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Ukrainian folk tale
Translated by Irina Zheleznova
Illustrated by G.Kisljakova
There once lived three brothers who lost their mother and father at an early age and had nothing to their name, not a house nor a farm.
One day they set out from home to look for work. They walked and they walked, and they met an old man with a long white beard.
"Where are you going, my children?" the old man asked.
"To find someone to take us on as farm hands," the brothers replied.
"Haven't you a farm of your own?"
"No. If only we could find a good man to take us on we would work very hard for him and treat him like our own father."
"If that is what you wish I will be as a father to you," said the old man. "I will make men of you and teach you the ways of virtue."
The brothers went with the old man.
They crossed dark forests and wide fields and came to a pretty little house.
It was surrounded by a cherry orchard and had flowers growing all around it, and as they stood there, a girl who was herself as pretty as a flower ran out of the door.
The eldest brother took one look at her and said:
"I wish I could marry that girl and have a farm of my own and a herd of cattle!"
"Very well, if that is what you wish, my son!" said the old man.
"We'll go matchmaking, and you'll have a wife and a farm of your own and everything to make you happy. Only mind, never must you stray from the path of virtue."
They went matchmaking, the eldest brother married the girl, and after a merry and festive wedding settled' in her house and began farming the land.
And the old man and the two younger brothers went on. By and by they came to a bright new house with a mill and pond beside it.
There was a pretty girl in the garden, and the middle brother took one look at her and said:
"I wish I could marry that girl and have the mill for my own. I would work there and be very happy."
"Very well, my son, if that is what you want!" the old man said.
They went matchmaking, the middle brother married the girl, and after a merry and festive wedding settled in her house and became a miller.
"Be happy, my son, but never stray from the path of virtue!" said the old man, and he and the youngest of the three brothers went on.
By and by they came to a poor little hut, and out of it stepped a girl dressed in rags but as pretty as a star at dawn.
"I wish I had that girl for a wife!" said the youngest brother. "We would work together and share what we earned with those poorer than ourselves."
"Very well, if that is what you want, my son!" the old man said. "Only mind, never stray from the path of virtue!"
He married off the third brother and went on his way.
Several years went by, and the eldest brother became so rich that he built himself several houses and saved up some money besides, and all he thought about was how to make more and more. But he was a miser at heart and never gave the needy a thought.
The middle brother too prospered. He stopped working altogether, hired others to do his work for him, ordered them about and spent the days lolling in bed and gorging himself on food and drink.
But as for the younger brother, he led a very modest life and was always ready to share whatever he had with others.
Now, the old man with the white beard had been walking round the world ever since he had parted with his foster sons, and he thought he would go and pay them a visit and see how they fared. He dressed himself in rags and went to see the eldest brother first. Finding him in his front yard, he said with a bow:
"Please, kind sir, won't you give an old man something to eat?"
"Stop pretending, you're not so old that you can't work and make a living!" said the eldest brother. "I haven't been standing on my own two feet long enough to help anyone!"
And though he had more than he knew what to do with, stone houses, barns stocked with grain, storerooms full of food and clothing, and plenty of money besides, he sent the old man away empty-handed.
Off went the old man, and when he had gone a mile or so, he glanced back at his foster son's house and farm, and they burst into flames and burnt to the ground.
The old man did not stop but went to see the middle brother, who now had not only the mill but a rich farm besides.
He found him at the mill and said with a bow:
"Please, kind sir, let a poor old man have a handful of flour! I am hungry and sick."
"I haven't enough for myself even!' said the middle brother. There's no end of loafers like you about! Do you expect me to feed you all?"
Off went the old man, and when he had gone only a little distance, stopped and glanced back, and the house, mill and farm caught fire and went up in smoke.
Still disguised as a beggar, the old man now went to see the youngest brother who lived very modestly and whose hut, though neat and clean, was small and poor.
"Please, kind sir, do give me a crust of bread to eat!" said the old man.
"Go into the house, Grandpa, and you'll be fed and given some food to take along with you," said the youngest brother.
The old man went inside, and, seeing him dressed in rags, the youngest brother's wife took pity on him and brought out some clothes for him to wear.
As he was putting them on, she and her husband noticed that he had a festering wound on his chest, and after seating him at the table and giving him food and drink, they asked him about it.
"I won't hide from you that I don't think I will live much longer," said the old man.
"Can't anything be done?" they asked.
"It can. Almost anyone could help me, but none will."
"Why won't they? Tell us what to do and we'll do it," the youngest brother offered.
"Well, you'd have to burn down your house with everything in it and sprinkle my wound with the ashes. Nothing else will help," said the old man. "And who would want to save my life at such a cost to himself!"
The youngest brother fell silent. He thought for a long time and then turned to his wife.
"What do you say, wife?" he asked.
"We can always build a new house, but once a man is dead he won't come back to life again," she said.
"Well, then, there is nothing more to be said!"
They carried their children out of the house, and the youngest brother stopped and looked back at it. The thought of losing it pained him, but such was his compassion for the old man that he lit a splinter of wood and held it to the straw-thatched roof.
The house caught fire at once and was swallowed by flame, but no sooner had it burnt down than another, far bigger and richer, appeared in its place.
The old man smiled.
"I can see, my son, that you are the only one of your brothers who knows the meaning of virtue," he said. "May good fortune be with you always!"
The youngest brother now saw that the man he had thought a beggar was none other than his foster father. He rushed to him, but the old man vanished and was seen no more.Author: Ukrainian folk tale; illustrated by Kisljakova G.
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