“Old witch!” said Vanya, and bolted out of the hut with Maroosia after him; and so old Peter was left in peace.
Long ago there lived a King, and he had three daughters, the loveliest in all the world. He loved them so well that he built a palace for them underground, lest the rough winds should blow on them or the red sun scorch their delicate faces. A wonderful palace it was, down there underground, with fountains and courts, and lamps burning, and precious stones glittering in the light of the lamps. And the three lovely princesses grew up in that palace underground, and knew no other light but that of the coloured lanterns, and had never seen the broad world that lies open under the sun by day and under the stars by night. Indeed, they did not know that there was a world outside those glittering walls, above that shining ceiling, carved and gilded and set with precious stones.
But it so happened that among the books that were given them to read was one in which was written of the world: how the sun shines in the sky; how trees grow green; how the grass waves in the wind and the leaves whisper together; how the rivers flow between their green banks and through the flowery meadows, until they come to the blue sea that joins the earth and the sky. They read in that book of white-walled towns, of churches with gilded and painted domes, of the brown wooden huts of the peasants, of the great forests, of the ships on the rivers, and of the long roads with the folk moving on them, this way and that, about the world.
And when the King came to see them, as he was used to do, they asked him,—
“Father, is it true that there is a garden in the world?”
“Yes,” said the King.
“And green grass?”
“Yes,” said the King.
“And little shining flowers?”
“Why, yes,” said the King, wondering and stroking his silver beard.
And the three lovely princesses all begged him at once,—
“Oh, your Majesty, our own little father, whom, we love, let us out to see this world. Let us out just so that we may see this garden, and walk in it on the green grass, and see the shining flowers.”
The King turned his head away and tried not to listen to them. But what could he do? They were the loveliest princesses in the world, and when they begged him just to let them walk in the garden he could see the tears in their eyes. And after all, he thought, there were high walls to the garden.
So he called up his army, and set soldiers all round the garden, and a hundred soldiers to each gate, so that no one should come in. And then he let the princesses come up from their underground palace, and step out into the sunshine in the garden, with ten nurses and maids to each princess to see that no harm came to her.