palace was splendidly lighted up, and looked like the sun among the clouds. The czar and czarina rode out in an open chariot and showed themselves to the people, who cried joyfully,—
“Long live czar and czarina! May they shine upon us like the glorious sun for years and years to come!”