A Story From: Russia
Read Time: 11 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 5 to 10yrs.
Great care was taken that this should be avoided, and only trustworthy nurses were hired to look after the child. As the years passed, he was always diligently guarded. Sometimes he was carried in his nurses’ arms, sometimes the servants carried him in a chair, but the boy’s feet never touched the ground. So it passed until the child was nearly twelve years old.
Now when the child’s twelfth birthday drew near, the father began to plan a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s release. One day while the preparations were in progress, a frightful noise, followed by most unearthly yells, shook the castle. In her terror, the nurse dropped the child and ran to the window. At that very instant the noises stopped. On turning around to pick up the boy again, imagine her alarm when she found him no longer there! With a cry, she realized that she had disobeyed her master’s orders. The child’s feet had touched the floor, and now the child was gone.
Hearing her screams and wails, all the servants of the castle ran to her. The father soon followed, asking, “What is the matter? What has happened? Where is my son?” The nurse, trembling and weeping, told of the disappearance of his only child, and so soon before his twelfth birthday.
No words can describe the anguish of the father’s heart. He sent servants in every direction to hunt for the boy; he gave orders; he begged; he threw away money left and right; he promised everything, anything! if only his son might be brought back to him. Search was made immediately, but no trace of the boy could be found. He had vanished as completely as if he had never existed.
Many years later the unhappy nobleman learned that in one of the most beautiful rooms of the castle, footsteps, as if someone were walking up and down the halls, and dismal cries and groans, were heard each night at midnight. Anxious to follow up the matter, for he thought it might in some way give a clue as to the whereabouts of his lost son, he made known that a reward of three hundred gold pieces would be given to anyone who would watch for one entire night in the haunted room. Many were willing, but had not the courage to stay till the end; for at midnight, when they heard dismal groans and footsteps coming closer and closer, they would shriek and run away rather than risk their lives for three hundred pieces of gold. The poor father was in despair, and knew not how to discover the truth of this dark mystery.
Now close to the castle there dwelt a widow, a miller by trade, who had three daughters. The family was very poor, and hardly earned enough to meet their daily needs. When they heard of the midnight noises in the castle and the promised reward of 300 gold pieces, the eldest daughter said, “As we are so very poor, surely we have nothing to lose. We might try to earn these three hundred gold pieces by remaining in the room for one night. I should like to try, Mother, if you’ll let me.”
The mother hardly knew what to say. She was worried, of course, because she had heard of the terrible noises that had frightened so many others away. But when she thought of their poverty and the difficulty they had day to day in setting food on the table, she gave permission for her eldest daughter to remain one night in the haunted room. Then the daughter went to the castle to ask the nobleman’s consent.
“Have you really the courage to watch for a whole night in a room haunted by ghosts?” said the nobleman. “Are you sure you are not afraid, my good girl?”
“I am willing to try, and I can start this very night,” said the eldest daughter. “I only ask you to give me some food to cook for my supper, for I am very hungry.”
Orders were given that she should be supplied with everything she wanted, and indeed enough food was given to her, not for one supper only, but for three. With the food, some dry firewood, and a candle she entered the room. She first lit the fire and put on her saucepans, then she laid the table and made the bed. This filled up the early part of the evening. The time passed so quickly that she was surprised to hear the clock strike twelve. At the last stroke, footsteps, as if of someone walking, shook the room, and dismal groans filled the air. The frightened girl ran from one corner to the other, but could see no one. But the footsteps and the groans only got louder.
Suddenly a young man appeared. He approached her and asked, “For whom is this food cooked?”
Startled, she said, “For myself.”
The gentle face of the stranger saddened. Then he asked, “And this table, for whom is it laid?”
After a moment, she said, “For myself.”
The brow of the young man clouded over and the beautiful blue eyes filled with tears as he asked once more, “And this fire, for whom have you built it?”
“For myself,” replied she.
Tears fell from his eyes as he waved his arms and vanished.
Next morning she told the nobleman all that had happened in the room but without mentioning the painful impression her answers seemed to make on the stranger. She gratefully received the three hundred golden crowns for having stayed the whole night in the haunted room. And the father was thankful to have at last heard something that might possibly lead to the discovery of his son.
On the following day the second daughter, having been told by her sister what to expect and how to answer the stranger, went to the castle to offer her services and to earn another three hundred gold pieces. The nobleman agreed, and she was provided with everything she might want. Without loss of time she entered the room, lit the fire, put on the saucepans, spread a white cloth upon the table, made the bed, and waited for the hour of midnight. When the young stranger appeared and asked, “For whom is this food prepared? for whom is the table laid? for whom is the fire built?” she answered as her sister had bidden her to do: “For me, for myself only.”
As on the night before, tears ran down his face, he waved his arms and disappeared.
Next morning, she told the nobleman all that had happened in the room except the sad impression her answers seemed to make upon the stranger. The three hundred gold pieces were given to her, and she went home.
On the third day the youngest daughter wanted to try her fortune.
Now the widow dreaded to expose her youngest daughter to any danger, but as the two elder ones had succeeded in staying in the room and bringing home three hundred gold pieces, she allowed her to take a chance. So with the instructions from her two older sisters as to what she should expect and what she should say, and with the nobleman’s consent and abundant provisions, she entered the haunted room. Having lit the fire, put on the saucepans, laid the table, and made the bed, she waited with hope and fear for the midnight hour.
As twelve o’clock struck, the room was shaken by the footsteps of someone who walked up and down, and the air was filled with cries and groans. The girl looked everywhere, but no living being could she see. Suddenly there stood before her a young man. He pointed to the table and asked, “For whom have you prepared this food?”
Now her sisters had told her exactly what to expect and what to say, but when she looked into the sad eyes of the stranger, she was confused and silent.
“Well, you do not answer me: For whom is the food prepared?” he asked impatiently. Somewhat confused, she stuttered, “I-I prepared it for myself, but you, too, are welcome to it.”
At these words his brow grew more relaxed.
“And this table, for whom is it spread?”
“For myself,” said the girl. Then she added, “unless you will honor me by being my guest.”
A smile brightened his face.
“And this fire, for whom have you built it?”
“For myself, but you are welcome to sit by it with me.”
He clapped his hands for joy and replied, “Ah, yes! that’s right. I accept the invitation with pleasure. But please wait for me. I must first thank my kind friends for the care they have taken of me.”
At that moment, a deep opening appeared in the middle of the floor. The youth descended into the hole. She, anxious to see what lay below the floor, followed him, holding on to his mantle. Thus they both reached the bottom.
Down below a new world opened itself before her eyes. To the right flowed a river of liquid gold; to the left rose high mountains of solid gold; in the center lay a large meadow covered with millions of flowers. The stranger went on; the girl behind him followed unnoticed. As he went, he saluted the field flowers as old friends. Then they came to a forest where the trees were all of gold. Many birds flew around the young man, perching on his head and shoulders. While he spoke to and petted each one, the girl broke off a branch from one of the golden trees and hid it as a remembrance of this strange golden land.
Leaving the forest of gold, they reached a wood where all the trees were of silver. Animals of various kinds crowded around the youth. He spoke to each one and stroked and petted them. Meanwhile the girl broke off a branch of silver from one of the trees.
When the young stranger had said good-bye to all his friends, he returned by the paths he had come. Arriving at the foot of the opening to the castle room, he began to rise, she coming silently after, holding on to his mantle. Up they went higher and higher, until they reached the opening to the room in the castle. The floor closed up behind them without a trace. The girl returned to her place by the fire, where she was sitting when the young man approached.
“All my farewells have been spoken,” said he. “Now we can have supper.”
She hastened to place upon the table the food she had prepared before, and sitting side by side in front of the fire they supped together. When they had finished he said, “Now it is time to rest.”
He lay down on the bed, and the girl placed by his side the gold and silver branches she had picked in the sparkling world below the floor. In a few moments he was sleeping peacefully. She then settled comfortably in a soft chair beside him.
The next day the sun was already high in the sky, and yet the girl had not come out of the room to give an account of what had happened. The nobleman became impatient, pacing the floor and worrying about what might have happened to the girl. At last he determined to go and see for himself what had happened.
Picture to yourself his surprise and joy when on entering the haunted chamber he saw his long-lost son sleeping on the bed, while beside him sat the widow’s beautiful youngest daughter. At that moment the son awoke. The father, overwhelmed with joy, summoned the attendants of the castle to rejoice.
Then the young man saw the two branches of gold and silver, and said with astonishment to the girl, “What do I see? Did you follow me down there? Know that these two branches will make a splendid palace for our future dwelling.”
Thereupon he took the branches and threw them out of the window. Immediately there appeared a magnificent palace made entirely of gold and trimmed with silver. There they lived happily as man and wife, the nobleman’s son and the miller’s youngest daughter, forever after.
"The Boy Who Vanished" is based on the story "The Lost Child" from Folk Lore from Foreign Lands by Catherine T. Bryce (Newson & Company Publishers: New York, 1913) pp. 25-39.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998-1999. All rights reserved.
This story is also found in a collection of stories from Bohemia ("The Child that Vanished" from Fairy Tales from Bohemia, Pollett Publishing Company, Chicago, 1966). Bohemia is a former kingdom of central Europe, and occupied the westernmost two-thirds of what is now the Czech Republic. In both the Russian and the Bohemian versions, the ghost-like nobleman's son inquires about the food, the table, and the bed.