Somewhere, nowhere, in a certain kingdom, in a certain empire, time out of mind, and in no land of ours, dwelt a Tsar who was so proud, so very proud, that he feared neither God nor man. He listened to no good counsel from whithersoever it might come, but did only that which was good in his own eyes, and nobody durst put him right. And all his ministers and nobles grieved exceedingly, and all the people grieved likewise.
One day this Tsar went to church; the priest was reading from Holy Scripture, and so he needs must listen. Now there were certain words there which pleased him not. “To say such words to me!” thought he, “words that I can never forget, though I grow grey-headed.” After service the Tsar went home, and bade them send the priest to him. The priest came. “How durst thou read such and such passages to me?” said the Tsar.––“They were written to be read,” replied the priest.––“Written, indeed! And wouldst thou then read everything that is written? Smear those places over with grease, and never dare to read them again, I say!”––“’Tis not I who have written those words, your Majesty,” said the priest; “nor is it for such as I to smear them over.”––“What! thou dost presume to teach me? I am the Tsar, and it is thy duty to obey me.”––“In all things will I obey thee, O Tsar, save only in sacred things. God is over them, men cannot alter them.”––“Not alter them!” roared the Tsar; “if I wish them altered, altered they must be. Strike me out those words instantly, I say, and never dare read them in church again. Dost hear?”––“I dare not,” said the priest, “I have no will in the matter.”––“I command thee, fellow!”––“I dare not, O Tsar!”––“Well,” said the Tsar, “I’ll give thee three days to think about it, and on the evening of the fourth day appear before me, and I’ll strike thy head from thy shoulders if thou dost not obey me!” Then the priest bowed low and went home.
The third day was already drawing to a close, and the priest knew not what to do. It was no great terror to him to die for the faith, but what would become of his wife and children? He walked about, and wept, and wrung his hands: “Oh, woe is me! woe is me!” At last he lay down on his bed, but sleep he could not. Only toward dawn did he doze off, then he saw in a dream an angel standing at his head. “Fear nothing!” said the angel. “God hath sent me down on earth to protect thee!” So, early in the morning, the priest rose up full of joy and prayed gratefully to God.
The Tsar also awoke early in the morning, and bawled to his huntsmen to gather together and go a-hunting with him in the forest.
So away they went hunting in the forest, and it was not long before a stag leaped out of the thicket beneath the very eyes of the Tsar. Off after it went the Tsar; every moment the stag seemed to be faltering, and yet the Tsar could never quite come up with it. Hot with excitement, the Tsar spurred his horse on yet faster. “Gee up! gee up!” he cried; “now we’ve got him!” But here a stream crossed the road, and the stag plunged into the water. The Tsar was a good swimmer. “I’ve got him now, at any rate,” thought he. “A little longer, and I shall hold him by the horns.” So the Tsar took off his clothes, and into the water he plunged after the stag. But the stag swam across to the opposite bank, and the Tsar was extending his hand to seize him by the horns––when there was no longer any stag to be seen. It was the angel who had taken the form of a stag. The Tsar was amazed. He looked about him on every side, and wondered where the stag had gone. Then he saw some one on the other side of the river putting on his clothes, and presently the man mounted his horse and galloped away. The Tsar thought it was some evil-doer, but it was the self-same angel that had now put on the Tsar’s clothes and gone away to collect the huntsmen and take them home. As for the Tsar, he remained all naked and solitary in the forest.
At last he looked about him and saw, far, far away, smoke rising above the forest, and something like a dark cloud standing in the clear sky. “Maybe,” thought he, “that is my hunting-pavilion.” So he went in the direction of the smoke, and came at last to a brick-kiln. The brick-burners came forth to meet him, and were amazed to see a naked man. “What is he doing here?” they thought. And they saw that his feet were lame and bruised, and his body covered with scratches. “Give me to drink,” said he, “and I would fain eat something also.” The brick-burners had pity on him; they gave him an old tattered garment to wear and a piece of black bread and a gherkin to eat. Never from the day of his birth had the Tsar had such a tasty meal. “And now speak, O man!” said they; “who art thou?”––“I’ll tell you who I am,” said he, when he had eaten his fill; “I am your Tsar. Lead me to my capital, and there I will reward you!”––“What, thou wretched rogue!” they cried, “thou dost presume to mock us, thou old ragamuffin, and magnify thyself into a Tsar! Thou reward us, indeed!” And they looked at him in amazement and scorn.––“Dare to laugh at me again,” said he, “and I’ll have your heads chopped off!” For he forgot himself, and thought he was at home.––“What! thou!” Then they fell upon him and beat him. They beat him and hauled him about most unmercifully, and then they drove him away, and off he went bellowing through the forest.
He went on and on till at last he saw once more a smoke rising up out of the wood. Again he thought, “That is surely my hunting-pavilion,” and so he went up to it. And toward evening he came to another brick-kiln. There, too, they had pity upon and kindly entreated him. They gave him to eat and to drink. They also gave him ragged hose and a tattered shirt, for they were very poor people. They took him to be a runaway soldier, or some other poor man, but when he had eaten his fill and clothed himself, he said to them, “I am your Tsar!” They laughed at him, and again he began to talk roughly to the people. Then they fell upon him and thrashed him soundly, and drove him right away. And he wandered all by himself through the forest till it was night. Then he laid him down beneath a tree, and so he passed the night, and rising up very early, fared on his way straight before him.
At last he came to a third brick-kiln, but he did not tell the brick-burners there that he was the Tsar. All he thought of now was how he might reach his capital. The people here, too, treated him kindly, and seeing that his feet were lame and bruised, they had compassion upon him, and gave him a pair of very, very old boots. And he asked them, “Do ye know by which way I can get to the capital?” They told him, but it was a long, long journey that would take the whole day.
So he went the way they had told him, and he went on and on till he came to a little town, and there the roadside sentries stopped him. “Halt!” they cried. He halted. “Your passport!”––“I have none.”––“What! no passport? Then thou art a vagabond. Seize him!” they cried. So they seized him and put him in a dungeon. Shortly after they came to examine him, and asked him, “Whence art thou?”––“From such and such a capital,” said he. Then they ordered him to be put in irons and taken thither.
So they took him back to that capital and put him in another dungeon. Then the custodians came round to examine the prisoners, and one said one thing and one said another, till at last it came to the turn of the Tsar.––“Who art thou, old man?” they asked. Then he told them the whole truth. “Once I was the Tsar,” said he, and he related all that had befallen him. Then they were much amazed, for he was not at all like a Tsar. For indeed he had been growing thin and haggard for a long time, and his beard was all long and tangled. And yet, for all that, he stood them out that he was the Tsar. So they made up their minds that he was crazy, and drove him away. “Why should we keep this fool for ever,” said they, “and waste the Tsar’s bread upon him?” So they let him go, and never did any man feel so wretched on God’s earth as did that wretched Tsar. Willingly would he have done any sort of work if he had only known how, but he had never been used to work, so he had to go along begging his bread, and could scarce beg enough to keep body and soul together. He lay at night at the first place that came to hand, sometimes in the tall grass of the steppes, sometimes beneath a fence. “That it should ever have come to this!” he sighed.
But the angel who had made himself Tsar went home with the huntsmen. And no man knew that he was not a Tsar, but an angel. The same evening that priest came to him and said, “Do thy will, O Tsar, and strike off my head, for I cannot blot out one word of Holy Scripture.”––And the Tsar said to him, “Glory be to God, for now I know that there is at least one priest in my tsardom who stands firm for God’s Word. I’ll make thee the highest bishop in this realm.” The priest thanked him, bowed down to the earth, and departed marvelling. “What is this wonder?” thought he, “that the haughty Tsar should have become so just and gentle.”––But all men marvelled at the change that had come over the Tsar. He was now so mild and gracious, nor did he spend all his days in the forest, but went about inquiring of his people if any were wronged or injured by their neighbours, and if justice were done. He took count of all, and rebuked the unjust judges, and saw that every man had his rights. And the people now rejoiced as much as they had grieved heretofore, and justice was done in all the tribunals, and no bribes were taken.
But the Tsar, the real Tsar, grew more and more wretched. Then, after three years, a ukase went forth that on such and such a day all the people were to come together to a great banquet given by the Tsar, all were to be there, both rich and poor, both high and lowly. And all the people came, and the unhappy Tsar came too. And so many long tables were set out in the Tsar’s courtyard that all the people praised God when they saw the glad sight. And they all sat down at table and ate and drank, and the Tsar himself and his courtiers distributed the meat and drink to the guests as much as they would, but to the unfortunate Tsar they gave a double portion of everything. And they all ate and drank their fill, and then the Tsar began to inquire of the people whether any had suffered wrong or had not had justice done him. And when the people began to disperse, the Tsar stood at the gate with a bag of money, and gave to every one a grivna (a coin), but to the unhappy Tsar he gave three.
And after three years the Tsar gave another banquet, and again entertained all the people. And when he had given them both to eat and to drink as much as they would, he inquired of them what was being done in his tsardom, and again gave a grivna to each one of them; but to the unlucky Tsar he gave a double portion of meat and drink and three grivni.
And again, after three years, he made yet another banquet, and proclaimed that all should come, both rich and poor, both earls and churls. And all the people came and ate and drank and bowed low before the Tsar and thanked him, and made ready to depart. The unlucky Tsar was also on the point of going, when the angel Tsar stopped him, and took him aside into the palace, and said to him, “Lo! God hath tried thee and chastised thy pride these ten years. But me He sent to teach thee that a Tsar must have regard to the complaints of his people. So thou wast made poor and a vagabond on the face of the earth that thou mightst pick up wisdom, if but a little. Look now, that thou doest good to thy people, and judgest righteous judgment, as from henceforth thou shalt be Tsar again, but I must fly back to God in heaven.”––And when he had said this he bade them wash and shave him (for his beard had grown right down to his girdle), and put upon him the raiment of a Tsar. And the angel said further, “Go now into the inner apartments. There the courtiers of the Tsar are sitting and making merry, and none will recognize in thee the vagabond old man. May God help thee always to do good!” And when the angel had said this he was no more to be seen, and only his clothes remained on the floor.
Then the Tsar prayed gratefully to God, and went to the merry-making of his courtiers, and henceforth he ruled his people justly, as the angel had bidden him.