Somewhere in a town there lived a rich merchant with his wife. He had an only son, a dear, brave boy called Ivan. One lovely day Ivan sat at the dinner table with his parents. Near the window in the same room hung a cage, and a sweet-voiced, grey nightingale was imprisoned in it. The nightingale began to sing its wonderful songs. The merchant listened and listened to the song and said:
"How I wish I could understand what birds sing! I would give half my wealth to the one who could tell me that."
Ivan marked these words and no matter where he went, no matter where he was, no matter what he did, he always thought of how he could learn the language of the birds. Some time after this he was hunting in a forest. The winds rose, the sky became clouded, the lightning flashed, the thunder roared loudly, and the rain fell in torrents. Ivan soon came near a large tree and saw a big nest in the branches. Four small birds were in the nest. They were quite alone, and neither father nor mother was there to protect them from the cold and wet. The good Ivan pitied them, climbed the tree and covered the little ones with his long coat. When the thunderstorm passed by, a big bird came flying and sat down on a branch near the nest and spoke very kindly to Ivan: "Thank you for protecting my little children from the cold and rain! I wish to do something for you. Tell me what you wish."
Ivan answered; "I am not in need, but will you teach me the language of birds I would be happy."
"Stay with me three days and you shall know all about it."
Ivan remained in the forest for three days. He understood all that the big bird taught him and returned home more clever than before. One beautiful day soon after this Ivan sat with his parents when the nightingale was singing in his cage. His song was so very sad, however, that the merchant and his wife also became sad. Their good son Ivan listened very attentively and was even more affected. The tears came running down his cheeks.
"What's the matter?" asked his parents. "What are you weeping for, dear son?"
"It is because I understand the meaning of the nightingale's song," said Ivan, "and because what he sings is so sad for all of us."
"What does he tell? Do not hide it from us," said the father and mother.
"The nightingale says: 'The time will come when Ivan, the merchant's son, shall become Ivan, the king's son, and his own father will beg to serve him as a simple servant.'"
The merchant and his wife felt troubled and began to distrust their good son. In the end they did not want him to be around any more. So one night they gave him a drowsy drink, and when he had fallen asleep they took him to a boat by the wide sea, spread the white sails, and pushed the boat from the shore.
For a long time the boat danced on the waves. Finally it came near a large merchant vessel, which struck against it with such a shock that Ivan awoke. The crew on the large vessel saw Ivan and pitied him. They decided to take him along with them and did so.
Very high, above in the sky they perceived cranes. Ivan said to the sailors: "Be careful, for the birds predict a storm is comming. Let us enter a harbour or we shall suffer great danger and damage. All the sails will be torn and all the masts may be broken otherwise."
But no one heeded that, and they went farther on. In a short time the storm arose, the wind tore the vessel almost to pieces, and they had a very hard time to repair all the damage.
When they were through with their work they heard many wild swans flying above them and talking very loud among themselves.
"What are they talking about?" asked the men, this time with interest.
"Be careful," advised Ivan. "They tell that terrible pirates are near. If we don't enter a harbor at once they may take us prisoners and kill us."
The crew quickly obeyed this advice and as soon as the vessel entered the harbour the pirate boats passed by. The merchants saw them capture several unprepared vessels.
When the danger was over, the sailors with Ivan went farther, still farther. Finally the vessel anchored near a large town that was unknown to the merchants. A king ruled in that town, but he was very much annoyed by three black crows. These three crows were all the time perching near the window of the king's chamber. No one knew how to get rid of them and no one could kill them. The king ordered notices to be placed at all crossings and on all noticeable buildings, saying that whoever was able to relieve the king from the noisy birds would be rewarded by getting his youngest daugher for a wife. But those who tried and failed in delivering the palace from the crows would be severely punished.
Ivan read the announcement, once, twice, and once more. Finally he went to the palace and said to the servants: "Open the window and let me listen to the birds."
The servants did so, and Ivan listened for a while. Then he said: "Take me to the king."
When he reached the room where the king sat on a high, rich chair, he bowed and said: "There are three crows, a father crow, a mother crow, and a son crow. The trouble is that they want a royal decision whether the son crow must follow his father crow or his mother crow."
The king answered: "The son crow must follow the father crow."
As soon as the king announced his royal decision the crow father with the crow son went one way and the crow mother disappeared the other way, and no one has heard the noisy birds since. The king gave one half of his kingdom and his youngest daughter to Ivan, and a happy life began for him.
In the meantime Ivan's father lost his wife and by and by his fortune too. The old man went begging under the windows of charitable people. He went from one window to another, from one village to another, from one town to another. One bright day he came to the palace where Ivan lived, begging humbly for charity. Ivan saw him and recognised him, ordered him to come inside, and gave him food to eat and also supplied him with good clothes, and asked:
"Dear old man, what can I do for you?" he said.
"Let me remain here and serve you among your faithful servants."
"Dear, dear father!" exclaimed Ivan, "You doubted what I told you that the nightingale was singing. But now you see it has come true."
The old man was frightened and knelt, but his Ivan remained the same good son as before, took his father lovingly into his arms, and comforted him in his sorrows and repentance of what he and his wife did: "My fate was not to die at sea but to marry my beautiful princess and to sweeten the old age of my dear father," he said.